By Kathryn Chiariello
Remember, or—if that fails—imagine what it was like to be four years old. Breathe into your belly, let your side ribs spread, let your chest rise, let your lungs expand into the back of your body. Be alive and aware.
My fourth birthday party, mid-April 1978, I wore tights because the day was colder than it ought to be, and the flowering trees were tensed in the cold, and my mom wouldn’t let me wear the jeans I had asked for at Christmas. The tights were navy blue and wool and twisted around my legs and itched. I hated them. And yet I cried when I tripped on one of the ropes—as recently as 1978, children entertained themselves by jumping rope—and I fell and ripped a hole in the left knee, and the blood crusted around the ragged edge of the hole so it stung when I took them off later that day. My friend from the neighborhood was there, Maggie, whose bedroom had pink shag carpet, white painted furniture gilded at the edges, and a Donny and Marie record player on a stand. My brother’s room shared a wall with her house and I used to sit pressed to that wall and listen to her Bolivian grandmother tell stories. Two girls from my pre-school were there—one of whom was taller even than me, and had short, curly, red hair, full cheeks, and a lisp. She wore a gingham dress with puff sleeves that Anne of Green Gables would have adored. My brother was there. He was six-and-a-half, smelled that day like grass and sweat, like he always did after he’d been playing with Andrew Green and the other Green brothers.
Another breath and there is this. My mother on the phone as she cleans dinner dishes, her voice almost as low as a man’s, the long cord tangled from the way she walks back and forth, from the counter between the dining room and the kitchen to the sink, again and again, with the yellow phone held in the crook of her neck.
Another and here are my feet not hitting the floor in the church. I swing them during the drone of Father Crowley’s sermon, which I can’t understand. The church smells of wax and the candles look fuzzy when I defocus my eyes and my mom leans over, touches my shin, says “Kathryn, stop that. Now.”
I remember my mom closing the door to my bedroom and the frightening sensation that this was not my mother, but an imposter, and the hyper-awareness of my own eye sockets, the sides of my nose, my eyelashes, which were darker and heavier than usual because I had been crying. I remember turning under the soft, cool sheets to sleep on my belly because I imagined it would hurt less to be stabbed in the back than in the stomach, which I felt certain might occur. On my stomach my final moments wouldn’t be of terror—I would simply be killed and would not have to watch it happen. I remember I turned my head to one side, my ear against the pillow, the flat, old pillow in the Holly Hobby pillowcase that I loved, and I listened to my pulse beat in my eardrum until I felt the drool under the side of my mouth and I realized I had been asleep.
I remember my dad stumbling into my bedroom in the middle of the night—so at ten, ten-thirty, for all I know—and he flipped on the light and fell into my bed and whispered in a stage-whisper that tickled my ear and neck, almost to the point of pain, “You still love me, right? You wanna run away to Myrtle Beach with me?” And his breath smelled bready and stale, and he was too hot and big and his leg was too heavy across my legs, and my mom yelled something to him from the hall, and he pushed himself up and left, and when my mom stepped into the door frame, turned out my light, told me to go back to sleep, she still looked like an imposter, back-lit from the hall.
I remember lip gloss my older cousin put on me, cherry, and how it was so disappointing my lips didn’t taste as good as it smelled, and the feeling of my hair sticking to my lips.
I remember the lady in the pet store. She was skinny, wore tight, dark blue jeans and a tight button-down plaid shirt with a wide collar. She made me touch the snake when I was there on a fieldtrip with the red-headed girl and the rest of my pre-school. The snake felt dry, not slimy, but my stomach was in knots for days after that, for weeks, for months, every time I closed my eyes, which I tried not to do, because when I did, I sensed a snake between the fitted sheet and the flat one, and I would throw my sheets off and sleep with the lights on, and my brother found out what I was afraid of and would pop out from behind the brown velour shower curtain when I went upstairs to brush my teeth all by myself and say, “Ssssssssss!” and that was enough to make me scream.
When I was four, I pissed my pants on the top of the jungle gym. The pipes were so cold they almost felt wet. I was the only one in my class who would go to the very top and sit up there balanced, and that’s what I did when a stray dog came bounding onto the playground, black and jowly, pink mouth and yellow teeth, eyes rimmed with red and the hair bristling on its back. It growled like someone gargling salt water for a sore throat, and somehow the rest of the kids went inside, and I was stuck up there alone with the dog barking at me from below, and I did pee, into my dark green corduroys, the ones with the tight cords that made such a nice squeak when I walked in them—if they were dry.
And you? What did you find? Maybe you have so many stories of your own that you would like to sit with them now, and don’t feel like reading a new one. Or maybe you’re one of those people who can’t or won’t remember that much from when you were that young and doubt those of us who do. Or maybe one way or another you have the sense of wonder and terror and time that accompanies the under-five set, and you will join me in an invented tale about not only four-year-old Kate Fortunato, but about an older boy too, Tommy Larson, who is sixteen when we see them together for the first time.
As our story opens, Kate sits on a concrete step, one of the low, long steps that gradually make their way up the hill in front of the row of townhouses. At the end of this row, there is a steep staircase between the street and some grass that leads to the school. Beyond the school is the single-family house where Tommy lives with his eleven brothers and sisters and their mother. Their mother has lank hair, and dark, vacant eyes and you are more likely to see any of the Larson children—even the grown ones—than to see her. Their father left her when Tommy was born. Luckily, she was a scientist. She applied herself to the problem of living the best she could, and most days that meant making it out of bed, into the car, to the lab. She must have been something, once, to get a PhD in Chemistry in the ‘60s as a woman, and to have that many kids. Tommy has Down Syndrome, and when his father understood that, he split, as if he could have handled twelve children all right, but not when one of them was retarded—as everyone in the neighborhood described Tommy back then.
Tommy had a thick tongue and thick glasses and thick muscles all over his body, and he would come to Kate’s neighborhood with one of his brothers each month to collect the money from people who ordered the newspaper and he’d stand behind the brother and smile, if he was happy, or shift his weight back and forth between his big feet if he was feeling something else, anxiety, perhaps. It is harder for me to understand what it felt like to be him, though I know other writers have inhabited characters who are as developmentally or neurologically as different from them as Tommy is from me.
For the moment though, let’s stick with Kate, on that low step, playing with a doll, which was something she only rarely did. On this day, her mother told her she could take the doll for a walk in the toy baby carriage—outside, alone—and so she took the doll, a bald, plastic head and dirty face, soft body, hard hands and feet, a hand-me-down from her brother, who had adored the thing for the first years of his life and now scorned it, under the influence no doubt of tough little Eddie Adler, who scoffed at sentiment and hit people—even teachers—and was her brother’s best friend and arch enemy. Today, the doll earned her independence and adventure. She got as far as those low steps, but the carriage couldn’t go up the first one, it was too heavy for Kate to lift, so she plopped down on the sidewalk and the concrete left tiny pebbles and indented red patterns all over her soft bottom and the sides of her thighs, and she played with the doll—mostly she watched the bees, listened to them in the cherry blossoms, and once in a while remembered to pretend the baby was sick, pinched bits of dirt from between the new grass to feed it as medicine, until Tommy came lumbering down the steeper stairs to the wide one where she sat.
He said something. Maybe it was “Do you need help?” or “Get out of my way!” but Kate couldn’t make out his words, so she said, “What?” and he repeated it, louder, and more agitated, rocking like he sometimes did from side to side. She said, “What?” again and stood up, because he was very big from her point of view, and she didn’t like feeling so small, and I don’t know what Tommy was thinking or feeling, but I can more easily imagine that to Kate he seemed mad when he said something again, and she said “What?” again, and he made a fist, and fist hit face, and immediately she could taste the iron blood in the back of her throat, and she couldn’t see for a few seconds. Everything went starry and black like in the cartoons. She must have screamed, because Marge Maloney came out of her house, ran out really, and scooped Kate up, and Kate was definitely screaming by then, but not because her face hurt, which it did, and not because her nose was broken, which it was, but because the doll was still on the ground at Tommy’s feet and she was afraid he would take it and her brother would be mad at her.
Tommy cried too. Tommy followed Marge and Kate all the way to Kate’s house—so not far, on a street of townhouses seven houses isn’t really that far—and he said over and over and over, “I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” and Kate could understand that even coming from his thick voice, and she was sorry too, for not understanding what he had wanted on the stairs.
She understood he was sorry then, and again when he came back later in the day, when her nose was packed with cotton, and her eyes were both black. One of his sisters brought him by before supper and he said again he was sorry, and Kate held her mother’s hand at the front door and said it was okay, but Tommy just rocked and repeated he was sorry. He said he was sorry every time he saw her for years, sometimes when he came with his brother to collect the newspaper money—when his brother had to leave his own kids for the afternoon to come help Tommy collect—and a few times he came to the door dressed in a Superman costume, on random days, when once he even cried, and Kate didn’t know what to do, so she said it was okay, but kept the screen door shut between them.
Kate’s nose healed, but it healed crooked. When she was fifteen, her first love would run his finger along the ridge of it and call it beautiful.
When she was forty-two, she drove back to the neighborhood to visit her folks, saw Tommy on the corner where the blue mailbox used to be and watched him bend down, to pick up a Snickers wrapper from the gutter it looked like, and he was gray, and had gray whiskers on his face, and she found out from her mom that he’d had heart surgery years before that helped him a lot, and that he still lived with his mom in the same house, which Kate’s mom said was in desperate need of a paint job and some landscaping work.
When she was forty-three, Kate’s mom told her—in passing—at the end of a conversation about the cruise her mother and father were going to go take to escape February, the recall on their car, a mix-up with a doctor’s appointment, that Mrs. Larson had died.
“What’s going to happen to Tommy?” Kate asked.
“I don’t know. His sister still lives here.”
“You know, the one who worked at NIST. I told you she retired last year.”
And Kate didn’t hear about Tommy again, or think very often about him, except once in a long while, like when she told the man she was having an affair with where she got that crooked nose, and I don’t know about you, but I can understand that. I don’t think too much about the warm piss on my leg when I was stuck on that playground and how quickly it got cold, or about the way my brother’s hair smelled after he’d been playing with the Green boys, or about how dry the snake was, or what it was like when my father drank, or how for days at time it was impossible to ignore my eye sockets, or to recognize my mother—or my voice—as my own.
Kathryn Chiariello writes essays and fiction. She lives in Washington, DC, but has held library cards in Germany, Italy, Denmark and Texas. If her hamstring isn’t injured, she teaches yoga. If it is, she reads more.