Beneath the Weeping Tree: Part 3 — The Assignment

The ApartmentsContinued from: Beneath the Weeping Tree: Part 2 — In the Toilet

His mother asked him, “What do you want to eat?”

“I don’t know. Why are you making breakfast?” Cooper didn’t mean to sound nasty, but it was early and he was not a fan of the morning. Sunrise seemed to bring out the worst in him, pealing back darkness and promising that the world would surge ahead for at least one more day. His dreams were violently aborted by the alarm clock like a village washed away in a flash flood, careful faces and circumstances left forever in limbo. All of the adventures that unfolded during his dreams mounted a sense of hope. But the girls he kissed, the fishing trek with his grandpa, and the strange trip he’d taken as a school bus driver were all displaced by the morning. And while he sat at the kitchen table sipping from a tumbler of orange juice, reality sparked disappointment. He wouldn’t be kissing any girls, his grandpa would still be dead, and he’d be riding the school bus as a passenger rather than driver.

“I want to make you a nice breakfast so you can get off on a better foot this week. It’s Monday, Coop. Time for a fresh start.”

During the first week of school, Ellen received a call from his English teacher. She listened carefully while Miss Foster read the essay he wrote about the secret demise of humankind. “They’re killing us all, simultaneously building and destroying. Some of us try to escape, but the forests are running out, being eaten by their bulldozers. Our hiding spots are being revealed!” the piece concluded. Ellen shared Miss Foster’s concern, advising Cooper to tone down his opinions in school-related writing from now on. “We can’t have the whole world thinking you’ve gone psycho,” she said.

But he hadn’t gone psycho. The over-development of their suburban community had just been something he was thinking about on that morning as the school bus huffed past the island’s disappearing woods. He tried to explain that to his teacher, but she was hearing none of it. She told him that the school year was young and she wanted to make sure that he didn’t write about such controversial issues in the months to come. “I think a phone call home is in order.” He weathered her lecture and the one that he got when he came home that night, as well. But, none of it sat well with him, and he hadn’t quite decided the approach he’d take to English class from that point forward.

“Here. Since you’re not helping any, at least eat this.” She pushed a box of cereal at him and he unloaded a heap of Froot Loops into the bowl that followed. His mom wasn’t much for cooking, but he was grateful that she preserved the tradition of stocking sugar cereals in the tiny kitchen of their apartment. He tried to eat well at lunch time, cutting up apples and keeping a constant supply of spring water in his school bag. But nothing could seem to replace the sugar buzz that laced his body after a bowl of Froot Loops or Choco Puffs or Crunch Berries. It was better than any breakfast she could “make” him and he was glad that he passed on the offer.

“What’re you doing there?” She pulled up a chair and looked across at the papers he’d taken out of his school bag.

“Just reading over something I wrote for homework.” His eyes were trained on the page.

“Nothing I’m going to get a phone call on, I hope.” She tried to smile, but it was tough to force any humor on that situation. She didn’t find his essay on the “demise of humankind” quite as repulsive as his teacher had, but she wanted him to keep his nose clean just the same. He was beginning the ninth grade and this was a big year as far as his school record was concerned. Colleges usually looked at its applicants starting with their record from freshman year, and she definitely intended for Cooper to go to college. She wanted him to excel where she had failed. To climb that ladder of social mobility, the age-old concept of out-doing the level of success that your parents attained before you. Her father reminded her several times during his final years that her life had teetered a bit in that department, and she’d made a personal vow that Cooper would do better.

“Mom. Please. We’ve had that discussion. Let’s just leave it now. Don’t worry.”

“What’s your assignment?”

“An interview. It’s for English class. I needed to interview someone and write up a short biography.”

“Who were you supposed to interview?”

“A friend or a relative.”

He continued proofreading and then scribbled a line through the opening paragraph.

“What’s the matter with it?” she asked.

“I don’t know.”

“You feel okay?” “Leave me alone. Please. I’m fine.”

He scooped some Froot Loops into his mouth. They were mushy and failed to crunch when he chewed them.

“Why didn’t you write about me?” she asked.

“Because I don’t know you.”

“That’s not fair.”

“What is fair?”

He was fishing the last of the Froot Loops from the pinkened milk. A few soggy crumbs remained on the surface, bobbing like luggage after an airline wreck.

“Well, who did you write about?”

“A guy.”

“A guy,” she repeated.

“Will you at least try to have a normal conversation?”

“What’s fair is fair,” he said.

“What’s that supposed to mean? You speak in fucking code.” Tears began to fall on her cheeks and her blue eyes glistened with hurt.

“Watch your language around the kids,” Cooper said. He tipped the bowl toward his face and slurped the rest of the milk. A few drops landed on his chin and he mopped them with the back of his hand.

She stood up and walked toward the sink, filling it with sudsy water.

He imagined the tears that continued spilling from her eyes. It was nothing new. She’d probably closed them by now, swirling her hands blindly around in the water. He continued to proofread his homework, crossing out words here and there and occasionally cramming an extra word or letter between two words. When she turned back toward him, Cooper slid the paper back into the folder.

“There’s an old man, and he’s a neighbor of ours,” he said.

“What?” She’d stopped crying and the bottoms of her eyes puffed out, causing her to look like one of the battered women that always came shrieking out of a run-down house on those real-life cop shows. Cooper hated for his mother to look like that. He reflected on her journal entries and searched her weathered face for an ambitious young woman, her reach toward the sky and her back to a wall. She was better than what she’d become and he knew that. But he didn’t want to let her know what he knew. It was too confusing. She hadn’t betrayed him, but she had kept secrets from him. Like an artist covering an old painting with pieces of a new one, layering fresh colors over the old. But it wasn’t the same thing as a fresh canvas, he realized, and the old images would always be waiting there beneath.

“An old man,” he repeated. “That’s what my interview is about.” His fingers framed the word ‘interview’ with quotes, just as Nixon had framed his concept of peace. Each was a farce.

“Okay, and who is this man?” Ellen asked.

“It’s not a real guy. I just made him up.”

“You made him up.”

“Yes. He’s been living here for eight years, ever since his wife died. They moved to Florida for their retirement but during the first month there, she got run over by a drunk driver while she was crossing a supermarket parking lot. The carriage she was pushing was dented to hell, but not nearly as bad as her head. ‘Squashed like a melon,’ the old guy said. And so he puttered around South Florida for a while. Spent some time in bars and checked out the girls in bikinis, but all of that ‘life’ going on around him just reminded him of his loneliness. And eventually, after the first winter, he moved back up here.

“He’s got a brother that lives off-island and he goes to his house every Sunday to play chess and eat a home cooked meal. He takes a cab and always carries the crossword from the Mystic Crier to keep him company. He never quite finishes it, but he comes ‘darn close’ sometimes. The rest of the week, he just sits around his apartment and reads mystery books. Agatha Christie is his favorite and he’s read all of her books at least twice. But, he also likes Ed McBain.

“He likes our apartment complex because the young people, like me, are so nice to him. We help him out sometimes when he needs little odd jobs taken care of, like putting a nail in the wall for a picture frame or helping him find his keys. He has a terrible time remembering where he leaves his keys and wallet. He hopes it’s not the early stages of Alzheimer’s setting in.”

Ellen smiled at him. She pushed her fingers through the strands of hair matted to her face by tears. Normal color regained control over her ashen face.

“That’s not bad,” she said. “Sounds like an okay guy. I almost wish that he really lived here.”

“Me too,” Cooper said.

He stood up to bring his bowl to the sink but his mom’s hand landed on his shoulder, stopping him.

“I’ll take care of that. You finish getting ready. You’ll be late for school.” Without a word, he let go of the bowl and piled the folder, pencil, and a textbook into his back pack. The water turned on and she was at the sink, her back to him. Cooper reached for the pack of cigarettes that she left on the table and shook a few out, tucking them under the brim of his Red Sox cap. He slung the back pack onto one shoulder and headed for the bus, calling his goodbye from the apartment door.

Continued in: Beneath the Weeping Tree: Part 4 — The Gravedigger’s Den

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>