A short story from 1989
I was downstairs watching t.v. in the very special room I’d set up since getting a job. It wasn’t really all that special. It was just down in the basement, away from my old room upstairs where I’d lived as a kid. My parents thought it was a good idea now that I had a job. They said things like: “We think tis a good idea no that you have a job. It’s a damn good idea. It can only help.”
There was another war movie on, so I was thinking about how glad I was that at least I wasn’t there and I had many thank yous to make. Thank you I’m not in battle thank you thank you.
The blue t.v. light wrapped around the blanket that I’d wrapped around myself and this time the submarine had a Nazi battleship chugging behind and above it with all those sounds of ping, ping, ping. The men in the sub sat still and quiet with beads of sweat that swelled and fell off the ends of their black and white close up noses. I said aloud: “Please don’t let them drop depth charges.”
Then I thought that it just didn’t seem right for people in boats to try to kill people in submarines. Dying in a submarine is no way to go. There is no where to swim to and not very far to sink. Then The boat dropped depth charges.
Mom scurried about upstairs, sounding a bit like a pigeon trapped in a chimney and I swear I could almost hear her trying to smile. She was doing a good job of it too. You could tell by the rapid pitter patter. Then dad fumbled about with slow grumbling steps and a scuff of leather on the linoleum. He sounded much bigger and slower and with a smaller smile than mom’s. I n this way it was a perfect family picture.
Back on the t.v., the captain of the sub had the great idea of stuffing all the crap he could find into the torpedo tube along with the extra oil. It’s mostly the same in submarine movies. The slick and the cushions and wood and food and even the corpses from the engine room would float to the surface and fool the Nazis above into thinking that the sub below had been hit. They would have to be very quiet so that the Nazi sonar wouldn’t hear them and someone would probably almost drop a wrench and catch it at the last minute. You can pretty much predict the course of events in a submarine movie. Right down to the fact that the engine room will flood and provide the captain with the copses for the torpedo tubes. There’s just something about the engine room that makes it flood… probably the engines, but it’s only a guess.
Still the film made me scared and I kept thinking about being in a submarine. So that I broke a cold sweat. I wrapped myself a little tighter in the yellow, flannel blanket and thought to myself about the good part coming up with the wrench that would almost fall. It came. It passed. The sub floated on and the movie went on and I sort of stopped watching. I’d either seen this film before, or they are all alike. I wrapped myself tighter in the yellow blanket and fell sideways on the moldy smelling sofa. I tried to stare off ino space, but kept getting lost along the lines of the cinder block basement wall, now painted yellow.
I could hear the handle on the door above the steps click and then twist and the creaking open door and mom yell, “Paul, your brothers here. Come up now. His Car’s in the driveway.”
I heard the front door open and the silence of my father waiting. My brother’s car door opened and then my father yelled out the front door in my mother’s voice, “hi.” It sounded far away.
I looked around the yellow basement and blinked my eyes real fast, waiting for the coming footsteps. Then I heard the slam of the car door and then I heard the footsteps. I didn’t move. I heard my brother say, “Hi.” My mother came right back at him with, “hi” Someone said, “how are you?” and I couldn’t tell who it was through the floor. But my brother said, “I’m good. Where’s Pauli?”
“Oh he’s coming,” mom said. I told him you were here. He’s anxious to see you.”
“Go tell him again,” dad said. No kidding. Dad was down to business. He was trying very hard.
Then I heard mom’s feet pitter patter and the door open again, “Paul,” she said. “Didn’t you hear me? Your brother’s here. He wants to see you.”
Coming,” I said, but I didn’t move. I knew I would go up soon, but I waited, or just didn’t move.
“Paul. Come up now,” my father yelled.
But I waited and then they ignored me for a while and I could hear them talking, but it was quiet talk so I didn’t make out any of the words through the floor and the half open door like before. I caught a little laughter and waited for the next call downstairs. I promised myself I’d stop sweating, if only they wouldn’t call downstairs. I thought that was a fair deal. I would certainly stop sweating if they didn’t call down. Maybe I needed a half hour. If they gave me a half an hour.
Mom yelled first, “Honey. Please.” Something ridiculous possessed me and I yelled up, “I was going to come up if only you didn’t yell that one last time down.”
“Oh Paul, “ my mother tried to laugh. “You make up all these rules in your head.”
“I was going to come up, you know, “ I said.
Then my brother came half way down the steps and peeked his head around the corner so I could see his face. His hair was shorter and he might’ve put on some weight. His face looked fuller and he had on a brand new sneaker. I could only see the left sneaker, but it wasn’t like him to only buy the one sneaker. He’d have the pair. Sneakers. Plural.
He said, “Shit head,” which is what we always called each other since we were kids.
I said, “Dana.”
“Nothing. I’m watching a movie It’s all about a submarine.”
“Great,” Dana said and he came the rest of the way down the stairs and said, “Move the fuck over then.”
I gathered up my blanket and sat up and pushed over a little. Dana took a couple of big steps and then lept up in the air and let his butt crash down on the sofa. It shook the sofa up like a wave and I sort of smiled, which was nice.
“What did I miss,” Dana asked and I heard the door close quietly upstairs and my parents walk back to the kitchen.
“There was the part where the captain puts all the stuff in the torpedo tube…”
“What a torpedo?”
“No. You know…”
“Oh, you mean all the flotsam and jetsam and oil so that the captain uptop is fooled….”
“It always freaks me out when there’s the one guy who drops a clip board…”
“Wrench then… never get’s dull.”
“Yeah a wrench this time…”
Then my brother pulled off his parka and snuggled his butt deeper inot the cushions and got all comfortable and we watched the movie for while. I liked the shots throguht the periscope. He said they looked fake. I said I’d never looked through a periscope, so I didn’t know if they looked fake or not. He said he knew it just instinctively. I said I liked them all the same.
At some point I said, “ I bet mom even put out peanuts or whatever.”
“Don’t worry, Pauli, “my brother said.
“I’m not worried,” I said. “But if you’d like some peanuts I’m sure she rolled out the red carpet.”
“So mom eats the peanuts and blames dad,” Dana said.
I smiled a little. And it was pretty nice, so I just looked at my brother afor a long time. It was true what mom had said: he was beginning to look more and more like me as he got older. I felt proud and he tried to pretend I was looking at him… staring.
Then he said, “Look, it’s one of those shots throught the periscope you claim to like so much.”
I looked back at the t.v. and it was a shot where they scan the horizon for boats. They found a convoy, but this time t was an American convoy. So they didn’t show the torpedo coming ou the front and swooshing through the water with the white bubble stream vehind. This time they showed the the sub coming to the surface and all the guys on the boats waved at all the guys on the submarine who came ou on the deck in their vest sailor suits. The guys on the sub waved back. I waved at the t.v… I felt so elated.
I said, “Wave Dana.”
He waved too and the movie was over ad the credits rolled and the all the words got in the way of the waving Americans. So I stopped waving and Dana followed my lead and stopped too. Swe sat there and didn’t say anything and waited for a commercial. I felt a little nervous, because I knew Dana would try to talk during the commercial. I wasn’t so sure what he’d say, but I knw he’d try to talk. So when the commercial came on with the woman holding a big bottle of detergent right next to a laundry machine, I said, “Hey that’s the exact same brand as mom uses. Imagine that.”
Dana said, “Whatever. I use it too.”
Yeah, “ said. I used to use it too. Funny how we all… I’m letting mom do my laundry now, so I guess technically…” and I pointed to the jug of detergent on the laundry machine behind the t.v.set and the boiler. “Dad says we might put up a wall there and make it a separate laundry room. He said It’s been on his mind for years.”
“Yup. That’s what he says. Years. But I don’t think it has been Dana. Do you?”
“Sure. Why not. It’s a good idea.”
“You think? A laundry room just like that?”
“I think it’s a good idea for you to have your own space. To pay some rent to get a job… I don’t know.”
“Sure whatever, but I don’t think dad’s been on this for years. Do you? Be honest Dana.”
“I am honest. You might want to live down here for a while. They’re just trying to help you out. It’s not some kind of conspiracy or anything. Dad just doesn’t want to make you feel awkward. That’s all. He’s cat dancing all over your feelings.”
“Well it does make me feel awkward.” Either he’s lying Dana, or he’s been keeping this laundry room idea a secret my whole life. It makes me feel awkward alright. Why didn’t he tell me about these plans before?”
“Hey maybe you just want to feel awkward, “ My brother said.
“That’s what they all say, “ I said.
Then we sat uietly for a minute and I couldn’t think of anything to say until Dana said, “It sure is yellow down here.”
I said, “Yep.”
The sofa was yellow, the walls were yellow, the light bulb like most light bulbs was sort of yellow, but the t.v. was black and white.
“Hey look, “ I said to my brother and I stood up and let the yellow blanket fall, I had on yellow boxer shorts. “Pretty great? Huh?”
“They are yellow.”
“look Dana, “I said. “I know you think I’m weird, but the yellow décor was mom’s idea. She thought it might cheer me up. Sunshine. You know.”
“Yeah but I have a feeling you blew it all out of … I never said you’re weird Pauli.”
“She said it would cheer me up. I swear.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “But it is yellow. You have to admit that.”
“But are you feeling better?”
“Sure,” I said and I sat back and rewrapped myself in the blanket. “I …. I got a job.”
“I know. That’s why I’m here. We’re celebrating.”
“That’s what they all say.”
Dana started to feidget and then he squeezed a roll of fat hanging over his belt He’d gained a lot of weight, but he looked good and he looked down at the fat caught between his thumb and his four fingers and said, “Pauli, man,, you should really feel good about all this, you know?”
I wasn’t sure what he was talking about: his roll of fat, my job, the yellow basement, or what? So I tried to grab some blubber off my own gut and squeeze myselfl because it looked like okay fun… but there wasn’t any. I was like a skelton. I’d lost I guess the same amountof weight as Dana lost maybe. So I just looked at him and said, “Dana this is no big deal. It’s just a cruddy job you know.”
Then I got up and turned the channel and kept on turning it and there was news and a rerun sitcom and more news and another rerun sitcom and there was a commercial. And then we don’t get a bunch of channels after that but I went around a few more times and then where there was the commercial was another war movie. I stopped there and this time the Americans were in planes that swooped aover the Japanese who sat in fox holes very low to the ground. When the bombs fell in z fox hole the Japanese got blown through the air and it looked almost funny, but scary too. The way their legs flailed and their arms flapped, they looked like crazy bloodstained birds. I didn’t want to be there, but I imagined it was better by far than a submarine.
Still I offered the conversation, “Sure would hate to be there.”
“Death from above,” my brother said quoting something.
And we watched the movie for a while. I liked the shots of the bombs falling. They were beautiful before they hit the ground and blew u. Dana said they were all real shots of real bombs from the real war. I said they were beautiful all the same, but I could see what he meant The film looked different when the bombs were falling than from when they hit the ground. It was obvious there was something in the grain.
I looked at Dana and he had both hands on his roll of fat now, the poor bastard. Then I watched the movie. They showed a pretty fake shot of a Japanese guy who’d had his arm blown off.
I said, “Ouch.”
Dana said, ”So how is work?”
“Watch the movie.”
“I drove four hours to see you, Pauli.”
“And mom appreciates it…”
“Fuck you. It was mom’s idea, okay, but I drove down here to see you. Not mom, you.”
Watch the freakin’ movie Dana. It’s not a big deal. It’s a cruddy job.”
“Mom says you’re feeling better. She said you come home laughing and stuff like a norm….al like the old days. She says you’re starting to feel good again.”
“That’s what they all say, “ I said.
Dana sighed and then he said, “Do you want to go out, or something? We could go to the diner and get some greasy food?”
“You’re fat enough,” I scold him. “Besides, it’s Friday and I like to watch the movies on Fridays.”
“Mom says you aren’t watching so much T.V. anymore.”
“That’s cause I have a job, but on Fridays I still watch t.v..”
“So you’re keeping a tight schedule then?”
“Yeah,” I said. “If you want to call it that.”
“That’s really good, Pauli.”
Then I looked at the t.v. and the American officers were planning something big. I couldn’t tell what it was, but they had a map printed on glass with grease pencils. And when the pencils got dull they’d rip the paper off its side ina pink flesh color pig tail coils, exposing the black, greasy core. Then they’d draw more dark lines like the interconnecting strands of a spider’s web. These lines were probably courses for the airplanes, but they sure looked like a web to me. Then they showed all these shots of the airplanes up there in the clouds the contrails and the flak.
I turned to Dana and I said, “Fuck It’s not such a big deal, you know.” I held my knees to my chest “I don’t even have any scars. I know plenty of people with the scars, Dana. Fuck they’ve got Frankenstein stitchhes up their wrists…. Little punch scars at the throat from the trake. Take you mind off that in group some time… but I mean I’m fine. I know people with scars, but I don’t have any.”
I let myself go and my feet fell back towards the floor and now I could show my unscarred arms to Dana and then I put them down at my sides and said, “I just got a little fucked up. That’s all. That’s it, man.”
“I know, Pauli.”
“It’s a cruddy job, okay? I’m settling for it. I just walk around pouring glue into the binding machines, you know? And I’ll admit it.. I was scared to death of it. I came home every day all scared of it… that I’d spill the glue all over the machine, or who knows what? High Anxiety… like Mel Brooks. I was scared of filling the water cooler and filling out my W2 and okay I’m not so scarred any more.”
“That’s great,” my brother said.
“But I’m sick of mom talking about the glue in the bindery as being all symbolic and shit, Dana. I’m sick of it. It’s a cruddy job. I like it, but it’s cruddy. Moppin’ the floor is just that: mopping the floor. It is not cleaning the cob webs out of your head, Dana, or any of another tortured metaphors and what is a Meadow for.”
“To feed a cow,” my brother says perfectly. “I know. She means well.”
“SO do me a favor and tell mom I’m not sticking my life back together with the fucking binding glue, okay? I’ve got a shitty job at a shitty printers…. That’s it. There is nothing to fucking celebrate here.”
“Look mom just said it would be a good time now… you know just to come and visit…. You know with the shitty job and the yellow basement. I hadn’t seen you since… I wanted to you know, see you.”
I know, Dana,” I said. And then I kind of laughed a little. “I always thought you’d be the one to get fucked up, you know? The way you had a gir’s name and all… Everyone always thought my little brother was a little sister, you know? I was pretty certain that would fuck you up lather.”
Then I looked back at the t.v. and said, “I don’t want to go out but you can watch t.v. down here if you want.”
Dana said that he hadn’t really talked with mom and dad yet so he should go back upstairs for a while.
I said that was fine, but he said he’d come down in a while. He stood up and then I heard him walk up stairs and I turned the t.v. down and listened to little parts of their conversation coming the through the floor. It was mostly the regular stuff about how they’d finally worried out the problems with my old landlord upstate and how its been three weeks since they’d seen me cry and two weeks since heard me. Dad spoke again about Italian families and how sons would live with their parents over there in Italy till they were well into their thirties or something. I don’ know where dad got his information on Italian families. They talked a lot about my job and how happy I seemed in it and they told Dana that I was probably a little ashamed and that why I was hard to talk to.
I did feel a little ashamed that I really felt good just being alone and watching t.v.. Dana could come down later if he wanted, but I wouldn’t talk. The good stuff is on really late. I turned t.v. back up and stopped listening. I’d lived through Dana’s visit also I stopped sweating and I wrapped myself up in the blanket and I watched the people die on the tv. I felt superior to them.