Leave It Alone
Matthew’s parents kissed him and left.
Mr. Watson picked up a remote from the coffee table, set it down, picked up the other remote beside it. Mrs. Watson floated around the room, felt the wood of the cuckoo clock, ran her finger along the bookshelves built in to the townhouse walls. She removed one of the leather-bound volumes.
The spine creaked when she opened it. The way she touched things made Matthew think he had to watch her so she didn’t damage them.
“That’s my dad’s,” Matthew said.
“How do you work this thing?” Mr. Watson asked, mashing buttons on the remote with his gorilla hands.
Mrs. Watson closed the book, shelved it.
Matthew wondered if this was how it would be all night.
A cluster of watercolors hung on the wall next to the television. Each small painting a single bird.
“Is this a robin?” Mrs. Watson asked.
“I don’t know,” Matthew said. “My mom likes birds.”
“Me too. I love their skinny legs.” She examined the images, as if each bird were real and trapped behind glass. “What grade will you be in next year?” she asked.
“Third,” he said.
“Seriously, Matty,” Mr. Watson said. “How do you turn this on?”
“Wow. Third grade.” Mrs. Watson kept smiling. The lines of her mouth didn’t stretch very far. It reminded Matthew of a rodent’s snout. He was thinking of what was so surprising about being in third grade but was interrupted by the blaring of the TV suddenly coming on.
“There we go,” Mr. Watson said. “Damn, that’s loud.” The sound lowered. He said, “I can’t get over how Bernie almost got his hand taken off in that baler today.” His laugh was low and gurgled. “Thought he’d pull back a stump.” Mr. Watson smacked his thigh. “Matty, you ever see something like that?”
Mrs. Watson made a disapproving face. “Matthew,” she said, “do you want to show me your room?”
Matthew couldn’t think of a polite way to say no, so he led Mrs. Watson through the living room, past the kitchen, into the hallway. His parents’ bedroom door was shut. Mrs. Watson stopped and held up a hand as if she heard something coming from inside the room and wanted to investigate.
“This is my room,” Matthew said.
“The restaurant your mom and dad said that they’re going to is nice. I haven’t been there, but I hear it’s very expensive.”
“In here,” Matthew said.
“What does your dad do again? Insurance or something?”
“He works in an office,” Matthew said. “These are my trophies. I won them at the taekwondo tournament.”
Mrs. Watson leaned over his desk and examined the report card pinned to his bulletin board; a colored-pencil drawing of a barbarian fighting a dragon; a solar system calendar; a birthday card; a PERFECT ATTENDANCE certificate from Middleton Elementary, also an EXCELLENCE IN
PHYSICAL EDUCATION certificate; a hand-written haiku (“Falling from a tree / gets you stitches in your arm / and ice-cream after”); a movie theater ticket for Iron Man 3.
Mrs. Watson made noises in her throat. She asked, “When would you like supper?”
He shrugged. “Anytime.”
The sound of the television blared again from the living room.
Mrs. Watson bent into the fridge, pulled out steaks wrapped in white paper, weighted them in her hands, and put them back. She opened the freezer, did the same with a frozen bag of ravioli. She turned to the pantry and handled cans of soup, a box of rice, a partially eaten bag of BBQ potato chips.
A thud sounded from the unit next door. Mrs. Watson leaned an ear against the wall. The ceiling-mounted fluorescent light buzzed. The brightness washed out her face. Matthew thought of whipped potatoes.
“We can order pizza,” Matthew said.
“Great idea.” She looked relieved. “Chuck. Hey, Chuck.”
“What?” Mr. Watson said.
“Can you give me a hand in here?” she asked. “I think we’re going to order pizza.” She winked at Matthew.
“Did they give us any money for that?”
“No. Will you run home and get my purse?” Mrs. Watson paused. “Chuck?”
“Can you get some money for the pizza?” she asked.
Mr. W atson, with his beer, appeared in the kitchen. “You want pizza, huh, Matty?”
“Can you just get some money?” Mrs. Watson said. “And the number too?”
“For the delivery place.”
Mr. Watson set the beer down on the counter and left. Mrs. Watson picked up the beer, put it in the fridge.
“I think the number for Pizza Hut is on the fridge,” Matthew said.
“The number is on the fridge. For Pizza Hut.”
“Well, look at that.” She plucked the ad from the magnet and dialed the number. Matthew was sitting at the table shuffling a deck of playing cards when Mr. Watson returned with the money.
“I only have a ten,” Mr. Watson said.
“That’s not enough,” Mrs. Watson said. “I already ordered two large pizzas.”
“Two large pizzas? That’s a hell of a lot for the three of us. And I thought you didn’t have the number.”
“It was on the fridge. I didn’t see it at first.”
“I only have a ten.”
“I heard you, Chuck.”
“I’m just saying—”
“We’ll write a check.”
“I have some money,” Matthew said.
“What, honey?” Mrs. Watson asked.
“I have money in my room.” Matthew scooted away from the table. Matthew’s room was dark. In his desk drawer, a creased and smudged envelope with the word allowance scribbled on it. He thumbed out fifteen one-dollar bills, folded them into his palm, placed the envelope back into the drawer. A square patch of light shone on the carpet from the lights outside his window. Raised voices and rumblings sounded from next door again.
Matthew left his room, shut the door. “Here.” He held out the money.
“Oh, honey, that’s okay,” Mrs. Watson said. “We’ll just write a check.”
“You can’t write a check to a delivery guy,” Mr. Watson said.
“Yes,” Mrs. Watson said. “You can.”
“With tip and everything?”
“I don’t know. We’ll tip him in cash.”
“I told you, I only have a ten.”
“I heard you the first six hundred times.”
“What, we going to tip the pizza boy a ten?” Mr. Watson shook his head. “How much do you have there, Matt?”
“Chuck.” Mrs. Watson gripped her husband’s arm.
“Shush.” He shrugged her off, pulled out his wallet. “How much you have?”
“Fifteen,” Matthew said.
“I’ll give you this ten for ten ones.” Mr. Watson held out the wrinkled ten-dollar bill.
Matthew handed him ten ones. The ten-dollar bill was thin and light, creased down the middle, chipped at the edges. “It’s the same thing, right?” he asked.
“You betcha.” Mr. Watson counted off the bills. “Pleasure doing business.”
“Can you go get the checkbook, please?” Mrs. Watson asked.
Mr. Watson left the house for a second time. The effect of his glare seemed to linger on Mrs. Watson’s scrunched face.
“I hope it comes soon,” Mrs. Watson said. “I’m starving.” Mrs. Watson scurried around the house like an excited rodent, smiling and wiping away imaginary crumbs from the countertops and the dining room table.
“You don’t have to clean.”
“What’s to clean?” she asked. “Your mother keeps such a neat home.”
“My dad helps, too,” Matthew said.
“It must be nice.”
Mr. Watson had come back with the checkbook. They all waited for the pizza. Matthew, on the floor, practiced card tricks. He knew several from a book he bought. He fanned out the deck.
“Pick one,” Matthew said.
Mr. Watson plucked a card from the middle of the fan, looked at it. “You want me to put it back?”
Matthew squared and cut the deck. “Yes. Put it back. Right in the middle. There.” Mr. Watson did as instructed, and Matthew clapped the edge of the deck on the coffee table and shuffled. He spread the cards in his hand and sniffed them. “Hmmm. Not that one. Wait. I think I smell it. Is this your card?” He held up the six of spades.
“That’s it, Matty.”
“How did you do that?” Mrs. Watson asked.
“Magic.” Then, to Mr. Watson, “Do you know any card tricks?”
“No, Matt. I don’t,” Mr. Watson said.
“Yes, you do, Chuck.”
“I don’t remember any of them.”
Mr. Watson lifted his body up from the sofa. He reached for the deck and shuffled the cards and spread them in a sloppy pile on the coffee table as if it were a chore. “Point to a card.”
Matthew straightened his neck to get a better view of his choices.
Mrs. Watson pointed to one. “That one,” she said.
“Not you,” Mr. Watson said.
“Come on,” she said. “Let me go first.” She winked at Matthew.
“She’s a piece of work, huh, Matty?”
“Stop it, you two.” She pointed again. “I pick that one.”
“Fine,” Mr. Watson said. “Look at it. Do you remember it? Okay, now put it back on the table.” He gathered up the cards and squared the deck. He held the stack and bent them into an arc until they popped and flew out of his hand in all directions.
“Do you see your card?” He threw his head back and laughed. He stood up from the sofa, stepped around the mess of cards scattered across the floor, walked into the kitchen.
“I hate that trick,” Mrs. Watson said. She pinched her lips together and picked up the cards.
/ / / /
The pizza guy accepted the check.
Mr. Watson set the pizzas down on the coffee table. Mrs. Watson ate her pizza with chewy smacks and deep swallows. She made sounds as if her throat and stomach were connected by some complicated plumbing structure. Mr. Watson only ate two slices then he slouched on the sofa and drank beer from Matthew’s fridge. He got up and opened the cabinet under the bookshelves, the door to the laundry room. He walked around the living room opening all the doors like he was looking for something.
“Matthew,” Mrs. Watson said. “Why don’t you pick a game we could play?”
Matthew went into his room where he kept the games. He pulled out Scrabble from under his bed. The Watsons talked in the living room.
“I’m going to take off,” Mr. Watson said.
“Just going out for a little. You’ve got this covered, right?”
“Relax, babe. You don’t need me.”
“Carol, please. Not now. The kid.”
Matthew heard the sound of the front door opening and closing. He returned to the living room holding the Scrabble box.
“Mr. Watson had to run out,” Mrs. Watson said. Her voice was a seesaw trying to balance composure and total meltdown. “An errand. He’ll be back later.”
Matthew set the Scrabble box down on the coffee table.
“Scrabble,” Mrs. Watson said. “Sounds great.”
Matthew and Mrs. Watson played two games of Scrabble. Matthew won the first game, Mrs. Watson the second. Next door, the voices were raised and agitated.
“Do you hear that?” Mrs. Watson asked.
Matthew nodded. He wondered if his parents went out tonight just so they could fight. He imagined his mom next door, pacing and arms crossed, high heels dangling from the hook of her fingers, a tarry mixture of tears and makeup streaking her face. And his dad, loosening his tie and smoking
a cigarette, although Matthew had never seen his dad smoke. Maybe, along with fighting, smoking was something else they did when Matthew wasn’t around.
“It’s been going on all night,” she said.
Mr. Watson came back and sat down. “Matty,” he said. “How’s it hanging?”
“I think something’s wrong next door,” Mrs. Watson said.
“Don’t worry about it,” Mr. Watson said.
“They’re really loud, don’t you think?” she asked.
“Paper thin walls. What do you expect? Remember the Pearsons?”
“I think they’re new neighbors. Do they yell like that all the time, Matthew?”
“I don’t know,” Matthew said.
“Maybe if we play another game we won’t hear it.”
“We’ll just turn up the TV,” Mr. Watson said.
“Matthew doesn’t want to watch the news. Matthew, is there anything on television you want to watch?”
“I think there’s a movie—” A crash from next door interrupted him. Something had broken.
“You heard that, right?” she asked.
Matthew kept talking. “I think there’s a movie on I want to see.”
Mrs. Watson put her ear to the wall.
“Sit down. It’s none of our business.” Mr. Watson set his beer down. “Let’s check out that movie, Matt.”
Matthew turned on the television. Mrs. Watson stepped away from the wall and paced.
“I don’t know what channel it’s on,” Matthew said.
“Pick whatever you want, Matty. And will you sit down?”
Mrs. Watson opened the front door.
“Where are you going?” Mr. Watson asked.
“To see if everything is all right.”
“Dammit. Don’t go all over the place knocking on everyone’s door.”
“I’m just going to see if there are any lights on.”
“Will you just sit down?”
I found something,” Matthew said. The bottom of the screen read, YOU ARE NOW WATCHING THE BOND WEEKEND MARATHON.
Mrs. Watson left. Matthew wished she hadn’t.
“Nice pick,” Mr. Watson said. “James Bond’s okay in my house.”
On the television, a woman wearing a white bikini walked out of the ocean and shook water from her glistening body.
“That’s a fine looking girl, ain’t she Matty?”
“And those knockers. God. Probably down to her knees by now,” Mr. Watson said.
Mrs. Watson walked back into the house. “I saw a woman at the window,” she said.
“She was smoking a cigarette.”
“Great. Everyone’s still alive.”
“Do you think we should call someone?”
“Who? The cigarette police?”
“For Chrissake. Sit down.”
“Would you stop swearing, please? And turn that. Matthew’s too young to watch this.”
“Jesus. Calm down. The boy’s in third grade. You heard him. Ain’t that right, Matty?”
Matthew shifted on the carpet. He traced his name in the fibers.
“I said, stop swearing.” She picked up the pizza boxes and empty beer cans from the coffee table and moved into the kitchen.
“Thanks, babe,” Mr. Watson said.
Matthew waited for a commercial and changed the channel. More crashing and yelling came from next door.
“You had to hear that,” Mrs. Watson said. “Matthew, turn that television down for a minute.”
“God.” Mr. Watson went into the kitchen.
Matthew turned the volume down. The refrigerator door opened then closed. A thud from next door shook the room and almost knocked the cuckoo clock off the wall. Mrs. Watson jumped, snatched the phone from the receiver. “I’m calling the police.”
Mr. Watson sprang from the kitchen. “Hang up the damn phone.”
She was already dialing.
Mr. Watson made a move and had her thin wrists in one enormous gorilla hand. He dropped the open beer and wrestled the phone from her grip. Mrs. Watson was reeling toward the floor. A pool of beer foamed on the carpet.
The Watsons struggled. Mr. Watson grunted, “Bitch.”
The look on Mrs. Watson’s face was like nothing Matthew had ever seen before. He leapt from the carpet and in one fluid movement he steadied himself, flung forward, and landed a roundhouse kick square on Mr. Watson’s hip.
Mr. Watson released his wife and bounced back against the wall. “Dammit, kid. What the hell are you doing?”
Matthew maintained his ready stance.
Mrs. Watson moved herself between Matthew and Mr. Watson. Put her hands on his shoulders.
“Matthew, stop it. I’m okay.”
Matthew’s heart beat in his ears. He bared his teeth. He looked around her head to Mr. Watson’s seething face. “Get out of my house.”
“I ought to kick your ass.”
“Chuck, he’s only—”
“The hell are your manners?” Mr. Watson rubbed his hip.
“Chuck, just relax!”
“Mr. Watson stood against the wall, wiped his face. Matthew tensed up, but Mr. Watson only snatched the phone from the floor and slammed it back onto the wall mounting.
“Now,” Mr. Watson put his hands up. “Leave it alone.” He picked up the empty beer can and disappeared into the kitchen. He returned holding a dishcloth and knelt down, sopped up the spill.
“I said, get out of my hell house,” Matthew said. It came out all wrong. He’d meant to say, Get the hell out of my house.
“Chuck,” Mrs. Watson said. “Maybe you should go back home.”
“All right, big man,” Mr. Watson said. He pointed to his wife. “Last time I’m doing this.” He kicked through the living room and out the front door.
“Mrs. Watson looked into Matthew’s eyes. It was an affirmation. He nodded. She picked up the discarded dishtowel and went to work on the wet carpet.
“Matthew went back to the television. Mrs. Watson was in the kitchen. Something slammed down on the stove. After a few minutes came the familiar whistling of a teakettle.
“She came back in and sat on the sofa, sipped her tea. On TV, James Bond fought the man with large metal hands, the man falling into a vat of toxic liquid.
“Show me another card trick?” Mrs. Watson asked.
“I don’t know any more.”
“She got up and disappeared into the kitchen where she stayed until the movie ended, and Matthew turned off the television and walked to his room. In the kitchen, Mrs. Watson stood against the refrigerator dunking the teabag in a ceramic mug.
“Goodnight,” he said.
“Goodnight, Matthew.” Her face, red and puffed.
“Matthew lay in his bed. His eyes wouldn’t shut. The lights outside his window flickered. The noises from next door had stopped, and between Mrs. Watson’s sobs, the townhouse yawned with a strange silence. He feared the sounds of his parents’ return, the sounds of things changed forever.
As of 2014: David Williamson is a legit Millennial living the suburban dream with his wife and three children in Richmond(ish), VA. David the fiction writer rises early to do his thing, then promptly turns into a pumpkin at sunrise. By day, David’s a content strategist. By night, a doting family man. He received his MFA from Old Dominion University, and his fiction has appeared in 5x5, C4, Fiddleblack, and Prism Review. In 2010, he won the Virginia Screenwriting Competition for his original screenplay, Colby.