I am alone in the house. A new sitter, an older woman, is out back. In the bathroom I finish, and I feel that funny feeling. I go to my father’s room, I sit on the far side of the bed, pulling out his Playboys.
I love the thrill I get, seeing the covers. I open them, look at the women, the cartoons, the suave 1963 bachelor pad drawings, the corvette stingrays. I wonder what a stereo console is. I have done this once before, hurriedly. I have more time now.
A blond, happy woman, wearing a white bra that continues down to her waist, pleases me. In another picture I see her butt. I pinch the front of my pants.
I enter a new state, unsure what to do with how I feel. I pull a page out, of a woman with a bee hive hairdo, looking over her shoulder, a patty flipper in one hand, a giant padded pot holder glove on the other. Pearls around her neck. Otherwise naked. I really like this picture. I pull it out.
There is another picture, it folds out. I can’t see it well, so I pull it out, lay it flat. I climb up on their bed, belly down, looking at her on the floor. It’s ok, she’s naked, but it’s not as nice, she isn’t happy like the barbecue lady.
I open another, flipping through, and pull more pages. A girl in college, straight bangs, a lady looking through her college yearbook. I see books everywhere in this picture. I am wiggling on the bed. I have forgotten I can be seen.
_ _ _
In 1963, when I was 8, I had a Problem. I “made the bed squeak”. I was “doing something”. I was playing with myself.
How could something described as “playing with myself” be bad?
It was sooo bad. On this afternoon, I drifted into the worst episode of my childhood. We were always embarrassing my father, him with his public and private faces, so different, but on this sunny summer day, I humiliated him.
I ripped out pages, laid them out on his floor next to his bed, wiggled senselessly on his bed. Too young to come, way too young to ejaculate, I just, well, wriggled, re-arranging the ladies. So modest now, but in the early 60s a woman standing at her closet in white bra and panties was brazen, inflaming. A perky butt was profound, a rounded breast in profile thrilling, and a direct look into the camera, plus a butt and/or a boob? Astounding!
Hard to believe today, but it's amazing to think American boys didn’t just twitch, jerk and bound right off the planet from such glimpses. At the time, given the strange sandwich that was Lawrence Welk, Sandra Dee, and Pat Boone, I certainly did. I lost track of time and space, wriggling there, and was at a loss for words when the elderly sitter cleared her throat from the doorway.
I must have looked like one of those “career girls” looking over my shoulder at her, my little bubble butt in the air. My eyebrows up, my mouth a perfect “0”.
_ _ _
I denied it of course. I told my parents later I had found them that way. For about a month the lie was maintained til my brother made the greatest-ever bed-sheet-and-chair fort out back, then told me I couldn’t play unless I confessed to my Mom.
He pushed me out.
"Every invisible thing. That's all."
"Why do you just say nuh-uh?" He spit when he said "say".
"Why do you --" ducks "spit so mu-uch?"
"I don't shutup" together: "I grow up! and louder: "when I see" bothscream: "YOU!" Big shoves little: "I throw up."
"That didn't hurt."
"You can't say what hurts me!"
Big grabs little's arm. "Oh. yeah. right."
"Stop!" "That hurts"
"No, THAT hurts!"
"ohh." false sympathy.
"Is mawmee's babee gonna kuh-whyy?
Sneers: "That doesn't hurt."
Big drags little. Towels and sheets snap and blow in the plains wind.
"Stay in the tall part!"
Clothes pins un-snap, spin into the blue, across the green hillside. I am struggling to back into the smaller part of the tent house. I know I can move faster out the wall at the end. It is just a dish towel, tied to a branch.
"STOP it!" Squeals: "They're gonna get stained." I calculate this, but I don't care.
He gets blamed for half of what I do. He pounds the snot out of me if I make it look like HE did it. This one, stains on the towels, has "How could you LET him do that" written all over it. He usually doesn't see ahead of time how I get us in trouble, get HIM in trouble.
He is, face the facts, slow on this kind of stuff. A little punch drunk, like Anthony Quinn on Million Dollar Movie, Requiem for a Heavyweight. I read the book first, after first inhaling every Rod Serling collection, which was after every Alfred Hitchcock short story paperback, after Poe, after all the Ripley's and Mad paperbacks, way after R is for Rocket, and I , Robot by Isaac Asimov, and just immeidately after sneaking all 6 of my sister's Nancy Drews and re-reading those, and precisely as I was devouring Doc Savage but before Nero Wolfe and Lovecraft.
"You just stop." -- squeeze -- " "OW!"
Big lets go. "You have to tell or else."
Big leans in: "or..." little flinches, ear to shoulder; Big moves his mouth to little's ear: "else..." little's chin in, rotates, to glance at Big's teeth: "what?" little asks; Big whispers:
"Or else you are THE ENEMY OF EVERY INVISIBLE THING."
Little pushes Big, in slow motion, trying to get out from under; Big's hands at side, waist bent, but serious, cannot be moved.
_ _ _
I am little. I look down. I cannot see him now. He unbends some, raises his fingers, zeros in, starts: "You have to..."
But I cry. My brother loves me, see? His touch, when it comes to me, after he says: "you have..." rests softly, just above the little alligator; "to" is just a click.
I breathe big, try to remember how to be big. Stripes of wet melt the back door across the yard, the tree, and the lawn. I can't focus. Better to get it over with now, so close to when He comes home. My big brother chose the right moment for me.
"Go tell mom. now."
I open to say "ok" and out comes "I CAN'T" in torn pieces.
"Tell me first then."
I can't look at him. We do a dance of arms, wrists, palms, the only way to be sure I am safe, that this wasn't one of his whole deals, where he puts me out to die, tricking me, laughing later. But it isn't. He isn't usually mean like that, he tortures me like a bug sometimes and won't let me up but it isn't like he is in there really thinking bout it. Like: he figures out why you deserve it and is all fair and all, then when it's time to do it he can pound away on you. Cause it's fair.
I know it isn't THAT whole deal cause he is patient right now. I cry harder, like a baby, all snotty, and I wipe it on the inside tail of my green shirt, then I breathe big and stuff it in my old kit bag, boys, like Sgt Rock, like Nick Fury; I quiet myself. Hiccup. Ready. I sense his eyes opening wide, little nervous nods, like "hurry up, twerp" but I can't look directly, and I say, to the dirt and torn up grass between my knees, to my cupped palms, at rest, I say:
"I did it. I...went in...Ilookedathisplayboys." Motionless. "I..tore them up."
"I ...liked certain ones. I wanted them together. Like at..."
"Go tell mom."
"...like at Uncle Damon's. At the truck shed." thunderstruck. This WAS why. All those torn out pictures and postcards, all jumbled together. "But better. Better than Sophia Loren, even, at the shed."
"OK. Go tell Mom. Just tell her you did it, not that other stuff."
I am up walking before I really know it. I run. Through the back garage door, cause it's open, turn, grab the pipe railing; to the kitchen door open though it: my mother, setting out plates. "Yes?" Walk more steps. Swallow. "Dad's Playboys."
_ _ _
I am still nodding my head, after nodding yes to every question she asked.
"You gonna tell Dad?"
"Yes." She takes one step, turns, opens the Fridgidaire, but is still looking at me. "Go outside til dinner." I go out. The oiled cement of the garage floor is one hundred shades of grey under my sneakers.
Chris and I play for a while. He distracts me, let's me decide how to rebuild his side, even. He has fritos left in his bag and counts out 9 for me on account of my birthday coming up. He never does this. We can't ha-ha but it's pretty sweetie-pie for a change, pretty much the best 30 minutes I ever spent with him. Even when he shoves me for slipping under the edge he personally fixed up on the downhill side, but I come back all puppy and he laughs at that.
_ _ _
My dad comes home. My mom tells him and then I hear her call. I go in, through the garage. His red BelAir is still hot and ticking from 40 miles of Kansas asphalt. I open the inside door. His back is to me, in the kitchen.
"Greg?" from down the hall.
Through the small dining room, the small living room, the dim hall, I see her at the end, in her room, sitting, the green shade pulled behind her. I pad to her. She is crying. Kleenexes, and more: dull dark red above her left eye.
"Go to your Dad," she croaks.
I have no spit. Back to the kitchen, but he's gone. His cane is against the door. I sit. He will come back. If I go out back and he is waiting out front it will be blood for real. If I go down to his shop and he has to holler down the stairs he will REALLY kill me.
I can't stay here on the new chair pads. That's for good boys. I slide to the floor. For once I will be brave and stay put.
This is so bad. Those were his PLAYBOYS.
My head is in my hands. If I let my lower lip drop it starts my tears, my throat grips. I pull it up and it's better, in like that. Chris comes in from the yard and goes straight to our room. I look at the dishes: the same dish cloth, from the good set, as the one outside, hanging over the counter edge, under fogged, upside down glasses. We stained a GOOD one. Chris will really get it later.
The key clock chimes 6 times. I want to lie down. I stick my legs straight out. I want to take the little car out of my pocket. My E-type, one missing tire. It usually feels big under my fingers. Not now; my fingers move over it again and again, but it feels like almost nothing. I lean on the wall. I breathe big again.
I jerk up quick, look back: hair grease. I feel the wallpaper: faint, but I don't see it.
Cheeks in hands. Elbows on knees, knees crossed, jiggling. Hunch-backed.
He steps in. This whole time I'm listening for the step-drag of his braced leg. He is just there, like the devil, out from behind the breakfront. He was hiding in the little corner.
Did I say anything? I scan back: no. Just noises. He heard me flip the wheels of my car, though. I sit up but still look down. I freeze. He steps, draaags.
Takes his cane from across the room. It is blond wood, varnished, straight line grain mostly. There are stains at the end, small ones. I have them memorized: the one that looks like Bob Hope's nose is on the other side as he sets it one inch from my Keds. The big grey rubber tip prevents sliding, I remember he said once. The clock ticks. One fat shameful tear drops to the black canvas of my shoe.
The tip scuds an inch or so to the left. I have to look at it. He clears his throat.
The clock ticks.
"Your mother says you did it."
I nod my head. I expect a beating. I wish he would just whip the tar out of me. Chris was wrong: there are no Invisible Things. No one cares one way or the other. No one will help me now. Why doesn't he just do it?
I move only my eyes to look at the dishtowel, criss-crossed with thin pale red. I glance at his pants cuffs and cry afresh.
"I'm sorry." The clock ticks.
I tense one leg. The other. I betray nothing. I tighten each shoulder. I don't move.
He lifts the cane. I almost look up, to keep an eye on it. He takes a step, draaag, and turns a little. I still sit Indian-style. He puts the rubber tip against my right knee, slowly presses it the last two inches to the floor. I feel it along both legs, on the inside, like a cord pulled tight across the inners of both legs, even down there. My leg is too flat now, sideways, against the linoleum.
He leans, my fingers fly at it but I sure won't touch it, and that little tight cord gets tighter. Along my leg, along my knee, on the inside; he presses harder, and it crackles like rock candy. Big pain now.
owowow I whisper. Bawling will make it worse.
Pushes. Leans. Tendon, it comes to me, from a picture in Health: a biceps connects to a Bone with Tendon. And my knee has them too.
He lets up. I lean to my right, my right hand flat on the floor, my left balled up against the now-bad knee, pushing hard. He steps back in and slams the cane tip hard against the tip of my right ring finger.
This isn't a crackle. It cracks, and bleeds right away, the nail tipped all teeter-totter, the root straight up and free, gummy; the nail holds on by the little hills at the tip end, where I like to chew them. I can't breathe; my lower teeth taste copper. I bit my tongue but now I can't close my jaw. I stare at it. I try to scream.
Now I know: he didn't mean to. So he has to pretend, quickly, that he still needs to punish me. The first one is pretty light, that's why I know, right there, cause he didn't mean it, my finger, but I don't pay much attention to the harder ones. He knocks me over.
He hits me once more, my ear, with the cane. It hurts. He stops.
"Al?" My mother, her voice just gone, from out in the living room. Don't come in, Mom, Dad is done, don't mess it up, don't make him mad, don't make it worse. He steps back, turns, walks out, through the small dining room. Out the door, step, lurch, down the two steps to the garage; he turns to close it, balancing on the cane; my finger still in front of my face, blue, purple, red, the nail like a cap on the bare, bloody head.
My mouth is still open. He looks at me, almost eye-level, and pulls the door shut.
I "ah...ah...ah" and my Mom comes in and that's when I scream, try to, but my jaw is stuck open. She screams, though: "Al!" -- but the BelAir revs, backs out, and the air inside changes as the car clears the big door.