blackbird online journal spring 2002 vol.1 no. 1




Dr. Marrus's office is small and white and decorated in a spirit of practicality. No desk, no bookshelf, just two plastic chairs and a host of soft, harmless objects; pillows and stuffed animals and such. Much safer, he says. There used to be a one-way mirror on the wall, so parents could watch the sessions. However, that ended when a ten-year-old caused it to explode, sending a blizzard of glass shards across the next room. Luckily, his parents weren't hurt, though they could have been. Now there are cameras mounted in the four upper corners of the room, each one encased in some fancy polymer coating so the glass lenses won't be damaged. Doctors have yet to find out why the kids can't breach certain polymers and compounds.

We're here because there is a hole in our kitchen ceiling a foot in diameter.

On the monitors in the next room, Debbie and I watch as a green plush frog hovers in the air, just a few inches from Dr. Marrus's face. He smiles at Elliot's trick, and Elliot returns it, a meager and unconfident grin. This is a good sign. A friendly acknowledgment of praise is a very good sign.

"He smiled at me like that the other day," says Debbie. Her arms are folded across her chest. It makes her look old and frightened.

"Did he really?"

"Lifted my cup out of my hand, held it there—" she makes an imaginary line just in front of her eyes "—for about ten seconds. I smiled at him. He smiled back."

"Big step," I say, not really believing it.

"He's definitely coming around."

The hole was made by our son Elliot, or more accurately, by a large steak knife. It was after this that Debbie and I decided to seek out serious help. We surveyed countless programs, hospitals, and support groups. These days, finding a legitimate parapsychologist that won't bleed you dry is next to impossible. We've invested a fortune in worthless specialists.

So far Dr. Marrus seems decent enough. His name came to us through a newsletter that Debbie had signed us up for shortly before the "knife incident," as we've come to call it. We take Elliot to see him four times a week now. Debbie, though she won't admit it, reveres the man as some sort of medical deity, a shaman, poised to dispel illness with a magic touch. This is the man who is supposed to cure our son, as if Elliot's condition were something as minor as a speech impediment. Me, I'm still at odds with my faith.

The frog circles the doctor's head once, twice, until it falls into a steady spin, around and around, as if attached to an invisible wire. In the monitors Dr. Marrus says something and Elliot turns away. The frog keeps spinning with copter-like precision.

"You'd think he'd have microphones in there or something," I say. Debbie nibbles her fingernails. Dr. Marrus repeats his request and the frog drops to the floor beside him. Its dumb plastic eyes stare at the far wall. Debbie exhales and her body shrinks down a little in her chair. Why she was holding her breath, I have no idea.


Our daughter Rene is seventeen. Four years older than Elliot. For her, Elliot is little more than an unreliable automobile. It's an attitude that frustrates her mother, but I have to admit, there's a part of me that sympathizes with the girl. Other than his vocabulary of meaningless sounds, her brother has never spoken to her, to anyone. Only recently did he begin potty training. Siblings or not, it's an uncomfortable living arrangement for a teenager.

Rene was present for the knife incident. She was standing in the kitchen doorway. She saw the knife rocket upward, the blade—authentic Japanese—break into pieces as it collided with the ceiling, the handle continuing through Elliot's upstairs bedroom and then through the roof, out over the backyard, like the rear half of a spacecraft, careening out of sight. Days later Debbie and I did our best to convince her of the harmlessness of these events, but our fear made the words transparent, and despite our best efforts to minimize what had happened, she understood the seriousness of it. I can't blame her for the way she feels about Elliot.

Over dinner Debbie says, "Elliot smiled at Dr. Marrus again today."

"Great," says Rene.

"It's a pretty big deal, you know. Dr. Marrus says he's making a lot of progress."

"I know."

"You had a test today, didn't you?" I say to our daughter.


"How'd you do?"

"We don't get our grades back until Thursday."

"Were you pretty confident about it?"

"I guess."

"Elliot, quit playing with your food and just eat it," says Debbie. "Here. Your father should have already cut up your steak for you." Rene glances up at Elliot, and then sullenly back down at her plate, barely touched. She has Debbie's eyes; shimmering green eyes that could melt even the most callused heart. Debbie slices Elliot's filet into small cubes. A thick string of drool escapes the corner of his mouth. I lean over to wipe it away with my napkin.

"You know what I dreamt about last night?" I say. "Coffee cups."

"You had a dream about coffee cups," says Rene.

"Yeah. I had all these black coffee cups, and I was trying to clean them out, but each one had a bunch of dirt and cigarette butts encrusted inside. I couldn't get them clean."

"Why were you trying to clean out these coffee cups?" says Debbie, sliding Elliot's plate back in front of him.

"No idea. But there must have been thirty of them. I didn't have a brush or anything, either, just some old faucet."

"That's weird, Dad."

"Yeah, I know. Who dreams about coffee cups, anyway?"

"You do, apparently." Rene smiles at me, lovely and warm. At the other end of the table, Elliot crams small pieces of steak into his mouth with his fingers. His bib is smeared with steak sauce.


Dr. Marrus wants to put Elliot on a new medication. We've tried almost everything on the market; before coming to see Dr. Marrus, Elliot went through a parade of medications, none of which had any sort of substantial effect. The drug he wants to give Elliot is called Alvarex. He says it is used for seizures, but some years ago clinical researchers found that it also worked for Telekinetic Disorder—TD. The drug has yet to be approved for such purposes, but Dr. Marrus says that already the medical community is heralding it as a miracle.

"See, up until recently we weren't sure which channels to target in the cerebrum," says Dr. Marrus. "You could give a child all the counseling and all the pills in the world, and you might see some behavioral improvement, but only minimal. Those signals were still getting through those channels and so the child could only progress up to a certain point before just stopping and not getting any better. It's like taking aspirin for a tumor. We call this plateauing." He makes a flattening motion with his hand to demonstrate.

Debbie says, "We're familiar with that."

"Now though, they know which channels to target, so it's just a matter of inhibiting the signal. This'll be huge, and very soon. TD could be completely wiped out, literally. Elliot's problems"—he snaps his fingers—"gone like that."

I feel like I'm at a revival. Any minute now, I'm expecting Dr. Marrus to request a hallelujah!

He tells us that he wants to put Elliot on a sustained course of treatment beginning with a year's supply, no charge to us, so long as we agree to a set number of visits during this time. We would also be required to bring Elliot in for occasional blood work and brain tests. He is careful not to use the word "experiment," opting instead for "study." I can't help thinking of beakers and clipboards and stopwatches. I ask him how Alvarex would compare to any one of the failed medications we tried in the past. Very proudly, he states, "Taking it once a day, ninety-seven percent of all subjects tested had significant improvement over two or three months."

"What's 'significant'?"

"Eighty-five percent reduction in all paranormal activity. Those are average figures. In other words, they just weren't able to do it anymore."

I feel Debbie grip my arm tightly. Eighty-five percent. Is that a lot? It sounds like a lot. I don't think to ask the doctor how such a thing can be measured in percentages. Dr. Marrus looks like a game-show host. Debbie's hand is quite cold.


By some quirk of brain chemistry, most TD children know what medicine is, and are unwilling to take it. They have instinctive knowledge, not unlike toddlers, that medicine is something foul tasting, foreign, something to be avoided. Doctors do not know why this is, the same way they do not know how they can understand certain words like "mother," "father," and "house" (they have more difficulty with abstract terms like "now," "wrong," and "love"). In the past, Debbie and I had to hold Elliot down while we shoved pills down his throat. I had to clamp his jaw shut with my hand to make sure he swallowed them.

Alvarex are small and yellow and have a chalky texture similar to antacids. This, as Dr. Marrus explains, is so they can be easily broken up and put into food, or dissolved in drinks. That night I grind one into a powder and sprinkle it on Elliot's macaroni and cheese. He doesn't appear to taste it. Watching him eat, one gets the feeling of speeding through a yellow light before it turns red.

Debbie and I undress for bed. I look with somber adoration at her figure. In her younger years she had the kind of body that could reduce grown men to hormone-crazed adolescents. Her hips have widened since then, and there are noticeable signs of decreased elasticity in her breasts and stomach. Noticeable, but not unappealing. Actually, there is a degree of respectability in my wife's aging, as if it's something intentional, something that she could reverse at any time, but for reasons more noble than those I could imagine, she chooses not to. It gives her an odd sense of control. I feel my own stomach. It is fleshy and round, speckled with tiny, brittle hairs. Next to my wife I feel unattractive. I feel old and ugly and worn down. I think about what Dr. Marrus said earlier, about plateauing.

"You didn't seem too enthusiastic about the pills," she says to no one in particular.

"I am."

"You're not. I saw that look on your face, Chris. When he told us about Alvarex. You almost looked upset."

"It was a lot to take in, that's all."

"That's a silly thing to say." She slips her nightgown over her head and delicately removes her earrings. They make tiny clinking sounds as she sets them on the nightstand. "Dr. Marrus says he might be able to cure your son and you make it sound like someone just died."

"All this talk of cures. It's a little much, don't you think? What would we be curing, really?"

"We'd be curing Elliot, Chris. We'd be curing his condition. We'd be making it so we can all feel more safe and comfortable, so Elliot might have the kind of life he deserves."

"He'll never have a normal life."

"I didn't say he would. But he won't be launching cutlery through the ceiling anymore."

"He still won't be able to speak."

"But he might be able to learn how."

"How do we know he can't now? Maybe he just doesn't have anything to say."

"You are unbelievable." She leans over and sets the alarm on the clock radio. The numbers glow angrily, a deviant red. "Turn out the light. I'm tired."


The following Saturday I play racquetball with Bill Ballard. We play once a week. I came to know Bill through one of the support groups Debbie and I joined a few years back. He's a smart fellow, a tax attorney who coaches little league soccer, though not much of a racquetball player. His daughter makes things vibrate. It's usually harmless, but every so often something gets damaged, a picture frame or a piece of furniture. Bill has to keep a seismograph in his bedroom.

"Alvarex," he says. "Seizure medicine, right? Yeah, I remember reading an article about it."

"They're still testing it for other uses. FDA still has to approve it before doctors can prescribe it. This is part of the study."

"And you're putting it in his food?"


"I see. Well, if you think it can fix Elliot, then what's the problem?"

"I'm not sure. I'm just not crazy about rushing to fill my kid full of medicine."

"Yeah, but if it's helpful . . ."

"That's just it. Alvarex only affects the part of the brain that sends and receives the signals. So even if Elliot stops making things fly across the room, he's still a kid who can't talk, read, speak, have any sort of relationship. You know what I mean?"

"Chris, I'm not sure. I might have to side with Debbie on this one. Think about people who wear glasses. What's the difference? Glasses don't make people smarter, but they do make things more convenient."

"True. But take blind people. Their other four senses are much better than yours or mine."

He sighs. "Elliot isn't blind, Chris. He's mentally incompetent."

I feel a slight sting of offense at this statement, but Bill is usually right about these things. Just look at his daughter. Ten weeks without an incident. That's pretty outstanding, really. And that's with no medication whatsoever, just biweekly counseling. As for Elliot, he's only been seeing Dr. Marrus for two weeks and already the atmosphere in the house feels much less frantic. And maybe that's what has me so tense, this calm streak. I'm not used to it. It's like amputees who lose an arm and say they can still feel their fingers.

Later that night I hear Rene thudding down the stairs. She trots into the TV room and asks if she can borrow the car for a few hours.

"What did your mother say?"

"She's giving Elliot a bath," she says. "She told me to ask you."

"All right then. My keys are on my dresser. Be back by midnight." When she turns to leave the room I call her back. "Between you and me, how do you think your brother is doing?"

She leans over the counter and her hair spills over her shoulders. When she was born her hair was red and curly. Then, at some point during her infancy, it became auburn. It makes me think of all the sad, pretty girls I used to ache for in college.

"I'm really glad you guys put him on those pills. Seriously."

"You think they're helping?"


"And you don't think we're lousy parents for putting it in his food, do you?"

"No. You couldn't get him to take it otherwise. It's the only way."

When she's gone I climb the stairs to find Debbie. I see her kneeling over the bathtub, scrubbing the basin. Hard, deliberate arm movements across the white porcelain. There is a sour quality about the air in here. Elliot is naked on the floor by the sink. He sits Indian-style and rocks back and forth in time to the metronome that ticks continuously in his head. I smile at him. He says, "Gah!"

I kneel behind my wife and wrap my arms around her stomach. "Elliot had an accident," she says. Her body is soft and warm. I nestle my face in her neck. Her hair is wispy and smells like peaches. Her skin is moist with sweat, and when I kiss her I taste the remnants of some fragrant and exotic lotion. "Could you go get me the bleach from downstairs?"


As I walk out of the bathroom I stop and ruffle Elliot's damp hair. "Make a mess there, pal?" He brings his hands together in a haphazard motion similar to clapping. Again he says, "Gah!"


I was slicing up a tomato at the counter. Debbie was at the sink. I turned to face her, to answer a question she'd asked me—I don't recall what—and that was when I felt the knife leave my hand. It glided out of my grip and hung there in front of me for a moment, almost indecisively, before tearing through the ceiling. Chunks of tile and debris and serrated stainless steel clattered to the floor. Debbie and Rene, who was standing in the kitchen doorway, shrieked and covered their heads.

For some reason, none of us had noticed Elliot standing behind Rene.

Of all the things in the kitchen, all those appliances, dishrags, food, the coffee and sugar canisters, the cleaning supplies under the sink, it was the knife he chose. Or was it the case that he didn't choose it at all? It seemed too sinister a move for our boy. Is it possible to make a choice and not know it? Your heart keeps beating even when you're not thinking about it. That was the looming question afterward: are these acts a conscious effort on his part, or have we overestimated his control? Neither option was any more or less frightening than the other.

Rene stumbled backwards out of the room and bolted up the stairs. The walls shook with the slamming of her bedroom door. Debbie crouched down in front of Elliot. She grabbed him just above his elbows and howled into his face, "Elliot, stop it! You do not do that! That is dangerous!" Her voice rang out like copper.

And me, I just stood there by the counter, my fingers dripping with tomato juice. I looked up through the hole in the ceiling, through Elliot's room and then outside. The sky was a passive gray. The next day I contacted my insurance company. Then I called Bill Ballard.


As far as my wife and daughter are concerned, Elliot's vocabulary does not extend beyond gurgling, monosyllabic outbursts and the occasional string of incoherent syllables. And even that is only when he is very upset. However, he did speak once, only once, and only one word, but after thirteen years of "gah" and "bip" and "erp," that one word contained unthinkable depths of information.

This was several months prior to taking him to Dr. Marrus, before the damage in the kitchen and the upstairs ceiling. Debbie was at a baby shower. Rene was at a friend's house. I sat on the sofa watching TV while Elliot lay on the floor in his pajamas, cooing endearingly to the congregation of stuffed toys scattered about. He rolled onto his side and looked up at me, his forehead lined with sharp creases, his mouth taut. There was an alertness about him I'd never seen.


I recoiled, as one would do at the sound of a nearby gunshot. My first thought, as I remember, was of Debbie, of how delighted she would be, and I had the briefest glint of speculation as to the guilt she'd feel for having missed it. I knelt down beside him. He was sitting up by this point, rocking, like usual. He said it again. "Kiss!"

I kissed him on his forehead. This made his expression stiffen a little. I had frustrated him in some way. He pressed a crooked finger into my chest, hard and full of intent.


We looked at each other. Nothing.


And right then the strength evaporated from my legs and I fell onto my rear. I landed in a sitting position in front of him. Something clenched in my chest like the cogs of some large and vicious machine springing to life. My nerves opened like blossoms.

Chris. He was saying "Chris." He was saying my name.

My son knew how to say my name.

Slowly, I reached out and touched his shoulder. "Elliot."

His finger dug into my shirt, my skin. "Kiss!"



How long did it last? Seconds only, but it felt like years. Easily the heaviest handful of moments of my life. How had this happened? What did it mean, if anything? All I could do was sit there on the carpet, my gaze locked securely into my son's face, hoping with something of a panic that he'd say something else, anything, one more word, a smile even, some sign that he, too, understood the gravity of the situation. But nothing came. Instead, he rolled clumsily back onto the floor and continued chirping at his toys.

Why I didn't tell the rest of my family about this development, I don't know. Perhaps I envisioned Elliot on the monitor at Dr. Marrus's place, colorless and stale. Maybe I imagined Debbie carrying him off in a reckless dash, the eagerness she'd feel as she waited for the good doctor to coax something else out of him, and her disappointment when it didn't come. Because somehow I knew it would be the only time he spoke, the same way you can know that someone's looking at you when you're facing the other way. It was my name he said, mine, and whether or not it was selfish—I'm not sure—that kind of intimacy was too important, too fragile to reveal. To let anyone else in on what had happened would corrupt it, I thought. It didn't feel right to tell my wife or my daughter. It felt like betrayal.


Dinners now are sullen and unsettling. An element of artificiality has crept in now that Elliot is unknowingly taking Alvarex. We eat mostly in silence, pretending not to watch as he shovels heaps of food into his face. Our conversations are forced, inauthentic, cheap appeals to normalcy that to someone like Dr. Marrus would probably come across as textbook dysfunction. Nothing out of the ordinary here, see? Just an average American family. You could frame us and hang us on a wall. We always make sure Elliot completes his meal first.


The contractor is a stocky bearded man named Hal. Bill Ballard recommended him to me, which is the only reason I've waited two weeks for the man to finish up another job before coming out to give us an estimate. He stands in the kitchen with his hands on his hips, craning his neck to examine the hole in the ceiling.

"Looks like you got a busted rafter," he says. "I'll have to patch that. You're lucky it didn't hit any wiring. That hole's only a few inches from the light fixture there. You say a knife did this?"

"My son did it. With a knife."

"Geez. Poor kid."

We look at the damage upstairs in Elliot's room, where the knife barely missed the rafters. Again Hal tells me how lucky I am. He says he'll still have to replace the plywood sheathing and roof shingles. About two grand for the whole thing.

"How long?"

"Two, three days," he says.

The front door closes. Rene skulks up the stairs, dragging her bookbag by one of the straps.

"Hey, sweetie."


"You look tired."

"I am."

Teenagers always have this wonderful air of desperation about them, as if they are the pioneers of heartache.

"Did you have dance-line practice today?"


"How was it?"

"It was okay," she shrugs. Her bedroom door closes and I hear the atonal pulsing of some rock band. I think about all the books I've read about kids like Elliot, all the brochures and magazine articles. Troubleshooting manuals for faulty brains. I wish they made those for normal people, too.

Meanwhile, Hal stands on his toes in Elliot's room, inspecting the punctured ceiling. I pretend not to see him pick his nose and wipe his finger on the front of his blue work shirt. He says, "We had this job one time, family of five, kid like this," he motions to the hole above us. "Kid got mad one night, who knows why, and set fire to his room. Just like that, just standing there. I tell you, that whole damn room was scorched, top to bottom. Whole section of the house had to be torn down and rebuilt. Messy business."


"Yep. Come to find out they finally put him in a hospital upstate, you know the one I'm talking about? Put him up there, didn't have no more problems. They go see him every couple of weeks. Too bad he's so far away, but like the boy's daddy said, he's got the rest of his family to look after, you know? He said, at least nobody got hurt."


"Could have been a lot worse."

"I know."

Overhead in the twelve-inch circle of sky, a jet passes, leaving behind a milky stream of smoke.


I drive home along slick asphalt roads, past too-quaint boxy houses. Ordinary folks live here, grocery baggers and teachers and mechanics, old veterans forever grumbling about Social Security, mothers and fathers and aging relatives, people with well-manicured little lives. A demonstration in complacency. The whole thing is wrapped in a sense of prearrangement, carefully laid out like an exhibit, as if things look this way not by chance, but because they were always meant to. Roads lead into more roads. Leaves fall.

For some reason, I think of Elliot's ultrasound. I think about Debbie lying on her back, and I remember the large white dome of her belly. I remember the two of us staring at the screen next to her bed, at the blue-gray image of our son, bent up on himself as if in some ascetic position of worship. "A boy, Chris," she said. "A little boy." I smiled. The image flickered and fizzled, and then the screen went blank. The doctor didn't even bother checking the equipment. He didn't have to. Debbie gripped my arm the way she did in Dr. Marrus's office the day he told us about Alvarex. I suppose it's better we found out then instead of later on.

I pick up dinner: take-out Italian in black styrofoam containers. At home Debbie is reading aloud to Elliot, who appears to be absorbed in a soundless dialogue with a plastic spoon. I set the bags of food on the kitchen counter. "I got that pasta you like," I say to Debbie.

"The one with the chicken?"

"Yes. The one with the chicken."

Elliot makes a giddy squealing sound. Debbie chuckles. I ask her where Rene is.

"Upstairs. Go tell her to wash her hands for dinner. I'll get him ready." She motions to Elliot. "And grab the you-know-what from the bathroom."

I knock on Rene's door and tell her to wash up. Through the abysmal racket of her stereo I hear her say okay. In the bathroom I run my hands under the faucet and grab the bottle of Alvarex off the sink basin. The bottle is a frank transparent brown, and the pills rattle happily as I walk down the stairs. Pills always make me think of candy.

While Debbie struggles to put Elliot's bib on him (I think he secretly knows how much it irritates his mother when he jerks around like this) I empty the containers onto dinner plates. The kitchen swells with the earthy smells of garlic and basil and oregano. I open the pill bottle and shake one out into my hand. When I see Debbie trot into the other room to turn off the television, I swallow it.

It goes down stubbornly, sticking in my throat for a moment. It leaves a gooey trail of residue on my tongue. I can see why Elliot would refuse it. When I turn around, it is not Debbie I see but Rene, standing in the doorway, her eyes fixed on me, her face something of a scowl, but then again, she's always scowling. For a few seconds we stand there like this, not really sure if we're supposed to feel as awkward as we do. Debbie reenters the kitchen. She shoves a plate of food into Rene's hands. Angel hair in a white wine sauce. I turn away. I feel like I've just walked in on a stranger in a public restroom.

Just above me, the hole in the ceiling looms like an open mouth.

I'm lucky it didn't hit any wiring.

Elliot babbles at his green plastic juice cup while I say grace. We pick through our meals methodically. Rene twirls strands of pasta around her fork. My wife takes her eyes off our son only long enough to take in tiny bits of food. She winks at me, a gesture that makes me feel hollow. I watch Rene eat. I wait for her to look at me, to acknowledge our moment in the kitchen. Her eyes never leave her plate. Lately her eating habits have taken on a seething formality that seems somehow appropriate for a girl in her position. Meals are a chore. Her family is an exercise in tolerance. Her life is a lonely satellite of a much larger, much more prosperous world. Everything is predictable, temporary, without impact. My daughter doesn't look anything like me.

We call this plateauing.

Debbie leans over to wipe globs of red meat sauce off of Elliot's face. "You're making a mess, mister." She rubs her hand over his head, smoothing back his hair. His fingers dance like reeds blowing in a gentle wind. Our son. My son. Look at him. His name is Elliot and he has blue eyes and brown hair and one time he said my name. One time he said "Chris." Debbie presses her lips to his forehead. It makes a wet smacking sound. Elliot doesn't seem to notice. He says, "Gah!"  

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