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It changed everything: a school picture printed on the front page of the Elk Grove Courier, the newspaper my father was reading. I was eight. Sitting across the breakfast table from Dad, I pointed. "Who is she?"
He kept reading.
"What happened?" I asked.
I leaned forward to get a closer look. She looked like me: same short cropped hair with razor-straight bangs, same heart-shaped face, same wool plaid jumper. I looked at Dad: bloated, smudged glasses slid halfway down his nose. Why wasn't he telling me what happened? He loved talking gore; lived for it; documented it, even.
Dad drove his Ford pickup with his Kodak movie camera sitting shotgun just in case he saw an accident. If he was lucky enough to come upon something, he'd jump out and aim his camera at whatever was crumpled, bleeding, or burning. And every Thanksgiving he lined up Mom and the four of us kids on the gold-and-brown-plaid studio couch, hauled out the Bell + Howell reel-to-reel, and rolled his masterpieces.
Images jiggled past, scenes from our tiny Ohio town of Galesburg. Christmas morning, four beautiful children in color-coordinated Santa pajamas, squinting; summertime, my older brother Jamie's first home run; a station wagon hideously wrapped around a telephone pole, blood dripping down the passenger door and plop, plop, plopping onto the road; my two older sisters and me in hats with wide ribbons hunting for Easter baskets; a dead cow smashed on the front of a Plymouth. Our childhood was preserved among the big fire at the Catholic church, a Greyhound bus accident on Fort Henry Road, and a tornado twirling up Martha Whitmore's bean field. We all sat watching the movies and eating buttered popcorn made in the black-and-white-speckled pan that was always greasy, no matter how many times you scrubbed it. The disasters took up more reels than we did, and Dad narrated them like a pro.
So why was Dad skimping on the details about this dead girl? Maybe it wasn't bloody enough for him.
I couldn't get that school picture out of my head. I needed to know what had happened to that girl. If she was dead, something had killed her, and I wanted a heads up just in case whatever it was might be lurking nearby.
That night I casually swiped the newspaper off the cluttered coffee table and headed down the hallway to find my brother, Jamie. Nothing scared him.
He was sitting on his bedroom floor putting together a plastic model of a '69 Shelby Cobra Mustang.
"Can you read this out loud?" I held up the paper.
"Why can't you read it?" he asked, looking up from his project. He had most of the chassis put together.
"I can read it, but I want you to." He stared at me. I held up a Milky Way left over from my Easter stash.
I couldn't tell Jamie I didn't want to read the details of that girl's death by myself, especially with her staring out at me from the front page. I didn't want him thinking I was chicken.
"It has to be right now?" he asked.
"Mom says I have to go to bed in a minute," I said.
He twisted the lid back onto the blue-and-white tube of Testor's glue and wiped his hands on the filthy dishrag he kept in his supplies shoe box.
"Let's go," he said. I followed him to the dark landing of our musty basement, where the four of us kids congregated for secret business.
"Here," I said, handing him the paper and the candy. I was glad Jamie wasn't too curious. He hardly ever asked questions about anything.
We sat crouched on the landing. I held the silver flashlight with the words "Black and Decker" printed down the side. Dad owned a hardware store in downtown Elk Grove and earned the flashlight selling ten hammers in two months, but he tossed it to me when the lens cracked. Jamie and I sat facing each other cross-legged with our foreheads touching, staring down at the white circle of light. He began to read: "'Driver Faces Charges in Bike Rider Death' -- "
"Bike rider? She was killed on her bike?" I craned my neck to see the paper right side up.
"Do you want me to read this or not?" Jamie tore open the candy bar wrapper.
"Go ahead," I said, thinking of my own bike, a gold Schwinn with a leopard-skin banana seat. I'd spent hours running it up the wooden ramp Jamie had built beside the alley behind our house. Cars ripped through there without ever slowing down.
Jamie took a bite and began reading again: "'Mason County's fourth traffic fatality of the year occurred Tuesday afternoon with the death of Sarah Rebecca Keeler, eight-year-old daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Herbert Keeler.'"
Eight years old? I was eight. I grabbed the paper to take another look. She was my age, but I didn't recognize her from school. I felt a pang of disappointment as I handed back the paper.
Jamie continued, "'Sarah Keeler was a member of St. Mary Catholic Church and was a third-grade pupil at St. Mary School.'"
That's why I didn't know her; she was Catholic. Catholics were considered the equivalent of snake handlers in our small Ohio town. I didn't know much about them except that they made Methodists like my parents nervous. This made Sarah more mysterious. Anyone who unnerved my parents was interesting to me.
"'Sarah was en route on North Highway 26 when struck by a car driven by Nowell Linsley, sixty-one. The report states death was apparently instantaneous, due to a basal skull fracture and a broken neck.'"
"What's a 'basal skull fracture'?" I asked.
"I guess her head broke open," Jamie said. He knew death. He'd buried dozens of small animals he'd found dead in the field behind our house, or cats and squirrels squashed by cars speeding through town on Highway 64.
I contemplated how hard I'd have to be hit by a car to have my head crack open like an egg. My oldest sister, JoAnn, had her head split open on the corner of the coffee table when we were little. Dad deliberately stuck his foot out and tripped her. He thought it was hilarious until bright red blood began trickling down her face.
I was trying to picture someone's whole head laid open, hair and brains and blood on the asphalt, when I began feeling woozy and sweaty.
"Hold the flashlight still," Jamie said. I shook my head and steadied the light. "'A Breathalyzer test was taken on Linsley, and he was charged by the sheriff's department for driving under the influence of alcohol.'"
"The guy was drunk," Jamie said, handing me the paper. I thought of Uncle Ernie, the only person I'd ever seen drunk. He'd come to our front door one night after running down the street from the dilapidated Galesburg Tavern, where another drunk had been hitting him over the head with a pool cue. Dad wasn't home.
Ernie's forehead was bleeding and Mom looked pale and nervous, especially when he asked to use one of her good bath towels. The next morning I heard Mom call him a "sweet drunk," so he'd probably never kill anyone on a bicycle. Even so, I'd be on the lookout for his white pickup.
That night I lay in my small wooden bed and relished the attention Sarah Keeler must have received. I fantasized that it had been me on that bike and I'd been struck from behind. I hoisted my arms above my head on the pillow and pretended to be lying on the road. In my fantasy my dad drove by and stopped, not because he recognized my bike (my dad had no idea what color my bike was); he stopped because it was potentially gory. He jumped out of the truck with his movie camera but realized it was me lying there -- bleeding and dying. Double jackpot, he thought: one less mouth to feed and he'd get all the attention. People would feel so bad for him.
Dad resisted the urge to film the scene, opting instead to bend over my limp body, pretending to be struck with grief. He was surprised when he could actually squeeze out tears. Everyone closed in around him...and that's when I canceled that fantasy.
If Dad shoved me out of the limelight even in my death scene, if he couldn't even love me while I was lying on the asphalt, there was no hope.
Maybe others would have been sad to see me dead in the street. I thought of Mom curled up in the nubby orange chair reading Rich Man, Poor Man. Surely she'd have been devastated. But Mom was a human cork; she floated to the top of any awful situation. My mom, who'd told me the earth was flat, always created her own reality. She would have been fine.
I was beginning to wonder if dying was such a good idea.
It wasn't as if I wanted to be dead; it was just that I was miserable and felt in the way most of the time. There was something wrong with me. I always knocked over my milk, I got sick every time we drove long distances in the car, and I wet my bed every night, even though I was in third grade. But when Dad started in on us, knocking Jamie across the kitchen and then kicking him in the side, or jerking my pants down in front of strangers, that's when death seemed possible, even preferable.
If God could make me normal like everyone else in my class, or pull me out from under the rage of my own father, I might be happy instead of nervous and ashamed all the time.
I remembered the funeral details Jamie had read:
Friends may call on Saturday at Kilner and Sons Mortuary between 4:00 and 8:00 P.M. On Sunday there will be Mass at St. Mary's, with burial following at Maple Creek Cemetery.
Until Sunday, when Sarah Keeler was sunk in a deep, lonely hole and the world forgot and moved on, I could pretend I knew her. I could wallow in the glow of her spectacular departure. Sunday was years away.
I woke up the next morning to sunshine and bushy green trees rustling outside my bedroom window. I rolled over and felt under my pillow for the newspaper. Still there.
I crawled out of bed to change my wet sheets and pajamas. Bed-wetting kept Mom from buying me a spiffy twin bed like the ones my older sisters, Becky and JoAnn, had.
Their fancy twins were on either side of mine, decorated exactly alike with smoky blue comforters trimmed in fluffy white ball-fringe. Their white wrought-iron headboards twisted into elaborate curlicues that mirrored each other.
My bed was narrow with white wooden rails that went halfway up on either side. The mattress was slick, quilted, and smelled of urine. It was a bed to be embarrassed by. A baby's bed. A peed-in bed. I'd slept in it my whole life.
I walked into the bathroom and threw my pajamas and sheets into the tub.
I thought of Sarah Keeler as I looked in the mirror and imagined my own face on the front page of the Elk Grove Courier. More than anything else, I wanted to see her on Saturday between four and eight P.M. lying in her pink (I imagined my favorite color) coffin, her freshly washed hands folded over her lap, shoes double-tied for oblivion. I had to find a way to go to that viewing. And I knew the person to take me there was Granda.
Granda was my mother's mother, but the opposite of my mom in every way. Granda was a realist, and that's how she needed to be approached. She could be very sentimental and loving, but she'd also killed her own cat. He bothered her. She had a bad hip and she'd gotten tired of getting up and down out of her chair to let him in and out of the aluminum door of her trailer. So she'd locked him in her freestanding garage that the pole barn company had built for her right beside her trailer; she'd lured him in with a raw hot dog, closed the door, and left the Buick running for three hours.
I felt she could be persuaded to attend a funeral.
After breakfast I walked across Whitmore's back field to Granda's green-and-white double-wide. Granda was sitting at the kitchen table peeling new potatoes. I needed to be convincing but not too eager. I sat down across from her.
"A girl I knew died," I said.
"Oh, honey, who was it?" Granda stopped peeling.
"It was in the paper yesterday."
"That little girl on the bicycle?" she asked.
I nodded. I was glad I didn't have to say her name as if I really had known her. "Mom doesn't think I should go to the funeral home." Granda started peeling again. "I feel like I should."
"If your mom says you can't, then you can't." Granda pointed the silver potato peeler in my direction for emphasis.
"Yeah, I guess so. The whole town's going."
Granda salted a piece of raw potato and handed it to me. I ate it slowly, the salt stinging my chapped lips.
"I was hoping maybe you could take me over there." I looked at the table as my face flushed red.
"Honey, you don't want to see that. It's a terrible thing, very upsetting."
"Well, I might go with Suzanne Beckner's family, but I'd rather go with you. Mrs. Beckner said the entire county's going." I rested my hands on the table and put my chin on top. Granda was scrutinizing me.
"Didn't that girl go to the Catholic school?"
"I guess so."
"And you knew her?"
"Not very well," I lied, "but enough to feel like I should go. Suzanne does too." I ended with the one line I knew would really get her. "Mom can't understand." Granda prided herself on wholly understanding me.
She said she'd think about it, which was a good sign. When Granda had to think about something, it usually meant yes sirree. Besides, Granda rarely passed on any kind of local drama. It ran in the family.
Saturday night Granda and I made the eight-mile trip to Elk Grove in her cat-killing Buick.
The line of mourners outside Kilner and Sons Mortuary snaked down Main Street, past the Liberty Movie Theatre, and ended in front of old man Conroy's pharmacy. Mrs. Beckner had been right; the entire county was there.
No one said a word. If someone caught someone else's eye, it was just a somber shaking of the head as if to say, It can't be. It just can't be. I shook my head too.
Granda and I took our place at the end of the line. I felt a kind of personal satisfaction with the huge turnout, as if I'd had something to do with it. I was sure that Sarah could see all of it and was secretly smiling and enjoying the attention. My tights itched the back of my leg right behind the knee, but I tried to ignore it. This was a dignified occasion and I would refrain from scratching.
We waited as the line snailed closer to the front doors with the initials k & s etched in script on the frosted glass.
As we pushed through the fancy doors and climbed the plush purple steps, my breath was coming in short spurts. Granda saw my pale face and gave me one last chance to leave before we turned the corner and entered the main room. There was no way I was leaving. I craned my neck and saw the flower arrangements stacked floor to ceiling and heard the soothing Muzak dragging above the voices.
Where's the coffin? I wondered as my stomach fluttered with fear and excitement. I shifted my weight.
Suddenly we turned a corner, and there she was. I could only see the top of her head because the casket was resting on a high platform with a maroon pleated skirt. It was pine with (and I'd called this) a pink interior. I looked at Granda with pleading eyes. "Could you please pick me up just for a second?" She was uncomfortable. She lifted me quickly and then -- boom, back down on the carpet. I saw Sarah Keeler for one second. It was all the time I needed.
Her hair was cut exactly like in the picture in the newspaper, but her features didn't look the same. As often as I'd studied that picture, I wouldn't have recognized her. She was wearing a softball uniform, which threw me. I had imagined something tastefully frilly. She must have liked sports -- another stabbing disappointment. I hated sports and was myself dressed in something tastefully frilly. We were not the same.
My gut clenched. I looked around and recognized no one. I looked back at the coffin. Sarah Keeler was going to be wearing that softball uniform forever, and she was not coming back, because there was no way back from wherever she was.
Granda was handing out condolences as I waited in the back of the room near an enormous gurgling coffee pot. She was right, there was no mistaking death when you saw it face-to-face, and Sarah's face kept flashing in front of me, her skin thick and powdery. Jamie told me later that it was makeup used to hide the bruises, which gave me the creeps. Her eyelids had been glued shut with what looked like rubber cement, and her lips had been smudged with light pink lip gloss that didn't even stay in the lines. I wasn't allowed to wear lipstick. Her hands were small like mine.
My mother was right; I shouldn't have seen this. And now I couldn't even tell her I had. I stared at Sarah's coffin, and I knew I could not choose death, because nothing, not even Dad, could be more frightening than ending up in a coffin with your lips sewn shut.
Even with Dad the way he was, always hitting and humiliating us, and even if Mom never noticed, I didn't want to die -- not really. And besides, there was always Granda. Granda still took the best care of me and loved me more than anyone. She walked up beside me, and I grabbed her hand for reassurance.
On the way to the car we stopped to chat with Etta Mae Shaw. I waited, looking at my feet. It wasn't until then that I realized that somewhere between the coffin and Mrs. Shaw, I'd peed in my shoes. My socks were yellow and wet on the inside of my ankles, and the familiar stickiness of my soaked panties confirmed it. Granda kept an old brown furniture blanket in her trunk for just such occasions. I sat on it all the way home.
The next morning I woke up around five A.M.
I got up and peeled off my wet pajama bottoms. Don't throw those wet pants on my hardwood floors, Mom harped in my brain. I tossed them on the wet sheets and rolled the whole thing up into a ball. The house was silent. I tiptoed to the bathroom and threw the whole mess into the bathtub. On the way back to bed I peeked in Jamie's room.
With his hands resting on top of his blue-and-red-striped sheets, eyes shut, and breath barely noticeable, Jamie looked dead. I panicked. "Jamie!" I screamed. "Jamie!" He jumped out of bed, grabbed my arms, and jerked me into the dining room in one move.
"What? What is it? What's going on?"
"I thought you were dead," I mustered.
"I almost died when you screamed," he shushed me. I was shaking like crazy as we listened to hear if the fuss had woken up Mom or Dad. No one. "Shit, Monica, you freaked me out. I think that dead girl tweaked your brain. Come on."
Jamie tiptoed me back to my room, where JoAnn and Becky were peacefully sleeping. I pulled on another pair of pajama bottoms and he helped me with my early morning ritual, putting a beach towel over the pee spot and a dry sheet on top of that. With luck, it wouldn't soak through.
I climbed into bed in my mismatched pajamas: pink hearts on top, blue rocket hand-me-downs on bottom. I longed for a time when I would eat breakfast in matching top and bottom pajamas. No one else seemed to notice. My clean pajamas and sheets just regularly showed up, no comment. I managed in silence along with everyone else. That morning I wanted order in my world. More than anything else, I wanted my pajamas to match.
Jamie started out the bedroom door. "That girl gets buried today; they'll be digging the hole this morning," I said. He turned and looked at me. "Yep, today's hole day," he said. I shot him my Please don't leave me look. He came over and sat down on the floor beside my bed, leaning his head against the wooden side railing. The top of his hair was bristly from the buzz cut Dad had given him earlier that week. I patted it in thanks. "Go to sleep, Monica." I curled up in a ball.
Odds were, with Jamie there, I could sleep. If the planets aligned, I also might stay dry until I woke up. Just as I was settling in, my stomach tightened. Out my window the sun was coming up, but not for everyone. Some of us were dead.
Copyright © 2007 by Monica Holloway
The morning of Sarah Keeler's burial, I sat in the Galesburg Methodist Church between JoAnn and my father, whose heavy arm rested on the back of the pew right above my head. My legs were too short to touch the floor, but if I pressed my toes down, I could almost reach it. I was growing.
The church sat kitty-corner across the street from our house, but we were late every Sunday. The service started at nine a.m., and at nine ten my family would be running across the street in uncomfortable dress shoes, Dad calling us "idiots" as the opening hymn, "Love Lifted Me," wafted out the church windows.
The service that morning, led by the small and dreary Reverend Morse, was a dull drone, and I found myself staring at the large stained glass window on the left side of the church. I loved how the sun moved across that window every Sunday and how by the end of the service it was centered right in the middle of Jesus's face. This depended on where you were sitting, but we always sat in the exact same pew, so as long as it wasn't cloudy, the sun ended on Jesus.
I wasn't attached to Jesus, exactly, but I had heard about him since birth and held a kind of respect for all he'd been through. The hymn "Low in the Grave He Lay" pretty much told it all: He'd had a difficult life and a pretty rotten death. So I gave him the inner thumbs-up as I watched the sun and prayed for it to cross his left cheek, which would mean I was almost out of there.
Church was the only place where I sat close to my father. He felt less prickly there, and as much as I hated him, I wanted him to love me. In the silence of church I tried to steal closeness.
He seemed almost friendly in church because of his expression while singing hymns he knew by heart. His head would tilt to the right, eyes closed, forehead lifted. He looked so relaxed. When he took a breath, his head would dip with each inhale. His voice was beautiful. How could he sing so well and be so mean? The voice didn't fit the man, but it gave me hope.
The ending prayer finally came and I wiggled off the pew. Free -- sort of. We still had to go to Sunday lunch at my grandparents' house.
After walking home and changing out of our church clothes, my family piled into our white station wagon and drove three blocks to Mammaw and Papaw's house. We could never just walk down there because there were too many hot covered dishes that had to be hauled along. I spent many Sundays sitting in the backseat holding a kitchen towel around warm baked beans with bacon sizzling on top, or a rectangular metal pan filled with cream cheese and lemon Jell-O mix meant to pass as a cheesecake.
Sundays with the Petersons, my dad's side of the family, were a recurring nightmare. Every weekend Mammaw and Papaw's six sons (my dad being the oldest) came with their large families in tow. My uncle Carl rarely came, but his family, Aunt Evelyn and the three boys, did.
Carl drove a Greyhound bus, so we hardly ever saw him. When we did, his eyelids were sleepy and droopy from driving strangers all over the country. Uncle Carl was the only one of us who traveled, and his sons, Ben, Tim, and Paul (who also had droopy eyelids), were the only cousins we liked.
The other cousins, whom I knew only because we shared the same pathetic gene pool, poured out of station wagons with scowls on their faces. Uncle Bill's son Troy talked like he had a sock stuck in the back of his throat, and my cousin Karen looked sad, even when she was laughing. All of my cousins were scared of my dad.
Dad took special pleasure in humiliating children; all of us had been the butt of it at one family event or another. Today it would be my turn again.
Uncle Ernie got out of his truck. The night before he'd been drunk again and someone had tossed him through the front window of the Galesburg Tavern. He was covered in cuts and bruises. I watched everyone talk to him as if his nose were still firmly attached.
Mammaw, oblivious to Ernie's injuries and our sour faces, loved a crowd and was always glad to see us. If we came right after church, she still had her teeth in, but if it was later in the day, she was all gums, and her shoes were long forgotten.
Mammaw rarely bathed, which bothered my overly bathed mother, but if you spent the night there, you didn't have to bathe either. And forget having to brush your teeth.
Mammaw embarrassed me with her red SOS-pad hair and her yellowed toenails. I was ashamed to feel that way because she loved all of us -- fiercely. Mammaw never forgot a birthday even though there were more than thirty of us grandkids.
I felt sorry for Mammaw. I suspected she'd seen her share of tragedies. One Saturday afternoon we were standing on her back porch when the front tire of my gold bike exploded from the heat of the sun. It made a loud boom and Mammaw thought someone had fired a shotgun. She dropped to the kitchen linoleum and lay down flat, her thick arms protecting her head. The speed at which she hit the floor told me she'd been shot at before. It didn't surprise me.
Dad told us that when he was little, Papaw would drink whiskey and then sit down at the dinner table and say, "I can't stare at you bunch of lazy asses anymore. I'm gonna blow my goddamn head off." He'd scoot his chair back, grab his shotgun, and head out to the barn. Mammaw and the six boys would sit silently at the table waiting for the gun to go off. It never did.
Today for the Sunday get-together, I saw Papaw setting up card tables in the garage and on the lawn. Extra chairs were borrowed from the Galesburg Volunteer Fire Department across the alley. There was always a table heaped with food and a big orange plastic container with a white screw-on lid filled to the brim with iced tea laced with plenty of liquid saccharine.
Mammaw and Papaw lived in town now, but they used to manage a farm out on the county line. My dad grew up on that farm, killing chickens right before he cooked them, and butchering hogs in the barnyard. They'd been desperately poor, but Mammaw and Papaw, uneducated and fertile, kept having sons one right after the other. Those boys slaved away on that farm under the eye of my ferocious papaw. He was thin as a rail and bent over by the time I knew him, but I saw pictures and heard stories of what a big man he used to be and how he used to beat his kids, and Mammaw, too.
At these family get-togethers I usually stayed outside the house to avoid my father. I also considered my personal safety at risk whenever Mammaw cooked.
Her kitchen was an exotic and dangerous place, the main culprit being a pressure cooker that sputtered and splashed on the stove. If I had to be in the kitchen while she was cooking, I was always ready to duck if that thing exploded. It actually happened once, and my uncle Bill was scalded all the way down the left side of his body. No one but me seemed to be worried about a second occurrence.
Mammaw was a creative cook, concocting meals of squirrel, brains (any animal), pig's ears (which were actually the pig's scrotum), and greens pulled right out of her yard. She pickled anything standing still and jellied anything on a vine. Her egg noodles were thick, creamy, and delicious. I enjoyed them as best I could, considering I didn't know what was in them.
She stored all kinds of vegetables and relishes she'd canned herself in a dirt root cellar that Papaw built for her below the kitchen. The only way into the root cellar was a wooden door stuck right in the floor of the pantry. Sitting at Mammaw's kitchen table, I'd sometimes hear a jar explode down there. After the CRACK-and-SPLAT sound, Mammaw would look toward the pantry and say, "Fermented," and continue chopping carrots. When she finally pulled open the door in the floor, the stench would be unbearable. I assumed "fermented" meant "explodes and stinks like hell."
But this Sunday, as Sarah Keeler was being lowered into the ground, I walked into Mammaw's backyard. I was trying to figure out the best place to disappear to, when I saw my dad staring out the window at me. I felt that familiar jerk in my stomach. He was mad at me for something, and I had no idea what it was. I turned and walked in the other direction, feeling his eyes on me the whole way.
The world wasn't safe today. The truth was, this world was never safe.
I walked around the back of the garage where Dash, Mammaw's dalmatian, sat chained to his house. Dash had one blue eye and one brown eye and wasn't overly friendly -- due to the chain. He sat there staring at me with those crazy eyes. Feeling crazy myself, I decided to take a load off.
I pretended to pet Dash, who never wanted to be petted, in case someone saw me sitting out there alone, though no one would. He smelled like shit. The nub of his tail was dabbed purple with some kind of cure-all that Mammaw had used on the farm to castrate pigs.
Mammaw invented her own medicines. She created a salve for drawing out splinters that was made up of three different poisons. It would have killed you if you ate it, but slap a dab on a splinter, and your worries were over. JoAnn joked that if you used too much, it might actually pull up an organ.
I sat down next to Dash and looked up at the sun. Sarah was probably under dirt by now. I thought of her eyes, nose, and hands in the airless pitch-black grave. I looked at Dash and the mud-splattered doghouse and wasn't sure which was worse -- a shitty life or a shitty death.
Plucking up blades of grass, I wondered if I'd be able to see Sarah's grave when my school bus rolled by the cemetery tomorrow. Maybe...unless she was buried in the back somewhere. I started to feel better, thinking I might be able to sneak a moment with Sarah on school days. Maybe I could even get Granda to take me over there some weekend to see her grave up close.
I was used to seeing graves because there was a cemetery right behind our house. It wasn't as big as Maple Creek, but it was big enough. A stone cement bench sat up there, perfect for playing rummy or jacks on, and an enormous beige hornets' nest dangled from one of the elm trees. The spookiest feature was a sunken grave that dipped six inches lower than the ground. I imagined a bony finger poking up through the soil and slowly but steadily digging itself out. I hated that grave, but I never went up there without looking at it.
Dad started yelling for me to get my ass into the house. They were saying the prayer and filling plates. I jumped up and ran for it. If Dad had to call you twice, you got spanked.
Inside, I grabbed a plastic orange-and-white-flecked plate, a fork, knife, and spoon, and a white paper napkin, and bowed my head for the prayer Papaw was about to recite. My nose started itching, and when I went to scratch it, Dad slapped the back of my head, causing my plate and silverware to clatter to the floor. "Clumsy ass," he hissed. Everyone looked over for a second and then bowed their heads again. One of us kids being slapped was no reason to stare. My uncle Larry and aunt Betty smiled at me.
Larry, the youngest of the Peterson boys, was always sweet to his small son, Steve, holding his hand, sitting next to him while he ate.
Papaw continued the prayer, but the cousins got tired of waiting and started lining up for food. "Respect the goddamn Lord," Papaw bellowed. Everyone stopped in their tracks until he finished with a soft "Amen."
If there is a Lord, I thought, my chin starting to quiver, he sure created a bunch of losers when he pooped out this clan.
After the food, Dad decided he wanted a picture of his four kids. We lined up according to height just as he ordered us to, facing directly into the sun. The scowling cousins were watching.
It was four o'clock and the sun was directly over my dad's head and right in my eyes. I tried to smile in his direction as my dad clicked off four pictures on his new Polaroid camera, but the sun was too bright. Each time Dad clicked the shutter, I accidentally covered my eyes with my hands at the last minute. For the sixty seconds it took for each of those Polaroids to develop, I had plenty of time to imagine what punishment was in store for me for ruining Dad's "perfect family" pictures.
"You're a goddamn idiot," he yelled at me. "Can't you stand still for one minute? If you blur one more picture, I'm going to blister your ass."
My face was bright red. He'd spanked me many times, not caring where we were or who was looking, and usually he jerked my pants down right there in front of everyone to do it.
I tried to explain that it was because my eyes were light blue that I couldn't look directly at the sun, but he interjected, "I'm not wasting any more film on you. Get the hell outta here." He dragged me out of the line by the front of my shirt.
What was so confusing was that everyone looked at me as if I had caused the whole mess. I had somehow ruined everything.
The minute Dad turned his back, I ran for the station wagon, where I lay down on the backseat with tears and spit rolling off the gray vinyl. I cried so long, I forgot why I was crying and fell asleep.
When I woke up, it was dark. The family get-together was still going strong, so I climbed out of the car and walked home. The lights were on; Jamie was already there. I opened the screen door and headed to my room. I was hungry again, but it wasn't worth the effort to scare something up.
I lay on my bed, searching under my covers for my Casper the Ghost doll. Pulling him up by his arm, I could feel a hole torn in his fur and some fluff poking out. Granda would have to sew it for me. I pounded down his stomach, making a dip to lay my head in.
Hearing the station wagon pull up, I wondered if Mom would look in on me. She didn't. Becky came in, tossed a sweater onto her bed, and threw me a disgusted look. I had ruined their day again, by making a scene, by causing Dad to get mad, by so many things I didn't understand. I was ashamed and angry.
When I heard Dad open the tailgate of the station wagon, I got up and looked out the window. He pulled his Bell + Howell Super Eight movie projector and his fold-up home-movie screen out of the back. Dad must have shown movies at Mammaw's. I wondered what I'd missed.
I lay back down.
I closed my eyes, but just as I was drifting off, images from Dad's collection flickered through my head: a tornado demolishing Willard Bank's outhouse; a train explosion in Dunreath; my uncle Ernie in black rubber fire boots up to his hips wading through a flood near Pattonville, waving at the camera.
I sat straight up.
Maybe Dad had filmed Sarah Keeler's accident. Hers was huge compared to a cow being hit by a Plymouth.
Dad could hear an ambulance, police siren, or fire truck from a dozen blocks away, and when he heard one, he followed it. Lucky for him, he didn't have to strain his ears because the police and fire department were within one block of his store. He never missed anything.
I bet he was there, and if he was there, I bet he filmed it. My heart was racing as I wondered how I could find out.
I heard the screen door slam shut. I jerked my pink quilt up over my shoulders and tried to quiet my breathing. If he was still mad at me, I didn't want him knowing I was awake.
The next morning I walked into our yellow-and-white kitchen in a plaid skirt and bare feet. Mom was in a good mood. "It's about time you got in here," she said, dumping a spoonful of white sugar across the top of my oatmeal. She was pretending I hadn't spent yesterday sobbing in the back of the car. She was good at pretending.
I walked into the bathroom, tossed my pee-soaked sheets and pajamas into the bathtub, and headed back to the kitchen.
Dad was reading the Elk Grove Courier and slurping Maxwell House instant coffee he'd made by adding warm tap water to the coffee crystals in his mug and whipping it up with a metal spoon. I'd seen him do it a hundred times, his thick fingers choking the mug.
I sat down at the table and stared at Dad, who continued reading the paper. I wondered where he stashed his home movies. Dad titled and dated each one by writing on the rim of the plastic reel with a Magic Marker. If he'd filmed Sarah Keeler, the reel probably had her name on it or at least the date.
Dad dropped one corner of the paper and snapped, "What are you gawking at?"
I looked down at my oatmeal. I heard Dad flip the paper back up in front of his mean face. He hated me.
I thought about Dad standing by the side of the road filming her crumpled bike, her body lying on the asphalt. I imagined that he'd filmed her shoes, blown clear off her feet from the impact, lying in two different places.
I looked at Dad cutting through sausage patties with a butter knife. I was surprised he hadn't run over any kids himself, considering how fast we had to scramble out of his way when he sped through the alley behind our house, the wheels of his blue pickup spewing gravel in all directions.
If he ever did, the police would arrive with sirens blaring and I'd watch as they hauled Dad away in handcuffs, hauled him away forever to Cincinnati or Cleveland or even farther. Someplace he could never come home from, a place where he could never yank my pants down again with everyone staring. Someplace he deserved.
"Eat it, don't play with it," Mom said, jerking my head back slightly as she ran a brush through the back of my hair. I looked up to see Dad staring straight at me.
He probably knew what I was thinking.
Copyright © 2007 by Monica Holloway