The Angels of Marie Fontaine by Kevin Alexander Boon
There were too many angels in the house. Their dead eyes peered down on him from the fireplace mantel. They glared at him from the end tables and bookcases. They watched him shower and shave in the mornings. They watched him eat at night. Marie had even purchased a stone statue from a mortuary and placed it in the garden where it hovered over the daylilies that grew next to the brick porch, so that now even the backyard offered no refuge from them.
Marie spoke, but Peter did not hear what she said.
He made a sound from the back of his throat. That was usually enough to satisfy his wife’s need to have him involved in the conversation. But not today. Today, Marie would not let him escape so easily.
She let her magazine fall to her lap and glared at him. “You aren’t listening.”
“I am,” he said.
“What was I saying then?”
He lowered the newspaper he was reading and looked at her. She looked older than her thirty-five years, much older than the woman he had married. Her eyes had grown into two stern lumps of coal. Her face had broadened. Her shoulders were hunched, as if burdened with some invisible weight.
“Jacob,” he said. “You were talking about Jacob.”
It was a good guess, as they seldom talked about anything that did not either directly or indirectly involve their son.
Marie took up her magazine again. “I can pick up a chromium supplement tomorrow when I do the shopping. We’ll start him on Monday. Agnes Mulroney—you remember Agnes, from my support group? She swears by it. Her boy, Andrew—the one with the helmet?—has had the supplement for seven months now and Agnes says she’s seen remarkable improvement.”
“Does he still wear the helmet?” Peter asked.
“Only as a precaution,” Marie said. “Agnes says there are still two or three incidents a week, but fewer than before the chromium. There’s a chance, she says, that the chromium is working together with the casein-free diet he’s on to produce the improvements. I’m going to ask the behavioral specialist in our next IUP meeting. She must know something about combining treatments.”
“So he’s better?” Peter said. “The Mulroney boy?”
“Oh yes,” Marie said. “Not that you’d notice just by looking at him, though. But over time you can tell, Agnes told me. Of course, he’s not as high-functioning as Jacob. We have to keep that in mind. Jacob’s improvement would probably be much more obvious.”
Peter stood up, dropping his newspaper into the seat of his chair as a signal to his wife that he would be back, and headed to the kitchen where he made himself an iced tea. He retrieved a bottle of vodka from the cabinet over the refrigerator and splashed some into his drink before downing half of it in a single gulp. He could still hear Marie talking to him from the living room. Gratefully, he could not make out what she was saying.
Instead of returning to the living room, he sat on one of three stools lining the bar and nursed the rest of his tea. On the shelf above the sink sat an Alabastrite angel with metal wings. Peter stared at it. It was the first one Marie had ever gotten. It had been a wedding present nine years ago and it had started her obsession.
Peter noticed for the first time that the angel had no eyes, only two smooth indentations where the eyes should have been. No details. No lids or lashes and no brows above the hollow recesses. He found this curious. What good is a blind angel? Perhaps the sculptor, like Peter, had grown weary of the prying gaze of angels. Or maybe it was meant to symbolize that the divine was as blind as justice.
Peter finished his drink and walked to the other side of the house where a small bedroom had been converted into a workroom for Jacob. He paused outside in the hall. The TSS, a young woman, barely out of college, was running mands, asking Jacob for small fragments of human communication. “What sound does a cat make?” she asked. When Jacob did not answer, she repeated the question. “Jacob, what sound does a cat make?”
Peter angled himself closer until he could see into the room without disturbing the session. The room was plain. No pictures on the walls. No decorations. No bright lights. Jacob was supposed to be overly-sensitive to lights and images, though Peter had never been convinced there was anything to that theory. He’d walked Jacob through crowded malls without incident. He’d listened to loud music with him, and stared for hours at the brightly lighted Ferris wheel in the park. Nevertheless, those who were supposed to know about these things had told him and Marie that autistic children often act up when they become over-stimulated.
Jacob was seated at a small table. A mound of roughly-cut brown hair nested on top of his head. He was six now and his body was elongating on its way to seven. But his eyes were vacant and fixated on the blank wall in front of him. He was stemming with his left hand. It bounced in the air like a branch shaken by the wind.
“A cat says ‘meow,’” the TSS prompted. “Meow.” She held a piece of chocolate under his nose and repeated, “A cat says ‘meow.’”
Jacob reached for the chocolate. She pulled it back.
“What does a cat say, Jacob?”
Then he made a sound that might have been an ‘M’ or it might have been a groan. It was impossible to tell, but it earned him the chocolate. He ate it greedily. Then she began again. “What color is the sky?”
Each question followed by silence. Each cryptic groan bought for a bit of chocolate.
For six years people had been working with his son, bribing him with treats, praising any minor advancement, dismissing any major retreat, praising Jacob, telling them how bright he was and how high their expectations were for him.
But when Peter asked, “If he’s high-functioning, why does he still not speak? Why doesn’t he look at us? Why can’t he hug his own mother?” They would avert their eyes like guilty priests and try to offer him hope. “There was a boy in Maryland who didn’t speak until he was fourteen and now he’s a physics professor,” they would say. “One case we worked on was silent until twelve, but you should hear him now—talks a blue streak.” They reminded him of Temple Grandin and Daniel Tammet and other remarkable autistic people. But for every Daniel Tammet and Temple Grandin there were thousands of Jacobs.
Once he took the behavioral specialist in charge of Jacob’s treatment aside and said to her: “Don’t you realize that hope is a hollow egg? It looks like something until you crack it open and discover what a fool you’ve been all along. But by then it’s too late, because it’s all you have left and it’s not enough.” She claimed to understand, but Peter could tell she didn’t really. “I don’t want to be coddled with reassurances,” he explained. “I want answers. I want something that works.”
That is what disturbed him most about the angels. They promised something they were powerless to deliver. They demanded reverence for blessings they could not bestow. They required you to believe in them even though they were nothing but lumps of molded plastic and shaped clay. Their wings promised flight, but were frozen in place, unchanging, as constant as death.
That evening, after Jacob had been bathed, his body slathered with ointment to help curb his eczema, and his teeth brushed and flossed, he was put to bed. Peter retreated to the bedroom, as was his custom after Jacob was down for the night.
The bedroom offered the only sanctuary in the house. Years earlier, he had confessed to his wife that he could not make love with angels watching, and she had agreed to keep them out of the bedroom for the sake of their love-life. Now it was the only room in the house not infested with them, even though making love had long ago ceased to be an issue.
But Peter had not been forthright with his wife. The real reason he had refused to surrender the bedroom to the angels was because they reminded him of graveyards. A man should not be reminded of the grave when he lies down at night to sleep.
# # #
Just after midnight, Peter was startled awake. He heard Jacob’s sing-song voice mingled with the sound of rain and sat upright. He could not immediately tell from where in the house Jacob’s voice was coming. He put on his glasses, eased out of bed, and went to investigate.
Jacob often woke up in the middle of the night. He usually stayed in his room, lining up toys on the floor or burying his head in the pillow and counting. Sometimes he went to use the bathroom and became fixated on a toothbrush or ran the water. A small nudge and a kind reminder were usually enough to get him back into bed. But that night he was not in his room or the bathroom. The only sign of him was a pile of bedclothes in front of the toilet.
Peter searched and found him downstairs, naked, bouncing on the living room sofa, and chattering gleefully, echoing snippets of television shows he had committed to memory, fragments of language set free from their meaning, sung out of context like random radio signals. An earthy odor tinged the air. Brown smears marked the sofa cushions. Peter had no difficulty determining that Jacob must have gotten up in the middle of the night to move his bowels, and when no one had come to clean him up, had wandered downstairs.
“Oh, Jacob,” Peter said, racing to his son. There was something feral and primitive about the scene, as if a surface had been pulled away to reveal rot and mildew. It terrified him. He wanted to protect his son from it, to pull him out of the moment. “It’s okay. Daddy’s here. Let’s clean you up.”
He went to scoop Jacob into his arms. But Jacob did not want to go. He arched his back and screeched. The boy’s protests were savage.
Peter fought to restrain the boy’s flailing arms, and Jacob sunk his teeth into Peter’s wrist. Pain lurched up Peter’s arm. He cursed and for an instant lost control of his reason. The flat of his hand struck the boy’s cheek as he barked “Stop it!” through clenched teeth, as if those words had any power in Jacob’s wilderness.
Peter withdrew, leaving Jacob to calm himself by his own methods. As the boy writhed on the couch, striking out at a world that did not understand him, Peter quietly went to the kitchen and moistened several dishtowels with warm water. Jacob was calm by the time Peter returned and he allowed his father to wipe away the smears on his body. He seemed unaware of what had just happened. But that did not matter. It was his father’s burden, not his. Jacob would forget it—had probably already forgotten it. Peter never would. He would wear the moment for the rest of his life like a tattoo. He had struck him. It had been a mistake, but mistakes could not be undone, only forgiven. Had Jacob been a typically developing boy, Peter could have moved beyond the moment after a period of guilt and penitence. He could have thrown himself on the mercy of the young. He could have accepted the incident as a momentary weakness in the long struggle that is fatherhood and balanced it against years of nurturing and kindness. But Jacob was not typical. He was special—an innocent. And the same force that makes an innocent powerless to condemn makes him powerless to grant absolution. How could Jacob ever forgive him when he could never understand the nature of his sin?
When Jacob was clean, Peter carried him upstairs where he dressed him in fresh pajamas and tucked him beneath the covers, all without speaking. He quietly kissed his son’s forehead, as rain raked against the window with unrelenting fury. And then Peter went back downstairs to deal with the remaining mess.
# # #
When Marie Fontaine awoke that morning, she noticed that Peter was missing from his side of the bed. She was always up before him, and his absence was a little unsettling. Where could he be? She wondered. She slipped on a blue, terrycloth robe, brushed her teeth, and went downstairs to find him.
At once she noticed the muddy tracks. The door to the garden hung open by several inches. The tracks formed a path to the living room where she discovered Peter motionless in his chair. He was wearing pajamas and a thin windbreaker. A pair of muddy, unlaced boots was on his feet. He was wet and his hands were caked with dirt.
“Peter?” she said tentatively. He did not respond. “Peter? Are you listening to me?”
“I am,” he said, without looking up.
“Well? What happened to the house?” she asked, her voice a muddle of anger and fear.
“I cleaned up the mess,” he said. And still he did not look at her.
“How can you say that? Look at this place.” She tracked the muddy path back through the kitchen into the garden. It led her to a mound of freshly turned earth. A wave of confusion washed over her. She was frightened to be so far removed from the meaning of these events, and she hurried back inside to demand an explanation. As she entered the kitchen, she noticed the angel above the sink was missing. So was the one that usually sat on top of the refrigerator. She hurried through the downstairs rooms, searching for her beloved angels and finding no trace of them. Not a single statue or knick knack or magnet or postcard remained. There was nothing angelic in the house at all, only bare nails where framed prints had once hung and small, dustless ovals on the furniture where some statuettes had once stood.
The house felt like an empty tomb.
She raced to the living room to discover that Peter was no longer there. She trailed a fresh set of tracks upstairs to Jacob’s room where she found Peter cross-legged on the floor. He was arranging Jacob’s cars and trucks into shapes—triangles, squares, circles. Jacob slept nearby, undisturbed.
“Peter? What are you doing?”
He did not speak.
“Why are you wet and muddy and where are my angels?’ The answer, she knew, was in the question, but she asked anyway in the hope that a few sane words from him might quell her growing terror.
But he remained silent, his gaze dancing from his sleeping son to his wife and then back to the toys he was arranging on the floor.
She begged him to tell her what had upset him so much that he could no longer talk with his own wife. When he finally lifted his eyes and spoke, what he said frightened her more than his silence.
“What color is the sky?”
She gaped at him.
“What color is the sky?” he said again.
“Are you mad?”
“Please, Marie, answer the question.”
“Blue, Peter. The sky is blue.”
He shook his head and said, “No. I don’t want to know what color the sky is supposed to be. What color is it really?” He pointed at the window. “Right now.”
Marie took several careful steps toward the window. The storm had ended, but the sky was still overcast. “I don’t know what you want me to say.”
In strong, measured tones, he said, “I want you to tell me what color the sky really is. Right now. In this moment. Right here. In this place.”
She glanced again at the sky. “It’s gray,” she said. “Gray and black.”
He nodded. “That’s right.” He picked up a red Mustang and set it next to a blue Toyoto pickup. Then he picked up a green Volkswagen and set it down next to the Mustang, careful to make sure the bumpers aligned.
She tugged his shoulder to gain his attention. “What the hell is the matter with you?” When he looked up this time, she noticed that his eyes were empty, as if a light had gone out inside the man. She panicked and would have fled but at that moment Jacob awoke. With cooing tones she guided him past the husk of his father into the bathroom where she brushed his teeth, combed his hair, and wrestled him out of his pajamas into a pair of blue shorts and a striped shirt. She helped him don his socks and shoes and led him downstairs where she prepared his breakfast. Step by step she moved through the morning routine, precisely as she had the day before and the day before that, precisely as she would tomorrow and the day after that in a series of repetitious actions stretching endlessly into the future. And as she moved from room to room, every empty space reminded her that the angels were gone.
All of them.
Kevin Alexander Boon is the author and editor of eleven books, including the novel Absolute Zero and a number of books on Kurt Vonnegut, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf and other writers. He is also an award-winning poet and short-story writer, a skilled composer and musician, and a produced playwright and screenwriter. Kevin lives in Pennsylvania where he teaches writing, film, and literature at Penn State and coordinates the English Program for the Mont Alto campus. He is currently in post-production on Two Days Back, a feature film he produced and directed for Third Child Productions as part of the Mont Alto Film Project. His website is Kevin.Boon.us