The schedule is this: we go to my mom's house for dinner on Monday but don't sleep over, sleep over after dinner on Thursday night with Mom driving us to school on Friday morning, and the weekends rotate: first weekend we stay Thursday, Friday, Saturday, second is Thursday, Friday, third just Thursday, and fourth goes back to Thursday, Friday, Saturday, with the day on Sunday.
But Rachel and I go to school in Newton, where my dad lives. Always school and homework at Dad's, no more than two hours of TV a day, and bedtime is ten; Mom's is where I watch as much TV as I want and go to bed whenever.
In the summer my mom takes us swimming at her friend's pool in Weston. Her friend's kind of old and has a husband in a wheelchair, so why they have a swimming pool, I'm not sure. I guess you don't get rid of an in-ground pool once you have one. But Pamela talks all kind of therapy stuff to my mom, while I try not to listen. I like swimming there better than the town pool because usually no one's there but us. Pamela has a diving board, which doesn't have the spring of the town pool's, but still.
After the pool we stop at McDonald's. My sister and I get Chicken McNuggets, each of us a six-piece, then I started getting the nine. Now they have a twenty-piece size that we share, sitting in the back seat. She still can't eat more than six, so the twenty-piece means more for me.
This time the line at the Drive-Thru is way backed up, so my mom parks. "We're going to have to go inside this time, troops," she tells us.
It's hot in the car but we're listening to the Top-40 Countdown on the radio. "But I need to hear the Top Five songs," I say. "What if Safety Dance is Number One and I miss it?"
"Come on, Noah. We're going in."
"But it's at song four right now." She shuts the car off and I get out barefoot to follow her and Rachel across the hot tarmac and inside.
All summer, "Safety Dance" by Men Without Hats has climbed through the Top Ten but it hasn't made it to Number One yet, even though it's obviously the best song. For some reason, the Number One Song has been "Take On Me" by A-Ha for the last three weeks, and "Safety Dance" has been stuck at Number Two, but that can't stay. For three countdowns they've been like that: one and two, only in the wrong order. Eventually "Safety Dance" has to hit Number One because it's the best song. It has to.
"We'll be back for the countdown," my mom says. "This will take five minutes." But we can both see that the lines are long. Several lines lead back from the front registers and add to a pile of people standing in the center of the McDonald's.
One good thing about my mom is that she lets us listen to good music in the car. She lets me put the radio on my stations that play my music, and she even likes it. She buys good albums like Flashdance and she just got Thriller and Duran Duran. With my dad it's all classical music and boring stuff; he complains if we ever listen to what I like.
"We should've used the Drive Thru," I say.
My mother looks down at me and says nothing. Rachel takes her thumb out of her mouth just long enough to say, "I have to go to the bathroom." She hangs on my mother's arm, practically pulling her down.
"I'm standing in the line now, honey," my mother says. Then she looks at me. "Why don't you take her to the bathroom, Noah?"
I look around but nobody seems to have heard how crazy this is. "I can't take her," I say. "She needs the girls'."
My mom looks down at Rachel, who is still sucking her thumb, her eyes glassed-over like she's beaming in something from way out in space, a station that no one but she can hear, like she's not even in the McDonald's.
She sits down on the tiles.
"Mom, I don't think it's a good idea for her to be sitting down in here."
My mother moves up a space in the line. She rubs her hand over her face. "Can you watch your sister, please," she says. Mom's wearing a blue and white bathing suit, the kind with flowers on it. It's got a little skirt that hangs down from her middle, but here in the McDonald's, the skirt doesn't even come down to the bottom of her butt. In the pool, it flows around her, but here? No. I see two boys, sitting by the front window by themselves. They're sucking their straws and laughing. One of them looks at me and I turn away. I wonder how they got there, how they get to go to McDonald's without their parents, how they'll get home. I hope they're not laughing at me but I know that it's not cool to be in here like this, with my mom and Rachel. I'm wearing my yellow bathing suit, which's gotten too tight, and I'm growing out of my old day camp T-shirt.
My mom's still not getting up to the front of the line. "We should've just gone to another McDonald's that has a Drive Thru," I say. Rachel's still on the floor, sucking her thumb, disturbing where the line would be filling in behind my mother. I pull her arm to get her up. "Stand up, Rachel. Now. Come on."
She just whines and lets me pull her up so that we're both standing behind my mom. "I have to go to the bathroom," she says, stamping her feet. She's only five this summer, a few months from six. She wears a yellow bathing suit, her tummy poking out in a big round circle. Not that it's a big belly, but it is round. "Can you see your feet from there?" I ask her. She's got her thumb in her mouth as she bends over and looks. She nods her head.
"What are we getting?"
"Twenty piece McNuggets, two sweet and sour sauces, one BBQ," I say. "One Sprite, one orange." We move up one space.
"Rachel?" Rachel looks up at my mother like she's about to start crying. There's always something wrong with her, no matter where we are. One time, in the car, she tried to head-butt me and hit the top of my head with her nose. She got a nose-bleed from it and my mom got mad at me. Why? I have no idea. "Do you want McNuggets?" my mom asks. Rachel nods.
"I have to go to the bathroom."
Mom's weight shifts from one foot to the other. "Noah, can you take her?"
"No," I say. "I can't go in there."
"Can't you just take her into the boys'?"
"She can't go in the boys', mom."
My mom lets out a big puff of air. "Can you just wait two minutes, Rachel? Mommy can't get out of the line right now."
Rachel sits down on the floor again. This is when I realize that my family is one of freaks and that I'll never amount to anything. We can't even get through the McDonald's without causing a scene. I don't want to look at the boys in the front, see what they're seeing now, and I don't want to see where I am either.
My mom starts looking through her purse and I can hear the person two ahead of us ordering two six-piece McNuggets, a Big Mac, and three medium cokes. He orders two medium fries also, and this is when I see the water starting to spread away from my sister. She's not really doing anything, just sucking her thumb still, as far gone as ever, but now she has a puddle forming on the side of her closer to me. At first it grows on the brown tiles and then it pools and starts moving toward me along the off-white cracks between the tiles. I watch it build up speed and start moving back down the line, headed for the little metal grate at the middle of the McDonald's. For a while, I'm just watching this, not believing it, seeing this stream head away from us. Then I hear someone laugh and I back away from the trickle, bumping into a lady who says, "Excuse me."
"Oh my gosh," someone says.
"Mom," I say, tugging on the skirt of her bathing suit.
"What, Noah?" She turns around. "What is it now?" I just point at Rachel, who starts crying. "What did you do?" my mom asks. Rachel's mouth is warped into an awful grimace around her thumb, her chin all wrinkled. I step away from the crack with the pee running along it, and now the puddle covers two cracks and runs down both of them in parallel. It kind of seeps into the horizontals along the way, spreading across the floor but not going anywhere. The biggest puddle is still under and just next to Rachel.
"She peed," I say. I point at Rachel, and the skin on my arms starts to tingle, almost hurt. A boy in a yellow and white shirt laughs and covers his mouth. He's not older than Rachel. His mother takes his head in her hands and faces him toward the front of the line, but he turns toward us again, his eyes wide. My mom picks Rachel up, not even worrying about the front of her bathing suit.
"Oh, baby," my mom says.
Now the puddle is alone on the floor, taking up about a six-tile area, three by two. The trickles still head toward the grate, only now the lines of people have opened up a space around them. I can feel my face burning with eyes but I don't look up to see the stares. I look down, see my big toes, wish I had shoes on, sandals at least.
I turn and start for the door, the back of the line, not even saying anything to my mother or looking back at Rachel. I just look down, watching the white lines between the tiles until the trickles hit the grate and then I watch the dry lines all the way to the door, trying my best not to hear the two boys at the front laughing. I push through the heavy door and out into the thick, hot air of the summer.
When my mom comes out, she's carrying my sister but not any McDonald's. Rachel's still crying, and my mom looks tired, not like she's mad at Rachel, which she should be, but just tired. She puts Rachel in the back seat, on a towel, and takes down the straps, then pulls off Rachel's whole bathing suit. She sits her up and buckles the seatbelt around her.
"What about McDonald's?" I say, and my mom just gives me a look that says it all. By the time she gets the car started, Rachel has her thumb in her mouth again and she's quiet, tuned out. The radio plays the second and third verses of "Take On Me" and when it ends, Casey Kasem comes on and says it was Number One again and now that's four weeks straight and isn't it a great song. "I didn't hear 'Safety Dance,'" I tell my mom, in a voice so small she doesn't hear it. If she does, she doesn't answer. She drives us out of the lot and turns right, taking us toward home.
Rachel sleeps in the back seat the whole way home. There's a spot right in front of our house and my mom parks on the street. She hasn't parked in the driveway since she pulled out with the door open and bent it back against a tree so bad it wouldn't close anymore. That was an awful day. My mom just lay down on the porch of our house and cried, stomping her feet on the wood. We had to tie rope around the car later to keep the door closed so we could take it to get fixed. Now she gets out of the car and walks around to the trunk, opens it and takes her big bag with our towels out of it. "Come in and get some food, Noah," she says, heading toward the house.
She lives in the bottom half of a two-family on Huron Avenue that she rents from a friend she met at EST—the same place she met Mrs. Bartley, the lady who owns the pool. This is where she gets all her ideas about life, and what to do with it, how she decided to leave my dad. Now those people are her friends. They're rich.
Rachel lies on her side on a towel. She's naked. Huron Ave. isn't busy, but people walk by. "What should we do with Rachel?" I ask.
My mom looks back. "Let her sleep," she says, waving her hand. "She'll be fine."
I'm hungry, but it seems weird to leave Rachel in the car naked. We're right out on the street, with the sidewalk right here, and anyone could see in. But my mom's already gone up the steps into the house, so I take one last look at my sister sleeping on her side with no clothes on. She has her legs together, her knees into the back of my mother's seat and you can't see too much. Still though, she's naked.
I roll down my window a bit and then make sure that all the doors are locked and that her window's open a little so she can get some air. She looks peaceful, sucking her thumb. You can see her bare chest though. I get out, making sure to lock my door, and head inside.
"What do you want to eat? Spaghetti O's, Boyardee Raviolis?" A pan bangs onto the stove and a cabinet door slams in the kitchen.
"Are you sure it's a good idea to leave Rachel out in the car?"
My mom comes into the hall. "She'll be fine. Come eat." She has the can of ravioli open and when I follow her in she starts banging it against the frying pan on the stove. The stove in her apartment is old and you have to light a match to get it going. She does, then when the gas comes on it pops, hisses, then it's lit. The whole apartment is old; nothing has been changed here for a long time, but it's OK. Except for the nights it's too hot and we all have to sleep in the same bed, next to the big fan.
"If we had McNuggets—"
"We're not having McNuggets." My mom looks at me. She still wears her bathing suit but has a real skirt pulled up around her waist now. "No more about the nuggets, Noah, please." She turns back to the stove. There's a quiet sizzle coming from the pan.
"I think we should go check on Rachel. She's naked out there."
"She's fine," my mother says, and this time she's more definite when she says it, like she doesn't want to say it again. She's shaking her head. I get up from the table as quiet as I can. When I look back from the kitchen doorway she's got her hand up to her face, pressing her eyes into the space between her thumb and her first finger.
From the living room I see our car on the street, with a man walking by it. I walk out into the front hall and cross the rug to the door. Through the screen I see Rachel's bare foot bottom pressed against the window glass. I have to go outside. Through the door, across the porch and down the steps, the closer I get to the car, the more of Rachel's leg I can see in the window. I see the back of her thigh, its pale pink flesh and when I get onto the sidewalk, close enough that I can see into the back seat, I see her naked, laid out on her back now, nipples exposed and with one leg up and the other down on the floor so that anyone can see in between.
I try the handle but the door is locked. "Rachel," I say, hitting the glass with both hands. Her hand moves only to press her thumb farther into her mouth; she does not stir, either to put her leg down or to cover herself. "Rachel," I yell, hitting the window harder now, with the bottoms of my fists. She only rolls over, onto her side, but doesn't wake up. I try to reach in through the window to unlock the door. I only left it open a few inches, and the lock button looks far away, but by wriggling and squeezing, I get my arm in up to the elbow, and then by stretching up onto my toes, I manage to get it in past the elbow, up to my armpit. I get my finger onto the lock and, after scratching at it a few times, I manage to get a hold on it enough that it slips up and unlocks. I open the door just as Rachel's starting to wake up and look around.
She opens her eyes and looks at me, dazed from the sleep and the heat, her thumb out of her mouth. She's got the seat-lines marked into her face and her arm—she was sleeping with her face right on the hot seat—and her hair is matted onto her forehead with sweat. "Come here," I say, taking her hand to pull her toward me.
She bends her knees and I run my arm underneath them to scoop her up. "Rachel, come here baby," I tell her, and she puts her hands onto my shoulders. "We're going inside now," I say as I lift her.
She's heavy, but I manage to stand and hold her small naked body to my chest. Her fingernails scratch my shoulders through my T-shirt. I kick the car door closed.
"Leave me down," she says.
"I'm taking you inside."
"Leave me down!"
I drop Rachel's legs and bend to let her feet hit the ground, and then I take her hand and we run up the steps of the front porch and into the house.
"What's going on out there?" my mother calls, from the kitchen.
"Nothing." I lead Rachel toward her room. Hers is the room across the hall, the one that doubles as my mom's office—where she sees clients. Rachel sleeps on a fold-out bed but has her own dresser. "You need clothes," I say.
Her thumb is in her mouth again and she looks up at me with those distant, glassed-over eyes.
"Noah, your raviolis are ready."
As I hold a pink T-shirt up over Rachel's chest, my mom appears in the doorway. "Why did you wake your sister?" She comes over and scoops Rachel into her arms and smoothes the hair off of Rachel's forehead. "If she's sleeping you can leave her sleeping," she says.
"We couldn't just leave her out in the street like that," I say.
My mom tilts her head at me and shifts Rachel around onto her other hip. I see Rachel's face, the far-gone eyes over her nose and hand, and below that the red nipples over her round white belly. "You sound like your dad, Noah. She's a little girl; no one's hurt by it."
"Just sit down before your food gets cold." She says, pointing toward the kitchen. She takes Rachel into the living room. "Are you hungry?" I can hear her saying, and then she calls back that I should save some of the raviolis for Rachel.
"OK." I go into the kitchen and see the raviolis on the table. I don't let them cool by cutting them in half, I just blow on them, then fork them into my mouth and chew with my mouth open, blowing out so it doesn't burn. When I hear my mom coming, I put one into my mouth right off the plate, without blowing on it, and when it hits my tongue it's so hot I have to spit it out.
I clap my hand to my mouth the same instant I see my mom come into the kitchen. The top of my mouth feels like it's dripping skin-pieces, like I just burned myself on hot pizza, and some part of my arm I wasn't even thinking about hits my plate—just tips it really!—and the whole thing falls over the edge of the table. I see the rest happening like slow motion: the raviolis hit the floor, making a wet sound, the plate bounces, sort-of, and starts to rattle around in a circle, rolling itself flat, but I catch it before it falls completely. The raviolis lie spread across the floor. I look up at my mom, holding the plate for her to see it's not broken, but she's staring at the floor, not smiling.
"Jesus, Noah," she says. She shakes her head. "I leave you alone for one God-damned minute." She hits herself on the leg, hard, it looks like. "Damn it!" she yells. She walks out of the room, goes into Rachel's, and slams the door. She opens it again, re-slams it.
"Shit," I say under my breath. "Shit-fucker." I look around: no one's heard. I toe one of the raviolis, pushing it toward the others. The pile of yellow squares spreads under the table and toward the stove, with bright red sauce between them and small brown chunks of meat. Several options of how to clean up the mess run through my mind: a mop, a broom and a dustpan, paper towels, a sponge and water. But none of these seem right. The vacuum, I decide. I go to get it out of the hall closet. I have to crawl under my mom's coats to get to the back, but I find the vacuum and drag it out by the hose, then go back in for the long tube. I put it all together, then wheel it into the kitchen, plug the vacuum in next to the answering machine, and turn it on.
I touch the hose-end to my hand to make sure it's sucking, and it pulls on my skin, so I attach the tube and run it across the floor, headed for the outer raviolis. Schloop, it pulls in the first one. I look down the tube and it's gone. I aim the tube at the other raviolis. Schloop, it pulls in another. Even some of the sauce is getting cleaned up off the floor, and the little pieces of meat disappear as I head for the biggest patches of food. Schloop, schloop the tube sounds as it pulls them in.
"What are you doing?" I hear. My mom runs over to the vacuum and turns it off, kneeling down. It makes a kind-of-wheezing sound, something it's never done before. My mom unplugs the hose and looks inside, then stands and hits the end of the tube against the sink. Nothing happens. "If you broke this vacuum, Noah, we're not buying a new one," she says.
Rachel watches us from the doorway to her room, thumb in her mouth. She has on her pink nightgown.
My mom hits the hose end against the side of the garbage. One of the raviolis falls out. "Why did you do this to the vacuum," she asks. I back toward the wall. "What made you think you should use the vacuum?"
I look at my feet and the raviolis. "I don't know."
She closes the space between us in two steps and grabs my face, holds it so I'm looking at her. She has her hand under my chin, her fingers squeezing into my cheeks. "What is wrong with you?" she says, her face up close to mine. "What!"
I don't know what to say. My face hurts where she squeezes. I stay still, trying not to do anything. Then she lets me go. She goes to the sink and takes out a roll of paper towels from underneath, wets a handful and gets down on her knees and starts wiping the raviolis into a pile. I want to help, so I kneel down to try and hold my hand out. Instead of letting me help, she lowers her head, wiping food and sauce from under the table. "Leave me alone," she says, so I back away to the other side of the room.
On the other side of the room, opposite from where I stand, Rachel starts crying, her thumb still in her mouth, which is now bent around it, her sobs coming freely.
"Shit," my mom says. "Shit, shit." She touches her face, and I can see a tear at the end of her nose. She wipes her wrist across her face, but not before the tear lets go. I see it fall quietly and hit the floor, disappearing into the mess among the red sauce, meat chunks, and raviolis. She puts the paper towels down and sits back against the cabinets with her knees bent in front of her. "What happened to us today?" she says. Her voice is so soft it's like a whisper. When she says this, she hits the back of her head against the cabinets. Rachel cries louder, comes across the room to my mom, who takes her into her arms. "We tried to do everything fun. We went to the pool. We stopped at McDonald's." She hits her head against the cabinet for each "We," hugging Rachel to her chest.
It surprises me when she opens her eyes. "What happened, Noah?" she says, crying, looking at me with wet eyes, her chin crinkled. She holds her arms out wide, letting go of Rachel, and says, "What happened to everything?" as if to show me she means the whole apartment, or the world.
I am as still as a statue, waiting for my mom to be OK.
"What happened?" she screams, looking right at me. Then, as if I'm supposed to know what she means, or the answer, she says it again, "What happened?"
"I don't know."
"No," she says. "No."
I bend down and start cleaning with the paper towels, but everything I do only moves sauce around, leaves streaks in new lines. The paper towels come apart in my hands and I try to scoop it all up: the sauce, the raviolis, the paper. I get the pile into a clump and lift it to the sink.
"Don't," my mom says, quiet. She puts her hand against my shin. She opens the cabinet under the sink and holds the garbage can out to me. "We don't have a disposal," she says. "We had one at our old house, but not now." When she says "old house" she means when we lived in the Back Bay, with my dad.
I drop the brown mess into the garbage. My mom helps Rachel out of her lap and to standing, then rises herself. Rachel is tuned out, watching us with empty eyes. She walks away into the living room, lays down on the rug. I look up at my mom, wanting to exchange a look that says we both know Rachel's crazy, but that doesn't happen. My mom leads me to the sink and gets the water running. I hold my hands out to her, and she takes them and rubs my hands between hers, soaping them, and then runs both our hands under the water. The water feels warm, exactly like it should be, not too hot or too cold. She rinses the soap off my palms and then the backs of my hands, then rinses her own hands.
She kisses the top of my head.
I look down at the floor, the vacuum cleaner.
"Pick that up," she says, pointing at the hose, and I do. She takes the other end and pulls the hose straight so that we can both look through it at the same time and see each other's eye. "They're not in here," she says. She winks. "I bet they're in here." She opens the vacuum and removes the bag, shakes it around. I hear something hitting the sides. "That's where they got to, most of them anyway." She throws the bag away and takes a new one from under the sink, puts it in. "Take this back to the closet," she says, meaning the vacuum. "OK little man? And then we'll eat some lunch, and we can all take naps, or read, or play the computer."
"Can I put on the radio?"
She nods while she's cutting the celery, and I drag the vacuum back to the closet, new bag and all, go into the living room where the stereo is. It has Thriller on the turntable, but I put on the radio to 103.3 just as "Safety Dance" is starting. I dance around the living room and chop my hands through the air like a robot when the mechanical music starts, and when I come back into the kitchen my mom's got a can open and I can smell the tuna and the mayonnaise, and the bread toasting in the toaster. I sit down at the table as my mom mixes the ingredients in a bowl. I can hear the spoon hitting the side of the glass and "Safety Dance" playing behind it: "S—s—s—s—A—a—a—a—F—f—f—f—E—e—e—e—"
I close my eyes and imagine that this isn't just a normal playing of the song; I imagine that it's reached Number One on this week's countdown. I know this will happen one day, when everything comes right, and imagine that's now.
"Safe safe safe safe—Dance dance dance dance—"
Casey Kasem has just run down the top forty songs in the land and reached Number One and it is "Safety Dance" by Men Without Hats. It is The Top Song in The Land, I tell myself, smiling.
I imagine that my mom makes three sandwiches on white bread, with orange juice and potato chips for all three of us. She puts the tray of sandwiches down on the table in front of me and Rachel comes in from her bedroom without her thumb in her mouth. She is smiling. She has on the pink t-shirt and her tan shorts. Her hair is pulled back into a neat pony tail and she looks pretty. I imagine my mom smiling as she sets the plates at our places. Each of us has our own: a sandwich and chips. Each sandwich is cut in half on its diagonal. There are pickles. Rachel says thank you to my mother, and I do too.
I hold my eyes closed. I listen to the music.