In every house we ever live, Mark makes improvements, or what he thinks to be improvements. His jobs are rarely completed, but he continues to take them on with a strange amount of pleasure. He tears down walls, or works on the landscape, and in the Texas house, he rips out our storm cellar, leaving behind an aftermath of broken ground, large and small pieces of concrete, and busted two-by-fours with rusty nails jutting in all directions.
When my two older brothers, Brian and Sean, and I stay with our parents, instead of with Mary (as we usually do), we play in the backyard nearly all day. The Texas floor is covered in hard dirt, no grass, a tree stump, and of course the remnants of demolition and construction projects. A chain link fence divides our yard from the neighbors, but it doesn’t hinder us from sneaking over the fence to play on their swing set, but we only do that when the father of that house, Roy, isn’t home. I have watched him yell at his dog, Dundee, which only aggravates the shaggy, cream-colored mutt, and motivates him to add a low growl between his barks. Roy yells his threats at the dog until his voice cracks and goes hoarse. Then he attempts to beat Dundee, but usually fails as Dundee is too quick and nearly always manages to escape to a hole underneath the house. Although, on occasion a random object in the yard, a stick, a baseball, or a child’s toy, finds its way into Roy’s hands. He flails the object towards Dundee as the dog runs for his hiding place, and once in a while, the object manages to make a thwacking sound against the poor dog’s head. Once Dundee escapes, Roy stands a few feet from the hole and speaks to the dog in tongues.
I have asked Patti why Roy talks that way to Dundee, and she tells me it’s because he’s a preacher, and that’s how preachers and other people filled with the spirit speak. She also says that Roy is faking, that the spirit doesn’t live inside him. I ask her if the spirit lives inside her, and does she talk in tongues. She says she does, but only when the spirit chooses to move within her.
Eventually Dundee disappears altogether. I imagine Roy has finally carried out one of his many threats, and I contemplate which threat Roy chose to carry out. I decide on the one that entails Roy dropping Dundee off a bridge with rocks tied around his neck. I can see the dog, struggling against the rocks and against Roy’s strength, and maybe he gets the chance to sink his teeth deep into the skin of his captor. I hope he drew blood. I envision Dundee letting lose a howl as he falls through the air before landing with a loud splash into the Red River. Something tells me Dundee sank, but I ignore that thought, instead choosing to believe he managed to slip away from his rock anchor, come up for air, and then swim to a dusty shore. Maybe a nice woman in the country found him and fed him chicken fried steak leftovers. This is the fate I’ve decided upon for the missing Dundee.
Sometimes Roy rips switches from trees in his yard to use on his two children, Joy and Jed. Joy is seven years-old, a year older than Sean, and two years older than me. Jed and I are practically the same age. It’s summer break, and both Joy and Jed have a strong desire to play outside with us, maybe because they aren’t allowed to very often. They don’t spend the day outdoors like we do. Jed says it’s because his mother is afraid they will get burned by the Texas sun. My brothers and I are used to the brutal rays of the sun and its ridiculous heat, but we still envy Joy and Jed’s indoor playtime as much as they envy us our outdoor playtime. Every once in a while Joy sneaks into our yard, she plays hide and seek with us, and in our hiding place she pulls down her pants and tells me about what goes between her legs. She knows all about privates, she tells me, because there have been things in her before. I feel uncomfortable when she does this, but I understand it’s a secret, and so keep her displays to myself.
Most days I spend hours playing by our tree stump. I like to trace the cracks and circles in the wood, to feel the strange, smooth inner remains of a tree. Today I hum, imagine it’s a table set with food and wonder what time our mother will let us go inside to eat because I’m especially hungry. Even Sean has made his way over to the stump, leans against its base and says, “I’m starving.”
When our mother finally allows us back in the house it’s for lunch. Brian, who constantly reminds us that, at eight years-old, he is the most in charge, is the one who almost always makes our sandwiches. But today is unusual, and both my parents stand in the kitchen, a loaf of bread, bologna, mustard, Miracle Whip, pickled okra, and cheese wrapped in clear plastic wrappers, all spread out in front of them on the counter top. I lie on the living room floor and sing to our dog, Jasper, about how hungry I am. Patti watches from the kitchen, and so does Mark. They don’t seem to be angry or irritated. I hear Patti say, “She likes my little poodle baby,” and then my parents smile at me and ask me if I want Miracle Whip or mustard on my sandwich. I’m surprised by the question. Brian never asks. He knows how Sean likes mustard and I like Miracle Whip. I tell my parents what I want and hurry to the table and wait for the food. After we eat, I go back outside to my stump, and shortly after Sean follows me. Mustard has stained the corner of his mouth a muted yellow. Over his shoulder he carries a golf club, casual like, as if to say no one else in the world could ever carry a golf club they way he carries it.
“Rachel, you need to move. I’m practicing my golf swing.”
“No, I was here first, besides I’m in the middle of a game.”
“Well, I’m telling you, I have to practice my swing and you need to move.”
“I’m not moving, Sean. I was here first.”
“If you don’t move you might get hit.”
“Well, I’m not moving.”
“Okay, don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
He walks in front of me, and I try to ignore him, but his exaggerated arm stretches and hip swings are funny. He glances over his shoulder at me. I laugh at him, and then look back at my stump, which I have imagined into a playground for small animals and insects that talk to each other, and to me.
“Last warning, Rachel!”
I ignore him. A second later I’m on my back, staring up at a clear sky through clots of dirt and dense red liquid. Sean blocks out the sunlight when he leans over my body, he lets the golf club fall to the ground where it lands with a light thud, and then he lets out a yell and runs inside. I get up, walk to the back porch and lean against the concrete steps, chin resting on my chest as I watch thick drops of blood fall to the ground and darken the dirt. Sean comes running out of the back door.
“Mom doesn’t believe me. I told her you were hurt, but she doesn’t believe me!” Sean says.
“Get Brian,” I tell him.
Sean finds Brian, who had been dribbling his basketball in the driveway. Sean and I had given up trying to dribble the ball. It always fell sadly with a dull, lifeless thump, never bouncing back to our hands. Brian said it was because we didn’t put enough energy in to it, and that you had to smack the ball harder if it was to bounce back up from the dirt.
“Oh, Rachie, you’re hurt bad,” Brian says. “I better get Dad.”
Mark is in the front yard, smoking his pipe and mowing the young grass he planted and managed to grow the year before. By the time he gets to me, I’m sitting against one of the four posts that hold up the back porch, hand on my forehead, feeling the blood seep through my fingers and drip warmly down my face, and then get sticky on my palms. Mark puts a handkerchief on my head, tells me to hold it there and then runs inside. He returns with a washcloth to replace the handkerchief, picks me up, and tiny pieces of grass fall off his overalls onto my clothes.
“We’re going to the hospital,” Mark says.
“No, I don’t want to go,” I reply.
“You have to go.” Patti’s voice is clear, breaking through the blood and the confusion. I hear her footsteps ahead of us; she is going to the car. Mark carries me like an infant, places me in Patti’s arms, who sits in the front seat of the car. At the hospital they give me a shot, twenty- three stitches, and then a sticker of a bear dressed up as a doctor. I keep that sticker long after the adhesive has given into the dirt that coats it, and the color of the bear has all but faded away. Back at home Mark gives me grape-flavored Tylenol, and Sean watches, then tells me he’s sorry, and I can tell from his splotchy skin he’s been crying. I know Sean likes the Tylenol, so I hide one of the four Mark gave me.
“I didn’t think it was long enough to reach you, Rachie. I wouldn’t have swung it if I thought it would have really hit you.”
“It’s okay, it doesn’t even hurt now,” I say. Then I give him the Tylenol.
“Are you sure?” he asks.
He crunches the Tylenol between his teeth and then lets the broken pieces melt on his tongue.
A few days later Patti leaves us with the neighbor Annie, Roy’s wife. Annie feeds us apples and lets us play inside their cool air-conditioned house. But when Roy comes home he puts us to bed on pallets in the den. He tells us it’s nap time, something that is foreign to my brothers and I. Joy and Jed have to lie in there with us too, and they don’t seem fazed by being ordered to bed in the middle of the day. Instead of taking a nap we whisper and giggle, which provokes Roy, who stands like a giant as he glares at all of us from the doorway of the den, then warns us he will beat the next person that says a word. I’m terrified of Roy, and I lay quiet, but Jed doesn’t listen. He isn’t tired, and it doesn’t take long for him to crawl over to my pallet out of boredom.
“Move your bangs,” he whispers, “ I want to see your stitches.”
I don’t say a word or make an effort to fulfill his request. Instead I just stare at him. His blond hair is long, fine, and very straight. It almost touches my forehead when he leans over my face, and I notice how small his hands are as he pushes the bangs away from my wound with one hand, and with the other gently touches the stitches.
“Yep, you gotta a lot of stitches. Good thing you didn’t die,” he whispers.
His cool fingers handle my hair gently and they feel good on my forehead, I smile at him, and he smiles back at me. We both giggle, and little snickers sneak up our throats and escape through our noses. Then Roy is back, hovering over the both of us. By the look on my face Jed knows Roy is there, he freezes, poised like a statue on his knees, peering into my stiff face, smile gone. Roy grabs him by the ribcage, jerks him into the air, almost drops him, but catches him by a wrist. Jed swings in the air and nothing more than a gasp for breath has escaped him. Roy starts to hit him, thuds land on the back of his legs, butt, and lower back, muted only by the thin layer of Jed’s clothes. Jed finds his voice, but no words leave his lips, only pitiful cries and failed attempts to bite back screams, which seem overwhelming loud even as they fade when Roy drags him up the stairs. I cover my ears, but even through muffled screams I can hear Brian say, “You shouldn’t have let him look at that scar.”