A face in every window, p.1
A Face in Every Window, p.1Han Nolan
A Face In Every Window
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Orlando Austin New York San Diego London
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Copyright © 1999 by Han Nolan
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be
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First Harcourt paperback edition 2008
The Library of Congress has cataloged the hardcover edition as follows:
A face in every window/by Han Nolan,
Summary: After the death of his grandmother, who held the family
together, teenage IP is left with a mentally challenged father and
a mother who seems ineffectual and constantly sick, and he feels
everything sliding out of control.
[1. Family problems—Fiction. 2. Mentally handicapped—
Fiction.] I. Title.
ISBN 978-0-15-206418-1 pb
Text set in Minion
Designed by Trina Stahl
A C E G H F D B
Printed in the United States of America
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For Grace Adams,
and for her son, Brian,
with all my love
ONCE WHEN I was seven years old, my grandma Mary knitted me a blue sweater. "Blue," she said, "because yer a boy and to match the color of yer eyes." Every time I wore the sweater, though, it grew. I had to roll the sleeves up so much they looked like fat doughnuts hanging from my wrists. When the sweater got to looking like a dress it had stretched out so much, I decided I would shorten it by unraveling it some. The more I unraveled, the more I wanted to, and I told myself I was knitting backward. I watched how each stitch linked with the next slipped out of its loop with just a gentle pull. I was fascinated with it and fascinated with the pile of yarn that had accumulated on my bed. When I had finished my little project, I brought my blue bundle to Grandma Mary and said, "Look, I knitted backward."
Grandma Mary stood at the kitchen counter mixing batter for a chocolate cake. She turned off the mixer, lowered her head, and took a deep breath. I could see by the tight-lipped expression on her face that she wasn't as pleased as I had been with my discovery.
"James Patrick," she said, finally looking up at me. "You know, don't you, lad, it took me four months to knit that sweater."
"Well, then, knitting backward is faster," I said. "It only took me this afternoon."
Grandma Mary came away from the counter and took both my arms, pulling me to her. She looked me in the eyes and said, "I created something when I made that sweater, and when you took it apart you destroyed it. Creating is better than destroying. Remember that, James Patrick. Destruction leaves you with nothing. We just have a pile of yarn now and before you had a nice warm sweater. You understand now?"
I nodded, but it wasn't until she died, two years ago, when I was almost fifteen, that I really understood. Our family was like that sweater—created, held together by Grandma Mary's hard work and love. We were linked together because she linked us, she gave us our place, our roles. We were her children, dependent on her to hold us together. After she died, it was like we were knitting backward, the three of us—Mam, Pap, and I—unraveling, but this time it was Grandma Mary who pulled the string, destroying what she had created by dying.
THE DAY AFTER Grandma Mary's funeral my father, my dear Pap, dug holes in our yard with one of Grandma Mary's serving spoons, as if, with his heart broken, he needed someplace to spill its contents. Neighbors, hurrying past the small clapboard houses and chain-link fences on their way to the train station, would come upon our scratch of lawn with all its holes and dear Pap carving out still another, and they'd shake their heads and ask themselves, "Whatever will become of the O'Briens now that Mary's gone?"
My mother, Mam, reacted to Grandma's death the way she reacted to anything stressful—she got sick. She fainted on the bus on her way to work and an ambulance brought her to a hospital in downtown Philadelphia, where she struggled for the next three weeks to get over a case of pneumonia. The school principal, the neighbors, my aunt Colleen, and I feared she, too, would die, leaving me to tend to Pap for the rest of my life. Pap was, as Grandma Mary liked to put it, "a wee bit slow in the head," and he spent the weeks Mam was in the hospital going out of control—out of my control. Of course, Aunt Colleen, who lived in a mansion with her husband, a brain surgeon, and had a cook and a housekeeper to run her house, had to stop by and check up on us just when things were at their worst. Grandma Mary had always kept her kitchen tidy, with the coffee and flour and sugar and pastas in jars on the counter, her pots lined up by size hanging on the wall next to the stove, and her dish towels stacked in the drawer next to the sink, but the day Aunt Colleen stepped into the kitchen she found the place turned upside down. Pap claimed he had been trying to invent a flying saucer, but what he'd ended up with was sugar all over the floor, soaking-wet dish towels in clumps on the counters, SpaghettiOs in the dish-towel drawer, and all the pots under the table filled to overflowing with water. I was standing in the midst of his mess, my hands full of soggy spaghetti noodles, and Pap long gone, when Aunt Colleen happened to enter.
"Well, what is going on here, James Patrick? Do you know your father is up on the roof singing to that cheap plastic Nativity set some idiot has hoisted up there? He could fall off."
"Larry Seeley," I said.
"What?" Aunt Colleen took another step into the kitchen, her high-heeled shoes making crunching noises in the sugar.
"Larry Seeley put the Nativity set on the roof."
"That friend of yours? Why—"
I turned to face her. "No, not Timmy—Larry, the older brother. The one on drugs. And who knows why around here anymore. Pap said something about wanting Mary and Joseph and the baby in heaven with his mother, so Larry gets the great idea of putting them up on our roof for all the world to see. I was at school when he did it"
Aunt Colleen, who dressed in what Mam liked to call the Queen Elizabeth style—suit, hat, and purse—set her purse on the table and tiptoed over to me, shaking her head. "If your grandmother could see this place now ... I told your mother at the funeral and now I'll tell you, you should put your father in some kind of group home. It was a crazy idea, her marrying Patrick in the first place. She married your grandmother as much as she married Patrick, anyway."
I'd heard all this before, how Mam had been born with a hole in her heart and was always so sickly as a child. I knew the first ten years of her life were spent indoors and mostly in bed. I'd heard how Grandma Mary, neighbor to Mam and her family, used to walk over to their house with Pap in tow and give Mam her lessons at home so she wouldn't have to go to school and pick up any new germs that might have been floating around. Aunt Colleen made it sound ugly, saying that Mam married Pap so she could be cared for and comforted by Grandma Mary the rest of her life, but Grandma Mary had always made the story sound sweet and good.
"Yer mam l
"Now, I remember very clearly yer mam sayin', 'Oh, I wish it could always be like this, just me and you and Patrick. I wish the whole rest of the world would just go away.' And I says, 'Aren't ya happy then, Erin,' and she frowns, almost ready to cry, and tells me about college and her family and how she just doesn't fit in anywhere. I hugged her and said how we'd always be there for her, and I could see by the grateful look in her sweet blue eyes that she knew it was true."
Mam got sick again just before her college graduation ceremony and had to go back home to recuperate. That's when Pap proposed to her. He'd seen the movie The Sound of Music and had the idea that he could be the captain and Mam could be Maria. Aunt Colleen made Pap's marriage proposal sound like a whim, but again, Grandma Mary made it sound sincere and good.
"I told yer dear pap how marriage was different from the way him and me lived together," she'd said. "I told him it was the way his father and I lived together, but yer dear pap was set on marrying yer mam and one day when I thought he was just in the garage tinkering, the way he does, it turns out he'd gone over to yer mam's with a handful of weeds and flowers he'd picked along the way, and he just went up to her bed, where she was resting and sipping on some tea, and asked would she marry him, and lo and behold if the child didn't say yes."
I didn't know what to say to Aunt Colleen when she suggested putting Pap in a group home, so I didn't say anything. I just gritted my teeth and cleaned up around her while she stood in the kitchen, never offering to help, and telling me how we were going to have to shape up, face the music, get with the program, step up to the mark, and every other cliché she could think of along those lines.
That night, after Aunt Colleen had left and I'd straightened out the kitchen, more or less, I went outside and joined Pap, who lay on the grass staring up at the now-lighted Nativity set. Grandma Mary had purchased the life-size set with the lightbulbs inside each figure one Christmas when I was about five years old. Dear Pap and I loved to stare at it all lit up at night so much that Mam and Grandma Mary decided to leave it out year-round. Eventually the paint wore off and I grew up and got tired of seeing the white plastic figures clumped on our back lawn like a mound of snow that never melts, but dear Pap loved it still.
That night I sat on the grass next to Pap's long body, the heels of my feet resting in two of the holes Pap had dug, and stared up at the glowing white shapes. For a long while we just stayed together, watching the Nativity scene, and the spring air grew thick and damp around us and I got cold. Still, with the seat of my pants getting wet and the chill bumps hard and sore on my arms, I found myself feeling calmed, my anxieties about Mam and my frustrations with Pap melting away, as if Grandma Mary were there resting her hand on my shoulder and whispering to me, "Hush now, hush now, James Patrick." I wondered if Pap felt it, too, if Pap heard Grandma Mary speak to him, if that's why he hung around the Nativity set so much. Then I asked him, my hand pounding the cold, damp earth in the hole next to me, "Pap, how do you feel now that Grandma Mary's gone to heaven?"
Pap didn't say anything right away, and I dug my fingers into the dirt and ran them up the wall of the hole, feeling the grit clumping beneath my fingernails. At last he said, "I'm thinking I'm all alone now me mam is in heaven. I'm all alone now, lames Patrick."
His words startled me, stabbing into the night air the way they did. With those words he cut out of me that chunk of truth I had been hiding from myself, the truth everyone else seemed to know—neighbors, Mam, Aunt Colleen, even the teachers at school. The whole meaty truth was that without Grandma Mary, we, each of us, felt left all alone. We had no safe place anymore. Grandma Mary was our safe place, our warm hearth, our helping hand, our listening ear. She was the open arms welcoming us home, the gentle heart, the bountiful pantry, the loving voice. Grandma Mary was everything good that touched the deep-down goodness of our own souls and brought it to light.
Pap's words were so true that I couldn't even lie and say to him, But, Pap, you have us, me and Mam. We're still here, we're your family, too.
We weren't a family anymore. We were like three abandoned children wandering the house and the halls of the hospital, each one orbiting in his or her own misery. Since I couldn't lie, I didn't say anything to Pap that night. We just stayed there side by side, each alone, and like everyone else, I wondered, What's to become of us now that Grandma Mary's gone?
WHEN MAM CAME home from the hospital after a three-week stay, I tried to put all my anxieties behind me. I thought now that she was home we could begin to put our lives back in order, and Pap would settle down.
I'd never seen him act the way he acted those first few weeks after Grandma Mary died. One time when we went shopping I asked him to get us some laundry detergent and he dashed off down the grocery store aisle with coupons from Grandma Mary's coupon wallet flying out behind him. Ten minutes later I heard his voice at the other end of the store shouting, "Hail Mary, where's me boy gone? Hail Mary! Hail Mary!" and when I caught up to him and tried to get him to hush he said, "Hey, yer not me mam, and I'll be doin' what I please." Then he took off down the aisle again and crashed into the creamed-corn display. I had to pick up all the cans, so people gave me, and not Pap, their dirty looks when they had to navigate their carts around them.
At night Pap would climb up on the roof and sing Christmas carols at the top of his lungs, and again, if I tried to get him to come down, he'd shout, "Yer not me mam down there, so go away." "Yer not me mam" had become his response to every request I made. Worst of all for me was that he'd take off on his bicycle early in the morning before I woke, instead of going to mass the way he used to do with Grandma Mary, and he'd stay away for hours. I'd have to go looking for him, sometimes missing my classes at school, which made me furious. I had final exams coming up and I needed to ace them.
I had to ace everything, always. It was the only way I could prove to myself and everyone else in town that I wasn't Pap. People thought because we looked a lot alike that we were alike. True, we were both thin and had long bodies. We both had blue eyes and wild hair that could only be tamed by shaving it all off, but neither one of us, with our long faces, looked good in hair cut too close to the head, so we kept it long. There were differences, though. My hair was red and his was brown, I had freckles and Pap didn't. Beyond that, if all a person did was look in our eyes they'd see right off the difference between us. My gaze was keen, focused, and Pap's glance was slow, his focus just off center, as though he could draw in the object to be seen only so far, and no farther. You could never feel satisfied that he had taken in the whole picture, the total view.
However, during those three weeks that Mam stayed in the hospital, we were alike. If Pap ran, I ran after him. If he shouted in a public place, I shouted for him to keep quiet. We were acting just alike, and I couldn't wait for Mam to get well, but it didn't take long after her return to realize things would not get back to normal.
I had had Pap bake a loaf of soda bread for Mam's homecoming. Grandma Mary had taught him how to bake the bread, and he could do it on his own as long as someone reminded him to take it out of the oven when it was done. The bread baking calmed him down so much I wished I had come up with the idea sooner. I would have had him baking bread all day. I cooked Mam SpaghettiOs, just about the only thing I knew how to make; but Mam barely touched her food that first night home and she left the table early, saying she still had unpacking to do. I followed her and watched her from the doorway of her bedroom. She moved from suitcase to closet, bent forward as if her back hurt too much to straighten. She'd lost so much weight that the pants she wore had
The old Mam was open and lighthearted, always happy to see me, to spend time with me. My favorite times were when Mam would invite Pap and me to go with her to the creek. It curved around the back of our small neighborhood like an arm gathering and caressing our tired homes, and to us it was paradise. We would tuck the peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches Grandma Mary had prepared for us into our jacket pockets and spend the day there. In the summer we'd go to the deeper section and swim or fish. Pap was a good swimmer and loved it more than anything. Mam didn't swim but sat on the bank drawing wildflowers in her sketchpad, happy just to be outside in the fresh air.
We'd examine every blade of grass, every dump of dirt, every wildflower. And I, loving order and Tightness in all things, classified all our findings on index cards.
When I was six, I got hold of Grandma Mary's recipe file, dumped the cards with words on them in the garbage, and created our first file with the blank yellowed cards that had been crammed at the back of the box. I made a list of all the insects we had seen, working long and hard at keeping my words within the narrow lines of the cards.
Grandma Mary dug her cards out of the garbage and gave me a swat on my bottom for dumping her treasure, but the next day she bought me my own file box with two sets of index cards. I continued with my insects and then moved on through the animal kingdom, writing down names, habitats, diets, et cetera, and filing the cards alphabetically according to species. At eleven I worked on the plants, going beyond our little universe at the creek, and growing anxious at the thought of the existence of so many plants. If I lived forever, I thought, I could never list them all. Still, I continued to try—labeling and ordering the world, somehow believing if I could name it all, put it in its proper category, I could control my own fate. I believed I could understand the order of the world, God's order, God's reason, the way the nuns taught it in school, and then I wouldn't have to fear the chaos and randomness of life.
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