The Shame of What We Are
Propping the book on his pillow, he burrowed deep into the latest adventure of Tom Swift, Jr., who had built a cycloplane that could break the sound barrier like a jet, hover like a helicopter and drive on the road like a car. With this amazing craft Tom battled hostile natives and evil scientists to rescue a friend from the New Guinea jungles. Art zoomed through the pages, convinced that the imaginary cycloplane was not only handsomer but also more useful than the repulsive Russian eyeball.
Unfortunately the ultrasonic airplane reminded Art of his father, who worked on secret radar devices for military aircraft. The images ran together and Art imagined it was Dad spying down from the twin Sputniks overhead, studying what had happened since he left in January. Art's cheeks got warm and his forehead clammy. Every two or three weeks when Dad called, he'd ask how things were going, and Art always said fine and then afterward felt like he was lying, though he couldn't have explained what he was lying about.
Luckily Art had his own special invention for situations like this. It operated like a trash squasher on a garbage truck. If you had a scary thought like Dad watching from satellites in space, you pushed it right over to the squasher, which swallowed the thought up, whammed it down flat and packed it away in a small dense corner of the brain that you never needed to open. Tonight Art put the mechanism to work immediately and went back to Tom Swift.
The next day at school Art faced another perturbing state of affairs. The sixth-grade teacher, Mrs. Davila, believed in spending part of every week on group "projects," a bizarre concept that in Art's opinion had nothing to do with education. This week Art's group was supposed to prepare a model of the solar system using different colors of clay. The girls in the group chattered so continuously that Art suffered a headache, and the tacky clay got all over everything, including Art's glasses. This chaos was pointless--what good would a stupid clay model do with the Russians already in space? Art preferred the quiet and order of worksheets and quizzes, on which he excelled; during "projects" he kept in the background and let others make a mess of things.
Fussy Tommy Pagano puttered around for supplies, jokingly piping "Scoose me, scoose me" as he pushed through. There were bouts of laughter, followed by giggly whispers. Finally Tommy murmured an explanation of the giggles: "I said 'Scoose me' to Gwyn and she thought it was 'Goose me'!" Tommy chuckled under his breath, and Art was embarrassed, though he didn't know exactly what goosing was.
That afternoon, in a grouchy, unsettled mood, he lugged his books through the weeds of the vacant lot behind the school and down the cul-de-sac where he had lived for a year and a half now. The ranch houses offered variations on four different floor plans, Art's being the slate-blue one near the end with the garage on the right. The neighbors' nicely trimmed lawns had grown lush in the cooler fall weather, but Art's lawn still had the large bald spots it had developed after Dad left. By the front door a bottlebrush held a spider's web littered with dead flies.
Dumping his books and jacket in the hall, Art headed for the kitchen to drown his irritations in root beer. Immediately Snaps bumped into his path, nosing Art's leg, nipping his knee. "Don't trip me!" Art scolded, but then apologized by rumpling the dog's ears. "All right, maybe one cookie," he conceded; "let's go check the vanilla wafers."
The kitchen doorway was occupied, however, by Art's three-year-old sister, Katie, who sat splay-legged on the floor with a collection of dolls. "Don' step on babies," she warned him.
"Your babies are blocking the door," he retorted, nudging one with his foot. Katie slapped his leg and then snatched up the doll to console it.
Across the room he could see his mother with one hip propped hard against a cabinet, telephone jammed to her ear. "Of course I know, Victoria," Mom was saying, "the committee has a lot on its plate right now, but it seems to me these are historic times. We finally pass the Civil Rights Act and then there's that horrible integration mess in Little Rock, Governor Faubus posting soldiers around the school just to keep a few Negroes away! But now, on the other hand, this exploration of outer space, do you understand what I'm getting at? It's like a, I don't know, some sort of signal that we ought to be reevaluating our priorities, thinking things through--learn from past mistakes and build anew, that sort of idea? You know, I've been reading this book by Powell Davies, of the church in Washington, do you know his work? He died tragically a few weeks ago, a blood clot I think, but this book of his, it's so full of wisdom, there's one short prayer especially . . ."
"Katie, I can't get through. Move it, will you?"
Rocking her doll, Katie gave it a large conspiratorial smile and ignored her brother.
"Let me read it to you," Mom was going on. "Wait just a, I don't know where I . . ." Mom's skinny arms and legs made abrupt angles as she jerked around, catching the telephone cord with her elbow and then looping it across her ear, bumping the cabinet with her knee, wobbling her free hand through a mess on the counter till she located the book she was after. Meanwhile Snaps barked to protest the lack of progress concerning cookies.
"Here it is, listen to this." Though Mom bent awkwardly to read through her glasses, she pronounced the words with solemnity, like an announcer on the radio:
O God, while the shame of what we are is still upon us,
Art supposed she was talking to someone from her church. They'd never gone to church in the past, but this Unitarian place was one of her new enthusiasms. She had dragged him to the Sunday school a couple of times until he made it so difficult she gave up. The modern low-ceilinged building smelled like perfumed soap and breath mints. The pastor, with a perfect row of white teeth and a high voice smooth as plastic, put a hand on Art's shoulder and said he was glad to see such a thoughtful young man taking an interest. The Sunday school teacher talked about the beauty of goodness. Overall, the place and the people felt unnatural somehow, and Art didn't like his mother associating with them. As for the notion of praying, he'd tried that himself a couple of years ago, before the family split up--a sort of mumbled chant to ward off evil--but it hadn't done a bit of good and now the whole idea discomfited him.
"Isn't that passage lovely?" his mother was enthusing. "Don't you think it says so much in one sentence: the sadness of our mixed-up world along with the glory of what might be? The poor Negro children staring into gun barrels, and at the same time the little dog out there in space, braving the void till the end, even if it's the Russians, our supposed enemies, who manage to--"
Her voice seemed too bouncy to be real, and he wondered if it sounded that way to the church person on the phone. But something else caught his attention even more. "Mom?" he called, trying to interrupt. "Mom?"
She didn't notice him. When she slid the book back onto the counter it fell, and in picking it off the floor she banged her knee again. "Yes," she huffed, hopping and rubbing her knee, "I was thinking, through the Women's Committee, if we could organize a panel on Issues for Our Times, or a series of discussion groups--such as where should our priorities be, are we going to race for space or race for justice and-- Yes, yes, I know, it's ambitious, but who says we have to confine ourselves to bake sales--not that there's anything wrong with them, but if we take the tenets of Unitarianism seriously-- Yes, of course, I'd be grateful if you would discuss it with-- Sure, sure, I'm home every night. Yes, thanks, Victoria, yes, I'll talk to you soon. Bye!"
When she hung up the phone her shoulders dropped and the bones made thin ridges in her white cotton blouse. She looked like she might crumple, but after a moment she took a deep breath and straightened.
Art kicked a couple of dolls aside so he could get by. He was careful not to touch Katie, but of course she reacted like he'd smacked her in the face. With one of her supposedly injured babies she slammed him in the back of the leg. Meanwhile Snaps zoomed past toward the cookie cabinet.
"Mom," Art demanded, "did you say something about that dog?"
"He hurt babies!" Katie yelled.
Mom was running a hand through her stringy brown hair, fumbling for the ashtray where she'd left her cigarette. "Oh hi, Art, are you home already? Where did the afternoon go?" She took a quick drag and let smoke run out her nose.
"What was that about the dog? You said 'till the end'?"
"The dog? She's right here. Underfoot. Oh, you mean the dog in space! Yes, Laika is her name, it means 'Barker' in Russian, isn't that cute?" Mom took another drag, unaware of the long ash that threatened to fall across her knuckles. "There's been a lot about her on the news. Katie, what's the matter, why are you whining?"
"Babies," Katie pointed an accusing finger.
"They're bringing her back, aren't they?"
"Back? Oh, no, I don't think. That's not what they're saying."
"Huh? Why not?"
"Oh it's, well, the scientists don't have any way to call the satellite back, it'll just stay up there in orbit. I guess it sounds sad, doesn't it, for the little creature, they say she'll be put to sleep when her food runs out, a week or ten days. But she's a pioneer, too, the first living being in space, it's inspiring in a way, don't you think? There's a picture of her in the newspaper, it's around here some--" Ashes flew as Mom pivoted.
Katie had stood up and was dragging three of her babies to Mom to demonstrate the injustice done to them.
"Never mind," Art snapped. Actually he had seen the newspaper picture that morning: skinny nose with a white streak down the middle, funny long ears that flopped at the tip, alert dark eyes peeking out from the tiny compartment in the capsule.
Behind him, as he hurried to his room, he heard Katie gabbling her complaint and Mom saying, "What are you begging for, Snaps? It's not dinnertime yet. Oh, I'm so tired, Katie, can this wait, please?"
Art slammed his door and flung himself face down on his bed, knocking his glasses sideways. The news had taken a scoop out of his stomach, and Mom's attitude made it worse. They were killing a dog in space? How could she call that "inspiring"?
To distract himself he thought about homework, but he had already finished the assignments for the week, and when he tried reading his Tom Swift book he lost interest after one page. He couldn't get his thoughts rounded up enough to put the trash compactor to work. In a few minutes he wandered out to the backyard and called Snaps to follow him.
The yard consisted of the concrete patio the developer had poured, plus patches of sparse grass and weeds that Snaps began to sniff as if they held some deep secret other than weediness. Behind was a steep hill, covered with iceplant so the dirt wouldn't wash down when rains came. More than twice the height of the house, the hill made the yard feel tiny, closed in. Art tossed a rubber ball against the house wall, then on impulse scampered up the hill on hands and toes to a point near the top, where he squatted in the iceplant to look around.
From here he could see other yards on the block, all with similar patios, though the neighbors had added barbecues and outdoor furniture. Everybody on this side of the street had a low chain-link fence to the base of the hill, and on the slope itself the same iceplant prevailed as far as the eye could see. It grew in grotesque hand-like clumps with fleshy green fingers poking up, tinged with red and filled with sticky juice. Under Art's heels, broken fingers oozed. Ugh. Overhead the sky hid the satellite in a milky gray-blue smear, so fuzzed it seemed to start and end nowhere in particular.
Behind Art, just over the hilltop, were the backyards of similar ranch homes on the next street, and behind that street ran another. Despite the size of this development, Art supposed his might be the only house without a father. From Sputnik's spy cameras you could figure out the situation by noticing dead lawns or weedy patios or which car stayed in the garage in the morning.
Of course, he agreed with his mother that splitting up was "the best thing" in their case. The fighting had gone on for years, but it got too scary the night Dad broke down the bedroom door after she locked him out. Even Dad acted strange afterward, like he might have been sorry if he weren't furious.
Still, the word divorce had a slicing edge to it like a concealed scalpel, and Mom's talk about a "new start" and "turning this into a positive experience" made Art uneasy. Once a week she was seeing a doctor about her "emotions," whatever that meant, and sometimes Art wondered what the doctor thought.
He strained his head to imagine the view from the satellite. It made sense that people would want to get away from the crumminess of Earth, with parents fighting and iceplant oozing and kids with smeared clay on their hands talking about goosing, but Art couldn't understand why they'd send a dog up there to die just for an experiment. He pictured Laika, not much bigger than Snaps, wedged tight in the metal capsule the way the newspaper picture showed her, "braving the void" of outer space. Her cute dark eyes had only metal and tubes to look at, unless they'd given her a window, in which case she'd be staring at black emptiness. And then in a few days she'd be put to sleep in some mysterious way--a remote-control needle in the side? poison gas seeping from a can? One of his father's favorite curse words came to mind, sonsofbitches. That's what Art thought of the Russians. If they wanted to know if an animal could survive in space, they should try it themselves. He wondered if they could see him thinking that.
Just as abruptly as he'd run up, Art scuttled down the hill, grabbed Snaps by the middle and hugged her. The surprised dog yipped, and he chased her around the yard until she barked hysterically, at which his mother rolled back the sliding glass door and told him to stop, he'd disturb the neighbors. "Why are you pestering Snaps? Don't you have anything to do? That noise really grates on my nerves. Why don't you look for your friends?" Mom said. "Have you called Danny lately?"
Art grumbled and went alone to his room. To the list of his mother's peculiarities he added the fact that she didn't understand about his friends. Nevertheless, since he was too perturbed to read, he retrieved his jacket and followed her advice by wandering up the street to Danny's.
On the corner across from the vacant lot, Danny's parents had landscaped their yard with slender trees and beds of colored gravel. The grass was moist and green, and the path to the door led past tall bushes that gave off a sweet fragrance. Compared to Art's house, it was like entering some sort of castle, and when he rang the bell twice and nothing happened, Art got nervous, as if he was sneaking in where he didn't belong. He was turning to hurry off when Danny poked his head out.
"Oh, it's you, Dennison," Danny said. He was blond, wide-shouldered, not tall but athletic, a top pitcher in Little League, what Art's mother called "a fine-looking boy."
"Hi. You doing homework? You wanta play catch or something?"
"Homework, shit," Danny said, scrunching his upper lip against his nose. They had been in the same class last year and Art knew Danny was a decent student, but lately his comments about school had all been sarcastic.
"We could toss your football around," Art suggested. Danny had an excellent new football, a twelfth birthday present. Art wouldn't turn twelve until next August.
Danny hovered in the doorway as if Art's offer didn't tempt him much. Finally he said, "Let's go find Vic." In a moment he had grabbed a jacket and was marching diagonally across the street to Vic's, with Art trailing behind. Art wasn't happy with this decision. The last time he'd hung around with the two of them, Danny and Vic had staged a belching contest, gulping water from a hose to produce the rudest burps possible. Art had found this embarrassing, especially since he had been substantially outbelched.
Vic stepped out without a jacket, hands in his jeans pockets. Part Mexican, he had slick black hair, wiry arms and dark eyes that skittered around restlessly. Though skinny, he was twice as strong as Art, as he had demonstrated one day in a wrestling match.
"Whatcha doing?" Danny said to Vic.
"Shooting a melon."
"Yeah? With your BB gun?"
They trooped through the house, which had much more furniture than Art's and more pictures on the walls, a cabinet full of sparkling glassware and a spicy odor drifting from the kitchen. In the backyard Vic had propped half an overripe honeydew melon on a patio table against the iceplant-covered hillside. From the patio he fired at it with a BB pistol. The object, Art soon discovered, was to catch the edge in such a way that the melon's flabby green flesh chipped and splattered. Already the table looked revolting, and Art wondered what Vic's mother would say.
After Vic demonstrated, Danny used the gun expertly, creating more splots and spluts. Art poked around, peering at the huge barbecue grill, looking at the flowers in a neat bed beside the house. When Art's turn came, he took just a few shots, missing everything except the hillside.
"When I join the army I'll be a sharpshooter," Vic claimed.
"It's different," Danny declared, "with a real gun. You got the recoil, like, BAM," and he jerked his shoulder back to demonstrate. "Anyway, the army won't need guns, 'cause my dad says we got a missile that'll blast the Reds to smithereens. We're just waiting for the right time."
"We could use the atom bomb instead," Vic suggested.
"Hydrogen bomb," Danny corrected. "More powerful. But you have to fly over there to drop it."
"Did you hear about the dog?" Art asked. "That the Reds sent up in a satellite?"
"We can shoot satellites out of the sky with our missiles," Danny boasted. "My dad's company makes them."
Vic, who had the pistol again, aimed it at the sky and pretended to pull the trigger, mouthing a huge explosion. Danny gestured and hopped around to show the itsy-bitsy pieces falling on the heads of the panicky Reds. Art realized that shooting the satellite would kill the dog, but he didn't say so.
"Russians do it with bears," Vic said.
"What?" Art wondered.
"Nah," Danny countered, "who says?"
"Not in the cities, but out in the wilderness, like that big place, what's it called, where they send people they don't like."
"Siberia," Danny remembered.
"Yeah. 'Cause it's so cold there, they gotta screw bears to keep their dicks from getting frostbite."
Danny, taken by this notion, acted out an encounter with a bear. "Oh Miss Bear, please, please allow me, Miss Bear, 'cause my dong's gonna freeze!"
"The cold weather, that's also why they grow so much hair on their dicks."
Danny laughed but then objected, "No way."
"Uh-huh. I've seen a Russian. My uncle's scientist friend. All hair." Vic gestured at his groin.
Art was puzzled. He didn't know what it meant to have hair on one's dick, and the idea seemed implausible, given his understanding of what dicks were for.
"I've got a lotta hair myself," Danny asserted.
"Like hell," Vic said. "Not like a Russian."
"Getting there," Danny insisted.
"Dennison doesn't have any," Vic stated.
"Nah," Danny agreed. "You don't have hair on your dick, do you, Dennison?"
"No," Art said.
"Didn't think so," Vic sniffed. "You'd need a bear to help it along."
Danny cackled and replayed his bear routine.
"But I've got hair on my balls," Art suddenly remembered.
"You're making that up."
"No, I do. Some."
Art refused, regretting he'd said anything, but Danny and Vic homed in on the subject: "Do you know where your balls are? You didn't leave them in your lunchbox, did you? Shit, he's just trying to act smart. Yeah, forget it, he's lying, let's shoot some more."
Art's eyes stung with the start of tears. Whatever else he might be, he wasn't a liar, so to substantiate his claim he backed up against the house, under the eaves, and quickly dropped his pants to let his friends look at the two stringy dark hairs that descended from his balls.
"That's nothing," Danny snorted.
"It's hair," Art maintained defiantly, tugging and tucking, fumbling with the zipper.
"You couldn't live in Russia," Vic said. "It'd freeze and fall off. They'd call you Dickless Dennison."
Laughing, Danny started to make up a song on the subject:
Little Artie Dennison he rode on a sled
"OK, OK," Art said.
It was cold and frozen so deep in the snow
"Yeah," Vic snickered, and suggested the next line: "so he yanked out his johnson . . ."
"Mmm-hmm, wait, wait, no, I got it."
So he pulled it out and made for to pee
"You can stop now," Art said, "that's enou--"
Now there's hair in his nose, two hairs on his balls,
In the exuberance of artistic creation, Danny sang the whole song again, in a singsongy voice loud enough for neighbors to hear. Art's face flamed. Meanwhile Vic, to finish the job they'd begun with the pistol, broke the melon apart and mashed chunks on the patio, stomping them with his feet.
Art wanted to lash back in some way, but at that point Vic's mother came outside to yell at her son in Spanish. Dark and glossy-haired, in a tight-fitting yellow blouse and soft blue slacks, she seemed incredibly beautiful, too young to be anyone's mother. Confused, Art flushed all the way down his neck--had she seen him with his pants down? or heard the song? He ducked away and hurried after Danny, who knew when to clear out.
In Vic's driveway Art said he was going home. He tried to make his voice snarl but it came out a mumble. "Yeah, see ya," said Danny indifferently. Then he laughed: "Old Vic's in trouble now!"
Art arrowed down the block, straight to his room, where he clapped the door shut, fell face-down on his bed and rammed the pillow hard against the back of his head. He argued with himself that he had nothing to be ashamed about. He'd proved himself right; his friends were jerks, that's all. Vic's mother couldn't have seen anything because his back was to the house. He used his trash squasher to crush his mortification into tiny flat glittery sheets like the mica in the classroom mineral collection.
After a while he wondered why his mother hadn't called him for dinner. Investigating, he found her on the couch in the family room, her head in her hands and glasses crooked as she bent over a book on the coffee table. It was that one she'd read from on the phone--The Language of the Heart, a ridiculously corny title. She wore an old beige blouse and shapeless skirt, nothing like Vic's mother, and there were no smells from the kitchen. Anger curled his tongue. "What are you doing?" he demanded.
"Oh, Art, hello," she said, as if surprised by his presence. "I was just thinking--these meditations, the assumption that life can be, you know, dedicated to a cause, something you'd sacrifice all for, like medieval saints. Or that little dog in space. I mean, getting beyond the grubbiness, the petty arguments, everything we regret, it'd be grand, wouldn't it, if it really worked that way for most of us, and yet you wonder how--"
"Are we having dinner tonight?"
"There's a casserole in the oven," she murmured, blinking hard. "I'm just resting a bit. Are you upset about something?" When she straightened her glasses the lenses glinted at him.
The phone rang and she stumbled to the kitchen to get it. From the immediate tonelessness of her voice Art could tell who it was. She said yes, she got the check. She said no, that was up to the lawyers. Katie was fine, she said. I don't know, I haven't spoken to him, you'll have to ask him yourself, she said. Fine, fine. Then came Art's turn to talk to his father.
Dad's voice, slightly husky from pipe tobacco, sounded like a newsreel Art had heard a long time ago, oddly familiar but no longer connected to events. He asked how Art was doing. Art said fine. He asked about school. Art said fine again, conscious of using the same word as his mother and worried that Dad would think he was lying. It did feel like he was lying, but he wasn't a liar, he had hair where he said he did!
Dad cleared his throat and announced, "Your grandparents are coming out for Thanksgiving. We're planning a trip, to Lake Tahoe maybe. Would you like to come along?" Art didn't know what to say. He felt he no longer knew these people and he was leery of traveling with them; he'd been out with his father, to a restaurant, only twice since the split-up in January. But he didn't see how to decline, so he said fine again. "Great!" Dad said. "I'll keep you posted on the plans."
"Is Katie going too?"
"I don't think so. Just you and me and Grandma and Grandpap, a time for us to be together."
Fifteen minutes later, over reheated hamburger casserole and peas, Mom asked, "What did you tell him about Thanksgiving?" When Art explained, she said, "I guess it wouldn't be much of a holiday here, would it?" She rearranged her napkin. "I won't bother to roast a turkey then, there's no point."
"Oh," Art said. "I don't have to go."
"Yes, if you promised, you can't back out now."
"I didn't promise, I just--"
"Never mind, I'm sure you'll have a great time." The tines of her fork clicked against the plate as she scooped another bite. Clicked again.
Was she being sarcastic? Was she blaming him? Art ground his teeth. Clearly she'd known about the plans before he did, and if she didn't want him to go she should have said so. It wasn't his idea.
Meanwhile Katie, in her high chair, gabbled in a private language to a doll wedged in beside her. The doll had hamburger mushed on its face and peas in its hair.
That night he stealthily sorted through his mother's pile of newspapers to find the picture of Laika. He tore off that page and took it to his room with him, slipped it under his pillow. As he fell asleep he pictured her trapped in the capsule, sailing round and round in the emptiness, punished by humans though she hadn't done anything wrong.
The next afternoon in school, at projects time, the slowest kid in the class, Lester, wanted to add his clumsy representation of a Sputnik to the group's solar system model. It was just a small wad of gray clay with snippets of pipe cleaner poking out for the antennas. "It's much too large in proportion," Art criticized. "On our scale you wouldn't even see it." But Tommy Pagano countered, "It's OK, it's Lester's contribution, you know, everybody gets to chip in." As Tommy stuck the wad in place, it reminded Art of a testicle with a few hairs attached. Tommy grinned at him, and Art momentarily wondered if Danny had been spreading stories at recess--or singing that song.
After school Art crept into his house, intending to go straight to his room and close the door. Passing the living room, however, he heard his mother talking. They almost never had visitors--he couldn't remember the last person to use the living room--so he stopped in the hall to listen.
"It's such an unusual era for our country, for the world!" Mom was gushing.
"Yes, yes, Linda, but you have to remember, some of the people on the committee have been involved in the church for decades, and we have our traditional programs for the holidays."
"Oh, I didn't mean--of course we wouldn't disrupt the holiday programs, this'd be something extra, and if we had to postpone it till January, or even February, that would be-- Katie, leave the ashtray alone."
"We depend on volunteers, you see, we can't expect people to throw themselves suddenly into--"
"But we had that whole week on the nuclear weapons issue last May."
"That was the pastor's initiative."
"And? . . . Katie, don't play with--please let me talk."
Art's sister was apparently acting up, and his face grew hot as he wondered what this church lady thought of their family. She must have walked across the half-dead lawn, for one thing. And surely she knew about his father's absence.
"Well, you see, the nuclear threat is a well-established issue," the lady was saying. "What you're talking about, on the other hand, something about civil rights mixed with outer space, it's kind of muddled and I'm not sure what the reactions would . . . Listen, Linda, you're pushing too hard. I have to tell you, nobody likes it. Some people consider it obnoxious."
"As a new member you need to, just, take things a little easier, for everyone's sake."
Art was conscious, weirdly, of the smell of the plaster beside his head and a slightly doggy odor from the hall carpet. And a texture like small waves in the silence from the living room. Then came a clatter of glass. "Katie! The ashes, look what you've-- Victoria, did she get any on your--"
"No, no, I'm fine, but your carpet . . ."
"Oh, it doesn't matter, don't worry about--but I thought I could count on your support, Victoria. You encouraged me to get involved, to contribute. You said if I--"
"Please don't take this personally."
Mom's voice changed: "What other way is there to take it? What do you mean, don't take it personally?"
"It's just that, the committee feels--"
"If you said my children don't behave, that wouldn't be personal? Or when you check the chair for dust before you sit down, that's not personal?"
Art wanted to plug her mouth. Stop! he cried silently.
"Or the gossiping at church about my marriage--my marriage, as if any of you knew a thing about--"
"Linda, please, you're imagining things, I haven't heard a word of . . . Perhaps it'd be best if you stepped down from the committee. For a while at least."
"I . . . you think I . . ."
"And in the future, Linda, you don't need to call me every day about this. I do have other demands on my time."
Silence for two seconds, until his mother said, "I thought we were, we were getting to be friends!"
It was too horrible to listen further. Art slunk down the hall to his room, where he shut the door with a tiny click. He jammed one fist against his chest and rubbed it, squeezed it, mauled it with the other hand. He didn't hear the Unitarian lady leave.
In a few minutes he picked up his Tom Swift book and tried to read, but after two paragraphs he drifted into reveries of using the cycloplane to rid the world of evil. He bombed Russians. He shot that Unitarian lady and several others from the church. Perhaps he eliminated Danny and Vic, he wasn't sure. He worked himself into a sweat with his effort. Along the way he rescued the space dog, Laika, who used her furry nose with the white streak to sniff out wickedness.
After a while he heard Katie scream. When she didn't let up, he shuffled to the family room, where his sister stood alone by an end table, with a doll in her hand and pieces of a broken ceramic lamp on the floor around her, her face purplish as she wailed at the top of her lungs. Her plump arm thrashed the doll up and down in time with her yowls. He ran to get his mother, who was in the kitchen, on the phone again.
"Yes, I know," Mom was saying. "Yes, I've been taking the tranquilizer though it makes me so tired and my mouth gets dry and I'm so clumsy sometimes I-- Doctor, you said I could call you anytime in a crisis, and this-- I can't wait till tomorrow, I have to, I need somebody to . . ."
"Mom," he called, "Katie busted a lamp!" His mother was hunched at the counter, the receiver cradled in both hands, her cheek mashed against it, her eyes squeezed shut. Though Art came within four or five feet, she didn't respond.
It was up to him, he decided. Dashing back to his sister, Art tried to pull her away from the sharp pieces and the electrical cord, but Katie flailed at him with the doll and screwed her voice to a higher pitch. "Stop it!" he scolded. "Stop acting like a baby!" He caught her wrists and dragged her a couple of yards, but she yanked herself free and staggered back toward the wreckage. Apparently she intended to remain on the spot until Mom witnessed the injustice and punished the lamp for breaking itself.
"No!" he heard his mother shout, "your secretary does not work me in when I--"
Art slapped Katie. Hard on the cheek. She went dead silent for five seconds and stared up at him, astonished. Then the screams began again, more enraged than before.
Art covered his ears. He walked in a big loop around the room, twice, three times, and then over to the sliding glass door, where Snaps was nosing to get out. He opened the door and followed the dog into the backyard, watched her pee a loose puddle on the concrete.
The sun slanted low over the roof onto the hillside where the iceplant flaunted its fat green fingers. A lone car whined up a road nearby, its noise reverberating against the hill. With the door open behind him, he could still hear the musical rise and fall of Katie's screeches, interrupted now and then by choking gasps as she paused for breath.
Head sagging toward his chest, Art oozed shame all over his skin like the gummy juice from the iceplant. His family was cracked and he was as helpless to change anything as the little dog left to die in space. The Reds, spying down, could see it plain as naked balls. His father knew, too.
He hated himself as well as his mother and sister. He felt he could die of this humiliation. Nobody would care, nobody would even pretend it was "inspiring." He wished the Commies would blow up the whole world.
Eventually Katie stopped and the house went quiet, but Art's paralysis continued. Even Snaps kept her distance from the gaping door.
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