--YOU’RE THE ONE GIGGLING AT THE FUNERAL
Of my stepbrother I knew very little, other than his name and that he had killed a man. The few photos I’d seen showed a tall figure with crooked upper teeth, the pale skin of a cadaver and eyes that seemed ringed with soot. In each picture Clay stood near the back of a room, alone and aloof like an agitated panther, making me wonder as well about the nameless photographer and his decision to put such distance between them.
As we drove to meet him, my skin pimpled. I imagined the prison first—razor wire fences and gunmen in turrets—then Clay, the inmate, his body muscled from so much idle time, his eyes black and angry, even upon release from the penitentiary.
It was nightfall in September and Les had the top of the Caddie down. Though I’d worn a cardigan, the wind shot frigid gusts through the seams in my dress, leaving me feeling half-naked. In the front seat Mother wasn’t faring much better, curls dangling out from under her head scarf like loops of blonde ivy. To light her cigarette she had to tuck a shoulder into Les and as she did so she peered at me through her cat-eyed glasses and said, “How you doing, Sweetie?” although the wind and Waylon Jennings on the radio made it impossible to hear.
Les kept a can of beer in his lap and it was always when he rounded a corner that he had himself a sip, foam snaking in the air, hitting the seat pad and splashing an odor I have always associated with boys’ locker rooms-- perspiration and piss. Before Les married my mother, he raced stock cars. As some kind of proof, his vehicle number—113—was tattooed on his forearm just below the words, “So help me God.”
I kept my eyes pinned on the speedometer, watching the needle push past seventy-five then eighty.
“He’s gonna kill us,” I said, forgetting Jackie was there beside me, bouncing. Jackie was only five, a whole ten years younger than me, but most of the time he acted thunder-struck, auditioning in his own special universe, and so people took him for retarded.
“Faster!” Jackie screamed, “Make it go faster!” I broke a fingernail hitting him in the chest. On a different time, Jackie would have whooped and cried, but now he just grinned and gave me the thumbs up sign.
I stretched my neck across the back of the front seat, put my mouth right into Mother’s ear, shouting, “Why are we doing this again, picking him in the middle of the night?”
Les turned and studied me and I wished he wouldn’t because he was the only driver we had right then. Les’s eyes were shiny and gray, reminding me of pond stones. With his jowly face, long snout and the puddled skin beneath his eyes, he looked like the saddest person I’d ever seen in my life, that or a starving basset hound.
“Les!” Mother shouted, a rare thing for her, and torqued the red leather steering wheel.
Les cussed and took back control. Eventually the Caddie eased back down to sixty, but my heart never slowed a lick.
I have a habit of spying. I’m not proud of it, but it’s a thing I feel compelled to do in the same way Ronnie Tucker picks his nose and eats it. Same as Mother and Les smoke, and Les swills his Pabst, same as Hoss Cartwright likes flapjacks with plenty of maple syrup, I’m a snoop. It don’t do a lot of harm.
The only time I stole something was when I found a letter from my blood father stuffed inside the toe of Grandma Frankie’s musty-smelling pumps. How the letter got there, I’ll never know. The words my father wrote weren’t anything special. There was description of a rain storm in a town called Ellensburg and he said something else about going to a drive-in movie with his buddies who hid under blankets so they wouldn’t have to pay and how funny that was. I kept the letter and read it until all of my father’s squiggly handwriting stuck in my memory like a brand, and after a year of struggling to squeeze an ounce of special relevance from the words--anything to ease this grip of doom his absence had created within my soul--I concluded, unspectacularly, that my father was quite likely the most boring man that had ever lived.
I revisited his tombstone a week after. It said:
“Beloved Husband and Father”
I noticed the slick use of quotation marks and wondered who came up with that gimmick, trying to inject emotion into the granite. I considered the word “Beloved.” It was an old-fashioned adjective meaning, as far as I could tell, nothing special. Beloved was a trick word, same as naming one-eyed jacks wild in stud poker. “Bewitched” was a better word, although it didn’t cleanly apply in a case such as death, but the point was… the point was…
I wanted a life less ordinary, a father with a thrilling legacy, if not also a mysterious one. Instead, all I got was dull word pictures of rainy central Washington.
My father died in his sleep. Such a thing happened to children more often, but it could strike adults, too, men even, for no reason whatsoever. I asked mother about it only once. I could tell she’d been waiting for the day the question would come because her voice dropped down an octave, and in a brassy whisper she started off with, “The night your father died,” like it was a story-start to be memorized and passed on during classroom games of Telegram.
When I pushed her for additional information—facts I deemed not only pertinent but critical—Mother fluttered her eye lashes, hooked a string of fake pearls in her finger and asked, “What kind?” So I asked what was he wearing and did he smell, you know, the way an animal carcass will reek or invisible mice when they get lodged in a heat vent. I inquired how long had Dad been dead before she knew, what did his skin feel like, was it as cold as they describe in Agatha Christie books, did it seem as though he’d been dreaming, did he twitch or moan or scream the Lord’s name? That was just my short list, but Mother slapped me so hard my nose bled. She said, “How dare you!” and ran off crying herself. And that was that.
My disappointment was deep and physical, if not spiritual, a yearning broken sharply in two. As we drove up to Bob’s Big Boy my gut roiled. It felt like a lizard had its hooks in me and was ripping the lining from my stomach shred by shred.
Bob’s was no prison at all. Even in the rich fullness of evening, the place was lit up and would have been almost festive were there more people in attendance, and if the juke box was playing rock and roll instead of that mopey Patsy Cline song about being crazy.
Still the jitters hit me when I recalled why we’d come. I stumbled over a table leg and almost fell onto the parquet floor.
Clay caught me by the wrists, like one of those possessive lovers from the movies. “So you’re Wendy,” he said, not a question at all, but a certainty, like Christmas comes on December 25th. His eyes were full and sparkly, making me thirsty for root beer.
I said that I was indeed Wendy and pulled my wrists to my side after a time of him holding on. Once when Janine Green and I swam naked in the coulee by her house I came home with a blood-sucker stuck to right thigh. Mother heated the tip of a paring knife in the wood-burning stove and dug the mysterious creature out. For days and months afterward I suspected she had not got it all because it seemed to me a left-over bit remained inside, its whole body regenerating to the point where I could feel it squirming and snaking down my leg at odd times. One of those times—not odd, however—was during my meeting of Clay when he failed to release his grip until I pulled away.
He didn’t smile, keeping the grin for himself, I guessed. I noticed his skin was not as pale as it looked in photographs. On the contrary, his teeth were just as crooked as revealed in the pictures, the biggest upper ones crossed like the legs of someone badly needing to pee.
Clay made a big show of holding his arm out, gesturing for Mother and Les to take a seat in the booth opposite him, which meant I was to sit on his side, which I did, my heart buzzing electric.
“You look good,” Les said to me, though everyone, even Clay himself, seemed certain this was a lie.
Gone were Clay’s muscles I’d imagined him having, if ever he did have them. Instead he was thin and wispy, his plaid shirt hanging baggy across his shoulders. His crew-cut hair would have been nothing spectacular were it not for the barb-like impressions running south alongside the hairline. He’d made someone good and angry.
“So it’s been nice here, huh?” Clay said, and instantly my heart sank because the weather was a favorite topic of Les’s. He approached it in the same way boys at school favored Annette Funicello’s bikini scenes, with a mouth-gawking appreciation for nature. So much getting banged up in the demolition races had done their work on Les’s bones. When he walked, his body careened and swooped, and if you didn’t know better you’d expect him to topple over. Evidentially the racing had given him arthritis, too, and with arthritis came the magical by-product of E.S.P., allowing Les to correctly predict rain or hail storms.
It was all I could do not to interrupt. I tore a paper napkin into confetti and shredded another and still one more while the dull patter about climate patterns came from Les’s lips.
Weather Schmether. My brother was a genuine killer and I was dying to hear about it.
It wasn’t until the bill came that Mother asked if I wanted something to eat. Then she asked Clay the same and Les determined he needed a piece of banana cream pie as well. While waiting for the order to arrive, a thing happened I’ll never forget: Clay’s palm landed on my knee and stayed there.
I was proud of myself for not gasping. I took hold of the salt shaker and shook it, tapping a percussive sound until Mother frowned.
Of course my step-brother’s hand didn’t stay put. His fingers moving over my skin reminded me of the blood-sucker I’d contracted that day with Janine Green. Each of his fingertips became the different head of a leech, heat-tipped and alive.
When the pie arrived Clay accepted the plate one-handed and no one seemed to notice.
The thing that finally shook his active hand from my thigh was what I asked him. “How does it feel after you kill a man?”
Even Les reacted, his puppet jaw dropping as if a spring had come uncoiled. Mother hissed my name.
“Did that fellow die instantly, you know, the one you killed? Were there words passed between you two of—“
Mother reached across the table and took my wrist, pulling me up and out of the booth with a swiftness that must have even startled the plastic material I was sitting on, for it ripped a patch of skin from the underside of my leg, a spot exactly parallel to the one Clay had been fingering seconds prior.
Mother wore long gloves similar to ones I’d seen Jackie Kennedy wearing in “Look” magazine, and beneath the fabric, mother’s fingers were on fire.
She didn’t wait until we were in the restroom to slap me, just caught me in the hall next to the cigarette machine. Quite frankly, I had expected more—something shocking and brutal in the way of force—but I feigned injury so we could be done with this required disciplinary stunt.
“How dare you, Missy,” Mother said, her gloved finger stiff and pale pink, poking the air and then catching my chest. “What’s wrong with you? Are you loco? Don’t you ever, EVER, bring it up again. You hear me?” I pondered her choice of the word “It” for a label, my imagination rabid as it configured implications. When I failed to answer soon enough, Mother grabbed me by the shoulders, gripping my dress’s epaulettes for traction, and shook. I was too weak to respond, entranced as I recalled Clay’s hand and where it’d been, where it was aiming to go before the pie’s arrival.
He and I were never left alone. I had a suspicion we were under watchful eyes, nevertheless, I was determined to make the best of our situation.
During mealtimes I sat opposite him and I ate my food in slow bites, as if each dumpling or shred of lettuce were a pulpy orange slice that had to be sucked dry, versus chewed. To avoid contact with my glossed lips, I puckered them into a kiss and slurped soup from my spoon. I knew he was watching me and that was the point.
Once Mother threw me a look and stabbed my hand with the back of her fork, so, for payback, I pinched some pepper up my nose and released three thunderous sneezes across her shoulders. Even without looking, I could tell Clay was impressed.
“Are you ever gonna get a job?” I asked one night at the dinner table.
Clay’s face was as pale as the moon. As a reply, he blinked and took a long swallow of beer from the glass he’d been holding the entire time he ate, as if he was afraid the thing would runoff. Clay gulped and stared at over the rim, his nose practically swimming in the drinking glass.
Mother let this question go. Out of the corner of my eye I watched her chew, knowing she hoped for an answer the same as me.
“There aren’t a lot of places will take me.”
“Les says that Jason Wadell is hiring.”
“That right,” Clay said, but it wasn’t a question and he wasn’t even looking at Mother when he said it.
“That is right,” I said, backing her up. “I heard him say so.”
“What’d I know about welding?”
“What you don’t know Les could teach you,” Mother said. I almost patted her knee I was so proud. But then she went ahead and ruined it. “Ah, take your time. Enjoy your freedom.”
Clay flinched at that last work, his face taking on a color like the belly of a flame. He bolted out of his chair, the legs clawing across the floor. Mother watched him storm off. Me, I watched Clay’s plate swirl until it stopped, potato chunks spilling everywhere.
“What’s he like?” Becky Holzer asked me
We were having a sleepover at Janine’s house, just us three, plus Becky’s sisters and one of Janine’s cousins.
“I bet he’s looks like Elvis, don’t he?”
“Have you ever seen him with his shirt off?”
“When can I come over and visit?”
“My Daddy would never allow it, so you’ll have to bring him here next time they go out of town.”
“Oh, wouldn’t that be something!”
“Can you imagine? I’d die!”
“Tell me this: how many scars does he have and where does he have them?”
I felt famous, even if it was a false sensation, none of my own making. For once it wasn’t me with all the questions.
Clay loved beer, but he loved television more. I imagined they didn’t have a set in the pen. My step-brother was too old for school, with no job or any ambition to fine one, and so most days he could be found butt-stuck on the burgundy sofa Granny Frankie had died on—in her sleep, just like her son, my father.
Whenever I got home from school, Mother ran out of the kitchen wearing a flour-dusted apron, greeting me so that I’d know I wasn’t alone with Clay.
The day of the supposed eclipse was an eventful one for several reasons. Edgar Buckley, who claimed distant relation to Paul Revere, drove through town honking his horn and screaming about aliens and the end of the word. “A dark sun is coming!” he warned, leaning out of his pickup and flapping his Massey-Ferguson cap. “Dark sun coming! Dark sun coming!”
Our milk cows, Cathy and Irene--so named for Mother’s stillborn sisters--became moody and restless, somehow escaping through the barbwire fence even though there wasn’t enough clearance for such a thing to happen.
I had just stepped off the school bus when Mother yelled for me to fetch them.
“What about Clay?”
“He’s busy my foot!”
I set off in search of the cows, having forgotten to ask which general direction they’d headed, and after several frustrating hours, I returned home empty-handed.
Mother was gone, but Clay wasn’t.
He sat on the sofa, the television set off and slate gray. I expected him to at least acknowledge my presence, but a trance of some kind had hold of him, so I went to the kitchen and tugged open the fridge. Bottles and jars jostled. I enjoyed the sound of that. I found some orange juice and drank straight from the carton as I’d seen Clay do. I gulped as loud as I was able, but lady bug might have made more noise.
Next I sashayed into the living room, but stopped half way in, pretending to just then notice Clay. “Well, look what the calico dragged in.”
It took him a moment to resettle his concentration. Even though it was a spring day, he had one of Mother’s quilts draped across his lap and beneath the blanket something was going on, so he scolded me for interrupting. “What’re you looking at?”
“I need your help.”
“Of course you do,” he said, as if he’d been expecting such a question since our first meeting at Bob’s Big Boy.
“Cathy and Irene are lost and I’m not old enough to drive.”
“Who do I look like, John Greenwood?” John was an ugly Canuck that came down once a month to drive stock cars, but he was best known for his abiding cruelty during demolition derby.
“Fine, go back to your activities then.”
“What’s in it for me if I go with you?”
“I can’t be bribed, bought or sold.”
His eyes were like drops of oven-cooked molasses, hot and undecided. For the first time, I realized what a wide mouth he had and that his lips were practically bloodless. Embarrassed to be caught quivering, I shot my eyes to the floor, but by then the truck keys were already in his hand, jangling.
We never found the cows that day and, on the drive, it struck me that Clay never intended to. He drove the truck east toward Kittitas using back roads instead of the faster route via I-90. My knees knocked so hard I had to pin them together. I rolled down the window as a distraction but it felt like there was hardly any wind. Still, I stuck close to the door, like a hunting dog sniffing and detecting.
“So when’s the interview start?” he asked.
I looked at him, holding my chin upright and in place, wondering what Tippi Hedren what do in my shoes.
He drove one handed, steering with the flat of his palm while his fingers danced.
“I ain’t got all day.”
“I know, you have to get back to your television programs.”
“What’s so bad about that?”
I stuck my face out of the window and let the hair swim over my face. I imagined it looking fuller and lively as I turned and said as flat as I could, “It doesn’t seem such a big deal anymore.”
“Killing a man doesn’t? How so?”
I wanted to tell him he was boring, same as my dead father, but Clay had a way of reading my lies. “Just doesn’t.”
“Suit yourself, see if I care.”
As we drove I realized how ugly it was—these small towns, my life, a certain probability called “My Future.” I started to hyperventilate. “You okay?” he asked me. I felt trapped, a prisoner of sorts myself. If I didn’t get away soon, I’d end up the same as Mother, baking pies, probably married to Muddy Waddell, a welder’s wife. As we drove I decided the time had come to do something bold and daring, and even though I hadn’t a clue what that thing might be, I aimed to have it figured out by nightfall, or at least before the so-called eclipse arrived.
Clay pulled up to a liquor store, punching the brakes so that dust puffs appeared from the hind wheels. “Wait here,” he said.
He stopped after a few strides, catching my close examination of his backside.
“Hey,” he said, poking his head through the driver’s side window, “you got five dollars?”
“Now where would I store five dollars?”
He fingered an eyebrow, his bloodless lips coloring some. “Where, indeed?”
After I told him that it didn’t matter to me one way or another, he left his whisky bottle in the store sack and drank it that way, hobo-style.
Now he drove with his thumb on the steering wheel, giving it a little nudge every so often. After some time we came to a endless, unfenced field of waist-high clover.
The truck made a menacing rattle, shuddering as it turned off. I feared the engine had died for good, but the radio worked fine. “Dawn” by The Four Seasons was just finishing up, segueing into “Rag Doll” as the announcer bragged about it being double-header Tuesday.
“They sound like girls.”
“I like them,” I said. “They’re not afraid to sing high.”
“Where I’ve been, queers like those’d be singing for mercy. Four Seasons, my eyeball.”
“And would you be the one delivering the punishment, or would you be the cheerleader?”
“What’s your guess?”
“You’re a watcher,” I said, knowing how much he enjoyed television.
He took a swig of whisky, not bothering to wipe away the leakage that sopped the corner of his mouth. He studied me, his eyes walking over my face, taking in my hair, then my shoulders and what he could make out for breasts beneath my denim jumper. My skin prickled and itched, as if spiders were on the loose.
With a piggish snort, he had another swallow. This one burned. I could smell it, woodsy and scorched. His elbow rested on the door, half out the window. “I don’t see any goddamn solar eclipse.”
“It’s coming,” I declared.
“Yeah? So you studying to be a scientist?”
“Maybe I am.”
“Maybe you are,” he said, and snickered. “You aren’t really my sister.”
“Thank the Allmighty for that favor.”
“You got yourself a smart lip.”
“At least I never killed anybody.”
“Bet you wished you had.” And sure enough, the way he looked at me said he knew.
I felt my face and neck heating up. My forearms went rashy whenever I got embarrassed or found out.
“Look at you, a regular garden beet.”
“All right,” I said, words running out of me, a hole in the jug now. “Tell me how you did it. How old was he? Did he die right away? Did he scream? What type of weapon did you use?”
“Hold on there, peach tree.”
“You brought me out here for a reason.”
“Maybe I did. Or maybe you brought me.”
“I’ll give you a kiss if you tell.”
His eyes went on another stroll, taking their sweet time. The skin beneath them looked shop-worn and gray, same as the color of his teeth now that I thought about it. In Biology Class Mr. Fenick had an assortment of specimens pickled in jars and one such article was none other than a human hand whose shading matched Clay’s sallow forehead. I noticed again the spiked scars around his scalp and a shiver bristled inside me.
“Despite what you think, there’s no joy in killing someone.”
I smoothed the hem on my dress, even though it was meant to be puckered.
“I can tell you don’t believe me, but it’s true. You might as well commit suicide as kill somebody else, because murder is a ghost that don’t shake. Prison don’t lessen the debt. It’s one hell of a weight to carry.”
“How’d you do it?”
“Does it matter?”
It did, I told him.
He ran his knuckles across his beard stubble, scratching as he considered my request.
“Outside of a bar near Wapato I got into a tussle with this marine. He didn’t like my hair, said I had a girl’s style.” Clay paused, sensing my question. “It was longer then. They shave it for you in the pen, same as the military. It’s part of the emasculation process.” I bit my lip and twitched my fingers: Go on. “Anyway, I was drunk, plastered, and I suppose he must have been also. We ended up getting thrown out of the joint. It could have stopped there, but, again, we were both loaded and full of ourselves, so we continued into the alley. He’d have knocked me to next Tuesday if it hadn’t been for that piece of lumber.”
“Two-by-four, ‘bout there long.”
I could feel my eyes watering from the excitement but it no longer mattered if he saw. “Well?”
“I was on my knees, my face beat into meatloaf and there it was. I grabbed the thing like I was Kirk Douglas in Spartacus and didn’t stop. The end.”
He took a long pull from the bottle, swallowing loud and hard.
“Go on. Tell me what happened.”
“I just did.”
“No, tell me how you hit him, how many times, what it felt like.”
“You’re a Cuckoo bird.”
“You said you would.”
He ignored me, saying, “That stray two-by-four changed my life. Changed the marine’s, too. It’s funny the game fate plays.”
My shoulders stiffened and I could hear a heartbeat pulsating in my eardrums, same as the time I stuffed them with earplugs to stifle Janine’s snoring.
“If you don’t tell it all, the deal’s off,” I said, crossing my arms for emphasis.
He looked past me, over my head, toward the jungle land of clover. “All right, Sunshine,” he said, “if that’s how it has to be.”
Goaded by my questions and my desire for specificity, Clay went on to describe the bludgeoning, sacrificing no detail. He described the sound the wood made as it cracked the marine’s skull to pieces, the picture such a thing created, the colors and remains, the complete and gory aftermath.
I know he rightfully anticipated me getting sick, and when I didn’t, I couldn’t tell if he was surprised or disappointed.
“And that’s it?” I said.
“You’re an odd little ball, aren’t you? Thrill-seeker? Like a lot of danger, do you?”
“It does get boring around here.”
“Well then,” he said, setting the sack on the dash so that the paper whispered and crackled.
“I changed my mind,” I said.
“No fair. A deal’s a deal.”
“For all I know, you could have been lying.”
“For all you know.” His laughter washed the truck’s cabin with the smell of forest fires.
When he lunged for me, I was prepared. I’d spotted Les’s can-opener on the floor matt when I got in and now I used all my strength to stab him in the neck.
It was messy, a gusher really.
He screamed loud and shrill, hitting notes none of The Four Seasons did.
At the edge of the field that day I stopped, out of breath from running, pain jabbing my side like a knitting needle. I didn’t feel the weight Clay had described. I wasn’t sure what I felt, perhaps because my deed had not yet settled upon me.
I don’t know why, but I took up a long, throaty scream. The underbelly of the clover shook as jackrabbits scattered and several birds whiplashed the air. I followed their errant flight as best I could, then I rested my eyes on the sky where the sun hung, bald and boiling, nothing there to block its temporary glory.