Clutch the Noise Caught in Your Throat : Joe Baumann
Leon was leaning over the cake at his fifteenth birthday party, trying to blow out the trick candles that his brother Ethan had traded out for the real ones on the sly, when he coughed up the sapphire. He had clenched his stomach to give his lungs more purchase, but then he felt a tight constriction in his throat, like a pinky finger was stuck beneath his nascent Adam’s apple. His mother lowered the camera plastered to her face and watched as, in an imitation of their cat Windsor when he needed to expel a furball, Leon started hacking.
It plunked out fast, the sapphire shooting out of Leon’s mouth and landing in the center of a balloon-shaped heap of buttercream icing. The assemblage—Leon’s parents, douchebag Ethan, eight of Leon’s closest friends—stared at the glimmering stone, an unsettling blue that matched, almost perfectly, the bed of icing where it lay like a pearl on the soft pad of a clamshell.
“What the fuck,” Ethan said from a corner in his blazed voice.
“Whoa,” Leon said, poking his hand forward to pick up the sapphire. Despite having emerged from his throat, it was cool, as if it had spent time at the bottom of a rushing spring.
The party ended fast, his gifts unopened. Leon’s friends stood around on the front porch, waiting for their parents or older siblings to come pick them up early. The candles were forgotten by everyone but Ethan, who begrudgingly pinched them out, one by one. Dousing the flames would leave him without feeling in his fingers for the rest of his life.
That night, after assuring his parents that he felt fine—his mother wanted to take him to the hospital for x-rays, CAT scans, MRIs, whatever—Leon lay in bed stroking his throat. The feeling of the sapphire’s expulsion was still inside him, a ghostly whisper of pain. His mouth tingled and his gums ached like when he lost his baby teeth. Leon stared at his bedroom ceiling, where his fan tilted with the slightest whining noise, and he wondered what else about himself would soon, inevitably, be exposed.
One jewel came in the middle of an algebra quiz, the wet, glassy opal staining his problem sets with its clear muck. Another during a movie, an amethyst plopping right into the bucket of popcorn. His buddies snickered and guffawed in disgust. While he was helping his father one weekend with a roof repair and looked down from the tilted heights and felt dizziness spinning his feet. When he was seventeen, making out with Olivia Baxter outside the homecoming dance, music and light thrumming through the glass door next to them. His breath started wheezing and she backed away, a breathy, “Oh no,” escaping her lips. She fled, the heavy hip hop rearing up as she slipped inside, the sound covering up Leon’s voice as he tried to tell her, beg her, not to leave as a piece of lapis lazuli passed through his lips.
At his senior prom, Leon found himself doing the same thing, but this time instead of Olivia Baxter he was with Thomas O’Reilley, the back-up quarterback.
“Aren’t you worried someone will see us?” Leon asked.
“Fuck ‘em,” Thomas said, then planted his lips on Leon’s, parting their mouths with his tongue.
Leon was filled with Thomas’s breath, a combination of heavy mint and the sour mash of Jim Beam pulled from the flask hidden in the inner pocket of Thomas’s houndstooth jacket. Then Leon felt it: the hard sensation in his throat of something that didn’t belong. The precious stones, though large and uncomfortable, didn’t usually hurt, but whatever was making its way up Leon’s throat was raking claws into his larynx, drawing blood. Leon, who desperately wanted to keep kissing Thomas, tried to will this new thing away. Try as he might not to, he grunted and groaned. Thomas mashed Leon’s lips harder, his teeth pressing against Leon’s, his hands finding their way to Leon’s backside.
He had to pull back. There was no stopping it.
Thomas said nothing, watching Leon retch into a nearby bush. Everyone knew about the jewels, which had made Leon gruesomely popular; the rocks were real, and worth actual money, so people flocked to him whenever they thought a gem was on its way out. When an emerald came chugging up his esophagus during a frog dissection lab in sophomore biology and landed square on the metal pan where his flayed amphibian was reposed, the cat had burst out of the bag. At first his teacher had been angry, convinced Leon was pulling a practical joke, and he had been ill-equipped to muddle through an explanation. But Thomas, his lab partner, who off the field sometimes wore thick glasses that made him look a little like Clark Kent, attested to Leon’s innocence. Since then, kids waited and watched Leon, always jostling to get a front-row seat to see the pricey globules come flying out of his mouth.
Thomas leaned against the building while Leon’s throat wobbled. He could feel the stone’s jaggedness, the point of what felt like an arrowhead slicing against the roof of his mouth and clashing against the back of his teeth. When it was finally out of his body, plopped into the mulchy wood chips below the bushes, Thomas said nothing but passed him the flask, which Leon drank from, sputtering at the stinging taste.
“I guess let’s go back inside,” Thomas said.
Leon tried to object, but the whiskey was burning at his ravaged throat. He pulled his cell phone from his pocket and flicked on the flashlight app. Something glinted in the wood chips, glossy with Leon’s spit: a diamond, hard-edged, ready to be fitted into a ring. Leon looked toward the door, but Thomas was already inside. Leon’s lips formed words, but he couldn’t get out what he desperately needed to share.
Leon stared at his brother. Ethan’s hair had always been short, upswept at the front in a row of spikes, like he was a gelled member of a boy band, but now it trailed long, filled with so many knots it looked as though a rosary was growing from his scalp. Ethan’s eyes were bruised underneath, his nose crooked, wending messily down his face in a way it hadn’t last time Leon saw him, when Leon left for college.
“Ethan, you know that’s not how it works.” People made these requests when he made the mistake of mentioning the gemstones. Please, they would say, just one rock, just a tiny something to score enough money to make a loan payment or secure rent for a month. Just a little emerald or a nugget of gold, a half-carat diamond.
They were standing at the door of Leon’s apartment. Ethan was shivering even though he was wearing a sweater and the temperature outside was creeping toward ninety; Leon, in a tank top and mesh shorts, could feel sweat purling underneath his arms.
“Have you talked to Mom and Dad?”
Ethan didn’t answer, instead staring down at his fingers.
“You haven’t, have you?”
Ethan made a non-committal noise. “They don’t care about me.”
“Of course they do.”
“They kicked me out.”
“And why do you think they did that?”
Ethan shook his head, eyes flashing with vacancy. “They’re selfish. They’re only worried about themselves.”
“Ironic of you to say that.”
“I want to help you, Ethan, but I can’t do what you’re asking.”
“You could try. What if I ask you about your boyfriend?”
Leon felt a momentary flutter in his stomach. The only person who had ever managed to make rhyme or reason out of when the jewels would appear was Ethan, who, after Leon admitted what had happened with Olivia, said, “Maybe instead of tossing your cookies when you’re nervous you toss gemstones.”
He had blinked at his stoner brother, sprawled out on the sofa, his face pimply, midsection bloated from so much processed cheese product and flat soda. Ethan was meant to be off at college, but he’d failed out as a freshman and put in hardly any effort at the community college that his parents had demanded he attend if he planned on living at home. Ethan’s theory made sense. Tests, dates, doctor’s appointments involving needles and prodding at Leon’s junk all precipitated the undulation in his throat and stomach that predicted the rousing of a ruby or carnelian. Things became worse when his parents wondered after girlfriends, if he had any crushes or objects of affection. Those inquiries made him feel like he was suffering anaphylactic shock, and then he would usually expel a chunk of diopside or garnet.
“Could I just give you some cash?”
Ethan snorted and rolled his eyes. “I’m not looking for a hand-out.”
Leon opened and closed his mouth. “What, exactly, is asking me to regurgitate a gemstone for you meant to be, then?”
Ethan fidgeted with the sleeves of his shirt. He’d bunched the fabric up at his elbows. “A show of good faith? I don’t know, man.”
“Look, Ethan. I can give you, what, twenty, forty bucks? Or I can give you a couch and a meal.” He stopped himself short of saying, You look like you could use it.
“Forget it,” Ethan said, waving his shaky hands like he was trying to whirl a curse out of his broken fingers. Leon could see, briefly, the way his fingertips were smoothed and scarred. He wanted to say something but before he could, Ethan wheeled around and stomped down the rickety iron stairs at the edge of Leon’s second-floor patio. Leon wanted to yell for him to stop, to come back, but something prevented him, not a jewel but something deeper, harder. Something that he could not clear out.
Adrian’s fingers were like feathers along Leon’s throat. He was skinny, not at all Leon’s type, but something in his eyes had grabbed Leon’s attention, and it wasn’t until they lay in bed only hours after meeting in a crowded gastropub and Leon felt the familiar surge in his throat that he realized Adrian’s irises were the same shade as the first sapphire he’d hacked up. Adrian blinked and watched as Leon rocketed up and pivoted so his feet were on the floor, head dangling between his bent knees.
When Leon showed him the agate, slick with his spit, the boy plucked it from his hands before Leon could object.
“Wow,” he said. “Look at this.”
Adrian laid back down and set the stone against his belly button, where Leon’s tongue had recently been.
“Tell me about this,” Adrian said. “Please.”
“It just happens sometimes.”
“It’s fascinating.” He held up the agate. “They just come from nowhere?”
“From inside me, I guess.”
Adrian’s free hand pressed against Leon’s stomach, his palm cool and pillowy. “From here, maybe?”
“I don’t think I have a storehouse in my intestines.”
“So they’re parthenogenic.”
“Something from nothing.”
“I suppose.” Leon cleared his throat. “Well, they do seem to take something from me.”
“Oh?” Adrian twisted onto his side.
“It’s hard to explain, but something’s gone afterward. I don’t really know what.”
“Like you can feel something missing?”
“It’s not like I’ve lost a toe or anything. I still have all my ribs. It’s just, well.” He held out his hand and Adrian dropped the marble onto Leon’s palm. “It feels like some part of me is in here.”
“Have you ever tried swallowing them?”
Leon laughed. “Of course not.”
“Well, why not?”
Leon fell silent. He had no answer. Adrian didn’t ask any more questions, and soon they were both asleep. Leon woke alone. All traces of Adrian were gone: his socks, his underwear, the tight t-shirt that had held his slinky body. The agate, too. No matter where Leon looked, it had vanished, also.
His mother’s voice was shaky as she told Leon that their house had been burglarized.
“Whoever did it punched out one of the windows in the kitchen door. Unlocked it and walked right in. Broken glass everywhere. Then they marched upstairs and took my jewelry, including the earrings I had made from the sapphire, you know the ones.”
“Did they take anything else?”
“No,” she said. “They grabbed the few expensive things and left.”
Neither of them would say it out loud, but they both knew who they was; Ethan had disappeared from their lives ever since he showed up on Leon’s stoop. His cell phone number no longer worked even though they kept paying the bill, and the community college refused to tell them whether he was still enrolled. Leon sat in his parents’ living room and listened. He glanced at a side table where a pair of photographs sat: one of Leon, decked in his graduation regalia, another of Ethan, frozen in seventh grade, cheeks rosy, smile forced but friendly.
“I loved those earrings.”
“Sorry, Mom,” Leon said. He wanted to say more, but his tongue felt swollen. He rubbed a finger on the side of his throat, then tinkled it across his skin, feeling for the bloom of something foreign, but everything was uncomfortably familiar.
After Adrian vanished, Thomas O’Reilley’s words vibrated in Leon’s head. Something burst, as though in taking the agate Adrian had taken a stopper and sent Leon swirling down with the bathwater. After Adrian, there was Cindy and Mark and Ephraim, Audrey and Sam. There were filled nights followed by empty mornings and empty beds. Sometimes there were scrawled notes. Sometimes new phone numbers in his contacts list, but that was it. That was the mud that Leon lived in, wallowing like a sad, grubbed-up pig. He didn’t tell his parents about these people, and he didn’t tell these people about the jewels. If he felt something yearning up his throat as he made out or had sex, he stopped, mumbled an apology, and ran to the bathroom. Often enough, when he came out, he was alone again.
The day of his brother’s funeral was hot, Leon’s undershirt sticking to his back. Programs fluttered against mourners’ faces, of whom there were way too many; most of them were here on Leon’s parents’ behalf, not Ethan’s. He had slumped back into his mother and father’s house one last time in order to die, his long descent into scante and blue crystals coming to a tragic close. His body was rank, his face pitted with scabs and scars, his arms a blueprint of bruises and throbbing veins. They’d laid him up on the living room recliner, and were then too frightened to move him, thinking he might just crash into withdrawal and be able to sweat out his addiction. They had no way of knowing he was in the middle of an overdose, fentanyl-laced heroin drowning his heart.
The reception at his parents’ house was brief, quiet, somber. There was no talk of Ethan’s better moments. The baked sandwiches on butter-slicked dollar rolls went largely untouched. His mother’s friends left casseroles, whispering that she needn’t worry about returning the dishes any time soon. Leon helped clean up in silence. When he went to wash his hands after scrubbing out a tray of congealed seven-layer dip, Leon felt a jewel climbing up his throat. As quietly as possible he let it splurge upward, catching it in his sudsy palm: a corona-hued piece of amber. It matched the strange, cat-like flecks that had floated in his brother’s green eyes.
Without a word, Leon dropped it down the sink.
He didn’t like to think about his mother’s breasts, but when she called, losing her ability to speak thanks to the gummy tears thickening her throat, his father told Leon the details. He spent that night imagining chunks like blue cheese wending their way through his mother’s body, large white pearlescent clumps drizzled with toxic aquamarine pushing themselves out from the superior lateral quadrant. He pictured the cancer cells scheming, standing around a table where his mother’s body was unfurled on a map, the largest lump armed with a pointer, clapping it against his mother’s lungs and lymph nodes and esophagus: steps one, two, three, march!
Every time a stone came up he cleaned it off with a microfiber towel, dipping it in cleaning solution and polishing it to a retail-ready sparkle. When he dumped a pouch of them onto his parents’ dining room table, his mother, eyes already sunken and exhausted, balding head wrapped up in a colorful scarf, said, “What’s this?”
He held up peridot. “For the best hospital rooms.”
He held up tanzanite. “For your deductible.”
He held up topaz. “So you don’t have to worry about treatment.”
Her eyes filled. His father laid a thick hand on Leon’s shoulder. Neither of them said a word. They did not need to.
Whenever Leon asked about his mother, his father shook his head and said, “She’s managing.” Their bathroom sink was lined with orange pill bottles with her name emblazoned on them in stout black letters, as if announcing something shameful. He picked them up one by one and tried to pronounce their contents: tamoxifen, letrozole, exemestane. The words got stuck, his tongue unable to maneuver around their complicated, stand-offish pronunciations.
She sat in the living room, tucked into the recliner that was perpetually leaned back, a sharp, funky smell emanating from her body. Often enough, Leon’s father hid in their garage, turning it into a carving studio, the floor swept with sawdust, everything reeking of cedar and basswood and aspen. The bookshelves in his study were cluttered with amorphous blocks and Picasso-like animals, their legs off-kilter so they appeared poised to fling themselves to the floor. Sometimes Leon followed his father to the garage. He knew not to say anything as his father started whittling or carving with his miter saw. Leon watched his father’s back rumble and shake, a shiver that moved up and down his spine and wrung out through his arms, his elbows bucking like he was a freshly hatched chicken testing tender wings. Not until after his mother died and he watched his father’s silent weeping at the wake did he realize that while his father was working he was also crying, his tears soaking into the little creatures he carved, a stain that quickly disappeared from the rough surface of things.
At first, Leon did not recognize the man who tapped him on the shoulder. He was standing at an outdoor bar, televisions mounted next to the expensive bottles of Deleon tequila and Appleton rum. He gave the man a once-over, clueless as the stranger stood before him with an odd look on his face, like wasn’t sure whether he should grin or be grim. Then he peeled off his sunglasses, revealing a sharp blue that Leon recognized immediately.
Adrian looked different, his body swelled thanks to months of Zottman curls and overhead presses, a bevy of pushups.
“I thought it was you,” Adrian said. “Gemstone Man.”
Leon winced. “That makes me sound like a pathetic superhero.”
Adrian closed his eyes and then opened them, a sheepish look on his face. “I honestly just can’t remember your name. But I remember the agate. Hard thing to forget.”
“And I remember your eyes. Hard thing to forget.”
Adrian smiled. “Can I buy you a drink?”
He had no reason to pause. He had every reason to pause. He gestured toward the empty barstool next to him. “Yes. Sure. That would be great.”
His father’s hospital room reeked of odious canned air freshener trying and failing to mask the miasma of human waste. Kidney failure was the biggest problem, the doctor said, a result of the heart attack that felled Leon’s father when he was home, alone, staring at the television, slumped in the same recliner where Leon had watched his mother wither like a tree whose bark was flaking away, leaves falling into ashy clumps. The same place Ethan had been laid, as if it had soaked up death and illness and poisoned anyone who sat there. Looking down at his sleeping father with his eyes like dried up wells, Leon couldn’t help but picture his father lolling in that chair, desperate and in pain.
His father fluttered in and out of consciousness. His face had melted into angles and hollows that cast tiny shadows along his eyes and mouth and nose. Leon could hardly believe this was the same burly man who had been able to swoop into a room and pick Leon up with a single arm, the man who had shimmered with sorrow and bulk as Ethan wasted his body on meth and skag. The man who cradled his wife with a powerful tenderness and released the loudest caw of pain Leon had ever heard when he stepped up to her grave after she’d been lowered into the earth. Leon wasn’t sure whether to will his father to wake up or to die.
After five hours and two nurse visits, during which a powder-faced woman poked at the many machines hovering around his father and fiddled with the tubes racing in and out of his hospital gown, his father’s mouth opened and released a small gurgle of noise. His eyes fluttered, but they did not open. His lips parted.
Leon imagined something coming out of his father’s mouth, maybe a small ball of wood, shaped like the fluorites and topazes, slick with saliva. But instead his father’s mouth closed and he let out a stuttered, shallow breath.
His father died later that day, quietly. The doctor and nurses tried to bring him back, but Leon wanted to tell them not to bother, that there was nothing to save, but he could not, as happened so often, form the words to say so.
He stood in the doorway of his family’s empty home. Leon had sold the furniture and the washer and dryer, had found a buyer who would look past the wear and tear of the carpets, the water heater that needed replacing, the rotting posts in the fence around the backyard—or who was at least willing to handle those things themselves in return for a discount on the sale price, which Leon had told his realtor to agree to without bothering to have him crunch the numbers and determine whether he was giving away too much.
Leon heard footsteps on the front porch behind him. Adrian rubbed his back and wrapped his arms around Leon’s waist, his chin digging into Leon’s shoulder.
“Nervous?” Adrian said. He smelled like grass. He was always covered in an outdoorsy odor. When Leon had mentioned it, Adrian shrugged and said, “I garden. I guess the soil sticks with me.” He’d poked at Leon’s throat. “We all have something, don’t we?”
Leon looked around the empty room, the carpet’s color uneven thanks to the absent furniture. His parents had never rearranged the couch and recliner and television, and the spots where they’d covered the floor were a brighter, untouched shade.
“The place looks bigger,” Leon said.
“They always do, emptied out like this. Want to take one last look around?”
Leon glanced toward where the side table had been, where the photos of him and Ethan had sat. He didn’t remember packing those frames into a box. “No,” he said.
Adrian detached himself and slapped Leon on the back. “I’m going to wait in the car. Hot out here. Take your time, okay?”
“Okay.” Leon turned to watch Adrian amble to the driveway. He was wearing a tank top and bright pink khaki shorts, his tan distinct against the bright colors.
Leon stepped back into the house and shut the door. He sat on the living room carpet, then laid down, spread eagle. He pressed his hands to his stomach and then laid them across his chest. Then finally, carefully, he strummed his own throat on either side of his Adam’s apple. Everything was calm. The house was empty, and so was he. He thought of Adrian, patiently waiting in the car. Leon knew he would wait, humming along to the radio, for as long as it took for Leon to appear. This assurance, this anchor, made him blush. His eyes followed imaginary cracks in the ceiling to each of the room’s corners. He turned his head so he could see down the hall toward the bedrooms, expecting to feel something lurch inside of him, but nothing came. Leon wasn’t sure if he would ever release another gem, but staring at the empty house, he couldn’t decide what he wanted: for them to stay buried inside him forever or to come gushing out in a wave.