*image: “Flagirl,” Dave Petraglia
Somewhere in That Space
by Warren Read
The first time I heard the story of Rodney’s mother I was with Eddie DeMint and Marcus Wallen in the gazebo at Douglas Park, picking off a half rack of malt liquor that Marcus had swiped from his dad’s store. We’d ditched the dance before the last song, ducking the chaperones and sprinting the four blocks from the gym to the park, where Marcus had stashed the beer in some bushes behind the tennis courts. Rodney was with us but he didn’t drink, which was fine with everyone. We weren’t the kind to give a guy a hard time over something like that. But when Rodney went off to the port-o-john it was Eddie who brought up the subject of Mrs. Kaminski.
“I seen her at school the other day,” he said, nodding his chin at Rodney as he walked away. “Kaminski’s mom. She was sitting in this old beater car, smoking a cig while she waited for him to come out.”
“What’d she look like?” Marcus asked.
“Normal I guess. Kind of fat. She didn’t look like someone who would kill a guy if that’s what you mean.”
Marcus said, “She stuck an ice pick in his back. I heard he beat on her all the time.”
“Who?” I asked.
“No man, it was an icicle,” Eddie said. “The way I heard it she just went outside and snapped it off the gutter and brought it in to the bedroom where he was sleeping. Jammed him right in the neck, then threw it in the toilet to let it melt. That’s why they didn’t find no weapon.” I must have looked at him funny, because right away he laughed and said, “I can’t believe you never heard about it.”
“Nobody told me shit,” I said. “She went to jail then, right?”
“Nah,” Marcus said. “They said she was crazy, but like only a few minutes of crazy. Like she just snapped. Plus, I don’t think they could prove what exactly happened anyway.”
So, that was how I heard about Rodney Kaminski’s mother. Some fifty feet from him, under the Douglas Park gazebo, buzzing on Olde English 800. It was a lot to take in at that moment, and I wasn’t really sure what to make of it all. Especially since, as luck would have it, I was sleeping at Rodney’s house that night.
Rodney and I didn’t talk much on the drive to his house. I told him about a girl who threw up near the bleachers at the dance, and he said he already knew about it since he was close to the action when it went down. We threw some names around of people we’d seen pairing up, slow dancing together. Then Rodney put his Pink Floyd tape in and we spent the rest of the time singing along with it till we got to his place.
The house was dark when we pulled into the driveway, no porch lamp or path lights, nothing coming out through the windows. Rodney shut off the car and got out, walked over to a big clay flowerpot next to the back door and pulled a key from beneath it. Then he pushed his body against the wood as he worked the doorknob.
“It sticks,” he said, and then the door gave way, the bottom grinding against the floor as he pushed it. “This house is so gross. I hate it.”
I didn’t know Rodney really well. We had algebra together, hung around some of the same guys. He was cool enough, kind of quiet. He had bright red hair that he kept short, like he was in the Army. He was the only redheaded kid I knew in the school and I guess that was something that drew me to him. It made him stand out. Plus, he was a mellow guy, never pushed things too hard with anyone. When I was around him I felt a certain kind of calm in my stomach that wasn’t always there with my other friends. As soon as we’d all gotten to the dance I’d asked if I could crash at his place so I wouldn’t have to go home with beer on my breath. Right away he’d said yes, not even pausing to think about it. That was before I knew about his mom.
“You should see DeMint’s place,” I said. “It’s a real dive. Goes right up to the back of the China Gate Restaurant.”
He hit the wall switch, illuminating the small kitchen under a dull, yellow ceiling lamp, specked with dead flies. The white walls showed spots of brown grease, and a wooden table crowded against the far wall, a couple curlicued chairs pushed in tight. The crusted stove held a dirty frying pan and boiling pot, beside a sink filled to the counter line with red-sauce smeared dishes. The place was freezing cold, and smelled of onions.
There was a yipping and the clicking of claws on linoleum, and a football-sized dog came bounding up the hallway to Rodney’s feet. He picked it up, nuzzled its neck and mumbled something to it I couldn’t make out.
“You hungry?” he asked, looking at me. He walked to the refrigerator and opened it. There wasn’t much inside: a carton of milk, some wilted lettuce in an open bag, a bunch of condiments. In a bowl some noodles in red sauce pressed against the glass. “We got cereal, probably some crackers.”
“I’m fine,” I said. I was hungry, but I didn’t want to eat anything.
We went to his room and got undressed under the hard light of the bare ceiling lamp, making small talk about the dance again. Rodney told me that he’d slow-danced with Amanda Colley and was thinking of asking her out Monday, at school. I said again how buzzed I was.
“Yeah, you drank quite a bit,” he said.
Everyone knew that Rodney didn’t drink. Some people said it was because his father was a drunk, but I knew plenty of guys whose dads were drunks—including my own—and that didn’t stop them. It sure didn’t stop me. I always thought there must be more to Rodney, that he was just a good guy with the kind of self-control that neither I nor anyone else I knew possessed.
“I only had four beers,” I said. I was feeling the spins some, but I knew if I kept my foot on the floor when I lay down I would be okay. “I’ve had way more than that.”
Rodney switched off the light and climbed into the double bed against the wall, and I followed, putting the pillow at the opposite end, our bodies reversed beside one another. Rodney’s dog was somewhere nearby. I could hear it breathing but I couldn’t see where it had lain down to sleep. A coarse grinding noise rolled up from somewhere in the room.
“For a little thing, your dog sure snores loud,” I said.
“Like she has tuberculosis,” Rodney laughed softly.
I rolled onto my back and stared through the near-opaque darkness, at the dull shine of the ceiling light globe.
“Where’s your mom at?” I asked, just like that, like it was a hiccup. I felt a shift next to me, as if he had turned his head to look at me.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Probably still at work.”
“She a waitress or something?” I tried to imagine her at an all-night steakhouse or a bar, pencil in her hair, thumping old guys on the shoulder when they grabbed at her ass, none of them aware she had killed a man not so many years ago.
“She’s a night janitor,” he said. “At Boeing.”
“That’s cool. She clean up the planes?”
Rodney laughed again and said, “No.” Then he started talking, really low, and his voice sounded like someone completely different. He told me how his mother had once worked in the assembly plant, when he was little, but something had happened and she’d lost her job.
“Her boss liked her, though,” he said. “He told her if she ever needed a job again to give him a call.” And then Rodney went on about how she had worked at a blueberry farm for a while when he was really little, and that he remembered sitting in the rows playing with his Tonka trucks while she dropped berries into the bucket. And then I guess that was where I fell asleep.
There was a noise, like a crash, and I opened my eyes only to look into pitch darkness. I had no idea what time it was. It felt like I’d been asleep for a few hours, but it could have been twenty minutes. There was the soft, fleshy nudge of Rodney’s ass pressing against my hip as he shifted his body to one side. A sharp intake of air, a heavy sigh and the rhythm of breathing picked up again. He was still sound asleep.
I reached out to get my bearings since I had forgotten if my head was at the footboard or the other way around. I wondered if all guys did this when they slept over at each other’s houses, went to sleep with their heads at opposite ends of the bed. Maybe it was just me. Sleep in the same bed, but reversed, as if the touching of one body against the other didn’t count if things weren’t lined up perfectly. Somehow, this reverse configuration—like shoes in a shoebox—made it okay. It made it not sleeping together.
On the other side of the room the dog stirred, snorted, then went to work chewing and licking at some part of its body, some spot so itchy she might gnaw it off by morning. I took the pillow from beneath my head, pressed it around my ears to smother the noise, but it was no use. The pillow was too thin, and the air was too cold. And, I had to pee.
Rodney barely moved as I slid from the sheets, my bare feet hitting the icy floor. It was cold in this room, so goddamned cold; the entire house had been an icebox when we let ourselves in.
I padded in my naked feet and white briefs, out of the bedroom and into the hallway. The bathroom was at the opposite end, and the faint blue glow of an outside streetlamp spilled from the living room into the corridor’s midway point, just enough to illuminate a gauntlet of family photos and sports plaques checkering the wall. The sharp scent of cigarette smoke hung in the air and drifted in milky bolls into the space. I moved slowly, guarded, into the opening at the intersection of the hallway and living room. It was warm in this place, this spot at the center of the menthol-laced cloud.
“Your grandma’s not coming tomorrow.” The gravelly voice seemed to emanate from the walls. I recoiled, startled, backing into the wall where I pressed my naked back against the pictures. In the living room, the cherry glow of a cigarette tip moved in short, choppy zigzags. It paused, blazed bright orange for a moment then dulled with the hush of exhale.
“I pissed her off again,” the voice growled.
“I’m not Rodney,” I said to this person who must be Rodney’s mother. I moved my hands in front of my sagging underwear. “He’s sleeping. I just had to go to the bathroom is all.”
“Seems like I’m always getting under her skin. One way or the other,” the woman went on. “Can’t win for losing when it comes to that goddamned woman.” There was a creaking of springs and she rose from the sofa. A crown of unkempt hair topped a giant nesting doll silhouette, wavering on unsteady legs. “You want some spaghetti? There’s spaghetti in the fridge. I could warm it up for you.”
“I’m fine. I just have to go to the bathroom.”
“I’m on this new medication.” She laughed softly, and cleared the thickness from her throat. “My brain chemistry, it ain’t right. I sometimes think things that aren’t really true. Don’t always say the right things to people. Stuff just comes out.” She sucked in her breath, sharp and sudden. “Am I scaring you?”
“No.” I pulled my arms closer to my body and stepped farther back into the shadow. “I just gotta pee.”
“Oh well don’t mind me, go on ahead.”
I walked the few steps to the end of the hall and locked the door behind me, and went to the toilet, aiming the stream against the side of the bowl so that Mrs. Kaminski wouldn’t hear the sound of urine in water, wouldn’t imagine me standing there with my dick hanging out at her toilet, the same toilet where people said she dropped the icicle that she had pulled from her husband’s neck. If what they said was true.
The bathroom was pretty decent and put together, with hand towels folded on white wicker shelves, a glass soap dish and a big vanilla-scented candle perched on the edge of the sink. A fuzzy blue rug wrapped the base of the toilet. And while I knew I shouldn’t, that it was none of my business, I reached up and carefully opened the medicine cabinet.
It was hard-packed with more things than I’d ever seen in our own cabinet: bandages and grooming supplies, Q-tips and cotton balls, rubbing alcohol and tiny hotel-sized bottles of lotion. A square bottle of Charlie perfume barely fit on the little wood shelf. But what took up the most room were the rows and rows of little brown prescription bottles. Thorazine. Lithium. Names that I couldn’t even pronounce, bottles not quite empty but almost, maybe six or seven pills shy of completion. I wondered if this was a snapshot of Mrs. Kaminski’s life, each bottle a flare of hope before it died out.
I flushed and leaned in close to the mirror to check the half dozen or so pimples that spread over my forehead and across my nose. I moved things around in my briefs to hide the contours, flattening it out catalog style, before walking back out into the hallway.
Rodney’s mother was back on the sofa, a fresh cigarette burning between her fingers. Her feet were propped up on the coffee table, wrapped in slippers like Persian cats. I knew I should say something. “Goodnight,” maybe. But that might be a button to continue the conversation or, worse yet, start a completely new one.
“It’s a brain thing,” she said at a near whisper. “I got some new meds today. My doctor told me what it was but I can’t remember. I wrote it down.” She took another drag from her cigarette, held it in then released a plume with a heavy sigh. “That’s why mom’s not coming over tomorrow. I told her about the meds and she just said, ‘There you go again, looking for an excuse for being so fucked up.’”
The orange dot dropped to the table, flicked against what I hoped was an ashtray. I heard a sniff, soft, like the opening of an envelope.
“We’re all a little bit fucked up,” I found myself suddenly saying. “I think most of us just hope we’re less fucked up than everyone else.”
She took another draw, and a bright orange spot illuminated her face. “You think so?”
It came to me just then. Mrs. Kaminski didn’t look to me like someone who would kill another person, not in the way Eddie said she had anyway. Maybe it had been an accident. Maybe she was fighting him off, while he was drunk, and it was the only thing she could do to get away. Maybe she was just a mom in a bathrobe and nothing more.
The door at the end of the hall opened and Rodney stepped out. He held a hand to his eyes to shade what little light there was.
“Steven? Who are you talking to?”
“In your underwear?” He walked down the hallway, himself in only boxers and an oversized t-shirt. When he got to where I stood, he stepped in front of me, as if to shield me from her.
“What are you doing, Mom?” he asked.
“I’m smoking.” Her voice had suddenly deflated. “I can still do that, can’t I?”
“Did you talk to Doctor Conager today?”
“And?” Rodney waited a beat. “What did he have to say?”
“He had a lot to say, but what does he know? What does anyone know?”
Rodney reached back and tapped me on the shoulder, nodding his head to one side. I headed back to the bedroom, into the protection of darkness and isolation.
“Well, he changed your meds for you, right?” I heard Rodney say. “You got new meds?”
“Your grandma’s not coming tomorrow,” she said. This time it was hard, almost an accusation rather than a mere statement of fact, and then just as quickly, her tone lifted. “Did you have fun at the dance?”
“I had fun,” Rodney said quickly. “There was a band.”
“A real band? Boy, I remember the dances at my high school,” his mother said, and the way the words came, stretched and softened at the edges, I knew she was smiling. “I ran with this boy named Benny for awhile. He had this great ducktail, and a pickup truck with these big running boards. All the girls thought he was something else. He could do this thing with his tongue where he’d pull a lit cigarette into his mouth, hold it in there and then bring it out again, and it would still be smoking. Benny was all right, but I never could figure out what the other girls saw in him.”
I stopped at the bedroom door and rested my hand on the cold knob. Down the hall, the conversation continued, back and forth between them, and I watched the blue form of Rodney as he stood in profile, dreamlike, slender legs falling from white cotton shorts as if he were a ghost.
“His dad owned an appliance store in town,” his mother went on. “And my dad, all he could say about the whole thing was ‘Maybe we can finally get a good deal on a washer and dryer.’”
“Did he?” Rodney asked.
“Did he what?”
“Did he get a good deal?”
I closed the bedroom door and walked back to the bed. I felt the cold again, and I crawled under its sheets, pulling them tightly to my neck, and sliding close to the wall where Rodney had been. I lay there, staring at the deep blue of the popcorn ceiling, at the million glittery stars that simmered in the wooly texture, just below the early morning darkness. And then I was with them, and above them, hovering somewhere in that space between the ceiling and the roof. I could see myself lying on Rodney’s side of the bed, blankets pulled back down to my waist, arms spread out like Jesus as goosebumps covered my white skin from my chest down to my sides. It’s funny how the mind works, I thought. The way it can drift along and then suddenly it shifts like the switch rail on a train track and then bam—muddled in the thickness of a momentary haze, you make a major decision. You might not even remember making it, as you sit in the darkness of your own bedroom, with the door locked and the radio turned up loud. To steal something, a candy bar, a porn magazine, even a half rack of beer from your own dad. To press yourself against the person next to you in the middle of the night, even though your bodies are reversed. To go to the porch in the dead-of-winter cold, and break from the eaves that beautiful, crystal spear you suddenly realize is the tool that will unlock the doors of your own prison.