Clean Energy

by Matthew Zanoni Müller

Paul had woken early and come downstairs from his small room in the attic. He saw the door to his mother's room partly open and stood by it listening for breathing. He could feel their sleep; it was an invisible wall he was not allowed to break through. He pushed the door open farther and it squeaked. The room felt silent, and heavy, and wet. Blankets came into view, then his mother's face, turned up to the ceiling. After that it was Ian's leg, thrown over the cover. It had a tattoo on the calf, dark, with points and curves, like blades. His arm too, was across his mother. The door squeaked again. He saw her blink. Her eyes looked up and then found him.

"Get out of here Paul!" she whispered. "What are you doing?"

Paul grabbed the doorknob, waited for a second, and then slammed the door shut. He heard Ian's low voice as he ran down the hall.

He went to the living room and sat down. The silence there was lighter, but too persistent. He turned the television on and listened for the high pitched sound that leaked out of it constantly, above the regular sounds of voices and music, sound effects. It was easy to forget the sound was even there, but he liked not to forget, and kept listening for it.

The backdoor was open. Outside it was the beginning of summer. Through the grey mesh of the screen door, green bushes stood against the house, growing out over the path to the door. Beyond that, heat and green lawn, fruit trees, and insects buzzing. Inside on the green rug, Paul lay on his stomach, the television at a slight angle to the left in front of him.

He heard his mother's door open, then the bathroom door close. He tried not to listen. The water ran for a shower. Ten minutes later his mother came and stood in the doorway, her hair in a towel.

"You can't just come in and look at us. That room is private okay?"

"I wasn't looking," he said, staring at the television.

"Then what were you doing?"

Paul moved his hand around in a circle on the carpet in front of him. "Seeing if you were up."

She studied him from the door. "Well, knock next time. You can't just come into that room anymore."

Paul didn't say anything.

His mother brought him a bowl of cereal from the kitchen and placed it on the rug in front of him. "Breakfast, for my sneaky son." She was smiling, he could tell, but he did not look up.

"I need a spoon," he said.

For a moment she didn't move, as if she was going to say something, but then she went and got him his spoon and walked back to her bedroom, where he could hear their voices.

He continued staring at the television and remembered the trip they had taken to the lake, when his father's green work van had broken down in the driveway, and his father couldn't fix it, and then his mother went and got Ian, who was a mechanic, and he did it. His father had put his hand on Ian's shoulder and thanked him, the way he sometimes put it on Paul's. When they got to the lake his mother didn't spend any time with them, not even during lunch. She went and sat at a different table, and bought food from the stand instead of eating the bean salad his father had made. Later, she swam out into the lake, dipped under the buoys and kept going. She pushed out with a steady breaststroke, and Paul called for her, and called, until his father came, and they watched her getting smaller and smaller.

The television was beginning to fill him up and he could feel his legs tingling with the need to do something. He knew if he kept watching he would get more and more tired, and he liked that. Soon the outside would become a buzzing wall of brightness without any substance to it that was too anemic for him to want to go out into. He would be too tired to do anything there. He would only want to watch more television, which sucked him in, and kept him there, because it did everything for him.

The television had come when his father had left.

"He'll want to kill me for buying this," his mother said. "But I'm the one with custody."

His father was the one who had planted all the fruit trees in the backyard and who had started the garden. Paul was the helper, and they were in the garden together many afternoons. His father was tall, with long sandy hair. He always wore sandals in the summer, his long yellow toenails pointing out, and jean shorts all frayed at the bottom. When his father cooked dinners made entirely of the food from the garden, Paul ran around the kitchen screaming, "It's ours, it's ours."

His father also had a workshop in the garden shed, where he made wooden toys and spoons and bowls, cutting boards and rocking horses. Paul still had his rocking horse, and he moved to it after finishing his cereal and rocked back and forth while he watched television.

The television was impossible to ignore. Once it was on, he couldn't look away. In the beginning it had always been his mother that turned it on, but now he did it too, and whatever was happening on the screen, even if it was boring, he watched it, waiting for the next thing that might come on, which could be more exciting.

His mother came in once from visiting Ian next door and said, "That hippie father of yours would not be happy with me now."

Sensing that hippie was a bad thing in his mother's eyes he said, "Dad's not a hippie."

"Is too, a burnt out old hippie."

A darkness came down from the ceiling and tightened in his chest. His mother was a dark form standing in the brightness of the doorway and he didn't know what to do to knock it the right away. He wanted the hard silhouette of her to break apart and become light in the doorway. He wouldn't look at her, and knew she was saying something else but didn't listen. He ran outside.

From the backyard he could see the shadow of his mother flipping through the channels on the television and he decided he would never watch it ever again, not even if he was curious. He opened the gate to the garden and stomped in, walking on the beds, which were covered in weeds. He got on his knees and started ripping them out.

His father's face was close, talking to him, and to the plants, and looking down at the dirt, and he could smell the fullness of his father's breath, all of the breakfast in it. His fingers were digging into the soil, as deep as they could go, to wrestle out the dandelions. You've got to pull them out by the root Pauly, like this. His father's hair fell down across his face as he yanked and loosened, grinning slowly at his son, and holding the root, like the legs of some small creature, white, and grown together, so it couldn't walk, up above the ground, where it dangled.

Paul couldn't get them all, not the big ones, but slowly he started clearing a bed. The blood was flowing in him now and he felt it building against the reflective window of the house, and each weed he pulled out was adding to it, and it made a fullness inside of him, his accomplishment growing as the cleared brown space expanded around him, clear, getting clear, and filling him. He was getting excited.

After that, he looked up only once to stare at the window, behind which his mother and Ian and were vague figures that he wasn't sure he was actually seeing, and that were, somehow, against him.

He stayed outside all the way until dinner, when his mother called him back in. He hesitated to move. "Come on Pauly. Come on in."

"Don't call me Pauly!"

"Okay grumpy. Okay Mr. Grump," then she turned in the door. He looked around at the yard and the fence with the higher grass growing along its sides and then he jumped up and ran in. "Sit there next to Ian, the news is about to come on," his mother said. Ian slapped the couch four times next to him and grinned at Paul and began to talk to him about cars as he sat down and looked at the television. He had already broken his promise not to watch television, and it had only been an afternoon. But he couldn't get up now. He imagined that Ian would grab his arm, and pull him back down. Ian, though a little bit hyper, was a practical man, according to Paul's mother, because he was a mechanic and had steady, reliable work. But while he talked about cars, leaning toward Paul to make sure he was listening, Paul felt like his voice was trying to break in and to pin him down. Ian's legs were bouncing the whole time and his voice was often high pitched, and he'd say "Wham! Baby's gone—that fast!" He was talking about a racecar he was working on for a friend.

The next day, Paul went out weeding again, but this time it didn't last as long, he didn't have as much energy, and it felt more like work. The pile growing next to him didn't fill him with the same excitement it had the day before, it wasn't quite as connected to him somehow, no longer adding something with each new weed he pulled. By the time it was dinner, he had already been in the living room for two hours watching television. And besides, even if he had finished the beds, he didn't have any seeds to plant in them.


Paul heard his mother getting lunch ready in the kitchen. He had been watching television all morning and had moved from his rocking horse to the couch. Ian had left hours ago to help his friend because Saturday was racecar day. When he saw Paul on his rocking as he went to the door he had galloped around the living room and screamed "Yeehaw! Yeehaw!"  Now, hours later, Paul lay slouched against the cushions with a throbbing headache. The sounds from the television were thick and heavy and kept building on one another.  A whole morning's worth of voices and images had lodged itself inside of him, growing bigger and bigger until he felt as if he could barely move. His mother came into the room, looked from his face to the television and said, "That's it, that's enough now, you've watched too much. No more television. Not for a while anyway."

She walked to the television set and turned it off. The picture disappeared into a hole. His mother went back into the kitchen. The new silence in the room was completely empty. It itched at him. The noises from outside were strong but he couldn't face them, wind and cars passing and somewhere a lawnmower, and birds too. He wanted the television on again; he needed it to drag him away. But he wasn't allowed. Slowly he got back up and started rocking on his horse, which was too small for him. He felt far away from everything, as if he were too light. Slowly, as he rocked back and forth, a rhythm began to bring him back, and he could feel his blood begin to flow. The whole morning of television sat inside him like a latched up metal box. He began rocking faster and faster to lift it out of himself. He became excited by his rocking and with his feet lifted himself and the horse forward across the room. It was easy, and he noticed that he could go fast.

He bounced his way into the kitchen where his mother was chopping vegetables and started riding through the kitchen yelling, "Yeehaw, Yeehaw," like he had seen Ian do, and a cartoon cowboy do, shooting off imaginary guns at the ceiling. He circled and corralled his mother who kept telling him to stop, to be quiet, he was going to break the horse, but he could feel his stomach turning into an electric box and shooting it up into his arms and all of that energy inside him was so tight, and backed with so much pressure, that he had to ride wildly, to flail and flex every muscle, to shout as loudly as he could, to scream against the room.

But that was it, his mother said, that was too much. Was this what he had been like in school recently? Was that why the teacher had recommended drugs? It isn't any wonder. "Out you go, outside, and don't come back until you're calm."

He ran out into the grass, stopped, then fell and rolled around, rubbing his face into it. He looked around him at the overgrown yard. Ian had mowed it once but hadn't finished the back quarter of the yard, where Paul's father's old workshop stood. It was now sunk in waist high grass. Paul walked right into it, even though it was almost as tall as his head. He didn't like looking at his father's workshop anymore so he walked around to the back of it, where the six solar panels his father had been given were leaning against the wall, covered by a blue tarp, part of which had come loose and uncovered a section of the first two.

After his father had explained how the solar panels took the light from the sun and used its energy to make things like the fridge work, and the lights turn on, Paul had sometimes lain in the grass, spread out, hoping the sun would fill him up in the same way. He remembered this now, and ran back to the shorter grass where he stretched himself out. "The sun is a powerful thing, Pauly," his father had said. "And if we open ourselves to it, we can all of its light inside of us." He closed his eyes and let the sun shine into him. Its light was a deep orange through his eyelids, and he let the warmth come in until it felt like it was pressing, like a blanket, and he let it spread.

A little while later his mother called him in from the kitchen. She said Ian was coming. "I hope you're calm," she shouted into the yard.

For a moment Paul was angry and disappointed, but then he remembered about all of the light shining inside of him now, all the warmth he felt through his eyelids. He jumped up and ran into the house.

"Look what I can do mom," he said. "I can make everything work, just by touching it."

He ran to the refrigerator and placed his hands against it, letting the light stream out, then opened the door and let the cool air out into the hot room. The light switch was next, which he turned on and off; then the radio and the clock, the television in the other room. His mother too: he put his hands on her stomach, which flexed and tried to turn away. She was the hardest because of how much light she needed, but he had enough and knew where to get more. He ran through the house touching everything, turning it on and off. His mother told him to stop, stop doing that.

"But don't you see," he answered, "it's because of the light inside me mom, can't you see?" and he flickered the porch light before running out to touch Ian on the arm, who was coming up the path, and then the garden hose, and the sprinkler, waving it around, and then his biggest ambition, the whole house.

"What's his problem?" Ian asked as he skipped up the porch.

"I have no idea," Paul's mother said. "But I can't control him at all anymore, it's like there's something wrong with him." They watched him for a second in perplexed silence.

Paul was hugging the house along the sidewall, and in the road a car passed, and then was gone.

BIO: Matthew Zanoni Müller was born in Bochum, Germany and grew up in Eugene, Oregon and Upstate New York. He received his MFA from Warren Wilson’s MFA Program for Writers and teaches at his local Community College. His work has appeared in DecomP MagazinE, Prick of the Spindle, Halfway Down the Stairs, MiCrow, Used Furniture Review, RED OCHRE LiT, Literary Bohemian, Boston Literary Magazine and numerous other magazines and journals. To learn more about his writing, please visit: www.matthewzanonimuller.com