MIKE FLYNN

This Was Menarche

 

This part of the trip was not favorable. The road was long and the sun nuked the concrete that the wheels sped over, and up ahead on the horizon, where the sky reconciled its relationship with the land, eternity appeared mortal. Being stuck in the car for hours upon sticky hours always lead to answering questions that required further explanation beyond reason. That’s what Nate thought, at least, while riding with his wife, son and strikingly inquisitive preteen daughter Lillie.

“What’s a misanthrope?” asked Lillie. She was a smart girl tucked smartly into her seat in the back of the van, with her brother Lenny, whose eyes were glued to one of those handheld games he got for Christmas. And he wasn’t wearing his seatbelt.

“You are,” said Lenny, with a sharp ruffian polemic, “and don’t even think about asking me what it means.”

The word rolled off her father’s tongue the same way it did whenever he tossed back his favorite beer at his favorite bar with buddies from work – with an indifferent casualness – as he sat up front and complained to his wife about his boss. He didn’t think the kids were listening, as they were busy tending to their own worlds. Lenny had been trying to conquer a certain level in the fighting game and played it so much that he ended up developing a phantom twitch in his thumbs that annoyed him for weeks. But he was hooked and bored over the summer. And Lillie flipped through a novel trying to increase her speed-reading skills, aided with a bookmark that she used to slide down each line to trace her pace. Her reading was righteous and courteous, unlike the grotesque sounds of human flesh being punched, kicked and sliced that blared from the speakers of Lenny’s toy.

Toy, Lillie condescendingly called it.

She wanted to thump him on his forehead, but he claimed his own row, behind her, which allowed him to stretch his growing legs he intended to use for track and field come springtime.

Lenny was entering high school in the fall, which made him feel entitled to belittle his sister every opportunity he got, due to the fact that she was still learning derivatives and pre-algebraic mind benders. But she was heading into the big girl territory of seventh grade in the coming months.

The ride was going to be long and Lenny requested his own row for comfort, the previous night. They were driving to Charleston to see their grandparents – Nana and Granddaddy – celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. It was promised, on the invitation cards they mailed, that there would be lots of dancing and lots of drinking. Top shelf liquor for the adults. Plenty of cake and soda for the kids.

Lenny adored his little sister but with her, one question begot another. And it seemed to go on forever.

“We learned the origins and meanings of words in language arts last semester. Anthropo has something to do with humankind. But mis – I understand that to be just an antonym if anything. Does it mean your boss is a killer?”

“Yeap. That’s exactly what it means. Now shut up,” said Lenny. He had no clue what it meant. He wasn’t as bright as his sister when it came to understanding and dissecting the American lexicon. In the fifth grade, he competed in a spelling bee and got laughed all the way back to his desk, that was graffitied with misfit vulgarities in black sharpie markings and polluted with petrified pieces of chewed gum underneath, after spelling potato with an e at the end. The class was full of brainiacs and he never liked any of them. From that point on he thought that reading books was an activity only done by fat kids cast adrift from social circles who had faces that were attacked by acne.

“Just like a dummy. You say the first thing that comes to mind,” said Lillie, “even if it’s the wrong answer.” She spoke from the gut as if she was extra perturbed more than any other time before. She was tenacious about her emotions. And these emotions, delicate in their featherweight, threatened to take a plunge as if rocking on the ledge of a rooftop building high-fiving the troposphere with a prophesizing stampede of aggravating winds approaching from afar.

“Sweetheart, misanthrope means you hate others,” said Nate while turning around to face Lillie, “and seclude yourself for whatever reason. I guess my boss just has a hard time being around normal people. He even told one of my coworkers, ‘You’re hard to get rid of, like sand in the teeth.’ Can you believe that?”

“Why does he say things like that?”

“Because, he’s an asshole.”

Asshole? He turned back and met the glower that his wife, Harriett, threw from behind the wheel. She didn’t have to say anything. Harriett’s brow was furrowed like folded chocolate icing on a cake and her lips were slightly parted, exposing a grimace he only saw on two occasions: a moment such as now and after she had an orgasm. He reached for the radio dial and turned to a different station. Harriett added some weight to the gas pedal and accelerated.

They passed a sign while driving through Augusta, Georgia, denoting that Charleston was 150 miles away. Halfway there. Harriett was now up, alone, in her restless drive. She’d escape the lure of the hypnotic doze that the other passengers had acquiesced.

The fetid smell of cow dung mixed with the mugginess of a southern summer hung stagnant in the passing air. In fact it was the fragrance of Hell.

“Whew!” shouted Harriett. She scrunched her nose and closed the vents to let an interior breeze circulate throughout the van. “It’s your turn to drive,” she said to Nate. He jerked out of his nap, disoriented and groggy, after Harriett gave him a punch to the shoulder when he didn’t answer the first time.

“What?”

“I said it’s your turn to drive. This heat and getting stuck behind eighteen wheelers is draining me.”

“Okay. But just a few more minutes. And wait till we pass these grazing fields before you pull over. Smells like the Devil’s ass out there.” Lenny and Lillie shared a chuckle. They liked when their father used profanity around them. The entertainment value of it even swelled when he got drunk. But going to their grandparents wedding anniversary, Lillie knew she’d get more of a show out of it because her father’s brothers like to get even drunker. And then they liked to fight over past aggressions and grudges they held on to with possessive grips that were most likely attached to their insecurities.

“I think I have to go to the bathroom,” said Lillie.

“You think? Either you do or you don’t,” said Nate.

“Never mind. I can hold it.” Lillie slouched in her seat as her eyes ticked to the cars passing them up on the road.

 

They eventually wheeled into a rest stop off the highway.

Their car pulled up next to one of those large Winnebagos crammed into a space marked for compacts. Nate hadn’t seen one since he was a kid while taking road trips from New York to Charleston with his parents and two brothers, packed and sweating heavily in the back of a Lincoln Continental without air condition. “Why they gotta park it sideways? I can’t stand these rude ass Rednecks,” said Nate. Harriett didn’t like confrontation. She passed up that spot and parked alongside a curb where resting benches were positioned. “Where you going?”

“The last thing we need you doing is saying the wrong thing to the wrong person. Nobody got time for your foolishness today,” she said. Her nostrils flared every time she got annoyed and they were steadily distending to the likes of a raging bull taunted by a matador’s cape. Nate bottled his retort knowing that if he swam through his memory, and assembled his habitual thoughts, he’d locate the four words that quickly humbled him and kept their marriage in rapture: happy wife, happy life.

Harriett parked the car and stepped out stretching her small frame tall. She had long arms and they extended well above the top of the van, growing out her sleeveless blouse that was damp from the sweat on her back and bosom. Beads of sweat sat on her neck like condensation on the outside of a glass of cold dark chocolate milk. Nate and Lenny took out a football and began tossing it. “I wanna see you go long, boy,” said Nate, “hike!” He snapped from his imaginary center and took a five-step drop back into the pocket, in reminiscence of the great Houston Oiler quarterback, Warren Moon. Lenny sprinted over the open concrete, going deep. Lillie weaved under Lenny, with the deftness of a secondary receiver headed for the sideline, and made a beeline for the rest room.

The toilet was unbelievably unsanitary. There was barely any toilet tissue. And the trickles of urine speckled across the rim of the seat was more than just a cry for attention; this rest room needed a miracle that should include Mr. Clean and his sparkling smile. She grabbed what she could from the paper towel dispenser and locked herself in a stall constructed for the handicap. Extra room, she thought. She dropped her shorts and noticed droplets of dried blood in her white panties. Her heart raced and her breaths shortened. It wasn’t the same excitement she had after her first kiss, where her lips buzzed throughout the day and the feeling flowed over to the night on a natural high that felt synthetic. But she felt alone in this experience the same way she felt isolated and ashamed when her mother made her wear the headgear to her braces that was correcting an overbite, out to the Hollywood Video on a Friday night, and ran into someone from school – not just anyone but her crush Billy Parker, where she squatted and duck walked between the foreign film and drama aisles, periodically taking a peek over the shelves, hoping that he nor his parents would be in the mood to watch Amadeus and happen to spot her. This was menarche. Some of the greatest women – every woman – whether famous or infamous, have been through it: Adam’s Eve. Queen Nefertiti. Jeanne D’Arc. Lizzie Borden. Susan B. Anthony. Coretta Scott King. Shirley Chisholm. Angela Davis. Nana. Auntie. Mother. This wasn’t supposed to happen for another year. At least that’s what she was told in Sex Ed. Lillie blossomed into a woman in the oddest of places. And she still had some 150 miles to go before reaching a comfortable, clean bathroom. So she began to do what any girl did in this situation. Wait. What exactly do girls do in this situation, she thought? She took the balled up paper towels in her hands, stuffed them into her crotch, pulled up her shorts and left.

Back outside, the sun soaked her eyes, bleaching the world white as her pupils adjusted. She looked around after her vision refocused. Then darted through the crying babies, the fathers searching for cell phone service to handle business calls, the smaller kids chasing their siblings around releasing the sealed energy from the long rides from wherever they came, and made her way back to the car. Nate and Lenny were still playing catch with the football. And Harriett had opened a cooler where sandwiches were packed on top of ice that buried the sodas, waters and Caprisuns. Lillie sat back in the car and fastened herself into her seat.

“We got a couple more minutes before we leave, sweetie. Why don’t you get out and stretch your legs some more,” said Harriett. She chewed on a tuna sandwich, wiping the corners of her mouth with a napkin after each bite. She was adamant about not looking like a fool whose face became freckled with breadcrumbs and dollops of mayo.

“How far are we from Nana’s?”

“Child, I am about to get in that passenger seat and pass out, so ask your Daddy.” Lillie fell into a pout and she didn’t care about hiding it. “What’s the matter?”

“Nothing,” said Lillie.

“Don’t nothing me. What I tell you about poking out your lip? Keep it up and it’ll get stuck that way.”

“I don’t feel good, Mama.” Harriett moved over and felt Lillie’s head with the back of her hand.

“You don’t feel warm. Is it your stomach?” Lillie nodded. And her eyes began to water. Harriett recognized that expression. It wasn’t some ordinary stomachache. She gave her mother the same look some dozens of years earlier. “Is the rest room this way?” Lillie nodded in the direction where Harriett pointed. “C’mon. There’s nothing to be embarrassed about. Aunt Flow is always showing up uninvited and empty-handed. Remember that and you’ll never be unprepared.” Harriett dug around in her purse and pulled out a pantyliner. “I’m sure it’s too nasty in there to show you how to use a tampon. But this will have to do for now.” Lillie stepped out the car. She had an awkward gait heading towards the sidewalk – pigeon-toed and knock-kneed, as if she was walking with a dodgeball between her legs. Harriett had noticed. “And why you walking like that?” She yanked her by the arm and dragged Lillie off.

A mother and her two daughters occupied the only stall. Harriett checked herself out in the water-spotted mirror tattooed with juvenile obscenities scratched in with a razor, flicking some wild hairs out of her face as she waited. Lillie didn’t know what to do so she mimicked her mother, sharing the only mirror.

The toilet flushed and the mother and her girls exited, washed their hands in the other sink, then left. “Come on,” demanded Harriett, “let’s get this over with.” She again yanked Lillie by the arm and guided her into the stall.

“Girl what were you thinking?” said Harriett, as she flushed the paper towels stuffed between Lillie’s legs down the toilet.

“I didn’t know what else to do.”

“You could’ve came and told me beforehand instead of lollygagging out there like some fool plagued with hemorrhoids. How many times I gotta remind you and your brother that I can’t read minds?” Harriett opened the pantyliner. She pulled down Lillie’s shorts and did what women do to properly manage their womanly issues. “We’ll have to wait till we get to Nana’s for some clean underwear. I’m not digging through all that packed luggage right now.” Harriett then took out a miniature generic pump spray bottle that she must’ve bought off the value shelf at the drug store and misted up Lillie and herself to freshness. They now smelled of lilac. Lillie looked up at her mother when she was done. Her eyes bulged like a puppy dog.

“I’m sorry,” said Lillie.

“Girl, there’s no need to apologize for the Lord’s doing. This is something that’s going to happen once a month. For the rest of your childbearing years. And it’ll keep happening so long as there isn’t a baby inside you, which better stay that way until you’re married. You hear me?” Harriett jerked up Lillie’s shorts and punctuated her last words with a stern fastening of the waist button.

“I can take it from here, Mama. Thank you.” Lillie walked out the stall and left the rest room. Harriett went back to the mirror and stared at her reflection. She was fatigued from the drive and her eyes were beginning to droop. There was no one to thank other than the responsibilities of parenthood for her weary eyelids as she savored the beauty of the moment and succumbed to the fact that this was the last time a baby of hers would no longer be just that. Her baby. She now had not just one young adult on her hands, but two.

 

Nate drove, packed tight behind wheel. So tight that he could’ve leaned forward and kissed the windshield. People had their ways of staying alert on the road and that was his. Harriett was passed out in the front wearing an eye mask, with a slack jaw and all, like a drunken party girl at Mardi Gras napping on a Canal Street bus bench, three sheets to the wind. Shuffled jazz music from the CD stereo coated the car with serenity. Lenny was stretched out on his row, lying down with his right leg propped up on the back of Lillie’s seat.

Lillie stared out the window as they passed coniferous trees and vegetation curtaining a vast woodsy area that lined both sides of the highway. The car rolled over smooth pavement – a natural melatonin that found Lillie settling into a drowsy daze.

Nate peeked into the rearview mirror and borrowed a glance at Lillie. “How you doing, Bunny?” he asked. He’d been calling her Bunny since she was born because he felt compelled to give her a sweet nickname to commemorate his feeling when she came into the world. He often told friends that he’d felt a change in his life when he had a daughter. Bearing Lenny made him feel like a victorious warrior returning home from war, but on the day of Lillie’s birth, he felt vulnerable yet protective the moment he rocked and cradled her in his arms.

“Music too loud?”

“No, Daddy.”

“We don’t have far to go. Mom and Dad are gonna be so happy to see you two. I want you to tell them happy anniversary soon as you see them. They’ll love that.”

“Are Uncle Gerald and Ronnie gonna be there too?” Nate paused. He knew she loved her uncles. And they loved her. They’d do anything for her. But accepting the fact that their only niece was becoming a woman would be hard to do like swallowing a jawbreaker prematurely. Nate knew what kind of fit they’d pitch once they saw her. When Lillie turned five, it was damn she getting’ big, Nate. At ten it was damn, she getting’ big, Nate. The girl is starting to grow tits. He couldn’t imagine what they’d have to say now that she was twelve. But Lillie had a little secret – something that mothers and daughters kept from fathers until they felt the time was right to deliver the news.

“Yes. They’ll be there.” And Nate ended it at that. He knew that his two younger brothers were a lot to handle. Gerald was always caught up in some quarreling triad between his ex-wife and her new boyfriend. And Nana bailed Ronnie out of city jail after giving up one of her monthly social security checks to pay the bondsman. Everyone knew what he did but Ronnie claims the sex between him and the woman he met, who accused him of rape, was consensual. He still had to go to trial and be convicted. Nate hadn’t told Lillie what he was in jail for. But she found out through her mother. Not in the traditional way, when a parent sits their kid down and discusses why a family member had to be punished for something wrong they did. No. It was when her mother got on the phone on Saturday mornings gossiping with one of her sisters or cousins and bad mouthing her husband’s brother for all the embarrassment he brought to the family by failing to keep his dick tucked behind his zipper – in those exact words. All Lillie knew is that her uncle learned his lesson after being away for a while – all five days – for reasons never discussed in detail or explained from his perspective. It was his first arrest. And thinking back to when her mother’s conversation stole her attention, Lillie played, very well might I add, the role of being the innocent little girl pretending to be engrossed in teenage drama shows while more exciting things were being discussed over the phone.

Nate drove for the next 40 miles skipping through tracks on the CD and letting the wind whip against the left side of his face from the open window.

Lillie read her Goosebumps book. This was the third in the series she breezed through this month that she bought at her school’s book fair before summer break. She liked them bent on the spine, with each crease descending, denoting her growing intellect that matched her expanding library at home. She had two more to go but felt confident in finishing them by the time the leaves started changing colors in September and she was back in the midst of immature boys shooting spitballs over her shoulders through straws, at the teacher as he scribbled reading lessons on the chalkboard.

Nate pulled the van up at a gas station that was under renovation and headed inside to pay with cash. Harriett lifted her sleeping mask, looked around, and then fell back asleep.

Lillie smacked Lenny’s foot off the edge of the seat. “Wake up.”

“What you hit me for?”

“We’re here.”

He rose groggily. He rubbed his eyes, yawned like a young lion rising from a nap and surveyed his surroundings. “Where we at?”

“Charleston. Where’d you think we were going? Florida?”

“This ain’t Nana and Granddaddy’s,” he said as he climbed over the seat. He palmed Lillie’s head, smashing her face into the window, while exiting the van. “Where’s the bathroom?” he asked as he stretched his arms to the heavens.

“In the trees behind the station, with the rest of the animals,” replied Lillie, without lifting her eyes from her book. Lenny extended his middle finger at her, turned and continued on.

Lillie let him carry on as he let the blood flow through his legs and found his footing on his trek to the rest room. He was a gangling young man who stepped furiously over the gravel crunching underneath his shoes as the sun beat down on the nape of his neck. Lillie stopped reading and bookmarked her page. Then her eyes searched for her mother’s attention. Something brewed on her mind. Harriett didn’t like being woken by her kids with silly questions, but Lillie couldn’t let this stew any longer. “Mama,” she asked. Harriett laid still, dancing in her dreams of the days before bearing children and disciplining their impish behavior. “Mama, can I ask you something?” Lillie persisted.

“What is it, child?” Her mask remained over her eyes.

“Did uncle Ronnie really rape that woman? Is that why he went to jail?” Harriett raised her mask and blinked her eyes open, sitting up. She turned and studied her daughter’s posture. If she was slouching, she was just being nosey. But Lillie sat upright, back straight with her seat belt still fastened. This girl is serious, Harriett thought.

Harriett cleared her throat and paused for a moment before she proceeded. “Well, everyone is innocent until proven guilty.”

“That’s what they say on Law & Order. I wanna know the truth.”

“That is the truth. The prosecuting lawyer is going to try and find evidence on Ronnie. That’s what they do. But so long as he claims his innocence and remains truthful, he shall be set free. That’s how it works.” Harriett turned back around and faced the road that stretched out ahead patiently awaiting their return as a few cars zoomed by.

“But how come when you were talking to Aunt Tessa on the phone, you said—“

Harriett whipped her head back around to Lillie. “You know better than to be eavesdropping on my phone conversations!” Her scowl held venom and her voice dropped to an octave that emerged only when she did not want to repeat herself.

“I wasn’t eavesdropping. I was in the room watching TV with you.”

“You need to learn selective hearing, child. Tune out all the parts that ain’t meant for your little virgin ears. That’s what you should be doing instead of worrying about what I say on the phone.” Harriett stepped out the van and opened the back door. She dug around in the cooler in the trunk, stroking through the slushy water scooting melting ice cubes out the way and pulled out a bottle of water. She downed her drink in just eight greedy uninterrupted gulps.

Lillie watched her mother slam the door and stroll inside to the convenience store. She sat waiting for the rest of her family to return, rubbing the frayed spine of her Goosebumps book for comfort.

 

The party had life. Its soul was the music and laughter was the pulse pumping through everyone there. Lillie sat at a table with some cousins whose names she couldn’t remember to save her life. They always knew hers though. And the guilt of not making much of an effort to learn them sank deep into her heart, settling with her embarrassment. She leaned on her mother’s memory whenever she could steal moments away with her and ask: Whose son is that again? And, That’s aunt who? Lillie spent more energy into trying to avoid having to call on someone whose name escaped her mind rather than just enjoying their company. Her family was large and they came out in droves for functions such as these. And no one turned down an engagement full of free liquor and food, no matter whose name was remembered or forgotten.

Nana and Granddaddy, rested in their lawn chairs set up along the edge of the house, away from the activity, as people greeted them when they took breaks from dancing and casual trips to the open bar. Granddaddy filled out his six-foot-three frame with strong old-man muscles – strength undermined by the youth – that he kept from his days of building them playing with the Cleveland Browns in the 60s. And Nana sat respectful and content as a lady does who sold home-baked pies for a living.

There were tiki torches mounted in the ground burning bug-repellent candles to keep the mosquito bites away. And a DJ took charge over a playlist of old school R&B music from the 60s, 70s and early 80s. Lenny hovered around the booth badgering the DJ to play something the young people could dance to. Perhaps some modern hip-hop. Some gangster rap. But the old folks paid for the gig and were going to get what they wanted.

“Come on, man. I know you got some Eightball & MJG up in there,” said Lenny. “I can only hear Maze and Frankie Beverly but so many times.” He took sips from a red cup that he had snuck some Vodka into, mixed with his punch, compliments of Uncle Ronnie.

“I got you,” replied the DJ. He’d say this every ten minutes keeping Lenny at bay whenever he would return with his same requests. But Lenny’s good memory was drowning in the alcohol he consumed. Every approach was new to him and he sounded like a scratched vinyl of an Otis Redding record, skipping and repeating the same lyrics. “I left my home in Georgia. Headed for the Frisco Bay. Cos I have nothing to live for. It looks like nothing’s gonna come my way… Come my way… Come my way… Come my way… Wastin’ time.

Lillie observed everyone at the party. She was bored but knew better than to take out her book and start reading. She rose up from her table and joined her grandparents. Their faces brightened with joy when she sat down.

“Y’all enjoying the party?” Lillie asked.

Nana nodded and squeezed her husband’s hand. “Any time we can get our children and their children together is enough for us, baby.”

“Can I get y’all anything? Some cake? A burger? The punch is slamming.” Nana smiled at slamming. Lillie kept her grandparents feeling young anytime she shared her slang with them, and they loved her for it.

“Why don’t you go dance with some of your cousins’ friends. They look like they know how to treat a pretty young lady right.” She then shooed Lillie away to enjoy the moment with her husband, as other guests came up offering their praises and gratitude for the invitation.

Lillie approached Lenny at a table where he sat telling knee-slapping dirty jokes to his male cousins that he most likely heard on the DVD’s of Russell Simmons’ Def Comedy Jam.

“Where’s Mama?” asked Lillie.

Lenny was a bit tipsy and his words slurred. He craned his neck and shifted his eyes around as if they would find their mother but landed back on Lillie, unsuccessful. And then he offered an apologetic shrug. “You want a sip of this?” Lenny and the cousins let out some hyena cackles, knowing they would be quite entertained to see Lillie get her first taste of intoxication. She pushed away his extending hand that he offered.

“Mama ain’t looking for you so why are you worried about finding her?” he said.

“None of your freakin’ business.” She shoved him out his seat with his drink spilling out on the grass and pressed on with her mission.

Lillie had managed to escape a few more invitations on the dance floor from the older men in her family who thought they could perform the popular moves from the younger generation. She found her way inside the house near the kitchen, but stopped at the door.

There, her uncles and father gathered. Ronnie took after Granddaddy, in brooding size, with a scar running across his left cheek. It was something he got as a kid while attempting freestyle tricks on his bicycle and carried it his whole life, treating it as a testament to his fibrous quiddity. Gerald was the smallest of his siblings. But he was also the loudest. Nate often joked to Lillie that Gerald spoke in that manner to make up for his lack in height. He called it the Napoleon complex, where Lillie would come to understand what it meant after doing some extra credit work in history class.

The three brothers crowded the marble top island counter where a battalion of alcohol, which had mostly yet been consumed, sat. Jack Daniels. Grand Marnier. E&J: Erk & Jerk to the grown men who gave the brandy its sobriquet after indulging in underage drunken binges and learned of its consequences the hard way. Five bottles of some off-brand vodka were open and half full. There was a lot of whiskey – some Canadian – and bourbon from distilleries in the American south. Nate and his brothers all held cups and were already engaging in behavior brought on by their bibulous traditions, suggesting that they were trying to drink one another under the table.

“So no one believes my story?” said Ronnie. The seed of rage had begun to blossom in his voice.

“Of course we believe you,” replied Gerald.

“I don’t,” said Nate.

“And what the hell were you doing, getting it on in the alley behind a bar?” said Gerald. “Should’ve just taken her to your car, dawg.”

Nate then followed up with his two-cent opinion. “Hell, it was parked just a block away. In a residential neighborhood, no less. I mean, did she look that good?” Ronnie downed his cup of straight vodka and poured himself some E&J. “That ain’t gonna do you no good, brother,” said Nate, as he hid a grin below the brim of his cup. “Mixing light and dark like that makes you look like a rookie.”

“I know what the hell I’m doing.” Ronnie’s annoyance with his brother molded his face into a grimace.

Lillie finally grew the courage to bring herself fully into the kitchen after rapping her knuckles on the doorframe. “Have you seen Mama?” They turned and found Lillie cowering in her stance like a lamb lost from her flock.

“She out on the dance floor, ain’t she?” said Gerald.

“I didn’t see her.” Ronnie added.

“What you need?” asked Nate. She rolled her eyes toward the floor and fell mum. “Damn, girl, spit it out!”

“Come over here and give your uncle a hug, Lillie.” Ronnie stretched out his bulging arms as they enveloped her. “Damn, girl. You getting big!” She knew that was coming. He rubbed her on the head the way a man does a puppy that’s fetched a tossed tennis ball, clenched between its teeth. As Ronnie released her, she backed away toward the door.

“Well?” Nate stood, growing impatient for the answer.

“She was supposed to give me something.”

“Like what,” said Nate, with raised arms and opened palms, “some money?”

“Daddy…” She wore her shame heavy on her shoulders, which began to loll.

But Gerald, being the smart one of the bunch, picked up on it. “Oh, damn, Nate. You’re little girl isn’t so little anymore.”

“What?”

Their stares hushed the room. Lillie’s eyes bounced to the ground, scouring for her dignity.

“Oh,” said Nate, as it finally hit him the same way an April sky opens with a spontaneous downpour and surprises a man riding on the freeway in his convertible. He didn’t know what else to do. Lillie’s his only daughter and he didn’t have to go through some bullshit like this with Lenny, he thought.

“Look at you. Grown and all. Wow,” said Ronnie, alleviating the awkwardness. But a pinch of creepy rested too hard on wow, and Nate took notice. It was enough to rouse a stir in him since he never heard his brother use this tone before.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means she’s gonna start experimenting. You can’t stop that.” His tone was tinged with amusement.

“I’m not like that,” said Lillie, assuring them with folded arms and a tapping foot.

“Drinking all that liquid courage is gonna get your ass beat,” said Nate. He laid his eyes on Ronnie who kept sipping out his cup.

“You ain’t beating nothing but the living room rug, out on your porch.” Ronnie took another sip from his cup without taking his eyes off his brother. He was bigger and more likely stronger, but Nate kept the age difference in the back of his mind, remembering the old days when he was victorious. Nate then stepped up, getting right under Ronnie’s nose.

“Keep pushing me, Ronnie.”

“Don’t get mad at me cos your wife is the breadwinner.” And he took another sip.

“So you ‘posed to be big and bad now that you went to jail? You ‘bout to get locked up again for saying and doing stupid shit as always.” That was the one button Nate pushed that Ronnie couldn’t take. Stupid shit as always. He was sensitive about his actions and knew that he needed to change, but didn’t need people holding up a mirror to his face to remind him of who he was – especially his family. They then fell into a wrestler’s grapple. The struggle ballooned into a fight. Their quarreling mass spilled over onto the countertop. Then found its way over the kitchen sink. The stove. It even banged up against the stainless steel refrigerator.

“Stop it,” said Lillie. No one seemed to have heard her. So she repeated a bit louder. “Stop it!”

Gerald became tangled in the grapple after trying to break them apart, and now the three of them maneuvered through the kitchen like a choreographed ballet.

There was a table in the dining room that was adjacent to the kitchen. It invited the three-headed sibling monster to its chairs, which they scattered about. Their parents removed all glass fixtures from their home. The glass dining room table. Gone. The glass cabinet encasing the fine China. Gone. All sold to the customer with the best offer at the garage sale. As they grew older, their fights got more violent and they tended to ruin more furniture. A few punches were snuck in. To the gut. To the kidneys. Jabs were confined to a tight space. No contact to the head or face, just all fair body shots. Heavy breaths and frustrated grunts puffed into the air as they searched for good positioning to make sure their swinging fists made impact.

Lillie raised her voice a little louder. “Stop it, now!” she said. They didn’t. What could a little girl do to stop three grown men from potentially killing each other, she thought?

She had enough and proceeded to climb the island countertop, steadied herself up tall and grabbed one of the empty liquor bottles. She slammed it down. It exploded into an amalgamation of large chunks and glass granules.

“I just needed a fucking maxi pad from Mama!” Her nostrils flared and her breaths were heavy. They stopped and stared at her. Lillie looked just like her mother when furious, Nate thought. A pissed little brown version, who was for sure mama’s baby and daddy’s little lady. Nate and his brothers regained their composure and attended to her, high above on the counter, in a manner that royal fools take heed to a princess’ verbal lashing.

She jumped down off the counter and stomped out the kitchen without saying a word. She left behind the mess for them to clean up. The screen door that lead to the back yard creaked open and slammed shut behind her.

Nate picked up his cup off the counter that was tipped over and stole a sip from what was left inside. He refilled his brothers’ cups. Gerald shook his head and left the kitchen on sobering steps. Ronnie took his cup, tilted his head back and swallowed the contents. He then stuck his cup out for more.

Nate refilled it, and then his own cup before falling into a reverie, while staring at the door that lead to the music, laughter and the dusking atmosphere – muggy and blissful – which was in stark contrast to the air conditioned room, where he stood, that held nothing but a cold rejection.

 

Mike resides in Los Angeles and writes for television.

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