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8 To Express How Much

Story 8 of PIECES, 1986

Jack reads the last lines of his story, folds it, and sinks back into the sofa’s deep white pillows, as if he wants to disappear. He’s kind of small, narrow shoulders, thin arms and neck, so he almost does. The story he read to them was about an eighteen-year-old who leaves his family behind in Milwaukee and sets out cross country. They laughed when the guy wakes up under a broad Northern White Cedar, where he spent the night, and realizes he’s crawling with spiders who’ve been tasting his freckles for hours. At the end, he winds up sitting on sacks of lima beans next to an old man in the back of a four-by-four, admitting how alone and scared he is, and Kevin felt the pieces click into place, unlike anything he’d heard before from someone his own age.

“That’s your best so far, Jack,” Bill says. Bill speaks only in superlatives, but Kevin agrees with him this time. “Authentic,” he insists, as if he knows what it’s like to travel the world on his own, as if his parents wouldn’t make him wear an ankle monitor if they could. He’s the only guy Kevin knows at Middlesex High School who sounds like a forty-year-old.

“It is,” Melanie says, and Jack peeks up at the circle of faces, as if it’s safe now. Melanie’s mouth is puckered and her cheeks are glistening. She cries every time one of their stories suggests that life can be less than kind. She writes mostly poetry about regrets and destiny, and it’s generally not to Kevin’s liking. Still, every now and then she comes up with an image that captures a moment so perfectly it’s like a double play in a tight game.

The group is at Beth’s house again, a place so fancy Kevin expected a butler might greet him the first time he was there. They talk about Jack’s story for a while, telling him what they think worked, what didn’t, until they wander into talking about what life could be like on their own, away from the choices adults make for them. Kevin thinks the subject is making Beth uncomfortable, because she keeps checking her watch. Every time her head moves even slightly, her long dark hair shifts against her shoulders and he wonders what it would be like to touch it.

She stands and says it’s time to go, and he wishes it wasn’t, because being around her makes him feel like something terrific is about to happen, like waiting to ride the newest, biggest, kick-ass roller coaster. “Your house next week, Kevin. Right?” she says. She’s not that much shorter than he is and he likes how determined she seems, standing close to him. He’s sure she suspects that he may try to get out of it again. He wants to, but he’s run out of excuses. The next meeting will have to be at his house.

They started the group eight weeks ago, all six of them from Mrs. Irving’s Creative Writing class, a special course for junior and senior honor students. There are three other seniors in the group and two juniors. They wanted a chance to read the stuff that was too personal, too important, to share in class.

Everyone agreed they’d take turns meeting at each other’s houses. Kevin’s turn came the sixth week, but he told them his mother had the flu and they shouldn’t risk getting sick. The seventh week he told them the living room was being painted and the place smelled terrible. But this time he can’t get out of it.

All the way home, he tortures himself about what could go wrong. The group meets on Tuesday nights at seven o’clock. On his father’s good nights, it wouldn’t be a problem. He’d be home already and settled into his TV chair, watching game shows until a ballgame starts. But if he goes out after work, he arrives home at seven or eight, and there’s no way to know what might happen—at best a screaming argument with Kevin’s mother, more likely dishes flying or a lamp smashing. He pictures Jack’s face—and Beth’s—in the middle of all that. They’d never feel comfortable with him again, even if they had the good manners to keep quiet about it in school. They’d know that the stories he shared with the group—the ones that were supposed to be as raw and honest as their own—have nothing to do with his real life. But honest or not, they’re stories, attempts at shaping something of his own. He’s never read anyone the stories he writes about the way things really are.

The group was Jack’s idea. His mother is a published writer, and she belongs to a group that talks about their work. So Jack wanted to start one of his own, and Beth was the first person he enlisted. Somehow, and Kevin can’t figure out why, Mrs. Irving has gotten it into her head that Kevin has what it takes, and almost every week she includes his paper among those she reads aloud to the class. He figures that’s why Jack and Beth included him.

Being asked to join the group was the best thing that happened to Kevin since he came to Middlesex last year. His family had moved again because his father had to start another new job. The infamous Liam Donnegan had pissed off his boss and gotten fired again. He says angry things when he’s drinking; he doesn’t mean them. At least everybody in the family knows he doesn’t mean them. But this is Kevin’s fourth school in eight years. He’s an outsider again, and he can tell that kids feel strange with him. They’re not unfriendly. It’s just that he doesn’t know what to say to people, how to get beyond polite. He can be real only on paper, where the world becomes manageable. And now that he’s found others who understand what that means, he’s determined to keep them around.

Kevin knows there’s no point in talking to his mother about his father’s drinking. She never mentions it. She just cleans up whatever’s broken, pieces it back together if she can. Later, when his father falls asleep, Kevin hears her crying. At breakfast the next day, you’d swear nothing had happened. His father is fresh from his long, hot shower, clean-shaven and ready to start his new day. His mother, pale and tight-lipped, seems grateful to have another day over with.

On Monday night, Kevin decides to talk to his father himself. He finds him in the garage, working on the car. Kevin stands around, aimless, spinning the screwdrivers that hang in their neat little niches.

“What’s up with you?” his father says. He’s bent over the engine, his head deep into its parts.

“Nothing,” Kevin says.

“Has to be something,” Liam says, his voice muffled beneath the raised hood.

“Nothing.”

“What?”

Kevin waits until his father finishes tightening something. “Some friends of mine are coming over tomorrow night.” He takes a few steps toward his father, smells the mixture of grease and gasoline that shrouds him whenever he tends to the car. These smells have always comforted him. They mean his father is sober, predictable.

“Yeah, so?”

“We have a group,” he says, coming closer, leaning against the Buick’s passenger side.

“What do you mean a group?”

“A writer’s group.”

“A what?”

“We read stuff to each other, stuff we’ve written, and talk about it.”

“What kind of stuff?” He’s standing upright now, fighting open some stubborn piece of motor with a grimy cloth.

“Different things. Essays, poems, some stories.”

“You still writin’ that stuff?”

“Some.” When Kevin doesn’t say any more, Liam goes back into the engine, curses softly at its insides. “So it’s my turn tomorrow night,” Kevin says, loud enough to be heard beneath the hood. “To meet here.”

Liam straightens up, eyes squinting, as if what he wants to see is too far away. “So how come you’re telling me? Is Mom against this or something?”

“No.” Kevin shrugs. “I just thought you’d want to know.”

“Okay, so I know. Now are you gonna tell me what this is really about?”

Kevin rolls his eyes and slouches toward the door to the house. He’s almost back inside before he can make himself say it.

“Dad.” Liam doesn’t hear him. He’s bent over the engine again. “Dad.”

“Yeah. What?” His father straightens up, slaps his greasy rag down onto the Buick’s fender.

“I don’t want them to see you and Mom fighting.”

Liam’s shoulders slouch and he looks down, as if he’s been accused, exposed. Kevin waits for him to answer. He doesn’t and Kevin turns toward the door again, but his father calls after him.

“Kevin, gimme a break,” Liam says. “Who are these friends anyway? You think your friends’ folks don’t have disagreements?”

“Disagreements.” The word comes out with a mocking chuckle.

“That’s right, disagreements,” Liam says. His voice is harsher, louder, and the raised hood doesn’t muffle it.

“Yeah, they disagree. They just don’t bust up the furniture.”

Liam shakes his head slowly, as if there’s been some grand misunderstanding. The silence is pretty much what Kevin expected. It has taken him so long, so many years, to talk about this with his father, to name it. It isn’t his father’s anger that stopped him; he never gets seriously angry unless he’s drunk. Kevin didn’t want to be the one to name the thing that no one in the house wants to see.

It’s ironic, he thinks, how he and his mother protect his father from himself, keep him from having to face who he is and what he does to them. But that’s the drill. That’s why they pretend there’s nothing wrong.

“The lamp was an accident. You know that,” Liam says, referring to the last time he came home drunk and crazed, just a few nights ago. He leans heavily on one arm, speaks into the engine, not looking at his son.

“Come on, Dad,” Kevin says. He doesn’t mention the countless other lamps—or the tables and vases and even the toppled Christmas tree one year. But their home isn’t just a war zone; it’s a prison. They can’t let anyone in and they never really get out, because the tension is inescapable, like a jailer stalking him everywhere he goes. He’s exhausted from it.

“It was just a lamp, for heaven’s sake,” Liam says. “What do you want from me?”

“My friends are going to be here tomorrow night. I want you to stay sober—for one night. That’s what I want.”

“Come over here,” Liam says, stepping away from the car. When Kevin reaches him, his father talks low, as if what he’s telling Kevin needs to be kept between them. “That don’t mean nothin’ when me and your mother fight. You understand? We’re okay. It’s nothin’ to worry about.”

“Okay.”

“And don’t worry about your friends either. I’ll be home early. I’ll pick up some chips and we can nuke some popcorn. Think they’d like that?”

“Yeah, sure.” Kevin isn’t convinced, but he doesn’t have the energy to say any more.

Then he feels his father’s big hand on his arm. “That’s not a promise, Kevin. That’s a fact. Understand?”

Kevin doesn’t answer; he steps toward the door. “Hey,” Liam calls. “You think I don’t know how important this is, this group? You think I don’t know what a good writer you are?” He tosses the rag on the workbench, reaches into his back pocket for his wallet, steps toward his son. They’re small, awkward steps but he seems determined about something. He pulls a faded, frayed paper out of a secret place. “See this?” he says. “This is that composition you wrote for me for Father’s Day.” He opens it up, a single folded page, yellowing and precariously thin. The creases have worn some of the words away. “Jeez, it must have been seven years ago. You were only this high. I read this to your Uncle Pete and Uncle Conor. This was really something. It had Uncle Conor in tears.”

Kevin remembers how his hand trembled as he gave it to him, how his father laughed, called him Shakes for Shakespeare for weeks after. Kevin never knew he’d even read it a second time. “That thing?” Kevin laughs. The composition had been assigned to the whole sixth grade class: “Why I’m So Proud of My Dad.” He remembers everyone leaning over their papers, gripping their pencils. His paper sat there blank, barking at him like a hungry dog. The window near his desk was open and he could hear a lawn mower in the distance, someone calling David, sounding worried. But birds called to each other, dancing in and out of trees, oblivious to what might be wrong in the world.

Kevin knew what he would write. He’d stay with the safe stuff, talk about how his father worked hard and mowed the lawn and fixed the car. He’d make everything sound normal. They’d never know the difference. But every word he wrote shut out another one screaming to be heard. Each one separated him a little more from what he really felt, until the shame about his father became something outside of him, something he didn’t have to admit. Kevin was splitting—half lies, half real—and he knew that if he didn’t do something to stop it, the lies would take over. That night he wrote his first story about what it was really like to be his father’s son. Liam never saw that story. No one has. When Father’s Day came, Kevin gave him the one he’d been assigned. The truth of who he was remained hidden, but whole.

Kevin and his father don’t say much for a minute, and then, with great care, Liam puts the paper back into its place in the wallet.

“Don’t be worried,” he says. “Understand?”

“Okay,” Kevin says, but he is.

                                                          •

Beth is tapping her pencil to the rhythm of whatever it is dancing in her head, and Kevin is sure it has nothing to do with the Stamp Act. He knows she can’t manage to focus long in Mr. Gleason’s class. She winds up passing Kevin notes and building tiny paper chairs from the pages of her rainbow-colored assignment pad.

This time Kevin is the first to send mail. He wants to let her know all systems are go for the group to meet at his house tonight. She sends the note back with her typically brief commentary on any news good, bad, or neutral. “Okay,” the note says, followed by a few lines from “A Considerable Speck,” a poem by Robert Frost about a mite that lands on his writing paper.

            It seemed too tiny to have room for feet,

            Yet must have had a set of them complete

            To express how much it didn’t want to die.

He knows Beth is inviting him to take off with it, add some lines of his own. So he does. As always, she goes on this way for a long while, building on whatever he gives her. In any other communication with Kevin, she’s brief and guarded, just as she is in her stories, just as she is in real life. She doesn’t smile all that much, and when he first met her, her frowns made him feel as if she was about to scold him. He figured that being distant was her way of discouraging him from getting any ideas, so he avoided her. 

He learned soon enough that no one is allowed to get too close to Beth. Hers is not the welcome ear for tales of how you spent your weekend or complaints about school or parents. She told him once that when people have nothing to worry about they create something dreadful instead. Kevin figures that her impatience comes from having wealthy parents whose lives are free of anything gloomier than a drop in the Dow. She lives in a huge house and has a gardener and a housekeeper. She already has her own car. Her parents, the little Kevin has seen of them, are among the beautiful people—tanned skin, shiny hair, clothes that show off their long limbs and gym-nurtured muscles. There’s no question where Beth gets her looks, but unlike their daughter, her parents seem wooden, as if every move is practiced.

Her smiles, when they finally came—like a late spring—made him wish he’d paid more attention from the start. He was sitting near her when a jump shot cinched the win in the county championship game, and the joy on her face made him feel, like he’d found religion, like there was something to believe in after all.

Kevin passes more lines to Beth and watches her smile.

            I touched the nib to the page, a bridge to higher

            spheres, but it scooted round a capital D

            and slipped between the lines to find its own escape.

She bends over the page, eager to respond, and passes it back.

            I watched it wander through the lines,

            impervious to where they led,

            insisting on its own direction.

The bell interrupts Kevin’s turn so he scribbles “to be continued” and passes the note back. She smiles and says, “For sure,” and he’s struck again by how her smile makes him feel.

“Hey,” he says, “should I call you?”

He can tell from the look she gives him that she’s puzzled.

“With directions,” he says.

“Oh, it’s okay. You’re on Hanson, right? I can figure it out. It’ll make a nice walk.”

“Okay,” he says, disappointed at losing an excuse to call her. “See you at seven.”

“See ya,” she says. Kevin watches the confident way she walks, like someone who doesn’t have to guess at things. For a few minutes he’s frozen in place, then he hurries after her, wanting to keep her with him even if it’s only for a little while longer. He knows where her car is parked. When he catches up, she’s tossing her jacket into the back seat.

“Hey,” he calls, “have you started your paper yet?”

“Paper?”

“For Gleason.”

She grunts, clearly not pleased to be reminded.

“What’s your topic?” he says.

“Labor unions.” She makes the words sound like tasteless porridge.

“Be grateful. Mine’s antitrust law.” She opens the driver-side door and slides in. “Hey listen,” he says, tapping on the passenger-side window. She lowers it and leans toward him a bit. “I’m heading for the library,” he says. “Why don’t you come with me?”

“I think I’ll pass. I’m in no rush to get into it. But thanks.”

He can tell she wants him to stop there, but he can’t. “Well, how about a soda?” he says, leaning into the passenger side. She retreats without moving a muscle and her face goes blank. “Okay, then. A movie Saturday?”

“Kevin—”

“Maybe we could get away for the weekend? The Bahamas don’t cost much.” That makes her smile finally, and he doesn’t fight its effect on him. It’s like a direction, something to head toward. “We can go steady first, if you insist. Or would you rather we were engaged?” When she laughs, he says, “You’re no easy mark, are you?”

“Listen. I like you a lot. I like talking to you and I like hearing your stories.” She has trouble saying the rest, faces the windshield. “I’m no good at that stuff.”

He doesn’t know what to say, but he doesn’t want to leave it like this. “I like being with you. That’s all.”

“I like you too.” She looks directly at him now, as if trying to explain something to a small child. “It wouldn’t work with me, Kevin.”

He opens the door and gets inside. “We could let me decide that,” he says.

She sighs, seems a little exasperated. “Kevin, give it up. Let’s not spoil things.”

“Are you back with Ron?” He heard she and Ron Bruner broke up almost two months ago. It’s a bold question, but he decides he has nothing to lose, since he’s already made a complete fool of himself.

“I’m not back with anybody,” she says, and starts the car. “Let’s leave this alone, okay?”

“Right,” Kevin says, barely above a whisper. He lets himself out, convinced that if he were someone else, someone from a normal family, who knew how to behave around people, it wouldn’t have to turn out this way.

                                                      •

Bill has plopped himself on the couch, his feet on the ottoman; Jack is in the recliner. Kevin’s father still isn’t home. Kevin’s stomach is knotted, his head aches. He can’t hear what they’re saying. His mother has put some pretzels out, with cheeses and slices of apple, as if she can’t decide if the group is a fraternity or a bridge club. She stands in the dining room, hawking the street through slats in the blinds. He knows what she’s thinking: If he’s drunk, she’ll get to him first, before he enters the house.

After the rest of the group arrive and settle in, Melanie reads a poem. Kevin doesn’t hear a word of it. Jack talks to her about it; so do Bill and Karen, but Kevin has nothing to offer.

“You thought it was awful, didn’t you?” Melanie says

“What?” Kevin says, lost.

“You hated it.”

“No. No. It was fine.”

“People don’t have to comment if they don’t want to,” Jack says. Tires screech to a stop out front and Kevin goes numb. His mother hurries out to the driveway.

“Karen has something to read,” Beth says.

Kevin feels sick, dizzy. The car door slams and he can hear his mother talking to his father, warning him. That will set him off. He’s sure of that much.

“The rain slashed against the loose shutters,” Karen begins. “The boys held their breath.” Liam Donnegan’s voice gets loud outside and Beth bites her bottom lip, looks as if someone has told her something she doesn’t want to know. “They had only one candle left and no matches . . .” Karen’s words trail off as the heavy sound of a struggle breaks against the front door, and his father yells even louder. “I told that fucker to knock it off. I warned him.”

 “Liam, you mustn’t,” his mother’s small voice pleads. Then the door opens. Each of them sits frozen in place, looking down at their laps. Kevin is sure they’re afraid to look at one another, afraid to acknowledge what’s happening.

“Get off me, just get off my back!” The shouting fills the house, making the air in the room brittle, unbreatheable. Mrs. Donnegan coaxes her husband to go downstairs. There’s a thud, as if someone has fallen against the wall. Dishes in the dining room breakfront tinkle. Melanie takes in a breath that sounds more like a sob.

“Listen, eh, I’m sorry,” Kevin finally says.

Nobody answers or looks at him. Then something crashes downstairs and Melanie jumps up, with a frightened cry. More shouts rise from below.

“We better go, Kevin,” Beth says. She touches his arm and the contact burns, spreads hot and humiliating through his chest, and he recoils from her. By the time they put their jackets on and get outside, the place sounds like a Three Stooges movie. Kevin sits down at the foot of the driveway, clutching his notebook, watching each of them walk away. They move quickly, as if wanting to leave the house as far behind as possible. He doesn’t blame them. Beth is the only one left. She stands in front of him, and after a moment, as if she’s been trying to decide what to do, she places her notebook on the ground beside him and sits down on it. She pulls her knees up under her chin.

“Well, that’s the end of that,” Kevin says.

“End of what?”

“The group. For me at least.”

“Only if that’s what you want.” He doesn’t answer. “It isn’t what I want,” she says. The kindness cools him, like a clean breeze passing through a stifling night. He tries to thank her but chokes on the words.

“Want to talk?” she says.

He stares straight ahead.

“You can’t let it get to you, Kevin.”

“Forget it. This is nothing new for me.” He sounds angry at her, but he doesn’t mean to.

“For me either,” she says.

She’s staring down at her sneakers, not looking at him, as if her words slipped out and it’s too late to get them back. “Things get like this at your house?” he says. He can’t keep from sounding amazed.

“For as long as I can remember.”

He’s confused. Beth is one of the perfect people. Smart. Pretty. Fancy house. Friends. “You could have fooled me,” he says.

“Yeah, I guess I could, but where is that getting us?”

They watch the passing cars light the darkness, listen to his parents’ voices rise and crash in waves, purposeless exchanges. He doesn’t believe Beth can know how this feels, how ashamed and angry he is, how empty. It isn’t possible.

“Your dad comes home in this kind of shape?”

“He’s mostly in one piece. He finishes his martinis at home.”

“Does he get violent?”

“No. Mom does. She can’t hold it as well as he can.”

“Her too?”

Beth nods, pulls her hair away from her face. He wants to say something, but he’s not sure what. He knows he’s grateful somehow, not just because she told him, but because someone like her, someone with perfect hair and shiny teeth and excellent grades, might have the same ugly secret. But it doesn’t make sense. She can’t be rotting inside the way he is. The shame rises again from his stomach like bile.

She touches his arm lightly, hardly making contact, but he can’t look at her. He’s afraid he’ll break down. “I’ll see you tomorrow, okay?” he says finally.

She gets up to go, straightens the legs of her jeans. He hands her her notebook. “If you want to talk, come find me,” she says.

He watches her walk away, like the others did, her notebook clasped tightly against her chest. He has to let her go. The shame is too hot. His parents are still shouting. The neighbor across the street closes his window. Kevin stands to see her better and watches for a time. The notebook gets heavier and heavier in his hand, a weight of secrets, years piled onto years, a load so dense he sees that he can’t carry it alone much longer. His parents’ voices begin to fade, until they’re lost in the distance. The yellow tulips the neighbors planted along the sidewalk glow in the moonlight as if they hold candles inside. Beth’s head is bowed in a kind of sadness, or loss maybe, and he’s nearly reached her side before he realizes he’s been running, before he knows that he’s already decided which story he’ll read to her.

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