Lark and Termite

By Jayne Anne Phillips
Knopf Publishing Group. 254 pp. $24
Jan. 25, 2008


Chapter One

Winfield, West Virginia July 26, 1959

Lark

I move his chair into the yard under the tree and then Nonie carries him out. The tree is getting all full of seeds and the pods hang down. Soon enough the seeds will fly through the air and Nonie will have hay fever and want all the windows shut to keep the white puffs out. Termite will want to be outside in the chair all the time then, and he'll go on and on at me if I try to keep him indoors so I can do the ironing or clean up the dishes. Sun or rain, he wants to be out, early mornings especially. "OK, you're out," Nonie will say, and he starts his sounds, quiet and satisfied, before she even puts him down. She has on her white uniform to go to work at Charlie's and she holds Termite out from her a ways, not to get her stockings run with his long toenails or her skirt stained with his fingers because he always has jam on them after breakfast.

"There's Termite." Nonie puts him in the chair with his legs under him like he always sits. Anybody else's legs would go to sleep, all day like that. "You keep an eye on him, Lark," Nonie tells me, "and give him some lemonade when it gets warmer. You can put the radio in the kitchen window. That way he can hear it from out here too." Nonie straightens Termite. "Get him one of those cleaner-bag ribbons from inside. I got to go, Charlie will have my ass."

A car horn blares in the alley. Termite blares too then, trying to sound like the horn. "Elise is here," Nonie says. "Don't forget to wash the dishes, and wipe off his hands." She's already walking off across the grass, but Termite is outside so he doesn't mind her going. Elise waves at me from inside her Ford. She's a little shape in the shine of glare on the window, then the gravel crunches and they're moving off fast, like they're going somewhere important. "Termite," I say to him, and he says it back to me. He always gets the notes right, without saying the words. His sounds are like a one-toned song, and the day is still and flat. It's seven in the morning and here and there a little bit of air moves, in pieces, like a tease, like things are getting full so slow no one notices. On the kitchen wall we have one of those glass vials with blue water in it, and the water rises if it's going to storm. The water is all the way to the top and it's like a test now to wait and see if the thing works, or if it's so cheap it's already broken. "Termite," I tell him, "I'll fix the radio. Don't worry." He's got to have something to listen to. He moves his fingers the way he does, with his hands up and all his fingers pointing, then curving, each in a separate motion, fast or careful. He never looks at his fingers but I always think he hears or knows something through them, like he does it for some reason. Charlie says he's just spastic, that's a spastic motion; Nonie says he's fidgety, with whatever he has that he can't put to anything. His fingers never stop moving unless we give him something to hold, then he holds on so tight we have to pry whatever it is away from him. Nonie says that's just cussedness. I think when he holds something his fingers rest. He doesn't always want to keep hearing things.

My nightgown is so thin I shouldn't be standing out here, though it's not like it matters. Houses on both sides of the alley have seen about everything of one another from their secondfloor windows. No one drives back here but the people who live here, who park their cars in the gravel driveways that run off the alley. We don't have a car, but the others do, and the Tuccis have three-two that run and one that doesn't. It's early summer and the alley has a berm of plush grass straight up the center. All us kids-Joey and Solly and Zeke and me-walked the grass barefoot in summer, back and forth to one another's houses. I pulled Termite in the wagon and the wheels fit perfectly in the narrow tire tracks of the alley. Nick Tucci still calls his boys thugs, proud they're quick and tough. He credits Nonie with being the only mother his kids really remember, back when we were small.

Today is Sunday. Nick Tucci will run his push mower along the berm of the alley, to keep the weeds down. He does it after dusk, when he gets home from weekend overtime at the factory and he's had supper and beer, and the grass smells like one sharp green thread sliced open. I bring Termite out. He loves the sound of that mower and he listens for it, once all the way down, once back. He makes a low murmur like r's strung together, and he has to listen hard over the sounds of other things, electric fans in windows, radio sounds, and he sits still and I give him my sandals to hold. He looks to the side like he does, his hands fit into my shoes. Hiseyes stay still, and he hears. If I stand behind his chair I can feel the blade of the mower too; I feel it roll and turn way down low in me, making a whirl and a cutting.

Sundays seem as long as a year. Sundays I don't walk up Kanawha Hill to Main Street to Barker Secretarial. I'm nearly through second semester, Typing and Basic Skills, but I'm First of Class and Miss Barker lets me sit in on Steno with the second-year girls. Miss Barker is not young. She's a never-married lady who lives in her dead father's house and took over the school for him when he died of a heart attack about ten years ago. The school is up above the Five & Ten, on the second floor of the long building with the long red sign that says in gold letters murphy's five and ten cent store. It's a really old sign, Nonie says, it was there when she and my mother were growing up, but the store was both floors then. Now Barker Secretarial has filled the big upstairs room with lines of Formica-topped desks, each with a pullout shelf where we keep our typing books (Look to the right, not to the keyboard, look to the right-). We have to be on time because the drills are timed and we turn on our machines all at once; there's a ratchety click and a rumble, like the whole room surges, then it hums. The typewriters hum one note: it's a note Termite could do, but what would he do with the sound of us typing. We all work at one speed for practice drills. We're like a chorus and the clacking of the keys sounds measured, all together. Then at personal best we go for speed and all the rates are different. The machines explode with noise, running over themselves. Up near the big windows, for half the room, there's a lowered fake ceiling with long fluorescent lights. The tops of the windows disappear in that ceiling and I hate it and I sit in the back. Barker Secretarial stopped with the ceiling halfway when they realized they didn't have the money for air-conditioning, and they brought in big fans that roll on wheels like the wheels on Termite's chair. Miss Barker gets those fans going and we all have to wear scarves to keep our hair from flying around. With the noise and the motion I can think I'm high up, moving fast above the town and the trees and the river and the bridges, and as long as I'm typing I won't crash.

I tell Termite, "It's not going to rain yet. He'll still mow the alley. There's not going to be stars though. It's going to be hot and white, and the white sky will go gray. Then really late we might have that big storm they talk about."

Big storm they talk about, Termite says back to me, in sounds like my words.

"That's right," I tell him. "But you'll have to watch from the window. Don't think you're going to sit out here in the rain with lightning flashing all around you."

He doesn't say anything to that. He might be thinking how great it would be, wind and rain, real hard rain, not like the summer rain we let him sit out in sometimes. He likes motion. He likes things on his skin. He's alive all over that way. Nonie says I put thoughts in his head, he might not be thinking anything. Maybe he doesn't have to think, I tell her. Just don't you be thinking a lot of things about him that aren't true, she'll say.

But no one can tell what's true about him.

Termite was pretty when he was a baby. People would coo over him when we walked him in the big carriage. His forehead was real broad and he had blond curls and those blue eyes that move more than normal, like he's watching something we don't see. He was so small for his age that Nonie called him a mite, then Termite, because even then he moved his fingers, feeling the air. I think he's in himself like a termite's in a wall.

I remember when Termite came. Nonie is his guardian and his aunt, but I'm his sister. In a way he's more mine than anyone else's. He'll be mine for longer, is what Nonie says. Nonie isn't old but she always says to me about when she'll be gone. She looks so strong, like a block or a rectangle, strong in her shoulders and her back and her wide hips, even in her legs and their blue veins that she covers up with her stockings. Your mother didn't bring him, is what Nonie told me, someone brought him for her. Not his father. Nonie says Termite's father was only married to my mother for a year. He was a baby, Nonie says, twenty-one when my mother was nearly thirty, and those bastards left him over there in Korea. No one even got his body back and they had to have the service around a flag that was folded up. Nonie says it was wrong and it will never be right. But I don't know how Termite got here because Nonie sent me away that week to church camp. I was nine and had my birthday at camp, and when I came home Termite was here. He was nearly a year old but he couldn't sit up by himself, and Nonie had him a baby bed and clothes and a high chair with cushions and straps, and she had papers that were signed. She never got a birth certificate though, so we count the day he came his birthday, but I make him a birthday whenever it suits me.

"Today could be a birthday," I tell him. "One with a blue cake, yellow inside, and a lemon taste. You like that kind, with whipped cream in the center, to celebrate the storm coming, and Nick Tucci will get some with his ice tea tonight, and I'll help you put the candles in. You come inside with me while I mix it and you can hold the radio. You can turn the dials around, OK?"

Dials around OK. I can almost answer for him. But I don't. And he doesn't, because he doesn't want to come inside. I can feel him holding still; he wants to sit here. He puts his hand up to his face, to his forehead, as though he's holding one of the strips of blue plastic Nonie calls ribbons: that's what he wants. "There's no wind, Termite, no air at all," I tell him. He blows with his lips, short sighs.

So I move his chair back from the alley a bit and I go inside and get the ribbon, a strip of a blue plastic dry-cleaner bag about four inches wide and two feet long. It's too small to get tangled and anyway we watch him; I take it out to him and wrap it around his hand twice and he holds it with his fingers curled, up to his forehead. "I'll get dressed and clean up the kitchen," I tell him, "but when I make the cake you're going to have to come inside, OK?"

He casts his eyes sideways at me. That means he agrees, but he's thinking about the blue, that strip of space he can move.

"You ring the bell if you want anything," I say.

The bell on his chair was my idea; it's really a bell for a hotel desk, flat, and he can press the knob with his wrist. That bell was mounted on a piece of metal with holes, maybe so no one would steal it once upon a time, or so it wouldn't get misplaced. A lot of years ago, I sewed it to the arm of Termite's chair with thick linen cord. His bell has a high, nice sound, not a bad sound. He presses it twice if he has to go to the bathroom, or a lot if something is wrong, or sometimes just once, now and then in the quiet, like a thought.

"Termite," I tell him, "I'm going back in."

Back in, back in, back in. I hear him as I walk away, and now he'll be silent as a breather, quiet as long as I let him be.

I stand at the kitchen sink where I can see him, put the stopper in the sink, run the water as hot as it can get. The smell of the heat comes up at my face. The dishes sink into suds, and I watch Termite. His chair is turned a little to the side, and I can see him blowing on the ribbon, blowing and blowing it, not too fast. The little bit of air that stirs in the yard catches the length of that scrap and moves it. Termite likes the blue of the plastic and he likes to see through it. He blows it out from his face and he watches it move, and it barely touches him, and he blows it away. He'll do that for thirty minutes, for an hour, till you take it away from him. In my dreams he does it for days, for years, like he's keeping time, like he's a clock or a watch. I draw him that way, fast, with pencil in my notebook. Head up like he holds himself then, wrist raised, moving blue with his breath.

People who see him from their second-story windows see a boy in a chair across the alley. They know his name and who he is. They know Noreen and how she's worked at Charlie Fitzgibbon's all these years, running the restaurant with Charlie while Gladdy Fitzgibbon owns it all and parcels out the money. How Nonie is raising kids alone that aren't hers because Charlie has never told his mother to shove it, never walked off and made himself some other work and gone ahead and married a twice-divorced woman with a daughter and another kid who can't walk and doesn't talk.

Nonie is like my mother. When she introduces me, she says,

"This is my daughter, Lark."

Nonie would be raising us anyway, whether Charlie ever did the right thing or not. And I don't know if she even wants him to, anymore. It's just Nonie should own part of that restaurant, hard as she works. Charlie does the cooking and runs the kitchen, and Nonie does everything else, always has, ever since she came back here when she left the second husband. She came back and there was Charlie right where she'd left him, living with his mother and going to Mass, and they fell right back into their old ways, and Gladdy fell into hers. Except the Fitzgibbons had just about nothing after the Depression. When Nonie came back, they'd barely held on to their house and the business. They would have lost the restaurant if Nonie hadn't saved it for them,

(Continues...)



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