The Boiler

Rebecca Reynolds

THIS IS HOW WE SPEAK

For the third time this spring, Fonto calls to tell me she is dying. “Quinnie,” she says, her mouth too close to the black cordless phone that I know she has stolen off the staff desk at the residential facility where she lives. I picture her quilted blue bathrobe, her prosthetic eyes glinting like marbles. “My belly hurts. Carrots are not my favorite. Nana Hickey is worried.”

“Oh, Fonto,” I whisper. It is after midnight and I am in bed, though I haven’t slept. I rarely do, anymore. I sit up slowly so the mattress won’t creak, a pointless habit.

“Everything is fine.”

“Can you come, Quinnie? I’m scared.”

“You know I can’t,” I say. Beside me, Grant’s half of the bed is tucked in. I go to the bathroom, turn on the light.

“Quinnie’s having a baby,” she says.

I shift the phone to my other hand and comb my hair with my fingers. My eyelids are puffy and a pillow crease runs across my cheek like an old scar; I tuck a streak of gray behind my ear. Fonto and I are the same age, forty-two, though she could pass for twenty-five, with her thick hair and unlined face and strong square teeth. We were neighbors growing up. My mother, who could not bear suffering of any kind, who cried the day a finch flew into the kitchen window and fell dead into her daffodils, made me walk Fonto home from school each day, and it embarrassed me—the way Fonto reached for my hand at intersections, walked with her shoulder touching my arm—but I did it. I took the longer route along the river where the other kids wouldn’t see us to save both of us the teasing. “What color is ketchup,” Fonto would ask in her raspy, low voice that should have belonged to anyone but her. “Blue?”

“Nope. Red.”

“What happens if I eat too much ketchup?”

“You’ll get a belly ache.”

“Nana Hickey wears a Bam Bam up-do.”

“Uh-huh.”

“I don’t care for ketchup, do I, Quinnie.”

“You prefer mustard.”

“Can I have some mustard right now?”

“I’m fresh out, Fonto.”

It was the same conversation every day. Sometimes I’d say the wrong thing to mess with her. “Sure, ketchup is blue,” I’d say, and she’d go silent for several minutes, swaying her head nervously so her hair fell over her face. We’d walk a block before she would speak again. “It’s red,” she’d say, finally, her voice flat with disappointment.

“What’s wrong with her eyeballs?” the girls at the pool would ask me, summers when Nana Hickey gave me ten dollars to take Fonto swimming for the day, though they knew, as everyone in town knew, that Fonto had Down Syndrome and was born prematurely, that the oxygen in the incubator shank her eyes to milky films in the back of her sockets. They knew Fonto’s mother had left her in the hospital when she was born to go drinking at the Blue Coyote and that she didn’t come back, not the next day or any day after. They knew Fonto’s Nana Hickey was the one raising her, and that if Nana Hickey were present, she would whack the back of their knees with her pocketbook for saying one word to Fonto. Just as they knew I would do nothing.

“Eyeballs? I’m fresh out,” Fonto would say with a grin, revealing her unexpectedly perfect teeth. “Right Quinnie?”

I pull down my sweatpants with one hand and sit on the toilet.

“I have to work in the morning,” I say. I allow a small amount of urine to pass.

“You’re tinkling,” she says.

I sigh, and release myself noisily.

“Nana Hickey says to wipe front to back.”

“Got it,” I say. I lower the toilet lid without flushing. “Where’s the staff, Fonto?”

“I don’t know.”

“Can you give the phone back, please? I’ll visit you on Friday, like always.” I’ve been doing it for twenty years, through my marriage to Grant, first because my mother insisted, and then because I didn’t know how to stop. It’s always the same thing. We get mushroom pizza at Emma’s and then drive around and listen to the radio until the streetlights come on. Sometimes we turn the music up so loud it hums in my ribs, and when the song ends I feel cleaned out.

“Nana Hickey says I’m dying, Quinnie,” she says. She begins to cry, which sounds like a wet clicking in her throat. I know her lips are making a big, silent O, which always reminds me of a fish out of water, sucking breaths of air.

“Stop it, Fonto. Seriously.”

“Oh,” she whispers, her voice shaky. “It’s gonna take a lot to drag me away from you.” She’s singing.

“I know that’s Toto,” I say. “You hate that song.”

“Toto makes me cry, Quinnie.”

“Then cut it out. Go to bed. Get some rest.” Just saying the word rest makes me realize how tired I am.

“I don’t care for Toto.”

“I know, Fonto.” I wet a facecloth with cold water and hold it over one eye, hearing the chorus of “Africa” repeat in my head. The conversations I have with Fonto do the same, her phrases ringing in my ears as I sit at a red light, or boil water for rice. Toto makes me cry, Nana Hickey wears a Bam Bam up-do, carrots are not my favorite. Occasionally her repertoire expands, like how she asks me about the baby, now. By the time she starts singing, it means she is past the point of being talked down.

“Nana,” she cries. Though Fonto’s eyes are undeveloped, her lachrymal glands function normally, producing tears. If she cries without her prosthetics in, tears pool in the empty sockets and flow out in waves.

“Alright. Okay,” I say, knowing I will not be able to sleep even if I try. “I’m coming, Fonto.” But her voice is gone, and the phone hangs up.

It’s one of two truths I have never admitted to anyone: Elizabeth Fontoni is my only friend. Like aging, it didn’t happen overnight–for years she was an embarrassment, and then an obligation—but one day you look in the mirror and see a stranger and you realize: this is who I always was. Sometimes I think I should adopt her, become her legal guardian and take her out of the state run home, known as House 2, where she’s been since she was twenty-three and Nana Hickey had a stroke and died. Move her into the empty second bedroom. My ex-husband, Grant, hated the idea, though his reasoning was sound enough, or at least I thought so at the time. He said we needed to focus on having our own children—he had already waited so long for me to be ready–and it’s not like we were rich, Grant being a middle school teacher and me at the bookstore that was always threatening to go out of business. Fonto was happy at the home, he said.

“How do you know?” I said, once, during the time I now look back on as the beginning of the end, just before we found out I was pregnant. I rarely questioned Grant. He had a way of arguing that tangled up my words and made me feel foolish for not being able to straighten them back out. “What makes you so sure she’s happy?” I had just learned that Fonto had been put on a new medication, an antidepressant; not something I was supposed to know as I was not Fonto’s guardian and therefore not involved in her medical care, but the staff gave me her eight o’clock meds when I took her to Emma’s, and as I poured them out onto a napkin, I recognized the green one as Prozac because I was on it, too.

“Honestly, Quinn,” Grant said. “I just meant that she’s taken care of there.” He raised his eyebrows in an effort to show he was only being logical. “That you don’t need to worry about her.” It was two years ago, March, the baby an undetected bean inside me. We were in the kitchen, which we had recently updated on a budget, Grant spending all of his February vacation painting the old oak cabinets white. The room still held the faint, hopeful scent of paint. I was chopping salad for dinner while Grant stood at the slider and gazed at our muddy stamp of lawn. He put a hand on the glass and turned to me. “She spends her life listening to her Walkman and making crafts at the day program. I mean, would she even know the difference?”

I shivered with emotion. The only time I brought Grant with me to visit Fonto at House 2, a year into our marriage, he stuck so close to me I worried he might try to follow when I took Fonto into the bathroom to help her shower. Afterwards, he said it wasn’t Fonto, but the place, itself, that had made him uncomfortable. It was the smell, which I had gotten used to—the scent of bleach and urine and, often, feces, though the staff did their best to keep the large house clean and inviting, putting seasonal placemats on the table and photo collages of the residents on poster board in the hall. It was the heat, set at a medicinal eighty. It was the residents. There were five, not including Fonto, and some had lived there as long as she had, becoming a familiar backdrop to my visits. I knew Phil would ask about the condition of my car, and that when Larry said “chocolate éclair” it meant he wanted to hit someone. Grant explained that it was unnerving for him, not being familiar with everyone, not knowing what to say. He seemed to find Fonto and the other residents inscrutable, regarding them with an expression of amusement and pity, as if they were speaking a language he didn’t know and couldn’t possibly be expected to understand.

“I know you mean well, Quinn” Grant said, that day in the kitchen, walking to the island where I was slicing olives. I stared at the fingerprints he’d left on the glass. “But Fonto’s not your responsibility.”

Of course she is, I didn’t say.

Every time I left House 2, part of me believed I’d never go back, that I could walk away for good. But each Friday, I went back. That was something I could not make Grant see–the duty we have to each other, whether we want it or not. When my ultrasound, and subsequent blood tests, showed massive abnormalities, Grant begged me to follow the doctor’s recommendation and terminate. He said we could try again, and I think he believed it, though we both knew I was forty, and that in my case, these abnormalities had a low, but definite probability of occurring in subsequent pregnancies. For years I had been afraid of having a child who would need too much from me, the way Fonto did, and now that it was happening I felt under the weight of a boulder, and I wanted to run away from my own body.

I was eighteen weeks along at the procedure. The baby was a girl. Coming home, I could not speak, and Grant turned the radio to NPR, letting someone else’s words fill up the space. He preferred we not tell friends and family, had called the bookstore for me and said I had the stomach flu. But I had already told Fonto of the pregnancy—at first I had been surprised at how excited I felt–and after it was over she continued to talk of it. The words hurt, and then they didn’t, the way pain can turn to pleasure when you stop fighting it. Quinnie is having a baby, she would say, and I’d say yes, a girl. I wanted to hear it out loud, though I knew it wasn’t right, that I should try harder to make Fonto understand the baby was gone. But, she was saying the words I could not say. Grant refused to speak of what we had done. “It’s unhealthy,” he said, frustrated that I would not consider becoming pregnant again, despite the doctor’s warning I was running out of time. “You need to move on,” he said. Grant did move on. He moved away from me a little each day until he was gone.

The other truth I’ve never told is this: I did not cry for Grant. But that baby broke my heart into pieces.

I drive down over two speedbumps, onto the campus of large ranch-style homes, each brown, nondescript, and numbered. It is two a.m. when I park in the muddy back lot of House 2 and walk to the door, the spring night wet on my face. I do not knock. Inside, the residents are asleep and the house is dim and warm, nightlights dotting the hallway. I smell the citrus air freshener, hear the dryers churning in the laundry room. In the light of the small fluorescent lamp by the staff desk, I see the phone is back where it belongs.

“I thought you’d come,” a woman says, appearing around a corner. It is Marcie, one of the younger ones, putting in her time at the home until she finishes her psychology degree. She is plump, and has a heart tattoo on the inside of her wrist. “Sorry about this,” she adds.

I take off my coat and fold it over my arm. I am suddenly drowsy from the heat. Even if I went home now and slept, I would be exhausted in the morning. “Is Fonto okay?” I ask, trying not to sound irritated.

Marcie sighs. “I gave her something to help her sleep.”

“This has been happening a lot,” I say. “Is something going on?” I recall how upset Fonto was when her favorite staff quit a few years back. How she refused to go to day program last fall when her summer clothes had been packed away without her knowing.

Marcie turns down the hall toward Fonto’s room, and I follow. Her clogs smack the bottoms of her feet as she walks. At Fonto’s closed door with the bells on the knob and the cardboard heart with glitter blobs she made for Valentine’s Day, Marcie stops, crosses her arms over her breasts.

“So, I’m not supposed to say anything to you,” she says, a whisper. Her new look of sympathy confuses me. “But the doctor thinks this is dementia. Starting.”

“What? Why?” It’s all I can say. I know as well as Marcie that Downs are prone to early Alzheimer’s, and that the prognosis is worse than in the normal population. Less of a slow decline; more of a walk off a cliff. When Fonto moved in, she took the room of another Downs resident at the home who had died of it, the death so fresh the other residents confused Fonto with the dead one for the first few weeks. My mind makes the desperate, irrational connection between the room and the disease, the same way I connected, at first, the baby’s issues to my own, thinking the radiologist had made a mistake and it was my body on the ultrasound screen and not the fetus. I have the same feeling of heaviness I had then, of the suffocating weight. My mouth is dry and I begin to sweat.

Marcie smiles, uncrosses her arms and puts a hand on my shoulder. She is speaking quietly, and I can tell the words are meant to be kind, but I hear nothing except the pulsing of blood in my ears. She lets me into Fonto’s room. For a moment I stagger forward, lightheaded; it is completely dark in there, as it always is for Fonto. I switch on the light, see Fonto under the covers in her white daybed, her black hair sprayed over the pillow. Her acrylic eyes are open, quivering. They are a beautiful amber color, which Nana Hickey picked out to match Fonto’s olive skin.

“Hi Quinnie,” she says, recognizing me immediately.

“Hi Fonto. Are you feeling better?” I sit on the side of her bed against her legs and breathe deeply, trying to stop the spinning. The staff is supposed to take her eyes out at night and clean them with baby shampoo, but they forget. More than once they’ve put them in upside down which gives Fonto a froggish, questioning look.

Fonto shifts over. “Nana Hickey wears a Bam Bam up-do,” she says. Her voice is slurring and raspy. I picture Nana Hickey with the fat bun on top of her head, held in place with chopsticks. I never knew where Fonto got the term, and yet it seemed to fit.

“Yes, she does.”

“What color are carrots? Purple?”

The door is half open, and I can hear Marcie’s clogs smacking toward the desk. I wonder if I could walk past without her noticing, slip out the side door. I imagine rolling the windows down and turning the radio on, hitting the speedbumps too fast, driving until the sky lightens and I’m too far away to return.

“They’re orange,” I say.

“I’m not afraid anymore,” she says. “But Toto makes me cry. Doesn’t it, Quinnie.”
I smell her musky body odor and the fruitiness of her shampoo. The dizziness is passing.

“You don’t care for Toto,” I say.

“Lie down,” she says.

The weight settles on me. Down the hall, Marcie is typing something into the computer, and I can hear kittens meowing on the screen. I lie back, keeping my legs on the floor.

“What do I like Quinnie?”

“You like Paul Simon, and mustard.” I say.

“Yes, and what else.”

“Horses,” I say. “Swimming. Orange tea.” The bed is softer than my own, warm with Fonto’s small heat. I feel her body relax next to me; her leg twitches and stills. Her eyes close. I pause, waiting for her to ask for more, but she is asleep. I could leave and she wouldn’t know. I could go to work in the morning and cancel on Friday and wait for the day Fonto forgets who I am and there is nothing left to weigh me down. Without her, I will be so light. I will lift on the wind and float away.

I go on, listing all I can think of: flannel sheets, Wheel of Fortune, sweatshirts, hot chocolate, Stevie B, pineapple, Burger King French fries. This is how we speak. Fonto’s breaths are drawing in and out of her slack mouth. Still, I am not finished. Scrambled eggs, velvet chairs, coconut suntan lotion, bubble wrap. Babies, friends. Love. I will say the things that hold us here. For her, I will say them again, and again, and again.


Rebecca Reynolds graduated from the MFA program at Emerson College. She lives on the south shore of Boston with her husband, three boys, and assorted pets. Her short fiction has appeared in various literary magazines and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. By day, she works in a group home for adults with disabilities.