Diptych: Forbidden, Red Rubber Ball

Katharine Haake Click to read more...

Katharine Haake photoKatherine Haake is the author of five works of fiction, including the recent eco-fabulist The Time of Quarantine, and an earlier lyric novel, That Water, Those Rocks.  Her writing has appeared widely, including in One Story, Crazyhorse, The Iowa Review and Witness. and has been recognized as distinguished by Best American Short Stories and Best American Essays.  Recipient of an artist grant from the Cultural Affairs Department of the City of Los Angeles, Haake is a Professor of Creative Writing at California State University Northridge.

  1. It Being Forbidden

A child came into the world missing one part, though in other respects she was perfect, and the curve of the nub where her part should have been, serene as the arc of an egg or a moon, would prove, in the end, to be functional, if clumsy. But that wasn’t why people loved her; people loved her, despite her deficiency, because she was gentle and she was kind and she was good.

We knew the rules of course, it being forbidden to harbor anomalies, and while some (like this child’s) were inbred, others took time to develop and were subtle, or they came on later with no warning.

My own father’s face, for example, did not begin to lose its form and definition until I was in grade school, and even then the progression was slow. Throughout the time it took for his features to lose their once distinctive qualities – the bridge of the nose becoming indistinguishable from the inner arc of brow, his lips blurring into his chin – we could almost ignore it, even as, just down the street, a playmate’s mother arose one morning completely unrecognizable to her children.

Farther south, in the larger towns and cities where everything was nice, it never would have happened the way it happened here, so it was not without some trepidation that we let the girl grow.

It’s a slippery slope, my father objected. Then he raged about gene pools and race.

After he was gone, and the mother down the street, our two families merged, siblings grinning awkwardly across the supper table at other siblings not our own, the replacement mom or dad not quite fitting into the space where the other, prior parent once had sat. It wasn’t the same, but it was all right. The rules were clear.

But with the girl, for some reason, we overlooked them and, in this way, cut ourselves off from the towns and larger cities to the south. What need had we of others when we had her? What need had she for her missing part when she had us?

Looking back, it’s safe to say I loved her best. I always chose her first when we were picking teams and took to emulating both her manner and her dress. We had regular play dates and sleepovers, spooned like spent lovers in our little bed, where we sweetly examined the clefts of our bodies, the illicit smooth cup of her nub.

I loved her, I tell you, but as near as I remember, one day we were fashioning breasts of soapy bubbles on our flat chests in the bath and filling in her missing part; the next, subtle shifts inside us strained our fond communions, as I had begun to notice her difference.

By then, of course, I was not the only one.

One night I dreamed of my father, hunched over and struggling to speak through a smooth white patch where his mouth should have been. You should never tell your dreams, that much I know.

In time we began to wonder why we’d kept her to begin with. She’d been pleasant enough as a child, milky-eyed and docile, but who would want her now? Who would take care of her if she were in need? Her clumsiness no longer seemed endearing, and we saw now it was not without pain. Sometimes, we noticed, she winced. Sometimes we did things to cause this.

And so time passed. We had our youthful dances, rites of passage – graduations, marriages. Our children were born whole, or not, and we kept them or not, depending. In truth, I have almost no memory of those years, which went by in a blink – my children were small – with her all alone in her mother’s small house, her mother already long gone.

Still, I don’t know why she did what she did. My father was against her from the start – why was she for him?

By the time the girl, who was no longer a girl but a crippled woman with an acrid scent, went out to save my father and the others, she had such an appearance of striding and purpose that would put anybody off. That morning she rose before dawn to clatter about in her little house, muttering curses or prayers, not a single trace of sweetness to her now.

When she finally emerged, she’d packed a little backpack that had fluorescent stripes and a little hose for drinking water out of. We could tell by the way she’d packed it she meant to be gone for a long while, yet not one of us moved to help or stop her. We watched her through our closed blinds, and we let her go.

And so this is how I know that what the others say is true, how she paused before my house to stare at my blue door, chewing on a long blade of grass. Watching her I forgot, for the first time in years, about her missing part and thought instead of how we had loved her as a child. I remembered the bitterness of my father’s denunciations that had done nothing to protect him in the end. I thought about the slim spoon of her body cupped in mine.

I thought all this, and thinking it, was on the verge of calling out to her, when suddenly her own mouth formed the shapes of words I could not hear, as she shifted the backpack and turned to move on.

Later that morning we gathered at her house to survey what remained of her work.

If you can call it that, one of us harrumphed.

And after everything we did for her, we thought.

But most of us stood stock-still and stared. Strewn all about her little house were notes – notes and notes and notes on scraps of paper, bits of maps and careful calculations, and one whole wall covered with drawings of mechanical parts. We stood there for the longest time among the piles of notes, all the spare parts we had among us rattling around like useless cogs, and knew that though each of the notes that littered her house began with a name, not one of ours was among them.

 

  1. Like a Red Rubber Ball

And among us there was one boy who suffered from a nagging cough.

We first noticed it when he was still an infant in his crib plagued by small attacks of hacking, though his mother always said it started earlier, in the womb.

Some babies hiccough, she said. This one coughed. It tore me up inside; it never stopped.

If the boy were in the room when she said this, he’d crook his elbow over his mouth – for he always did cover his mouth – and cough, but apologetically and with, perhaps, a bit of remorse. Though we were not unsympathetic, there was little we could do, and because his coughing fits would come on without warning – in gym class, as he studied for exams, on the busses during field trips – we were forced, in our own way, to avoid him. In this we had plenty of assistance, as teachers held him back from any vigorous activity and parents were reluctant to include him in our play dates, leaving the boy to spend his childhood alone, struggling to master his cough.

But the cough would not be mastered. The cough rose at random from the back of his throat or deep in his chest as a sudden, inexorable force of something expelling itself out of his body and into our air. It’s not clear, even now, what it was, but it was something, and even if sickness was not so common back then, contagion was already greatly feared. Thus, when the cough came, it struck the rest of us with dread, as we held our breath and turned away. We held our breath; we turned away. We were not unkind, but we were wary.

It naturally goes without saying that all the boy ever wanted was what anyone would want – what all of wanted – some little companionship to get him through his days, and perhaps, one day, a family of his own. But because desire was the one thing that could really stir his cough up, he did not dare to hope for much and tried – really tried – to strip himself of want, though in this he achieved only modest success, at best slightly curbing his taste for sweets or fresh air or vistas of seascapes or meadows, while finding himself – he was human after all – utterly incapable of lessening his longing for love.

Like us he attended the mixers where people answered questionnaires in search of other people with the same answers, but his hands would go clammy just filling them out, and then, of course, he’d cough.

He accumulated numerous potential lovers online, but the first real-time telephone call (we still used telephones back then), complete with its coughing, was always the last.

He even sometimes went to movies hoping to strike up a conversation with the person in the bubble next to his, but there’d always be last minute shuffling about that would leave him surrounded by a swath of empty bubbles, and then there he would sit, right smack dab in the middle of his own desolation, with the rest of us having to see.

The boy was not sick. He did not have germs. My cough, he would try to convince us in ration queues and waiting rooms, will never be your cough, though in this he would prove to be wrong.

Over time, like most of us the boy, now a man, began to see things differently, to accept his cough almost like a lover who would never disappoint him or cause him real pain. For despite its persistence, his cough – unlike the ones we were suffering from by now, as it was getting truly tough to breath – did not burn his throat or cause his chest to ache. And while the boy, now a man, continued to be radiant and thrive (save for his cough), the rest of us were, one by one, succumbing to disease. But not him, who might still be wakened in the middle of the night by what was now his lifelong cough, but who always felt refreshed when it was gone, as if something – not love, but something like it – had just passed through and out of him.

Not that he could have used the word “us,” but we could, and who among us had not noticed the compassion in his eyes, which we began to suspect might release us from our suffering were he not so parsimonious with it.

Just look at him, we thought, not without some bitterness. Cough it up. Cough it out.

Still we could not – we could not – act on our suspicions – indeed, our hopes – for what if we turned out to be wrong?

Then, in his final days, a strange thing happened, as the cough at last subsided. There were not so many of us left, but we all heard it anyway, the quiet, and went at once to check on him, who had once been been a boy with a nagging cough, but who was now a very old man.

I was the first one to poke him – oh so very gently, on the chest. He didn’t move or make a sound – he didn’t even cough – but such serenity surrounded him that I found myself engulfed by a memory of grade school that included a red rubber ball and a subdued circle of pliant children, politely kicking the ball, one to the other. There’s a tree, the sun-soaked asphalt sticky with heat, and me, as ever, the clumsiest child. Kick, stop; kick, stop. My turn is coming, and then it is here. There is no pleasure in this, but what can I do? You kick when it’s your turn, and it’s my turn now. So I haplessly kick at the ball, but miss, just grazing the red, round curve of its top, and sending it off to no person at all. The ball, as if with a mind of its own, does just what it always does when I kick – waggles a couple of feet, then stops. Everyone is looking at me, and flushed with the shame of their looking, I step up again and kick resolutely. This time, I smack that ball dead on its center and harder than I ever thought I could, so of course it flies off on its own beyond our small, decorous circle all the way to where the boy is standing in the dim shade of the single tree, his white mask clinging damply to his face. Of course he knows not to touch it, but it’s coming right at him and what is he supposed to do? So the boy lifts his foot to stop the ball, which he does with a kind of surprising finesse, which we would all have noticed if he hadn’t just like always, started coughing. He coughs and he kicks the ball back to us in our now shattered circle, as we – we run shrieking away.

Now, as we each poked him in his quietness, one by one, the feeling that overcame us was not so much, as it should have been, shame, but regret. How few there were of us left to see this!

Well, I’m not proud of what I did, but what choice did we have? So I went to him at last to take his cough as mine, to swallow it whole like the red rubber ball of the something that rose from his throat as I knelt at his side and put my mouth to his, lip to lip, thinking only of how different things might be if I’d allowed myself to do this when we were young, instead, and full of promise.

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Discussion

2 Responses to Diptych: Forbidden, Red Rubber Ball

  1. doug weaver says:

    Kate — really impossibly beautiful writing…illuminating subjects unseen but not unfelt where flaws become the instruments of compassion and the vehicles of fulfillment. And the warning against the telling of dreams! Je me souviens trés bien…Brava!

  2. Irene Clark says:

    I love this. The rhythm of the prose is marvelous! And the stark sadness of it as well.

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