Underwater Hands

Mike Young

Oh, God, his toys again. I’m late and Billy’s toys are all over his bed, his orange buckets spilling action figures. And he’s sitting there all oblivious, cross-legged on his sheets, gripping Batman and Aladdin as if they might shirk their plastic and scuttle away. It’s so annoying. Our mom buys him too many toys. She’s always at her restaurant, so I always make us Kraft Dinner, simmer canned soup, thaw out frozen peach pies. When she shuffles in after midnight, Mom reads magazines with the TV on mute. We make small talk. I’ve already played with Billy, brushed his teeth, and wrapped him in blankets. Which I don’t mind, which I love, really. But Mom sits there on her chair zoned out and soaking her feet. I guess I should feel sorry for her, but I just keep seeing her as a screen, spilling reels of all the hours she’s absent from.

Billy swings Batman against Aladdin, who shoots out of Billy’s hand, clanks against the bedpost and falls to the floor. I pick him up, jam him into the bucket, and grab Billy. He whines, but I frown and drag him out to the kitchen. His gloves, beanie, and coat litter the floor. Billy chucks everything everywhere. A regular tornado. He scowls and shakes out his dark curls, bunches up his eyebrows. This little gem of a look means he’s a human plasma cannon. I just shake my head and force his coat on, ignoring his spitting and gnashing. After a quick cookie to mute him—and a dash around the house to make sure the proper lights are left on—we leave for Mom’s restaurant.

I work as a waitress there on Tuesdays and Thursdays, have since ninth grade. But I’m a senior, and I’ll be leaving. Somewhere like UCLA, somewhere with a great theatre program. Plenty of needles and pails of thread. I make costumes because I don’t act. Acting I leave to the beautifully thin blonde queers, those quivery laps where I curl my head. Sometimes sob. I’m too fat to act. Stick some square-frame glasses on her face, but she’s still got those black curls like sooty cottage cheese. Oh, sure, she gains something in those Boy Scout jackets and flannel-print skirts that she plucks from the thrift shop, something cocky and ironic, but every time she realizes she’s eating her second pint of pistachio on a Friday night, something twists behind her breasts. I watch myself in the reflection of the webcam above my computer, watch myself scour MySpace for my friends’ new poetry, type desperately through IM conversations, trying to extend them, like “:) yeah???” I’m pretty pathetic, sure, but I’m leaving soon, and I will slough everything about me pretty soon. Absolutely pretty soon.

***

Billy and I hustle through the streets. We live a couple blocks from downtown, on the outskirts of which sits my mother’s restaurant. As we trudge over sidewalks, I drag Billy close to my knees and then let him out a little when we pass under streetlights. The air smells muggy and thick. Maybe it’ll rain. Though it’s getting dark, lingering heat hugs my cheeks. I pant. Oh, hell, to be fat and late.

Before she opened her own restaurant, Mom was just a chef at the fancy German place across from City Hall. She moseyed around the district attorneys and city officials, humming what she said were Balkan folk songs, leaning over their tables to ask if they liked her Polish potato soup. So when she saved up enough to open her own place, the pressed suit crowd scurried after her, greedy little lemmings that they were.

I have to admit: my mom’s good at this restaurant stuff. She buys Billy new Batmans that he devours with gusto; she buys me new blouses that I stuff deep into my closet. It’s a big new SUV she bought, red as what’s left on the plate after cherry pie. But I’m afraid the random radio stations that she plays to show off her speakers will crumple Billy’s little eardrums. Loud Christian rock, loud boot-scooting boogies, loud, loud, loud. When we first got it, Billy bobbed up and down on our mother’s knees and she let him turn the volume knob. They both beamed, blaring their teeth—hers a full set and his nubs. The light of their smiles was as shrill as the music. I just scowled and smacked my hands over my ears.

Absolutely pretty soon, absolutely hottie soon, absolutely Johnny Depp in a hammock—that soon.

***

But not right now. Billy trips himself into the most tangled headaches and Mom gets really harsh. Someone has to make sure things don’t get too absurd. So I stick around.

Like when Billy fed ice cream to the ants. It was early in October, and I was supposed to sit in on auditions with the director. When I’m not around, I hear that he makes this speech, like, “Heidi won’t be auditioning with us, but she could. I want you guys to know that just because she’s making costumes, or Sharee’s back in the booth, you know, they could be on stage, they could be right there on stage.” It’s that old thing: if that’s supposed to make me feel better, etc.

But I didn’t get a chance to sit and make earnest scribbles recommending my friends for lead roles. Mom called me up in fifth period and told me I had to work right after school. Billy had stayed home sick and gotten into the freezer while Mom dashed away to solve some prep crisis for this big event. When Mom got back, Billy was out on the porch, one carton of mint empty and one carton of pistachio (my pistachio! *tear*) dripping over the lawn. He also had his Star Wars micro toys on the banister. I guess Luke and Leia were doing some humanitarian mission for the beleaguered ant people. Or maybe it was a chemical attack. I never pay too much attention to his toys.

Anyway, what hadn’t slopped over those poor ants had glopped into Billy’s poor stomach, and he got even more sick. Mom said she chased him around the house with a ladle, which she told me to prove that “you can’t get silly with him, Heidi. When I tell you to look after him, I mean for you to give him one on the keister every now and then.”

“Oh, if I’d known he got my pistachio.”

“It’s not funny! He could’ve puked, that much ice cream. Remember when you let him burn his little Batman car on the stove?”

“We needed to enforce Batman’s status as the tragic hero.”

“He could’ve burned his fingers up! He could’ve burned the house up!”

“Mom, you’re screeching, my ears.”

“You need to worry less about your ears and more about your brother.”

“Why was he by himself? Maybe you should hire a nanny.”

“I was only gone for a minute. He needs to learn to discipline himself.”

“Right, at eight years old—why, I don’t know why he doesn’t have a little schedule book! Poopies at ten, nappies at eleven.”

“I don’t have time for this, Heidi. He’s well past all that. What I need now is for you to go work. They’re having the Rotary club speech contest tonight and now I have to stay home with Billy, so I called them and told them you’d be coming in.”

Of course, she needed to stay home with Billy as much as the ants needed my pistachio. She just wanted to make him sit and sulk and stew about “what he did,” whatever total bullshit that means. But iron lady said go, so I went. Maybe the director made his speech. Nobody knows I do theatre, that’s for sure. While I was busing tables at the speech contest, I saw this kid, Anthony, who’d had the lead two years ago in our much abridged version of Les Miserables. But then he quit doing theatre. Whisked in and out. Wavy black hair, with the voice and face to make you giggle like a slut. Straight, no less. Then he’s gone. At the contest, he was wowing the Rotary rednecks, telling jokes with these wonderfully soft-looking hands.

I brought him the ham stew, regular Rotary fare. I smiled at him. He smiled back.

“We miss you,” I said. “You should do another musical.”

“What?” he said. “Oh. You saw the French play! Yeah, it was cool. Are you in theatre now?”

I had designed his tunic. I had fed him lines as the prompter. I had laughed at his jokes.

“Oh, I’ve been doing it,” I said. “You know, I’ve been, here and there.”

“Great. Great. Theatre is great.”

He smiled again, fake goofy, like a smile that might accompany the words “good job” or “swell!”

“Are you gay?” I asked.

He almost sneezed. “Say what?” he asked, laughing.

“Oh, you know,” I said. “It’s been mentioned. Here and there.”

And I walked off, shoving the soup cart, thinking about my hips, trying not to think about my hips, thinking about his.

I say “soon” instead of “now,” that’s what I say, and I pay for it in sad and never nuzzled, never kissed. Absolutely never noticed when I need it.

* * *

Right now, tonight now, we bust through the restaurant’s alley door, Billy and she-without-sex-for-the-rest-of-her-life. Pots clank, skillets sizzle, chefs scream, the dishwasher gurgles, waitresses plant taped orders, and taped orders are ripped down by the cooks. I guide Billy through the maze of legs, potato sacks, and stray knives. Mom’s in the back in her tiny office. As we enter, she looks up from papers and pinches her thumbnail, nodding toward the clock.

“Well,” she says.

“Billy was playing with his toys,” I say.

“But Billy was playing with his toys when I drove back to check on him. Did you get home late from play practice?”

“It’s rehearsal, Mother.”

“Now’s not the time, dear.”

I say nothing, but instead squat down to Billy. As he squirms, I wet my fingers and slick back his hair. I tug off his puffy coat and prim his collared shirt. As he stretches the collar away from his neck, I shake my finger at him. He sticks out his tongue. I bat it down. This makes him giggle, and it’s so sweet that I have to clench my teeth to hold back a laugh. Mom sighs, rolls her eyes, and calls Billy over. After a sudden kick to my shins, he scurries behind her chair.

“Punch clock, Heidi dear,” my mother says, the gypsy singsong creeping into her voice. This lets me know she’s getting steamed, so I hunch up my shoulders and leave. I wink at Billy on the way out and note the door I close, seeing its clank as a larger clank, picturing my exit as a far bigger exit.

It’s funny about restaurant work. It drains you to a zombie after the first few busy hours, but past a point, you slip through that. Dim light and dull jazz seem to melt into actual liquid, something you can swim through. People become less critical as their faces turn to murky, bobbing shapes beneath the water. I hate working at Mom’s restaurant, but I love when my limbs go to jelly and my words—my “more bread?” and “fresh ground pepper?”—seem involuntary, little floaty words that bubble up without my help. Then I can forget how much I hate the restaurant and think of period corsets and Kevin’s dimples and frail arms as he giggles with Mark.

I sort of hope Billy turns frail. Not into a talented asshole like Anthony, using theatre for his scholarship applications. I only get along with other hardcore theatre geeks. Sullen girls like me and fragile guys. Whether they’re gay or not, they’re fragile. I stroke Kevin’s hair as he tells me about his fight with Mark, and I think of how I want to stroke Billy’s hair as he nibbles a gingersnap, tells me how the world is pressing down on his heart. It’s the next best thing to Anthony or Johnny Depp. I can’t wait for Billy to grow up so I can gobble down his emo tripe: decadent, fake, intense. We can both jam scalding glances into Mom’s back. I can’t wait for that at all. He’ll call me where I’m at, maybe LA, and I’ll go, “Yeah, I understand, she is, oh yeah, she so is.”

Can’t wait, can’t wait, like omfg, can’t wait.

* * *

I crouch in the alley, watching the wind skip plastic bags across the pavement. My shift is over. It definitely feels like a rain is brewing. One of the dishwashers comes out and lights a cigarette. He’s a kid my age, his mohawk flattened for work into a landing strip of blond hair.

“Silly night,” he says. “Hot and rain. Jesus.”

“It happens,” I say.

“Man, you’re way more laid-back than your mom.”

I give him a thumbs-up. Really, I could care less. We stand there without much to say. I wish he would offer me a cigarette, though I don’t smoke. Makes me gag.

Finally, to be conversational (oh woo-hoo!), he asks, “Are you gonna take over the restaurant?”

“Are you gonna grow some normal people hair?”

He shakes his head, and then he smiles at me like I’m the saddest detuned guitar he’s ever seen. It makes me feel wretched.

“I almost spilled a pan of water on your little brother,” he says. “That kid gets around.”

“She never watches him,” I say.

“That sucks when it’s like that,” he says, nodding. “You know, think of it this way,” he says, then he looks at me. He shakes his head and snuffs his cigarette out on his shoe. “Never mind,” he says, and leaves back inside.

What’s with all the jerks who don’t know shit? I think to myself how that sounds like one of life’s more radically pressing questions. I hum a sad little thing from Into the Woods. No one is alone, no one, yippie-do.

Then Mom pokes her out of the alley door. “Where’s Billy?” she asks.

I shrug. Mother cannot guide you, mmm mmm mmm mmm mmm.

“Billy?” she asks again.

“Last I saw him,” I say, “he was playing with his Gameboy in your office.”

“I know, but he’s not there. I just checked. I thought maybe he followed you out here.”

“He didn’t.”

“I can see that, Heidi dear.” She’s been calling me “Heidi dear” all night. We’re a little frosty right now.

She stares at me. Finally I say, “Well, I’ll look for him then, Mother dear.” I get up as she closes the door. I scowl, grabbing it before it shuts and squeezing my fat legs through the doorway.

First I check the bar. Lots of smoke, no Billy. The main restaurant is mostly empty, and Billy isn’t hiding under any tables. He’s not in the bathrooms. He’s not behind the front desk. The kitchen’s chaos is winding down, but I don’t see him there either.

I go to find that dishwasher who saw him, but he’s gone.

As I open the coat closet in the kitchen to check if he’s hiding, the panic starts to rumble in my stomach. Sweat clumps up my curls. My knees go a little wobbly. My senses, spongy from working all night, snap taut and I’m suddenly alert.

Omfg, where is he?

I find Mom outside on the patio, tapping her nails on a half-empty glass of wine. She turns to me.

“Well,” she says.

“I can’t find him anywhere. Didn’t you see him leave?”

She sighs. “Jesus, I checked up on him every two minutes.”

“Wonderful.” I cock my eyes at her, funneling my panic into a glare.

Mom grabs her wine glass and pounds it on the table. I jump as she lurches up. Suddenly she’s crowding in, leaning over me. Jaw flesh jiggling, she glowers at me in all her gypsy fury. She is definitely where I get my fat.

“Heidi dear, a cook nearly cut his thumb off.” She starts making chopping motions. “Someone put a shrimp into vegetarian soup. We’re out seventy-five dollars that I’m pretty sure somebody stole and one of my bartenders just told me he’s quitting. I’m working like a fucking hound here, trying to juggle these God-forsaken people.” She tightens her lips. “I checked up on him every two minutes, as much as I could. Well, here I am.” She grabs a chair and bangs it down in front of me. “Don’t you know anything?”

Something in my head sizzles like a frying oyster and pops. I want to say something about Billy, but all I can get out is “I know that you smell like garlic.”

My mother looms above me. I smell her sweat and watch her saggy eyes narrow. Thinking of what’s sure to come next, I step back and brace myself. Just then, Billy dashes out from the doors behind us. He’s carrying a little piece of paper that’s been folded into a box. He stamps his feet and holds up his prize. One of mom’s chefs, Carlos, shuffles out after him, looking sheepish.

“I showed him a trick,” he mumbles.

“Where the hell were you with my son?” my mom snaps.

“I was in the parking lot. He followed me out there.”

“Were you smoking?”

Carlos scratches the back of his neck and looks down. My mom steps right next to his face and tugs down his jaw. He’s so surprised he just lets her. It reminds me of how I always slap away Billy’s nah nah tongue. My mom sniffs Carlos’s breath, and I cringe, seeing how intimate they look, how Carlos stiffens, how much of her own dignity my mom is willing to sacrifice to humiliate this man. Finally she steps away.

“Don’t smoke around my son, Carlos dear,” she says, that gypsy singsong lilting over every word. Carlos nods and then stands there a minute, intertwining his fingers and flopping his hands, waiting but wordless. Then he snaps out of it and escapes back into the restaurant.

My mom and I turn to look at Billy. He’s ruined his box: it’s now just creased paper on the ground. He frowns down at it, then he runs into my mother’s knees. She folds her arms around him. He looks too comfortable under them, and I wonder if maybe he shouldn’t turn fragile. Maybe he already is. Or maybe I’m just jealous. Would he ever tell me anything, if she were right there with those arms?

Does he think I’m cool? Does he think I’m fat?

I watch as her thick hands sift through his curls. We watch some of the restaurant’s customers below, walking stuffed and lazy to their cars. Couples lock arms. Hands settle on the heads of children. Then we feel a few drops of rain, so we bunch together under the patio’s overhang.

My mom and I, we’re sweaty and tired, and I remember that underwater feeling as rain starts to batter the patio. There are surfaces to swim to, I know, places I can leave for, but my mother’s hands will stay here, underwater. Maybe I can’t hear what she says under there, sometimes, and maybe she’s foggy, but she’s there like one of those wrecks that stays solid under the ocean for decades. Meanwhile, I’m off next year, while Billy will have to bicker and scrounge and pant for himself. I realize that my hissy chirping during some twenty-minute telephone conversation is going to mean so utterly little in his life. I watch my mother clutch Billy’s head into her stomach. His closed eyelids peek out, and the corners of his mouth droop. It’s like the water around him has drained away or maybe engulfed him. He never got the speech from my director that Anthony and all them got. It looks right now like he wouldn’t listen. Under her arms, he looks almost deaf.



It’s hard to write outside of yourself into the Boy Scout jackets and flannel-print skirts of an Other. I don’t know if it’s OK, like moral-wise, like grace-wise. I like to write about people who wouldn’t talk about themselves. I don’t know what “about” means in this context. This was a fun story because of all the theatre stuff and the German restaurant. Not sure, but I don’t think I’ve seen a German restaurant. But I want one. Right now. In my water closet.