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Excerpt from 'A Day, A Night, Another Day, Summer'

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A DAY, A NIGHT, ANOTHER DAY, SUMMER


By Christine Schutt

NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY PRESS

Copyright © 2005 Christine Schutt
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8101-5153-7


Contents

Darkest of All...............................................3
Young........................................................25
Do You Think I Am Who I Will Be?.............................39
Weather Is Here, Wish You Were Beautiful.....................49
The Human Season.............................................59
The Life of the Palm and the Breast..........................69
They Turn Their Bodies into Spears...........................79
See amid the Winter's Snow...................................91
Unrediscovered, Unrenameable.................................125
Winterreise..................................................133
The Blood Jet................................................145


Chapter One

DARKEST OF ALL

* * *

The years, she saw, fell heavily as books: the missing husband pinging a racket against the chuff of his hand, her charmed sister at the rental's beach, the raging Jean herself. In a coil of towel, the little boy named Jack was powdered free of sand. She tended to him then-absent, curious, easeful-and he calmed under the warmth of her hand. Now Jack's body was his own and not a thing she felt branched of, her hands growing out of; mother and son, they had even smelled the same once, when Jack's teeth were growing in. Now she did not get close enough-did not want to get close enough-to smell him. Jack's skin was given over to the wild fluctuations of his age, which meant it was one day clear and smooth, and the next erupted, and still later newly healed and probably sore. Now the boy smoked.

It was what he asked for first with the smoke of something smoked down clouding around his head: "Did you remember cigarettes?" Yes, yes, her soft assent. "But what I need," Jack said, "are socks." Snack foods, paper, stamps: the listlessly articulated list from every visit grew as the corridors grew, or so it seemed to Jean as she walked through the swabbed facility with its smell of Lysol and fish!

"Stamps," Jack said, "are what I really need. I want to write to friends."

Jack said, "I wrote myself here," and he showed Jean what he did every night on the edge of the table, which was a deeply scarred table, full of dates and initials, profanations, codes, and there on the edge, his knife-worked JACK. Jack said, "I want people to know I've been here and that I was okay. I had friends. Fuck," he said, "I've made a lot of friends," and so he had. An odd assortment said hello or made motions to speak to Jack each time they bumped past.

Jean said to Jack, "So what do you do with your friends?"

"They're not all friends," he said. "Some of them"-and he pointed to a boy with an old black face and voluptuously muscled body-"that guy," Jack said, "already has a kid. He's been in jail. And the fat girl bit a girl for trying to comb her hair. I don't talk to that crazy. Nobody does. There were stitches. That's how bad it was."

How bad it was Jean told her sister. Jean called the place the facility, eschewing its bucolic name and using Jack's slang when she was angry. Then she called the facility a dry-out place, a place for rehab on the cheap. A motel it had been or a conference center, the facility had past lives in the same way as did its staff. First name only, confessing only their abuse, the pallid staff wore cushioned shoes and shuffled small steps. Their talk, too, was small and coughed out with erasures from whatever they saw looking back-not that, not that-but ahead, the home contract, the dickered pact, the rules to school the house against the wily abuser. "Addiction," the staff said, "we've been there-and been there. Relapse is common with friends still using." The staff twitched matches, frantically serene.

Jean told her sister, "These are the guys helping Jack with his homework. These are the people meant to be his friends."

But Jean's sister, being her sister, and wiser, Jean's sister said, "This is where Jack should be."

The hours at the facility were blocked and named: group, individual, free. "I'm climbing steps," Jack said, smiling. "I'm making progress here, Mother. You'd be proud!"

Jack. She was used to the shard of his name since he shortened it. His hair color, too, had changed, was leaden and beaten by the last school's cap, the same he wore through the meeting.

"Jack!" she said.

"What?" he asked.

Mother, son, counselor, here they were again, the weekend group in consultation: family was the name on the schedule.

Who was getting better? she wondered. Who was sick?

Jean asked her wiser sister, "Am I?"

"Are you?" she asked back.

* * *

Yes, it was all too common a story-Jean knew, she admitted as much-a woman on her own and what she had to do because of the children. Because of them she had to ask the missing husband for what he did not have that yet was needed.

"Look at what I've had to do for money," Jean said, home again, on the couch with the quiet son, Ned. The men she had let wander into the apartment. Think of them! And she did-and didn't he? "Don't you think of them sometimes?"

Ned said, "I was very young, Mother."

It was Jack, years older, who had said he remembered a man who shook her upside down for quarters.

"Oh," Jean moaned as Ned was getting to and scratching some unreachable places. "Oh, I hope you don't remember," she said. Then, "Yes! That feels good!" she said, and said again, "That feels good!" and Jean let her towel drop in a way that made her wonder since there wasn't a man to put lotion on her back should she ask her son to do it.

Jean, at the facility, said to the counselor, "Ask Jack what he did with my bank card. I bet he didn't tell you." Freely spending with the purpose to be caught, it seemed, Jack had bought what in the moment moved him, leaving waxy, bunched receipts between the sheets for her to find of what he had signed for with abandon, largely. Felonious boy, that Jack! Skulking the facility, as she had seen him, butting what he passed-doors, walls, wheeled racks hung with visiting coats-Jack scared Jean a little, and she came home tired.

And Ned was tired! Tired from scratching. Tired from the yawn of Saturday, from homework, from art class, from girls. From streets and apartments, cigarettes, beers-from more girls. On almost any Sunday, late in the morning and cragged in a gray sheet, the boy slept in his room, which was also gray. Thin light, lingering smoke. Something there was about Ned gray, too: the pale skin of his outstretched leg, blue-black hair in a cuff at his ankle. Only his foot, the heel of it, was full of color-not old pavement to be razored -Ned's foot was young. It invited petting, touching to say, Wake up. "Wake up," she said, looking at the covered boy because she did not want to see what was on the bedside table, although Jean saw it clearly: the cigarettes first, the ashy spill around the glasses, orange juice pips on the rim of the old-fashioned. Haywire spirals yanked out of notebooks, Post-its curling on the tops of papers: See me! one of them said. Jean was looking at the screen-dead computer. The drawers, too, she saw but did not open. She knew enough about Ned. She knew he drank and smoked, carried condoms, broken jewelry. She knew he liked to kiss; he liked the girls. Girls, girls, girls, girls. Their voices ribboned out from faces closely pressed against the cradle of the phone-babies still, most often shy. "Is Ned there?" they asked.

"I'm sorry," Jean said-and said-"he's still asleep."

Lifted in the wind, the blinds banged their music on the sill; it was a sound of diminutive breakage-of saucers, of cups-in a rhythm like the rising and falling of a chest, like breathing, a boy's, his. Tiptoed and unsteady, she silenced the phone next to his bed. She put the ringer on off-and why not? The callers for Ned would call back, so let him sleep, she thought, another hour. Let him grow in his twisted sheets! Bent, crooked, an impression of bones he was, a tent of bones, a sudden arm slung above his head and the black tuft of hair there as startling as his sex.

Think of something else, think of the Sunday papers. Consider this fall's color on girls stood back-to-back, with their skinny arms crossed, as girls crossed them, coyly. The girls who visited Ned stood at the door coyly, toed in and stooped with baby backpacks on their backs, asking from behind ragged bangs, "Is Ned home?"

"Yes," she had to say, "but still asleep."

And Jack? Jack was now so tipped against the sun-the bright shard of his name again-that just to speak of Jack hurt Jean's eyes; and she did not want to think about the place where she had been or what Jack was doing there or what he would be doing there at night in the facility.

"Not knowing where he sleeps is fine by me," Jean admitted, but only to Ned. To Ned she complained. Now when she sat on the couch, still red from washing off the facility, she said, "Jack makes me believe he has paid for whatever it is we are doing to him. Does that make sense?" She said, "Please, my back."

Ned said, "You never made Jack do this."

Sometimes Ned used a comb on her back. He made tracks and designs with the comb. He wrote his name and asked, "So what did I write then?"

She sat on the couch, tickled by the comb tracking through the lotion, and she said to Ned, "I can't help myself sometimes. When I am in family I say terrible things...." And she told the boy what things she had said about a man who was yet the father-and she knew that, yet she would speak. She wanted to tell Ned everything. Now, every weekend, it seemed, she came home parched and queasy, calling out to Ned, "Are you here? Anybody home? Yes? No? Who else?"

Once a girl with rainbow hair lay unbuttoned on Ned's bed. The girl was quick to sit up, and she smiled at Jean, but the distraction of the girl's hair, knotted and skyward from however the girl had been with him, was such that all Jean saw was the girl's hair and those parts erect from tugging. Just look at the girl's stubby nipples! So this was Ned's idea of pretty, Jean thought, and wondered, Was the girl disappointed in her? Was she drab to the girl? For that was how she felt.

"Is this your mother?" from the girl in a girl's voice, just a whisper.

"Yes."

This was the mother breaking open gelcaps and licking up sleep or the opposite of sleep, extreme wakefulness, speed. This was the mother using scissors between her legs, staying ready, staying hairless, should someone want to lick her.

Something Jean could never bring up at the family consultation in the facility was what she was doing at home because she was hardly ever sober herself, but she was prudent in her daily use of substances. She measured, she counted, she observed fastidious rituals. She soaped and creamed and powdered when the high was at her throat. At night she drank-then only ales, wines, rarely hard liquor. But she drank to ease the restlessness from the petty drugs she took, gouging tinbacks with a pencil to release sealed tablets, over-the-counter nondrowsy-four, six, eight pills a pop-uninspired habit, nothing serious, but growing, at the worst growing, at the worst becoming what her father's habit was: Vicodin, Prozac, Valium, Glucotrol, Synthroid, Mevacor, plain old aspirin. Jean's father had offered, saying, "I don't know what it's called, but it's good." No, no, no, Jean had resisted. She wanted most of her habit nonprescription and cheap.

No one noticed what she did.

This was especially true at the facility, where Jean had expected to be found out as if passing by a screen and seen clear through; but she slipped past and into the facility with her son and her son's counselor, and she was fearless again. Everyone was looking at Jack, asking him, "So what do you do around users?"

Jack said, "I don't."

Everyone agreed his was a good answer, clever.

Avoid some mothers, Jean thought, avoid me; the thought of being worse than the mother she remembered as having was hurtful, but not so hurtful as to keep her from using more expensive substances. The guilt didn't keep her from calling Suzette and speaking in their code, "I need some panty hose," and welcoming the girl at any time of the night-even introducing Suzette to Ned. "We work together," she had said. A traveling house of a girl come to them at any hour, a bulk, a shape zippered or buckled, pilot glasses, sneakers, Peruvian hat, Suzette didn't much surprise Ned. He was used to interruption, to the phone at odd hours and hand-delivered gifts, the rustle of things dried, split pods, seeds flying. The flare-up affairs with names Jean might use for weeks-Nora, Mark, David, Marlene-Ned was familiar with this much of the life his mother had in another part of the city.

The city, if only that were to blame, but there was her own father, the one who managed to be sick in the country. Jean's father couldn't remember Jean's address or the names of the boys, saying, "Your oldest will be sixteen before I see him," when Jack was almost eighteen yet already sick the way he was. And Jean was sick, too-and maybe Ned. The baby creases of his neck often smelled of smoke, greasy exudations from the bonfired night, tin bright, pin size, salty.

"Oh, God," Jean said, and Jean's careful sister asked-and asked often-if Jean was taking anything she shouldn't.

Jean said, "Nothing. Why should I?"

Once Jean let Ned visit Jack, and she was happy to have Ned's company, and Jack was made happy, too, just to see his brother. They shivered to be near before they touched and were teasing again, boys again, brothers. The brothers walked together and apart from Jean, waving at their mother with their smoking hands because they could, being here, at the facility. Look at the troughs of sand used for ashtrays! They were mad smokers here at the facility, but what else was there to do, Jack asked, except to smoke and answer questions and earn steps? Every week he reached a new level; now there was talk about a contract.

"The home contract is something we agree on," Jack said, "if I'm to come back to the city and live with you."

He showed Jean a draft. To the question about curfew, he had written, None.

Jack said, "Shit, Mother, I snuck out all the time."

"So where were you going?" Jean asked; but when he made to speak, she said, "Don't tell me."

She didn't want to read Jack's home contract either and not, as it happened, when Ned was along and all of them sitting at the gashed table with Jack pointing. "See? My name's all over this fucking place."

"Jack, please!" Jean said.

"I've lived without a curfew," Jack said, and every weekend said, "I've changed. I'm on the third step. I want my medal."

At the scarred table with her sons, Jean cried. "There is so much to be sorry about," she said, but her sons were embarrassed, it seemed to her, and sad and scornful of her rustling for a hankie. "Anyone?" she asked. "I'm sorry." She bent her head, snuffling, using a cloth when she found one. "I'm sorry," she said. "I'll be all right."

The story Jean most often told Ned was about Jack and what Jack did. She told Ned of the friends his brother had made at the facility, even the fat girl now, the one who had bitten a girl for approaching with a comb, even she was his friend. Jack said he was popular, the most popular kid. Jean said, "I think he thinks he is running for class president." Jean said, "Where does he think he is?"

In family, Jack said he wanted to live in L.A. He said he was old enough, he had worked last summer, he had had the responsibility of a job.

"Putting up boxes!" Jean said.

Jack said to the counselor, "Do you understand now? Do you see what I've been saying? Look at her!"

Jean, in passing Ned's room, said, "I don't want to talk about your brother."

Ned said, "Mother!" Sometimes he said, "It's not your fault," and he offered, "I'll rub your back if you'll rub mine." Sometimes he said, "Why do you listen to Jack?"

Ned said, "I don't know. I don't know the answers to all your questions."

Ned said, "Why should I?" when the question of curfews came up. "Jack didn't."

Sometimes Ned got angry and his hand, long still against her back, withdrew, and he went to his room and turned up his music. The telephone rang; he slammed the door or he talked to Jean in the way his brother did, absently: the flat-voiced "Yes," the "What?" that was nasty. The nimble imitative skill Ned showed was common. Jack did it and others of his friends and Ned's friends, she had heard them speaking to their parents in their parents' voices. They groaned new words that meant dumb and ugly. She said, "Talk to me in your own voice, Ned, talk to me so I can understand."

Sometimes Ned did speak earnestly, and when he spoke to her in this voice, she wanted to take him by surprise, to touch him, to kiss his mouth as it moved-and would go on moving, saying, "Mother! Don't!"

Sometimes Ned said, "Will you not, please," but she went on. She wormed her fingers between his toes; she tickled him or worked Q-tips, painfully, around the curled folds of his ears. "Damn it, Mother, that hurts!" Yet he was the one who asked her to do it. "Cut my nails," Ned said, and she cut too close.

She said and she said and she heard herself saying-whining, really-"Please, you are the only one who knows how to scratch."

(Continues...)



Excerpted from A DAY, A NIGHT, ANOTHER DAY, SUMMER by Christine Schutt Copyright © 2005 by Christine Schutt. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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