Reaching for the Sky by Mitchell Waldman

A guilt-ridden mother must face telling her paralysed son that his only brother is dead, but first she wants the truth about his past; by Mitchell Waldman.

She didn't know what to think anymore. The question went beyond whether her son had meant to rob the man, whether he had been harassing the man on the subway, whether he had just been going along with his friends, or whether he deserved what he had gotten. How many times had she shaped and reshaped these questions in her head over these last twelve years, to no avail? No, it went to the larger question of whether there was a God, for how could He, if He existed, let her and her son suffer like this, for so long, no matter what he'd done? Or was this the living hell she'd heard some speak of?

It had happened three days before Christmas. Oh, they were going to have a good Christmas that year, Betty and her sons, Bradley and Noah. No matter that Sam had up and left for good six months before. Who needed him, anyway, with all his talk about all the money he was going to make. She didn't want any money the way he meant to make it. She wanted a clean life, no drugs in her boys' lives, a straight life. And that's what they'd had. She'd gotten herself a job at the grocery down the street. Bradley had gotten a job at a shoe store, part time, after school, and even Noah, only fourteen, had helped out delivering Sunday papers with old white-haired Mr. Sanderson down the road.

Bradley had wanted to be a baseball player, a musician, a scientist, he'd wanted so many pie-in-the sky dreams.

They would have had a simple, if not bountiful, Christmas, just the three of them under the three-foot table-tree she'd picked up cheap down at the store. Together - at least they would have been together. But on the Thursday before, she'd gotten the news by phone at the store, just before quitting time. It came in a garbled phone call from Dale Peters, who said some white man had gone crazy on the subway, shooting his son, Bradley, and two other boys, that the boys were all rushed down to Brooklyn Central in an ambulance, that she best get down there as quick as she could. And at the hospital they'd told her. The bullet had severed Bradley's spine. He would never walk, never move, maybe never talk again.

God - she was through talking with God. How many conversations had she had with him about that day? Had he answered any of them? Not one.

Twelve long years. She'd been raised a Baptist by her mother, who never went a day without reading to her children from the Good Book. It's what had sustained her mother all those years, what had brought her joy.

Betty had kept going to church for a while after the incident, but, after a time, it seemed she just couldn't do it anymore. Despite all the support of her friends at church, her faith had seemed to just drift away from her like a leaf dropping from a tree in fall, carried away with hundreds of other brown leaves in a violent wind, carried beyond sight.

Now her Saturdays were spent visiting her boy down at the center. To be honest, he was no "boy" anymore, thirty years old, thirty goddamn years old now. Each Saturday she'd take the long bus ride down to the center where she'd help Bradley in and out of his wheelchair, into the bathtub and the special chrome and rubber apparatus to keep him upright, where she'd wash him with a big sponge, just like he was an infant, because he was thirty years old and he couldn't lift a finger to help himself now, her baby'd been paralyzed since the day that man had shot him.

It had been a long time since she'd wondered why. She'd accepted it, though at first it had been hard, very hard. But, recently, since the tragedy with Noah, the anger, the questioning had come back.

Why couldn't she give it up?

"I was just sitting there and he shot me," that's what the note to the doctor said, months after the shooting, after Bradley'd remembered it.

"He told me his friends were going to rob the man." That's what the newspaper columnist had said.

And for twelve years she had never known the truth. Is that what it was? Or had she just avoided it, afraid of what she might do if she found out that her son had not been innocent?

She sat at a chair by his bedside, spooning applesauce into Bradley's mouth. This was her time alone with her boy, before he joined all the others in the TV room, an assortment of men with mangled bodies, some from wars, some from accidents, some born that way, poor souls. A bit of the applesauce was dripping out of his mouth and she quickly moved the napkin to wipe away the line of yellow running down his chin.

"Bradley," she said. "Honey. I don't know why, but I could accept it all before, I could take it, whichever way it went. But it's been so long, so so long now. Boy, you're goin' be this way forever and, Lord help me, if you're even there at all, I got to know now. I need to know."

His eyes were on nothing, on the dim yellow wall in front of him. They moved now slowly toward his mother's face. Watery, tired, those eyes were eternally defeated, Betty thought. But why must I do this to him? Hasn't he gone through enough? Even if he did do it, was this what he had to pay for one bad choice, one mistake? Prison would have been better, at least he'd have the use of his body. It wasn't that. She just needed something now to grasp onto because the world seemed now, in her old age, to be spinning around her, slipping away from her crazily without any meaning. She needed some truth.

"Mama," he said, his lips barely moving, his glazed eyes fixed on her own. "Why?"

How could she explain it to him? It made no sense at all, nothing made any sense anymore. First him, and now Noah, killed only three months ago in a car crash. Noah, the one who had made it out of the ghetto, out of Brooklyn, out of New York. An accountant, with a smart, a pretty wife, two lovely children. How could anything make sense anymore in a world like this?

"I just need to know, son. I need to know. I'm getting too old and..." The tears were welling up in her, and she turned her face from him, opened her purse and grabbed a piece of tissue to wipe away the first tears that sprung to her cheeks. She got hold of herself then, putting on her strong face for Bradley. Why did she always have to be the strong one? Because there was no one else.

"No matter what you say, boy, it don't matter which way you go. You was just a boy then, maybe didn't know no better, or maybe did it just to go along with your friends. Maybe you was just being a boy from the ghetto, mad and tired of all the shit you had to take from the world, from the man. It wouldn't make it right, but it would help me some. Your daddy told so many lies to me for so long, the politicians tell so many lies, hell, even the preacher been telling so many people so many lies for so long, I just need to hear some truth for a change. Understand?"

Bradley looked at her for a moment, searching for something inside there. Then he nodded his head slowly.

"Okay," he said, "okay."

He licked his lips, and looked at her steadily with his large brown eyes. "It was like this. The guy was standing there, reading a newspaper. Tom and Darrell were checking the subway car out. They were short on cash, figured they could get someone to fork over a fiver, by way of intimidation. This other guy, Roger - Skate they called him - he had a screwdriver in his back pocket, took it out of his pocket and was approaching the guy with the paper, the two of us following behind, when the alien appeared."

Betty Porter was slow on the uptake. "The - what you say?"

"The alien. We were standing there and then, all the sudden, this green guy sort of just falls from the sky, you know, materializes in the car right in front of us. He had eyes big as the turkey eggs on Gramps' farm when we were little and they were popping out of his green face on little wire-like things. Naturally, everyone was scared as hell and some of the women started screaming and all.

"This guy with the newspaper, he put the paper down and pulled this big revolver out of his bag. He took aim at the green guy like he was some sort of balding Clint Eastwood. Then he fired. The green guy was gone by then. Then next thing I know I'm on the floor. It's all I remember."

His face was serious. Was he losing his mind, too, locked in this place for so long?, Betty wondered. Then the corners of his mouth started to turn up, and he was laughing, laughing, like it was the biggest joke in the world.

Before she knew what she was doing she reached out and, in a quick motion, slapped him hard on the face, which didn't stop him, made him laugh only harder.

Then she was on her feet, grabbing her purse off the chair. "You disgust me, Bradley, you know that? You think I need to do this every week of my life, and to you it's nothing but a big joke. Big joke, paralyzed for the rest of your life for some stupid stunt you pulled as a kid. How could you be so stupid? You know how much pain you've caused to so many people? Do you ever think about it?"

She was already heading for the door when he yelled to her, "I can't cry all the time, Mama. I mean, I'm the one stuck in this body, you ever thought about that before? You ever think I didn't pay for my mistakes and then some?"

But she didn't stop, she walked rapidly down the hall. The air was stifling, the sharp stench of Lysol and sickness hanging in the halls like smog. She couldn't breathe. She needed some air.

She walked to the one place she had always gone as a kid. Down by the river to her secret hideout. Funny, fifty-five years old and still thinking like a child. She walked down to the elm tree, the one with the big fork in the middle, amazed that with all the Dutch Elm that had gone around in the seventies that it was still there, had stayed strong and survived while so many others had died. It was quiet down here now on Sunday, the breeze blowing lightly, soothingly in the hot mid-March air.

There were sounds coming from up above, on the hill, of kids yelling, swings squeaking on the playground. But here, no one could see her. Still, she looked around before stepping over the fork of the ancient tree and trying to climb into its center. It was harder getting into than she had remembered, but then again the years had added some pounds to her. She found, however, that if she pulled one leg tight against the other, there was still room, she could just wedge herself into the secret space.

This was the place she had run to escape the fighting of her parents back in the bad old days of her youth, where she had run to when her mother had ended up in the hospital that time her dad had gotten too drunk and had come home accusing her, and flailing at her like a wild bear gone mad. It was where she had come when she was older, when Jimmy Dawkins had tried to touch her where he wasn't supposed to, and she'd wept hot tears onto the proud brown bark of this tree. How many tears of hers had the oak soaked up over the years? And still it stood tall, towering about the rest, reaching its arms to the sky. A lesson to be learned, she supposed, as she climbed out of the narrow hideout and stepped back on to the ground, looking up at the sky, an incredible ocean of blue with vast puffs of pillowy clouds floating high above.

She looked back at her tree, and stroked its rough bark. Then she noticed the little green buds on its branches. How had she missed them before?

She thought: I will be a tree, that's what I have to be. Then she spread her arms like branches in the oak's shadow, and stretched her fingers to the sky, to heaven. She stood tall like the dignified oak, her back erect, as the tears flooded her face. But beneath the tears, a smile grew as a new strength seemed to fill her now, and, standing stone still, she gazed, with a clarity she had never quite experienced before, at the wide deep blue sky.


  1. An excellent story, told convincingly and engaging the reader from beginning to end. Some people do seem to have more than their fair share of burdens to bear and your writing evokes sympathy for Betty, and admiration for her strength. Well done!

  2. a powerful story with real characters and with firm and convincing back stories, I like the ending, 'the little green buds', life goes on!

    Michael McCarthy

  3. An absorbing tale about the random hand of fate, and the dignity and strength that this mother achieves, in spite of everything. A reminder that the truth is not always ours to know, and that there are many truths in any case. Also there is no inherent fairness in what we have thrown at us. Well done,

    Ceinwen Haydon

  4. Excellent writing. You do dialogue so well. I get a good grip on your characters.