I play this game, every time I rinse out a soup bowl, or a cereal bowl. I leave the spoon in the bowl, swirl it, slosh it, tip it, can’t quit until I balance the scalloped end of the spoon on the lip of the bowl, and land the skinny handle in the strainer. I love the scraping sound the spoon makes circling the ceramic edge, and the sharp, metallic clang when the handle lands in the strainer at that impossible angle.
I play this game over and over. Spin it, land it; spin it, land it; again and again. It starts as a need to drown out a lingering, early morning problem. It carries into midday, and late afternoons.
Dr. Thiebold can explain it. I can’t.
I know it’s wrong. That much, I can tell you.
I can tell you, about, how, when I was little, I went to school. Franklin Ave School, in Franklin Lakes. Who in their right mind is going to repeat something like that? Franklin Ave School, in Franklin Lakes. I can’t even say it out loud.
Repetition is one of those early morning problems that never goes away.
“Martin,” Dr. Thiebold says, in his raspy smoker’s voice.
I ignore him.
“Martin,” he says again.
He gets annoyed when I don’t respond. I love that.
We sit in silence for a time, Thiebold, in his club chair, staring down at the floor, me, in the corner, sitting Indian style, cradling my backpack in the triangle formed by my knees and my crotch.
Thiebold tries to hide his annoyance. I’m not looking at him. I hear him, I can picture him, exhaling through his nose, through all that hair that grows down into his mustache. I know he’s going to repeat himself, say my name again, a third time.
I’ll just wait.
The bowl game started when father left us, me and Mother.
“How did this happen?” Mother said, in tears, sitting hunched over the kitchen table, pressing a damp towel against her forehead. “How did this happen?”
I hear her, standing over the sink, she said it again, “Oh God! How did this happen?”
At first it didn’t bother me. The woman, was, after all, asking no one in particular; but the repetition, I couldn’t stand it, so I went to the cupboard, made myself some cereal.
The kitchen spout is mounted on the end of a metallic hose. The hose is wrapped in a ribbed metal sheath that retracts into the body of the faucet. It’s counterweighted. Sometimes I pull the thing out as far as it will go, then release it. The ribs scrape along the faucet like a Slinky making its way down the stairs. I listen for the weight to thump deep inside the cabinet beneath the sink.
Mostly I just play the bowl game.
Dr. Thiebold sits in his chair, leg crossed, bouncing his foot up and down, up and down. It’s a repetitive action.
I stare at the wall. Ignore him. Raise the backpack, every so slightly. Squeeze it with my legs. Let it fall to the floor.
Thiebold gives two quick ankle kicks, a third…and then, nothing. Silence. It’s like being in fucking prison communicating via heat pipes, shutting up when the screws pass by.
I could put an end to this. I could grab that yellow pad of his, the one with all the notes scribbled on it, crush the pages in my fist, smash it in his face, jump up and down, whoop and holler. That would teach him. That would make him say my name.
Instead, I sit. I wait.
Father wore his overalls at the dinner table; white, paint spattered, bib overalls. He’d unfasten the button loops and let the bib part flop down, expose his fat belly.
“I wish you’d close that up,” Mother would say, “we’re eating dinner.”
Father would grunt, eat his meal, elbow on the table, fork held high, pointing down at his plate. He looked like one of those long-necked water birds, a fowl or something, shooting its beak into the water. He’d twirl his pasta, tip his head back, and lower the noodles into his mouth.
“What’s it to ya?”, he said, chewing.
“It would be nice to eat like civilized human beings for once,” Mother said, anger rising in her voice, “that’s all.”
Mother pretended to take father’s sudden departure in stride.
“Oh Jim?” she would say, as if his disappearance had only just occurred to her.
“Oh Jim?” she would say, at lawn parties, and on pancake Sunday in the church’s linoleum tiled meeting room, “he’s away on business.”
“Business? I thought he was a house painter?”
“He was,” she’d reply, “only now he’s not.”
Mother like to cut a problem off at the onset.
“Martin.” Thiebold, finally says.
I don’t answer.
“Tell me about your father.”
I raise the backpack with my thighs, squeeze it, drop it.
“Tell me about him. What sort of man was he? Did you enjoy his company?”
“What kind of things did you do together?”
I’m far away…picturing him. He’s driving that beat up van of his, or stacking canvas drop cloths in back, pulling loose dollars and bits of change out of his pockets, trying to buy some gasoline, enough to get us through the day, cursing and swearing that time the van coughed and died on the side of the highway.
We never talked much. Never once played pool or went fishing. Mostly he worked, came home, drank beer, watched TV.
He was a fat ugly man, I wanna tell him.
Thiebold waits, silent, bouncing that foot.
“I’ve seen him in the shower,” I say, testing him, “he’s only got one ball.”
Thiebold never responds. He just sits in his chair, writes on that yellow pad. He’s got spindly script, very cramped. No doubt he’s writing seen him in the shower at this very moment.
Father’s paints are still piled up in the garage. The bay is full of ‘em. Stacked up. No reason. No pattern. Just piled up. Quarts on top of half gallons. Half gallons lying on their sides.
I like the garage. It’s all so random.
The cans have hardened paint tracks running down their sides. Little rivulets frozen in time. They’re like road signs. They tell you what color’s inside, if it’s flat, or maybe eggshell. When Father was still around, I’d go into the garage and look for the freshest cans of paint, run my finger down the tracks, pop the little bulbs of thick, half-dry paint, at the end of the rivulets. I loved the feel of the sticky goo, the way the paint dried, hard, under my fingernail.
But that was all before.
Before I learned to balance the spoon on the lip of the bowl and plant the handle in the strainer, before I learned to love the metallic clatter in the sink and the counterweight thumping in the cabinet.
“Animal?” Father said. “So now I’m an animal?”
Mother glared at him. “You eat like an animal, and you treat me even worse.”
Father stopped chewing, threw his fork down on his plate. “I’m an animal and I don’t treat you right? Is that it?”
“Go upstairs Martin,” Mother said, not even looking at me.
Father stood up, straddled his chair.
“Upstairs!” she yelled, “now!”
Father grabbed his dinner plate and hurled it at Mother’s head.
She tried to cover up, raised her arms just as the plate struck her forehead and opened a nasty gash above her left eye. The plate crashed to the floor, broke into a thousand pieces, sauce everywhere.
I’d never seen so much blood.
Thiebold drinks Diet Coke. Gallons of it. It’s a diuretic. The man must have a bladder the size of Montana, drinks from a big tinkling glass full of ice.
“Marrrr…tin,” he says, slowly, drawing my name out.
I could tell him all about the night Father left us. I picture it. Run it through my head over and over. The blood was fascinating. It dribbled down the side of Mother’s face, slowly at first, just a trickle. Then the flow increased, and the blood began to run. It ran down her cheek, seeped into her hair, channeled in the grout between the tiles.
Father, that pig, stood over her. Pulled the bib up over his fat belly, studied the gash in her forehead, started humming. Humming. It was a deep, surging, sound, like a man in pain.
I tried to focus on that sound. Tried to ignore the hurt he’d caused. Maybe it was the only thing that kept him from hurting her more.
I watched it all from my seat. Silent. A bystander. One step removed.
He straightened up, kicked his chair out of the way. The legs scraped the floor, the chair fell over, backward, with a crash. He looked at me, turned, and walked out. Vanished, through the back door.
I just sat, watched him leave.
Mother took a job in the shoe store. Mr. Antonito owned it. It was a little, run down place, narrow, next to the Five and Dime. We’d been shopping there my whole life.
“Mrs. Henderson!” Mr. Antonito said when we walked in.
Mother nodded, solemn. “I’ve come,” she said, “looking for work.”
By then, no doubt, my father’s disappearance was all over town.
I think Mr. Antonito felt sorry for us, knew we needed help.
“Of course,” he said, adjusting his tie. “And what timing! I was just saying to myself, ‘after all these years alone, maybe it’s time to hire a salesperson’. You Mrs. Henderson would be the perfect fit!”
Antonito is a squirrelly little worm, short, bald; a loner, never needed anybody’s help until the day my mother came in looking for work.
News travels fast.
I got a job in SuperRite, stuffin’ bags.
We got a break every morning, ten minutes. Lunch, half an hour. I spent my weekends at the end of a checkout line listening to wizened old hags tellin’ me how to do my job.
“Don’t put the eggs on the bottom!” they’d say, dogging my every move. “Wrap that meat up in plastic!”
I didn’t pay them any attention, just filled up the bags.
Milk, juice, eggs. Grab another bag, snap it, fast, in the air; pop it open. Milk, juice, eggs. Grab another bag…made me wanna barf.
Jason worked the checkout next to mine. One time a new kid, Arthur, came in, saddled up next to Jason, figured he was gonna man my line.
Jason and I snapped some bags of our own in his face! Worked him over good. The kid screamed, made some ungodly sounds, backed away in terror. Mr. Patterson, the store manager, told us the kid had a problem with sound. The kid was afraid of sounds. We looked it up. It’s called misophonia or some crap.
Patterson put Arthur to work on a different register, Veronica’s register.
Veronica and me always had this thing. Unspoken. She’d flash her dark eyes my way; throw me a saucy smile. I was cool about it, all James Dean, all, Rebel Without a Cause. She’d give me that come-on look at the oddest times, like right before school let out and all the moms were showing up, squeezing in a SuperRite run before it was time to pick up their snot nosed kids after school.
“There she goes,” I announced, cocking my head in Veronica’s direction. “Look at her. She’s givin’ me that look.”
Jason wasn’t paying me any attention. A woman had shown up in his line dragging two cartloads of shit. Pushing one, dragging the other. She looked like she was gettin’ drawn and quartered. I could see Jason was about to go off, get himself into trouble.
“Double wrap everything,” the woman said, breathless, ladling shrink wrapped packages of ground beef on the conveyor belt. “Paper first, then plastic, that way nothing will leak out.”
Jason took his time. Normally he flies, moves his line along like his life depends on it. I watched him pop a bag, real slow; pile red peppers and iceberg lettuce on the bottom, then cans of peas, string beans, and cat food on top. No double bagging, no plastic safety wrap. He couldn’t be bothered.
The woman stopped unloading, looked at him, “Young man,” she said, “I told you to double wrap the paper bags in plastic.”
Now I’m gettin’ steamed. Shit like that gets to me. It’s clear, Jason’s just not going to double wrap her crap in plastic. There’s no need for her to repeat it. We heard it the first time. It’s like sayin’ Franklin Lakes School in Franklin Lakes, only even more disconcerting.
Jason looked at her, stopped bagging, smashed a half-gallon carton of SunnyD fruit juice against the front end of her cart. The seam split, and the juice flew in all directions, soaked the front of her dress and the paper bag full of groceries he’d just packed.
Maybelle, working Jason’s register, grabbed the phone and blasted out an overhead announcement. “Mr. Patterson, Mr. Patterson, register six please, register six. Stat!”
Stat was code, it meant something really bad was going down.
Patterson showed up all anxious, keys jangling on his hip.
Jason was banging the empty carton against the cart, looking vague, unfocused.
Patterson took it all in; his customer soaked, Jason out of control.
This didn’t have to happen. If Jason’d just wrapped the paper in plastic the way she’d asked the whole thing would have blown over. He never should’ve smashed that carton.
“Jason,” Mr. Patterson said quietly, “please. Let’s put that juice down. Then you and me take a walk to my office.”
Mr. Antonito and Mother hit it off real good.
Mother was a crackerjack saleswoman. She entertained the kids, pressed their mothers to buy shoes, more shoes than they ever needed.
“Ahh, yes,” she’d say, “I remember when my son Martin was your boy’s age. Martin loved to hunt frogs in the culvert down the street. He’d come home with his sneakers covered in mud. Smelly? Whew! That water was nasty! The only way to keep him looking presentable was get two pair of sneakers, one to play in, the other for school.
“And Sundays? My oh my! He loved to play tag in the parking lot after mass. His church shoes were always scuffed up. One time Father Frank pulled me aside, told me he’d overhead some of the other mothers bad mouthing my Martin, saying ‘their sons would never be caught dead wearing shoes as old and beaten up as that Henderson kid’s.’”
In time she had to change the stories.
I played way too much kickball in middle school, Red Rover too. I had a penchant for kicking cans. Dropped kicked a squirrel one time. Loved to followed policemen, on horseback, kicked horse apple field goals.
In the kitchen, eating Mac’n Cheese, I told Mother all about the SunnyD incident. All about the woman, her shopping carts full of shit, and Jason spraying juice all over her.
“Dr. Thiebold calls that ‘acting out’,” she told me.
“Yes, that’s when a child,” she said, slowly, convincingly, “when a person, has trouble understanding, or accepting something, and can’t express what they want or need. It usually happens when they’re young. They act out to get their parent’s attention, to get their way. It can also happen with adults.”
“But Jason’s parents are dead,” I reminded her.
“Yes,” she said.
“Since last spring. You know that. Since the accident.”
“Yes dear,” she said, quietly, in that same tone she uses when somebody raises Father’s disappearance. “It’s not literal. His parents don’t really have to be there. Jason is having trouble understanding… accepting, that his parents are gone. He’s expressing that trouble, publicly.”
I thought it over.
She turned her head slightly, looked at me.
“Do you understand baby?”
We talked about it on our break.
“That bitch never knew what hit her!” I said, leaning against the brick wall behind SuperRite, tossing tiny bits of loose macadam at the high grasses that sprouted up in the empty lot across the way.
“Put the paper in plastic,” I said, high pitched, whining, following up with forced laughter of my own.
“That fat bitch!” Jason said.
We threw some more pebbles.
“My Mother says you’re ‘acting out’,” I told him.
“Yeah. She says you’re trying to ‘understand things’, only you can’t. So, you ‘act out’.”
“What kinda’ crap is that?” Jason said.
“She said you need to learn to express yourself better.”
Jason stopped throwing macadam.
“So whaddya think?” I said.
“That’s bullshit!” he told me.
“No, about Veronica.”
He didn’t get it. “Veronica…and me,” I said, getting angry.
“Veronica? Shit. She don’t even know you’re alive.”
“Yeah, right,” I said, challenging him. “You seen the way she looks at me. Turns her head over her shoulder like that, she’s givin’ me the eye.”
“She ain’t givin’ you the eye,” Jason said, “she ain’t givin’ nobody the eye.”
“Bullshit,” I said. “It’s like she’s sayin’ ‘come on over here and talk to me’.”
“She’s not sayin’ nothin’. She’s just got her eye on the clock.”
“The clock. On the wall. Behind us,” he looked at me. “At the deli counter. She’s makin’ sure she doesn’t miss her next break.”
Mother got more hours at the shoe store.
“Mr. Antonito appreciates me greatly,” she told me.
I thought he was creepy. Always wore a sweater and a tie. Tried to hide his baldness. Combed long stringy hairs across his head.
He started visiting us at the house. He’d show up for dinner with a bottle of wine in a paper bag. I didn’t mind it so much at first. Mother always baked a chicken when Mr. Antonito came over to visit.
“Your mother tells me you’re upset,” Thiebold said.
What an ass.
Upset? I should get up and slap him. Or maybe smash one of his precious pictures, the one of his simpering wife and his little rat dog, that’d get a rise outta him. He’d get all angry, turn beet red, light up another Pall Mall.
Smoking is bad for you doc, I’d tell him, straight up, right before I kicked over his floor lamp. It wouldn’t swish or spin like the spoon in the bowl, but it’d make a hell of a racket. The big glass shade would smash against his mahogany desk. He’d be so mad he’d get up outta his chair and scream at me, end the session right then and there.
“But our time’s not up,” I’d say to him, real slow, restrained.
He wouldn’t say another word. No more questions about my father, or the way I’m feeling. He’d have to pick up all that broken glass, one sharp, glittering piece at a time, drop them in his lunch bag. Arnold Thiebold, Doctor of Psychiatric Medicine, carries his lunch to work in a brown paper bag. Go figure. The first shard would make a popping noise in the bottom of the empty bag. The paper’d flex, like a drum, a tiny drum.
I found a sweater draped over the sofa and an overturned wine glass on the floor.
Mother’s bedroom door was shut. Very out of the ordinary.
We have six bowls, all plain white. Mother says they’re “nested” in the cabinet. The silverware is stored in a pullout drawer. The drawer needs a good strong tug to get it open. Everything bounces around, spoons, knives, forks. It’s all very noisy.
Antonito was in the bathroom.
I opened a box of Cheerios, poured them into my bowl. The little oat rings plink against the white ceramic, it’s annoying at first, but quiets down as the bowl fills up. I ate my cereal, listened to the unmistakable sound of urine released from man-height.
Mother appeared, stepped out of the bedroom in her nightgown, not the sweatpants she usually wears to bed. Not the T-shirt with the sad-eyed puppy on the front. A nightgown, with frills, and swirls.
The toilet flushed.
Antonito appeared. He was embarrassed, uncomfortable.
Mother stepped over to the sink without speaking, reached for the kettle, ran water into the black spout, smiled at Antonito.
“Cereal?” she said.
I was done, carried my bowl to the sink, opened up the tap. The water flowed into the bowl, down one side, across the bottom, up and over the opposite side. I liked to watch the last clingy oat rings pile up in the strainer.
I swish, and swirl, spin the spoon, adjust the flow, slow the whole process down to a trickle, like the blood running down mother’s face after Father threw the plate at her.
In truth, I didn’t stay in my chair that night. I didn’t sit far removed. I stood up, lunged at him, tried to stop him from leaving. He pushed me away. I grabbed him, threw my arms around his waist, pressed my face against his dirty overalls.
He smacked me, threw me aside, down to the floor. Mother lay beside me, face to face, inches apart, the gash on her head open, bleeding.
The water mixed with the last of the milk in the bowl, made little patterns of color.
The blood ran between the tiles that day. It was bright red at first, turned brown as it dried. I watched it. A skin formed as it dried.
The spoon spins wildly in the bowl, squeaking and scraping. I can control that sound. More water, less noise. Less water, more noise.
I know I should have reached out, comforted her. Instead, I listened to the door slam behind me, Father leaving us forever. Instead, I traced the blood flow with my finger. Sluiced it along in the gap between tiles. It left a sticky red spot on the tip of my finger.
Mr. Antonito was very polite. Made small talk, the weather, seemed to enjoy his meal. When he was done, he carried his bowl to the sink, ready to rinse.
I couldn’t get it right. The spoon kept falling out of the bowl. I was landing the handle in the strainer OK, but the scalloped end kept slipping out of the bowl. I couldn’t catch the edge, hold the angle.
“Martin,” mother said, Antonito watching me.
I tried again, adjusted the flow, couldn’t get it right.
“Martin, let Mr. Antonito use the sink,” she told me.
One more time. One more spin. More scraping.
The spoon clattered into the sink.
It’s not easy to balance the spoon on the edge of the bowl. Takes a lot of practice to land the strainer.
“How much time did you spend in the sink today?” Dr. Thiebold asks.
Brian Quinn is an Emmy Award Winning TV news journalist living in Manhattan who has spent the last thirty years covering news in New York City and overseas. Much of his work is rooted in those experiences.