by William Cass
Gabe didn’t bother acknowledging his father’s regular morning departure. He knew there wasn’t any point. Since his mother had returned home from the hospital after her single-car accident, there had been no hugs, no smiles, no meaningful interactions, not even common daily exchanges from him. Gabe flinched at the kitchen table as the back door slammed, his spoon suspended over his cereal bowl, then did the same again as his father’s pick-up roared to life in the driveway and sped away spraying gravel. Stillness followed until his mother’s cough interrupted it from her bedroom.
Gabe blew out a breath, then carried his bowl to the sink, rinsed it, and prepared his mother’s toast and tea. He was slight for nine years old and had to stand on tiptoes to reach the teabags on the shelf over the stove. While the toaster’s coils reddened and the kettle’s slow whistle built to a whine, Gabe stared out the window as drizzle seeped into moss blanketing the garage eaves, splotches of green against a concrete canopy of sky.
His mother was already propped up in bed when he carried in her breakfast and set it on the bedstand next to her pill bottles, books, and smudged water glass, still half-full. Late-fall light trickled through the thin muslin curtains covering the room’s window. She managed a wan smile and ruffled his unruly shock of curls. The room smelled medicinal and even mustier than the rest of the old house
“Thank you,” she said.
Gabe nodded. From where he’d arranged it at the bedside the night before, he turned her wheelchair a bit more so that it would be easier for her to transition into, later, on her own.
“I left a can of soup in a pan on the stove for your lunch,” Gabe said. “And a washcloth, towel, and shampoo on the bathroom counter. For a sponge bath.”
His mother nodded herself, but slowly, her mouth in a grim, tight line.
“You’ll feel better afterwards.”
“I know.” She glanced at the clock on the wall. “Go on, now, or you’ll miss the school bus.” She lifted his hand from the top of her covers, kissed the back of it, and dropped it. “Go,” she said. “Scoot.”
Gabe left the room, gathered his school things in the foyer, and looked into the living room. Like always, the curtains were drawn there, too, his father’s bedding folded in its customary spot at the foot of the couch. Before leaving, Gabe glanced again at his parents’ wedding photograph on the little table inside the front door. In it, they stood arm-in-arm on church steps; even though he’d studied it many times, Gabe was struck anew by how happy they both seemed in it, how handsome and vibrant. But that was long before the accident. All he really knew about that awful day was that she’d been drinking. He’d heard the doctor explain that to his father at the hospital. He’d watched his father’s shoulders slump at the news, heard him mutter, “Again.”
Outside, the rain had resumed in earnest. Gabe pulled up the hood of his yellow slicker and trotted down the road to the bus stop where he stood apart from the group of other children. He preferred to walk to school alone, but today the weather prevented that. Once on the bus, he sat by himself at the back in his familiar seat. On the way, he was only vaguely aware of the other children’s animated chatter and bursts of laughter. Instead, he stared out the window into the falling rain at the passing woods, the cement plant where his father worked, the strip mall just before his school’s street, and thought. He hoped the day would go okay for his mother, that she’d clean herself up, make the soup for lunch. He hoped his father would finally talk to her a bit when he got home; in the eighteen months since she’d returned from the hospital, he could count on one hand the number of times they’d exchanged more than a cursory word or two.
At school, Gabe hung up his slicker on a peg at the back of the classroom and found his seat near the front. His teacher, Mr. Morris, had their desks arranged into groups of four facing one another that he called “teams.” Gabe sat next to a cherub-shaped boy named Dean, who was the unruliest student in the class; he suspected that Mr. Morris had placed them next to each other because Gabe rarely interacted at all with his classmates. Two girls sat across from them, both were from the tract of new homes across the river. Cheryl faced him directly, tall, dignified, popular. Janice, who sat across from Dean, was a mother-hen type with a passel of younger siblings; Gabe thought Mr. Morris probably also counted on these girls’ traits to help contain Dean, who spent most of his time distracted and squirming. The entry bell rang just as Janice collected their team’s homework and put it in the tray on Mr. Morris’ desk. As usual, Dean hadn’t done any of his.
After the bell stopped ringing, Mr. Morris rose from his desk, and the classroom quieted. He cleared his throat and said, “All right, then. I thought we’d start this morning a little differently.” He glanced outside, where the rain was falling steadily. “I thought we’d try something to brighten things up a bit with all this dreary weather we’ve been having. So, what I want you to do is this: you’ll take turns in your teams telling each member something good about them. It can be something you admire about them, something you like about them, something special you remember them doing…anything of the sort.” A small tittering arose from the back of the classroom, accompanied by a few snickers. Mr. Morris fixed a hard glare at the offenders, silencing them again, then a gentle smile followed in his close-cropped beard. “What you have to say to one another doesn’t have to be long or fancy…just a few words will do. So, take a few minutes now to give that some thought, and then we’ll start.”
Aside from the rain, not a single sound followed, just darting glances exchanged here and there. Mr. Morris walked slowly among the clusters of desks, while Gabe’s palms grew clammy and his heart began to race. He never spoke in class unless called upon, and then only haltingly, and he always sat alone at lunch; at recess, he sequestered himself off at the covered tables, drawing in his notebook. The sort of exchange Mr. Morris was asking for was impossible for him to imagine. He squeezed his eyes shut tightly, a dark cloud of dread, fright, and panic enveloping him. He knew it was too early to ask to use the restroom, so he began trying instead to think of an excuse to be sent to the school nurse.
“Okay, then,” Mr. Morris said. “That should be long enough. You’ll start by saying something good about the student in your team sitting in the desk closest to mine, then take turns going in a clockwise direction.”
Gabe felt his eyebrows lift. He glanced quickly at Mr. Morris’s desk, just to his left, so close he could have reached over to touch the homework tray from his seat, and a kind of terror seized him. When he turned back, each of the other students in his team was staring at him, and his skin prickled. He willed the linoleum at his feet to open and swallow him.
“All right,” Mr. Morris announced. “Go ahead and begin. The order you share in isn’t important. Someone just start.”
“I’ll go,” Janice said. She straightened her back and regarded Gabe with an even, steady gaze. “I like the way you draw. I’ve seen those pictures you make at recess when I’ve walked by.” She nodded once. “They’re good.”
Gabe felt color rise up his neck into his cheeks. He sat blinking rapidly.
“My turn,” Cheryl said. The rest of the group all turned to look at her as she smoothed the scalloped collar of her blouse. “Gabe, you have a nice smile. You don’t show it much…well, almost never. But sometimes when we’re reading something funny in class or watching a movie, you do. And it’s nice. You should do it more.”
She smiled herself, staring directly at him. He felt a kind of dizziness, and the voices from other students in the classroom became a low hum of white noise. He watched the girls’ eyes turn towards Dean, and reluctantly, he did the same. The chubby boy was slouched down in his seat, twisting a rubber band between his fingers, scowling. A long moment passed, but eventually, his chin snapped up at them, and he asked, “What?”
“Your turn,” Janice directed.
Cheryl said, “That’s right.”
Dean gave the rubber band a last hard twist until it snapped, falling onto his desktop. He made a sound with his lips like he was blowing bubbles, then jerked himself upright and grumbled, “All right…okay.” He turned and looked at Gabe. “I like how you brought your mom to Back to School Night last month. You just pushed her right into the classroom here like she was any other mom, you showed her your work on the bulletin board and on your desk, you got her some cookies, then you stayed with her, holding her hand.” Dean paused, the last of his scowl dissolving. “I saw you pushing her here down the street and then home again afterwards. I liked that…a lot. I admired it, I guess.”
When Gabe glanced at the girls, they were both nodding. His eyes widened. The rain outside had become a downpour, but a kind of lightness seemed to have filtered from somewhere into the classroom. He knew he had to say something, and found himself muttering, “Wow.”
The others continued to nod, looking at Gabe in a way that made something small and tight in him ache. He had intended to say thanks, but none of them seemed to care that he hadn’t. Mr. Morris directed students that it was time to switch their comments to a new team member, but Gabe hardly heard him. Instead, he stared straight ahead at the coat rack in the back of the classroom where he could see his yellow slicker dripping onto the linoleum. He remembered buying that slicker with his parents before his mother’s accident and being so excited and pleased with it. He remembered holding both of their hands as they were leaving the store. Low music had been playing. He remembered his father whistling the tune. He remembered his mother humming along, too. He remembered it like it was yesterday. Looking up at each of them under the store lights, he remembered having felt the same sort of smile crease his lips as the one he was feeling now.