I'm in the cellar jumping rope. My shiny shoes are clickety-clacking like patent leather bones, and even though I know it's wrong to swear, I'm damned happy. So goddamned happy down here with these damned old oak roots that look like dirty fingers, cracking open clay bricks, busting them apart like there was gold in the centre.
A dusty five-by-seven photograph of my father dressed in khaki, his hand extended above his brow touching the end of his garrison cap in mock salute, graces the top of the television set he gave my grandmother. It sits right next to the dark brown rabbit cars antenna he spends hours fiddling with in the sweltering summer heat, while she perches on the chesterfield, advising him in a language I don't understand.
I dance around him, my excited limbs impatient and electric for the opportunity to swim. Grandma lives in a house close to Lake Erie. It's a house he helped build, with a blue-shingled roof and a powder-blue concrete porch, and every summer he brings us here.
Outside, there is an acre of fruit trees: nectarine, plum, pear, cherry, a variety of apple, and nut. There are berries of all kinds, and a white ceramic birdbath in the front yard, which collects falling leaves that turn the water vermilion.
My mother sits tensely at my grandmother's kitchen table, smoking cigarettes, drumming her fingers on the plastic-covered tablecloth. My grandmother lifts herself from the couch and tells me to follow her. The air is stale in her shadowy bedroom where she offers me a chocolate cherry from a black vinyl handbag.
She retrieves a piece of newspaper from a carved teak box on her night table and pushes it into my hand. "When he come back from Korea, he going to be marry nice Ukrainian girl," she says in a low conspiratorial whisper. "Since they being children, they going to be marry. "
I look at the clipping. It is an engagement announcement, and a photograph of my father with his arm around a smiling fairhaired woman. "Your mamma being no good," she tells me emphatically, and gives me another chocolate cherry and a five-dollar bill.
When my father has fixed the picture on my grandmother's set, my mother tosses her pearly-buttoned white angora sweater over her shoulders and hurries outside across my grandmother's lawn to the car. The heels of her patent-leather sling-backs sink in the mud as she passes the squishy grass around the birdbath. For a moment, she struggles to release herself, as if she has fallen into a trap, but recovers and is first in the car. Ten minutes away, down a chalky dirt road, in a woodframe cottage, lives a girl my age named Jo. She's the daughter of an old friend of my mother's. The fact her family chose to settle here strikes everyone as an amazing coincidence -- except my mother, who sees it as a blessing.
Jo's parents, Mary and Nat, wait on their porch in faded lawn chairs, drinking beer, and jump up fast when we pull over the bit of gravel that is their driveway. Mary, in square dark glasses and a striped strapless shell and shorts, embraces my mother, while Nat grins and taps my father on the arm. Jo appears from behind the house. She's shy but shares my enthusiasm for swimming, and we run down the rickety stairs behind their property and wade into the lake. It is dusk before we return. Our mothers nurse gin and tonics, smoke cigarettes and swat at mosquitoes, while we rub ourselves on beach towels, letting pounds of sand drop out of our suits onto the patchy lawn.
Mary met my mother when they were girls in England. She was bridesmaid at my parents' wedding, and the only friend my mother trusted enough to tell she was three months' pregnant when she got married.
My mother looks past me. "To tell the truth," she
bays, her words slightly slurred, "I did it on purpose. I was afraid he'd go back to her. "
Inside, my father and Nat are gulping beer and making pancakes. My father knows how to flip them three
feet in the air, which impresses both Nat and Jo. I know he learned how to do this in Korea, and when the plate of pancakes is ready and sitting before us, I ask my father to tell a war story.
He sits crossed-legged on the floor, Nat laughs and says, "Two beers for two queers," and pushes my father another bottle. When Jo asks my father what he did in the war, he says he was a stamp collector.
Sometimes he tells true stories about flaming jellied gasoline, and about crippled orphaned children begging for rations, but he never tells the truth anymore about being a soldier.
Today he cats his pancakes and drinks his beer in silence. When we finish, he and Nat make Jo and me go outside to play.
We chase fireflies that alight on the lower leaves of wild rose bushes and catch them in our cupped hands. When we have caught a dozen, we let them go. They flicker like tiny moving stars, forming a fleeting constellation all in one moment.
We leave at midnight. My father is so drunk he drives on the highway slower than I can walk. His car zigzags sluggishly from one lane to another. My mother talks to him in a soft voice, artificially calm. She asks if he'd rather pull over for a rest, find coffee, or go back and stay the night. My father swears, accelerates and swerves. I hold my breath and half close my eyes until the headlights on the highway are a blur. The following morning, I wake in my own bed.
The fine velvet smoking jacket that smells both sweet and spicy hangs at the back of my father's closet. He wears it more often now he's drinking again. His trim brown hair sticks out in places; he discards his black framed glasses. He is beginning to look like a stranger.
My mother tells me some Korean woman gave him the jacket, and later, when I'm looking through my father's wooden desk for a piece of paper, a picture of her slides out of a brown manila envelope. Her name, Yoko, has been penned on the back in my father's precise angular handwriting. She is slender and exotic, her cheekbones high, her waist-length hair is thick and lack. Inside the envelope there are more photographs of her. In some, she is naked.
Her breasts are pointed, the nipples dark, her pubic area a perfect triangle of black. The expression on her face is weary. There is also a bundle of her personal letters written partly in English. They all begin, "My dearest husband," and end, "your loving wife. " I tuck it neatly back into the envelope and shut the desk drawer, erasing everything.
My father brings my mother a box of long-stemmed burgundy roses. They perfume the air, even before they are lifted out. He fetches a glass vase from her china cabinet and places them prominently in the centre of the dining room table. When my mother sees them, she begins to cry. Her hand moves toward her heart, then in spasm, jumps forward, smashing the vase to crystal wedges, crippling the flowers. "Give them to your lover," she shouts.
At night, my parents argue. My mother threatens, then destroys the good set of dishes and the porcelain knick-knacks she's painstakingly collected. Through a rack in my bedroom door, I see my father collapse over the kitchen sink, sobbing. In the morning my mother packs a mottled ivory suitcase. She says she is going to England. She drops a white-gloved hand that smells of peppermint gum on my shoulder, and tells me when I'm little older, I can take a plane by myself across the ocean. She kisses me on the forehead before her taxi arrives. I let the red stain of her lipstick stay there long after she's gone.
My father and I drive to my grandmother's house. She greets us both with kisses, and pinches my cheeks hard between her thumbs and forefingers. She ushers us into her house, calls me into her bedroom, and presents me with an impressive box of chocolate cherries and a hundred-dollar savings bond. She says nothing about my mother.
My father fiddles with the rabbit ears, fixes the picture on her set. In the late afternoon, he asks if I would Eke to go for a swim.
The air is hot and humid. The hazy sun hides behind turgid clouds. We drive for ten minutes down Jo's familiar dusty road, and then my father tells me, Mary has left Nat.
We pull into their makeshift driveway. Everything looks decayed. Beer cans and a rusty barbeque litter the front lawn. An old bicycle with broken spokes leans against a grey sagging fence. The cottage itself, with its concave roof, looks like a warped crate.
Jo's bloodless face appears through the living room window. Her eyes are as large and empty as clamshells. She watches my father collect a square bag from the trunk of his car and carry it into the cottage. He presents us both with a red stamp album, already with several colourful Oriental stamps inside, and warns us to take care of these. Now it's time to swim, he tells us.
We leave the house and make our way to the churning water. The wind ties our hair in knots that lash our faces. Dead carp, condoms, and a toilet seat buffet the shore. We wade up to our knees in the sticky water and stand there, motionless, unable to go any farther.
Black clouds cat the sky, rolling in faster than muddy waves. A fork of lightning spears the lake with an explosion. We run back, flying over broken stairs, the white ash still searing.
We do not stop to dry the sand off our legs but enter the calm darkened cottage. There is a day-old newspaper crumpled in the corner of the living room, two beers abandoned by our fathers sit on the chipped wooden coffee table. Someplace, in a back bedroom there is a groan.
Hard to believe that someone spent days down here lining them up making sure they were straight, sticking them in place. And thinking, maybe, "This good old sturdy wall's gonna last forever. "
Damn, I like to see them bricks ka-thunk, they remind me of teeth coming out, and sound like heads rolling around fresh off guillotine blades, but I'd never say so.
If you talk that way, someone always says, "they'll be sending a white wagon for you," and even though they're smiling, you know they start watching you extra close.
My feet crack down on cement. My clean white Sunday school shoes, the ones I'm supposed to walk extra careful in 'cause they leave big black streaks on tiles, dance like they're haunted, and even though I can't see it, I know hell fire's burning into my heels, chasing up my spine, like a damned mouse up a drain pipe, and I think of the musty smelling powder rising all around me like flakes of dead white skin, the kind you find sometimes in your Nana's bed sheets.
I think if you could get hold of this damn staff fresh and see it in the daylight, it would really be a kind of mold green, and you'd have to bury it or it'd make you puke. But even if it did make me puke, I don't think I could promise I'd bury it. I think I'd want to hang on to it because, like Auntie Betty says, you never know when something's going to be useful.
Auntie Betty collects plastic margarine containers and aluminum pie plates. She scrubs and slices through the tops of empty plastic milk bags that smell like rotten cheese 'cause she says they're good for freezing, and some day she might run out of the store-bought freezer bags she keeps in the pantry.
If you open a cupboard to get a glass for water, you gotta hunt through a forest of empty ice cream buckets, glass jars, cookie tins. You can almost count on getting smacked in the head by some damn thing or another she's saving. And upstairs, in the attic, she's got even more stuff like this. Boxes and boxes of it.
Before dad left, he said this was because Auntie Betty lived through a depression, but my mom lived through lots of depressions. She used to go into the hospital once every four months and get her brains fried, is how she described it, but I never remember her collecting anything, unless you consider all the pills she took as a kind of collection.
She wasn't big on filling up space like Auntie Betty. Our house was a real skinny one, with hardly any furniture, and a rug that never seemed to go far enough over the floor, and cold walls. The only place where there was too much of anything was the bathroom medicine cabinet, and I remember how if you pulled yourself up on the vanity to make faces at yourself or pick your nose in the mirror, sometimes you might accidentally shake a couple of loose pills out into the wash basin, where you could watch the little drip from the tap dissolve them.
Anyway, if I was able to find a way to save this pukey green cellar dust, I think it would be a lot more useful than pills or plastic.
Auntie Betty told me the Bible says it's wrong to think, but if I had this damn stuff, I think I'd sneak it into the lunch bags of all those snotty-faced doughheads in my class who stand in a circle at recess instead of playing, talking about training bras and their mothers' hysterectomies.
Christine Cross is the absolute worst. "You can't expect Joy to know anything, she doesn't have a mother!" Like that's some damn big secret.
"Oh yeah, cross-eyes," I say to her. 'Just 'cause I don't have a mother doesn't mean I don't know a lot of gross
stuff. " And then I tell them how Auntie Betty got four of her fingers lopped off at a canning factory, and even though it happened so long ago, she still can't stand the sight of canned asparagus, 'cause it always reminds her of green fingers. Then they all squeal and twist their faces up and cover their ears, like I said something awful, when I didn't even get to the part about how the whole damned factory had to hunt for fingers and finally found them two days later in a can of creamed corn.
I'd also put some of the puke-dust into my teacher's lunch bag. She's just like Christine Cross, except bigger. She never calls on me when I raise my hand, though there's no way she can miss me waving it around like I do. And then, when I'm looking out the window, she says, "Joy?" like she really expects me to answer her stupid question when she knows I didn't even hear the damn thing.
Whenever I hand in any work, she always hands it back with red question marks all over it, and keeps me in after school, 'cause she says I don't pay attention. But I do pay attention. Maybe not to all the boring stupid things she says, but I sure as hell pay attention to everything else.
I know Auntie Betty tells me I shouldn't see what other people don't, and if I do, I should forget about it, but I'll never forget seeing Mrs. Rainboth shoving a pair of really big bat wings under her jacket when she didn't think anyone was looking and fixing her damned hair piece just so over those two spiky horns. I've spied on her in the staff room. She takes off her tinted contact lenses, and her eyes are completely blood red, and if you forget your homework, she sends a beam of electricity through you that would make even lightning forget its name. And as long as I live, I'll never forget any of this, no matter what Auntie Betty tells me, no matter if it's in my imagination or not, and I do pay attention.
I'd also put a big heaping teaspoon of puke-dust into Ellen's cereal bowl. Ellen used to be my sister Nell, till she started high school and got her damn period. Now all she does is talk on the phone about boys. I barely ever get to say anything to her, and when I do, she's usually either all pie-eyed and swoony and can't hear a word I say, or if she does hear me, she just calls me sick in that pinched-in, prissy voice all the girls at her school have.
I told Auntie Betty I think Nell's gone to live with the
space aliens, but Auntie Betty says the Bible says you
shouldn't think, and it's wrong to be disrespectful. I
don't see why bleeding from your private parts should suddenly make you a completely different person, but when I say this to Ellen, she says that's because I don't
know anything about life.
She spends hours in the bathroom and doesn't even take a book with her. Auntie Betty says young women
need their privacy, but sometimes I peek through the
keyhole anyway and watch her standing naked in front of the mirror, puckering up her mouth and whispering, "I love you" to someone I can't see. It's so creepy it makes the damned bones in my back shiver, and I just know she's talking to an alien man, who's real tall and good looking, but when you take his human mask off, you see he's really just made of goopy wet phlegm.
You couldn't get me to fall for it, even if I was bleeding from my private parts. I know all about space aliens and the way they get you into their UFOs, and experiment on you and move into your body. Auntie Betty pretends she doesn't know anything about it, but I've read those newspapers she sneaks home from the grocery store and hides in her night table under the Bible. She knows all right, even if she isn't saying.
Whenever I tell Nell she better be careful, that the aliens are probably already in the process of cleaning out her body and getting ready to move in, she just says, "Don't be such a moron. And don't call me Nell. "
When she was Nell, she never slammed doors in my face. Sometimes, after I had a nightmare, she even let me sleep in her bed with stuffed animals. Now she's Ellen, she's packed all her stuffed animals away, put them up in the attic with Auntie Betty's boxes of plastic and hung all these posters of boys all over her walls. I wouldn't even set foot in her room now at night. It's too scary.
But I think a few good doses of puke-dust might fix Nell. Aliens aren't idiots. Who'd want to live in a body that was always puking?
Auntie Betty says I ought to pray to God to forgive me for swearing and thinking, but I can't really seem to give a damn about God, even though I know I'm supposed to, just like I can't make myself feel punished down here in the cellar, skipping this rope that I'm not even supposed to have, looking at all these broken bricks, just waiting for the roots of that old oak tree outside to smash the next one open.
I think maybe if I could live through a depression, like Auntie Betty, maybe I'd feel different, but then I think of my mother and all her depressions and how everyone said at her funeral she'd never find a place with God 'cause she stuck her head in the gas oven she hated to cook in, and she had two small children to look after, and God would never forgive her 'cause, besides being a sin, it was also selfish, so I guess she really couldn't have given a damn about God either.
Sometimes I beg Auntie Betty not to make me go down into the cellar. I beg her to let me stay upstairs and have tea and biscuits with her and Nana and the minister. I even promise not to laugh if Nana farts or wets herself because I really do want to be punished because Auntie Betty says being punished is the only way to understanding God's love, and I sure as hell would like to understand that.
But she always sends me down into the cellar anyway, and as soon as I hear her draw the bolt across the door,
and I reach the bottom of those stairs that smell like fungus and let my lungs fill with the musty spirit of mud that makes more spit form in my mouth than cherry sour balls do, and I see those broken bricks spread out in front of me like treasure, I feel so safe and so goddamned happy that I'm almost ashamed of myself.