The chopped onions in the well-buttered pan working on medium-high heat mimicked the rain falling on wet pavement. Its shallow sound laid like a thin veneer over the silence stuffed finally and gratefully into every corner of the house - still appreciated but aware of its counterpart. Finally the boy is asleep. It is the first time there has been any calm here for the past two days, probably more. My mind does not allow me to think back further, but it - no, my whole body - is like a muscle releasing after a long, tight contraction, and now I am moving breath by breath.
I opened a couple of cans of green chiles and added them to the pan. Swished them around. Checked the time. They need three minutes at least. I can wash out these cans, get the cream of chicken cans opened, measure out the plain yogurt and wash the food processor parts in that time. The manual opener, as old and damaged as this house, makes a halting but eventually even cut around each can. No such luck for the boy, with whom 10 hours ago I raced through this kitchen on the way to the ER, his hand wrapped in a plaid beach towel quickly growing dark red. Last night I knew today would be tough, but I had no idea it would be like this.
"You need to get up," she said last night, shoving my bad shoulder hard, waking me up from a accidental slumber in RunningHammer's bed. I carefully untied myself from his arms - he always, even at his age, holds my arm like a teddy bear - and shuffled out of the room where she stood glaring, as if I were somehow to blame for what I was about to see. She jerked her head down the hall to the open door at SFB's room. I smelled him before I saw him.
"He's drunk," she said.
"I can tell."
He was on his bed mumbling gibberish. I forget what I asked him, but as he began to speak, he threw up all over his bed and floor. I walked out and shut the door. She jumped on the phone and began calling various parents, letting them know that her son had been with their child and was now drunk, never mind that we didn't know exactly what happened or whether he had been with the any of these kids.
We got several different stories before I gave up even caring about the version, but apparently the boy left with his cousin to go to a friend's house. He left mad at his mother because she was mad at us for starting to decorate the Christmas tree without her. While at the house, they learned about a party. The boy claimed to know hardly anyone. Of course there were no parents there. Of course there was alcohol. Of course everyone was underage. So he drank.
Once he was a little more coherent - at one point he thought he had just talked to a girl and she was now hiding in his closet - I spoke to him. "Why the hell did you do this? You were doing so well."
"It's all because of mom. She makes me so angry. None of these people were my friends. I don't know why you take all that shit from her you do. She never believes me. I can never do anything right. No matter what. She pisses me off so much I just wish she'd die."
At this point he was sobbing. I left the room before I started too. On the way I snatched his phone and iTouch, the tools teenagers around here use to find out who's parents are away, if their liquor cabinet is well-stocked and whether the medicine cabinets are good enough to be dumped into a salad bowl on a kitchen counter.
I dumped the soup and yogurt into the pot after dropping the washed cans, rattling briefly, in the recycling bin. Stirred it all together. A handful of shredded cheese. Stirred again until all melted. Pulled a cup and a half out to save for the sauce. The chicken breasts I had blackened earlier were cool enough now to cut up easily, and the motion became a little too automatic, too much comfort with a favorite dish, familiarity taken for granted with a sharp knife. The blade grazed my knuckle. Just one of those normally disregarded kitchen nicks. Except for today.
Today it is pulses of blood and anger and tears and pain.
The next morning, I was in the bathroom when he woke up and stumbled in. "Can I go out tonight?"
"Why? What the fuck?"
"You were drunk and-or stoned. You lied to us. You threw up all over your room. You're not going anywhere tonight."
"It's the beginning of Christmas break. I want to hang out with my friends."
"Based on last night, you're not going anywhere for a while."
"It's because I hate Mom. Goddamn I hate her so much."
He walked away, punching walls and doors as he stomped through the house. I then heard a sound that I hope I never hear again: a series of guttural screams, the cries of a cornered, desperate animal, as far from a 16-year-old boy as possible. This was followed by a frame-splitting slam of the door leading to the backyard.
I was about to escape for a quick shower when MaShone ran in from the backyard. "Uncle Lovejoy! He's cut his hand and is bleeding really bad. It's gushing out."
"Did he lose any part of it?"
"I don't think so."
"Have him stick it in the pool and get an old towel to wrap it in."
He ran back out. I got dressed. Hammer was crying on the couch, shoulders jerking with each sob. I gave him a quick hug. In the backyard, MaShone had just finished wrapping SFB's hand with a beach towel. "It's bad," MaShone said. "I think I saw bone."
SFB's face twisted together both fear and anger. He spouted an unbroken string of expletives, none original. We walked through the kitchen. I got my keys and wallet, and we went to the car. On the way to to the ER, I called his mom.
Four cups of diced chicken breasts, maybe five, went into the pot. I stirred it, coating all the pieces evenly and watching the scorched seasonings release and drift and color the sauce a dark and complex blond. I turned the heat to low. From the fridge in the garage I retrieved the tortillas, and I took two foil casserole pans from the stack on the dry goods shelf.
I set up my workspace on the counter. Pan. Tortilla. Pot with serving spoon. Place the tortilla on the counter. Spoon the filling in the middle. Roll. Place in pan. Repeat. I took some solace in the repetition though I tried to make each one better than the previous. Little packages nestled tightly together. I thought of a hospital nursery full of newborns.
"You took him to the fucking ER?!"
"He was gushing blood from his hand. Did you want me to go shopping around?" I walked short laps in front of the entrance of the ER, the only place where I could get a reliable signal. Through a window I saw SFB sitting in a chair looking numb, staring, long hair wild.
"Do you know how much this is going to cost us?"
"A fucking shitload. Our insurance is shit. Holy fuck."
Silence for too long. I was ready to disconnect.
"Where are you in line?"
"I think we're next."
"Keep me posted."
The triage nurse took his vitals and wrapped his finger in gauze and threw the towel away. She clipped the bracelets onto his wrist. After sitting in the waiting room for a few minutes, we were called back and shown to a room, stepping into a bright place of flat white light, hissing curtains, rubber wheels and quiet urgency. He laid down on the gurney, and I turned on the TV that swung on a foldable arm and we simply looked at it, not watching.
Eventually, two nurses came in. One to talk, bright, shiny, impeccable. One to act, thin, mole-like, stooped. Nurse Mole immediately went to his hand, cautiously peeling away the fresh bandages soaked newly red. Nurse Shiny started chatting pleasantries.
"Boy, I bet that hurt. What did you do?"
"Cut it on glass."
"Really? What type of glass?"
"Did it break in your hand?" Then to Nurse Mole, "You might want to look for slivers of glass."
I had a chance here. A chance for someone, something, slow down or even divert the steadily-progressing train wreck in which my family is trapped. "Why don't you tell her what really happened?"
So I did.
I poured a half cup of whole milk into some of the reserved sauce. Stirred it with a fork. Poured it evenly over the tortillas. Topped generously with shredded cheddar and Monterrey jack. Opened the creaky oven and slid the pans in side by side. Set the timer for less time than needed because I had just replaced the broiler element and it had not fully gained my trust.
We took a trip to radiology to determine whether he had broken any bones. Quiet and uneventful. I was glad for the walk. We returned to the room.
A little while later as I stared at the floor and SFB laid on the gurney with his arm bent over his face under the facade of sleep a tall woman with blonde hair pulled back knocked at the doorway holding a clipboard and hopeful expression. She spoke her name but all I heard was "case worker", and she asked if either of us would like to talk about the events that brought us here. SFB shook his head under his arm. I nodded yes and followed her out to the hallway.
Once there, I fairly lost it. My spiraling vulture's-eye view of the family dynamics had her nodding and "oh-boy"-ing. Oldest son but actually the middle child. Talented in so many ways. A mother who sees him through the prism of her self-destructive brother and her own fractured childhood. Anger that he will never be good enough for her. Being proven repeatedly that that is so. Each of them knowing each others buttons and smashing them at every chance. A mother-in-law well-trained in stealth attacks and dividing loyalties. Me in the middle trying to keep peace, deflecting the collateral damage to the other two boys, watching my marriage dissolve in great sheets of ash, blackening the ground around me.
She left briefly and returned with a sheet of doctors to call. I thanked her and folded the paper and put it in my pocket and went back into the room, doubting any of the names would appear with our provider.
"What did you talk about?"
"About us. You. Mom. All this."
"What's going to happen?"
"We need to talk to someone. To help us figure this out. Whatever it takes."
"I'm not talking to anyone."
"You may or may not. But if you have to, you will."
Nurse Mole came in to stitch his finger back together. Nurse Shiny brought the paperwork -- antibiotic prescription, how to care for the injury, when and where to get the stitches out. I nodded and signed where I had to. Paid on the way out. Silence and more rain on the way home.
MaShone and Hammer were playing the Xbox when we got home, and after stopping and showing them his finger, he continued to his room, still reeking from the night before. She came home shortly after that and looked at the paperwork before anything.
I turned to her.
"Two hundred and fifty dollars for this shit?! I work extra hours for this? I might as well just wipe my ass with it."
She went into his room and attempted to talk to him. I don't know what was said and was beyond caring. I went outside and pulled some weeds. They yielded without a fight in the wet soil. Through the open window I heard doors slam.
I cleaned the kitchen, starting at one cramped countertop and moving to the next. Washed out the recycleables. Scrubbed the pot and rinsed out the measuring cups. I did this all by hand though the dishwasher was empty.
No one bothers the person washing the dishes in case they are put to work drying. Fine with me. Though no one except the sleeping boy was at home I needed to build that bubble of rushing hot water, soap, and repetitive movement to comb the noise from my brain. It worked for a while. I would have preferred washing an entire cafeteria of plates, pots, pans, knives, but too soon I was done. Everything dried and put away and the floor again filled with marbles and I knew with my next step I could very well wind up on my ass.
"I'm leaving and taking Hammer." Her eyes were red and her nose was runny. "We'll be at Brenda's for the night." She took a deep breath and began frantically waving her hands in front of her. "I just can't do it anymore. I can't be here with him and watch him destroy himself. I can't do it. I can't."
"Alright." It was all I said. All I could say. I never know what to say.
I gave Hammer a big hug ("I love you, Dad." "I love you too, sweetheart.") at the door and shut it and did not watch them leave. MaShone left to go to a friend's house. He called after a while to ask if he could spend the night. A senior in high school already accepted to a good university, he is mentally gone already, spending as much time as he can somewhere else, using the house as a way station. Can't say as I blame him.
The timer rang and I checked the enchiladas. Not quite. I set the timer for seven minutes more. Perfect. I pulled them out and turned off the oven. I grabbed a beer from the fridge and popped it open and set it on the counter and walked through the house, silence filling the halls like a mist.
Our bedroom doors tell a story. Three big holes punched in his. Two kicked into ours. One hole in the bathroom door. None in his brother's door. One in his cousin's. Nothing but noise and rage still echoing. I opened his as quietly as I could, freshly noticing the closet door ripped from its hinges and the new Bob Marley poster covering a hole in the wall.
Curled up on his bed, knees pulled up, elbows tucked, clothes two days old now, hair smashed and flattened like broken crop circles, he breathed through his mouth in steady deep breaths. I stepped back out into the hall and took his favorite blanket from the hall closet. Though I doubted he would wake, I placed it carefully upon him, completely covering him, making sure he would stay warm in this cold house. After futilely trying to smooth his hair, I squeezed his shoulder lightly and stepped out.
I closed his door gently and went back into the kitchen. Despite not being hungry at all, I took two enchiladas from the pan and a beer from the fridge, figuring I should eat while I could. The following days might not allow for hunger, and I knew I would need my strength.