Dallas Woodburn is a 2013-14 Steinbeck Fellow in Creative Writing at San Jose State University. A three-time Pushcart Prize nominee, she won second place in the American Fiction Prize and her work is forthcoming in American Fiction Volume 13: The Best Unpublished Short Stories by American Writers (New Rivers Press). Her short story collection was a finalist for the 2012 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction and her work has appeared in The Nashville Review, The Los Angeles Times, Louisiana Literature, Monkeybicycle, Ayris, among others. In addition, her plays have been produced in Los Angeles and New York City.
Jeremy had a sore throat, or so he said. That’s how it began.
“Sorry,” he whispered when his mother sat down across from him at the dinner table and asked about his day. He touched his throat. “It hurts to talk.”
“Oh, honey,” his mother said. She studied him anxiously. In her eyes, Jeremy sometimes thought, he would always be six years old. “Would you like some tea?” she asked. He knew she would ask that. He shook his head, but she was already out of her chair. “I’ll make you some tea. How’s chamomile sound?”
Just another two years and he could leave, like Walt had. The steam rose from his mug in a slow brooding way. His mother smiled from across the narrow kitchen table. The tablecloth had a pea-sized brown stain in one corner. A few years ago, Jeremy had cut his finger with a steak knife while eating pork tenderloin. Four stitches at the hospital. His mother said she would get a new tablecloth, but then his father left and she never did.
Jeremy’s mother insisted on giving him a notepad to use at school. It was long and narrow, advertising JOHN J. NICHOLS, Your Friendly Neighborhood Realtor! at the top with aggressively fonted contact information. John J. Nichols, tan and Rogained, grinned healthily in a yearbook-sized photo beside his name.
“Here. You can use this to write down things you need to say.” She handed it to him. “Your teachers will understand.”
Jeremy nodded and picked up his backpack, weighed down with books and binders and gym clothes. His mother moved to kiss him on the cheek but he turned away; her mouth grazed his hair. “Have a good day,” she said, watching from the doorway as he walked to his car, a hand-me-down sea-foam green Saturn that had been Walt’s in high school. His mother closed the front door, but as he backed out of the driveway he glimpsed her face, pressed up to the small side window, like a little girl at day care watching a parent leave.
A week passed, and still he was silent. “What’s wrong, honey? Talk to me,” his mother asked, as the two of them picked their way through another quiet dinner. He met her eyes and smiled as he lifted a forkful of green beans to his mouth. He chewed, swallowed, and gave her a thumbs-up. She sighed. “Thank you, dear. I’m glad you like it.” Her own food turned cold, barely touched.
Later, she found his notepad covered in doodles—curlicues and pyramids, monstrous dragon figures, a handlebar mustache on John J. Nichols—but no words. He was in his bedroom, the door shut. She could hear music playing, some folksy guitar band she didn’t recognize. She knocked twice. He turned down the volume on the stereo. Or maybe it was just the song ending.
She waited two breaths, three, then knocked once more and turned the knob gently. The door creaked when it opened.
“Jeremy?” she said, stepping into her son’s bedroom. The wallpaper was striped green and beige to match his bedspread. Stripes everywhere. She thought of jail. “Honey, I found this in your backpack when I was taking out your gym clothes to wash.” She held up the notepad. It felt flimsy in her hand. She wanted to shake it at him, but she didn’t.
He sat cross-legged on his bed. A book on his lap, finger marking the page.
She sat on the bed beside him. The springs sagged under her weight, making her feel old and sad and to blame. For this, for everything. “Jeremy,” she said, tilting the notepad towards him. “There are no words. You haven’t been writing anything.”
He blinked at her.
“So you talk at school, then? This silent treatment is only for me?”
He shook his head.
“Why won’t you talk to me? Are you punishing me? Is that it?”
He knew the tears were coming before they reached her eyes. Her voice warbled and she wrinkled up her nose as if struggling to hold back a sneeze. He put his arm around her. His other arm lay at his side, index finger still marking his page in the book.
“I’m your mother, Jeremy. I love you.” Her face was pressed against his shoulder, muffling her voice. When she drew her face away there would be a wet spot, tears soaked through his T-shirt to his skin. The familiar awful feeling was gnawing its way through his gut—he hated seeing her cry—but the truth was he hated it less and less the more it happened because the shock had long worn away. And there was nothing he could say. Never anything he could say.
When Jeremy was five years old, he watched an animated TV show about Tarzan. Talking to animals, climbing trees, swinging from vine to vine like a trapeze artist through the green cartoon jungle. He wanted to be Tarzan. King of the Jungle.
At recess one day, he stripped off his T-shirt and shorts, shoes and socks, and scampered across the monkey bars in his Bugs Bunny underwear. Miss Clearwater, face like a rumpled tissue, gathered up his clothes in a bundle and led him to the Principal’s Office. It was air-conditiony cold but he refused to put his clothes back on. His goose-pimpled legs stuck to the vinyl seat.
His mother was teaching her pottery class that afternoon at the community college, so his dad left work early and drove down to the elementary school. His tall frame filled the doorway. “Jeremy, what in the world? Look at you. Just look at you.”
Jeremy looked at himself. He thought he looked the same.
“Let’s put your clothes on, okay?”
Jeremy shook his head.
His father squatted down in front of him so their faces were inches apart. His glasses were slightly crooked; it looked like they were sliding sideways off his face. “Jeremy,” he said, “you have to wear clothes.”
“Tarzan doesn’t wear clothes.”
“Jeremy…” His dad’s voice took on a sandpaper roughness that made Jeremy cry.
“Why don’t you just take him home for the day?” the principal said. She was a thin woman with curly hair that reminded Jeremy of macaroni noodles.
His father stood up. “That’s probably the best thing,” he sighed. “I’m sorry again about this.” As they walked across the parking lot, his hand gripped Jeremy’s hand so tightly it almost hurt. When they got to the car, Jeremy’s father opened the back door and helped him climb inside. He shut the door loudly. He walked around the car, climbed in, and shut his own door loudly, too.
Jeremy looked at his clothes in a muddle on the seat beside him. Crumpled socks. Lonely shoes. His naked back itched against the car seat.
His dad cleared his throat. “You have to wear your clothes tomorrow,” he said. “All day. Do you understand?”
“These tantrums of yours are not going to work.”
Jeremy’s father started the car and began to back out of the parking space. When he turned in his seat to look out the rear window, his eyes met Jeremy’s.
“Dad?” Jeremy said.
“I wish I could be Tarzan.”
His father turned back around and put the car into Drive. “Well you can’t,” he said. He reached up and straightened his glasses. “Sometimes you can’t be what you want.”
Maybe it was one of those things she had known all along, but buried. Chosen to ignore. Because her husband had loved her. He was caring and attentive, a great listener and a great dad. They had been poor together. Nothing to eat but Ramen noodles and Chef Boyardee for weeks one winter. On their anniversary he’d brought home fruit salad. A splurge. They’d laughed for years about that. No one could make her laugh like he could.
He was her best friend. So she buried the knowledge.
Still, there were times she couldn’t help but see it. Once, a couple years after Walt was born, her husband and Vince were on the backyard patio grilling burgers for dinner, and she looked out the window at the two of them, standing there. He and Vince worked at the same engineering firm. They went on fishing trips together and played poker together every Tuesday night. She looked out the window and she could see it there on her husband’s face. He never looked at her that way. She had spent the rest of the evening vomiting into the shiny toilet bowl, feverish, her face hot and her forehead damp with sweat.
After two weeks of Jeremy’s silence, Walt came home for the weekend. He was a medical technician with floppy brown hair, straight teeth, and an almost-fiancé. “Any day now,” Jeremy had overheard his mother say on the phone to one of her friends. “He’s gonna ask her any day now, I’m sure of it.”
Saturday morning, Walt barged into Jeremy’s room and tossed a football at him. “Surprise! I thought I’d drive down to visit for a couple days. How’s my little bro doing?”
Jeremy sat up in bed and groggily pulled the blankets over his boxer shorts, self-consciously glancing around for Glenalyn. Walt noticed. “She’s not here. Let’s go throw the pigskin around, whaddaya say?”
Jeremy pulled on a sweatshirt and jeans and followed his brother downstairs. They walked the three blocks to the park, autumn leaves scuttling around their feet.
“So Mom says you’re not talking. What’s up? Is something the matter?”
Jeremy looked down, crunching leaves beneath his worn Nikes.
“Listen, if something’s bothering you, you should tell me. I can help.”
Jeremy pitched the football back and forth between his hands.
“If you don’t want Mom to know, I won’t tell her. Okay?”
Fumble. Jeremy stopped to pick up the football. The sidewalk smelled like childhood. How many hours had he spent crouched down like this, watching ants scurry in their needle-thin lines across the pocked cement?
Walt sighed. “Jeremy, you’d tell us if you were having a major problem, right? Mom’s worried about you. Promise me you won’t do anything…stupid? Alright?”
Jeremy nodded. He flipped the football to his brother and ran ahead, wishing he didn’t have to turn back, wishing he could just keep running.
“Well,” their mother said after dinner, stacking the dinner plates to carry to the sink. Jeremy was outside, throwing a Frisbee for the dog to fetch. “Did he say anything to you?”
“No,” Walt sighed. He picked at something in his teeth.
“What should we do?”
“I don’t know. But he seems happy, Mom.”
“Happy? How could he be happy? He’s cut off all communication with the rest of the world.”
“Not all communication,” Walt said. “He still nods, you know, and sometimes he smiles.”
“Smiles don’t equal happiness. I learned that from your father.” She wiped crumbs off the tablecloth with a mostly unused paper napkin and stamped into the kitchen. Walt followed.
“You don’t have to bring Dad into this.”
“Your father is the cause of this. I’m sure of it.”
“Mom, it’s been three years—”
Silverware clattered loudly into the sink. “I just don’t know what to do.”
“So don’t do anything. He’ll start talking again when he wants to.”
She slumped against the counter, hands flitting restlessly about her hairline, soap bubbles mixing with the gray hair above her temples. “I only want him to be happy.”
Walt shoved his hands into his pockets, thinking of Glenalyn, her goodbye note magneted to the fridge, her empty half of the closet. “Jeremy seems happy enough, Mom,” he said. “Happy as the rest of us.”
When Jeremy was seven, his mom went on a trip with her old roommates from college. She was gone for a week. He missed her. His dad tucked him into bed, but he didn’t sing the song about the moonbeams and he didn’t stroke Jeremy’s hair until he fell asleep.
One night, Jeremy woke up thirsty. Dragging his blanket behind him, he thumped in his Spiderman pajamas down the carpeted stairs. Lights blazed from the kitchen. He heard his dad laughing. And another voice, a deep man’s voice, not the TV. Jeremy peeked into the kitchen. His dad was standing there with a tall man. The tall man had a dark beard and he wasn’t wearing a shirt. Tarzan! He saw Jeremy and smiled. “Hi there, bud. What are you doing up so late?”
Jeremy was too shy to say anything. His dad poured him a glass of water and walked him back up the stairs.
“Is that Tarzan?” Jeremy whispered.
“What? No, he’s just a friend of mine,” his father said. “Now go to sleep. Be a good boy and go to sleep.”
Jeremy never saw Tarzan again. As time passed, the memory took on the obscure haziness of a dream.
“Thank you for meeting with me, Mrs. Henderson.”
“Of course, of course.” Mrs. Henderson was Jeremy’s English teacher. Her mouth looked like a drawstring purse pulled closed. She shuffled papers on her desk. “What did you want to talk about?”
“I’m worried about my son, Jeremy. He’s not talking at home.”
“Not talking? What do you mean?”
“It’s like he’s taken a vow of silence, but he won’t explain to me why. I want to know if it is something he’s just doing with me, or if he’s not talking at school, either. I gave him a notepad to write on but I don’t think he’s using it—”
“What’s his name again?”
“Jeremy. Jeremy Hachett.”
“Oh yes, Jeremy. He’s been talking in class. I’m sure of it.”
“Really? Oh, that’s wonderful!” Relief crept into her, tentatively.
“Yes. I mean, all my students participate.”
She felt for her wedding ring. When she was anxious, habit instinctively brought her fingers to its empty place. “Okay,” she said. “But I need to know specifically if Jeremy participates.”
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Hachett, but I can’t keep track of everything each student says. I know he’s been coming to class.” She consulted a coffee-stained seating chart. “He sits right there, in the second row.”
“Yes, yes, but does he talk? Does he speak up in class?” She could feel her voice creeping towards panic.
Jeremy’s teacher sighed. “Mrs. Hachett, there are forty-two students in this class alone. I teach five classes. Some of my students are failing. Some of them can’t write a cohesive paragraph. Some of them don’t even know basic grammar. Your son is not one of those students, so I’m sure he’s doing just fine.”
Walking to her car, her heels thudding coldly against the pavement, she tried to think of what else she could have said to Jeremy’s teacher. A sharp retort. Something incisive. Something witty. But words have never come easily to her at important moments. When her husband told her he was leaving, she had just stared at him, her mind blank as a virgin snowfall.
“I’m sorry,” he had said. He leaned in towards her, as if to kiss her forehead, but then pulled back, turned abruptly, and walked out of their bedroom. She sat on their king-sized bed. The floral duvet cover matched the curtains. The carpet was beige. She heard the front door open, then shut. She sat there, silent, staring for a long time at the place in the room where he had been. Where he had been standing when he told her.
“There is nothing physically wrong with him,” the doctor said.
“You can’t make him talk if he doesn’t want to,” the therapist said.
“Just give it time,” Walt said.
She tried calling his father, but hung up on the third ring. She couldn’t try again.
When Jeremy was eleven years old, his mother kissed him goodbye on the lips. She always kissed him goodbye on the lips, but this time it made him embarrassed. She didn’t wear lipstick but her mouth felt dewy. Like blades of grass slicked with dew.
“Don’t, Mom,” he said. He wiped the kiss off with the back of his hand.
The night his father left, Jeremy crept into his parents’ bedroom and found his mother sitting on the bed, rocking back and forth, forth and back, staring at a blank space against the wall where shadows wavered through the curtains. She did not see him. Her arms were crossed against her chest and she grasped herself tightly, tears streaming down her face, her mouth an open wound as if she were screaming. But it was the worst kind of screaming, the silent kind, when no sound is enough and there is nothing at all to say.