Title: Hamster Island
Author: Joan Heartwell
Publisher: Twilight Times Books
“Bittersweet, engagingly written, and populated by a household of strong-willed, idiosyncratic characters, Hamster Island has, at its core, a conflict familiar to us all: How can we be good to others while also being good to ourselves? This is a matter of profound importance to Joan Heartwell: her brother had an intellectual disability, her sister a psychiatric one, and her parents were consumed by their own unhappiness. Joan’s six-decade journey to find the answer starts in a 1950s world limited by religion and rules, and ends in a contemporary world open to generosity and love. This tale of caregiving and self-actualization is unique, but it abounds with insights for us all.”
—Rachel Simon, New York Times bestselling author of Riding The Bus With My Sister and The Story of Beautiful Girl
Grandma doesn’t give a hoot about shrines, but if visiting some means getting out of the house for a few days, she is all for it. She hates the house—especially on weekends when my father is home. She hates my father. He is loud and dirty and he pisses like a racehorse. The bathroom is centrally located, right between the room I share with my brother and my parents’ room, right at the end of short hall that joins both bedrooms with the living and dining rooms. We can easily hear him pissing, and grandma is right: it does sound like something big—as big as a horse—is in there. A worse offense, in her mind, is that he takes the long-sleeved shirts she feels obligated to buy him every Christmas and on his birthdays and cuts the sleeves off. Since he doesn’t bother to hem them, the edges fray, more and more over time, and she hates him most when she sees him wearing faded shirts with sleeves that have frayed edges. Still, she goes on buying them, and he goes on accepting them without a word of complaint.
It is Tyla Topal who has invited us to go to Montreal to see shrines. Tyla is a widow like my grandmother. She lives across the street in a tidy brick ranch-style house with her three children, the youngest of whom is Denise, my best friend. Since it has already been decided that Denise will go on this trip with her mother, it is all important to my grandmother that I be allowed to go as well. That way we will be matched sets—two widows, two little girls to keep each other company.
But when we leave the Topal house and go into our own, my mother says no. No, I can’t take off time from school. She is sitting at the dining room table, her face puffy and unhappy looking, her short dark hair looking like it was cut with a hatchet. She has the appearance of someone who has been freshly insulted. Her eyes blink out the code for her confusion. She doesn’t get us, Grandma and me. We are a mystery to her. David, my brother, who is two years older than me, is sitting on her lap. On the table is a checkerboard. We have caught them at play.
My mother and grandmother argue for a while. “Why the hell…?” my grandmother asks. That is how she starts all her questions. Grandma reminds my mother that my grades are perfect, that taking off a few days from school will not make much of a difference. My mother says there is not enough money for me to go on such a trip. Grandma says I don’t need money, that she will cover my expenses herself. My mother says it’s not fair for me to go since David has not been invited.
Grandma stops arguing for a moment to look at him. We both do. He is squirming on my mother’s lap, getting cranky because while she’s still playing, still moving pieces around the board, she’s not really paying attention anymore. David has terrible allergies, and his big beak of a nose is red and his eyes are watery. He breathes through his mouth. His bottom lip hangs loose, as if it weighs too much for any normal lip muscle to support it. Sometimes a string of saliva will drip from one side of his mouth, though nothing is dripping just now. “What the heck’s the matter with that woman, anyway?” my mother finally asks, breaking the spell. “Doesn’t she have enough to do with a house and kids? Who the heck does she think she is, with her highfalutin trips? You want to go, fine, but she stays here.” And with that she casts an angry glance in my direction.
For all that my mother’s domestic routine is based almost exclusively on my grandmother’s guidelines, when it comes to my brother or me, once she makes a decision, she will not budge. “I guess you’ll have to stay home, Joan,” my grandmother says. But when I look at her, I can see in her eyes that she is only egging me on, letting me know that she’s done what she can and now it is my turn to go a round in the ring.
At first I’m not sure what more can be said to change my mother’s mind. But then it comes to me, loud and clear. “Ma,” I say, approaching. As if he thinks I am coming to steal some of the checker pieces, my brother raises an arm threateningly and emits a sound that is midway between a growl and a hum. “Ma, this is not just any old trip. This is a trip about God. This is the kind of trip God would want me to go on, because He wants me to be closer to Him. And this is a trip He would definitely want Grandma to go on, since she’s not close to Him at all.”
While my kickoff is dignified enough, as I continue, I collapse into a shameless whine: “And if you don’t let me go, then Grandma can’t go either, because Mrs. T already told Denise she could go, and she’s not going to want Grandma tagging along if only Denise’s going, and then you’ll be responsible for Grandma’s soul not getting saved. This is Grandma’s big chance. If she goes to hell, it’s all your fault.”
My mother’s eyes flood slowly with tears of frustration. She doesn’t raise her hands from the checkerboard to wipe them away. She lets them pool there. She lets us have a good look at them. Once again I have filled her with unhappiness, and now it is running over. It is palpable, unavoidable, soaking through everything in the room. Her head droops. “I know God wants us to go on this trip,” I add gravely, through my teeth.
My mother has broken. Grandma and I exchange a quick look that confirms we both know this, but we stay quiet and wait. My mother is the most devout Catholic on the face of the earth. She will deny God nothing. Nothing at all. “Go ahead and go,” she snaps, lifting her head. “Go ahead. Go. I don’t care anymore what you do.”
And so it is that a few days later we leave for Montreal, me and Denise and Mrs. T and Grandma. Mrs. T drives us to the bus terminal and there we park the car and get on a waiting bus with other people taking the tour. The women sit behind us on the bus, and for hours and hours they talk and talk. It surprises me to see how chummy they are; at home my grandmother says plenty of nasty things about Mrs. T. She calls her a know-it all, a conniver, a whiner. But now they are the best of friends, agreeable on every matter. Grandma mostly talks about my father, about how much she despises him, and Mrs. T clicks her tongue disgustedly in response, as if to say she totally understands. Grandma also talks about her job, the people she works with at the garment factory; Mrs. T talks about various neighbors in her nasal, heavily-inflected voice. They are comfortable in each other’s company.
Denise and I take turns sitting by the window. When it is my turn, I rest my head against the glass. I know as surely as I know my name that I am getting sick, that I am coming down with a fever. My throat rages and I can barely keep my eyes open. But I have never been out of New Jersey before, let alone out of the country. And I know Mrs. T and Grandma will find a way to make the driver turn the bus around and take us back to Bergen County if they learn that something is wrong with me.
We reach Montreal in the evening and stay the night at a hotel that is glorious. The halls are wide and dark and thickly carpeted. There are alcoves on every floor, small sitting areas where you can look out the window at the city lights. I have never been in a hotel before and I can’t believe my good fortune, that my first one should be this one, a hotel as big and old and dark as a castle. We put our suitcases down in our room and decide who is sleeping in which bed—me and Grandma in one and the Topals in the other. The adults are still gossiping. If it were just my grandmother and me, she wouldn’t let me out of her sight. But Denise tells her mother that we are going to explore, and when Mrs. T says to go ahead, just be careful and don’t get lost, my grandmother doesn’t make a peep.
Then we are gone, flying down halls, soaring up through elevators, gliding down stairs, alighting on every sofa and wing-backed chair in every alcove, smudging every window with our noses and our breath. We are two princesses in this fine, dark castle—one small, petite, and beautiful, with long dark banana curls, as light on her feet as fairy dust, her laughter a jangling of tiny bells; the other, bigger, chubby, clumsy, not incapable of falling over her own feet, tripping over her shadow, a bowl of dark straight thick hair gleaming atop her head like the helmet of a knight. We hide on each other and shriek with joy when we are found. Our little girl voices echo back to us. It seems that we are the only people in the whole castle, in the whole world. It is the best night of my life.
In the morning we have breakfast in the hotel restaurant. I order French toast because I am in Quebec. Everyone laughs when I explain myself. I am beet red with fever, my throat is swollen and practically closed, my breath is insufferable, my vision is so blurry I can hardly see what the others are eating, and my head is so thick that I feel as if I am hearing the conversation from under water. But as no one notices, I don’t volunteer the information. Everyone is talking and laughing and having fun. We are having an adventure and no one, not even Denise, needs to know I am as sick as a dog.
After breakfast we board the bus that will take us to the first shrine. While we travel, the driver tells us a bit about where we are going and what we can expect. For the most part I don’t pay attention. Just keeping my eyes open takes enough of an effort. But then I catch something about a chapel at the top of a hill where miracles occur. Even in my leaden state I quickly become excited.
I know all about miracles. I go to a Catholic school and we talk about miracles every single day, usually in the late morning just before lunch, and sometimes again at the end of the day. We talk about sinners who have seen the floors split open before them, who have miraculously been granted the glimpses of hell that ultimately turn them away from sin and save their souls. We talk about Our Lady of Fatima, Joan of Arc, statues that weep, hands that bleed, food that multiplies…. I love miracles. I have been praying all my life for a miracle of some kind, even a small one, but it hasn’t happened yet. I demand that Denise explain what the driver has been talking about. Denise, who attends the same school and has in fact experienced a miracle (she awoke one morning to find the Blessed Virgin Mary sitting at the foot of her bed) says that this chapel of miracles that we are going to can be gained by ascending a flight of almost three hundred stairs on your knees. The pain is enormous, horrendous. But if you get to the top and go into the chapel there, you can pray for whatever you want and your prayers will be answered. St. Joseph rules over the chapel; he’s the one you pray to. That’s all she remembers, she says.
We bounce along on the bus. I stare at her with my mouth open, in part because I am speechless and in part because I can no longer breathe through my nose. She stares back at me for a while, expressionless. When she looks away, I glance at the faces of the other people I can see, a man and a woman sitting across the aisle holding hands, and the profile of the young woman sitting just in front of them. They all stare ahead or out the window, their expressions too vague to read. Behind us, Grandma and Mrs. T are still chatting, speculating now on whether an old woman in our neighborhood might be not the mother she pretends to be but the grandmother of the child who lives with her, and if so, what improprieties that might suggest. How is it, I wonder, that we are not all on our knees? That we are not all holding our hands over our hearts to keep them contained? That we are not all chanting Alleluia, Alleluia, Gloria in excelsis Deo?
I know I am going up those stairs on my knees, even if I have to run away from Grandma to do so and endure her nagging for the rest of my life. I think about all the things I can pray for when I get to the top. There is Francis Amato, the boy I am in love with. I stare at him constantly in class. When we get up to pray or sing or do the pledge, I stare at his straight back, willing him to turn his head and look at me. He did once. Once he twisted his neck and turned his head and one eye fell on me, and in that instant I flushed crazily and knew I wanted one day to marry him, only him, my Francis, my true love. I could pray for that.
But getting married is years away—and besides, everyone in our class knows that Francis wants to go into the priesthood—and I am only a little kid. I am torn between ensuring my future and praying for something more immediate. Money, maybe, money for toys, lots of toys, and then if there is any extra, for my family. Money so that my father doesn’t have to work so many jobs, so that we can have a nicer house, so that my mother can buy me school uniforms that fit and not stuff I will “eventually grow into.” But then I remember that the nuns have warned against praying for money, and while it is great fun to imagine all the bikes and hula hoops and yo-yos and pick-up-sticks and cut-outs and View Masters I could buy, I know in the end I will not take the risk. I know what God is like when He is angry. I know that He can (and does) hear my thoughts and see my every move. At the end of the world, the nuns remind us at least once a week, each of our lives will be run on a screen of air, like a drive-in movie, from beginning to end, and everyone will see what everyone else did—and thought! We all stare at them, speechless, when they say that. We all imagine how it will be to see one another in the bathroom. Peeing. Picking our noses. Wiping our backsides. It will be awful, awful. And for me it will be worse. Everyone will know that once, when my brother and I were jumping up and down on the bed back at the old house, I struck out at him with a belt I happened to be holding and the buckle made his head bleed. Everyone will hate me for that.
Just the thought of David settles me down. Day-Wit, he calls himself, because he cannot get the “v” sound right. What a shame they had to name him something he can’t pronounce. I close my eyes and drift away, thinking that I may never come to Montreal again, that I may never have another chance to go to a chapel that is miraculous, where all you have to do is climb some stairs on your knees to get your wish. For all that I was the ogre princess last night, sister to the great and beautiful Princess Denise, co-guardian of the ancient dark castle (and for all that I become a mermaid almost nightly, slipping two legs in one flannel pajama pant leg, imagining long curls flowing from my head instead of my short Buster Brown crop, swimming in a lagoon with the other mermaids, awaiting the arrival of Peter Pan), I am a serious child. And I know in the end I will pray a serious prayer.
Denise pokes me awake. We have arrived. We follow the others off the bus. As much as Denise and I want to take off and explore, the adults insist we eat again. It takes forever. I’m not even hungry. My grandmother is astonished, because I always have an appetite. I force myself to order something, French fries (again, in keeping with the French theme) so that she won’t suspect I am half dead.
Finally we are out in the sun, standing on the street in front of the church. The sky is so bright and the sun so strong that it hurts my eyes to look up, but when I do I see that the church is built onto the side of a hill and it features a great silver dome. Mrs. T, who has a guidebook, tells us that while construction began initially just after the turn of the century, it is still going on today and we will find that some areas are closed. It seems to me that almost sixty years is way too long to complete a project, even one as beautiful as the one before us.
We approach the stairs, which are separated into three sections by handrails. A few people in the center section are on their knees. The people on both the sides are walking up normally. I nudge Denise. “Joan and me want to climb up on our knees,” she tells her mother. Mrs. T immediately grabs her by the shoulder of her coat and drags her to her side. “You’ll ruin your clothes,” she snaps. Denise looks back at me, over her shoulder, as she begins to climb beside her mother. Her expression tells me nothing about how we are going to get free of the adults.
When we get to the top, the adults huffing and puffing after the long slow climb, Grandma and Mrs. T say they want to go into the main section of the church, to light candles and pray for the dead. Denise’s father’s name was Lou, and though he’s only been dead a few years, I can’t remember much more than his fuzzy gray-brown hair, the way it separated at the top of his head. Mr. T had a small Syrian grocery store that he would sometimes drive us to, me and Denise and Mrs. T, on Sundays, when the store was closed. That way he could do his paperwork in peace; Mrs. T could go up and down the aisles and pick out canned foods to bring home and store in their basement for when the Russians attacked; and Denise and I could pretend it was our store and carry on conversations with phantom customers. (“I saw you steal that sugar, you thief! You put it back or I’ll call the cops.” “Oh, yeah? Who’s going to make me?”) Once, when I was getting in the car to make the trip with the Topals, the car door slammed closed on my fingers and Mrs. T sent me home, crying, carrying my bruised hand in my good one, and off they went without me, Denise on her knees, watching me, getting smaller and smaller in the back window.
My grandmother’s husband’s name was Lou too, and I don’t remember much more about him than I do Mr. T. Once, at the old house, where we lived until I was five, I fell in the river that used to be our backyard, and my grandfather, who was fishing at the time, saved me. I know from my mother, who adored him, that he liked to sit outside under a tree when there was lightning and that he was forever bringing home stray dogs. I know from my grandmother that she would take his stray dogs for long walks, and then hop a bus and come home without them. When asked where Spotty or Rusty or Snappy had gone, she would play dumb. “How the hell should I know?” she would ask him.
I am tempted to tell Mrs. T that my grandmother never goes to church, that she says the roof will cave in if she does, that she didn’t even really like my grandfather and is likely to be thinking about something else entirely when she lights her candle. My grandmother is playing along, pretending to be interested in churches for the sheer pleasure of Mrs. T’s company, for the chance to go on trips like this. When Mrs. T says, “Come on, girls, let’s go in,” I hold my breath. I can only hope that Denise will tell her mother that we have other plans. I do not talk to Mrs. T myself, at least not to say anything contrary. I am afraid of her. With my grandmother here it’s not so bad, but when it’s just me at their house, I don’t even lift my eyes.
Denise doesn’t let me down. “We want to wait outside,” she demands in her little girl voice, her hands on her hips. She is so adorable that both women break form to exchange a quick smile.
“Why?” Mrs. T asks.
“It’s nice out. We want to stand in the sunshine.”
“No no no,” Grandma butts in. “You girls are crazy. We’re in a foreign country. Someone could snatch you and we’d never find you again.”
“We promise,” I chime in. “We won’t go anywhere. We’ll wait right here, just stand in the sun.”
Mrs. T’s thin lips press together under her hook of a nose. She shakes her head. “Oh, let them, Maggie,” she says to my grandmother. “They’ll be okay.” She looks me up and down and I can’t read what she is thinking.
The women go in, my grandmother turning her head to shoot daggers at me and Mrs. T reaching into her purse for a black lace doily to place on her head. As soon as the big wooden doors shut behind them, Denise and I run down the stairs we have just climbed up, quickly, skirting current climbers as if we are skiing down an obstacle course. “What are you going to pray for?” I ask Denise breathlessly as we near the bottom.
“Not telling,” she responds.
“Might not come true.”
“Did the driver say that?”
“I know that; that’s how it works.”
“Like wishing on a star?”
“I think you’re wrong. Why would God care if someone told or not? He’s God, not some shooting star.”
She doesn’t answer. Even though I’m arguing with her, I know I’m not telling either. Why take the chance?
Once we are on our knees, the church at the top seems very far away. And even when we reach it, we will have no idea how to find the chapel of miracles. We can’t ask; from what I can tell, most of the people here are speaking other languages. And I’m not supposed to talk to strangers anyway.
Denise looks upward too. “Do we really need to go on our knees?” she asks.
“Do you want a miracle or not? But we better move fast. When they come out and don’t see us, they’ll throw a fit.”
“Your grandmother will. My mother will know we’re just exploring.”
“Come on. Let’s go. Three hundred steps. Three hundred prayers.”
We are only on the bottom step and already it hurts like hell. We are wearing skirts and knee socks, and our knees are exposed. Denise is wearing a little pale green coat that is the same length as her skirt and the same color as her knee socks. She has a bow that color in her hair as well. Her shoes are black patent leather with T straps. Mrs. T always likes to make her beautiful, like a little doll. It is her greatest pleasure. Every day when I call for her for school, I must stand at the door in the kitchen and watch while Mrs. T, seated sideways at the kitchen table, puts the finishing touches on Denise’s banana curls, brushing each curl around her finger until it is perfect and then pulling her finger out so very carefully, so the curl will hold. Then Denise must gently, gently lift her hair while Mrs. T slides her coat over her shoulders. Only then can we leave for school.
As for me, I am wearing my brother’s reversible jacket, which doesn’t fit him anymore. One side is solid navy and the other is a navy and red plaid. Today I have the plaid side facing out. A pink plastic headband curves over the top of my straight black hair. (My mother says I must keep my hair short so it will be easier to dry. In the winter she dries it with the exhaust end of the vacuum cleaner, and it’s not fun for her—or me.) My knee socks are black, and I am wearing my school shoes, white and brown saddles. “Say a Hail Mary before you climb to the next one,” Denise warns.
“HailMaryfullofgracetheLordiswiththee,” I whisper. I say the words so quickly they sound like a mere rustling of wind in the trees. Denise is praying the same way. We look at each other and smile through our muttering. Without saying a word, we have just agreed that we will race, to see who can get to the top first. I am glad for this, glad that we will move quickly. I am worried about my grandmother being worried, and I have to fight to keep the thought of her worrying—and her anger—from overtaking me.
We pray so fast that we are really walking up the stairs on our knees, not stopping to pray on each one. We shudder and tremble with suppressed laughter. By the time we are halfway up, our knees are scraped raw, and while blood is not yet flowing, it is visible, beneath the outermost layer of purple skin. As we get closer to the top, we pray faster yet; watching each other’s mouths and eyes carefully as we mutter, still racing along despite the pain, still trying not to punctuate every Amen with wild laughter.
Finally we reach the top, and after ascertaining that the adults are not there looking for us, we begin a wild race from door to door in search of the chapel. I am the one who finally finds it, the door that leads into a long hallway full of candles, more candles than I have ever seen in my life. My head is burning with fever; every tooth in my mouth is screaming in pain; my eyes feel like they may pop out of my skull at any time. But I know as I enter the chapel that I am in a holy place, that I have arrived in the presence of the Lord—or at least in the presence of Saint Joseph—and in I float on a cloud of enchantment.
I am about to experience a miracle. I keep thinking about how so many of the saints were made to suffer right before their miracles happened. It’s all part of the process; I understand that now.
To our amazement, you cannot even see the walls of the chapel because they are totally covered with crutches, canes, and braces. I have never seen anything like it. I have to think for a minute why they would keep crutches on the walls, but then it hits me that these are the crutches of people who came up on their knees like us, who said their prayers and received their miracles. But how could a person on crutches get up all those stairs? I think about it some more and conclude that someone else must have gone up on their knees and said the prayers for them, and when they were cured, they carried the crutches up themselves. Some of the crutches and braces are very small. It takes my breath away to imagine all the children whose whole lives changed as a result of someone coming up here on their knees to pray for them. There is only one other person in the chapel, an old woman lighting a candle near the statue of St. Joseph. It is as quiet as a crypt.
Denise and I approach the wooden kneeler together and squeeze our eyes closed and pray. It only takes a few seconds. And once we are done, we do not linger. We are out of the chapel, rushing around to the front of the building to find the adults.
They are there in front of the main part of the church, turning in circles, shielding their eyes from the sun to look for us. When Mrs. T sees her daughter, her hand flies to her heart. My grandmother begins to mutter under her breath. I can see in her eyes that she is really angry. I am sure she will smack me, but when we get close, she only grabs my arm. “Where the hell were you?” she yells as she shakes me. I look around to see if anyone has heard her cursing in a holy place.
“We climbed the steps to the chapel,” Denise explains to her mother excitedly.
“What are you talking about? I told you not to do that. What about your clothes?”
“They’re fine. We said a prayer on each step, like the bus driver said. It was our only chance for a miracle!”
Mrs. T’s expression softens as she looks into her little daughter’s upturned face, her banana curls, mussed now, dangling halfway down her back. Mrs. T can’t help herself; her pressed lips part and she begins to laugh. My grandmother’s face stays pinched and angry. The year before she looked just like that, when I shot a suction-cup-tipped plastic arrow at her with my toy bow and arrow set. How shocked I was when the arrow landed on one of the lenses of her eyeglasses. And still I laughed—even though I knew what I had done was reprehensible—because it bobbed there for a moment while she screamed at me, making a booo-ooo-o-iiii-n-ing sound like you would hear in a cartoon. She didn’t speak to me for a whole week.
We get back on the bus and visit a few more churches, but they offer nothing unique and we don’t explore. Besides, now my grandmother won’t let me out of her sight. We stay at the beautiful hotel another night, but Denise is tired and doesn’t want to play castle. I almost never let an opportunity to play anything pass me by, but I don’t push her because I feel so sick. And the next morning we are back on the bus, heading for home. My grandmother is still angry. A couple of times I hear Mrs. T say, “Oh, they’re only kids, Maggie. That’s what kids do.”
When we are about halfway back to New Jersey, Denise asks me what I prayed for. “I can’t tell,” I say.
But Denise is persistent when she gets going, and she will not leave a thing alone. She tries everything. She offers to tell me what she prayed for. When that doesn’t work, she offers to tell me some secrets she knows about Debby, a girl who recently moved into the house around the corner. Debby is awesome. She is bigger even than me. She has a huge mop of frizzy red hair and she is almost always dirty. Although she is only eleven, she already has breasts. Debby will say anything to anyone. She is not afraid of her mother or anyone else’s mother, and, being a public school student, she only yawns when we talk about God.
When I don’t show any interest in Debby gossip, Denise threatens to tell Francis Amato I’m in love with him. When I still don’t give in, she says she won’t be my best friend anymore. I answer right away then, saying, “I prayed that I’ll be beautiful when I grow up.” Denise sits back, satisfied. “Me too,” she says.
I don’t believe her. Since I lied I figure she has too. Besides, she is already beautiful. She is beyond beautiful. She is perfect.
I freeze all the way home. My teeth chatter. My grandmother finally touches my head and exclaims, “Oh, my God, you’re burning with fever.” Mrs. T warns Denise not to get too close to me. Grandma tells Mrs. T that Virginia, her daughter, my mother, is going to kill her, that she didn’t want me to come in the first place.
I don’t even listen to them after a while. In spite of the fact that physically I am burning, dying, nearly delirious, spiritually I feel as calm as the settling dusk. I have made the ultimate sacrifice. I have given away my one chance for fame, beauty, an endless array of cut-out doll books and hula hoops and other possessions—I have even given away my one chance for a long life with Francis Amato—to pray for a miracle that is really meaningful. I can practically see Jesus smiling down on me.
We return to the parking lot at the bus terminal and get into Mrs. T’s car. In a short time, we are pulling into Mrs. T’s driveway. I turn my head to look behind me, at my house.
For all that they have talked endlessly for three days, my grandmother and Mrs. T still find more to say in the driveway. My grandmother is thanking Mrs. T profusely for inviting us. “It’s nothing, it’s nothing,” Mrs. T says. “You’ll have to come by soon and see Virginia,” my grandmother says, though Mrs. T almost never comes over to our house, and when Grandma and I go to visit her, my mother never comes along. I yank on Grandma’s elbow. I want to go home.
As we cross the street I fumble in my pocket for the souvenir I bought my mother. It is both a plastic replica of one of the churches we visited, and, if you turn it upside down, a pencil sharpener. Even I know it’s a cheesy gift. But I also know that my mother is the kind of a person who doesn’t mind cheesy gifts, who will say thank you no matter what you give her. She will also tell me my drawings are good even when I switch them with Denise’s.
The minute we walk in the kitchen door, I hear the TV blasting—not a good sign. My mother is standing in the dining room, near the window. She has been watching us, waiting for us to cross the street and come in. I rush to her and let her give me her quick pat-hug. She doesn’t notice that I am on fire.
“We had a great time,” I cry. But then I think about how Mrs. T likes my grandmother a hundred times more than her and I tone it down. “We had an okay time,” I say. I give her the church/pencil sharpener. “This is for you. It’s one of the churches we went to.”
Her face lights up as she ponders my gift. “Thank you,” she says, turning it in her hand. “It’s beautiful.” She has a faraway look, as if it reminds her of something wonderful that happened a long time ago.
“How’s David?” I ask.
She doesn’t answer. She is still studying the plastic church.
I run into the living room to see for myself. My brother is sitting on the floor, cross-legged, in front of the TV console. Dinosaurs are fighting on the screen, and beyond them, a little man in a loincloth is running from one boulder to another, trying to keep from getting hit with their smacking tails. “David, I’m home,” I call out over the noise. He doesn’t look at me. His mouth hangs open. His eyes are red. Even though he is only eleven, there are dark bags under his eyes, as if on the inside he is a very old man.
I take a deep breath, then I walk to the console and turn off the TV. “David, I need to talk to you,” I begin softly. But before I can say more he is on his feet. He knocks me out of the way. He turns the power dial and for a moment there is only TV snow-static and then the dinosaurs reappear on the screen. He screams for our mother. He takes his snot rag out of his back pocket and wipes it up and down his face, then sticks it back in his pocket again, where it dangles half in and half out. When he sits, he is closer to the TV than he was before. My mother comes running into the room, “Leave him alone,” she yells. “Why do you have to tease him all the time? You know how he is.”
I look at her, aghast. “I wasn’t teasing,” I say, but there is too much noise for her to hear me.
Nothing has changed.
My miracle has been denied me.
David, is still retarded.