[img_assist|nid=4292|title=Show of Hands|desc=|link=node|align=right|width=150|height=191]As soon as the bus driver pulls the door shut, I drop into an empty seat, pressing my head against the glass, closing my eyes so I can’t see the girls waving their arms out the windows, muffling my ears so I can’t hear the boys chewing gum. Mrs. Harden and Shanna are standing in the aisle, delivering their speech about good behavior but I’m thinking about bad behavior, about Shanna’s body, which I can see even though my eyes are closed. It’s been six months since I’ve touched anybody’s body, since I broke up with Andrea. A boy named Douglas Patton sits down beside me but doesn’t say hello or slow his chatter with his friends in the row behind us or in any way disrupt my daydream. I love field trips.
Something Mrs. Harden tells the bus driver pierces my daydream, though. We aren’t going to the museum on the permission slip. We’re going to my father’s house.
“My father doesn’t even live in this town,” I say, opening my eyes. Mrs. Harden is staring at me, taking notes on her clipboard without looking down at her hands. It’s weird to make eye contact with her and still see her hand writing away as if it’s got its own brain, writing her list of good and bad things I’ve done, a compilation of faults for my end-of-the-year review. I look away. “It wouldn’t be a positive learning experience,” I say desperately.
“Mr. Mirer’s father is a teacher also,” Mrs. Harden says to the students. “A teacher of genetics.”
“No, he’s not,” I say. “He’s an accountant. He knows nothing about pedagogy.”
But Mrs. Harden is walking the aisles, passing out a two-page, stapled handout. Douglas, who’s reading his copy, asks me, “Who’s this Andrea?”
“Andrea?” I ask. “Give that to me. What does it say about her?” Andrea was my high school girlfriend, my college girlfriend, too. We planned to get married after our college graduation, to attend the same law school, to lead one preconceived life but I bailed without giving anybody a good reason, which led my father to accuse me of self-sabotage. I fell into this job, into being a teaching intern, by accident.
Mrs. Harden takes Douglas’ copy away before I can read it. She holds it in front of her while she instructs the class to find each mention of my first name – Eric – to cross it out and to write instead, “Mr. Mirer, Jr.” Even in adult-to-adult conversations in the teachers’ lounge, Mrs. Harden refers to us only by our last names. She’s the grade coordinator; look at her nametag: “Mrs. Harden, Grade Coordinator and English.” Shanna’s says, “Ms. Mercer, science and math.” Mine says, “Mr. Mirer, history.” (Mrs. Harden’s kind enough not to write “teaching intern.”) The kids have nametags with exclamation points written after their names: “Douglas Patton! Seventh Grader!”
While Mrs. Harden reads from my father’s handout, Shanna slides into the seat in front of mine. She’s 25, a real teacher, and she talks as if we’re in the middle of a long conversation that started years ago and won’t ever reach an ending.
“Nice outfit, by the way,” she says. “Field trip informal, I suppose.”
Looking down, I’m surprised to see that I’m not wearing any clothes. My testicles lie flat on the bus’ brown plastic seat like two deflated balloons. My nametag dangles from my chest hairs. When I tug, it hurts.
“But I dressed this morning,” I say. “I know I did.”
“Shh,” Shanna says. “Mrs. Harden’s about to turn around. Just walk normal, like you don’t notice. She might not mark it on her clipboard.”
The bus stops in front of our old house, the house my mother and my father and I shared until I was fourteen, until he moved west to Springfield, Missouri, where he’s lived since. After he split, my mother and I squeezed into a little apartment up the hill from the Chi-Chi’s, an apartment too small for our furniture, which we left behind in the house for the next owners to deal with.
My father is standing on the wooden front porch waving us inside. He’s shaved his beard, trimmed his bushy eyebrows, even made himself look shorter, more like a regular, middle-aged man, instead of the world’s tallest and hairiest accountant, which is what he used to call himself. He’s also wearing enormous green sunglasses, cheap ones that Mrs. Harden will think frivolous. Look at that, I say, but as she writes in her clipboard, I realize that she may well think that I am responsible for my father’s bad choices, so I rush to the porch and sweep the sunglasses off his nose. Since I don’t have any pockets I can use to hide the glasses, I toss them into the hedges.
“Nice pants,” my father says.
When Mrs. Harden catches up to us, she sticks a nametag on his lapel. “Mr. Mirer, Sr.,” it says. “Parent/ Educator.”
My father’s changed almost everything about the house. Instead of our red couch and upright piano, there are six rows of theater seating, the good kind with fluffy, reclining chairs. And instead of the kitchen and the dining room, there’s an open space and a gigantic projection-screen television where the sink used to be. I like being inside. It’s the only place aside from school that doesn’t remind me of Andrea. We never did it here, not on the couch, not in my bedroom, not in the back yard. I didn’t start with Andrea until my mother and I moved to the apartment near the Chi-Chi’s.
My bedroom is smaller than I remember but preserved intact. The same bedspread showing a map of the United States. The same stack of shoeboxes in a corner, each filled with unsorted 1982 Topps baseball cards. “Ray Knight,” I say, looking at one. Then, remembering my condition, I reach into the closet, which miraculously is full of my old things, slacks and T-shirts and collared jackets.
Even though I’ve grown nine inches since I was 14, the blue jeans still fit. The shirts, however, all disintegrate into threads when I touch them, but that problem I solve by zipping up my gray Members Only jacket.
“Don’t have to worry about Mrs. Harden now,” I say.
Before returning to the screening room, I step into the bathroom so I can clean my pants with a washcloth, so I can look teacherly for the students. Inexplicably, my mother is sitting on the edge of the bathtub, combing her long, brown hair. She’s in the white gown she wears to work at the nursing home. Her patch says, “Annie, Orderly.” She doesn’t seem surprised to see me.
“You’re upset,” she says. “Aren’t you? You don’t have to tell me why. Would it make you feel better if I held your hand?” I give her my left one. “Would it make you feel better if I held them both?”
From the hallway Mrs. Harden is looking in at us, jotting something on her clipboard, something else I’ll have to explain at the end of the year. I slam the door.
“Look what you did,” I say. I splash water on my face while my mother tells me not to get upset. “I have to get upset,” I say.
“You don’t have to get upset at me.”
“We have the same argument every day.” I turn off the faucet. “You can’t stay here. What if Mrs. Harden needs to use the bathroom? Go hide in my bedroom.”
“I won’t do it,” she says but she does. That’s the power we have over each other. My mother walks down the hallway toward my bedroom. “I don’t see why I’m doing this,” she says as I lock the door.
Back in the living room, my father is standing near the television, pointing a bamboo stick at the screen, at pictures of my mother projected there. The students are all sitting up in their chairs, sipping orange Kool-Aid from plastic cups. One girl’s taking notes on her hand-out.
“A good woman,” my father says. “A woman with a good soul.”
I sit down beside Shanna, who glances at me, then whispers, “This is such perfect timing. You walk in buck naked and up on screen you’re about to be born.”
It’s true. I look down at my white legs; run my fingers through my chest hairs. Where did my Members Only jacket go?
My father taps the television screen firmly with his bamboo stick, pointing at an overblown picture of me as a child. He’s talking about me like I was his patient.
“Eric was a well-developed baby,” he says, “with a propensity for night-time crying. Typically Eric would cry for a few minutes at about 3:30 in the morning, then pause for ninety seconds while he defecated, then resume crying again. Eric had the largest lung capacity of any child ever born in Mirth-Lace Hospital.”
Shanna leans over, whispers to me. “It’s true that you were a cute baby.” For some reason this feels like an accusation. Mrs. Harden stands up quickly, raises her palm in the air, her signal for quiet. “Mr. Mirer, Sr. means to say Mr. Mirer, Jr.,” she says. I cannot tell you how much this reassures me.
“Mr. Mirer, Jr.’s extremities grew quickly,” my father says.
I try not to listen during my father’s talk, which is mind-grindingly dull, but for some reason the only thing I can think of is Andrea. When I stand up, I have to shield my genitals with my hands.
This time no one’s waiting for me in the bathroom. I sit on the john and think about Andrea’s legs, about her tan lines, which isn’t a good idea; just as I feel myself getting excited, someone knocks at the door. It’s Douglas Patton.
“Mr. Mirer?” the boy says. “Mr. Junior? I have to go.”
I look hurriedly through the closet for towels to cover myself, but finding only washcloths, I tear the shower curtain from its loops with two good pulls. On the shower wall, I see my old poster of Tom Seaver, from his chubby, Cincinnati Reds days. As a boy, I wouldn’t get in the bathtub unless my father taped the poster one more time to the wall. Of course with the humidity, it was always falling off.
“Mr. Mirer?” Douglas says. “It’s positively an emergency.”
For some reason the idea of Douglas seeing my poster feels wrong to me. With one graceful tug, I pull it down from the wall and shove it into the towel closet. Then I toss my shower curtain toga-style over my shoulder, bunching it up over my groin so nobody will notice.
After Douglas comes into the bathroom, I slip back into my bedroom, hoping to find some new clothes, but instead my mother’s in there bent over my bed, untucking the sheets, which makes me nervous. What if my old Hustler magazines are still down there? What if those sheets are still stained?
“Relax, Mom,” I say. “Don’t do anything.”
“I’m not doing anything,” she says. “This is what not doing anything looks like.”
Back in the screening room, there’s an ominous clap of laughter, and I have to go check on it.
My father’s up to my teenage years, which explains the laughter.
“He was a fine soccer player with a good left leg,” my father says, “but he wanted challenges and so he played baseball, a sport where his lung capacity didn’t help him. Andrea and I both thought he shouldn’t play baseball. But he didn’t need our advice.”
“I had a good arm,” I protest, but Mrs. Harden scowls at me and jots something on her clipboard. I have to raise my hand to talk.
“Can I talk to you privately?” I ask my father. As he and I walk to the bathroom, I hear the children behind me whispering, “Who’s Andrea?”
When I open the door to the bathroom, Andrea’s looking into the mirror, patting powder over a zit on her forehead. I close the door, hoping she hasn’t seen me.
“Coward,” my father says.
“It’s not your life,” I say.
“This life isn’t your life, either. It belongs to somebody else, somebody dumber than you, and you’ve stolen it so that you don’t have to bother with your real life.”
“What happened to all those compliments you were telling the students?”
“That was a different audience.” We hear some grumbling from the living room. “That’s them,” he says. “They’re waiting for me.”
When I walk back into the screening room, they’re all staring at me. Mrs. Harden. Shanna. Douglas. The blond-haired girls who adore Shanna. All of them. Getting stared at is worse than watching this awful documentary. “Everybody hush now,” I say, repeating one of Mrs. Harden’s lines. “It’s time to be serious.” Then I sit deep in my chair, pressing my hands to my face so no one can see me.
The documentary shows pictures of Andrea in bathing suits, in prom dresses, in business suits, and then strange, empty photographs of the bedroom in my mother’s apartment, of my Tempo, of a state park picnic table, of the hospital parking lot. I can’t ignore this any more. I can’t keep from staring, remembering.
“They did it here,” my father says, tapping the screen. The picture changes. “They did it here,” he says. “He was brave enough to say all those things and do all those things in all those places and still not marry her. Lots of people would have felt obligated by their promises, by the way he used her, but not Mr. Mirer. He’s too courageous to be trapped by anything. Now turn to page two of your hand-out.” Papers shuffle.
On the screen my father shows a picture of Andrea sitting in our college health clinic. By herself. A magazine open across her lap.
“He was so clear in his morals that he would not stoop to soil himself with birth control, with medical opinions, with comfort during infections, but instead kept himself above it, entertaining himself with video games while his girlfriend sat alone in a clinic.”
Now all the children turn away from my father. They kneel on their seats, pressing their chins against the padded chair tops, staring at me. They’ve decided it’s time for me to respond, but I can’t speak. My teeth are locked together, my tongue heavy as cement. Mrs. Harden has her clipboard ready; Shanna is asking me a question I can’t hear. Douglas is raising his hands, signaling that once again he needs to go to the bathroom. Since Mrs. Harden won’t recognize him, Douglas finally forgets about permission and sneaks down the hall to the bathroom, to the bathroom where Andrea is waiting for me. I chase after him, but he gets there before I can catch him.
“Don’t worry about her,” I say.
“Worry about who?” he says. The bathroom’s empty; I start to breathe again.
“Mr. Mirer, what is this field trip supposed to teach us?” he asks. He’s one of those gentle boys who loves to tease his teachers, who understands teachers aren’t machines. “If the next trip is about Mrs. Harden’s life, I’m staying home.”
“I don’t know why we’re here.”
“You’re supposed to know. You’re also supposed to be wearing pants.”
I look down again. “Shit,” I say.
“You’re also not supposed to cuss,” he says and closes the door.
Luckily my father’s bedroom door is open, so I run in there and close the door behind me. Andrea is sitting on my parents’ bed, a blue blanket pulled up to her chin, her white arms spread over the pillows. “Come in,” she says.
“You’ve got to get out of here,” I say. “They’ll see you.”
“If you don’t want to see me, then why are you so excited?”
“I’m not excited.”
“Look down,” she says.
“That’s not excitement. That’s something else.”
There’s a knock on the door, my mother’s voice. “Shit,” I say. “Help me find some clothes.” Dutifully, Andrea helps me find slacks and a collared shirt, matching shoes and socks, a brown leather belt. The more she helps me, the angrier I get. When she tries to thread my belt through my slacks, I push her hand away. “I can do it,” I say. My mother is still knocking on the door.
“I’m coming,” I say. After Andrea hops under the sheets, I open the door. Along with my mother, there’s a mob of children in the hallway, pressing into the room, pointing at Andrea, pointing at me. From far down the hall, I hear my father and Mrs. Harden calling them back. “The show isn’t over,” they say but the children keep asking questions. What am I doing? Why am I still naked? Explain, they say. Explain.
Caught in this mass of words, I hear my mother say something cutting about Andrea’s fashion sense, and Andrea responds by insulting my mother’s cooking. They’re bickering back and forth, trying to pin me to different targets on the same board. The only thing I can do is run past them down the hall and through the screening room where my father and Mrs. Harden and Shanna and Douglas are looking at a picture of me on the television, a picture of me on the school bus, a picture taken earlier this morning as we drove to my father’s house. I’m leaning against the window, my eyes closed. Shanna is looking back at me from her row; Douglas is sitting on the seat beside me. In the picture my arms are crossed over my chest. I’m wearing clothes, thank God. The children in the hallway ask me to explain.
“Ask him,” I say, pointing at my father. “It’s his show.”
“It’s boring,” they say. “Tell us.” In the hallway behind them, I see my mother and Andrea arguing bitterly with each other about my physical health.
Outside there’s air, cold and cutting, and I gulp it as I run through the yard. When I reach the street, I stop, unsure where to go next. Douglas is walking across the lawn toward me, carrying a folded-up piece of paper in his hands.
“Mrs. Harden wrote this for you,” he says. Instead of reading it, I throw it on the ground. “Cool,” he says.
“What do they want from me?” I say.
“They want to understand. They don’t even know who you are.”
“They don’t need to understand. They don’t care who I am. They don’t even listen to what I say when we’re in class.” They come running down the steps, children first, adults behind them. Mrs. Harden scratching notes on her clipboard. Shanna asking questions I can’t hear. My mother wagging her finger at Andrea. Andrea wagging her finger at my mother. Behind them my father is waving his arms, trying for attention.
“Let’s run,” I say, and Douglas and I take off across the street. As I look over the houses on our block, it occurs to me that our old neighbors – the real ones, the retired firemen and schoolteachers who lived there when I was a boy– are dead.
“You need to put on some clothes,” Douglas says.
“I am wearing clothes,” I say. I touch my chest. “Shit. I have got to stop this.” The two of us bound up the nearest house’s porch steps and press the bell until an Asian man opens the door. He’s wearing a blue Oxford shirt, khaki pants, a hat advertising a casino. When he sees us, he yells something unintelligible; we hear pounding footsteps. A pudgy Asian boy in a sweat suit jogs down the stairs.
“I need some clothes,” I say.
The man and the boy say unintelligible, laughably complex things to each other. Talking faster and more intelligently than I ever could. If I could say anything with that much assurance, I would surely be a happier person. The man says something that sounds like “Konizipachen.” The boy says, “Howzibatsu.” I have the feeling they’re talking about me in an unflattering way.
“Clothes,” I say, pointing at the mob of children running toward us. “I need clothes.” While his father blusters on, the boy grabs a purple robe for me from the hall closet. It’s a beautiful, shimmering thing that falls lightly around my shoulders, gliding over my skin. Beside me Douglas Patton is sliding into a large orange robe. The extra fabric pools glowingly at his feet. After we are properly attired, the boy says, “Sorry. We are eating turkey. It is a bad time.” The door closes.
Now everyone is standing a few feet beneath us in the neighbor’s yard. They look to be beyond quieting, but when Douglas raises his right hand, Mrs. Harden and Shanna and my mother and Andrea all follow suit, raising their own hands, calling for quiet. Soon everyone is silent. Everyone is waiting for me, fanning themselves with those awful handouts. And at this moment I would like to oblige them, to be profound and exculpatory, but I can’t. While I stammer my father bounds up on stage and starts introducing me, explaining that the documentary’s montage ended precisely at this moment of free choice when I can decide what direction the story will follow. He’s blathering, hogging attention.
“Talk,” Douglas whispers to me. “You’re supposed to teach them something.”
“I don’t know what to say.”
There’s a single, awful moment then, while Mrs. Harden lowers her hand and begins to write on her clipboard, while my father continues talking, while my mother and Andrea resume their argument, while Douglas pounds his head with his fist, muttering, “Think, think.” Then he whispers to me, “Konizipachen.”
“Konizipachen,” he says, pointing at the crowd. “Say, ‘Howzibatsu,’” he whispers. “I say, ‘Konizipachen. You say, ‘Howzibatsu.’”
“Konizipachen,” he says to the crowd.
“Howzibatsu,” I say dumbly. I step forward, nudging my father off the porch.
“Marzusikibad,” Douglas says. I mumble, struggling over what to say next. “Say anything,” he reminds me.
“Marenship hibitersen.” I say it loud. The sound makes me giggle.
Then Douglas starts to say something, a full sentence of silliness, a sentence that wraps around us both like a robe, soothing us, a sentence that would make sense of all of this if I could ever decipher it, but since I don’t have time for puzzles, I start talking too, cutting him off before he runs out of breath, before the silence can hurt us. And I say my sentence, a sentence from far in my past, a sentence of nonsense, a sentence like I’ve never said before.Greg Downs lives and writes in West Philadelphia. His short story collection, Caught Up in the Past, is forthcoming in October 2006 from the University of Georgia Press, which awarded it the 2006 Flannery O’Connor Award.