Maps in a mirror, p.19

Maps in a Mirror, page 19


Maps in a Mirror

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  My undoing is undone, and far too quickly. What if my head is fully restored to my shoulders before you come home? Then you will find me in the basement with a bloody mess and no rational explanation for it. I can imagine you speaking of it to your friends. You can’t leave me alone for a single hour, you poor thing, it’s just a constant burden living with someone who is constantly making messes and then lying about them. Imagine, you’ll say to them, a whole letter, so many pages, explaining how I killed myself—it would be funny if it weren’t so sad.

  You will expose me to the scorn of your friends; but that changes nothing. Truth is truth, even when it is ridiculed. Still, why should I provide entertainment for those wretched soulless creatures who live only to laugh at one whose shoe-latchets they are not fit to unlace? If you cannot find me headless, I refuse to let you know what I have done at all. You will not read this account until some later day, after I finally succeed in dying and am embalmed. You’ll find these pages taped on the bottom side of a drawer in my desk, where you will have looked, not because you hoped for some last word from me, but because you are searching for the hundred-dollar bill, which I will tape inside it.

  And as for the blood and brains and bone embedded in the plasterboard, even that will not trouble you. I will scrub; I will sand; I will paint. You will come home to find the basement full of fumes and you will wear your martyr’s face and take the paint away and send me to my room as if I were a child caught writing on the walls. You will have no notion of the agony I suffered in your absence, of the blood I shed solely in the hope of getting free of you. You will think this was a day like any other day. But I will know that on this day, this one day like the marker between B.C. and A.D., I found the courage to carry out an abrupt and terrible plan that I did not first submit for your approval.

  Or has this, too, happened before? Will I, in the maze of memory, be unable to recall which of many head-explodings was the particular one that led me to write this message to you? Will I find, when I open the drawer, that on its underside there is already a thick sheaf of papers tied there around a single hundred-dollar bill? There is nothing new under the sun, said old Solomon in Ecclesiastes. Vanity of vanities; all is vanity. Nothing like that nonsense from King Lemuel at the end of Proverbs: Many daughters have done virtuously, but thou excellest them all.

  Let her own works praise her in the gates, ha! I say let her own head festoon the walls.


  I’ve worried for a long time about whether to tell this story as fiction or fact. Telling it with made-up names would make it easier for some people to take. Easier for me, too. But to hide my own lost boy behind some phony made-up name would be like erasing him. So I’ll tell it the way it happened, and to hell with whether it’s easy for either of us.

  Kristine and the kids and I moved to Greensboro on the first of March, 1983. I was happy enough about my job—I just wasn’t sure I wanted a job at all. But the recession had the publishers all panicky, and nobody was coming up with advances large enough for me to take a decent amount of time writing a novel. I suppose I could whip out 75,000 words of junk fiction every month and publish them under a half dozen pseudonyms or something, but it seemed to Kristine and me that we’d do better in the long run if I got a job to ride out the recession. Besides, my Ph. D. was down the toilet. I’d been doing good work at Notre Dame, but when I had to take out a few weeks in the middle of a semester to finish Hart’s Hope, the English Department was about as understanding as you’d expect from people who prefer their authors dead or domesticated. Can’t feed your family? So sorry. You’re a writer? Ah, but not one that anyone’s written a scholarly essay about. So long, boy-oh!

  So sure, I was excited about my job, but moving to Greensboro also meant that I had failed. I had no way of knowing that my career as a fiction writer wasn’t over. Maybe I’d be editing and writing books about computers for the rest of my life. Maybe fiction was just a phase I had to go through before I got a real job.

  Greensboro was a beautiful town, especially to a family from the western desert. So many trees that even in winter you could hardly tell there was a town at all. Kristine and I fell in love with it at once. There were local problems, of course—people bragged about Greensboro’s crime rate and talked about racial tension and what-not—but we’d just come from a depressed northern industrial town with race riots in the high schools, so to us this was Eden. There were rumors that several child disappearances were linked to some serial kidnapper, but this was the era when they started putting pictures of missing children on milk cartons—those stories were in every town.

  It was hard to find decent housing for a price we could afford. I had to borrow from the company against my future earnings just to make the move. We ended up in the ugliest house on Chinqua Drive. You know the house—the one with cheap wood siding in a neighborhood of brick, the one-level rambler surrounded by split-levels and two-stories. Old enough to be shabby, not old enough to be quaint. But it had a big fenced yard and enough bedrooms for all the kids and for my office, too—because we hadn’t given up on my writing career, not yet, not completely.

  The little kids—Geoffrey and Emily—thought the whole thing was really exciting, but Scotty, the oldest, he had a little trouble with it. He’d already had kindergarten and half of first grade at a really wonderful private school down the block from our house in South Bend. Now he was starting over in mid-year, losing all his friends. He had to ride a school bus with strangers. He resented the move from the start, and it didn’t get better.

  Of course, I wasn’t the one who saw this. I was at work—and I very quickly learned that success at Compute! Books meant giving up a few little things like seeing your children. I had expected to edit books written by people who couldn’t write. What astonished me was that I was editing books about computers written by people who couldn’t program. Not all of them, of course, but enough that I spent far more time rewriting programs so they made sense—so they even ran—than I did fixing up people’s language. I’d get to work at 8:30 or 9:00, then work straight through till 9:30 or 10:30 at night. My meals were Three Musketeers bars and potato chips from the machine in the employee lounge. My exercise was typing. I met deadlines, but I was putting on a pound a week and my muscles were all atrophying and I saw my kids only in the mornings as I left for work.

  Except Scotty. Because he left on the school bus at 6:45 and I rarely dragged out of bed until 7:30, during the week I never saw Scotty at all.

  The whole burden of the family had fallen on Kristine. During my years as a freelancer from 1978 till 1983, we’d got used to a certain pattern of life, based on the fact that Daddy was home. She could duck out and run some errands, leaving the kids, because I was home. If one of the kids was having discipline problems, I was there. Now if she had her hands full and needed something from the store; if the toilet clogged; if the xerox jammed, then she had to take care of it herself, somehow. She learned the joys of shopping with a cartful of kids. Add to this the fact that she was pregnant and sick half the time, and you can understand why sometimes I couldn’t tell whether she was ready for sainthood or the funny farm.

  The finer points of child-rearing just weren’t within our reach at that time. She knew that Scotty wasn’t adapting well at school, but what could she do? What could I do?

  Scotty had never been the talker Geoffrey was—he spent a lot of time just keeping to himself. Now, though, it was getting extreme. He would answer in monosyllables, or not at all. Sullen. As if he were angry, and yet if he was, he didn’t know it or wouldn’t admit it. He’d get home, scribble out his homework (did they give homework when I was in first grade?), and then just mope around.

  If he had done more reading, or even watched TV, then we wouldn’t have worried so much. His little brother Geoffrey was already a compulsive reader at age five, and Scotty used to be. But now Scotty’d pick up a book and set it down again without reading it. He didn’t even follow his mom around the house or an
ything. She’d see him sitting in the family room, go in and change the sheets on the beds, put away a load of clean clothes, and then come back in and find him sitting in the same place, his eyes open, staring at nothing.

  I tried talking to him. Just the conversation you’d expect:

  “Scotty, we know you didn’t want to move. We had no choice.”

  “Sure. That’s OK.”

  “You’ll make new friends in due time.”

  “I know.”

  “Aren’t you ever happy here?”

  “I’m OK.”

  Yeah, right.

  But we didn’t have time to fix things up, don’t you see? Maybe if we’d imagined this was the last year of Scotty’s life, we’d have done more to right things, even if it meant losing the job. But you never know that sort of thing. You always find out when it’s too late to change anything.

  And when the school year ended, things did get better for a while.

  For one thing, I saw Scotty in the mornings. For another thing, he didn’t have to go to school with a bunch of kids who were either rotten to him or ignored him. And he didn’t mope around the house all the time. Now he moped around outside.

  At first Kristine thought he was playing with our other kids, the way he used to before school divided them. But gradually she began to realize that Geoffrey and Emily always played together, and Scotty almost never played with them. She’d see the younger kids with their squirtguns or running through the sprinklers or chasing the wild rabbit who lived in the neighborhood, but Scotty was never with them. Instead, he’d be poking a twig into the tent-fly webs on the trees, or digging around at the open skirting around the bottom of the house that kept animals out of the crawl space. Once or twice a week he’d come in so dirty that Kristine had to heave him into the tub, but it didn’t reassure her that Scotty was acting normally.

  On July 28th, Kristine went to the hospital and gave birth to our fourth child. Charlie Ben was born having a seizure, and stayed in intensive care for the first weeks of his life as the doctors probed and poked and finally figured out that they didn’t know what was wrong. It was several months later that somebody uttered the words “cerebral palsy,” but our lives had already been transformed by then. Our whole focus was on the child in the greatest need—that’s what you do, or so we thought. But how do you measure a child’s need? How do you compare those needs and decide who deserves the most?

  When we finally came up for air, we discovered that Scotty had made some friends. Kristine would be nursing Charlie Ben, and Scotty’d come in from outside and talk about how he’d been playing army with Nicky or how he and the guys had played pirate. At first she thought they were neighborhood kids, but then one day when he talked about building a fort in the grass (I didn’t get many chances to mow), she happened to remember that she’d seen him building that fort all by himself. Then she got suspicious and started asking questions. Nicky who? I don’t know, Mom. Just Nicky. Where does he live? Around. I don’t know. Under the house.

  In other words, imaginary friends.

  How long had he known them? Nicky was the first, but now there were eight names—Nicky, Van, Roddy, Peter, Steve, Howard, Rusty, and David. Kristine and I had never heard of anybody having more than one imaginary friend.

  “The kid’s going to be more successful as a writer than I am,” I said. “Coming up with eight fantasies in the same series.”

  Kristine didn’t think it was funny. “He’s so lonely, Scott,” she said. “I’m worried that he might go over the edge.”

  It was scary. But if he was going crazy, what then? We even tried taking him to a clinic, though I had no faith at all in psychologists. Their fictional explanations of human behavior seemed pretty lame, and their cure rate was a joke—a plumber or barber who performed at the same level as a psychotherapist would be out of business in a month. I took time off work to drive Scotty to the clinic every week during August, but Scotty didn’t like it and the therapist told us nothing more than what we already knew—that Scotty was lonely and morose and a little bit resentful and a little bit afraid. The only difference was that she had fancier names for it. We were getting a vocabulary lesson when we needed help. The only thing that seemed to be helping was the therapy we came up with ourselves that summer. So we didn’t make another appointment.

  Our homegrown therapy consisted of keeping him from going outside. It happened that our landlord’s father, who had lived in our house right before us, was painting the house that week, so that gave us an excuse. And I brought home a bunch of video games, ostensibly to review them for Compute!, but primarily to try to get Scotty involved in something that would turn his imagination away from these imaginary friends.

  It worked. Sort of. He didn’t complain about not going outside (but then, he never complained about anything), and he played the video games for hours a day. Kristine wasn’t sure she loved that, but it was an improvement—or so we thought.

  Once again, we were distracted and didn’t pay much attention to Scotty for a while. We were having insect problems. One night Kristine’s screaming woke me up. Now, you’ve got to realize that when Kristine screams, that means everything’s pretty much OK. When something really terrible is going on, she gets cool and quiet and handles it. But when it’s a little spider or a huge moth or a stain on a blouse, then she screams. I expected her to come back into the bedroom and tell me about this monstrous insect she had to hammer to death in the bathroom.

  Only this time, she didn’t stop screaming. So I got up to see what was going on. She heard me coming—I was up to 230 pounds by now, so I sounded like Custer’s whole cavalry—and she called out, “Put your shoes on first!”

  I turned on the light in the hall. It was hopping with crickets. I went back into my room and put on my shoes.

  After enough crickets have bounced off your naked legs and squirmed around in your hands you stop wanting to puke—you just scoop them up and stuff them into a garbage bag. Later you can scrub yourself for six hours before you feel clean and have nightmares about little legs tickling you. But at the time your mind goes numb and you just do the job.

  The infestation was coming out of the closet in the boys’ room, where Scotty had the top bunk and Geoffrey slept on the bottom. There were a couple of crickets in Geoff’s bed, but he didn’t wake up even as we changed his top sheet and shook out his blanket. Nobody but us even saw the crickets. We found the crack in the back of the closet, sprayed Black Flag into it, and then stuffed it with an old sheet we were using for rags.

  Then we showered, making jokes about how we could have used some seagulls to eat up our invasion of crickets, like the Mormon pioneers got in Salt Lake. Then we went back to sleep.

  It wasn’t just crickets, though. That morning in the kitchen Kristine called me again: There were dead June bugs about three inches deep in the window over the sink, all down at the bottom of the space between the regular glass and the storm window. I opened the window to vacuum them out, and the bug corpses spilled all over the kitchen counter. Each bug made a nasty little rattling sound as it went down the tube toward the vacuum filter.

  The next day the window was three inches deep again, and the day after. Then it tapered off. Hot fun in the summertime.

  We called the landlord to ask whether he’d help us pay for an exterminator. His answer was to send his father over with bug spray, which he pumped into the crawl space under the house with such gusto that we had to flee the house and drive around all that Saturday until a late afternoon thunderstorm blew away the stench or drowned it enough that we could stand to come back.

  Anyway, what with that and Charlie’s continuing problems, Kristine didn’t notice what was happening with the video games at all. It was on a Sunday afternoon that I happened to be in the kitchen, drinking a Diet Coke, and heard Scotty laughing out loud in the family room.

  That was such a rare sound in our house that I went and stood in the door to the family room, watching him play. It was a great
little video game with terrific animation: Children in a sailing ship, battling pirates who kept trying to board, and shooting down giant birds that tried to nibble away the sail. It didn’t look as mechanical as the usual video game, and one feature I really liked was the fact that the player wasn’t alone—there were other computer-controlled children helping the player’s figure to defeat the enemy.

  “Come on, Sandy!” Scotty said. “Come on!” Whereupon one of the children on the screen stabbed the pirate leader through the heart, and the pirates fled.

  I couldn’t wait to see what scenario this game would move to then, but at that point Kristine called me to come and help her with Charlie. When I got back, Scotty was gone, and Geoffrey and Emily had a different game in the Atari.

  Maybe it was that day, maybe later, that I asked Scotty what was the name of the game about children on a pirate ship. “It was just a game, Dad,” he said.

  “It’s got to have a name.”

  “I don’t know.”

  “How do you find the disk to put it in the machine?”

  “I don’t know.” And he sat there staring past me and I gave up.

  Summer ended. Scotty went back to school. Geoffrey started kindergarten, so they rode the bus together. Most important, things settled down with the newborn, Charlie—there wasn’t a cure for cerebral palsy, but at least we knew the bounds of his condition. He wouldn’t get worse, for instance. He also wouldn’t get well. Maybe he’d talk and walk someday, and maybe he wouldn’t. Our job was just to stimulate him enough that if it turned out he wasn’t retarded, his mind would develop even though his body was so drastically limited. It was do-able. The fear was gone, and we could breathe again.

  Then, in mid-October, my agent called to tell me that she’d pitched my Alvin Maker series to Tom Doherty at TOR Books, and Tom was offering enough of an advance that we could live. That plus the new contract for Ender’s Game, and I realized that for us, at least, the recession was over. For a couple of weeks I stayed on at Compute! Books, primarily because I had so many projects going that I couldn’t just leave them in the lurch. But then I looked at what the job was doing to my family and to my body, and I realized the price was too high. I gave two weeks’ notice, figuring to wrap up the projects that only I knew about. In true paranoid fashion, they refused to accept the two weeks—they had me clean my desk out that afternoon. It left a bitter taste, to have them act so churlishly, but what the heck. I was free. I was home.

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