Winter Words

I remember how the dead leaves we piled into mounds
Over the dry winter-brown grass that December afternoon
Echoed the crunch of papers you balled up and carefully built
Into pyramids in front of our fireplace to throw into the fire:
Black-inked words that drowned in beautiful blue flame.

If I could walk back into our house, into that day,
I would kneel, Sphinx-like, among those piles of words
And utter a riddle that would surround us,
Not undecipherable, yet unnecessary to answer,
Whose edges would catch fire and burn and burn
And burn and burn forever.

But, no: our words had lain unvoiced upon our tongues—
My riddle hovering unsolved in the space between us.

Wordless then and wordless still, I rebuild into piles
All of these dead leaves that are now illegal to burn,
And shape them into a riddle of sound decipherable
Only by melancholy…and longing.

As I set these leaves ablaze, I recall a dream in which our eyes
Followed our hands along our glowing bodies as we rubbed
Each other warm before a fire that burned and burned and burned
With other people’s words.

As I set these leaves ablaze, I forget how to remember your face;
Winter folds me like a blank love note into its cold and empty embrace.

The Rifle

For as long as I could remember, Daddy kept his rifle mounted above the fireplace. He didn’t put his gun there for decoration, although it was well oiled and in impeccable condition. Daddy kept his rifle over the fireplace because it was difficult for everyone to reach but him, it was readily accessible if the need to protect his family arose, and because of what it stood for.

We were all afraid to touch that gun. Mama’s feather duster never grazed the brackets on which it hung, as if she feared the slightest touch would release the trigger. This seemed odd to me, since Mama didn’t tolerate dirt of any kind and kept her house so immaculate we could walk around in black socks and not pick up any lint. My younger brother, Luke, who had been a “Mama’s boy” since before he was born, used to help Mama clean until she caught him standing on a chair, feather duster in hand, in front of the fireplace. Mama shrieked when she saw him moving the feather duster back and froth across the rifle, and pulled him off the chair and smacked him so hard he was too stunned to cry, and she cried instead. After that Luke didn’t help Mama clean, although he sometimes sat in the kitchen and watched her peel potatoes for stew, or slice up ginger for tea.

Perhaps because Mama had smacked him, the prohibition on touching Daddy’s gun intrigued my little brother all the more. The first time I caught sight of him staring intently at that gun I snuck up behind him and whispered, “Boo!” He jumped as if that gun had discharged, and then whaled on me until Mama yelled at me because I was two years older and supposed to be know better because I was a girl and supposed to be more mature. My feelings changed. When I’d see my brother staring at the rifle when he thought no one else was there, I started to feel frightened. His face would lose focus and his eyes become expressionless, like he was staring into space, daydreaming. Then he’d hold out his left arm and quickly bend it upwards at the elbow as he made a sound with his mouth—as if he’d just shot a pistol.

Luke’s mysterious behavior evolved beyond staring at Daddy’s rifle—he started sneaking downstairs after everyone had gone to bed. I followed him…once. My original thought was that he was eating another piece of dessert, or sneaking one of Mama’s cigarettes, since that’s why I’d venture downstairs after my parents were asleep. Walking with my feet close to the baseboards so that the steps wouldn’t creak, I crept down to spy on my brother. What I saw I couldn’t quite believe; Luke was stalking around in the dark, arms lifted in front of him, making that shooting sound with his mouth. He’d snuck downstairs to shoot imaginary, shadowy things crouching behind furniture, or lurking in the shadows cast from the moonlight edging between Mama’s heavy velvet curtains. When he heard me behind him, he whirled around and shot me—didn’t even think twice about it, just whispered, “blam!” and went on shooting as if I weren’t still standing there with my mouth hanging open in disbelief, like the idiot I was for thinking my little brother would never shoot me.

“It’s me, Luke! You just shot me,” I whispered, my hands on my chest as though they were feeling for the entry wound. Luke just turned around and shot me again before creeping into the dining room to shoot whatever lurked under the table. I couldn’t tell whether Luke was sleepwalking or awake, but he gave me the creeps, so I turned and retraced my steps to the stairs, bumping my shin against the coffee table in my haste. When I looked up at the fireplace, the rifle glowed unnaturally in the dark. Once I was back in bed, I rubbed my shinbone hard, but the knot was already forming. It wasn’t until after I heard Luke’s footfall on the stairs that I was able to fall asleep. The next time he snuck downstairs in the night, I stayed in bed, although the suspense of his getting caught, and my curiosity about who in the world he was shooting, kept me wide awake.

The only thing I liked about Daddy’s gun was when he cleaned it, which was twice a week. Daddy oiled the gun on Wednesday afternoons and Saturday mornings. Luke and our baby sister, Buttercup, watched him on Wednesdays while I stayed in my room and did my homework. Buttercup was only in kindergarten and didn’t have any homework to do; Luke never did his. Saturday morning was my time with Daddy. Before he came downstairs, I had his coffee poured and sweetened the way he liked it, and got his oil box ready. Every time he cleaned the rifle, I picked up the container of Hoppes No. 9 to see how close I could bring it to my nose before the smell became too repulsive. Luke bragged that he could smell it without making a face, but I knew that he always held his breath, or breathed through his mouth. Daddy always warned me not to smell it, but every time, after I turned my face away and quickly set the container down, he’d softly chuckle, “I told you, Raylene.”

I heard Daddy coming down the stairs stretching and yawning—he always made a production of looking like he’d just woken up, though he’d been up since before sunrise. He pretended he didn’t see me sitting on the sofa, and then acted all surprised that I was up so early on a Saturday morning.

“Jiminy Crickets! It’s the crack o’ dawn! What’cha doin’ up, girl?” He’d gently lift the rifle from the wooden brackets, sit on the sofa next to me, and tenderly lay the rifle across his knees.

“I wanted to watch you oil your rifle before you go hunting, Daddy.”

“Well, I’ll be darned if my namesake hasn’t gone to all the trouble of getting’ my oil box out and fixin’ me a cup of coffee.” He would then lean toward me and kiss me on the forehead, like a blessing. “Thank you, Raylene.”

“It was nothin’, Daddy. I’m always up anyway,” I would lie, “and I can’t turn on the light to read or else I’ll wake up Buttercup.”

Before he started oiling his gun, he’d pull a crumpled pack of Chesterfields and a tarnished Zippo out of his flannel shirt pocket and light a cigarette. After dousing a cotton cloth with rifle cleaner, he rubbed the cloth up and down the barrel of the rifle until the metal reflected our faces like a mirror.

“Daddy?”

“Yes, Raylene.” He polished the butt of the rifle with a secret recipe he’d made himself, alternating dragging on the cigarette with sipping coffee, which steamed in the cup. I held the container of Hoppes No. 9 in my hands, trying to get my nerve up to smell it.

“What do those marks on the rifle butt mean, Daddy? I forgot.”

He sat up straight, as if he’d suddenly remembered something, and then looked down his nose at me, half smiling—half stern. The instrument on his lap had no flaws except for three long marks on the left side of the butt that Daddy had carved there. No one seemed to know what they stood for, not even Mama. The one time I asked her about it, she quickly responded that she didn’t like talking about guns and that I should go ask my father. Every Saturday after that, I asked what the marks stood for. Every Saturday he told me something different, so I never knew which meaning was the true one. Our Mama, Maybelline, who was ten years younger than Daddy, was his third wife and together they had three children: me, Luke, and our little sister who was called Buttercup on account of her yellow hair. Daddy had three sisters: Aunt Henrietta and Aunt Flo, who, he joked, were our maiden spinster aunts, and Aunt June, who was engaged to Dodge, one of Daddy’s best friends. They came over every Saturday, when Uncle Dodge, Uncle Wayne and Uncle Pee Wee, Daddy’s hunting and drinking buddies, were dinner guests at our house.

“Didn’t you ask me last Saturday?”

“I don’t remember what you said,” I fibbed, figuring he’d probably forgotten what he’d said.

“And the Saturday before that?”

“I just like hearing you tell it, Daddy. It’s so intriguing.”

“Intriguing? Now isn’t that an unusual word to use in casual conversation with your Daddy on a Saturday morning, Raylene?” he teased.

“I’m practicing my conversational style, Daddy, for when I’m grown and have to attend formal dinner parties.”

“Finishing school start earlier these days, huh? I thought you were only in fifth grade, my little debutante,” he laughed, slapping the sofa cushion, but I knew he used compliments as tactical evasion. This one was an attempt to make me forgot I’d asked a question he’d rather not answer.

I smiled and blew him a kiss, “Look, I even put on some lip gloss, Daddy. Now tell me the story behind those marks you carved on the rifle.”

“You’re incorrigible, Raylene. Okay, here goes…” He breathed in and blew air out of his mouth loudly and slowly, pausing for dramatic effect. I inched forward and leaned my chin on my hands while I listened. “What kind of vehicle does your Daddy drive?”

“That’s easy, a Cadillac.”

“Now that car—”

“You ran over three people?”

“No—”

“Three dogs?”

“Let me finish the story, honey, then you can ask more questions. Never interrupt anyone in the middle of a sentence.” He paused long enough for his meaning—and the lesson behind it—to sink in. “I’m sorry I interrupted you, Daddy.”

“I accept your apology, Raylene. Now, in all my years as a licensed driver, that car is the third car I’ve ever owned.”

“How long have you been a licensed driver, Daddy?”

“How long you been thinkin’ about becoming a detective, Raylene?”

“Come on, Daddy!”

“Well, I’ve been a licensed driver for nearly thirty years. So, on the average, that’s a new car about every ten years.”

“What were the other cars, Daddy?”

“Well, my first car was a Ford, LTD and the second car was a Lincoln Continental.”

“How come you like such big cars, Daddy,” I asked quickly, bringing the can of rifle cleaner up to my nose and taking a small sniff.

He laughed at my grimace, swallowed the dregs of his coffee, and crushed the cigarette butt in the ashtray. I stood when he did, and followed him into the kitchen, realizing that my last question remained unanswered, and that this answer also evaded the real meaning behind the long, vertical marks he’d carved on the rifle.

“Daddy…?”

“…Because there’s room for my wife and three spanklings in a bigger car, honey, that’s why,” he answered, rummaging through the refrigerator. “I sure hope your Mama remembered to make my lunch. Ah, here it is. That’s my woman.”

There was a honk in the driveway and I ran to the window to wave at my uncles, who waved back and blew exaggerated kisses. Daddy walked back through the living room and out onto the front porch. I followed to close and lock the front door behind him.

Don’t forget to put that stuff away, Raylene,” he said before walking out the door. Holding rifle cleaner in my hands, I watched until the truck backed out of our driveway and disappeared at the end of our street. I closed the door and turned back into the quiet of the house. Mama, who was perfect in every other way, never came down to get Daddy’s coffee ready or see him off on Saturday mornings. Once, when I got up the nerve to ask her why, she told me something I didn’t understand; that married people need some time away from each other. When I commented that Daddy was away from her 9 hours a day when he was at work the rest of the week, I noticed that she was looking at me, but focusing her eyes on some point beyond my face. There was a wistful look about the way she held her head, about the way her brown curls lay against her cheeks. She slowly placed the potato she had been peeling down onto counter. A molasses heavy sigh, thick with an emotion I didn’t know what to call or how to feel, escaped her lips. I asked if I’d said something wrong.

“You just don’t understand, Raylene…of course you don’t; you’re a Daddy’s girl.” She picked up the potato and continued peeling. When I asked if I could her help get dinner ready, she told me she didn’t need help, and that I should be minding my sister or doing my homework.

Actually, I was happy that Mama didn’t get up early on Saturday mornings, since this was the only time when Daddy didn’t have to be shared. I put his oil box and the Hoppes No. 9 back under the kitchen sink. As I slowly rinsed out the coffee cup and washed the lingering smell of rifle cleaner from my hands, I heard my mother’s bedroom slippers shuffle across the living room carpet. Mama never woke up before 9:00am on Saturdays, and the “good morning, Mama,” was already forming on my lips, which trembled with excitement at the thought of a morning where I didn’t have to share her, either. These words were lost, however, when I met my brother’s eyes across the kitchen. He was wearing Mama’s slippers and holding an imaginary rifle pointed directly at my stomach.

“What are you doing wearing Mama’s bedroom slippers?” I asked.

“I have my reasons. You thought I was her, didn’t you?” His voice surrounded each word with a satisfaction that mirrored the half-smile of victory forming on his mouth. We both knew he’d fooled me, and that there was little I could do about it.

“What’s the point of asking a question, Luke, if you already know the answer?”

“To rub it in,” he responded and turned to open the refrigerator.

“What are you doing up this early?” He turned so that I could see his grin in profile.

“I’ve got stuff on my mind,” he replied, opening a package of salami.

“Well, now what things have you got on your mind, Luke,” I asked nonchalantly as I sat down, though I desperately wanted to know who he went around shooting in the middle of the night.

“Like whether I’d come down to watch you make a face smelling the rifle cleaner—”

“That’s what you spend your time thinking about on Saturday mornings?”

“No,” he replied, rolling up a piece of salami and shoving it into his mouth. He held a finger over his lips as he chewed, making me to wait for his answer, which I did since I knew he wouldn’t tell me otherwise. “Did you ever come home from school early and Uncle Wayne was here?”

“Sure, a couple of times him and Pee Wee brought meat from the smokehouse; they were having coffee here in the kitchen with Mama.

“Was it ever just Wayne alone with her?”

“Well…once he had some zucchini bread he said his mother baked. He brought it over because she forget he doesn’t like zucchini. Is it him you’ve been going around shootin’ at night?”

“No, it ain’t,” he replied curtly. “I came home early three times last month and he was here, sitting with Mama, drinking coffee. One day Mama was putting Buttercup’s hair up in braids. The other times they were just talking. Once he had his hand on hers on the table, and moved it when I came in. Buttercup was takin’ a nap. At dinner, Mama didn’t tell Daddy that Wayne had been here.”

“Maybe she just forgot,” I said, having difficulty steadying the slight quiver of uneasiness in my voice as it justified this easy leisure time my mother spent in the company of a single man who was my Daddy’s friend. “There ain’t no harm in it…besides, she feels sorry for him because he isn’t married and never has a girlfriend.”

“I know that’s what she says. But the first time, the school had sent me home because I had a bad headache. All she did was rub my head, hand me a bottle of aspirin, and send me to my room, talking to me all the while in that “please and thank you” voice she uses for strangers and people she doesn’t like. She told me to go to bed and that I’d feel better after a nap. She usually takes my temperature with her hand, and then makes a little fuss that always makes me feel better. She didn’t do either when Wayne was here—I ain’t calling him “uncle” no more. The other times I faked sick because I had things I wanted to talk to her about, but when I got home he was already here. Like he had been here all morning. She was real sore at me, I could tell, like I’d come home on purpose to interrupt something important. Heck, I mean, I can sat here and drink coffee with her. I’m good company, ain’t I?” He paused for my answer and then asked again, “Ain’t I?”

“Sure, Luke…I think so.” I was uncertain how I felt about his company, since I spent so much time avoiding him and vice versa. Ever since I’d followed him downstairs the night he was shooting imaginary targets, my brother gave me the creeps. He’d also begun spending more time locked in his room.

“Liar! You’re just saying that! You like Daddy’s friends as much as Mama does because you’re a girl.” He kicked Mama’s slippers off at me and stormed out of the kitchen. I heard him run up the stairs and slam the door to his room.

———-

The hunting was good and that afternoon Daddy and his friends brought home a holiday feast. Daddy’s sisters had arrived around noon to start baking bread and dessert. The smells of chocolate cake and roasting meat filled every room in the house. Buttercup and I were in charge of setting the table; Luke was locked in his room so he wouldn’t be asked to help. The men were sitting in the living room listening to Lucinda Williams, drinking their pre-dinner Bourbon on ice, arguing about who had caught the biggest game bird, whose rifle shot had felled the deer that was now curing in the meat locker behind the garage.

“Hey, Raylene, come here!” Uncle Dodge called from the living room. He beckoned me to approach where he was sitting on the sofa, and whispered in my ear, “Go out to my truck and get the other bottle of Bourbon underneath the seat.”

When I returned from my errand, Mama was setting a tray with four clean glasses on the coffee table around which Daddy, Uncle Pee Wee and Uncle Dodge were sitting and smoking. Uncle Wayne was sitting in the easy chair near the dining room. Mama wore a skirt instead of jeans, and I saw Uncle Wayne eyeing her as she stooped down to arrange the glasses on the table. She turned around toward him and asked if he’d like to join the other men around the coffee table.

“I’ll take my drink over hear, May,” he answered, smiling as she handed him his drink. When he took the glass from her hand, he smiled and cocked his head. I swear I saw Mama blush. Daddy was eyeing them as he poured Bourbon over the ice in the other glasses. He didn’t say a word. He also didn’t laugh at the dirty joke Uncle Pee Wee had just told.

“Not in front of my daughter, Pee Wee,” he said loudly, still looking at Uncle Wayne. I colored suddenly, realizing that he’d not only been watching Uncle Wayne flirting with my mother, but that he’d also seen me watching them. I cringed with shame for remaining in the living room beyond my errand, and for seeing what I had seen, which was one of my uncles flirting with my mother. As I left the room I heard Daddy whisper, “What business you got lookin’ at my wife like that?”

“It’s not everyday May dresses up in a new skirt. I was paying her some gallant flattery.”

“You’re showing what a pervert you are. You keep your damn gallant flattery to yourself or take it to Duke’s where you can flatter the waitresses and the divorcees.”

“Come on Ray, May looks nice in that new skirt. Give the man a break,” Uncle Dodge took up for his brother.

“Yeah, especially one who hasn’t caught any tail other than rabbit for at least six months,” Uncle Pee Wee added mirthfully and loudly, slapping his fat thighs and then hooting with delight.

When I heard Daddy laugh, I let out the breath I didn’t realize I’d been holding, and walked out of the realm of men through to the kitchen to see if the women needed any help.

———-

Dinner was slow and leisurely, and, after the dishes had been cleaned and the leftovers put away, we kids were sent upstairs to play or watch TV. I put a Disney video on for my little sister, who’d otherwise want me to play with her. She curled up in a beanbag chair and watched, sucking on her thumb and holding a snot-covered and bedraggled, stuffed dog. Luke had locked himself in his room, and when I pressed my ear to the door, I could hear him shooting imaginary criminals or animals, so I left him to his business. There was nothing I wanted more than to be downstairs with the adults, except maybe for eavesdropping and watching them without their knowing it. I quietly made my way down the stairs to the landing, from where I could see the entire living room through the spaces in the railing. Uncle Dodge and Aunt June, Daddy’s youngest sister, were slow dancing to a Lucinda Williams song. Mama was sitting on a chair that she’d brought from the dining room, one leg crossed over the other, tapping her cigarette into an ashtray on her lap, and singing along with the song. Uncle Wayne was sitting in the easy chair, moving his eyes from the dancing couple, who were beginning to kiss and rub their hands up and down each others arms and backs, to Mama, who kept her eyes averted to the floor as she sat smoking in silence. Daddy and Uncle Pee Wee were sitting on the floor at the coffee table rolling what I thought were cigarettes. When they were done, they stood up and walked over to Uncle Wayne

“Hey, smoke some dope, Wayne?” Uncle Pee Wee held what I now recognized as a joint in front of Uncle Wayne, who slowly shook his head.

“I’m already relaxed. I’m going to keep drinking Dodge’s Bourbon; doesn’t look like he’ll be missing it any time soon,” he smirked, nodding in the direction of Uncle Dodge and Aunt June, who were no longer swaying to the music, but planted in one spot, like a tree.

“How about it, May?” Mama looked up at Pee Wee and Daddy with a demure smile.

“I thought you’d never ask,” she said sweetly as she rose slowly from her chair and walked out of the room under Daddy’s arm.

The entire backyard could be seen from the bathroom window, so I crept up the stairs and kneeled on the hamper in front of the window, where I could seem my parents walk out to the spot where we usually had bonfires. They sat on aluminum folding chairs arranged in a semi-circle around the fire pit. Daddy lit a joint and passed it to Mama, who had been rubbing her arms against the chill of the October night. Uncle Pee Wee knelt in front of the fire pit and started a bonfire, then lay on his back, smoking a joint and looking up at the moonless sky. After their first joint was finished, Daddy reached over to hand another he’d lit to Uncle Pee Wee, who didn’t move. Daddy lit the second joint and sucked on it a couple of times before handing it to Mama. He slid down off of his chair and knelt before her, and I could see him touching her all over as she leaned her head back against the chair and took another long drag. I’d never walked in on my parents having sex, had never even caught them French kissing or brushing against each other in passing like Uncle Dodge and Aunt June did, and my gaze remained riveted on their image and the large shadow it cast behind them from the flames of the bonfire. Daddy’s hands moved underneath Mama’s skirt and she began unbuttoning her blouse with the hand that wasn’t holding the joint. Daddy slid her blouse off of her shoulders and pulled down the straps of her bra until it slid down to her stomach, exposing her white, full breasts and their hard, brown nipples. I’d seen Mama naked hundreds of times, but never when Daddy was present. The sight made me feel funny in my pants. Daddy started kissing Mama’s breasts and, when Mama arched her back, he started sucking on the nipples like Buttercup had when she was a baby. Daddy’s arms went around Mama’s back. He unfastened her bra and tossed it at Uncle Pee Wee; I could hear their conspiratorial giggles. Mama stood up unsteadily and Daddy pushed her skirt up until I could see her panties. He slowly pulled them down to her ankles, and then slid his hands up inside her skirt. I imagined a boy I liked at school touching me under my clothes and felt a quiver between my legs and pressed them together. Mama held the joint to Daddy’s lips, and he took a long drag as he began sliding her skirt up, exposing her fleshy thighs, which he kissed and licked as he tried to slide the skirt up over her hips. Mama gently lifted his chin so that he was now looking up at her. I didn’t think the sound of their voices would carry over the rustle of leaves Luke had pretended to rake that afternoon, and when I heard Mama’s voice, I strained to hear what she was saying to Daddy.

“…Ray, what if Pee Wee wakes up,” Daddy hands continued to stroke the backs of Mama’s legs and disappeared underneath her skirt.

“…See how much Bourbon he drank?”

“…Go inside…my diaphragm…”

“…Come back outside…next to this bonfire…” Mama gently tugged on Daddy’s beard as he pulled her panties back up and her skirt back down, and helped her re-button her blouse.

I figured a diaphragm was something Mama would get from the kitchen, so I turned away from the window, disappointed that I wasn’t going to see my parents’ foreplay. I went back to the landing to see what everyone else was doing. Aunt June and Uncle Dodge were lying still on the couch. Their arms were entangled and they were facing each other, but their eyes were closed. I’d once overheard Aunt Henrietta telling Mama that nothing else would happen because Aunt June was staying a virgin until she got married. Uncle Wayne was sitting in the easy chair with his head against the back of the chair. His eyes were closed. I thought he was asleep until he slowly turned his head towards the couch and opened them. He closed them again as Mama’s voice and Aunt Henrietta’s laughter came from the kitchen. I saw Mama stumble into the room and lean against the very chair she’d been sitting in half an hour before, when Uncle Wayne had been gallantly flattering her too much. Her shirt was buttoned wrong and one side of her skirt was wedged up higher than the other.

“Get a room you two!” Mama whispered loudly and then giggled.

There was no answer, and she shuffled over to the couch, bent over, and blew gently on their faces. I saw Uncle Wayne, who was still pretending he was asleep, peaking at her through a squint. As she stood up, so did Wayne. I scampered into my bedroom, and pulled the door closed until there was a crack just wide enough to peer through undetected. I saw as Mama entered the hallway from the stairwell; she had unbuttoned her blouse and was trying to rebutton it correctly as she headed for the bathroom. It looked like she had two buttons done when she reached out a hand to guide her through the doorway. She giggled and steadied herself. She neither turned the bathroom light on nor closed the door. Although I couldn’t see her, I could hear her rummaging through the medicine cabinet, knocking tubes and grooming instruments onto the floor. I smiled when Mama blasphemed, “Holy Christ,” but the smile quickly left my face when I heard the creaking steps that Mama heard too. A feeling of dread filled me when I saw Uncle Wayne enter the hallway from the staircase, and then disappear into the bathroom. Mama gasped. I heard him shush her. I heard their breathing and shuffling, some clothing ripped and Mama’s protests, which turned to angry whispering.

“Wayne! Not now! …Ray’s waitin’!”

“…it was so hard watchin’ you with him… when he reached under this skirt to pull your panties down…” When I overheard that Wayne had been watching my parents fooling around, my stomach flipped over. I didn’t feel the same way I did when I was watching them. Somehow that was okay. Uncle Wayne watching them was somehow just plain wrong.

“…he’s gonna come see what’s takin’ me so long …”

“It’s me you want, May…” Wayne’s voice dripped with honey. I heard the sucking sound of his mouth covering my mother’s mouth to keep her quiet.

“…Not now…the kids will have to pee….Mama’s voice, which was not persuasive, was again swallowed. It was so quiet now, I could hear my own breathing, I held my breath for several seconds and counted to ten, slowly, before letting it out. Soft, whimpering sounds came from the bathroom, and then…

“You find it, Maybelline?” Daddy’s voice boomed up the stairs. My mother’s harsh whispering was undecipherable; the banging noise that made me jump was not. Somebody had unhooked the screen from the bathroom window, and it slammed back against the window frame. Then Daddy’s slow, heavy footfall on the stairs made several steps creak.

“I’m coming Ray!” Mama walked quickly from the bathroom right into Daddy; her blouse was unbuttoned and she was pulling her skirt down over her thighs. Her panties were gone.

“What’s taking so long, May?”

“I was putting it in in the dark.”

“That’s foolish, woman.”

“I’m stoned, Ray.” Mama turned around and pulled the bathroom door closed.

“Why’re you shutting the door,” Daddy asked, walking around her and opening it back up.

He paused. “What happened to the screen?”

“Ray…” Daddy’s name escaped Mama’s lips, which I could see quivering. “I’ll be waiting outside, Ray,” Mama said more steadily as she walked over to the steps, re-buttoning her blouse. Although it wasn’t hot, I could see streaks of sweat on her forehead and the front of her neck before she turned and disappeared down the stairs.  Daddy looked back at her and then walked into the bathroom and flipped on the light.

“Whose in here?” Daddy called to no response. I was so afraid to move that I lost my balance and the bedroom door made a clapping sound as it closed. It pushed open and Daddy’s imposing bulk loomed over me.

“You were spying like you always do, weren’t you, young lady?” I quickly nodded my head, hoping that this was all he’d ask of me and fearing punishment for my voyeurism. I was a pervert, like Wayne, but I was also a girl. “Was somebody in that bathroom besides your Mama?” As hard as I tried to say, “no,” I couldn’t remove the startled look from my face or form the word. When he began asking his next question, his voice was sad and slow, “Was it …” We heard the loosened screen bounce against the window. Daddy stopped talking. I wrapped my arms around him and apologized.

“Who did you see go into the bathroom, Raylene?”

I buried my face into his chest and said, barely audible, “Mama.”

“Who else?” He gently lifted my head so that I had to look him in the face. “Was Uncle Wayne in there with her?”

My mouth opened and closed like gasping fish, but no sound came out. Tears startled rolling down my cheeks, but I couldn’t let go of him to brush them away. Daddy gently pried my arms from around his waist and pressed my shoulders back, reassuring-like, before walking back into the bathroom. I was hot on his heels when he entered, and stood with my back to the window while he pulled back the shower curtain, and then opened the door to the linen closet. No one was in here but the two of us. Daddy walked over to close the window. We could see Mama sitting in front of the bonfire, talking to Uncle Pee Wee. Daddy reattached the screen properly. He sighed as he pulled the window sash down.

“Well…so, it looks like there’s no one in here after all,” he said, unconvincingly, and rubbed my back. “Why don’t you go to bed now, Raylene; it’s late.” He bent to kiss me softly on the forehead and then shuffled out of the bathroom. He turned the light off and left me standing in the dark.

I tried to separate and name what I felt. Disappointment at not getting to watch my parents have sex in the grass. Shame about spying and being found out. Unequivocal treason for my unwilling admission that Mama hadn’t been in the bathroom alone. Fear that Daddy and Mama were going to fight, and that it would be my fault. Disgust and hate for Wayne, for getting Mama into trouble and for making Daddy feel…I wasn’t sure how Daddy felt. He had a terrible poker face, but this time he felt something that I couldn’t.

I snuck back down to the landing in time to see Daddy slowly walk past the couch where Uncle Dodge and Aunt June had been making out. Their shirts were unbuttoned and Aunt June’s bra had slid down. They’d fallen asleep. One of Dodge’s hands covered the nipple of the breast I could see. Daddy stood for a long time in front of the easy chair where Wayne sat with his eyes closed and then kicked him hard in the shin.

“Fuck, Ray!” Wayne leaned forward and began rubbing his shin. Daddy gripped Wayne’s chin and jerked it up hard until Wayne couldn’t help but look Daddy directly in the face.

“You weren’t asleep in this chair when I came in.”

“Shit, Ray. I was here the whole time,” he answered loudly, waking Aunt June and Uncle Dodge, who started to untangle themselves arms and sit up. “Will you tell him I’ve been sitting in this damn chair all night?”

“He was pretending to be asleep, but I felt him watching us make out,” Aunt June answered coyly.

“Cover your breasts, June,” Daddy said as if he were her father correcting a mistake she had made. She blushed and tried to button her blouse. “You both were asleep when I came in,” Daddy continued, talking to them, but staring at Wayne.

“I don’t know, Ray. Wayne was passed out before we fell asleep.”

“Are you coming back outside, Ray?” Mama followed her voice into the living room. She stopped walking when she saw Daddy standing above Uncle Wayne. “What’s goin’ on?”

“That’s what I’d like to know, Maybelline. What’s going on?”

“I’ve been w-w-waiting for you to come back outside, Ray,” Mama said, sweetly, stepping back a few steps.

“Okay, everybody’s leaving! Come on–everybody out! Everybody’s going home now! Go. Go!” Daddy yelled, pulling Aunt June from the couch and practically dragging her toward the front door as she tried to hold her still unbuttoned shirt closed over her exposed breasts–as if she minded Wayne seeing them now. Daddy’s eyes never left Wayne, who quickly stood up and walked out the open front door behind her. After everyone was gone and the door closed and locked, he and Mama stood looking at each other like two bucks caught in the headlights of two cars approaching from opposite directions.

“I hope I don’t need to put another notch in my gun, May,” Daddy said with a sadness I’d never heard in his voice before turning his back to her and walking toward the stairs.

“Nothing happened, Ray,” Mama said, trying to control the quiver her voice, although her face remained expressionless.

Daddy took a deep breath and kept walking, as if he hadn’t heard a word she’d said. I ran into my room and jumped into my bed, bumping into the body of my little sister. I shoved her over and tried to get under the covers. Daddy opened the door and came into our room. I lay still, snuggled up to my little sister, my arm around her as if she were a stuffed toy, and tried to feign sleep breathing, as I felt him gently pull the sheet and blanket over us. I heard the springs of Buttercup’s bed as it sagged under Daddy’s weight. It was a long time that I listened to his breathing before I fell asleep.

———-

During the week that followed, a queer silence filled the house. Daddy went to work, but came home too late to have dinner with us. Mama cooked and cleaned as usual. At dinner she pushed food around on her plate, and didn’t yell at us when Luke and I did the same. She just scraped our uneaten food into a garbage pail and took it outside to feed the feral cats. When my aunts came over, they spoke in whispers and stopped talking whenever I entered the room they were in, which was usually the kitchen. They’d smile, curtly ask what it was I wanted, and then suggest that I read one of the new books I’d received for my birthday. I said I’d finished all of my new books. Aunt Flo arrived the next day with two more she “just picked up on the way over, to keep occupied,” she said.

The thick and suffocating silence ended the following Saturday. When I got up to make Daddy’s coffee and get his oil box ready, I found him sitting in the kitchen drinking a cup of tea, an already oiled rifle resting on his knees.

“What’re you doing up?”

“I was coming to make your coffee and get your stuff ready, Daddy,” I said sullenly.

“I couldn’t sleep, and I was in a tea mood anyway. Go back to bed, Raylene.”

“Can I at least sit with your for a few minutes, Daddy?” As I walked toward him, he drank the rest of the tea. I heard Dodge’s truck pull off the road and into the driveway. The horn sounded. Daddy stood up and walked out the back door without kissing me or saying goodbye.

All that afternoon, my mother and my aunts sat in the kitchen drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes in between baking bread and pies, but not talking. The smell of roasting apples and burnt sugar drifted all over the house; at one point, even Luke said that he was hungry. Buttercup and I were sent to the store with Aunt June to get a gallon of vanilla ice cream and caramels to melt into a syrup. When we got back, Uncle Dodge’s truck was parked on the front lawn with the doors open. They’d come back two hours early. The back of the truck was empty.

“Oh, shit,” Aunt June muttered.

“What’s the matter,” I asked.

“Nothing. Now be quiet and take your sister straight upstairs, d’ya hear me?”

“Why?”

“You just mind me, you hear?” Aunt June was so young she never bossed us kids around, being so close to us in age and still so much a kid herself. I knew something must have happened.

When she turned off the engine, I heard yelling from the house. Forgetting all about Aunt June’s orders, I let go of my sister’s hand and ran inside. Everyone was in the living room, except for Luke, who was nowhere to be seen. Wayne was sitting on a dining chair, half of his shirt stripped off; there was blood on it. Aunt Flo was cleaning a wound on his arm. Mama was sitting in the easy chair, crying with her face in her hands. Daddy was standing in front of the fireplace, underneath the rifle. Pee Wee and Dodge were on either side of him, as if their very presence there created a force field that kept him in place there.

“How could you, Ray! You cruel bastard!” Mama’s voice was garbled with mucous from crying. She was standing behind Uncle Wayne, gently touching his hair.

“It was an accident, Maybelline,” Uncle Dodge said, “Wayne wasn’t wearing his vest—I’d a shot him, too, if I saw something moving I thought was a deer.”

“If you thought he was a deer, Ray, how’d you miss killin’m? Tell me that, huh? You never miss.” There was venom in Mama’s voice I’d never heard before.

“Be quiet, May, it’s only a graze. He won’t need a stitch,” Aunt Flo glared at Mama.

I felt a handful of my hair being pulled from behind. Aunt June, holding on to my hair and Buttercup’s shoulder, pushed the two of us between the adult standoff in the living room and toward the stairs. Flo jumped in front of Wayne, but didn’t motion to June in time for her to be quiet.

“What happened? Oh my God! Did Wayne take a bullet?”

“Shut up, June!” Aunt Flo said through her snarl-smiling teeth.

“Did Uncle Wayne get shot,” I asked, more excited than concerned, since I’d never seen a gunshot wound before.

“It was an accident,” Uncle Dodge said, pulling me by the arm, “now go upstairs and give your sister a bath, and then get one yourself.”

I looked at my uncle in surprise. He’d never given me a fatherly command. I then looked to my father to counter him, but their eyes were locked in a stare that only an earthquake could shake.

“You heard your uncle,” Aunt Flo said gently.

Buttercup and I went upstairs. I started her bath, made her get into the tub, and washed her quickly. When she started crying because I hadn’t made bubbles, I quieted her by promising to put her hair in braids like Mama always did if she’s stop crying and watch cartoons. I knocked on Luke’s door to see if he knew what had happened. The shooting sounds he was making inside abruptly stopped. He opened the door enough for his whisper to reach me.

“Do you remember what we talked about last Saturday? I wouldn’t have missed!” He pulled the door closed before I could answer. The lock clicked and I heard him resume shooting.

I filled another bath and took off my clothes. Rather than get in, I wrapped a towel around my body and crept down to the landing. If it looked like anyone was coming upstairs, I could run into the bathroom and hop into the bathtub. I’d left one of the books Aunt Flo brought on the floor so I could pretend I was reading in the bath. Luke came down and sat next to me. Neither of us said a word.

The adults spoke in loud whispers, but I could make out what they said from my vantage point on the landing. Daddy had mistaken Uncle Wayne for a deer and shot at him because Wayne hadn’t been wearing his orange hunting jacket. Daddy talked all the time about hunters getting shot, sometimes fatally, when they didn’t wear proper gear. Mama said she couldn’t understand why, if Daddy’d thought Wayne was a deer, he’d missed, since he never missed. She said Daddy’d shot Wayne on purpose, as a lesson, and that he was a jealous and suspicious crazy old man.

“I didn’t shoot the man, although it’s not as if the both of you hadn’t given me reason…” he stopped mid-sentence, “I know what’s been going on. So do the older kids. You think you’d have stopped when I caught you the first time,” Daddy’s voice cracked.

Uncle Dodge had his arm around Daddy’s shoulder. Uncle Pee Wee was pouring Bourbon into coffee cups. He handed one to Mama, who pushed his hand away, spilling liquor onto the carpet. When Flo finished bandaging Wayne’s arm, Daddy walked over to him. Uncle Dodge remained behind him, still holding his shoulders.

“I don’t want to see you on my property. Ever. Again.” His words were quiet and soft. Wayne kept staring at Daddy’s belt buckle as he stood up. Aunt Flo backed away from the chair.

“I’ll drive him home,” Uncle Pee Wee said. Wayne gulped the drink and turned to Mama.

“You coming, love?” Then a hush. Everybody was quiet, except for the breathing that followed Aunt June’s gasp.

Luke didn’t wait to hear her answer—he fled to his room and slammed the door. Although Mama was facing Daddy, she wasn’t looking at him. She just stood there, as if she hadn’t heard the question, and looked straight ahead, paralyzed. She stayed that way long after Uncle Pee Wee had escorted Wayne out of the house and the engine of his truck could no longer be heard. About an hour later, I heard a car engine idling in the driveway followed by the grinding of slow tires over gravel as Mama left with Aunt Flo. She had waited until she thought we were asleep, but I had been wide awake, listening as she packed an overnight bag.

I couldn’t sleep. A war raged in my head over whether Daddy had really shot Wayne because of what had happened between him and Mama the week before, or whether it had been an accident. Like a ghost, I slipped soundlessly into the hallway and down the stairs. From the dining room, I dragged a chair in front of the hearth and climbed up on it. I could barely reach Daddy’s rifle. I carefully took it from its place and sat down on the chair. The gun was heavier than I thought it would be. The metal was shiny, hard and cold. I touched the barrel gently, as if it were made of eggshells and would crack if I squeezed it too tightly. Barely touching the surface, I moved my fingers around the top of the barrel and closed them quickly to a grip and slowly moved my hand up to the muzzle. I placed my thumb into the opening, then me forefinger. I couldn’t believe that something so cold and dead and silent could, for an instant, become hot, alive, and loud. What kind of mind was behind the finger that pulled the trigger, behind the eye that aimed through the lens? I knew that people used guns for hunting, target shooting, and committing crimes; however, I couldn’t get my mind around what would cause a person to shoot another person—or want to. I held up the gun as best I could, imitating how my brother walked around the living room in the middle of the night pretending to shoot invisible targets, since I had never actually seen my daddy point and shoot the gun, and I felt a power surge up inside of me like vomit. I could kill somebody with this long, heavy piece of metal and wood. A moral terror replaced the feeling of power; I replaced the gun and the chair, ran up the stairs to my bed, crying the entire time, and then crying myself to sleep.

The following night I couldn’t sleep again, so I crept downstairs, sat down on the sofa, and stared at the rifle. I hated that gun. If my saliva had been acid, I would have spit on it and gleefully and watched it melt. Strange images flooded my brain. Wayne full of bullet holes, laughing. Blood dripped like honey from his wounds. Mama kneeling before him, naked from the waist up, licking the wounds and holding one of Daddy’s joints to his mouth, as he touched her breasts. I opened my eyes and realized I’d fallen asleep. I walked into the kitchen to get a glass of water and found my father sitting with the gun on his lap, slowly carving another mark into the rifle butt with his Swiss Army knife. He paused to look up at me and, without saying anything, resumed his task. I sat down and watched him.

He was quiet. When his voice broke the silence, I realized that he had been reading my mind. I held up my hand in protest. I didn’t want him to answer the question I had decided not to ask.

“Three women have done me wrong: my first wife, my second wife, and your mother.”

“Then why are you making a fourth mark, Daddy?”

“Because you’re mother done it twice?”

“Was your shooting Wayne an accident?”

“Honey, I’d warned him about staying away from your Mama; he never did heed me.”

“Soyoushothim!”

He looked at me and ran his tongue across his lower lip, “I was aiming at a knot on a tree right behind him, to scare him, but he moved. He thought he’d stepped on a trap and jumped back, right into the bullet. It was only a few links of dog chain.”

“So, you weren’t trying to hit him?”

“I wouldn’t shoot a person! What’s gotten into you, child?”

“But I heard Mama say—”

“Your Mama was speaking with a guilty heart. If I’d intended to shoot him and done it, it

would make her feel less guilty for messing around because hers would be the lesser sin.”

“When is she coming home from Aunt Flo’s?”

“I don’t know, Raylene. I don’t know.” As he finished carving Mama’s second mark, I realized the carvings were elongated teardrops.

“Does he visit her there?”

“I imagine so.”

“Are you and Mama gonna get a divorce?”

“It’s hard to want to be married to someone who wants to be with someone else. Your Mama has to decide what she wants. I can wait for her to make up her mind. I can wait as long as it takes. I will wait. I just have to know, is all.” The sigh that left his lip was heavy as a fog. He got up slowly, like an old man, walked into the living room, and replaced the gun above the fireplace, the teardrops symbolizing Mama’s infidelity on display for all the company who might visit us to see.

———-

I snuck downstairs that night, feeling dizzy and slippery, like if I fell down, by body would melt and ooze all over the carpet. I climbed onto the couch and stared at the teardrops on Daddy’s rifle. Part of me wished that Daddy had killed Wayne so that Mama wouldn’t leave us. Part of me realized she would’ve left anyway, and I felt a hurt inside of me deeper and different from any hurt I’d ever felt. I knew my brother felt it too; I could see it in his face when we looked at each other.

I put a chair from the dining room in front of the fireplace and climbed onto it. I had trouble keeping my balance when I reached to lift the rifle from its brackets. It was heavy, and my arms quivered as I held it in firing position. My right finger touched the trigger, which felt like a thin, dead branch that the slightest pressure would snap. There was a click and, suddenly, I was falling in slow motion. Then I was lying on my back on the floor. My face was wet and throbbing. I heard Daddy’s “Holy Lord!” and felt him gingerly touch my face. He took me into his arms. I caught my breath.

“Daddy, I shot myself!”

“You didn’t shoot yourself, Raylene. This rifle’s full of blanks; I would never keep a loaded gun in my house! You just lost your balance from the recoil and fell backwards. Looks like the butt of the rifle got you hard on the cheekbone. You’re gonna have a real nice shiner, girl.”

“I’m not gonna die?” I opened my eyes; I hadn’t realized they’d been closed.

“No, and you’re not going to lose your eye neither. Luke, go make an icepack for your sister, son.” My brother was looking down at me with awe-filled eyes. I blinked and he was gone, his visage replaced by the sleepy yawn on my little sister’s face.
“Is ‘Lene okay, Daddy?” Daddy reassured her by kissing her on both cheeks and then told her to help her brother with the icepack like a good girl. I turned my head after her as she ran into the kitchen, clutching her old, raggedy stuffed dog.

“What on earth were you doing with my rifle, Raylene?”

“I wanted to see how it felt to shoot something.”

“You need to have a reason to shoot something first.”

“I thought I would feel powerful.”

“How did you feel, Raylene?” It was Luke who asked the question as he gingerly laid a rag filled with ice onto my face. Buttercup helped him hold it against my cheek.

I licked my lips and, as if making my last confession, whispered “…small, scared, empty…”

Daddy carried me to the couch, squeezing me so tightly I had trouble breathing. Buttercup sat next to him and, leaning against his arm, clutching her stuffed dog. Luke knelt in front of the sofa, holding the ice pack, which had started dripping down my face. I could still feel the weight of the rifle, the teardrop carvings beneath my fingers. The scene played itself over in a dream that shook me awake. Daddy squeezed me again and kissed my forehead. Luke bent his head down and kissed me too. When a piece of ice slipped out of the icepack and slid onto my stomach, I jumped, startling all of us except Buttercup, who’d dropped her stuffed dog onto the floor and fallen asleep.

———-

When I opened my eyes again, it was raining. Daddy was sleeping in the chair next to the couch; his arms crossed over his chest as if he was trying to hold onto something that was slipping through his grasp. Buttercup was curled up against my chest. Luke was lying at the other end of the couch, clutching her stuffed dog. His feet were touching mine. The rifle gleamed in the glare of the lightning when it interrupted the morning shadows. No one had closed the curtains. I heard a key turn in the lock, and then the front door opened.

My sister sat up and whispered, “Wake up, ‘Lene, Mama’s home!”

I sat up as Mama slowly and quietly walked into the room. I gently kicked at my brother’s feet to wake him. Buttercup ran over and wrapped her arms around Mama’s legs. Mama looked around the room, not letting her gaze settle on any of us, I knew, because she’d start to cry. When she saw the rifle, she gasped; it wasn’t a gasp of fear, but a gasp of surprised recognition. She walked over to the fireplace and ran her fingers across the fourth mark Daddy had carved onto the barrel of the rifle.

“That’s two for you, May,” Daddy, who was now awake, said.

He got up from his chair and sat between Luke and me on the couch, putting an arm around each of us. I heard Mama start to cry.

She didn’t turn around to see the tears her words would carve into our faces when she said, “I came to get my clothes.”.

I felt something wet and hot on my arm. Daddy was crying, too. Luke rose and walked slowly and hesitantly toward Mama. I noticed his arms quivering when he stood up, so I knew that he was scared about confronting her so directly. Even though his back was to me and I couldn’t see his face, I imagined the look on it when he raised his arms and shouted, “Bam! You’re dead!”

I’d seen him shoot like that before. Mama turned around, wild-eyed, like a cornered animal, then lunged for the front door, trying to pry Buttercup’s arms from around her leg.

 

My youngest sister, Kristen, would have turned 38 today…

Of towers and train stations

–In memory of Kristen Marie Mintler—
February 8, 1981—June 8, 2003

I

The day the towers fell:
my sister called
demanding I leave
a home shrouded
in the shadow
of a Chicago skyscraper;
the target, she claimed
of a plane just flown
over Cleveland—
which eventually
turned round to brand
a Pennsylvania field.

The day the towers fell:
my sister called again
commanding I take a train
and flee the city,
failing to realize
that train stations
can be as dangerous
as skyscrapers.

This danger she never knew
before fleeing her own despair
two and a half years after 9/11
two and a half years before
bombings in London
bombings in Madrid

II

—they called to say goodbye
before jumping from the blazing windows
of Tower Number One—

not once did she call
from that dark place
where pain is untranslatable

they called to say goodbye
before cart-wheeling, hands-clasped
down the sides of Tower Number Two—

not once did she call me
from that dark place
where pain is unknowable
to those who do not suffer it

—they called to say goodbye
before raiding the cockpit
at Beamer’s command.

she never called me once
before leaving this world
nothing save her
untranslatable absence

III

After my sister died
I dreamt I called
to say goodbye:
I was two days late.
She was two days dead.

I never called her once…that day
although she crossed my mind
like the shadow of a skyscraper
lengthening in dusk before
disappearing into darkness

IV

I awaken to a voice
that calls my sister
again and again,
demanding she flee
a home shrouded
in Death’s shadow—
hindsight’s knowledge
irrelevant in the dream—
and already knowing the ending:

that any time and place
would have been
as dangerous for her
as twin towers and train stations
in September or March or July

that hearing desperation’s
resounding inward echo
my sister would have fled
from her blue house…
from her June youth…
from her blue June life.

CR. Mintler

Medusa

When our mother emerged from her bedroom, the banging of the door slamming shut behind her—like a rifle shot through crisp air—jolted us upright in our beds. Andie and I were already awake, having stirred when our bedroom was first brightened and then filled with shadows by the headlights of our father’s Delta 88 as it turned into the driveway from the 1:00am quiet of the street. After several minutes—which we knew must have felt like time moving in slow-motion—of fumbling with the keys in the ignition, our more-than-likely-drunk father turned off the engine and the night was once again quiet. When the headlights were finally diminished, our room again grew dark. Our curiosity was fueled by the insistent scraping of the skeleton key inside the lock, and, when we finally heard it catch, we knew that father had been barred admittance to the marital chamber by an enraged chatelaine. As soon as our eyes readjusted to the darkness, my sister and I jumped out of bed, scurried to our bedroom door and peeked through the crack between the door and the jamb. Our bedroom door was always kept slightly ajar, allowing for light from the bathroom across the hallway to stream diagonally through our room. I was then still afraid of the dark and believed that this light, much like a sanctuary lamp, indicated the presence of some invisible God who would protect my sister and me from the demons I believed lurked in the dark. The light divided our room into two triangles, and dared any demons to cross over to where our bunk-beds stood against the far wall.

Andie, who was two years older and several inches taller, stood behind me as we peered through the small opening in the doorway. I slouched so that the top of my head was beneath her chin; positioned this way, we could both watch our mother stalk down the hallway like an ancient huntress, her flame-colored hair twisted around hard plastic curlers which were bouncing up and down atop her head and against her neck and shoulders as if alive. With its train of white lilies and pink rhododendrons, the long, polyester housecoat our mother ceremoniously wore to bed skimmed the floor, and we could still hear its rustle against the ocean green carpet, like great stalks of wheat swishing in the wind, when she began descending the stairs. I could feel the cool dampness of my sister’s hair, not yet dry from her bedtime bath, brushing against my neck with its soft, blunt ends. She let out a breath and moved insistently against me; I felt the same shiver of voyeuristic excitement, and the same gooseflesh on her arms that had erupted on mine as our skin touched. During the past few months of our father’s wayward behavior, my sister and I seemed in temperament and proximity to be that close.

On late nights like this one, after opening our bedroom door slowly, millimeter by millimeter, until there was just enough space for a thin girl to squeeze out sideways, holding chin to chest and holding her breath, Andie and I surreptitiously tip-toed down the hallway, huddled against the wall as if bound to it by a vertical form of gravity. Silently tip-toeing with out feet pressed securely against the baseboards, so the pressure of our footsteps would not cause the floorboards under the faded ocean-green carpet to creak, we crept cautiously to the top of the stairwell. Feet first and supported by our thin, freckled arms, we scooted on our backsides down to the landing, where, peeking through the openings in the railing, we could see all that was to transpire from a large mirror hanging over the sofa on the far side of the living room. The mirror, which was shaped like a shield, reflected the portion of the room we could not see from the landing, and, more importantly, the archway separating this room from the dining room.

That mirror told no lies. Within its frame, we could see our mother pacing back and forth in front of the dining room table, her face crinkling angrily until it seemed that her eyebrows were knit so tightly they would continue to knit right over her rage-squinted eyes and connect to her cheekbones. The faster she paced, the more the curlers, and the flame of hair wrapped around them, seemed to move as if alive, thrashing about like hairy snakes, slithering around her face and down the back of her neck. Occasionally, a curler fell unnoticed onto the floor, leaving a piece of hair to spring forth unleashed, where it was free to frizz or hiss or tangle, or fall loosely about mother’s face, attempting to soften and make it more human. However, what now stood reflected in that mirror was no longer the woman who was our mother, but a monster.

Her hands were busy about the zipper of her housecoat, which was pulled up to the jointure of her clavicles, unzipping and zipping as if she were ripping in half the stems of flowers and then trying to piece them back together again. The harsh whiteness her neck-skin glowed in the light of the electric Lucite chandelier and her voice erupted from her mouth in a tirade as soon as the key fumbling at the back door finally sprung the lock. Andie and I heard the door bang against the wall of the mudroom separating the kitchen from the basement stairs. We then heard our father, as he made his way up the three stairs to the kitchen, trip (as he always did), bang his head or shoulder against the wall, and then curse like a drunken sailor. My sister and I, still co-conspirators at this point, looked at each other and mirthfully giggled. As our father reached the kitchen and saw our mother, we heard him collapse to the floor with a groan and begin to remove his shoes, which, depending on his state of drunkenness, he would proceed to line up against the wall or throw down the steps to the basement.

As our mother, still delivering her harangue of accusation, disappointment and fury, stepped back and out of the frame of the mirror, we saw our father emerge from the periphery to take her place, as if surfacing from some unfathomable depth—because our mother had willed it so—into her line of sight and into the reflected line of ours. The instant he looked at her, at that frenzied flaming hair, rage-whitened face, and scowling lipless mouth that pronounced his sentence to drunk-deaf ears, our father stood frozen, his mouth agape but voiceless, his hands suspended in front of his chest as if in appeal or for protection. He was so still that he seemed neither to tremble nor to breathe under our mother’s gaze. And then he sank under that gaze, like an abandoned ship; all of his faculties of protestation, persuasion, and skirting issue having jumped overboard in search of the silent safe haven of oblivion found under the heavy waves of drunkenness. Much like the body of a drowning man who finally relinquishes his strength to the sea, our father’s body grew slack and then slipped to the ocean green carpet, and seemingly, beneath, for his reflection disappeared from the mirror.

Neither Andie nor I ever risked descending further down the stairs for fear that even our slightest tread on the next step would be heard by that fuming and monstrous madwoman who now only slightly resembled our mother. Our fear was not that she would chase us back to our room, blue curlers bouncing and red-flamed tendrils dancing around her face, and punish us. Our fear was that she would know that we had spied, that we had witnessed a confrontation between a wife and her husband inappropriate for the eyes and ears of little girls. This was the fear that made us hesitate taking another step. Even the next morning, when she would remove the pins and rollers and free her hair from its bondage, smooth it’s curls and waves with a brush and tint her good-morning smile with sheer pink lipstick, she would remember that we had seen who our parents became at night after we were in bed and asleep. She would know that we had heard how our parents talked to each other; that we had listened to the words they used, saw what gestures they employed, and witnessed what words and gestures were absent.

In an attempt to see what the mirror no longer reflected, Andie, whose feet in their loose socks were firmly planted on the first step just below the landing, slid her gripping hands down the staircase handrail. She leaned out over the steps at an angle, stretching her skinniness out until she was straight and seemed much skinnier than when standing upright. Sitting on that same first step below the landing, and more satisfied to listen to the cadences of my mother’s voice rise and fall upon my father like waves crashing against a helpless beach, than to actually see their confrontation, I watched Andie contort her arms and legs in order to steady her quivering, my eyebrows raising with each inch my sister stretched. The more she elongated her body, the more her body trembled. Next to me, her feet shuffled as she tried to hold her balance; one of her socks was caught under her other foot and she could not separate them. Sitting there, watching my sister’s feet wrestle, watching her arms tremor as her strength to hold herself in this unnatural position was about to give out, I believed that she, my older sister, could not fall. She turned to look at me, her mouth open and her brown eyes large with terror. I heard her voiceless gasp and only then realized that she had lost her balance and tumbled down the stairs. My sister was lying motionless in a lump, silent tears slid down her trembling face, in hope that our parents hadn’t heard the noise of her body bouncing off of each step and crashing down upon the next.

I stood up. Placing one hand on the rail, I extended the other in an offer of symbolic help, but remained stationary, not daring to walk down to her, help her stand up, and scurry us both back to our bedroom before we were discovered. Shifting my eyes from my sister to the mirror, I saw my mother’s face, eyes glaring, mouth open and then abruptly closed, eyebrows straightly disturbed. The only sounds were Andie’s near-silent whimpering and our father’s sloshy breathing. Then there was a rustle, and our mother appeared from the portal of the mirror into the living room, hair alive and raging around her still anger-whitened face. Her eyes followed the staircase railing upwards to the landing and, seeing me, she raised her hand and pointed an accusatory finger. Those same lips that had just yelled at father opened in anticipation of pronouncing my punishment for the next few months. No voice erupted from that volcanic mouth. Her arm fell and slapped against her thigh. Both hands rose to her bosom, then to her mouth. She had seen the hair, the glowing girl-skin of arms and legs, the nightgown and socks, the lump that was Andie lying at the bottom of the stairs.

Andie looked up at me disdainfully and, wiping a hand across her check, tried to sit up. Seeing the movement, mother, shuddering now with waves of relief, began to approach her daughter, but abruptly stopped when, sitting up, my sister turned towards the rustle of the housecoat, looked up at the face of shock and anger and discipline, at the snake-haired monster our mother had become, and screamed.

Motionless. We were all motionless now. Father: still lying on the floor of the dining room, below the surface of the mirror’s reflection, or so he must have been because I could not hear him sliding against the wall, which he certainly would need to do to support himself in the act of standing up. Andie: half sitting, half lying, her mouth hard and ugly in a scowl of revulsion. Mother: standing stationary in the act of movement, as if running in place, her eyebrows now furrowed in confusion, hair and curlers frozen in bounce like shackles on a mean dog. Me: riveted to that top step, my mouth trying to form the words I was afraid to utter for fear that I would be punished because I was not the daughter who was hurt, because I was not the one who had been brave, because I was not the daughter who had dared and fallen, because I was not the daughter for whom she would feel sorry, because I had been passive in my rebellion, because I had let my sister fall and not rushed to help her, because I had been afraid.

“Mommy, y-your hair!” The words rushed like wind from between my lips, which moved without feeling their movement, like when your foot falls asleep and you can still walk, but can’t feel yourself walking.

Our mother’s hands rose above her face and neck, over her head, just above the hair-wrapped curlers that stood the highest, in an attempt to tactilely understand what I had said. Moving quickly, in a madness she could not understand, because hands cannot, no matter how experienced, visualize, her body turned, mechanically, as if moving simultaneously to my wishing it to move. I could see not only the back of her head with its raging, flaming hair, but also her face as it saw itself reflected in the mirror, at first void of recognition, and then horrified as it saw what was mirrored before her eyes. She was seeing what, at any other moment, she could not have seen, not even while rolling the curlers into her hair after washing it or removing them in the morning. She saw what at first was only her hair, and then, as she lowered her hands to her face to rub out the lines of anger and frustration, recognized the monster, the mythical creature that Andie and I, and our father, saw.

Slowly at first, and then with methodically increasing speed, her hands flew quickly about her head like little birds attacking the creatures of hair and curlers as she removed hairpins, unwound curlers, and let them fall onto the couch, the floor. She moved her fingers through her hair, smoothed it with her palms, and pulled it toward her face where its luster warmed her skin and its softness smoothed the anger from her sharp features. The monster had been beheaded, not by father or Andie, but by the slice of my words.

Andie rose and stepped quietly toward our mother, who slowly sat down on the couch and, turning toward her daughter, beckoned with outstretched arms into which my sister ran and folded herself comfortably. She wound her own thin, freckled arms around mother’s shoulders and buried her face against mother’s neck, beneath the gleaming, lustrous, hair that now looked softer than cashmere. I watched as my father’s image resurfaced in the mirror on the wall above their heads, and then saw him materialize into the living room as if emerging from the depths of a calm sea. His steps were staggered and lumbering, as if urged on by waterlogged and swim-weary legs, but his feet led him where he wished to be. He stumbled over to the sofa and sat down next to his intertwined wife and daughter. Taking a curler in his hand, he rolled it around and around, as if rolling invisible hair, and then gazed nostalgically at the hair from which it had been released, the hair that it had released, the hair that now framed his wife’s neck and shoulders like a pair of luxurious velvet curtains. My father’s hand moved the idle curler toward mother’s hair, as if attempting to return it to its rightful place—a gesture which I had seen once as a child of five in my first act of mirrored voyeurism. Sitting alone upon this very same landing—I’d not invited and never shared this revelation of parental intimacy with my sister, whose prudish disdain of sensuality and selfish clamoring for attention would have denigrated the beauty of what I had witnessed and dismissed its occurrence as idealized romantic fantasy, for our parents could never love anyone more than their first-born child, not even each other—I watched with hypnotic intensity as my father, amid mother’s gentle tussles and flirty giggles, rolled curlers around her flaming locks and secured them in place with wire hairpins. After each curler was rolled properly into place, mother turned up her face as if inviting my father to kiss her. When a curler would not stay put, he tried to kiss her anyway and she coyly turned her head away, and he kissed a bare shoulder instead. Their faces and mother’s bare white shoulders, lit by the softly dimmed and broken light of the chandelier, glowed ethereally as if they were not merely my parents, but transfigured, haloed saints or tritons frolicking beneath flickering water, the blurred sacred and mythological renderings of my first glimpse of intimacy between sexual beings. Father seemed to recall this memory, too, for he held the curler closer and reached his other hand to grasp a slithering curl that had wound itself across mother’s check. The marble-hard glare that met his gesture froze him in time—as only the gaze of even that beheaded gorgon could—and he held this pose of hands stopped in midair for what seemed like hours, but was only seconds. Repelled by this invisible barrier of coldness, father’s hands slowly fell into his lap and I saw his taciturn gaze follow them and then meditatively watch the turning of the curler he continued to fondle between his fingers, as if it were alive and quivering, and could respond to his touch.

* * * * * * * * * *

Two months after Andie’s tumble down the stairs, father moved out and mother cut her hair short; those fierce, red straggling snakes now curled up against her neck and no longer required curlers to style. Thrown out into the garbage were those ugly curlers of hard blue plastic and the metal hairpins which had kept them positioned around the contour of her head like a blue halo. Mother bought soft, pinkish-beige sponge rollers for Andie so that she could roll her own hair up when she wanted curls like those mother used to have. She rolled Andie’s hair the first few times, but it was too coarse and heavy, and the rollers weren’t large enough, to roll them completely up to her head. They dangled about her neck and shoulders like branches weighted by wet snow.

After the first time mother rolled her hair, my sister stood up on the sofa, making sure that mother wasn’t around, and, demanding me to watch, jumped up and down in front of the mirror in order to make the hair and curlers come alive around her face. Contorting her mouth in scowl and smirk and rapacious grin, her voice a loud, raspy whisper, she commanded, “Look, Percy! Look at my hair!” And then she stopped bounding. The rollers settled back onto her shoulders, moving slower and slower until they were motionless. I could see my sister’s disappointment reflected in the mirror. After redirecting her frown from her reflection to me, she fell limply onto the couch and looked down at her empty hands.

“You can never make it as scary as she did,” I retorted, after which I walked up the stairs to the room we still shared and sat down upon my bed, now unbunked from hers and on the opposite side of the room with my things, across an invisible diagonal that was never illuminated because the bathroom light was left off during the night now and our bedroom door left open. I bent over and turned my head upside down, and ran a brush through my straight, short hair until it was charged with enough electricity to stand up straight around my head. Then I licked my hands and ran them through my floating hair until it was slicked back in the same way father wore his. I didn’t need a mirror to see that I’d gotten it right.

Never again was I afraid of the dark. I was now apprehensive during the daytime, but not because of Andie or mother when they were alone. I was afraid when they were together and often found my body trembling like it had when I stood at the top of the stairs witnessing the embrace from which, whether intentional or not, father and I had been excluded. Now when Andie and mother embraced in my presence, it somehow reinforced what my sister referred to as her position of favorite daughter. I found it difficult to embrace mother, who now looked and acted like a stranger. It was my secret wish that father would return and put things right again, but I knew that things hadn’t been right before his departure. Although she would never admit it, my sister kept trying to resurrect the monster mother used to be so that maybe I, like father, would leave too.