Just Another Family

by Susan Robison

Sharon is done training monkeys for the day. She just taught a nine-inch capuchin how to flip pages for a woman in her seventies with Lou Gehrig’s disease. The monkey, Delores, advanced in years herself with fingers no longer as nimble as they used to be, found it hard to turn each page and often clumped several together. Delores squealed with frustration and finally got down on all fours and looked around the table as if to find an escape route. Sharon had to figure out something not only for the old woman, but for Delores. After trying several strategies including well-timed offerings of pumpkin seeds, she lit on having Delores lick her thumb before turning a page and ta da!—success. Delores’s thrilled vocalizations were so high-pitched she was singing as she licked and flipped. Task complete, she stood and stroked Sharon’s cheek.

Driving home from Capuchin Companions in Cambridge, Sharon swerves through the gates into Mt. Auburn Cemetery. She passes by the cemetery every day, and now she’s stunned to find herself inside. She never acts on impulse. But she’s still shimmering from what she accomplished with Delores and guesses she deserves to see the legendary landscaping she’s heard about and the ornate tombstones from the 1700 and 1800’s. She pulls into the circle behind the only other parked car.

She slings her purse over her shoulder and stands for several minutes by a circular fountain. Slant light dapples the surrounding scarlet and yellow tulips, jewelling them into an Impressionist painting. What a triumph for her to be here instead of heading straight home from work to her dark, dank basement apartment. After a few minutes of drinking in the floral and earthy smells, thoughts of Sam tug at her stronger than ever before. He broke his spinal cord doing a flip on a bicycle off a wall when he was 23, and now, a year later, he has Webster—the smartest, sweetest monkey she ever trained.

She sets off up a hill and imagines Sam powering along beside her in his electric wheelchair. They listen to the trills of the cardinals and the calls of the hawks. She settles on Sam’s lap, and nervous waves ripple through her. Stop this now, she tells herself. Other than the monkeys, she never lets anyone get close.

Though Sam’s torso, legs and left arm are paralyzed, he has slight range of movement in his right arm and hand, so can get around using the joystick on his power chair. She’s trained Webster to pick up items Sam drops, fill his water bottle and stick a straw in, use the TV remote as Sam directs him to. Each time Sam tells Webster what a good boy he is. With any other duo she would have closed out checking on them as they’re doing great together, but she can’t bear how much she’d miss Webster. As well as never again seeing Sam’s dazzling green eyes. There have been times that she catches him looking at her with such intensity that she feels sexy. The first time ever.

The shadows are lengthening, but she wants to see just one beautifully carved tombstone. It’s probably not smart being here this late, but this exploration will pave the way for a second expedition some sunny weekend. She runs up another hill, and reaches an area where the trees are massive, with tall, gnarled roots pushing up from the earth like dinosaur limbs. It’s so gloomy here she can’t see ahead and trips over a root. She grabs a gravestone to steady herself. She’s in a family plot from the mid-1800’s—the Ellsworthys—with a huge, elaborate marker of the patriarch flanked by the plainer stones of his wife and five children. She bends over two small markers topped by lambs to see when those young children died. A girl at age five, a boy at two. The husband must have died in the Civil War, leaving his wife and children. Though Mrs. Ellsworthy didn’t have any way to support them all, she wouldn’t have given up any of her children for adoption. Good mothers never do. Unlike her own who… Nope, don’t go there. She straightens up.

The lambs are now glowing in the setting sun, and she has no idea what time the gates will lock. She runs towards what she hopes is the entrance when she hears footsteps too close behind her.  God, no. A man with a broad-brimmed hat pulled low over his eyes stands a few feet from her. In an odd growl, he tells her to give him her pocketbook. She flings her purse toward him and runs, but after picking it up, he catches up to her and pushes her against a gravestone. His arms and neck are spotted and wrinkled, his teeth cracked brown stubs, his breath stinks. He dumps the contents of her purse on the ground and shoves her wallet into his pocket. “Give me your cell phone,” he says in that same growl she’ll hear forever. Her phone is in her pocket, along with her keys. Her hand shakes so much she fears she’ll drop her phone, but she manages to put it in his outstretched hand. His hat is tilted low.

“Don’t go to the police. I know your car and now I have your address. Don’t be stupid,” he says.

“I won’t, I swear,” she says, with a sob.

He walks toward the exit with a jerky gait as if his leg or hip had been broken and never fixed right. He doesn’t glance behind him. Her heart whirs and she can’t get air. She sinks to her knees so she won’t fall. She’s having a panic attack like she often got when she was young. It’s almost dark and she’ll be locked in for the night. She can’t call 911. She’ll die here. The grave markers cast long shadows.

She stuffs everything back in her purse and crawls several yards until she forces herself upright and manages to run towards the exit but has to stop when trees and grave markers spin. She glimpses the tall gates and dashes to them. Still open, thank god. She jumps into her car and locks the doors.

She can’t breathe. The man’s words don’t be stupid ricochet in her head. She’s already been stupid coming so late. Coming here at all. Where will she go? How can she get there? The car key, the dashboard look completely foreign. She shakes her hands out, breathes as deeply as she can, and manages to wobble the key into the ignition and pull onto the street. She should drive to the police station, but the guy could be near it, waiting. She can’t go home; the man might be at her apartment. He has her credit card, license, cell phone. Her whole life is in his pocket.

*

She finds herself in front of Sam’s house, barely remembers driving here but has no place else to go. She’ll just make some calls from his phone, then leave. And head where? After checking her rear and side mirrors she runs up the ramp to the door and pounds on it. Be here, be okay with me showing up like this.

He opens the door and beams. “Sharon. What a—”

She locks the door while Webster grabs onto her jeans, chattering with pleasure. She squats down, rubs his head so hard that he squeals. She rises and rests her head on Sam’s shoulder and starts to cry. With his good arm, he cradles her and the wonder of his warmth sends a shiver of comfort through her.

“What happened? What’s going on?”

Webster jumps into Sam’s lap and stands tall to touch her wet cheeks. From inches away Webster’s both an infant and a little old man: enormous black eyes, tiny teeth, wrinkled skin, cap of dark brown fur framing his pink, and now, worried face.

“A man…my wallet.”

“Did he hurt you? You call the police?” Sam unwraps his arms from her and pushes her back slightly so he can look into her eyes.

“He didn’t touch me. He said…not to call.”

He asks what else the man said, what he did.

Trying to stifle her sobs, she recounts the events as best she can. “I’m afraid he’ll come after me. He has my license and knows where I live.”

Sam says that the man doesn’t sound like someone who’d risk doing anything more. “The guy was trying to scare you, not hurt you.”

“He could have followed me.” She looks toward the window. “He could be right out there.”

“I doubt he had a car and since he got what he wanted, he just bolted. But I’m happy to check.” With Webster still in his lap, Sam turns on the outside light and peers out the window. If the man is outside, what can Sam do to protect her? To protect himself? With his limp legs and useless left arm he’s as much bait as she. Even more so, maybe. She hates herself for thinking this, never thought of Sam that way. Of course, until this night she’s only been here as a trainer, but now she’s let down—even angry—at what he can’t do.

“Not a soul out there. You should call the police. They might know the guy. You don’t want him preying on–”

“I don’t have a phone,” she snaps. “I told you that.”

Sam’s eyebrows rise and he regards her intently, then hands his over. “Sit on the sofa. Cancel your credit card and your phone.”

Like with her dashboard earlier, his phone looks foreign. Sam takes it from her and asks what card she has. Despite all that’s happened, something inside her—her heart?— hums as he persists with Siri getting the number for lost cards at her bank and then hands her the phone when she needs to give her address, date of birth and login for her debit card. He calls Verizon, then the police and hands her the phone as needed. When there’s no one left to call, he pins her with those eyes. “It’s cool for me to be doing this for you.”

She can’t quite wrap her mind around how incredible it feels to be taken care of. “Thanks for…I guess I should…home.” Her voice is borrowed, not hers at all, and she can’t finish a thought.

“Stay here tonight, Shar.” Sam’s cheeks redden. “Sharon,” he amends. “You’ll feel less freaked out by daylight. Especially when you’re at work.”

About a month ago she told him she lived alone, after he asked. She hesitates, then says, “That’d be great, Sam. I’ll sleep on your couch.” She notices him taking in the dirt crusted all over her hands and jeans and he asks if she’d like to take a shower.

Standing under the hottest water she can bear, she whispers “Shar.” Nobody has ever called her that. She loves that he has a private name for her and that he blushed. She grabs a loofah and scrubs hard, trying to scrape away the man, her panic. She towels off, wipes the dirt from her jeans, struggles into her clothes.

Sam is whistling as he brushes Webster’s fur. He’s so tender with Webster it hurts. Literally hurts, deep in her chest. Sam once showed her a ball he squeezes for a half-hour a day just so he can hold on to a plastic cup or this grooming brush. She pushes a chair by them, and Webster springs onto her shoulder and licks her cheeks and lips. She’s never witnessed other trainers letting their monkeys do this, but she loves the lick. “Itch, Itch,” she says and points to her forehead. He scratches there as she taught him. She taps the back of her neck and her shoulders where the weight of everything she’ll have to do tomorrow has already settled. Replace her cell and buy a wallet she has no money for. Go to the Registry of Motor Vehicles. As well as go to work. Webster digs into her neck and shoulders with forceful fingers.

“My turn,” Sam says. He tells Webster to clear off and he pulls up in his chair behind her. Webster pushes his maze toy so that he’s directly in front of the two of them and concentrates on sliding the brightly colored beads from one side of the twisted wires to the other side.

“Our sweet boy,” she says, her voice shaky. Sam massages her shoulders with his good hand while she wills herself to hold onto how amazing it feels being touched by him. But she can’t help thinking that Webster rubbed her deeper.

As Sam rubs her back and scalp, he asks if this is okay? How about this? He stops and when she twists around to face him, he’s looking down at his hand. “I’m not as strong as a miniature monkey.” He laughs, ruefully.

Sam must have read her body. “That’s not…Webster does have stronger fingers, but you’re the one who knows where,” she pauses, “and how to touch me.” He glides his fingers through her hair from bangs to crown, again and again, then rubs her temples. Maybe his fingers are weak but they’re piercing right through her. She sighs, long and deep.

Just then his cell sounds. Shit, she thinks. “Shit,” he says. “My dad. Really bad timing but I gotta take it.” He tells his father that he and his mom don’t need to come over. That she stopped by.

She hopes she and Sam will get back to what they were doing. When he’s off the phone, she’ll clean out Webster’s bowls and his cage like Sam’s parents do every night. She’ll suggest they bathe Webster in the kitchen sink. He loves ducking his head into the suds and popping up with soap bubbles on his ears and nose, grinning and chuckling. Staying here, doing that, would make her feel like she’s part of something bigger than herself.

His father seems to be talking a lot and Sam’s looking impatient. He turns his chair away from her, and she notices that his bedroom door is wide open. Three months ago, she stuck her head in when the door was open a crack and saw that like hers, it was strictly utilitarian with no pictures, posters, or adornments. She tip-toes to his door and takes a step back. But a magnet stronger than she is sucks her in.

She closes the door most of the way behind her. On his computer screen is a Boston restaurant website he must have just been working on. He told her he’s getting himself back into graphic design and has landed a few freelance jobs. She peers closely at the screen. It’s good; he’s talented. With all the adaptive software out now, she hopes in this realm he feels able-bodied. Then she glimpses a bedpan and a medical tube of some sort under the bed, probably a catheter. Sam wouldn’t want her to see this. Not now, maybe not ever.

She should leave right now. But huh, Sam’s now hung many framed photos. Young Sam with a lacrosse team, the guys holding up netted sticks; a bunch of guys and girls wearing Northeastern T-shirts, holding up beer bottles. Muscular Sam in a sleeveless T-shirt, resting his arm on the shoulder of a beautiful girl at a bar. She has dark hair down to her waist and wears a low-cut top. Sharon peers at her so closely her nose is almost on the glass. Actually, it is on it, and she swipes the girl away, whispering, “Fuck you.” She never uses the f word, but this is kind of, well, fun.

“What are you doing?” Soundlessly, Sam rolled up behind her, with Webster curled on his lap.

She straightens right up. “God, I’m sorry. This is totally embarrassing.” She actually stutters as she says, “It’s j-just that your d-door was open and…I’ve been so cur—”

“Even gimps need some privacy, you know,” he says sharply. He’s never been angry at her, but neither has she ever acted this way. How would she feel if Sam saw the clothes and food wrappers that litter her apartment? Or Freddy, the Teddy Bear lying on her pillow, who has become furless from being clutched in bed for 25 years.

“Of course. I am so, so sorry. I don’t know what…I better go.”

“What were you just doing with that picture?” Webster looks up at her, curious as well.

“That girl’s so beautiful and I guess…I was jealous. I was…getting rid of her.”

A flicker of a smile crosses Sam’s face. “So. What else did you find in here?”

“That website you’re designing is really impressive.” She pauses. “And that you could put up these photos from when—” She shakes her head.

“It took me a long time until I could,” he says softly.

“I haven’t been able to. Not one thing on my bedroom walls.”

“Why not, Shar?”

Shar again! Their supervisor instructs all the trainers to be friendly, but hold a strict line at not becoming friends with the monkey recipients they monitor. Well, she’s sure over that line with Sam. “We’ll talk about that—me—some other time.” She hopes that she, too, will be brave enough to put up a few photos in her bedroom. She thinks of the pictures she stuffed in the back of her closet. Especially the one of her foster mother holding her as a baby, clutching full fur Freddy. She’s suddenly overwhelmed by exhaustion and yawns and can’t seem to stop.

“My couch is old and lumpy. You can crash on my bed.” He reaches up and pats her on the shoulder. “I’ll just feed Web Man and join you in a sec. No worries, no fooling around.”

Oh my god. Sleep in his bed. With him. “Yeah, that’d be great, Sam,” she somehow manages to say. From the doorway, she watches Sam roll near Webster’s cage and press down with his good hand on a spout attached to a large plastic bin. Webster quickly stuffs the monkey chow in his mouth, swiveling his head from Sam to her as if he can’t believe his two favorite people are in the same line of his vision. Waving good-bye to Webster, she walks to Sam’s bed, astonished that her legs aren’t giving way. She slips under his sheet and the tang of Sam intoxicates her. Something flutters in her belly, as if moths are madly flapping their wings, about to burst out. Maybe she’ll wake up to find that this whole day has been a dream.

Sam rolls in and removes his Velcro-tabbed sneakers, but keeps the rest of his clothes on. He positions his chair alongside the bed and lowers a chair arm. She assumes he’ll use his good arm to balance his weight as he leans over the bed and flips onto it. He’ll probably land awkwardly, so she reaches to the night table on the other side of his bed, searching for something, anything, and finding a box of tissues, she plucks one out and blows her nose. The bed shakes, shakes some more, then stills. She faces him.

“Quite the turn-on, huh?” His throat and cheeks redden. She’s nervous, too, but it’s his shame that’s roosting in her ribs. She gets up on an elbow and runs her finger along his cheek, lips, neck. His skin is warm and surprisingly soft and her finger tingles from the charge. He asks her to adjust a pillow under his head so he can look at her. His eyes bore into hers and her heart becomes more buzz than beat. Can he hear it? Sam clenches his teeth as if straining to hold himself back, so she rubs his jaw until he relaxes. She tucks covers around them both, and curls against him.

*

She jolts awake from a dream of lying in the cemetery, pawing at dirt. She’s sweated through her clothes and wants to get in the shower again, but he’s snoring lightly and she doesn’t want to wake him. She glances at the clock by his bed: almost midnight. He turned the bedside lamp off, but even in the dim light from the clock his face is beautiful.

She wiggles closer to him. His eyes open and he makes a guttural sound as he pulls her against him. She feels him harden against her thigh. Will this hurt? Will she bleed? Then to her disappointment—and relief—he releases her. “Wait,” he says. “I’d love to keep going. Or at least… try to.” He looks down towards his penis. “But you’re not yourself. I don’t want you to feel bad later.”

“I’m so tired of…being myself.”

He laughs. “Yeah, I think about that. A lot.” They’re both quiet for a while. “I was awake most of the time you were sleeping, loving looking at you.” Just then Webster rattles his cage.

“Maybe he heard you laugh,” she says. “We did put him to bed early, so let’s get up and I’ll let our boy out.” It will take Sam a while to transfer into his chair, so in the living room she peers out the window knowing the man isn’t out there, but feeling compelled to check. She opens Webster’s cage and nuzzles his nose. She sits on the sofa and he settles into her lap, his tail coiled, tightly, around her wrist.

When Sam joins them, Webster jumps onto the floor and pushes a soccer ball into the middle of the room. Sam nudges the ball with a wheel and Webster shoots off across the living room. “I joined a chair soccer team, the Steam Rollers. A bunch of guys and a couple women. Real soccer maniacs. It’s awesome to fly across a gym floor. We attach these”—he points to a plastic grille that juts out from a wall—”to the front of our chairs.” He swipes up his sweatpants, revealing dark bruises on his calves.

She imagines boomeranging bumper cars, three chair pile-ups. “Isn’t it dangerous?”

“Sometimes. Couple weeks ago, this guy said some stupid shit to me, I don’t even remember what. Next thing I know we keep ramming each other. The rest of them had to break us up. Have to say, it felt pretty great.”

She nods enthusiastically, reassured by his aggressive side.

Sam gazes up at the ceiling. “I’ve been thinking about this,” he finally says, turning to her. “Everyone should get hurt. How else do you—?” he shakes his head. “It’s just how much, isn’t it?”

It takes her a few moments, then she says, “Yeah, I guess.” She never thought about the phrase ‘falling in love’ before. You do fall. You will get hurt.

Webster tugs on Sam’s pants and Sam gets the ball rolling again. She sprints across the living room and gets to the ball before Webster. She kicks it, hard, into the kitchen. Webster shoots off to roll it back. He isn’t much taller than the ball, but what he lacks in stature, he makes up for in determination. “Way to go, Web Man!” Sam shouts.

Sharon looks over at the front windows with their curtains billowing in the breeze and marvels at this: anyone passing by would glimpse shadows of just another family, restless in the middle of the night.

 

Susan Robison’s stories have appeared in New Letters, Boulevard, Crab Orchard Review, Confrontation, Saranac Review, Cream City Review and many other journals. The first chapter of her novel, After Crash, (Outskirts Press, 2019) appeared in failbetter. Her personal essays have been published in the Boston Globe Magazine.

2 Comments

Filed under Fiction

2 responses to “Just Another Family

  1. The story flows well. Some suspense and a lot of heart. The ending was a bit unexpected. It’s the want of relations that stands out in this. Great writing! 🙂

  2. Scary, poignant, slice of trauma and life.

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