Cubalub, my son woke up saying the last time he was home. Cubalub in his calloused, cigarette-torn voice. I started to like how he said it, liked how he spoke as if it were something obvious, a given, a garnish on top life.
“Cubalub,” he said over my croissant.
“Ha,” I chuckled. “What does it mean?”
“Cubalub,” he said. “Cubalub. Cubalub. Cubalub.”
He left me with crumbs around my mouth, my plate. And he left.
I asked the guys at the hardware store. The men might know.
“Chubaloob?” one of them questioned. “Sounds like a water park down in Easton.”
“Sounds like an old steam train,” another one said. The older one, the one with the dying dog who lay by the store window, nose to tail. In a crescent moon, weeping doggy cries.
“Maybe it’s just a millennial thing,” I told them. “Some kind of code they use.”
“I don’t know, lady,” the older one said. “Listen, are you gonna buy anything?” He was looking at his dog as he talked.
I nervously bought something handy looking so they wouldn’t be mad.
“A crescent wrench?” Lonnie looked at the tool as if it were alien. “I already got one,” he said.
“Well, now you have two.” I didn’t want to explain to him the irrational purchase—how I was afraid to leave the hardware shop empty-handed. Or the dog. I didn’t want to tell him about the old man and his dog. Or Cubalub. Not yet, at least. He’d find out on his own time.
My husband picked up the wrench from out its plastic bag and swung it around like a hammer or a weapon.
“Don’t strain your rotator cuff,” I suggested. He had had surgeries.
“A crescent wrench,” he repeated. “Okay. I can make it work.”
He swung and swung, like he were misunderstanding the tool.
I went to the library and typed in Cubalub. The computer asked if I meant Kublah-Kahn. I wanted to tell it I wasn’t sure. Instead, I clicked on Kublah-Kahn. I peered over my shoulders to ensure nobody was looking at my computer. Something about what I was doing felt very secretive, sensitive. I had a sudden fear come over me that my son was behind me, disappointed I didn’t trust him. Or wasn’t looking for him, but the word. No, I wanted to explain, it’s not that I don’t trust you. I just want to know more about you.
I turned the computer off. I sketched the word Cubalub in my calendar, over April 3rd. It was only January now. Maybe I wanted something to look forward to.
I dreamt about Cubalub. Not that I knew what it was, but when I woke up, I knew. There were tin houses, clay colored, and a vat in the center of town: ochre. My son was being dragged there, tied to a stretcher, screaming, “Cubalub! Cubalub!” Screaming at me, watching him dragged from somewhere far off. Towards the vat. Steam coming from its lid and Cubalub sketched on its side. Sloppily written. Done with a mis-handled tool.
He was still screaming the word, but now it was in another language. How? It was in another language, I knew. Chinese? Portuguese? Cubalub!
I woke up in tears before they had gotten him to the vat. The room was still. Lonnie still asleep in the guest room. Our son still away. I walked into the kitchen to find a glass of water. I didn’t want to make any noise, disrupt the quiet, clean rooms. I poured two glasses of water. I drank one and left the glass in the sink, took the other into my son’s room. It was tidy for once. I decided to look in his closet. It’s funny how many years had passed since I’d looked in my own son’s closet.
There was clay spread across the closet shelf. Red clay, like they use on tennis courts. I didn’t know. I didn’t know what he was doing with all this tennis court clay. Small mounds of it spread out as if a community were being haphazardly built. His junior league trophy in the center. The small golden man on top, motioning to serve.
I smiled. Wanted to tell him I was proud, that no matter what happens, I’m proud.
I left the glass of water by his bed. He wasn’t home, but maybe when he got back he’d want it. I left it right by his bed, because I thought, maybe he’d want it there.
Notes from Guest Reader Christopher Allen
Alex Eaker masters the balancing act between humor and pathos in this story about language and family. It makes me want to call my mother.