Art by Monica Nouwens
I’ve always had a knife, he says to his father. And the guys in the guest room are my friends.
He’s twenty-five, not six years old, and this is not a Swiss Army knife forced out of its sheath with baby teeth, but a large sharp piece of kitchenware pulled out of a block. His friends are also large and are draped over the spare bedroom’s bed, chair, rug and windowseat—four of them, one a girl. They stink but one of them is less homeless than the others because he still has a phone which means he can be reached, which is all home means really, is what she’s thinking, the stepmom behind the father who, so quiet in the kitchen—he has guests!—found the knife stuck deep into the breadboard instead of the block.
No biggie, says her stepson, except that he lunges for the knife after his faux shrug, toppling his dad to get at it, who is ex-marine and thick-trunked and who does not go down easy.
Yesterday the social worker said she could intervene only if someone got hurt. Is that now? The stepmom helps the dad off the floor—I’m okay, he says—and he holds his palm out for the knife. The son considers the offer, holding it upright, his knuckles white around the handle.
One of his new friends bumps up behind him and says Man, you need the jaggedy one to cut toast.
I ate all the bread, says the son, and sheathes the knife back in its block. The rest of the loungers unfold themselves for an exit, but not before a quick tour of the kitchen. One of them pulls out the knife and checks its edge, the one with the phone says Thanks for the sleepover, and the girl takes the rest of the bananas.
So much like his father in girth and width and height whom she’d found late in life with two small adorable children, the boy always had problems, but his younger brother grew up to be a suicide. His real mother had something to do with that, at the very least in the way of genes. Even at four, he managed to walk into traffic, at six, mix cocktails of vitamins and her weight gain pills, at nine, cut his arm with his brother’s first dull-bladed pocketknife. Nobody would give a knife to the younger kid, not to bolster his manhood or whittle or take apart a lock. Now that he is dead, this older son has dibs on total preciousness.
“They stink but one of them is less homeless than the others because he still has a phone which means he can be reached.”
The next day the stepmom drives past the party the homeless are having beside the Taco Bell. The whole town knows not to frequent that alley. After several hours spent convincing the pharmaceutical powers-that-be that she needs access to her stepson’s prescriptions, that more time without the meds just makes him crazier, that she is not going to swallow them, just deliver them, they hand over a bagful. Just why was that transaction so hard when it was so easy for the hospital to release him after only three days of observation? Protecting his rights, they said.
Protection is what she needs, the covers pulled up over her head. She is way past seventy-five now, as spry as that, and her stepson is putting on muscle lifting the fridge at 3 a.m. for rats the size of his fist, he says, and to catch aliens who stay cold underneath.
Yes, Adult Protective Services exists but its wheels, says her husband, are mired in legalities. We will be jelly from lack of sleep, if not stabbed in our beds by the time they come into play.
Depression always follows his mania, that is their hope, and it has saved them before. The swing had always been predictable and quick, but also susceptible to medication. Every few months, he breaks down enough for them to call an ambulance and have him carted off for a psych evaluation so she and her husband can have the three days of observation off, without the pots and pans hauled out in the middle of the night, “freed” from their cupboards, the cereal sprinkled on the carpet with milk and sugar, the cat that he actually loves put in the trash can for “eavesdropping.” This time, however, aided and abetted by his doctor being on vacation and the lament I really have no friends alternating with the recitation of all the Marvel comics history, frame by frame, he doesn’t tell them for days he lost his meds in a game with these so-friendly poker-playing homeless kids.
His friends have wizards for parents and eat squirrel when they have to, or so they boast. The phone kid, whose phone turns out to have been merely ornamental since his parents aren’t paying for it anymore—no more calls to Russia, or the Antarctic, he tells the stepmom when she asks for the number after delivering the meds. The letters are numbers, he says, S-U-C-K-E-R he spells out. He does have a squirrel tail attached to his backpack.
Her stepson runs off between cars with the bag of meds. Wait, she yells after him. I have something to tell you.
The friends laugh, the guy with the phone offers his phone.
She is shaking when she finds him again an hour later, hidden behind a large air conditioning unit beside the railroad station. Every bit of her thin frame’s in motion. Confronting him is her idea. Go ahead, said her husband, let him have it. He is old enough now, say it to his face, maybe it will change something.
Her husband doesn’t believe in change.
I can’t live with you anymore, she says to her stepson. Get out of my life. Don’t ever come home again.
After nearly twenty years of mothering, all these words rush out.
He weeps. His birth mother rejected him years ago—and now she disowns him? Really, it is his home too, his house, his dad made it, he weeps, he even helped him put in the front step’s cement, the one that keeps the president-elect from telephoning the alien Galaxy Masters for help because it is so dense with sand and whatever else cement is made of that there is plenty of room for all the battalions.
She walks back to the car, sobbing too, one step as heavy as the next, as if she weighs a thousand pounds. No wonder she can’t eat.
You are not my son, rehearses his father. He can’t get the words out. They live in Arizona where the desert dries every syllable, the few he manages to say inside their car parked in the lot of the Taco Bell. It is much harder for him than her, he tells her. His tongue is thick with trying and the Taco Bell sign rhymes with a word, actually a whole slew of worse words he can’t say, that he doesn’t want his son or the homeless to hear him say. Their son hears more than is said anyway, said the social worker at their meeting an hour earlier. The little (big?) wall in his head between what is said and what is thought is down, and nothing but medicine can put it up again. He’s an immigrant in his own head.
We have to have a plan, his father says, and they drive home.
That night the stepson brings home six new homeless friends. The parents say nothing but they have not shopped, they have eaten elsewhere, they have showered, shaved, and locked themselves in their room. At 3 a.m. they hear a scream and the tumult of these friends running away, the door slamming.
When they peer out, their son is standing beside the door, twisted in fury. All summer I worked for that money, he shrieks.
One of the homeless asked for his bank password, and he gave it.
He made the saved money on his first real job, on a work crew in the sun, overseen by a friend of the family. He used a screw gun, and well. He recited the times tables and fit the screws in neatly into a new ice cream store fence. He was so polite. Charming, according to his employer. He always smiled, held the door for her, always listened to the woman, even her retelling of dreams.
He’s so angry about the lost money, he lunges at the cabinets with the kitchen knife. Or is he lunging at them?
They slam their door shut on his raving.
His father does not like the idea of calling the police on his own son. He is not exactly churchgoing himself, he knows about police with their arms and ammo, their tendency to kick people prone. He does not like the idea of men that size handling guns of any kind. Calling the police goes far beyond saying his son can’t come home, he says, it’s like saying he is not his son, it’s painting him all over with no-son-ness, it makes him someone totally alien, someone who the police and the fucking police state can control. That he cannot do. No.
But he is not your son when he’s like this, she says.
The police do not touch their holsters, they do not kick. Is there a disturbance here? asks the calm head policeman. The stepmom has talked to the social worker in advance, not knowing how wild he and the homeless would be that night, and she has prepped the precinct. He is arrested, though not without a lot of flailing and terrible names being called, curses that the police say are unwarranted, and do him no good.
He’s still your son she says to her husband hours later when they are sitting in bed in the dark completely wired, fearing he will be gone only three days again—or maybe less, given a sentence is involved instead of a psychiatric evaluation—and then he really will come for them, so furious about their betrayal. But they fall to sleep anyway because what can you do? and in the morning, the father goes to the court to talk to the court-appointed lawyer and the judge.
His son appears thoroughly chastised by his night in jail. He begs his father to be let out. His father tells the judge that his son so charmed the staff at the hospital where he was last evaluated that they released him even earlier than usual. The boy just needs time in treatment, he says to the judge. Without more time, the meds won’t work. He also mentions how old he and his wife are, and getting much older, without sleep.
The father doesn’t mention the knife. He smiles, he ducks his head, he uses his own charm, everything the son has learned from him, what his stepmom had been seduced by so long ago.
Even the judge is susceptible.
She’s alone in the house, waiting for his return. She slides the knife back into the block with the others, then takes it out and puts it under her pillow. To sleep on? Too lumpy. She tucks it under the covers with just the tip showing.
She carries it back to the kitchen and starts to cook.
Fall / Winter 2023
A Guggenheim fellow and the author of twenty-one books of poetry and prose including a memoir, a biography, and a book of translation from the Nuer, Terese Svoboda has won the Bobst Prize in fiction, the Iowa Poetry Prize, an NEH translation grant, the Graywolf Nonfiction Prize, a Jerome Foundation video prize, the O. Henry Award for the short story, and a Pushcart Prize for the essay. Her eighth book of fiction, Dog on Fire, has just been published. Forthcoming is the novel Roxy and Coco, and a story collection, The Long Swim.
Monica Nouwens is a fellow of the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam and attended the California Institute of Arts (CalArts). Nouwens is noted for her intimate and provocative portraits set amidst continously synthetic Los Angeles landscapes of opulence and rejuvenation. Her practice, rooted in activism, is fundamentally collaborative. Her projects include one-person shows at the Netherlands Photomuseum, Photography Museum Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum Bureau Amsterdam, and Rainbow in Spanish, Los Angeles. She has taught at the University of California, Irvine; Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc); Universidad de Monterrey; CalArts; and Canadian Center for Architecture. Nouwens is a recipient of the Graham Foundation Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts Award.