Rain had been falling—the clouds were so thick I couldn’t see the mountain on the other side of the valley. At one point, the rain stopped and hail fell. I went out to the mown grass and saw ice pellets the size of marbles. Thunder came, and our pet dog hid from the sound. He crawled under a chair and looked upward.
I could imagine what the dog was thinking. He feared the same thing I feared: each lightning bolt was aimed directly at us. At some point, one of those shots would hit, and we would die. But I couldn’t hide under furniture. That sort of escape would have looked suspicious, as if I were losing my grip. So I sat in my room and waited out the storm. In the bedroom, it was just me and my mouse. The mouse ran happily on its exercise wheel, oblivious to the blasts outside. To pass the time, I drew a diagram of a maze to test the mouse’s memory. The mouse would enter from the outside, make turns, retreat from dead ends, and proceed to the middle, where it would find its reward—a chunk of cheese. But I stopped what I was doing when I heard my father calling my name.
I walked slowly to my father’s “studio” and waited for him to speak. He was hunched over his drawing table, almost asleep. I saw that he had set up a portable screen—a paneled divider that balanced on the floor.
“It’s time for your confession,” he said. “You can either sit behind the screen, or you can face me. Take your pick.”
I sat behind the screen.
“What sins have you committed?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“You’ll address me as Father.”
“I don’t know, Father,” I said.
“I saw you go into your bedroom and shut the door. Why did you shut it?” he asked.
“I was doing an experiment with my mouse.”
“Doing an experiment, what?”
“Doing an experiment, Father.”
“Right, you were doing an ‘experiment.’ That’s a sin!”
I looked around the room. Books filled the floor-to-ceiling shelves, and an easel held a half-painted canvas.
“I’m going to give you a way to make up for your sin,” my father said.
He came around to my side of the screen. “You see these books on the shelves? You’ll clean each one of them.”
He gave me a paintbrush with soft bristles. “You’ll take each book and dust it with this brush, then you’ll put it back in its place. When you’re finished, you’ll pray for forgiveness.”
I pulled out a book and saw that the top was covered with dust. I whisked at the edges of the pages with the paintbrush, then took a cloth and rubbed the cover. I repeated the task a few times, but I couldn’t get through even one section of books. My father had gone. I left without saying the prayer.
I went back to my bedroom and took care not to shut the door. In the room, it was still just me and my mouse. I put water in the bottle in the rodent’s cage, and he lapped at the tip of the spout. I could see his tongue moving quickly. Then he climbed onto his wheel and ran. The wheel squeaked; it needed oil. But I fell asleep despite the noise. When I woke in the middle of the night, the mouse was still running on the wheel. The sound was comforting to me.
In the morning, I practiced arranging my face in a certain expression. I wanted to look like a pop singer I’d seen on an album cover—if not in features, at least in emotion. It was an open, inviting kind of look, or so I thought. I wanted to bring this look with me to school. The children around me might not know who I was trying to impersonate, but I would show I was someone.
When I left my room, I saw my mother practicing Tai Chi. “It gets my circulation going,” she said. “It helps my arthritis.”
“How did you learn it?” I asked.
“I learned by watching old people when I was a child. They did it in parks all over the city.”
She held her hands palm-out in front of her and twisted at the waist. She stepped back as she formed a circle with her arms. She pointed to the ceiling, then brought her arms to her sides. “Repulse Monkey, Carry Tiger to Mountain, Diagonal Flying,” my mother explained.
I picked up my mouse-maze diagram and walked out to catch the bus for school.
In science class, I explained my experiment. I would build a maze from cardboard and make paper copies of the map I’d drawn. I would send the mouse into the pathways and trace its route on paper with a red pencil. I would count how many times the mouse attempted to find the cheese before he succeeded, or before he gave up.
“Did you come up with this idea on your own,” the teacher asked, “or did you have help?”
“On my own,” I said.
“It looks like your father helped you.” the teacher said. “You fail this project.”
In the hallway, I practiced my pop-star look. As I walked past a girl, she said, “You look like Bruce Lee.”
I struck a Tai Chi pose, one that I’d seen my mother use.
“I’m not dating Bruce Lee,” the girl said.
As I walked away, I heard students chanting, “Bruce! Bruce! Bruce!”
Rain fell for a few days straight, and a creek formed on the hill behind our house. The creek ran through a culvert under the highway into a cornfield next to our backyard. I looked out a window and thought the grass in our yard had turned brown. But I wasn’t looking at grass; I was looking at floodwater.
I knew there was a drain that would funnel the water away from the yard. It was built into the ground next to the narrow road in front of the house. But it needed help, I went to find my father. He was in his studio, bent over his drawing table. On the tabletop sat a can of tobacco and a bottle of beer. When he saw me, he said, “I don’t like the heat, but when the sun disappears I want to die.”
I told him about the flooded yard and the drain, and he accompanied me outside. We saw that the outgoing pipe was clogged with tree branches. Tearing them out took a lot of strength. We made progress, however, and the yard started to drain like a bathtub. The water was gone from the lawn in about half an hour.
Thaddeus Rutkowski is the author of six books, most recently Border Crossings, a poetry collection. His novel Haywire won the Asian American Writers Workshop’s members’ choice award, and his book Guess and Check won the Electronic Literature bronze award for multicultural fiction. He received a fiction writing fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts.