The Robert Watson Literary Prize Story PROPER BREATHING

Spring 2010: Issue 87

Taryn Bowe

Hunkered down in his cellar, Trevor practiced what Mr. Contellini had said. When you reach for the high notes, imagine you’re pinching a lump of coal between your butt cheeks. Tighten your muscles and squeeze so hard you could change the lump into a diamond. When you stand, imagine you’re a marionette dangling from a string. Pretend the string is tied to the center of the ceiling and also to the center of your head and that it twists around your backbone, suspending your body in a state of perfect posture. Chest forward, shoulders down. Stand tall. Now sing like that.

When school was in session last month, Mr. Contellini had taught Trevor the exercise where he lay on his back and lifted a five-pound dictionary on his stomach. This was supposed to help him learn how to properly breathe. If Trevor inhaled deeply, not just shallowly in his chest, his lungs ballooned and took up extra space within his rib cage, forcing his stomach to pooch up over the waist of his pants and raise the dictionary an inch or so higher. Mr. Contellini had shown Trevor how, if he pressed a fist into his belly, he could make more breath and sound come out of his mouth than he’d ever thought he was capable of producing. He could sound like St. Veronica’s church choir or like angels in Christmas movies, pure and haunting, with perfect pitch. In the final months of seventh grade, Trevor had hung out in the music room a lot to avoid the playground during lunch. He had stayed after school, shaking spit from the plastic recorders and dusting the xylophones because he’d gotten cut from the traveling track team and didn’t have the guts to tell his father. “Relax and pretend you’re sniffing a rose,” Mr. Contellini said, running his fingers through his silver hair or jotting a note in the blue book he used to record ideas for vocal warm-ups. “Then exhale like you’re breathing through a candle you don’t want to blow out because it’s your darkest hour and you need a light by which to see.”

Now it was mid-July, and lying on a cot in his basement, Trevor could relate to wanting a light somewhere in the heavy dark of things. His basement felt like a cave, cobwebs in every corner, walls of mud and slate. Pipes gurgled and hissed, dripping a dark brown liquid onto his forehead. Even though the temperature outside was a blistering ninety-four degrees, the air around him was cool and smelled of dense, moist earth. The twin windows, high above his head, showed only the grass that grew against the panes, and somehow the low ceilings and echoing space made his voice sound richer, even better than in the shower. On the first day of summer vacation, Trevor had set up a practice studio with a cot, a pitch pipe, a canteen of bottled water. Every morning, for the past five weeks, he’d descended to the basement where he sang scales until his throat hurt or practiced diction, repeating tongue twisters like “selfish shellfish” or “hemorrhoidal removal.”

He exhaled dramatically, starting with a high-pitched squeal and letting his voice plummet through lower, deeper ranges. The air spilled out of him and the dictionary on his stomach sank.

“Pipe down,” his father yelled from upstairs.

“Vocal chord warm-ups,” Trevor called back. “I’ll try and keep it quiet.”

But his own sound never annoyed him. It lifted him up. It made him feel light, but also big, and he imagined his voice leaving his mouth as vapor and changing colors as it rose through the darkness, blue or red, depending on whether he was singing loudly or softly, using his head voice or chest voice.

Tired of practicing, Trevor put on his headphones and listened to Arlo Guthrie. It was 1989, and kids in the neighborhood were wild for Madonna, Milli Vanilli, Fine Young Cannibals, New Kids on the Block. But Trevor wasn’t afraid of being different. He was afraid of going upstairs, where the kitchen table was covered with pill bottles and syringes, doctors’ phone numbers and rolls of gauze. The day before school ended, Trevor’s father had come home from the hospital without a lung. This was the second kind of cancer he’d fought in two years. Trevor’s mother blamed Agent Orange. Up until last year, Trevor had thought Agent Orange was a Russian spy who wore sunglasses and a trench coat and carried strategic weapons, like laughing gas, in the pockets of his pants. Each time his history teacher said, “Vietnam was a debacle,” Trevor envisioned his father waging fierce battles against Agent Orange in the rice paddies of Asia, unsheathing a stun gun to elude Agent Orange’s capture or sprouting a propeller from his helmet in order to fly free of Agent Orange’s grip.

Trevor could hear his father bumping around upstairs. His father said “Chrissake” to no one in particular, then spoke in a gentler voice when he called Trevor’s mother at work to ask her what he should have for lunch, an English muffin or a rice cake. Some days his father hobbled down the stairs to check on him, and Trevor raced to the back of the basement, where he couldn’t be seen from the bottommost step. “I’m busy memorizing ‘Alice’s Restaurant,’” Trevor would say. This was the longest song he knew, the song which bought him the most time alone, unbothered. In this way, Trevor managed to avoid one or two awkward encounters with his father each day. But today he hadn’t heard his father’s slippers padding down the basement steps or seen his father’s hand choking the wooden railing. When he opened his eyes, his father hovered several feet above his cot. His father’s brown robe draped open at his chest, melted butter-colored spots dotting his undershirt and boxers.

“I’m practicing breathing,” Trevor said to his father’s floating face. “If the dictionary doesn’t rise, I’m not breathing with my diaphragm. My breathing’s too chesty. Air’s not filling me up.”

“You look like a skinny Buddha,” his father said. “Your concentration’s frightening.”

Trevor’s father asked if he wanted to get some sun, and Trevor said no and went back to doing what he was doing: breathing in, then breathing out.

“You don’t want to see what those Harvey boys are up to?”

Trevor shook his head. His father turned and mounted the stairs. His robe swayed across the back of his vein-webbed calves. Halfway to the top, he turned around. “Meet me in the yard in five minutes. And get the bat,” he said. “We’re practicing hitting.”

 

Trevor found the bat in their garage along with the life preserver they used as home plate. He dropped the life preserver in front of the makeshift backstop, a woodpile. His father came outside wearing sweatpants and a T-shirt. His skin was gray. He no longer had eyebrows. This was weirder, Trevor thought, than the fact that he was bald. Lately, Trevor was aware of eyebrows everywhere he went, who had them, who didn’t, their texture and color and shape.

Trevor didn’t swing at the first ball his father pitched, a high and wide riser, an underhanded throw. Pitching seemed to knock his father off balance.

“You all right?” Trevor asked.

“Line up your knuckles. Keep your eyes on the ball.”

Trevor tried to correct his grip, sliding his fingers up the throat of the bat, squeezing harder.

“Relax,” his father said. “Watch those chicken wing elbows.”

Trevor swung and knocked a ball into the road. The next pitch, Trevor swung and missed. He picked up the ball and lobbed it back to his father. The ball fell short and rolled to his father’s feet. “Really put your body behind it,” his father said, and Trevor said, “That’s what I’m doing. I’m really trying to do that,” and in another smaller voice added, “You should put your body behind your pitches, too.”

They couldn’t end on a bad hit. That was the rule. Trevor popped a foul ball into his mother’s garden, and when he asked his father if it was good enough, his father said, “Nope.”

“Step into the pitch,” his father said. Trevor tried to relax, thinking of shifting his weight between his legs, rotating his hips. He fixed his eyes on the ball. When he swung at the next pitch, he hit it head on. The ball hit his father’s chest. His father grunted and collapsed onto his knees. For a moment, Trevor couldn’t move. He felt gutted and weak. His throat wouldn’t swallow. He couldn’t stop staring. His father put his hand in his mouth and bit down. Then he must have seen Trevor’s face because he removed his hand from his mouth and said, “I’ll be all right. Give me five minutes. Why don’t we pack it in?”  His father stuck his hand back into his mouth and bit down harder. “All right?” his father asked through his teeth. When Trevor said nothing, he said, “Buddy?”

Trevor walked to the front door, peeking back over his shoulder. His father hadn’t moved. In the kitchen, Trevor opened the freezer and pulled out a frozen bag of peas. He left the peas on the kitchen table next to the prescription bottles, so his father would notice them and ice himself when he came inside and took a painkiller. Then Trevor slumped downstairs to the basement, where he stood on his cot so he could see through the windows into the front yard. His father recovered his posture. He seemed to be catching his breath, and Trevor watched him remove his hand from his mouth and pull away the other hand, which rubbed the sore spot where the ball had struck him. His father tossed a ball above his head and tried to hit it with the bat. The ball rainbowed over the apple tree and dropped into their neighbor’s yard. Then his father threw the bat on the ground and kicked it.

Trevor had almost killed his father with his first and only hard line drive. He’d always dreamed of beating his father in a game of blackjack, or at bowling, but he didn’t want today to be the day he started beating his father at games for good.  To distract himself, he put on his headphones and tried to remember his proudest moment from seventh grade. It had happened one afternoon in May. He was wiping eighth notes from Mr. Contellini’s blackboard. In the music room, he was surrounded by cymbals and banjos, posters of Peter, Paul, and Mary and Joan Baez. When Mr. Contellini wheeled his wife into the room, Mrs. Contellini looked nothing like the picture of her on top of the music room’s piano. In the photograph, she kneaded dough and smiled at a camera, wearing pink lipstick that made her lips look bright and full. In person, her face was a droopy mask. Her mouth yawned open, and she couldn’t stand or move her fingers. Her skin was too big for her skeleton, and Mr. Contellini pushed her chair toward the blackboard because her hands were too soft to turn the wheels.

“Meet my apprentice,” Mr. Contellini said to his wife, gesturing toward Trevor.

Trevor waved and scrubbed the blackboard more dutifully than before.

Mr. Contellini wheeled his wife closer to Trevor and said, “Trevor, this is my wife, Antonia.”

Trevor peeled her hand off her lap and squeezed it and then dropped it. He left chalk prints on her thumb, which felt like it didn’t have any bones.

“He’s the one I told you about,” Mr. Contellini said, “the one with the voice like angels.” Mr. Contellini knelt beside his wife’s chair and looked up into her eyes. He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped something from the corner of her mouth. Then he turned back to Trevor and said, “She’d like to hear you sing.”

Trevor suggested “Feeling Groovy.”

“How about ‘Danny Boy’?” Mr. Contellini said.

Trevor focused on landing softly on each note, not coming down too hard or heavy, too sharp or flat, and on letting the sound spill out of him like the breath that escaped his body when he slept. You couldn’t color a song with any phony feeling but when you sang a sad song you could think about sad things and make the notes sound better, truer, sadder. Singing to Mrs. Contellini, Trevor thought of the cocoons caterpillars cast over trees in summer after nibbling lacy patterns in all the leaves until they’re gone, and he thought of flowers without petals, fingers without bones.

When he finished the song, he stood in the music room’s silence. The string instruments hummed. He looked to Mr. Contellini for approval, and Mrs. Contellini closed her mouth and began to blink rapidly. Trevor was nervous she would cry on account of him. Her hands made a wobbly steeple against her chin. When her jaw unhinged, the bottom half of her mouth looked like a drawbridge reeled down after a tall ship’s passing.

“Lank lou,” she said.

Trevor nodded and reached for his wet paper towel so he could finish mopping the blackboard and then move on to polishing the piano.

The next morning Mr. Contellini caught him in the hallway, grabbed him by the shoulders, and nearly pinned him against the wall. “She hasn’t spoken out loud since September,” he said. “I thought it was gone, that skill, like walking or needlepoint.”  Trevor could smell coffee on Mr. Contellini’s breath and, looking up his nose, saw a thicket of black hairs. Mr. Contellini’s fingers dug into his shoulders, but Trevor felt giddy. Blood rushed to his head.

Trevor didn’t see Mr. Contellini’s wife again until the last day of school. She came to their concert in her wheelchair. Trevor stood on the bottom row of risers in his chorus black and whites. He thought, If she stands and walks across the cafeteria and steps around the sixth graders, sitting cross-legged on the floor, then my voice has healing powers; my lungs and pipes are magic. But she fell asleep during warm-ups, her head flopping over onto her chest. Trevor’s mother snuck in through the back door late and brought his father’s best friend, Buzz, and mouthed, “Traffic. So sorry,” and Trevor wondered if she understood how disappointed he was that Buzz was filling in for his father again. The chorus sang “This Land Is Your Land” and “Free to Be You and Me.” Mrs. Helgarty snapped a string on her guitar. Cassidy Sparrow, playing piano, had not practiced a single lick. Debbie Wheeler forgot the lyrics to her solo, and Trevor watched Mr. Contellini to see who would cry first. Trevor’s eyes felt sudsy, full of soap. Debbie Wheeler covered her mouth and said, “Oh my gosh!  Can we start all over?” Mr. Contellini dropped his conducting wand, and when he stood after retrieving it, his eyes were drippy, melting into his face. He wiped one eye with the back of his hand. Tears, Trevor thought. Those were definitely tears. When Mrs. Contellini awoke, the songs were all sung, and the school year was over.

 

Before Trevor’s father had met his mother at a bakery in Boston, he’d been a three-sport letterman at Malden Public High. In the fall, he’d run cross-country. In the winter, he’d played hoops. In the spring, he’d played baseball, hitting third in the lineup, manning second. He’d gone on to Berkshire State, pledging Kappa Sig and starting at small forward on a dark horse team that made it to the Division II Final Four. In the war, he’d piloted choppers and rescued bodies stuffed in bags. He’d come through in one piece, no bullet wounds, no shrapnel scars, his mind still intact, which was no small accomplishment, according to Trevor’s mother. If his father hadn’t been a tough guy, he most likely would have been a dead one. This was the point Trevor’s mother drilled into his head whenever he dumped on his father and asked her to repeat the story about the time she’d hitchhiked to Berkeley and slept on a school bus with Jimi Hendrix.

“Your father’s a bulldog,” she said, “but with the very best intentions.”

On Thursday night, Trevor’s father dragged him to Riverside field. In the backseat of the Chevy, Trevor pulled on his sport socks and cleats. His mother drove, and his father sat in the passenger seat and gave Trevor fielding instructions he was supposed to remember in his muscles. “Stand in the ready position. Don’t flinch when the ball hits your glove.”

Buzz came along for moral support and sat squished beside Trevor, his long legs folded up against his chest. Twice, Trevor’s mother looked over her shoulder and asked Buzz if she should scoot up her seat, and twice Buzz said, “I’m fine, Marcella. Don’t worry about me.”  Trevor didn’t worry about Buzz. When Buzz winked at him, his caterpillar eyebrows hopped above his eyes.

Trevor’s little league team was Glevins’s Vacuum Cleaner Sales and Services. Mr. Glevins was the coach. His son, Kevin, played first base and had biceps and blackheads more typical of a twelfth grader. Kevin batted first and knocked a fly ball over the center fielder’s head. Trevor batted last. His team was down 3-0 by the time he stepped to the plate. Bending his knees, he wished one strike was enough to send him back to the dugout. His father stood behind the backstop. The pitcher smacked the ball against his glove. Trevor tried to imagine the sound of his bat cracking the ball into the parking lot beyond the outfield, but his father broke his concentration. “Choke up,” he said. “No, choke down. That’s too high.”  Trevor swung at an outside pitch and missed. When the umpire called a strike, his father yelled, “Horseshit call. He checked his swing.”  Two more strikes, and Trevor slogged back to the dugout.

On the bench, Trevor heard his father sideline-coaching one of his teammates. “Nice and casual,” his father said, “don’t tense up your upper shoulders.”  At home plate, his father was breathing instructions down Kevin Glevins’s neck. One of his hands squeezed the top of Kevin’s bat. Players and spectators waited for Trevor’s father to stop interfering with the game. Kevin listened and nodded politely, but when Trevor’s father hobbled back behind the backstop, Kevin winked at his friends in the dugout, then rolled his eyes and pinched his nose and waved his other hand in front of his face.

In the final inning, a ground ball ricocheted off Trevor’s glove. Trevor followed the ball into right field and lost sight of it in the weeds. Everyone screamed, “Over there. Over there,” and pointed, and Trevor heard his father yelling, “Dammit, Trevor. Don’t quit now.”  Trevor glanced back at the spectators and, in his head, screamed for everyone to shut up and disappear.  His father stopped shouting, turned purple, and stumbled toward the trash bin. He coughed something pink into his hands. Trevor’s heart leapt into his throat. He stopped chasing the ball at the same time his mother jumped out of her seat and pushed through the packs of parents, siblings, and dogs. When she reached his father, she steadied him with one hand cupped beneath his elbow and wiped blood-tinted phlegm from his chin.

 

After the game, Trevor was afraid to go home. He didn’t want to be alone with his parents. Lately, whenever Trevor snuck upstairs during the day, he found his father catnapping on the couch, sections of the Boston Globe unfolded on his chest, the newspaper rising, falling, flapping with every shallow breath he took. In the parking lot, Buzz said he’d give Trevor a stick of gum if he named five players on the ’84 Celtics. Trevor said, “Larry, Curly, Moe.”  Trevor’s mother stood in front of the driver’s side door and told Trevor’s father he couldn’t get behind the wheel.

“Honey,” his father said. “Give me the goddamn keys.”

“You need to calm down,” she said. “I’m not going to let you drive.”

“Then I’ll walk.”

“I’m not going to let you walk.”

“Help me out here, Buzz,” his father said, holding his hands up to the sky.

Buzz said, “I’m sorry, Marcella. Maybe you should hand them over.”

Trevor’s father slid in behind the wheel. Nobody spoke. Trevor sat in the backseat and counted the stop signs his father drove through. When he’d counted five, he began counting houses with lights on in every window and, finally, he started looking for storage sheds and culverts he could live in when he ran away. He held his breath for all of Marlboro Street, seventeen houses long. Outside, it was darker but no cooler. Buzz knocked Trevor’s knee and whispered, “You win some. You lose some.”  Trevor pretended he couldn’t feel or hear him. When a pickup truck pulled out in front of them, his father jammed the brakes. The Chevy stopped short. Golf balls beneath the backseat rumbled toward the front. His father didn’t say a word, and Trevor studied his clenched face in the rearview mirror.

When they reached their driveway, his father brought the car to a stop in front of the garage. Buzz got out and said, “Adios, amigos,” saluted his father, and walked to his car. Then it was only the three of them. His father gripped the steering wheel. His mother rubbed his father’s neck. His father leaned into his mother and rested his head on her shoulder. The two of them stayed like that while cars passed on the road, shimmying over the ruts and potholes. Trevor hummed the loudest note he could sing without being heard.

 

That night, Trevor lay in his bed and stared at a string of white beads he’d strung over his bedroom window and a plastic Nerf hoop his father had nailed into the wall. He tried to practice breathing, but every breath was too throaty because his chest was too tight. When his mother knocked on his door and asked if she could come in, Trevor nodded. He felt his mattress slope where she sat on its edge. She smoothed out the bedspread where it wrinkled around her. His mother had the toughest hands Trevor had ever seen, thick and callused finger pads from playing the guitar forever. She could pick up hot pots and not get burned, prick her fingertips with pins, and they wouldn’t cut or bleed.

“You awake?” his mother asked.

“Just thinking,” Trevor said. When he was little, they played campfire in his room, shutting the door, turning off lights, draping a red tapestry over a single low-lit lamp. As they knelt around the lamp on the carpet, his mother played guitar and sang hippie songs, like “Blowin’ in the Wind,” or regular campfire songs, like “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean,” and Trevor always sang “my body lies over the ocean” because that was how he thought it went.

“About what?” his mother said.

“Do you believe that music can make things happen?” Trevor said.

“Do you?” she asked.

“I don’t believe in superheroes or superpowers.”

His mother frowned. “I’m sorry you’ve had to grow up so fast.”

“But I sometimes think,” Trevor said, “maybe regular people have powers and they’re not smart enough to use them. That’s why crap things are always happening.”  Trevor touched his lip. “I’m not going back to baseball,” he said. “Will you tell him?”

“He gets riled up. It’s not your fault. Everyone has rough nights out.”  She grabbed hold of his foot and squeezed it. “You know how much watching you means to him.”

“Will you tell him anyway?” Trevor asked.

 

For the next few days, Trevor only emerged from the cellar to eat or sleep. Lying on his cot, he imagined he was losing his soul. Not the soul within his body, but the soul within his voice. When he sang scales, his voice was tinny and flat, and when he sang “Alice’s Restaurant,” his voice sounded thin as if he had just been socked in the stomach and was trying to sing without a heart and without oxygen. He could feel the basement’s darkness sucking away his desire. He no longer wanted to practice breathing or impress Mr. Contellini on the first day of school or sing so majestically Mrs. Contellini would rise from her wheelchair, do jumping jacks and cartwheels. He didn’t care if Debbie Wheeler got the better solo at their fall concert and he wouldn’t cry if she forgot the lyrics and spoiled the show.

One afternoon, Buzz stopped by and prank-called the town selectman, whom his father called “a flaming liberal.”  The hollow sound of his father’s laughter made Trevor want to run upstairs. Instead, he plugged his ears with his headphones and listened to the Bob Dylan song about everybody getting stoned. Another morning his father called down from the kitchen, “If you want to practice bunting, you know where to find me.”  But when Trevor tiptoed upstairs he found his father sitting in a chair beside the window, watching the municipal workers patch the road. He didn’t seem to hear Trevor open the cabinet or turn on the faucet or nearly break a glass.

“Dad?” Trevor said. But his father didn’t move. “Would you tell me if it was back, Dad?” Trevor asked. Yesterday, he’d found his father sitting at the top of the basement stairs. His father had just returned from an appointment, and his mind was somewhere else, somewhere untouchable, zooming ahead to the future or back to his childhood. Now, his father sat in the same room, but Trevor didn’t know where his father was. He didn’t turn around or acknowledge Trevor’s question. When Trevor coughed deliberately, his father didn’t budge.

 

During the first week of August, his father called down the stairs, “Did I ever tell you about the time I met Johnny Most?”

From the basement, Trevor yelled back, no.

“You know who Johnny Most is?” his father said.

“Nu-uh.”

“The Celtic’s play-by-play radio announcer. You should know that. Get on up here.”     

His father sat on the couch, propped up by a pillow. His robe fell open at the waist. Trevor saw his boxer shorts and his stomach and the hole in his boxer shorts that opened to his penis. Trevor didn’t know where to stand or how close to sit, so he hovered in the doorway that separated the living room from the kitchen. Even from a distance, his father’s freckles were large and dull like the brown spots on old people’s hands. His father waved him closer. Trevor took two steps into the room.

“Most people don’t know this,” his father said, “but back when I was playing ball at Berkshire State we sent a real solid team to the Division II Final Four. Me at small forward, John Havlicek’s cousin at the post. At the point, a scrappy black kid straight out of the Navy. We played the Rochester Hornets in the semis, meat-and-potatoes boys from upstate New York. I had twenty points and eleven boards by halftime, twenty-one and thirteen on the game.”

“That’s good,” Trevor said, standing stiff.   

“I was magic that first half. Every shot I threw up found the net. Every rebound bounced my way. After ten-odd years of being a solid player on every ball club I’d every played on, I was the goddamn MVP. Every muscle did exactly what I told it. All eyes were on me. Best feeling in the world.”

Trevor stepped back and leaned against the door jamb. His father fell back into the couch and pantomimed shooting a basketball toward the fireplace, right arm extended toward the ceiling, a flick of the wrist, a wince of pain. “Still with me?” his father asked.

Trevor nodded.

“Atta boy. Remember I said Johnny Most?  Well, at halftime, we walked past a concession stand on the way to the locker room, and there he was, buying hot dogs. He said, ‘C’mere a sec,’ and leaned into me so I could smell the coffee on his breath. He said, ‘BC passed over a real ballsy, brainy player.’  That was it. I had to keep on walking. He was standing in a line. But it was goddamn Johnny Most—smoker’s voice, that million-dollar grin—a man who knows a thing or two about basketball, telling me I was something special.”     

Trevor wanted his father to stop staring through him as if the thing worth seeing lay on the other side. He thought about telling his father about his singing, how he’d broken Mrs. Contellini’s silence, and how, when Mr. Contellini had shaken him by the shoulders, his breath had stunk, too. Instead he asked his father if he wanted a glass of water. “Not now,” his father said. He waved Trevor off. Outside, the municipal workers returned with steamrollers.

“What happened next?” Trevor asked.

“After I talked to Johnny?”  His father rubbed his neck. “After I talked to Johnny, I went into the locker room and listened to coach. Coach said one strong half doesn’t win a ball game. We needed forty strong minutes. I started thinking about the best-case scenario, me scoring forty points, going on to finals. Maybe I could transfer to Holy Cross, get a scholarship. Second half, Rochester threw their best defenders on me and they stuck like glue. Hacked me, slapped me, stepped on my toes, whatever it took. I got mad when the refs weren’t seeing it. I was a hothead back then, not like you, got hit with a technical foul, then another. Was tossed from the game with eight minutes left. Yada yada yada. Two years later, I went off to fly helicopters over the jungles.”

Trevor said, “You still scored twenty points in a half. How many people can say that?  Not me.”

“Not yet,” his father said.

“No, Dad. Not ever.”

“Come here,” his father said. “Let me see you.”  He held out his hand and, when Trevor came to the spot where his hand was waiting, his father took his wrist and pulled him closer so they were looking eye to eye. His father’s grip was gentle. He looked Trevor up and down, taking in his shaggy hair, his Dylan T-shirt, his Indian moccasins, his frayed blue jeans. “Never say never,” his father said. “I didn’t hit my growth spurt until the summer I was fifteen.”

“No, Dad,” Trevor said, softly. “I’m not ever going to score twenty points in a half.”

His father’s sickness smelled like last night’s chicken dinner in this morning’s kitchen trash. Trevor tried hard not to wince and turn away.

 

“How much do you want it?” his father called from the couch the following morning when Trevor went upstairs to grab a snack.

“Want what?” Trevor asked.

“Whatever it is you want with your singing.”

Trevor stepped into the living room. “To be bigger and better?” he said. His chest tightened. He was no longer sure of what he wanted from his music.

“How much?” his father said, sitting up.

“I used to want it a lot,” Trevor said. “Now, I want it . . . I don’t know.”

“You have to really want it,” his father said. “If you’re not willing to fight for it, someone else will want it more and they’ll come along and steal it.”  His father stood, and the couch cushions maintained the lumpy imprint of his shape. “Do you really want it?” he asked again.

“I guess,” Trevor said.

“Not ‘I guess,’ yes or no.”

“Yes,” Trevor said.

His father motioned Trevor to come closer. “I’m gonna tell you something I’ve never told anyone, not even your mom. Remember this name: Chip Watson, Master of Mass Hysterics.”

“Is that a nickname?”

“Stage name,” his father said. He paused and stroked his chin like a real big thinker. “I was going to tell jokes, be a comedian, make people laugh about things people can’t laugh about but need to. Like losing friends and minds and jobs. Ever hear of gallows humor?”

Trevor said, “But Dad, it’s not too late.”

His father patted Trevor’s head, mussing his hair and smiling in the same way Mr. Contellini had in June when Trevor suggested perhaps his wife could relearn how to walk this summer or relearn to knit with yarn and needles.

“Wait here,” his father said. When he returned from opening his special drawer in the kitchen, he handed Trevor a newspaper clipping. It was an audition announcement for Youth Pro Musica Choir for Boys. Tryouts were on a Tuesday, less than two weeks away. Trevor held the audition announcement, terrified and thrilled.

“Stand there and give me the best song you’ve got,” his father said, pointing to a thin cone of light that filtered in through the windows. His father slumped back down on the couch in the part of the living room where sun didn’t hit until late afternoon and where shadows in the morning cast dark circles under his eyes. Trevor started to sing “Scarborough Fair,” beginning tentatively and faltering on the first high note, but then gaining steam and sounding more and more practiced, smooth, and pure. He was as far as the part about parsley and sage when his father slapped a couch cushion. “That’s not going to cut it,” his father said. “Louder. Clearer. Much more confident.”

When Trevor began again, his father said, “Don’t do that tapping thing you’re doing with your foot. It’s distracting. And figure out what you’re going to do with your hands, either behind your back or at your side. Pick one.”

Trevor began one more time, knowing he would cry. He could feel his eyes burning, his lungs shriveling up like old balloons. He thought of Mr. Contellini and his wife and how even a grown man couldn’t fight back tears at a concert when a person he loved was letting go of life a little more each second.

“Hey,” his father said. “Back up and start again. Try not to flare your nostrils.”

Trevor put a firm foot down on the carpet. “Stop,” he said. “Let me do it my way.”

“But you don’t know the world. Sometimes you look—” his father frowned—“like such an easy target.”

Trevor said, “But you don’t know how to sing.”  When Trevor closed his eyes, he imagined pinching a piece of coal between his butt cheeks, squeezing so hard he changed the coal into a diamond. He imagined a string tied to the ceiling and also to the top of his head and that five weeks of breathing exercises had stretched his lungs to the size of industrial-strength trash bags.

“Don’t laugh,” he said to his father when he finished visualizing and opened his eyes.

“Is that what you do?” his father asked.

“And then I do this,” Trevor said. He did his exaggerated belly laughing, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, and the warm-up where he buzzed his lips like the revving engine of a motorcycle, broom, broom, broom, and he searched his father’s face for a sign that maybe once, because he liked the sound of his voice, or the tickle of a small noise forming and spreading throughout his chest, he had done these things, too. Trevor decided to sing the song about the sound of silence because he liked how a song could be both beautiful to listen to but also sad to sing, and he sang it to a chip in the plaster above his father’s head.

“What?” he said afterward.

“Nothing,” his father said.

“I thought you said something.”

“It was nice,” his father said. “You sang it nicely.”

“Nice enough to make the cut?”

“I can’t predict the future,” his father said. “All you can do is compete.”

“But if you had to guess?” Trevor said. “If you were picking, would you pick me?”

“I think I might,” his father said. “I think you’d make it damn hard not to.”

 

They trained like this for the next week and a half, held mock auditions in the living room in which Trevor’s father played the role of choir director, throwing his hands in the air when Trevor’s voice cracked on a high note or putting two fingers in his mouth and whistling when Trevor sang especially well. One day after practicing, his father showed Trevor a golden plate from Thailand, an oil painting of a horse, pricey knickknacks around the house which, his father said, were “worth something in case anything happened.”

“I’m not going to remember that,” Trevor said. “You’ve got to stick around.”   

Another morning, his father said, “Come here and show me that left hook I taught you.”  He held out his palms, and Trevor said, “I forgot,” and his father said, “Plant your back foot. Untwist your torso. Show me.”

Trevor wound up and swung his left fist. Gently, at less than a quarter-strength, he knuckled his father’s palm.      

On the day of tryouts, he slicked his hair with tap water and a comb. He buttoned a church polo over his favorite tie-dyed T-shirt. His father wore madras golf shorts, which hung unevenly off his hips, but which he told Trevor were more “artsy and sensitive” than his dung-colored robe and sweatpants. The church where the auditions were held was made entirely of stones. The altar was lit by sunlight that streamed through stained-glass windows and left red and purple shadows on the floor. The organ itself was small but had tremendous bronze pipes which spanned from the floor to the ceiling. The choir director, Yolanda Gregor, asked Trevor to stand beside the grand piano and sing arpeggios and sight-read notes. Her single black eyebrow rose in an arch on her forehead as she said “ooh” and “yes” and “lovely” in response to his sounds and warm-ups. When it came time for Trevor to sing his tryout piece, he expected his voice to be swallowed by the large vaulted space, but instead his music, his words—Morning has broken like the first morning—echoed back to him, sounding so rich and pure he half expected the kneeling disciples in the stained glass windows to lift a finger in a salute or wave. His father sat on the edge of a wooden pew, elbows balanced on the pew-back in front of him, hands clasped together in a knot that hid his face.

 

In the Chevy after the audition, Trevor said, “I feel like a thousand bucks.”

“I’m not going to bullshit you,” his father said. “You were something.”

Trevor asked if they could go through the drive-through at KFC.

“Sure, Bud, anything to celebrate.”

“I have one more thing,” Trevor said. “I feel kind of strange about asking it.”

“Shoot,” his father said.

“Can you say ‘hemorrhoidal removal’ ten times fast?”

His father repeated the tongue twister six times before his words slid together. Trevor cracked up so hard he couldn’t breathe.

At the drive-through window, Trevor asked his father to ask the attendant for chicken strips and bottled water. He said, “Did you know the best nutrition for your voice is water?”

When they got their food, his father parked beside a dumpster with a view of an abandoned factory.

“Want one?” Trevor asked, holding up a chicken strip.

His father touched his stomach and shook his head.

“One more thing,” Trevor said. “If I make it, will you come to my concert in October?”

“That’s at least two months away.”

“That’s why I’m asking now.”

“We’ll see,” his father said.

“No, promise,” Trevor insisted.

“Buddy, don’t push me on this one, okay?”

Trevor swallowed a mouthful of food and looked at the deserted factory with its No Trespassing signs and razor wire. He decided not to look at his father until he apologized and promised to go. When this didn’t happen, Trevor imagined asking Mr. Contellini to adopt him, and Mr. Contellini saying yes, and his father feeling slighted, like Trevor felt now.

“The cancer came back,” his father said, “in my other lung.”

Trevor dropped his food into his lap. “But one is all you’ve got.”

“Yeah, well.”  His father flicked his fingers against the steering wheel.

“You can have one of mine,” Trevor said. He’d expanded them. Now they were bigger.

His father touched his knee. “That’s not how it works. I think you know how it works.”

“I think I’m going to upchuck,” Trevor said. He opened the car door and vomited chicken strips onto the pavement. Then he closed his eyes and started humming inside his head. He plugged up his ears with his fingers. He put his head between his knees. Buzzing noises filled the car, and his brain.

His father said, “I couldn’t keep it from you much longer.”  He touched Trevor’s back.

Trevor unplugged his ears. “I already knew. I couldn’t stand it.”

Trevor felt his father’s arm around his shoulder, pulling him closer across the console between the seats. Without meaning to, Trevor fit into the space between his father’s arm and rib cage. He could smell his father’s smell and could feel his father’s nose in his hair, resting there or smelling his smell, or both. As much as Trevor didn’t want to, there, pressed against his father’s ribs, he could feel the alternating swell and shrinking of his father’s chest and could hear a lisping noise rattle through his father’s body. If his father’s lung stopped working, he would be the first to hear it quit.

“You’re braver than I knew,” his father whispered, “staring down such a big secret alone.”

When Trevor started to cry, his father’s grip tightened around his shoulders. Trevor dug his nose deeper into his father’s ribs. When he sniffled, his nose squashed against his father’s skin and bones and hurt. But he wouldn’t let go. He held his ground. He clung on tighter, daring his father not to pull away first.