North strained his neck craning it upward, tilting his neat head back toward the high ceiling of the library.
“It’s like Tarot cards,” he said, with a slow smile at the pleasing revelations of his own electricky brain. He loved himself in certain moments.
North could feel what he was; the merging of worlds in a vessel. He could feel that 19th century paintings were placed purposefully to exalt books and make libraries look like cathedrals, higher-arching than churches, and were reflecting holographically through him, bouncing like light beams off the faces of people, off the walls, little comets of understanding, all around him in the library.
He could feel a cathedral in his heart. He could remember his friend Peter’s mother remarking that Peter could only fit one thing in his heart at a time, and North knew that wasn’t true. He could feel the whirling of connected objects in Peter’s heart and in his own heart and could feel the memory of the wish that Peter would explain himself to adults.
North could feel the painter’s arrogance, making everyone look like a David statue or a Roman statue, making tableaux messages, although he understood the reason for it; that people did not usually know what messengers were talking about; it was true in North’s own life. At these times, a symbol, a David, a tarot card, was useful; times like this, with his mother, in the library.
“It is like Tarot cards,” said his mother. There was a lot his mother didn’t know, but she understood about symbols. She always tried.
And she was learning to say less, which helped. And North was learning to affirm her. This interaction, North’s mother saying less, North looking at her and grinning in affirmation, represented a language, and more; a speed of comprehension his mother did not previously know she possessed, a trust North had lost and reclaimed. The language was both the result and the act of repair, of the damage the two of them had sustained during North’s crisis a year ago; it was evidence, this language, that the crisis was over, that they were getting better, moving on. During the crisis, neither one of them could speak. North had roared and hissed and rocked. His mother had been silent.
Then for some months, right afterward, North’s mother talked without ceasing, to doctors, teachers, therapists, and to baby sitters who would spin on their heels at the first opportunity. It took only the hurling of a chair, one fingernail gouge to the face, and they’d leave. It seemed silly of them, to North’s mother; he’d been only seven. But you can’t coerce people.
Once a school was found, however, North began to meander back, asking for noodles and chocolate milk. He stepped up onto the bus without trepidation, as if he’d always taken a little bus, and waved good-bye. He began reporting about his days at the school, about a project involving glue and plastic prisms, about meeting Peter, who miraculously moved into the building just weeks later. North continued reporting, about kickball, about consequences, about speech therapy, about a hermit crab named Pinchy, who was the class pet.
And now his mother could say, “Ready for dinner?” And North might say back, “What will it involve?” And his mother might say, “Spaghetti, and an apple, and sitting at the table.” And North might say, “I am absolutely prepared for that, as long as there are cookie bears for desert; that’s conditional.” His mother would say, “There are,” and hold back more.
In the library, North reached into his backpack for his Ziploc bag of cookie bears. Without looking down, he snuck the bag up to his chin, carefully opened it, and began tucking inch-tall bear-shaped graham crackers into his mouth.
His mother stared, distractedly, at his defined, feline face; bow lips beneath a perky nose, symmetrical cheekbones and broadly placed, green eyes, a smattering of freckles, ash blonde hair cut close. He was a big boy, for eight, barrel-chested like both his grandfathers but with his dad’s lanky legs. In swim trunks you could see his pectoral muscles already announcing themselves. He had an assertive little stomach, and insistent, gripping feet.
Nothing about his appearance, at first, gave him away. You would have to watch him, or listen. If you saw him in the Morgan Library with his mother, perched birdlike on the red velvet bench, looking up at the ceiling mosaics, you might flash on the fact that he was squatting, feet on the velvet, inappropriately; you might wonder why the security guard had not asked him to put his feet on the floor. But you would leave it at that, until you heard the security guard say;
“Ma’am, I said, no eating in the library.”
“Right,” said North’s mother, her wide, distant eyes thrown out of focus. What? Hadn’t everything been fine? She looked at the security guard then back again at North, who froze, the tiny brown cookie in his hand between the dangling bag and his slightly open mouth, caught. “Quick,” she said to him, starting to laugh, side-eying the security guard, adding, “Sorry…” as she stood, taking the Ziploc bag from North, zipping it, tucking it into the Transformer’s backpack, taking North by the wrist, North standing up. She said to North, “You had enough?”
“I had enough,” said North, unfolding his long legs and doing a few deep knee bends, arms outstretched as if leading a geriatric exercise class. He smiled, and looked up again. His mother walked out. He followed, looking at the ceiling, doing knee bends as he walked, singing, “Bumb buh da bump buh da bump bump bump…” softly, to the tune of the “Rocky” movie overtures.
North’s mother walked ahead because she knew that North would rather walk behind her, and keep track of her that way, until his mind was organized. Everything in the library surged and receded until each thing clicked into place; the sailing balsa sculpture of birds idealized as words which almost made North angry; why did that have to be pointed out? Birds and words? The flight of language? Did the artist think North was stupid? He nearly lost patience with his mother on that one. The people eating at their little tables. Why could they eat at little tables and he couldn’t eat his cookie bears? Also very stupid. The security guards staring at him. Why were they all black? Was that anything like the ice cream cart ladies all being Nicaraguan? Questions began to line themselves up. He would begin with the bus. His mother went down the steps onto the sidewalk of Madison Avenue and turned, waiting for him.
“I would quit with the knee bends, North,” she said. “It’ll be hard to do the stairs.”
She was right. He stopped and took a moment. “I’m taking a moment,” he called down to her, squinting, “to adjust my rods and cones.”
“Me, too,” she said, putting on her sunglasses. “Do you want your sunglasses?”
“Hat,” he said, and he jumped down each step with both feet. His new sneakers were amazing. He felt taller and safer and springier in them, though they were hot. His mother handed him his hat. “Do you want me to leave?” he asked, grinning.
“Goof,” she said; the language; the connections. Saying less. She wrapped her arm around his head, which was the height of her ribs, and pressed his face into her soft side. She held out water in a sports bottle and he drank it. She held out a wipe and he leaned in and blew his nose.
He put on the hat; a baseball hat that just said “New York” on the front. “Are we taking the bus?” They were. “Can we sit in the front? In the seats marked ‘disabled’?” They could, unless real disabled people came on and needed the seats. “You mean people traveling in wheelchairs?” Yes. “Is that why the front of the bus is wider than the back? For the wheelchairs?” Yes. “Is that a hydraulic lift the driver uses to raise the wheelchairs up onto the bus?” It is. “Do some people lie to the government to get free wheelchairs because they are lazy and don’t want to walk?”
“Is that what Uncle Mike says?” North’s mother asked.
“It’s one thing he says,” said North. “Could you imagine if that’s all he said, all day?”
“Actually,” said North’s mother, “I can.”
The bus came and hissed to a stop. They got on. They sat in a deuce of seats up front. North began to take off his sneakers. “I plan to air out my feet,” he explained.
“No,” said his mother.
“Rrrrrrrrgggghhhh!” North growled at her, and reached for her neck.
“No,” said his mother, “sit down.” She pushed him firmly on the chest, downward, into the seat, and gave him back the bag of cookie bears.
He turned his back to her and leaned on her and began eating the cookie bears, looking out the window. She reached over his shoulder and took a few bears. She rested her chin on the top of his head and closed her eyes, listening to the grinding diesel engine of the bus, taking deep inhalations of the scent of North’s hair.
Uncle Mike was in the apartment when North and his mother got home to Queens. The door was held open by the battered toolbox, also open, burnished and rusted tools tottering out of the raised trays, screws and nails, untouched new wrenches and tiny screwdrivers and threatening hammers fanned out across the dull hardwood floor. Every light in the place was on. The TV was on, blaring news. The coffee maker was on, a sandwich and beer were open on the counter. One cigarette sat burning quietly on the bathroom windowsill while Uncle Mike drilled into the gutted ceramic over the sink, installing new sockets, new lights, though North’s mother had not asked him to do it. His dog, a knotted old Lab named Razor, snored on the couch. North’s dog, Piggy, a short, fat, Beagle mix, lay on Uncle Mike’s coat, on the floor.
North’s mother’s heart sank. It was already after five. North had homework which would now not get done. He’d need to examine every tool in Uncle Mike’s box and work the collapsible trays up and down, up and down. She’d spoon-feed North his dinner as he drew picture-lists of the tools and spoke at length of imaginary machines he could make while Uncle Mike tromped back and forth from the tools to the bathroom with drill bits and metal spatulas, suggesting supplemental materials North loved the sound of; sheet rock, Tyvek, plywood, lathing, Masonite, two-by-fours, glazing, sealant. And the cigarette smoke. And feeding the dogs off their plates. A late bath. He would have to sleep in her bed, farthest from the bathroom; in his room, the noise of Uncle Mike’s drill was too loud. All these adjustments flashed in front of her as she pushed on the door.
“Oh,” North whispered, mouth and eyes wide open as he stepped inside slowly, as if his home had been transformed. “The tools,” he said, looking up at his mother. “Can I go get Peter?”
“Go,” said his mother, and North took off at a smack-footed run down the hall toward the elevator then smacked the button with the flat of his hand and waited for it hopping, up and down up and down, and it came and he scuttled in, continued hopping, and went up to six to get Peter. In a moment the boys were back, attended by Gladys, Peter’s mother, who North’s mother was always relieved to see.
“Tools, huh?” said Gladys as she trailed the boys in, looking around with only the mildest dismay, used to it.
“Gladys!” Uncle Mike shouted over the drilling, in greeting, without turning around. He could not stand to look Gladys in the eye and Gladys knew it.
North’s mother could not decide how to feel about it; no emotion registered itself with any force, regarding her brother’s helplessness around her friend. She couldn’t blame him, in ways. Gladys’s straight, jet hair that hung in an undisturbed curtain down her delicate back, her shocked, globe eyes and tiny mouth, her upturned hill of nose, even her mottled, acne-scarred skin, all taken together gave her the strangest, most adolescent, ethereal presence; no one could ignore Gladys; not police, firemen, neighbors, or strangers on the street as she and North’s mother walked out to get coffee or took the boys to the mall. It was vaguely repugnant to North’s mother that her brother would think of Gladys sexually; Gladys was so small, she seemed barely bigger than her own eight-year-old son; it was like pederasty, like Mike was doing something wrong just by thinking it. On the other hand, Gladys would have been perfect for him; gentle, undemanding, never flustered.
“Oh-hey,” Gladys hollered back thinly, her head rotating around, her eyes unabashedly scanning the apartment, cataloguing the place. “Look at your dog,” she said to North, touching his head with tiny, two-fingered affection.
North glanced at lumpy Piggy, who adored him until Uncle Mike materialized and then she would switch devotions entirely. “Yeah,” said North, unconcerned, tucking into the tools, pulling Peter by the pale, skinny wrist to bring him down to the floor so they could dismantle the tool box in unison.
“You think he really cares for that dog?” Gladys asked North’s mother.
“I do,” North’s mother responded. “He’s very private about it. Did you eat?”
“I know, it’s late, right?” said Gladys. “We should have eaten already.”
“I have lasagna,” said North’s mother. “Stay.”
“Okay,” said Gladys. “Let me leave him for a few minutes. I’ll make a little salad and get his cereal, and come back.”
“Good,” said North’s mother. She leaned down to Peter, and turned his head with her hands, toward his own mother.
“Stay with North,” Gladys said to Peter forcefully, looking hard into his face. “I’m getting your cereal and coming back.”
Peter made eye contact with his mother, and wordlessly, always wordlessly, returned his attention to the tools.
By 11 North was finally asleep. Peter and Gladys left after nine. It had been particularly painful to separate Peter and North; they had clung to each other at the elevator. Tears welled up in North’s eyes as his mother pried his hands off Peter’s shoulders and Peter made guttural wanting sounds as the door slid between them. In her bed in the dark, his arm around his yielding, porcine little dog, North’s mother told him a long, wandering story about two boys named North and Peter who lived on an island in the middle of an enormous lake and who ate only fish and roots and leaves and spent their time combing the island for injured animals, then nursing them back to health in their hut. Eventually she felt his weight sink into her bed. She lifted Piggy out, and shut the door.
Then she walked the Piggy and Razor slowly, and for a long time. She bought beer at Mr. Corey’s store on the way back, and also wine from Mr. Corey’s secret stash. “Mothers only want the wine,” Mr. Corey had said, disappearing down the dark stairwell into the store cellar, returning with a cold bottle of white zinfandel for which he charged an exorbitant $12. “The men want the beer.”
“It’s for my brother,” she blurted to Mr. Corey.
“I know your brother,” Mr. Corey said. “He comes to my other store in Maspeth. He’s always buying the same beer. And Newport.”
“You have another store?” she asked. “Why didn’t I know that?” People’s lives outside of her own surprised her more than ever, since North’s crisis.
“Why you gonna know that? You don’t go to Maspeth.”
“I used to,” she said. “Give me a pack of Newports, too.” She uncrumpled money from her pocket and smoothed it on the counter.
“Now your brother visits you. Nice man. He helps you.” Mr. Corey rang up the beer and the wine and the cigarettes and handed North’s mother her change.
“He does,” she said, taking her bag, and making clicking sounds at the dogs who rested on the cool, dirty tile floor, then hauled themselves up. “Good night, Mr. Corey.”
“Say good night to your brother.”
In the apartment Mike sat on the couch in the dark, watching the news, smoking, his right leg jittering up and down at incredible speed. He rubbed his head repeatedly with one hand, and with the smoking hand, tapped an empty beer bottle on his stuttering knee. The tools were in a sort of pile, at least collected, on the floor. The smell of grout damply underscored the cigarette smoke and the food odors and the musty dogs. North’s mother unhooked the leashes and the dogs folded themselves down side by side on the rug. Then she dropped her coat on the floor and went into the kitchen and opened two beers and twisted the cap off the wine and poured a glass of that, too.
She brought the drinks into the living room and sat by her brother on the couch, handing him the beers. He set his empty bottle on the floor, one new beer on the crowded end table between the ashtray and the remote controls, and drank down half the other, then touched the cold bottle to his forehead.
“You short?” North’s mother asked him.
“Nah,” he said.
“You out of meds or you’re just off?” she asked him gently.
“I’m off,” he said quietly. “I don’t like it. It’s embarrassing. You don’t understand.”
Saying less. She held her brother’s hand and watched TV with him. He finished the beer in his grip and she could see his face slacken. His leg stopped. He took one small sip off the remaining beer, then set it aside; he’d had enough.
“Take off your shoes,” she said after a while, and he did. He stretched out on the couch. She shook the afghan as she stood up, to remind him that it was there, to cover himself as he dozed off. She drank up her wine and put the glass in the sink, turned out the kitchen light, and went to the bathroom, and changed to pajamas, and went to sleep in her son’s bed.
She could feel what she was; a merging of worlds in a vessel.