An Automatic Response

Carl woke up to the sound of glass shattering. He lifted himself up on one elbow, shook his head and pushed himself out of bed.

“Dad? You okay?” he asked, shuffling into the living room.

“Go away,” his father said, waving his arms. He reached for one of two remaining bottles of Scotch on the coffee table, chugged from it and threw it to the ground.

Carl watched the glass shatter and join the remnants of the other bottle on the hardwood floor. Slowly he walked into the kitchen to get the mop. It was an automatic response now – his silent somnambulant trip into the kitchen at 3 or 4 a.m. after being awakened by his father’s drunken outbursts. It used to be his mother’s job, but he inherited it.

He learned long ago to ignore whatever his father said and not to respond to any tirades. Carl simply mopped up the liquid golden mixture of glass and leftover Scotch that sparkled as he wrung it into a bucket, trying not to cut his hands. When he did, he ignored the blood the cuts drew.

The pain ran so much deeper, he wrote the week before in his creative writing class, penning a two line poem on the sides of a poster for their poetry display. That poem cost him a trip to the guidance counselor, Miss Hazel, after his English teacher read it.

As he mopped, he could still feel Miss Hazel’s eyes upon him. They were beautiful eyes. That, at least, was a side benefit of being called down there. She was in her mid twenties, a new guidance counselor the kids called Hazel Wazel behind her back because she was the “touchy feely” type. It was a school joke that if she cornered you in the hallway her first question would be “How do you feel about not having a pass?” instead of the usual faculty line “Where’s your pass?”

Her hair was long and auburn and her eyes were blue, not hazel. Carl sat slouched in the chair across from her desk as she sat peering into his eyes. He almost told her what was going on at home when she asked. But he stopped short.

He knew that would be a mistake. His father’s drinking was a secret. Like his mother once said to him before she left “He may not be much of a father, but he’s all you’ve got ”. And then she made that true by packing her green American Tourister weekender bag and leaving for good. The weekender bag apparently could fit a lot in it if a person was motivated enough.

“My mom left,” he blurted out, trying to divert Hazel Wazel from the real issue. Give her some information, he remembered thinking.

“Why?” she asked point blank.

Disarmed by this question, Carl shuffled his feet. “She wasn’t happy , I guess.”

“Are you happy, Carl?”

“Happy?” he repeated, feeling stupid. Mostly he felt confused. No one ever asked him if he was happy before. He realized she was actually waiting for an answer and panicked, knowing he waited too long before replying. “I guess.”

“You say ‘I guess’ a lot. Is that because you’re afraid to say what you think or what you feel?” she asked.

Carl shrugged. He caught himself before saying ‘I guess’ again, but blushed when he realized there wasn’t much else to say.

The silence hung between them for a few minutes. Hazel Wazel did nothing to break it. It occurred to Carl that she knew something was going on at home. She wasn’t the first teacher or adult to pick up on that, however, and he knew how to handle it.

“Are we done?” he asked in the most obnoxious tone he could muster, the ‘back off’ attitude he used when this happened.

She sighed. “Carl, I have this feeling that you aren’t telling me something. And your poem is disturbing.”

“I didn’t write it,” he blurted out. “I stole it. Off the internet.”

“Really? Because your teacher tells me you’re one of his most motivated students.”

“Yeah, well I guess not.”

“Okay then. Show me where you got the poem.” Hazel turned her laptop around and pointed at the keyboard. “Go ahead. Surf away.”

Carl blinked at the laptop. “I don’t know,” he said.

“You don’t know or you can’t show me because you’re lying?”

This was a different side of Hazel Wazel than Carl had seen. She was the first one who came in closer rather than backing off. Her voice was firm, not like the “touchy feely” one she used at school assemblies. And her gaze was unwavering.

He swallowed hard. “I surf so many sites I just don’t know where I got it.” He pushed the laptop around so it faced her.

“Alright, Carl,” she said, pulling a drawer open and writing him a pass. “I want you to stop in to see me twice a week.”

“Why? Nothing’s wrong at home.”

“I guess. We’ll see,” she replied, handing him the pass.

He took it and stood up, then remained in place for a minute or two.

“Carl?” she asked. “Is there something you wanted to tell me?”

He left the guidance counselor’s office without speaking.

Carl ran his bloody right index finger under the kitchen sink. The cold water woke him up more than usual, which wasn’t a good thing. His eyes wandered over to the refrigerator. There, held up by a Disneyland magnet, was a picture of his mother.

“You can come with me, Carl,” his mother had told him the day she packed. “You don’t have to stay here.”

“We can’t just leave him, Mom. What will he do?”

“I don’t care any more,” she said, reaching up to her bruised right eye.

“He didn’t mean it, Mom,” Carl said.

She didn’t answer him, just kept putting clothes into the suitcase, rolling them, stacking them, pushing them down methodically as he watched.

His mother always had been an efficient packer. When he went to summer camp four years ago, he needed two garbage bags in addition to the suitcase he brought to get the same clothes back home. That was all he could think about as he watched her pack – that once she unpacked wherever she went, it wouldn’t be possible for her to get those clothes back in that suitcase to return.

“Don’t do this, Mom,” he begged. “Please.” He could still see her getting into the taxicab, taking one last look at the front door, perhaps hoping to see him there.

Carl turned the faucet off. His index finger felt numb and wasn’t bleeding anymore. He looked up at the clock. 3:30 in the morning.

As he passed his father in the living room, he could hear the deep snoring. Carl took the Scotch bottle out of his father’s right hand and placed it back on the coffee table.

And then he went back to bed.

Copyright 2007 Ruth Harrigan

4 responses to “An Automatic Response

  1. Miranda

    This brought tears to my eyes. it was very well written.
    My mother is an alcholic, so I can relate completely.
    You are a very talented writer.

  2. Charmichan Zakioka

    Hi!!! This is such a wonderful piece. May I ask a favor please??? I’m writing a fanfic for Xmen First Class. Do you know this movie Ms. Ruth Harrigan?
    I was wondering if you could check if my views on disability are truthful or not. I love your poems as well… they’re all oh so beautifully written.

  3. That sounds like an interesting idea! Where can I read it?

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