One morning my dad woke me up and told me we were going to Grandma’s. At first I didn’t know what the hell was going on because my mom was always the one who woke me up, not Dad.
He wouldn’t tell me, so I crawled out of the bed wearing my PJ top and these little Wonder Woman Underoos. It was the kind of superhero underwear that came in a pack of three with Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. I liked the Batman Underoos the best, but since it was the end of the week, there I was with only the Wonder Woman Underoos to wear.
“Wonder Woman sucks,” I thought, but I didn’t say anything.
My dad and I, we tried to get the pants on, but every time I tried to put my foot through—one of the legs got twisted, or if I got my foot in, it wouldn’t go all the way in, or just when I was getting both legs in, I’d almost fall over trying to stand up. As we were doing this I thought, “This isn’t how Mom does it.”
I didn’t say anything, because all of a sudden my dad started crying.
I’d never seen him cry before. It was one of those big booming cries.
The night before, my mom sat down on the couch with my dad, and she started crying, too. I sat beside the couch and played with my wrestlers and noticed there wasn’t anything going on in her face.
She was leaning lost against my father’s leg, and I thought, “He never sits with her like this. What’s going on?”
He was touching her head and rubbing his fingers through her curly hair. He couldn’t rub right. He rubbed her head like he was washing his truck. Then he whispered, “It’s going to be all right.”
The next morning after getting up and putting on my clothes and getting Mom ready to go and standing at the door, my father kept repeating to us, “It’s going to be all right. We’re going over to Grandma’s house.” My mother stood at the door wearing her baby-blue winter jacket.
She started crying, except she was still trying to smile and show me that nothing was wrong. She was smiling and crying at the same time like her face couldn’t decide whether to cry or smile. I knew this was the story of the world.
I thought, “This woman’s crazy. I can’t wait to tell my friends.”
I said, “I know it’s going to be okay.”
My dad said, “We’re going to Grandma’s. And it’s going to be all right. Let’s get in the truck.”
We went over to Ruby’s across the Loops Road in Dad’s truck and almost got stuck in two feet of snow on the ground. We went over to Ruby’s, who I called Ruby, not Grandma, and who didn’t know my name until I was ten. She always called me Todd and really only talked to me after Sunday dinner when she said, “You didn’t eat much, Todd.”
I said, “My name’s not Todd.” We went over to Grandma’s, and Ruby took me into a bedroom where she slept. It was a big comfy bed with a red bedspread that smelled like mothballs. It was a room full of picture frames and pictures she cut out of newspaper advertisements. She didn’t know the people in the ads, but she thought they were pretty people.
She put me in that bed and tucked me in and said, “Now you go back to sleep now, Todd. You go back to sleep.”
I tried sleeping, too. I tried being this Todd. I closed my eyes tight and tried, but after a while I realized something was wrong. I tried moving my legs, but they wouldn’t move. I tried bending my arms, but they wouldn’t bend. I was flat on my stomach and listened to my mother crying in the other room.
I heard them talking. I was sprawled in the bed unable to move, and I heard my Grandma talking to my mother who was in the back bedroom.
My mother said something in a high-pitched crying voice, “I’m so scared.”
And Ruby said, “You just hush now and go to sleep. You just hush now and get your mind right.”
And then my mom said, “I’m afraid of airplanes. I’m afraid of airplanes falling out of the sky.”
My Grandma said, “You quit talking that foolishness. There’s not any of them flying things going to fall out of the sky. You just hush.”
I listened and kept my eyes closed tight and wondered, “What am I going to do?”
I tried to move in the bed some more, but I couldn’t move. I wondered if I was ever going to be able to get up. I wondered if my life would be like this forever—a life full of Wonder Woman Underoos. I saw myself at the age of forty wearing Wonder Woman Underoos.
The next day Mom and Dad were getting ready to go someplace. Before they left, my mother sat at the kitchen table. Ruby stood at the sink washing Styrofoam plates, bragging about how many preserves she put up or how many potatoes she was going to plant this year. My dad told her it wasn’t healthy to wash Styrofoam plates and use them again. Grandma whispered, “Shit.”
Then my mother and daddy were gone, and I was left alone with Ruby for a couple of hours. I sat and played checkers with my Uncle Nathan who had cerebral palsy. I went back into my Grandma’s bedroom, and I looked at her pictures of people in their coffins she took at the funeral home.
I asked her, “Why do you have all of these pictures of people in their coffins?”
She said, “I wouldn’t ever get a picture of my kinfolk all dressed up and with their teeth in if I didn’t take one at the funeral home.”
So I asked again, “Where did Mom and Dad go?’
“They went to take your mom to the doctor,” Ruby said.
I looked at the picture, and then I heard a car pull up in the gravel driveway.
A door shut. I looked out the window. I saw Mom and Dad getting out of the truck.
I watched them walk up the gravel path, and my mother had a little bag of orange pill bottles. She looked better. She looked something.
I saw she was carrying another bag in her other hand. It was a bag from a toy store. I watched the bag wrinkle and crinkle, and I wondered what was inside of it.
“I don’t think you have those, do you?” my dad asked.
I looked inside and shook my head no. It was two little WWF wrestlers you could put on your thumbs and wrestle. Hulk Hogan and Big John Studd.
I sat on the floor and ripped open the package. I put the rubber wrestlers on my thumbs and wiggled my thumbs around, and I had a wrestling match. I took my Big John Studd thumb wrestler and my Hulk Hogan thumb wrestler and let the bell ring. Then I had Hulk Hogan jump off the side of the recliner and punch Studd in his face. Big John Studd put Hulk Hogan in a headlock. Then Hulk Hogan got out of the headlock, jumped off the top rope, and knocked Studd out with a flying elbow. The imaginary referee came over and slapped the canvas… one… two… three. Hogan wins. I heard my dad standing in the kitchen and talking to my mom.
“Now you remember to take these now.” I listened as my mom popped open a pill bottle and drank a pill down with a gulp of pop.
“I think I was just exhausted. I couldn’t sleep. Things will be better now.”
And so I sat and wrestled with my thumb wrestlers and thought, “This depression stuff isn’t too bad, especially if I can get some presents out of it.” I dreamed about other bad things that could happen to her and whether I could get presents out of it. I dreamed about wars and car crashes and presents.
I dreamed about insane asylums and presents.
I dreamed about heart attacks and diseases and presents.
I dreamed about rushing water and hellfire and lightning and presents.
I dreamed about floods and sickness and presents. And now I dreamed about something else. I dreamed about cancer. I dreamed about cancer and even greater presents. Then I found myself saying, “Please let her get cancer, Lord. Please let her get cancer and people will give me presents.” The next morning there was a song and a magic trick. Do you believe?
Later that evening I grew tired of wrestlers, and I went outside to play with the Fingus boys who were hanging out at the dirt pile. Derrick wasn’t there. I was wearing my hand-me-down snowsuit because there were a couple of inches of snow on the ground, and Keith and Eric were building snow caves. When they saw me they stopped making their snow cave and snow bombs, and Keith said, “Where you been?”
Eric said, “Yeah, where you been?”
I ran out into the snow with my hand-me-down snow boots and I shouted, “My mom just went crazy, guys. She went crazy.”
The boys looked at me with lost looks on their faces.
I tried explaining to them, “She just went nuts. She went totally crazy.”
They were confused, and I could see it in their stupid little kid faces. They didn’t know what I meant.
I stood watching them. They stopped building the snow cave and started throwing snowballs at each other.
I thought, “This is all a big scam.” It was every bit as hard being six years old as it was being thirty-six years old.
I knew this already. I stood watching the sun shine down on my friends playing. Keith and Eric were laughing and smiling. I stood and said, “Don’t you know this is all going to end one day, guys? Don’t you know this is all going to be over, and we’re going to be gone?”
They weren’t listening. They kept playing. They didn’t care. They kept looking at me. They didn’t know there were things waiting to hurt us, even then, playing with our friends in the snow.