Aunt Jane sits in shadows at my bedside at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital. She’s gently rubbing my back and humming a lullaby. Her touch makes my body tingle, but soon I close my eyes and I see swirls of vivid color. Red turns to purple, and purple fades to black. I hear adult voices. Fragments of sentences, hours apart, all through the night. “The child is dying…” “We’ve done all we can…” “A matter of time…”
I wonder: Who is dying?
St. Xavier’s parish house. Helen, the housekeeper, quietly moves in and out of the room. She says nothing. Then I am alone. The sunlight paints bright rectangles on the white walls. There is nothing to do but listen to the silence. And then….
A black cap flies up from the medicine bottle on the bureau, falls, rattles across the shiny hardwood floor, and stops. How had that happened? No one else was in the room. I had nothing to do with it.
My throat burns. It hurts when I swallow. I’m shivering violently, can’t get warm. My breath stinks. When I talk my voice sounds funny. Another distant adult voice. “What’s wrong with him?”
Someone wraps me in an itchy brown checked blanket, and carries me to a car. Violent rattling and jostling, all part of a dream. Bright lights. Back at St. Elizabeth’s. The masked figure puts a cup over my nose and mouth.
“Count backward from ten, Johnny! Count backward from ten!”
The ether fills my nasal cavity and floods my brain. A dizzying tingling paralyzes me and spreads from my head to my arms and legs. I can no longer count backward, and I don’t care. Blackness.
Days later I’m again in the scratchy blanket and in a car. Someone jokes that little Johnny should be happy because now that they’ve taken out his tonsils, he will on doctors orders have to eat a lot of ice cream.
At the parish house, on the small porch facing the school. Helen gives me a thin book with a shiny cover. Maybe I would like to look at the pictures, she says. There are lots of other children’s books in that box over there in the pantry.
They are simple words in short sentences. Only three or four on each page. Colorful drawings of little boys and little girls, surrounded by green grass and trees and lots and lots of flowers. Cute animals like rabbits and squirrels. They know how to talk. The children and animals talk together.
Then three billy goats are grazing beside a stream. The grass is good. But they see the grass on the other side is thicker, greener, much more tasty. Uh-oh! A troll captures the first two goats as they try to cross over on a bridge. But they tell the troll they’re too small to eat, but listen: the third goat is much bigger and will be a much more tastier meal! The troll lets them go, and attacks the third goat. But being larger the goat easily butts the troll into the water. A happy ending! All three goats graze to their heart’s content.
Grandma. Where’s Grandma? In heaven? She tells me a story about a troll who steals a child, and replaces him with a changeling. You can always tell one because they are much, much smarter than all the other children. "Like you, Yashew! Yes, Yashew, you must be a changeling."
More and more books. I like to read them silently, but then I also like to read them aloud because I pretend there is someone beside me who wants to hear the stories. Helen peeks into the room. I see her staring at me. But I continue reading. She disappears.
Monsignor asks me to read a new book. Tales of Grimm. I take the book and begin reading. “Aloud, please,” Monsignor says.
I know nearly all the words, and the tale sounds familiar. Did Grandma tell me this one? A mother is worried that a troll had stolen her child and replaced him with a changeling. As a test, mother brews beer in the hull of an acorn.
The changling reveals himself by saying: “Now I am as old as an oak in the woods but I have never seen beer being brewed in an acorn.”
Monsignor is astonished. Later two other adults arrive. Monsignor asks me to read aloud from the books again, so these faceless giants can see and hear it for themselves. Monsignor commands, and I obey. Always. No, he tells them when I have concluded. Johnny has never seen this book before. No, neither I nor Helen nor the nuns in the convent have taught him how to read. No, I can’t explain it.
Now you’d think all these people would be proud of little Johnny. Especially daddy. But oh no. They saw him as strange, and scary, like a changeling. Different. OTHER.
To cut through this disapproval little Johnny tried to show them even more wonders. Like big words. Words with more than two syllables. Also their meanings.
The nuns were captivated by little Johnny’s uncanny knowledge of astronomy. The constellation Orion, for instance. Those three stars on Orion’s belt are little Johnny’s favorite, they belong to him, he always said. He explained to the nuns, patiently, that an eclipse of the sun is easily simulated by holding up to it a half dollar at arm’s length. How could little Johnny know all this stuff?
But there remained the mystery of what popped the cork of the medicine bottle in the parish house bedroom. Little Johnny thought about it, dreamily.
He remembered Helen pouring out a spoonful of that rich red syrup and feeding it to him with a big silver spoon. It was delicious, and tingly. Vapors suddenly filled his nasal cavity and sinuses like ether. That syrup was volatile. And what’s more in just a few moments he felt a heat in his stomach that gradually, pleasingly, spread outward. A comforting, calming warmth, just like the love that radiated from Jane at St. Elizabeth’s, only better because the feeling penetrated deeper.
When Helen poured out the syrup early in the morning the room had been chilly. But then later, when the cap popped from the bottle, the room was almost uncomfortably hot, because Helen had turned the thermostat way up.
No ghost, no spirit had been in the room. That cap was not pulled off, it was pushed from inside. Expelled. If that volatile head-swimming syrup could heat his insides so quickly, well, it surely could pop a cork as well. Ha!
My father awakens me. Carries me to the car. It’s bitter cold, the snow is blowing, and stings my face. He drives somewhere in the dark, while on the radio a woman sings:
When they begin the beguine
It brings back the sound of music so tender,
It brings back a night of tropical splendor,
It brings back a memory ever green.
I'm with you once more under the stars,
And down by the shore an orchestra's playing
And even the palms seem to be swaying
When they begin the beguine.
What, I wonder, does beguine mean? I listen to the words of the song. They may give me a clue. But no, they don’t.
That word annoys me! It’s the very first one I don’t like. Why? Because unlike all the others its meaning hides from me. This must be something the adults know, but won’t tell me. It’s their secret word.
I am dizzy. Hot. Yet it is cold in the car. I hear the humming of the heater’s fan, but I don’t feel the warmth there in the back seat. I pull the blanket tighter around me. Bright lights blur in the window. The car stops. My father has a strange look on his face. He turns and says he will be right back. My sudden fit of coughing annoys him. He slams the door.
I dream about the beguine. It is…what? Maybe a ritual of a bunch of masked religious people. Wildly jumping on a beach.
Then in the darkness I hear a tap on the window. I look up. Another faceless giant. A stranger.
Then voices. “You gotta take him to a hospital, Chet. What the fuck is wrong with you?”
My father picks me up. I smell his volatile aura, like cough syrup or ether. He acts like he cares for me, but that’s because the others are watching him. Just for them he displays his love and concern for his little son, but I can feel his fury. Why do you have to be sick all the goddamned time? Why do you have to be such a pain in the ass? You worthless little shit.
He’s angry at me, but then he’s also angry at someone else.
Maybe her name is Beguine.
He is angry at my reading books aloud. At the half-dollar eclipse of the sun. At my skinny arms and wrists. Too skinny. Unnatural. They are angry at my explanation of the medicine bottle’s popping cap. And so on.
At Christmas, near the decorated tree. Burl Ives on a 78 record. “Jimmy Crack Corn, and I don’t care.” On the back of a Christmas card I write:
SOUPERMAN. Proudly I show it to my father.
“Hey, that’s wrong!” he says in triumph. “It’s spelled S. U. P. E. R. M. A. N. Without an O.”
“No,” I reply. “Wait!”
I run to the kitchen. Drag one of the heavy wood chairs to the sink. Reach up into the cabinet. Show my father the Campbell can.
“See? It is spelled S.O.U.P.”
“Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha. The kid thinks he’s SO smart, eh?”
I have no memory of it, but they tell me that I found a bottle of whiskey in the pantry and drank from it, and they had to rush me to the hospital to have my stomach pumped out. Aunt Jane was furious. “For Christ’s sake, Chester, don’t you know any better? He couldda DIED!”
How many more times will that fucking kid ALMOST die?
But from that day forth, the two drunks—Chester and his brother Alec—never brought alcohol of any kind into the house. Oh, yes, there’s shit floating in a bed of wet toilet paper in the clogged toilet. It needs to be fixed but they can’t—won’t—fix it because it’s three days before they get paid and they’re short, so can’t call a plumber. Alec pukes in the bathtub because he can’t take the stink of shit in the clogged toilet bowl. Foul scents. Shit and gastric juices and undigested White Castle burgers. An overwhelming wave of putrid stink, all over the house.
Where’s your father, Johnny?.
What’s wrong with him?
Oh, look. He’s passed out drunk.
Someone—not my father—takes me to the doctor’s office. In the waiting room are magazines. And on the wall a rack full of pamphlets. One looks verrrry interesting.
“Is Someone You Love An Alcoholic?”
A list of symptoms. They fit my father. But they fit Alec even more perfectly. Poor Alec. I show Alec the brochure. He gets mad, runs to my father with it. “What’s this shit?”
My father yells at me. What the fuck is wrong with you, anyway? He’s your uncle. You gotta show him some fucking respect.
That’s right. R.E.S.P.E.C.T.