Her perfume is a body apart from her and it hangs in the room like a cheap ghost long after she’s gone. Simon pinches his nose shut, breathes exaggeratedly through his mouth.
He’s still doing that when the nurse comes in on white-soled silence.
“Left you already, huh?” she says in an adult voice.
Simon feels the impulse to act snotty towards her, which his mother says is his specialty. He turns his face towards the window and goes limp as she fusses over him.
“Are you feeling okay today?” she asks.
“Are you feeling okay today?” he mimics.
”This again?” she says, in another adult voice.
“All right, Simon. If you need anything – and only if you need anything – punch the nurse button. Right here.” She connects his thumb lightly with the button, then sets the remote on his stomach and turns to leave.
It takes only a slight motion of his wrist to send it toppling. He listens with satisfaction as the plastic rings against the metal bed rail and bounces to the floor at the end of its cord.
The nurse crosses the room, sighing, and replaces it on the edge of the bed. When he tries to push it off again, he finds that she clipped it to the sheet and loses interest.
“What am I supposed to do?” he whines to his mother when she visits. He does not enjoy having her there; rather, he enjoys the conflict her presence allows him to create.
“Use your brain. Make up stories inside your head or something,” she says. Her thumb turns the flint wheel on her lighter, slowly to keep it from sparking, a gesture of restlessness that often signals her leave-taking.
“Like what?” He makes his words long and wailing like a siren, something she hates.
“Simon,” she says, with a sharp edge to her voice, and flicks the lighter hard enough to produce flame. He hears the small gas jet start and stop and the flat smell of it floats past his nose.
“But what am I supposed to do?”
“I don’t know, think about things,” she says. “Good things and bad things. Use your imagination. What I wouldn’t give for some rest and relaxation like you’re getting in here, and you don’t even appreciate it.”
“I don’t want to use my imagination,” he says darkly.
“Simon says, I’m a brat,” she snaps. When she reaches the Simon says point he knows he’s gotten her. He feels a wave of satisfaction. She starts gathering her things, standing. “Simon says, I make my mother insane.”
“Simon says, shut up,” he says, sudden and reckless, and the room swells with her anger.
“Be glad you’re in here,” she says with tenuous control, and is gone.
Without her he is calmer, but bored, so he does what she says and thinks about good things and bad things.
The best thing is his second grade teacher. She has blue eyes and a red mouth and she smells clean. She smiles at him a lot and her whole mouth is shiny. He asks for help just so she will bend down at his desk. When she leans over her breasts stay still inside her dress like they’re supposed to. On the rare occasions that his mother kisses him goodnight her breasts hang down inside her clothes and touch him and she smells like smoke and a bed that’s been slept in and perfume that prickles the inside of his nose.
He wants to go home with his teacher but he’s afraid to ask. He wonders whether her breasts would hang down when she kissed him goodnight, but it makes him feel funny to think about that so he stops.
He wonders if she has a man who lives with her or a lot of men who stay only for a while, like his mother. Right now there is one man most of the time. His mother says the man is handsome and Simon wonders if his teacher thinks he is handsome. He asks his mother if he is and she touches his face with her long fingernails and studies him.
“You’re just a kid. Your face doesn’t know how to be handsome yet,” she says. “Someday, maybe, but who knows.”
His mother and the man spend a lot of time in her bedroom with the door closed or almost closed – that’s a bad thing to think about. If they’re in there when he gets home from school he makes a lot of noise on purpose and once even knocks a bowl off the counter.
“Simon says, I’m a klutz,” she shouts from her room over the man’s laughter. “Clean it up.”
Simon does not clean it up and she cuts her foot later and smacks him hard on the back of his shoulder for it while he is taking a bath. He puts his hand in the water and covers himself down there. “Please,” she says, ripping toilet paper from the roll to sop up her blood. “You’ve got nothing worth hiding. Your modesty kills me.”
The man sticks his head in the bathroom to see, laughing again, and Simon tries to yank the shower curtain closed. One of the holes tears and dangles loosely below the plastic ring and she says his name, hard, in that cutting way that usually makes him feel satisfied. But he can’t enjoy her anger because he is embarrassed. After they leave he sits until the water is cold, his hand still covering down there, his modesty killing her.
The next day with this fresh in his mind, he comes home from school to an almost closed bedroom door and the private sound of sheets against sheets and the bed against the wall and the mattress moving and the man’s low voice. With his hand on the knob, Simon inches the door almost halfway open and looks in.
The man is on his back with one arm dangling over the edge. There is so much dark hair all over him he looks like a monkey. Down further his thing is standing straight up like it is sick, like there is something wrong with it. It makes Simon feel so funny to look at it that for a moment he doesn’t even see his mother and he wonders if the man is dead.
Then he sees his mother very clearly because she leans down and puts her mouth on it and Simon’s hand slips on the knob and they both jerk up and his mother starts yelling. He watches the man pull the blanket over his sick thing and he thinks, Simon says, your modesty kills me.
Simon turns around. He knows he needs to go but he doesn’t know where to go. Then his mother is behind him, still yelling, wrapped in a towel.
“Can’t stand it,” she is saying. Her hand gives the back of his head a sharp push, once, twice. “Can’t stand this. Calling your grandmother. Pack a bag.”
He goes to his room and gathers some things. His mind keeps seeing it, even though he doesn’t want to. He can’t stop it yet. She’s hit a limit, he hears her say to the man. Sometimes she just hits a limit and has to send him away. The man says come back. The door to his mother’s room slams and there are fast bed sounds and voice sounds and Simon tries not to hear it.
When the apartment is quiet he comes out with his school backpack full of wadded up clothes. His mother and the man are sitting on the couch and the man is smiling and she is smoking a cigarette.
“Simon says, I’m a pervert,” she says. “You saw nothing, hear me?”
“Little peeping Tom,” the man says, and he laughs, and Simon hates his laugh and his teeth and the way you can hear the spit in his mouth.
“Say it,” his mother says.
“Saw nothing.” He is still too funny inside to make her mad.
“Simon says, I saw nothing,” his mother says, and then his grandmother comes and takes him away in her big old lady car.
His grandparents live in the country. On the way his grandmother tells him, as she always does, the rules.
“Don’t rile your grandfather. Don’t touch the china cabinet. Don’t touch the lamps. Don’t rile your grandfather. Don’t go out to the shed alone. Don’t get into things. Don’t rebuke me, don’t rebuke your grandfather. Mind. You don’t mind your mother but for Lord’s sake you will mind me. Don’t rebuke me. Hear?”
His grandfather is the worst thing to think about. There is something wrong with him. The adults have long words for it and Simon doesn’t know the words but he knows wrong. His grandfather’s mood goes way up and way down like a fast elevator you can’t get off of. When he is up he grabs Simon by the arm so hard it bruises and tells him a thousand things he doesn’t understand and yanks him all around the farm until Simon thinks he will explode from his own crazy energy sparking off his grandfather’s. When he is down he is like a statue, a silent stone man and don’t go near him, hush up for Lord’s sake, just stay outside.
They get to the farm and Simon is finally able to put the hand inside his brain over what he saw so he can stop feeling funny. He follows his grandmother’s straight back into the house and knows before he even gets there that his grandfather is up. He is talking to no one, a long storm of words you can hear from the porch.
“They need a heart,” his grandfather says as soon as Simon is inside and seizes Simon’s arm and drags him back out.
There is a small pond behind the house near the forbidden shed. His grandfather thrusts a fishing pole into his hands. It doesn’t have a line on it, which disappoints Simon because he wants the hook. His grandfather’s pole has fishing line and a hook and he lets Simon hold it while he digs in the soft bank of the pond.
“Here you are, here you are, here you are,” his grandfather says, holding up a long earthworm. He takes his pole back and slides the hook into the middle of the worm, slowly. Simon watches it go in, watches the worm’s blind head nosing the air, and feels sick and fascinated.
“This is how you cast,” he tells Simon, and flings it back and out into the pond. “Do it. Do it.”
Simon repeats the motion with his empty pole. His grandfather talks about the pond and the kind of fish that live in it and the body parts packed tight inside them and how they make babies and how they eat each other because they’re trapped in the pond.
Simon takes in the words like breathing, without emotion or attention. He stands in the pounding sun with his fishing pole hanging loose in his hand and watches his grandfather’s jaw move and the pink sunburn on his scalp. His hair is thin and looks soft like cotton balls that have been pulled into wisps. Once Simon did that to an entire bag of his mother’s cotton balls and she smacked him for it but it was worth it. His fingers want to touch his grandfather’s head but he doesn’t dare. He thinks about how his grandfather’s body is put together – long skinny parts of him strung one to the next like a loose-jointed doll, but strong beyond anything Simon has ever felt. And tall, a height that makes Simon dizzy to look up into.
A fish bites and his grandfather yelps and reels it in. It flops up the bank and his grandfather grabs it with one big hand and rips out the hook in a mean way. Its lip is torn and dangling but the fish still twitches, his lidless eyes indifferent to death and air and the hand that squeezes him. Simon cannot look away.
His grandfather’s other hand clamps around Simon’s arm and pulls him and Simon realizes they are going to the forbidden shed. He drops his pole. His grandfather is still talking but Simon hears nothing, his eyes on the shed as he is dragged towards it, his heart beating the way it does when his teacher leans down with her clean clothes smell.
It is hot inside the shed and too dark to see at first. He stands still by the door as his grandfather opens a drawer in an ancient wooden work table crowded with old cleaning supplies, paint cans, glass bottles half-full of sharp smelling liquids. He rifles for something, the fish gripped carelessly in his other hand, and then sits on a stool facing a wall that is lined with shelves. On the shelves are rows of something but Simon can’t tell what.
He takes a step closer, squinting against the darkness, and sees that they are heads. Rubber baby doll heads stained with dirt as though they were dug up from the ground. A ceramic doll head with painted hair. Small animal skulls naked and yellow-white. A Barbie head with her hair lopped off. A teddy bear head, a stuffed plush horse head. A faceless Styrofoam wig head. A black plastic skull from Halloween. More that he can’t make out. Each of them is turned towards the door, swiveled on invisible necks. Simon feels a chill even though the heat is stifling as a blanket.
“They turn and they look when I come in,” his grandfather said. “They turn and they look at me when I come in and only when I come in because they know. Because they know. Now you leave my heads alone and you look at this. You look.”
Simon stands very still and watches his grandfather’s knife slide into the fish.
“First the belly,” he says. “Then the body. You have to skin him to get what you want.” He slides the edge of the knife along the body of the fish and Simon tries not to see it as the fish moves his tail, sluggish but definite, and sweat from his grandfather’s face drips down onto the eye. A wide, liquid eye that sees nothing.
The first shower of scales flicks off the blade of the knife. He skins faster, slinging the silver flakes and strips of flesh so they stick to the dirty floor, the walls, the heads. It’s like when Simon’s grandmother peels carrots. Except carrots aren’t alive. The heads watch Simon and he feels weak from the heat and the knife and his grandfather’s rolling sweat and the chemicals on the table and the smell of the fish.
“The heart,” his grandfather says, his hand frantic. “You want the heart and sometimes he gives it and sometimes not, you have to wait and see if it will come or not come. Either the heart will come or it will not come.” The knife shreds the fish down to a frill of pulp with eyes and Simon thinks he might throw up but he doesn’t dare move or talk.
Finally his grandfather makes a noise like a kicked dog and holds up the knife with something red and stringy speared on the end of it. The rest of the fish slides from his hand onto the floor with a wet slap and Simon swallows and swallows and breathes through his mouth.
“It comes. A heart for the heads,” his grandfather says, his voice hoarse, turning the knife in front of his face. He wipes the blade against the edge of the shelf, scraping off the heart so it touches the dirty pink mouth of a rubber doll and Simon tastes the idea of blood and fish. He is dizzy behind his eyes. “And so it comes.”
At dinner his grandfather becomes the stone man and stares at nothing and his food gets cold while his grandmother tells Simon all the things he did wrong during the day.
“Go to bed,” she says. “Don’t rebuke me. I don’t stand for it.”
Simon lies in the dark until they are quiet and then gets up and goes out to the living room without making even one noise. There is something bad inside him, waiting to get out, a thought that wants to be had but he won’t let it yet.
He stands in the dark living room and he thinks, Simon says, I rebuke you.
The screen door makes a small noise and he waits to see if it wakes them but it doesn’t so he goes out into the dark and crosses the yard. The shed in the moonlight seems smaller, colder, and he shivers thinking of the ruined body of the fish on the floor and the heart at the doll’s mouth, the tail maybe still moving, but a fish can’t move without a heart. So he goes in.
The heads have already turned to the door and Simon feels smug because his grandfather is not the only one they know. Their plastic or paint or button or empty hole eyes are riveted on him in the dark, stiff little faces crusted with strips of silver fish skin gone dull grey. The doll with the heart on her mouth smiles in a prideful way. They watch as Simon stands with his bare toes touching the still-tailed fish body and removes the hand inside his brain from what he saw and looks straight at it.
The thought is dark like a bruise, a soft place that is wrong but begs to be touched. His teacher stands in his brain with her red mouth and blue eyes and tight dress and her breasts that stay still and don’t hang down. Simon’s heart flies up like an elevator and he starts to feel funny and he lets it. He thinks of his mother’s mouth going onto the man’s sick thing and then of his teacher and of his own thing that he covered in the bathtub and then he thinks of his teacher’s shiny mouth going onto his own thing and that is wrong wrong wrong but he looks and looks, can’t stop looking, and then the door slams open so hard that the ceramic doll head falls and cracks her face against the floor.
“Did you see them turn, did you, did you,” his grandfather is yelling and Simon backs up fast into the fish and slips but his grandfather catches him, snatches him out of the air and grips him hard and bruising and shouts and shouts and shakes, his hand searching knocking over bottles on the work table, and Simon wants to scream his mouth is wide like the hooked fish but his throat is tight closed and full lungs no breathing no breathing and his eyelids are stuck frozen open on the the empty fish-scaled heads as liquid from the brown bottle in his grandfather’s big hand splashes down searing melting screaming into his eyes. Wide, liquid eyes that see nothing.
Simon’s mind stops because the memory stops and he reaches for the remote to call the nurse to annoy her but his hands won’t move because they are strapped to the bed. He can’t remember being tied down but he must have been fighting again. Maybe they gave him another shot.
The straps are too tight to do anything so he rolls his head towards what he thinks is the window and drools on purpose. Eventually he sleeps but it’s hard to tell if he is dreaming or awake because his eyes are always closed and his brain is strange and confused. The heads are inside now, watching the shredded fish move his tail, watching Simon’s teacher bend over at his desk, watching his mother and her mouth and the man’s thing, watching his hand covering himself down there, his modesty killing them. Turning always on their invisible heartless necks.
Simon says, I see you.
“Bandage day,” the nurse sings the next morning. Simon is untied now and quiet because of another shot that happened in the middle of the night. The memory is sleeping far down inside.
His mother is nervous. He hears the rasp of her lighter and smells her perfume trailing all around the room, everywhere but where he is. When the doctor comes Simon turns his cottony blindness towards the sound of him and he talks and Simon’s mother makes little noises after everything he says.
The doctor pulls Simon up and keeps saying things, constant like his grandfather but not fast or hoarse. When he touches the bandage Simon smells the fish again and he wavers a little and nobody notices.
“Can he see?” his mother blurts out but no one knows yet.
“Be patient,” the nurse says in an adult voice, and Simon waits to see if the fish wants to give it, soft hands tickling his hair as the bandage unwinds and unwinds, he waits for the light to come or not come. It will come or not come.