Weekend Reading – Calvin’s Ghost: A Novel / 9 / Ripped Balloon

Weekend Reading – Calvin’s Ghost: A Novel / 9 / Ripped Balloon September 14, 2019

Previously in Calvin’s Ghost8 / Gym Rat


Matters did not improve after the disastrous first day of school the previous September, the hoped-for friendships not materializing, Lawrence drawing further into himself, school an unmitigated, agonizing struggle, Lawrence unable to crawl from bed in the morning, bedroom stank-suffused, piles of dirty clothes, torn black-light posters hanging loose from the walls, a broken-framed fishing photo of Lawrence, Eli, and Tobias askew and half-smothered on his desk, shades drawn, appearance deteriorating, stress deepening his acne, slumping his shoulders, accentuating his flinch. Lawrence an immiserated, angry, terrified insect. Lawrence gyrating south, deflating like a ripped balloon.

Tobias, battling his own demons, could not handle the descent, his anger at Lawrence barely veiled, easily uncorked, never far from conflagration, triggered by back-talk from Lawrence, smirks from Lawrence, sly and sarcastic and disrespectful asides from Lawrence, Tobias unable to catalog and absorb the pain of it all, and so both Tobias and Lawrence, discharging surplus despair and anger upon each other, sliding into close encounters of the furious kind, with Tobias lambasting, savagely reproaching, imposing his punishing will, the slow rise from his chair in the sitting room, tightly gripping his glass, carrying his strength and anger with him, propelling fist to face, knee to stomach, Lawrence crumbling, screaming, cursing, sobbing, and always now, several times a minute, flinching, eyes blinking furiously, Lawrence a Sudanese Monkey, hands drifting toward his face, always his face, warding off blows, real and imaginary, past, present, and future.

And Eli? Was he there to defend his brother? Not really. Eli simply did not come home. Cecilia and her friends studied nearly every night at the university library, and so Eli and many of his friends did as well, with Eli learning that beyond proximity to the sensual languor of Cecilia he also valued opportunities the library offered for him to clear his head, concentrate, beginning to explore the world in a new way, more thoughtfully, with more clarity, more interest, its historical machinery beginning to disclose itself, revealing its mysteries, calling to Eli.

He may not have appreciated fully how much he benefited from the influence of his father, how easy it was to step into his father’s shoes. But Tobias surely knew all of this, and perhaps the growing shadow of the elder son upon his work and reputation determined how he responded to the younger son. Sometimes they would pass in the lobby of the library, Eli and Tobias, an awkward moment to be sure. But Tobias also knew where to find Eli when matters darkened at home with Lawrence, and he would stride into the reading room where he could reliably find Eli sitting with Cecilia, trying to claim her attention from among the other boys buzzing about her, the bees attracted mysteriously, irredeemably, to the hypnotic sweetness of the most succulent flower.

* * *

The breaking point occurred in late June of that year, with a moist heat stippling leaves to many hues of green, hastening their brilliance and foretelling their demise. Eli stepping from Cecilia’s car to the curb by his house, the barking, harsh and violent, audible through open windows of the second-floor bedrooms. Eli hearing these barks, barely able to acknowledge Cecilia, slamming the passenger door, the pavement beneath his feet crumbling and sagging as he staggered toward the front door, already half out of his mind.

Eli’s sister Evangeline sat in the sun room, her pallor like a tanned hide beneath her halter top and shorts, her eyes vacant like empty milk saucers. Eli sprinted upstairs, having noted his mother’s car not in the garage and so preparing for the worst. This preparation still insufficient for what he encountered as he turned on the beige pile topped with oriental area rugs at the top of the stairs.

The landing itself was truly a sitting room, exposing the full dimensions of the capacious home. Three bedrooms opened directly from the sitting room. Evangeline and Lawrence occupied bedrooms at the front of the house, with Eli’s bedroom facing to the rear, alongside the children’s bathroom and the master suite, accessed via a branching hallway. A massive dormer at the opposing end of the room bathed the children in morning light.

A design conceit of the sitting room was the placement of antique bureaus and armoires for each child, alongside wooden chairs (both high-backed and rocking) and tasteful paintings, the idea being their presence in the common area would blend aesthetics and function – the functional effect being to encourage and facilitate interaction of the children as they transacted ritual moments of their daily lives.

Tobias, with typically befuddling pretense, preferred to call this sitting room “the sheep commons,” a Tudor-Stuart contrast in his mind to the bedroom “enclosures.” The late-colonial aesthetic of this “commons” belonged to Eli’s mother. But with his self-conscious, didactic commitment to “play,” Tobias also made sure this aesthetic left room for building blocks and other wholesome, well-made toys from Creative Playthings and F.A.O. Schwartz, including a puppet theater Evangeline as a younger girl used to present dramas involving her collection of rag dolls.

Eli had assumed Lawrence’s bedroom to be the location of the grunts and crunches, which did strike him as strange, as Tobias never set foot in that room – with its steepled, sour-smelling piles of laundry, food residue, hair creams, acne astringents – carrying fear and loss, more than Tobias could bear. But Tobias and Lawrence were in Evangeline’s bedroom.

Eli spun toward the doorway of his sister’s room where, almost in slow motion Tobias was breathing fire, one hand clenched on Lawrence’s shirt collar, bunching it against Lawrence’s neck, the other hand slamming, repeatedly and deliberately, into Lawrence’s shoulder in cadence with Tobias’s panted declamations.

On Evangeline’s bed, normally crisp and pristine, the comforter lay askew. Piles of bras and panties, capturing all colors of the rainbow, dimpled the pillows. Rag dolls from the toy bin – stripped of their costumes – littered the floor. Eli could only with great enervating pain bring himself to imagine the activities implicating Lawrence when Tobias confronted him in his younger sister’s bedroom.

Lawrence, a dogged mule, pulled and twisted away from his father with aversive frenzy, but Tobias’s tight grip upon his neck, against which he ineffectually struggled, merely showcased the boy’s loosely flapping shirttails, sad flags of rebellion, an ironic commentary on the shirt collar tight around his throat. Lawrence’s pants and underwear bunched at his ankles, exposing stork legs sprouting red wire-brush hairs. His unlaced Bean boots sagged in the corner of the room.

“Get the fuck off me, Dad,” Lawrence gasped. “Fucking asshole! It’s not what you think.”

Tobias shook Lawrence by the neck, rocking him back and forth. “You are not my son,” he mouthed, his fury too vast for sound, his muted words thick with meaning, instruments for dismantling his son, his boy beyond redemption. “You are no one’s son,” he seethed. “You. Debased spawn of the devil.”

Lawrence wrenched away from his father, pushing his arms into Tobias’s chest with sudden force. His father released the grip on Lawrence’s neck and he fell back on the bed. Tobias, moving with uncommon swiftness, retrieved one of Lawrence’s boots and, holding the boot by its leather tongue, lifted his arm and swung the rubberized heel into Lawrence’s cheek. His son folded, wrapping his arms about this head, going limp and gurgling as Tobias swung the boot at his son, hammering this Lawrence, this unworthy nail, three, four, five times, until Eli, folding his own arms around his father, enveloped him with strength and purpose.

Eli tore Tobias from Lawrence, half-dragging, half-lifting him from Evangeline’s bedroom and into the sitting room. Tobias, released from his son’s embrace, but still gripping the boot by its tongue, sagged into one of the high-backed chairs and held his sweat-drenched head between his salty hands.


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