The lazy part of summer was upon us, when finding fun got hard to do. Time was like a snake in the sun, coiled and barely moving. I secretly wished for school to begin, for teachers to take over my summer job of thinking up things to do.
That day Becky and I were headed for the abandoned bottle factory at the south end of Hinckly. We were dangerous. We were ten-year-olds.
I said, "The glass makes a sound like bells when it breaks."
"Halsey. You broke a window?" Becky was blond, chunky, feminine, and knew everything there was to know about Barbie and Ken. I on the other hand refused to wear dresses, had a bowl haircut, and a gap between my front teeth I squeezed mashed potatoes through.
"No," I said, "but my sister Maggie did. She showed me the sound on Grandma's piano."
"Are you sure it's okay?" Becky asked.
"There's a million windows. No one will even notice." I picked up a rock from the side of the road and flipped it across the street. "You're not going to tell your mother are you?" Mrs. Hickock claimed I was a handful, which was okay, but then she leaned over to her husband and said behind her hand, "Divorce is no excuse for letting your kids run the streets."
For fun Becky pruned her face and said, "You're a handful."
I laughed. Mom had taught me the sticks and stones code for healthy living - how words don't hurt. I guess they don't. They just knock the breath out of you so you can't talk right off.
Becky had a one-two punch ready. She asked, "Do you remember your dad?"
I muddled through a big blank nothing. My face burned with the effort. "Why do you care?"
Becky rolled her eyes away from me, "It's just he never visits."
"How would you know?" I said the words too nasty for the phrase to be a question. "Are your eyes glued to the window?" I left my mouth open to breathe because my nose had stuffed up.
Becky kicked at roadside pebbles. Her neck turned splotchy red. "I'm no snoop! My mom told my dad something about it. She says he never comes around and that's why you're such a handful." She clapped a hand to her mouth. "Sorry."
A snot-lump settled somewhere by my lungs. I gulped air. Then I laughed like she'd said the funniest thing ever.
Becky's mouth twisted in sorrow. Her eyes sparkled the grass-green they got right before she cried.
I sniffed. "It's not a big deal." I picked up a rock and chucked it across the road.
The only thing I remembered about my dad was a pat on the head. A bonk that rolled through my memory. I couldn't remember seeing him up close and personal. I needed to put something, anything, together. I gave Becky half my face, the part you can't read.
"My Grandpa's better than a Dad. He's at our house just as much as a Dad would be." Compared to your dad, I could've added.
Becky didn't look at me.
Up ahead the bottle factory's windows shimmered purple, pink, and pure white in the afternoon sun. Half of the glass windows were broken. I imagined the sound of glass breaking, that race of high notes.
Becky said, "There's a million windows." She sucked on her knuckle.
I said, "My Grandpa got gored by a buffalo while he was saving a kid."
Becky turned to me, her eyebrows raised so high they disappeared under her bangs. "There's no buffaloes around here."
"That's because it was up at Yellowstone, dummy - behind one of those logs fences. Buffaloes have really big horns. Stick right through you horns. So listen up. There was this kid that climbed through the fence and was walking up to the buffalo. A big bull saw the kid and was getting all agitated. You just knew he was going to charge."
"I thought you said it was a buffalo."
"Male buffaloes are called bulls." At least I thought they were. I'd have to ask Grandpa. Grandpa knew everything because he'd been around so long. All my other cousins were afraid of him because he said things when you walked in the door, like, 'Come on over here so I can give you smack.' You had to go to Grandpa because he sat in a recliner, because old people sit more than they stand. None of my cousins were brave enough to walk over to Grandpa. I was.
"So anyway," I continued. "Grandpa got right in there and grabbed the kid."
I turned and walked backwards so I could see Becky's face.
"You're gonna fall," Becky said.
I glanced over my shoulder. Not likely. "Grandpa grabbed the kid just as the bull charged. He took off for the fence but it was a ways away and he knew he wasn't going to make it. So, he hauled off and tossed the kid as far as he could. Then he turned to face the bull, maybe grab its horns and toss it like in the rodeo or something."
"Yeah, right." Becky curled her lip, which lifted her cheek, which closed her eye.
"That makes you look weird." It was a compliment. Becky smiled and did it again with the other side of her face.
"All I know is that that little kid was saved and my Grandpa got a horn right through his stomach."
In the heat-shimmered quiet the building seemed to move. It creaked and sighed with age and weather. It waited. One lone cottonwood tree leaned branches against the side of the building.
"Wow. That really happened?"
I tilted my head. I thought about it. "Nah," I admitted because I didn't want to lie. "It was Uncle Bill, Grandpa's brother."
"Grandpa tells stories like that all the time. Sometimes you don't find out for days if it really happened." We were at the bottle factory. I scrambled up the years-old fence and settled on top. "It could've been my Grandpa." I insisted. "My family's famous for heroic things."
Becky didn't say anything for a minute. Then she said, "All my Dad does is tuck me in at night."
I felt a pang at her words. A real father tucks you in at night. My sister Anna had a picture of my dad, just his head, but you could tell he wasn't fat. His hair was dark and curly, his nose flared just the tiniest bit, and his smile was relaxed. Someone you'd want for a father. A whoosh of sad air left me.
I narrowed my eyes like I was studying the bottle building. "Let's get going before it gets too late." The ground was piled up with wood, nails, and shards of broken windows. Glass was broken in both the upper, middle, and lower levels. Only the bottom panes were boarded up.
"My sister says there's a place where the boards are missing. You can climb in there."
I grabbed the supporting X of two boards and slid down. In the heat-slicked quiet the building creaked and sighed with age. The boards, joists, and windows had lived with rain, wind, and snow - the cold hunkering everything down - the sun prodding it open year after year. I leaned into the side of the building. When I looked up, the walls went on forever, the top melting into the sky.
The unboarded window was higher than either of us could reach.
Becky stepped up to me. "Boost me up so I can see in there. I'll climb in and find a door or something."
I shook my head. "I can't pick you up; you weigh a ton. You pick me up."
"Okay," Becky twisted her voice high, then laced the fingers of her hands together. "But you'd better let me in too."
I wedged my tennis shoe into Becky's hand, bent my other leg, and jumped toward the wooded ledge. I grabbed the edge and landed a foot on Becky's shoulder. I scrambled up the grooves of the brick wall and pushed until I was half in, my toes searching for gaps in between the bricks of the building. My eyes focused on glass, cigarette stubs and empty bottles. Wooden boxes were stacked like toddler's blocks. The smell was dirt and old smoke. There was a rustle of mice.
I found a jut in the wall, anchored my palm, and craned my head up.
Inside the day had turned to twilight. Shafts of radiant energy captured earthy specks and changed them into a million bright dancers. It was still but for the ballet of dust on the skyway of light.
Becky yelled. "What's in there?"
I blinked. "Nothing much. No bottles at all." Sometimes you don't even need to think to know something, because it's always been inside you, waiting for just the right time to heave up into your consciousness. I knew I didn't want Becky in there; I wanted it to be mine. This place should be for kids who didn't have dads. Like me.
"Aren't you going in?" Becky said it like a challenge.
"Naw. I'll lift you up." I lied. "But I warn you, it smells like dead rats in here."
I scooted backwards, my stomach scraping the window ledge.
"I think my stomach's cut."
"You just don't want to go in there."
"It's up to you." I tried to sound scared, "Can rats climb walls?"
"What?" Becky squeaked.
I tried not to smile. I lowered myself until only my hands were hanging from the ledge, took a breath and dropped.
When my right foot struck the ground, I felt a jolt of pain. I yelped and fell over. I saw it. A nail was stabbed into my tennis shoe.
"Oh no. Oh no." Becky moaned. She bent down, hands on knees, teardrop eyes within a frame of translucent lashes. She was crying already. "My mom's going to ground me for life."
I rocked and moaned. "I'm sorry Becky. Really sorry." I knew the nail was a pay back for not giving Becky a turn. It was worth it.
"This wasn't something that could wait," Mrs. Hickock said to the nurse who sat behind the emergency room desk. Becky's mom was blond, skinny and always sounded like someone was squeezing her throat when she talked. "Her brother's trying to locate her mom, Adah English." The woman nodded like she knew my mom.
"I'm Nurse Suzanne," she said. "Can you tell me what happened?"
"I fell on a nail." I lifted my shoulders and let them drop.
Nurse Suzanne shook her head. Her black hair was pulled into a ball on the top of her head. She had a cap balanced on it that matched her white uniform. Her peach-painted lips had drawn into a tight, round ball. "How do you fall on a nail?"
"I jumped off a fence by my house." I wasn't lying. Becky and I had managed to get to the fence before she'd gone to get her mother. We'd jumped off the fence going in.
"That old bottle factory," Mrs. Hickock interjected. "You tell your kids not to go someplace, and it's the first place they go. Not that poor little Halsey here is mine. She's Adah's you know."
"You already told her who my mom is." I supposed they were invisible words because no one paid them any attention.
Instead, Nurse Suzanne shook her head like I was a liar. She maneuvered me into a wheelchair, handed me an aspirin and a little cup of water. "We'll have you feeling better in no time." I saw fingers wrap around the handles of the wheelchair and I was propelled into a cubicle made of moveable green drape that reminded me of our shower curtains, rings and all. With a rattle, the nurse created a room.
But it wasn't soundproof.
"So where's Adah?" I heard Nurse Suzanne ask through the green gauzy layer that separated us.
"The kids don't know." Mrs. Hickock had lowered her pinched voice. I leaned forward and tilted my head down. I was feeling a little sick. "Her brother said he'd called their grandfather."
Mrs. Hickock sighed so loud the curtain almost flapped. "It's almost a shame."
"Did you ever meet her husband?" Nurse Suzanne asked.
"No. I asked Halsey about her dad once. She hasn't the first clue about him."
I opened my mouth to say something. But I couldn't. I hadn't seen him since we left California. He hadn't sent cards or called. My memories of that life were like stray cats. Hidden. Feral. I balled my fingers into fists.
"Gretel says she's seen Adah's car at Leon's when she's headed home after work," Nurse Suzanne commented.
"It's no wonder those kids end up God knows where doing God knows what," Mrs. Hickock said. "Adah's on the road to becoming a common-variety hussy."
My heart split open on slicing words. I swallowed empty air. Tears came so fast I couldn't stop them.
"Well," the nurse said, "I don't know about that, but it is a shame there isn't a father in that home."
Mrs. Hickock sighed, "Everyone needs a father."
I held my hand to my face and whispered, "Do not either!" I wiped my nose on my arm.
I didn't hear him come. I didn't know he was there until the curtain rasped open. Grandpa Mathew stood there. He stood there tall and smiling bright. Mom said he brushed his teeth after every meal and sometimes in between. That's why he still had all his teeth. That's why they were white as Sunday platters.
He swept me with a glance. "What're you crying for?" His voice was deep and it had that smile in it, not like Nurse Suzanne's. Not at all. I ran the heel of my hand across my nose. I cleared my throat.
Grandpa reached into the pocket of his slacks, pulled out a red kerchief, and tossed it. The large square of cotton hovered in the air just like those specks of dust in the factory. Drifted with the aimless force of physics I didn't understand. The handkerchief landed in my lap.
Grandpa said, "Come on now. Let's take a look at that mighty fine war wound you got yourself."
I lifted my foot. Grandpa Mathew encircled my ankle with his hand, tsking and shaking his head, but he was smiling too.
I wanted to tell him the whole story: my skill for climbing fences and walls, how the factory ended up magical, and that I'd never cry over a stupid nail. None of that came out when I opened my mouth. Instead I whispered, aware of how easily anyone could hear if they only listened. "Is it true? Is Mom a hussy?"
Grandpa jerked his head in spasm. He shook it again and took a breath like he was coming up for air. Red crept up his neck and his face got tight. His eyes held a question that was asked and answered as he beheld the curtain and the outlined women behind it.
"Hussy?" Grandpa said loud and distinctly.
"Grandpa, ssssh." I warned.
"Hussy," he said again and grabbed a fist of curtain. He pulled so hard the rings strained, rasping open. One of the silver circles popped from the rod and spun on the floor. Mrs. Hickock startled backward. Nurse Suzanne's left hand flew to her mouth and her right clutched the desk. I jumped even sitting down.
Grandpa paused and sucked in a long hushing breath. When he spoke, his voice was quiet and low, but he still clutched the curtain so tightly his hand was blotchy.
"Folks like to talk," he said. "Down at the fire station they blabber on, thinking they know a thing or two just from looking. Pretty soon they're telling lies that hurt like the crack of a whip." Grandpa turned to me. His deep brown eyes were sad. "Any jackass can tell stories, Halsey. Doesn't mean they're true."
Pale silence followed Grandpa's comments. Mrs. Hickock opened her mouth as if to say something, but Grandpa cut the air with his hand. "Skedaddle," he demanded, "the both of you."
"But I have to stay here!" Nurse Suzanne protested.
"You can go find someone else to take your place." Grandpa sounded worn out. "Go on now."
Suzanne scampered down the hall.
I tugged on Grandpa's pants. "It's okay Grandpa. Nobody said anything. Let's just go. Please."
Grandpa kept his eyes on Mrs. Hickock.
She humped and muttered, "So this is how I'm treated for being a Good Samaritan." Her high heels clicked in the airless quiet. At the doorway she turned and shot back, "My Becky won't be playing with Halsey anymore. That girl runs too loose and wild."
Grandpa nodded his head like this was of no never mind to him. He turned to me. "That okay with you, Halsey?" He acted like it was all up to me, that if I decided, he'd override anything Mrs. Hickock said with a wave of his hand.
I shrugged, trying to affect his tone, "There's folks I can do without. I don't care about Becky."
I'd only miss her. I missed her already.
Grandpa's enough, I told myself, he's always been enough.
M C R
This work is copyrighted by the author, Luan Pitsch. All rights reserved.