My little brother, Esau, came home from Boy Scout camp early this year with a busted mouth. He was playing Luke Skywalker versus Darth Vader with his puny Boy Scouts of America flashlight against Chad Miller who wielded a Mag-Lite. Two of Esau’s teeth broke off, leaving a gap in the top of his mouth. The camp nurse stitched Esau’s cheek and put a sling around his jaw. He came home holding an ice pack to his swollen face. He’d been up all night and was sedated with pills. The camp nurse had called ahead, so we knew what to expect. For weeks Esau sucked milkshakes through bendy straws. He was a mush-mouth. Two days passed before we understood him, when he asked for gold caps.
“Gan I get gold gaps?” he said.
“For my teef.”
Mom vetoed that. We lived in Oaken Bluffs Trailer Village on her waitress salary. Dad wanted us to call him “Bill” and sent postcards.
“Esau needs a CAT scan,” I said.
“He needs a reality check, Sarah,” Mom said.
“We don’t own insurance,” I explained to Esau.
“We should shoe,” he said.
“Can’t,” Mom said. “I signed the permission slip.”
“We could sue the Millers,” I suggested.
“I thought Ryan Miller was your boyfriend?” Mom said.
“Friend,” I said. “Won’t make a difference to them. They’re loaded.”
Mom called a cab. The Fosters were going to pay a visit. We knew most of the cabbies—this one was a guy named Sal. He listened to Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, and Mel Torme. He said show tunes put him in a “delta mood.” I don’t know what kind of mood that was. Mostly he cussed out the other drivers. I knew where the Millers lived because I had been there once. I sat in the front and gave Sal directions through their winding subdivision. Me, Mom, and Esau went up to the door. Mom rang and Dr. Miller answered.
After introductions Mom said, “Don’t stand there, Doc. Look him over.”
“I’m a podiatrist,” Dr. Miller said as he knelt.
“Your son did this, Dr. Miller. What are you going to do about it?”
Dr. Miller stood up. He ran a hand through his hair and hooked a thumb onto his belt loop. He called Mom an alcoholic and opportunistic. Then he nodded at the house next door, or what I presume was next door, an enormous brown A-frame some ways off, the roof covered with solar panels.
“Newlyweds,” Dr. Miller said. “They’re in practice together. He’s an orthodontist and she’s an oral surgeon. Sometimes they take charity. I could ask.”
That sounded great. I didn’t mind Dr. Miller calling us charity. I prayed it would happen. Charity was right and true and good. We rode home in the cab feeling uplifted.
But that night after Esau had gone to bed, me and Mom saw Shelton Angel the ambulance lawyer pitching his commercial on TV. A fake client with crutches waved a fanned-out stack of play money.
“I’m not promising $300,000 on every case,” Shelton said. “But I will work for the money you deserve.” He wore a seafoam colored suit and an immodest amount of gold. His rings were set with large yellow diamonds. Shelton’s whitish-orange hair was swept over his bald crown and pinned there with hairspray. The client had an ACE bandage wrapped around his head like Johnny Tremain.
“He looks greedy,” I said. “We should hire him. He’ll make the Millers pay. It says free.”
Mom said she’d go for the consultation but I had to keep it from Esau who couldn’t be trusted with secrets. Mom said not to say anything to Ryan Miller either, which wasn’t easy, since I saw him all the time. Now in the back of my mind I was always singing, “Ryan Miller, we’re suing your rich ass!”
Shelton Angel became our lawyer. He said suing the Miller’s was a coup-de-grace idea but he didn’t think we should give up on the camp.
“The onus is on them,” Shelton said. “Just because you sign a piece of paper doesn’t mean they can bully you. They let your son get clobbered, Ms. Foster. And they act like it’s your fault. You’re entitled to reparations.” Shelton referred Esau to a psychologist, which he hated, but Shelton said psychological damage was money in the bank, so we had little choice.
All through grade school I’d grown up with Ryan Miller as my dream date. The girls at school called Ryan’s dad “Dr. Miller, the fox.” I observed Ryan, not so much to adore him as to imagine the colorful walk-in closet of a doctor’s wife. The fantasy Ryan was more like his daddy in my mind, only under my control. But that wasn’t the real Dr. Miller at all, because he divorced Ryan’s mom right after Chad was born. Ryan showed me both sets of wedding pictures, back when Dr. Miller was white-hot. And we both agreed Ryan’s real mom looked like me. But who was I kidding?
So I didn’t date Ryan but he rode his bike over and we sat out on the side stoop. We talked about the change of seasons, songs we liked, people we hated, stuff on TV, the smell of burning leaves. Ryan and I weren’t allowed in the trailer anymore if Mom wasn’t home—it was a rule. Not since she caught us in her room when I had his Levi’s off. But Ryan wasn’t my boyfriend. He was just a friend. I liked him because he did what I said. We sat out on the stoop until the sun dropped, whether Mom was home or not. We weren’t romantic but sometimes I caught a glimpse of the Ryan I wanted, and I kissed him.
He felt bad about his little brother hitting mine. He assured me it was an accident.
“Playing ‘lightsabers’ with flashlights is pretty dumb,” he said. “Someone was bound to get tagged.”
Ryan made me a mixed tape but we didn’t have a tape deck on our stereo so I brought it with me to Wendy McGrath’s slumber party. The tape was a bunch of cheesy love ballads off of Rock 104. The girls at the slumber party swayed in mock-amorous groping couples, slow dancing barefoot on sleeping bags we’d unzipped and laid out on the carpet. Bits of popcorn were everywhere and getting stuck between our toes. Whenever the cavernous throat of Voodoo Mack the D.J. came on the tape all the girls coughed and gagged. Somewhere along the line they’d lost interest in Ryan Miller. I explained how it was between me and Ryan:
“He likes me but I don’t care. Sometimes when he comes over I have Esau answer the door with the message that he should fuck off.”
Ever since Esau got hit at camp he liked doing stuff like that. “She don’ won you, Ron,” he would say.
Dr. Miller had written us a scrip for Amoxicillin, so the swelling had gone down in Esau’s cheek, but he was forever a mush-mouth. Meanwhile school had started up and Esau was meeting with the speech teacher who gave him poems to memorize, which helped, especially Marianne Moore. But when he was upset, which was enough of the time, he was hard to understand. Most people never understood a word. They didn’t have much patience with him and there was always the possibility his spit might land on you. The psychologist told Mom Esau’s speech problems were psychological. Of course he would say that.
Esau slammed our trailer door and Ryan Miller nursed his pride and walked his Schwinn back down Oaken Bluffs Boulevard until he rolled over the last speed bump. Like the Capulets and the Montagues. He mounted the bike and turned to see if I was watching. Romeo and Juliet were the perfect example of romantic love. We had been reading Romeo and Juliet and memorizing the speeches from Hamlet and MacBeth for Ms. Haslitt. “Ol’ Will,” she called him. Ryan only got the half of it. He always thought in relation to himself, as if he were unable to view Shakespeare in any other light. Sometimes I wondered if Ryan listened to Haslitt at all. For example, when she said, “There is a block of time where Romeo and Juliet might have,” the remark flew right over Ryan’s head. I explained to him on the phone after school what she meant and the next day in class Ryan asked Haslitt point-blank: “Did you say Romeo and Juliet did it?”
“If you want to believe so, Ryan,” she said, “you’re free to. Scholars will back you.”
“Either did they or didn’t they?” he said. “We want to know.”
He stopped his bike where Oaken Bluffs intersected County Road Eleven and waited for the traffic. He looked back once more and I felt a pang. I wanted to run out to him. He wasn’t much but he was mine.
The one time Ryan had me over I noticed his father’s presence everywhere, though the doctor was not in. His Tudor home, his study, his rec room, his Apple II computer, his Wall Street Journal, his shelves of black leatherbound medical books, his LPs, his stacks of Photo and Architectural Digest, his Dictaphone, his gorgeous second wife, his remote-control model Cessna, his King Tut pinball machine, his snooker table, his whisky decanters, his macaw. Ryan’s stepmom doted on us while Ryan spun Kinks records. I thought how wonderful it must be for them when the doctor was in. Marrying a doctor was a dream. Ryan lived in a doctor’s home filled with doctor’s things. They had a maid, the security of a doctor’s presence, and the beatitudes of a doctor’s mind. And for now Ryan remained unspoiled by it all. But I knew when he turned sixteen he would usurp his stepmom’s red LeBaron convertible and he’d steal from the whisky decanters. He was already dropping hints. So I still thought of Ryan as mine though he didn’t have the guts to stand up to my little brother.
Esau mostly watched TV and he never wanted to go outside. He didn’t talk much either, from embarrassment for the way he sounded. The psychologist asked Esau what it was like inside his cracked head. He expected Esau to articulate himself when the psychologist knew more than anyone what a nervous yolk he was.
“A psychologist’s not a doctor,” I said. “He can’t fix you. They play tricks to keep you coming back. He’ll get you talking though. You wait and see.”
I started calling Ryan Miller more often and telling him to come over when Mom was gone. I was supposed to be babysitting Esau, who we left glued to the TV. I took Ryan into Mom’s room and locked the door. I didn’t mind being alone with Ryan then. And Esau would never tell on us. He hated Ryan but I was Esau’s only friend, so he couldn’t afford to rat.
Esau never wanted to be a Boy Scout but Mom thought he needed to be around men. She bought the whole Boy Scout regimen one day at J.C. Penny’s: B.S.A. handbook, uniform, pocket knife, compass, flashlight, canteen, poncho, backpack, sleeping bag. That was going to be our time together while Esau was at camp. She was going to explain about sex and she said I could ask anything. That was nearly four months ago. Not that I don’t know, mostly I know. Ryan’s dad has colored-pencil drawings of it in one of his medical books.
Ryan knew which book and which pages. He went right for it. I shoved him onto Mom’s unkempt bed and unzipped and unbuttoned his Levi’s. He leaned back and waited. He thought we were going all the way. I imagined Dr. Miller and Ryan’s stepmom in a precise embrace like the figures in the colored-pencil drawings. It would be a long time before Esau knew that kind of love. For me it was around the corner, with Ryan Miller if I wanted. I pulled him to me and he was clammy.
But then Mom’s work-friend, Jackie, rolled up the gravel drive in her Jeep Cherokee to drop off Mom. That’s when I noticed the back off the alarm clock and the battery gone. The second hand frozen. Why would she do that? It made me feel like she did it to trick us. I pushed Ryan off and ran into the front room of the trailer to pretend we’d been watching TV with Esau all along. Ryan came sauntering down the hall behind me like he’d been in the bathroom. Mom came in, waved “bye” to Jackie, and set some bags on the kitchen counter. Ryan hitched his pants and walked past her.
“Whatcha watching?” Mom asked.
I stared at Esau until he answered. It took him several tries but he finally got it right: “Gilligan.”
Ryan sat next to me on the floor. “I must have seen this one a hundred million times,” he said. “Gilligan gets trapped in a cave by a gigantic spider but the Professor sicks this dove on the thing and it runs away in fast motion.”
Mom tried to act interested. “Are you staying for dinner, Ryan?” she asked.
“No Ma’am, my stepmom doesn’t allow me out past dark.”
“I can understand that,” she said. “Especially on a school night.” She knew he couldn’t stay; she was rubbing it in, she was telling him to go. “It’s getting dark now,” she said.
When she turned her back, Ryan squeezed my hand, and he looked deep into my eyes. He had brown eyes with green specks.
“Parting is such sweet sorrow,” he whispered.
I appreciated the sentiment but he didn’t know what he was saying. Parting is sweet sorrow, Ryan.
At dinner I could no longer stand Mother. She never had anything interesting or funny to say and she had chased Ryan off. Halfway through the meal she said, “We forgot to say the blessing.” She made us hold hands and pray then and there after we’d already eaten, when she knew me and Esau didn’t believe in it.
Esau turned up the mush-mouth when he prayed: “Guard ish goot. Guard ish grade…”
Mom made us drink our milk and she slurped hers through a straw, the bendy straws among her booty from the restaurant.
“It’s not stealing, Sarah,” she would say. “I work for these napkins. I work for these straws. I work for the damn plastic cups. I work for the toilet paper, the ashtrays, and our salt and pepper shakers.” She liked to be antagonizing at mealtimes.
“You’re not on a diet,” she said when I didn’t finish my plate. The easiest way to tolerate her was to shut up and eat. I felt cramped around our kitchen table. The milk was warm and slightly sour.
“You can have chocolate syrup,” she said. She drank hers with Coco Rico. What I hated most about her was the way she said one thing but did another. Like when she said she hadn’t been drinking, or that she was through with dating. At dinner she said, “That crummy camp wants to settle,” right in front of Esau when she had forbidden me to say a word. “They didn’t offer us shit,” she said. “So I told Shelton to go ahead with plan B.”
They sold cans of Lone Star at her restaurant. She wasn’t supposed to drink on the job, but as long as she paid her tab her boss kept them coming. Esau perked up. He watched a lot of TV and there weren’t too many people named Shelton—he knew exactly what we were talking about. He asked me later and I was forced to confirm his suspicions. I knew I would probably regret it; I could make up some lie, but I felt I had no choice. Mom was always making me decide between hers and someone else’s loyalty. Esau promised he would keep it a secret but he was incapable of that. Ryan wouldn’t be allowed to come over once his dad found out. He could hardly get away from his stepmom as it was.
Mom didn’t give Esau the chance to broadcast the news on this one though. She called the Millers herself right after dinner. Ryan’s stepmom answered.
“I don’t much care for my children playing with yours either,” Mom said.
That spelled the end of me and Ryan. And things had been going better than I was willing to admit. Ryan apologized the next day at school. He said he hated not being able to come over. He even shouted that he loved me one day in the hall and Haslitt heard. She could have given us both detention for that, but she let it slide. The new arrangement with Ryan was all romance, no effort. I was glad he wasn’t allowed over.
Mom said Shelton Angel blew a gasket when she told him about the phone call with Mrs. Miller. Shelton reminded her that if we lost our case and got zero dollars then we were obligated to pay his fees. But good came from the call since Mrs. Miller sped up the charity notion. So that while I was watching CHiPs with Esau, one of the newlyweds called. I said Mom was at work and the woman introduced herself as the oral surgeon. She said she wanted to see Esau. I knew Mom’s schedule, so I made an appointment, as late in the day as possible. If we were getting charity I wanted the full treatment. I wanted us the last ones in their office so they might feel obligated to give us a ride home, and they might even treat us to Taco King.
“I’m looking forward to meeting your brother,” she said.
I kidded Esau: “You might get gold caps after all.”
When the day came for Esau’s dental appointment Mom called a cab. For a long time I had been egging Ryan on about Esau’s appointment. “His operation might take hours,” I said. “It’s an opportunity for us to get truly naked.” I told Ryan the date and we counted down the hours. But when the time came I wanted to go along. I wanted to see the newlywed doctors with my own eyes. I wanted to be there when they set things right.
The late appointment was a miscalculation on my part. Mom was tipsy. First Dr. Sanderson appeared at the reception desk and then her husband came out, the orthodontist. Both of them wore green scrubs, hairnets, and surgical masks. They snapped on fresh latex gloves and took Esau back to one of the examination rooms. The chair was adjusted and they wrapped him in a lead bib. They aimed the light at him and poked around in his mouth. They collaborated for a moment, they fired off a round of X-rays, and they reached a simple diagnosis. Esau came out elated. He was holding his X-rays in a manila folder. He pointed out a row of new teeth coming in under the gum line.
“Ms. Foster,” Mr. Dr. Sanderson said, “Esau hasn’t lost all his baby teeth.”
“He has,” Mom said. “He’s eleven.”
“No, he’s going to lose more. He has teeth coming in.”
So that was that. Esau’s speech impediment, his temper, his crooked smile, they would all taper with time. He was a shark. He would outgrow this. One day he would wake up perfectly normal.
Ryan kept calling but I didn’t ask him over. Me and Esau started spending a lot of time watching TV together. He wiggled his teeth and sometimes a piece came out, or a root, or a whole tooth. At the last slumber party Tara Lockhart brought a tape Ryan had made for her. None of the girls made fun of the tape and nobody said anything about Voodoo Mack’s stupid voice. We lay in our sleeping bags and stared up into the darkness. Some of the girls said they envied Tara when no one had ever said that to me. I envied Tara. Her mom never cared when or where she went with whichever boy. Her and Ryan were perfect for each other. They would go straight to couple heaven. So much for Capulets and Montagues.
As if that weren’t enough, Shelton Angel had started calling. He said he was glad things had worked out for Esau but we owed him money. He asked when Mom would be home, which I knew I wasn’t supposed to give out. But Shelton called all the time and he had a way of knowing if I lied. He kept asking when would she be home and when was a good time to come over?
“It’s Halloween,” I said finally. “She has to come home to pass out the candy, doesn’t she?”
We didn’t have many trick-or-treaters that year, mostly other trailer park kids. Me and Esau stayed home. Esau couldn’t eat candy and I was too old for the routine.
We had a string of Darth Vaders. The first one showed up early, with the sun yet to go down. The small boy was done up in black clothes with a black mask, black boots, a black cape, and he was waving a flashlight.
“Gay Zorro?” I asked.
“Vader,” he said, then he started in with the heavy breathing: Haa-Pooh. Haa-Pooh.
So I said, “You’re early, Vader. Come back after it’s dark.”
Mom came home with peanut butter taffy and Blow Pops. Shelton arrived ten minutes later. She was still in her waitress duds. Shelton was wearing the seafoam suit and jewelry. He handed Mom a bouquet of royal blue daisies. He said he had something confidential to ask, a proposal. Mom put the daisies in a Mason jar with water and she led Shelton into her room. I heard the click of her door locking. Our jack-o’-lantern was lit on the side stoop and a ribbon of sweet smoke wafted into the trailer through the screen door. I sat there with Esau and pretended to watch Ed McMahon’s Star Search but my mind was on Mom’s room and the sound of Shelton’s agitated breathing. Now it was dark.
The first Darth Vader came back. He held his flashlight to his mask. “Trick or treat,” he said in a deep voice.
“You want a Blow-Pop or a taffy?” I said. For a split-second I thought it was Chad, Ryan’s little brother.
“Do the Aqua-lung thing,” I said.
Mom must have had her bedroom window open because Shelton could be heard huffing and puffing outside too. This made the kid self-conscious but he wanted his candy.
“Come on,” I said, and he half-heartedly breathed in and out of the slit in his mask.
“Louder,” I said, and the young Vader became asthmatic, more like the famous cyborg. “Louder,” I said until the kid was a pumping bellows, and I was sure Shelton heard. Who was self-conscious now? I gave the trick-or-treater two Blow Pops and he ran off, cape trailing.
I tried to imagine it was me in Mom’s room with Ryan and I was the one who had locked the door, but my imagination ran dry after I had Ryan’s Levis off. And they didn’t come out until three commercial breaks later. Ol’ Shelton’s face was flushed and his balding crown dripped beads of sweat. His stringy hair hung down and he left quickly without shutting our door. Mom threw the daisies at him so the Mason jar broke on the gravel and she kicked our beaten door shut.
“Halloween’s over,” she said. She picked up the bowl of candy and hugged it. “The rest is for us.”
Shelton gathered the daisies from the ground. He got in his car, put the daisies on the passenger seat, and peeled out. He was flying down the drive when he hit the first speed bump, which gave his shocks an audible jar and he eased off.
“What kind of A-hole speeds through the trailer park on Halloween?” Mom said.
I couldn’t stand the idea of sitting around our cramped table for yet another dinner. I expressed the sentiment with expletives and Mom said what the heck, it was Saturday, she’d made good tips, the Fosters were going out.
When Sal, the cabby, got here he was dressed as a fisherman in a yellow slicker. Esau sat in front with him and said, “O’ Cap’n, Ma Cap’n!” and, “Wala-wala ever-where and all the borscht did shrink!” We pulled onto County Road Eleven and rode with the windows down. Sal blasted Porgy and Bess. We were in a delta mood. I yelled, “Taco King! Taco King!” to the chorus of one of the musical numbers but Mom said “No.” She wanted someplace she could drink.
“Shubmerged shafts of the shun,” Esau said, “shplit like shpun glash.”
“It’s up to Esau,” Mom said. “He should decide.”
Esau’s mind was warped by TV. He had his heart set on one destination: Medieval Nights, where medieval fun was never out of fashion. It was the old high school gym filled with sawdust and they charged ten bucks to get in. There were melees between knights with maces and two-handed swords. They jousted on retired police horses that clip-clopped around the gym floor. The Casio player didn’t know any songs, only the riff from “Another One Bites the Dust,” which he repeated endlessly. We were encouraged to shout and no one was taken aback by Esau’s spitting. Mom drank frothy mugs of mead.
I wrote “Juliet” on my nametag, Esau was “Gunter,” and Mom became “Tess.” We were led to a picnic table with a blue tablecloth. We sat at folding metal chairs covered with blue felt. Our attendant was also the sackbut player. She brought us a light-blue banner, which she placed in a hole in the middle of our table. She said the Pale-Blue Knight was our knight. “The Denim Knight,” Mom called him. “The Fucked-Up Knight,” Esau spat. He was the Rocky of knights, though, a comeback kid. We danced on our table and waved the blue banner. In the end, the Pale-Blue Knight won the day.