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Thursday, September 17, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Summer Stories: ‘What Rises Beneath’ by Jess Walter

UPDATED: Mon., Sept. 7, 2020

By Jess Walter For The Spokesman-Review

It was quiet for 140 years. Then, in March, the mountain began to rumble: earthquakes, bursts of steam, blue flame, ash clouds that sparked 2-mile bolts of lightning. All spring, the volcano seethed, spewed and shuddered, magma bubbling up its throat and pushing the north flank out 5 feet a day.

Five feet. Like a new human being every day.

That’s what happened to us, too. On April 24, 1980, my sister Tanya and I found out a new human being was joining our family.

“Wait,” Tanya said. “What?”

“You’re having a baby?” I stared at Mom’s flat stomach.

“No.” Mom took a deep breath. “You have a 12-year-old brother. Patrick. He’s coming to live with us.”

Tanya and I stared at each other.

“But Tony is 12,” Tanya said.

This was a good point. I was 12. Tanya was 15.

“Wait,” Tanya said, “Tony has a twin?”

“No, Tony does not have a –” Mom’s face went red, and she muffled a swear word. “You know what. I’m gonna let him explain it himself.” Then she stormed out of the room trailing blue flame and 2-mile bolts of lightning.

The “him” was my dad. He was a chemist who worked for a grass and seed company, and when he got home from work that afternoon, he took off his wire-rimmed glasses and sat sweating in front of my sister and me.

“Several years ago,” he said while sweating, “your mother and I were having difficulties. This was right before we found out your mother was pregnant with Tony, and we reconciled. Now occasionally when adults have difficulties, they seek out the comfort of … well … other adults.”

“Oh, God,” Tanya said.

Dad cleared his throat and looked at me. “Tony, I’m trying to remember how far you and I got in our discussion of procreation last month.”

I held up my left hand in an OK sign, took my right index finger and put it through the circle, simulating …

“Right,” he said. “That far.”

“I’m going to puke now,” Tanya said and went to her bedroom.

My dad and I stared at each other.

It was quiet for 140 years.

“Is he taller than me?” I asked, finally.

He wasn’t. He didn’t even make it to the shoulder of the social worker who brought him to our house that night. He reminded me of a feral cat with an unruly thicket of black hair and nervous, dark eyes. He had a jagged mix of baby teeth and permanent ones, like a shark’s mouth. He arrived with only the clothes on his back: Oshkosh jeans, moon boots, gray T-shirt.

He wouldn’t let go of the social worker’s hand.

Mom made up the sofa bed in the basement, then went through my old clothes and made a pile for him.

That’s what got me. Seeing this … creature … wearing my clothes. I’d wake up every morning and go to the kitchen for breakfast, and there would be Patrick eating the last bowl of Froot Loops in my old jeans and my white Ocean Pacific T-shirt. The one with the surfer on it.

“That’s my favorite shirt!” I objected.

“You haven’t worn that shirt in a year,” Mom said.

“Yeah, because it’s so special!”

Patrick wore the shirt every other day. He loved it. And my old Mattel handheld Basketball I game, which Mom had also given him. I got Basketball II for Christmas, so technically I didn’t play the old one much, but still.

“But still!” I said to Mom.

“Tony, I know this is hard,” she said. “It’s an adjustment for all of us. We all have to make sacrifices.”

From what I could see, the only one making sacrifices was me.

Tanya mostly ignored the basement creature. When she did notice him, it was with the look you’d give a slug that crawled up and suddenly started speaking Spanish. What? And gross.

Mom fed and clothed the creature, took him to the doctor and dentist. And the creature liked her the most. He met her eyes and actually talked to her. The rest of us, he’d mumble, Mmm-hmm, if he meant yes, Mmm-mmm, if he meant no. But he’d look up shyly at Mom and say, almost in a whisper, “Can I have more green beans?”

The creature was stealing my mom.

Dad, too. He took Patrick for a haircut, and, on Saturday, took him for walks. I knew all about those walks because he used to take me. In between puffs of his pipe, he’d ask about school or tell me about sick stuff like procreation. He’d also point out science-y things like crabgrass in the Baileys’ lawn or how fruit trees pollinated.

They were the most boring walks ever.

And now, I missed them! Mom could tell I was upset because she spoke quietly to Dad, and the next Saturday he showed up in my bedroom doorway with his pipe in his teeth. “Feel like a walk, Champ?”

“Mmm-mmm,” I said and went back to playing Basketball II.

When you’re a kid, your family is the basic underlying equation of the whole world, a physical and mathematical constant: two (2) adults + two (2) kids = 1 family (subset: house, garage, dog [hit by car, replaced by dog with same name]) – father home from work at 5:15 p.m., dinner on the table at 6, visit grandparents every other Sunday, presents opened Christmas Day (duh).

It had been this way since the dawn of time, you figure, the bedrock upon which the earth was built.

What you don’t know is what rises beneath that bedrock. That your father has been out procreating with strangers, sticking his index finger in their OK signs. That your mother will rifle through your best things and give them to some basement creature. That your parents will one day bring home a replacement for you. The world is shattered. What permanence? What normality? The world is fragile, random, dangerous.

At school, Patrick was a grade behind me, in sixth grade while I was in seventh. So that meant he was still in elementary school, and I was in junior high. That was good, although we still had to take the bus together.

This was how the last straw happened.

It was early May, and we were walking to the bus stop together, Patrick a few feet behind me. It had just rained, and I looked back to see he was stepping in mud and looking down at the pattern the soles of his shoes made. Just like I used to do.

I looked at his shoes.

My old waffle stompers.

The creature was stomping mud waffles in my favorite shoes!

Sure, they were small now, but I still loved them. Not liked. Loved!

And no one had asked if the creature could have them.

I stopped. Stared at the shoes. Last straw.

Superheroes aren’t the only ones with origin stories.

Supervillains have them, too. And this was mine.

“Give ‘em to me,” I said.

Without a word, Patrick sat down in the mud, untied the shoes and handed them to me. He walked to the bus stop that way, got on the bus, went to school and eventually came home. I assumed he went about his whole day in wet, squishy socks. And I was glad.

Two weeks later, Mount St. Helens erupted: 57 people killed, 250 homes destroyed, 47 bridges and 185 miles of highway. The entire north side of the mountain collapsed, dissolving into the lake beneath it, the largest landslide in recorded history, followed by a 9-hour explosion of earth and cinders, a massive cloud of smoke and ash rising 80,000 feet into the air and dumping ash across 11 states and parts of Canada.

We lived 300 miles from the volcano in the Spokane Valley.

That afternoon, I remember being on my bike and seeing a massive black cloud approaching, like the end of the world. I remember Mom yelling, “Get in the house.” Then all went dark, and ash began raining down. It fell like a dusty, gray snow over everything. Ash clogged the sewers and choked car engines and closed the airport. We didn’t know if it was toxic, so we had to stay inside for a couple of weeks and wear masks whenever we went out. We were trapped – everything canceled, schools, businesses, sports.

Of course, I think about this now, in the spring of 2020, as my family shelters in place because of the coronavirus pandemic. My daughters are already sick of each other. They are 16, 13 and 10, not far from the ages of Tanya, Patrick and me when the volcano erupted.

“Look,” I tell the girls, “good things can come out of something like this. Maybe you three will grow closer.”

They stare at me like I’m insane.

I tell them how their Uncle Patrick and I bonded back in 1980 over the volcano, how we gathered up ash and stored it in old Coke bottles and chewing tobacco tins. How we had plans to sell it to tourists.

I tell them how, the night of the eruption, I invited Patrick to sleep in my room because he was so scared. I tell them how we got bunk beds and shared a room for two years, until his mother got well enough to take him back.

“Wait, what?” the 16-year-old says.

Patrick lives with his wife and his son in Nevada now. He works at an auto body shop. My kids met him on our drive to Disneyland two years ago. I realize by the looks they’re giving me now that they didn’t know the family history. They just know him as Uncle Patrick.

“Uncle Patrick had a different mother?” the 13-year-old asks.

“That’s not the point,” I say. “What I’m saying is that you never know what will pull people together.”

“Let’s go back to Grampa’s baby mama,” the 16-year-old says. “No offense to your dirt collection, but I’d rather hear about that.”

So, I tell them everything. Even the shoes.

It only lasted a day, my supervillain period. Patrick’s teacher called my mom, and when I got home from school, she was waiting, seething, red-faced. She grabbed me by the arm and dragged me outside.

“What?” I said.

“Don’t speak,” she said.

She climbed in her car, a green AMC Gremlin. I got in the passenger side, indignant, arms crossed.

“What,” I said again.

“Be quiet,” she said. She was barely keeping it together. She drove us downtown, silent the whole way, and finally parked across from a brick apartment building.

“That’s where Patrick and his mom lived,” she said, “on the third floor. They had one room and a shared bathroom down the hall. Patrick’s mother suffers from depression and had stopped sending Patrick to school. Then he got caught shoplifting potato chips from that store.” She pointed to a newsstand across the street, P.M. Jacoy’s. “When the police brought him home, they found him living in squalor, his mom catatonic on the couch. He’d been taking care of her.”

I felt the first stirrings of deep shame, rumbling my core like an earthquake.

That’s when Mom’s calm melted away, and she grabbed my arm. “I am not going to let this turn you into an asshole, Tony!”

Tears spilled over her cheeks. “Listen. In your life, there will be disappointments, struggles, regrets. People will let you down. Make you angry. They will not live the way you want them to. And you have a choice. Live with empathy, or live with resentment. That’s it!

“But know this: If you choose resentment, you will break my heart! Do you understand me?”

I did. Instantly. I could see it in her face. Empathy. Feeling for other people.

I imagined being the kind of person who would take in the kid your husband had with some other woman. How hard that must be. And yet she did it – without complaint or congratulations. She did it because it was right.

My shame erupted, and I began crying, too. I sat with Mom in that little green Gremlin, and we wept together. “OK,” she said, finally. Then she squeezed my arm, started the car and drove us home. And somehow, she still had dinner on the table at 6.

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