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Ann Bronston

Mr. Bubbles

My sister and I, if we were not sisters, would not notice each other if we crossed paths in a supermarket or shopping mall or even a bookstore. I would be too plain and unattractive for her to take in and she, in any of her incarnations, would be too much for me, too sexy or too disheveled, too lost-looking or too unintelligent. I would let her walk past me, seeing nothing but a body in motion.

Our daily lives don't touch on each other either. Time and distance have left us only the fraying thread of infrequent catch-up calls in which our news is basically so unchanging we don't remember any of it after we've hung up. But once in a while, there will be a night for my sister or myself when the darkness fills with other people's dreaming, and the only sounds heard are far-off and distant, a dog barking or the noise of someone's car engine fading. On those nights we both know that sleep and comfort are slipping from us.

In that late hour the things that hold us to our present lives—my desk, the guest towels folded months ago hanging neatly on the bathroom rack or my too-functional shoes by the door— my sister's unmade bed and next to it her sherry bottle with aluminum foil covering the top—these things that define our present selves and mask our past, begin to blur. On these nights there is a need, understood by my sister and myself, to find something to hold onto.

If it is my late hour I will lie in bed and whisper the beginning of a letter to her, "Do you remember the picture of the princes in the tower? At Grandma's house? The ones King Richard had killed . . ." But I am never sure what I want to tell her about the princes and I drift from the letter into the living room of our mother's childhood home.

Dark and cool, even in summer, the house smelled of mahogany downstairs and camphor upstairs. My grandmother, small and delicate, smelling always of Camay soap, would read to my sister and me from old children's books. As she turned the pages of A Child's History of England, I would make her stop at the picture of the princes. Two fair-haired young boys stood holding hands in the dark and murky Tower of London. The text read: "Notice how Edward stands slightly in front of his younger brother, shielding him with his shoulder. If you look carefully you can see an ominous shadow on the wall of the stairwell."

By morning, my house stands quiet and the letter is left unwritten. The light reveals the clean edges of the towels, still folded, and the shoes, still blunt and ugly. The dark Tower of London is forgotten.

If my sister is the one awake, some late night, alone on a bed that serves as a kitchen and bar, she'll telephone. And so she did:

"Did I wake you?"

"No," I say, but the truth is obvious in my voice and I feel foolish for the lie.

"You sure I didn't wake you?"

"Really, I was up."

"I'm sorry, I know it's late." She inhales deeply. I can almost smell the cigarette as she says, "Do you want to go back to sleep? I've nothing to say, just wanted to check in."

"Really, I wasn't sleeping."

"Okay . . . good. So, how are you?"

"I'm fine, I'm good, things are fine here, nothing much to speak of. You know. Everything's okay. And you? How are you doing?"

She tells me about our brother, half-brother actually. He broke up with his girlfriend. "But it's what he wanted," she says.

We both agree she wasn't right for him. "She moved too fast," she says. "He's like us, he needs to rest between activities. I mean, I liked her and all. I mean, she was smart and, shit, for some reason she liked me, and you know, you always feel obligated to like people who like you. But it wore me out just listening to all the projects she was organizing or chairing or whatever. Fuck it, just getting the kids to school on time tires me out for the day."

"How are the kids?"

"Miserable. We fight all the time. I don't think we ever make up, just go from one fight to another. They want to live with their dad, and sometimes I want them to. It's basically kinda a mess right now, since you asked."

She goes on for a while trying to find amusing ways to say how unhappy she is and I am wishing that I could have admitted I was sleeping. I listen without much interest, knowing that soon she will weave me into some memory of our mother or, more likely tonight, a story about our brother. I will add bits of information or insight to the memory, and on this night she will find some comfort. There is nothing in her conversation that prepares me for what she says next.

"Sometimes I really miss Mr. Bubbles."

Mr. Bubbles is our own twisted version of "Harvey," and his sad story makes us laugh, and we carry with us the faith that it will always do so. But somewhere we both know that the day may come when the story will sound stale, the painful parts tiresome, and the laughter will be forced. When that happens it will strip us naked and we will see parts of each other's bodies that we have never seen before, nipples turned to breasts, skin no longer smooth as petals, hair in surprising places. We will realize that without our clothes we don't recognize each other and we will finally know how strange and unfamiliar we have become. Mr. Bubbles is not a story we risk lightly.

"Oh god. Mr. Bubbles, I haven't thought of him in ages." I want to sound light, maybe find a way to bypass the story. "Oh god, Florida, what a fiasco that was, remember the red ant attack when . . ." but even as I speak I am feeling her six-year-old fingers and the wet cuff of her sweater press into my hand.

"Have you seen him?" she interrupts.

"Who? Mr. Bubbles?" The possibility of her being drunk occurs to me.

"No, Dad. What did you think? I meant Mr. Bubbles?" She is shocked.

"No. I didn't know who you meant. I was just joking; did you think I thought you meant Mr. Bubbles for real? Geez."

She is silent for a moment, then says, "Sorry. So, have you seen him?"

"A few months ago, in October."

I do visit him occasionally because he is now old, and because he is the man I call Dad, although in truth he is our stepfather. I visit him because I have always been the good one, the dutiful daughter, and there is no one else. Distance and anger, and, in my mother's case, death, have kept everyone else away. Though I suspect, fear too, keeps my sister from seeing him; fear that there might be between them a moment that forgives, but more so, fear that there might not be. I visit him because I can now see him as the pile of crumpled clothes on the chair and not the shadow of a monster on the bedroom wall.

When I leave, I feel safe knowing he is sitting slouched, his head nodding forward, his legs crossed in an unfamiliar way, his cigarette burning marks into the wooden armrest of his chair, and his once swift belt looped tight and left to dangle limply. I visit him because I know he will die soon and because, whatever else, he is the man I call Dad.

But I wonder when I think of his dying if in death he will gain new powers. No longer old and confined to a chair he will appear in unexpected places. He will be as he was in the time of Mr. Bubbles, a young man of thirty-five, moving his family from Delaware to Florida, proving to himself and his wife that, having joined Bell Telephone as an electrical engineer, he was at least as good as the family he had married into.

The night before the move was late-August hot, and my sister and I sweated in sleeping bags since all the sheets had been packed. We slept in our clothes so that when six o'clock came around we'd be able to roll up our bags and roll ourselves into the car and be on the road without having to waste time actually waking up. It was eight o'clock before we were in the car. The day was hot already. I had settled into the backseat surrounded by my stuff, comic books, a few different T-shirts to change into, snacks, games and a copy of Jane Eyre which was beyond my ten-year-old comprehension but served as a badge that read, "very bright child, treat with respect." My mother sat in the front with my infant half-brother.

My sister, stood in front of the open back seat door refusing to get in because there was no room for Mr. Bubbles. Mr. Bubbles had been her friend since she was two. Maybe he'd been with her since birth but we were only aware of him when she could clearly say his name. She was six and a half now, and he was wearing out his welcome with the rest of us. I was not in a very accommodating mood, having been awakened too early and then having been yelled at all morning to hurry up. I wasn't about to move any of my stuff.

As we were shouting "no" at each other, I saw my dad walking toward the driveway. No one hated Mr. Bubbles more than he did. Perhaps if Mr. Bubbles been child-sized it would have been different. But we all knew Mr. Bubbles was at least as tall as my dad.

From inside the car I watched as my dad drew closer, his head and feet disappearing from my view. He stood behind my sister and said nothing. His silence was unusual and unnerving; I could only imagine his face. I knew that in this situation, as in most, I would be spared his temper; it was my sister I was worried for. It wasn't that she wasn't afraid of him herself. She would climb over me in my bed at night, sandwiching herself between me and the wall, and whisper, "I hear him coming up the stairs. He's going to punish me."

But her instinct to protect what she deemed important blocked any other incoming messages. It was a trait that never paid off and always ended up costing.

"Oh fine," I said and threw some shirts and comics on the floor under my feet. I assume Mr. Bubbles got in, then my sister did, and the door slammed after her.

I never asked my sister what Mr. Bubbles looked like. I guess after four and a half years my own image of him was so clear I didn't need to ask. He was tall. He wore a blue suit, sometimes a very blue suit. He didn't usually have hands or feet and his head was a large clear bubble. He had two clear eyes that could project like soapy water blown through the hoop of a bubble wand, no nose, and an always grinning mouth. He had a kind of underwater walk; he never ran.

As familiar houses and stores began to vanish, the car became very quiet for a while. Soon, however, my sister began her babbling to Mr. Bubbles, and my brother began what was to be a constant cry, fortunately muted by the hot breeze. I was happy to watch out the window, feeling superior to everything that was rooted, happy that my young life was at last in motion.

We stopped at a park for lunch. The egg salad sandwiches made the park smell like my school cafeteria. I knew school would be starting soon, and I knew I didn't want to be there. I hadn't been happy in Delaware. I thought by moving away I was leaving my old self behind, and I looked forward to the chance to become someone more outgoing and popular, someone with lots of friends, who told jokes, who impressed the teachers by carrying a copy of Jane Eyre and whose fingernails were kept clean and even.

But most of all, the thought that my real dad might someday come back—he had walked out on us five years before—and find us gone had given me a kind of pleasure I hadn't known before. The night before as I lay on the floor of my room watching for the last time the silent dance of the branches and leaves outside my window, I imagined him ringing the doorbell and discovering another family living there. A family of fat people with three fat boys spilling chocolate milk on the carpet as they chased their mange-eaten dog with sticks. I imagined him sinking to the doorstep crying in remorse. This scene played in my mind over and over till it finally melded into a dream.

But now, under the glare of the noon sun, in a strange park, in a strange town, the pleasure I remembered and hoped to find again began dissolving into a kind of dread. I began to worry that my father might actually come back and then never be able to find us again. I began to feel more than ever like my old anxious self. My sister went off to play in the playground. I looked out at the road and beyond to the Laundromat and hardware store across the street. Places that belonged to the people who lived in this town. I watched the few cars that drove past and wondered what grown-ups did when they drove around in the middle of a weekday. I knew I had the sickness of homesickness and tried to figure out how it made my heart hurt. Was it in my blood and carried to my heart, or did it stay in my heart and ache with each beat?

We crossed into Georgia at the end of a long twilight. There were forests all around and the trees stood tall against the dimming light. We would stop as soon as we came to a town. My brother was sleeping and my parents were lost in that deep grown-up silence that leaves you wondering how their bodies continue to function without anyone inside. My sister was engrossed in conversation with Mr. Bubbles, and I was wondering if Ellen Cleary would write back to me if I sent her a letter.

Then, as the trees disappeared into the night, the darkness seemed to call us all back to the present—all except my brother, who slept on, and my sister, who continued her conversation with Mr. Bubbles. Only now she was saying, "I know you don't want to move. I don't either. It's not fair they're making us do it. I hate him, don't you."

If it had been overheard by only one person, even my dad, it would have passed by. But the fact that it was so public a statement was more than my dad could bear.

He swerved the car off the road, got out, opened the backseat door and pulled my sister out with such force that she fell to the ground. Then—and this is the moment in the story that my sister and I count on to dissolve us into each other's laughter—staring at thin air about a foot and a half above my head, he said, "Get out, Mr. Bubbles."

I tell my sister how I must have looked like Alfalfa on the Little Rascals doing a double take, how I suddenly thought I was the only one who had never seen Mr. Bubbles. How I thought my dad was going to reach into his pocket and offer Mr. Bubbles a ten-dollar bill and say, "No hard feelings, eh, big guy?"

The memory does carry us like a wave into suspended time, time in which we are somehow entwined. Finally, we stop laughing and sink slowly back to ourselves, relieved and satisfied, having once again found a way back to each other. I think to myself that maybe the world is simpler than we know, and just having each other to laugh at is all we need.

"I got a letter from him," my sister says.

"From who? Mr. Bubbles?" I laugh.

"No," she says, without humor. "Dad."

I hear her cigarette lighter click. As I wait, I imagine her name written in his now unsteady hand.

"It said," she continues, "`Dear Margaret, Jesus loves you. Dad."

I don't know what to say to her. How to shield her with my shoulder as Prince Edward did. I want to leave it all, let it all go away, but I am somehow back on that Georgia highway. There is no reason though to tell any more of the story to each other. No reason to remember my dad dragging my sister back to the car, slamming the door and speeding off, my sister kneeling on the backseat, facing out the rear window and screaming. Nor do I ever tell my sister how I did see Mr. Bubbles that night in his very blue suit grinning bravely for my sister's sake, waving good-bye in that slow motion kind of way. And there is no reason to remember looking at the back of my mother's head wondering how she could stand all this screaming—my brother had awakened as well. Wondering why it didn't just make her burst out of whatever held her back, cross her foot over and press down on the brake and say, "Get out, Bill," then tell us he wasn't ever real and that we could turn around, pick up Mr. Bubbles and drive home. There is no reason to remember my sister curled up against the backseat passenger window, her face red and puffy, the cuffs of her cotton yellow sweater wet with snot and tears, or to remember how, too afraid to say anything, I held her hand.

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