Dave and his family get invited to this lake place
owned by a guy named Bob D. who Dave's been going to A.A. meetings
with. As the sun falls behind the trees across the lake, Dave and
his wife Tanya and Bob D. and his wife sit in lawn chairs, the husbands
drinking non-alcoholic Sharp's beers and the wives drinking Miller
Lites, and they're looking at the glassy, calm lake when Bob says,
"Can you hear that?"
"I don't hear anything," Tanya says.
But then a soft hum turns to a purr and then a growl, and from
a peninsula appears a wooden speedboat so varnished it reflects
sun like a camera flash, and the strong growl of its motor stuns
"Jesus," he whispers.
"It's lovely," Bob says. "Have you ever heard anything
Dave and Bob D. are sober-buddies. They never drank
together. That's why Bob D. can say "lovely" and "beautiful"
and not get punched, the same with the biker guys at the meetings
hug Dave all the time.
"Sounds like noise to me," says Tanya, smirking. "Motors
drive me nuts." She takes a hit off her beer. Dave feels his
pound in his ears and wraps his fist tight around his Sharps' bottle
like it's the most important thing in the world, and then his son
Robbie, still in his swimsuit at sunset, runs onto the dock and
a load of white landscaping rocks into the water. Then he runs back
the hill for more.
"What are you doing?" Tanya yells.
"I'm Conveyor-Belt-Man-Guy," Robby yells back while running
Tanya leans over to Dave and whispers loud enough so everyone can
"Maybe you should go control your son."
The next morning, Dave stands at the kitchen sink drinking coffee
watching Bruce across the street pressure-wash his garage floor
Coleman Power Mate. It has a gas-powered air compressor. Dave is
thinking about buying one himself. Bruce is down on hands and knees,
holding the nozzle at an angle so a beam of concentrated spray
penetrates the cement. The water strikes so hard it evaporates in
air like steam.
Dave's been up all night, first because he drank too much
coffee on the drive home from Bob D's, and then Robby had nightmares
about skeleton pirates and then the neighborhood's sick kid got
again. The neighbors kitty-corner, Mark and Laura, have a
ten-month-old named Mitchell who's getting a kidney transplant in
month. Last night at midnight, the ambulance came because Mitchell
turned blue again. Sometimes he stops breathing. The flashing lights
kept Dave up. Still no word on what happened. No one is back at
house and Mark left for work again early. He sped off in his Qwest
van. He's a wireless network technician. He replaces burnt-out T1
Last week, Mark came over to Dave's house because Robby's
ceiling fan died. Robby had been turning the switch on and off like
strobe light until he got bored and started playing basketball with
stuffed toys and a laundry basket, so Dave took the light off, checked
the ceiling and switch connections, blew a circuit and said, "I
no goddamn idea," as Tanya talked on the phone with Mark's
"I'll have Mark come over," Tanya said. "Laura said
he's got some kind
of electrical license."
Dave wanted to yell, "Mark's got more important problems,"
but instead he said, "I can fix it myself."
Twenty minutes later, Mark brought over his digital
multi-meter, which looked like a walkie-talkie with two wires sticking
from the top, to measure the line-voltage.
"You want a beer?" Dave asked him. Tanya still kept
in the refrigerator.
"I can't drink," Mark said. "I'm getting my kidney
"I thought alcohol ruined the liver."
"The liver and kidney work together. I'm not a big reader
or anything, but I just read some articles about kidney transplants."
Mark looked down at his kid and sighed so loud that Dave thought
was going to start crying, so Dave thought about making a joke about
being able to assemble a motorcycle engine blindfolded the way Fonzie
could but not being able to get a light to work in his kid's room,
he couldn't think of a way to make it funny.
After Mark inspected the light switch by touching the meter's red
black wires to the plus and minus charge, he pulled away the
multi-meter, wrapped the cords around it and shrugged, signaling
kids to come back in and play. Robby had some kind of car and truck
building-block set-up. Then Laura carried Baby Mitchell up the stairs,
set him on the carpet and handed Mark a black backpack.
"You got current," Mark said. "That much we know."
"Must be the switch," Dave said, but he couldn't remember
if he tested
every connection. A clear thin tube poked from between the buttons
Mitchell's blue one-piece footie-jammies, and Dave guessed the
backpack on Mark's shoulders wasn't full of baby bottles and diapers
but a portable IV machine. A four-foot tube snaked into the kid's
belly and a smaller tube snaked out. They looked like fish-tank
the kind used to transport oxygen bubbles into an aquarium. Dave
tube into his own gut, too, but thinner, from his glossy new insulin
Mitchell rolled on the floor grabbing at Lego pieces and
then lay on his back with the belly tube wrapped around his back.
wanted to ask Mark how it felt to have to give up an organ for your
kid, but instead he asked him if the IV machine took lithium batteries
like his insulin pump. He wanted to give Mark a brotherly hug like
guys at the meetings, but instead he tried to make a joke: "Say,
can a guy get a wireless insulin pump? I hate this tube taped into
gut. It itches all the time."
Mark looked down, his eyes glazed over.
"Wireless insulin access," Dave repeated, trying to
the joke happen, but Mark just looked down at the kids, and after
clumsy silence, Dave said, "Well, I guess it's back to the
board on this light deal."
Dave's in the middle of this outpatient treatment program with
of other court-ordered drunks because three weeks ago he got off
shift at the community college where he works as a lead maintenance
technician, had too many beers at the Applebee's bar and drove his
Harley Heritage Softail into a row of mailboxes and ended up concussed
on some guy's driveway. Then he went to jail for a night and lost
license and went into an outpatient treatment program and during
physical got diagnosed with diabetes. It's like he went into one
those magician's disappearing boxes but the trick backfired and
came out with feet growing from his skull. A wave of the wand and
a diabetic alcoholic. He's also a husband and a father. He's also
years-old and his blood sugar is over 400.
"Your blood sugar is over 400," the doctor said.
"Okay," Dave said. "Does a guy want a higher number
like in basketball
or a lower number like in golf?"
"I'm not understanding the question."
That night after the doctor, when Dave told Tanya he had a drinking
problem and diabetes, she said, "You're being dramatic. You
to stop after two beers like I do."
She stood up and went to bed.
"Diabetes," Dave said. "I can't process sugar."
But she was already
down the hallway.
Dave watched a special on late night TV about Brazilian
kids with deformed mouths. Then he lay down next to his sleeping
Robby's nerves flinched, muscles panging, elbows and knees twitching
like a Turrets' victim. Dave went to the couch.
The next day, Dave was back at the clinic again, but this time
behavioral consult for Robby. When the nurse asked Robby to sit
exam table, he jumped up on the edge and kicked his heels back into
the metal drawers like he was trying to kill them. Dave and Tanya
talked with the doctor, whose name was Mary Brooks, while Robby
squirmed over the gray exam table, and in his frenzied movement,
twisted up the sheet of sanitary paper that covered the gray rubbery
fabric, caught a tennis shoe tip underneath it, and ended up with
paper folded over him like a badly wrapped present.
"He gets bored easy," Dave said, and Mary Brooks stared
him hard and said, "He's not moving around like that because
bored. He's moving around because his brain can't control his body."
She talked like Robby couldn't hear her, like he couldn't process
conversation because his brain scuttled from one thought to the
like he had defective sparkplugs in his skull. "I don't want
too far ahead here, folks, but there's no reason to be afraid of
medication. Everyone has an opinion about it even if they don't
kids with ADHD. Let me simplify it for you. The thing with ADHD
is that their motor is running all the time. Would you say Robby's
motor is running all the time?"
When she mentioned the motor, Dave thought of how his
Harley Davidson sounded just before he plowed into the mailboxes:
loud. And how it sounded when the bike was flipping across the lawn:
loose, diarrheic fart. Then he thought about the power washer his
neighbor just bought, how strong it sounded. And he imagined his
year-old son as a soccer hooligan with a shaved skull that he
head-butted guys with in moldy bars.
Robby's head was now at the foot of the exam table. He
reached his arms out from under the wrapping paper and clutched
stirrups used for vaginal exams. He made "vroom" noises
and moved the
metal bars in and out like he was running a backhoe.
On the drive home, Tanya's forehead crinkled so deeply Dave thought
saying "Botox," and before she put the car back into gear,
to him and said, "I want this kid on drugs. Now."
Dave looked into the back seat and Robby seemed serene, hands on
lap, head forward, looking upward out the window at an angle as
taking in the sight of a soaring hawk or a spreading jet contrail.
"Did you see him crawling around in there? Did you not notice
am so tired."
"He's going on drugs. I'm done."
Robby stared out the window, contemplating the sublime beauty of
One day after the morning counseling session, Tanya picked Dave
have lunch in the parking lot of the Super America. As day manager
a Great Clips, Tanya called her own shots about taking breaks. Her
favorite food is the egg-salad sandwich from Super America. It's
wrapped in six layers of Saran Wrap. When she peels it open and
exposes the sandwich to oxygen, it the smells the way a chicken
smells from a half mile away.
A gay guy with a butt-sway walked into the SA, probably to pay
or buy a packaged salad, and Tanya said, "Why would a guy want
"What do you mean?"
"Who'd want to get made fun of all the time? I feel sorry
for those guys."
"Maybe it's not a choice."
"Everything's a choice," she said. "Everyone makes
their own bed."
Dave got what she meant, that people have freewill, that everything
a choice. His being a booze addict was a choice. All he had to do
drink fewer beers.
He already tried to convince Tanya he didn't have a choice by taking
her to this evening program at the clinic where he went to treatment.
They sat in a small auditorium that smelled like unguent. On the
screen played a movie that explained alcoholism as a disease, with
diagrams of the human brain and arrows pointing to different colored
regions, and if a certain region was a certain color, say red, it
a part of the brain that sent a signal to the rest of the brain
more alcohol is needed, and then what happened was a chain reaction
liquor-hunger throughout the nervous system.
Tanya squinted like she needed glasses.
The narrator said, "Though alcoholism is a disease that the
has no control over, managing the disease is still possible through
lifetime of daily maintenance."
Tanya leaned over and whispered, "I don't buy it. It's a
choice." She left and Dave followed. She lit a cigarette when
electronic doors slid open and Dave says roughly, "If you don't
until the end of this, we're done."
"Lose the tough guy shit," she said. "You lost the
leverage when you
got the DWI."
So then Dave's in the passenger seat in the parking lot of Super
America with his wife eating egg-salad and telling him everything
a choice, and he wanted to yell, but he had a knot in his throat
a pill jammed in his esophagus, so instead he mumbled, "I love
"Me too," said Tanya, starting up the motor.
According to this book Dave has to read for his program, he and
wife are supposed to say they love each other at least three times
day, like flossing. They'll go full guns for two weeks and then
lazy about it, like life after a motivational speech.
Dave hasn't slept all night since getting back from Bob D's and
can't stop drinking coffee. He tries to measure his feelings the
he measures the miles per gallon on his truck, but the math isn't
working, so instead he drinks more coffee and listens to the hum
the vacuum in his head and Bruce's air compressor. Last night, the
flickering lights of another emergency run for Baby Mitchell made
brain chemicals expand. Here's what's funny: he's so full of caffeine
he can hear the blood moving through his ears. Not his pulse –
always hear that -- but the actual sound of the liquid carving through
his capillaries like muddy water through sandstone. He can hear
everything. As he stands at the kitchen window and watches Bruce
pressure wash his garage floor, he can hear the breathing of the
hose, even through the growl of the motor that drives the air com
pressor. It sounds like the hiss of the Nebulizer they use for Robby
because he has lungs like paper mache.
Once they had to go to the emergency room once because he almost
stopped breathing. He was sprinting around the perimeter of the
over and over until he collapsed and wheezed, and he wouldn't stop
wheezing. At the hospital, Dave and Tanya crammed into a space
surrounded by a curtain and a cement wall with shelves of medical
supplies: gauze, jars of jellies and compresses, rubber gloves.
sat on the edge of an exam table as a young doctor who smells like
Colgate toothpaste slides a stethoscope over his back and glanced
into the fluorescent beam, puzzling a diagnosis.
"He's not breathing too good." He rested his left hand
shoulder and circled the scope around his back with his right. "You'll
want to avoid temperature extremes in cases like this."
"Cases like this?" Tanya said. "What is this?"
"Tight lungs." The doctor squinted.
"What does that mean?"
"It's tough to say right now." The doctor lifted the
need a culture, and for that we need him to cough up some fluid,
his fluid is pretty solid. We'll get him on antibiotics. If it's
virus we might have to rethink options. Keep an eye on him for the
next couple days and bring him in if he doesn't improve, but I don't
see that happening."
"See what happening?" Tanya asked.
"Needing to bring him back in." The doctor yawned and
waved it away.
"Go ahead and put his shirt on. The nurse will be back with
prescription, and we'll send a Nebulizer home with you." He
Robby's hair and his head swayed across his weak neck. The doctor
parted the curtain and disappeared.
Tanya squeezed Dave's bicep. "Why didn't you stop him? He
didn't say anything."
Truth is, Dave likes it when Robby gets sick because he sleeps
sprawls on the couch watching TV, and so can Dave. When he isn't
he's running in place, bouncing on chairs, sprinting through rooms
snaring objects and shifting them to other rooms, banging sticks
against the driveway or a tree or garage door, collecting rocks
fancy or particular rocks, just any, including coarse chunks of
concrete and sticky bits of blacktop – and piling them in
And at night, he wails unless they read him stories, maintain constant
noise and light: humidifier fan, ceiling fan, sounds of nature CD,
three night lights. Silence and darkness mean death to Robby. His
is a casino. Imagine a kid who sleeps maybe four, at most five,
a night for the first six years of his life, his parents having
hold his hands and rub his forehead, sing songs and read books in
voices, and when it gets bad and it's three AM and Dad's already
hammered and has to be to work in four hours and Robby's screaming
that he wants to go outside and play, no shit, he's yelling, "Sleep
boring!" Dave stomps to the kitchen, cuts opens a Benadryl
caplet, containing 50 milligrams of dipenhydramine, squeezes the
into a cup of water and delivers it to the boy, like espionage.
Wireless insulin injection, motors, pumps, tubes. Dave wonders
the world sounds like underneath all the motor noise. Even at night
needs a fan next to his head or else all he can hear is his
caffeinated heart battering like a drum solo. He tries not to think
about heavy things, but he can't stop worrying about Robby, who
on top of monkey bars with his eyes closed, grabs electric fences
laughs. Whenever he sees a retaining wall, he does a back-flip off
The kid is the way he is because of Dave. They're hardwired. Naming
him after Robert "Evel" Knievel didn't help. Heroic measures
keep Dave's boy from steering a wheelchair with his chin and taking
leaks through a tube.
Dave burns glucose by chasing down Robby, keeping him off the street,
away from construction sites. He tests his blood sugar and makes
he presses the right numbers on the machine strapped to his belt.
That's his main job, to not run out of juice.
Robby, meanwhile, has plenty of juice. His motor's always
running. After the doctor visit, Dave and Tanya send Robby up to
room so they can sit at the kitchen table and fill out surveys.
read the questions about whether Robby is distractible, argues with
adults, cries without reason. Does he have trouble sleeping at night?
Does he complain about feeling unloved, that nobody likes him? It
if he abuses animals, fights with peers, resists school, avoids
eating, is easily fatigued, restless, agitated. Does he lie, cheat,
steal? Does he lose things? Does he have a hard time playing quietly?
Does it seem like his "motor" is running all the time?
Tanya answers "Almost Always" to every question but Dave
"Almost Always" to only two, the ones about not sleeping
motor. Upstairs, board games plummet from shelves in Robby's closet.
They hear his footsteps and fast breathing, the boy's chest huffing
like an air compressor, which reminds Dave that two months earlier,
August, Bruce let Mark use his air compressor to pressure-wash his
vinyl siding. For the whole weekend, Mark blasted out dirt, mold,
spider webs and bird shit from the crevices between panels. He never
went in the house, probably because Baby Mitchell's was in there
trying to breathe. Laura brought Mark juice and water because he
needed a clean kidney, and Dave walked over to say how clean his
was getting and "what a great goddamn air compressor, Mark."
"It's Bruce's," he said.
And Dave remembered the night Baby Mitchell rolled all
over Robby's floor, twisting and pinching the tube, and Robby trying
to hold him still, Robby actually trying to hold someone else still.
"Articles on kidney transplants catch my eye," Mark said.
and untangled the cords, lifting Mitchell an inch of the ground
pulling the tubes forward under his legs and up over his feet. "I
this one about this felon who gave up his kidney for a kid and the
article brought up this guy's past, all the shit he did wrong, instead
of just saying hey, here's a guy who's trying to do something good,
When Mark talked about the felon paying penance, Dave
thought he was sending him a message, and he wanted to tell him
a hero for giving a kidney to his son. Dave wanted to hug him, but
instead he said, "Man, Bruce has a killer air compressor,"
told the story about borrowing the compressor to wash his house:
thought maybe there was mold in the cracks and that was bothering
Mitchell's breathing." Mark clamped his mouth shut and looked
Mitchell, who sat upright, smiling at Robby, who showed him how
build a Lego car.
"You wanna see my Star Wars guys?" said Robby, and Dave
maybe thought it was okay to pack some clothes and his A.A. Big
into a backpack, hop on a bicycle, and go find a studio apartment
close to work with a beerless refrigerator and he could pay a little
extra for a garage, where he could fix up his broken Hog.
Bruce power washes his garage floor through the morning, working
way toward the driveway, and before noon, Dave is playing catch
Robby in the yard. Every time Robby attempts to catch the ball,
dives dramatically, misses and rolls on the grass, flips back up,
retrieves the ball and rifles it at you hard, throwing it over your
head and then jumping up and down pounding his glove while you chase
it down through pine tree branches and throw it back to him so he
re-create a spectacular miss again. Dave drinks water and checks
blood sugar and eats gr anola bars when his glucose gets low. This
how Saturday goes.
Dave could listen to Bruce's Coleman Powermate forever, its hum
attractive and strong, like the sound of the engine that spins the
planet, like the grumble of a Harley. Mark thinks of the air
compressor more as a means to wash his siding, though, to stay
outdoors, away from the inside where Mitchell goes from laughing
gagging and then there's an ambulance parked in the driveway and
and Mitchell are in the back and it's late at night and Mark knows
has to get up and work in the morning, so he asks his boss if he
just bring his repair truck home, and his boss understands, and
Mark sits in the garage on a lawn chair next to the truck until
on a Saturday morning waiting for the cell phone to ring and when
gets a call, it's hopefully only a dozen folks losing their wireless
connection, and so as Dave watches Bruce power-wash his garage floor,
he a lso watches Mark back out of his driveway and head down Eagle
Street, his garage door dropping behind him like a stage curtain.