My “The World and You” teacher, Mr. Hartly, keeps talking about the damn Doppler Effect, which couldn’t be more annoying. He’s this middle-aged man who just won’t give up. The Doppler Effect has greater implications he keeps telling us. “Just think about it,” he said the other day. “The speed of waves is bound to the medium in which they travel, but the frequency by which they’re perceived changes as you move around in the world.” He paused here before he added, “Isn’t that a little miracle?” He put his hand right over his mouth and mustache, as if he’d just said something irrevocable, and then, with his fingers still splayed across his face, he breathed in and out, loudly and slowly for a small while. He’s always doing that, or messing with his hair by pulling it away from his forehead in large fistfuls. Everyone around me was going, “oh yeah,” and “hmmmm,” and I wondered how many of them were just smiling ‘cause they didn’t want to look like the stupid one. And then I thought, maybe I’m the smart one for not getting it. I mean, where does getting it take you these days?
It was late spring and someone had opened all of the classroom’s windows. The thumps and thuds of a gym class running laps on the track made it hard to concentrate; there was too much heavy breathing, coming and going, coming and going.
“So pretend you are listening to your favorite band crying a sad-something,” Mr. Hartly said, drawing a squiqqly line on the board. “All those instruments, that noise, it’s being carried by sound waves that just can’t travel in another car, if you get me. That’s it. That’s law. And yet, you can go stage left, stage right, to the bathroom and back,” he said with a smile.
Everyone was writing really fast, but all I’d jotted down was sad-something.
Mr. Hartly always tries to take things there, to a place where frankly I’d rather not be. But I guess he’s getting me interested in some pretty weird stuff, like how there are these worms that scientists train to run mazes, and when they cut them in half, get this: both halves still know how to run the course. A kind of magic, he says, but I’m not sure about all that. Still, it’s sorta cool to think about a worm racing its other half. Who wins, I wonder.
Every now and then he’ll really let us have it. Think about it, he’ll say, after declaring something seemingly profound like we’re just random mutations equipped for the conditions. Then he’ll stare at us for a while with squinty eyes, and well, sometimes, when I do think about it, I can see why he’s all sad-excited most of the time.
The day of the waves lesson, I stuck around after class. Mr. Hartly didn’t make a big deal out of it the way you think a teacher might when their worst student finally shows some initiative. I guess I put a damper on his hope pretty quickly when I told him that I wasn’t there for extra-help.
“I just wanted to let you know that I’m going to miss class tomorrow,” I said. “My father might be dying.”
“Might?” he asked.
“You never can tell,” I replied and that seemed to resonate with him. He put his hand on my shoulder, squeezed it a bit, and let his head drop while he gave a sigh. It was a pretty nice gesture to go through all those motions, I thought, especially for a sorta punky kid who’s practically failing the eleventh grade.
“Nature is fucked up sometimes,” Mr. Hartly said as he turned around to wipe down the chalkboard. Most of the time it bothers me when adults do that, cuss in front of kids, as if they think they’ve got instant access to our world with just one cuss. But Mr. Hartly didn’t let his “fuck” hang in the air just waiting for a “wow, you’re so cool” nod of approval.
“Just do what you can, when you can,” he said as I walked out the door.
Walking home, the air and wind and sun were doing that thing that makes you think about strange stuff, and I wondered if Mr. Hartly reads my father’s books. Like, did he read that one about the man who kidnapped his own son on his 8th birthday just so they could contemplate the nature of things in a field full of wheat? I bet Mr. Hartly would dig that one. He’d probably get why the father had done all that, but still, I’m pretty annoyed that I had to miss bowling and pizza to look at a bunch of stalks waving in the wind.
The next morning, I came downstairs and Mom was wearing a moo-moo. I’d never seen her like that before. Things must be really bad, I thought. When mom had told me that dad wanted to spend the day with me, that he was going in for another operation, I asked if I should iron my suit, just in case. “Jesus, Alex. You don’t say things like that to your mother. Your father’s going to be just fine,” she said.
I didn’t have the heart to remind her that you never can tell.
“Morning,” mom said as I walked into the kitchen and sat down at the table.
“Sure is,” I replied.
Our home looks like what you’d imagine from the inside of a gingerbread house—a lot of mess covered with doilies and all that. We aren’t really rich, just sorta average if you ask me, although dad likes to say that the only thing worth measuring is the mind. For how smart he is and all, you think he’d know better than to say that around me.
Ever since I can remember, things at school were complicated. Like, I’d be following the lesson just fine and then the teacher would say this one thing, sorta casually, but it would end up being the most important bit of information. Somehow all the other kids were onboard, yet I’d lost the whole deal. They all expected me to walk this tall ladder with only some of the rungs, and I was like people, I can’t climb higher, just go on without me!
As my mother cooked eggs and fried up some bacon, I realized that she was looking a lot like her sister. Her sister’s the fat sister, and mom, still fat by fat standards, was the skinnier of the two, but not lately. It didn’t help that she was humming the way a fat woman might and wearing her hair down in stringy, unwashed strands.
“Maybe we shouldn’t be eating bacon this morning,” I said.
She didn’t respond, just looked into the pan and bit the inside of her cheek—a bad sign. She often does that sorta thing when she doesn’t know what else to do.
Why did I say it? Because she was getting fat? Because dad’s heart was clogged? Because lately it seemed that eating animals was not something I felt totally cool about? I wasn’t sure. “I mean, I’m just not that hungry.”
She brought over my plate, piled high with bacon, and licked her finger to move a piece of hair out of my face. It really ruffles me when she does that, but I let her do it anyhow. I’ve found that sometimes mothers need things from their sons that aren’t especially cool or fun for the son involved.
I pressed my fork hard against the egg yolks. They were barely runny, the way I like them. “Where’s dad?” I asked.
She looked as if I’d broken her heart, her hands shaky at the sink, her eyes focused on everything but the dish in her hand. Over the running of water she answered, “He’s in his study. Knock after you’re done here, sweetheart.”
“I was thinking of going for a run first,” I said, but then this instant and familiar expression popped up on mom’s face that said, “I don’t think that’s such a good idea....” even though she replied, “It really is such a nice day.”
People always do that—talk about the weather instead of how they’re feeling. It’s almost a science, I think. When people comment on a change in temperature, they’re lonely. When they talk about slow-moving clouds, they’re in love. When they go on and on about how gross it is when rain seeps up their pants, they’ve usually just lost something really important. A general declaration of nice weather was code for, “I have no idea what to say to my son who just doesn’t get it.”
So after breakfast I knocked on dad’s door, and he told me to enter. I can’t believe he actually says things like that, like ENTER, as if he’s in a secret lair and I’m his nemesis just waiting to foil big plans.
I was feeling really hot and pretty anxious, and all I wanted was to run, but I thought I’d check in first, see what dad wanted to do.
I opened the door and said, “Hey.”
“Hey?” he called from behind his desk. My dad looks something like Charles Darwin, which is a comparison he really likes. Sometimes I’ll hear him describing himself to a stranger over the phone that way. Meet me at the café on Main and Smith, he’ll say. I’ll be the guy looking like Charles Darwin, and then he’ll chuckle. I’ve never been able to witness how the joke plays out on the other end, but I have my suspicions.
“Sorry. Hi—hello.” I hung in the doorframe before remembering that it crushes him when I do that. I straightened up, moved inside, and said, “Can I get you anything?”
“Relax, Alex,” and he moved his hands around the desk’s surface, shuffling some papers to clear a space before him, as if my presence needed its own fixed spot. He seemed calm, and I felt instantly looser.
I stood around, shifting my weight from one leg to the next, before I said, “Would you mind if I went for a jog before we start this thing?”
“Start this thing?” he half laughed. “Grab me a pencil,” he said pointing toward a box on the counter. “I need to write that one down.”
I decided to jot it down for him, with a note to him that said: Alex goes for a run before meeting the day before...”
“Great,” he said when I handed it over. He scribbled something else before folding the paper in neat thirds and patting it in place against the front pocket near his chest. It really ruffled me the way he did that—finished the sentence that I’d purposefully kept open-ended. Maybe he wrote, “going in for a successful operation,” or “telling his son that he’s always been proud,” but there was something in that neat folding that told me that he’d probably scratched something else, something more likely and true.
I still wasn’t really clear if he’d be crushed if I took a short run, but I was feeling kinda itchy. I looked past dad, got lost in the site of our driveway and the way that it snaked down to the road, and tried to decide the right thing to do.
“Who am I to you, Alex?” dad interrupted. I looked at him. He scratched his ear and tilted his head, his general pose while waiting for an answer.Everything always came down to that question. He’s asked it so many times over the years, and I’ve answered it again and again, on his birthday, on mine, on holidays, mid-week, after a soccer-win or a hot dog dinner, but I’ve never answered it to a satisfying, “thank you,” or “that’s my son,” or “I couldn’t have said it better myself.” Usually he grunts, or takes a sip of water, or asks the waitress for the check. I couldn’t believe he was asking it again, on the day before…
I stammered a bit, desperately searching every fold in my brain for the perfect four-syllable word before he said, “Go on.” He’d started writing in his notebook already.
“Go for a run before we start this thing,” was what he said, but I could tell he was crushed.
I pull on my old Nike’s and tie the laces twice. Outside the air is dense and the familiar back roads coil inward, expectantly, toward the lake. The first stretch of the run is hard, and I’m thinking about how the air is a little cold in my lungs, and how loud the dry pines are as they snap underneath my feet. But then it’s all a bit easier, quieter, softer.
It’s really hard to complain about my dad. Most people think I’m a whiny asshole when I try to tell them that it’s not easy being his son. Friends say, But he’s Charles Drakett, and then they try to defend him, as if reading his books is knowing him. As if finding a story of his funny or poignant is an excuse for every little thing. And secretly I know that they think I’m bitter, and you know what, I’m really not.
The lake, tired-glass, is before me, saying nothing, doing so many things below its surface that I can only imagine. Then there is a breeze and the water ripples nearly perfect, and I take off my sneakers and jump right in, right into its movement.
Dad and I sat together in the study—him in his great big chair, me on the windowsill ledge—and he drank his glass of afternoon bourbon that he’d poured from that famous glass decanter—the title of his last book.
The light came through the window in streaks and cast a spotlight on dad’s half-smile. He pursed his lips as he tossed the liquor around his mouth. I sat, shaking my leg and looking at the wall of books behind him.
“So what is this that you’ve brought me?” he asked looking at the brown paper bag in my hands.
“It’s just a little something,” I said as I gave it over.
“No time for wrapping?” I could tell he was starting to get crushed.
“It’s not that type of present. Just open it.”
He crinkled the bag, looked inside, and smiled. I knew that he was making more out of it than I’d even intended, but that was actually sorta why I did it, I guess. I’d packed a lunch bag full of twigs, and grass, and wheat. Somewhere I knew it was the right thing to do, even though I wish I could have written him a story that could better express all the things I wanted to say in a way in which he’d be proud I’d said them.
Had I written a story, I think I’d have tried to make it about waves. I’d try to talk about them all: radio waves, micro waves, light waves, sound waves, tidal waves, ect., but I don’t know how to write a story like that. I don’t even know why I like waves so much these days. I mean, really, it’s just a whole lot of molecules bumping into one another saying nice to meet you, see you later, and no one really gets anywhere, but I guess it’s cool that things still happen. Like, it’s not just a buzzing vibration, an instant party where neighbors wiggle wildly for a moment and get one another excited—stuff really goes on and then things are never the same.
But it wouldn’t be like his stories, which said some nice things about human nature and all that.
He turned his gaze past me, toward the window. “Pour yourself a drink,” he said.
Bourbon isn’t my thing, really, but I poured myself a glass and sipped it like he did.
We sat there for a while, tumblers in hand, the smell of books and the sounds of birds filling the space between us.
“Who am I to you?” I said.
“I’m glad you finally asked,” he replied but didn’t answer.
Mr. Hartly says that, in our classroom, he can’t talk about what happens when you die. He says it’s not right to impose your belief system on others, but he also says that anyone who wants to hear his opinion can come to his office hours. So after dad’s surgery, after it was all over, all of it, I went and saw Mr. Hartly.
He didn’t make me tell him anything about anything. We just stood together for a bit, not saying much, before he said he’d catch me up on what we’d been learning so that I didn’t fall too far behind.
“Waves travel through matter that’s not entirely stiff nor entirely pliable.”
I started to write it all down, but he took away my pencil.
“Look at me, Alex,” he said, so I did. His eyes got real wide as he said that it’s this unique property of being loosely connected, sturdy yet malleable, that creates a wave—a delayed transfer of information. “A wave is a journey,” he said, “an incredible pattern that can’t help but repeat itself.” He squinted at me. “It’s these loose connectionsthat get light and sound and all that other intangible, beautiful stuff to the places they need to go.”
I wish I could have forced a smile or even just said, “thanks,” but all I could muster was, “but you never can tell, I mean, not really.”
He didn’t try to show me a diagram or talk about theories and principals. He just gave me back my pencil and told me that we were having a test on Thursday. As I made a note of it, Jenny Tramone busted in the office and threw her backpack on the floor. “I need soooooo much help,” she said, “like seriously, mountains of help, like the Mt. Everest of advice and guidance.”
Back at home, I found my mother in the garage, doing who knows what. She had my box of old sports gear open and she was rummaging through plastic footballs and deflated soccer balls. I approached her cautiously, the same way I handled my dog Buster after he’d gotten into a fight last year and his back leg was all torn up—shredded almost to the bone.
“What are you looking for?” I asked.
“I don’t even know,” she said, both cheeks drawn, her face rodent-like.
“Come on inside,” I told her. “Come on, and I’ll make you some tea.” I placed my hand on her back and pushed really lightly. And just like that, she allowed me to move her through space, to return her to something more familiar.
© Rachel Ephraim 2010
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Rachel Ephraim is a writing instructor for Writopia Lab, a non-profit organization that teaches creative writing workshops for kids ages 8-18 (www.WritopiaLab.org). She is also founder and director of FreeBird Workshops, a grassroots writing workshop that meets at FreeBird Books and Goods Bookstore, an independent bookstore in Red Hook, Brooklyn (www.FreeBirdWorkshops.com). Her fiction has appeared in The Apple Valley Review and Word Riot, and her non-fiction has appeared in the Park Slope Reader and the New York Spirit, among other publications. She is currently an M.F.A. Candidate at Columbia University. Rachel wrote this story while at La Muse (www.LaMuseInn.com), a writer's residency in the south of France.
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