To Express How Much

“To Express How Much” was commissioned
by Dr. M. Jerry Weiss and Helen S. Weiss, editors, for the short-story collection
Lost and Found: Award-winning Authors Sharing Real-Life Experiences Through Fiction
(Forge Books, 2000).

Jack read the last lines of his story, folded it and shifted in his chair, not yet ready to look at their faces. He’d written about an eighteen-year-old who leaves his family behind in Milwaukee and sets out across the country. The others laughed at how the kid wakes up under a broad, distinguished Northern White Cedar where he’s spent the night and slowly realizes that he’s crawling with spiders, who’ve been tasting his freckles all night. But later, at the end, when the character wound up sitting next to an old man on a bus, comparing how alone and scared they were, Jack got the feelings just right. Kevin Donnegan had never heard another guy talk about things like that before.

“That’s your best so far, Jack,” Karen said. Karen spoke only in superlatives, but Kevin agreed with her this time.

“It is,” someone said. Melanie was crying. Melanie cried every time a story showed that life could be less than kind. She wrote mostly poetry about regrets and destiny, and it was generally not to Kevin’s liking, but every now and then she came up with an image that captured a feeling so perfectly it was like a double play in a tight game.

The group talked about Jack’s story for a long while, telling him what they thought worked, what didn’t, until they wandered into talking about what life could be like on their own, away from the choices adults made for them. Kevin could see the subject was making Beth uncomfortable. She kept checking her watch.

Finally she stood and said it was time to go. “Your house next week, Kevin, right?” Beth said. She sounded determined, suspicious that he might try to get out of it again. He wanted to, but he’d run out of excuses. The next meeting would have to be at his house. They had started the group eight weeks before, all six of them from Mrs. Irving’s Creative Writing class. There were three other juniors, two seniors and Kevin. They wanted a chance to read the stuff that was too personal or too important to share in class.

Everyone agreed that they’d take turns meeting at each other’s houses. Kevin’s turn came the sixth week, but he told them his mother had the flu and they shouldn’t risk getting sick. The seventh week he told them the living room was being painted and the place smelled terrible. But this time there was no getting out of it.

The group met on Tuesday nights at seven o’clock. On his father’s good nights, it wouldn’t be a problem. He’d be home already and settled into his TV chair, watching game shows until a ballgame started. But if he got off early and went out after work, he arrived home about 7:00, and that could mean anything. At the very least a screaming argument with Kevin’s mother, more likely dishes flying or a lamp smashing. Kevin pictured Jack’s face—and Beth’s—in the middle of all that. They’d never feel comfortable with him again, even if they had the good manners to keep quiet about it in school. They’d know then that the stories he shared with them—the ones that were supposed to be as raw and honest as their own—had nothing to do with his real life. But honest or not, they were stories, attempts at shaping something of his own. He’d never read them the stories he wrote about real life.

The group had been Jack’s idea. His mother was a published writer, and she belonged to a group that talked about their work. So Jack and Beth started the group off. Somehow, and Kevin couldn’t figure out why, Mrs. Irving has gotten it into her head that Kevin had what it took, and almost every week she set aside his paper to read aloud to the class. He guessed that was why Jack and Beth included him.

Being asked to join the group was the best thing that had happened to Kevin since he came to Jefferson year before. They had moved again because his father had to start another new job. The infamous Liam Donnegan had pissed off his boss and got fired again. He only said angry things when he was drinking; he didn’t mean them. Everybody knew he didn’t mean them. But this was Kevin’s fourth school in eight years. He was an outsider again, and he could see that kids felt strange with him. It wasn’t that they were unfriendly. It was just that Kevin didn’t know what to say to people, how to get beyond polite. He could only do people on paper. On paper the world became what he wanted it to be. And now that he’d found others who understood what that meant, he was determined to find a way to keep them around.

Kevin knew there was no point in talking to his mother about his father’s drinking. She never talked about it. She just cleaned up whatever was broken, pieced it back together if she could. Later, when his father fell asleep, Kevin heard her crying. At breakfast the next day, you’d swear nothing had happened.

On Monday night, when Kevin decided to talk to his father himself, he found him in the garage, working on the car again. Kevin hung around, aimless, spinning the screwdrivers that hung in their neat little niches.

“What’s up with you?” his father said. He was bent over the engine, his head deep into its parts.

“Nothing,” Kevin said.

“Has to be something,” he said, his voice muffled behind the raised hood.

“Nothing.”

“What?”

Kevin waited until his father was finished tightening something. “Some friends of mine are coming over tomorrow night.” He took a few steps toward his father, smelled the mixture of grease and gasoline that shrouded him whenever he tended to the car. These smells had always comforted Kevin. They signaled that his father was sober, predictable.

“Yeah, so?”

“We have a group,” Kevin said, coming closer, leaning against the Buick’s passenger side.

“What do you mean a group?”

“A writer’s group.”

“A what?”

“We read stuff to each other, stuff we’ve written, and talk about it.”

“What kind of stuff?” He was standing upright now, fighting open some stubborn piece of motor with a grimy cloth.

“Different things. Essays, poems, some stories.”

“You, too? You still writin that stuff?”

“Some.” When Kevin didn’t say anymore, Liam went back into the engine, cursed softly at its insides. “So it’s my turn tomorrow night,” Kevin said, loud enough to be heard over the hood. “To meet here.”

Liam straightened up again, looked at his son longer this time. “So how come you’re telling me? Is Mom against this or something?”

“No,” Kevin shrugged. “I just thought you’d want to know.”

“Okay, so I know,” Liam said and looked at Kevin, puzzled. “Now are you gonna tell me what this is really about?” Kevin rolled his eyes and moved back toward the door to the house. His father went back to the engine. Kevin was almost back in the house before he made himself say it.

“Dad.” Liam didn’t hear him. “Dad.”

“Yeah. What?” His father straightened up and looked at him again, annoyed this time.

“I don’t want them to see you and Mom fighting.” Liam’s shoulders slouched and he looked away, as if he’d been accused, exposed. Kevin waited for him to answer. He didn’t and Kevin turned toward the door again, but his father called after him.

“Kevin, gimme a break,” Liam said. “Who are these friends anyway? You think your friends’ folks don’t have disagreements?”

“Disagreements,” Kevin mumbled. The word came out with a chuckle that mocked.

“That’s right, disagreements,” Liam said, ready for an argument.

“Yeah, they disagree. They just don’t bust up the furniture.”

Liam looked away from him, shook his head as if there’d been some grand misunderstanding. He leaned heavily on one arm, stared into the engine without really seeing it. The silence was pretty much what Kevin had expected. It had taken him so long, so many years, to talk about this with his father, to name it. It wasn’t his father’s anger that had prevented him; his father never got seriously angry unless he was drunk. Kevin just didn’t want to be the one to name the thing that no one in the house wanted to see.

It was ironic, Kevin thought, how he and his mother protected his father from himself, kept him from having to face who he was and what he did to them. But that was the drill. That was why they all pretended there was nothing wrong.

“The lamp was an accident. You know that.” Liam spoke into the engine, avoiding his son’s eyes. He was talking about Friday night, the last time he’d come home drunk and crazed.

“Come on, Dad,” Kevin said, but he didn’t mention the countless other lamps or the tables or the vases or even the toppled Christmas tree one year. But their home wasn’t just a war zone; it was a prison. They couldn’t let anyone in and they never really get out. The tension was inescapable. Kevin carried it with him everywhere. He was exhausted from it, tired of having to factor his father’s insanity into every part of his life.

“It was just a lamp, for heaven’s sake,” Liam said. “What do you want from me?”

“My friends are going to be here tomorrow night. I want you to stay sober—for one night. That’s what I want.”

“Come over here,” Liam said, stepping away from the engine. When Kevin went to him, he talked low, as if what he was telling Kevin needed to be kept just between them. “That don’t mean nothing when me and your mother fight. You understand? We’re okay. It’s nothing to worry about.”

“Okay. Sure,” Kevin said.

“And don’t worry about your friends either. I’ll be home early. I’ll bring home some chips and we can nuke some popcorn. Think they’d like that?”

“Yeah, sure.” Liam hadn’t convinced him, but Kevin didn’t have the energy to say anymore.

Then Kevin felt his father’s calloused hand on his arm. “That’s not a promise, Kevin. That’s a fact. Understand?”

Kevin didn’t answer; he began to walk away. “Hey,” Liam called. “You think I don’t know how important this is, this group? You think I don’t know what a good writer you are?” He moved toward his son, awkward but determined about something. He put the cloth down on the hood of the car, reached into his back pocket for his wallet, pulled a faded, frayed paper out of a secret place. “See this?” he said. “This is that composition you wrote for me for Father’s Day.” He opened it up, a single folded page, yellowing and precariously thin. The creases had worn some of the words away. “Jeez, it must have been five years ago. You were only this high. I read this to your Uncle Pete and Uncle Conor. This was really some—thing. It had Uncle Conor in tears.”

Kevin remembered it. He remembered how his father had laughed at him when his hand trembled as he gave it to him. Liam called him Shakes for Shakespeare for weeks after. Kevin never knew he’d even read it a second time. “Oh, that thing.” Kevin laughed. The composition had been assigned to his whole sixth grade class: “Why I’m So Proud of My Dad.” He remembered everyone leaning over their papers, gripping their pencils. Kevin’s paper sat there blank, shouting at him like an accusation. The window near his desk was open and he could see birds moving in and out of trees, hear a lawn mower in the distance, someone calling “David,” sounding worried.

Kevin knew what he would write. He’d stay with the safe stuff, talk about how his father worked hard and mowed the lawn and fixed the car. He’d make everything sound normal. They’d never know the difference. But every word he wrote that day shut out another one screaming to be heard. Each one separated him a little more from the person he really was, until the shame he felt about his father became something outside of him, something he didn’t have to feel. Kevin was splitting—half lies, half pain—and he knew even then that if he let it happen, he’d lose something he’d never get back. That was the night Kevin wrote his first story about what it was really like to be his father’s son. Liam never saw that story. No one had. When Father’s Day came, Kevin gave him the one he’d been assigned.

Kevin and his father didn’t say much for a minute, and then, with great care, Liam put the paper back into its hidden place in the wallet.

“Don’t be worried,” he said finally. “Understand?”

“Okay,” Kevin said, but he was.

Beth was tapping her pencil to the rhythm of whatever it was dancing in her head. It was a sure thing it had nothing to do with the Stamp Act. Beth could never manage to focus long in Mr. Gleason’s class. She wound up passing Kevin notes and building tiny paper chairs from the pages of her rainbow-colored assignment pad.

This time Kevin was the first to send mail. He wanted to let her know all systems were go for the group to meet at his house that night. She sent the note back with her typically brief commentary to any news good, bad, or neutral. “Ok,” she wrote, then followed it with two lines from “A Considerable Speck,” a poem by Robert Frost about a mite that lands on his writing paper.

“It seemed too tiny to have room for feet,                                                                                                  Yet must have had a set of them complete                                                                                                 To express how much it didn’t want to die.”

He knew Beth was inviting him to take off with it, add some lines of his own. She went on this way for a long while, building on whatever he gave her, but in any other communication with Kevin she was brief and guarded, just as she was in her stories. Beth was very pretty, not a studied pretty, but she had a disarming kind of face and style, and Kevin thought at first that she just wanted to discourage him from getting any ideas.

But Kevin learned soon enough that no one was allowed to get too close to Beth. Hers was not the welcome ear for tales of how you spent your weekend or complaints about school or parents. She told him once that when people had nothing to worry about they created something dreadful instead. Kevin guessed that her impatience came from having wealthy parents whose lives were free of anything gloomier than a drop in the Dow. She lived in a huge house and had a gardener and a housekeeper. She already had her own car. Her parents, the little Kevin had seen of them, were beautiful, fully polished and buffed. There was no question where Beth got her looks, but unlike their daughter, her parents seemed wooden, as if guessing at how they should behave.

Kevin passed the lines to Beth and watched her smile.

“I touched the nib to the page, a bridge to higher
spheres, but it scooted round a capital D
and slipped between the lines to find its own escape.”

She bent over the page, eager to respond, and passed it back.

“I watched it wander through the lines,
impervious to where they led,
insisting on its own direction.”

The bell interrupted Kevin’s turn so he scribbled “to be continued” and passed the note back. She smiled and said, “A deal” and he was struck again by how her smile made him feel. It was like a direction, something to head toward.

“Hey,” he said, “should I call you?”

She looked at him, puzzled.

“With directions,” he said.

“Oh, it’s okay. You’re on Hanson, right? I can figure it out.”

“Ok,” he said, disappointed at losing an excuse to call her. “See you at seven.”

“See ya,” she said.

Kevin watched the graceful way her dark hair moved as she walked away. For a few minutes he was frozen in place, then he followed her, wanting to keep her with him even if it was only for a little while longer. He knew where she’d parked. When he caught up, she was tossing her jacket into the back seat. “Hey,” Kevin called, “have you started your paper yet?”

She looked at him, lost.

“For Gleason, I mean.” She grunted, as if not wanting to be reminded. “What’s your topic?”

“Labor unions.” She made the words sound like tasteless porridge.

“Be grateful. Mine’s anti-trust law,” he said. She opened the driver-side door and slid in. “Hey listen,” he said. “I’m heading for the library. Why don’t you come with me?”

“I think I’ll pass. I’m in no rush to get into it. But thanks.”

He could tell that she wanted him to stop there, but he couldn’t. “Well, how about a soda?” he said, leaning into the passenger side. She retreated without moving a muscle and her face went blank. “Okay, then. A movie Saturday?”

“Kevin . . . ”

“Maybe we could get away for the weekend? The Bahamas don’t cost much.” That made her smile finally, and he didn’t fight its effect on him. “We can go steady first, if you insist. Or would you rather we were engaged?” When she laughed, he said, “You’re no easy mark, are you?”

“Kevin, listen. I like you a lot. I like talking to you and I like hearing your stories.” She had trouble saying the rest, faced the windshield. “I’m no good at that stuff.”
Kevin didn’t know what to say, but he didn’t want to leave it like this. “I like being with you. That’s all.”

“I like you too.” She looked directly at him now, as if she was trying to explain something to a small child. “It wouldn’t work with me, Kevin.”

Kevin opened the door and got inside.

Beth sighed, a little exasperated. “We could let me decide that,” Kevin said.

“Kevin, give it up. Let’s not spoil things.”

“Are you back with Ron?” He heard she and Ron Bishoff had broken up almost three months before. It was a bold question, but he decided he had nothing to lose at that point. He had already made a complete fool of himself.

“I’m not back with anybody, Kevin,” she said, and started the car. “Let’s leave this alone, ok?”
Kevin said so long and let himself out, convinced that if he had been someone else, someone from a normal family, it wouldn’t have to turned out that way.

The first few kids arrived and Kevin’s father still wasn’t home. Kevin’s stomach was knotted, his head ached. He couldn’t hear the things people were saying to him. His mother had put some pretzels out, with cheeses and slices of apple, as if she couldn’t decide if the group was a fraternity or a bridge club. She stood in the dining room, hawking the street through slats in the blinds. Kevin knew what she was thinking. If he was drunk, she’d get to him first, before he got inside the house.

When the rest of the kids arrived, Melanie started reading a poem. Kevin didn’t hear a word of it. After everyone talked to her about it, she looked at Kevin and said, “You thought it was awful, didn’t you?”

“What?” he said, lost.

“You hated it.”

“No. No. It was great.”

“People don’t have to comment if they don’t want to,” Jack said. Tires screeched to a stop out front and Kevin got numb. His mother hurried out to the driveway.

“Karen has something to read,” Beth said.

Kevin felt sick, dizzy. The car door slammed and he could hear his mother talking to his father, warning him. That would set him off. Kevin was sure of that much.

“The rain slashed against the loose shutters,” Karen began. “The boys held their breath.” Liam Donnegan’s voice got loud outside and Kevin saw a look pass over Beth’s face. “They had only one candle left and no matches . . .” Karen’s words trailed off. The heavy sound of a struggle broke against the front door, Kevin’s father yelling, his mother’s small voice—“Liam, Liam, you mustn’t”—attempting reason, then the door opened. For a time, Karen kept reading and each of them sat frozen in place, afraid to look at one another, afraid to acknowledge what was happening. “Get off me, just get off my back.” Liam’s shouts filled the house, made the air in the room brittle, unbreatheable. Karen stopped reading. Mrs. Donnegan coaxed her husband downstairs. He was still shouting.

“Listen, eh, I’m sorry,” Kevin finally said.

Nobody answered him or looked at him. Then something crashed downstairs and Melanie jumped up, with a frightened cry. More shouts rose from below.

“We better go, Kevin,” Beth said. Kevin nodded. By the time they got their jackets on and got out the door, the place sounded like a Three Stooges movie. Kevin sat down outside at the foot of the driveway, clutching his notebook, watching each of them walk away. They walked quickly, wanting to leave the house as far behind as possible. Kevin didn’t blame them a bit. Beth was the only one left. She stood in front of him, hesitated, then placed her notebook on the ground beside him and sat down on it. She pulled her knees up under her chin.

“Well, that’s the end of that,” Kevin said.

“End of what?”

“The group. For me at least.”

“Only if that’s what you want.” She waited, but Kevin didn’t answer. “It isn’t what I want,” she said. The kindness opened Kevin up, like a clean breeze passing through, like a respite from the chaos. He tried to thank her, but choked on the words.

“Want to talk?” she said.

Kevin didn’t answer. He stared straight ahead.

“You can’t let it get to you, Kevin,” she said.

“Forget it. This is nothing new for me.” He sounded angry at her, but he didn’t mean to.

“For me either,” she said. He was confused. She was staring down at her sneakers, not looking at him, as if the words had slipped out and it was too late to get them back.

“Things get like this at your house?” Kevin said. He couldn’t keep from sounding amazed.

“For as long as I can remember.”

He was confused. Beth was one of the perfect people. Smart. Pretty. Beautiful house. Friends.

“You could have fooled me,” he said.

“Yeah, I guess I could have, but where is that getting us?”

They watched the passing cars light the darkness, listened to his parents’ voices rise and crash in waves, purposeless exchanges. He didn’t believe Beth could know how this felt. Nobody could know how ashamed and angry he was, how empty. It wasn’t possible.

She touched his arm lightly, hardly making contact, but he couldn’t say anymore. He was afraid he’d break down. “Listen. I’ll see you tomorrow, ok?” he told her.

She got up to go, straightened the legs of her jeans. Kevin handed her her notebook. “If you want to talk, come find me,” she said.

He watched her walk away, like the others had, her notebook clasped tightly against her chest. He had no choice but to let her go. He stood to see her better and watched for a long time. The notebook got heavier and heavier in his hand, a weight of secrets, years piled onto years, an aloneness so dense he saw then that he might never lift it off. Soon his parents’ shouting began to fade, until their voices were lost in the distance. The yellow tulips that lined the sidewalk glowed in the moonlight as if they held candles inside. Beth’s head was bowed in a kind of sadness, or loss maybe, and he’d nearly reached her side before he realized he’d been running, before he knew that he’d already decided which story he would read to her.