Some Things Like Screams, Some Things Like Whispers
Bad: Celia’s father is dying.
Worse: Celia has a French test today and has not studied.
Worst: A spatula is hovering above her when she wakes up.
Celia realizes the order is backward, but through the wall separating their bedrooms she can hear her father coughing, blood spattering like a Rorschach test into a Kleenex that will be crumpled and tossed to the floor, which she will gather up into a plastic grocery bag when she’s done with school, where she’s failing French, along with English and gym, and she is almost seventeen. She doesn’t want to be a junior again next year. She is supposed to be moving forward, experiencing life, not repeating it.
She refuses to turn and look at the spatula. Yesterday, it was a wooden spoon. The first time, two years ago, just a week after her mother left to buy eggs and bread and bologna and never came back, a frying pan, the one her father no longer used to make sausage and eggs every Saturday morning, sat in the dish rack, its steel edge glinting under the sun poking through the skylight. Celia was pouring herself a bowl of cereal and, at the rattle of metal behind her, she spooked and sloshed milk everywhere. When she turned around, the pan hovered at eye level as if staring at her. She screamed and ran to her room, slamming the door. But not fast enough: the frying pan floated behind her like a slasher flick killer whose speed and silence defy explanation. Her father was chain smoking and mowing the grass in order to hide his sobbing and heard nothing.
She stared at the frying pan and slid past it. It ignored her, mostly, except to follow her to her bureau where she rooted in the top drawer for a sports bra. When she turned around, she spun and grabbed the pan by the handle, her grip hard and unforgiving, expecting a fight. But it did not resist, falling into her grip like any normal pan. She carried it back to the kitchen, shutting it in the drawer under the stove, and cleaned up the cereal. Her father kept mowing the lawn, so he didn’t hear when the pan clattered and clanged so hard against the metal drawer that Celia had to release it.
Celia had no one to help her. Her mother was gone, guillotined from her life in one fell swoop when she called and told Celia’s father she wanted a divorce so she could marry a woman from her office named Leslie, a name Celia would forever associate with sludge and droopiness because that was all she could ever wish on her mother thereafter.
So Celia stared at the frying pan, whose rounded metal surface stared back, and decided that she was too tired to wonder why it had taken on a life of its own. As long as it didn’t thwack her upside the head and dump her in the garbage, she figured it could do little damage the world hadn’t already managed to inflict.
All manner of things follow Celia: drinking glasses, the colander, once the toaster even, its cord like a horse’s tail dragging toward the ground as it bounded after her. Usually, the kitchen utensils reign themselves in, follow her only on weekends and holidays.
But today, a Monday, the spatula stares at her, the slats in its flat surface like bulging eyeballs.
“No,” she says, stuffing it under her pillow. She feels it wriggling beneath the puffy material and she shoves her weight against it as if she’s smothering a small child. Celia knows this is a temporary show of power and that the moment she moves the spatula will shoot out from beneath the pillow unless she weighs it down. The only things on her nightstand are her reading lamp and a photograph of her father, neither strong enough to outdo the spatula’s interminable insistence.
“Fine,” she says, rolling over. “Whatever.”
It follows her to the bathroom. It follows her to the kitchen. It treks along as she takes a glass of water and a handful of pills to her father, who is too feverish to notice that his daughter is not alone. The spatula would follow her into her car and through the hallways at school, hover behind her during math and history and all the rest of her classes if she didn’t pluck it out of the air and shove it in her backpack, where she can hear it scrabbling and finally settling between her textbooks in a gesture of truce.
Despite her bottoming-out grades, Celia likes her English class; her teacher, Mr. Arceneaux, who wears thick black glasses and has an undercut, dark hair swooping across his head, is, according to the other girls in her class, the hottest teacher they’ve ever seen. His shirts are tight, especially at the cuff that he rolls up to his elbows, revealing golden arms covered in forest green veins that make the theater boys swoon. But she likes him not because of his sharp jaw and perfect-cut smile; she appreciates that he meanders down their rows of seats, that his voice cracks when he pontificates about the beauty of a description he adores. Plus, he allows them to write creative responses to their reading assignments. Today, they’re discussing “The Lady and the Tiger,” and, for once, Celia has done the homework, crafting a poem she is proud of:
Some choices are screams
Others are whispers
But they both resound in our skulls
Like gongs whose beaten roars
Echo through halls
Mr. Arceneaux paces the front of the room and calls for volunteers to read their work. Celia wants to raise her hand but her voice feels like it has evaporated, her throat coated with sand. Someone in the front row, Bethany Anderson, volunteers—of course she does, book worm and teacher’s pet and top student in the junior class, already filling out scholarship applications for Yale or wherever—and reads a god-awful rhyming poem about two doors. Mr. Arceneaux nods and lets out a low, short mmhmm, then immediately asks for another volunteer, his hint of a southern drawl accentuating the slow pace of his speech. Bethany appears satisfied with herself, of course, unaware that Mr. Arceneaux’s lack of comment is proof he thinks her poem stinks.
Celia raises her hand without thinking, as if her arm, like the spatula, has a mind of its own. Mr. Arceneaux points to her, and she reads the poem. Her mouth, too, seems to be working on its own, only requiring one audible clearing of the throat before she starts to recite, staring at her work. When she is finished, no one speaks. Mr. Arceneaux stares.
“Intriguing.” He crosses his right arm over his chest, cradling it under his armpit, while his left hand snakes over his face, index finger embedded against his nose. Celia’s face is hot. “Someone analyze Celia’s poem for me.”
Billy Sutor, that unique amalgam of jock and intellectual, handsome and muscled but not overly-so, a basketball player and a trumpeter in the marching band, raises his hand. He sits in the row next to Celia, one seat in front of her, and even though he’s speaking to Mr. Arceneaux, he turns his upper body so he faces her.
“Well, I think there are two layers of meaning.”
As Billy speaks, Celia hears a rustling in her bag. The spatula is thudding against her books. She reaches down and checks the zipper’s security.
“Explain please, Mr. Sutor.”
“Well, obviously the hard choice is the one the character in the story has to make. Do you pick the lady or the tiger? Death, or betraying your loved one?”
The spatula thwacks the books. How no one is staring at her bag, Celia has no idea. The material is thumping like a heart.
“Well, I think what Celia is saying is that we all have tough choices. They may not be life or death, but they can feel that way. The whisper ones are just as difficult. They—” He looks at Celia. “What was the line?”
“Something about rattling in our skulls,” Mr. Arceneaux says.
“Resounding,” Celia manages. Her body has gone cold with nausea, a pinching in her stomach. The spatula is straining against the top of her bag, the zipper squeezing tight and long, and she knows her bag is about to explode like a piñata, textbook pages and notebook paper and bits of her ruler showering the room like confetti.
“Resounding,” Billy says, smiling at her. “All of those hard choices grab us and don’t let go. They stay with us.”
Just as Mr. Arceneaux says, “Very good, Mr. Sutor,” Celia cannot take the thumping from the spatula. She grabs her bag, utters an apology, and dashes from the room, her cheeks hot, legs wobbly.
The bathroom smells of hand soap, antiseptic, and cigarettes. The frosted window lets in blurry morning light that reflects off the long mirror. A quick glance under the stall dividers tells Celia she’s alone, so she opens up her backpack and the spatula bursts out like a rocket.
“What do you want?” she says, teary-eyed, her mouth mucky as if she has been eating honey. The spatula hovers in front of her, and she snatches it out of the air, slapping it against the porcelain of the nearest sink. She slams the spatula, shrieking and sobbing as she does so and not worried about whether someone will wander in and see her yelling at a kitchen utensil.
She stops when the spatula snaps in two and drops it from her hand like it is on fire.
“Oh,” she says with a gasp, as though she has killed a kitten. The two halves are sitting on the brown tile floor, unmoving. She’s never broken any of the utensils that bob along after her. Normally, they return to their place in the kitchen when she brushes her teeth at night, zipping down the hall.
Celia gathers the two halves up and shoves them into her backpack as if evidence of some crime. She rips off a length of scratchy paper towel from the dispenser, patting at her eyes in a failing attempt to reduce their puffiness. She takes three deep breaths and repeats the process with a fresh paper towel. She wipes at her eyelashes with her finger, hoping to unclump them from one another, turn the spidery clusters into smooth, long wisps. When the bell rings, she shoves out, trying to melt into the throng of students. Celia catches sight of Mr. Arceneaux standing outside his classroom, arms folded over one another, scanning the crowd. She knows he is looking for her, and Celia is crushed by guilt: she likes Mr. Arceneaux and, unlike gym and French, feels bad that she is failing. She knows she shouldn’t be doing so poorly; she loves to read, enjoys talking about the stories he asks them to study, and doesn’t want him to feel like a failure. And she can tell that he’s that type, the youthful, energetic teacher who thinks all of his students care about English as much as he does and wants them to succeed, his spirit only just starting to crack at the realization that none of these blubbering, acne-punched teenagers gives a hoot for Henry James or Nathaniel Hawthorne or Willa Cather. That, hell, half of them can’t write a complete sentence.
Celia feels his eyes connect with hers and she turns her head, picks up her pace, squeezes past a pair of seniors holding hands, smashing her shoulder against some lockers in the process. The love birds give her a glaring stare, and she can feel their sneer. She hears Mr. Arceneaux call her name, but she ducks down and turns the corner down the hall toward the foreign language classrooms, slipping into her French teacher’s room like a thief darting down an alley to avoid the police.
She leaves knowing she has failed her test. Her third year of French and she cannot remember basic declensions. How she has muddled out of Beginning and Intermediate and into Advanced is a mystery. The words are squiggly mush, the cedilles—how does she know that word—little tails hanging off the Cs like possums dangling from tree branches. Her teacher, who reminds her of an ostrich, always tuts at her sloppy pronunciation, snapping her fingers and shaking her head, craning her jaw low, moving her lips like she is in slow motion, demanding that Celia voir, voir, voir, voir ce que ma bouche est fait!
Celia ditches PE and goes home early. Mrs. Smithson, in her swishy teal track suit, will just shake her head and snap her bubblegum. The rest of the class will run laps and play bombardment like they are still in sixth grade.
Her father is still sealed up in his bedroom that smells of antiseptic and body rot, the door closed to keep the stink of unwashed skin at bay. She knows she should fill a glass with water and go to him. She hears him cough, a rough, sandy noise, three long, deep hacks in a row, the kind that catch in the throat, pitch the body forward, squeeze the core tight like a sit-up, and then rocket the head back. She should uncap his pill bottles and dole out the medicine whose long, multi-syllablic names she can’t pronounce without feeling weary. But instead, Celia drops her bag and pulls out the broken spatula. She is going to fix it.
She is not sure why. Three other spatulas sit in the tall ceramic bowl where whisks and tongs bloom out like a flower arrangement, and the broken one before her is too big, its flat surface the size of her hand, too unwieldy for flipping eggs. She should throw it in the trash to lay atop the last grainy remnants of her morning toast and her father’s bunched-up tissues, let it go forgotten into the garbage truck that will appear tomorrow morning, find its way to a mound of trash to decompose. Its plastic body will deteriorate slowly, perhaps outliving Celia (and certainly her father, a thought that drips a pang of guilt down her back).
But no. It needs saving, she decides. Even if unusable when mended, she has ripped something apart that she must put back together.
Her father heaves again. If he calls out to her, she will go to him, she tells herself. One sound, even close to her name, anything not just a phlegmatic wheeze. If he wants her, he will let her know.
But he is, as ever, silent.
Celia gets to work on the spatula, grabbing glue and a spool of duct tape from the junk drawer, squishing out a line of paste onto one of the jagged, snapped ends. Basic Elmer’s glue, white like ranch dressing or, as she’s been told in health class, seminal fluid. She shudders and moves the pointed orange end of the bottle with care so she won’t need to touch the glue itself and have its residue curl into the whirls and divots of her fingerprints. As a child, her classmates loved glue: eating it, rubbing it across their palms, poking at it on construction paper. She hates the sticky feeling, like she is being covered up, entombed, gripped. She wants every part of her to breathe.
Her father coughs again. She wonders if he even knows she is home, whether he has registered the sounds of her moving about the kitchen. They barely speak anymore, and when they do, she gives him curt orders to drink this or swallow that and does he want something to eat and will he actually remember that he’s said so when she does bring it, or will he let it grow cold, shaking his head at the plate as if it is going to swallow him instead if he touches or stares at it too long. Celia is pretty sure that delirium is not a symptom of emphysema; she has to fight against the notion that her father is faking, which triggers a blooming hatred for him.
She is squeezing the pieces of the spatula together when someone knocks on the door, light and uncertain, as if still not committed to announcing their presence. Celia stares down at her hands; glue is oozing from the jagged cut along the spatula’s handle like a broken, seeping scab. She sets it down with a gentle sacredness, as if she is presenting a child for baptism, and wipes off her hands.
Mr. Arceneaux stands on the front stoop, face blanched red and sweat beading at his hairline. His hands are in his pockets and he is swaying back and forth and looks smaller than usual, his shoulders hunched in so the trapezius muscles bulge against his shirt.
She manages to croak out his name, an interrogatory.
“I’m sorry, Celia. This is, ah, highly irregular of me.” He coughs, a fake noise to take up space. “Sorry. That sounded ridiculous.”
Celia doesn’t know what to say. She glances back into her house, unsure of whether she should invite him in. No one at school, as far as she can tell, knows about her father’s illness; she’s been faking his name on notes and permission slips for months, shrugging and saying he had to work on parent-teacher night. She’s not in any clubs or on any teams, so she hasn’t had to worry about his presence at meets or concerts or shows. Not that anyone would ask.
“Do you want to come in? It’s so hot.”
“Oh. Um. Well, really, I just wanted to make sure you were alright. And to give you this.”
Mr. Arceneaux pulls out a folded piece of paper: her poem. In her flurry to escape the classroom, she must have dropped it.
When Celia doesn’t reach out for it, Mr. Arceneaux unfolds it. For a moment she wonders if he will clear his throat and recite it. She decides this would be nice, his voice, her words, a brief marriage. “I just thought you’d want it. It was very good.”
“You’re not grading them?”
He smiles without opening his mouth. “Yes, but I don’t need to read yours again.” He extends his arm, the paper billowing as a soft breeze kicks up so the poem seems to beckon to her: come hither, step outside. She wants, in that moment, to hug Mr. Arceneaux, to smell at his neck for the coppery cologne he wears, the scent girls giggle about at their lockers and boys mock out of poorly-masked jealousy. Celia imagines the feel of him holding her, his strong arms squeezing against her ribs and the small of her back. A warm, settling hibernation, she thinks.
Before she does anything, two noises catch her attention: her father is coughing again, this time a chain of unbroken, quick hacks like a chugging train, and the glue bottle thumps against the kitchen counter because the spatula had knocked it over.
It is floating toward her.
“Everything okay, Celia?”
Celia exhales and starts to close the door. “Yes. Sorry, I have to go.”
She leans against the shut door, staring at her dry, sticky hands, and realizes she hasn’t taken the poem. She can feel Mr. Arceneaux standing on the other side of the door. Can he hear her father, still coughing in his room? He is groaning now, his way of telling Celia he knows she is home and that he wants her to appear in front of him. She turns from the door, and there the spatula hovers, upright like a hand waiting for a high five. Celia wants to snatch it from the air and fling it across the house, or take it to her father’s room and beat him with it, or choke him, or whatever she might do to make him stop with the moaning and gnarled coughs. She could stuff his bloody Kleenex down his throat, gag him to death, watch his lips turn blue, his cheeks pale—do someone’s cheeks turn pale as they asphyxiate, she wonders—and then she could close the door and seal in the spatula and run back to the front door and fling it open and chase down Mr. Arceneaux as he walks away, kind, good Mr. Arceneaux with his clean-shaven face that makes him look so young, his eyes that are warm and open and brown like soft, piping bread.
Instead she turns her back on the spatula and without much consideration opens the door again. Mr. Arceneaux is just turning away, even though she feels like she shut it on him a lifetime ago.
“Celia.” He turns, his limbs like gummy shoots of rubber slapping around his body.
“I’m sorry I’m failing your class.”
“Who says you’re failing my class?”
“But I haven’t done a bunch of the homework, and there was the one test.”
Mr. Arceneaux chews his cheek; Celia can see the puckering of his skin like a giant dimple. “Well, what you have done more than makes up for it. The story, for example.”
Instead of an essay on Samuel Beckett, Celia wrote a short story about two boys living on an island with a lake in the middle. The island was shaped like a donut, a quarter-mile strip of trees and sand and macaws, with the deep lake—that was the title, “The Deep Lake”—in the center. The boys spent their days splitting coconuts open against tree trunks and eating them, sometimes catching fish from the lake and frying them with fires built out of fronds and kindling, and for fun they would throw rocks into the lake, seeing who could toss them the farthest. They didn’t swim in the lake because its depth frightened them; although blue at its edges, the color darkened to black in the middle because it was so deep, the light from the sun blotted out by its endlessness. Sometimes, the boys would stand on either side of the lake, little peach pinpricks visible against the tree line, shouting messages to one another. Then they would meet and see who had understood the other better. They never got the messages right, and they would laugh and roll in the sand and hug one another. At night, the temperature dropped, and they held one another close while they slept, their knees curled against one another like a matching set.
“I liked it, quite a bit,” Mr. Arceneaux says. “It needed a third element, though, as we talked about in class.”
Celia nods. Mr. Arceneaux had read the story aloud to the class, anonymously, but Celia had reddened, sure everyone knew she was the writer. When he was finished, Mr. Arceneaux held the crumpled pages up as if everyone could see them and asked for feedback. Someone, probably Bethany Anderson, had wondered what the point was. Another student, with a slight sneer in his voice, asked if that was the end. Mr. Arceneaux had nodded and agreed that the story seemed more like a description, a premise, and that it needed to be injected with something else to give it urgency.
“That’s what great stories do to us,” he’d said. He was pacing back and forth. “They move us, they drag us through our deepest mires. We can’t put them down.”
She’d been unable to sleep that night. She pictured the two boys, skin turned from lobster red to brown, the pigment along their arms and backs and cheeks adjusting to the constant sun, bodies slim and taut like Mr. Arceneaux’s from their days of subsisting on nothing but coconuts and lean fish. Celia had decided that a woman needed to appear one day without explanation. The boys would be afraid of her because she was unknown and pale and naked, and they were too young to know what to do about that. She would say nothing, acknowledge them in no way, and march into the center of the lake. They would stop eating fish, the woman somehow poisoning their flaky flesh, and the boys would grow hungry and angry at each other and the woman. Celia thought perhaps one would bash in the other’s skull and eat him, but she wasn’t sure.
She hasn’t written it yet. Like the spatula, like her, it hovers and waits.
“Can I show you something, Mr. Arceneaux?”
“Anything, Celia.” He frowns. “Well, almost anything.”
“It’s nothing bad. It’s just, uhm, weird.”
As she steps aside, Celia feels a momentary cold wash over her, a wave of oceanic anticipation. This, she knows, is one of those specks in time that will expand over her future to feel eternal. Like her mother’s departure, her father’s diagnosis, the moment with the frying pan: these moments stretch and grow in her memory and shape themselves into sharp, digging turns. They are the flashes that will keep her up at night, the ones she will rewrits and retrace, and here she is at, one more to add to a stack already too big for someone who feels her life has been so small.
She isn’t sure what she expects from Mr. Arceneaux. A yell, a gasp, a stare. A smile that dawns on his lips, unfurling like a slow snake, a chuckle. He will be nonplussed, will take the spatula from the air and caress its scarred handle. Then he, too, will step aside and show her his own phantom, peel back the layers that separate them, and she will lead him inside, and life will start to thaw.