Friday, October 9, 2009

Halloween-part 1

(Screw it on the other short story. Too much to try and accomplish and I wasn't happy with where it was going. Anyway, here's part one of my Halloween project.)

"Inverted World" 1981

Amy fumed sullenly and stared out the back window. She hadn’t been allowed to bring the Nintendo, the one gift she got for Christmas from her parents she really liked.

“Aunt Cecelia doesn’t have a television?” She’d asked.

“Of course, she has a television,” Mrs. Grayson said. “But why would you even want to bring a video game to a farm? You’ve got a whole farm. The last thing you need is to hole up indoors punching a little button and shooting, what do you call them, meteors?”

“Asteroids,” she corrected, though that wasn’t one of the games she played. “Why can’t I bring my Nintendo?”

“You need fresh air,” Mrs. Grayson said. “You need to move around.”

This was because of her leg. It had been six months since the doctors stood around her bed, shook their heads and told her what no 10 year-old should have to hear.

“I don’t want fresh air,” she said. “I don’t want to move around. I want to go home.”

Her brother Jack looked over at her, then Peggy. They both nodded grimly. Amy needed to shut up. They were traveling light –just their clothes and a few small, personal items. They had a little money, each of them. If she wanted, maybe she could get another Nintendo when they got settled. This had been explained.

Nobody wanted to go through with this, not Amy, not the twins, not even Mrs. Grayson, but their options were limited. It was either Aunt Cecelia in West Virginia or foster care.

Amy sighed and stared at the ceiling while her brother and sister went back to their books. They could read anywhere. Amy didn’t have the patience and besides, reading in the car made her sick. She hated riding in the middle.

“It’s going to be fine,” Mrs. Grayson said.

No one believed that. Fine wasn’t a choice.

They rode all day, from first light until the dark of the night, stopping only for hamburgers and cokes once and to use dirty, dimly lit rest rooms behind gas stations. They drove until the straight roads wound around darkened mountains and the only light ahead shone from Aunt Cecelia’s kitchen window.

“Sorry about the porch light.” She’d waited up for them. “The bulb burned out. Usually, I get Bob to change it for me, but he won’t be here until Sunday.”

No one blamed her. Aunt Cecelia was a gross, fragile woman. She moved with a slow, swaying shuffle. Every step forward was a risk. If she fell, she’d burst.

Amy and the twins barely knew her. She was their mother’s aunt, their grandmother’s younger sister, and a peripheral character in the few stories they’d been told about their mother growing up.

Jack volunteered to fix the light in the morning, before Mrs. Grayson went back to Michigan. She was supposed to stay until Sunday, just to be sure Cecelia could handle three kids, but the social worker seemed to think things were going so well. It wasn’t going to be a problem.

“And when will the checks start coming?” Cecelia asked, a little too eagerly.

“You should start receiving their social security benefits within a couple of weeks,” she told her.
“If you don’t see anything by the end of next month, give me a call.” Mrs. Grayson handed her a card which Aunt Cecelia took guiltily.

“It’s OK,” the social worker told her. “You’re going to need that money before school starts. Raising kids is expensive.”

Mrs. Grayson gave the same card to Jack before she climbed back into her empty Ford.
If there was a problem, they should call. Otherwise, she’d be in touch. She didn’t say how or when, just she’d be in touch.

After the car drove out of sight, the yoke of abandonment settled on their shoulders. Cecelia went back inside to start lunch while the children sat on the porch looking at the road and the tree line beyond it. Finally, Amy slipped off her left leg.

Two weeks before Christmas, a delivery truck ran a stop sign and rammed the side of their car. Elvis Presley was singing “Blue Christmas” on the radio. Amy was in the backseat, sitting in the middle, right where she always sat because each twin demanded a window seat. It saved her life.

The twins weren’t there. Their parents had dropped them off at a party just a few blocks back. Amy hadn’t been invited because she was younger and a burden in middle school social situations.

The driver’s side of the car was caved in. Only Amy knew how bad it really was, what their father looked like after the accident. She never lost consciousness. The other two never had to see.

The delivery truck pushed the car through the intersection and into a tree. Their mother’s head bounced against the window once and her neck snapped. She went quick, at least, and for a minute the truck driver and everyone else gathered around the car thought she might just be stunned.

It was confusing and chaotic. Amy’s leg was caught in a snarl of metal. Everyone was shouting, demanding, soothing, praying. Amy screamed through the noise, bled and begged and watched her parents die.

Amy missed the funeral. The twins had to see that through on their own. Each of them had their own little part of the grief to bear.

Neighbors, friends and a couple of kind teachers gave them places to stay while they finished the school year and the state figured out what to do with them. Jack and Peggy were 12, almost 13. Amy was 11. The only way they could stay together was if someone took them in, a relative. In the end, all they had was Cecelia, a woman they barely knew and her brother Bob.

Cecelia lived on the family farm. It belonged to their grandparents. Bob did not live there, but he helped her take care of the house and drove her around –as his job permitted. He was a fry cook at the Cartersville Tastee Freez.

The children hadn’t been to the farm in a long time, not since their grandmother passed away, and that was years ago. Even then it hadn’t been a working farm since their mother was a teenager. The barn, henhouse and stable were rickety homes for field mice, spiders and ticks listing toward collapse into dust and splinters.

Cecelia warned them to stay close to the house and not to go messing around.

“You’re liable to come upon a snake,” she said.

The house and the acre and a half Bob mowed would have to suffice. The land beyond was wild, unkempt and threatening.

“Y’all just stick close to the house,” she said.

But Aunt Cecelia didn’t want them underfoot. They would need to find ways to amuse themselves, at least until school started in two months. She was far too busy to entertain and they weren’t guests.

The first day alone with their aunt passed quietly. She fed them lunch, then four hours later, dinner. In the evening, they watched Hee-Haw, which none of them had ever seen before. Roy Clark and Buck Owens sang country songs in between jokes too corny to be anything but intentional. Ceclia offered them ice cream, had some herself, then ushered them off to bed when it got dark.

In the dark, in the room the three of them shared, with eyes wide open and staring at the dark ceiling, Peggy sighed and asked, “So, now what?”

“Don’t ask me,” Amy replied smugly. “I wanted to bring the Nintendo.”

Bob showed up in with his truck in the morning to take them to church. He didn’t say much, except for them to sit down low in the back and hold on.

“The road gets a might bumpy.”

Cecelia’s attended services at “The First Assembly Of The Believer” on the other side of Cartersville, a crude, little building painted a rough shade of white. Bob helped them out of the truck, but wouldn’t come in. Cecelia didn’t even ask.

“I’ll wait for y’all out here.” He lit a cigarette and sat behind the wheel while Cecelia pushed them toward the door.

The children’s parents weren’t regular churchgoing people. They’d never been required to bathe and comb and dress so early on a summer day. Weekend worship was pancakes served just
before noon with everyone still in their pajamas.

The church’s sanctuary was small, just twelve narrow wooden pews arranged in a half-moon around the rough wooden pulpit. People were packed on the benches like books in a bookcase, side by side and elbow to elbow. Women in thin, plain dresses fanned themselves with stiff paper fans on sticks. Even with the windows open, a thin sheen of sweat covered most of the congregation before the preacher stepped through the door. They were drenched before he left.

Aunt Cecelia sat them in the front row.

The sermon was like nothing they’d ever seen or heard before. The preacher’s name was Pulaski, Mr. Pulaski. Nobody called him by anything else, at least not to his face.

He wasn’t a big man, didn’t have a deep, booming voice, but listening to him preach was like sitting under a tall tree during a thunderstorm. Pulaski prowled the pulpit. He paced, shouting and admonishing those who’d fallen to get right. God did not hold the hands of the weak and unrighteous. He put their feet to the flame and demanded they repent. Now.

It was spellbinding and terrifying.

All around them, people rocked in their seats. The pews trembled and creaked. Some who’d come to worship spoke out in firece, garbled words. Pulaski pulled them from their seats. He put his hands on them, and like a wolf, threw back his head and joined them in their frightening howl to God.

It was relief when, finally, he blessed the country congregation and bid them wearily to go forth with the love of Jesus in their hearts.

“I want you to meet the preacher,” Cecelia told them, but Amy, with her bum leg, still managed to swim through the teeming masses to find cool air outside.

The twins weren’t as lucky. While Amy slipped under the looming shapes of the adults, Pulaski held the hands of her brother and sister and marveled at the slightly askew mirror image.

“What a blessing. All men are born alone in this world.” He smiled. “Except for twins.”
Amy marched, lunged forward awkardly to the truck, because she could not run. Bob sat where they left him, a pile of cigarette butts on the ground beneath the window.

“Don’t leave out like that,” Bob said. “He’ll know it.”

Amy looked back at the preacher who seemed busy taking in the pleasant adoration of his flock.

“That one you don’t want to take an interest,” Bob told her.

“Is that why you don’t go in?”

Bob coughed, a kind of laugh, then dropped the cigarette onto the ground at Amy’s feet.

“No,” he said. “I done killed a man. There ain’t a half a dozen would want to sit next to me.” He shook his head, considered, then added, “That’s what I tell your Aunt, anyway.”

“Who’d you kill?” She asked and Bob smiled. It was a question nobody asked, but still not a question he had a mind to answer.

Cecelia and the twins came around a short while later. Cecelia scolded her for not being more sociable, for being rude on her first day to church.

“I’m sorry, Aunt Cecelia,” she said. “There were all those people and it was so hot.” Amy sighed darkly. “I don’t like closed in spaces no more.”

Jack and Peggy looked at her funny. They knew she was lying, but neither of them called her on it. Amy knew they wouldn’t.

Cecelia nodded, as if she understood, then put her arm around her grand-neice.

“Well, maybe Wednesday night we can sit next to the door.”

Their uncle took them around town, slowly showing them the sights of where they were going to grow up. He took them over to the middle school, where they’d be attending in the fall. Cartersville Middle School held grades six through eight.

“You’ll be over at the high school next year,” Bob shouted to the twins from the window. “It’s nice. They just built the new building last year.”

Sunday afternoon, there wasn’t much open, not that there was ever much open most of the time. The entire town seemed only slightly larger than their old neighborhood, just a handful of necessary businesses, a post office and generic, granite town building that housed the municipal court, the mayor and sheriff’s office and the town jail.

Bob dropped them off at the drugstore to look at magazines and get candy while he took Cecelia to get their groceries for the week.

“We’ll be back in one hour,” Cecelia said. “You be here or you’re walking home.”
Where were they supposed to go?

The drugstore was busy Sunday afternoon. Every stool and booth at the lunch counter was occupied. Clean, well-groomed locals wandered the aisles looking at nothing in particular; killing time.

“This town needs a movie theater,” Jack said sourly.

“I hope it’s got a library,” Peggy added.

Amy counted the money in her change purse and wondered what she could buy here. Whatever she got would have to last the week. Cecelia had explained she didn’t come into town much, just when Bob brought her.

Jack spent half his money on comic books, while Peggy looked at the Hollywood gossip magazines. Amy stared at a glass case full of pocket knives, then bought a shiny, black camp knife that came with a folded spoon. It was cheap: eight dollars.

“What are you going to do with that?” Peggy asked.

She flipped out the shallow, metal spoon.

“Eat cereal?”

Jack thought it was pretty cool. He promised to share his comic books to look at it: a fair deal.
An hour later, Bob came back with Cecelia and told them to hop in. He took them for chili dogs at the Tastee Freeze, which were a different kind of hotdog than they got up north, but still good. Nadine, the pretty, young woman who ran the place, refused to take Bob’s money.

“It’s on the house,” she said. “Your family is our family, Bob. You kids ever get hungry, you come here.”

When Nadine’s back was turned, Bob told them never to do that. If they wanted a hamburger, he’d pay for it.

“Nadine’s got a kind heart, but she’s got a business to run.”

Bob blushed when he said her name. He was so much older than Nadine. Only Cecelia seemed to miss the bright red heart pinned on her brother’s sleeve.

“I will take care of their feeding,” she corrected.

At the farm, Peggy helped Cecelia with dinner while Amy and Jack played with her new knife.

“What did you think about that church?” Jack asked.

“Don’t like it,” Amy repeated, again. “Don’t want to go ever again.”

“Yeah, but we’re stuck,” Jack said.

Amy nodded, then blurted out, “Bob told me he killed somebody.”

Jack already knew. It was supposed to be a secret.

“Dad told me,” he said. “At Christmas one year, we got a card from him. He threw it away.”

“Who’d he kill?”

Jack didn’t know. He doubted their father knew.

While they were taking turns cutting up sticks and exploring the other functions of the cheap utensil, Peggy found them.

“Cecelia said to tell you not to get dirty. Company is coming for dinner tonight.” She didn’t look particularly happy about it.

“Who?” Amy asked.

Peggy frowned and crossed her arms.

“No.” Jack shook his head. “Please, not him.”

But it was.

“Son of a bitch,” Jack spat.

Mr. Pulaski arrived in a big, black car driven by a giant named Henry.

“Henry won’t be dining with us,” Pulaski told Cecelia. “He has some errands to run, but was kind enough to carry me out here.”

Henry nodded then took his leave without any discussion of when he might be back.

Dinner was a more elaborate spread than anything Amy or the twins were used to. Cecelia cooked for an army most days, but for the preacher the table was loaded down with three meats, half a dozen side dishes and two kinds of pie, plus biscuits and corn bread. A pitcher of iced tea sat precariously on the edge of the table.

“Cecelia,” Pulaski said warmly as they took their seats. “I hope the trouble you went to was mostly on account of the children.”

Cecelia blushed to be acknowledged and also to be called out on the conditions of her hospitality.

He smiled and asked everyone bow their heads while he asked the blessing for the meal. With a quiet “Amen” he picked up a knife and began carving the roast.

“So, tell me about where you’re from,” the preacher asked. “I don’t get to the city very much and haven’t been north in…” He shook his head. “It’s been a while.”

He asked questions and the answers poured out of them. Jack and Peggy told him about school. Jack wanted to play football when he got to high school.

“The Confederates would be lucky to have you,” he laughed. “Big, healthy boy like yourself. You favor offense or defense?”

Jack didn’t know for sure, just that he wanted to play.

“Their daddy played some in high school,” Cecelia added.

“I’ll bet he was a fine sportsman.”

Peggy was interested in science. She liked animals and wanted to study to be a veterinarian one day. Cecelia winced. She understood women worked outside the home, knew plenty who did, but seemed to think doing such a thing was less of a choice and more of necessity.

“Tending to animals is a sacred calling,” the preacher said. “We are directed to watch over them by God, you know?”

Peggy said she didn’t know that. Cecelia piped up, suddenly remembering what the preacher said was true.

“That’s in Genesis, right?”

Pulaski smiled and nodded. Cecelia’s cheeks bloomed pink again.

They talked pleasantly throughout the meal, though he scarcely spoke to Amy or Cecelia. Jack and Peggy did most of the talking. The preacher asked polite questions and responded to the things they said.

“I imagine our country ways are a bit different than what you’re used to,” he said. “Tell me, did your parents bring you to church?”

Jack and Peggy looked at each other, then shook their heads.

“We’ve been to church,” Jack said.

“We go at Christmas,” Peggy elaborated, leaving out the part about how their attendance even then had varied from year to year. “We go at Easter and maybe one or two other times a year.”

“Mom and dad worked,” Amy explained. “Dad worked night shift and weekends sometimes. I guess there wasn’t a lot of time.”

Cecelia looked appalled, but the preacher merely nodded. He seemed almost pleased.

“Part of the trouble with cities,” Pulaski said. “There’s so little time for family, even less time for worship. Well, I guess you’re in luck.”

The thought they were lucky had never crossed their minds.

“What I mean,” he said. “It’s different here. There’s time for family.” He smiled at Cecelia. “There’s time for God.”

After dinner, the preacher asked the children to help their aunt clean up. Peggy could put the food away. Jack scraped the plates while Amy and Cecelia washed them at the sink.

Jack and Peggy finished far sooner, of course. The kept the preacher company on the porch, still talking when Cecelia and Amy came out with a tray of glasses and a pitcher of lemonade.

The big, black car came up the road by the time the preacher finished his last sip.

“Just a second, Henry,” he told the driver. “If you might open the trunk for me.”

Henry, wordlessly, complied.

“I should explain,” Pulaski said. “Henry can speak. I’m afraid he has a bit of a stammer, which troubles him.” He sighed. “We each must bear our burdens the best we can. Henry chooses silence.”

From the depths of the trunk, Pulaski retrieved a pair of books.

“Your aunt tells me the two of you like to read,” he said. “It’s a good habit and lucky again, I happen to have these.” He gave them copies of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. “They’re old books, but good books. I hope you haven’t read them.”

Amy almost spoke up. Cecelia sent the same books at Christmas. It was how the social service people had gotten her address, how they’d discovered the children had a living relative who might take them in.

“Now, I’m sorry,” Pulaski turned to Amy. “I don’t have anything for you this time. Your aunt told me you like video games.” He laughed. “So far, nobody has turned in one. If they do, I’ll make sure we get your cousin Bob to bring his truck.”

The preacher thanked Cecelia for inviting him to her home, said he hoped he’d see everyone in church Wednesday night, then he and the mute driver left.

Cecelia went back inside while they watched him leave.

“Why did you take those books?” Amy asked them. “You already have them.”

Jack shrugged.

“Yeah,” Peggy said. “But we never read them.”

“We just didn’t.” Jack added, uncomfortably.

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