We were under the impression that our mother was working the late shift until a girl in Walt’s kindergarten class told him otherwise.
“Your mom’s the tooth fairy,” she said.
The girl’s name was Genevieve and the day previous she’d sneezed an incisor across the classroom. It had soared through the air as though looking for someone to bite. Upon its descent, another child extracted it from between the thick fibers of the alphabet rug and handed it back to its owner.
She had forced herself to stay awake, Genevieve told Walt, because this was her very first lost tooth and she had figured maybe she could negotiate up from the single dollar one was rumored to receive in exchange. Eyes lowered in feigned sleep, she couldn’t see through the slit in her lids the method by which our mother entered but recognized her at once when she drew near enough to slip a hand beneath her pillow. Genevieve had been too startled to bargain but nevertheless ended up with two silver dollars.
Our family was famous for two things. The first was that our mom was a waitress at the Laurel Luncheonette, where everyone went. She had a crystalline recall and knew whose daughter had been in first grade with me, whose father was laid out with lung cancer. From his station behind the counter, the owner was forever flapping a menu at her, trying to dislodge her from conversation with one boothful of customers and get her moving to the next. She claimed all the chatting brought in bigger tips, but I don’t think she was so mercenary. She was like that everywhere. My father had an outburst about it once, she said, when she took too long at the drugstore because she ended up deep in conversation with the woman on line behind her. “Do you have to talk to everyone?” he demanded, when she got back into the car. “Can’t you just buy your Camels without making a new best friend?” In the passenger seat she had laughed and laughed.
The second thing we were famous for was how we looked together. An old lady stopped us once in the IHOP parking lot. “One of each,” she marveled.
“Excuse me?” our mom said.
“Light, dark, and medium.” The old lady pointed to me, then Walt, then our mom.
Walt giggled, delighted for the attention from someone who wasn’t Mom or Grandma, but I, sensing our mom stiffen, kept my face still.
“Do they have different fathers?” the old lady asked.
“You know,” my mother said, “I’ve never been sure,” and yanked us across the blacktop, away from the lady now glaring, mouth a little slack and inside it her bottom teeth like small gray stones leaning against each other.
Our mom knew very well we had different fathers. Mine was originally from a place called Wales, to which he’d returned after getting caught bartending on a tourist visa. Walt’s was from Jamaica—not the neighborhood in Queens but an island, far away—and had been killed in a motorcycle crash some months before Walt was born. “I like accents,” our mom would tell the people she considered worthy of knowing her business. When these people asked what she was, she flapped her hand, like the diner owner flapping the menu. “God knows,” she said.
We all thought we looked more alike than not. That Walt’s dad was dead and mine was just a voice lilting over the telephone a few times a year mattered so little there was no need to say so.
But then there were the games we played. My favorite, “Belly,” amounted to Walt and I sitting on my bed with the comforter over us, pretending we’d been swallowed by a huge creature and had to fight our way out. Usually it was the belly of a whale—whales, Wales? Sometimes we kicked and punched until the ribs fractured and the skin tore, but more often it was about tickling the innards just so until we were puked or shat out. Then we stood in shock, washed up on unsettled shores.
Walt’s favorite game, “Bloody Mess,” was more of a craft: using our mom’s discarded tubes of lipstick and palettes of eyeshadow, flour and hot cocoa mix, Vaseline and Elmer’s glue, he made fake wounds, caking the layers of sweet-smelling carnage onto our faces. Maybe he was thinking of his own dad, thrown from the bike and bashed across a parkway median.
Our mom said if he kept at it, one day he’d be good enough to do makeup for horror movies. But after her fall he lost interest. Seeing gore that couldn’t be scrubbed away must have taken the joy out of it.
There’s a lot of blood in my work. Gums bleed at next to nothing. Most patients can’t stand the sight, so the trick is to suction it out before they can see how much they’re losing. Though there are those who like to steal a glimpse of what’s inside them.
When our mother worked dinner shifts, she came home with Styrofoam clamshells of cold french fries, plastic-wrapped plates of coleslaw and pickles, Dixie cups of half-melted ice cream. Then she showered the burger smell from her hair, supervised our evening ablutions, and sent Grandma home. Unless she had a date, in which case Grandma slept on the couch. Unless Grandma also had a date, in which case she tucked us in, told us to be good to each other, and left too. Then we went exploring. We lived on the third story of a private house, and kneeling atop Walt’s dresser, we could sometimes peer into the backyard and watch our landlord playing cards with his friends. Once, there was a disagreement between two of the players, followed by a mist of blood and a tiny hailstorm of teeth falling on the concrete patio. This disturbed Walt enough that he clung to me for the rest of the night, his hands clamped around my back and his torso glued to mine, even when I went to take a piss.
Our mom had told us she’d been switched to the late-night shift at the diner, but I suspected this wasn’t true even before Walt shared what he’d learned from Genevieve. She was no longer coming home with food, for one thing. And now when she woke us for school, her hair looked windblown, like she’d just come from a run along the shore. But I dismissed his story at first.
“Mom’s not the tooth fairy,” I said. Then I remembered she probably was, only not in the way he meant. I still had baby molars in my head, but I was old enough to have begun colluding with her to preserve Walt’s faith in the fantastic. Santa, the Easter Bunny, et cetera. Walt also had a proprietary sprite, the Blue Fairy, devised by our mom to keep him behaving when she had to take us on errands. “If you can be good for just a few more minutes,” she’d tell him, standing at the end of a long line in the Associated, “the Blue Fairy will bring you a treat later.”
“I’m gonna ask her,” Walt said. We were sitting together on the school bus.
“Fine,” I said, “but she’ll deny it.”
Walt squinted up at me. He must not have known what the word meant. And so he asked our mother the moment she took his hand after we’d disembarked.
“What do you mean?” she said. Our bus stop was on a windy corner a few blocks from the sea. The wind’s what I remember about it, us standing there beneath its battering, how we’d zip our coats all the way up and turtle our heads down inside them. Our mom always waited with us for it to come, her hair slapping rudely against her cheeks, but I understood as my eyes watered and burned that in some broader sense we were uncared for.
“Genevieve said. She saw you take her tooth and give her two silver dollars.”
Mom peered at the small person at the end of her hand. “Where does Genevieve live?”
This was a strange response. I looked to the other parents to see what they made of it, but they were tugging their own children toward home.
“Long Beach,” Walt said confidently. Then he recited our own address to remind her he had memorized it.
But she didn’t praise him. “Do you know if she told anyone else?” she asked.
“So,” she said, back in the warmth of our apartment. I sat on the couch beside her, and Walt lay on his belly on the floor, running a hand back and forth over the carpet, turning a stripe of it dark and then light again.
“So,” she said again. She must have wished there were a man there, a counterweight, someone to look at while bracing herself.
What had happened was she’d been let go from the diner. One evening many weeks before, she had told the owner she’d be missing her Saturday shift: her girlfriends were taking her out for her thirtieth.
“If you’re not here Saturday,” the owner said, “don’t bother coming back at all.” He had a glossy bald head and pouches under his eyes that I sometimes wanted to touch with my finger to test their softness. Probably he was jealous: of her friends, her youth.
The party had been worth it, our mom said, and smiled in a tired way, like she was still recovering. It was hard for me to believe there was such power behind the owner’s exasperated menu flaps. That a bad mood might stir a wind in him with the force to not only disappear conversations but also livelihoods.
So, she explained, she had started doing this other thing—this gig, she called it. She was sorry she hadn’t told us, but she hadn’t told anyone, not even Grandma, who was sleeping on our couch most nights now.
“How’d you learn to fly?” I said. I hadn’t come all the way around to belief yet. I was her coconspirator, after all, in the lie about the Blue Fairy, and I thought maybe she just wanted to spend more time with her boyfriend, whom we hadn’t met yet, who in my mind was a broad-shouldered outline filled with darkness.
Walt’s hand stopped. “Do you fly all over the world? Like to Jamaica?”
“No, no. Just around here. Long Beach, Lido, Point Lookout. That’s my territory.”
“Not Atlantic Beach?” I said.
“Oh, probably there too. I just haven’t had an appointment there yet.”
It was dull enough to be true.
“The most important thing,” our mom said. “Well, the two most important things: you can’t talk about this with anyone, and you shouldn’t worry about me.” She caught my jumpy eyes with hers. “Really. It’s safer than the diner. Now I don’t have to watch out for slipping on a spill or getting burned by the frier or something.”
Or getting followed to my car by a creep, she didn’t say, but it’s easy to imagine it happening. She was pretty. I think if you woke suddenly and saw the soft outline of her face hovering above yours in the dark, you wouldn’t be afraid at all.
That was all she told us then. The details, she’s been fleshing out for me lately when I visit her. I started asking about those days mainly to fill the space. Without Walt around, our time together feels baggy, like he was the one who’d all along been giving our family its shape.
I don’t think she particularly likes discussing it, but probably she feels she owes me because I’m paying for her aide. “Bonnie is unbelievable,” she says whenever I come over, as though she’s afraid the help might be taken away if it were otherwise. The alternative is assisted living, which she says she’s too young for, which is probably true.
She had no regular nights off or holidays, of course, though in the case of a true emergency they could bring in the Rockaways fairy or the Five Towns fairy to cover her shift, the manager told our mother at her hiring. He’d rapidly delineated what qualified as a true emergency. The list was brief and did not include “sick kid.”
But now and then there were nights when not a single child in her territory lost a tooth, or when only two or three did. On slow nights, then, after her visits were done, she took little field trips. She’d have come right home to us, Mom explained to me, if it weren’t for the potion still busy inside her body, making it so weirdly jiggly and weightless. So instead, she flew to JFK, lighting on the roof of the Swissair cargo building and watching the planes take off and land, or to the tiny, uninhabited islands in Jamaica Bay, and thought about bringing me and Walt to the wildlife refuge; she imagined us tromping through the wetlands in our rain boots.
Then there were the busy nights when she ran out of juice before she could make it home. The manager would have to come pick her up in his blue Toyota, and she’d wonder why he couldn’t afford a nicer car, being a boss and all.
But there was a bigger boss. The manager called him the Man Upstairs. The manager was silent at first, when he would give her lifts home, as if he couldn’t speak except to give orders. He played the radio, a Spanish station, which began to grate on her.
One drive she finally told him she didn’t speak the language, that the singing was to her gobbledygook. “If you want to be nice you could switch to Z100,” she said.
“What makes you think I want to be nice?” On this morning the manager had to pick her up all the way out in Point Lookout. He was speeding west, and in the rearview mirror she could see moonlight flicking off the ocean at the end of the boulevard.
“Nothing. It’s just an expression.”
He had slicked-back, helmety hair, skin paler than mine, a brittle quality. He looked like he might throw a woman against a wall and then start crying before she had the chance to get angry.
“So you like salsa music?” She was guessing.
He blew a red light. “This is bossa nova. And that’s not Spanish, it’s Portuguese.”
“Oh. Are you Brazilian or whatever?”
He let out a laugh. “What do you think?”
“I think you could use a drink,” she said.
The manager looked at her for the first time since she’d gotten into the car. “That’s true,” he said. And he kept driving, past our building and to a bar in the West End. That was where she learned about the Man Upstairs.
The Man Upstairs lived in a house—the manager wouldn’t say where exactly, except that it was not far from the Pine Barrens—and kept to the top floor, which had more rooms than seemed possible from the outside. The rooms beneath, on the first floor, were completely bare, and it bothered the manager, the idea of dwelling above those empty, unlit spaces.
Our mom hadn’t realized Long Island had pine barrens.
“Oh, yeah,” the manager said. “On the north shore. Near the Sound.”
He hadn’t loosened up, exactly, but he seemed to need to talk; his conversation came in a concentrated stream, there in the corner of the pub. Our mom, not wishing to be drunk when she got us up for school in a couple hours, had asked for a cider on ice, and the manager had hesitated and then said, “Make that two,” as though he’d never been in bars, ordered drinks.
The other thing that bothered him about the house of the Man Upstairs was the certainty he had while inside, that the longer he stayed, the worse it would be for him. It wasn’t the Man himself, or wasn’t only him. It was as if the house emitted a silent contaminant, and a visitor could only linger for so long before becoming overexposed, irradiated.
Our mom thought maybe it had already happened, that the hum of meanness she’d felt in him, in the car, was a symptom.
She asked him what the Man Upstairs did with the teeth.
“No idea,” the manager said. He sipped his drink, and the ice collided loudly with his own incisors. Behind him, she could see the bartender beginning to wipe down the bar with that subtle but intentional air of someone signaling that they’re ready for you to go. Our mom told the manager she needed to get back to us.
“Oh. Okay.” His lips turned down a little. “Try to pick up the pace tomorrow,” he said, “so this doesn’t happen again.”
One might find it a bit on the nose that I became a dentist. But it’s not because of our mom’s former gig. It’s because when we were kids, anytime we ever drove by grand houses—in Garden City after trips to the mall, or in Hewlett Harbor once, when we were all bored on a rainy day, and our mom, to entertain us, piloted us slowly past the mansions and yacht clubs—Walt would point and ask, “Who lives there?” and our mom would answer, “Some dentist, probably.”
And we’re up there, but I believe it’s anesthesiologists who do the best.
Whatever the Man Upstairs did with the teeth, it had made him wealthy, the manager said. He had that perpetual togetherness only the rich had. Skin that looked as though it had never been frustrated by pimples or hives. Shirts that, once tucked in, stayed tucked. He smelled extremely good.
The room where he met with the manager was a library—the manager never saw any of the other interiors, only their doors—these too numerous given the house’s apparent size—closed against him as he was led down the hall. The Man Upstairs kept the lights dim, so it was hard to discern the writing on the spines of the books, but none of the titles he saw he recognized, the manager said. Which was strange. He wasn’t a genius or anything, but he considered himself culturally literate.
“Me too,” our mom said. “My boys love watching me win at Jeopardy.”
The manager frowned. He chewed on some ice. They were back in the bar, having cider again. “Anyway,” he said. “He’s doing so well—why not us? I should ask about a raise. That’s what I keep thinking.”
Our mom said that would be great.
It was just that he couldn’t stand to stick around long enough to ask. It was that feeling of being poisoned by the house itself, the off-ness of its proportions, the manager said. So he handed over the teeth and waited in excruciating silence as the Man Upstairs counted out his and each fairy’s corresponding pay, plus their allotment of silver dollars for that week, and after that, all he could bear to do was haul the money down the stairs and through the vacant rooms, and get into his car and flee.
Our mom forbade us from watching her turn into a tooth fairy—and it was a, she explained not the; Long Island was divvied up into many territories, each with its own fairy flickering overhead.
But now that we knew, we were unable to fall asleep before she left for work. We feigned drifting off when she tucked us in, then sprang for the bedroom door after she left, pressing our ears against it. Whatever she did, she did in the kitchen. We could hear her dragging a step stool over the linoleum and opening some high cabinet. There was water poured, liquid stirred, the ringing of a spoon against glass. Then a long, leaden quiet during which we tried to hold our breath but could never manage, and just as we exhaled, a window opened. Something flapped, once.
At this point we burst from the bedroom, hoping to spot—what? There was only the black square of night outside and the air pouring in, and a cup, already rinsed, upside down on the drainboard. We stuck our heads out the window only to be greeted by the usual: the landlord’s Taurus in the driveway, the stone face of the house across the street. I thought, maybe with the aid of the step stool and some telephone books, I could heighten myself enough to reach whatever it was our mom was mixing, but soon Grandma would arrive, and we’d creep back to bed to fake sleep again, so when she looked in on us, she saw only the thread of light falling across our two silent forms.
It was a lot for our mom to manage logistically, but I think our knowing was a relief to her. Now she could ask Walt, as she did many mornings, to walk on her back. She said her bones sometimes hardened wrong, and he was just the right weight to crack them. She’d lie face down on the living room carpet while Walt perched in bare feet on her shoulder blades, giggling as the pop of her skeleton traveled up his legs.
Hardened wrong? From what? I wanted to ask, but the way she said it made it sound like one of those things woven into adult life, like electricity bills and overtime and broken-down cars, something that climbed into your comprehension as you aged, something beyond questioning.
The arthritis, presumably, was fed by a number of sources: the twice-nightly transformations, the fall, the years she spent on her feet after that, after she got her job back at the diner. She’s relying on the wheelchair more often now, and one day soon she’ll fold up the walker and put it away for the last time.
She thinks because I’m paying Bonnie that I’m rich. She wonders why I don’t buy one of those Garden City monstrosities we used to drive past. You’ve earned it. You put in the time. I tell her it’s just too much house for one person.
What dentists are number one for is student debt.
How much do I owe? When we were kids, Walt and I talked sometimes after lights-out about the infinity of numbers, how they never ran out. We talked about how that could be, how something could just keep going, and where did it keep going to?
I wonder if Walt talks to his fellow crewmen about these kinds of things, lying in their casket-sized beds after dark—though it’s always after dark where he is. You know it’s morning or evening by what you’re fed, he told me once. Ninety-day stints of that. You have to pass all kinds of psych tests before you can get on board. I wonder if the irony occurs to him, that our mom flew in the sky while he sits in a submarine at the bottom of the sea. Or if he thinks about how we used to pretend we were inside the belly of a whale, leagues beneath the world of light and air, and now he really is down there. I can’t imagine his life at all.
At lunch today I asked how the transformations worked. I took her to a new bistro on Park, the sort of spot that never would have opened here when I was a kid, and she glanced at the glossy room around us. Maybe it seemed indecent to her to discuss the details in such a place.
“It was,” she said, “disgusting.” The powder we would hear her stirring into water made a potion that tasted thick and bilious; the first time she drank it down, she thought it might kill her. Instead, it turned her insides to something jellied. “That’s how I got into people’s houses. I could slip through any opening, no matter how narrow.” She grimaced. “Like a cockroach.” There were wings, too, that erupted from her back, not gracious and feathered but paper-thin, membranous things, insectoid. I asked if it hurt.
“I gave birth to two kids without any epidural,” she said. A waitress came over and refilled our glasses. “No, it was more like a buildup of pressure and then a release. That part wasn’t bad.”
But when she changed back at the end of a shift, her body sometimes felt unfamiliar. Sometimes the way her bones hardened back up wasn’t quite right, and she worried she’d been left with misalignments inside.
I thought of her leg under the table, the limb turned enemy. I asked what it was like to fly.
She said that was the good part. That was when she felt like a superhero. The freedom—it was nothing like taking an airplane. There were moments, tilting over the roofs of the apartment blocks and sifting through clouds, that made her feel like her whole life was only incidental, weighed nothing at all.
We were staying at our grandma’s when I lost my last baby tooth—a left molar I’d been troubling with my tongue for days without fully realizing it. Finally, it broke free of the threads of gum and became a bloody pebble in my mouth. It became an object, no longer part of me.
When it happened, we were in the den watching the TV on low because our mom was asleep in the next room, her childhood bedroom. This was after she got out of the hospital. We were told we’d be staying at our grandma’s house because it was a ranch—no stairs for our mom to climb—but at that point we might have already been evicted. It was all very murky, the eviction: more and more of our things began materializing at Grandma’s house, and the appearance of each familiar container of Legos or raincoat or Superman cape from the previous Halloween distressed rather than pacified Walt; he kept asking when we’d be going back until finally our grandmother confessed that the answer was never because new people had moved into the apartment.
I saw one of the new people once while whizzing past on my bicycle: a man in the front yard raking leaves into a great gold-and-red pile. It sickened me to see the house looming behind him, and its tree that had held me when I threw a jump rope over its thickest branch and, grasping its handles, ran, leaped, and sailed through air. To see the man gathering the tree’s leaves, like they’d always belonged to him.
In the den, I spat the tooth quietly into my hand and tucked it into my pocket.
That night, on the sofa bed beside Walt, who kicked as he drifted off to sleep, I waited as Genevieve had, clutching my molar under the blanket. Its grooves bit into my palm, strange scenes playing across my skull as I hung somewhere between consciousness and what’s under it. At last I heard a sound as she came in, a sloshing by the living room window. I kept my eyes shut and told myself if she was anything like our mom there was nothing to be afraid of.
Something slipped beneath my pillow and rooted around, like a sentient lump. This seemed to go on for a while, long enough for my lungs to burn with the breath I was holding as the lump grew frustrated, more frantic in its rummaging. I felt it withdraw, and my right hand shot out and clamped down on the forearm of the fairy.
It felt like one of those toys we called water snakes, a thin membrane filled with viscous fluid, and it slid right out of my grasp. I looked up into her startled face, which seemed to vibrate over me in the dark room.
“I’m keeping it,” I whispered.
The face twisted into a series of expressions, as though behind it she was shuffling through all the ways of dealing with me. Finally it succumbed to gravity and fell, mouth and eyes sagging.
“You can’t,” she said.
“Why not?” I had promised myself, when I felt that last piece of my babyhood detach, that I would not just turn it over to some stranger.
“I have to have it.” She spoke in a low voice, through teeth.
I resorted to dumb opposition. “Do not.”
“Do too. Or he’ll punish me.”
Maybe she was just using language she thought would move a child. Or maybe not.
“The Man Upstairs.”
The phrase was a brick wall. I extracted my hand from beneath the blanket and gave her the molar, and she dropped a cold coin in the place where the tooth had left its indentations.
The Man Upstairs had technology the manager had never heard of. Like the device the Man Upstairs gave the manager, a sleek oval for the palm of the hand on which would appear at nightfall a map of his territory, speckled with orbs that represented each of its fairies. With thumb and forefinger, the manager could move the map, make it larger or smaller, to see exactly where they were.
“It sounds like a smartphone,” I said. I was driving Mom home from lunch, her walker neatly folded in the trunk. Getting in and out of a car is an undertaking for her, a gesture once fluid now vivisected into a series of discrete and aching stages.
“This was like 1992. No one had so much as a beeper back then,” my mom said. And there was no on/off switch, no keypad, no discernible seams in the thing at all to crack it open and peer into its machinery. The manager had shown it to her once, at the bar; when she jokingly suggested throwing it against the floor to see what happened, the color leaked from his face and he snatched it back.
“I was kidding,” she told him. They had become something like friends, or at least drinking buddies. “What do you think he’d do to you if you broke it? Kill you?”
“You have no clue,” the manager said, “what the fuck you are talking about.”
It began to seem to her then that, even given the sickening sensations she endured each night, she had the better end of the deal.
“Where do you think he got the tech from, the Man Upstairs?” I asked her.
“There must be a whole network of them.” We stopped at a light and watched a woman at the crosswalk holler at her young son to take her hand. “All over the country and maybe the world. And maybe even others, even higher up.”
I thought of them, all the Men Upstairs in all their strange houses, guarding their hoards.
“I still have it in me,” our mom said. “Probably.”
“The tracker.” She prodded at her lower abdomen. “Wonder if anyone’s still looking.”
On her last night of work, Walt and I were alone in the apartment. “No snooping,” our mom had warned us, after putting us to bed. “I know sometimes you two go exploring.”
I became her proxy, hissing at Walt to stay put after we heard the familiar stirring of the glass, the flapping sound, the wind rushing through the kitchen. I was afraid that soon he would insist we climb onto the counter to reach into the forbidden cabinet, take the potion ourselves. I was scared of what it meant that our mother’s bones hardened wrong.
The ringing of the phone cut the night in half, lasered into my sleep.
“Is this Evan?” the man on the other line said when I answered. “Where’s your grandma?”
“On a date,” I said, and then regretted it. When we were alone, we were never to let anyone know, never to answer the door. Our mom had not mentioned the phone in her instructions, but I feared it also applied.
“I’m calling about your mom. She had a fall.”
Sleep’s shreds still drifted around me. “A fall?”
“Do you know your grandma’s number?”
“Call your grandma,” he continued, “and tell her to come to South Nassau.”
“The hospital?” The dread was coming for me, I could feel its approach. “Is she dead?” I asked, but he had hung up.
It was a busy night, and her potion had run out at her last stop, a nice big house on the bay. She’d felt herself snap audibly back into her old form right over the bed of a little girl who, mercifully, did not wake.
“There was a trellis against the house,” our mom told me yesterday in the kitchen, where we were having coffee. She still lives in our grandma’s old place. “So I opened the kid’s window and tried climbing down, but my foot slipped and I fell.”
“Did you know right away it was bad?”
She looked at me. “Not screaming my lungs out right then was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life.”
She knew the manager would see on his tracking device that she wasn’t moving, that it was only a matter of waiting for him. She knew if she screamed, if she was caught, the homeowners would think she’d been breaking and entering.
“And that,” she said, “would be that. Jail for me, some hellacious foster home for you. I was able to take the long view even in that moment.”
I saw her lying in the damp grass of a stranger’s backyard, trying not to howl.
And the manager did come. She wasn’t sure how long it took because she kept blacking out, the world of the dark yard clicking on and off. He lifted her with surprising gentleness and carried her to his car. On the drive to the hospital, she came to at one point to him ranting about the Man Upstairs—why couldn’t he, with all his technology, make the potions longer-lasting? Why the constant hustling that put them all at risk?
You have to send someone over to my boys, she told him. She could tell she wouldn’t be out of the hospital any time soon, from how wrong her leg looked.
“Goddamnit,” he said.
She thought distantly that, before all this, he had probably been an ordinary man, maybe even a nice one.
She broke off from remembering and stared at me again. “Don’t you wish Walt were here?”
In the waiting room a woman approached us, dressed in a red blazer with padding that made her shoulders monumental.
“May I borrow these two young men for just a second?” she said to our grandma. She wasn’t really asking. She used a sweet voice but burned with authority.
We knew what CPS was. It was whispered among the students in school, a named entity winding down the hallways, and gradually we assimilated the knowledge that children could be taken from their homes; it had happened to this kid, and that kid, and that one too.
The woman in the red blazer led us to a small office around the corner where she asked a series of questions. Does your mom often leave you guys alone? Any idea where she goes? What about Grandma? Does someone make you dinner every night? Under the barrage, I felt as I did out by the bus stop on frigid days: unsheltered, defenseless. Walt watched me, mute. My throat had puckered shut. I shook my head.
The woman reached across the desk and rapped her fingers against it to get Walt’s attention as though he were a cat. “How many times a week does your mom give you a bath?” she asked him.
He barely had a grasp on the passage of time at all. Our mom measured hours for him in episodes of Mr. Rogers.
“Enough,” I said.
“How many exactly?”
“That he always smells okay.”
She smiled, her mouth stretched thin under the fluorescents so I could see where her lipstick collected in its cracks. I briefly imagined her launching herself across the desk to give Walt a big, ravenous sniff.
Instead she let us go. The manager was lingering in the hall just outside. I didn’t know who he was at the time, but it was to him that I appealed.
“They want to take us away,” I told him.
He turned his strange, pale face toward the exit.
He didn’t know about time, but the threat of being taken from our mother—that Walt understood. Eventually, after a few home visits, CPS let it drop, but the threat alone dislodged something in him. In his elementary classrooms he came to be known as Wild Walt, prone to outbursts, his two years of junior high marred by fights and suspensions. One counselor said mood dysregulation. Another said ADHD. Another said he was just plain unmanageable. In high school, he discovered a love of physics, tried to settle down and get serious, but there was his reputation jogging ahead. And, I suspect, a lot of teachers had decided that they simply didn’t like the look of him. They asked if he was sure he really was my brother. Graduation was a thing to crawl to, on his belly, under razor wire, and in the last days of his education the guidance counselor suggested he consider the military.
The story our mom gave the doctors was that she was staying at the manager’s house when she heard a strange sound she mistook for an intruder, and, on instinct, leaped from his bedroom window. The doctors said she had fallen in just the worst way. They said she could fall again a million times and never have it turn out that bad.
In the hospital room, her left leg was elevated and held together by a forest of pins. It looked like something no leg, no person, should be expected to withstand.
Walt didn’t even want to be in the room with her. Our grandma had to gently shove him inside, a series of nudges to his back. He huddled at the foot of the bed, facing away from our mom, his gaze locked on the television.
“It’s okay,” she mouthed at our grandma. She was heavily drugged, dead behind the eyes.
Grandma and I sat side by side in chairs of pink vinyl that stuck to our skin. I repeated to her in a murmur what I’d told the manager, that the woman in the blazer wanted to take Walt and me away.
“That won’t happen,” our grandma said. She squeezed my shoulder. She was young for a grandma. Her hands were strong. “Everything’s going to be fine.” She raised her voice so that Walt and our mom could hear, and pointed to the ceiling. “I’m going to have a talk about all this with the man upstairs.”
She meant God, of course. Once I’d asked, after Walt’s dad’s funeral, where God could be found. Mom said he was everywhere, everything. So to me God was like air, a breeze passing over the world, reaching into every corner. He was nothing I had to pray to or even think about: I trusted he was always with us, with our family. But for a moment, even through the haze of sedation, our mom’s face was contorted by a terror that at the time I could not understand.