From WTP Vol. VI #9
By Dean Kostos
Excerpted from The Boy Who Listened to Paintings, a forthcoming memoir
Home was 413 Wayne Drive. My mother said the four stood for our family, but the thirteen was unlucky. Our clapboard house was one among many on a curving street. In the summer, I’d hear the ca-ching of children’s three-wheelers and the sing-song of ice cream trucks. In the winter, carolers trudged through snow. A fire engine sounded its siren on Christmas Eve, Santa atop his throne, hurling candy canes to children.
Now, that all changed. “The Ban” had begun. I was forbidden to step on people’s lawns. Some neighbors hollered, “You can’t come here!” or “Don’t get any closer!” Some waved their hands, as if shooing away a rabid dog. The stretch of houses that had been my world was suddenly off-limits. I walked in the street.
One neighbor admitted Katie Hempfiger’s mother had started The Ban. Katie was my best friend. Her mother was a Girl Scout leader and choir director. Somehow, this wholesome woman decided that because my mother spent time in a mental hospital, she had “crazy-germs.” Worse yet, I was a “carrier,” a seven-and-a-half-year-old threat. The tall words of adults were law.
In summer, zoysiagrass lawns looked like claws. Maybe our neighbors knew that I thought about Jesus draped on the cross, finding him beautiful, wanting to hold him. Maybe I was evil and deserved to be treated like a rabid dog.
Katie didn’t think so. We were still friends at school. In November, we bounded out of the school bus near our houses. Giggling, I followed her onto her lawn without thinking. “Jeez, I’m not allowed here,” I said. “I’ll get you in trouble!”
“No, you’re my friend. You stand wherever you want.”
I couldn’t remember when anyone had stood up for me like that. It’s what I wished my parents had done when I told them a kid had punched me till I puked or that my teacher made me read, despite my stuttering. Either my parents were too caught up in their own misery, or they asked what I had done to cause these actions. That was the gist: I had brought it on myself. But Katie’s reaction was different. I thanked her and darted into my house.
The next day—in the neutral environment of school—I asked if she talked to other neighbors about The Ban. She said she didn’t trust them; they might tell her mom.
She asked if I should tell the teachers. Some of them lived close by. Maybe they could do something. I said it would be a waste of time. None of them bothered to stop bloody fights that landed kids in the hospital. Nor did they stop bullies who tripped and punched me as I rushed up and down stairs between classes.
I made Katie swear not to tell my mother. If Mommy knew about The Ban, it would push her over the edge. I lived in fear of her going back to the Toot [The Institute of Pennsylvania Hospital, a psychiatric facility].
And even though Dad helped me with homework, I couldn’t depend on him. I never knew if he’d be the father who could define any word I read or the man who buried himself in work. When he was that man, he pretended I didn’t exist, working for hours on legal briefs. I joked, asking if they were lawyers’ underwear. He didn’t answer. Hoping my silliness would get through to him, I asked who Half O’David was (my mishearing of affidavit). He still didn’t answer.
He was stewing over an argument he’d had with my mother. At least two or three times a week, they screamed at each other till sunrise. Mommy cried in her canopy bed. He would sneak into the guest room. My room was in between. I knocked on their doors, asking if they were okay. They scribbled messages on folded papers, like ori-gami birds. I passed them back and forth, but not before reading them:
“Ted, you’ve ignored my feelings.”
“Sofia, I never meant to hurt you.”
“I don’t believe that.”
“Sudsy, we’re throwing away something precious.”
After he used the nickname “Sudsy,” her mood softened, but they still slept apart. Within a week, he’d whistle “Dearly Beloved,” their signature melody. We were a family again, for a while. I’d wake in the middle of the night to make sure they weren’t screaming. Eventually, that became a permanent reflex, disrupting my sleep. Nonetheless, my family was a world where I had some control.
People shooing me from their lawns was worse. They wouldn’t even let me ask why. I stayed home, to watch over Mommy. The huge air conditioner breathed for our house like an iron lung. In its hum, I made drawings, dolls, poems—my radio playing. She had her Miltown pills, Plasticine sculptures, and Brazilian music. I’d lie next to her on the burgundy carpet, our arms outstretched, bossa nova music washing over us. With eyes closed, all hurt melted away.
There was another place where I felt welcome—Zili’s house. It was the safest, most peaceful place I knew. No arguing, no crazy-germs. Eucalyptus leaves, arranged in Oaxacan pottery, filled her rooms with an almost-urine scent. She took me up to her studio and talked about paintings in progress as if they were people, “She’s resisting me. Her hands don’t know where to go. This one’s a bad girl. I’ll get her to be friendlier or else …” A ghostly array of unfinished people perched on easels.
One day, admiring a painting, I almost heard music floating from it. It became a new way of seeing. I told Zili colors had sounds and vice versa, worried she’d find that weird. She said, “Of course they do. There’s even the ‘chromatic scale.’ Notes have colors. And didn’t you know abstract artists were trying to paint melodies?” To illustrate her point, she played an LP of electronic music, Silver Apples of the Moon. It was strange and metallic, as if it had fallen from outer space. Offering me a sheet of water-color paper and gouache, she told me to let my brush dance with the notes. I painted a pewter swan skimming over ripples. Daub by daub, a perfect world.
A brush became a wand. The spell it cast changed Cinnaminson. By the time I was eleven and a half, The Ban ended. More important things had taken its place: marriages, graduations, a Swedish father’s suicide. But what Zili gave me lasted. Unable to believe in anything as cruel as “crazy-germs,” she taught me art was as necessary as water.
Dean Kostos’s most recent collection of poems is Pierced by Night-Colored Threads. His previous books include This Is Not a Skyscraper (recipient of the Benjamin Saltman Poetry Award, selected by Mark Doty), Rivering, Last Supper of the Senses, The Sentence That Ends with a Comma, and the chapbook Celestial Rust. He coedited Mama’s Boy (a Lambda Book Award finalist) and edited Pomegranate Seeds (its debut reading was held at the United Nations). His poems and personal essays have appeared in over three hundred journals and anthologies.