This is a story about my mother. It begins with my first memory: I’m standing with my brother at the big window in our apartment in Bochum, Germany. We are at the top floor and our window is in a gable, but I do not know what that is yet. I only know that we are looking out the window and there are little cars below us, and small people walking. My brother points to the other children in the sandbox, to the mothers in little circles around them. He points to the bridge that the train goes over. We wait for the train. He is teaching me about the world. I remember we are both calm, we are just looking. Then the sound of a siren comes. ‘It is there to pick up sick people,’ he explains. We wait for the ambulance to pass in the street and while we wait we mimic the sound, ta tew ta ta until it storms past and we clap our hands.
In the next year we move to America. We live in a big green house, or at least for us it was big, because it had two stories. My brother and I get a room upstairs and when our first American friends come to the house I have my mother teach me my first English phrase. Come upstairs and see! I yell at them when they walk through the door, before I run up to show them my room.
I love the house because all of the floors are covered in carpet. It is a very dark house and there are large oak trees around the outside. Inside it feels like you are underwater. I love padding very softly over the carpet and going from room to room in the long mornings when my brother is at kindergarten and my father at work and my German mother all alone with me, also new to America, my young mother.
When my brother comes home from school we run around outside or sit up in our room. My brother takes his little blue handkerchief and sticks it in his nose and twirls it and licks off the snot and one time he lets me lick it too. It is salty. He likes to have all four corners covered in snot so that they can make little horns when the snot dries.
I have my own version of his handkerchief. My mother really wanted a girl for her second child but instead she got me. When she was pregnant she bought lots of pink things. Now I carry around a long piece of pink silk cloth and I always have it around my thumb and I put the thumb in my mouth and let the rest drag behind my feet and my mother has to keep it out of the dirt because I don’t care what end goes in my mouth. She always tries to tuck it into my back pocket, but I pull it out again, and she stumbles after me, trying to put it back in.
My brother and I always try to avoid naptimes and going to bed and taking baths. When it is naptime we run out into the yard so that my mother has to chase us, has to force us in. We do not go willingly. It’s our job to run, and hers to chase. When it is bath time we get in like two very well behaved boys and when she turns around my brother puts his penis out of the water and makes a little fountain and then I make a little fountain too and that’s when she turns back and sees that the whole bath is ruined and we have to start over. We keep doing it each bath time until one day my brother poops and then it isn’t fun anymore.
At bedtime we run around too, up and down the stairs, into my parent’s bedroom to cuddle up and hide in their blankets and then finally into our room and under our covers and then in the darkness we whisper to each other. My brother one night whispers down to me that he has a fun idea. He says he is coming to my bunk. I love it when he comes to my bunk. He comes down and says it is the best plan but that we have to be very quiet for it to work. He tells me the plan and I agree. This is the plan: first we take all of the toys from their shelves and from under the bed. Then we put them in a big pile by the door and then very quickly we open the door and throw them all down the stairs! We have a hard time containing our excitement. We hold our sides so that we do not laugh.
My brother grins at me with his empty front teeth when he opens the door and starts to throw things down. First it is the stuffed animals because they are soft and won’t make much noise. I watch my bear bounce happily down, and then my tiger and my brother’s elephant. Then come the blocks and the books and the trucks. We hear voices from my parent’s room and see a light come on under their door. We know it is happening and start to giggle with glee and then in a big push we move the whole pile to the stairs and push it down and fall after it screaming and that is when my mother comes to the top of the stairs in her night robe and stands their like a pale angry ghost. We hold on to each other’s arms from the bottom of the stairs and look up giddy and terrified at my mother’s white silhouette with the hall light behind her and we hear her swear.
When she swears all of the air is suddenly out of the room. It isn’t funny anymore because she never swears. We try to laugh louder, to convince her it is funny but her words rip it away. She does not yell. She just says, Scheisse, scheisse, Scheisse, and pumps her fists up and down. The scariest thing is that she does not see us. She doesn’t even look at us. All she sees is the mess and she keeps repeating the swear word, the word we are not meant to hear and never say, but now she doesn’t care if we hear it because she does not see us. The toys have made us disappear.
We crawl away from the bottom of the stairs. We go to the front door and hide in the coat closet. Through the bottom of the coats we see her white shadow come down and stare at the pile. She does not move. We hear my father come out of their room and then see her move away from the pile. She sits at the table with her hair over her face, crying quietly, all too herself, like we are dead.
We sit together with the coats over us watching her with something dreadful in our stomachs until my father’s dark form scoops us up and takes us back to our dark and empty room and leaves us there. The curtains are open and a little bit of light from the streetlamp is coming in. We try to listen for sounds but hear nothing from downstairs, no steps coming back up, no lights flicked on. I hear cars going by in the street outside and somewhere farther away a siren driving fast, but it sounds nothing like the ones in Germany. It will leave us here.
Matthew Zanoni Müller was born in Bochum, Germany and grew up in Eugene, Oregon and Upstate New York. He has an MFA in fiction writing from Warren Wilson’s MFA Program for Writers and a BA from Emerson College. He teaches at Columbia-Greene Community College and has published fiction and nonfiction in numerous magazines. To learn more about his work, visit: www.matthewzanonimuller.com