This is a new ongoing series from Potluck. Every Friday, Ray Belli will provide us with another piece in his puzzle. It's kinda like 'Serial' but not sponsored by MailChimp.
Rich was mushy after a night of drinking alone in front of the TV. He’d fallen asleep with his limbs sagging like strands of egg yolk off the side of the couch. The alarm clock rang. He raised a hand, dropped it, and began snoring again.
Kelly came back inside after walking the dog. She stepped over an empty beer can and shook her husband awake.
“Get up. You’re going to be late.”
Rich groaned and buried his ears under his hands.
“Rich,” Kelly said. She huffed and shook him harder by the shoulder.
“Stop. I’m calling out today.”
“Rich, you can’t.”
Rich swatted her away and fumbled around the couch for his cell phone. He called the post office, claiming to have come down with a fever.
Kelly stormed out of the room, cursing her husband and the rest of her life.
“What’d you say?” Rich demanded deliriously.
Kelly said nothing and cracked two eggs over a pan. “Breakfast, Gene,” she called. She made sure to kick Rich’s beer cans under the couch before her son’s footsteps came rushing down the stairs.
“Aw, not eggs again, Ma,” Gene said.
“Honey, you love eggs.”
“Yeah, but not like, every day.”
Kelly bit her lip and stopped herself from smashing the pan into someone’s face. Into her own face.
“You know, Gene.”
She threw her hands into the air and left the room. The eggs continued to cook until the pan breathed smoke and Gene turned off the stovetop.
* * *
An envelope from Gene’s school came in the mail that afternoon. A teacher had caught him stealing milk from the cafeteria, and just a few days ago he’d punched a classmate named Chris in the face. On account of such behavior the principal was calling for a meeting between Gene’s parents and his guidance counselor.
Rich shouted his son’s name in a loud, wet voice. He was drinking beer and watching TV without paying attention to what was happening onscreen. Five minutes later the boy came down. He had a small bruise below his eye that Rich hadn’t noticed earlier.
“What’s this all about?” he said, holding out the letter.
“I don’t know,” Gene said.
“What’s that bruise on your face from?”
“Don’t play dumb, Gene.”
“I pushed a kid at school because …” Gene tugged his earlobe nervously. “ … he said something to me.”
A car pulled into the driveway, and Gene shot upstairs before Kelly came into the house, carrying bags of groceries. Rich explained the situation to his wife without moving from the couch. He opened another beer and asked what was for dinner. Kelly slammed the groceries down on the kitchen counter and climbed the stairs to her son’s room.
“Lower that music and open this door. Now.”
“I didn’t start it, I swear,” Gene said.
“Just open the door so we could talk.”
The door cracked open, barely, and Gene poked out his head.
“Don’t be hard on him,” the voice downstairs sloshed. “Just try to get him to talk. My son’s finally sticking up for himself like a man.”
“Honey, you told me you got that bruise from playing at the park,” Kelly said.
From downstairs: “Don’t be hard on him, Kel. He’s starting to act like a man!”
Gene tried locking himself in his room, but Kelly caught the knob before the door fell shut. They played tug-of-war with the door until Gene won and slammed it shut in her face.
“You—” Kelly started. She clenched her fists in time to stop the words from spilling out. When her fingers uncurled, she exhaled, shut her eyes, and told herself that she’d tried. That she always tried.
She drifted into her bedroom, to be alone. She peered out the door—no husband, no son—and locked herself in.
She lifted her shirt. She sucked her stomach in, then out, observing the fluctuations of her body in the mirror. Her son had left a few marks around the waist, but Gene was worth it, so it was okay. She stroked her breasts, then gently squeezed them together. She thought they were still in good shape. Rich said they were still in good shape, and that had to mean something.
She took out a dress from her closet, folded it, stuffed it into a plastic bag, then tiptoed into the bathroom. She dug out a pile of hair products and stuffed them into the bag, burying the dress at the bottom. Before leaving, she scrutinized herself in the mirror again. She tried out different faces and found it hard to distinguish between the ones she liked and the ones she hated.
When she went downstairs, Rich was still glued to the TV.
“What’s in the bag?” he asked. “What’s for dinner?”
“No dinner tonight,” Kelly said.
“I promised Jackie that I’d do her daughter’s hair for prom in a few days. I’m gonna try out a few things.”
Kelly’s closest friend had in fact asked her to work on her daughter’s hair for prom, and prom was in fact a few weeks away. Kelly thought her presentation sounded confident. By now she was getting the hang of this sort of thing.
“I’m running late,” Kelly said. “There’s leftover egg salad in the fridge.”
She rubbed Rich’s shoulder with an attempt at affection. Rich raised his beer can, assuring her that he wouldn’t move an inch.
* * *
Kelly said nothing to Gene on their ride to school the next morning. Gene enjoyed the silence. When they reached the front of the school building, she pulled abruptly alongside the curb.
“Quick, sweetie, get out,” she said.
“What’s the rush?” Gene asked.
“Just get out, Mommy has to be somewhere,” Kelly said, giving Gene a light shove.
“Relax, ma!” he said. Gene unbuckled his seatbelt and lifted his backpack from between his feet. He got out of the car without saying goodbye. Before driving away, Kelly drew a crumpled napkin out from her purse, unfolded it, and read to herself the address drunkenly scrawled upon it.
When she lifted her eyes, Gene was halfway across the schoolyard. She beeped the horn as if to say “goodbye,” but the horn made Gene feel an emotion he didn’t know the word for yet. What he did know was that Ma was the biggest idiot in the world, and Dad was a close second. On some days, it was the other way around. The best part about going to school was getting to forget about them when he could.
* * *
Ms. Caifa began math class by handing back quizzes. She called students to her desk one by one in a no-nonsense voice. When she called on Gene, he got up quickly and took the quiz from her hand without looking at it. On Gene’s way back to his seat, a red-cheeked boy with uncombed hair and freckles muttered something indiscernible at him.
“Shut up Chris,” Gene said.
“Shut up Gene,” Chris mocked.
“Really, shut up, Chris.”
“Really, shut up, Gene.”
Ms. Caifa resumed class with a review of long division. As usual, Gene felt lost and stopped trying to pay attention. He looked at the back of Chris’s head and wanted to smash it up. He looked up at the clock and wanted to smash it up too. He wanted to get out of here, but he didn’t want to go home. He wanted to go to bed—not for the sleep, but for the dreams. In his dreams, he was the best kickball player in gym class. In his dreams, Chris wasn’t real.
“So remember that we carry the remainder … and write it above the number we’re dividing into … like this …”
While Ms. Caifa wrote on the board, Chris looked over his shoulder at Gene. “You get another F, dummy?” he whispered.
“Fuck you, fatass,” Gene said.
The girl next to Gene gasped softly. Someone hollered, “Ohhh!”
Ms. Caifa abruptly stopped writing and poured her stern eyes over the classroom. “Does someone have something to say?”
“Wasn’t me,” said one of the boys.
“Wasn’t me either!”
“Gene said a bad word, Ms. Caifa,” said Chris.
Gene sprung out of his seat. “Then quit making fun of me you fat—”
“Gene! That’s not how we talk to each other in my classroom.”
“Chris called me stupid, Ms. Caifa. He’s a—”
“Liar!” Chris said. “Liar, liar, liar! I never said that.”
The feeling of Gene’s heart shot up to his head, and the pounding turned everything blurry. Water welled up in his eyes, but he held his breath, trying to stop the tears. His father had taught him that crying was for girls. No real man cries by the time he’s reached the third grade, Gene knew.
“You basically called me stupid,” Gene choked. “You asked me if I got another F. You deserve the F for fatass.”
This time, the whole class joined in like a choir: “Ohhhh.”
Chris stood up and beat his chest. “Hit me,” he said.
“Don’t even think about it,” said Ms. Caifa, stepping between them. “Both of you, outside.”
She walked the boys to the principal’s office while a teacher on hall duty watched over the classroom. The whole time Gene kept his eyes away from Chris. They stung from holding back the tears.
Girl, said the voice in Gene’s head. Girl, girl, girly-girl. Gene couldn’t stop the memories from coming back to life. They weren’t just memories of his father’s voice, but of flying beer cans aimed like missiles at his head.
* * *
The guidance counselor’s office had narrow wooden walls and a low brown ceiling that gave Gene the feeling of being squashed. Behind the closed door, Ms. DeLorenzo stood outside in the hallway talking to Chris’s mother and father. They seemed to be talking forever. Gene sat by himself and tried to keep his head from spinning. When Ms. DeLorenzo came inside, it reminded Gene to breathe. Then the walls began closing in again.
“What’s the matter with you, Gene?” she asked, sitting down behind her desk. “It’s the second time I’m seeing you this week.” The words soared over Gene’s head. He was concentrating on holding back his tears and keeping the walls from collapsing in.
Ms. DeLorenzo’s fingers pecked at the keyboard, and Gene’s records appeared on the computer screen. The sound of her fingers was the only sound in the room.
“No answer, huh?”
Gene found it impossible to speak, impossible to look at her. Speaking to her would release the ball in his throat, and looking at her would reveal the tears drying beneath his eyes.
From down the hall came the sound of frantic, high-heeled footsteps. The sound grew louder until the office door flung open. Ignoring Gene, Kelly stumbled inside and introduced herself to Ms. DeLorenzo.
“ … so sorry I’m late,” she stammered.
“That’s all right. I’m glad you could make it at all,” Ms. DeLorenzo said. “Please, sit down.” She indicated a chair against the wall. In a single exaggerated motion Kelly pulled it closer to the desk and sat down, ordering Gene to do the same. Wordlessly, Gene obeyed.
Ms. DeLorenzo began describing this morning’s incident. Gene didn’t like the way she got the details all wrong but felt too nauseated to interject. The walls became fuzzy pendulums that knocked his visual field in and out focus. Somewhere through the mirage came the disapproving sound of his mother’s tongue clicking against the back of her teeth.
“ … yes, that is absolutely unacceptable,” she was saying. “ … yes, and we’re having some trouble with him at home, too … defiance, yes … yes, building walls around himself … we’ve been thinking of seeking help … yes, I understand it’s not the first time … yes … yes … ”
A hand clamped down on Gene’s thigh. “Gene, pay attention,” said his mother, shaking his leg.
Gene blinked. He looked up at her, and her scornful face made him want to shrink into a small invisible box.
Ms. DeLorenzo reached her arm across her desk and touched Gene’s hand. “Let’s start with your fight last week. With Chris, at the park. Just talk, Gene. Talk. What you say in this room stays in this room. But you have to talk.”
Gene couldn’t talk. He also couldn’t stop the eyes in the room from piercing him. He couldn’t stop his own eyes from welling up with tears. Not again, he thought. The voice replayed in his mind. Girl, it reminded him. Girl, girl, girl. He tried turning inward to hide, but he found that same voice hiding there too, just where he’d left it, days, weeks, and years ago, hoping it would eventually disappear. He buried it there hoping to hide it from himself, but it never disappeared and grew louder and louder and louder until Gene silenced it with a scream. The scream made Kelly jump out of her seat.
“Honey, what’s wrong?” she said, kneeling beside Gene.
“Chris,” he began. He spoke into her eyes. “Chris called you a …” It was the extent of what he could say. The incomplete sentence dangled in the air.
“Me?” Kelly said. “Chris called me a what?”
For all Gene knew, Ms. DeLorenzo had vanished from the room. There was only his mother kneeling beside him and Gene despised her. He despised her softness and he despised her right to cry. He despised the things that made her a girl.
Gene said, “I know where you go sometimes on Wednesday nights, mom. Chris lives across the street. He sees you there.”
Kelly’s face turned ghost-like. The ghosts of many buried nights flooded back to her. “Honey, I still don’t understand.”
“I know what a whore is, okay? He called you a whore.”
It wasn’t just the word, but the way he said it that made Kelly’s toes gnaw like frantic squirrel-teeth into her shoes. Her mouth moved, annunciating nothing. She stuttered over the same syllable, then managed a few false starts.
“Ms. DeLorenzo … God, I’m sorry. You see, it’s my husband who … I really don’t know what, my husband’s a real …”
Ms. DeLorenzo stood up. “Maybe it’s best if I step outside for a moment,” she said. She spoke in a whisper, as if a full voice might shatter Kelly into pieces. The sound of the door falling shut knocked the ball out of Gene’s throat, and the boy burst into tears.
“Oh God, Gene,” Kelly said. She repeated his name over and over again: Gene, Gene, Gene. It was too much for her to look at him, so she pulled him into her breast to hide his face. The feeling of his head against her heart brought her to tears. She tightened her grip around his small-framed body as he tried squirming away.
“No Gene. Please,” she said. “Cry with me. Cry.”