The year of play is over, and it's time to get back to work--to writing. I was, like everyone, devastated by the final culmination of the Powell tragedy that happened one week ago today.
All week I have been obsessed with the details, and the faces of the boys, Charles and Braden. I had to face the reality that for me, the only way to stop obsessing was to let the story consume me long enough to write the story it generated inside me. I wrote the first few sentences, but the rest wrote itself.
For someone who refers to herself as a humorist, my writings are starting to get as dark as Stephen King. But to give credit where it's due, it is the gothic yet true-to-life stories of Flannery O'Connor that came to mind as this horrible event unfolded. Despite the circumstances, I had to laugh at her description of herself, which I found on Wikipedia: "O'Connor described herself as a 'pigeon-toed child with a receding chin and a you-leave-me-alone-or-I'll-bite-you complex.'" I'd love to have her talent, but I'll accept our similarities in personality.
"Goodwill" is noticeably ripped from the front pages of today's news, but sculpted as my mind's eye saw it. It is dedicated to Charles and Braden, their mother Susan, their surviving relatives, and to their social worker last Sunday, Elizabeth Griffin-Hall.
Of course there were several pieces missing from the Mr. Potato Head box. There was no red hat or black moustache, and the boys had never seen him with both ears, and that’s a fact. But Goodwill was still happy to receive three full boxes of gently used toys. No one wondered why they weren’t battered and bruised the way you’d expect two young boys’ toys to be, but at least one volunteer later remarked it was nice to have some better quality toys to offer the community. Most used toys were accepted with a smile and then disposed of as soon as the donor pulled out of the parking lot. Little boys have no mercy when it comes to their playthings, and that’s just the way it is. So as Peter Dean pulled away in his minivan, he could have, if he’d wanted to, looked in his rear view mirror and still have seen the three boxes there on the loading dock. He didn’t, but a gentle smile rested on his face none-the-less. He was remembering how the boys once accused him of stealing Mr. Potato Head’s moustache, because of the one he had recently grown.
Peter remembered buying almost every toy in those boxes, most from the Wal-Mart in the center of town, some of the bigger trucks from Farm and Fleet. Though Peter preferred the true-to-life Caterpillar model trucks, his boys loved their Tonkas. Nathan would usually be the one pushing Seth in the backyard on their dump truck, but sometimes the smaller, four year-old Seth would try to push Nathan, his elder of two years. Though it usually ended with someone falling off, it rarely ended in tears. They just climbed back on and picked up where they left off. Peter loved how tough his boys seemed to be growing up.
For Nathan and Seth, playing at dad’s was always fun. It wasn’t very often anymore, but there were more toys each time they went to his new house and he let them do whatever they wanted, unlike Nana and Papa Williams. Both boys noticed that their grandparents were not especially fond of mud. Nathan never understood that. What’s not to like about mud? Their dad didn’t care about muddy shoes in the house. His boots were usually muddy too.
Nathan actually remembered how his mom never worried about muddy shoes either. Well, they did have to take them off in the tent after hiking. Line them up just inside the tent flap on an old towel so nothing would be waiting inside them the next morning to surprise them. Nathan remembered her telling him once that most surprises were good, but sometimes surprises could be bad, and it could be hard to tell which kind of surprise it was going to be. He didn’t really understand how that could be true—a bad surprise?—but if she said it, he figured it must be true, somehow. Mommy never lied.
Nathan was really the only one of the boys who remembered Sue Ellen clearly, their mother who had disappeared under mysterious circumstances two years ago this winter. Nathan was four years old when she left—well, daddy said she left, Nana and Papa said she died. Whatever the difference was, one day she was there and the next day she wasn’t. It happened while they were all camping at Arches National Park in Utah. All Nathan remembered at first was that no one really felt like going camping after that. They never got to take their Tonka trucks camping anyway, so staying at their father’s new place was just as fun anyhow. And nobody yelled at nobody else, except Seth, who shouted even the simplest of sentences. Nathan did not know if Seth thought everyone around him was deaf, or if he just wanted attention. No one belted out “I’D LIKE A GLASS OF MILK, PLEASE!” like Seth could. It was always followed by an equally hearty “THANK YOU!”
By contrast, Nathan was very soft-spoken, and grew more so after Sue Ellen was gone. Teachers at his elementary school would stand together during recess and just watch him as he played or worked on a project. Sometimes they’d talk among themselves, but mostly they just watched. Nathan noticed but wasn’t particularly bothered by it. There had been a lot of unwanted attention and confusion since his mother left, and as long as teachers didn’t start taking pictures, it didn’t matter to him.
People taking pictures was something that made his dad really angry. Not people the family knew, but strangers that would stay parked in front of Nana’s house, or especially at his dad’s new house in Vancouver, WA, where they had moved to be closer to Nana and Papa WIlliams. Peter would yell bad names at them, sometimes throw rocks, even, until they backed up across the street. Nathan never understood why people were not taking pictures of the neighbor’s house—the two nice men there, Hal and Joe, had a short round dog that snorted whenever it got up and had the most hilarious bow-legged walk. He would have made for super funny pictures, but no one seemed to care about Rascal the English bull dog, except Hal and Joe, of course. Daddy always told Seth and Nathan the attention was because the Deans were a special family and people were curious, but he never answered when Seth asked “CURIOUS ABOUT WHAT?” Nathan never asked, because his dad’s face always got crinkled right between his eyes, mad-like, when they talked about it, and Nathan hated the crinkled face. He only wanted to see the enormous smile, and sparkling eyes, like how daddy looked at them every time they went to visit after staying for a long time with Nana and Papa.
It was Peter who had passed the admiration of mud to his sons. Peter was not a construction worker or welder, or someone who worked outside at all unless he was mowing the lawn. Peter was a nurse at the university hospital, and a very good one. Everyone said hospitals were really, really clean, and that’s why daddy liked to go camping so much and get his shoes and clothes muddy when he wasn’t working. Nathan figured if hospitals were going to be picky about mud, then that made sense.
Even if Nathan had not remembered his mother bragging about how good daddy was at nursing, he heard it from Nana. Well, not so much anymore, but that’s because, like Nathan, Nana and Papa Williams had sort of stopped talking right after his mother, their daughter, left. They still smiled all the time at Nathan and Seth, but Nathan was starting to notice that they had stopped smiling with their eyes. They just smiled with their mouths. He didn’t talk to Seth about it; he knew he was too young to understand. Nathan knew that it was because they were sad, and missed his mommy like he did. He knew because he could talk to Papa anytime about mommy. Papa would always listen and nod, and hug him at just the right time. Nana would listen too, but she always started crying and ended up leaving him alone in the room, and he didn’t like that so much. That just made him feel like crying, too.
Sometimes he was jealous of Seth because he didn’t remember their mother so much. From time to time Seth would wake up from a bad dream and cry out for her, but Nana or Papa could usually get him to fall back asleep not long after that. But then Nathan would stay awake, listening to the dark and the sound of Seth breathing, sometimes for hours. Those were the times he could remember his mother the best, so he didn’t mind.
Lately, he was remembering more. Some of it was from the very last weekend they all spent together, and all of it was confusing. Talking about this had a very different affect on his father than it did on Nana or Papa. Papa wanted to hear everything Nathan could remember, even if it was fuzzy and all like a dream, but daddy—daddy didn’t want to hear it at all. Nathan learned fast to not tell his dad things he remembered—even silly little things like when she tripped and dropped a full pitcher of lemonade on the new wood floor daddy had just put in—because once his face got so crinkly and so red that before he knew it, daddy had struck him hard on the backside. He didn’t say a thing; he just hit Nathan and walked back into the house. It hurt more on the inside than on the outside, and it made no sense to Nathan, but Papa Williams said that everyone shows sadness differently, and it was probably best for Nathan to save those stories, those memories, for Papa and not daddy. Nathan saw no reason to argue with that. Papa was a very fair sort of man, Nathan thought, who didn’t say things without having a good reason for doing so, even if it had to do with leaving muddy shoes on the porch.
Nathan wondered sometimes if his own dad was fair. For one, he was so different from Nana and Papa—especially after mommy was gone, and in the beginning he yelled at Papa Williams a lot. Nathan and Seth were usually in the backyard or bedroom when this happened, but when it did, they were as loud as Seth and it was hard to ignore. Papa seemed to blame daddy for something, for everything, he heard his dad once say, and that made daddy’s face so it was always crinkled when he was around them. But they were never around each other anymore, so that was a good thing.
Instead, there was always a man or a woman who seemed very polite, if over-smiley, who took Nathan and his brother from Papa’s house to daddy’s house and back. Nathan could tell something was wrong with their smiles because, like Nana and Papa, they never smiled with their eyes, just their mouths. But unlike his grandparents, Nathan could see it was not because they were sad. Why would they be? They never knew his mother. The court-appointed social workers saw Nathan as a quiet six year-old who liked to watch people’s faces, and it made some of them nervous, so they would smile a little wider to cover for it. But Miss Manning, or Miss Sarah, as she let the boys call her, smiled too much because she felt that no one could ever smile enough at these boys. Her eyes even smiled. Nathan liked her best. Her car always smelled like McDonald’s french fries, so how could he not? She never forgot to stop for fries on the way to pick them up for the ride. Yes, Miss Sarah was definitely better than the rest. Even Seth knew that. “I LOVE THESE FRIES, MISS SARAH! THANK YOU!” That always made her laugh. Nathan could see her doing so in the rear-view mirror. Seth was too busy eating his fries to notice things like that.
Nathan could see that his dad tried really hard not to show his crinkly face around Miss Sarah or any of the other adults who drove them from one house to the other. Sometimes Peter would manage a smile, but Nathan knew no one believed it was real. Nathan knew because daddy’s eyes were too hard and focused for the bottom of his face to be smiling at the same time. His dad and Miss Sarah never talked much, and once Miss Sarah was settled in the stuffed orange chair in the living room, daddy pretended she wasn’t even there, and then, sometimes, his real smile would come back as they played. It was very odd to have someone watch them all together, but Nathan hardly remembered a time when there weren’t at least two adults with them at all times—except for the drive between houses. Miss Sarah never had to stay at Papa’s house, but she always did at daddy’s. Nathan assumed it was because everyone needed two parents, and Miss Sarah or her friends were just there to fill the empty spot that mommy left. Nathan sometimes wondered what would happen if there wasn’t someone to fill that spot. He guessed that would qualify as a surprise, if it ever happened.
Speaking of surprises, Nathan was already excited about this month’s visit to dad’s house. He didn’t know what he would find, but Nathan had been very careful to keep mentioning a new fire truck he saw at the Farm and Fleet by Papa Williams’ house, and he couldn’t help but hope that dad had picked up on the hint. He told his dad about it every time they talked on the phone, so Nathan was sure there would be one there when they arrived. Seth said he didn’t care what he got, but a new sled or “elevator” (Seth’s word for excavator) would be nice. They both wondered if Rascal would be out, since it was pretty cold and snowy now. Seemed like forever since they’d seen him. His family never came over, ever, so the boys just had to wait for Rascal to wander over on his own when he was out. Nathan always saved a few french fries in his pocket in case they saw him. If they were driven by Miss Sarah, of course.
Nathan and Seth were both thrilled that it was in fact Miss Sarah who pulled up outside Nana and Papa’s house in her little yellow car to take them to spend the day with daddy. Both of them ran out to her car so fast they almost forgot to hug and kiss their grandparents good-bye. What did grandparents know about french fries and bull dogs? thought Nathan as he hugged Nana. Nathan saw the crinkly face on Papa this time, and he almost asked why, but decided against it.
Buckled up in the warm, delicious-smelling car of Miss Sarah, Nathan and Seth took turns telling her what they expected to find when they got to their daddy’s house. Seth started to mention Rascal and the french fries, but Nathan kicked him before he could finish. Even Nathan didn’t think Miss Sarah would be thrilled to learn that she was buying fries for the dog next door. Seth stuck his tongue out at Nathan, who ignored him.
As it turned out, there were no fries left in the car by the time Miss Sarah pulled into daddy’s driveway, because the drive took longer than usual. It had snowed the night before, and she had to drive very carefully so they would not slip and slide on the roads. She wanted to be careful, she told them. “Better safe than sorry.” She smiled into the rear-view mirror at them both.
Miss Sarah had no problem pulling into Peter’s driveway. He had carefully cleared all the snow and ice before they arrived. “Small favors,” thought Sarah to herself. She always had a knot in her stomach the size of a grapefruit during these visits, and thanks to the slippery roads, today’s felt more like a basketball. She didn’t trust Peter Dean, but tried to push that aside and adopt a more professional attitude before getting the boys out of the car. She was there because most people didn’t trust Peter, and she released a long, slow breath reassured by the knowledge that she was able to be there for those who could not.
Nathan waited for Miss Sarah to come to his side of the car, though he was already out of his seat belt and helping Seth with his. Seth was preoccupied looking for dropped french fries, upset that they had not managed to save any for Rascal. Nathan saw no sign of Rascal and tried telling Seth this, but he wasn’t listening. Dad had just opened the door a crack and sent out a knowing smile. As Miss Sarah opened his door for him, Seth practically fell out in his rush to run up to their dad. Nathan stayed just long enough to grab the backpack they always brought with them, then he was out of the door Miss Sarah was holding and yelling a “Thank you!” as he ran towards the door.
Flustered, Sarah yelled “Boys, wait!” sharper than she intended. She closed the door and rushed after them. It was about twenty feet from her car to the front door. Though it had been open as the boys ran up, Peter clearly in view, just as she reached the threshold the door slammed shut and she heard Peter throw the deadbolt. She felt the imaginary basketball imploding inside her stomach the same time she smelled propane gas coming from the house. Without thinking she tried to open the door with her right hand as she pounded with her left. If he had heard her shouting “Mr. Dean! Peter! Please let me in!” he didn’t show any sign of it. Still yelling, she reached for her cell phone.
As soon as Nathan ran into the house and felt the door slam shut behind him, he knew something was wrong. For one thing, it smelled weird. Seth was standing in the middle of the living room looking around as if he had never been there before. Their dad was no longer smiling, but rather looking at them both as if he didn’t know who they were or how they had gotten into his house. Peter turned towards the fireplace as Nathan glanced around him. Not only was there no fire engine, the whole room was virtually empty—even the orange chair was gone. Where was Miss Sarah going to sit? At the same time he heard her trying to get in, and turned towards to door to let her in.
“Do not open that door,” commanded Peter. Nathan turned back to see his dad holding the small ax that they used to break up wood for the fire. Now he was even more confused.
“This is not a toy,” his father had told them both repeatedly. “We never use this inside the house.” Now he was holding it and Nathan was terrified at his unusual breach of protocol.
Seth had not moved, and was silently staring at this man he once recognized as his father. He was still standing in that same spot as Peter swung the hatchet in his direction, catching him with a startling blow on his right shoulder. Seth fell to the floor with a scream as Nathan moved to protect him. Faintly he could hear Miss Sarah yelling both of their names from outside the house. He hoped she stayed outside, because he knew for certain that if she got in, this man with Mr. Potato Head's moustache would try to kill her too.
Before Nathan could reach Seth, he felt a surprising thud as the blade met his upper back. Surprising, he thought to himself, and not in a good way. He lunged towards Seth, propelled by the blow of the weapon. Time slowed down until it actually stood still. Nathan landed on top of Seth, still screaming, as he smelled the fumes that filled the house. With the house so bare, Nathan’s eye was drawn to the two red plastic containers sitting by the fireplace. He recognized them from their old road trips. They were gas cans. As he filled his lungs with poisoned air to scream for them both, his father raised the arm holding the ax. His face was not crinkly, nor smiling. Nathan recognized confusion and fear. As Nathan raised his arms to protect himself and his little brother, the room and everything in it was consumed in a ball of fire. Peter had fallen to his knees, and every part of him seemed to be covered by flames. Nathan’s scream had been lost in the explosion, and he once again tried to fill his lungs with air, but only smoke remained to fill them now. He felt Seth move under him and heard him crying, but Nathan did not want to get up and expose him to the fire and smoke that surrounded them. He needn’t have worried; neither of them would rise again. The smoke was too thick and the flames too hot. An image of Nathan’s mother came to his mind just as he heard his father say “Sue Ellen” as he crashed to the floor.
Next door, Rascal barked and scratched at the inside of his front door. The windows of his house had been blown in by the blast. His owners, Hal and Joe, let him out as they stumbled out into the odd mixture of cold and heat, their eyes riveted to the inferno next door. At the bottom of the drive was a young woman they recognized as one of the social workers who often supervised Nathan and Seth when they visited their father, a man still suspected in the disappearance of his wife two years before. Word around the neighborhood was that the woman’s parents, Ann and Nathan Williams, were extremely close to winning permanent custody with no visitation rights for the children’s father.
Sarah stood motionless beside her car at the bottom of the drive, where she had pulled to safety after smelling the gas. She was still holding her cell phone to her left ear, but she had stopped trying to convince the 911 dispatcher that her charges faced imminent danger. A voice on the other end repeatedly yelled, “Are you hurt? What happened?”
The house was entirely engulfed in flames by this time, its structure no longer visible beneath its deadly cloak. No sounds came from the house but smaller explosions and the roar of the flames. Every witness but one simply stood and stared at what was left to burn. Rascal had seen it, heard it, smelled it, and most importantly, knew the meaning of the yellow car in the driveway. Without anyone noticing, he made his way from his house to the young woman by the car and sat at her feet, watching her with deliberation. In the midst of all the powerful odors filling the air, Rascal noticed that the young woman smelled faintly of french fries.
Sunday, February 12, 2012
The year of play is over, and it's time to get back to work--to writing. I was, like everyone, devastated by the final culmination of the Powell tragedy that happened one week ago today.