We are worried about Denny. We have reason to believe he may go all Columbine on us.
Experts warn parents to watch out for signs, and it hurts to say, but we’ve seen plenty. Day and night our son is like an LCD banner, signaling something we can’t read. If he implodes and comes out shooting, the first thing to show up in the crosshairs will be us.
He was cute when he was little but now he’s heavily encoded: black everything, hanging off him in tatters— Matrix coat in mid-August, T‑shirt, jeans, bits of peeled sunburn and cuticle gnawed to shreds. Black lipstick and blue bruises around the eyes. That glare. Shake him and dirt flies out—rot and nail clippings, crushed rolling papers, inexplicable knots of hair. Stacks of secret writing that Denny covers as you come into the room and no friends except that creepy kid who won’t look you in the eye.
Shrinks list things to watch out for, and it isn’t just to protect the innocent, sitting in class when the armed fury comes in and lays waste. They’re warning us! Some lout killed his parents with a baseball bat not far from here, they were dead before the sleeping neighborhood rolled over and shut off the clock. In addition to knifings and axe murders, I read about deaths by assault weapon or repeating rifle, people executed by their own children on their way out of the house to massacre their peers.
It’s awful going around scared, but there you are. Poor Stef and I are forever on the alert.
Our mutant enemy blunders around the house at night making messes and bumping into things, and, worse? We’re the ones who apologize for being in the way. Back in our room, my wife throws herself down on the bed and sobs, “I’ve failed,” but, listen! There may be an enemy within but in spite of the cycle of guilt and mutual recriminations, we know isn’t us.
I don’t know what’s up with Dad. He and Mom are getting all weird and creepy, lurking with their knuckles hooked under their chins like disturbed squirrels, jumping away with uh-oh looks and shifty eyes when I come in. It’s not like they’re avoiding me. Unless they are.
How did it get so bad? The tiptoeing and the shrinking, the nights when I go to bed in tears? I want to hug my boy and make it better, but it’s like making overtures to a porcupine. Every gesture I try goes astray and if I get too close, I get hurt. What’s a mother to do? He was a hard person when the doctor dragged him out kicking and screaming, and it’s been downhill ever since. Maybe we were too old to be parents, unless we were too young. We had a baby because we were that age and it was expected, but nobody told us what it would be like. The event? The glories of childbirth thing is an atrocious myth. It was painful and scary and astounding. Stan and I spent the first months exhausted and terrified, but that’s nothing compared to now. We love our son, but he’s not very easy to like.
Denny’s always been sweet with me—well, except at certain times, but God it’s hard, and I’ve tried everything. We need to sit down and talk but my son is hooked up to his music like a patient to an IV and I don’t even know what’s going into his ears. If I ask him to pull out the ear-buds so we can have the conversation he gets all weird and hostile and slouches away with a look that frightens me.
Denny, if it’s something I did, then I’m sorry. Isn’t this punishment enough?
When you’re warned about the enemy within, the first thing you do is blame yourself. It must be something you did, like failing to pay attention or hitting, which can make schoolyard assassins of kids. Hit Denny? I just wouldn’t, although God knows there were times when I was close. The flip side of guilt is things you failed to do, but on that score Stephanie and I test clean. Believe me, we read all the books and covered all the bases—lessons, therapy, Ritalin or Prozac as indicated, contact lenses and braces, of course. Dermabrasion. Comedy camp. Implants to replace teeth trashed by playground bullies, a trigger parents are urged to report, which we dutifully did which made our son furious, I don’t know why.
We brought home video games, tabletop soccer and a ping-pong table to help him win friends, but nobody ever comes over. Why, Steph and I spent last summer redoing his room. We’ve done everything for the kid, and what do we get back? Black polish on the fingernails, a show of teeth so sharp that I could swear he’s filing them down to points. We try to give him everything he wants and the hell of it is, he won’t even tell us what he wants.
To this day my wife spends hours on the birthday bunny cake with shredded coconut fur and jelly bean eyes and a combed cotton ball for a tail. She does it with tears in her eyes because it pleased him once, and she has hopes. It does no good to remind her that he was two. Nobody’s going to tell us that we don’t love Denny, especially not him.
Take a letter off Denny and you get: DENY. Stan and Stephanie don’t know it but in study hall I am making a tattoo. It hurts but it’s easy to do. It isn’t a heart, although I drew an arrow through it to represent Diane, from Spanish class. What I put, with a ballpoint and this safety pin? DENY.
Nobody told me what it would be like. One day you’re a normal, perfectly healthy woman with a day job, a sense of who you are in life, the next…
You wake up the next morning like a slate that God erased. Your baby howls and everything you used to be is wiped away.
For thirty years of my life, Denny wasn’t.
Then he was.
I was so scared. He was so small! Breakable! Like a Swiss watch I had been given to maintain with no idea when the maker would come back to check on me, just the knowledge that I was accountable. There was no clear list of instructions, either, just the expectation that I would take care of it. The machinery was complex and mysterious, but I could tell that it wasn’t running right. You try, but what do you do when this precious object entrusted to you is congested with rage? Do I pick him up when he screeches or should he learn to put himself to sleep? Should I feed him now or is he not hungry, should I change him even though I just did and, I ask you, who’s supposed to be in charge? Which of us is supposed to have the upper hand? What if he gets so mad that he breaks?
Dear God, did I crack something in Denny while I wasn’t looking and is that why he grew up withdrawn and angry and sad?
It’s like sharing the house with a wild animal. He slinks around like a night-blooming menace, glowering, thinking tainted thoughts. Denny hates me, I’m sure of it, and I don’t know why. Still, we are coexisting here until he’s old enough to get a life, so I try. I sign his report cards without comment because anything I say will lead to a fight and the last thing we want here is to set him off. Although I don’t much feel like it, I make a smile. I go, HELLO, DENNIS. HOW WAS SCHOOL? and he flinches like I slapped him in the face.
I come into a room and they go silent, you can tell they were talking about me. Then Dad gets all stiff and polite and goes: “Well, Dennis, how’s school?” and I hackle. Get out of my face. How the fuck does he think school is? I’ll tell you how school is. It sucks. I have eight guys lying in wait to beat the crap out of me for eight different reasons, Diane Caldwell being only one. Miss Gleeson in English made me come up in the front of the room and read my story that I wrote; I had to read it out loud which is why seven of the guys are out to get me and the eighth, I’m guessing it’s about Diane; if I was sitting in the back and forced to listen to me reading this lame story I’d beat the crap out of me too.
But Dad is all up in my face, “How was school?” and he won’t lay back and let me walk away quiet until he gets an answer so I go, “OK.”
They want you to believe that when they put your new baby in your arms, it’s love at first sight, but instant mother love is another myth. I don’t know who puts it out there, greedy grandmothers bent on posterity or men who want to see their spit and image popping out of you. You want to love your children but the truth is, you get used to them. You get used to being baffled and helpless and weepy and you accommodate, over time. I went through the first year terrified. Was I giving him everything he needed or warping him for life? Now he’s fifteen and the jury’s out and it won’t come back. You tell me, did I do it right?
God knows I tried. I tried so hard to do it right that I’m afraid I did everything wrong.
She plants fifteen candles on this year’s cake. They bristle like armed cannons on a battleship. We knock ourselves out over presents we chosen to change him for the better, whatever that means. Nice clothes. A leather bound book to write his thoughts in, along with a box so he can lock it away from us. Games, maybe we can bond over cribbage, or chess. After he blows out the candles she cuts off the bunny’s head and presents it to Dennis with that heartbreaking tremulous smile.
Why, when we tried to give him everything, does he look like he wants to cry?
Over the years we tried everything. Tricycles and Christmas trees. Skateboards, sleds. Rollerblades. I used to throw the ball around with him when he was small! Now my son and I circle like boxers and my wife has to hold it in all night because she’s scared to go out in the hall.
In school today I accidentally knocked off Diane’s notebook when I accidentally went by her desk which I did so could I pick it up, and when I handed it back, we could talk, at least a little bit. That was an assaholic thing to do but it was cool. She thanked me with this look but when I came out after, eight assholes were lying in wait for me, so does that mean she likes me and they know it or what?
After I finally lost them I stayed back at the foundation to the new gym. Even though I knew the folks would be pissed off at me, I stayed until I was good to go, which took a while. There are times when you just don’t want people to see your face, you know? At home I have to hide what I am thinking or they’ll ask.
I have to be in the right head so I can walk in strong and tough.
In China a kid killed his folks with a knife because, he said, they neglected him. When he woke them up complaining that he was unwell they exploded and sent him back to bed. What was he thinking, crouching in his room? Neglect? I’ll show you neglect. Whatever he thought, whatever they did or failed to do to offend him, his father had thirty-seven gashes in his hide. His mother got almost twice that, now what does that tell you?
It tells you that no matter what you think you’re doing, they’re there to tell you that you did it wrong.
You go along doing what you always did under the illusion that it’s OK and nothing changes. Then menace creeps in like a cat when you aren’t looking and goes to sleep on the hearth. Every once in a while it wakes up and licks its balls. It settles back down and watches through slits, regarding us with malevolent yellow eyes because unlike you, unlike Stephanie and me, it knows what’s coming and it is content to wait.
There is a hidden clock set for an hour not known to us. Something big that we don’t know about is counting down to detonation and everything we see and hear tells us that it is Dennis. Our own flesh and blood!
Sometimes mothers have to be Geneva, the neutral party juggling warring factions, trying desperately to make peace. I try, but this is nothing like Switzerland. My house is an armed camp. Stan turns on the boy at the least provocation. Look at him with his jaw set in stone and his shoulders bunched, waiting for the shooting to start.
Why is he all the time going around ahem, Dennis, how are YOU today, like we are friends? Like we were ever friends, when I know the bastard never liked me, hates the sight of me, doesn’t want to be caught walking with me anywhere that anybody from the office will see, and when we do go out somewhere big and anonymous, like a basketball game, he’s always fake-smiling at me with that tight mouth and a mean little squint. At least thank God he’s quit trying to talk baseball or make me play racket ball with him, or fucking tennis, when he knows my hand-eye coordination sucks and if I see a ball coming at me, I flinch. I don’t know whether I hate sports more than sports hate me but I’m fucking sick of it and I’m good and sick of being locked in here with the two of them, like we are in jail together, doing life. If I was old enough I’d join the Army and get blown away in some foreign country that parents never go.
Everybody knows the joke about the eight-hundred pound gorilla, when he talks you listen, or is it, he sits down wherever he wants? We need to be careful with Denny because, until we see the size and shape of the hatred, we can’t begin to deal with it. In Canada, I just saw on TV, the cops are hunting for a kid who shot his parents when he asked for money and they didn’t cough up. He emptied their wallets and took off.
Yes I am researching these things on the web.
High school junior knifes his dad after a fight over the family car, and this is only last year. Almost makes it to the border before his mother phones 911 and the cops catch up with him, there’s a documentary on it scheduled for HBO.
On the web, everybody has a theory. There’s the outsider theory, the video-game/TV-violence theory, the suspicion that shooters were abused at home and then there’s the chance that it’s not something we failed to do, they destruct for no known reason because fate is arbitrary and vicious and it’s nothing anybody did.
One psychologist thinks they blow up because the adolescent’s brain isn’t fully developed until he’s twenty-one. So how do we get through the next six years with our big son? I try to get on Denny’s good side, but I can make a 360 around the kid and still not know which side that is, unless he’s turning as I do, so I’ll never see. Sometimes I walk into a room and find him hunched in a corner like a bag of feed that somebody dropped on the floor, and I wonder, How do I start the conversation.
Do I say, “Who do you like for the World Series?” Or do I sit down creaking, so he and I are on the floor with our backs to the wall, sitting shoulder to shoulder, and go, ahem? When I think I have his attention I’ll try this. It works on bad TV: “We need to talk.”
Like that ever works.
When Stan does try to make nice, being Stanley, he says the wrong thing. Or Denny takes it wrong. One word and my firstborn clenches like a shaken fist. I love him, but, oh. It was OK when his dad outweighed him, but that was a while ago. Denny thinks that as he’s bigger than Stan, he’s probably smarter too. This is quite possible, but I wouldn’t dare suggest it to Stan, who for reasons I can’t fathom needs to be the personal best, no contenders, no argument.
They say every son needs to kill his father to become a man, but that’s only in books. My men kill each other every single day. I’ll admit it, Denny means well but he’s a little abrasive. Like a bear cub that hasn’t learned to sheath his claws.
I love them both but my greatest fear is being pushed to the point where I have to pick one over the other. I just know it will happen sooner or later and I will do anything to prevent it. The least little thing sets them off.
What I hate most is the questions. Can’t do this without them asking, can’t go out wearing that, can’t even think about another piercing, she checks my underwear before it goes in the wash and she isn’t only looking for blood. Like, do they think I keep snapshots of all the crap things that happen to me? They are always around here, spying, prying, like, what ever happened to personal space? When I do go out they sneak around looking at my private things when all I want from them, all I want in the world is to have friends and be happy and for once, just one time be not bothered, as in, totally left alone.
Just now a boy murdered his parents three counties over, we saw it on the TV nightly news. The cops got out an APB. So, what happens next? Will he throw his girlfriend into the car for a joyride or drive on to wipe out the contents of a college dorm?
We’re told to stay on the lookout, but what, specifically, are we looking for? No parent wants to be the sneaky, underhanded snoop who reads diaries and tosses the kid’s room as soon as he leaves the house. My wife and I were brought up to respect people’s privacy, and besides. We’re scared of what we might find. The papers say, if you see a problem, reach out to your child. Easier if you know he won’t bite your hand off.
If only he and his father would talk. They have so much in common: quick tempers, those big, fierce heads, the Esterhazy slouch. If they tried I know they could work it out, but they sit at the supper table like rocks and except for would you pass the whatever, they are so stony that it makes me want to weep. Because it is expected Stan will say “how’s school” in that routine, doesn’t-want-an-answer way. Then Dennis says “OK” just to get Stan to leave him alone. Stan grunts and that’s the end of that and on weekends even that goes by. I hate the silence but if they do get talking, they’ll fight so frankly, it’s a relief.
I look at their hatchet faces and think: I’m so afraid.
They thought I was the one defacing lockers so I got detention, somebody that hates me used my personal hash, I don’t care, the way things are right now, detention is the safest place to be. They ran it across a whole bank of lockers outside the girls’ bathroom and in a way, it was kind of magnificent, scored into the metal like the one on my arm: DENY, so I don’t care what they do to me, and at home if they get all pissed off about me being late, I’m all, so what, and the hell with them.
I’m telling you, the situation is dangerous. Book says sit the kid down for a heart-to-heart and that would solve our problems, but what do you say when you’ve been warned that the least little thing will set him off? How do you walk free when your wife cries herself to sleep at night and you personally are hanging on like a squirrel in a hurricane, too stressed to know what to watch out for, or which is the least little thing?
Beware root causes, they tell us, Signs of depression. Talk of death. So, what if your kid won’t talk? Do you count cabalists drawn on his hands and all over his school notebooks? Is the skull gouged in the bathroom windowsill with his fingernail a sign? Listen to your children. Well, you don’t live here, you psychiatrists and grief counselors. That’s easy for you to say.
I try to talk to them, to bring them together, to make it all right but look what happened last night. I reached out to Denny, but he shrugged me off. I called after him, “Are you all right?” He left the kitchen so fast that I don’t know what went wrong with his face, only that it was skewed. Stan tried to get through in his own clumsy way but Denny stalked away before he could clear his throat. Maybe if I put flowers and linens on the dining room table I could get him to stay. Instead of eating in the kitchen we’d sit down to candles, lemon slices in the ice water. Would we linger at dinner if I set the table nicely and pulled the dining room chairs close enough to touch?
Push comes to shove and this is intolerable. The waiting. The unfired shot.
Best case scenario, I go looking for proof. It sounds ugly to say and it’s vile to contemplate, but I’d love to shake out this clothes and watch needles or pills come rolling out, roofies or X or heroin, whatever gets authorities on his case because he’s just too much for us and I can’t do this alone. If I found hard evidence in his diary, detailed lists of future crimes, I could do this. If I saw death threats or a hit list on his hard drive we could move in on him, get it all out and get this over with. Back him up against the wall and have it out with him, and I don’t mean intervention, I mean ultimatums that he’ll agree to and honor to the death because enough is enough, and I need to lay down the law. Better yet, I find his cache of firearms in the basement or loaded pistols under the bed or blood on the pillowcase, proof that he sleeps with a knife. It would be awful, but at least we’d have a place to start.
Then I could photocopy the evidence or turn the computer over to the authorities or march my son down to the river and stand over him while he deep-sixed every single piece of mail-order artillery he’s probably charged on my Discover card and stockpiled over the years. Then I would force Dennis to his knees and not let him up until he apologized.
Then he would know that I am not afraid and we are not to be messed with, not now and not in any other life.
Better yet—sorry, Stef—I could take him and the evidence to the police station and turn the little bastard in.
Meanwhile the papers boil over with news of kids who kill their parents and forget what they did. What did they think they were doing, routing out vermin or swatting flies? Is this all we are to Denny, pests he can exterminate and forget? It isn’t safe! Stephanie and I know what to be afraid of, but in the absence of proof, we don’t know what to expect.
I hate when people expect you to go around smiling, like it’s your fucking job. Yesterday Diane went backstage with Dick Fletcher at play practice and they stayed there the whole time. Mr. Hanraty yelled so they sent a kid back with the message not to bother them, they were busy running lines, yeah, right. It doesn’t matter anyway, she can’t see me for shit and then I get home and Sunshine Stephanie wants to know did I have fun at play practice yeah well, fuck you too.
I guess I said something that either hurt Denny’s feelings or made him mad and I still don’t know if it was asking whether he’d eaten or mentioning the ugly scrape on his chin but he snarled and forgive me, I said, “If you’re going to be like that, just go away,” and he spat some insult I couldn’t parse and stomped off to his room in such a rage that it shook the house.
This kid in England murdered his parents, just for the use of the family car, I read about it on the web. Took off on vacation with his girlfriend. Nice people, it’s not like they beat him or some damn thing, they just said no. With every kid Denny’s age a walking time bomb, what are we supposed to do? Should the wife and I arm ourselves so we’ll feel safe coming out of our bedroom? Keep a gun in the bedside table or a shiv in the pocket of our robe? Probably. Every time I come out into the hall at night he’s there and every time, it takes me by surprise.
He sounds outraged. “Dad!”
How did he get so big? I hate surprises. “What are you doing here?”
“Going to pee.” I’m coming to get you.
“Go to your room!”
I don’t have to see his face. I know that look. And when I get you… but he shouts,“What am I, supposed to piss on the rug?”
If I had the right words I would say them and, zot! He’d disappear. Instead, I threaten. “I don’t care what you do. Just go!”
He goes. Which of us wishes the other dead?
To prevent either, we need protection. The only question is whether to use Snuffy’s Gun Shop, which means everyone on Broad Street would know, or buy on the Internet. But what if Dennis finds out because he gets off on hacking into my machine? What if he’s waiting when the package comes? What if he’s standing in the living room, locked and loaded, when Steph and I walk in the door? Smashes into our bedroom blows us away?
Better forewarned, ergo forearmed.
Diane stuck her gum on my desk today, just left it in the corner when she went past, a perfect thumbprint, like a present for me, it’s not like proof that she loves me, but my heart went up and stayed there until I saw her and fucking Dick Fletcher humping in the bushes outside the gym.
I love him, and I try so hard. Yesterday I made his favorite, blueberry waffles for dinner, with apple sausages, and he tramped through the kitchen without even looking and went on up to his room. How do you make it up to someone when you don’t even know what you did?
You hate me? You hate your mother and you want to sneak in some night and murder us in our bed? Well, not on my watch, buddy. Not on my watch.
At the sight of the neat pistol I bring home from Snuffy’s, Stephanie bursts into tears. “You can’t,” she cries. “This is Denny.”
“And this is to keep us safe.” Although I stand a little taller, I do not tell her that I really mean: empowered.
She whips her head around. Tears fly. “But he’s just a baby!”
Now, Dennis hasn’t been anything like a baby since that thing when he was three. He claimed the puppy wanted to swim, but I knew. We are cohabiting with danger but to Stephanie, he’s still her baby, which may be how things got so bad. When I’m not looking she indulges him, but I don’t have proof. I suppose partly it’s me, because the kid and I squared off the day she brought him home, mewling little rival for her love. Say his name and I bristle. There, it’s out.
I’m embarrassed, but I’m not sorry. We know each other for who we are. I know he never liked me but we’ve survived so far on mutual respect. What does this mean really, when push comes to shove?
When he comes in tonight I will be waiting. One false move out of the little bastard and I tell you, push will come to shove.
When he was small I could take him in my lap and hug him and forgive him, no matter what he did, and I hugged him like that with his head close to me and his legs hanging down until one day he fought me with both fists, shouting, leave me alone, and when I asked him why he started crying and told me: I’m too big. I said, you’re never too big, honey, but then I turned my back on the problem and now he is. On good days I can still call him—Denny? And when he comes into the room he stays long enough for me to ask him, Son, is there anything you want to talk about? when what I mean is, is there anything you’re afraid to tell me. I stand there thinking if only I could hug you but he backs away saying, Not really, Mom, and just in case I don’t get it, just before he slams the door he says firmly , No.”
The paramedics leave me in the guidance counselor’s office after the fight. I’m supposed to lie there until the bleeding stops. Then Miss Feely comes on to me all tremulous and wary, like, are you OK Dennis, you look like you’re about to explode and I’m so fucking depressed that it comes out and runs down my face so I’m fucking embarrassed too. Then she starts spitting questions and I can’t tell if she’s afraid I’m going to walk into school tomorrow and start firing or if she’s afraid I’m going to destroy myself but I am grateful for the attention either way, and I dutifully shake my head no when she asks are there problems at home. Then she talks and I sit there waiting for it to end. I’m not convinced but by the time she’s done at least I have a thing to do. I won’t exactly bring home presents but I’m going to, like, smile and be nice to Mom and Dad when I get there because they are the only people left. Besides, I feel sorry for them. I have a shitty life but at least I’m not old, like them. We could probably be miserable together until I get big enough to go out on my own. Lame, right? But it’s a plan.
This is how a mother’s heart breaks. As the gun goes off and his arms fly wide, my only son reaches out to me and his voice rips me from top to bottom, so I will be like this, laid open, until I die. My Denny isn’t mad, he isn’t even reproachful, he is mystified. “Mom!”