Quiet Us was a short story published in the now-defunct Referential Magazine.
Content Warnings: Abuse, alcoholism, death, and violence.
Danny and his baby brother watched from the kitchen table as their mother and father wrestled in silence, and when their father hit their mother once in the face, she stopped. The punch didn’t have a sound. She stood there, and he looked at her before he turned around and left the house all at once. The door slammed behind him, and it was plenty loud.
She stood there with heavy lids draped down halfway over her eyes, and she was staring at the door, but Danny knew she didn’t see much. His mother had been half-blind for years from a time when their father hit her cold in the head like he did just a moment before. Danny watched her standing there like she was a statue or something dead that was straight up instead of flat. His baby brother didn’t seem to think anything of it.
His mother used a mental map of the house she’d figured from the time when she could see. She still put her hands on things, but it wasn’t to know where anything was at. She touched things to make sure she was still alive and that it was all real. It was. Danny’s baby brother said something like babies do, and it sounded like a protest but didn’t make any sense. He was what they call a colicky baby, and he always had fits. He was quiet now, though.
His mother went around the countertop area that separated the kitchen from the living room in their small trailer home. Things were everywhere that were sentimental to her. Danny thought it was funny that she had so many things and she couldn’t see much of them. He asked her once what she saw now, and she said Shadows.
Danny thought about that and about how her eyelids always hung down halfway, and he assumed that she saw half dark and half light in everything. He thought maybe that every time his dad hit her that things got a little darker, and her eyelids were especially low at the moment, and Danny waited for her to open them more, but she never did. She stopped in front of the gas stove and stood there again for a long time in silence. Danny spooned up some baby food and moved the spoon toward his brother’s mouth, but he didn’t want it, so Danny put the spoon down.
It was cold, and it was what the fight was all about. The heater broke, and Danny’s dad didn’t have the money to fix it because he’d lost his job due to all of the alcohol. His mother would say warnings about Danny and the baby and about how they’d freeze, but it never got that cold out in West Texas. Not in a temperature way.
She turned the knob on the stove a bit and stopped before she usually did. A hiss came from beneath one of the grated burners like popped tire but softer. Danny watched her. There was a mirror on the backside of the stove under the low hood vent that reflected only her still chest. She didn’t seem like she was even breathing in it. A small silver cross around her neck caught the light of a window, and that was the only thing that changed in the mirror. She didn’t light the stove, and it was like she decided right there that she wasn’t going to turn the knob any farther than it was and that the gas would just stay on.
Y’all are just like him, she said. Ain’t no savin nothin. I try, and I try, and what’s it all for anyway?
Danny tried to feed his baby brother again, but he still didn’t eat.
I can’t expect nothin with y’all comin from someone like him. He made you, and it’s like y’all ain’t taken a thing after me. That baby’s been cryin since he’d come out, she said.
Danny remembered yet how his baby brother had come out, and Danny watched the whole thing when it happened. It wasn’t gross to him at all. His dad wasn’t there for it, and Danny felt like it was important that at least he was. He was nine years old then, and he somehow knew that. He remembered the inside of his mother’s thighs and how they were blue-spotted all over. It all sounded like it hurt. And she was right, the baby cried ever since. Except now, he didn’t cry. Neither did she this time.
I can’t tell you how many times I tried, Danny, she said. I tried again and again, but it don’t make no difference. He’s gonna keep on drinkin and keep on bein the man he’s always been, and it is what it is. Momma always said you can’t change no man.
The hiss kept on, and a smell filled the room that Danny remembered from the pumps when they stopped at them for gas. There wasn’t anything that smelled quite like it, and Danny remembered liking the smell most times, but this wasn’t one of those times. He looked at his brother.
I’d reckon he’s gonna kill me and kill you and all of us if ain’t nothin done about any of it, she said. But what’s there to be done about it? The goddamn police don’t do a thing. Not a damn thing.
Danny had never heard his mother curse like she did. Not once did he hear her curse at God either. His baby brother made another curt babyish sound like he’d learned something he wasn’t supposed to. His mother’s hand shook on the gas stove’s knob. Danny heard kids outside playing and making a happy racket. He tried to see them through the window, but he couldn’t, and he didn’t move from where he was at. The air around him became alien, and he wasn’t sure he was supposed to breathe it none either. His baby brother began to cough some but kept playing with his food.
There ain’t much else I know what to do, she said. I ain’t controlled nothin in my whole life, you know that? Not one thing about it.
Danny knew she asked a question, but he didn’t answer it. It wasn’t meant to be answered. Danny tried to feed the baby again, and he didn’t eat, so Danny gave up. Danny looked at the highchair and thought about getting his baby brother out of it. What it would take. It wasn’t much. He did a lot of the watching when his mother cried, and when his dad was gone drinking. Danny watched his mother as she gripped the cross on her neck like it would do something. He looked above her and saw a sign she’d put up that said Home Sweet Home, and Danny didn’t once know what it meant. He thought sweet and home were two things entirely different—one made things better, and one made things worse, and that was all. How those words ended up that close together on one sign, he couldn’t tell.
I think sometimes it’d all be better if it weren’t at all, she said. You ain’t got no need to see this, and your brother won’t have none of it with the way he’s cryin all the time, she said. Danny’s mother massaged the cross in a fever with one hand, and the other kept at the knob. You know he’s comin back, she said. He always comes back, don’t he?
Danny didn’t answer, but he stood up as quietly as he could. He wrapped his arms around his baby brother and looked into his blue eyes and tried to tell him something in a language separate from the mouth entire. His baby brother looked back at him in a weird silence, and there wasn’t nothing for sound but the hiss of that gas stove. He pulled his brother against him and kept his arms tight, and his brother didn’t fuss. Danny went as quietly as he could over to the door, and he let a hand go from his brother to turn the knob. When the door came ajar, it clicked, but his mother said nothing of it. He couldn’t tell if she heard it or not. He paused as light crept in from outside into the dark trailer, and he listened to his mother again.
You don’t know how hard I try for all of you, she said. How much I be givin of myself even. What’s a person supposed to do anyway when there ain’t nothin left to give, but everyone still be askin?
Danny frowned. His brother stayed quieter than he’d ever been. Danny opened the door enough to fit the two of them, and he went out of it and closed it back up behind him. He walked with his brother in his arms barefooted on the weedy lawn, and sharp dead sticks poked the bottoms of his calloused feet. He walked with his brother across the black tar asphalt that connected the lots. Boys were playing out in one of the yards and minding their own business and didn’t realize how much Danny was carrying right there. Danny settled in a lawn a couple of houses down, and he sat down in the middle of the grass with his brother on his lap and watched his trailer full silent. It was cold out. The sky was all blue like cold too.
His dad drove back down the street and didn’t see the two of them sitting there in the neighbor’s yard. He stopped his truck and got out. He stood there next to the truck and lit a cigarette, and Danny knew that was it.
The woman that lived in the trailer behind Danny came out, and she was an old woman. She was smiling at the two of them, and her teeth were all colors of decay. The light from the sun shined on and off on Danny and his brother like it was a great cosmic eye that kept blinking. When he looked up, he noticed the light waned as a result of an American flag that was waving on a long stick that stuck out of the old woman’s trailer like an extra arm. The flag waved and curled in the wind, and Danny’s baby brother looked at it too like it was something to see.
You two playin out here? the old woman said.
Danny looked back at the woman and didn’t say anything to her. His face was half-light then half-dark in the shadow of the flag. Their dad walked toward their trailer a few lots down from where Danny and his brother sat. The cigarette in his mouth and the glow of it was obvious from far. It looked like it always did only Danny had a different perspective on things. That cigarette in his mouth was just a torch into a pit of dynamite. He was always fire, and she was always propellant.
I don’t mind it none, the old woman said. It’s nice to see you young boys. I don’t get to see—but she stopped all at once as the trailer a couple lots down exploded.
Fire rose up in every direction, and pieces of things shot out into the sky and fell like black feathers in ash all over the place. People came out of their trailers all over and watched it. Danny’s eyes went wide, and he watched the fire burn, and still, his baby brother didn’t make a sound though he had a baby’s sort of shock, which amounted to dumb attention. The old woman all at once turned around and ran back into the house to call someone about it. Danny brought his brother closer to him and stared at the fire and watched the smoke, especially to see if he could see anything leaving in it. But he didn’t. It was all just black, and nothing else was there. That flag waved like nothing happened at all.