*image: “To be orange,” Tobias Oggenfuss
by Barbara Harroun
We noticed first about Percy not his bubble butt or magnified goldfish eyes looming behind thick glasses, nor his crooked, wide-spaced teeth, but the exquisite beauty of his mother. We noticed how she crouched down to straighten his maroon tie (those the days of Catholic uniforms) and gaze with religious adoration into his moon face, tilting her head so her caramel hair fell like a curtain to hide her tanned skin, her high cheek bones expertly brushed with peach blush, the pale pink of her lipstick something I wanted to taste and remembered almost daily four years later as a freshman. Percy was still around then, in high school, but while he was entirely different, his mom still stood out in a sea of high-waisted, acid-washed jeans and overly permed, Catholic mom hair. Percy’s mom always wore skirts, cinched tight at the waist then pouring out to her knees, and ballet slippers. She had a wine-colored birthmark on her right calf, shaped like the state of Illinois. We had memorized the states in fourth grade, but fifth grade was all about the Aztecs and Mayans. Sacrifices that meant cutting out a still-beating heart and raising it to the sky. In the morning, at parent drop-off, she was the only mom who walked a fifth grader in. She would whisper to Percy in a way our moms had stopped doing in first grade. We knew they were words of love, and he’d whisper something, more a mouthing of words, and she’d tilt her head back and laugh. It was uninhibited, naked, and I would be lying if I said my morning didn’t hinge upon the sound. A laugh can tell a man everything he needs to know about a woman—if she knows herself, if she can take her clothes off in hard light, if her appetites are ones she feeds or starves. Mrs. Evelyn Flare. I was a child, but even I knew that laugh had no doors.
I immediately hated Percy. Something in me thought his softness needed pummeling with great force. He was too well-loved. Within his Return of the Jedi lunchbox, each day: a paper napkin upon which a series of numbers was written in slanted, near-calligraphy: 1-4-3. I was a father myself, making lunches for my daughter and son, before it dawned on me what those numbers meant. I=1. Love=4. You=3. Percy brought lunches of yogurt and wheat germ, small boxes of sushi, dal and brown rice. Food that could get you killed at St. Augustine’s. He was the first student to have a peanut allergy and it was this fact that confirmed I would hurt him. My mother did not pack my lunch or fold my napkin or write code in script. I stood at the counter in the morning and wiped peanut butter on bread that tore easily. I wrapped it in tinfoil, all my father bothered buying. A hunk of cheese. An apple. My mother regarded me always at a distance it seemed, with a measure of humor and curiosity. Her arms about me only when necessary, when no other comfort could substitute. My father, on the other hand, was a man of great physical affection, arms that seemed to reach around corners to grab me into a painful hug, his bearded kisses causing a rash on my cheeks. He had a temper that turned violent, and I felt trapped alternately by his love and anger. It was Percy’s peanut allergy, a table reserved for him and whoever would cross the invisible boundary to eat peanut-free with him, that made me want to rip his heart out. Hold it up to the sky.
This was two decades before Columbine, and the doors of the school were never locked. Parents came and went freely as volunteer “room mothers.” Evelyn Flare volunteered during music class. An assistant professor of music, she played cello, violin and viola, her face by turns dreamy and set as stone. Her movements were sometimes watery and sometimes hard, spasmodic, and jerky when she played for us. At night I wished to be the cello, and remembering this would make my face hot in science or math when I could not focus on what was before me. I didn’t know what it meant. She did not wear a wedding band, and it was clear she did not like me. She ignored my raised hand and didn’t call on me unless it was to force me to sing and sing again a line of music that she played for us. She did not favor Percy either. Often it seemed she did not see us, and she addressed the piano she was playing rather than look at the class.
I was on scholarship, offered only to members of the church, and my mom taught art for free, acted as lunch lady, and forced my sisters to iron the vestments. My father didn’t volunteer. He was a diesel mechanic, which today you can make a living at, but then we scraped by. My mother refused to work in a “traditional sense.” My two sisters were in junior high, twins who curled their bangs into teased puffballs and rolled clear, bubblegum scented gloss around their lips again and again, their bottom teeth crooked in the same way. They had integrated into public school successfully. They were pretty in an absolutely harmless way. My mother—who after taking a Feminist Philosophy class, refused to serve us dinner and was the only mom at the swimming pool who did not shave her armpits or legs—reminded them that their minds mattered most. Sometimes she would walk by both girls huddled around the same beige wall phone and disconnect their call. “Do something,” she would state, “that matters.”
My mother had stopped going to church after taking a Mythology class, and would often lecture my sisters about the misogyny of the Catholic church, but she would not stop my father from loading us all up in the powder blue Chevelle for 8:00 a.m. mass. He explained to me before he died that he wasn’t sure if he believed, although he wanted to, but it was part of who he was, who his parents had been, and their immigrant parents before, and as my mother repeatedly learned and cast off and rethought her own life and thus ours, it seemed important to insist upon something. They were still married when he died, although they had not lived together for years. My mother would not have the marriage annulled—she called that horseshit of the worst caliber—and my father, for all his faults, believed in the vow he’d taken and refused divorce. They did what they had been doing for decades, living separate lives, only now my mom took up residence in a swank apartment complex for seniors, where her company was quite sought after. She did not wear her wedding ring, and it was clear that she enjoyed the company of men and women, while my dad’s wedding ring sank deeper into the fat of his final years. He died and was buried with it. We all stood together in the front pew of St. Augustine’s during the funeral mass where I eulogized him, eloquently my wife said, and when I looked at my mother, elegant and boney in a sleeveless black dress, bookended by my sisters, she was as unknown to me as she was when I was in fifth grade.
One afternoon, I rode my bike home and found my mother in the backyard feeding a fire in the steel drum we used for yard brush. The smoke was foul, and I saw and smelled the black fumes two blocks off. She waved and then motioned me over. She smiled, and laid a hand on my shoulder.
“How was your day?”
“Fine.” I was not close enough to look in and see what she was burning, but her cheek was smudged and she wore one of my father’s threadbare T-shirts. She did not wear a bra—she was opposed to restrictive undergarments—and I looked away.
“I’m nearly finished. Go in and fix me a cup of tea. I’ll be in when it’s steeped.” She cocked her head. “Jimmy, don’t grimace like that. It’s unbecoming. Make yourself a cup. We’ll talk. We have much to talk about.”
Over Earl Grey and vanilla wafers she told me about a Gender Studies class she was taking. She apologized for not allowing my sisters and me to break free from set gender roles. She hoped to free us now, or at the very least make us aware of how trapped we were.
“I burned the belongings that ascribed to society’s rigid idea of masculine and feminine. I know you and your sisters won’t be happy, but as long as I am here this house will be free of objects that reinforce those ideas. It may be too late for your sisters, but not for you.” Her face was grave and without makeup. Her brown eyes sought out mine. She wore her ash-blonde hair in a thick braid.
I nodded, as I always did when she regurgitated her class notes, but when I went to my room I understood what she really meant. My G.I. Joe’s were gone, my BB gun, my army men, my baseball cards. My football, my father’s old baseball glove, ball and bat. My slingshot.
I found her outside, feeding my sisters’ padded bras into the fire, their cache of Maybelline make-up. “Jimmy,” she said, palm held up stiffly as though to physically block me, “I am your mother. The stuff I burned was crap, plain and simple. Look—it’s all melted plastic. You’re looking at me like I castrated you. Do me a favor. Go downstairs and get Pop’s scissors. I’ll make it even. I’ll cast something off too.”
“Ma,” I said, “You shouldn’t have touched my stuff. That’s my stuff.” I was in tears, but she pretended not to notice. “Steph and Cassie are gonna hate you when they see what you’ve done.”
She shrugged, “Probably. They’ll rant for sure. Jimmy, who bought that crap? Your father. Get the scissors, Jimmy.” I walked, arms slack and heavy but I got the scissors out of the box my dad kept them in. I handed them to her properly, the way my dad taught me. She lifted her braid out and over the burn barrel. She worked the scissors through the thickness at the base of the braid. Placed it into the rising smoke like an offering.
“There,” she said, looking at me, “we’re even.”
“No way, Ma,” I whispered, “we’ll never be even. Don’t come near my room. Don’t you ever go in my room again.”
“I can respect those boundaries, Jimmy. That’s reasonable.” Her voice was familiar, but her hair framed her face in a jagged bob and she said, “You don’t have to call me ‘Ma,’ Jimmy. You can call me Cynthia. That’s my name.”
“You’re a freak,” I said, and when I thought I might start crying, like a younger child, blindly, I yelled, “I wish you weren’t my mother!”
“Sometimes, I wish the exact same thing, James. Shit in one hand, wish in the other. See which one fills up faster.”
My sisters did cry, and they learned to keep everything of value at their best friend Sarah’s house. They learned to disappear, and my dad would sometimes wonder, as we watched TV together, eating peanuts, “Where’d your sisters get off to?” He did not ask about Ma. She was always on campus taking a class or upstairs studying or down in the basement painting or off having tea with a professor.
My dad loved peanuts. He loved cracking the shell, tossing the peanuts in his mouth swiftly, chewing methodically, and then sweeping the remnants off his lap. I leaned into his bulk, fell asleep often against him. Maybe it came to me as a dream, but I woke when he attempted to carry me to bed, and the thought cemented. My mother had mallets, and I could crush the peanut remnants, access Percy’s lunch, sprinkle them in his brown rice and watch his lips swell. I took to carrying a sandwich bag in my pocket, full of pulverized peanuts, and I waited for the opportunity to poison Percy.
It came when I was the milkman. That’s what we called whoever got to go down to the basement and count out chocolate and white milk cartons for snack. On the way to the basement, I passed the coat rack, and there was his lunch box. It was easy. I felt no fear or panic. I unwrapped his sandwich and opened the bread. It was cream cheese, bean sprouts and shredded carrots on a thick-sliced, homemade bread. I unceremoniously dumped the ground peanuts, maybe a heaping tablespoon, replaced the top slice and rewrapped the sandwich. It looked a bit manhandled, but not so much that anyone would notice. My stomach only tensed and fluttered while I counted out milk and delivered it to each desk.
I try not to have secrets now. I try to live honestly, but I remember the thrill of it. Like having a skipping stone in my pocket that I could palm whenever I wanted to. I didn’t feel a bit of regret or rethink my actions, not even when we had music class, and his mother set the metronome swaying and conducted us in playing “Green Sleeves” on our recorders.
What did I think would happen? I imagined swollen, rubbery lips so exaggerated even the teachers would laugh, but no real harm beyond that. I had not imagined my mother there, her face gaunt on a new vegan diet and free from all make-up, a hair net pulling her chopped hair back. He must have started with his sandwich because I hadn’t even unwrapped mine when he fell backward, gasping, eyes rolling back in his head. He vomited before my mother got to him, and then above that smell, one of poop and pee, all at once. My mom sought me out with her eyes, behind Percy, cradling him and raising his head up. “Go upstairs, “ she said flatly. It was quiet, and everyone seemed frozen or underwater. “Tell Sally to call an ambulance. Get Sister Maria. Ask if Percy has anything to take in an emergency.” Percy threw up again, and my mom put her lips to his ear and whispered something. She regarded me coldly. “Go now, James. And RUN.” I did as she said.
Sally, the school secretary, immediately began dialing on the brown rotary phone. “Call Evelyn too. She left over an hour ago,” Sister Maria instructed as she followed me, fast enough I heard her thighs rubbing together in her polyester pants. She called for me to stop at my classroom, where my teacher sat at her desk, eating a bologna sandwich and paging through a magazine. Sister Maria said simply, “Percy,” and Mrs. Latimore reached into her desk and pulled out what looked like a magic marker. She tossed it to Sister, and I followed her out of the classroom, down the hallway and to the stairs. Sister Maria handed the marker to my mom, who without a word removed the cap, pulled her arm back and plunged the black tip into Percy’s thigh. She held it there for 10 long seconds or more, removed it, and rubbed the spot on his thigh. I tried not to look at his darkened crotch.
“Ambulance?” my mother asked, and I could see the fear in her face now. Sister Maria nodded.
“On its way. Along with Evelyn, I’m certain.”
I watched Percy’s chest rise and fall, finally with some regularity, as my mother rubbed his chest in rhythmic circles. She whispered into his ear in an unfamiliar, comforting tone. I watched her mother Percy in a way that hurt, and it all felt wrong, all of it. I saw this scene through a stranger’s eyes: this was a mother cradling her son, full of love, her bottom lip touching his ear lobe, her words warm in his ear. Her eyes cut at the world about to close in on them. I observed this from what seemed a long way off.
The paramedics rushed in, two men in pressed white uniforms, a blue patch on the right arm. Both wore buzz cuts, although one was tall, his hair light and his face pockmarked, and the other was short, stocky and dark-haired. They shook the cot they were holding between them and a frame and wheels descended. One listened to Percy’s heart while the other took his blood pressure, and both peppered my mother with questions. Then, with care and precision, as though he were fragile or an infant, they lifted and transferred him. As they strapped him in, Evelyn ran in, high on her toes, her face red and strands of her hair stuck to her cheeks. She was soundless, mute as a hummingbird, but her hands took an inventory of Percy’s face. He smiled at her, reassuringly, as though this had happened before and he wasn’t bothered by it, only relieved it was over, and she walked beside him, holding on to the frame, leaning into it as if to keep upright. My mother was still sitting on her knees. She capped the Epi-pen and got up slowly.
Sister Maria regarded the fourth, fifth and sixth graders watching her. “Eat your lunch,” she bellowed, “Percy will be fine and lunch ends in ten minutes.” My mother dished out lunch to those still in line. The lunchroom was quiet and then there was a collective roar. Sister Maria clapped her hands and yelled, “Silence!” as Mr. Henderson, the long-haired, bell-bottomed janitor arrived with a bag of sawdust and his cleaning cart.
I wasn’t hungry. I went to Percy’s table and wrapped up his sandwich. He had eaten one half. My hands were shaking. I put the rest of his lunch in the box and closed it. I threw away his remaining half with my own sandwich, and I brought his lunchbox back to the classroom and set it on my teacher’s desk. Percy was gone the rest of the afternoon and the next day too, and when he returned the kids rallied around him. Near death had made him the nucleus of the classroom, and I heard Nathan Reed say, “You could’ve died, Percy. You nearly did. “ Percy shrugged, not showy, but like not really, I didn’t. I stayed on the outside. No one mentioned he had shat himself, not even my mother over dinner the night it happened. She was grave, and grateful that we were healthy, although she pointed out, her fork in midair, it could just as easily have been one of us under other circumstances. There but for the grace of Goddess. We’re all going to die some day, she told us and my father smacked his big hands on the table and said, “Oh for God’s sake, Cynthia. Cut the melodramatics.” But it registered that I had nearly killed a boy and if he had died, it would have been in my mother’s arms.
A week later, Sister Maria summoned our class to the upstairs room where we had music class. She was trying to ascertain what Percy had eaten. She also needed to explain, as she was doing for each class, the new policy on entering the school. All students had to enter by the front door between 7:30 and 8:00 a.m. Afterward all doors would be locked. The door locking was merely a precaution. Sister Maria rounded back to Percy, who was absent from the discussion. No one knew what Percy had eaten besides his sandwich, and Percy had sworn he hadn’t snuck any candy. Sister Maria was not accusing us of anything, only perplexed, and she wanted to explain that peanut butter sandwiches were no longer allowed at school. Sarah Johnson, two tables away, had eaten one and Sister Maria surmised it was an airborne allergy attack.
My mother was incensed when she heard this theory, and she asked me if anyone hated Percy more than me. If anyone would want to hurt him. My knees shook. I thought my disdain for the boy had gone unnoticed. I once wanted to sock him in the gut, but seeing him on the floor had taken all the wind out of my hate. I pitied him now, for how close he’d come to death, closer than anyone I knew. When I told my mother about the school locking the doors at 8:00 a.m. and visitors needing to register at the main office, she said, “I know. Poor Percy.”
Mrs. Latimore made Percy and me work on the Aztec project together. At dinner, when I complained, my mother confided she had asked Mrs. Latimore to pair us.
“Why?” I asked. I had planned to work with Matt and Clifford. We knew exactly what we’d build.
“Why do you think, James?” She looked at me then as if she knew what I’d done. “Percy is dealing with a set of unfortunate circumstances,” she continued, “and he could use a friend. You have plenty of friends. An excess of friends. You also need to learn to approach what you fear, approach what you find repulsive.”
“I don’t find him repulsive,” I swallowed. It was true. I didn’t. Not now. “He’s soft is all,” I said, looking at my dad.
“Takes all sorts, Jimmy. Cynthia, don’t you think it’s a bit much? Don’t you think it’s meddling? Getting your son’s teacher to push your agenda.”
“Frank, if taking an interest in my son’s human development and encouraging compassion skills are meddling, then guilty as charged.”
My sisters exchanged a look between them and scarfed down their meals. Then they disappeared. They closed their door and did homework with the radio playing. Sometimes I would hear them singing in one voice. My parents dove into their argument—it never seemed to end, just to pause for a brief respite and then find a new path or a new room. We left them to it. Now I have some insight, though my wife and I fight differently. There is no real yelling. Instead my wife uses silence as a weapon, rolling to her side of the bed, forgetting to kiss me before we sleep. I reach across that space, again and again. I kiss her when she doesn’t want to be kissed. I tell her I am deeply flawed and I am deeply sorry, until she rolls over, puts her arms about my neck and I wish I could see her face in the dark, what it is really saying.
Percy and I built a model of an Aztec temple, the priest with an engorged heart in his bloody fist, raised to the sun. On the temple steps were two bodies rolling down to the butchers below, waiting with sharp obsidian discs in their hands. Percy said that the butchers severed the limbs, which were cooked with a tomato and pepper sauce and eaten. He said that cannibalism was a natural response to their environment’s inability to keep up with an exploding population. Percy said children were drowned as sacrifices to the rain gods. In the distance of our model, floating gardens bobbed on a river made dark by acrylic paint with an overlay of Elmer’s glue. Percy knew everything our teacher wouldn’t tell us. He said he would be an anthropologist-archaeologist someday. In high school, all of that sloughed off him, as did his old body. He grew tall and had enough of his mother’s beauty to make the girls flock to him. He got contacts. He became a cross-country runner, and I’d see him in all seasons running as though his life depended on it, as though he were being chased. He looked like his father too, but many wouldn’t know that.
My own father took me to see a re-release of Superman that year, late February. He made a batch of popcorn, buttered it, put it in a brown paper grocery bag that was soon grease-mottled. He rolled the top down so it looked like a giant lunchbag. Wearing his leather bomber jacket, he shoved the popcorn bag inside so he looked hugely pregnant. He placed two generic, warm root beers, one in each pocket. We were not allowed soda and so it was clear, in the white background of those cans, and the large black script, that this was all a secret. This was for us. And yet, afterward, especially as I got older, there were times where I wanted to tell my mother. I wanted to tell Cynthia how I pressed my cheek to the worn and crinkled leather of my father’s jacket, how we ate the entire bag of popcorn, how we rested in what we knew was beyond far-fetched, was pure comic book fantasy, and how I understood Clark Kent. There was the person he showed the world. The person he showed those he loved and worked with. And there was the person he had to hide. I understood how tired Clark Kent must be. And in the dark warmth of the movie theater, I thought about confessing. I thought about the weight being lifted and honestly, my father setting me on his lap, his arms large enough to encircle me. And then I knew better and it passed, and the music swelled and I determined to lose myself in the film.
It was a warm, April day when I first saw Percy’s father. Our class had done the President’s fitness test, and our gym teacher, Ms. G, let Cliff and me stay out and pick up the traffic cones from the half-mile loop of the playground and the parking lot. We were both sweating, having come in together as the fastest. We were taking our time, drawing it out, when we noticed the man watching us outside the fence. He had parachute pants on, and the zippers gleamed. His pants were tucked into military-style boots, and he had a trench coat, unbuttoned and unbelted, but he gripped it closed with his left hand. In his right hand was a cane but instead of leaning on it, he held it up off the ground. His hair was long and stringy, and he squinted at us. I can’t speak for Cliff, and we never spoke of it ourselves, but I never felt any sense of alarm. The gate wasn’t locked. He could walk in at any time. He called to us: “Boys. I have a question for you.” We were used to following the instructions of adults. We jogged over to the man, and he leaned into the fence so it bowed in toward us.
“Do you know Percy Flare?” he asked. Up close we saw that there was a braid running down from his side part, nesting in the middle of the right side of his head.
He smiled. He was wearing a pale pink lipstick. Eyeliner and mascara had begun to run underneath his eyes. He let go of his coat and grabbed hold of the fence. A breeze hit our backs, and it felt good. His coat blew open, and we saw he was wearing a bra, hot pink lace, and the small, empty cups were flattened to his scrawny, naked chest. There was a scraggly triangle of chest hair and a line of hair from his navel down. His pants hung low on his hips, and the bones rose up and out. Cliff walked backward, then turned and jogged calling me, “Come on, Jimmy.” I had two orange safety cones in my arms, hugged tight to my chest, and I could not look away. He raised his cane as though in victory and shook it at the sky, but his smile was open and genuine. Duct-taped to the bottom was a knife, the type we used back when my mom used to grill meat, back when she believed in meat. The knife had a black, plastic handle and thin, steel blade.
The door to the gym was propped open with a cinder block. I didn’t think of it. I’m sure I didn’t. I only knew that there were two more cones to get, and so I left this odd, off-putting man and ran hard to one cone, then the other. When I looked next, he was in the schoolyard, but I beat him to the gym. He made no move to run, instead walking in the way I once saw a rabid squirrel move—cockeyed and uncertain. I kicked the cinder block three times to get it moved. The door shut loudly, and when Ms. G came out of the supply room, her arms outstretched for the cones, I was inordinately happy to see her but said nothing. Later they would ask me, and surely they asked Cliff, why we didn’t say anything. I have thought on this and thought on this, as I’m sure my mother has, but I’m still uncertain. He didn’t threaten us.
He had been a gifted math professor. No one knows if the drugs induced psychosis or if he took the drugs to self-medicate. Evelyn was afraid of him, afraid for Percy. She had divorced him two years prior and moved to a smaller house on the other side of town. She had a restraining order against him and sole custody of Percy. She pulled him from public school and he started at St. Augustine. Up until that day, he’d stayed away. This all came secondhand afterward. Six months after Percy’s father showed up at school, he overdosed in the courthouse bathroom on the town square, and our small town and the private liberal arts college campus were forced to acknowledge the very real presence of heroin. After he died, the local newspaper ran his faculty photograph. His hair was chin-length and combed neatly, parted on the side. He wore thick glasses that magnified the good humor apparent in his eyes. He smiled like Percy did when he thought no one was watching. I studied this picture, considering how a person can be one thing, and then another. Or maybe both at the same time.
During the last week of school, as we all waited for the first bell to ring, Percy’s father came back to the school and waited for his son and ex-wife on the small wheelchair ramp leading to the back entrance of the school, where no one could see him, and where Percy’s mother parked her tan Volvo next to the handicap parking spot that aligned with the ramp. We never found out how he knew Percy was coming in late that day. He must have heard Evelyn’s laugh spilling out as she opened the heavy door. Percy got out, then reached back in for his backpack. I was standing with Cliff and Matt G., and we were talking about V, the alien show we watched every Friday night and discussed first thing Monday morning. Evelyn and Percy leaned against the back bumper together, for a moment, and Percy said something that made Evelyn toss her head back and laugh. Then she hung her head, shaking with laughter, and Percy clearly was proud. He smiled. He rarely smiled. But he smiled and I caught it, and he caught my eye and did not drop the smile though his eyes changed. He’d caught me watching; maybe he knew the way I was really looking at his mother. Really looking at him.
Evelyn noticed his shoe was untied and kneeled before him, tucked her hair behind her right ear and began tying his shoe. Percy was telling his mom to get up, was moving his foot and making it impossible for her actually to tie it, and she was treating it like a game, grabbing for it and smiling, when Percy’s father came around the Volvo, wordlessly raised his cane and swung with a speed and strength that didn’t correspond to his scrawniness. The blade caught her on the bridge of the nose, and as she jerked, carried across her cheekbone, to her jaw, skipping her neck and landing, hard, on her collarbone. The cut did not bleed profusely at first, but appeared more like a seam of red thread. She fell back and scooted on her butt, her arms behind her, dragging her back before she raised them up to protect herself. Percy seemed stuck from the waist down, but his torso lurched forward and then his legs caught up with him and he stepped in front of his mother, his father before him, the cane now over his head, held with both hands, and said, as if it was a normal day, as if he’d been waiting, “Hi Papa.” Then he wrapped his arms around the space beneath his father’s raised arms, around the bulk of the trench coat. He pressed his face against the triangle of chest hair, hard enough to make his glasses go lopsided. Percy’s eyes were squinched shut. The man, his eyes ringed with smudged kohl, dropped his chin and kissed the top of his son’s head. Evelyn ran then, scrambling up and sprinting in her ballet slippers, her hair streaking out and blood dropping in splotches to the cement. Percy’s dad dropped his cane. It clattered on the concrete, and he hugged his son and whispered to him nonsensically until we heard the sirens far off, and then the police cars flooded the parking lot. Officers came at them, guns drawn, but Percy kept hugging his father until officers grabbed him and pried him away. I’m sure he witnessed the terrible force with which they brought his father to the ground. Percy wasn’t crying but his father was, and when the ambulance came for Evelyn she shooed them away, pressing a hand towel to her face, and both she and Percy got into the Volvo and drove away. I stood there, my legs gelatinous. Cliff held on to my arm.
Evelyn’s cheek bore a thin, white scar, and while Percy continued at St. Augustine’s, she no longer walked him in, nor whispered to him adoringly or threw her head back so her neck was exposed as she laughed. Something that had been expansive was now contained in her. Locked up. Percy, quiet for some time even after his father’s death, then unfolded outward. He became the funniest, quickest witted, most fearless boy in sixth grade, with friends already waiting at the junior high. He was never cruel, and this was true all through high school. I feel certain he has held on to this kindness. At graduation he had a full scholarship to a Big Ten for cross-country, but he deferred it because he wanted to travel. Evelyn was still lovely, but she seemed to watch her son and the graduation proceedings from a long way off.
At dinner the night Percy’s father attacked Evelyn, my sisters asked for a blow-by-blow of the events.
“Imagine,” my mother said, her eyes never leaving mine, “seeing your father as someone with the potential to harm me, your mother. What Percy did today was unbelievably brave.”
My father mopped up his plate with a piece of white bread. His head down, he said, “Don’t ask the boy to imagine such things, Cynthia. I’d never harm you.”
My mother sighed, and rested her face in her palm. “We all harm one another, Frank. Over and over again.”
The twins took this as their cue to leave.
“Were you afraid, Jimmy?” my mother asked. My father looked at me, waiting. My sisters stood behind me, pausing on the way to their room. Each of them placed a hand on my shoulders, as if to hold me down until I answered. Perhaps they meant to support me, to protect me. My mother nodded at me, prodding an answer. I closed my eyes, seeing Percy, his glasses askew, his lips pressed to his father’s chest, confronting such terrible, terrifying love.