There was nothing that Helen could grab on to, no experience or idea or
person. Nothing had prepared her for the dark empty street, for the
wailing siren, for the red light strobing across their faces. Nothing
had prepared her for the sight of a man limp as a rag doll being
strapped onto a gurney, nor for the knowledge that her son, her Josh,
had put him there. And nothing had prepared her for the force of Hal’s
fury, or Josh’s stunned, pale face as his father stood over him,
screaming. She didn’t know how long she had stood there, shrinking back
from them. Time seemed to stretch out, so that the scene in front of her
sucked up all the past, all the future, in an endless black hole.
“Stop it, Hal,” she said finally, forcing herself out of her stupor. As
she drew closer, she smelled the vomit, felt herself beginning to get
sick. She flung her arms out to Josh, but he shook her off. She backed
off, feeling useless, embarrassed.
Josh hugged himself, his body convulsed in shudders. He was pale, his
eyes empty, alien. A policeman came over to him and began asking him
questions and writing things in a notepad. Helen started to say
something, but Josh shot her a warning look. He looked so dutiful, so
earnest. She strained to hear what they were saying, but then she saw
Josh nod docilely and the policeman take him by the elbow and put him in
the police car and drive off.
Panic came over her as the lights of the police car grew smaller and
smaller, then disappeared into the dark. Ever since they had gotten
Josh’s frantic call just a short twenty minutes ago, she had rushed
single-mindedly to him, only to have him seem to be just out of reach.
Hal had stopped screaming, at least. He seemed suddenly drained of
energy, his shoulders sloped, his arms hanging limply at his sides, his
eyes wide and blank.
Hal turned to her, his usually impassive face wrenched out of all
recognition. “You!” He jabbed a finger in her face. “You! This is what
happens when you let him do any goddamn thing he wants!” His face was so
red, the veins standing out in his forehead and neck, that she was
afraid he’d have a heart attack. She reached out to touch his sleeve, to
try to calm him, but he hit her hand away, then sat down on the curb and
sobbed into his hands.
Helen couldn’t breathe. He had only cried once in their life together,
and that had been when she’d broken their engagement.
Another cop came over to them, startling Helen. He suggested to her that
they needed to get to the station—bail would be set, and then they could
take their boy home. The cop was young and tall and kind, soft-spoken.
“I don’t think they’ll keep him there, ma’am,” he said reassuringly.
“They ought to just keep him there,” Hal muttered. He had turned away
from her and the cop, and she could tell by his ragged breath he was
fighting for control.
The cop touched her shoulder lightly, encouragingly, and she blurted
out, “He’s a good boy, really.”
“I know, ma’am. Lots of kids hit some bumps along the way—I did myself.”
She nodded, wanting to take his hand and kiss it.
Hal got up, shook himself, then grasped her arm, hard. “Come on, let’s
get it over with.” He pushed her toward the car and into it. “You know
who that man was, don’t you? David Masters?” He didn’t look at her,
looked straight ahead.
She shook her head.
“He’s that liberal activist, that’s who. The guy who organized the
poultry workers, who works with refugees. The one everyone likes so
much... That’s who your son just ran over.” He turned away from her. Her
stomach churned, her heart raced. Who? Poultry workers? She had no idea
what he was talking about. Everybody else knew what was going on and she
didn’t know anything. But it didn’t matter, didn’t Hal get it? Josh
mattered, he was the only one she cared about. She didn’t give a damn
who that man was, just as long as he didn’t die and make her son a
When they got to the station, Helen rushed over to Josh, but still he
wouldn’t look at her. She gulped back the words she’d wanted to say. Hal
sat down on a bench, staring straight ahead. They took Josh away for a
drug test, and as he passed her, she thought his eyes looked dilated.
Josh had been open with her about his drug experiments in the past, but
he had told her that he didn’t like pot very much and that anything else
was out of the question. Well, maybe he was lying. Another shudder
passed over her. Something else she didn’t know that she thought she
knew. Her idea of who she was, who they were, was whirling away, coming
apart so fast she felt dizzy.
Helen sat down next to Hal. The fluorescent lights of the police station
drilled into her head. Angry prostitutes were brought in, men drunk and
swearing. A black woman came in raging that she’d kill him this time,
and Helen saw her gentle cop push the woman forcibly against the wall
while a female cop patted her down. She was stunned. All of this
existed, she knew in an abstract way. But what did any of it have to do
with Josh, with her?
Hal ignored her. When the sergeant brought Josh back, Hal went over to
them. Helen strained to hear what they said. She saw Hal hang his head
and pass his hand over his eyes, saw Josh stare past his father. Then
the sergeant turned and led Josh away. Only then did Helen see the
handcuffs behind his back. She thought he might look back at her, but he
just walked through the gray double doors. The doors swung listlessly
behind him. Josh was in jail.
Helen went over to Hal, “How long?” she asked.
“They don’t think it will be more than overnight. They’ll set bail
“Yes, Helen, bail.”
“But, how much?”
“Between five and fifteen grand.”
Helen sank down in the seat. It was so much.
“But we’ll get him out tomorrow? He’ll come home tomorrow? I mean, Hal,
it was an accident!”
“He was driving under the influence, Helen. He’d been smoking pot with
his so-called friends.”
Helen looked away. Why did Hal always make her feel like it was her
“He told me he didn’t like pot,” she offered timorously. “I just can’t
“I don’t want to talk about this anymore. Let’s go home.”
They drove home in silence. Helen could see Hal’s jaw popping in and
out, but other than that he made no movement or sound. A tight, cold
knot coiled in her stomach and began to creep up her diaphragm. She cast
small furtive glances at Hal, hoping he would turn to her, maybe put his
arm around her, anything. But he didn’t, he just pulled into the
driveway, put the car into gear and got out, slamming the car door hard
She sat in the dark car, the cold seeping into her bones, unable to
move. She looked out at the basketball hoop in the driveway, at the
bedraggled boxwood hedge, at the stars suddenly bright in the sky. It
was all familiar, and yet unfamiliar. It was as if she were seeing these
things for the first time. Slowly, she opened the door and willed her
body to move.
Inside, Hal was already in his pajamas, brushing his teeth. He didn’t
turn when she came in. She stood in the bathroom doorway, staring at his
flannel-clad back. She waited, willing him to meet her eyes in the
mirror. He kept his eyes down, then turned and brushed past her.
A blow to the stomach could not have been more effective. Was Hal going
to ignore the way he treated her tonight? Were they simply not going to
talk about what was happening? Was it going to be business as usual,
like his goddamn clocks? Wind them up and off they go, ticking without
variation, in a long monotonous routine? Slowly, the heavy cement in her
began to move. Something hot and liquid began to take its place.
“I think you’d better sleep in the living room.” That’s what came out of
her mouth, although she hadn’t planned to say anything.
He turned to her in surprise. His eyes widened at first with what looked
like bewilderment, but swiftly narrowed. He contemplated her, an icy
look on his face. She knew this look, the look of white fury, when he
fixed her in his sights as if he recognized her as his true enemy.
Circling around her deliberately, he went over to his side of the bed.
“I can do you one better. You want to handle this all by yourself? Well,
have at it. I wash my hands of the two of you.” And he took his suitcase
from under the bed, and methodically began to pack underwear, socks,
shirts, and pants.
Helen didn’t do anything to stop him. She went into the living room.
Ordinarily, she would have been all over Hal, gentling him, apologizing,
anything to keep him from some threatened action. But a strange numbness
took over. She didn’t seem to care what he did. She was only aware that
she was very, very tired. So she sat on the couch in the dark and waited
for the next thing to happen.
He walked through the living room. At first he didn’t see her. Then,
startled, he stepped back. “I’ll stay at the shop. I’ll pay the bills as
usual. I’ll make arrangements for bail. Other than that, you two don’t
really need me around, anyway.” And he was out the door. She heard the
familiar rough cough of their Chevy truck starting up and then heard the
engine whine and the whine grow fainter. He was gone.
She was still clutching her purse under her arm. She put it on the
coffee table and took off her jacket and put it over her.
In some ways, it occurred to her in her altered state, she had been
waiting for this to happen all Josh’s life. The shoe to drop, the ax to
fall, however the saying went. She’d been holding her breath since he
was small, waiting for the rages, the tantrums, the frustrations she
couldn’t seem to help him contain. All those years, fearing that his
impulsiveness would finally do him in.
There had been the early years when, even as a toddler, he had been so
easily upset. When he was five, they’d gotten separated at the zoo for
just a moment, but even after she found him, he couldn’t stop crying,
and they had to leave. All those years in grammar school, waiting for
him to come home and face the homework battle, the broken pencils and
hitting his head and saying, “I’m stupid,” or worse, “I wish I were
dead.” And then, thankfully, finding some help for him, finding out it
wasn’t all her fault, but still her radar was always up, worrying that
some stress or other would set him back. She was, she realized now,
exhausted with the vigil she had kept.
And she had been waiting for it all to be too much for Hal, holding her
breath, trying to defend herself, defend Josh, trying, trying so hard to
make it all right. Fighting the fear that the worst would happen, that
he would leave her.
And now it had happened. The worst thing. And all she felt was numb. And
relieved? Was that the feeling? No more finger in the dike; the dike had
broken, and all she could do was watch the water rise.
The silence now was more companionable. She let her breath out. She lay
on the couch for a long time, her eyes open, listening to the sounds of
the empty house. The cuckoo clock struck, then struck again, and she
didn’t bother to count how many times. Finally, she got up and shuffled
to the medicine cabinet and dug through the dusty collection of pill
bottles, finding at last a bottle of Klonopin that wasn’t out of date.
She shook a pill into her hand. It was as if everything that had
happened would be dissolved by the little white sphere. She found her
way in the dark to her bed and waited for oblivion to take her.
Hal had once rented out the room over the shop, but that had been years
ago, before the business became self-sustaining. He still used the
kitchen and bathroom—the kitchen to make coffee and lunch during the
work day. But he hadn’t really taken it in for years, and when he’d made
his angry declaration to Helen, in his mind’s eye he’d framed it as both
more comfortable and cleaner than it turned out to be.
He stood in the middle of the room, blinking. The weak overhead light
cast a dim pall over the old futon bed, the bare linoleum floor, the
shabby orange tweed chair. It was cold, and Hal wondered if the space
heater still worked. The room smelled like cats, and he vaguely
remembered he’d thrown out the last tenant because he’d secretly kept
cats in there. Hal hated cats.
He flung himself on the futon. He felt miserable and stupid. Why had he
stormed out? He longed for his own bed, for the clean familiar odors of
his home. And yes, for Helen, for the warmth of her, and for Josh.
But then his anger and resentment came back fourfold. It rose in him, a
bitter, sickening tide. No, it was just as well. They’d shut him out
long ago, the two of them. It was as if they willfully misunderstood
him, refused to see that he was hard on Josh only to help him, prevent
him from wasting so much of his life. He, Hal, had made enough
sacrifices for two lifetimes, and if there was any redemption to be had
in his own suffering, wouldn’t it be in saving his bright boy from more
of the same?
He and Helen should have been a team. But Helen always felt she had to
protect Josh from him, and this stung him more than anything, her not
trusting him. She’d always supported him before. Her belief in him had
been the one thing he’d held on to in all the bleak years. He was
stunned how that had eroded away, how he had been made the enemy.
Well, to hell with them.
The anger burned off any lingering regret. To hell with them. Let them
see how they do without him. Neither of them will be anywhere on time,
Josh’s grades will tank, nothing in the house will be maintained. He’d
be surprised if they managed to empty the garbage or get the recycling
bins out on the curb on the right day.
He pulled the thin comforter on the futon over himself and shivered. He
needed to sleep, clear his head for dealing with all the crap in the
morning. But when he closed his eyes, the scene of the accident came
back to him: the man’s body awkwardly splayed out on the road, the
police lights turning everyone blue, Josh running up to him, as if he,
Hal, could somehow fix this, this worst of all possible things. But it
was too late, it was all too late. They’d made a wrong turn somewhere,
and the worst had happened. It was broken, and nothing Hal could do
would fix it.
“Dad got me out. I’m going to school.” Helen stared up at Josh’s face
swimming above her, trying to place where they were, what time it was,
why he looked so odd and grim. She realized she was still in bed, and
was ashamed of it. She looked at the clock with panic—it was nine
thirty. Slowly the events of the night came back to her. Josh looked
awful. His skin had a bluish tint. His breath smelled stale. His hair
stood up in webby black clusters. His blue eyes had gone flat and hard,
all the warmth and merriness extinguished. She wanted to tell him to
stay home, but as if anticipating her, he said, “I have to. The
probation officer will meet me there.”
She struggled against the fog in her head, against the bed covers
strangling her. “Let me make you something to eat,” she said hoarsely.
“Mom! I can’t eat, okay? Let me go.”
She wanted to take his hands and ask him what happened last night, why
he’d been smoking. She wanted to tell him she didn’t care who David
Masters was, she didn’t care what Josh had done, she would fight for
him. Instead she lay back against the pillows. “Is there anything I’m
supposed to do?” she asked. “Your father didn’t tell me . . .”
He shook his head, picked up his book bag. He walked out of the room
woodenly, as if he couldn’t quite control his body and was being very
careful to look as if he could. He slung the too-heavy book bag on his
left shoulder and leaned to the right like an old soldier, and left the
room. The front door slammed shut, and the silence, which had retreated
to the corners of the room, crept back to her. This time she didn’t
struggle against it, but turned into it gratefully.
It was all mixed up for Josh—the fight between Susie and Libby, the
joint, the kiss, braking as the guy appeared out of nowhere, the
sickening thud of the car hitting something, the delay between the sound
and what it meant, the guy lying there twitching, his shorts twisted
weirdly on his legs, his head at a strange angle, and then the dark
sticky blood seeping underneath, the retching sound that was coming from
him, and then the lights and sirens, and then Hal. When he looked up,
his father’s face was the only thing in focus, and Josh was flooded with
relief at the sight of it. He wanted to jump into his arms and cry,
“Daddy!” like he used to when Hal would come in to soothe him out of a
nightmare. He could almost feel Hal’s hand smoothing his hair, telling
him it would be all right. But then Hal’s face distorted into something
else, like some Stephen King horror movie, something dangerous and
rageful. And that’s when Josh knew he was wrong. He, Josh, was guilty.
And there was no help for him.
Now, walking to school, his mouth cottony and dry, his legs like the
sacks of sand he’d hauled last spring to make a dam for the flooding
river, it came over him again. There was no way out of this. He didn’t
know who he was today, but it bore no relation to who he was yesterday.
His father had gotten him out of jail and explained about the trial
date, about the probation officer, about who they’d get as a lawyer,
about how he’d have to go into treatment for substance abuse,
everything, but he never looked Josh in the eye. His voice was cool,
mechanical; he almost seemed to enjoy it. Josh was used to his father’s
disapproval, but this was something else—something icy, something hard.
His father had dropped him at the house, telling Josh that he would be
staying at the shop for a while—if Josh needed him, just call him there.
Then he pulled away from the curb and drove down the street, and Josh
felt a longing, a homesickness come over him as the car disappeared.
He had seen the headlines at the newspaper stand on their way home.
Everyone would know, even if they didn’t print his name because he was a
minor. But Josh found with surprise that he really didn’t care. He tried
to blame Andy, but he couldn’t. It was just the luck of the draw—Andy
smoked all the time and never got caught; Josh hardly ever smoked. A
curious detachment settled over him. What will be will be. Except.
Except for Libby. Suddenly he remembered Libby, and suddenly he knew he
cared. She wouldn’t have anything to do with him now.
The backpack was heavy, and he shifted it on his back. He was almost
through the field, and the sun beat down on him. Sweat trickled down the
back of his neck, behind his knees. He squinted in the bright light, saw
the sunlight flash off the cars parked in the school parking lot. For a
minute, he thought about not going in and facing them at all, of just
staying in the field, or even of escaping, somehow. He stood and smoked,
relinquishing the heavy backpack for a while. He tried to think of this
as a film and how he would direct the protagonist. Yes, in the film
version of his life, he would decide to split, hotwire a car, and head
for Mexico. He would also be taller, have six-pack abs, and be a babe
magnet. But that wasn’t really his style. In the film, he would be as he
was, thin, disheveled, confused. That was more like it. Not an action
film—no, a quiet film. A quiet, stupid film where he didn’t have a
He reached down to pick up his backpack, and suddenly he saw David
Masters lying there with the blood seeping out. Josh got sick all over
again. He vomited in the tall scratchy weeds. It was real, it wasn’t a
movie. And the man might die. And then he would be a murderer.
He got up, wiped his mouth on his sleeve, combed his hands through his
hair, then plodded slowly toward the redbrick building.