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Paul Lisicky


The night of my tenth birthday, I sat at the top of the dark stairs, hugging my knees to my chest, listening to them fighting over my present. They wouldn't make up their minds. One minute it was murex shells, the next it was a pup tent, and the next it was a crab trap, an oboe, a used astronaut suit from NASA. They'd been talking about my birthday for days, but no one ever asked me anything, and I was tired of it. I wanted them to stop. I wanted them to just calm down.

My mother's shoes clicked against the terrazzo floor. Before she could see me, I darted into my room and flopped face-down on the bed. My heart banged in my chest.

"Honey." She turned on the bamboo lamp. "Get dressed," she whispered. "We're going shopping."

I didn't open my eyes. "I'm tired," I mumbled.

"We're all tired, Red."

I stared at the face of the yellow clock. The minute hand was missing, but the hour hand pointed to the two. "It's the middle of the night."

"Don't worry," she said cheerily, tossing a t-shirt and moccasins on my bed. "You can sleep in tomorrow. I'll write you a little excuse," she said, winking. "How's that?"


"What?" She leaned against the dresser and raised her left eyebrow. I was always afraid of that look. "Is that Klein woman giving you problems again?"

"No." I was lying.

"If you're not feeling up to par, you have every right to miss school. You can tell her I said that. It's the law." She turned down my pajama collar and hugged me, pulling me up against her breast. She kissed my neck. "Now come on, cupcake," she said. "Get dressed. Pop-o's waiting."

I pulled some pants over my pajama bottoms as she tiptoed down the stairs. I'd been late to school thirty-eight times this year, and tomorrow would make thirty-nine. I knew Mrs. Klein wasn't happy about this. She tried to
understand, but I knew what she thought. I could feel it, like radar, each time I missed another dodge ball game.

Downstairs, my grandfather stood in the kitchen in a faded t-shirt and loose khakis, rubbing the door knobs with a blue cloth. He always did this before we went out. If a robber ever broke in, he'd say, we'd have his fingerprints, so the police could send him to the electric chair where he belonged.

"You're going like that?" he said finally, looking over his shoulder.

I glanced down at myself. My shirttails were tucked in; my fly was zipped. I wondered if he could see my pajama bottoms.

"Your hair. Here." He walked over to me, pulled a barber's comb from his shirt pocket, then raked it once, twice, three times across my scalp. He was giving me an Ivy League. I hated Ivy Leagues. I wanted to look like a Beatle.


"That's a boy." He stepped backward, smiling.

"Just what are you doing?" my mother said. She leaned against the door jamb, tugging her silver necklace,wearing a cocktail dress spangled with black beads. She liked to dress up at night, even if we weren't doing anything important. She looked troubled now.

"I fixed his hair, that's what."

"For crying out loud, Clem," my mother said. "Will you leave the poor kid alone?" And then she started combing my hair in the opposite direction.


It was 1969. Things had not been going well for us that year. Four months before, on December 30th, my grandfather's company, Thornton Homes, the largest developer of planned cities in the state of Florida, had been charged with selling underwater lots to a young couple at a Cherry Hill, New Jersey, dinner party. This was not the first time this had happened. He'd been getting away with these things for years, switching homesites, promising sewer lines that were never built, dredging up mangroves in the Fahkahatchee Strand, so the state development commission had put a two-year halt on all his communities: Port Thornton, Boca Bay, Collier Gables, Vel Haven. Even worse, the tax people were taking away his beachfront house in Naples. He was broke; he had no place to live. So on a stormy Palm Sunday, when the rain had made a lake of our street, he moved in with my mother and me, lugging all his belongings--files, maps, brochures, clothes, accounting records--in paper shopping bags. He asked where he could sleep. My mother suggested the empty bed in my room. "Only for a couple of weeks," she said, patting my back nervously, watching him move the model airplanes on my dresser. "Sure," I said, then walked out the door. "Fine."

The three of us sat in the front seat of his battered Cadillac, driving down the Tamiami Trail at seventy miles an hour. It was a hot, muggy night. Little showers blew in from the Gulf, sprinkling the grass, the palm fronds, and our windshield. Our tires slapped at the wet road. Heat lightning flickered in the distance. My mother sat beside the open window, filing her nails with a broken emery board.

"Having fun?" She tried to smile.

My grandfather turned right. We drove past a row of sabal palms and headed toward a store, big as an airport, with a flashing blue sign of the roof: NORTH STAR: FLORIDA'S FIRST 24-HOUR SHOPPING EXPERIENCE. A floodlight swept back and forth across the low clouds like an eye. The parking lot was nearly empty.

"Don't look at that," my grandfather said, pointing to the white flames in the floodlight. "You'll blind yourself."

I shuffled toward the automatic doors. Behind me, my mother wheeled a shopping cart while my grandfather lectured her about correct hairstyles for boys. He was talking about giving me a moonie. I tried to ignore him.

"Now let's decide what you want," my mother said once we were inside. She tapped a flyer with her fingertip.

We walked straight to the toy department. On the shelves were stacks and stacks of dolls, rocket ships, inflatable rafts with skeletons, bicycles, chemistry sets, play food, Viewfinders, bubble wands, blow-up dinosaurs. I couldn't make up my mind. The air conditioning was making me tired. I didn't want to play dodge ball tomorrow.

"I'm too old for this stuff," I said finally.

"You're a child, honey," my mother said, her eyes hazing over. "You're supposed to want presents."

"I don't like them," I whispered.

My grandfather wagged his head back and forth, then strode toward the back of the store, mumbling. My mother took a deep breath. She bit down on a knuckle, then grabbed my hand. I'd said the wrong thing again.

We stopped beneath a circular sign marked LAWN AND GARDEN/HARDWARE. My grandfather kept picking up thing--shower hoses, sump pumps, gaskets--examining the prices, checking whether or not they were made in Japan. Finally, he held onto a small green box. "This is what you want," he said, and gave it to me.

I stared at the tool kit in my hands and tried to look happy. I didn't know what to say.

"What?" My mother touched an eyebrow.

"He's a boy," my grandfather said. "He needs tools. One of these days he'll start building tree houses, and he won't have the proper tools." My grandfather turned to me again. "This is what you want."

"Jesus Christ, Clem," my mother said. She swept some lawn sprinklers aside and sat on the shelf nearest the floor. Her elbows rested on her knees. "He doesn't want that. Why would he want that? Look at his face."

My grandfather folded his arms and squinted. His ears were bright red. For a second I imagined him yelling, his big hand coming down hard on my shoulder, but then he was looking into my eyes, kneeling on the floor tile. "What do you want for your birthday, Sport? Help us."

I didn't say anything. The fluorescent lights made a soft humming sound. It was my birthday, and they had ruined it.

"Goldfish," I said.

"Goldfish," my mother repeated. "Okay, come on." She stood up, then led me to the pet department. She fumbled inside her handbag and stopped. "Here, blow," she said, holding a Kleenex over my nose. I blew; I felt like I was five years old again.

"Goldfish," my grandfather said, shuffling down the aisle.


Nobody talked. My grandfather barely took the Cadillac over forty, drifting onto the crumbled shoulder of the Trail every now and then. He usually drove like this when he was thinking up new street names, and as I watched his lips, I realized he was doing just that. BENDIX, BONWIT, BROOKLAWN, BOTANY, BOULDER ROCK, BELLTONE, BIRD OF PARADISE, he murmured while my goldfish churned around in its sandwich bag. I wondered if we'd ever get home.

"So how does it feel to be ten years old?" he said. We were stopped at a red light. Alongside us a white dog stared grimly out the window of a station wagon.

"I don't know." I shrugged.

My mother flattened out my cowlick. She started humming something in a warm voice: "The Age of Aquarius," I think. Her bare leg was pressed up against mine.

"You'll be going to college soon," he said, amazed.

I nodded. I thought I should tell him I'd probably be failing fifth grade, but decided not to. My stomach squealed.

"Have you decided on your plans?"

"Aren't we rushing things?" my mother said, confused.

A yellow light blinked in the distance. As we drew closer, I saw a tall sign that spelled HARRY'S in neon letters atop a broken-down bar. Cars circled the parking lot, and out back, motorboats were tied up to a floating dock, rising and falling, ropes pulling. A wind sock hung limply from a pole. Gas pumps hunkered on the dock like bombs.

"A roadhouse!" my mother said.

My grandfather raised his eyebrows. "Shouldn't we be in bed?"

"We'll give it a half-hour." My mother turned to me. "How's that, peaches?" she said dreamily.

Nobody waited for my reply. As soon as my grandfather parked the car, they started across the lot, the engine still knocking. I didn't want to go inside. I thought about lying down on the back seat, pressing my cheek against the cool leather, but when I heard people smashing bottles outside, I unlatched the door and tried to catch up. Broken shells crunched beneath my sneakers.

"Three," my mother said, holding up her fingers to the hostess.

I looked around the place. It was dark, smoky, and loud, with lobsters scuttling around in big tanks. A hippie strummed a guitar on stage. Many of the people, I noticed, were not wearing underwear.

The woman led us to a wooden booth.

"Isn't this a gas?" my mother said as we sat down. She pressed her palms against the tabletop and looked all around. She gave me a deep red smile.

My grandfather frowned. Behind him, a man in a business suit stood beside a lady in a bikini. He placed his hand on her rear end and, thinking no one was watching, dug his fingers deep between her legs. The lady continued speaking as if nothing was happening. A trickle of sweat ran off her jaw.

"It's getting late, Vel." My grandfather tapped the face of his wristwatch.

I could feel my eyes closing, opening, closing again. People's faces drifted by like sad clown balloons. Smoke burned the inside of my nose. I'd never been so exhausted in all my life.

"Hold on, Clem, she's coming. Miss. Miss," my mother said, flagging a waitress with dark orange hair.

"Mmmmm?" She gave us a tired look.

"We'd like to order. The child--" She pointed toward my head resting on the table as if that explained things.

The waitress said, "Three minutes," then disappeared.

My mother turned around. Her face was reddish. "How do you like that. You ask her to take your order, and she can't even handle that. If she were working for me, I tell you, she'd be out on her can in five minutes. I mean, I slave, I try, I--"

"Vel," my grandfather said.

A woman with a sweet smile stood at the table. "I'm sorry that took so long. We're horribly busy in the kitchen."

My mother shifted in the booth. She tried to be tough, but sometimes she could be the shyest person in the world. "Yes, darling." She took out her half-glasses and scanned the menu. "We'd like a shrimp in the basket, one
hamburger, two conch fritters, and-- Could I talk to you alone for a second?"

The waitress looked surprised.

"Yes, darling, you. Just for a minute."

I watched them walk to the bar. When my mother came back, minutes later, she and my grandfather started passing a cigarette between them, trading glances, smiling. I wondered what was on her mind. Actually, she hadn't been herself for quite some time, and I wondered whether something was wrong, whether she'd been sick or drinking or depressed about my grandfather moving in with us, but then the whole thing became clear to me: she had asked the waitress to bring out a birthday cake.

"I have to pee," I said, and stood up.

A worried expression slid across my mother's face. "Pee? You just peed at the North Star. You're always peeing."

"I have to go." I grabbed myself in the crotch.

"Well, okay, honey, be careful." She looked at my grandfather. "Why don't you go with him?"

"He's a big boy."

"You're some help," she said, drawing on the cigarette.

I carried my goldfish in its sandwich bag. The rest room was dark and musty, with pink tiles and a jalousie window. I placed my goldfish on a ledge and unzipped my pants. It was hard to pee in a public place. I kept pushing and pushing and pushing until I finally got a little stream going, but then the door flew open, thumping against a rubber stopper. I wondered whether it was my grandfather. When I looked down, I realized I'd gotten pee all over myself.

"Hold steady, partner." Someone patted my shoulder.

A man in a green baseball cap stood beside me. He was tall, sturdy; out of the corner of my eye, I could see him fumbling for his penis: it was dark, red, and bumpy, thick as a branch. I couldn't look at it. I hoped mine would never get like that.

"What do you have there?" the man said. He nodded to the plastic bag.


His urine sprayed the white porcelain. "What's its name?"

My body felt light, like cotton, cloth, a puppet. I couldn't go anymore. "Jumbo," I said, lying.

"Jumbo," he repeated. "I like that."

I zipped my fly, flushed, grabbed the fish, and started toward the row of sinks. Icy water ran over my hands. When I turned around, the man was standing beside the air machine, holding his penis, stroking it, making it bigger. "Little boy," he crooned.

I banged my shoulder against the door and ran to the table.

"Can we go now?" I asked them. My arm was throbbing.

"We just got here, honey," my mother said. She looked surprised. "Are you all right?"

I shook my head from side to side.

"Clem, feel his forehead. He looks a little feverish, under the eyes."

"Stop it!" I said.

My grandfather held up his hand like a safety patrolman. He was looking at my fly. "What's that you have all over yourself?"

"I don't want any cake," I said.

My mother twisted her bracelet around her wrist. "Red, what's the matter with you?"

I looked over my shoulder, searching.

"You're scaring me," she said.

"I don't want any cake," I yelled.

My mother cupped her hands. People looked up from their tables and their tall, clear drinks. "Honey," she said in a direct voice. "You had a cake at home. You had another cake at school. How many g. d. cakes do you expect in one day?"

I slid into the booth after a few moments. I picked up the burger and took a bite; the tomatoes tasted bland, watery.

"How come you talked to that lady, then?" I said at last.

She looked puzzled. "It was a female problem, sweetheart. Just a little feeling I had related to the particular time of the month. She gave me a pill, that's all."

I looked up. The man in the green baseball cap was pressing his hips into the bar, laughing, holding a beer can. He glanced at my face, then turned away. No one would ever believe me.

"You mustn't be so self-centered, honey," my mother said gently. "Your grandfather and I do the best that we can. We love you. What more do you want from us?"


I sat in the back seat, watching the houses on Echo Place, our street. The windows were black. Palm branches wavered in the wind, and the grass--lush, clipped--glittered like tin foil in the moonlight. Dark birds chattered in the trees. Anyone driving through this neighborhood would think we were all happy, quiet, and safe, without a problem in the world, but I knew things. I knew how Mrs. Stark, home from a hard day at the hospital, would take off her nurse's uniform and dress up in her husband's suit, begin speaking in a rich, husky voice, or how the NcNitt twins, Bret and Bart, set little fires in the church sanctuary. It was a weird, scary place to live. Sometimes I wanted to move someplace else, to California, to Washington, to Miami even, but then I had the feeling it might be like this anywhere.

My grandfather pulled into our driveway, the high beams washing our garage door with light. He cut the engine, gripped the wheel for a few moments. On the door you could still see where someone had scribbled FUCK with a charcoal briquet one Halloween night. However hard my mother scrubbed, she couldn't get it off, so it stayed there, faint, something we all laughed about when we were in a good mood.

"Lock up," my grandfather said, stepping onto the driveway.

Our house smelled like a freezer. I walked across the living room and placed my goldfish on the Japanese modern table. Sometimes I had a hard time believing that we lived here. All of my mother's things were so beautiful and delicate--rice paper lanterns, ebony swallows, butterfly chairs--that we had to behave as if we were living in a sample house. Plus, it was so chilly. The air conditioner was usually set at the highest setting, even though it might have been fifty degrees outside. Sometimes I hated walking around on those icy floors, but my mother insisted it was elegant.

"G'night," I yawned, almost tripping over a pile of Vogues.

She pulled her dress over her head and draped it over the back of a dining room chair. She was wearing only her slip. "Aren't you preparing your fish bowl?"


"Honey," she said. "The poor little fishy. Come on, it'll just take a sec."

"I'm tired."

My mother blew some air across her upper lip. She was waiting for me to give in, and I wouldn't do it. Immediately, she started walking toward me, trying to grab the
plastic bag from my hands. "Give it to me, I'll do it myself."


She turned her head toward the kitchen and called, "Hon."


"Stop it, sweetheart." She was squeezing my wrist. Hard. I wanted to hit her.

"All right," I said at last.

We walked into the kitchen. My mother squirted some lemon soap on a sponge and started swabbing an empty mayonnaise jar, her bracelets clinking together. My grandfather sat at the kitchen table. He was wearing boxer shorts and long black socks that reached to his knees. He was eating Grape Nuts from my old Tony the Tiger bowl.

"Here we go." She turned the sandwich bag upside down.

We watched as the fish banged against the jar. It spun around in the currents, its eyes wide and astonished. I wondered if it would ever stop. Bubbles perked up from the fish's mouth, like beads. Finally, it rose to the surface, lying on its side, motionless, bellying up.

"Happy birthday!" my mother said, ruffling up my hair.


I burrowed into the sheets. There was a cold, dry spot in the center of my head. I pulled my legs to my chest.

"You're babying him," my grandfather said.

The silverware drawer slammed. I sat up in bed suddenly, pulled the window shade aside. The sun flooded our wet yard, making prisms with the sprinkler. My old sliding board rusted beneath the ginger tree. And then I remembered: it was Tuesday, and I was supposed to play dodge ball at eleven o'clock. It was already ten-thirty.

I'd barely slept the whole night. My grandfather had climbed into the bed next to mine and fallen asleep immediately, snoring, his bare feet making black marks on the wall like little souls. Sometimes he'd wake up and the room was quiet for a while, and I'd relax, feel myself filling up with sleep, but then he'd start all over again, making whistling, soft grunting sounds that came from deep in his chest. At one point, I woke up and saw him doing sit-ups on the rag rug. He did these grimly in the dark, as if he were trying to prove something. It was five-forty-five in the morning. I wondered why he couldn't sleep like a regular person.

There was a thumping on the staircase. I pressed my head into my pillow, concentrating, trying to make myself appear feverish. I had chicken pox, I decided. I imagined the sores on my body, my hair wet, my tongue coated, the spit crusted in the corners of my mouth. My fever was a hundred and six.

"I'm sick," I mumbled.

My grandfather blinked. He pushed the hair up off my face and kept his hand there. His skin felt sterile, papery. His eyes were the color of nickels. I forced myself not to look away.

"How's your glands?"

Without waiting for my reply, he began pushing my neck, my wrists, my stomach. He asked me to take off my shirt. He asked me to stick out my tongue.

"Aaaaaah," I said.

My grandfather rubbed the point of his elbow and shuffled down the hall. A cabinet creaked open; water funnelled through the pipes. Seconds later, he was back with a Dixie cup and a palm full of Anacin.

"Come on, schoolskipper."


"Look, you can't stay here all day, you're missing your
lessons. Everyone else is out there learning their times tables, getting ahead."

"I already know my times tables."

"Thirteen times nineteen--" he chuckled, and left the room.

I stared at the piñata hanging above my bed. It was green and brown, in the shape of a sea cow, with a little red tongue. My grandfather had bought it for me years ago, after he had sold the thousandth lot at Vel Haven, his first community. For some reason, he never wanted me to break it until I was thirteen, but I didn't care. I reached for a yardstick and smacked it hard against the head. Stale candy showered onto the floor.

I walked down the steps to the kitchen.

My mother stood at the sink in her slip, her back toward me, running hot water over her hands. She pretended to wash a bronze coffee pot that had a broken lid. She turned around.

"Thanks for saying I could stay home," I said, pulling a chair from the table.

"Honey, don't," she said softly. She turned to me, as if she wanted to say more but couldn't. There were dark circles beneath her eyes. I could tell she hadn't slept all night. "Your grandfather--" she started.

"I don't care." I pressed my hands over my ears.

My mother looked at me as if I'd kicked her. "You don't care," she said in a smoky voice. She started shaking her head. "Do you think I want you running off to school with only four and a half hours' sleep, do you?"

I looked down at my hands. "What happened, Mom?"

She took a deep breath, then looked up at the ceiling. Her eyes were glassing up. "He hates us, honey," she whispered, as if he could hear through the floor.

Something puttered in my stomach. I held these words in my head, weighing them. They split up like wood under an ax. "He said that?"

She shook her head. "Of course not."


She knelt on the floor and took a can of cleanser from the cabinet, shaking it on the tile. Her arm made wide, sweeping motions. The cleanser foamed blue. "He thinks you're acting like a girl," she said at last.

I looked at the floor. A hot feeling poured into my face. "I don't understand."

She bit down on her lip. "Forget it--it's silly."

I tried to think of something to say. People had told me that at school, and now I was hearing it from my grandfather.

"Honey," she said, and stood up shyly. She put her arms around me, then started smoothing out my hair. Her hands smelled rich like Comet. "Don't take it so bad. He's blaming me, actually. It has nothing to do with you. Don't worry, sweetheart."

I was upset. I tried to cry, but couldn't. The corners of my eyes burned.

"We're just different from him, that's all. He's so . . . stuffy. You mustn't let these things upset you."

"I can't even sleep anymore."

She nodded. She smiled at me with a tired expression. "I know, I know. But it's only for a few more weeks. A few more weeks and everything'll be back to normal." She looked out the sliding glass window. Red and green birds hovered over the birdbath like angels. "I just hope we can hold out that long," she said.

We were quiet for a long time. Above us, my grandfather moved furniture around in my bedroom. It was the fourth time in two weeks he had rearranged things. I didn't even care anymore.

"Do I still have to go to school?" I said finally. My nose was running. I wiped it on the back of my hand.

"I'd say so," she nodded.

I was perfectly still. Upstairs my bureau made scraping sounds against the floor.

My class was already on the field playing dodge ball. Mrs. Klein stood off to the sidelines in a turquoise dress, touching her collar with her fingertips, talking to another teacher, Mrs. Barry, her best friend. I hid behind a banyan tree for a while. Everyone looked so small, so tiny, like tin soldiers on a game board. At any moment, almost anything could destroy them. A thunderstorm, a tornado, a crazy man with a machine gun. I tried to remember these things as I started across the damp field. It didn't help much. My sneakers made squeaking sounds in the marl.

"Hello," I mumbled. Suddenly, I felt very shy. I'd known Mrs. Klein for months, since September, and actually she was one of my favorite teachers ever. I didn't know why I was acting like this.

"Mrs. Klein," I said, and tugged on her skirt. I could hear my voice wavering.

She looked over her shoulder, blinked. I could have sworn that she thought I was a stranger--her eyes got all funny and dull--but then she was smiling warmly. "Oh, Red. Oh, my goodness. We thought you had mumps again."

I shook my head. Words gathered, then shredded in my brain.

"We missed you," she said with feeling.

I looked at the playground. Already Rob Gleason and Mark Cullen were frowning, heaving the ball with all their might. People were screaming, diving, skinning their knees against the concrete. John Seminario stared at me.

I handed Mrs. Klein my mother's note. She tore open the flap with her little finger and started reading it, her eyes narrowing. "Well, she says you had a strep throat." The white ball whirred through the air, almost hitting Sharon Stone's ear. "Do you think you're up for a little dodge ball?"

I started to shake my head no. But then I was in the
center of the circle, moving to the left, then to the right. Pebbles flew up from the pavement. Kids had intense, serious expressions on their faces. Suddenly, I stepped on the back of Janet Mackle's ankle.


"You faggot," she wailed, and hobbled out of the circle.

A whistle blew. I thought then about running all the way home, afraid that Janet Mackle would get me in trouble, when the ball came at me again, from behind this time. I ran to the other side of the circle, tripped. The knee tore out of my pants. Someone giggled. Then the ball hit Kevin Navins on the collar bone.

There were two people left. Me and Doug Tuttle, this fat kid. It was the first time this had ever happened to me. I was usually the last one picked, the first one out. Now here I was, one of those people nobody ever noticed, and I started running around, biting on my lip, even enjoying it a little. A hot wind blew at my neck. A cool sweat puddled on my back. The ball shot out from the left, and shouts flew up. Go Thornton, go, somebody yelled. Go, go, go, go. And then the ball thumped against the concrete, bouncing into Steve Simpson's hands. My heart pounded in my chest. My sneakers slid across the grit. I could feel myself trying things I never did before. I ducked, I spun, I rolled on the pavement. Maybe I'd even start liking school, and my grandfather would be proud of me, and I'd be happy, and I'd have friends, and nothing, nothing would upset me anymore.

When I looked up, the ball was heading straight for my nose.


I was lying in the infirmary. I pressed an ice pack to my face, listening to Mrs. Garwood, the nurse, talking on the phone, telling my mother that I was injured, and would she please pick me up? Outside in the corridor, kids were streaming into the cafeteria, clutching milk tickets.

"Your mom'll be here in a minute," whispered Mrs. Garwood. She fixed the pillow behind my head. "Could I get you anything? Are you comfortable?"

I shook my head, then nodded, my eyes closed. It felt so good to be lying here. The smell of medicine, the tissue paper on the bed, everything still and peaceful, like a church. I loved being sick, injured, and if I could, I'd spend the rest of my life this way, lying down, thinking. I didn't see it as such a bad thing.

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