Oregon: A Prologue
Robert didn’t know which was the greater crime, to fall in love in the middle of your father’s funeral or to fall in love with your brother’s wife. But he knew he was doubly doomed, since he had done both on a single late October afternoon before he turned fifteen years old. 1997 was a year of good people dying—that’s what Angela said. Mother Teresa had died, and Princess Diana had died, and now Robert’s father because, she said, death comes in threes.
Angela and Sean had flown in from Philadelphia that morning. Seven weeks pregnant with twins, Angela hugged herself warm by the graveside, crying for a father-in-law she had never met. Her tears mixed with the Oregon drizzle. She did not wipe them away. She didn’t pretend to have any words. She offered no sounds or murmurs. She only cupped Robert’s chin in her cold, slender fingers and brushed her thumb against his jaw. Before he could lean in, she turned away to focus her love on his little sister, Bridget, wrapping her in a hug that outlasted any hug he’d ever witnessed.
Robert wanted to crawl into Angela’s arms and lie there. No, more than that. He wanted to crawl inside her skin, to stay there like a bug. She would be his chrysalis, protecting and sheltering him until he developed a kind of shell. Everyone else tried to dodge the fact of his father’s death, ducking away from Robert the way they ducked from the cold and constant October rain. Only Angela faced the facts with them, unflinching as the jack-o’-lanterns that leered on local porches.
In that first trimester, Angela looked more like a car model than a pregnant woman. She could have lain across the hood of a Lamborghini, her feet curved into those high, high heels, water beading on her chest and midriff. Her tanned thighs would be framed by the fringe of her cut-offs. Her breasts, soft as pillows, would be barely contained by a torn and translucent tee shirt.
That night, Angela was asleep in Robert’s bed, and from his sleeping bag in the living room Robert strained to make out his mother and brother’s conversation. Sean cracked a fresh Coors from the fridge, drinking the last of their father’s beer as if it didn’t mean anything, as if there would be more beer, more days, more dad.
Robert didn’t hear his mother’s low voice, only Sean’s replies: “I know it’s far.” “There’s nothing for me here.” “But we like Philly.” And later, “Angela’s family is there.” Now that Sean had dropped out of Hassler, his mother couldn’t see a reason for Sean to stay gone. They spoke for hours; his mother’s whispers were hushed but insistent. Robert couldn’t imagine what she said. He couldn’t picture his mother admitting that she needed help, let alone begging for it. Darkness spread on every side of the small white house, but they sat together, Sean’s strong voice cutting through each of their mother’s sh-shushing arguments.
None of it mattered. Days later, Sean and Angela got back on the plane and flew away, leaving Robert and his mother and sister to figure out how the hell to go on. Their mother scanned the paper each day, hoping to find someone, anyone, willing to hire a forty-year-old woman who hadn’t held a job since high school. Herman was wrung dry, a town with nothing left. They finished out the school year and spent the summer packing up the only home he’d ever known. The U-Haul meant they had given up, or it meant they were starting new. But which?
A Private Darkness
August in Philadelphia was hot and thick-aired. Hurrying Bridget through Penn Center, Robert tried not to stare at the building tops, stacked like chevrons on a sergeant’s sleeve. Staring would give them away as outsiders. Only tourists gawked at skyscrapers, and tourists got mugged. But they weren’t tourists any more. For almost two weeks now, Philadelphia had been home, or something like it.
His mother’s gaze was level, but Bridget, her hand hot in his, could not stop looking. Herman didn’t have a single office over two stories. The ones that stretched around them now, all metal and glass, crowded out the sky. They were supposed to have been at Sean’s ten minutes ago.
A shove laid Robert flat. He rolled to glimpse the hulking man who had barreled out of Brotherly Love Coffee. “The fuck?” the man bellowed, as a slop of suds and dingy water splatted on the sidewalk inches from Robert’s head. “How my customers supposed to get through this mess?”
The window-washers responded with laughter and another splat of suds.
It was aggressive, Robert thought. It was unnecessary.
The coffee man growled and hocked. His loogie landed in the suds by Robert’s hand. “They got no respect,” he said to the air. “No respect for the working man.”
Robert’s mother stared as if her gaze could push the man away and make him stay put. The fern she held dampened the effect, but it was intense nonetheless. Hazel and black-lashed, her eyes were the same as Sean’s, but they cast an entirely different spell. Sean’s said, Love me; hers said, Back off. Robert honestly had no idea how his father had ever braved his way past that look.
Bridget hopped back and forth over a crack running down the sidewalk, oblivious to the dangers. Robert smiled as he pulled himself up, letting his mother know that he was okay, that they would all be okay.
As they walked, the city grew smaller and older. Here, his mother’s home-sewn cotton sack of a dress didn’t look so strangely out of place. The buildings had little wooden doors that swung on iron hinges and gleamed with glossy layers of enamel. The bricks were weathered and rounded with time. Little brass plaques told of famous people and revolutionary conspiracies, seeded in a city founded more than a century before Lewis and Clark trekked their way to Oregon. Buildings like this were where it had all started: America. The thought blew his mind. In the small rooms of these small houses, men had hidden together and dreamed up a country. He wondered what his friend Troy, the only guy he knew who could rattle off the names of all one hundred senators, would think of this place. Robert might tell him about it, but Troy was getting slower and slower about returning his calls.
Sunlight flashed off a passing car’s hubcaps and burned stars in Robert’s eyes. He checked the directions his mother had scrawled on an old envelope. They’d gotten off the bus too early, not close enough to the Schuylkill, though even here the air hung heavy with river smell. Sweat trickled in a little creek down Robert’s spine. His mother shifted her grip on the fern, its plastic hook leaving an angry red mark on her fingers.
Three men leaned against the side of a building on the corner as if they were joists put there to hold it in place. Looking at his mother, they smiled in slow motion through mirrored sunglasses. “You need help, Mama?” one crooned. “We’ll help you.”
She shot him a look, but it had no effect. Their family passed into the cloud of the men’s cologne, something heavy with leather and musk. The men looked as if they spent the whole summer this way, loitering in sleeveless shirts, flexing, commenting on passing women. “We’ll show you everything you’re looking for,” the man said again, his yoyo eyes traveling up and down their mother’s body.
Robert dropped his gaze to the fern. How could his mother ever walk around in this city? Every step was an assault. The maze of sidewalks stretched and hooked around them. His mother stopped at a gray stucco building. It wasn’t old enough to be cool, just old enough to be run-down. Cracks ran up its walls as if it all weighed too much, as if the building were tired of holding itself up but couldn’t make the final effort to fall. The concrete stank of fermented urine, and its glass doors were smeared with something brownish green that Robert both did and did not want to identify. His mother glanced again at the scrawled directions. “This is the one.”
Bridget crushed her body close to Robert. “This is where the green man lives.”
The green man, her nightmare monster. She’d been talking about him more since the move. Robert rubbed her shoulder. “No green man here, Bridge.”
The elevator with its old metal gate squealed and groaned as it pulled them up. Robert felt certain it would drop them, splattering his family like eggs in a box, but eventually it lurched to a halt and opened. He heard the twins crying through the thin walls even before his mother knocked.
The three of them stood, listening, first for footsteps and then for any sound at all aside from crying babies—a television, voices, a sneeze—but all they heard was unbroken wailing. His mother shifted the fern from one hand to the other. In the damp hallway, Robert felt as limp and sodden as steeped tea. He hoped Sean had a window air-conditioner like some of the people in their neighborhood. Robert had begged their mother to buy one, but she said they were loud and made the air taste weird.
His mother knocked again. Sean should have had the game on by now. The kickoff would be any minute. Strange that they couldn’t hear the TV when the twins’ cries were so clear. Even though Sean had quit the team, he wouldn’t miss a minute of Hassler’s season opener. They had been planning this day for weeks. Sean had made them delay coming to see the apartment so that they would see it for the first time on game day. They’d made a thing of it. He’d called at seven that morning to make sure they were coming, repeating the bus numbers, asking his mother again when they would arrive.
Their mother knocked a third time, but the crying only sharpened. The apartment wasn’t supposed to be big—a converted hotel suite, Sean had said. Just a living room, bedroom, and galley kitchen. This was his third apartment in a year and the smallest yet, but, Sean said, it had a view of the Schuylkill through the gaps in the buildings.
“What’s taking so long?” Bridget asked. She was five and impatient, and they ignored her.
Their mother handed Robert the house-warming fern, chosen because it reminded them of Oregon, all green and optimistic. Her face settled into a hard, stubborn worry. The tension built up in her; it pulsed from her skin in waves. She put the spare key in the lock, her mouth pressed in a line. She laid a hand on the knob.
Later, Robert would know that his world had folded flat in that instant, though the moment was over before he was aware of it. He hardly saw a thing as his mother slipped inside. But he did see something. What, exactly? Already, he was trying to reconstruct the fragment of color and motion he’d glimpsed before his mother’s hand caught him in the chest and pushed him back, before she said, “Wait here with Bridget,” before she closed the door.
None of the things that should have been in the living room were there. No smell of popcorn hanging in the air, no ice-cold Cokes dripping on the table, no Sean smiling to welcome them. No couch, no coffee table, no big-screen TV. The room was empty, except for a large, rectangular crib.
The crib wasn’t right. It had a flowered bed-sheet pulled over it, the corners tied down so that it looked like an over-sized birdcage. And a little hand. Had he seen that at the sheet’s edge? A small fist squeezing between the rails? Loud crying echoed in his ears, as if opening the door had increased the volume in the hallway even after the door closed. He could feel the palm of his mother’s hand on his chest where she’d pushed him.
“It smells out here,” Bridget said.
She hadn’t seen, he realized. She hadn’t seen, and he couldn’t tell her. Robert stopped her as she reached for the door. “Mom said to wait.”
“I don’t want to wait.”
“We’re going to.”
Bridget crossed her arms and stomped her pink shoe, but Robert didn’t care so long as she was quiet. He strained his ears, listening. “You want something to do?” he said. “You can hold the fern.”
“I’m not holding that dumb thing. It’s like a green-man invitation.”
Through the crying, Robert heard movement. Just one person. Maybe Sean had gone to look for them. But the game should have started by now. Hassler had a strong coach and a talented running back. Anything might happen, even against Notre Dame.
More minutes. More waiting. Finally, “Open up for me, Robert,” their mother said, tapping the other side of the door with her foot. She had a baby in each arm and Sean’s old duffel over her shoulder.
“Where’s Sean?” Bridget asked.
And Angela? Robert didn’t say.
“Press the down button, Bridget.”
He’d wanted to stay there a little longer. He’d wanted to wash the babies clean and call the police, but his mother had said there was no water in the apartment, no electricity, no phone, and no time if they wanted to catch the bus home.
They rushed blindly through unknown streets to the stop they hadn’t found before. Robert and his mother each dragged their own set of anchors: Robert towed Bridget, the straining duffel bag, and the ridiculous fern; his mother cushioned the babies’ heads, one in each palm, so that they weren’t too badly jostled as she sped across the concrete. If Sean had gone looking for them, they should have passed him along the way. As they rounded the final corner, the bus was already rolling in. They didn’t have a free arm to flag it down, but thankfully the driver saw and waited.
The five of them plunked into the first open seats, panting in the stench of unchanged diapers. Around them, people frowned and judged. Some covered their noses and mouths with their hands. His mother bounced the babies in her arms but made no sound. A strand of black hair had escaped her barrette and stuck to her hard lip, quivering as she exhaled, but she noticed only the twins in her arms.
“You know, they have this radical new technology called soap,” some stranger said. “It’s cheap and user-friendly. Even dummies can use it; you don’t need a manual or nothing.”
A few people chuckled, and the man smirked to himself, satisfied with his own cleverness. Their mother didn’t so much as flinch.
Robert should have offered to carry one of the twins, but he knew he would barf. Already his throat burned against the stink. He stared through the fern fronds and the street-grimed window, bracing against the strangers’ remarks. Everything was everybody’s business here. His mother juggled the babies in one arm, poop smearing the front her dress. Robert couldn’t name the emotion on her face. Anger, yes, and concern, disgust—and something else, something like the look she’d worn at the funeral. Something forbidding.
Their mother nodded at Bridget as they got off the bus as if everything were okay, but even in their own neighborhood, people stared. Robert saw his family as the neighbors would see them: a small white girl whose red Hassler tee shirt stretched past her knees, a too-tall white boy with gawky elbows, a white woman carrying babies cradled like footballs. The neighbors paused, then went back to laughing and talking—only now they would be laughing and talking about them. Robert wondered if every Philadelphia neighborhood was as loud as theirs. Ever since they’d gotten here, someone always had a boom box in the window blasting hip hop or corridos, as though they were always having a block party and the Flannigans weren’t invited.
His mother aimed her lion eyes forward, walking as if she weren’t shit-smeared and reeking. These kids looking at them would go to his school. In days, they would know him. They would remember.
Robert pulled their building door open, relieved to be at a place that didn’t feel like home but was, at least, a private darkness. He tried to speak, but the babies’ sourness, stronger even than the fungal smell of the stairway, moved like a cloud around his mother and choked him. Not a word, his mother’s eyes said. Not one little word.
Scrapple grew from my experience working in urban schools, where I quickly learned that youth is no protection from disaster. I’m often bothered by the belief that children are innocent and lead ignorant, blissful lives. The idea is sentimental in the worst way, denying the reality of the pain that surrounds people of every age. I have strived in this novel to represent the experience of a boy who undergoes real emotional trauma. Even as his circumstances worsen, his hope and heart remain undiminished, though his hope sometimes battles with his anger.
Robert Flannigan, newly moved from small-town Oregon to Philadelphia, is days away from starting his sophomore year of high school when he finds his older brother’s babies abandoned, a sheet tied over their crib and no word of explanation. With his brother missing, his mother starting a new job, and his twin nephews to look after, Robert has never felt more alone. He quickly befriends Jerome, the ever-smiling nerd from across the street. Together, he and Jerome navigate their way through substitute parenting, the city bus system, pervasive racism, and their high school’s bullies, as they launch a search that will expose them to both the city’s secrets and those of Robert’s brother.
My goal has been to write a novel focused on complex characters with a story that feels relevant, though not overtly political. Robert’s search impels him to discover a value system that will define his identity. In particular, his relationship with Jerome, who is black and bisexual, makes both boys targets of school bullying and violence. The novel is set in 1998, with the Jonesboro school shooting and the Matthew Shepherd murder in the background, and violence, especially gun violence, is a real and constant threat.
Siân Griffiths lives in Ogden, Utah, where she directs the Creative Writing Program at Weber State University. Her work has appeared in The Georgia Review, American Short Fiction, Ninth Letter, Cincinnati Review, Quarterly West, Indiana Review, and The Rumpus, among other publications. Her short fiction has twice been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, once by Versal and once by The Georgia Review, and her debut novel, Borrowed Horses (New Rivers Press), was a semi-finalist for the 2014 VCU Cabell First Novelist Award. Currently, she reads fiction as part of the editorial team at Barrelhouse. For more information, please visit sbgriffiths.com.
Embark, Issue 3, January 2018