Imperfect Spiral, page 1
1 Something like Sleep
2 More of a Blur
3 A Perfect Spiral
4 What about Humphrey?
5 A Matter of Habit
6 The Grown-Up Room
7 There Will Be Polemics
8 Give Me Tears
9 A Few Questions
10 Purposefully Perambulating
11 Journalism I
12 Opposite Day
13 No, Just No
14 Compass Points
15 Vraiment, Vraiment
16 Bad, Bad Ball
18 Good Cookies
19 Doing Lunch
20 Another Brilliant Conversation
22 In Light Of
23 The Trees
25 Just Saying
26 Journalism II
27 Another Saturday Night
28 Need to Know
29 There Are Worse Things
30 Define “Angel”
31 A Mishmash
33 Humpty Dumpty had a Great Fall
34 It Is Not Bad
35 How a Hero Acts
36 A Technical Truth
37 Us, Too
38 Join Us
39 Being Invisible
42 I Need to Tell You
43 More to Blame
44 The Benefits
45 The Question
46 I’m for Humphrey
A Note from the Author
For Rick Hoffman,
my husband, friend, and partner
in countless games of catch
Something like Sleep
The morning after, I take refuge in my bed.
Each time I surface into consciousness, I will myself back down into sleep, or something like sleep. I don’t think or dream about anything, unless a big, black canvas of nothingness counts. I feel my mother come into my room twice, once putting her hand on my forehead as if to feel for a fever.
“I’m not sick,” I mumble.
“I know,” she says. “I just wanted to touch your forehead.”
Sometime later I feel another presence in my room; not my mother, though.
It’s Adrian. “What are you doing here?” I squint. “Don’t you work on Saturdays?”
“I slept over,” he says. “Thought I’d spend some quality time with my sister.”
“Anyway,” he says as I turn over to burrow, once again, into my bed and avoid whatever this day has to bring, “I’m not going to have quality time or quantity time with you if you sleep all day. It’s one fifteen. Get up and I’ll make you my award-winning salami omelet.”
“I’ll get up,” I say into my pillow, “if you don’t make me your award-winning salami omelet.”
“That works, too,” Adrian says. “See you downstairs.”
When I flop into a kitchen chair fifteen minutes later, my washed hair dripping down the back of my T-shirt, Adrian puts a plate in front of me.
“But,” I say.
“My award-winning cheese omelet. No salami.”
Mom and Dad appear as I take the first bite.
“How’re you feeling this morning, Danny?” Dad asks.
Empty. But I don’t want to say that out loud.
“Numb,” I say. Numb is true, too.
“Understandable,” he says.
I chew and swallow, chew and swallow. Mom and Dad sit down at the table with me.
“Want to talk?” Dad asks.
“How about later?” I counter.
“Later is fine,” he says.
Adrian finishes drying the omelet pan and sits, too.
“Someone’s already started one of those roadside memorials,” he says. “Stuffed animals. Flowers.”
“You know, in some places they’re not allowed,” Mom says.
“You mean like certain streets?” Adrian asks.
“No, I mean some cities and towns, also some states, have laws against them,” Mom says. “Or at least regulate them. On the theory that they’re distracting to motorists, or an improper use of property.”
“How about here?” Adrian asks.
“No, I don’t think we have any rules about them,” Mom says. “It’s easy enough to check.”
“I get the sense you think these rules are a good idea?” Adrian says.
“No,” Mom says. “I was just—saying.”
“But you don’t like them,” Adrian says. “The roadside memorials, I mean. Not the rules. You do like the rules, I gather.”
This is how things begin between Adrian and Mom. I don’t know whether Mom is oblivious to the fact that her always-opinionated, never-neutral statements push Adrian’s buttons. I don’t know whether Adrian knows that Mom usually doesn’t mean anything by it. That is, she does mean what she says, but she doesn’t mean anything personal by it. Opinions course through her veins. It’s who she is.
“I don’t really have an opinion about it,” Mom says. “I shouldn’t have said anything.” This is her disappointed voice, the voice that I know drives Adrian crazy.
But he’s been able to let it go since he moved out last February. He still seems compelled to call Mom out on things she says that push his buttons—so he can’t just let her make her observation about roadside memorials without challenging her—but he doesn’t have the need any longer to follow up with a full-blown argument. She, too, shrinks back these days from voicing her strongly opinionated dissertations on—everything. At least at home.
I eat; the talk shifts to nothing in particular, which is good. It’s as though we’re strangers sitting at the same table in one of those family-style restaurants. We feel the need to make conversation, because that is what polite people do, but we are careful to keep the conversation safe. Nothing to ignite sparks between Adrian and Mom. Nothing to upset me.
We aren’t always like this. Adrian and Mom do rile each other up all the time, but they forge ahead in explosive conversational territory anyway. I am not always such a delicate flower in need of protection from the elements. But we aren’t always having breakfast on mornings like this.
So: It’s a beautiful day outside. Not too hot. We all agree on that, even me, although I haven’t been outside. People always say you have to leave town in August if you don’t want to stifle to death—today is August 1—but really, August just gets a bad rap. We all agree on that, too. August can be, and often is, really nice, not the heat-and-humidity hellhole people always say it is. August needs better publicity. Yes, it could use a good ad campaign. But then more people would stick around in August instead of heading off to the beach, and part of the charm of August here in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., is that there is less traffic, shorter lines at movie theaters, more chances to get into the trendy restaurants. So we all agree to keep the considerable charms of August our little secret.
And that is that conversation.
The day oozes by. I sleep more. Adrian hangs around, which he is doing for me, which I appreciate. There is dinner, which he cooks. There is sleep, which I lunge into gratefully. And then there is another morning, which dawns despite my urgent request to the universe that the earth just stop in its tracks for a while.
More of a Blur
This much is vivid and clear: my hands cradling Humphrey’s head. I’m trying to make him comfortable, to cushion him from the unforgiving asphalt. He isn’t crying or anything; he’s very still, but I can feel him breathing.
The larger scene is more of a blur. Police. Neighbors. Ambulances. Fire trucks.
The Stashowers are next on the scene, I believe.
“Oh my God. Oh my God,” Mrs. Stashower cries.
“Who is it?” Mr. Stashower asks.
“It’s Humphrey,” I say. “Humphrey T. Danker.”
“It’s the little Danker boy,” Mrs. McGillicudy says, and I realize that I didn’t actually answer the question out loud.
“Oh my God,” Mrs. Stashower repeats.
“Has anyone called 911?” her husband asks.
“Before I came out,” Mrs. McGillicudy says.
“Stay there,” Mr. Stashower yells. Stay there? Where else would I go? But he has his back to me. He isn’t telling me to stay there. People must be gathered on the side of the street. “You kids stay there. Stay out of the street.”
I hear car horns honking. We’re holding up traffic. “Should we—move Humphrey?” I ask Mrs. McGillicudy. This time words do come out of my mouth.
“No, no,” she says. “Whoever’s honking doesn’t know what’s going on. They’ll just have to wait.”
Next, Mrs. Raskin appears. “Where are Tom and Clarice?” she asks.
“I’m babysitting,” I say in a whisper. “They’re out.” Mrs. McGillicudy transmits this to Mrs. Raskin.
“Where are they?” Mrs. Raskin says.
They went to a movie. An early movie and late dinner, or early dinner and late movie, I’m not sure what the order of this Friday evening was. I have their cell phone numbers programmed into my phone, which somehow makes its way from my back pocket to Mrs. Raskin. Or to Mr. Stashower. To someone.
Then the rescue-squad people come. I look next to me and Mrs. McGillicudy is no longer there.
“What do I do—?” I ask the uniformed woman who’s taken Mrs. McGillicudy’s place.
“You’ve done a great job,” she says. “I’m going to place my hands under yours. When I say ‘okay,’ that means I’ve got him and you can remove your hands.”
“I don’t know if I feel him breathing anymore,” I say.
“That can be hard to detect,” she says. “But we’re going to take good care of him.”
She relieves me of my place on the asphalt. Now it’s her turn to be Humphrey’s cushion.
Another rescue-squad person, a guy, sits on my other side. He looks into my eyes, checks my pulse, does a few other things you see on television shows where people get into car accidents or are found dazed at the scene of a crime. “How’re you doing?” he asks. He is, I notice when he holds my hands to wash them with some stuff out of a bottle, unusually good-looking. He can’t be more than six or seven years older than me. Maybe eight or nine years. My sense of being on the set of a television drama grows.
“Fine,” I say, stupidly. “I mean, I’m not hurt. I didn’t get hit by a car.”
“No?” he says. “You’re sure?”
Am I sure? Can you be unsure of such a thing?
A third rescue person, a woman, materializes. “We’re taking you to the ER so you can get checked out,” she says. “Even if you feel fine, you need to be seen by a doctor.”
“What about Humphrey?” Panic rises in my throat. “Shouldn’t you be taking care of Humphrey?”
“He’s got his own team. See?” says the woman. Four people hover over Humphrey, and a stretcher has been pulled alongside him. “We’re taking care of you.”
Two other paramedics wheel a stretcher over to me. “On three …,” one of them says, holding me under my elbows. I want to object, to point out that I walked here on my own two feet to the middle of the street and crouched down next to Humphrey, I wasn’t bulldozed here by a car, I didn’t even fall down, and if they want me on a stretcher, I can very simply stand up and put myself on a stretcher.
But I find, when I try to raise myself on my own two feet, that it isn’t as simple as that. My knees buckle.
As the paramedics ease me onto the stretcher, I hear Mrs. Raskin talking—her voice loud and raspy as usual, matching her name—to Mrs. Stashower.
“They don’t answer,” she’s saying. “They’re not answering their cell phones. Who doesn’t answer their cell phones when they leave their child with a babysitter? Isn’t that the whole point of cell phones—so you can be reached in an emergency?”
“Oh my God,” Mrs. Stashower says.
Mrs. McGillicudy appears again as I lie on the stretcher waiting to be lifted into the ambulance. No one answered the door or the phone at my house, she tells me. Were my parents reachable?
“Oh—my cell phone,” I remember. “Mrs. Raskin.”
While Mrs. McGillicudy goes to find Mrs. Raskin and my phone, my team of rescue workers lifts my stretcher into the ambulance.
“But she’s got my phone,” I object.
Either I don’t say this out loud or I do and no one cares. The hunky guy and the woman climb in the back with me. Before the doors to the ambulance close, I notice, for the first time, the teal blue minivan at the head of the line of cars snaking backward on Quarry Road. It’s the car closest to Humphrey, and its position in the lane is sort of skewed. From what I can see in the deepening dusk, the car hasn’t suffered a bit of damage.
Humphrey, however, is still lying in the road. I see him vividly and clearly, despite the gathering darkness.
A Perfect Spiral
I can throw a perfect spiral. Not only that, I can throw it hard, a spiral with speed. Humphrey was surprised by my football-throwing prowess—I saw it in his perfectly open and transparent face, the fair and transparent face of a blond, surprised in a totally delighted way. This was at the start of our summer together, when Humphrey and I were first getting to know each other.
“You can do that?” he squealed after the ball bounced out of his arms.
“I just did, didn’t I?”
“It wasn’t an accident?”
“Gimme the ball,” I said, “babysittee.”
“If you’re the babysitter,” he had said on my first day, “then I’m the babysittee.”
“Law talk with his father,” Mrs. Danker had explained. “Employer, employee. Promisor, promisee.” She ran her hand gently over her son’s crew cut. “You’ll get used to Humphrey and his words.”
Now he threw the ball in my direction. We were, I figured, about fifteen feet apart. His throw didn’t even make it halfway. I retrieved the ball, backed up to put some distance between us, and launched another spiral. It was right to him, but the kid didn’t have a chance. He really couldn’t catch the ball.
“Wow!” Humphrey yelled. “Can you teach me?”
I don’t know football. I don’t follow the Ravens or Redskins, don’t go to high school games, don’t follow college play. But I do like to throw and catch a football.
“I don’t know if I can teach you, exactly,” I told Humphrey. “But I can play catch with you. I can help you practice.”
“Oh, come on—teach me how to throw a spiral!”
I tried. I know nothing about the mechanics of passing, but I looked at my hands on the ball and tried to place Humphrey’s hands like mine. No way. He had pretty big hands, it seemed to me, for a little kid—he’ll be tall when he grows up, I thought—but he still couldn’t really grip the football.
“Come on, Danielle,” Humphrey said after sixteen unsuccessful attempts. “Try something different!”
“Follow me!” I exclaimed, running away from him. “To the spaceship!”
On the edge of the field was a small, kind of sad, toddler playground. It had a swing set, three bumblebees mounted on springs, a climbing gym about as big as a king-size bed, and a roundabout. It was deserted, as it usually was, not only beca
I let Humphrey catch up with me. “To the spaceship!” he screamed. “Hurry, before they get us!”
Humphrey reached the roundabout, which was, as it had been on previous visits to this park, our spaceship.
“Don’t leave me behind, Humphrey!” I pleaded. “Don’t let them get me!”
When I reached the roundabout, I grabbed hold of one of the handles and spun it around a few times, creating momentum before I jumped on opposite Humphrey.
“Takeoff!” he screamed joyfully.
“Into the atmosphere!”
“Away from the … away from the …”
“Aliens!” I prompted him.
“Away from the aliens!” Humphrey said.
The roundabout spun for a surprisingly long time.
“Coming in for a landing,” I said as we slowed down. “And … we’re here.”
Humphrey jumped off. “A new planet,” he said. “It’s never been discovered.”
“We’ll have to name it, then,” I said.
Humphrey looked at the bumblebees and bugged out his eyes. Pointing, he screamed, “New aliens!”
“But could they be … friendly aliens?” I asked.
“Let’s see,” Humphrey said. He approached the bumblebees slowly. “I come in peace,” he said, stretching out his hands. “Look, Danielle, they want me to ride them.”
“That’s very friendly,” I said.
He climbed on the back of a bumblebee that used to be blue—most of the paint was worn off—and rocked himself to get the springy action going. After about a minute he stopped and got off. “Thanks, Bumble-Boo,” Humphrey said. “His name is Bumble-Boo.”
“That’s a fine name,” I said. “And the planet’s name is …”
“The planet is Thrumble-Boo,” Humphrey said.
“Thrumble-Boo?” I said. “Not Crumble-Boo? Maybe it’s made up of cookie crumbs. Or Strumble-Boo? Maybe everyone here strums a banjo. Or Dumble-Boo? Maybe it’s only for dumb aliens.”
Humphrey fixed his serious green-eyed stare on me. “It is not for dumb aliens. There are no banjos or cookie crumbs. It’s Thrumble-Boo. It’s Thrumble-Boo because of … the thrumbles.”