Fiction · 12/10/2014

Say

What do you say when your child calls, from over 500 miles away, and says, “I am not happy here.” And you do sincerely want this child to be happy, but you cannot say, “Your life is just beginning; this is only the beginning,” because you cannot run on the same slogans two campaigns in a row. And your child says, “Why did I ever work so hard?” and you try to tell her that she’s in a good place now, but how do you substantiate your claim? Where is your empirical evidence? You have not distributed any surveys, nor have you performed any observational studies. You could say, “Well, you do not have leukemia, nor are you diabetic. You still have all your limbs and your colonoscopy came back normal,” but you know this will not be received well, so you refrain. Your anxiety is building. You sense oncoming defeat. Say, “Call me again tomorrow,” and hang up.

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The four o’clock showing of Law and Order has not yet ended when you hear him pull up in his car, and you think, Is it not enough that he comes home? Must he come home early? You’ve hardly finished pouring the soup when he appears at the landing on the first floor. He sits, and you’re beginning to feel relieved when he throws the TV remote on the ground and says, “How can I eat this without a soup spoon?” You examine the place setting and say, “I seem to have forgotten your soup spoon,” and scurry back into the kitchen.

He is like a child, you think. He is essentially a child, albeit with an unusually large penis. In bed later that night, he will say, “My father once kicked me across the floor. His father nearly killed him with an ice pick.” You pretend to sleep, and in the morning you make his coffee too sweet and burn his toast black.

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It is Halloween, and your youngest is supposed to go trick-or-treating in an hour. She wanted to be a Powerpuff Girl this year, the green one, and you made the costume yourself; a feat, for you. You’re thinking everything will go off without a snag when you hear her calling from her room. “Mom. Mom.” On her bed, she is naked. Beside her the costume is laid out, pristine.

She points to her white panties and says, “Powerpuff Girls don’t wear underwear.” You can see where this is going. Try to head it off. Say, “Darling, but of course Powerpuff Girls wear underwear,” as if you know, as if you dress Powerpuff Girls every morning. She becomes frantic. “They do not. They do not wear underwear.” She cries and screams and throws her underwear on the ground.

Downstairs, he is watching kickboxing with a bag of chips in his lap. You can expect no reinforcements from him. On this mission you are solo. “Please,” you say, “it’s hygienic.” Her wailing is a blasting cannon. Say, “Fine. Don’t wear any underwear.” (You’ve recently read an article on reverse psychology; to your dismay, it does not work).

Watch your daughter flounce off, sans underwear, with a caravan of masquerading nurses, witches, and Las Vegas show girls. On one hand, you saved yourself; you saved time. On the other hand, you saved yourself; you’re a coward. Say, “The worst is yet to come,” as if this is one of those failed horror movies, and put yourself to sleep.

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Your other daughter has called again, the one who is over 500 miles away, and in this instance you are glad she’s five hundred miles away, because she sounds very angry. She’s in that phase where she feels the need to place blame, and of course she blames you. It works like this: It’s your fault she grew up in a culturally impoverished shit-town; your fault she went to horrible schools where the children were stupid and mean, which caused her to develop low self-esteem and hindered the cultivation of her social skills, and this in turn explained why none of her relationships ever worked out and why she’ll be a cashier at Panera Bread until she dies. You are mortified by the idea that this might make sense. And you think, Okay, maybe you should have said something when he kicked her out of the house. Something like: “Please, that is our daughter.” And maybe you shouldn’t have told her that she doesn’t love anybody and she never will. But really, you were busy, and you know what they say about hindsight. She tells you that you’re stupid, and before you can tell her that you don’t appreciate that, she hangs up.

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Remember. You actually graduated fifth in your high school class. They called you SOHOAWA, which stood for Sure One Hell of a Woman, Amazing. You received a scholarship to Penn State, and in a class called Mediation and the Mind, you met him. On your first date you ate Chinese and he told you that your eyes were like two lanterns on fire. You said, Wow, thanks. In bed he kept asking, How is this? How am I doing? You said, This is wonderful, even though it was not wonderful at all. Think, It was the 60’s, and a voice in your head says, The employment of even occasional excuses can stunt your advancement towards your teleological ending.

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Wonder: will you ever get to watch the entirety of any one TV show? Will you ever write read a novel? You used to think it would be nice to travel to Japan. You still think it would be nice to travel to Japan. You think kimonos are sexy and you love sushi. Right now, the most exotic recipe in your repertoire is lasagna. Your career is largely a matter of paper work – filing, insurance forms, bills, billing. If someone says, “That sounds like it can get tedious,” say to them, “I’m built to bill.” Somewhere between college and the age of forty-five, something went tremendously wrong.

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Your youngest comes home today and tells you that Billy called her a pukey-face. Say, If Billy ever tells you that your eyes are like two lanterns on fire, tell him he can use his hand.

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Before your daughter went to college, over five-hundred miles away, you arranged it so that you, he, and she could sit down and talk. You thought it would be nice if everyone left on a positive note. But as a quiet settled among you three, he said, “My father once kicked me across the floor. His father nearly killed him with an ice pick.” Your daughter said, “So what you’re saying is that I come from a long line of abusive parents; that one day I’ll say to my children, ‘My father once kicked me out of the house; his father once kicked him across the floor; his father nearly killed him with an ice pick.’ ” And you thought, Well done, my girl.

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Despite the fact that your daughter is over 500 miles away, she is not doing well. Judging from her phone calls, you think she is not showing any signs of improvement, and you are ashamed to say that you do not always take them, the calls, that is. You’re sure you’re breaking some Mother-Protocol, but you have not looked at the handbook lately, and the details have gotten fuzzy over time.

If you had to say, you’d say her last call somewhat frightened you. She started by telling you about the classes she is taking. You asked how she was doing. She told you that she can be anywhere, reading, working, or doing anything, and suddenly she feels like if she turned around she would see him, sitting in the corner, reading his newspaper or something. Try to think of relevant statistics or psychological studies. Say, “You know, this is simply a function of time,” when you really don’t know anything at all.

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Mental Note: Five-hundred miles is not far enough.

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Your sister is coming to visit you today. She visits only when he is at work. When she arrives, she steps inside, looks around, and says, “He’s working now, isn’t he? Just checking.” She called ahead to tell you that she has big news. At the dining room table, you sit close together; she clasps your hands and says, “I have come into a large amount of money. Thousands of dollars. I want to give it to you.” Her hands are resting on your shoulders now; she shakes you lightly. “This is your chance. Is there something you want to do?” You are not listening. You are thinking of things you want to do. You will buy a plane ticket to Japan. There, you will captain a fishery of spider crabs, and every Christmas you will send your sister a spider crab, dead and on ice of course. And you will invite your daughters to come and live with you. The three of you will stand around a table and you will show them how to unshell spider crabs. You will lounge about with buckets of melted butter, and on Fridays you will go out for sushi in your finest kimono.

Say, “I know what I want to do.”

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You are at the doctor’s. It is time for your younger daughter’s yearly checkup, and you are in the waiting room, passing the time until they give your daughter back. You are rehearsing greetings in Japanese when the doctor appears and motions you towards him. He says, “You’ll be glad to know that your daughter is perfectly healthy, but I wanted to talk to you about her teeth.”

“Her teeth,” you say.

“I feel it’d be best to start in on the orthodontics immediately. Otherwise, we’ll be looking at some hideous teeth come three or four years. We’re talking bionator, transpalatal bar, fan type expander, upper and lower retainers, separators, and of course braces.” He’s ticking these off on his fingers as he speaks. “It’s a venture of several thousand dollars,” he says. Suddenly, Japan is shrinking back into a blue distance. That night you will dream you are far above the earth, overlooking the archipelago of Japan, and you will watch as the islands are eaten by so many mouths of crooked and misshapen teeth. You throw up your hands and say, “Life is so full of hardships.” You see that in the ceiling there is a crack that branches out into a series of cracks. You notice one of them makes it all the way to the far wall, where it travels down to the floor. You think it probably reaches the very foundation of the building, which explains why your world is now shaking.

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Thomas Cardamone’s “Say” is part of a collection of stories titled Please!. His fiction has also appeared in the online journal decomP.