Fiction: Slap by Pete Fromm

IT'S NOTHING. Or maybe something new only to Dalt’s ears. He’s gotten me into the front seat and is wrestling with the wheelchair, the damn sticky collapse lever, holding up the kids from their tumble into the back of the van. Atty, and we’re just talking hormones here, grumbles something about having a normal mom. Well, if you must know, exactly, he says, “God, we’d be there already if Mom could just walk.”

He’s cut off from whatever else he might say by the slap. I’ve never heard one before, not beyond TV, the movies, but there is no mistaking it. Dalton’s hands, back when we’d been rowing, were already half concrete block, but now, swinging a hammer for a dozen years? They’re like hammer heads themselves, annealed with calluses, bristling with splinters he no longer even notices. Days he has to help me get dressed, undressed, his very skin catches on my clothes, snares in the finery of my undies. The crack of that hand on my child’s flesh leaves a gaping silence in its wake, framed by the quick suck in of Izzy’s breath, then her whispered, “Well, it’s true.”

Which is followed instantly by another crack, his hand, Dalton’s hand — my Dalt — cutting across Izzy’s rear. I see it in the mirror, where things are supposed to be reversed, not turned on their head; closer than they appear, but not completely impossible. Izzy’s mouth, barely visible through the wild tangle of her sun-bleached hair, drops into the same stunned O as mine. Atty’s already nothing but a blur streaking up the ramp into the house.

It takes me a second to catch my own breath, to shout, “Dalton!”

Still in the mirror, I watch him bend low to Iz, say, “Get in the house!” a voice I would never recognize if I hadn’t overheard it when he reads to them, his villain’s voice, a rasping hiss so full of menace I’d asked him to quit, said, “No wonder Atty has nightmares.”

I try to meet his eye in the mirror, see who this doppelganger of my husband is. I want to shake it, demand, “What have you done with Dalton?” I mean, he still reads to them, every night, though Atty’s already in middle school, Izzy only a year behind.

Instead, as I watch him storm up the ramp after them, I call, “Dalt?” and when he doesn’t answer, I shout it. “Dalton!”

He stops almost at the top, turns half around to look at me. His chest heaves, the way it used to when he leapt up stairs, four at a time, like he might miss something great if he ever once slowed down.

“Dalton,” I say again.

“No,” he says, that voice barely under control. “Not ever.”

“Dalton,” I say. “They’re kids. You think it’s not frustrating? For them too?”

“Not that much. Never that much.”

“Dalt. It’s okay. I’m a big girl. I can handle some adolescent grousing.”

“Maybe from some stranger, some asshole staring in a store. But not from my kids.”

“Yours?” I say.

His lips move, but he doesn’t say anything, his anger, something I’ve hardly ever seen, already flaming out.

“Dalt,” I say. “What are you going to do? Inside? Do you have some plan to fix this?”

“I’m going to sit down and talk to them.”

“After that? You hit them, Dalt. Our kids.”

“You think Attila the Hun never got a …” but he can’t continue. Though Attila is there on the birth certificate — our whole Mongolia phase before my tremors started — we’ve never called him that, and there’s no way to joke around this. I see he’s trembling. He starts down the ramp to me.

“Go in and tell them you’re sorry. See if you can get them to come back out.”

“Like they’ll have to be talked into it now? A movie?”

“It’s not about a movie anymore.”

He takes that like a challenge, which is not at all what I meant. He turns at the bottom of the ramp, before ever reaching me, and marches back up like he’s heading to his own execution. If he comes back out the door with the two of them it will only be because he’s ordered them to obey. I don’t know what he’ll say to them, can’t imagine even how he’ll begin, but I know he’ll come back out alone, to retrieve me.

I mean, my chair is lying tipped over by the side door, half collapsed. Or is it half open? Just how optimistic am I about this day? I lower my head to my hand and wait, because there’s nothing else I can do.

I jerk up straight when I think I hear the screen door creak, but there’s no one there. I’ve moved fast enough I’ve pulled my bad hand out from between my legs, and I stare at it a moment, rocking uselessly in my lap, the wretched, foreign fingers twisted into their permanent curl, as if they’re first into the fetal position, just waiting for the rest of my body to get a clue, catch up. I know they can’t uncurl, that they’re locked there, 10 years of therapy and anti-spasticity drugs flushed straight down the toilet, but I reach down anyway and tug at them, try to straighten them out one more time. Just to see that.

It can’t work, but I pull, and pull, forcing this one part of me to be normal again. Even just for a second. I close my eyes and keep up the pressure, like bringing in a steelhead, never letting him feel in charge. I don’t let up until I hear the first bone snap, a sound so much smaller than Dalt’s hand on Atty’s cheek. My finger, pointer, sticks out at a 90-degree angle to the back of my hand, but still curls toward the others, helpless in its draw back down toward the flock. It doesn’t hurt. I haven’t felt much there in a long time, but it’s as wrong as that slap, and when Dalt does come out alone, comes to my door and apologizes, says we’ll go to the movie tonight, that Atty’s going to take some time, he’s almost through his third string of apologies before he notices, stops dead, touches the side of my thin, quaking wrist, the unbroken bones there. He says, “I’ll grab the cell, tell them we’re going to the doctor’s.”

It’s a mission they’re accustomed to, orders they’ve obeyed so many times before. The time on their own, without their parents, is something I think they’ve grown to wait for.

Dalt ducks away, almost trips over the wheel chair, whips it up into the air as if it weighs nothing, and now that it doesn’t matter, it folds so fast it nearly catches his fingers. He slides it in behind my seat, whips the door shut and heads inside to pass the news to the kids, taking Mom to the hospital. He’s up the ramp in his old charge, a man with a mission again, finally.

He’s out in a second, and as he backs down the drive, I see Izzy standing shadowy behind the screen, her hand up in a kind of wave or salute or something. I reach across with my good hand, and wave back. As a baby she was a waver and a half. We used to sit on the porch for hours, her in my lap, gazing down the street, quiet, waiting for the mailman, the chance to wave at this nice man.

Dalt says, “Hurt?”

“Nope. Pain free. The magic of MS.”

He doesn’t say anything. Just drives, paying way more attention to the road, other drivers, than he usually does. I mean, he’s always careful, but like sixth sense stuff. Today he’s driving like he’s 80.

“You do know,” I say, “don’t you, that this whole hand strangulation is very rare for MS? Usually, to get this kind of joy, you have to have Parkinson’s or something. There’s even a name for it, if you get it all by itself. Dupuytren’s contracture. Some Frog, had it, cured it, well, no, not cured, there’s no cure. Man, leave it to the French, you know? Get a disease named after them just for giving up. That is so like them. Can you say World War? It’s–”

“Maddy,” he says.

“I mean, you can get just that one thing all by itself. Just the hand. How half-assed and pathetic is that? Still have a sense of taste, not have your arm twitching all over the place, your fucking legs knotting up if you try to do something as stupid as have sex with your husband, just a couple of fingers curling for no good reason at all, just–”

“Maddy. Stop.”

“I mean, your husband starts beating his kids, who he loves more than his own life times ten, and you, sitting there with your measly two curled fingers, would have no fricking clue as to why. This MS, though,” I start banging my good fist against the dash with every word, “it, just, explains, absolutely, every, fucking, thing.”

Dalton’s trying to pull over, but some asshole has got him blocked off, and Dalton looks like he could kill. And, despite what’s just happened with Atty and Iz, there’s a part of me, no doubt twisted by myelin sheath scarring, that would love to watch that. Watch Dalton finally able to unleash every ounce of that raw power that’s been locked away and helpless in him all these years.

“Ram the fucker,” I say.

“Maddy,” he says, “are you okay?”

“Don’t,” I say, back to fist pounding, “Ever. Ask. Me. That. Again. Not. Ever.”


“It makes you sound so stupid. Asking me that.”

“Jesus, Maddy. You just broke your own finger.”

“You just slapped Atty across his face. I saw you.”

He looks back to the road. We’re almost there.

“I’d say we’re handling the psychological stresses like pros, wouldn’t you?”

“Today,” he says, “was not a good day.”

“And we take it one day at a time, don’t we. One glorious, miserable-assed day at a time.”
He parks. Jumps out. Gets my chair, unfolds it, locks it open, pops my door. I bat his arm away. “I can get it myself,” I say. “I’m not a cripple.”

“That a girl,” he says.

I glare at him. “I am so winning that spirit award.”

They have to X-ray it, though, even without my superhero powers at full flow, my X-ray vision tells me the same thing as their big, expensive machine. My finger’s broken. They splint it up after a consultation about what position to splint it in, up, or curled. Curled wins. It’s all the muscles will allow once they set the bone. They ask few questions, though, once it’s again properly clawed, I show it off, volunteer that I was using it to open beer bottles. That raises a few eyebrows and I add, “Well, pop for the kids. What kind of a mother do you take me for?”

As he’s loading me back into the van, Dalt has the balls to ask if I’m on any new meds he wasn’t aware of, if there are side effects that could be blindsiding me.

“Nope,” I say. “Totally eyes wide open.” Then, “How about you, Dalt? Some new drug regimen for you? Steroids or something?”

“I snapped,” he says, so low anybody could have missed it. But I’ve been tuned into him forever. “I’m sorrier than you could know, Mad.”

“No,” I say. “I know exactly. You’ll beat yourself up about this until the day I shovel the dirt over you.”

He nods. “I never thought … ”

“The sad thing?” I say. “They’ll understand. They’ll get it before we do, will be over it before we will.”

“All they wanted was to go to the movie.”

“All I wanted was to go with them. To be able to do anything with them. Even just sit in the dark.”

He backs up, the asphalt behind us shimmering. I watch the mirages in my mirror.

“We’ll go tonight,” he says. “After dinner.”

“Start over. Anew. Afresh. Whatever. Tonight is the first black hole of the rest of your life.”

“I’ll make it a light dinner.”

“Don’t want to spoil their appetite for the popcorn.”

“Exactly. Extra butter.”

I close my eyes as the acceleration leaves my head in spin cycle. We’re back to what we’re good at, teasing, making light, and we’ll continue straight down this road until it smoothes out, till we find ourselves home again, where At and Iz will step out onto the porch, not quite meeting our eyes, anxious and afraid, not sure they want to see what version of me Dad’s brought home this time, what’s next to get used to. And this time they’ve got Dad to worry about, too. Dad, their rock.

“What’ll we tell them?” I say, turning to look at Dalt as he drives. I reach across, my good hand, and take his big, club of a hand in mine.

“I already told them I’m sorry, that I didn’t know what happened, that it will never happen again. I could hardly get it out, them apologizing at the same time, that they didn’t mean anything about you, only the time, the rush to get tickets.”

I thump his hand up and down on the car seat. “No,” I say. “About me. My finger.”

“Four to six weeks,” he says.

“Not the splint time, you dope. About how I managed to break my finger sitting alone in a car.”

Dalt turns onto our street, starts up it. “Nose picking mishap?”

“You,” I say, “are such an ass.”

Then, as he pulls up toward the drive, so quiet I know only he’ll hear me, not that there’s someone else who could, but just to show that he’s still so tuned in to me, I say, “I’m serious, Dalt. About the not asking me. If I’m okay.”

He’s checking his mirrors, backing in today for some reason. All ready for action, pointing out at the world.

“We know we’ll be okay, right, Dalt? We’ve always known that. No matter what. Right?”
“Oh, golden,” he says, but he’s not looking at me when he says it, and that is something new. Something for me to gnaw on all through the movie, along with the greasy popcorn, the watery pop, my kids, my husband, lined out in the theater seats besides my gap in the row, empty of any seats until Dalt rolls my wheelchair in, backs me up, sets the brake. A family at the movies. Totally golden.

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