The South |

Dead Air

by William Kelley Woolfitt

edited by Jim Hanas

It wasn’t supposed to happen that way.  My son Zack was a junior counselor, not even sixteen till August.  The camp hired him at such a young age only because he had completed lifeguard training.  Learn to swim, we’d told him.  Learn to ride a bike!  Deliver things!  The wave pool is hiring.  We told him so many things.  Put your pennies in a piggy bank.  Save for a car!  All the little children, red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight!  Leather craft, BB guns, nature walks in the arroyo, what could be so hard about that? 

      The camp was seven states away.  Zack insisted on riding the bus, wanting to see those intervening states.  The bus arced like a boomerang, zooming west, then dropping south.  He wasn’t supposed to be left in charge of the kids.  He was a junior counselor, just a kid himself.  There should have beena counselor of higher rank to watch out for him.  Someone older.  More responsible. 

At night, they sang songs around a fire in the field, and then one by one, therest of the staff would slip off, even his cousin who helped him get hired.  Zack would be the last one at the fire, hanging out with all those scholarship kids telling stories, girls from foster homesbraiding hair, kids from ghettos, from the rough part of Houstonwhere international refugees had been relocated, I don’t know how many nights.  There were chants and games and languages Zack had never heard before, and Stella talking about her homeland, how she fled from soldiers, and how the word camp meant something else there.  In his essay for AP English that I proofread for him, Zack described her long spidery fingers, her hair shorn close to her scalp, her skin like shadows, her voice full of joy and sorrow, two streams flowing into one river, inseparable. 

      We didn’t get the truth out of Zack until he’d been back home and in school for about a month.  He was tan, thin, and listless.  Tired from all those camp games, I said.  He’d go straight to his room after soccer practice and get on the Internet.  He wore a green ribbon pinned to his shirt.  A token of love, Sue said, maybe a mutual crush between him and a girl. 

      Sue baked cookies one night, white chocolate macadamia.  The house filled with cookie aroma.  Smoke him out of his room, I said.  Our daughter Zoë hung up the phone and paced the kitchen.  Sue smiled triumphantly, her oven-mitted fists ready to pummel the air.  She knew how to get us together.  I counted the holes in Zoë’s ears, and then all the earrings, sparkly and clattering, like fishing tackle, or shrapnel.  The tee-shirts she wore to high school were smaller than the ones she’d worn to elementary school.  This one said, “My mother is a whale.”  Zoë got the dough bowl out of the sink and licked it clean.     

      “Go get your brother,” Sue said. 

      “See her shirt?” I said, when Zoë had left the room.

      “We’ve taught them to care about things.” Sue shook a spatula at me. “She wants to save the whales.  This is what we’ve always hoped for.” 

      “Her shirt means that?”  I spread waxed paper on the counter. 

      “You’ve heard of mother earth?  Well, what’s the next biggest thing on earth?”  

      I kissed Sue behind the ear, checking for the vanilla extract she sometimes dabbed back there.  My sweetie, so brave and try-anything, so open-minded! 

      “He’s calling the radio,” Zoë said.  

      I turned on WGNU, his favorite station.  Zoë’s too.  I tried to know the songs and videos that they liked. The punks and thugs, anarchists in kilts andandrogynous vegans with pastel hair.

      Sue asked Zoë about school, and about Mr. Biji, the substitute biology teacher with warts on his forehead, and ferocious body odor, and a fungus under his fingernails that leaked a glistening slime.  BGW, the kids called him. Biology Gone Wrong.  

      “The tenth caller wins a party prize pack.  Go-kart passes, a sampler CD from the Dogfish label, and a cube of Mountain Dew,” said the DJ. 

      “Am I tenth?” said Zack. 

      Sue and Zoë stopped talking. 

      “You sure are, brother man.  What station do you play night and day?” 

      “One thousand people are dying every day in a region the size of Texas,” said Zack. “It’s happening slow, and it’s happening fast.  They use planes with bombs, and gunmen on camels.  They use hunger, and they use disease.” 

      “People are dying everywhere,” said the DJ.  “Do you believe in love?”

      “I believe in it if gets people to start caring,” said Zack. 

      “That’s why I’m dedicating this next song, “Where is the Love?” to you, my man.  To you, and people, I guess—people dying everywhere.”

      Sue turned off the radio.  “You talk to him.  He listens to you.  He thinks I’m a spacey old hippie.”

      “You are a spacey old hippie,” I said, pulling her close, kissing her behind the ear again.

      “Because I teach yoga?”

      “To three old nuns.” I kissed her neck.  She had more students than that, and her main job was at a greenhouse, but we liked teasing her about the nuns. 

      “Excuse me,” said Zoë.  “Impressionable child still in the room, embarrasses easily?” 

      Sue pulled Zoë’s tee shirt down over her belly. “You’re not a child anymore.”  Her shirt flipped up like a window blind.     

      Zack’s room was a lot neater than usual, his closet almost empty.  His walls were covered with photos downloaded from the Internet. 

      “You studying this in school?” I said. 

      “Don’t you know, Dad?” Zack looked up from his book.  I peeked at the cover: Souls on Fire.  “If you want to know the truth, you have to look long and hard.  I had to go all the way to camp, and meet a girl from the other side of the world.”

      “I’ve heard a little,” I said.

He told me about Stella, the late nights, the girls sharing secrets, how Stella’s family migrated to this country, how a governmental agency in Houston assigned them a cramped dirty apartment and a case worker, how her sister Edith was murdered by a gang in a random shooting while on her way home with a box of cupcakes from the corner store.  “But your country is still a good country,” Stella had said.  She called him Mr. Zack.  He wanted to make her words come true.

      “Cookies are getting cold,” I said. 

      Zack smiled patiently.  “I’ve got to read.  I’m getting an activist kit mailed to me.  Will you help me when I figure out the next step?”

      “Sure,” I said.  “Whatever I can do.” 

      Now don’t get me wrong, Sue and I were all for justice, and equality, and recycling bubble wrap and yogurt tubs.  We had taken our kids on educational family vacations: to Kayford to see the mountaintops knocked over for a few last hunks of coal, and to Palmerton to see the derelict zinc furnaces, the denuded rock.  Sue packed veggies and wheat bread sandwiches for our trips, no fast food for us.  She made applesauce popsicles, reduced the sugar in a pitcher of Kool-Aid to half a cup.  Those macadamia cookies were a rare treat.  Couldn’t Zack pretend to appreciate them, just a little?  I had a job, he had school.  Could the world stop in its tracks just because parts of it were bad?       

      Zack got in trouble for hanging posters at school, for going in the teachers’ lounge to ask them to sign a petition.  He got in trouble with Sue and me for quitting the soccer team, and for giving away any of his clothes that weren’t black.  He said he wanted to remind everyone that there was death in the world, death that didn’t have to happen.  He called our senator, wrote a letter to the president. 

      Then Zoë got in on the act.  She said that all his deeds were totally underwhelming, it was time he did something, made a story, made a splash.  Something that the local news would write up, spread to the news markets of increasingly larger cities.  Like a stone dropped in water, making ripples, making waves. 

      So we knew something was going to happen, sooner or later.  “They’re making plans,” Sue whispered to me in bed.  “I don’t know what they are yet.” 

      “They have good intentions,” I said.

      “They can’t do whatever they want just because it seems good.”  Sue rolled over onto her stomach.  “They have to learn that,” she said into her pillow.   

      Zoë came to breakfast with twine binding her wrists together. I was packing lunches.  Sue was putting a roast in the crockpot.  Zoë used her teeth to carry a loaf of bread to the toaster.  She couldn’t get the twist tie on the bread bag untwisted, so I helped her.

    “What’s the rope mean?” said Sue. 

      “The women in Stella’s village were raped this way,” said Zoë, nudging the toaster lever with her chin.  “The camel men always bind their hands.” 

      “Is your brother up?” said Sue. 

      “Check the back yard,” Zoë said. 

      “You going to school like that?” I said. 

      “A bunch of us are.”  She bit the handle of a knife, lowered it into a jar of strawberry preserves. 

      Sue was at the sliding glass door, staring out, not saying anything.  I looked over her shoulder.  There was Zack in his sleeping bag, stretched out between Sue’s herb bed and my propane grill.  I opened the door.  He rolled over, stood up, stepped out of the sleeping bag, rubbed his eyes. 

      “Stella’s village was burned,” he said.  “Everyone sleeps on the ground.” 

      I thought about the pictures on the walls of his room, and I thought, in that country, they all do everything on the ground.  They had one thing in common—the living, the dead, maimed survivors, decapitated corpses, men, women, young, old, eating a gluey white grain with their fingers, drinking, resting, praying, reading maps, cleaning guns, even surgery on the wounded—it all took place in the dirt, in the mud, in the sand.  It was life without respite, life without furniture. 

      “You’re sleeping in your own bed from now on,” said Sue.  “As long as you live under my roof.  Is that clear?”  Her hands were full of papery onionskins and the guts of bell peppers. 

      Zack and Zoë exchanged looks.  Sue was almost never angry or forceful.  If she got mad at anyone, it was Zack or Zoë’s teachers.  The welfare of our children, that was the button that could set Sue off—these two who were strangers wandering through our house on some days, or the detainees of our jail, or jabbering aliens who baffled us with how they strung together the very nouns and verbs we had used all our lives.  And Sue: my lioness, so fierce, so hotblooded, growling for her cubs.     

      Zoë said, “There are no roofs—”

      “I’ve heard all I want to hear about that girl.” Sue turned on the garbage disposal.  

      “She comes from a country where the government lies and kills, where people die senseless deaths!”  Zack shouted to make himself heard over the disposal’s roar. 

      Sue turned off the disposal, but Zack was done shouting.  

      “That’s history for you,” I said, filling the dead air.  “That’s the history of every country that’s ever existed.”  

      All three of them groaned like I was the village idiot. 

      A car honked in the street.  Zack and Zoë and their friends carpooled.  Of course they carpooled!  They got their books and exhaled and left without saying anything, relieved to get away from us.  Zack was wearing the baggy black clothes he had slept in, something like pajamas, or the garb of a political prisoner. 

      “We have to do something,” said Sue. 

      “They haven’t done anything yet,” I said. 

      “They will.”

      “I thought we were hoping for this.” 

      “Not this,” she said.    

      I didn’t tell Sue when Zack asked me to help him haul scrap lumber.  I thought that I could better help my kids if I knew what they were getting into, and that Sue ran the risk of alienating them.  Zack said that he and his friends were building a float for the homecoming parade.  Scrap lumber, sheet metal, straw.  He got an enormous coffin-shaped box in the mail from the Halloween Extravaganza Company.  I didn’t tell Sue about the box either.  She said it sounded like Zack was in the garage doing something with hammers and saws, so I volunteered to go check on him.  Actually, I did more than check.  I banged some nails, I cut some wood.  It felt good to spend time with him, to have his friends grinning like me being there wasn’t all that bad.  And I had told Zack that I would help him. 

      We were making a hut, like those in Stella’s village.

       A project for school, is what I told Sue. 

      I let Zack borrow my truck the night before the homecoming football game.  He said the floats had to be at the high school the next morning. 

      He was gone for two hours.  He said that he had lost track of time. 

      The big day was sunny, breezy, cool, crisp.  A beautiful fall day.  Go Tigers!  Striped Pride!  There were orange and black banners strung between telephone poles, tiger masks on the parking meters, paper paws taped to storefront windows.  Sue and I stood in front of the laundromat, one block from the high school.  Zack and Zoë and a dozen other black-clad teenagers walked between the hut float and a band from one of the middle schools. 

      “They’re in the parade?” said Sue. 

      “They made a float,” I said. 

      Too late, I saw that the hut had been partially burnt, that there were plastic skeletons slumping through the windows.  The flag of Stella’s country was draped over the roof’s charred frame, the thatch reduced to cinders.  There was a poster of statistics taped to the back of the float. 

      The middle school band blew the first notes of a patriotic song.  The die-in began.  There was horse manure in the street, a few pieces of candy thrown from fire trucks, many wrappers that the sticky fingers of children had not held onto.  Zack and Zoë and the other protesters went limp and dropped, helter-skelter, some on top of each other, bodies akimbo, a game of pick-up sticks.

      The parade stopped.   Bystanders were pointing, staring, whispering, hissing.  A few were even laughing. 

      “Do you know what we’re going to do?” said Sue. 

      “Join them?” I said. 

      “Grounding them is more what I had in mind.” 

      “What for?”

      “So I get to be the bad cop again?” Sue said, lifting her sunglasses so that she could drill me with her eyes.  “The one parent who acts like a parent?” 

      “But they have good intentions.”

      “They have overboard, weird, way-over-the-line, morbid intentions.” 

      “I don’t want to be their dictator,” I said. 

      Sue groaned and threw the car keys at me.

      “Going somewhere?” I said.

      “The yoga studio,” she said as she stomped away. 

      A mustard-yellow leaf, symmetrical, five-pointed like a star, was skittering in the wind.  It tumbled off the sidewalk, landed on what might have been Zack’s leg, or Zoë’s elbow.  I wished that I could be like the leaf. 

     Joined with other dead leaves, it would become a deep covering that nourishes the soil if left to molder, or a mountain for kids to romp in, or tinder for a bonfire.  By itself, the leaf was the lightest thing. No weight, no thickness. Just enough to keep a first grader in art class happy for a few minutes.  Or slip into your loved one’s hand as a whimsical gift. Or disappear inside the pages of an encyclopedia as a brittle keepsake.