issue 32: september - october 2002 

 | author bio

FaceThe Beginnings of Grief
Adam Haslett
A year after my mother’s suicide I broke a promise to myself not to burden my father with worries of my own. I told him how unhappy I was at school, how lonely I felt. From the wing chair where he crouched in the evenings he asked, "What can I do?" The following afternoon, coming home from work the back way, he missed a stop sign. A van full of sheet glass going forty miles an hour hit the driver’s side of the Taurus. According to the policeman who knocked on the front door in tears, my father died with the first shattering impact. An aunt from Little Rock stayed for a week, cooking stews and Danish pastry. She said I could come and live with her in Arkansas. I told her I didnt want to. As I had only a year and a half left of high school, we decided I could finish up where I was, and she arranged for me to live with a neighbor.
      Mrs. Polk was sixty, her mother, eighty-five. They had between them a closet of fourteen blue flowered dresses, which the maid laundered on Tuesdays. They watched a considerable amount of public television and spoke in hushed tones of relatives in Pittsburgh. I was given dead Mr. Polk’s study with a cot bed in the corner. The ladies paid no attention to my coming and going and I spent as little time at their house as I could.
      In Industrial Arts that fall, Mr. Raffello gave us a choice of projects: bookcase, spice rack, or a chest about the size of a childs coffin. I picked the last of these, and because we had to pay for our own wood, I used pine. I took exact measurements and sanded each board with three grades of paper. All the equipment was there in the shop: hammers and vices, finishing nails and glue, planers and table saws. The machines had shiny metal casings and made a deafening roar. If I had been allowed to, I would’ve stayed all day.
      I found the class entrancing for another reason: the chance to be with Gramm Singer. an angry, cherub faced boy who wore steel tip boots and a baseball cap pulled over his brow. He stood a head above the other kids, already as large framed as my father, his forearms covered in a layer of golden hair. His lips curled easily into a sneer and his eyes were full of mockery. When he caught me gazing at him, he'd smirk, knowingly, like an angel. Twice our shoulders had touched in the cafeteria line.
      On a Friday afternoon, a few weeks after my father died, Mr. Raffello began explaining the use of clamps. The thermos of gin I'd washed my sloppy joe down with at lunch made concentration a challenge but like a good student, I held on to my bench and remained upright. It struck me our teacher might be an inhabitant of some kingdom of middle earth, with his rickety frame and nose jutting over his mouth like a cliff above the entrance of a cave. His voice sounded like the bass notes of an organ.
      "The instrument is here in your hand. You've sanded your wood. You've applied your glue. The time for the clamp has arrived."
      Eyes in the class fluttered shut as his bony hands began turning the rod. Steel squeaked in the thread. I imagined the sound as the creaking of a ferry's oar in its lock as we pulled away from the shore.
       Leaning into the noise, I watched Gramm on the stool beside me. He sat hunched forward. Through his worn cotton t-shirt, I traced the perfect arch of his spine. I wanted him to look at me. I wanted him to touch me. I didn't care how.
       My foot reached out and tapped him on the shin.
       "What the fuck?" he whispered, his sneer coming to life.
       I suppose the incident could have ended there but the expression on his face, the way his eyes narrowed and his upper lip flared off his front teeth appeared to me so beautiful I couldn't stand to see it fade. I swung my foot back and hammered him on the calf. This brought a wonderful color to his cheeks.
       "Cut the shit!" he said in a louder whisper, turning the heads of our neighboring carpenters. The sound had travelled up to the front of the industrial arts studio, where Mr. Raffello cast his ancient eye to us and said, "If you never learn to clamp, you never learn to build."
       I swung again, nailing Gramm in the ankle. He jumped off his stool and I thought he'd punch me right then, but instead he paused. The scraping of the other students' chairs filled the room. If there was a fight we both knew he'd win. I sensed the amazement in him at what he was about to do, the sheer pleasure of an excuse for rage. At last it came, his fist planted just under my heart like a battering ram against the gates of a castle. The air rushed from my lungs and I fell backwards onto a low bench. Looking up, I saw him closing on me. My muscles went limp. I waited for his tackle.
       But Mr. Raffello had reached Gramm by then and he stepped between us.
Gramm started calling me faggot and dissed me in front of my classmates, who were appalled he could do such a thing to someone who everyone knew had lost both his parents in a year. Most people thought silence was kindest. But whenever he and I saw each other on our street or at the supermarket where I bagged groceries, he showed a sullen kind of interest in me.
       On a Saturday in the beginning of March he came in the store to buy orange juice and asked me what I was doing that night. I told him nothing and he laughed. He said if I didn't want to be a loser my whole life I should come to his house where he planned to get drunk.
       I arrived at about ten o'clock, expecting a party. As it turned out, Gramm was alone. His eyes were bloodshot and he smelled of dope. He offered me a vodka and orange as soon as we got into the kitchen.
       "Where's your Mom?" I asked.
       "She went shopping somewhere for the weekend."
       Mrs. Singer had been divorced three times and was very rich as a result of it. The house had six bedrooms and was built in the style of an old southern mansion. Small computer screens embedded in the walls controlled every appliance and light.
       "Nice place," I said.
       "It's all right."
       On the counter, a tabby cat picked at a mound of smoked salmon. Gramm spooned a blueblack paste of tiny eggs onto another plate and pushed it under the animal's nose. The cat sniffed the new offering and returned to the fish.
       "I had a snake," Gramm said. "It died from some skin disease. The vet told us to put it in a garbage can full of rocks and cold water but it still died. The think the vet was wrong. I think the vet's a fucking idiot."
       "Sounds like it."
      "You want to get high?"
      "Sure," I nodded, savoring the damp touch of his fingertips as he passed the joint.
      "Why did you come over here?" he asked.
      "You invited me."
      He laughed, as though that were no reason at all.
      I swallowed my drink whole and poured another vodka.
      "How come you kicked me in Raffello's class?"
      "I was just kidding around."
      "Is anybody else coming over?"
      "Why? Are you afraid?"
      I knew I should fire back something like "Afraid of what?", that this would be the proper, male thing to do. Yet we both seemed to know the futility of such a gesture and I couldn't bring myself to pretend.
      Gramm slouched in a chair between me and the sink. As I passed by him to put my glass on the counter, he stuck his foot out and tripped me. I hit the tile floor with my shoulder; the glass fell from my hand and shattered by the door of the fridge. I rolled onto my back and saw the same giddy expression on Gramm's face he'd flashed the day I first got his attention. My heart thumped against my rib cage like a ball dribbled close to the pavement.
      "Aren't you going to get up?" he asked sarcastically, understanding already that I wouldn't, that he'd have to lift me from the floor. The knowledge seemed to anger him. He drew his leg back and kicked me in the thigh. I let out a moan of relief as the pain shot up my spine. "There you go cocksucker. How was that?"
       He lifted his glass to his mouth the bottom of his t-shirt rose from the waist of his jeans, and I could see the smattering of light brown hair around his belly button. I wanted to run my tongue over it. More than anything in the world.
       He took a step forward and pressed the sole of his shoe lightly against my cheek. "I could squash you like a bug," he said. He wasn't the most articulate boy I ever met. Only the one whose pain seemed to me most beautiful. I reached out and grabbed his ankle but he tore his 1eg away at once and kicked me hard in the stomach, jamming me against the cabinet door. Air rushed from my lungs and I slumped face down on the linoleum. All of a sudden, I felt very tired. He kicked me several times more but the blows seemed to come from farther away.
       When he dragged me out of the kitchen, I opened my eves, strained my head up, but my vision blurred and I could only see the outline of him.
       In the bedroom, he kept the lights off and if I made any sound at all, he stung my cheek with the palm of his hand. When I reached up to caress his bare chest, he punched me so hard in the shoulder I thought he'd broken the bone. I learned quickly just how this thing would work.
The first few notes I put through the grate of his locker that next week went unanswered. In the halls, Gramm ignored me now rather than harassing me. He'd give a nervous glance as I passed him and his circle of friends smoking cigarettes in the courtyard. The bruises he'd given me were concealed beneath my shirt; I'd run my hands over the swollen flesh and think of him. Sometimes I'd get sufficiently drunk at lunch that an hour would pass and I'd realize all I’d done was stand across the hall from his classroom, gazing at the back of his head, imagining my fingers brushing his soft hair.
       I didn't go to my own classes much anymore. Mr. Farb, the school shrink, would find me in the cafeteria and walk me to his office where he'd talk sincerely about the five stages of grief. A short, bearded man he wore diamond-check cardigans and a thick wedding ring. When he rocked back in his chair, his feet dangled like a child's.
       "How's the college search going?" he asked once.
       "The college search? It's going great. I'm applying to Princeton."
       "Yeah and Harvard too."
       "And the University of Beijing."
       "Oh," he said. "That's...ambitious. And your new home environment, is it supportive?"
       "The maid gives me crucifixes."
       He rotated his wedding ring about his hairy knuckle and asked me if there was anyone special at the moment, and I decided he wasn't ready to hear about my life. When he asked how I felt, I said fine. This seemed to relieve him and he wrote notes for all my absences.
       At last, I got a crumpled bit of paper at the bottom of my locker saying Gramm would be alone at his house on a Friday afternoon. I left school early that day and walked the two miles to his house. When I rang the doorbell there was no answer and I sat for an hour on the front lawn before I saw Gramm coming up the hill. He spotted me from a hundred yards and slowed his pace. When he reached the driveway he gave a nod and then stood mute for a minute or two, glancing from the tarmac to the house to me. He looked tired and nervous. When he headed for the back door, I followed him inside.
       In the kitchen Gramm hesitated by the sink and from the way he hunched over it, I thought he might be sick to his stomach.
       "What's the matter?" I asked.
       "Why did you come?" His voice had no sarcasm in it now. The question plagued him.
       "I got your notee" I said softly, knowingly the way I imagined a lover would speak of such things.
       He bowed his head, shamed by the memory, and as I saw his cheeks redden I felt a pity for him so overwhelming it brought tears to my eves. I crossed the room and laid a hand gently on his shoulder. His body convulsed as though my fingers were the live ends of a power cord. He jerked from under my touch, reaching back to swat away my arm. I stepped forward again and placed a hand on his chest.
       "Don't touch me!" he shouted.
       I ran my fingers through his golden hair.
       His fist smashed into my stomach and I grabbed at his upper arm with both hands but he shook himself free and pushed me onto the floor. I rolled onto my belly and lay silent, my erection throbbing against the hard tiles.
       With my eyes closed, I imagined him as a gladiator wearing breast plate and shield, the sun warming his full shoulders, the crowd cheering him on. With a nod of the head, the emperor tells his champion to give the people what they want. I smell the bronzed skin of his ankle, listen to the masses roar.
       Behind me, the cupboard opened and I heard his lips on the mouth of a bottle.
       "Get up," he said.
       I made no response, and he yelled again--"Get up!"--kicking me in the flank. But I held my ground.
       Twice more the force of his shoe nearly lifted me off the floor stripping my mind of everything but this lucid pain. His voice filled the void:
       "Garbage," he whispered, "You're garbage."
       He crouched over me, and using both hands, yanked my pants down from my waist. Standing, he pressed the toe of his shoe between my legs. "My father says people like you are sick. You've got some kind of moral sickness. Like you want to be a woman but you're just a weak, puny shit of a boy and everything your sick mind wants is dirt."
       He removed his shoe from between the cheeks of my ass and kicked me there, forcing water into my eyes. But I made no sound.
       "Talk to me you little fuck!" he shouted.
       Something heavy and sharp-edged struck my back and I couldn't help letting out a groan. Across the kitchen floor, the tabby cat stared.
       I heard Gramm take up the bottle again and leave the room.
       For some time, I lay quiet. My side ached and I could feel blood leaking from the cut. The sound of television echoed in the other room. I got up and stepping out of my crumpled pants walked half-naked into the den. On the TV screen, cops pinned down a Latino man who was yelling something as a group of small children wailed on the shoulder of a freeway. The shuddering of a helicopter's wings muffled the voices. A giant recliner faced the TV. As I walked closer I saw the top of Gramm's head over its back, his legs stretched onto the footrest. He lifted his bottle to his mouth and swallowed.
       I walked around to stand between him and the television. His mouth hung slightly open as he gazed at my body, stripped from the waist down.
       "You must want to die," he said.
       He stepped out of the chair. I closed my eyes. This must have been a fresh insult to him, for as soon as he reached me he slapped me across the face. Once the first blow came, the rest followed in a hail, knuckles to my temple and cheek, a knee against my chest. I fell to one side, collapsing onto the carpet. My mind drifted as I heard him pull down his jeans and then I felt his warm flesh against my back as he crawled on top of me, spreading my legs with his knees. The children’s' keening rose above the beating of the chopper's wings and the roar of the crowd in my head. Furiously, he stabbed me, again and again.
       "What on earth have you been doing?" Mrs. Polk asked when I stepped into the living room. "Watch out! You'll get blood on the carpet"
       Her mother hauled her attention from the television and shouted "WHO'S THIS!"
       "THE BOY!" Mrs. Polk yelled back. "THE BOY! The one who lives with us."
       "OH!" her mother shouted before raising the volume. A couple in riding gear cantered over the lawn of a manor house. I leaned against the door and fainted.   
Natalia, the maid, drove me to the emergency room, where they washed the blood from my face and thighs. A nurse in her twenties wearing lozenge shaped silver earrings like the ones my mother had on when I lifted her head from the oven to rest on my lap, asked me lots of questions about where I had been and what had happened. I told her I was walking home from school when a guy in a van full of sheet glass offered me a ride; he brought me to a clearing in the woods, I said. They took x-rays and told me there was no permanent damage. The nurse said I should come back and talk to someone at the hospital but I told her I already had a shrink. Natalia gave me a crucifix and begged me to wear it around my neck.
       At school, most people were too afraid to ask what had happened, except the lady in the office who wept when I gave her the doctor's note. A mugging in the city, it said.
       The few times I saw Gramm, he walked quickly in the other direction. He stopped coming to Mr. Raffello's class, which for me was the only place I felt any sense of purpose.
       I gave my pine chest another sanding with the finest grade of paper, smoothing every sharp corner and point. With a cloth, I applied the first coat of stain, a dark, amber brown that brought out the grain of the wood nicely. When it was dry I put on another coat, and over that a shiny, polyurethane finish. To complete the design, I chose a brass lock from the hardware and affixed it to the lid.
       Mr. Raffello went around the classroom examining students' work. When he reached my bench, his eyes wandered my face, reading the marks and bruises like a story he'd heard a hundred times before.
       "Who hit you?" he asked.
       I stared at the hem of his black shop coat, imagined it as a ferryman's cape. Maybe he'd think my tale unremarkable, having known so many. Maybe he'd listen in comprehending silence as he rowed me across.
       "Nobody," I said.
       "What are you going to do with the chest?"
       I pictured myself curled inside it.
       "I don't know," I said.
       "Well, you've done a good job," he muttered. "Put your address on it. I'll drop it off next week."
I'd kept a set of keys to my parents' house and as the real estate lady hadn't found a buyer yet, the place was empty. I'd go in the afternoons to sit in my room, where the water glass still waited on the bedside table and the clock-radio faithfully kept time. From the window, where I watched for Gramm, I heard my father turning the pages of his newspaper, my mother whispering; the sounds floated in the hallway just outside my door. The house was rotting.
       I'd left just one note in Gramm's locker, telling him that I came here after school, asking him to visit. For days after that, I didn't see him. Someone mentioned he was sick and had been missing soccer practice. Still, I went to my house and waited.
       He came on a Tuesday. Rain was falling through the naked branches of the trees onto a carpet of rotting foliage. Gramm paused in front of the house, his hands buried in his pockets, the hood of his sweatshirt sheltering him from the weather. For several minutes he stood there, glancing back in the direction from which he'd come and then again at the gray shutters and curtained windows.
       He was shaking when I opened the door. I led him into the kitchen.
       "Are you sick?" I asked.
       He shrugged. Under the room's overhead light, he looked pale, worn out, the mockery all gone. I offered him a drink but he shook his head. He was upset. I poured him a vodka anyway and put it down beside him.
       "Listen," he said suddenly. "I'm sorry about what happened to your parents." He spoke in a rush, as though he'd been holding the sentiment in for days and needed to be rid of it.
       I tightened my grip on the counter's sharp edge until I felt nothing but pain radiating from the palm of my hand.
       "I just think we should forget about all this," he said. "Can we do that? Can we forget about it?"
       I said nothing.
       His shoulders quivered.
       "'Why did you ask me here?" he said, the resolve drained from his voice. "I wanted to see you."
       "Don't say that."
       "It's true."
       I crossed to where he sat, and taking his right hand in mine, moved it to the table, wrapping his damp fingers around the glass. He held his breath as I touched him.
       "Drink it," I said.
       With shaking hand, he lifted the glass to his lips. I watched the lump of his throat rise and fall as he swallowed. When he'd finished, I filled the glass again.
       "Go on," I said.
       He shook his head.
       "Go on, " I repeated. "I want you to."
       He obeyed, emptying the glass twice more as I stood over him. I put the bottle down and lifted my t-shirt off, baring the purple and yellowed bruises that covered my chest. He shrunk back, closing his eyes. With my thumbs, I pressed them open again. I knelt before him. I took hold of his loose hands and formed them into fists. He wept. The tears ran down his pale cheeks and dripped from his chin.
       "Please," he whispered, "let me go."
       I slid my fingers alone the inside of his thigh. Through his cotton pants I cupped his balls gently in my hand. I felt his penis swell, his muscles tense. He drew back the fist I had made for him, and hit me in the eye, sobbing as he did it.
       "Are you happy now?" he cried.
       "No." I said.
       He swung again and knocked me against the door of the oven. Beneath the tears I saw blood in his cheeks, glow of the boy I'd spent years admiring. I lifted myself to my knees and from the drawer by the stove I took the knife my father used to cut tomatoes and onions on the nights he'd tried to make me dinner, crying as he boiled water in my mother's pots. I offered the knife up to Gramm and when he would not take it I put it in his hand and closed his fingers over the handle. Leaning forward, I hugged him around the legs, burying my face in the warmth of his stomach.
       Waiting. Hoping.
We remained touching like that for several minutes, the rise and fall of his belly against my cheek the only movement. His weeping stopped, and gradually his breath became deep and even. He placed the blade on the counter over my shoulder and then gently backed away.
       It felt as though a long time had passed, as though we had been travelling some great distance and were now tired, drained of the force that had brought us here, empty, to this room. I knew a sudden shame at the sight of my bruised skin and stood up to put on my shirt. At the table, Gramm sat motionless, his unblinking eyes turned finally inward.
       I moved to the window. Outside, the rain had tapered to a drizzle. Weeds in my mother's garden, bent low by the downpour, swayed in the breeze. On the branches of the dogwood, crows shook their black feathers.
       As I watched the storm passing, a pick-up slowed across the street in front of Mrs. Polk's house and pulled into her drive. Mr. Raffello stepped around the bed of the truck, and lifting the plastic sheeting, raised my dark amber chest in his arms.
       For the first time in a long while, I began to cry.

© Adam Haslett 2002

This electronic version of  "The Beginnings of Grief" appears in The Barcelona Review with kind permission of the publisher. It appears in the author´s collection You Are Not a Stranger Here, Nan A. Talese/Doubleday,  2002.   Book ordering available through amazon.com

This story may not be archived, reproduced or distributed further without the author's express permission. Please see our conditions of use.

author bio

Adam Haslett is a graduate of Swarthmore College and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His work has appeared in Zoetrope: All-Story, The Yale Review, BOMB magazine, and National Public Radio’s "Selected Shorts." He has been a finalist for a National Magazine Award and received fellowships from the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center and the Michener/Copernicus Society of America. He is currently a student at Yale Law School.

Adam Haslett

Suzanne Plunkett/AP


 tbr 32           september - october  2002

Short Fiction Adam Haslett: The Beginnings of Grief
Kate Atkinson: Inner Balance
Todd Sandvik: The Note

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Stuart David: Nalda Said
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