Some of my brothers and sisters were next door watching Saturday cartoons in front of the Farraghers’ color TV. I was upstairs listening to No Secrets on the ToonTyme Deluxe record player that Aunt Elaine and Uncle Steve sent for my eleventh birthday. Mom had used eyeliner to sign for that delivery, and instead of her real name she wrote The Poor Relation.
Halfway through the record my four-year old sister Honor knocked on my bedroom door about thirty times. I ignored her and continued listening to the music, pretending I was Carly Simon. I pictured my gym teacher Mr. Boudreaux watching me sing in Carly’s cool floppy hat, with her feathery hair and the nipples that showed through her blouse on the album cover. Mr. Boudreaux stared up at me with his blue eyes, shocked by my talent.
Honor’s little fist kept banging. I shut the record off. “Go away.”
“Mommy’s making a fire,” said Honor, talking into the key-hole.
I looked out the window. A hubcap that Harry had tossed onto the Farraghers’ roof last year shone in the sun. I opened the door and smelled smoke in the air but the hallway was clear. “Where? Downstairs?”
Honor’s snarly hair looked like a brown wig. As she nodded the long back piece moved up and down without touching her neck. She ran to the top of the stairs, keeping her eyes on me. It was time to be scared, but I felt sleepy. Carly Simon’s slim bones hung beneath my skin. I took my sister’s hand. “It’s ok Honor-Bee.”
We ran downstairs, then through the dining-room and kitchen, into the den where a little candle on the windowsill lit the edge of one of the curtains. My mother knelt on the carpet near the TV with her eyes shut tight and her arms hanging at her sides. Candlepins for Cash was on and a thin curl of dark smoke crept slowly towards us.
“Harry,” I whispered, even though my older brother was not home.
“Harry’s not home,” Honor said, watching my face.
I grabbed the sleeve of Honor’s shirt and twisted the cloth. “Mom?” I said, scared that she would hear and turn to me. In school we learned the four biggest mistakes to make in a fire but I couldn’t think of anything except the numbers 1, 2, 3, 4.
“I’ll blow it out,” Honor said, whipping past me. She made two tight fists and blew in the direction of the flame as if it were a birthday cake. The flame grew, melting the curtain’s pattern of farmers pitching hay in a field. I ran to the kitchen to fill something with water but a gallon jug of milk sat out on the counter so I snatched that.
I swung the jug at the curtains, the couch, the walls, everything. The milk hissed when it hit the flame, splashing my shoes and dousing my mother’s hair. I knocked over a lamp sloshing the milk in the air, but even that didn’t get to the top ruffle. My mother stood up and began swatting at the curtain with a magazine. A broken umbrella poked out from under the coffee table and I used it to rip the curtain down onto the wet rug where Honor, my mother and I all stomped on it together.
When the fire was completely out my mother fell into the upholstered chair, letting out a deep sigh. “The Mother of God was here in this room,” she said. Drops of milk trickled down along the sides of her face. Honor kept stomping around in circles and puffing at the rug.
“Smell that?” Mom asked. She leaned forward and took hold of Honor’s wrist, pulling her close. “Roses. That’s the sign of Our Lady.”
I fell back onto the couch, breathing in the stink of charred fabric. “It’s nice,” I said. The muscles in my legs twitched and my stomach felt nauseated.
Honor inhaled and held her breath for a few seconds, making her chest puff out like a bird. “Mommy, look. I’m smelling Our Lady!”
“This is a great, great blessing,” Mom said, standing. Before heading upstairs to her room she picked up the Ellery Queen magazine that she had used against the fire, taking it with her.
A few days later I came home from school and found two big machines in the living room. One said Carp-O-Vac across the front, the other had a round blade attached to it. I stayed in my room until I heard Harry come home, then I went up to the attic, knocked on his door, and went in.
“What are those things downstairs?” I asked.
Harry lay on his bed reading Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and he didn’t look up. The sleeves of his black raincoat were too short, but he always wore it, even indoors. I removed dirty socks and a Zippy the Pinhead comix from a bean-bag chair and flopped into it. Some beans spilled from a ripped seam.
“Aunt Elaine and Uncle Steve. Driving here. Sunday.” Harry turned a page and continued reading.
“Um, ballet dancing. Or praying to a saint that makes your house disappear.”
“I think we should help her.”
“With what? Craziness?”
I said, “Maybe she could get better.”
Harry looked at me. He got irritated when I wanted to talk about things. He didn’t see why he couldn’t just have his own separate life up in his room.
“Maybe they could all be in the study the whole time,” I said.
No response from my brother.
The first-floor study was the only clean room and my father stayed locked inside it with whiskey and Tareytons. When other professors came over he would lead them through the living room as if it was the front yard.
“You know what Dad does? Harry? Pours whiskey in the Sylvester and Tweety glass, up to the top.” Harry glanced at me but I kept talking. “He downs it.”
“Who cares. Quit telling me.”
“I wonder if they’ll get a divorce,” I said, changing the subject. I couldn’t stand to think of my father like that anyway, standing at the kitchen sink. His messy hair and bare feet. Maybe he would die.
“You think they’re sorry they got married?” I asked.
Alone in the study my father sometimes said poetry out loud in his ‘dramatic’ voice, pretending to be an actor on stage. Thinking about him pretending made me feel bad and I stopped picturing it.
“So, Mom…” I said. Harry’s Jeff Beck poster above his bed only had one tack in it and it peeled in on the sides. It had never lain flat on the wall since he had it.
Harry leaned back on his elbows. “Yeah, Mom,” he said.
I dug at the ripped seam of the bean-bag with my fingers, making the hole worse. If I stepped on Harry’s mattress I could reach up and spread the poster with my hands and hold it like that. I didn’t do it though, I was too tired. “Think Aunt Elaine will drag little cousin Sylvia along?” I said.
“Who cares? They’re all idiots. Sylvia’s an idiot.”
Aunt Elaine bought Sylvia fancy dresses that made her look like a tiny couch. Also, Sylvia collected antique dolls in a glass case by her canopy bed.
“We have to help Mom prepare,” I said, and stood up. “What are those machines anyway?”
“Mine-sweepers,” said Harry. “Stay and have a butt. I got fresh ones.”
I took a Tareyton from a blue pencil box on his desk. Harry didn’t like to smoke alone. It was his one social activity. I lit up and we passed the cigarette back and forth without speaking. Outside on the roof ledge a row of pigeons rustled around in the cold.
“You coming downstairs?”
“No way. I’m staying right here till Sunday, and I’ll blow up this room if anybody tries to clean it.”
“C’mon Harry,” I said, but his face had changed.
“Forget it,” he said. “I have nothing to do with them.” His eyes were gray, the same color as my mother’s. He looked a lot like her. I put a cigarette in my sleeve for later, and went back to my room.
I took off my shoes, got under the covers and played He’s a Runner off my Laura Nyro album. Lying under the sheet I had no body below the chin, just a head floating in the dark, eyes open, thinking. Every few breaths I smelled my clothes and the sheets and me mixed together until I couldn’t tell which was which, but I liked it.
In my left hand I held an Oreo from the bag in my bottom drawer. I broke the cookie and dropped the bigger half in a bowl filled with bleach that I kept next to my bed. The rest I ate in twelve micro-bites, counting eighteen chews for each one. The Oreo lasted until the end of the first side of the record and onto part of the second side, an improvement over the previous day. I had to eat a smaller piece every day until the piece lasted one whole album.
By the time my mother returned home with the little kids I was back in the den watching The Brady Bunch. My younger brothers and Honor threw down big shopping bags and raced to get seats in front of the TV. As usual Honor sat with her face pressing the screen “to see in back of the people” so my brothers each took her by the arms and legs and hoisted her on me. We all had coats on because the den was a cold place that sank lower than the rest of the house. Once it snowed in the den when a pipe that ran along the ceiling broke and the steam turned to white frost.
The burned curtain smell was still there, but faded.
We watched the episode where Greg falls in love with his math teacher, but it turns out he doesn’t stand a chance. Everybody imitated characters on the show and in the commercials.
My mother came in and stood in front of me. “Your Aunt Elaine called this afternoon. Your uncle and she are coming. Isn’t that nice? And you’ll see your cousin Sylvia.”
I followed her to the living room.
“Gotta clear the decks. Completely re-decorate,” she said.
“What are you going to do Mom?”
My mother’s face was red from outdoors, and static held up strands of her black hair. She looked at me with great interest.
“Watch out honey,” she said, then she reached over the couch to plug in a fat wire connected to the Carp-O-Vac. The thing started up. She grabbed the handles and went to work like a farmer ploughing a small field. The machine was so big she had to stand on the plate that covered the whirling brush, otherwise it would’ve spun away and banged into a wall. The water in the attached bucket turned to black ooze every few minutes and had to be emptied in the toilet, where it plopped thickly. By the third cleaning, the rug looked like wet orange dog fur. I took over and gave it a try. It was like driving a five-ton dentist’s drill with no brakes or steering.
At last my mother shut the machine off for good and stood resting on the handle bars, just staring, saying nothing. My ears rang in the quiet. Five or six brown stains remained on the rug.
“I’ll rip it all up,” she said.
“What? Rip what up?”
She faced me, concentrating her gaze on my left shoulder as if the stripes on my turtleneck were related to her problem with the stains.
“Oh never mind,” she said.
‘What about the red chair?” I said. I shoved the recliner to the middle of the room. It covered one spot. “See? Magic.”
My mother smiled, examining me. She said, “You’re awfully dirty, Kate.” She wagged her head at my corduroys. “Those pants aren’t becoming. I want you presentable on Sunday.”
I pulled my stomach in and looked down at the rug. I was sorry I moved the chair for her.
My mother went to answer the phone and I noticed Honor peering at me in the doorway. Her doll Flipper hung by its hair from Honor’s fist. I sat in the recliner and pulled my legs up under me. Honor sat on the rug, making Flipper sit too. Flipper was a big, sexy doll, naked except for high heels that grew right out of her curved feet. Her left eye bounced open and shut when Honor touched her.
“You wear dirty pants,” she said.
I froze, then jumped off the chair and stuck my face in close to my sister’s. “Shut up, rathead.”
Honor hummed and rocked back and forth with her eyes shut which made me hate her. I grabbed Flipper by the neck.
“Gimme!” she screamed, but I didn’t. I had to squeeze the doll harder and harder until my hands shook. Honor used all her weight to pull on Flipper’s legs, trying to save her, but I was so much bigger and nothing could stop me as I crushed with all my power. Honor made strange whimpering noises like a dog that needs to go out. I wanted to let go but I couldn’t keep my fingers off the hard little neck.
Flipper’s head popped off and flew across the room. Honor was totally silent but her mouth opened so wide a trickle of spit dropped onto the rug. I looked inside the doll body at the reverse shape of Flipper’s torso and long hollow legs. It seemed wrong that light was getting in there.
“I didn’t do it on purpose,” I said.
Honor was still rocking with her mouth open. I went to hug her but she punched my ankle, hard, and then held out her palm. I went to get the head and placed it carefully in her hand.
That night we all stayed up through the night cleaning. Me and Harry started in on the kitchen, where three missing overhead tiles exposed pieces of an old, higher ceiling. Harry unfolded the blades of his Swiss Army knife, extending them like joints of a metal insect. He seemed mainly interested in attacking black sticky stuff that covered the cabinets near the stove in the shape of an explosion. This mess happened about a year ago when our “Kwik-Fix” pressure cooker blew up after being left on for days. The steel pot’s whistling spigot had turned into a volcano of boiling soup that shellacked half the kitchen and stuck to the blades of the smoke fan. Harry started scraping at it now with his knife. “This is heinous,” he said, cracking up. We made up names to describe it, like Mount Kwik-Fix and Satan’s Chowder, until it was hard to talk from laughing. Harry dug in a drawer and found the pressure cooker brochure, showing me a page that read: SAVORY STEWS—IN NOTHING FLAT! I got a Brillo and scrubbed while Harry gouged off wooden varnish trying to loosen the biggest chunks of goo.
My father came downstairs at around three am and told everyone to go to bed. Honor had snuck down earlier and lay on a blanket near the bottom step. Dad leaned over to pick her up but then he didn’t, maybe because she was so quiet there, asleep with her fingers curled around Flipper’s duct-taped neck. Harry just kept scraping but I wanted to ask if Mom was going back to the hospital.
“What about Sunday?” I asked.
I waited while my father filled a large glass of water at the faucet and drank it in one long swig, and then poured some whiskey and drank that. “We’ll keep to the parlor,” he said. “We’ll have parlor games.” He winked at me like this was a secret joke and headed for his study with a book tucked under his arm.
Harry and I worked for awhile, then stopped to make toast with butter, onion and sugar, and went to watch TV. We flipped channels every few minutes, alternating between the New England Farm Report and a cartoon show about a family shaped like balloons. When the sky outside turned silvery I went upstairs.
I pulled the shades down in my room to block out that it was time to get ready for school. In the mirror I saw how my crocheted vest bulged in front where the fat pushed out. The whole reason I chose this vest as my back-to-school purchase was that it hid my stomach, so I wore it every day over everything. Now I saw that my brain had tricked me. I grabbed a piece of the fat and imagined I had the electric turkey-carving knife from downstairs. But I just went back to bed with the pillow on my face. Even then some light got in, swirls of red behind my eyelids. I reached my hand into the bowl of bleach and touched my lip, making a blister, slippery and numb, that I could rub over and over.
When the Lincoln Continental appeared in our driveway on Sunday we all crowded to watch from the living room window. Harry had on a clean shirt under his raincoat, and my father wore his tweed professor jacket with elbow patches. I had my vest on over a peasant blouse with the buttons left undone, and Mom wore a blue sleeveless dress with pearls and orange frosted lipstick. She looked much younger than her age, which was forty-two.
She said, “I didn’t see that paint chipping on the porch. Elaine’ll notice it first thing.”
“Quick! Let’s paint the house before they get out of the car,” said Harry.
My parents greeted Aunt Elaine, Uncle Steve and Sylvia at the side entrance, to bypass the kitchen. My mother kissed Aunt Elaine on both cheeks, and their faces close together showed they were sisters, except that Elaine was on the fat side, with a white stripe running through her dark hair.
Mom held Sylvia’s hands in hers, shaking her head while saying “My my.”
Uncle Steve said “Hiya!” to everybody and pretended to punch Harry’s arm a few times like a boxer.
Sylvia had on a velvet dress but she was taller than me now, with feathered bangs.
“Hi,” she said.
All the adults smoked except my mother. My father played Nina Simone and Louis Armstrong records while Mom served sliced ham, salad, rolls and angel food cake. Honor did a crazy jig to Strutting With Some Bar-B-Q, and Aunt Elaine said we would all be stars of stage and screen.
Harry vanished as soon as he’d finished a huge plate of ham and cake. A little later his friend Peter came in through the front door and ran up the stairs. I wanted to go to the attic too, but if I helped Mom replenish cocktails and pass the dessert, Aunt Elaine wouldn’t have a reason to nose around in the kitchen. We had a close call when Aunt Elaine stood up, “to go find Steve a little Schweppes.” My mother practically shoved her back in her chair. “Kate’s got it, Elaine. Katie, honey, bring your uncle the cold Schweppes out of the fridge.”
We managed to block off the den, the kitchen, and the back hall, which was packed with about two years worth of mildewed laundry. The house got dark as soon as the sun set because we used candles instead of overhead lights. “Dark hides things,” Mom said, and she was right. You could hardly see a foot in front of you. I saw the opportunity and stole cigarettes like mad. Sylvia spied me at least once.
Things seemed to be going smoothly so I stayed in the kitchen for a while, eating, and then I bolted towards Harry’s room, figuring the coast was clear now that everyone had had lots of cocktails.
On the landing outside the upstairs bathroom I heard noise, like crying, and I stopped. It sounded like my mother, the same low moaning, but then Mom’s voice spoke clearly behind the shut door, soothing someone. It was Aunt Elaine in there with Mom. I listened so hard my breath stopped. Aunt Elaine must have gotten to the kitchen. She must have found out about us.
But she said things I didn’t understand, blubbering the words out, “I’ve known about her for a year, but I haven’t let on. I don’t know what to do.”
“You poor darling,” said my mother. “You poor lamb.”
“Promise you won’t say anything,” said Aunt Elaine, and she burst out crying again. “Twenty-six. For Heaven’s sake. How do I compete with twenty-six?”
I sat down on the landing. The bathroom door was covered in cracked, peeling layers of paint that I sometimes picked at like dead skin. Now I stared at the cracks, unable to move even though my mother or Aunt Elaine might walk out any second.
A little sound made me turn and see Sylvia two steps down from me on the stairs. We looked at each other and I realized she had been there a while. The crying in the bathroom got louder and louder. I tried to think of a comment.
Sylvia removed something from a pocket tucked into the elaborate folds of her clothing. “You know a place we could smoke these?” She asked, handing me a full pack of Kents.
“Sure,” I answered, and led her up to Harry’s room.
Harry opened the door with a wild swing. Loud music filled the room and he held a bowl filled with mixed nuts. “Adults only,” he said.
“Shut up and let us in.” I waved the pack in front of his face.
Harry bowed low, and a little unsteadily. “Ladies, welcome to the Esquire Club!”
Talking over the radio, I introduced Sylvia to Peter, who sat in the bean bag drinking one of the beers my father got especially for the visit. “Hello Sylvia,” he said.
“Hi,” she replied, placing herself on a chair without seeming to notice its broken back. Her dress opened out like a parachute. We all smoked for something to do.
Then Sylvia got up to examine an old GI Joe on Harry’s desk. “Does he still play with dolls?” She asked me, lifting one of her eyebrows. She seemed older and more sophisticated than us. Still holding the GI Joe, she returned to the broken chair. I sat next to her on a pillow.
“Hey,” Harry said.
“Sylvia,” I said, “that is not a doll. That GI Joe is a highly-trained action hero with life-like hair. Feel the hair.”
“Ooh la la.” She shook her bangs out of her eyes.
“A little respect,” Harry said, chuckling.
The song Will it Go Round in Circles came on and we blasted it. Sylvia took her patent-leather shoes off and asked “Who wants to dance?” and I wondered how much time we had until somebody came looking for us.
MARY MCGRAIL is co-editor of Too Darn Hot: Writing About Sex Since Kinsey.
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