I watch tv with closed captioning on not because I can’t hear what the weather girl is saying but because I can’t understand how a storm so powerful it severed our life in half like a wasp between scissorblades could itself be severed by invisible rivers of air and left to spin, wing-clipped and helpless, pattering a weak rain over our hotel.
Teddy lies sideways at the foot of the bed because at ten he knows he’s too big to sleep with his mom without knowing how much bigger he’s gonna get in the year to come and I hope we find a place to be with more than one bed soon so he can be alone with the invisible rivers coursing through his body. So I can be alone with mine.
Why does it lag so bad Mom?
I don’t know.
The words on the screen I mean.
He’s still young enough to be literal, which is to be unconsciously symbolic. Which is okay, because I’m old enough to figure it out. We’ll work it out together. It’ll be okay, somehow.
Weather tv goes on and on. It repeats between jump cuts of tornadoes, hurricane palms. One clip looks like our house shuffled like a deck of cards. Then the weather girl snaps her accent back down around our storm like she’s biting into a shrimp.
We search for meaning in the patter of rain and pattern of Midwestern words about rain. Half of Midwestern words revolve around weather, and there they spin, wing-clipped, into a weather system themselves. Weather talk is subtext, weather words their own subtitles.
Mom. Don’t that bother you, how slow it moves? Why you got closed captioning on anyway?
I don’t know how to turn it off.
I don’t know how to turn any of it off.
Teddy holds his hand out for the remote and clicks a button. Simple as that Mom.
It’s not just that I don’t know how to turn it off. It’s that I don’t want it off.
I can’t explain to a kid how the lag between sound and word creates a needed disassociation between the tragedy of a storm and the banality of a report about it. At the juncture of act and explanation the lag severs the wasp clean in half. Disarms it of its inborn threat. Curls it into a dead bug, overcooked shrimp, a dying hurricane, an oxbow in the sky on a map on a green screen on a stage. I hold out my hand for the remote and restore the setting.
A maturing sigh. Can I use your phone Mom? I can’t watch this anymore.
Me neither, I say and lean forward to watch with even more intensity.
He rolls into fetal position, a neat remnant of childhood at the end of the bed like he’s getting as far away from me as possible, like we two are severed, like we two are dissipating in invisible currents, and he tucks himself into the blue light of a lagless, wordless escape.
[jake brake chattering]
The cleaning lady don’t vacuum by-the-week storm refugee rooms. On Friday we rip off the sheets for her and she flops a jellyroll of cleans on the mattress, picks up the bags of empties and tosses them into the dumpster to rattle every single can in a chorus of indignance at what we spend our TANF money on and we wait until she goes around the corner before we lace our shoes to sprint over the six-lane to the liquor store again.
Teddy reads aloud about green bottle flies without once looking up from my phone. The woman sitting on her stoop across the motel lot flaps at the side of her face with a hand bent double-jointed backward like she’s doing the rubber pencil trick. We’re a living rubber pencil trick exhibit. Everything straight goes noodling but it’s just an illusion. I wave flies from my own can-cluttered table and she sees into it a greeting of the pathetic cut short by a truck passing between us.
Dang. Mom. Did you know fly eyes process movement at 400 frames per second?
Which is many times faster than humans and why our debugging efforts are futile I think to myself and swallow back the urge to snap at him.
All this is futile.
I don’t say nothing. I am drunk at ten in the morning. Let him have the phone. Let him have his safe blue-lit place in it. At least he’s not reading updates about the storm.
Our storm, he calls it.
Our storm, which killed not enough people to be the tragedy the news wanted it to be which makes people like us shit-outta-luck stuck, doing the rubber pencil at flies.
When will we be able to go home again, you think Mom?
I have no way to process the question.
I can barely process the flight path of a fly. The path of a storm and what it does to people like us.
Humidity curls the woman’s hair like mine around a rusty anvil of a face like mine as though we are stamped duplicate into this diorama because we are.
[flies bumping the window]
Yeah the green flies eat trash and dead animals Mom. We need to keep them off the food.
The woman across the way opens her mouth wider and wider like she’s about to scream for the both of us and our rubber wrists stop flicking in tandem and Teddy finally looks up from the phone and the flies vanish as instantly as they appear.
All those frames per second put to use dodging raindrops just to go drown in some stranger’s vomit.
What is that Mom?
It’s a sound of my childhood, not Teddy’s.
It’s the sound of the tube, I say, not sure if it’s true or if it was something grownups said and I took it at face-value the way kids used to do before they could fact-check grownups and their bullshit.
The tube, Teddy repeats. He weaves his thumbs over the phone to verify my claim. You mean of the bubble tv?
Bubble tv is what Teddy calls old motel televisions because the regular kind, out in the regular world, are flat screens.
The cleaning ladies’ children run up and down the scabby hill at the edge of the hotel. One girl rolls down screaming so loud she frightens the birds on the electric lines. They ruffle and settle and squawk. They’re okay. Birds are supposed to be flighty. The kids and birds play their parallel games.
Children playing outside is also a sound of my childhood. Not Teddy’s. Teddy lives in a four-by-six inch rectangle of blue screen.
We sit on the curb outside the room every afternoon like this, letting the cleaning ladies come in to change the sheets and trying not to feel guilty about it, like we’re overstaying our welcome. The cleaning ladies don’t, can’t, wouldn’t offer any welcome for us to overstay and we all know that. They look at us like we’re stupid because they know how much human beings puke and piss in places they shouldn’t. They don’t have time in their own lives to puke and piss odd places. They don’t even have time to watch their own kids. This stupid life.
Wish I could roll down the embankment like that and just keep rolling away back on home. Back home before the storm and before the one before that, back to levees and families that held up under duress. That was a long time ago. I think but don’t say.
What a cacophony, I say.
Teddy’s never heard that one before. We are both surprised I can still utter a word unfamiliar to a ten-year-old boy in the internet age. He looks at me like he thinks I’m too stupid for fancy words like cacophony, and I look back at him shocked how much he looks like his dad when he looks at me like I’m stupid.
He’s growing up.
I feel sad but don’t say.
There are things I don’t say that are struggling, climbing up inside me all the time like the rats in the pipes that he don’t even know about. He don’t know the scratching sounds in our walls are rats shimmying up the pipes. He’s never seen a city rat. He don’t know what they can do. I won’t say nothing about that.
Wish I could still roll down a hill like that, I say.
He watches the kids because he don’t even want to look at his stupid mom.
The kids make a run straight down the hill and the littlest one face-plants into the gravelly bottom. Hollers, unsettles the birds. He trips a lot because he’s wearing too-big hand-me-down jeans. I know that feeling. It is a clumsiness of my childhood. Thumbs in the beltloops.
I wore your Uncle John’s jeans like that, I say.
Teddy glares into glare at the phone screen like he’ll get to the bottom of this. He don’t believe my stories. I say and say and say.
I think of the story my father told me and John about seeing his three-year-old cousin mashed dead in the middle of a game of streetball by a box-truck that didn’t even stop and I want to cry even though that was not my little cousin or my little childhood and I don’t say nothing for a while because grownups are full of bullshit and maybe none of us turned out okay. I think of John and his hand-me-down pants and I miss him like he hasn’t been gone a decade.
Finally Teddy licks his lips that are just like his dad’s. Is that kid okay without his mom watching him?
Kids are okay in big groups, I say, not sure if it’s true or if it was something grownups said. My parents threw us out and told us to head home when the streetlights kicked on, I say. Kids are resilient. We turned out okay, I say.
I say a lot. What I say will mean less and less in the fog of my son’s maturation. I falter misty-eyed into his doubt. I talk too much. Maybe I am stupid. My knowledge is hand-me-down, run through bubble tubes.
Teddy waits and worries and watches as the little boy in the big pants climbs the embankment. Scrape on his nose, blubbery pout. Gets in line to run down again.
Look, see, he’s okay, I say.
I can’t look, Teddy says.
He concentrates on the birds on the wire this time. The kids all scream together and the birds do, too. The little boy stops crying to stagger down the hill.
▪ ▪ ▪
Edie Meade is a writer, artist, and mother of four in Huntington, West Virginia. Recent work can be found in New Flash Fiction Review, Fractured Literary, Janus Literary, Ghost Parachute, and elsewhere. Find her on Twitter @ediemeade or ediemeade.com. Read her commentary on her story.