“Rainbows And Other Shape”
by Patricia Russo
Maddy and Steve are going out. It’s strange; they usually only go out once a month, a couples’ evening with their friends Angela and Rick. What’s happening tonight feels like a special occasion. Maddy’s changed her clothes three times. But it’s not their anniversary; that’s in April. Maybe they’re going on a date, the romantic kind, with dinner and wine and kissing and holding hands, and who knows, maybe a hotel afterwards. I’ve seen that on TV. Revitalize your marriage. Maddy and Steve have been married for twelve years. Heaven knows they have the right to treat themselves to a night out. I just wish they’d told me about it.
It could be that Maddy thinks Steve’s told me, and Steve thinks Maddy has.
They treat me well. I’m very lucky. I never expected Maddy to take care of me after Mom and Dad died. I was nearly nine years old when she was born. When she was little she used to play with me, but soon after she started going to school, that stopped.
I remember how upset Dad got one time when Maddy raided Mom’s makeup and put lipstick on me, and rouge, and eye shadow. She was six then. She sat on my lap and concentrated hard, her face very solemn. Of course it looked terrible, the lipstick in wide fat strokes – she even got some on my nose. The rouge two clown circles on my cheeks. When she pulled out the eye shadow I got a little scared, but Maddy was gentle. When she was done, she told me to look in the mirror. Green eye shadow, rose–pink cheeks, crimson mouth. I couldn’t help it; I started to laugh. Of course I told her she’d done very well. Oh, how Dad freaked out when he saw. His face froze, and for a second he looked like someone had socked him in the stomach. Then he started yelling, and when Dad yelled, the walls shook. Mom kept patting him on the arm, the way she used pat me to calm me down. “It’s all right, Tom,” she said. “Tom, it’s all right. They were only playing. Besides, she likes it. Tell him, dear. Tell Daddy you and Maddy were having fun.”
Yes, I said, it was fun. We were playing. I like it. It’s okay.
But Dad never really understood my speech very well. He looked at me, but I knew he wasn’t sure what I’d said. I wasn’t lying. It had been fun. The best part was Maddy sitting on my lap, warm and vibrant and squirming, almost like a puppy. I’d always wanted a dog. Or a cat. But Mom would have had to take care of it, and she already had so much to do. They gave me stuffed animals, but that wasn’t the same. I got so sick of those stuffed animals. Every birthday, every Christmas, stupid stuffed animals. Get them out of here, I told Mom. Donate them to needy children, or dump them in the trash, I don’t care. She said that would hurt the feelings of the people who’d given them to me. My grandmother, my aunts. Who’d never talk to me when they came over, or look at me more than they could help.
Maddy grew up. She went to high school. She went to college. For many years, she hardly spoke to me at all. Mom said it was just a phase. I didn’t believe her.
Maddy married Steve. I didn’t go to the wedding. Maddy had Jimmy, and Caroline. Mom had a stroke. Dad couldn’t cope. That was a bad time. The social worker at the hospital made him agree to have a home health aide come over three times a week, but he never liked any of them, and none lasted very long. Some of them were nice. They talked to me. Most of them didn’t. I stayed inside my own head, and played with my shapes.
That was risky. You never knew who could see the shapes, and who couldn’t. Most people couldn’t. Mom and Dad never did. Maddy had, for a little while, when she was small. I’m pretty sure she can’t anymore, because I was doing it once in my room when she came in, and her face didn’t change at all.
One of Mom’s home health aides could. I remember the look in his eyes when he caught me doing worm-colors. It’s art, I told him, but he stood very still in the doorway, and then he turned around quickly and left. He was one of the few Dad didn’t fight with. He quit because of me.
It was art. Nothing more. The colors I drew out of the matter in my envelope—I don’t have a long reach; I can only play with the matter within a foot or so of where I’m sitting or lying—were shaped like long extrusions of toothpaste. Like what you’d get if you took a full tube and squeezed out everything inside. I always wanted to do that for real, because it looked like fun, and because Mom was so stingy with the toothpaste when she brushed my teeth. I never could manage a toothpaste tube. When I was little they gave me soft balls to squeeze to build up the strength in my hands, but I always dropped them.
Worm-colors are only marginally cohesive. They break up, their pulled-together molecules dispersing back into the natural world, a few seconds after I stop thinking about them. They are ephemeral. As soon as I stop, they fade away.
If I want to listen to music, or watch TV, I have to ask someone to turn the radio or the CD player or the TV on, and if I want to change the station or the record or the channel, I have to wait until someone comes back to check on me. They give me the remote control, if they remember, but it takes me forever to hit the right button. Reading a book, or a magazine – someone has to turn the pages for me, because otherwise I wind up knocking the thing to the floor. The best thing about school was that there was almost always somebody to turn the pages. The shapes are the only things I can do by myself.
I hear the kids downstairs. Maddy and Steve’s pair, Jimmy, who’s six, and Caroline, who will be turning four next month. Steve’s older brother has three teenagers, Bobby and Nicolina, just a year apart, but so different they could have been born on opposite sides of the planet, and Emerald. Bobby’s old enough to drive now, and he’s very serious about that. Seat belts, signaling, coming to a complete stop at a stop sign. He’s serious about everything. Bobby’s had his future mapped out for him since the minute he was born. He’s going to be a doctor. His parents have told him this so often that he believes it’s what he’s always wanted. Nicolina is the rebel. C and D student, breaking curfew, drinking. Boyfriends. Emerald, the youngest, seems to be going the same way.
I know all this because Maddy and Steve talk in front of me as if I were a piece of furniture.
It sounds like all three are downstairs tonight. Jimmy and Caroline are excited, squealing, giggling. Officially, their cousins come over to babysit them. What is never said and is understood by all is that they babysit me as well. That’s why the cousins come over in pairs, or all three together, like tonight. I wonder how much Maddy and Steve pay them.
None of the kids loves me, but Jimmy and Caroline play with me sometimes. Like Maddy when she was small. They chatter and show me their toys. Sometimes they climb into my lap. I like that. They’re still young enough that I don’t make them uncomfortable. When Emerald comes over, she says Hi, shyly. Nicolina mostly ignores me.
Bobby is so responsible. He checks on me at least once an hour. He remembers that I like mashed bananas. He asks me if I need to use the toilet. If I’m in bed, he asks if I want the radio on, or the nightlight, if I prefer the bedroom door open or closed. He used to be solemn, but recently he’s begun practicing his professional smile. That doctor’s smile that has no greater significance than the pattern on a tie.
I hear Maddy and Steve leave. They must be in a hurry. Neither one comes to say good night to me. Usually they do. Usually they’re good about that.
Downstairs, the TV comes on.
After a few minutes, Bobby appears in the doorway. He smiles. The practicing is paying off. He makes his eyes crinkle, instead of just curving his lips and showing a glimpse of teeth. “How are you doing?”
“Fine,” I say. “Everything’s hunky–dory. Today was a pretty good day. Sunny. I like it when the sun shines through the window, and I can watch the dust motes dancing.”
The only word he understands is Fine. He starts nodding long before I stop talking. “Good, good. You need anything?”
“How about some mashed bananas? I saw a couple of ripe ones downstairs.”
“You’re very kind, but I’m not in the mood for bananas right now.” He doesn’t understand, so I say, “No.”
He nods. “Okay. If you change your mind, just hit the buzzer, okay?”
I have a buzzer. There are intercoms in the kitchen, and in Maddy and Steve’s room. “Okay.”
“Good, good. I’ll check in on you later.”
“You’re very kind.”
He leaves. I’m in my chair. If Maddy and Steve don’t return by eleven, Bobby will have to put me to bed.
Over the sound of the television, I hear Emerald and Nicolina fighting. I can’t make out the words, only the high-pitched venom. Bobby shouts at them, and again all I can hear is the TV.
I do not hope for love anymore. But I’ve been lucky. I was born to dutiful parents. I never expected Maddy to think taking care of me was her duty, too. Or Steve. Before they moved me into their house, Steve had said less than a dozen words to me, and most of those had been Hi and Bye. Bobby is dutiful. Dutiful is good. The dutiful keep people like me alive.
But it isn’t a lot of fun, being someone’s duty.
Mom talking to her friends, saying how hard it was. Dad not talking at all. Dad looking at me—how easy it was to tell what he was thinking. After Mom died, the things people said to Dad, right in front of me, all of them believing that because they couldn’t understand my speech, I couldn’t understand theirs. And Dad not saying anything. Not disagreeing.
Maddy changing, around when she turned six. Jimmy’s age now. Never changing back. She just more or less turned into Mom. She tends to me. She doesn’t talk to me the way she does with other people. She doesn’t play with me.
I play with my shapes, so I won’t go insane from boredom. After forty years of practice, I’ve gotten very, very good. Anything I can imagine, I can make. Most of the time, almost all of the time, I don’t pack the shapes hard. They are insubstantial – and invisible to most. But I know how to make them more solid, so they last for days, or weeks. That takes more work, and it makes me tired. It’s also riskier. Make the shapes solid, and anyone might notice them. Now where did that thing come from? Maddy might ask Steve. Or Steve might ask Maddy. I didn’t buy it, did you? No, I didn’t. Perhaps one of the children found it.
But Steve and Maddy are so busy. They can’t keep track of every item that comes in or goes out of the house. Kids lose things, kids find things. Kids have their friends over, and their friends leave stuff behind.
I don’t have friends over. Once or twice a month, if she’s not swamped with work, Maddy takes me on an outing. “We’re going on an outing today. Won’t that be fun?” She makes her voice bright, the way she does when she talks to Caroline’s friends. “Sure, fine,” I say. If I say, “No, I don’t feel like it today,” Maddy just sighs and says, “But it’s good for you to get out of the house. Come on. You’ll get to see your friends.”
She takes me to the community center and leaves me there for a few hours while she runs errands. Or meets with a lover who isn’t Steve, because sometimes when she returns to pick me up, her buttons are not done up right, or her scent is different. None of my business. It’s her life. But I worry what it would mean for me if Steve found out. If they split up.
At the community center, I don’t see friends. I see people I’ve seen before. I see people I’ve seen for years. I don’t know their names. Sometimes there is music. A skinny woman about my age brings a guitar and sings Jackson Brown songs. The old people have their own groups. They play cards, or Scrabble, or plan trips to a dinner theater or a casino. I sit in my chair and wait for Maddy to come get me. Sometimes a high school student putting in volunteer hours smiles and asks if I want a juice box.
I play with my shapes. At the community center, I make them as solid as I can, just because it takes more time. Then I hide them, for people to find after I’m gone. Mostly I make nice things, because it’s not the fault of anyone there that I have to sit and be bored for hours. Glass flowers. I’m good at that. I can make all different kinds, all different colors. Glass is a nice challenge. You can’t make it too fragile, or it might break when someone picks it up. I don’t want to hurt anybody. Mostly. Not really hurt. But the flowers can’t be too thick, too heavy, or else they’re just ugly. Beads. Those are easier. Silver rings. Oh, one nice silver ring can fill up a long stretch of time.
Sometimes I give in to bad thoughts. Then I shape things that aren’t pretty. It’s childish, I know. But there’s this itch I get. An itch to slap. To spit in the smiling high school volunteer’s face. To scream. To pick up my chair and throw it through a window. I can’t do any of those things. So I shape big squishy turds and hide them in the game room. Teeth. Teeth are fun. Crocodile teeth, shark teeth. Or baby teeth. With a little blood on them. Left like bombs under the chairs, in the planters. Tails, sometimes. Rat tails, scaly pink possum tails. Inert, though. Nothing with the appearance of life. Nothing that moves. I’m not that bad. But in bed I laugh to myself, thinking of the expressions on the faces of the people who find my shapings.
I never make ugly things for Jimmy and Caroline. They don’t love me, but they still climb into my lap, and they smile. Caroline can understand everything I say. She called Jimmy stupid the other day, when I asked him to turn the TV off, and he didn’t understand.
They climb into my lap, and smile. They hug me. Caroline pats my face. Jimmy doesn’t kiss me unless Maddy tells him to, but he smiles.
Pull the bunny, he says. Pull the birdie. Pull the rainbow. Pull the swirly clouds.
That’s how they see it, Jimmy and Caroline. To them, my shapes come out of nowhere. They think I pull them from nothing. They can’t see the packing, the pushing, the weaving, the hooking together, the squeezing and pinching and rolling.
I don’t shape solid things for them very often. Bunnies and birdies, glitter bubbles, cold sparks that dance and die—all ephemeral. The rabbits and birds are like those in their picture books, shadows of cartoonish illustrations. They fade in an hour.
I made Jimmy a plastic dinosaur once. Well, not quite plastic. I don’t know why, but plastic is difficult to get right. He was thrilled with it, carried it around for two days. Then he lost it. Just as well, I suppose.
They smile at me. When they do, I feel a warmth inside my chest. Sometimes the warmth goes all the way down my arms. I like that.
I don’t believe in love. I believe there is want, and need, and people feel these things and want to make them into something bigger, and so they decide to call want and need love.
I want those smiles. Do I need them? No. I don’t need Caroline and Jimmy’s smiles the way I need food, or need to go to the bathroom.
Downstairs, someone switches off the TV. Jimmy and Caroline protest. But it’s bath time now. Emerald comes up the stairs with them. I hear her telling them to brush their teeth. Caroline whines a little. In the bathroom, water starts running. Emerald goes to find their pajamas.
Bobby peeks in on me again. How’re you doing? Want some mashed bananas? A drink of water?
“You’re very kind,” I say. “No, thanks. I’m fine. I’ll let you know if I need anything.”
He understands No, and Fine. He nods, and vanishes from the doorway.
I hope Maddy and Steve come home before eleven. Bobby is a nice boy, but I’d prefer it if he isn’t the one who undresses and puts me to bed. Even if he is practicing to be a doctor.
The downstairs TV comes on again. Nicolina’s getting to watch what she wants.
Splashing in the bathroom, then footsteps in the hall. Voices from the kids’ room. Emerald reading them a story, Jimmy interjecting, Caroline asking for more after Emerald stops. But no, it’s lights out. A little more fuss, then quiet. Emerald pauses at my room and looks in. After one glance, she doesn’t meet my eyes. “Everything okay?”
“Yes, dear, thank you.”
“Bobby says to buzz if you need anything.”
“I know. Thank you.”
“Okay.” She goes back downstairs.
The truth is, Maddy and Steve were in such a rush earlier that they forgot to feed me. I decided not to say anything. I’m not that hungry. I am a little thirsty, but if I don’t drink, then I might not have to use the toilet before Maddy and Steve get home. Bobby has helped me with that before. So has Nicolina. But I’d rather hold it if I can.
I sit and play with my shapes. This soothes me. It keeps my mind occupied. And if I do it for a long time, it tires me, so when bedtime comes I can sleep without taking a pill.
Bobby yells at the girls to turn the television down. Nicolina yells back at him. So there’s TV noise and people noise, but that’s okay. I can block all that out.
I’m concentrating so hard I don’t notice Jimmy and Caroline sneaking into my room. I’m lost in the shapes. Sometimes playing with them is very much like dreaming. I wake up when Caroline touches my knee.
They’re smiling. Pearly little baby teeth. They look at each other, conspiratorially. They look at me and their eyes twinkle.
Pearly little baby eyes.
“You two are supposed to be in bed,” I say.
Pajamas and tousled hair. Caroline’s hair is almost as short as Jimmy’s; they both smell of baby shampoo. “I want a rainbow,” Jimmy whispers.
“Why?” They’re both smiling, Caroline brightly, Jimmy a little shyly. Their smiles warm me. I should know better by now. And I do. I know that soon, very soon, they won’t smile at me anymore. They won’t play with me anymore. They won’t come to show me their new books, new toys, new sneakers.
It’s Caroline who answers. “He’s scared of the dark.”
They are both practiced in the skills of childhood secrecy; neither raises his or her voice.
“He had a bad dream.”
“And an auntie rainbow will keep the bad dreams away.”
Caroline whispers to him. Jimmy bites his lip, then nods.
“Do you want anything?” I ask Caroline.
She shakes her head. Already she’s climbing into my lap, nestling her head against my shoulder. Jimmy pulls himself up, too. He’s bigger, heavier. I shift forward in the chair so he can slip his arm around my back. Soon I won’t be able to hold both of them. I think, Remember this time. It might be the last one.
“A rainbow, then,” I say.
Jimmy nods. His head rubs up and down my collarbone.
“I’ll make you one that goes around and around your arm. It’ll feel a little bit like a bandage, but not tight, not heavy. Is that okay?”
Caroline whispers again, and he nods. “Can you make it—” his face is pressed against my chest, muffling his voice. “—forever?”
“Forever is a long time. You might change your mind. I’ll do it for tonight. Then tomorrow, if you want, I’ll make another one. Okay?”
Caroline interprets. “Okay,” he says, after a moment.
The children are warm on my lap, soft furnaces against my rigid body.
“Which arm do you want it on?”
He’s got his left arm behind my back, so he raises his right one.
“Be very quiet now. We don’t want Bobby or Nicolina to come upstairs.”
But they know this. We have played this game before, dozens of times, often with Maddy or Steve only a room away.
It is a simple, untaxing shaping. I weave the colors and braid them around Jimmy’s wrist and forearm. He rests quietly against me. He knows he doesn’t have to push the sleeve of his pajama top back. He knows he doesn’t have to do anything at all.
“Shh,” I say.
“It’s pretty,” she whispers.
Remember, I tell myself, as I tie the colors. This might be the last time.
“Can you see it?” I ask Jimmy.
He understands that. “Yes.”
“No more bad dreams.”
And he gets that, too. “No more bad dreams,” he agrees. He slides off my lap, and holds out his arm, admiring the rainbow. A grin spreads across his face.
“Go on now,” I say. “The both of you. Back to bed, quick.”
Caroline kisses me on the cheek. Suddenly, with all the exuberance of a six year old, Jimmy lunges at me and lands a kiss just to the right of my chin. He rocks my chair. He rocks me. But his smile is so beautiful.
Both of them. Their smiles are so beautiful.
“Come on,” he says to Caroline, and she climbs down.
I believe in want, and in need.
I will always want this, even when they are older, and talk to me the way Bobby does, or Maddy. I will always desire those smiles. It hurts. Perhaps when they are grown, they will come to visit me, if I am still alive, in whatever place I am living then. Probably they will smile, but their smiles will be like the smile of the teenaged volunteer at the community center.
“Good night,” I say.
They creep out of my room, walking on their tiptoes, shushing each other. I don’t cry until they’re gone, and when I do, I cry only a little bit, and I don’t make any noise at all.
Art Director: Bonnie Brunish