His father did come back from the war after another year, but he was not the same man. He was scared of noises and he had a strange white blindness that he experienced when the day got too hot. The family considered moving, over and over, to cooler quarters; considered it, then unconsidered it. The boy took drama cla.s.ses but always played the funny weird guy and never the leading man. He watched his mother take How to Make Gla.s.s II, the second in the series of five, and one afternoon she came home with a tote bag full of huge clear squares. She said this was her final exam for the cla.s.s, and she'd gotten an A. Look, she said, pointing, no bubbles, she said. The boy asked her what they should do with it now that she'd made it. She said break it. So they took it outside and broke it in two and then his mother looked sad and sat down and the boy broke it in four, then eight, then sixteen, and his mother was still sad, she started to weep, softly, and the boy shattered the gla.s.s into hundreds of pieces.
His first girlfriend bought the chast.i.ty belt as a joke. He couldn't open it. They scrambled around, used the tin key that it came packaged with, opened her up, had s.e.x anyway. Her underwear was thin and full of holes and the boy kept it that night in his bed, after they had parted, and thought about the way she b.u.t.ted her head into his shoulder like a goat. When they broke up, he walked to the bank and put the underwear in the safe deposit box right on top of that one piece of gold. His mother never said a word about it. The bank had changed ownership by now and had a new color scheme-navy and dark green-but the lock was exactly the same.
His father went to the hospital for the blindness. He told the doctor that he saw whiteness everywhere, as if he'd been driving in the snow for days and days, and that he couldn't find his balance or his peace. The hospital gave him painkillers and sungla.s.ses. The boy's father sat in the kitchen with a cup of milk in a mug, his palm covering the opening so he wouldn't have to look at its white flat top and he said, It's not like I saw anything that horrible. The son said, Really? and the father said, Son, the truth is I can't even quite remember what I saw. Is it bright in here? he asked. The son looked outside at the setting sun and the lucid calm of dusk.
The eighth key fit the cabinet at a weaponry store. He went there for his college war survey cla.s.s to learn the difference between muskets and spears. The man who owned the weapon store had a big belly and cheeks stretched over his face like poorly upholstered furniture. He would be hard to make in clay. The man was reading a book called How to Meet Girls, and when the boy asked to see some stuff, the man said he'd lost the key to the back cabinet where the small revolvers lived. The boy felt his finger itching, walked over, and opened it himself. The man's cheeks raised a full inch on his face, furniture renewal. The boy shot some targets and felt like a soldier and wrote a brilliant report. He read How to Meet Girls cover to cover.
His mother came to his college graduation. His father could not because the light of the sun blinded him and seeing people all dressed in one kind of uniform reminded him of the army and made his head feel like it would explode. I can't stand it, he told his son. All those bodies on the lawn in black graduation gowns. It's like one huge G.o.dd.a.m.n foxhole. His mother wore a dress she'd made in her sewing cla.s.s, with contrasting patches of velvet, burlap, silk.
He went to France for a graduation present. He returned to the Louvre, deciding he wanted to play more gin rummy. He located the door, but when he stuck his finger in the lock, it didn't fit anymore. They had apparently changed locks since his last visit. This made him feel unsettled, as if kicked out of his own home. He wondered if that finger would find a new lock now. He thought: Yes. And no. And I don't know.
He met a French girl named Sophie, sitting in a yellow-and-brown wicker chair at a cafe, eating a b.u.t.ter-and-sugar crepe. He fell in love with her within a couple of days. She puffed her lips when she spoke, like the French do. In bed, he put his finger inside of her, the ring finger on his left hand, the finger that means marriage, as if to turn her inside and unlock her body. She came fast; she was loose and loving, and loud, and luscious, but she hadn't been locked, either. I love you, she told him, after a week, with a thick French accent, lips puffing. He decided to stay for the rest of August. They made love all the time and he told her his "uncle" couldn't see because he'd watched bad things in the war and Sophie said, What war? and the boy shook his head. I don't know, he said. Some war somewhere kind of near here.
When he left France, Sophie said she'd write but she only sent one letter total. He returned to his hometown and found an apartment near his mother and father. He went to the man, still sitting around the kitchen.
Do you know who were you fighting? he asked.
Some other guy, said his father, stirring his tea.
What did you see? asked his son.
Not much, said his father. Some blood, he said. I think something got taken away from me, his father said. I think they took something from me but I never even felt it happen when they did.
The boy placed his right hand of keys into his father's open palm: the security box, the neighbor's car, the closet in France, the docent room at the Louvre that had been changed.
You say you've opened eight so far? said his father. Which is the ninth?
The son waggled his ring finger on his left hand. Well, go open some doors, his father said, squeezing his hand. The one you open with the ninth key will be connected to the woman you will marry. Maybe.
The boy took his hand back, and agreed that would be very sweet, if it worked out like that. He had been feeling a vague dissatisfaction at the mundane nature of the other eight keys. There was a report on the news that NASA had lost the key to the s.p.a.ce shuttle, and so the boy called up right away and offered his a.s.sistance. The whole flight over he had the national anthem singing in his head. NASA took him straightaway to a sealed white room with serious people who shook his hand and had fierce eye contact, and members of the FBI lined the walls in case he was a terrorist in disguise. The boy tried all his fingers twice but none worked. The NASA people shook their heads, and he heard someone say, I told you so. He had a fleeting feeling of terror that the FBI might arrest him for something his father had done and an even bigger wish that an FBI man would arrest him, take him aside, and tell him what had happened. What is the greatest mystery of your family? he asked the older lady on the flight home, as they watched the movie without sound, and she looked at him thoughtfully but never answered. At home, he shoved his finger into every door he could see for a few weeks, but decided to stop, as it was starting to make him unhappy, and signed himself up for a sculpture cla.s.s.
In the second cla.s.s in the series on figure sculpture, the boy met a woman he wanted to marry. After a year, they married. They spent the gold piece in the safe deposit box on the wedding and did it up, and also did it dark so that his father could stand it. It was a night wedding. His father stood at the microphone and made a toast with his eyes closed. The son danced with his bride, luminous in her white dress; his father never once looked at the bride for fear his head would explode. That night, in the hotel room, the bride looked at the ring on his key finger and asked him what that one opened and he said he didn't know. They made love in the big hotel bed with the strange-smelling comforter and fell asleep face-to-face, feet tangled together.
They went to Paris on their honeymoon and found the closet in the hotel that the boy, now a man, could open, and when the porter wasn't looking, they snuck inside and made love. Due to the intrusion of the walls, s.e.x was uncomfortable in the closet, so they ended up going to the front desk and getting a room anyway. There, on the bed in the hotel, the man told his new wife about his father and the war. He told her everything he knew which was very little but still, other than the quick "uncle" confession to Sophie, he'd never told anyone. He had to continually smother down a fear of the FBI busting into the wiretapped room and taking him to FBI jail as he spoke. The new wife was understanding but equally confused. We were at war then? she said. The man said, You are the first person I have ever really told. Her face was dim in the light of Parisian dusk, filtering through the windows and turning the room golden. He felt glad he'd married her. They went downstairs and had a feast of duck in apricot sauce in the hotel dining room and the porter, who was now significantly older, recognized him and gave him a free creme brulee. After dinner, the porter insisted he open the closet again, which he did, with embarra.s.sment, because to him it still smelled like his wife's desire and not like an abandoned closet in the least.
They found a good apartment in town, near his parents. They got a dog at the pound who had been abused but was responsive. His mother came over with teas from around the world and sat at the kitchen table in her patchwork outfits, and she and the dog got along. The son still tried to ask his father the right question that would reveal everything but all he ever got in reply was a sad shaking of the head.
On his thirtieth birthday, he was walking to work, to the factory where he broke gla.s.s for a living, when he heard screaming in the streets. He pa.s.sed a TV in a bar, and the local news was explaining how a little boy was locked in a metal shed by accident and the door was too thick and couldn't be banged down. The young man took a detour on his route and went toward the noise and the banging. Apparently the boy had been in the shed for hours and air would run out soon. This was a special boy too-the one known about town whose elbows were pointed in such a way that made it easy to open tin cans.
As he approached, the crowd, who knew him well, parted willingly when they saw him walking over. He could hear the boy inside the metal room, sobbing up the air. The young man with the hands of keys paused a moment in front of the metal door. He could feel his finger itching. He wanted to wait for a second and hold this moment, the moment before he became a finite person. He could feel the air ringing with it-his life span a life span, the world a round ball. The crowd screamed and the boy sobbed and the young man put the ring finger on his left hand in the lock.
The trapped boy ran out crying, gasping, elbows in wings, and the town lifted the young man with the key fingers on their shoulders and they wrote headlines and gave him a medal and the mayor shook his now-complete hand.
After the award ceremony, he went to his parents' house. His father was sleeping in a quiet dim room, and the young man slipped the medal over his father's head. He'd pa.s.sed many doors that day and thought: so I can't open that one or that one or that one. From now on, all the doors in the world were as closed to him as to everyone else. The older man kept sleeping and the young man hummed a song to himself inside the cool dark room.
The unusual births. .h.i.t the town all at once. All the mothers, not recognizing their babies. Mine is so tall! said one, craning her neck. Mine so blond, said the dark next, squinting. Mine made of paper, announced a fleshy third. Mine built of gla.s.s? trembled another. One with a child who had no eyes, but ears so acute they could measure blinking. Another with a daughter who could, at will, turn into objects like brooms and light-bulbs. Soon, at the playground, the children could not recognize what made the other work, and they eyed one another from behind the swings, from beneath the tire sculpture.
When they were older, they took over the village and ran it perfectly. Little did their mothers and fathers know. That when they'd eaten the foods and breathed the air and felt the feelings and made the love that created their children, they were, for once, in perfect synchronization. The son of gla.s.s was a doctor, and all could see inside his body while he worked on theirs. The daughter of paper was a scholar, and each book became a part of her wrist and arm and breast. The blond son lit the town for those months when electricity was no longer an option, and the daughter of great height cooled the moon with streams of her breath when it grew too hot from a pa.s.sing meteor.
The changeable woman was always on hand to provide the most needed machine or tool. The child with divine ears listened to the soil, and pointed to where he heard the seeds unfurling with pleasure. Plant here, he told the one with the longest arms who could reach straight into the heart of the dirt. In later years, that eyeless one sat beneath the forest of trees he could not see but could take deep inside his lungs, and when the sadness was unbearable, it was only he who could soothe the villagers. Who could hear the type of tears by the pace of the blinking, and know in which manner to offer comfort.
Their parents were gone by then. The world had fallen into sense and sorrow.
Mother, they said. Father.
This is our decision, they said, bowing to each other.
Once a year they stood together, holding hands as best they could, with the new babies crawling on the floor at their feet: the babies of many heads, the ones made of words, the clay blobs. The triplets of air who would rush past and sweeten your breathing. Who's that strange one you made, Ma? Why, Pa. That creature is your own flesh and blood. Even though it has neither flesh nor blood; still, it is yours.
Then the grand feast, with food of all kinds, even for the several who did not eat food but survived only on the quality of listening. They usually hovered at the corners and when they grew wan and skinny, it was a reminder. To focus. On this day, they filled up visibly, fat and happy.
No one needed to say it, but the room overflowed with that sort of blessing. The combination of loss and abundance. The abundance that has no guilt. The loss that has no fix. The simple tiredness that is not weary. The hope not built on blindness.
I am the drying meadow; you the unspoken apology; he is the fluctuating distance between mother and son; she is the first gesture that creates a quiet that is full enough to make the baby sleep.
My genes, my love, are rubber bands and rope; make yourself a structure you can live inside.
Much grat.i.tude to the support and wisdom of Suzanne, Karen, Meri, and David Bender, with a special nod to Suzanne for the good kick-in-the-b.u.t.t talk; the excellent editors of the journals and magazines that published these stories and others; the Corporation at Yaddo; Jennifer Carlson; Rolph Blythe; Kendra Harpster; Jeanne Leary; Danielle Adler; Ryan Boudinot; Bernard Cooper; Lori Yeghiayan; Eric Welch and IW; Phil Hay; the great Julie Newman from before and great Julie Reed now; the terrific Henry Dunow and inspiring Bill Thomas; and the continually vital reader and friendships of Miranda Hoffman Jung, Alice Sebold, and Glen Gold.
Also by Aimee Bender.
The Girl in the Flammable Skirt.
An Invisible Sign of My Own.
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