by R.R. Oldenburg
On the floor of the living room in the rented duplex sat a beige floral patterned couch, a matching chair, and a big tube television on its own wooden legs. In front of the television rested a coffee table with a juice box and a coffee mug sitting on top of it. The television was on, but muted, and the door to the patio was open just a crack, letting in the warm summer breeze and the noise from outside. A neighbor was cutting his lawn and a few birds were singing and feeding in the backyard. A dog barked in the
distance. The bright midday sun shone through the windows and lit up the off-white walls. By most accounts it was a beautiful day to be alive.
On the walls of the home hung pictures of a happy couple with their child and wedding pictures taken two years earlier. A grandmother and her grandson sat on the floor next to the coffee table. Upstairs, the couple from the pictures argued violently. It wasn’t clear what was being discussed, though, it was clear the discussion was serious.
“It’s okay,” the middle-aged woman in the living room said with a French accent cracking with emotion. “It will quiet down soon, Dougie.”
His Grandmother did the best she could to comfort him, but the boy was uneasy. The woman sat on her side, next to the boy, her body propped up with her left hand on the floor, her feet tucked behind her. She wore a warm smile while she focused on her grandson. Her kind hazel eyes watched with keen interest from behind her bifocals. Her beautiful heart filled with pride; years later she was still stunned and amazed by the creation of her grandson, even through the distress in the home and the turmoil in her son’s mind. She leaned in and stroked Dougie’s hair and rubbed his back to let him know that she was still there beside him.
She could smell the strong scent of fried chicken coming from the building next door. It was a constant odor almost every hour of the day. The building was a chain take-out restaurant, specializing in making as much food as they could and getting it out to their customers as quickly as possible. From the late morning when they opened until early the following morning when they closed the smell of southern fried chicken was all around the duplex. Regardless of what Dougie’s mom was cooking it smelled as though they were eating fried chicken for supper every night.
Dougie’s grandmother grabbed his favorite toy fire truck from beneath the coffee table and began to roll it back and forth on the dark shag carpet, trying in vain to get his attention. The noise never ceased to bother him. He looked up at the ceiling and pointed to it with wide and inquiring baby blue eyes, hoping for an explanation from his grandma. His grandmother responded with a consoling smile. “It’s okay sweetie, mommy and daddy will come down soon, and this noise will stop. I promise.” Dougie began to crawl toward the stairs at the other end of the long hallway, as if the exchange with grandma granted him the permission to get closer to the angry voices.
“Come here my boy, my poor little grandson, let’s sit over on the couch for awhile.” She crawled after Dougie and rose up from her knees. She gently lifted and held the boy in her arms. She swung him playfully in the center of the room, looking to divert his attention. Dougie giggled boisterously. The adventure of gliding over the floor like a bird — free from gravity — was a fantastic feeling for a young boy not yet able to free his hands from the carpet with sturdy confidence.
“Dougie, you don’t need to be worried. You and I are happy down here flying and playing with your trucks, aren’t we? I love my little Dougie and I always will,” She said as she poked him on the nose with her index finger. “I hope you never forget that.”
Dougie’s grandmother smiled, and kissed him on the forehead. “That’s right, Dougie!” She said happily. “Oma will always love yo, and will always make sure things are okay, and she will never let anyone hurt you. I promise.”
She sat down on the couch, cradling the boy in her arms. She sang lullabies to block out any other noise that may worry him. She wanted her grandson to be at peace. Her voice was soft and sweet, and soon the young child began to close his eyes. The noise from the outside had stopped, and the noise upstairs had momentarily subsided as well. To Dougie it seemed it was only the two of them and the small birds whistling in the yard in the whole world. He liked that idea, but in a second, the simple, peaceful idea was shattered. In that one sliver of tranquility, Dougie’s Oma was startled by loud and chaotic footsteps racing downstairs. At the front of the house, at the base of the stairs, the footsteps stopped. Dougie’s eyes opened wide in alarm.
“You’re a BITCH,” his father’s voice shouted from the front of the duplex. “YOU STUPID, PATHETIC BITCH!”
Dougie began to cry and wave his arms around, trying to get free. His grandma froze. She was no help this time, no help to ease his worried, innocent mind. Now her eyes began to water. She had never heard the voice in the front of the house say hurtful words like that before. He was just like Dougie once and she couldn’t imagine what could affect a young man who, just a few years ago, was a sweet developing boy. She had heard rumors of his unraveling, but she never heard it with her own ears. She looked down at Dougie with tears in her eyes, What is going to happen to my Grandson? She thought. What is going to happen to my beautiful family which I adore more than life itself?
Dougie was hysterical. His angry young father continued his rant from the front of the house. He slammed doors and smashed things around. Dougie’s grandma soon snapped out of her shock and began to sing to the boy again. She sang louder this time, and her son heard her singing. He went quiet for a second while listening to his mother, as if it had momentarily gotten through to him that here was a greater meaning to this life beyond that of his own pain. Maybe this would be the moment where he would muster up the courage needed for the sake of his future.
Dougie cried frantically while his grandmother continued singing. Father and mother stood in their respected areas – alone – reflecting on what the noise might have meant to them. The house was otherwise silent again. Creaking in the ceiling from mother’s faint footsteps pacing above, and the smell of fried chicken, and the sound of the beautiful voice singing. Atop it all, an overwhelming cry for help from one young child.
Eventually the grandmother succeeded in comforting the young child again, and the boy began to close his eyes and fall asleep. Her voice slowly fell silent. Soon Dougie was within the safety of his own innocent dreams.
In the silence, Dougie’s grandmother wondered what was happening. More footsteps soon came downstairs. This time they were quieter than before. The front door opened and shut immediately. She assumed the two had gone outside, though she couldn’t be sure where anyone was anymore. She had gotten lost in her thoughts and fears and, as often happens when in shock, she began to separate erself from the harsh reality of a terrible situation.
Soon after the first set of steps, another set of foot steps descended down the stairs.These footsteps approached her and Dougie in the living room until they were silenced by the shag carpet. The grandmother looked up as her daughter-in-law entered the room from the long hallway. Oma glanced quickly at the woman with her kind smile (as if to say everything was just fine) and then looked down to the sleeping child. In her quick glance she noticed that Dougie’s mother looked exhausted and that she had evidently been crying upstairs. Dougie looked just like her – everyone said so – and no less now than ever. Dougie also looked a lot like his father but only in childhood pictures. It would be years before he looked like his dad again.
They were silent for a moment, both looking at Dougie on opposite sides of the room.
Dougie’s mom forced a smile onto her face and tilted her head to the side. “He’s sleeping?“
“Yes, for a little while now.”
“That’s good.” She approached them and ran her hand over her son’s head.
“Are you okay?” asked the grandmother. “I’m so sorry.”
“You have nothing to be sorry about. Thank you for being here. I’m sorry for–”
“Never say sorry to me dear,” the grandmother interrupted. “What is happening now?”
Dougie’s mother was afraid to answer the question. She wondered if the answer to her mother-in-law’s question would change the dynamic of their relationship. She was almost certain that it would, despite the love they had for one another. It was a mutual, strong feminine love for a young family tree, which both were quite aware was quickly deteriorating. Neglected and mishandled, the young budding potential of the once lush tree was appearing to whither.
“I asked him to leave.”
“Oh,” the grandmother replied.
“I’m so sorry. I don’t know what else I can do. It’s been pretty bad. You heard it, didn’t you?” the mother asked frantically, as if wondering if it were just a bad dream. She wanted some confirmation from the woman she trusted, but she did not wait for a reply. “I’m so sorry, I’m very scared, and I don’t want you to hate me, or leave-”
“Don’t be silly,” Dougie’s grandmother replied quickly. “You’re the mother of my grandson, and I want what is best for him. You all deserve to be happy. I don’t understand what’s happening, but you can’t remain like this.”
“He’s embarrassed and ashamed. He doesn’t say it though. I love him, but his medication makes him crazy.”
“Those stupid medicines,” she said, keeping her voice low. “He didn’t deserve…” She stopped herself. “I will be around anytime you need me. I promise. He’s a good man, and you’re a good woman. I am sorry this is happening to you.”
“I’m not a good woman. I wish I was stronger. I’m not exactly perfect myself, and I haven’t been good for him.”
The front door opened and both of the women stopped abruptly.
“I wont come back there. Mom, please stay back there. Will you bring my son out to say goodbye to me?”
The young mother picked Dougie up gently, trying not to wake him, but as they got closer to the front door the sun was shining in through the doorway and the hall windows and the noise from the cars on the road could be heard. Dougie woke up. He looked around in confusion and saw his mother’s tired young face and realized that he was being held in her arms, and he embraced this. He put both of his small arms around his mothe’rs neck and squeezed as hard as he could.
When they walked outside the young boy’s eyes squinted and strained from the bright light. He lowered his brow and hid his innocent face. Dougie’s father was beside the car in the driveway, bent over into the back seat adjusting some things he had packed. He glanced over at the front door, put the driver’s seat upright and stood up behind the open car door. Only the top half of his body was visible behind the door of the red Chevy Nova.
Dougie’s mom turned around to show Dougie’s face over her shoulder with his small arms still around her neck and his eyes still buried. Dougie’s dad did not move any closer. He stood at the car looking at the two of them with a look of crushing loss in his eyes. He stood beside his car with the door open and looked up at his son and his wife with piercing intensity. He pondered a life he was too weak and confused to commit himself to.
“Wave to daddy,” she said quietly as her voice cracked. “Daddy’s going away for a little while, so wave to him.”
Dougie began to cry, seemingly understanding everything his mother was saying. He picked up his head and waved as he continued to cry. His father quickly looked away in defeat. He sat down in his car and closed the door. His ego fought hard against every fiber of his being – which was pleading to stay.
He started the engine of his big red Chevy Nova, looking over his shoulder for traffic. He backed onto the road and looked at his wife and child one last time. His tires squealed as he punched the gas.
Wife and son watched the car together as it moved toward the busy intersection a block down the road. She bounced him on her shoulder. “Dougie, everything will be okay.”
She watched the man she had entrusted with her future, and her heart, squeal down the road as fast as he could away from her.