The World Is Your Oyster

The dignified mansion in Buckhead where my father grew up and my grandfather still lived was never an option for my parents and me. We rented a cramped ground-floor apartment in East Atlanta, close enough to mooch off Granddad. “Tight-fisted bastard,” Dad roared every time he hung up after asking for money in the wheedling voice he saved for his father and the landlord. He made sure he was sober for those calls, and he was a mean sober. When he was done groveling, he’d pour clear liquid into a smudgy glass, sighing over the bottom-shelf label. “Quality matters,” he’d say, exhaling a sour odor that filled the air between us. When my grandfather finally died, he left my father enough to buy a little house south of Atlanta, one exit down from the airport. That was where we moved the summer before I started high school.

Our new neighborhood was built on farmland back in the seventies. There wasn’t much growing there when we moved in some twenty years later. Just houses with views of other houses. And churches everywhere, most with billboards out front proclaiming things like,“Turn or Burn” and “The Blood of Jesus.” I couldn’t see the airport from where we lived, but planes shrieked above us all day. We had to shout to hear one another. Even good morning sounds hostile yelled inches from someone’s face.

The neighbors were friendly at first. They introduced themselves and let us know what church they belonged to. Then they waited for us to fill in our denomination. Methodists and Baptists were fine. Catholics were suspect. I don’t think it occurred to them we might not go to church. Word spread quickly. Sunday mornings, they’d all head off to worship somewhere. Kids looked out car windows with questions on their faces. Adults pressed their lips together in a firm line. When they drove by our house, I could read their thought-bubbles that said I was going to hell.

The first day of school, I scanned the cafeteria and sat next to a fidgety guy wearing a red Hard Rock T-shirt that strained to cover his belly.“The atheist,” he said with a smirk and shoved me. I took my sandwich to an empty table.

I wasn’t really an atheist. I didn’t know what to believe. I wasn’t anything. And it wasn’t fair to call my parents atheists. They were probably too lazy to baptize me, and they were usually too drunk or hungover to make it anywhere Sunday mornings. I watched cartoons in the living room, surrounded by piles of junk. Boxes that would never be unpacked, magazines and newspapers that would never be read, carpet pieces and fabric scraps that would never be used, all brought with us from our last place and arranged according to my parents’ own mysterious system.

Dad spotted me sitting there a few weeks after we moved in. “Liam, you have a face like a painting.” When I was stupid enough to smile, he said, “A painting of a dog.” He had a gift for locating a person’s soft spot and poking his thumb right in. With me, it was my crooked teeth, looking like they were fighting for room in my mouth. I’d made the mistake of smiling into the bathroom mirror once, so I knew how awful they looked.

Dad was nicer when he was drunk. Slumped in his patched-up armchair, bottles and cans stood up in a compulsively straight line on the floor next to him, he recited poems he knew by heart, a piece of oily hair flopping around when he emphasized words with a theatrical flourish. Yeats was a favorite. “I have spread my dreams under your feet/ tread softly because you tread on my dreams.” He’d call this out to my mother, who was always finding new reasons to be angry and looked at me like something she got by mistake. We hadn’t been there a whole month before she picked a fight over a garbage can with the lady two doors down, shouting, “Are we gonna have a problem?” Before long, neighbors scurried off with startled faces when they saw Mom coming.

Just past Christmas, a tall kid moved in next door. I sat on our front stoop as he hauled in boxes. “Dude,” he called over and nodded at me to grab one. Jack was just a year older than me, but the way he took charge made me feel a lot younger. “Liam, your teeth are off,” he said when I smiled.

“Yeah, I’m getting them fixed.” I’d been telling people that for years.

When planes thundered over us, Jack laughed at me for covering my ears. That first weekend, we walked to the airport and watched them take off. He waved an arm at cars whooshing by us on the highway. “They’re all headed for the airport, Liam. Don’t you wanna go somewhere?”

“Just trying to get through the day,” I told him.

Wind chimes hung above Jack’s front door. He jumped up and swatted them before going in. When I met his mother and his little brother, Sam, a Sesame Street jingle played in my head. “One of these things is not like the others. One of these things doesn’t belong.” That thing was Jack. He had brown hair and brown eyes, but his mother and Sam had blue eyes and the kind of blond hair that looks almost white. Jack’s mother was Pentecostal, but I was welcome in their home. She was from down near Florida and had a soft way of talking, like her words were sticks of gum she was chewing on.

She kept Jack’s room neat, like every other room in their place. The matching blue sheets and bedspreads were clean and smooth. The first time I stayed over, Jack’s mom saw me banging my grimy socks against the wall, to soften them up so I could pull them on. “Here you go, honey,” she said and handed me a pair of Jack’s socks.

At our place, roaches skittered over piles of dirty dishes and crawled across my face in bed. We’d shake them out of our shoes in the morning. Light bulbs burned out and didn’t get replaced. We’d run out of toilet paper and make do with some other paper. When there was no paper, we’d go around with shitty asses.

The neighbors had us all figured out. My dad still managed to look down on them. “We’re surrounded by crackers,” he called out in a booming voice, like there was a roomful of people hanging on his every word. But it was just me and a maze of clutter. “Don’t say the N-word, Liam. Only crackers say the N-word. I’ll wash your mouth out with soap.”

Jack said the word. He used it to white kids’ faces and behind black kids’ backs. I didn’t tell Jack not to say it, but I didn’t say it myself. I imagined the taste of soap in my mouth. I thought the word would taste worse.

Jack’s mom whispered to Sam about visiting his dad over spring break. I’d never asked Jack about their dad, but that night, when we were lying on the matching beds along the opposite walls of his room, Jack told me his father wasn’t his father any more. His parents split up when he was twelve, and his dad’s new girlfriend noticed the same thing I did. “My dad rubbed the Q-tip inside my mouth, but I know it was her idea. She stood right there and watched, like she was supervising, then she put it in a little bottle. She was smiling. I didn’t understand what they were doing.” He sat up and lifted his shirt to wipe tears and snot off his face. “My dad would never have done it without her. I always hated her.”

It turns out two blue-eyed people can make a brown-eyed kid, but by then the jig was up. For twelve years, microscopic spiral staircases crouching in every one of his cells had harbored a secret Jack hadn’t known his body kept. He didn’t belong to his dad. Only Sam belonged. A court made it official. When Jack stopped talking, all I could think to say was, “Your mom’s nice.”

Something in his eyes made me want to bite my words back and swallow them up. “Don’t talk about her,” he said in a low voice.

I was at their house when the man who used to be Jack’s dad came to get Sam and take him up north for a while. The man’s girlfriend sat in the car, looking straight ahead. The man kept one foot on the front stoop. “Hey, Buddy,” he said to Sam.

“Hey, Dad,” Sam said.

Jack stood in the doorway watching, but the man didn’t look at him.

“I can’t take this,” Jack’s mom said and ran off to the kitchen. A minute later, we all flinched at the sound of shattering glass.

“All right, let’s go,” the man said and walked to the car. Sam looked over at Jack.

“Go on,” Jack said.

In the kitchen, his mom finished sweeping broken glass into a dustpan. “Go get the tweezers, honey, by the bathroom sink,” she told him.

We sat at the table, and she rested her leg on Jack’s knee so he could pull slivers of glass from the sole of her foot. Her face crumpled. I couldn’t tell if he was trying not to hurt her or trying to make the hurt worse.

In the morning Jack’s mom made biscuits and bacon and eggs. I shoveled in salty mouthfuls, the way we did at my place, scraps falling into my lap. Then I slowed down, trying to match their way of eating. With Sam gone, I could be one of them for a while.

At school, the girls liked Jack. Shy ones laughed louder when he was around, and popular girls touched his arm and pushed his hair out of his eyes. Jack didn’t seem to mind, but he only gave his attention to Katie. She was a year older than him, and when I first saw her, in the hallway between classes, I thought of how my father described my mother when they first met. “Moviestar beautiful, Liam, your mother used to be moviestar beautiful.” Katie had green eyes with a kind of shimmer. They made me want to hold her face in my hands and say, “Look at these eyes, y’all,” to anyone around. She wrapped herself in baggy flannel shirts. I don’t think she knew how pretty she was.

We started hanging out at her house. Jack brought wine coolers, and they sat on Katie’s pink bedspread and passed a bottle back and forth. I sat on the floor, trying not to say the wrong thing. On the wall behind them was a poster of a big shiny pearl sitting in a shell, like a giant egg in a nest, with a caption that read, The World Is Your Oyster. The wall on the other side of the room had shelves crammed with swimming trophies.

Jack didn’t want to watch the display on the Fourth of July, so we hung out in Katie’s room. Lights from fireworks drifted through the window, bathing her in different colors: red, blue, green. “This girl used to be hot shit,” Jack said, hoisting a dusty trophy with a gilded swimmer on top, its arms stretched high, poised for a dive. Katie took a drink from her wine cooler, then offered it to me.

“I’m good,” I said.

“More fun for us,” Jack said and showed off the perfect straight-toothed smile that got people to say yes to him.

I went to the family room and watched TV when they wanted to be alone. Sometimes Katie came out and sat with me late at night. When her makeup was worn off, there was a pale raised ridge on her chin. I knew from Jack that it was a scar from when her face had hit the car window four years before. I tried not to look at it, but my eyes kept zeroing in on that spot. I pictured her tumbling through the air, and I wanted to ask her if she remembered hitting the glass. I wanted to ask if her father died right away. I wanted to ask if she was mad at her mother, who was driving. But I didn’t ask any of those things. We watched old TV shows about families with problems that got solved in half an hour. Katie mocked the characters, talking in a chirpy voice and stretching her mouth into a cartoony smile. She wasn’t funny like this when Jack was around. One time, she asked me what my favorite movie was. I told her it was a French film I’d seen with my dad about a kid who keeps getting into trouble. I said it to impress her, but it might also have been true. She listened while I described it, those green eyes of hers, like some kind of gems, not looking away from me the whole time, sincere.

The TV played all hours in her mother’s room. “She only comes out to go to the doctor and pick up more pills,” Katie told us. “Sometimes groceries.”

Jack started sneaking into her room. In a sing-song voice he said, “She tries to hide them, but I can always find them,” and held out his hand to show us little white pills, the way my friends and I showed off firecrackers back in grade school.He shoved them in his pocket, saying, “The blinds are shut real tight in your mom’s room.”

“Yeah, she keeps it dark,” Katie said. Her voice was hard, but her eyes were soft.

“Try one,” Jack said, holding out one of the pills to her like a little pearl. Katie shook her head no.

“More fun for me,” he said.

The Saturday before school started back, we walked to the river that flowed past the airport, Jack and Katie holding hands, me following behind. The needlelike leaves of the cypress trees along the highway shivered in gusts kicked up by passing cars. Planes taking off and landing cast shadows over us. At the river, a gray-haired guy in a Braves T-shirt that was missing the “B” was fishing off the weedy bank. And six large pink birds stood with spindly legs on a sandbar in the water, about thirty feet from the shore. “Flamingoes!” Katie shouted, pointing at them like a kid who’d spotted a Ferris wheel.

“Not flamingoes,” the fisherman called over to us. “They’re Roseate Spoonbills. Don’t belong up here. They should be down in the Everglades. They’re hundreds of miles off-course.”

Huddled together in the river, the spoonbills didn’t seem to mind not belonging. They took turns dipping long spoon-shaped beaks into their watery reflections. Jack skipped a stone in their direction, and I braced for them to lift off in the effortless way of birds and leave us standing there. They just wrapped their coral feathers around themselves like monks’ robes and ogled us as if we were the ones out of place.

“Hey,” the fisherman called to Jack, leave ‘em alone.

Jack gave him a sideways nod, then, in a quiet voice, said, “I’m getting my BB gun.”

On the way back, Katie kept asking him not to shoot the birds. The lambent light of the receding sun caught on strands of her hair. Jack just said, “Don’t worry.”

When we got to Jack’s place, he grabbed a basketball out of his closet and thumped it on the floor. Then he slammed it against the dresser, knocking over a trophy of Katie’s that was sitting there. When he left, she didn’t argue.

“Sorry,” I said, handing the pieces to her, a sheeny silver base and a blue glass fish that had broken off. I’d never gotten to see her swim, but I pictured her then clearing a path through the water, a fearless Katie from long ago.

“My dad was my swim coach, you know,” she said, twirling the fish with her finger. “The day of the accident, we were on Jekyll Island—my reward for winning a meet. We found sea glass on the beach. Kind of like jewels.” She ran a finger across the scar on her chin. “I found it in my pocket later, but I threw it away.” She dropped the fish in her lap. “I wish I still had that sea glass, just a piece of it.”

I shuffled through lines of poetry I’d heard in my father’s bombastic voice, but I couldn’t say those words to her. I leaned back, and after a while I was by the river, coaxing one of the spoonbills into a golden cage. When I presented it to Katie, her laughter was like wind chimes. Then a door slammed shut. Jack turned on the light and stood in front of Katie, holding out his fist to her like she was a little kid he wanted to surprise. He was smiling, but there was no smile in his eyes. When she tapped his fist, he opened it to reveal one of the pills he’d taken from her mom. She stared at it for a minute, like she was trying to come up with an answer to a question, then put it in her mouth.

I left them there and walked through the muggy night. Heading toward the river, I passed a run-down little church with a sign out front that said, Al are Welcom Here. I’d seen it before and even thought about sneaking off there some Sunday. But then I’d pictured stern faces looking like they could tell who belonged and who didn’t. I stopped there and sat on the pitted concrete steps and waited to see if they’d take me in when it got light again. And, if I went in, to see if I could believe.