The first warm Sunday of the year, Ren watches his mother lean up over the sink and push the window open, first grunting in an effort of elbows to wedge it up from its old, sticky frame, then letting the breath from her lungs to the rush of warmed air that surges inside with one last slap of a palm to beat it into place; Ren, then, watches his father stride by and slam the window shut again with all of one hand.
“Heat’s not cheap,” he says in his big gruff voice, dressed up in his ripped wifebeater and tall black boots and smelling burningly of tobacco. “‘M going to work.”
His mother doesn’t seem to blink when she looks at him, licks her timid lips just once. “Okay,” she nods, pulls a smile on her face that only reaches so far as the grapefruit color of her mouth. God, does he love it when his mother wakes him up and splits a grapefruit in half for them to share, and she’ll sprinkle sugar on them, oh, oh, yes, he’ll have to tug her skirt and tell her he needs that right away. “Have a nice day.”
Their front screen door whaps shut. He always likes the way his mother’s face relaxes when his father goes out the door. He especially likes when she sighs her eyes closed, opens them again just to turn toward him with a big white smile on her face, a real big nice one. She bends to her haunches. Her eyes are just as big and bright and pink with that smile coiled up inside them. He always likes it when his father goes out the door and he doesn’t have to try and figure out what all those mushy English words his mother is saying mean. “Do you wanna spend time with Mommy today?”
Uck, yes, there it is, the silken sound of Spanish, the chest-drumming feel of his mother grabbing him up in her arms and laying his chin on the fur of her exposed shoulder, only after he’s nodded at so darling a request as hers. He does want to spend time with Mommy today, in fact, he’d like to do that everyday. If there’s anybody in his whole world that he’d like to sit on the floor and play trucks with, he’d choose her deliberately. Much more than he’d think to pick his father. Dad’s not nearly as good at playing. He likes to sit in his armchair and read the paper and chew on a cigar while Ren sits and plays on the living room rug, always makes him feel like he’s being watched in a way that turns his motions unnatural, plastic trucks crashing into each other nowhere near as loud as when he’s alone.
To all his chagrin, as much as a five year old can assume (though, Ren Höek might be the world record holder for that sort of title, surliest toddler, perhaps at any age); much to the tune of a tongue sticking from his mouth, he realizes they won’t be playing with Matchbox cars when his mother sets him down at the entrance of the laundromat around the corner, they will, actually, be doing laundry, which isn’t even close to playing anything. Horseshit, as his father says.
The laundromat around the corner is just that, around the corner and full of washing machines that shiver so loudly his ears feel full of peanut butter. All the lights are blue toned and fluorescent and flickering overhead when he tips his head back so far he falls back into his mother’s legs. She picks him up to place him on a hip, gives him a much closer view of her bending, stretching efforts to feed their dirty clothes into the open maw of the machine. “Wanna help?” she asks him, demonstrates a slow toss in of his father’s oil-stained jeans. Ren mimics her, leaning down to grab up a blind armful of socks and tiny cotton tee shirts liable to be either of theirs, and throws it all in a vicious hurtle into the machine. His mother joins him, and she’s humming the song playing on the radio, bouncing her Marilyn curls every time she unbends to fit more clothes inside. Ren wonders how she can even hear the radio over all the machines, all their urban neighbors shouting and clamoring around the whole place. Ren, too, watches her gold cross necklace swing each time she moves, though the urge to reach out and tug it is subjugated by sound mind. No, no, he’s too old for that. And she’ll never let him have grapefruit for dinner if he starts misbehaving.
“Good job, baby, thank you,” she says once the hamper’s empty, the one she dragged behind her all the way here as they walked. Ren thought vaguely of what he’d heard them talking about last night, his parents behind their bedroom door, some emphatic interplay about needing the car today, though the thought had occurred to him on their walk and thus was replaced on the first sight of a stick on the ground with, hey, a stick.
His legs don’t reach the floor when he sits on a plastic waiting seat, the kind with two or three cold blue chairs welded together like a bench. His feet click together as they hang midair. One of the eight or so children in the trailer next to theirs said something once about his feet being long and bony and overgrown, marking just about the first time he can remember his mother spanking him with a wooden spoon for embarrassing them in front of their neighbors, didn’t care how many times he tried to explain that biting the kid’s arm so hard it bled was merely self defense. But he doesn’t think her so wrong for it. His mother works hard to keep everyone happy, and when he glances up again to the sound of her voice spewing a curse, it only makes sense that an unheard noise of a quarter clattering on the floor had preceded it once he’s watching her lay her cheek right against the filthy tile to fruitlessly search underneath the washer. His mother gets up and sighs through her teeth, pulls her purse from under her arm to tear through it, closes it again and groans way up toward God, Ren watches all that.
“Excuse me,” he hears her most polite phone-call voice say in polite phone-call English, approaching the tall skinny stranger two washers away. “I’m so sorry to bother you, I just dropped my last quarter under the machine, I already loaded and put soap in, and- it’s just- and I have my son with me, he’s only five, I just wanted to get our clothes washed, I just-”
Something sounds mournful about what Ren can piece together. He’s just confused when she turns back around glowering, because he’d just heard her giggling when the stranger pulled a quarter out and even stuck it way down in the back pocket of her jean shorts for her so she wouldn’t lose it again. Sometimes he wonders why his mother acts the way she does. So private. Only ever emotional when she turns her back, only ever sits on the end of the bed and sobs into her hands when his father isn’t home. It just doesn’t register. She’d be much happier were she direct about her feelings, channeled all that hate and misery up into a fist like normal people do. Maybe that’s why he’s less sore to take a spoon to the ass than he is to let his father’s hands sting all over him. His father has plenty of other outlets to express himself, though he supposes it’s better to be his face getting slapped around for leaving his toys out or knocking a picture frame off the wall than to let it be his mother for no reason at all other than the cocktail of a bad work day and too many Budweisers. See, it’s all about logic to Ren. All about fairness. In his utopia, there’ll be no senseless violence, only sensible.
Their washer has been rumbling a few good minutes by the time he notices. In big wide blinks of his eyes, Ren looks to his mother on the seat next to him, his mother in her pink tank top and frayed jean shorts and once-white tennis shoes with the socks bunched up, his mother’s got her pretty face resting in one hand, hypnotized by the spin cycle until she breaks away to look at him. And she smiles. “How’re you doing, baby?”
Gripping the edge of his chair, Ren kicks his feet through the air again, feels his lungs surge with ennui. “I’m bored,” his little voice gripes.
Like pull string blinds, her smile drops, sees her fatigued eyes turn away again to rest chin in hand, elbow noting a pressure mark on the thin slice of her thigh. “Me too,” she says in a six inch exhale.
Ren isn’t sure what to do with information like that. Old people get bored, too? Cripes. Just great, now it’ll be something else to worry about when he’s his mother’s age. Less than half a minute ago he still lived in the world where by such an age as twenty-three he thought he’d be a businessman, have enough money to get a nice red car for himself and an even better one for his mom, enough space in the driveway of their house for them both to park. He thought by the time he’s that old that life would be good, two cars and a house and a workshift for his father that doesn’t end. Yeah. Wow. But now it’s all gone to crap, because even if he has all that, he’ll still be bored, so whatever point he saw in growing up has vanished.
(Even with a son, his mother’s bored. Ren thought someday he might like to have a son, too, and he’d phone his mother and tell her what a devil Ren Höek II is, to which she’d laugh, tell him it’s no surprise. Ren Höek the second is so much like Ren Höek the first that it’s unbearable, but his mother would just laugh, despite all the times he’s heard his father yell about the downhill bicycle ride that is parenthood, his mother would just laugh, and tell him a great trick to scrubbing crayon out of wallpaper).
The radio is much clearer once they’re over by the dryers. It sounds just exactly like the tune his mother hummed earlier, thinks it might be his imagination til the song ends and starts right over again. His lower lids twitch. The abuela that wanders by them offers a welcome distraction, a little old rabbit lady of five foot nothing. Ren hears all her rings clink against the metal handle of their laundry cart when she grabs it, but his mother’s quicker, quick enough to get her hands on it and tug it right back. “Excuse me,” she says, admirably polite even still, “We’re still using this.”
Blue lights flicker. Behind them, the windows inhale the outside sun, glinting off the tile he can see their warped reflections standing in. The woman keeps her hold on the cart for just a second more, though lets it drop and says nothing at all on her hobbling disappearance. Ren’s mother smiles again, pointy front teeth gleaming, and she turns that thrilled look down toward him when she whispers, “See that, Ren? Don’t let anybody push you around.” From the warmed mess of clothes waiting in the dryer, she pulls a shirt, flags its wrinkles out in a loud flap. “If you’re ever in a bad situation, stand up for yourself. And if you’re ever in a very bad situation, a chainsaw is a much more startling weapon than a gun.”
Ren blinks. He sure likes life lessons. There’s more of those to be learned at the laundromat than anywhere else, he thinks.
At the last empty folding station, she dives to place armloads of hot clothes, cart and hamper and baby boy all strikingly close in tow. Ren stays around his mother’s legs as she folds. He can just barely stretch up on his toes and watch her hands as they work. She glances to his puppy nose peeking up over the edge of the table and laughs, and what Ren wouldn’t give to bring that back once minutes click by of folding torn up wifebeaters and gloves stained in mechanic grease that her hands start to shake around. His mother isn’t smiling or laughing after a while, just standing in the grungy laundromat folding and folding, folding, folding, folding, folding. She wipes her knuckles on the corner of an eye. Ren watches their smudge of wet mascara wipe off onto the shoulder of one of his father’s only white button-downs- then her face looks exactly the way it does when she hears the front door slam open. His mother swallows, gathers up a few breaths, folds the shirt in such a precise way that its imperfections are hidden away, and carries right on with her work.
“You can dance, hm hm hm,” hums his mother along with the radio, reddened just beneath either eye. “Having the time of your liiife.”
Ren sets himself back flatly on his feet. He hardly loses touch on his mother’s legs the whole walk to the cart of rumpled clothes, hamper beside it eating up the perfectly neat folded ones. In his mind, he supposes he might cry if he had to fold all those clothes by himself, too, so it’s just a natural reaction to reach his tiny self up into the cart and grab a wrinkly pair of jeans. The buttons burn his hands, hot fresh metal, and it is with clumsy desire that he attempts to mimic what he’s seen and fold the pants into a nice flat square like his mother always can. By the time he gets them there (at least a semblance- he’s never done this before, afterall, and his hands are even smaller than most boys’ his age- it’s more of an attempt than a success when he places the crumpled pants into the hamper overtop all that handiwork), he hasn’t noticed her silence, not until he looks up to see shining eyes marveling at him, gawking.
“Sorry,” he thinks he’s supposed to say, wrings his hands and doesn’t meet her stare again. But he needn’t go through it. Not with so swiftly the way she drops to her knees and clutches him in the tightest hug he’s yet felt in his life. He hesitates to return it. Just a moment frozen there until his hands know what to do and that’s to come curl around her back and let himself be held so warmly close that his eyes begin to drift shut, so it’s something of a shock once she finally stands up again, leaves him wobbling there on his own equilibrium.
“You’re such a good helper, mijo,” she praises. Ren licks the spot of undercooked oatmeal stuck in his back teeth from breakfast. She pets his head in a way that makes his ears raise, a finger poked inside his mouth when he looks up at her expression rich with...love? Sure. Could be.
She takes the folding back over from there on, and quickly it goes by. The very last pair of mismatched white socks are in her hands as she rocks her hips, folding them into each other as she sings with the current verse of the never ending song. Just when the socks toss to the filled hamper, it hits its chorus, and his mother brings her free hands up into little grooving fists that swing with her body. “You are the dancing queen! Young and sweet, only seventeen!”
Ren can’t help but laugh at her, nowhere close to malicious, she’s just...funny! His mother’s awfully funny when she abandons all her inhibitions and whatever else her life has instilled in her, lets the exhilaration of something so great as finishing the laundry take her to this gripping place of joy. “See that girl! Watch that scene! Diggin’ the dancing queen!”
Maybe that’s what Ren pictures in grade school, three years in the future though no foul on the memory. He pictures his mother dancing in the laundromat, remembers the sound of her voice and the infectious way his own shoulders bobbed, when the elementary school office calls him down just around noon on a random Tuesday. He runs his sweating palms over each other the whole walk down. What’ll he say to the principal, then, uh, well, John Lawrence was the one who started the playground fight by cutting him in line for the goddamn slide, he ought to be thankful he got no worse than a bloody nose. He’s got all his preparations stored high up in his chest, though it all disintegrates the moment he murmurs through the office doors and sees his father standing there, face important, left shoulder scuffed in years old mascara. That’s around when Ren starts to think about his mother, right when they sit him down and tell him she’s crashed her car into a tree in broad daylight and, the good news, yay, he gets to leave school early today.
He isn’t sure how he processes it or how to even try. Eight is plenty old enough to understand the workings of God, yet he can’t quite finger what sort of itch would possess Him to put his mother in the ICU and, worst of all, leave him alone with his father for the silent miles home.
Ren doesn’t say much, just clutches his schoolbag to his chest and points his dead stare out the windshield. That’s the safest place to lay his eyes. Whenever he peeks to the left, his father’s hands are white on the steering wheel, in his face some breed of lethality Ren’s only ever seen just before his back gets stung in belt prints. A tightness pricks at his throat. He stares forward. Just has to stare forward.
He flinches when his father reaches out, though it’s merely to jab his thumb into the socket of the car lighter, holding it there til the coil lights the front dashboard up an astringent scarlet. It’s a little funny to see his father do that after so many years an absence of a cigarette in his mouth. It’s funny in that sense, when he pulls a Marlboro out and stings the tip against the lighter, all the while keeping wrists on the wheel and eyes strict ahead, but it isn’t unwelcome. That kind of familiarity is just what he needs right now, the stink of the tobacco that always clung to the curtains and carpets in their old home. Their new house isn’t like that. They’ve had it a year now already and the only smell he ever opens the door to is lemons and Bible leather and his mother cooking in the kitchen, always barefooted, always humming to the plug-in radio and letting her aproned skirts swish around all schoolgirl like.
His mother isn’t in the kitchen when he gets home that random Tuesday. Nobody is, not even the billowing of the curtains above the sink, not until his father claps his tall black boots all the way to grabbing up the kitchen landline and, just before he turns into himself, telling Ren, “Go play.”
Ren’s face pinches, but he’s got no desire to stick around, only the desire to sit on a stair and hold his ear open toward the kitchen, hands measly and cold as they grip the white stair rails.
“I don’t know what more she expects from me,” he hears his father snarl into the phone. “I give her everything. I stopped drinking. I got us a house. I get her her own car and she uses it to try and kill herself. There’s no pleasing a woman who doesn’t let herself be pleased.”
Maybe if it’d been raining today, Ren would throw himself down there and defend her. Maybe if she were drinking, or on as many narcotics as the rumors that spread through his schoolmates by Wednesday morning suggest, then Ren might be able to defend his mother. But nothing like that’s half as true as how quiet she’d been the whole drive to drop him off that morning, how she’d let the box dye fade far enough to turn her brunette for the first time in his life. His mother hasn’t had her radio on all week. His mother wasn’t really ever all that tired.
Whenever he curls up on himself there, it’s warmer, at least. He tucks his face into his knees and lets his tear ducts have their way with him. Crying’s one of the rare things he won’t pick a fight with- what’s the sense in closing yourself up, where’s that get you? Gets a tree struck through your windshield, he says. So Ren cries there, eight years old, on the stairs, cries his knees snotty and pressure pink, because his mother’s still alive- bruised and bent up and bloodied and butchered, but by God she’s alive and by God he won’t soon have to eat both halves of the grapefruit himself. It’s a miracle, but he still cries about it. His mother’s alive, and that’s the one thing she doesn’t want. He can only just begin to imagine the dull, throbbing kind of ache that is.
But she’s alive. He gets to skip the math test all his classmates are taking right now, and his mom’s alive. Hey, man, pretty good day! Pretty grand old day until his neck twists toward the creak of the bottom step, and on it pauses the gleaming toe of one great big black boot. Ren swallows up all his thoughts when he sees his father standing there, just watching him. One hand holds the rail, like he were on his way up, but stopped at the sight of his first and only son crying on the stairs alone. He stopped to catch himself, had to! Had to or else he’d quake at so hollow an acrylic masterpiece that is his son, eight years old and grieving not his first pain, curled up crying on the undusted staircase (and, God, how’nt he seen this day coming, dear Lord, with the stairs undusted like that!). Ren could even imagine what it feels like to get grabbed up under the arms, in a way that hadn’t meant to hurt but his father’s just rough like that, held against his chest and soothed without words (his father’s just rough like that). What a day would that make, to be held by his father and have his mother alive, for once their roles reversed. Ren could imagine it, he could just imagine it.
“I hope God finds the both of you soon,” his father says instead, and he steps up over him to be in the gray of the upstairs hall. A door closes somewhere, and that’s all that breaks the foaming silence.
(Though he doesn’t mark it at the time, that’s just about the day Ren gives up on filial piety. He learns that it never really was the drugs or drinking that made his father a sinner, and it isn’t the occasional Marlboro he sneaks in the car even after being reborn unto His divine light, either. His father’s got the kind of sin in him that makes Ren understand his mother more the older he gets, knows better now why she smiles when the front door closes, knows at his very core what it feels like to let the color fade from your hair).
After three weeks of awkward rides to school and worse ones home, his mother is discharged from the hospital and Ren’s never been happier to help someone tie their shoes and comb their hair. He’s never seen anyone with a broken arm before, but there was some idiot in his first grade class who fell off the monkeybars and fractured his wrist, and he came back in the next day and left room for everyone to sign their name on his cast but Ren. When he tells his mother the story, she holds her white plaster cast out toward him and clears her throat just enough to say, “Will you sign mine? I want you to be the only one who does.”
Ren spends the better part of that hour John Hancock-ing his name across his mother’s arm in bright screaming red marker, all around it adds her favorite windflowers in pinks and blues. Before he knows it, he’s in the physician’s office watching his artwork be sawn in half and thrown away, but it’s okay, because his mother looks a lot more natural with both her arms working right (and her cooking’s even more delicious that way).
It’s a while before he thinks about it again. His mother doesn’t get a new car but does get a newfound look of guilt in her face when she talks to his father, the subconscious way she twists her wedding ring and never tries to argue. Things don’t change much other than that. They still have their same big house with the brick and white panelling down the front, long long driveway, a lawn of tart green. Eventually, he reaches an appropriate age to start walking to school on his own. About a month later, a little girl in Lansing, Michigan goes missing on her walk home, and his mother starts to speak up for her right to drive again.
When Ren is fourteen, he finds himself spending every possible minute out of the house. Between his father beating the Bible into him literally and figuratively, and his mother crying over telenovelas every afternoon, he figures he’s better off out doing...boy stuff. No, no, manly stuff. Him and a few other dogs in his freshman class sniff the trail to the old, old tennis court in the woods behind the school building, rusted shut at its chain link gate yet still able to be climbed. Ren doesn’t mind that the few other boys he hangs around with don’t wait for him to get over the fence- they’re much taller and stronger than him, of course they’ll be faster, it’s just science, not a failure on his part. Once he manages to scramble over and catch up with them, that’s when the good stuff happens, the kind of stuff that still lingers on his coat when he gets home and makes his mother get her wooden spoon back out.
“If you don’t stay away from that stuff- ogh! Ren Thomas, you make me want to spank you!”
He isn’t sure what weighs more, a few smacks from his mom or getting high with a group of dogs that all smell like dirt and gym class sweat. He’s still deciding when the joint passes to him, though is quick enough to forget it at the whistle that lifts high every ear in the smoke circle.
“Shit!” yelps the malamute to his left.
Another mutt bounds toward the farthest fence. “C’mon, hurry, let’s get the fuck out of here.”
Ren, very suddenly, would take a hundred spanks from his mother or shouts from his father if only any of it could replace the feeling of cold, wet dread that sinks into him to be fourteen years old, brown skinned, and holding a half smoked joint ten feet from an approaching police car.
He’s never felt anything so freezing as handcuffs, but at least they don’t dig into his wrists the way he remembers his dad used to describe. Even if they did, it’d be a welcome sensation against the numbed endings of his every last nerve as he sits in the back seat of the cruiser, stationary in place until the burly dalmatian up front collects himself enough to start the car and glance up to Ren in the rear view mirror. “How old are you, kiddo?”
Ren doesn’t reply.
“You go to school over here, West Dairy High?”
Ren, again, doesn’t reply, because if he knows anything about himself it’s that his goddamn mouth gets him in more trouble than any amount of drugs ever could.
“Not much of a talker,” the officer smoothly says, flicking on his left blinker for a turn. “That’s alright. My wife tells me I talk too much. God love her, I don’t know what she means. But I guess it’s all about perspective with things like that. I don’t talk all that much from my own perspective, but that’s probably because I can’t see my mouth. What’s your name, kiddo?”
Ren doesn’t reply, but he doesn’t feel like he ought to spoil the game when the officer adjusts his mirror just to squint at him in it, really look at him and try to picture it for himself. “You’re the Reverend’s boy, aren’t you? Höek?”
A taut thread pulls his mouth. “Yes, sir.”
The officer nods, rolling through a stop sign just past the crosswalk. “I could swear I recognized you. How’s your mother? She’s always good to talk to. You ought to tell her how good her lemon bars are, the ones she brings to the church sale. You’ll tell her, won’t ya?”
“Yes, sir,” Ren says, eyes daring to lift for the first time. “They certainly are delicious.”
“Oh, the best.” They coast over a pothole cover so fast it spins. “Say, you go to school with my boy, don’t you? Jasper, you know him, don’t you?”
Ren licks at his lips, demands them away from grinning and giving up all his pent up adrenaline. “Oh, yes, sir, I know Jasper. Jasper’s a real great pal.” And he’s even better at rolling joints, you ought to give that one in the evidence bag a try!
“Yap. My Jasper’s a good boy. Say, what’s your breed, huh?”
”A- A German Shepard, sir,” Ren nods.
Sharp indigo eyes stay heavy on him. The police officer keeps one hand steady on the wheel, reaches for the radio to speak into it, “11-95. Just some schmuck driving without a seatbelt on. Sent him on his way, all clear.” The speaker clicks back with its coiled cord dangling. “Tell me where you live, kiddo,” the officer says.
To the delight of every bone in his throbbing body, his father’s car isn’t in the driveway when the officer pulls up to drop him off. He tells him to have a good day and to keep his nose clean, then drives off fast enough to save Ren from his instinct to respond, “Can’t do both.”
When his legs stop shaking, he takes the walk up the long, long driveway, sky just beginning to smolder a salted orange as he steps inside, wipes his feet and hangs his bag on the right hook for a change.
“There you are. Finally home,” his mother says the very second she hears him, he’s sure. With suspicion in an eye she comes toward him to pull him into a hug, and only smiles after a deep, clean sniff of his coat. Her fingers pinch sweetly his cheek already hot with stress. “That’s my good boy. Always listens to his mama.”
Ren doesn’t know why he starts crying, but he doesn’t fight it, falls right into his mother’s lemon-smelling shoulder and weeps her blouse dripping. “C’we-” he chokes, “C’we have grapefruit for dinner?”
His mother pets her baby boy on the head, right between his ears, holds him right up against her heartbeat and lets herself smile.