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Spring 2000, Volume 17.3

Fiction

 

Eleanor Swansonphoto of Eleanor Swanson.

Iron 


Eleanor Swanson lives and writes in Denver. Her work has appeared in a number of publications including
Black Warrior Review, High Plains Literary Review, The Denver Quarterly, and The Southern Review. Recent awards include the A. E. Coppard Prize for Fiction, an NEA Fiction Fellowship, and first place in the Plum Review Fiction Competition.

 

"Hurry."

Paula's voice crackled in my ear, cold in the wires, words breaking in sub-zero air.

"But drive safely."

I laughed before hanging up. The sound rang through the bare house. I put more wood in the stove and went to wake Drew. "The lake," I whispered.

He rolled over and opened his eyes. I could see myself in them, my twin reflections, so small. His hand came from under the quilt and took my wrist. "Oh," I said, laughing, drawing back ever so little. "The lake, by Paula and Judd." I stopped.

"What about it?" He drew each word out quiet and smooth like silk sliding from a top hat. Sleep calmed him.

"They want us to come skating. Paula said it's clear, like looking through a window to the bottom." I stood on ice, the ice floor. I could have glided away, except that his fingers held my wrist, fingers and thumb, ever so lightly.

Drew dropped my hand and looked past me. Andy stood in the door, wild-haired, his eyes half-closed. He knuckled them with his fists and yawned.

"We're going skating," I said. "Get dressed. Dress warm."

"Do I hafta go?"

"Yes. Go get ready," Drew said.

Our breath hung in the car like ghosts, thriving in the sharp, bright air. I waited for the car to grow warmer, rubbing my mittens together. The early sun sent arcs of light across the expanses of frozen fields. "Andy, look," I said, turning to where he slumped half-asleep in the backseat. "There's a rabbit." He straightened and peered out the window at the rabbit that hopped away from the edge of the highway in big half-circle jumps toward the center of the field. Andy raised his hand to the window and pointed his index finger at the rabbit, thumb cocked. "Pow, pow!" he said. "Got it, blew it open. Look at the blood."

I grabbed his wrist. "Stop it." He snatched it away and burrowed under the blanket in the backseat. "Leave me alone, Mom," his voice came muffled. "I wanna sleep `til we get there."

Drew pulled the car off the road and set the handbrake. He leaned into the backseat and pulled Andy up by the shoulder, blanket and all.

"Ow, stop, you're hurting me." Andy sat up and he and Drew faced each other. Andy's pewter-colored eyes grew lighter, the pupils dwindling as I watched. Then the look I knew so well, coming down like an extra lid. Stay out. Stay away.

"I'm not hurting you. You listen to me. I didn't raise you to act like a punk. Killing isn't funny."

"I didn't do nothin'." Only Andy's lower jaw moved, as if strings worked it.

"You know what you did."

The car fell silent. Our breath frosted the windows. My ears were so cold they would break if I touched them. "Please," I said. I hated a word that went nowhere, like an endless ripple on a pond. But it was better than the silence we had frozen into, better than sitting any longer in the freezing car. Drew turned, released the handbrake, and pulled onto the road. Andy slid down, turned his back to us and worked the blanket over himself, pulling the last fold over his head with both hands.

Drew pressed the gas pedal to the floor. I watched the speedometer needle wobble past seventy, seventy-five. The fields and bare trees blurred into snatches of color and line. I peered ahead, looking for the dirt road that led to the lake. We'd passed the turnoff to Judd and Paula's about a quarter of a mile back. I wondered if Drew had seen it. In a while he slowed down and when the passing landscape resolved again, I saw the road just ahead. We parked and carried our skates to the edge of the lake. A handful of people glided across the surface, Paula coming toward us slowly, stopping herself with a graceful turn. "You made it. Look," she said, taking my hand and pulling me several feet out onto the ice. I looked down through a pane of ice clear as glass to the sand bottom of the lake. Just below me, in a thicket of dark green bottom grass, a sunfish hung, frozen solid. I dropped to my hands and knees. No, the fish flicked its tail and swam slowly from view. With the sun nearly overhead, the ice was colorless beneath me, a sheen of silver upon the surface only at the lake's rim, a dazzle of blue everywhere else, the color of the sky reflected perfectly. Paula had left me. I shaded my eyes to look for my family and climbed to my feet, skating tentatively. The ice did not look thick enough to hold a twig. With each movement forward I waited to see a web of cracks form under my skates, imagined my plunge into the water, the bone-shattering cold.

I saw Andy at a distance, skating fast, with perfect grace. I skated so slowly I could barely keep my balance; I had to, to watch Andy circle the lake, his curly blond hair swept back by the wind. He gained speed on the straight-away, arms swinging, body low to the ice. Into a turn he crossed his feet to make the curve tight. I took in the air with a long breath until my heart ached with the cold. I looked down at my baby in the crib and smiled at him staring up with grave eyes. If he skated by me I would call out and laugh and he would look back with those same eyes. Watching him on the glossy ice I loved him as someone else's heartbreakingly beautiful son.

The phone rang, muffled, like a discreet laugh, once, then again. I still remembered the sound much better than the call, maybe because as I struggled with the key in the lock, hanging onto Andy with my other hand, the sound came again and again, as if it would have rung on until I came, no matter how long I took.

"Hello." Of course, I said that. Then the other voice, "Mrs. Larsen?" Did she clear her throat then, embarrassed? These small details of the call have fallen away, after ten years. Yes. I'm calling about Andrew. Yes? Andrew hits the other children. He gets so angry, no one can calm him down. Is something…bothering him, Mrs. Larsen?

"Marie?"

"Mom?"

I feel Drew on one side and Andy on the other. We hold hands and skate together on the clear lake that shimmers with more beauty than I ever knew the world could have. The lake is made of light; there's nothing solid about it. We are half-submerged but the water offers no resistance, isn't cold. Then, near the bottom, we flow by alligator turtles and bass, the waving fronds of the lake plants. I laugh and laugh until Paula finally came and asked me why.

"What's so funny? You getting hypothermia?"

I looked over and tried to smile, skating over something thick and dark in the weeds, a carp, maybe, hanging suspended.

"I can't believe how much Andy's grown, just since I saw him last," she said.

"Yeah, he wears a size eleven shoe now. When's the last time we got together?" The tips of my fingers had grown numb, even under my thick mittens. But I was not a good enough skater to skate with my hands in my pockets.

"Two months, I guess. You're recluses, all three of you."

"No," I said laughing, "we're not. It's just that Drew—both of us—spend all our spare time on the house."

"Wow," she said and skated backwards, holding out her hands for me. "It's taking forever to finish."

"No," I laughed, "it really isn't."

"Marie?" It was the middle school principal, Hal Black, calling to say he'd suspended Andy again. He was a kind, fair man. I wished we'd gotten on a first name basis some other way, not because of the talks about Andy.

"Smoking?" I said, keeping my voice light, trying not to let into the words the sad chill rising from my chest. Okay, it was against school rules to smoke anywhere on the grounds, but was smoking really so bad?

"I'm afraid it's worse than smoking." He let the sentence wind out slowly. I tried to read into the spaces. What? What now.

"I've suspended him for a week."

"A week?"

"He shoved a couple of the younger kids getting on the bus this afternoon. Almost knocked one down to the pavement. Then when the teacher out there intervened he shoved at her too, called her a `bitch.' `Leave me alone, you bitch,' he said."

The palms of my hands tingled.

"Are you still in family counseling?"

"Yes."

What are you feeling when you disobey your parents or the rules at school, Andy? I don't know. Are you angry? Yes. At what? I don't know.

"I hate to have to tell you another suspension. I know you and Drew are doing the best you can."

"Yes." I hung up. My head was throbbing, a pure seam of pain that wound its way from my neck to my forehead, a bright ribbon of pain. I put on a coat, boots, and walked out to the garage. Drew was turning a piece of wood on the lathe. "What's that for?" My voice cut through the sound of the machine. Drew faced me.

"The porch." He held the wood poised over the lathe.

"Turn it off, damnit. We haven't got any fucking walls and you're decorating the porch."

"Stop screaming at me."

Was I screaming? I didn't think I could scream with this pain in my head, not without my skull exploding.

Drew turned off the lathe.

"Andy's been suspended again."

Drew waited, still holding the spindle of wood poised over the machine. He waited for me to tell him what, what this time. Smoking, fighting, breaking windows, ditching class. What if I lied, protected Andy, blamed the school? Said someone had it out for him. He was just rebellious. He wasn't bad. My head spun. Maybe the teacher lied. Where was Andy anyway?

"Marie?" My name was a word Drew liked, could say with a sweet sound. Even now. I felt a surge of something hearing him say my name that way, something beating through my blood. We all loved each other, didn't we? That could save us. He laid the wood on the workbench. "I'm going for a drive."

"What?" The fan of the propane heater overhead came on with a roar. No. "No, please. Tonight's family night. We've got to talk." Family night is a time the psychiatrist, Dr. Lindemann, says we must set aside to do things together, or, when Andy is grounded, simply to talk. "To get things out," she says, gesturing like the magician who will show us how to open the boxes that hide the meaning of our behavior.

"Talk!" He picked up the spindle and brought it down hard on the edge of the work bench. Sockets clattered in their iron holders. He held up the piece of wood like a torch then dropped his hand, dropped the wood to the concrete floor where it rolled away, out of sight. I looked up and saw the house through the window, a fragile shell over unfinished rooms. "Talk, psychiatrists, tests, grounding, nothing's doing any good. Just let me get out of here. I need to think." He walked out the side door of the garage. I heard him slam the door of the pickup and bring its engine roaring to life. Gravel sprayed out from the wheels as he backed up, and again as he turned out onto the road. Then, except for the steady hum of the heater fan overhead, the garage fell silent.

We sat on the couch, Drew and I. Andy sat on the floor in front of us. I reached down behind me under the cushions and felt straw, the couch sagging to pieces. I brought up popcorn, a pencil. "Treasures," I said laughing. Andy didn't look up. He picked at a worn spot in the rug, grating his fingernail across the threads again and again. No sense in getting new rugs to put over the subfloor.

"Andy." Drew's voice was soft, but the way an animal's step is, stalking. "Do you have anything to say for yourself?"

Andy did not look up. He stopped picking the rug. I wondered if a glacier had ever swept through a room, freezing its occupants fast in their places forever. If that happened to us what would the explorers who found us think? What would they write in their notebooks? "Three people at some distance from one another in a large, almost empty room."

The moment held, then fell into the next moment and the next, the way a second hand clicks its way around the clock face. Drew got up and went into the kitchen. He ran water in the sink but I still heard him opening the cabinet where the Ezra Brooks was. He came back with his drink in a coffee mug.

"We'll sit here all night if we have to, Andy," he said.

"I don't care." Andy rocked back and put his knees up. He wrapped his arms around them and hung his head. On the second finger was a crude X he had made when he was eleven, with a pin and black ink.

Drew stood up, knocking over the mug he'd set on the floor. The liquid flowed into the rug and disappeared. He took Andy by the elbows and tried to raise him to his feet but Andy struggled free. "Let go of me," Andy screamed. "If you hit me I'll hit you back."

"Andy, please," I said, walking toward him, "we've got to try to talk."

"I don't wanna talk. Just leave me alone!" He stalked into his room and slammed the door. The screeching notes of electric guitar music rose and fell, muted, like sirens in the distance.

Drew came to me and put his hands on my shoulders. "I always lose my temper."

"You'd have to be a saint not to," I said, but I didn't know if that was true. I imagined telling Dr. Lindemann about this night like it was a story, how the wind howled outside and blew the snow into drifts, how the storm held us prisoners. How Drew's big, callused hands had rested sweetly on my shoulders like the fragile hands of a young girl. How something enchanting had finally happened like the appearance of a mysterious visitor who granted each of our wishes and set things right in our unhappy house.

Drew operated heavy equipment, digging, moving and piling earth. At least he did this when he could, when the earth wasn't frozen hard as a brick. He wouldn't be working again for a month or two. Three winters ago he had driven a snowplow, before he'd started our house. He had dug the foundation in summer, and raised the walls and roof before the first snow came. We celebrated switching on the lights with a bottle of André and a pizza. Andy ran through the rooms turning on the water and flushing toilets when the plumbing was done. We had an acre and a half, trees all around, and a stream. Growing up away from the city would be good for Andy, Drew said. When the rooms were framed up and the walls insulated we gave notice on our apartment. The kitchen wasn't finished but we moved anyway. The kitchen isn't finished today. The house was a friend that turned mean on him, Drew said to someone once and laughed. I laughed too and when I did he looked at me hard, as if my laugh had been different from his. We had half-wallpapered rooms and some that didn't even have the drywall done yet. The quarry tile we'd picked out two years ago for the kitchen had run out and Drew was still trying to find out where to order more. Imperfections frustrated him and he would stop and go to the garage and come in and measure and take notes. Sometimes, struck with a new idea for a room, the deck, the porch, he'd just leave what he'd been working on and start in on the new thing.

Andy was clumsy with tools. He bent nails and cut wood raggedly, hit his thumb and cried and fell off the ladder twice, the way any boy might have. While he'd worked on the house he hadn't gotten in trouble at school. But he'd quit suddenly, and hadn't lifted a finger since to help Drew. The calls started again then, the visits with teachers and counselors that we had paid to each of Andy's schools. We'd punished Andy, sure, spanking him now and then when he was little, sending him to his room. Less than we'd gotten ourselves as kids. Nothing had worked anyway. What had we done wrong? We'd wanted Andy, loved him. But the first time I'd ever held him his tiny hands were curled into hard fists, as if even then he was ready to land a punch or push away anyone who got too close.

Drew woke me. I looked at the light outside first, the pearly light of morning, then the light in the room, darker, the soft shapes of things, their filmy edges, spaces where the molecules had drifted apart like I always knew they could. I blinked.

"You were having a bad dream," he said.

"What did I say?"

"You were crying." The dry tears of dreams, then I remembered. I'd been reading to Andy. Andy had still wanted me to read to him even when he was old enough to read himself. Paddle to the Sea was his favorite. It had been Drew's book. Why had I been crying? Had I read the sad part of the story, when we think the little carved boat will be lost forever? Drew had fallen back to sleep but I lay in the gray light pulling for the dream like a fish that has plunged into deep dark water. No use. After a while I got up and dressed for work.

I was just in the door when the phone rang. I froze, my heart pounding, put down my purse and took a few steps to answer it, leaving ridges of snow from my boots on the floor. Doris Schumacher, the assistant principal at Andy's school, was on the line. "Mrs. Larsen?" she said. I was relieved. Hal would have called me about something major. Andy'd had two weeks of good behavior, better grades.

"Yes?"

"Can you come over to the school right away? We've had some trouble with Andy."

"Is he all right?" I imagined him lying on the gym floor, or hit by the school bus.

"He's all right physically, but he's in real trouble this time. Mr. Coughlin said he…he just blew up. He threw a piece of angle iron at another boy in shop and hurt him pretty badly. We called an ambulance." She sounded stricken, frightened. "If the parents press charges Andy may have to go to the juvenile detention center."

"I'll be there right away." My hands shook so bad I couldn't get the receiver down in its cradle and my heart beat hard enough to crack my ribs. My head flooded with the sound of it. I made my way back out to the car. The light hadn't changed all day. The car skidded on the ice as I pulled out of the driveway and I almost slid into the ditch. I held the steering wheel with both hands, catching my breath. I pushed the gas pedal tentatively, my knee shaking. Where was Drew? I should have left a note.

Iron. I saw a piece flying through the air with nothing to stop it. No shop tools, no kids, not even a wall. Iron flying through space. What could I do? I saw myself turn. I faced it square on and waited for it to pierce my muddled heart.

 

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