After Rick decorated my face on Valentine’s Day, my half-brother, Charlie, said next time he’d poke a knife through the guy’s eye socket. I gave Rick the boot half a year before, but he was still hung up on me to say the least. I’d watch his red Jeep Wrangler swoop by almost everyday. I’d watch him slow down and glare as he passed me. The exhaust from his Wrangler curled and fumed. Rick only lived ten minutes away, over by the river. Anyway, I refused to give-in to his bullshit.
My half brother Charlie is a good guy, and that’s that. Used to be a linebacker for Oklahoma State on scholarship until he busted his knee on some guy’s illegal block. Charlie could’ve been a pro if you ask me. He’s still six five and two hundred and fifty pounds, and about the only reason Rick hadn’t raped or kidnapped me. Rick knew all about Charlie.
When Rick started upping his harassment that fall Charlie sat me down at Denny’s with a plate of griddle cakes and a glass of grapefruit juice. He told me if I wanted he could stay over there for a few months. Or the other way around. I watched the glass sweat, leaving a series of half-moon marks on the table top.
“Nothing doing,” I said. “I’m not deep-sixing your home life on top of it all.” For the past ten years now Charlie’s been happily married to Charlotte, a woman he met at the cleaners in college. He’s faithful and devoted. They have two adorable twin girls. You could say he has a picture perfect domestic life.
“But if that bastard comes near you again you lose say,” he said. “It’s that simple.”
“Fine,” I said. “But I do think this is on the downswing now.” I hoped.
Charlie said I had to take precautions. Change the locks. Get a new car. Cut my hair. Get new clothes. Anything to throw Rick off the scent, something to make him lose interest. Either way. Charlie still thought I should just move down the road to Highlandtown or Pepperwood, but for me this wasn’t an option.
“That’s one thing. I’m not moving,” I said. I was born and raised in Lovett. Rick only moved here two years ago for a job at the plant. As far as I was concerned he was an outsider. Screw him, I thought: this is my town.
“Okay,” he said. Then he handed me a wrinkled white paper bag wrapped into a handle at the top. From the weight I could tell what it was.
“Don’t open it now,” he said. “Just if you need her.”
I put the bag on the seat next to me. I felt better with it keeping the bench warm next to me.
“I mean, I’m tempted to just drive over there right now,” Charlie said. “The fucker….But out of respect for you, I won’t. That’s the only reason.”
I downed the rest of my grapefruit juice and I could feel my stomach churning. I twisted the charm bracelet around my wrist. I could feel its tear-drop shaped purple and pink crystals surrounded by five fake rubies made of glass.
Once the locksmith was done, I got my new phone number. Then I drove my Ford pickup to the dealer and traded it in for a tiny Toyota, the kind Rick mocked.
And it was green. To Rick, cars should only be either black or red. Anything else was pansy to him. The dealer cocked his head and asked if I was sure. He seemed surprised at how quickly I made up my mind, and I guess I was too. I was surprised how easy it was to change your whole vibe, become a new person. One day I was me and the next I was a new somebody.
When I got home from work the next day, I opened the mailbox and found a folded piece of graph paper, the kind you used in geometry class in high school. It read: “Dear Janie: Nice fucking haircut. Now you look like a true bitch dyke cunt. Fuck you.” I was tempted to call Charlie right then and there, but for some reason I decided not to. Rick had to get it out of his system, I thought. He just had to figure out that we were done in his own head, that I wasn’t going to put up with him anymore, that he wasn’t part of my plan. I thought for sure he would move on.
But over the next two weeks it just got worse. I’d get more notes and things, then Rick started following me to work. The meatpacking plant wasn’t too far from the vet’s where I worked as a secretary at the time. He’d get right on my bumper for the five miles down Route 28, honking and beeping, then he’d swerve off abruptly onto the access road to the industrial park.
The thing was if I looked back at Rick, he’s smile and wave sarcastically like I was leading him to somebody’s birthday party. Mostly I tried to ignore him like he was a hornet buzzing around my hamburger at a picnic. But that glint got me. Made me start thinking Rick still actually believed we were together, not just wanted to believe—really believed. He had that old flash and shine in his eyes.
This is when I called Charlie.
But it was Steve who really gave me a glimpse into a dark side of things. He shook hands with me when I broke it off, and I didn’t hear from him for a while. I thought he swallowed it fine. Then he started e-mailing detailed descriptions of encounters with women he supposedly slept with (he called them “romantic encounters”). He would call me late and hang up. Steve kept it up even after I told him never to contact me again. A month later it finally petered out.
I guess I’ve always been a bit boy-crazy. God gave me a pretty face and a nice rack. I know that. Guys like looking at me and I don’t mind it. Never have. Even when I was fourteen I would just love swaying across the school cafeteria. I would feel their eyes following me. I would feel the weight of my own body through the air. I could tell they would fight each other just to talk to me, that they had to rush home and ram their hands down their pants. I realized I had clout, and I liked this. I liked being able to change a boy’s entire mood by just moving across his line of vision. If other girls hated me why should I care?
Even when I found a man I loved I had a hard time settling down. I couldn’t stop thinking about the others, all those eyes that desired me. At twenty-two I was engaged to Eddie, my boyfriend from the community college. It was so sweet: we both got our associate’s and he said he wanted me in his life forever. He was a solid kind. But I would go out to bars with my girlfriends and watch the eyes follow me, slobbering eyes. It felt…good. Something new. I just couldn’t help it; I had to go home with a few of them at least.
Then I met Daryl. My first real job was at a store that sold Persian rugs. I would set up appointments with clients, sell rugs on occasion, design ads for the locals, that sort of thing. Daryl was one of the guys out on the sales floor. Handsome and smart. I just couldn’t say no. Over and over. When Eddie found out, he split for Portland. I don’t blame him one bit.
With Rick I thought it was different. At work Michelle said she could vouch for him. Sensitive. Funny. Good job, his head square on his shoulders. Dina said he was “a real grab.” Carla said he was a “swell guy.”
For the first two months I thought so too. He would take me out to whatever restaurant I wanted. We would catch a movie or go out to the diner for pie and coffee. When he’d drive me home, Rick would pat my knee to the beat of a Rolling Stones tune, then massage my shoulders, clutching my thighs with splayed fingers. I liked that. Inside he would lean into me, clasping my face in between his hands. The roughness set a fire off within me. I could feel his breath on my neck. I always thought Rick had a baked smell, like Thanksgiving stuffing. He would grind into me and tell me I’m “one special lady.” Rick could do some talking.
“You’re something else,” I’d say, unsure how to respond. I didn’t think of myself as special, or a lady but it was nice to hear. I was just a secretary down at Parkland Veterinary Clinic, the woman who phoned dog owners reminding them of their Thursday appointment. The only thing I had going for me was a decent appearance and a split-level on the edge of town that I got for a steal on auction. I had a simple kind of life.
Rick would sit on my loveseat, hand under his chin, and listen to me talk about my dysfunctional family like I was speaking of the divine rapture or something. He was a good listener, or pretended to be. He made me feel like everything I did or said was important, and for a while Rick did make me feel poles apart from the rest. He would rub my arms and tell me I’m a “strong person,” and that my parents were lucky to have me. He would tell me I have “a good heart.” The thought of this still sends shivers up my arms. Rick seemed like a real sensitive guy.
Then something switched in our relationship, and it never switched back.
What happened was we went out one Saturday to the county fair. Every August I had to go see the pigs and sheep and ride the Ferris wheel. It was my way of staying in touch with my childhood, I guess. I just liked it. From the beginning I could tell Rick didn’t want to go, even in the car. He referred to the fair as “that thing,” and he didn’t touch me at all on the drive down. It was weird.
“Man, it smells like shit out here,” he said once we entered the gates.
“Well, that’s just the farm animals,” I said. “It’s always like that.” I slipped my arm around my waist, trying to lighten his mood.
“Yeah, they stink like shit,” he said. “Dumb ass animals.”
It was strange: Rick was always moody, but that day he was acting like a spoiled child. I was surprised. I just didn’t get why he was in such knots.
Finally, we went to one of those things where you try to toss the rings onto the clown’s pointy nose. On three tries he didn’t even get close. I didn’t want to say anything, but he was so damn serious about it. Like I could care less whether he won me a purple stuffed monkey, or some other waste of space. But after his third miss, I just burst out laughing. Tried to cover my mouth and everything, but I just let it come.
“You think that’s fucking funny?” he said. “My failure’s amusing to you?”
“I think your over-reaction to this stupid game is funny,” I said. “Come on Rick. Relax would ya?”
Instead he snapped his head, and made a beeline for his Jeep. He didn’t say a word to me. I followed him, but I wasn’t about to hurry on his account. Just by looking at the back of his neck I could tell he was furious. Bristled. The whole thing was idiotic, laughable really.
Now Rick could’ve just left me there in the lurch, but instead he sat in his car, engine running, hands gripping the wheel. As soon as I got in he lit out of there, tearing up the sod, speeding down old rural Route Two back home. By this point the sun was low on the horizon, a blare right into our eyes on the windy road.
Then he let me have it.
“I was nice enough to go along for your hick-ass bullshit,” he said. “But I’m not about to be mocked while I fucking do it.” His eye was twitching and he kneaded the wheel. We pretty much had it out for a good half hour. At one point he even had to pull over. I thought then that he might punch me, and I was ready to make a run for it through the cornfields if I had to.
His people were drunks or in prison, and the last thing he wanted was a life like them, he said. Rick thought he was better than them. “I want to keep it clean,” he said. That was one of his favorite expressions. “I want to keep it clean as a whistle.”
Rick was just another self-loathing redneck.
So I asked him, “Am I a hick then because I like to go to the county fair? Is that what you think?”
He blinked and swallowed. Looked off. I saw his hesitation. That’s what I remembered when I decided we would part ways. The blinking. The swallowing. For about ten seconds Rick stared out over the burnished road, the sun highlighting every pore. I saw exactly who he was.
“No,” he said. “I don’t think that.”
This was the beginning of the end for us. We kept trying for a few more months, but after that fight in the car I knew it was over. After the fair I was just some redneck pussy he could take out his aggression upon. Someone he could look down upon. Those last few months we fought every day. I’d tell Charlie and my sister Diane that Rick was just confused, that he tried too hard, that he wanted to be somebody he wasn’t. But when I told Rick I had enough of him he pounded his fists into the wall of my kitchen, and teared-up. He grabbed me by the scruff of my blouse and said we were meant for each other, and that I just didn’t see it yet. He shoved the dishes off the kitchen table and said he was going to make me see it.
“I’m not going anywhere,” he said. “Watch me.”
When he stomped out of my house, I looked at the two holes in the drywall set in there like the eyes of some deep-sea creature.
When we walked by Charlie’s car, he unlocked the trunk and pulled out a sleeping bag and a suitcase. I shook my head and said that wasn’t necessary.
“I hope not,” he said. “But this has got to stop.”
What could I say to that? It had been two months since Rick and I broke up, and Rick was gaining momentum, if anything. Charlie said that short of moving and finding a new job I’d done all I could.
“Time to draw a line in the sand,” Charlie said. “Tomorrow you and I call to see about a restraining order on this guy. Enough.”
“Okay,” I said. “All right.”
As much as I wanted to think of myself as independent, I was comforted by Charlie’s presence, by his car in my driveway. The Colt 45 sat on my bureau. But the downside was I also felt trapped in my own house.
Charlie and I both called in sick the next morning, and went to see about a restraining order. This was easier than it sounds. On television it always seemed so simple, but when we tried this avenue it was a long-ass wait for nothing. After all the paper work I filled out the police told me the case didn’t seem to warrant any restraining order.
“This man is following me around on a daily basis. How is that not grounds for a restraining order?” Charlie’s eyes narrowed into dagger points.
“Now that could just be coincidence,” the cop said. “In the end it’s his word against hers.”
“It could be a coincidence if it was one day,” Charlie said. “But this is a series of days we’re talking about.”
“Then it could be a series of coincidences,” the cop said.
“Jesus Christ,” Charlie said. If it weren’t for quitting booze entirely I would have loved a beer or two at that point.
“He punched her out. How about that?”
Well, the policeman took that more seriously. But because we didn’t report it at the time, they said there was little they could do about it now long after the fact. Charlie could file a report, but if I didn’t have bodily evidence, we could forget it. Ultimately the cop said it was still my word against Rick’s.
his engine grumbling. In the car he would smoke his cigarettes, and ask us how Mom is doing. I don’t know if my mother owned a gun, but she did get the two German Shepherds. Then my father got a job as a long-distance mover. I was nine and Diane was seven. That was about the last time either one of us saw our father. Two years later he stopped sending checks. I guess he thought we were all grown up by then.
For three years my mother really struggled. She hired a baby-sitter for us during the week, this old lady in the neighborhood we called Big Betty. Don’t know where that came from since she wasn’t big, and her name wasn’t Betty. She did have a huge nest of hair though, which she kept up in a beehive most of the time. After work Mom would bring home fast food and collapse on the sofa, or just go straight to bed with a glass of rum. Sometimes Big Betty would stay with us even then, telling us stories about her grandchildren, or things she read in the newspaper, or calling her relatives on the phone and having us talk to them. Big Betty kept us busy with talk.
Meeting Raymond was an accident. During the day my mother was selling mattresses down on the strip, and she took up a part-time job as a grocery store clerk on the weekends. One day Raymond walked into the mattress store. He had just moved to town with his son Charlie after a long divorce down in Florida. He was trying to start over. New mattresses were part of that. My mother and Raymond hit it off from the get-go.
I’ll never forget the first time Mom brought Charlie and Raymond over for dinner. Mom had told us that she found a special man, and she had been dating him for nearly three months at that point. It was time for the families to meet, she said. Mom made a fancy pork dish with a sauce of some kind and mashed potatoes and side dishes all over the table. When they came in I thought they must have the wrong house. Raymond was so kind and handsome, with this way of cocking his head slightly that made him seem like a movie star or a politician. He would just listen. I’d never seen a man do that before.
And Charlie. Charlie had the same ways his dad had. The only difference was Charlie was only one year older than me. He hardly said a word the whole night, but I couldn’t take my eyes off him. His face seemed carved out of marble somehow. He just seemed more solid than most, but calm and friendly at the same time. I watched the candles flicker on his face; I watched his eyes glow in the circles of light.
A year later Raymond proposed to my mother, and he and Charlie moved into our house. All of us were on top of the world. Charlie and I became best friends, which Diane came to resent. He looked out for me, gave me a boy’s perspective on life. Diane and I shared one room, and Charlie slept in the room next to ours. There was an energy back in the house. I would palm the wall as if it was his head, or chest, or back, as if I could feel him inhale and exhale through the wall.
I always loved mowing the lawn for some reason. Maybe it was because it gave me a chance to make something shabby look new. Then there was the lush scent of grass clippings. I would recline on the lawn afterward, and I didn’t care if the clippings stuck all over me or not. But when Charlie came I gave the job to him. We argued about it first, but then I was glad to turn it over, only to him. I would watch him mow the lawn, his shirt off, the clippings gusting up onto his chest and sweaty back, his muscles knotting and flexing with each turn of the mower.
All I wanted was to settle down with somebody. I am easy-going, laid-back, easy to be with. I never wanted to be one of those people who were so rigid they drove you nuts. With Charlie there I felt secure. This was all I wanted. This was everything.
“It’s important to keep your head up,” Charlie told me. “Don’t let him beat you down.”
Charlie and me were at his favorite pizza place, “Sweet Home Alabama” blaring on the jukebox. He was saying how just varying my routine is important, just in case. Then I asked Charlie if he ever had a woman act this way to him. “Not that I know of,” he said. “But women don’t seem to get this way as much,” he said. “You know? And not with me.”
“Yeah, right,” I said. “What are you talking about?”
He dashed oregano and pepper and garlic powder on the pizza and we dove in.
That night he watched a movie while I talked to Diane on the phone. I hadn’t spoken to her in months. In the fall doctors removed a third of her tongue—cancer. I flew out to Indianapolis to see her, which I think she appreciated. She was jittery from the lack of nicotine—the doctors made her quit cold turkey.
“Hey, Shirley,” she said. This was a warm greeting for her. In some ways, Diane had a much tougher time in life than I did. Sometimes I felt guilty about it, or pitied her. That night I told her about Rick and all, about what was happening. Having heard some of my previous stories, she wasn’t surprised. Then I made a mistake: I mentioned that Charlie was helping out. She slipped into one of her rants about how Charlie stole me from her, literally snatched me from her, and how before he came along we were tight like sister should be. “What the hell happened?” she asked. Then she kept on asking it. I apologized for even mentioning him.
“Just forget the whole thing,” she said. “I have enough problems out here as is.”
She slipped through my fingers. Ultimately Diane just sees herself as alone in life, sees herself as driven by loss. Bum luck. I remembered how once she told me she found out where our father lived. She drove out there and followed him around. She even bought a gun. She told me she fantasized about putting one through his skull then driving over the body. She told me she liked imagining her car wheels rolling over his chest and neck.
When Charlie was finished with his move he gave me a hug and said he should go home that night, that Charlotte was starting to feel neglected.
“It looks like everything here is under control for now,” he said.
For a moment I fantasized that Charlotte and the girls died in a plane crash, that Charlie was racked with need. I thought if the worst were ever to happen, I would be the first person he would call upon. Or I could be. I imagined Charlie nursing his pain with beer and shots of vodka. I imagined laying him back on the sofa and pressing my body into his, holding his face in my hands, hearing him whimper my name. It was wrong. I felt immediately guilty at this thought. It sent a shiver up my arm anyway.
Charlie shook his coat on and kissed my forehead.
“I’ll talk to you tomorrow,” he said. “Be sure to look up.”
I nodded. Watched him slip into darkness.
After work I went to the grocery store. I wanted to buy some food for the next time Charlie came over: popcorn, apples, cereal, French roast (his favorite), ginger snaps. As I placed the grocery bags in my car I noticed the sky had an odd tint to it—
blurred or smoky.
I pulled into the driveway and stepped out of the car. I opened the trunk and lifted the bags. Then it hit me, a thudding triangle of pain tearing into my head. I could feel my body slump against the bumper. Then another rending blow. I could feel the warm stickiness on my hair, on my face. I felt my body slip down, slip under. I felt cold, as if the cool air was seeping in and the warmth was seeping out.
The skin of Charlie’s nose flickered in and out. Mr. Cort’s hat. My mother’s eyelashes. Charlie’s brow, beaded with sweat. The back of his hand smearing it.
Nausea burned up my throat. Two women peered over me and touched my shoulder. One woman winked a green eye.
I could hear inner workings. Sounds of machinery echoed from below. In the darkness the blankets were heavy. I tried to lift myself but my head seethed with pain. A dozen winged hands clamped me down.
Charlie’s eyes and mouth. My mother’s cheeks and hair. Diane’s neck. The pale freckles on Charlie’s chin. Raymond’s eyebrows. Charlie’s teeth and smile.
When the drugs lifted, the pain remained, like silt at the bottom of a dried creek bed. They told me I had sixty stitches in my head divided between two places. A concussion. Lucky I didn’t have a coma. When I could raise my body to a sitting position I still wasn’t hungry, as if the medication carried that away.
My mother told me that Frank Cort found me slumped in my driveway. Nobody knew how long I was there. Groceries were strewn all over the driveway, and blood was leaking from my head. She patted my cheek and massaged my neck and arms. She said that nobody knew what happened. I watched Charlie. He said he called the police, but they hadn’t any luck. Diane embraced me. Charlie stood on the other side of the room, his jaw clenching and unclenching. He couldn’t stand still.
I had a severe concussion and that the doctors said I was very lucky. My mother said they didn’t know exactly what struck me, but that whoever did this to me hit with full force. For the first time I could remember I wanted to hide.
Somehow I felt this was my punishment for thinking those thoughts about Charlotte, about Charlie’s girls. Still, Rick seemed to be some kind of vengeance sent for an expressed purpose. Rick is my regret come to surface, I thought. This is my own fault, I told myself. I told Diane and my mother that I’d like to speak to Charlie for a moment. Even though my mother couldn’t understand, I was never interested in religion or fate or God. This was different.
The door clicked behind them. The grains in the particleboard reminded me of the doors they had at Lubbock High. Charlie stayed where he was, leaning against the far wall. His teeth gleaned in the light when he opened his mouth to talk. He stammered, stuttered, looked away.
“I don’t even know what to say,” he said.
“Neither do I,” I said. I didn’t even want to hear the name Rick, I told Charlie. He nodded.
“Just give me the address,” he said.
I told him and he closed his eyes for a moment. I could hear a nurse in the hallway teasing a patient. “Henry, chocolate pudding again? You going on a diet now?”
“That’s it,” Charlie said. “No more chances.”
I knew what he meant. He told me he was going that night or the night after. He would call my answering machine. If it was successful he would just let the machine pick up, press a button, and hang up. If he wasn’t, he would tell me in person.
“What would you like? We can get some of that Mexican food you love. Pancho’s? We can get movies. Sodas? Ice cream?”
I nodded. Normally I would have hated so much blatant attention, but this time I didn’t care. It felt good to be coddled. All I wanted to do was recline in my childhood bed and let life unfold. I could feel the stitches in my head and my scalp throbbing. I felt like the bride of Frankenstein, without the husband.
That evening I let Diane bring the television and VCR from downstairs into my room, as I always wanted to do when I was a teenager. This seemed ironic—when I finally got my wish I was an adult who faced a near-death attack. My mother brought me chicken chimichangas. I doused them with hot sauce and my appetite returned. I watched NASCAR. Something about the cars circling around and around hypnotized me, relieved the tension. Mom and Diane just let me be. That night I just wanted to be with my own thoughts.
I turned the television on mute. Still watching the cars circulate, I thought about Charlie. I remembered watching him play football. I loved watching him the other boys. He would lower his shoulders, and plow right into the opponent, and the other boy would flail backwards, arms limp, head snapping back. It was exhilarating. Terrifying. Maybe if I weren’t related to him I would have thought he was too rough. But when he pounded some poor defenseless kid into the grass, my heart leapt, and that tingly feeling wound through me.
The television station cut from the race itself to one of the crew. Without the sound the guys in the pit looked like idiotic robots, and the race seemed absurd. Charlie used to mock television when we were kids: “Why would I waste my time drooling like an idiot over a bunch of flickering images,” he’d say. Charlie would rather interact; in this way he was almost more feminine than masculine. At Fieldstone’s, the grocery store where he worked as a teenager, Charlie would chat up just about every customer. He could remember the minutest details from the lives of each regular customer. The customers would line up just for his friendly checkout service. It made perfect sense to me that Charlie would get a business degree from college, come back and start up the best tree removal service in the area. Everything Charlie touched turned to gold.
Laying in my childhood bed I remembered walking to Fieldstone’s to buy sugar or milk for Mom, but also to visit Charlie. I would stand in the magazine aisle and simply watch Charlie work the crowd. I would feel an onrush of pride, pride that I knew him, that he was my stepbrother. One day he brought me a charm bracelet from the store. It was summer and I was a camp counselor at the art camp that year. Charlie handed me the bracelet and said, “I was thinking of you today, for some reason.” I never told him how much that bracelet meant to me. It was and still is, by far, my most prized possession.
I knew if I did actually sleep with Charlie I would probably lose respect for him. He was the closest I knew to the perfect person. He always seemed to do the right thing, to be in the right place at the right time. As I dialed my voice mail I realized that in making my romantic decisions I wanted to prove something to myself. For some reason I chose trash. This is why I loved Charlie. He was the shining example of “The Good Guy,” the moral man, a rarity, a knight in shining armor.
As I pressed star, then my phone number and pass code, I thought of a conversation I had with Charlie a few months after his father and he moved in to our house. We were in the back yard, helping my mother rake leaves. I held the plastic bags open while Charlie bent over and scooped the dry leaves into the gap.
“Don’t you ever worry about your mother?” I asked. I looked up into a curtain of leaves. A thick cloud of maple and elm and oak fluttered behind Charlie’s head. The rustle sounded almost like water. I could smell one of our neighbors burning leaves a few blocks away.
“Yes,” he said, looking away. “But she had mental problems. She wasn’t good for any of us so something had to happen.”
He told me he just wasn’t interested in maintaining a relationship with her. She would write him once a month, but Charlie would never respond. It seemed like an un-Charlie-like thing to do, cold and callous.
“You have one new message, and eight saved messages,” the automated voice said. “To listen to your messages, press one.” I did.
Now I understood.
When I listened to the message I heard a faint hissing at first, for about two seconds. Then a single beep, more hissing, then the phone clicked dead. I dropped the phone immediately, as if it was hot to the touch. I inhaled and exhaled. I ran my thumb along my right wrist, where I usually keep my charm bracelet. It was inside my home, on the bureau in my bedroom. Safe. Protected. My pulse throbbed, and it felt good.