The writer Theodore Wheeler from Omaha/USA was fellow in the field of Literature at Akademie Schloss Solitude in 2014. His debut collection of short fiction, Bad Faith, was published this month by Queens Ferry Press. Violate the Leaves was composed at Solitude and originally appeared in Boulevard, a literary magazine from St. Louis, Missouri, earlier this year.
Violate the Leaves
I found my mom fidgeting with her uniform in front of the bedroom mirror. The sand-dappled camo tee shirt that bit her armpits it was so tight. The black mascara, the no lipstick. Her hair coiled in a bun to fit under the squarish khaki hat. Her rucksack tied up tight and made to balance next to the closet door. It was early. She noticed me standing in the doorway and kept dressing. She stared into her eyes in the mirror and must have wondered what we were all wondering about, what the next year would bring. She sat to pull her boots on and started with the laces. »Go eat breakfast,« she told me, »if you have to be up so early.«
Downstairs my father was frying eggs. »What’s the deal, Oscar?« he asked. I shook my head, turned away from him. I worried the waistband of my pajamas above my bellybutton. He picked me up and sat me on the counter. »It’s just us now,« he said. »Are we going to be okay?«
Later, I put on my brown suit, the new one from Sears. I’d thrown a fit in the store when my father suggested that some slacks with suspenders would be good enough for the party. I didn’t want slacks with suspenders. I wanted to be as perfect as my mom was. I wanted to look neat and sleek and formal. I wanted a uniform.
The relatives drove in from different places. They’d left early in the morning, some of them the afternoon before, and were made lazy by their travels. They leaned on porch railings and sat sighing on the front steps. The smell of them as they lined up for photographs with my mom under the big oak tree in the yard. The Chicago cousins, all girls, announced themselves with sugary perfumes, like a magazine in the mailbox, and the flurry of teasing that burst out in their cutting city manners. Their hair was done up in curls if older, brushed down straight if nearer my age. And the billows of cigarette smoke, the hiked-up Wranglers of my uncles who stood away from the commotion to mumble gossip. I was eight years old and couldn’t really talk to any of these men. They were what remained of my father’s family, all of them bachelors or divorced, journeymen machinery workers in Des Moines. They poked boot tips at the roots of milkweed and tried to remember where the barn used to be, the gate to the hogs, the chicken hutch, the corrugated steel quonset where machinery had been held when this was still a family farm, the farm they grew up on, before all but what the house sat on was sold. They pointed to the oak tree where my Chicago cousins played on their cell phones, and debated about which ancestor it was who planted that tree, a red oak, no, a white oak, back when this land was settled.
There was vanilla ice cream with fresh strawberries after the bratwurst and burgers. There were sopapillas.
Grandpa Amos brought me a goldfish in a bowl. The fish was orange but shined when it spun in its water. After lunch I took the fish to my bedroom and refused to come downstairs.
»Come see your mother,« Grandpa Amos said. He pounded a hand against the stairwell to make the walls thunder. There was no chance I’d come down after that.
I tried to get the goldfish to look at me but it wouldn’t. It swam to the bottom and sucked on the green rocks there. Confused and overhot from the car ride. In the back of the bowl I saw my reflection. A blurrier, darker version of myself. Black circles under my eyes.
I wondered where Grandpa Amos bought the goldfish. It was a long drive from Cleveland to where we lived. We lived somewhat close to Des Moines. There would have been plenty of pet shops along the way.
The fish came from Indiana, I decided.
I stayed in my bedroom when it was time for her to leave. I didn’t want to cry in front of my cousins from Chicago. I didn’t want to cry in front of my mom.
I’d helped her pack that week. There were charms I stuck in her rucksack, thinking she wouldn’t notice how I sneaked them there. The plastic cowboy that was my best toy. The poem about Santa dying in a sleigh wreck that I wrote for her during the second-grade holiday activities program, on green construction paper shaped like an evergreen tree. When she wasn’t looking I wormed my Saint Christopher medallion deep into the rucksack, under her army clothes, under the magazines and manuals, to keep her safe when she was over there.
From outside the house I heard her calling. »Come to the window, mijo! I want to see you!«
The whole family waited under the oak tree. She was in her fatigues, less neat now, hair in her face, her face red. She was in the middle of the cousins from Chicago, who twisted their feet in the dusty yard.
»Come! This is the last time I’m telling you!«
My father stood by the car. I wanted it to be him who was leaving.
I lay on the bed listening to the curtains flap. The fishbowl sat on the desk. The fish circled in the fishbowl.
My father had a crippled arm. It was crippled in a car wreck the summer after he graduated high school. A friend of his rammed an SS Camaro through a construction barricade at eighty mph then continued at a slightly slower speed into the blade of a bulldozer. Nobody died. They were blotto drunk and that saved them. All were pulled bendable from the wreckage once the authorities arrived, lacerated and vomiting, but nearly pristine; still surly, the story goes, cussing out the cops for hassling them. My father’s arm was the only casualty—made useless when the Camaro’s motor was birthed through the firewall and pinned that side of him against the passenger door.
When I came downstairs—after the cousins left, after my mom was dropped off at the airfield, after Grandpa Amos left in the evening—I found my father on the couch. The TV was on, he was sleeping.
His crippled arm was bent under and behind him. Numb and limp, the hand grabbed at nothing. He was dreaming. His eyelids fluttered.
That summer he did handyman work. Laying wood floors mostly, which he managed one-armed. He took me with him every day after my mom left for the desert. He was supposed to drop me off at daycare but he didn’t.
It was embarrassing at the daycare. I was too old to be there, even if it was summer break.
We rolled up to a blacktop driveway in his truck, some place in town, in Indianola, the front of a house painted in Crayola colors, an area to the side fenced in with chain-link where there were plastic slides, a sandbox, a basketball hoop with a metal net. Moms were dropping their kids off for the day. We sat in the truck and watched. Hugs and kisses. Moms with wet hair, in beige slacks. Moms in blouses and jackets on their way to work in Des Moines.
»I don’t want to go,« I told him.
He wouldn’t get out of the truck and make me go inside. I knew he wouldn’t.
He turned the engine over, cranked the column shifter into gear, and we left.
He had all the work he wanted in Urbandale and Merle Hay. Word of mouth spread across subdivision lines from woman to woman. Even with the one arm that didn’t unbend he could still hold things in that hand, in a painful, shaky grip, if he angled his body to that side, or used scrap pieces to trap boards plumb against the chopsaw back. The women always wondered how he didn’t lose a finger like that.
Sometimes he had me hold the board, even though my mom had told me to keep away from the saw. More often than not it was easier for my dad to hold the board himself.
I got him tools when asked. Hammer, shim, awl, punch, putty knife, belt sander. I carried him scraps of lumber. He yelled if I banged anything on the door molding (which is why he got full boards himself) or if I dropped something on the carpet, if it was new carpet.
He and my mom had renovated the house we lived in. It was the old house from the farm he grew up on.
I never knew my grandparents on his side. They died before I was born. The farmland partitioned off. The house had been unoccupied for some time when my parents came to fix it up. They met in Des Moines, where she went to nursing school. They tore out carpet and ripped down grease-saturated wallpaper, sanded the floors and crippled in new boards to replace the rotted ones. They scared rodents out of the attic, shot raccoons with a pellet gun. I sat to the side watching them stain the woodwork, or paste long strips of new wallpaper. I remember these things from the photos they took. It must have meant a lot to my father to keep his family in the farmhouse. To do all this even with a lame arm.
»What did grandpa die from?« I asked.
»There was a drunk driver.« He winced, saying that. »It was him, you know. My dad. He’d been drinking and rolled the car. He and mom flew out and nobody could save them.«
It was okay with him if I sat out of the way and banged on matchbox cars with the hammer. The carpet fiber was cool to my skin when I laid my face to it, in those houses where women ran the air conditioning all day.
These were stay-at-home women. A few divorced. They were always hanging around. Checking out the work. Complimenting my father on something technical or another they didn’t know the right word for. They made lunch so we wouldn’t have to leave for McDonald’s. Meatloaf, roast beef, chicken casserole. Not just sandwiches—food that made it hard to finish the work in an afternoon. Sometimes they baked cookies or jelly-filled kolache, and hovered behind as we ate.
I never thought of my father as good-looking. His arm.
My mom was good-looking. She was different from everybody. Part Cleveland Jew, part Chicago Chicana. A Brasilian diplomat mixed in somewhere along the way, the relatives all swore, who took a bullet during a Chilean coup, and that’s why he never returned from what was sworn to be a legitimate envoy to the Andes.
My father’s line was mostly Germanic. It was linear. Comfortably Midwestern. Middle American, Central Iowan. His name? Ben Schmidt. He wore overalls when he worked and jeans when company came over. Sometimes he pronounced overalls overhauls to be funny, to make my mom and me smile, mocking the way the old-timers around there talked. But I think now he liked talking that way and wasn’t always joking. It must have warmed him inside to say Missour-uh and Ioway and Neebrasskee.
My father was tall. He had light hair, a square jaw, a patchy beard that grew up his cheeks. The women he worked for didn’t mind his lame arm. They seemed all the more interested once they heard the story of how he’d been hurt, the car accident, the drunk friend. »Hell. We were all drunk,« he’d admit to a woman he was working for. She’d stare at his lame arm when he wasn’t looking her direction, a woman would. She’d let her fingertips glance over the unmoving surface of his skin when he was done for the day, to see if he’d notice her touching him. Sweat and sawdust collected in the fine whitish hair of his forearms. Women tried to brush the sawdust away.
These strange women of the suburbs.
We were three weeks in the house of Trish Schumacher that July, out in Jordan Creek, where she lived by the mall, by a golf course and the cul-de-sac of a megachurch built up like a philistine temple in stucco.
Trish and her husband were loaded. Mr. Schumacher was a lawyer, or a minister, I don’t remember. Trish was in real estate. They had a big new house. Big new cars with lots of chrome and showroom shine. Escalades.
Trish thought the finish work in the bathrooms was botched during the construction of her new house, so that’s why she called my father. »I heard about this Ben Schmidt from my girlfriends,« she said, »and I had to have him.«
Trish liked to check on the work. She liked to appraise and laud, to ask dumb questions, to tell about some house she sold that year and its countertops.
Trish talked to me too. I was an easy target for women. My dark complexion, my near-white blond hair. Trish thought I was adopted the first day—she didn’t know what my mom was like. I was scrawny. Like my dad, I wouldn’t start really growing until high school.
When we were alone Trish asked me things. How I liked school. If I liked living on a farm. »Are there any kids out where you live? Some neighbor girl?« I shook my head. »I had two brothers and two sisters. A big family, me in the middle. Not too old, not too young,« she laughed. »I think it’s sad for an only child. Don’t you think so? To not have anyone to play with.«
She was just talking. I didn’t even look at her. I sat cross-legged in the dry bathtub bottom, rolled matchbox cars until they were in a row.
She tapped her rings on the edge of the bathtub. »You don’t have to tell me. I can imagine what it’s like.«
»Oscar is a tough nut to crack,« my father said, back from the truck.
In the evening there were video calls with Mom. She was just getting up. Or just going to bed. I don’t remember what time it would have been over there. She was tired.
My father dialed in the PC that sat on the floor next to the television, but he went outside before she answered. I brought the fishbowl downstairs to brag how I was keeping my goldfish alive.
She talked about the food she ate, once the PC was dialed in, the kinds of equipment she had around her neck and in the pockets of her med kit. Her stethoscope, her thermometer. Rubber gloves. Her voice digitized, sometimes doubling over itself in echoes. She always wore her hair up, over there, wore khaki tee shirts that fit tight around her. She smiled big when she saw me. So big the video broke up in pixilation. She asked how my day went and told me about her day. She tried to tell me about the people she worked with, or the bunker she rushed to if the Sense & Warn detected incoming, she said; and the geography, the mounds of desert that blew in under the doorways; and on the airplane going over, watching the sunset and sunrise only three hours apart over the Arctic Ocean.
I didn’t hear any of that.
If she told me to shut up about asking when she was coming home, I would.
I told her what things my father did wrong around the house. I ratted him out for being unsafe around the saw, for letting me skip bath, for wearing the same shirt all week, for drinking too much beer, for the beard he was growing. (I didn’t tell how we ate McDonald’s for both lunch and dinner, for fear that this would mean the end of going to McDonald’s.)
My father never did video call. Not that I saw. She wouldn’t know what he was up to if I didn’t tell her.
I told my mom about the women. When she said to shut up about her coming home, that she’d be back before I knew what, then I told about Trish Schumacher.
She listened quietly. She smiled, her face held fixed so that it looked like the signal was lost, her face on the screen vibrating, freezing, her eyes closed, as the satellite signal buffered and reset. »Oscar,« she came back, »don’t worry about any women. Tell him to put you in the daycare. The teacher knows you’re coming. Okay? You will be happier there.«
I returned the fishbowl to the desk in my bedroom after the call. Watched the fish gasp at the surface of the water for a while then fed him so he would stop. He only looked at me when he was hungry. Then he swam circles in the bowl.
I didn’t know what a goldfish was supposed to do. The fish was doing it right, I figured.
My father built bonfires at night. I joined him if I couldn’t sleep, if he was still out, and imagined what it would be like if Indianola, or our house, were bombed like the cities in the desert were bombed. When I looked to the house I saw flames reflect in the glass of my bedroom window. I imagined myself watching the fire from the window, except the fire was bombs.
My father made fires that were taller than he was. Four or five times a week.
There were a few acres of land we had, close to the highway spur. A copse of cottonwood, a few burr oaks with craggy veins of bark as thick as my arm.
He had a pole saw. A serrated blade at the end of bamboo. He pruned trees one-armed, the pole handle wedged in his armpit. He cut out dead wood and tossed it on the pile. Raked up the leaves and debris his cutting made and dropped that in the flames too. The idea of burning up part of the world must have appealed to him. Soothed him, or stoked his discomfort. I’m not sure which. He took something solid, a log, a branch, and with a simple chemical procedure watched it turn to gas and vapor, something that rose weightless and dispersed into the atmosphere. Something that blew away.
We drove to the daycare in the morning. He said to get out. I didn’t want to. »You got to take me in,« I told him. »Or I won’t go.«
The children scrambled around the playground. One of the women who worked there was slicing watermelon for them. The children who could sit still bit into their slices and chewed. They rubbed their mouths with the backs of their hands, slime from the melon dripping down their chins. When they were done the woman wiped their faces with a stained white rag.
»Follow this way,« Trish said. »There’s something I want to show you. You’ll like this.«
She led outside and across the patio to the garage. Grasshoppers launched out of our way, into wet, matted grass that smelled of mildew. »Do you like tractors?« she asked. »Farmboys always like tractors.«
In the corner behind her white and gold Escalade was a riding lawnmower, a bright green John Deere with a yellow blade deck. It looked like a miniature tractor.
Trish grabbed my hand and heaved me to the cushion. Told me to take the wheel.
“See how you look up there? Just perfect. A little farmer.”
She wore a skirt and a glittery, sleeveless blouse. She crouched when she talked. Her knees came up and I saw. I could see along her leg, under the skirt.
I thought of the times Trish excused herself. How in the morning she wore yoga pants and a sports bra, like that morning, then changed in the room next to where my father worked. I heard Trish rattle open drawers, bang the top on a hamper. She unclicked the spring lock on the door but didn’t come out changed, not for a minute or two.
I wanted to see. This bloviating woman in the short skirt. I wanted to see her underwear, the rose and pink, I saw, the swell of thigh up to where silk flashed.
»We had plenty of fun on tractors and in the backs of trucks when I was a girl,« she said. »Do you believe I grew up on a farm too? Of course you don’t.«
Trish told her 4-H stories, her cheerleading stories, her drive-in movie stories, her Wartburg College stories. Her breasts swung as she gestured to make a W with her arms. Her blouse hung open as she leaned close. »Promise you won’t tell your dad what I told you. This stuff makes me sound like a dinosaur.«
She had me there looking down her shirt at the tanned cleavage flesh.
She plucked the key from the Deere’s ignition to examine it.
»Do you miss your mom?« she asked. »I couldn’t have left my kids like that. Mine aren’t kids anymore, but still. You must miss her something awful.«
I was happy when Trish left me on the lawnmower and went inside. It was over, I thought, what she was putting me through. I bounced on the seat cushion and turned the wheel from side to side, listened to the rubber tires squeal on the synthetic garage surface. It was boring, but I didn’t want to go in the house. I looked around the garage, curious because it was clean and new. The garages I knew had a layer of oil grunge on the ground, their walls lined with drowsy fireflies, orange and black wings folded, because there was a gap under the door that let in bugs. But there were no bugs in the Schumacher garage. No oil spots. The floor was painted blue. It smelled like nothing really, nothing I could identify or remember.
I thought about my mom. Her dark hair, long and curly. The orange irises of her eyes. She was comfortable in uniforms. She’d played sports in high school. She was a nurse and the Guard needed nurses. That’s how she ended up serving in the desert. That’s why she joined the Guard, anyway, for the bonus, for the salary, to help out when floods hit Iowa, when tornadoes spun through. She had no idea she’d be shipped off to the Middle East. She had no clue what was coming, or that the President would make the militia fight foreign wars.
I was upset, most of the time, I realize now. I almost never spoke a word to anyone except my father then, and am still quiet compared to most. People mention this when they meet me. I shrug, unable to explain.
I knew they’d bury her body with others, if something happened. They’d drop her lifeless in the sand. If she died there. I’d seen it happen on the news my father watched. The shows on cable he fell asleep to on the couch.
If she died so far from home, I wondered, would she go to Heaven? If she did go to Heaven, would she remember me?
He was out by the bonfire later, dragging over a tree limb to segment and burn. I went to help him pull the limb across the dirt and he let me. He let me hold a branch as he sawed. It flopped up and down with the blade of the handsaw otherwise and he couldn’t get it.
He talked to the fire. He didn’t look at me.
»She sends e-mails all the time. Your mom. Tells me what life’s going to be like once she gets back from Iraq. The three of us going to live as vagabonds, she says. Hitchhiking, living on the road. Gypsies. Going to see everything worth a damn that can be seen for free. We’ll get a TV show and move to Hollywood, she says. Then she changes her mind. She’s going to be a waitress in New York. No. We’ll rent out paddle boats to tourists in Pensacola. She’s come up with at least a dozen of them. Army jobs in Germany. Resorts in Costa Rica.«
I never saw this side of my mom. She was practical and tough in front of me. But I don’t doubt such impulses existed within her.
»I don’t know,« my father said. »What would possess a woman to think like that?«
He spit in the fire and waited.
»What’s so wrong with what we got here?« he said. »We live and live. Nothing will change. That’s what I tell her. We had a good life when she left.«
The McDonald’s was next to a gas station by the highway, across from the Walmart. There were mostly old farmers there for breakfast, who were there every morning in their patched jeans and Carhartts, their freebie seed company hats, to joke around and drink coffee and hassle the lady who managed the McDonald’s, who took their teasing in good nature. Some of the farmers chatted up my father after we ordered. They knew my family. Some had probably volunteered on the rescue squad that responded to the crash that killed my grandparents. The farmers asked my father how the house was holding up, if he had enough work to keep him busy.
We sat in the truck in the daycare driveway. Kids were playing in the yard. The same kids as before, that had been eating the watermelon. We’d been here enough, sitting in the truck watching, that I recognized them.
They watched to see what would happen. I suppose they recognized us too, my father’s truck at least. Maybe it was confusing for them when he got out and came to my side to open the door and lifted me with his good arm and set me on the blacktop. How we stopped at the gate and waited to see what would happen next, because we didn’t know how drop-off was supposed to be done. Who my father should talk to. If he needed to sign a book or what.
A woman came to meet us. Her name was Miss Stephanie. She asked if I was Oscar, and my father said I was. Perfect, she said. They’d been waiting for me, she said.