"It's not your graduation Jaime," my mother spoke as she washed dishes.
I watched her stare out the window as my brothers slipped dishes under her rolled up dress sleeves. This mundane observation only made me more agitated and depressed. She no longer asked them to do it themselves. The steam from the sink condensed on the windowsill where my annual Christmas gift, a bonsai tree, assumed its final resting place.
"I know. I wouldn't be there," I said as I set my glass down on the counter.
Guilt smote me as I remembered a cheesy, albeit true, metaphor from my college psyche class. Spite is a poison we swallow and hope someone else will die.
The voice of Darth Vader was bellowing, "This is CNN" from our living room. My dad sat on his wobbly, grease-stained Ethan Allen chair in the adjoining dining room and attempted to aim his remote control through the path of clutter that was preventing him from turning the volume down. Despite our family's ailing manufacturing business, and the soiling labor that put food on our table, my mother insisted on purchasing items above our means. She'd held onto that chair until the bottom fell out.
My dad set the remote down and began gingerly applying Kiwi polish to his worn work boots. Next he would run a comb through hair that once resembled the black lacquer.
"But both your brothers would be there for you," he said.
"No. Just one of them." I was still biting my tongue and trying to relieve myself from what I'd swallowed.
My younger brothers no longer sat at the table together nor rode in the same car. Jesse, the youngest, had inherited my stunning lack of popularity. Joey diverted the school kids' displays of shame and animosity by distancing himself from Jesse and I. To Joey I was still his sister, but he had many names for Jesse. Maybe this distinction began when Jesse left. He always fled for help when there was an angry crowd or when Joey began talking smack about friends who were not present. When my parents decided it was time for Jesse to stand up for himself, they enrolled him at the karate school Joey had attended for eight years. Master Nam congratulated Jesse's first success by telling him that the best way to win a fight is not to start one. Jesse had been blocking Joey's punches ever since.
"Well, you could at least show up and congratulate him," my mother continued, wiping clean the same dish for the third time.
"Look. This is about me, not him." I began washing my glass.
"I see," my father said, "but Mr. Little here doesn't see."
He giggled with delight as our blind toy fox terrier—Mr. Little/Grimmy/Grimace/Rimmy—trotted boldly, forehead first through the maze of human and wooden legs under the dining room table. A congenital defect of his breed had left him with detached retinas and cataracts before he was three. Whether or not he was also deaf or had selective hearing was debatable. After three good bumps to the noggin he slowed down and burrowed his snout in my dad's empty shoe.
"Boy Rimmy, you're only a 'foot off' this time!"
At that point it appeared that Mr. Little did see and hear intelligently. He ran before my dad could jag him any further.
"It's so damn funny isn't it," he said, "seeing all of us suffer when we try so hard to make good use of ourselves!"
I grabbed my car keys and left while Joey was still in the bathroom. I didn't want him to get all worked up about anything and end up late for his graduation.
Tension creates a sound whose volume rises until its pitch is heard. First, it drowns out background noise, then radios, and finally all other instruments and voices. It rises until it resonates with the wailing impulse of the mind. It blankets any fleeting distraction aimed at numbing a distilled and throbbing truth. I was two miles, or five minutes from my high school and it was 6:30 p.m., or approximately twenty minutes before the last quarter of graduates walked. I flipped open the hard pack that was wedged securely in my visor, and pushed in the console lighter. I had time for one more cigarette.
I set foot in the asphalt parking lot and made a run past our old football field on the way to the gym. Ironically, it was precisely the refusal of this action that had nearly cost me my diploma and landed me on a ten-mile Phys. Ed. hike on my very last day of school. Apparently the physical education department did not agree that forcing citizens to engage in uncompensated physical labor constituted an erosion of civil rights. The penance for refusing to run or 'participate' in ten gym classes was set at ten miles of nature walking with the freshman class. The yearbook I passed out contains no less than two-dozen salutations from aspiring Phys. Ed. dropouts and two nicely drawn effigies of our instructors.
Those instructors stood on the far diagonal corner of the gym as I entered near the band formation. It was too late to scrounge for a seat, so I stood next to one of the drummers who barely graced my shoulders. Stature aside, he immediately struck me as a fidgety little socialite. In the short rests he got, he managed to chuckle and cohort with his fellow band members, while providing up to the second commentary as each graduate walked. His shifty eyes made it difficult to feel invisible. I lowered my gaze and listened to the roll call. They were calling Adam Sheets. I thought:
Congratulations Adam. I thought you and Joey were supposed to be long gone by now—on that boat you made one summer when your parents split and they said you would have to choose. I'm so glad you're still with us. Sam, you're wondering whether your diploma was a God-given grace or one the teachers created for themselves. Ray, Ray, Ray. You're outside making adjustments to Joey's land cruiser. The pimp mobile will be even more aerodynamic with the hood ornament cutting sideways through the wind.
Something was tapping my elbow.
"Hey, you see that kid up there?" The drummer's eyes were slit and his lip was curled. He was ready to show his teeth. Several feet away and a half a dozen rows up, my squinting eyes perceived a sullen form seated next to two alert adults. Chain-smoking had left my eyes dry and hazy. I fished my pocked for Visine.
"Yeah, that fat-ass, rat-tailed mullet sits next to me in class," he continued as if he were letting me in on a little secret. "I mean, just look at him. He doesn't bathe, he's always dirty." Then the drummer turned towards the bleachers so the boy could see him gawk. "You'd think his parents could afford new clothes."
"So, you're both underclassmen?" I said.
"Yep. I've been smelling him for years, but he just doesn't listen. You'd think he'd get his act together, take a hint sometime. We tried getting him to cut that rat's nest, but he just let the gum grow out," he continued in an earnest tone. He might have sounded modest and concerned if I hadn't understood English.
"So, he's not graduating," I tried turning the conversation again, "then who's he here to see?"
"Oh, stinky's brother is graduating today. I think that's him near the end row up there. Should be walking soon."
The eye drops I had used were just kicking in. I was able to see the figures on the stage and the faces in the bleachers. I wiped the saline tears from my eyes and looked up one last time at the bleachers. The heavy-set kid with scraggly hair had a dejected countenance and eyes that reflected a sullen humbleness—a look gained with the patience expended over years of degradation. They were my own eyes. I winked knowingly at Jesse and waited for him to return my smile.
"So, You guys must've practiced a hell of a lot for this gig huh?"
I started shifting my weight into my hip and swayed my head and shoulders toward his ears.
"Yeah. Mr. Cavenaugh had us stay after school four times in the past week. We just can't screw up," he cooed.
"Oh. Well what if,"
"Hold on a second," he cut me off and went into a drum roll commemorating the final section of graduates.
"No way we'll mess up! Uh-uh. I'd be in some heavy shit." He shook out his arms in preparation for the final sequence.
"Well guess what?"
My eyes targeted his slightly bent arms as they limply held the drumsticks. I was inches away from the drum set; Joey was inches away from holding his diploma. I gave the drummer a solid hip check that knocked him on the floor. I was behind enemy lines, ready to pummel.
"Yeah! Joey! Woo!"
I pounded my arrhythmic heart out on the drums. Adrenaline seared through my pores, leaving the impression that no surface of my body felt any weight, any pressure. Slowly the sound of the crowd rose above my voice. I stood next to a ghost. The drummer was now sitting on the floor looking up at me. The blood drawn from his face by sheer bewilderment would soon return and boil through his veins. I took this opportunity to confront him before whatever mean spirit possessing him could speak.
"I know you're a smart one. So smart you probably already figured out who I am. And maybe, someday, you'll be so smart that you think before you speak. And then," I smiled, "you'll understand how to be heard."
From the bleachers my mom nodded and covered her mouth with her fingers, though her crinkly eyes and blushing cheeks still shone. My father turned his chin down and to the right as he scratched the back of his head—a move designed to conceal his grin. And Jesse? He was still in the bleachers, smiling.