I was watching houses drive down the road when the handyman brought the gum to the door.
My mother led the man in overalls to the cracks cutting patterns on the whitewashed wall. "It's those flipping airplanes," she said. "They're driving me buggy."
The handyman raised the smooth crest of flesh where his eyebrow should have stood out. I could tell by the stiffening in my mother's body that she knew she had said something wrong. My mother did not sound like the mothers of the other children who attended Mrs. Jensen's playgroup. Hearing her speak, some of the mothers would say, "You must be from New England." Whenever this happened, my mother would smile and report the comment to my father when he got home. At other times, though, people refused to understand her or presumed to instruct her on all that they assumed she did not understand. Then she grew silent. Once her tormentor was out of earshot, she would lash out with bitter sarcasm, using British words whose meanings I did not know. I could see that the handyman was on the verge of provoking one of these outbursts. "You got no right to talk that way about those planes," he said. "They're protecting you from the communists. Look at that wall the communists built over in Germany."
"I was in East Berlin before the wall was built," my mother said. She walked into the kitchen.
The handyman slid a cardboard canister into his caulking gun. I watched the steady, efficient movements with which he plugged the cracks in the wall. Maybe I should try to be like him. I was always on the look‑out for people who I could be like. I knew I didn't want to be like my parents. My parents were not normal: they didn't act like Americans. My father was from New York, but his years in Europe had crammed his head with foreign visions; and in small‑town central Michigan, New York scarcely even counted as part of the U.S.A.
I sat on the couch admiring the unwavering line the handyman was drawing on the whitewash with his caulking gun. Then I got bored. I still wanted to be like him, but by comparison with my parents' buffeting energy, the handyman's movements seemed dull. I shifted around on my knees, hoisting myself up against the back of the couch with my elbows, and scanned the street outside for houses.
"How old are you, son?" the handyman asked.
"Four," I said, without looking around.
"Tell me something, son. Are you a Michigander or a Michigoose?"
I didn't understand. With a grunt of blushing, red‑faced laughter, he explained that a gander was a boy and a goose was a girl, so if anyone ever asked me, I'd better be sure to make clear that I was a Michigander. I studied him with dawning gratitude. I could use this information; it would help me to become an American. "Son," the handyman said. "Are you allowed to chew gum?"
"I don't know."
The handyman put down his caulking gun and rummaged in his pocket. He held out a square of folded white paper. I slid down off the couch and took the hard‑edged block between my fingers. Peeling back the paper, I discovered a gleaming pink square dusted with white powder. I licked the powder. It tasted sweet. "Chew it," the handyman said. "But ask your mom first to see if you're allowed."
I promised him I would. I shoved the gum into my pocket and climbed back up onto the couch, afraid that another house would have driven past the window while I wasn't looking.
The first house had driven past a few days earlier. A two‑storey wooden frame house with clapboard siding drenched a dark, khaki green, it overspilled the flatbed trailer transporting it through the middle of town. As the truck hauling the trailer turned the corner at the traffic lights, the house gave a shudder, almost teetering on its platform. I pressed my face to the window pane. I wished that we could have taken our house with us when we had moved. Our first home in this town had also been a clapboard house; we had had a screen door and a small back yard whose two gnarled trees tiled the grass with red‑orange leaves during the season that my mother called autumn and my father called fall. Jimmy Anderson, who lived next door, would rap his fist against the cross‑strut of the door and ask to use our bathroom because he didn't like the one in his house. Then Jimmy and his parents had moved to Alaska and we had left the clapboard house for this apartment above the hardware store, in the flight path of the fighter jets from the base. I searched desperately for a connection between Jimmy's disappearance and our move, believing that if I solved this riddle we might be restored to the tree‑lined street where everyone had a back yard. When I tried to explain my quest to my parents, they said that we had moved to the apartment because things would be better here. This assertion, so blatantly at odds with reality, made clear to me that my parents' perceptions could not be trusted: their failure to see that a house was superior to an apartment infuriated me. One day when my father was at work, I told my mother that I wanted to go back to the house. "Don't you like our apartment, Oliver?" she said. When I insisted that I did not, demanding to know why we had moved, she said in a low voice, "Your father was in debt when I met him and he has been in debt ever since." I did not understand this, but I knew from her tone, which sounded even more English than usual, that I should not ask any more questions.
I did not tell my parents about the gum that the handyman had given me. I kept it hidden in my pocket. When I was certain that I was alone, I would take it out and lick the sweet white powder dusting the pink shell. By the end of the day, greyish whorls of lint had begun to stick to the gum. Each time I removed the gum from my pocket it became more difficult to find bare patches to lick. At night I raced to my bed and slipped the gum under my pillow before my mother came to tuck me in. My mother spoke to me in broken phrases of German when she was putting me to bed, calling my mein liebes Kind and urging me to schlaf gut! She did this, she said, to remind me that I had been a German baby. But my memories of Germany, no matter how hard I struggled to reassemble them, had disintegrated. The place I did remember was England. We had lived amid a sodden northern landscape, in a low, single-storey house that my parents had dubbed the bungalow. “Bungalow” was one of the first multi-syllable words I learned to pronounce, and for a while I was so taken with my triumph that I started all long words with the letter B. In England my father had driven to work in a Volkswagen Beetle–another B-word I had delighted in pronouncing–and my mother, having tied back her long, fair hair, would work at her black treadle sewing machine. On our holidays, which my father called vacations, we visited my grandmother in Essex. I soon became bored during these visits. My parents, eager to entertain me, scampered around my grandmother’s austere widow’s house, waving in my face objects whose names differed in their respective versions of English.
"What does Mummy call this?" I was asked, confronted with the curve of a lush red vegetable.
"To‑maw‑to," I said.
"And what does Daddy call it?"
"And what does Mummy call this?"
I examined a sharp spike protruding from a shiny metal disk, remembering my mother fixing her shopping list to a rectangle of cork over the sink. "Drawing pin," I said.
"And what does Daddy call it?"
"What an extraordinary thing to do to a child," my grandmother said from the desk where she was going over the accounts from her shop. My parents, growing as abashed as illicit playmates, fell silent.
My uncertainty about which words to use made me shy about speaking during the days after our return from Essex. Deciding that it was time for me to learn the alphabet, my mother bought me a plastic alphabet set during her weekend shopping expedition in Durham. I memorized the name and sound of each letter in turn. Once I had mastered the letter A, I dropped the plastic A through a crack in the floor of the bungalow's rickety front hall and turned to B. B was an easy letter, since I already knew how to pronounce it, and the yellow plastic B soon followed its alphabetical predecessor through the crack and into the depths of the earth. As I approached the middle of the alphabet, I began to regret my habit: assailed by doubts about the vagaries of G and H, I would have appreciated once again being able to hold their plastic forms in my hand. Too proud to change my ways, though, I pushed on. By the time we left England, despite having stuffed the entire alphabet into the crevice beneath the floorboards, I felt more uncertain than ever about how I should speak. Now I was struggling to sound like the other children in Mrs. Jensen's playgroup. I longed for an American alphabet set, but was unable to muster the courage to ask my mother to buy me one. The hard edges of the handyman's square of gum, recalling the strut‑straight lines of the yellow plastic A and B, reassured me. Awaking at night, I groped beneath my pillow and was relieved to discover that the gum was still there. I pulled it out and stared at it. I brushed off some stray hairs; the square block remained as hard as ever. Chew it, the handyman had said. But first I must become the kind of boy who was allowed to chew gum.
In the morning, once I had shoved the square of gum into the pocket of my elastic‑waisted trousers, I ran into the living room and looked down into the street. There was little traffic, and no moving houses rolled into sight. After breakfast my mother and I set off for Mrs. Jensen's house. We made our way downstairs. The door of the downstairs apartment, adjacent to the hardware store, hung ajar. The Douglases called out to us, inviting us inside.
Mr. and Mrs. Douglas were an ancient couple who inhabited paired rocking chairs. They were ninety‑seven years old. The withered dessication of their faces fascinated me. The shelf above their chairs was decorated with shiny plaster models of men and women dressed in quaint hats. Mr. Douglas never failed to remind me that the plaster figures were pilgrims. He told me how the pilgrims had crossed the Atlantic to found America. His words confused me, his tales becoming entangled with my own memories of crossing the Atlantic. I recalled my last long look at the bungalow from the back seat of the Volkswagen Beetle. The night of our departure from Southampton, I had lain on my stomach in the top bunk of our cabin, running the toy car my father had given me along the frame of the bunkbed. During the crossing I had bolted in fright from the sound of the ship's foghorn. One morning the weather cleared and my father, carrying me to the railing, pointed out the New York skyline. Knowing that this was not the same vision that had greeted the pilgrims yet unable to distinguish clearly between my experience and theirs, I tried to resolve the contradiction by railing at Mr. Douglas that the pilgrims had crossed the Atlantic in "olden times."
Once Mr. Douglas had told me about the pilgrims, Mrs. Douglas would tell my mother about her hip. Twenty‑four years earlier, at the age of seventy‑three, Mrs. Douglas had fallen into a ditch. Since that time she had been confined to her apartment. My mother, growing impatient, grabbed my hand and led me out the door. "Were you alive in olden times like the pilgrims?" I asked.
"Of course not," my mother said. "I wasn't even born when Mrs. Douglas broke her hip." I reached into my pocket, clutching my square of gum.
Climbing the stairs to the second floor of Mrs. Jensen's house, I pushed the gum deeper into my pocket, afraid that the other children would discover my secret.
All winter we had played indoor games. Today, Mrs. Jensen announced, we were going out into the yard to play baseball.
"I wanna be the picture!" shouted Jane. Being the tallest, she took herself for our leader.
The rest of us began jumping up and down, each shouting that we, too, wanted to be the picture. As I hopped and yelled, I wondered whether being a picture would require me to stand still. Determined not to betray my ignorance of a subject as fundamental as baseball, I continued leaping and shouting. Mrs. Jensen scooped a bat and a baseball out of one of her seemingly inexhaustible cupboards and, unperturbed by our flailing, led us down the stairs. As we reached the back yard, she held the baseball aloft.
"Give it to me!" Jane said. "The picture gets the ball."
"Yeah," I repeated. "The picture gets the ball."
My words eliminated me from the competition for the baseball. The other children, instantly forgetting Jane, hurled themselves into broad parodies of my British vowels. "The picture gets the ba‑au‑aw‑l."
Mrs. Jensen, taking the high road, said: "It's not picture, Oliver. It's pitcher."
When the tumult died down, Jane was holding the ball and the boy who had initiated the mockery of my pronunciation was swatting at the air with the baseball bat. I retreated to what I learned to call the outfield. I watched Jane pitch. This, I thought, was how to be an American. Rooting around in my pocket, I considered trying to improve my tattered image by introducing the other children to gum; but uncertain of my voice, I remained silent.
I did not speak to my mother as we walked home that afternoon. As soon as we entered the apartment, I hurried across the living room, climbed onto the couch and peered out the window into the street.
"What are you looking for, Oliver?"
"I'm afraid you've seen the last of them, love. They've moved all the old houses off the base."
"No more moving houses?" I asked.
"I'm afraid not."
I leapt down off the couch, feeling elated. My memories of our first house in this town were beginning to dwindle. The apartment was my home. That night I tossed the handyman's gum into a cardboard box containing my building blocks and forgot about it.
The moving houses had faded from my memory the evening that my father returned from work carrying a coconut. During the last few weeks my mother and father had engaged in a flurry of frenetic, argumentative dashes around the apartment. "Come down to the basement, Oliver," my father said, picking up an old newspaper. "I'm going to show you how to open a coconut."
He hurried down the stairs. He kept moving full tilt as he hit the landing, ignoring the Douglases' entreaties to step in for a visit. I followed him past the Douglases' door and down into the basement. He snapped on the weak yellow light. His head bowed as he distributed sheets of newspaper over the concrete floor, he spoke in a low, rushed voice: "We're moving...we're going to a place called Canada...you'll like it there...it'll be good for you...things will be better after we've moved."
Blinking against the dim light and my own confusion, I tried to think of something to say. I remembered a book about cities that my father had shown me and a new word he had taught me. "Are there skyscrapers in Canada?"
My father looked flummoxed. "Yeah, I guess so. Probably a few, anyway." He thrust the coconut into my hands. The coarse hairs covering the shell tickled my palms. "Come on," he said, pointing at the newspapers he had spread in the middle of the floor. "Let me see you smash that coconut. Show me that Sandy Koufax arm."
I drew a deep breath. This was my chance to be the pitcher, perhaps my last chance to show my father that I wished to remain an American. I pulled back my arm and hurled the coconut across the dimly lit basement. A lumpy waist‑high fastball, it smacked against the opposite wall and splintered into a dozen pieces.
"Are you crazy?" my father shouted. "You're supposed to break it on the newspaper, not throw it across the room. Are you out of your mind? What's the matter with you?"
My mother insisted that I help with the packing. I put my toys into boxes and carried them out to the Volkswagen‑‑not a Beetle this time, but a camper with three rows of seats that was as spacious as a house on wheels. As I dropped small model cars into the box containing my building blocks, a dull pink glint caught my eye. I reached out, my fingers closing around the handyman's gum. Time had turned the square as hard as pink concrete, stippled with grey at the corners. When I pressed the surface with my fingertips, it scarcely gave at all. Hearing my mother's hurried footsteps approaching across the empty, echoing living room, I slid the gum into my pocket.
That afternoon we drove far, far north. We entered a region that my father called the Upper Peninsula. When we arrived at the border, my father pulled on a dark jacket over his white shirt. My mother examined her face in the Volkswagen's rearview mirror and applied fresh lipstick to her mouth. We filed into a glaring white room. My father and mother sat down in chairs and answered questions put to them by a man in a uniform. The official stamped my father's passport and welcomed us to our new country. I yearned to know where we were. Would people here expect me to talk like my mother or like my father?
By the time we got back on the road, darkness had fallen. We pulled in at a campsite. I became bored and fidgety. Was the camper our new house? No, my parents said, this time we would have a real house.
"I don't believe you," I said.
"Come on," my father said. "Let's play while Mummy's cooking supper. We'll play Vietcong. You go hide in the trees and I'll try to find you."
I dived into the bush, overcome by eagerness to get away from my parents, from all people who had voices and used them to shape sentences that could not be trusted. A damp, chilly silence enshrouded me. I pressed my body against the wayward corrugations of old bark. A few moments later, a fuzzy glare bobbed towards me. What does Mummy call it? A torch. What does Daddy call it? A flashlight. For a second I thought that the shaft of the bright, concentrated beam had exposed me. I slithered around the back of the tree‑trunk and held my breath. My father turned away, pacing rapidly in the wrong direction. The blackness closed in again, sealing me up in a dark silence entirely my own. I dipped my hand into my pocket, popped the square of gum into my mouth and sank my teeth into the hard crust.
© Stephen Henighan