by | Sep 12, 2017 | Fiction

Jeff will be my first arrest. I don’t dislike the guy, but it’ll be easy, make me look tough out of the gate. The first arrest is a big deal, and I happen to know that Jeff will break the law any given day he finds breath in his lungs.

I hear his muffled voice through the wall. Jeff and Mom have been arguing for hours. If they don’t stop fighting now, we’ll miss confession, which is only a few-hour window today. Mrs. Johnson will probably take our spot. She likes to go in for seconds, which slows things down, and I sometimes wonder if she confesses about taking away from others’ confession time.

Truth is, I’m not a huge fan of church, but unloading in exchange for a softly phrased directive feels a lot healthier than bemoaning the world and feeling bad later, and I’d like to confess how little I’m looking forward to the rest of the day. That’s a horrible thing to confess because there’s a fundraiser later for kids who are far worse off than me, but all I can think about is how excruciatingly long the day will be, especially with Mom in a bad mood. She hasn’t made the lemon bars. The boys aren’t dressed for church, and I’m sure I’ll be the one to blame for all of that.    

The bass of Jeff’s voice rises. Mom’s voice is louder, shrill and determined, and I only catch the occasional phrase. “If you really loved me, you’d,” “Oh just shut up,” and “I don’t need to listen to you telling me …” Door slam, door slam. It’s almost like a soundtrack.

My brothers are oblivious to the fighting. Joey is wearing Mom’s floppy hat and sunglasses with his suit pants; he’s taking wide, shaky steps around the bedroom and screaming out, “Watch out, man! Bats!” because Jeff let him watch Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas last night. He’s almost ten now. Myron’s twelve. I’m just a few years’ shy of old enough to move out—that’s really all age means to me. Confession: I am impatient about everything, and I’m becoming less patient with every passing day. 

I’m not that interested in their reason for fighting, not really. I have a test Monday and should be studying with this bit of free time. Algebra is my nemesis. It’s one of the last classes that could slow me down before graduation. Once that diploma is in my hand, I can start to make moves. Major in criminal justice, or just apply for Academy. I’m not brave and impulsive like my sister, Allie; I can’t rush things and take off with no plan. I can’t trust the universe like she does because I panic without structure.

Police Officer or Air Force. I haven’t fully decided. I’m leaning toward officer, anyway, in part because I think my sister would disown me if I told her I was going into any military branch under the current administration. She’s convinced that we’ll be going to war soon. 

I figure Academy couldn’t be too stressful, and since I’m smallish and have something of a high voice, I’m assuming the Chief will be easily impressed. I’ll be the underdog, a position I like because it’s easy to be impressive when you’re the underdog. People like to root for you. 

My brother smashes into the wall on purpose. “Where’d that come from? All these bats!” he asks me, wide-eyed and wavering. I rush over to him and pluck the hat off his head.

“They stole your hat,” I say. I wave it around in the air slowly, as though it were between two bats, held captive in their claws. He plays along, looking up, stumbling back.

“Call my lawyer,” my brother says. Joey is a theatrical kid—he acts out whatever movies he likes, and he’s good at impersonations. Occasionally, Mom has someone over, and she asks him to do his impression of Don Vito Corleone from The Godfather, a movie series we all saw at ridiculously young ages. When it comes to real people, Joey’s especially good at imitating Jeff, his gravelly tone and nonchalance, but Jeff doesn’t like it. People often have different versions of themselves in their own heads.

Joey does impressions of Myron, me, Mom, and even Allie, though he can’t pretend to be her without upsetting everyone or starting an argument. The impression he does of me is overly simplistic. He’ll start by looking out the window, dreamy-eyed, then say something deadpan and strange like, “The squirrels got to the nuts after all. So much for my life’s work.” I’ll never admit it, but I think he’s right-on. 

Joey continues to stumble around the room as I hear a “Fuck you” in baritone. I rush back to the wall. Jeff doesn’t usually resort to cursing, which piques my interest. My brother appears oblivious. After pressing my ear to the wall again, it doesn’t take long to get the gist. He wants to go on a road trip.

Jeff’s been on probation, or house arrest, for most of the time I’ve known him. He has a way of getting arrested immediately after earning full rights as a citizen, almost as though police just know to tail him his first night off probation (my very plan) and wait for him to pick a fight with a guy at a bar or drunkenly take a piss on someone’s Mercedes. The petty crimes add up, but overpopulated prisons keep Jeff at home. He’s been free and clear of his last incident for almost a full 24 hours now, and he wants to go on a trip. Mom’s opposed.

The air conditioning makes the wall vibrate against my ear, and I press harder, even though that doesn’t make a difference. I hear him use the word “innocent” in reference to his trip. He gambles with some buddies (explains Fear and Loathing) and comes back … What’s the problem? What’s the big deal? To Mom, this plan is catastrophic.

“Why are you standing by the wall?” Joey asks.

“To hear what’s going on,” I say.

“I can hear it all; hear it all, all the time,” Joey says. “Maybe the bats stole your ears.”

“Shhhh,” I say. I listen. Everything is too muffled now.

  “I love you, and I want you around all the time,” Mom said yesterday, as she fingered the stem of her martini glass. Mom drinks everything out of dollar-store martini glasses lately. They break in the dishwasher, but she loves and continues to buy them. The wide-brimmed glasses hold her apple juice, iced coffee, water—pretty much anything but a martini. She thinks the glasses evoke a sense of sophistication, like big sunglasses or a stylish outfit. She does what she can to create her own glamour here in Middle America. I can’t blame her for trying.

No way we’ll make confession. Just as I am about to plop back down on my bed with my laptop, Myron rushes in and tackles Joey, pinning him on the ground in a wrestling move. The boys’ legs twist around like licorice, and I hear someone’s pants rip.

“I’m going to murder in our next meet,” Myron says proudly. “Won’t I?” Myron looks to me with his deep-set eyes and chubby face.

“Get off him,” I say.

“Yeah, fuck-wad,” Joey cries.

“Hey! Language. Myron, get off him. Check your pants. I heard something rip.” I stand, ready to do my best to pull my chunklet of a brother off the tinier one. “If your opponent is the size of Joey, you aren’t that good of a wrestler. You know that, right?”

Myron rolls his eyes and walks out. I feel bad for the kid. I don’t feel the bond with him that I do with Joey or did with Allie. He’s just there. Bad to say, I know, but it’s true. There’s something missing in his eyes.

“The truth keeps barreling at us, Molly May. You can’t avoid the bad stuff, but you can fight it, slow it down, give it less of a stage,” my sister wrote to me a few weeks ago. She’s been leaving me notes in the tree in our backyard, high enough that I have to crawl out to reach them. When I’m not at school, I basically live next to my bedroom window, waiting to catch her in the act, but she’s a pro. She tells me about the protests she’s been involved in and why. She tells me to resist. Her last letter was short:

MM: Today has been pivotal in the resistance movement. Not only did we recruit more than six-hundred people with our online petition, we pulled off another successful protest.

We charged ahead on the Statehouse lawn, facing down the cops with grace. One of them pushed William in the chest. I grabbed his hand and squeezed as much as I could, feeling the heat from his skin. This guy – I know you haven’t met him, but MM, let me tell you – he’s no wilting flower. This guy is ex-Marines, and he once told me that his ability to disconnect from reality when he’s upset, along with his reaction time, frightens him. He’s usually nowhere near the front line because he seems the kind who would incite a riot, the one who would push back. MM, he didn’t. He found that strength – that thing THE OPPRESSORS don’t have.

I’ll come back for you soon. xoxoxo A

My sister is a leader of what she calls a radical peace movement. She says that they are peaceful warriors because their words will destroy hate. I think of her as a superhero. But in one letter, after a tough night in which half her crew was arrested, she said that she is beginning to think the resistance movement should be armed. It might be what it takes. 

Mom says she’s an idiot. Jeff says he’d like to meet her and have a chat. Jeff lost his job at a factory, but he doesn’t hold the same conservative views as Mom. He could care less about social issues, he says, but he has a special hatred for CEOs and other rich people who steamroll the poor. “They just went from exploiting us to exploiting others. Fuck ‘em.”   

Disdain for authority is what makes Jeff a chronic offender. If he feels he’s been talked down to, he starts a fight. If someone who looks like he has money gives him the wrong sideways glance, he starts a fight. If someone starts talking about traveling the world for fun, he will most definitely start a fight. Anyone who struggles though – “That guy’s okay.”

In fact, those who struggle are better than okay. If you’re in need, Jeff will give you his last bite of food, or drape his sweatshirt around your shoulders, if you’re cold. I’ve seen him stop eating mid-breakfast at Bob Evans so he can get his food packaged up to take out to the guy who stands near 5th and Olentangy. I’d arrest him anyway. He needs to learn to calm down.

Mom stands over me, arms akimbo. “You hear me?” I glance up, nodding my head back and forth.

“I was just waiting here. I didn’t want to interrupt.”

“Geez, Molly May. I’ve been calling you for ten minutes. I need you to move your behind. You’re going to make us late.”

I think quick. “Can I stay home? My stomach hurts. I have a shooting pain,” I lie, figuring I can confess when we go later this week.

“With God in your heart, the pain will fade,” she says sternly, lifting my chin.

“Please, Mom. I’ll make the fundraiser.”

My brothers are standing by the door with their arms crossed. They know I’m not sick. Myron sticks out his tongue, mouths, “Lucky,” and I feign a wave of severe discomfort.

“Are you too enfeebled to do a few things for me while we’re gone?” Mom says, applying her powdery pink lipstick without need of a mirror.

An hour later, my fingers are oily with the butter that coats the glass pan. I try to move the knob with my elbow, but it keeps slipping, so I use my wrists to turn on the water. I’m washing my hands when I see Jeff. He says something.

“Didn’t hear you,” I say, nodding to the water. I pour the crust mixture into the pan and slip it in the oven before sitting next to him at the round table.

“I’m heading out. Your mother won’t be happy, but we just spent two hours talking about it, and I didn’t budge, so she’ll figure it out. Don’t let her come after me.” His backpack is settled on the table next to him. He’s counting out fives and placing them in envelopes. “How long for those lemon bars?”

I shrug. Jeff’s eyes are like tiny green marbles. Ribbons of color weave through them, and when he stares it’s like looking at a stuffed animal. “It’ll be a while. Jeff, what, um … what do you think of me becoming a cop?”

I expect him to laugh. Instead, he looks uncomfortable. “Don’t let your mom follow me, got it?”

“You’ll be long gone by the time she gets home.”

“She’s probably parked around the corner.” He stands, pulling up his belt, which is too loose on the last loop. “Being a cop is like getting paid for the bullshit we live through. Might as well be the one with the gun … I say go for it, kid.”

I nod, seriously, appreciating his pragmatism. Everyone has their moments. I can’t help imagining Allie with a gun, a vigilante. I grab a wooden spoon and hold it tight as I begin to mix the lemon juice and sugar. Mom’s handwriting is hard to read, so I pull up a recipe online as Jeff hurries out the door. “See you later, officer,” he says.

“10-4,” I say, reaching for a paper towel. I’m glad Jeff stuck to his plans. Mom can be a bully, and bullies need to lose.

The lemon mixture settles on the crust evenly because I pour slowly. I’m careful when I replace the pan and set the timer. While I wait, I jump up on the counter and cross my legs with my laptop perched on my knees. I open the review sheet I was given, but it appears nothing more than a storm of numbers and letters paired with confrontational questions. I stare at them, moving them around, sure that I’ll never be an accountant. I open another window and start to type on a blank page, a letter that I don’t realize will stop my sister’s correspondence altogether for a while. 

Hey, Allie. Come get me? Mom won’t know. That was just bad luck, that one time. Nothing going on here. Our brothers are crazy, and I’m thinking about studying to be a cop. I think I’ll make pretty good money, and when I took the career profile assessment, it assigned me either that or accountant, and I hear suicide rates are higher among accountants. Plus, I suck at math. Maybe I could help your movement somehow, organize a police for peace movement? Did I mention I miss you? Love, MM.

Simple. Lemon bars are simple, but there is something dynamic about the soft layer of powdered sugar, the tartness of the lemon, and the earthy sweetness of the crust as they melt onto the knife I use to loosen a rectangle, then another. What remains on my knife is all I will be able to eat. If I take an entire piece, Mom will know I’m not sick.

I lick the knife, my tongue jumping at the metallic segue to layered sweetness. I don’t hear them. I realize in the instant I feel the flavors dancing on my tongue, leaning over the counter with the knife in my mouth, breaking every single kitchen rule Mom has ever instituted—laptop on eating area, elbows on counter, licking silverware, eating from the pan—that I first realize I have a problem.

As Mom yells, I use it to my advantage. As she screams, I breathe deep, hearing each word hurled at me as though it is being hurled from behind the wall. My brothers run upstairs, and when the lecture is over, I carefully slice through the perfect rectangle, releasing two lemon bars. I plate them.

“I didn’t hear you come in,” I say, worrying I blacked out. Maybe I really was sick?

“That’s not the point …”

“Mom, I didn’t hear you come in,” I say again, seeing the tears before I feel them. They swell in my sightline, sting, and I am grateful for them because when they fall down my cheeks there is clarity. I cup my ears and release. I push hard against them and let go. There is no ocean sound when I cup my ears, barely a whoosh. I only feel my cool fingers, the base of my palms.

“The world doesn’t want you to hear it for the time being,” a doctor says. I imagine Allie saying something comforting. There are other ways to hear the world.

As the tests begin and pamphlets are collected, I focus my eyes. Jeff returns and leaves again, and I see why Mom didn’t want him to go that first time. One night he spends at home, I catch him flipping between political news, nodding angrily at the TV. Mid-channel change, I ask him if there are deaf police officers. It’s a thing I’ve asked every search engine online, to no clear answer. I even emailed the precinct downtown to a baffled response: “I’m sure you can do something. We’ll look into it. Is this for a school project?”

Jeff doesn’t hesitate to answer. He never does, and I appreciate this. He says it’d be an attribute. “The less you hear, the better. People are full of shit. Criminals are especially full of shit.”

My letters collect on the tree out back that week; they collect until Mom rakes them up with the leaves and stuffs them in a thick bag, the few that dislodged during a windstorm. I watch, horrified, then thankful, that she doesn’t read them.

I watch the news with Jeff, waiting to see my sister. I look for her in papers, on flyers, and when we ride anywhere at all. We always had a silent way of communicating, Allie and me, connecting transcendently, ignoring distance and time. Come get me, I think. 

I take a series of audiologic tests, knowing, as I do in math class, that I flunked the hardest parts. After my acoustic reflex tests, I sit next to a computer screen with electrodes on my head. I feel like a science experiment as I wait. “We’re testing for your biological response to sound, Molly May. These are called the Auditory Brainstem Response and Auditory Steady State Response tests. ABR and ASSR for short.”

The doctor’s voice is clear. I imagine he must be screaming. I watch his mustache move with his upper lip. It’s thick hair, like darkened straw. He smiles and hands me a magazine with the headline “Could War Be in America’s Future?” It’s not a question.

I wait for an answer. We all wait. Jeff returns from his third trip to the casino with a modest winning of $200, and you’d think the guy just won a million. He struts around the house like a champ, until my medical bills arrive in the mail. When they do, he sits me down and stares at me with those marble eyes. “I think it’s time we got you a job, Scout,” he says. “We called insurance, and it’ll be about $500 after all they take care of. Maybe more. Not sure if you know this, but we barely have this $200. So. Job?”

“Done deal, if you don’t call me Scout again,” I say. I feel my own eyes becoming marbles, hardened and glassy, as I stare at him. He smiles, pats me on the shoulder.

“She may still have a shot at saving her hearing,” the doctor apparently told my mother over the phone, but when Mom recounts this, she also says the hearing aids cost “A shit ton, Molly May. You really need to get a job after school.”

I don’t respond. I’ve already applied at the grocery down the street. She says it again, and I hear her clearly, but I don’t respond. She is puzzled but doesn’t repeat herself to test me.

Mom drinks iced coffee from a martini glass. She looks ridiculous, and for some reason, for the first time, this makes me laugh instead of worry. I smile at Mom. I smile at Myron and Joey, who are peeking out at us from the stair railing. Myron angles his head against the wood, staring out as though from a prison, looking confused. Joey gives me a lipless smile, the sort that says, Whaddayagonnado?

Finding notes everywhere but the oak tree, from everyone but Allie, I tease out a lot of things about my life. I read lists and requests and thank-yous. My family begins to read each other’s notes, too. Jeff and Mom’s notes have hearts or skulls on them, depending on the day.

I write notes. I hand them to my instructors that get me front row seats and special allowances; I watch body language closely, making a study of it. I watch the soldiers glide down high school hallways with predatory eyes. I watch boys with slumped shoulders look up to them without looking at them. I watch police officers stroll our neighborhood, their guns resembling extra limbs.

Certain instructors at school favor certain legs when they stand. Some suck their teeth or cross arms when frustrated. I can predict fistfights between girls before the first punch is thrown, and begin tipping kids off so that the crowds can gather more efficiently. I see Mom lean toward Jeff when they speak, even when they argue, and I watch him lean away. I see their fights coming like clouds collecting in the sky before a storm. More and more, he leans away.

I hear enough to get by while we wait for a clearer answer. I see specialists who say I don’t need devices, I need surgery. Over the course of a year, I bag groceries and learn some basic signing, just for the hell of it. There is a surgery available that will, if not restore my hearing, keep my inner ear from incurring further damage.

I save money. I help pay bills. Jeff goes to the casino. I save money. Mom asks for loans. I save money by not letting them know when I get a raise. I save money and wait until, eventually, I head into an appointment and am cleared for surgery. The mustachioed doctor suggests I get in now, as healthcare rates are expected to soar, but he wants to see me one last time before we schedule.

I wonder what my sister would think if she knew I couldn’t hear. She’d want to be there if she knew a surgeon’s scalpel would be so near my brain. I wonder if she’s OK.

I wait, glancing out the window as Joey does his best Chaplin to cheer me up. He’s obsessed with Chaplin now, and his impression of The Tramp is brilliant. I clap, fast and hard so that I can hear it myself. I type my brother a note on the iPad that I carry around everywhere now, mostly for other people to use, thanking him for being here because sometimes it’s better to write. He tips his hat and dances off.

My gaze follows him downstairs, toward the TV Jeff left on. I make my way downstairs, reluctantly, leaving the window open. “Breaking News” and “Special Alert” careen along the top and bottom of the screen. I watch, hearing static. As the news becomes increasingly dire, mere headlines flashing on the screen, the silence becomes addictive.

“They’re fighting. You’re screwed,” Myron yells near my ear, then rushes off to find and harass our little brother.

If we don’t leave now, we’ll be late. I close my eyes and confess to the silence. I tell it how little I want to hear from the world. I tell it that I want to run away, like my sister, but not with her because fuck her. She abandoned me. I am stuck in time, unable to grow in this house, and she knows it.

I confess until I feel a weight on my shoulder. I know it’s my sister’s hand, saying “Sorry, Molly May. Sorry. I got you,” and because I know it’s her, I refuse to open my eyes.

I confess how much I hate my sister, my mother, the world. I confess until I hear something drop in the room above. Something thrown, no doubt. I look to the clock and notice how late it is, and I decide to stop waiting. I walk out the front door alone, toward the bus stop, and I find my way to the doctor’s office.

Photo used under CC

About The Author

Jen Knox

Jen Knox is a writing coach and community engagement director. Her fiction can be found in The Best Small Fictions 2017, The Adirondack Review, Chicago Tribune, Istanbul Review, Literary Orphans, Room Magazine, The Santa Fe Writers Project Quarterly, and The Saturday Evening Post. She is the author of After the Gazebo (Rain Mountain Press) and a forthcoming collection of fabulist fiction, The Glass City, which won the Prize Americana for Prose in 2016. www.jenknox.com