The Things I Used to Do - Part Six
This is the end, my friends... well, the last of the chapters I'm gonna share here. If everything goes right - meaning, if all the stars and moons align, and if my boys can figure out how to make their own supper for the next week - The Things I Used to Do will be available for purchase in book and e-reader formats on Amazon NEXT FRIDAY! Thanks so much to all of you who've been following me for the past four months now... its been a real hoot!
June: Chapter Five
The Things that Happen at Dinner with Gramma Ike
The water ripples like it’s being pushed and pulled by something I can’t see. It can’t be because of a breeze because there isn’t any. Today’s even worse than yesterday as far as the weather goes, if that’s even possible.
(Of course I came back. You shouldn’t be surprised by this. Not at all. I mean, you were almost thirteen once, too, weren’t you?)
“Bass,” I whisper again. I’m not exactly sure why I’m whispering, except that it seems somehow wrong to yell his name out for just anyone to hear. Not that anyone else is hanging around, but you never know. I don’t see him anywhere. Honestly, I’m not sure if I can see him, or if I’m supposed to. Maybe the first time was just a fluke, a trick of the light, a misalignment* of time and space, like something from Star Trek. A wormhole.
“Bass,” I say, pretty loud this time.
He comes from inside the culvert, his feet moving through the water without making a splash. That funny, buzzy sort-of feeling starts to build up inside of me, getting sharper as he comes into view. He’s here, the same as before, wearing the same grayed-out shorts and shoes. And he’s smiling.
“Hi, Maybe Best,” he says.
(It’s impossible, I know it is, but I already love the way my name sounds coming from his mouth. It’s like finally understanding forever. Don’t ask me what I mean by this - I wouldn’t be able to tell you, even if I had the words).
I duck my head like Tater does when he’s nervous. Just now, I realize why he does it: It’s because he doesn’t want to be disappointed.
“Hi, Bass.” My words come out high and squeaky like a little kid’s. The darkness of the culvert is behind him. Through him. He comes clear to the edge where the water spills out into the Hole. It’s a thin trickle today, probably because we haven’t had any rain. Drier than a nun’s pussy, I heard Dad say to Jimbo just last week when he thought I couldn’t hear. He sits down at the edge, his feet dangling. Water runs through his leg and foot. He points to his left, at the wide, dry space on the other side of the culvert.
“Sit a spell, with me. Willya, Maybe?” he asks. I eye him. He swings his legs and looks at me, his face open. I duck my head again. I let out a thick stream of air I don’t even realize I’m holding in.
“Why not?” And so we sit on the edge of the culvert. Pieces of the rusty metal poke hard into my butt. I don’t say anything though, because I didn’t want to spoil everything over something so small. We both swing our legs. His are grayish/white, like the rest of him, and the downy hair glows silvery in the sunlight.
I’m having a hard time coming up with a topic of conversation. I’ve never been loquaciously* inclined. Not like Sylvy, that’s for sure.
“So how’d you get your name?” I ask, when I finally think of something to say. He just shrugs.
“Is it because you like to fish?” I ask, pressing him.
“I’ll tell you that story some other time,” he says, looking down at his shorts.
(I hate to say it, but when he says this all I can think is that he sounds like all of the adults in my life, the ones who don’t tell me shit, the ones who keep me in the dark about every little thing I’m supposed to know. It makes me feel annoying and annoyed, both at the same time. And I’ll tell you this - I really, really don’t like this feeling. Not at all).
I kick my feet, irritated and a little sad. My armpits are wet and so is the band under my bra. It’s hot. So freakin’ hot.
“It’s nice, sitting in the sun,” he says. His face is lifted up and his eyes, his gray eyes, are closed.
“Hmm,” I say, my lips closed. I know I’m precariously* close to sounding like Gramma Ike, but he’s wrong - it’s not nice sitting in the sun, just out of reach of the shade. Not that it’s that cool in the shade either, but at least it’s better.
“Can you even feel it?” I ask, then bite hard at my lip because I’m worried that I’ve said the wrong thing. Again. His laugh bubbles up from somewhere deep.
“Of course. Not like you can,” he says, his eyes touching on my shiny face. “But sure, I can feel it. It’s nice after being in the dark for so long.” He closes his eyes again and I’m able to get a good look at him.
My first impression was correct: he’s not handsome. His face is too long and his head is too big for his body and his ears and his hair both stick out from it. He is so thin that I can see the shadow of his ribs and his nose has a hump on it, like its been broken. But even with his eyes closed, his face is so nice. It’s soft around the lips and eyes, right where it counts.
“Where were you?” I ask.
“I’m not sure. I don’t know where it was, but if you can imagine nothing as a place, that might be it.” I close my own eyes, against the dolorous* heat and try to imagine this, but I can’t. Music creeps in, heat creeps in, the red-orange color behind my eyelids creeps in and then the people, my people - Dad and Jimbo, Sylvy, Aunt Dorrie and Uncle Ricky, Gramma Ike - they follow. There’s no way for me to keep them out.
“I can’t,” I open my eyes. He’s looking at me.
“Nor should you. An almost thirteen-year-old shouldn’t know these things.” He has the tiniest smile on his lips.
“How’d you know?” I lean towards him, surprised.
“I don’t know,” he says, with a laugh and a shrug. “I just do.”
It’s his turn to ask the question. “Are you excited?”
It’s my turn to shrug. “I guess.” I pick at a hole at the bottom of my t-shirt.
“Well, you don’t sound very excited.”
“Well, I mean, thirteen seems kinda old. Much older than twelve.”
He laughs outright this time. “That’s because it is much older than twelve.”
“I know, but I mean…” I search for the right words, blowing out my breath before I continue. “I’m afraid that everyone will expect me to know everything without anyone telling me anything.” I rush through this in a whisper, just like that one time in sixth grade when I had to recite a poem about walking through the woods and I really didn’t want to, but I had to. My face burns and I can’t look at him.
“I get it. I do,” he says. “I felt the same way too.” I feel him very close to me, even though I swear he hasn’t moved.
“But you’re lucky, you know.”
“Lucky?” I whip my face towards him so quickly that my glasses slide down my sweaty nose.
“Yes, lucky. You have so much time. You are so young, Maybe - so young. You have all the time in the whole wide world to figure everything out.” His voice sounds sad, and far away.
“But what if I never do?” I feel like a forgotten balloon, sloppy and loose. Then my hand begins to tingle and I look down. His hand’s passed through mine like he’s trying to hold it. It fizzles at the edges like the TV does when it rains too hard. It makes my own hand ache.
(But it’s a good ache, you know, like the kind you get when you’ve been holding your breath underwater for way too long and you finally come up for air, and you suck in the air like a gulping fish and it’s so sweet because you’ve been without it for so long that you thought you were never going to breathe again. You know what I mean, right)?
“You will,” he says, and his voice is fierce and deep, like Spoon River after the June rains. Except they haven’t come this year. I’ve had to listen to Jimbo complain about the weather in the same way he complains about Layton Marshall’s substandard* road work.
I’m not sure how it happens, but all of a sudden Bass becomes real and solid right in front of me. It’s just like that part on the Wizard of Oz where Dorothy goes from the black and white nothing-ness of Kansas to the full color world of Oz. His face is tan and he has what Gramma Ike calls high color on his cheeks. His lips are a dusty shade of pink and there’s a shadow of a beard on his jaw. His hair is a very nice color of dark brown, not boring at all like mine. The strangest thing though are his eyes, which are still a silvery-gray.
(You know, I’d never met anyone with gray eyes before, but they look just like you would think they might, if you were ever inclined to think about such things).
They look just like the storm clouds that roll up over the trees when a good hard rain is ineluctable*.
“Oh, oh, Bass.” He moves his hand away and I watch as his face slowly loses its meatiness and warmth and fades back into fuzziness.
“What happened?” I say when I catch my breath. Bass’s face is frozen, blippy like a VHS that’s been paused. I’m sure I’ve done something wrong, I’ve broken him. But the muscle in his jaw moves. He’s still here. With me.
“I’m… I’m not sure,” he says, confused. “That’s never happened before.”
“But what was it?” I ask. None of this makes any sense.
“Really, I don’t know. I don’t know - maybe it was… ahhhh, no, I don’t know.”
“Did it hurt you? Did I hurt you?”
“No. It didn’t hurt. I’m really, really tired, but it didn’t hurt. It was, ummmm, nice.”
“Do you want me to go?” I’m already pushing myself up. I don’t want to stay where I’m not wanted. He reaches out his hand toward me and then thinks better of it, I guess, because he pulls it back.
“Please, don’t go. I want you to stay. I do. But let’s just be quiet here for a while, okay Maybe?”
I get it. I do.
Bass and I sit there, in the rusty culvert, as the sun starts to go down behind the big cottonwoods. We sit pretty close, but we don’t touch. A dragonfly buzzes around my knee, its greenish wings beating so fast they’re only a blur. It won’t leave me alone, even after I swat at it, but it ignores Bass completely. Like it doesn’t want to get too close. Like it knows.
There we sit in the quiet, until I hear Tater’s short yippy little bark and Sylvy’s voice, chattering after him a bit further down the tracks, chugging closer and closer like a one-car freight train. I don’t even need to look over to know that Bass is long gone. He’s just up and vanished, like nothing that used to be something.
Of course, that kind of peace doesn’t last. Not for me anyway.
How come you’re not swimming, Maybe? Sylvy asks when she spies me in the culvert. Tater won’t come down to the Hole. He doesn’t bark, he just sits his little butt right beside the railroad tracks and doesn’t budge.
Because I’m not, I say, which is the obvious answer and should be the end of the conversation, but of course, we’re talking about Sylvy here and so she says But how come? like she’s two or something and so I tell her Because I’m on my period, Sylvy, which I know is the only thing that’ll definitely shut her up because she’s not started hers yet and given the fact she still looks like a nine-year-old boy, she probably won’t for a while. But then I feel guilty and so I invite her to come back home with me for supper.
Big mistake. Huge.
First, Gramma Ike makes Sylvy and I eat in the dining room that we never use. Ever. But she asseverates*. She even puts a pressed tablecloth on the table and so Sylvy sets it, which is really nice, but Gramma Ike snaps at her anyway when she doesn’t know which side the knife goes on. Guter Gott, she says, do those people teach you nothing? Those people being Aunt Dorrie and Uncle Ricky, I guess. My job is to fill the water glasses, but I slosh a little onto the tablecloth and you’d think I’d hiked up my leg and peed on it, like Tater might, for all of the fuss that she makes about it.
(Speaking of Tater, Gramma Ike makes him stay out on the front porch because she doesn’t like dogs at all, even though Tater is little and quiet. Honestly, he’s about as good of dog that you’ll find anywhere. He used to sleep on my bed when Sylvy would come spend the night. Truth is, the only reason we never had a dog in all that time leading up to Gramma Ike coming here is because Dad said he was gone too much and I wasn’t old enough for the responsibility of a dog. Actually what he said was: Creek’s risin’ and I’m up to my ass in alligators, Maybe! which is what he always says when he feels like he’s got too much work to do. Sometimes I wish he’d just tell me no flat out and be done with it, you know?).
Then Dad calls and tells her that he’s working late on the parsonage and won’t make it home for supper and this really sends her over the edge. She clangs her pots around in the kitchen, muttering in German. All of her answers are clipped short, like her hair, and my belly sinks down low in my stomach, like the sun does when it sets over the tops of the trees that hover over the backyard.
Meatloaf is on the menu. Not my favorite, not by a country mile, like Dad says. It’s so dry
-drier than an old nun’s pussy-
because she doesn’t put any ketchup on it and it crumbles when I stick it with my fork. Her mashed potatoes are fake, straight out of a box. I know because I saw it sitting on the counter and I hate fake mashed potatoes because they taste like the inside of a tin can. I take a couple of bites of the meatloaf, but only swirl the potatoes around with my fork which catches her eye.
“Don’t play with your food, Maybellene,” she says. She sits at the head of the table, her forearms resting very lightly on the edge. Her lips are pinched together and the creases at the sides of her mouth are deep. The light is low in here because there’s no direct sun and her face looks like it’s been carved out of flaky stone, like the kind that makes up Mount Rushmore. Not that I’ve been there, but I wrote a report on it in the sixth grade.
“I’m not,” I say, putting my fork down. The thing is - I was really hungry before we sat down. Possibly the interregnum* with Bass had something to do with it. But there’s no way I can eat this food.
“You don’t like it?” she says, arching one eyebrow up. I shrug and look down at my plate.
“Look at me when I’m talking to you,” she says. Her accent always makes everything sound dangerous, so I do what she says.
“You don’t look like you’ve missed too many calls for dinner,” she says. Sylvy snorts like a skittish horse.
“Look who’s talking,” I mutter, dropping my face again.
“You have something to say?” I shake my head at her, my straggly hair almost brushing against the swirled pile of fake potatoes.
“You don’t like what I cook?” she asks again. It’s not really a question, but I feel like I need to answer anyway.
“No, it’s fine…” My voice trails off under her hard stare.
“I don’t work over a stove all afternoon in this heat for you to show ungratefulness. You…” here she jabs a long, knobby finger at me, “and you…” a jab towards Sylvy this time, who looks back at her in surprise, “you have no idea what it’s like to be hungry.” She grabs the fork out of Sylvy’s hands, and picks mine up from my plate.
“You both need to learn some respect.” She gathers up the rest of our silverware and holds it all in her fist – a shiny, hard bouquet.
“Now eat!” she commands. Tater barks from the front porch. A warning.
“With-with-with w-w-what?” Sylvy’s voice is high and off-pitch, like she’s been sucking on a helium balloon.
“You both have big mouths,” she says, her cold brown eyes gleaming. “So fill them up!”
Still, we both sit there. She comes up behind me, too close, so I can smell the crumbly scent of her rose perfume. Underneath it is a musty smell of sweat and something not quite clean, not quite dirty. She puts her big hand at the back of my head like she’s palming a basketball and forces it down so that my nose just about touches my plate. My glasses slip, which making the mound of mashed potatoes just past my nose look huge.
“EAT!” she shouts, like she’s barking orders at a dog. For a tiny half-second, I’m sorry she took my fork only because I can’t stab her now. Tater vociferates* from the front porch.
“Halt die klappe, du verdammter hund!” Gramma Ike yells, and Tater settles into a low whine.
“EAT!” she barks again, this time at Sylvy.
I bite into a big chunk of the meatloaf and begin to chew. It breaks into tiny little pieces, hard like BB pellets. I try to swallow but can’t get past the lump in my throat so I take a big bite of the mashed potatoes, closing my eyes against the aftertaste. Somehow, someway, I choke everything down.
Across the table, Sylvy chews like a robot, the mashed potatoes clinging to her lips like glue. Her head hangs down and something about the way she looks, like she’s been beaten, causes my chest to burn like someone’s holding a match to it.
“You old Nazi,” I hiss.
“What?” Gramma Ike’s voice pops like gravel under a tire. She leans in closer. “What did you say to me?”
“Nazi,” I say, louder this time. Her eyes go blank and her face gets all loose.
“Kinder - you think you know everything.” She squeezes her lips like she’s getting ready to spit, but all that comes out is a sad, little whistle of breath. “But you know nothing.” She pushes backs from the table and stands. She’s so tall, there, with her arms at her sides, impregnable* like a brick wall.
“I had a life before all of this,” she says, sweeping her hands around the room like she’s conjuring a spell. “A life that you know nothing about.” She turns on her thick heels and walks out of the room. The wide bands of her knee-hi’s show below the hem of her skirt as she marches away. Tears drip off of Sylvy’s nose, making a small pool, like salty gravy on the mashed potatoes.
“Sylvy?” I say, uneasy.
(You might be surprised, but I’ve never seen her cry before. Really, I haven’t. Not even when she was eight and Uncle Ricky burned all of her Barbies just because he stepped on a loose Barbie shoe with his bare foot. I remember how the melted glop of plastic bodies looked in the burn barrel on top of the greasy ashes. Even then, Sylvy Sunbeam didn’t cry).
I don’t say anything else. I don’t even look at her, I just let her cry until she’s finished. In the china cabinet, a small creamer pitcher of Mom’s catches my eye. It’s shaped like a cow, a black one with white spots, and it’s got a hole in the mouth that the liquid pours out of. Thing is, I’ve never seen anyone use it. Honestly, I’ve never seen anyone, not even Gramma Ike, use anything in that cabinet before tonight. Everything’s kept in there, safe behind glass, so it doesn’t get broken. So dumb.
Sylvy sniffs a few times, and then scoops up some of the potatoes with her fingers. I can’t believe she’s going to eat them now, after all of that. She raises her two fingers and flings the glob at me. It hits me right in the eye, or it would’ve, except for my glasses. The white blob sticks to my lens and doesn’t move.
“I wish… I wish you’d just shut up, Maybe. Sometimes, I really, really do,” she whispers. My mouth drops open like a sprung hinge. Her nose is red and her eyes are watery and she snuffles like she’s got a terrible cold as she shoves her chair back, knocking into Mom’s china cupboard behind her. The glass in the door rattles and the cow-shaped creamer falls overs on its side, but it doesn’t break – not at least that I can tell. She walks out of the dining room, her head hanging low like an overloaded branch on an apple tree. The screen door creaks open and then slaps closed.
(It’s the exact sound that Pastor Wright’s Bible makes when he claps it shut after his point is made in his Sunday sermon. You know what I’m talking about – I’m sure you’ve heard it before. It always makes Lloyd Walsh jump because he’s been sleeping in the back pew).
I wipe the mashed potatoes off of my glasses with my fingers, scraping them against the edge of my plate. I take them off and try to rub them clean with the edge of my shirt but when I put them back on the lens is still clouded over, like I’m looking through fog. I carry everything from the dining room to the kitchen sink. I don’t want Dad to see the mess when he gets home. The food slides right off of the good plates into the slop bucket on the counter. I take what’s congealing* on the stove and dump it too. I run a little hot water to wash the plates and glasses, holding one of them up to get a good look at it. Tiny flowers and vines twine together around the border. It’s probably the first time they’ve ever been used. I know it’s the first time I’ve ever used them. We were saving them for something better, I think.
The plate shatters unevenly into a million and four pieces when I crack it against the edge of the sink. Some of the pieces are big and triangle shaped and some are much smaller and have no shape at all, just a bunch of jagged edges and lines that don’t amount to anything recognizable. They cut at my hands all the same when I pick them up. The blood drips into the water, turning the soap bubbles pink, the exact same color as the blooming sunset outside the window. The whining from the porch has quit. Tater’s left me too.
“Dad’ll be home soon,” I whisper. Somehow this doesn’t assuage* me. Not as much as it should anyway.
And that's all folks! Stay tune for next week's post, where I SHOULD have a actual,
honest-to-goodness book for you to purchase... that is, if I take care of all of the things I used to do! Thanks again for all of the love...