A Moment of Silence
by Robert Quinlivan
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
For all its pastoral beauty, Falls Creek was an aggressively boring place for a boy. The parks in our little town were treeless plots of playground equipment surrounded by sand. Children who rode bicycles were covered from ankles to heads in safety padding and followed by an anxious mother or father. Diets were tightly controlled to maximize nutrition and the sugary substances we all desperately craved — chocolates, soda pop, ice cream, bubblegum, jawbreakers, Pixy Stix — were strictly forbidden. Every joyless space and every drab moment of the day was designed, measured, plotted, and planned to avoid injury or discomfort of any kind.
So it wasn’t as though I was predisposed to wanderlust. But in the thirteenth year of my life, I began having visions of dark, foreboding trees. Snow-capped mountainsides crept into the corners of my adolescent mind like fragments of dreams scarcely remembered. While other teenagers dreamed of touring with rock bands or playing in the NBA finals, I longed for wilderness. I spent hours outdoors lingering in vacant lots overgrown with vegetation or fishing in the creek that led through the center of town.
That Christmas, my grandfather gave me the stuffed wolf that was the last remnant of his taxidermy business, much to the chagrin of my parents, who thought he was off his rocker. They had a point. Who gives a kid a dead wolf for Christmas?
But I loved it: its gray bristling fur, the way its defiant snarl never changed, never faded. My grandfather was an unrepentant lifelong smoker and had fallen ill from a prolonged bout with cancer, from which he was expected to pass away any day.
Attached to the wolf was a note. My grandfather was known to leave monographs accompanying each piece he produced, and the maudlin subtext of the note was, I think, what convinced my parents that he had intended it as a sort of gift from beyond the grave. It read:
To you, I leave this visage of the great wolf, son of the trickster god. May it stand over you and yours for all time.
From then on, the wolf sat on a table overlooking the bedroom window where its glass eyes gleamed like diamonds channeling the light of the moon.
* * *
For the first thirteen years of my life, Pete and I may as well have been conjoined twins. I was a frequent dinner guest at the Elingtons’, and Pete often stayed for my mother’s beef lasagna. Dinner was our singular mode of socializing with the neighbors, as if the act of eating was what bonded us.
“Mr. Elington is such a kind man,” my mother said, one evening after we came home from dinner at Pete’s house. We had endured three hours of beef stroganoff and potatoes au gratin under the dim light of a crystal chandelier, while Mr. Elington regaled us with stories of his latest professional successes. It was enough to tire anyone out, and when they got tired, my parents bickered like — well, like an old married couple, which they were rapidly in the process of becoming.
“Bit of a showoff, if you ask me,” said my father.
“Oh, Steven, don’t be ridiculous. The Elingtons invited us into their home. And what a lovely home. We should be so lucky as to have friends like the Elingtons. After all, Mr. Elington is the reason we were able to afford this—”
“That’s enough, Ellen,” said my father, cracking a beer. And under his breath, “Quit runnin’ your mouth.”
“I just think we should extend our fullest thanks to Mr. Elington and his wife. And Pete and Stevey are becoming such good friends—”
“He’s a showoff, Ellen. We’ve got guys like this at the office, too. Guys that want to tell you about their vacation in the goddamn Bahamas or Barbados.”
“Well,” said my mother, restraining herself, “perhaps so. But I don’t think that should discount him. He’s a kind man. Isn’t it enough to be kind? Does he also have to be as modest as a saint? I for one think it’s just great that the Elingtons are doing so well...”
And on it went, back and forth, the familiar dance. It was not uncommon for them to talk as though I were not present. I suppose they figured I was still a sort of child, albeit an overgrown one, unable to make sense of the matters of adults.
I grew exhausted by the spectacle and turned on the television my mother kept in the kitchen to watch late night talk shows while she washed dishes. A National Geographic piece about the mating patterns of African elephants was on.
“That Elington is so full of himself,” my father said. “Did you hear the bastard going on about his investments? You’d think he was trying to sell us a loan.”
My father’s jeremiad against the Elingtons hardly shocked me. Even at thirteen, I had a vague sense that our neighbors were rich, or richer than the rest of us, anyway. Pete’s father was a real-estate agent, the best in the business. He had sold half of our parents their homes, all of them two-story, single-family dwellings complete with a garage and a basketball hoop in the drive. Mr. Elington drove a black Cadillac, and Mrs. Elington handed out twenty-dollar bills on Halloween instead of candy. It wasn’t hard to put two and two together. The Elingtons had us beat.
The battle must’ve reached a fever pitch, because my mother placed a hand on my shoulder and said, “Stevey, maybe you should run off to your room. You have geometry homework to do, don’t you?”
“It’s not due until next week,” I protested in vain. But my mother had already pushed me along up the stairs toward my room, and by the rising pitch in her voice, I was sure I didn’t want to stick around.
I stomped up the stairs and lay in bed, geometry textbook strewn across the bedspread, trying to feign interest in sines and cosines until the shouting had cooled down to an angry simmer.
I spied the glinting light of the moon reflected off the eye of the stuffed wolf by the windowsill. I watched it there, glittering by the window. Something came over me, a feeling I had vaguely sensed for years finally came into sharp focus. Before I understood what I was doing, I put the geometry book down and knelt by the window. I pressed my hands together and began to pray to the wolf.
I had never prayed to anything before. My parents had never expressed any particular religious convictions. But it felt like a natural thing to do. Falls Creek was eating away at my very soul, and I was helpless to stop it. My salvation from a life of drudgery demanded the intervention of a higher power. So I knelt and silently asked the wolf for courage.
Even though I had never seen a wolf in person — a live one, I mean — I knew that this was the source of my strength. I prayed to the wolf for the courage to be wild and untamed. I prayed for an escape from my mother and her fine china, from my father and his Sunday drives, from Mr. Elington’s Cadillac and his financial braggadocio, even from Pete, whose apple-cheeked affability had come to seem puerile and subservient to me.
There was a subtle shift in the light in the room. The stars, barely visible through the reflective glass of my bedroom window which bore my own naïve visage, seemed to glow more brightly. I felt a terrifying presence in the room reminiscent of the chill I felt as a young child imagining monsters beneath the bed.
An energy in the room drew my gaze to the wolf’s marble eyes, and I couldn’t look away. Inexplicably, I began to laugh. A sustained chuckle bubbled up from my lips, though I couldn’t tell you what had struck me funny.
As my lips curled into a wide grin, I remembered. I was not little Stevey Williams, son of Steven D. Williams, J.D. I was something more. I was a rib cage containing a beating heart and six quarts of blood. I was two-hundred and six bones. Ten toes and ten fingers. Three pounds of white and gray matter. A sack of meat and blood that had mistaken itself for something more.
“Go to the landfill,” I said. Before I had time to think, the words had slid out of my mouth, like the laughter had moments ago.
“Yes, the landfill,” I said in reply.
“Why the landfill?” I asked myself.
I clamped my jaw shut and backed out of the room. As soon as the wolf was out of my sight, my head began to clear. The bedroom door latched behind me. My hands began to quiver. I clambered down the stairs and pulled my sleeping bag from the closet under the basement stairs, groping about in the dark looking for my camping toothbrush.
“Just where do you think you’re going?” said my mother.
I nearly screamed when I saw her. My heart was jackhammering against my ribs. “I’m staying at Pete’s tonight,” I gasped. It was a lie, of course, but I knew the Elingtons wouldn’t mind taking me in.
“And were you going to tell your mother?”
“Yes, I’m sorry. I forgot,” I said.
“Call in the morning,” she said. “And make sure you thank the Elingtons for having you. You hear me, Stevey? They’re friends of your father’s.”
I nodded, and she let me out the door. I dragged the sleeping bag across the green lawn, two doors down to the Elingtons’ house, and rang the doorbell. Mrs. Elington appeared behind the screen door in a white bathrobe, black bags under her eyes.
“Um, Mrs. Elington, can I stay the night here?” I said.
She seemed confused, but nodded and opened the door.
“Don’t let any moths in,” she said with a languorous drawl, batting the fat, white insects away as I slipped through the metal frame of the door.
* * *
Copyright © 2014 by Robert Quinlivan