He looked into the child's room and said: go to sleep.
The first few days he had paused in the hallway long enough to let his eyes adjust to the dark. But he knew that the kid was there, sitting under the blanket, sleepless, and unwilling to sleep.
He went into the kitchen, splashed water on his face. When he lifted his head from the basin he was met with his reflection: stubble on his chin, premature gray. His wife had hung the mirror over the sink, said it was for studying eyes. Sometimes at the end of her dishwashing she would dry her hands, take a grease pen and trace the lines of her face—almond-shaped eyes, smiling lips. Out of the bubble of her mouth was a message: food’s in the oven, I love you. Or, I took Omar and Elias to the park. At the end of summer he had come home to find the house quiet, her angry face watching him from the mirror: I took the kids to my parents. Don’t come. Don’t call.
He sat down at the table to make the call, but instead he began to smoke. She had loved cigarettes when they were young. They drank, made love, afterwards she’d light cigarettes, one for her, one for him. Then she quit them. Took the ashtray out of the bedroom and made him shower before sex. It was just like her to change like that, change her mind. At the end, when things were going badly, he had dreamt they were young again when Omar was a baby. She was naked before him, on her stomach, and he drew deeply from his cigarette, blew the smoke up the valley of her spine, between the fine ridges of her shoulder blades. And he dreamt too that he was at the other end, ready to receive his own breath.
When he woke her she told him, in half sleep, that it was a selfish dream.
He frowned at the idea.
He was not a selfish man. It was him who had encouraged her to go back to school. Take classes at the JC, he told her. Take that art class you’ve always been talking about. Look, I even bought you the pencils for the drawings. She did beautiful pencil drawings—clumsy at first, but later beautiful. Oftentimes he’d get to work and find that she had taken the pencils out of his pockets, the ones with the name of the furniture store where he worked, Zimmerman’s. Little drawings popped up around the house, signed, Zimmerman. Later, just a big Z. She had a sense of humor when things were going good, he thought.
When he first saw her he had been carrying a chair out through the loading docks. That’s for me, she told him, and instead of waiting for him to carry it down the side stairs she gently took it from him, heaved it into the trunk of her red Datsun. His face reddened and he could feel the laughter of the men who worked the stock room. Thought about the merciless teasing that would come later. He had to talk to her, the only way to calm the laughter, and so he jumped down from the dock and smiled.
—We’ve had that one for a long time, he said.
She stepped back from the car and looked at the chair.
—It’ll be perfect, she said.
—For everything, reading, sitting, sleeping.
—It couldn’t be too comfortable to sleep in. —Well, I’m still working on a bed.
He put his hands on his hips and motioned back to the storeroom.
—If you come back next week I can get you half off on a bed.
She raised her hand to her eyes, squinting in the sun. But her mouth was a smile.
The manager nearly fired him when he asked for half off on a bed. You don’t even work on the sale floor, he told him. And do you know how much those frames cost? Even the laminated ones cost more than you make. He finally told him that he could have a mattress set for thirty percent off, one of the rejects. David spent an hour combing through the storeroom, searching for one without too deep a tear, or dirt on the corners where the plastic covering had ripped.
The mattresses were the first they made love on. In the middle of the day, with the traffic noisy on Glendale Avenue. He had showed her how to blow smoke rings. She showed him the lease she just signed, with all the places where the landlord told her to write her name. She seemed proud of it, her initials here and there.
Four years after they were married she had pulled the mattresses out into the parking lot of their building, screaming, pushing David away every time he tried to approach. They were old by then, flimsy, the springs weak. When she pulled them out through the living room she knocked over papers, chairs. Elias, caught between their arguments, scrambled to get a grip on the smoothness of it and fell on his backside. He stared up. Just stared up at her. And for a moment it seemed she was going to lean the mattress against the wall and go to him. But the muscles in her arms tightened and she pulled it out into the parking and shoved it between two cars.
—I never want anything from that fucking store.
He stood in the doorway, his arms crossed.
—You’re a son of a bitch. A son of a bitch. She was furious and she pulled on his arms, struggling to break his pose. But he held fast and she pushed him back out of the doorway.
He regretted sleeping with the woman from work. Regretted that every time he walked between a couch and an armoire he pictured her pushed up against it, her hips wide, his pants at his knees.
She picked up Elias and locked herself in the bathroom.
Hours later when she was still sobbing and he took the door off the hinges, all the while telling her that things would be okay, he felt proud of himself, like maybe he was rescuing her.
She slept in her chair for six months. Stopped stealing his pencils, stopped signing her drawings with a Z.
David listened for noise in the next room but the child was silent. Always silent.
He looked around from where he was sitting. All the drawings on the kitchen and dining room walls. The letters of the alphabet for Elias. They had feet and arms, some of them had hats or skirts, arms reaching out to the next letter in line. C was embracing D.
On the far wall were the still lifes she had drawn. Stark white eggs, an apple, a pear.
—All this fruit. What does it mean when you draw these? he’d asked.
She turned from the sink.
—They’re still lifes. You practice on things. Everyday things. So you can get down the details.
He shook his head.
—My instructor says I should start doing faces. That I draw nice eyes.
—I think you draw nice eggs.
She turned back to the sink.
He meant it as a joke. One of those jokes that people aim discretely at other people. That erode slowly. Leave doubt. But she was hurt by it. And so when he put his hand to her warm back he was bothered by the gesture, that she had made him admit the slight.
There was also a picture of David. It hung at the entrance to the kitchen, to the left of the door.
When it had first appeared he wondered when she had drawn it. Taken from a picture? He never sat for her. He pestered her until she relented, told him:
—I drew you in your sleep.
—While I was sleeping?
He turned to look at the drawing again.
—But there’s no pillow, or bed, or anything.
In the picture his head is tilted slightly down, jaw tight, eyes closed. The background an empty white space.
—No. You’re not sleeping. Just your eyes are closed. He thought of what Omar would often say, half asleep in front of the TV: I’m not sleeping. I’m just resting my eyes.
But the drawing. He didn’t like it. He couldn’t prove it but he bet he didn’t look that way in his sleep. And he told her that.
—I don’t look that way in my sleep.
A month after she taped up his face Elias drew on it. David watched football in the living room. On the floor. His back against the couch. It was Halloween, and he waited with Elias for his mother and Omar to come back from the store. Even with the volume turned up loud he could hear Elias’s fingers in the metal tin, the one that he was not supposed to touch, the one with his mother’s pens.
When she came home he heard her voice at the door.
—What is this?
—What? he called from the living room.
She ignored his question and called out to her youngest son.
He heard Elias’s feet drag across the kitchen floor.
—You’re not supposed to draw on Mommy’s things, okay?
Elias nodded his head. His shoes were untied. He had already put on his black cape.
She tied his shoes. Helped him up to the kitchen table and gave him a grocery bag.
—Here, why don’t you decorate this bag for tonight?
David walked into the kitchen to survey the damage. She turned to him, her lips drawn into a thin line. —You’re supposed to watch him while I’m gone.
—I was. I was.
He walked around to the kitchen, knew exactly where to look.
—What are these? he asked.
He pointed to the drawing of his face. Little awkward shapes drawn just beyond his eyes. And beneath the shapes, the beginnings of Elias’s name. She came up behind him and pointed to the squiggle.
—That is a ghost. He wanted to be a ghost for Hal- loween but you got him that stupid cape.
David moved to take the drawing off the wall but she placed her palm flat over it.
David patted his chest pocket, and the empty cigarette package flattened under his hand. He stood up and the chair creaked. He listened for an echo of the movement, the way some distant bodies in a house seem to respond with a noise in kind: a footstep, the creaking of a joint, maybe even a call. Nothing. Surely his son was asleep.
At the back door he stood breathing in the warm air. He remembered when he was sixteen, a nature show. The scientists talking about warm and cold climates. How the oppressive heat of some countries seemed to dull the minds of its people—the greatest civilizations all had long winters. Could it be true?
He could see the lights of the corner store down the street. In his mind he walked the short distance, bought his cigarettes, maybe made conversation with the woman behind the counter. He patted his breast pocket again, stepped out into the parking lot behind the apartment, and closed the door.
The street was mostly quiet. The occasional laughter from a TV escaping from someone’s window. As he neared the corner, homes gave way to shop windows and he stopped to peer into the empty laundromat. Twenty or so battered machines all crouching together. Dirty linoleum. In the corner an old video game that he had played when he was young. He couldn’t understand why a child would want to play here, but Elias insisted.
David, excited by the first day of his arrival, had offered to take him to the park. At the laundromat window Elias stopped and then tugged him inside. He thought the kid wanted to play the video game, but when he plugged the quarters into the machine Elias simply said no, no, you can play. He ran off, sliding his action figure across the top of the machines. He did this for two hours. Playing. Talking to himself in his small voice. David insisted they go to the park and Elias sat on the side of the fields, just watching.
Every time. The laundromat. David gave in for the first four weeks. Waited on a bench while Elias played. It was hot though, mid-July, and the whir of the machines gave him a headache. Playing at home in the living room is just as good as playing here, he told himself. And so they didn’t go out again.
At the store David headed to the refrigerator. I’ll have a beer before I call, he told himself.
In the clear glass he was met with his own body— tall, broad shoulders, narrow waist. The top halves of his arms were muscled and he was always surprised to see it, how he had developed the body of a man. It made him proud. He straightened up just a little, and as he turned away followed his reflection to the corner of his eye.
At the counter the woman handed him his pack of cigarettes. She smiled.
—My son’s always after me to quit. But it’s hard.
David returned the smile.
—Yeah, my wife hates the smell. My youngest has
asthma. I try to smoke outside.
The woman nodded.
—I think I saw you with him at the laundromat. Little guy?
—Little boys are a handful.
—Yeah. He’s a character. Sitting in bed right now, just sitting there. Won’t go to sleep.
—Your wife should read to him or something.
—She’s in Chicago. It’s just him and me.
She stopped moving. Her eyes narrowed. The friendliness had left her face.
—Well...he’s not by himself is he?
David felt trouble in the question, but wasn’t sure, so he shook his head, gathered his package from the counter.
—No, he’s just down the street.
He motioned with his head, as if he lived next door. The woman leaned forward, both hands on the counter.
—You can’t leave a child alone like that.
David pushed open the door with his forearm.
The bell rang.
She yelled out after him again.
—You damn well can’t leave a child alone!
In the kitchen he sat in the chair, the phone under his left hand. He counted the drawings on the wall. Twenty-six of them. He had a beer, then one more. When he could put it off no longer he picked up the phone.
It rang and rang. She finally picked up.
There was a pause, a silence on the other end.
—Did I wake you?
Her voice was urgent, scared.
—Nothing’s wrong. We’re fine.
She sighed into the phone.
David laughed. A small laugh, for a moment assured.
—You always worry so much.
She was silent again on the other end. He imagined her turning on a lamp light, or maybe sitting up in bed.
—Why are you calling this late, David?
He could hear the sleep on her now. The scratch in her voice.
—He won’t sleep.
He felt foolish as he said it—like a man complaining too long about the rain.
—He misses his brother, she said. He’s not used to sleeping alone.
—You wanted him. All the yelling.
—I do want him. It’s just that he doesn’t sleep.
—Is he playing ghost?
David looked off to the hallway.
—I don’t think so.
He hoped she would know what was wrong. She always watched the two kids so closely. When they were young it had seemed she could anticipate everything. Hunger. A bad dream. When Omar was little, like Elias now, she was up before him. On the cold mornings she’d lay out his socks and his pants on the heating grate in the hallway. The boy would stumble out of bed and head straight for the vent, sometimes holding the warm clothing to his face and leaning against the wall, falling back asleep there.
Now he could feel the distance on the line. Wished for a moment that if he tugged on the phone wire, she would tug back. But she didn’t listen to him anymore. He knew she understood him. But there was no more waiting, no more anticipating his voice.
His eyes scanned the kitchen and stopped on a still life. David with his eyes closed. Maybe, there on the wall I am thinking, he thought, and he closed his eyes too. In the dark he dug for all that he might say, hunting for something that would pull her back. He thought to tell her that he had left Elias alone, and walked to the store. That he might reach her with anger. Slip his body in through the crack in her voice, or the second-long search for sharp words. But he hadn’t heard her voice crack in years. And all her silences were willful and strong, ten arms linked through ten arms.
He opened his eyes.
—I have to send him back to you, he said.
—I thought I could do it, but I can’t. I don’t know what to do.
—I’ll call you in the morning and we can make plans. Is he sleeping now?
—I don’t know.
—Go check on him and I’ll wait.
David stood up, the phone clenched in his right hand. He walked down the hall and peered into his son’s room. The boy was no longer sitting but curled up, only a wisp of his hair visible, and a few fingers clenching the sheet.
He stepped back from the door, the phone wedged between shoulder and chin.
—Good. I’ll call you in the morning.
He held the receiver at his side and walked back down the hall, passing over the cold heating grate. It was electric, the feel of the icy metal beneath his feet. He shot the phone to his mouth and spoke against the dial tone.
—The laundromat. You take them to play at the laundromat when it’s cold. Nina? Nina? Am I right?