How evan broke his head.., p.16
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       How Evan Broke His Head and Other Secrets, p.16

“Mom has some big, exciting news—” Carl says over him.


  “—about Charlie.”


  “Let Evan tell us his news first, ” Louise says.

  “He’s told us all his news, ” Carl objects. “He’s got a girlfriend, and she isn’t a man. What else is there?”

  “Evan?” Louise asks.

  “I can wait, ” Evan says, almost relieved at being cut off.

  “He can wait, he can wait, ” Carl says excitedly.“Tell him.”

  Carl is grinning, his eyes are all lit up. Louise gives Evan a faux sheepish shrug—a twist-my-arm-why-dontcha expression—and clears her throat.

  “Well, ” she says, pausing for a deep breath. “It seems that your brother, Charlie, and his wife, Allison, are pregnant with their second child.”

  Bam! Evan feels like he’s been hit in the back of the head with one of Luigi’s cast-iron frying pans. Charlie and Allison are pregnant. The words rattle through his skull like a mad wasp in a spittoon.

  “Hoo, hoo!” Carl hoots. “Only Allison is pregnant, honey! Charlie’s just the troublemaker!”

  “Isn’t that fantastic, Evan?”

  “You’ll be an uncle twice over, Evan. You’d better get started yourself, if you don’t want to end up a bitter old bachelor with no kids to care for you in your golden years. Maybe this new girl of yours is the one. I know you’ll be a great father when you finally decide to apply yourself.”

  But I am a—

  “That’s great, ” Evan forces himself to say.

  “Isn’t it, though?”


  “I’m so happy for them.”

  What does he do now? How can he tell them about Dean? They wouldn’t understand. They would take it wrong. They would accuse him of trying to sabotage Charlie’s conquest. How could he tell them now that he has a fourteen-year-old son who will care for him in his golden years? First, they wouldn’t believe it. Then, if he did manage to convince them, they would probably accuse him of one-upmanship, of timing his announcement to nullify the joy they were getting from Charlie. What a disaster.

  Carl and Louise’s appetizers arrive; Evan’s empty plate is cleared; full of smiles, Evan’s parents turn to him to present them with more good news.

  “What is it that you wanted to tell us? You said you had more exciting news.”

  “Yes, son, and make it good!”

  Evan feels like puking on the table. He’s been totally shoved out of position, boxed out for the rebound. He wanted to go to dinner with his parents so he could be the center of their universe and tell them everything. But, once again, his brother ruined it. Here, take my dare for me—loser; now have a nice rest of your pathetic epileptic life while I ascend to the heavens. Well. All is fair in war and brotherhood, sure. But Jacob had better watch his back, because Esau has a major hard-on for him, and he ain’t stopping until blood is spilled.

  “Oh, right, ” Evan says, “it’s not really news, so much, but if Billy hooks us up, we might actually get a record deal and then we’ll need a lawyer, and I thought that since you guys—”

  “Mike Fleischman, ” Carl blurts out, squeezing onto his salad the juice of Sicilian lemons wrapped in cheesecloth.

  “Mike Fleischman?”

  “My lawyer. If he can’t do it, he’ll dish it to one of his partners. Call Mike tomorrow morning. He’ll take care of it. He takes care of everything.”

  Carl shoves a forkful of lemony greens into his mouth. To him, the case is settled. In Carl’s world, things work effortlessly. Almost everything is as simple as “call Mike Fleischman.”That’s the world he’s built around himself. He’s a surgeon, after all. His job is to cut into people without flinching, to cauterize veins without hesitation, to remove the faulty valve without wavering. He can’t stand distractions and deviations. Which are the two words that best describe Evan’s life.

  “I hope it’s a girl, ” Louise says wistfully after a moment.

  “Me, too, ” Carl agrees. “She would wear pretty dresses. Allison has a flair for that. She’s a sharp dresser herself.”

  They work away at their plates, neither looking at each other nor at Evan, but at some blurry spot about eighteen inches before each of their faces where an invisible movie screen plays a wonderful home video of their new grandchild-to-be, recorded sometime in the future and broadcast to them by some benevolent deity.

  “I’ve always liked the name Zelda, ” Louise says.

  “Zelda was an insane woman, ” Carl rebukes her.“An alcoholic. Zelda Fitzgerald.”

  “I still like the name.”

  “I like Elizabeth, ” Carl says.

  “Elizabeth?” Louise considers the proposition.“Eliza? That’s nice.”

  “They could name her Tracy, ” Evan throws in, not really sure why he should nose into the middle of their fantasy film, but doing it anyway, maybe out of fear of disappearing entirely, of pulling an Alice and shrinking from sight. Drink me.



  “It’s a nice name, ” Evan says.

  “Why Tracy?” Louise asks.

  “He dated a Tracy once, ” Carl explains. “Didn’t you? High school. A Mormon.”


  “Her father was a real pain in the ass. Called in the middle of the night once, claiming that she was in your bed. I told him that that was ridiculous. He cursed at me.”

  “How do you remember all that?” Louise asks.

  “Mormons aren’t allowed to curse, are they?” Carl wonders aloud. Then, with a shrug, he asks:“Hear anything from her? How’s she doing? Is she well?”

  “Actually, she’s dead, ” Evan says quickly. “She died a week ago. I went to her funeral in Walla Walla.”

  “Oh, my.”

  Louise is shocked. Carl sets down his wine.

  “Was she ill?” Carl asks.

  “No. She was hit by a truck and killed instantly. Broken neck.”

  Evan doesn’t know why he throws in the detail about her broken neck. He doesn’t even know if that’s how it happened, but he prefers to think of it happening that way. The alternatives are much too upsetting.

  “Jesus, ” Carl mutters.“Poor girl.”

  “She was such a nice girl, ” Louise says.

  “Was she married? Did she have children?”

  “She wasn’t married, ” Evan responds. “She had one kid. He’s fourteen.”

  “Fourteen, ” Carl repeats, surprised. “I guess she didn’t waste any time after high school.”

  “That’s so sad, ” Louise sighs.

  They sit in silence. The announcement of Tracy’s death has cast a pall over the meal. If you’re going to trump a conversation, you should trump it hard. Have no mercy. Crush all further conversation. There will be no more talk about pregnancies tonight. Death has settled over the table, and Death isn’t leaving any time soon.

  Perhaps Carl and Louise are honestly feeling the loss of someone they once knew. Perhaps they are being held silent by images of Tracy that are flashing through their minds. Hopefully good, but probably not. They never saw Tracy as Evan’s first love, they saw her as Evan’s temptress, the bad angel on his shoulder. They saw her leading Evan down the one-way path out of the Garden of Eden, a path which could ultimately have only one climactic result.

  More likely, though, Carl and Louise are silent because they are feeling the loss of Evan’s childhood, or, rather, the gap between what they thought Evan’s childhood should have been and what it actually was. No one regrets a child’s mistakes more than his parents, that’s for sure. It’s like thinking you’re going to get a bicycle for Christmas, but all you get is a pair of shoes. You want to cry, but you smile through it, don’t you? We can’t be ungrateful. Some children don’t even get shoes.

  By the time the main courses arrive, Carl has recovered enough to perform a monologue, relieving both Evan and Louise of the obligation to speak. He comes through well, like
a real trooper. He drones on and on about the hospital and other things that neither Evan nor Louise really listen to. And he does it courageously, without thanks. Because sometimes it is the duty of the father to do things like that. To talk when nobody else feels like talking, so that the entire dinner table isn’t sucked down into the gray muck and never retrieved. Carl even has the wherewithal to banter with Orsenigo on the way out. What a guy.

  They leave the restaurant and say their goodnights somberly on the street. Carl tells Evan to call if he needs Mike Fleischman’s assistance. Then Louise hugs Evan tightly.

  “Will you do me a favor, Evan?” Louise whispers in their clench.“Will you call Charlie tonight? Not for him. For me.”

  Evan shrugs as a way of saying yes. And as he pulls away from her he feels so sad. So sad that he hasn’t told them, that they will go on not knowing. They should know about Dean and be as proud of him as they are about their grandson, Eric, and their grandchild-in-waiting. They should hook up their imaginary movie screen and see Dean, too, not just Zelda in a taffeta dress.

  “Evan? Are you all right?” Carl asks.

  Evan shakes his head. For some reason, he’s on the verge of tears and he’s struggling to hold them in. His father notices.

  “Tracy’s passing really hit you didn’t it?”

  He nods. But that’s only part of it.

  Carl puts his arm around Evan’s shoulder and turns him up the hill. He guides Evan up the damp sidewalk toward First Avenue.

  “It’s hard to take the death of someone your own age, ” Carl explains. “Especially when you’re young. It’s your first confrontation with mortality, and it’s hard to swallow.”

  Yes. They continue their abbreviated funeral march, Louise following at a discreet distance behind them, allowing father and son the privacy they need to have a heart-to-heart.

  “And I’m sure that you’re thinking about your own mortality right now, and where you are in this world. And, let me tell you, it’s a big question, and it’s not a question you should try to answer on your own, necessarily. Sometimes it’s important to . . . If there’s anything I can do . . .”

  When they reach the top of the hill, Carl stops and faces Evan. He looks deeply into Evan’s eyes and sees—what? What does he see when he looks at Evan?

  “Dad, ” Evan says, breaking off eye contact, glancing at the ground, noticing how the neon sign in the coffee shop window behind his father reflects off the wet concrete.“Tracy’s son . . .” He looks over his father’s shoulder and into the coffee shop where a lonesome man sits huddled behind the counter. “Tracy’s son . . .” He looks at Carl. “He’s mine. He’s my son.” He feels a warmth inside him, a gushing, just the mention of Dean to his father has released so much.“He’s staying with me now. Lars is keeping an eye on him tonight. But I want you to meet him.”

  Carl doesn’t say anything. For a moment, he doesn’t move, doesn’t quiver. Then his color changes swiftly, his pinkish glow ashing over.

  Louise joins them, then, assuming incorrectly that their heart-to-heart has reached a satisfactory conclusion.

  “How are you two doing?” she asks.

  Carl looks at her strangely, turns his body toward her, then reaches to steady himself on an iron chair that is behind him, a chair that belongs to the coffee shop and is intended for the comfort and convenience of its customers; he reaches for it so he can lean against it, so it can take some of his weight, but it darts away from him it seems, darts away and he can’t catch it though his weight is already headed toward it; and he stumbles, his foot slips on the wet pavement, his leg buckles, his heft gains downward momentum, and he falls almost in slow motion, his temple careening recklessly into the iron table, partner of the iron chair, and opening up a gash which bleeds and bleeds and bleeds all over his new khaki raincoat.

  A THREE PERCENT CHANCE of things going wrong. These things may include (but are not limited to) mortality, blindness, loss of memory, loss of speech, loss of motor skills, or infection of the bone tissue, which would mean we would have to insert a plastic shield in your skull so your brain won’t leak out.

  Seven years ago the maestros at Harborview Medical Center had given Evan that speech, after they had deemed Evan’s epilepsy intractable. They were trying to bully Evan into brain surgery. They wanted to remove a macadamia nut-sized piece of brain, the source of Evan’s electrical miswiring. Crack his skull open, cut out a chunk, sew him back up and off he goes, a placid little lobotomy patient, docile, well-behaved, ready to be sent to typing school so he can contribute to society, pay taxes, live out his natural life with some kind of dignity. Because having epilepsy is definitely not dignified. Always falling down. Drooling at inappropriate times. Those bothersome twitches. Who cares about art? Who cares about music? Who cares about what his mind will be like after the operation?

  Evan didn’t have definitive proof that removing a chunk of his brain would affect his creativity, but he didn’t have proof that it wouldn’t. And it seemed that this surgery was being pushed by Evan’s neurologist at the behest of Evan’s father. Too cozy. A spot just happened to open up. The brilliant brain surgeon has a free day and would be happy to help. You’re a perfect candidate—say, can we stick these electrodes on your head again? Look at that EEG. Look at that. Perfect spikes. Just right. You won’t feel a thing, although the sound of us drilling into your skull might be a bit disconcerting. We’ll dose you with a happy drug so you won’t be concerned that we’re probing your gray matter with tweezers. The doctor has performed this procedure countless times. A walk in the park. Really.

  Really. Evan was still living at home, so he got a full dose of it from his parents at the dinner table. Charlie was having his mind formed by the geniuses at Columbia Law, and Evan’s parents wanted him to have his mind formed by the geniuses at Harborview. Just a little off the top, Doctor. It’s an okay mind, just a little ragged. It just needs a trim.

  But Evan said no. When push came to shove, it was his brain and he said no. His proffered reason was that he felt his creativity could be affected, that he could lose his musical talent, and that he couldn’t stand a life without music. A perfectly legitimate concern, noble and true, and one that had to be acknowledged by his parents. However. There were other reasons that Evan dodged the knife. Fear, jealousy, anger, resentment, autonomy. Others, too. Shame.

  Evan should have missed a year of school because of his accident. It happened in the fall, in early November. Evan didn’t go back to school until late in February. His parents should have held him out the rest of the year, made him start over. But they were ashamed.

  They pushed hard, they did. They hired tutors. They helped in other ways, too. They did Evan’s homework for him if they had to. Poor grades they would accept. Being held back a year, they refused to accept. Push, push, push.

  And not a soul knew what the Wallace family knew. That there was damage. Internal damage. The outside world knew that Evan had been in a coma for a time. They knew that he had gone through rehabilitation. But they didn’t know that he was a different boy in one special way.

  Well, to say not a soul is exaggerating. The principal knew. The nurse knew. But that was it. They, with Evan’s parents, agreed that it was in Evan’s best interest if his peers didn’t know so he wouldn’t be shunned, and, of course, that his teachers didn’t know so he wouldn’t be coddled.

  Don’t tell anyone. It’s no one’s business but ours. People are afraid of epileptics. People don’t know what to do. Don’t frighten them. Don’t tell them.

  A fine way to bring up a child. It makes your child dark inside. Able to keep secrets well. And able to punish his parents well. And that’s what Evan did. He punished his parents by waiting until the eve of the surgery before announcing that he wasn’t going through with it. By waiting until after the nurse had shaved his head. Until the OR had already been booked. Until the medical team had already been assembled.

  What were they going to do? Strap him down and slice him
open anyway? Nope. They were going to nod slowly and sigh and say we understand. They were going to say maybe you’ve made the right choice. They were going to say we love you and we want the best for you.

  But they weren’t going to believe any of it.

  EVAN’S BEEN SITTING there for almost an hour when the door opens. He glances up at the doctor.

  “It wasn’t as bad as it looked, ” the doctor grins at him. “The scalp bleeds profusely. It’s all those capillaries up there getting oxygen to all those hair follicles. He’s all stitched up now. No concussion or anything, just a nasty cut and a bruise.”

  The doctor waits. For what, Evan doesn’t know. But he towers over Evan for a moment, waiting. Evan feels childish sitting on the wooden bench in the hallway of Harborview drinking a can of soda.

  “They’d like you to go in now, ” the doctor says.

  Evan stands. The doctor lays his hand on Evan’s shoulder.

  “Evan, ” he says. He’s an old friend of Carl’s; Evan’s known him forever but can’t remember his name. “I suppose—” But he cuts himself off.

  “You suppose?” Evan prompts.

  “I suppose congratulations are in order, ” the doctor says, “as belated as they may be.”

  He purses his lips, taps Evan’s cheek lightly with his palm, and then walks off.

  CARL SITS ON the examination table wearing a hospital gown that is stained with blood on the left shoulder. A massive bandage is held in place on his left temple by a gauze headband. Louise is standing near the window.

  On their faces is that look, a somber, agonized look, the same look he’s seen a million times when they’ve come to pick him up at the hospital after a seizure. The shoe’s on the other foot.

  “You okay?” Evan asks when nobody says anything.

  Carl nods and touches his bandage gingerly. He looks to Louise. She nods back to him.

  “We’ve discussed your situation, ” Carl begins.

  Obviously. That’s why they didn’t want Evan in the room with them while Carl was being repaired. So they could discuss his situation.

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