The Hollow Boy Print E-mail

boy(Cream City Review Volume 16, Number 2, Fall 1992)

My mother is cracking an egg on the rim of a bowl. The egg falls in, and its yolk breaks, streaming a curl of yellow. A cup of milk, a stick of butter, and Betty Crocker cake mix follow.

The bowl is made of clear, thick glass. On its bottom there is a metal base in which the big bowl can be set, turned, and locked in place. Once locked, the elliptical steel prongs, attached to the arm of the mixer, descend into the batter. On its top is a dial with settings—slow (bread dough), medium (cake batter), fast (frosting or whipping cream).

The mixer whirls, and my mother says, “There. Now.” Her hands stroke down on her apron. The appliance is called a Mix­master, and it runs while she pulls open the silver-handled door of the refrigerator and puts the milk and butter back in.

I am sitting at the kitchen table, eating my lunch. I am nearly six years old. Five minutes ago I walked in and set on the table a drawing from Kindergarten. It is a picture of my school, Woodrow Wilson school. I have drawn a huge, red, windowless building with three tiny sets of double doors at the bottom. A path on the left leads to the school. This is the path I come up on. Wilson is two long blocks away from my house and I go there and return along a sidewalk that runs between front yard and curbside grasses, across driveways, between bold white lines on the street. Big kids guard the street in front of the school. They wear white bandoliers with badges, the sign of the Safety Patrol. These older boys watch the road nervous­ly. They ignore my eyes.

Suddenly, though I shouldn’t be surprised, I hear a baby squawk. Our one-month-old, my brother Jeffrey, cries from his room, which lies between my parents’ bedroom and the room I share with my older brother Steve.

I get up, my bologna sandwich unfinished, and go stare at the batter mixing in the bowl. The prongs oscillate dizzily, go round and round like atomic nuclei. Lumps of powder plop up to the surface and then are sucked down into the congealing mass. I am fascinated by the change, from separate ingredients to a whole through repetition. The machine whirs loudly and the cake goo begins to smell sweet. I know frosting follows batter. The bowl will be mine to scrape with spatula and finger out back.

I want my mother. She has left. I want my mother.

She is with Jeffrey.

Entering his room, I see her leaning over the changing table and cooing at him. He is fat-bellied, floppy-armed, tiny penis naked.

Mother has a diaper pin protruding from her mouth. “Is Tommy going to help Mommy today with the baby?” It is less a question than a statement of duty. I always help unless I am away. She reaches for something and suddenly the baby’s penis shoots a hard stream straight up in the air. She screams, “Oh no!” and throws the pin aside. She stands back and stares as if a ray-gun has momentarily frozen her. Just when the stream starts to curve back toward Jeffrey’s face, she presses a diaper onto the fount. That catches it.

I notice little yellow drops on the shiny-waxed wood floor.

“Mommy,” I say.

“Not now, Tommy,” she says. She is picking Jeffrey up and wiping him off. She puts him into his crib and wipes up the drops. The pad on the changing table has a dark grey spot. She says, “oh dammit,” and rolls it up.

Mommy, I think, has much, much to do. Jeffrey has everything for Mommy to do.

I go back and guard the Mixmaster. The batter is thicker. The prongs still churn, now covered with brown mud. Beside the mixer sits a toaster, its clear plastic cover lying next to bread crumbs.

Should I put the cover on? Brush the crumbs from one hand to the other as Mom­my does?

I press the lever down and look inside the bread slice cells. A maze of black wires seethe red at me. Heat rises.

I pop the lever back up and the coils darken. The mixer whirs. I reach on top of the plastic arm and turn the dial. The prongs turn faster. The blending now swirls a dark funnel in the center. The motion is frantic but still contained. I turn the dial oppositely and the mixing slows. Two more clicks and it’s off.

Curtains flutter toward me from the inch-open window above the sink. I smell new-mown grass.

Through the screen door I go, to the backyard. The long, rectangular yard is bare of trees. By the breezeway a slab of concrete supports a picnic table my father recently assem­bled. This is a brand new house, on a cleared lot and we have recently moved in. The fresh cut grass farther out smells delicious.


I walk to the back of our lot. There is a line where our spiky young grass meets the thick, curling older grass of the neighbor’s behind us. A few times I have touched the tall grass there. It feels like thick strands of heavy hair. The man is pushing a power mower. His yard supports towering elms. How long has he lived there? Clumps of poison ivy separate his lot from ours. I’ve been warned not to go any farther. We have only direct sun on our yard; he has only dappled bits of light on a velvety lawn.

Why isn’t the man at work?

On one side of our backyard is a fence; the other side is open to a field of tall spindly weeds. I walk toward the field and my digging spot, known only to me, when I hear “Tom­my,” from the kitchen window. “Are you playing back there?”

“Yes,” I say, but I’m not playing. I’m exploring.

Maybe she wants me. No, she would have said so. I amble along the field’s edge, feeling she is watching me while she reloads the mixer. In the moments between the frosting and tending Jeffrey, I can stray from my mother’s eye. But I cannot stray far.

I hustle over to the shed behind the carport to get my father’s shovel. It stands next to a rake, a hoe, a broom, and a scythe, all at attention. Someday I want to try the scythe on the weeds. My father has said, Use the tools but never use them to hurt someone and Always put them back for the next person.

In the field is the large shallow hole I have explored before. This is where I dig for bottles. No one knows the hole exists. My brother has not yet found enough of my bottle collection to unearth his rabid curiosity.


I start digging for more bottles and quickly uncover another, its cap missing. It is, like those I have previously found, packed with dirt. I take the bottle into the bathroom. Slowly running the water hot, I unloosen the dirt with a dowel I sharpen daily with Stevie’s pocket knife. I take the bottle to my room and put it on the shelf, behind the curtain, with my other ones. All are brown, a dark caramel brown. They warm in the sun but receive little light inside. I can squint down in them but not see through.

I am conscious that I gather these bottles so that in abundant display they will look good on my shelf. But what really fascinates me is their design and the use I make of them. I love to pour play from a bottle, watch water rush in a torrent down the driveway or let maple syrup drip onto an anthill. I have uses for these bottles, but no caps. I have dug for caps but never found them. I could fill them with grape juice and take them with me on an expedition. But carrying them is awkward—whatever goes in must spill. I once imagined I wedged myself inside one, like Tom Thumb, and life in a bottle was okay because I was alone and it was quiet and if need be I could wedge myself back out in time for dinner. But it was not okay because anyone could look in and say, Tommy, what are you doing inside the bottle? Which of course felt like, Tommy, you shouldn’t be in there.

I take six bottles to the living room. There, with popsicle sticks, I erect star figures on the braided rug. One in the center, five around, with sticks connecting tops, and you make a star. I like to build, create wonders of balance. My erector set occupies me for hours too. I play on and on, carefully building and dismantling, while my mother traipses back and forth from bedroom to kitchen the rest of the afternoon.


The living room of our house, like the backyard, has only a few features to notice. Before the sofa is a coffee table with Life magazines. There is an over-stuffed chair, with a lovely antimacassar, that my father sits in every evening. Three small pictures of moons casting similarly angled, shimmery glows on the surface of lakes are stacked vertically on one wall. Gray flannel curtains frame large windows that look out to the hill of our front yard. Perhaps the proudest member of our house—next to the newborn—is the Philco TV. It is encased in a mahogany console with two folding doors that are kept closed and latched when we do not watch it.

My father announced this TV his Gift to the House when we moved in this April right before Jeffrey was born. We have other gifts to the house that I have to be careful with. I am careful, since parents insist, with the toaster and the Mixmaster and the tools outside. But I cannot touch the TV. The TV has a mysteriously attractive identity that grows keener the longer it lies in state and waits for the family to watch it. But the TV’s untouchableness also disturbs me: If my mother were gone and I turned it on, what would happen? Would the picture go permanently blank or become a quivering, uncontrollable maze of lines? Better to wait for an adult. But adults are busy. I cannot just ask my father—he too is untouchable at times. In the evenings (if he’s not away on business) he likes to either sit and relax or tinker about the house without interruption. This house, I am learning, is like the new baby: It takes time away from me. One night I finally got to lie in my daddy’s lap, after he finished an all-day shed-painting project. One of his hands held my stomach, the other picked at vanilla splotches of paint, tangled with hair, on his leg. He rocked us, and the whole family, minus the baby, watched Gunsmoke.


But the long day has now been cut in two because Stevie is clomping up the porch steps, returning himself from third grade. I gather my bottles and, to hide them, make a tent of my knees. Luckily he ignores me. Behind him comes his friend Randy, a skinny, freckle-necked kid. Randy’s head sticks out of his T-shirt like a giraffe. Stevie goes to the kitchen and fires an accusation, (he must have looked in the sink), “Tommy, you licked out the frosting bowl again.” He thinks anything mine is half his.

I hear the rattle of the refrigerator door and Stevie clank out the milk bottle. Mother just said that we would run out of milk because Stevie would be home soon.

I know the ritual: He and Randy snack on Big Value Sandwich Cremes. Covered in plastic, the cookies sit in rows, with sharp paper folds to separate the black, brown, and beige cookies. Stevie takes out stacks that stretch from thumb to middle finger.

Mother reminds him to put the rubber band back on tightly to keep them fresh. Stevie’s in too much of a hurry for that. Besides freshness means nothing because he will devour most of the cookies by tomorrow afternoon.

Randy wants to play catch but Stevie is in the living room watching me. I have not moved. He suspects something. Wasn’t I reminded to put my things away before Stevie came home.

“Hey, Tommy. What do you got under there?”

He reaches under my knees—he’s much bigger than me—and pulls out a bottle. “Hey, neat.” Randy grabs one too and they hold the bottles up to the light, peering in like spy glasses.

“Just like Treasure Island. Let’s play pirates,” says Randy.

“Not with my bottles. Givem back,” I say.

I reach up at Stevie and he pulls away. He steps to the door, still holding it to the light. He has one eye shut. I reach up again, squirming dramatically, but he pushes me back and thrusts the bottle even higher.

“They aren’t spy glasses,” I say. “They’re mine.”

“Where’d you steal these, Tommy-Tommy?”

“I found them.”

“At the store?”


“Did you trade somebody at school?”


“From that man back there then,” and Stevie motions to the man who lives under the shade trees beyond the poison ivy. He is genuinely curious where I got them. “Come on, Tommy, you can tell me,” he laughs. “Did that man give them to you?”

“No. Give it here.” Randy has put his back down with the others.

“Don’t tell me you dug these up.”

I say nothing.

“Oh, so you did dig them up. Where?”

I say nothing.

“Well, let’s see. You dug them up . . . in . . . the field next door. Right?”

I say nothing.

“Right? Right?”

I shrug my shoulders.

“Come on, Randy,” and he spins the bottle before me on the rug.

I want my mother to stop him. But she’s busy.

I stand at the field’s edge, close to the corner of the house. Stevie and Randy are looking diligently for evidence of excavation. They stalk the field as if a rocket was heard falling from a night sky and they know discovery by day is imminent.

“Here it is!” shouts Randy.

Stevie runs over. So do I.

I act forlorn. “Oh come on, Tommy,” Stevie says. “We want to see what’s down here too. Maybe there’s a treasure we can split.” The idea of treasure does not interest me, and I doubt the sharing will be equal.

“There’s no treasure here,” I say. “There’s only bottles.”

“Oh, so this is where you got them. Let’s dig.”

He runs, like I seldom see him run, back to the shed for the shovel. He brings the hoe, too, which he gives to Randy. “Dig, matey!”

While steel edges cut the ground, I retreat a step. If they find treasure I suppose we can share it. But I don’t like it that my brother likes what I like. I wish he’d find things of his own to like. He is always digging in my hole or forcing his hand into the games I play, games that I set and tune to my rigorous standards.


Two weeks earlier in our room I pitted massive forces of soldiers against Indians before he came home from school. I figured I had ample time, which meant I became so immersed in play, almost drowning in it, that I lost track of the day. Carefully elaborated rows of soldiers, mounted and on foot, faced Indians arrayed in small terrorist bands and in ridge-long columns, when Stevie walked in and said, “Hey, can I play?” I gave a grumpy okay. We played tactfully, advancing and retreating, for a while. He was the wild Indians. I was the dignified U.S. Calvary. But such fair opposition dissolved in a moment of chaos.

Suddenly Stevie dashed his hand against a platoon and screamed, “Oh God, tornado winds pound the troops!” Or he lifted up the rug and shook it, claiming, “Oh no, an earth­quake!” Scores of figures fell. I hated that. “Cut it out.” And he’d say, “Oh come on,” suggesting that the better part of shared fun was being flexible.

But dammit, in less than ten minutes, ants-in-his-pants Stevie, (a phrase Grandpa often uses), destroyed the whole craft of my arrangement. I felt smothered by him. The massacre over, he left me to clean up. I stacked my men carefully in their shoe-box barracks. I asked that the TV be turned on. I knew the TV would console me. But mother countered with, “Go outside. It’s a beautiful day.”

Back at the bottle grave Stevie and Randy continue to dig. It isn’t long before the ashy wet soil yields more booty. First they discover a few rusted tin cans. Then, bottles and jars appear.

Stevie starts pulling out bottles, more than I thought possible from this pit that I guarded with my silence and looted only on occasion. There are many. Some bottles are cracked. Some jars have lids and foul-looking remains inside. Their anatomical identity we do not discuss.

“Neat-o! This is where they burned up the evidence. Go get a box,” Stevie orders.

I return with a bushel basket and we lay in a dozen variously sized bottles, all brown.

“What were these used for?” Randy asks.

“Uh,” Stevie thinks out loud as if that’s all it takes to answer. “Uh, a doctor used these in his work. When he was done with them he had a big ol’ bonfire out here and tried to burn them up. But they survived. Glass won’t burn. It was probably a lab where he made up a drink that people took and then did exactly what he told them to.”

I am quiet—let him think what he’s said is intelligent, although I think it’s stupid.

“What do we with them now?” says Randy.

“We clean them up, just like Tommy does. Right, Tommy?”

My head says yes.

Stevie turns on the hose and puts his thumb over the hole; but the pressure does not roust the dirt out. He tells me to get a knife, but not from the kitchen. “Look around. Find something.” I think of my dowel but search instead and find a screwdriver.

“Will this work?”

“Perfect,” he says. “Stick it in and chop it up.” I do, and in no time we have thirteen dripping wet, clean bottles. We dry them and Stevie says it’s time to divide them. Randy says, “I have to go. I just remembered.”

“Okay, but here, you take three and Tommy and I will split the others. Pick out which three you want.” He sounds generous.

Randy grabs small ones; he wouldn’t dare pick the best ones, not at our house. He leaves, saying thanks, thanks, “these are really nice.”


I feel a sudden contentment with my brother. We are accomplishing something together. And the fact that it was my original find wields less importance than it did an hour ago. Although I must guard my other bottles (I fear Stevie might argue some claim on those), I am relaxed enough to consider his difference from me. I compare him to my dad whom Stevie is not like at all. My dad’s determination is much more deliberate, like mine. For instance, when Dad barbecues he arranges the coals in a pyramid, sprays on the lighter fluid, watches his watch a full sixty seconds, then puts match to pyre. He explains it to me as he goes. Then, when the fire dies down and the coals turn white in about fifteen minutes, the burgers are ready to cook. Dad never deviates from a successful formula.

Stevie has none of this quality. He discovers the prevailing direction of his desire, like a flag, from breeze to breeze. Such flightiness pleases few people, especially my father. He puts up with none of Stevie’s shenanigans and guides his weekends with continuous orders—weed the flowerbed, empty the trash, clean your closet. Dad may think Stevie will rake in some common sense from such discipline. But chores do not settle him down. They only make him more antsy. I think any quiet he achieves comes because he and I work it out.

I know there is a reason why I am his brother. I am like a bobber to his fishing line, a counterweight. I am much less consuming than he is. I stand back, wait inside a room in the little church within me. Being quiet calms him and often keeps things shipshape in the family. Sometimes in stepping aside, I am seen as little Mister Independence, little Mister Self-Absorption—which means I’m open to his interference. I welcome the silent periphery, though. It is there I can more clearly gauge the Mixmaster of his chaos as it runs through me, past noiseless rooms that are distinct from him. As long as I have a room of my own within me to balance the brotherhood between Stevie and me, everything will be fine.

We stand the bottles on the picnic table. Now it’s time to divvy them up. Stevie says, “you pick first.”

I fix on them a while and pick two tall ones because there’s two other tall ones as well. One bottle has a raised insignia on it, a circle with some writing in the center, a large U and a L. I want that one and reach for it. He stops me. “That one . . . uh . . . okay, go ahead. Yeah, you can have that one.” He is generous.


A moment later, watching Stevie pyramid his five bottles in hand, I recognize satisfac­tion in him. Of today’s find, he has what I have. But despite the moment’s clarity our together­ness will be short-lived. I know that like the soldiers he traded me a month ago, he doesn’t want the bottles as much as I do. He thinks that by stealing from my secret field he has found his own true love. But in demanding his way he has merely used up the novelty, which is all he really cares about. He will forget his generosity. And so will I.

Stevie has no control over what happens. Which is where I come in. But as much as I’m open to understand him, I fear that there is a hard, hollowness in him, like an empty oil drum. Whatever was there has been spent, drained. And when I think of his stunts that fact is all too evident.

Stevie goes out to dare a friend one day that he will not get poison ivy from the patch on the man’s land behind our house. He rubs a few leaves up and down his arm, saying that you have to be allergic to the stuff in order to really catch it and, he insists, he’s not allergic. In a few days his arms and face are besotted with little domes of puss. Mother cries when she brings him home from the Doctor. One night I see him bend over, his pants wiggle down in front of her. She applies the calamine lotion.

One day during Easter break Stevie and I are on the living room floor, with our lunches. We have our Coca-Colas plumbed with tall straws and a warning that if we spill Mommy will throw a fit. We also have potato chips and grilled cheese sandwiches. Everything will be fine if we eat over our trays.


Stevie has put half a grilled cheese into his mouth, and he holds it up like a flying wing wedged between his teeth. I follow suit. We both sit there a moment, mum-mum-mumming and sucking in on our sandwich halves. Finally we take bites, little half-moons. Then, Stevie slurps a straw full of Cola. I do the same. Then, he blows into the straw. I follow. The bubbles in the bottom of our bottles agitate furiously and rise to the surface. Next, he very carefully lifts a potato chip while pointing his pinky, like an aristocrat. He then crushes the chip with his teeth and chews it wildly. Each successive crunch is accomplished not more loudly but with more exaggerated elegance. I laugh. I admire his gift.

Mother comes in and sits down on the sofa. She says, “goodness, boys. Aren’t we silly, today.” We giggle. Stevie bobs his head like a just-released Jack-in-the-Box. “Some­times I just can’t stand the sight of you two,” she says and stares out the window. Stevie starts pulling his ear lobe and flicking out his tongue, one causing the other.

“John Stephen!” she barks. “Can’t you ever stop it! You two would be a whole lot different if your father were here.”

She sits forward a little and clicks the side of her mouth. I don’t think I’ve ever heard this statement. I expect Jeffrey in his crib to start crying. But he doesn’t. She stares at me, lingers with x-ray vision, her believing eyes like those the Sunday School teacher used when he told my class the story of Jesus and Mary Magdalene and not throwing the first stone and our bodies shuddered.

I’m confused. I was certain before that my brother and I had a flag and pole arrange­ment I could manage. But my mother has dropped in my father’s absence which upsets the pattern I think I’m supposed to follow. I wonder if our family has something else that I have to manage. We would be a whole lot different if our father were here?


I repeat the question to myself and feel a sudden, new weight upon me. My skin quivers and I warm. Stevie’s reaction to mother’s statement, however, is a roll of his eyes and a face of mock-fear. He can’t manage anything. She tells him, “That’s right, Stevie. Believe it.”

“Believe what?” he says with shock.

“Believe it, boy. You wouldn’t act like that around your father, so why do you act like that around me.”

She is angry at him. But her words are also bitter; they sound as if she too has no control over what happens, to her or with us. Her “believe it” is cold: I never thought my father’s absence had anything to do with how Stevie or I acted. Or worse, I never thought my mother would hold his being gone to hammer us with one day. She gets up quickly and goes to check on the baby, with whom I fear she will spend all her time and leave Stevie, who is now fatherless and motherless, to me.

He makes another face and I shake my head, I’ve had enough. I feel awful, shamed by my brother’s antics, abandoned to my mother’s threat. Stevie goes in the kitchen. He is eating more potato chips from the big bag while I look over a toy I inherited from him, a three-tiered town made of metal in which a station wagon travels between levels on real-working crank lifts, from gas station to auto-repair shop to parking structure. As it goes it passes figures painted on the wall, a policeman, a fireman, the mayor, a doctor, a cook, a shopkeeper, a businessman in a suit—all in vivid color, all fathers, no doubt, doing their jobs. Each man has the same baby-face, the same fat-toothed smile. Each man has left behind a home, an angry wife and lost children, who would all be different if he, the father, were there.


One Friday, a few weeks before Kindergarten lets out for the summer, we are drawing at our yellow-pine tables Mother’s Day pictures to take home and surprise our mothers. Mine shows stick figures of me, Stevie, and Mother-holding-Jeffrey before a stick structure house with a large sun behind it. My stick figure father is outside the lines of the house, off to the right. He is either coming or going. The teacher says, as we finish, that if we have some special words with which to grace our work she will be happy to write them down for us.

What words do I have?

Dear mother: If only our father. . . . The words come only that far and stop. Someone is thinking, is saying to me: No. Don’t think those. Don’t think of any words. The words will come later when the words themselves are ready. Think instead of quietude, of calm. Leave the rooms inside you empty of questions. Let nothing enter your heart for a moment. Look out the window at the tree leaves swiveling madly from green to light in the spring sun and wind and feel the sweetly aching hollowness you feel when you give everything inside you then to me now, and both you and I are at the table, opening to the words that once remem­bered, once written, will bring us together, bring the family together, at last.

Those words do finally come, and I ask the teacher to grace my drawing with them: I love you Mother more than any other.