Summer was the Gift
A boy drowned in Kneeling Quarry that year during corn spell, but not our husk-haired boy. Some girl's brother, but not mine. Not Nan.
We were safe on the front porch of our grandmother's scuffed farm house when it happened: the boy launched himself from the red dirt edge. The soles of his sneakers ruined the quarry's glassy surface. On the ledges beneath, the cranes bent their heads like crucified saints. A rusted dragline reached its frayed edges toward the boy's shoelace. Caught, the boy struggled for the surface.
On top of our hencoop the rooster cried, rebelling against the mean streak of heat. I was letting Nan beat me at checkers the third time that afternoon. Boomer, the old beagle, rested his chin on Nan's leg. Our ma rocked back and forth in the shade, ice clinking in her Lipton's and gin. Summer in Missouri was the gift of time, the gift of forgivable laziness, of slow-poured but unbridled peace.
The boy breathed water.
As Nan and I began another game, Ma's voice lifted in the stillness. "Treesie and Nan," she said. "Which of my babies wants to fill up my glass?"
Before we could answer, Uncle David's brown pickup rumbled up the long dirt road. Boomer left his place next to Nan to stand in the driveway and howl.
Uncle David was home early, which meant bad news for someone: a barn burnt to the ground, an old woman's stopped heart, calf trapped in a well. He would tell us the story if it wasn't too awful for little teakettles, as Grandma Ruth called us. Shaking his head, Uncle David whistled long and low. Life was rough. We might as well know that right off.
Sliding to a halt between the old hen-coop and the porch, Uncle David's tires sprayed dust in an arch. He squinted at us, a Pall Mall clamped in his teeth. Boomer paced, whining. Uncle David opened the door and unfolded his body, revealing streaks of red mud on his black and yellow bunker pants. He wrapped his hand around Boomer's muzzle.
"Go lay down," he ordered, low and threatening.
Boomer sank, whimpering, into the dust.
Uncle David's boots thunked heavy on the stairs and the chains of the swing groaned as he sat beside our mother. He took her drink, all melt by then, and gulped. He chucked me on the shoulder and gathered Nan against his chest, running his wide hand, cigarette between his first two fingers, along the narrow ridges of Nan's spine. Nan was thin that summer, hawkish and pinched, collarbones jutting like the lost horns of elk breaking the surface of a creamy earth. Uncle David cleared his throat and threw his cigarette into the yard, exhaling a spurt of smoke. He released Nan, pulled a small tub of chew from his pocket, and tucked a pinch between his lip and teeth.
"Theresa Lee and Nathan," Ma said, raising her eyebrows.
"How about you all run around back awhile," Uncle David said.
I stood. Nan scrambled to gather the checkers that could fall into the slats between wooden planks. We ran around back, like always. Then we crept in the door and up the stairs to our sweltering bedroom and crouched at a window right over the porch.
Uncle David's voice drifted up. "Peterson's youngest. You know, they're a few miles out. Kathy used to play bridge with Roo way back when. Kid no bigger'n Nan."
Nan clutched the chipped sill, his fingers small as the bones of the dead bird we'd found on the side of the road the day before. He gulped and blinked, tucking his chin to his chest, where the thin skin was sunburned. His mouth curved into a tense frown. We shouldn't have listened. Now Nan would have nightmares, would wet the bed, a habit begun when we moved into Grandma Ruth's, my brother shaking in the night, his voice thick with misery.
Help him. I had to help him. And don't tell Ma, Treesie. Please don't tell Ma.
Our mother already had hurt enough for ten women. She had changed bedpans and served butter-burgers to get out, to get all the way to Jefferson City. But that winter, Nan's dad, Max, had left. Without him, our lives became a blur of blank rooms where Ma made up a sofa bed and told us it would be all right, someday we'd be going to California, to Disneyland and gold beaches and sailboats. We filled long afternoons in strangers' living rooms with games of tic-tac-toe and Imagine If. I imagined if we were at the beach. Or in California with movie stars. If we had our own house. Nan always imagined if Daddy came back. If Daddy went to California with us.
By spring Ma gave up, threw our clothes into garbage bags.
Time we got to know our folks, anyway.
And we did get to know them. Breathless in the heat against the peeling bedroom wall under Grandma Ruth's portraits of the Saints Francis of Assisi and Jude, we listened to the front porch voices, to Uncle David. We felt him shaking his head sadly as he told our ma: "Kid eventually swam down. Dragged that old line with him. Swam right into the bottom of that first ledge over and over like it was sky."
Uncle David had carried the boy's body to his father's arms. They had rushed him to the hospital, but there was no hope.
We heard the pat of Uncle David's chew hitting the dirt beyond the porch. I looked out the window. Aunt Patsy's car crept up the road, filled with cousins and supper. The summer football bus dropped Marty at the mailbox, and he struggled with the long black duffel. In the distance, the quarry was just a press of blue thumbnail against the otherwise yellow earth. It did not look like it could drown anyone.
Aunt Patsy would put supper out.
Uncle David would get beers for everybody.
The front door slammed.
"Let's go," I said, tugging Nan's arm. We ran down the stairs and out the back door into the corn, scaring a flock of sparrows from the hood of the old well.
In town, in a white room, the doctor told the boy's mother to step away. Her son was gone. Her heart a sparrow, too, flying into the open sky, the no-hope sky.
After supper, Grandma Ruth stared down at Nan's plate, the greasy chicken he'd pulled apart with his fingers. "Boy misses his father," she sighed.
Maybe, I thought, that was the reason my brother had gone phantom and I had not. Max wasn't my real dad, and blood-longing is always stronger than mere wishing.
"He's got me," Uncle David said, putting his arms around Grandma Ruth from behind, squeezing her so the plate clattered into the sink. She smacked at his arms as if she didn't like it, but she did. Uncle David's arms were smooth and strong and when he was kind I loved to swing into them, feel my head rest against the warm muscles of his chest.
But he was different with the boys, with Nan and our cousin Marty, who lived with Grandma Ruth, too. He wrestled with Marty, taught him to load a gun. He took Nan fishing, tried to teach him to throw a football, tried to teach him the rules of manhood even though Nan was only nine. He captured a snake in the corn, told stories from his Army days. He corrected the boys' every mistake. I never got sent to the shed for a strapping with the old cord kept there for just that purpose. But then, they left me behind with Ma and Grandma Ruth when they took their fishing poles, when they visited burn sites in Kneeling Forest.
Released from Uncle David's embrace, Grandma Ruth took up a dish and began to wash, shooed us into the yard. Uncle David followed.
He whistled and we lined up. He walked up and down our ragtaggle row, making us promise to God and Country that we would not sneak off for a swim. The junk buried in that water could pull even a grown man down without too much fight.
The cousins understood. Scout's honor. They just wanted to play football.
Uncle David knelt before my brother. Did Nan get it?
Nan nodded quick and slight. "I get it."
With a final salute, Uncle David released us. The girls went around back to chain daisies, but I stayed with Nan. The boys huddled up. Uncle David headed for the porch and the beer that awaited him. His girlfriend waited on the steps, jabbing her fingers at her frizzy hair, snapping a wad of gum. Her bone thin legs, sprayed with fake tan, looked like the chicken we'd had for dinner under a jean skirt. Uncle David picked her up, his arms swelling under his white T-shirt. He kissed the girlfriend, put her down, and turned back from the porch suddenly.
He thought he might play football with us tonight, if we didn't mind.
Cheering, the boys threw themselves at his legs.
The girlfriend frowned.
Marty, the biggest, the one with turf rights, ordered the boys to break into teams. Now that Uncle David had joined, the teams would be uneven.
Marty looked at my brother. "C'mon Nan-cy. We needja."
My brother squared his jaw, steeling himself against Marty, who had it in for him. As far as anyone knew, Marty and Nan shared a bed. So it was extra important that Marty take every chance he could to pound that faggot down.
Nan began to walk toward Marty, but I turned toward my brother, and shoved him so he fell, bouncing slightly on his backside. He looked up at me, face open with surprise.
"I"ll play," I said. I stepped up to Marty and took the ball.
"You can be skins," Marty grinned, taunting. My face burned. The bumps that had started showing through my shirt had not escaped his notice.
Uncle David stripped off his own shirt to reveal the stubble of his shaven fur—a hygiene habit from his Army days, he said—which glinted like small gold knives on his tanned skin. He stepped between us and said, "If you ain't going to play nice, you're on your own."
Marty stuck out his hand, and I shook it, feeling the sweaty slide of his index finger which he poked down between our palms.
Nan slipped onto the porch, hanging his legs between the rungs. The aunts and uncles didn't know he was there, continuing to listen to stories of the dead boy, of how his family would miss him, of his blue and bloated face.
The game didn't escalate into a real war until Uncle David left for that beer after all, and Marty spiked the ball at my back. He caught me around the waist and threw me into the dirt, knocking my breath out. He grunted.
That was why Girls and Queers shouldn't play.
I raised my knee up quick between his legs and struggled away as he clasped his groin in his hands. Nan raised his fist half-heartedly, praising my narrow escape, just before Marty caught me again, pinning me down, one hand still over his crotch.
Uncle David leapt from the porch and broke it up. Boys shouldn't be so rough with the girls. Like a gallows, he held Marty up by the collar, laughing as Marty kicked.
"I'll be bigger'n you someday," Marty panted. He attempted to spit.
Grandma Ruth shook her head, gathering me in her lap. Men should be ashamed of themselves, the way they acted sometimes. She rubbed my back where it smarted.
The afternoon melted into evening, but it was no cooler. Pollen and dust settled on fence posts and windshields. A line of cherried-gold collected just above the horizon and glistened across the sky. Night came slowly, and there was respite in the breeze, long shadows, real places to hide the things you didn't want anyone to know about, to see.
In town, the coroner zipped the boy into a black bag, pushed him into the cool drawer, sealed him in darkness.
One by one, the still-together families went home, mothers calling their children to the backseats of cars that rumbled down the road, leaving just those of us who lived with Grandma Ruth. Uncle David's girlfriend drove away, still pouting, and he and my mother had another drink on the porch swing.
Marty went inside to sit with his mother, whose bed was set up in what used to be the dining room. When Marty was just four, Aunt Roo's braid got caught in the auger, which crushed the back of her skull, shattered her teeth, tore her chin from her face. Miraculously, she could still breathe on her own, and for Grandma Ruth, that was sign enough from God that her Roo was meant to stay.
Ma, on the other hand, said Roo was evidence that there was no God, because God wouldn't let a woman live like that. Ma said Roo would be better off dead. And it wasn't God who had to sell off the farm, field by field, to keep her alive. It was Uncle David. Ma didn't bother praying. And we might well learn early to rely on our own strong backs.
On the front porch steps, Nan and I scratched at mosquito bites, waited for fireflies.
Uncle David's voice ruptured the nothing sound of whispering corn between the inhale and crackle of his cigarette. "Time for bed."
He walked us inside. We paused at the door of the dining room to gather Marty, who jumped from his curled position at the foot of his mother's bed and rubbed his eyes. I stuck out my tongue.
Upstairs, Uncle David bent to hug me, slapped the boys on their backs, and left us in the bathroom where we brushed our teeth, bumping elbows at the sink.
Then Marty said to Nan, "Piss up, bedwetter."
I shrugged my shoulders. "Might not be a bad idea to try."
Nan stood at the toilet, guarding his penis against Marty, who sneered over his shoulder. Nothing came. Marty shoved him aside and soon I heard a steady stream.
Our mother, smelling of sour sweat, gin, smoke, came to tuck us in—the boys in one bed and me in the other. She pressed her face to mine. She kissed Nan and patted Marty, who did not allow her hugs.
At the door she paused. She said, "Now you stay put," as if she ever punished us. Then she left.
Before her footsteps told us that she had reached the stairs, Marty was beside me. "Git out."
I stood and got into Nan's bed, feeling the odd slide of the rubber sheets Ma had instituted since Nan's problem had gotten worse. I pulled the covers over our heads. We lay face to face, so I could smell his sunburn. The space between us was the world of my childhood. Imagine If. Imagine If. Marty was the one who drowned in the quarry. Imagine If. Uncle David turned Marty over his knee and spanked him and he spent the rest of the day at the foot of his mother's bed. Imagine if Nan could throw the farthest.
"Sorry I pushed you," I whispered to Nan, and felt him nod. He turned around and my body cupped his. But Nan was awake, so tense and hard beneath the sheets he shook. He had wet the bed three nights in a row, and each time Ma, grumbling, stripped the sheets. Uncle David said next time he'd take Nan to the shed. There was no excuse. Nan needed to get up and go to the damned bathroom. This had been punctuated with a quick downward flip of a Pall Mall to the ground, a sure sign Uncle David meant what he said.
"I'll wake you up, Nan, okay?" We would take turns like soldiers guarding camp.
But of course I fell asleep.
Just before sunrise, I woke again in my brother's urine pooling around my heavier weight in the sagging bed. I stared at his face, asleep, his mouth slightly open, a line of drool leading to the pillow. For just one second, I wanted to smash him. Crush his face. I wanted to wake up dry. Alone. In a normal girl's room in a normal girl's bed. In a house with a father, not an uncle, not a grandmother, a cripple, a cousin.
But then Nan's eyes opened and he said, "I wish I was dead, Treesie."
"It's no big deal," I said in my best imitation of our mother before Max left, that bright and cheerful every-little-thing's-fine voice. "I'll help you."
Together we pulled the strange sheets from the bed while Marty snored. Downstairs, we crept past Aunt Roo as if she could see us, and if she could, as if she could tell.
We shushed Boomer, who wagged his tail expectantly.
In the cellar, I lifted the lid of the washing machine.
Nan shook his head. Too loud.
I dragged a basin off the top shelf, knocking clouds of dust into my face. We stripped down and I washed my nightgown and Nan's underwear on an old washing board. I put in the rubber sheets to soak. I sent Nan upstairs. He should change, get back in bed under the quilt. We couldn't use the clothesline or we would be found out. Wrapped in a towel, I snuck to the back field, where I laid our night clothes on the grass to dry in the sun that opened on the horizon as I made my way to the back door to get the sheets. Boomer trotted along behind me.
Uncle David was waiting on the porch, holding a still-damp rubber sheet in his fist.
I wasn't to cover up for my brother. He had to learn.
"It's just an accident, Uncle David," I cried.
But Uncle David took the stairs two at a time, pulled Nan, cowering, from our bedroom. He dragged Nan down the stairs, out the door to the shed. Boomer growled, nipping at Uncle David.
"Put that dog on his run," Uncle David ordered. Shaking, I tugged Boomer's collar, which I clipped to his chain. He howled in protest, lunging forward again and again only to be choked.
Uncle David told Nan to get in the shed. He didn't want to do this anymore than Nan wanted it done, but since our father had up and left, there was no one else to do it.
Nan, already sobbing, struggled with the heavy door, and disappeared.
I stood outside in the sunrise wishing I was the one who wet the bed. To plug my ears would have been a sin. To walk away. As the light came, I saw that the corn was beginning to brown in the heat of that summer, that the crop would not come out as it should. I heard the slight rustle of husks. The road went on and on to what seemed like nowhere. I heard the faint lowing of the buffalo that lived until their slaughter on the farm two miles away. Behind my eyelids, I saw my small brother bend in the dark and clasp his hands where the edges of shovels and hoes glinted.
Uncle David emerged, a trickle of sweat dripping down his forehead, chin slightly crumbling, what could have been tears in his eyes. The door swung shut behind him. He did not look at me.
I put my hand against the door. "Nan?"
"Leave me alone," he said. "Just leave me alone."
I unhooked Boomer, who ran to the shed. Nan let him in.
Walking back to the house, I thought of our father, Nan's father, and felt a spur of hatred spike my gut in his name. He'd been too thin and gentle. He was a drunk. He left.
Nan's face was red and streaked at the breakfast table as he lifted his shaking spoonful of Cheerios to his swollen lips.
Marty shook his head and rolled his eyes. "You're pathetic, Nancy," he said. He slung his football duffel over his shoulder, grabbed a piece of toast, and left.
Uncle David got called into the fire station for an emergency. Before he left, he paused at the table to stroke Nan's cringing head, the white hair at the crown that stood straight up, making my brother look more like the rooster that continued to squall at the wrong time of day.
By the time Ma came stumbling down the stairs for coffee, we were on the porch wrapped in a passionate game of Imagine If: Uncle David fell into the fire and couldn't get out. Uncle David got into a crash on the way home. Uncle David's cord-arm fell off.
Ma said, "Poor sweeties. What happened?"
We told Ma every detail, and she squeezed Nan and shook her head.
Uncle David didn't mean to be so hard on us. It was our father's fault, really.
That day Ma started with gin in her coffee, and by evening, our grandmother found our mother drunk as a skunk, sitting on the edge of Roo's bed crying, talking to Roo as if Roo could answer.
Grandma Ruth's voice was sharp rising above our uncle's on the front porch. "Kid's got enough hard in his life, David. Nan'll straighten out as he grows."
But no boy straightened without help, Grandma Ruth had said so herself, had told Uncle David to take care of the boys.
"I"m doin' the best I can raising Maggie and Roo's boys. You don't think I feel bad enough? That I ain't felt bad enough my whole life? You go out'n find their fathers, and I'm happy to give up my time card."
Uncle David was to go easy nonetheless.
Upstairs, Nan's shoulders drooped with relief beneath my arm. Grandma Ruth's word was God. We heard Uncle David's pickup speed away, grinding gears around the mailbox. He would drive as far as the city, now, maybe to the bar where he sometimes met his old buddies from the Army, the ones who could pick Nan and me up in one arm. When Uncle David went to visit those friends, he stayed until morning. Imagine If.
I went to the back field to collect our clothes. Nan's underwear had blown into the old garden, against the cross that had borne a small scarecrow. I lifted my nightgown to my face. It smelled of sweet, dry grass.
That night, Nan, Marty and I brushed our teeth and got into bed on our own.
I took the A&D ointment to Nan's lower back where the cord had broken the skin. He writhed beneath my fingers.
Marty sat on the edge of his bed, swinging his feet to the floor. He stood to look at Nan's welts. "He got you good, didn't he?"
"Shut up, Marty," I said.
But Marty put his hand on my arm. He looked at me, squinting so the freckles around his eyes melded together. "He's a fucker, ain't he?" Marty said, just barely touching a welt on Nan's lower back with his other hand, which made Nan shudder.
Nan craned his neck and looked at Marty. "Yeah, he's a fucker."
Marty looked out the window where the moon hung full and heavy. "You'll be okay," he said dully. "Only five more years 'til I git out. Only nine for you. It ain't forever." And with that he crawled into my bed, and I crawled into his with Nan, and we slept.
Uncle David's boots clunking the stairs woke me. The first soft grey of dawn lit the edges of the room. I heard the door open and saw our uncle's silhouette in the brighter light from the hallway. Marty turned over in his bed, moaning lightly, "Don't gotta go."
"Not you," Uncle David said, leaning over me to lift Nan. Uncle David's bristly face scratched at my arm. He put Nan on his feet, shaking him slightly as he knelt before him. "Time to try the bathroom, Nan," he said, gently, as if that morning hadn't happened. I sighed. Thank goodness. Things would be all right. Of course Uncle David loved Nan like a son and would take care of him.
"I already went," my brother said in a high-pitched whine.
"You'll try anyway," said Uncle David, and Nan shuffled from the room like an old man. Uncle David shut the door behind them. I turned over in bed, pulled the pillow over my head, and went back to sleep under St. Jude's hopeful face.
Early the next morning, on a slight rise just east of Kneeling, a backhoe broke the crumbling earth, digging a rectangular hole, perfect for a boy.
But I woke to the sounds of Grandma Ruth readying herself and Marty for early morning mass, the whoosh of a can of Aqua Net. The car left. Ma, of course, would not let Nan and me go to church.
I read Nancy Drew's Adventures as Nan slept beside me, dry, his wounded rump in the air, his mouth open, the slight white cracks in its corners moist with spit. I kept the windows closed to shut in the night cool, but as the sun moved into the sky any hint of coolness vanished, and our small room began to bake.
Grandma Ruth's car returned.
I ate my Cheerios on the porch step while my grandmother, reeking of perfume, combed my hair. "You'll feel better with it up off your neck in this heat," she said.
Ma came out and sat with a wet towel over her face. The rooster yodeled. Ma cringed.
Each tiny tangle the comb tugged was an electric shock in my scalp. Grandma Ruth braided my hair so tight my eyebrows ached. Then she disappeared to do laundry. I lay in the yard, sweating.
Marty was lounging under the single oak, chewing on a toothpick, his hair slicked, combed down. He grinned at me as I adjusted myself in the smaller shade of a barren snapper bush. He was up to something.
Our uncle emerged from the house. The day was the hottest on record so far, he announced. There had been twelve brush fires in the last month, and they would surely be watching for fires today. He kissed the side of Ma's head, leapt off the porch, and swung himself into his truck. "I might be late," he said to no one in particular, and drove off.
Marty got up. He was going to the barn to study football plays.
Ma waved him away and said she was going to ice her neck. She closed the door gently. I did not want to be alone with Marty. I closed the door gently, too. Then I ran an ice cube over the back of Ma's neck, watched it melt and trickle into her nightgown. She stank.
Grandma Ruth appeared, started on supper.
Nan came down at lunch, spoke to no one, poured a bowl of Cheerios which he did not eat. He stared down into it, cricking his neck from side to side. He picked at a scab on his head over and over, no matter how many times I took his hand away.
"Now, now," said Grandma Ruth.
"Sweet boy," said Ma. "You kids find Martin and work his plays with him."
Still wearing his briefs and one of Uncle David's hand-me-down T-shirts, yellow-pitted, long enough to be a dress, Nan walked out the backdoor. I followed. The yard was unbearable. Just beyond the porch, a grassless patch worn concave by the soles of so many feet trapped and reflected the heat.
Nan looked out at the bare land and said, "I hate it. I hate it here." The dark circles under his eyes were flecked with red. Nan left the porch, lifting his feet quickly until he got to the grass. He turned around and shaded his eyes, smiled at me.
We found Marty in the barn, hanging from a rafter by his knees. Upside-down, he smirked, stuck out his tongue, and pulled down his jeans to reveal his swim-trunks.
"What are you gonna do?" I asked.
"I'm going for a fucking swim," he said, buttoning up. "In the fricking quarry."
Nan shook his head. Marty couldn't. "Uncle David said it'll drown you."
"He's fulla shit," Marty said, his hair moving in two massive chunks where it had been slicked down that morning for church.
Uncle David would kill him.
Marty swung his arms to the rope, released his legs, shimmied down and dropped to where we stood. He stared at both of us, the familiar devil in his eye.
"No way," said Nan.
"You're gonna get it," I said.
"That asshole won't find out," he said. "Will he?"
Nan cowered, but I merely shrugged, and Marty reached out to pinch my nipple. He turned it fast and hard, burning between his fingers and shrugged back at me. Then he walked off, his bare back golden tan.
We climbed into the loft where we could snoop in all the aunts' and uncles' old trunks and mildewed boxes. A motorcycle helmet, dog tags, a formal dress, a box of love letters from a man named Michael, a bus ticket from Oklahoma to Jefferson City—these were evidence of who our people had been before they became the hopeless or cruel people we knew. We took turns playing Aunt Roo and Michael until the fateful moment of the auger, Nan holding out a long rope as his braid. We were Uncle David riding the motorcycle all the way to Oklahoma, losing it in a poker game, sheepishly boarding the bus to return.
Nan and I stayed in the loft until we heard the rest of the cousins screaming Red Rover in the yard. Send so-and-so on over.
Soon, the aunts and uncles began to round up their children. On Sunday nights, Grandma Ruth insisted we set up card tables in Aunt Roo's room and eat with her. Those who could leave usually did. Wishing to avoid the whir and pump of the feeding machine, slime filling the tube to her stomach, they headed to the diner in town. Plus, everyone was hot and streaked with sweat and dirt except Marty, who clearly had not drowned, whose hair had ballooned up, free of the Aqua Net's weight. Ma and Uncle David were both drunk already, and Grandma Ruth was fed up with them, it being God's day and all.
No one felt much like talking except Nan, who told his favorite story twice, robotically, nervously touching his collarbones. "When the quarry started to fill with water, the men in their excavators and backhoes looked around and said 'hey we better get out of here' and they climbed out and left their equipment behind and it is still there today, under all that water, under the water that—" Nan cut himself off. He looked around as if he had just recognized that he was talking, and he was talking in his Imagine If voice in front of everyone. Ma patted his hand, but I doubt she could have said what was so sad.
Nan failed to eat once again, and was forced by Grandma Ruth to sit at the table until he took one bite of everything, which I snuck in and did for him.
In the kitchen, Grandma Ruth and Ma fought. Should us kids go to the funeral? Grandma said yes. Ma said no. Uncle David gave the final vote. We were going. It would teach us to stay out of that quarry.
Ma emerged, offering to wrap us in wet towels and let us sit on the porch swing.
It was almost as good as going for a swim, Nan said, almost as good. He repeated this a few times with a smile that looked like he had swallowed a sour lemon wedge.
Marty stretched out in bed, his form clear beneath just a white sheet in the light of the full moon. He told us that the water level had dropped a bit because of the drought, but it was still so cold and perfect that he had stayed until he felt his blood turn to ice. He sighed. It was too bad we were pussies. Soon his breath came slow and even.
Nan and I lay awake for what seemed like forever, sweating harder out of envy, our scabbed-over mosquito bites prickling against the rubber sheets. At last I fell into a thick hot sleep in which I walked through burned field after burned field until I woke, my arm thrown over Nan's side of the bed, empty.
Some small noise gathered and made its way to my ears, like Boomer whining as he resettled outside our door or Ma talking in her sleep, but more pronounced, more despairing. I sat up, my heart fluttering. I walked into the hallway, a stream of light from the bathroom cutting through the moonlight, pouring over my feet.
I stepped over the creaky floorboard and put my face to the door, slightly ajar.
Uncle David stood before Nan, who sat on the toilet, his small rear end, still raw with stripes, sinking into the bowl. His arms reached up around Uncle David's waist. I rubbed my eyes. What were they doing? My uncle held the back of my brother's neck. Nan's eyes were shut tight. Uncle David was pushing his privates into Nan's mouth. I felt the whole world shrink down to zero, felt my throat tighten in something between a retch and a sob. Nan opened his eyes and saw me standing there. He froze, began to struggle. In one swift motion Uncle David glanced over his shoulder, said my name, and pulled his pants over himself. He smiled and stepped toward me.
"You need to use the toilet?" he asked, and said to Nan, "Let your sister have it." Nan struggled to his feet, pulled up his briefs, and slunk past me.
Uncle David put his hands on my shoulders. "Look at you. You're half-asleep."
But I wasn't. I was so awake my scalp hurt where the hair came out of it. I looked down at the darkened wet spot on the grey sweatpants.
Uncle David pushed me toward the toilet, feigning frustration. "At least you don't need help," he said. He closed the door behind him.
I stood in the bathroom for a minute, staring down at the clear water in the basin of the toilet, which I flushed.
Back in the bedroom, I climbed in next to Nan, my legs shaking. I lay flat out, not curled around him. He was silent.
"Nan," I whispered. I wanted him to explain. To explain away what I'd seen even though I already knew there was nothing, no hope.
Nan made a few smacking sounds with his mouth as if he were asleep.
"I can tell you're faking," I said. "I can tell." I felt a painful lump start to grow in the back of my throat.
Nan said nothing.
I waited a long minute, listening to his jagged breathing.
"We have to tell," I said.
Nan sat straight up then, leaned over me to put on the lamp. His thin hand clung at mine. "Don't tell," he said. "Please don't tell."
And then, "He's always there waiting for me."
"In the bathroom?" I asked.
"We have to stop it," I said. "Let's go to Ma right now."
"If you tell he'll leave," Nan said. "He'll leave and we'll have no one. Grandma Ruth will lose all her land."
"What?" I said incredulously.
Marty's voice came startling from the other bed. "It's true," he said, the curve of his back facing us. "He's better off if he just puts up with it. It ain't forever."
Nan nodded as if it were final. He put out the light.
In a dark room in the heat of summer, a cold tear running on the temple toward the pillow is a gift. A dead boy's sister, in a dark room, knows this.
In the morning, Uncle David appeared at our bedroom door dressed in his bunker pants and a T-shirt. He leaned in and said, "Treesie."
I looked up from Nancy Drew as if everything were normal. "Huh?" I said, my heart fluttering in the cage of my chest.
"Why don't you come with me today?"
I understood that it was an order. I rose and put on my clothes, freezing in the heat. In the kitchen, Uncle David said, "Let's go."
I looked around. "I'm hungry," I said. I wasn't.
He poured us each a bowl of cereal. I stood across from him in the kitchen slurping. I wanted to throw up, but I didn't dare. I waited for Grandma Ruth or Ma to come down. No, I didn't dare make Uncle David angry today, although he had never hit me, had never touched me.
"I need a jacket," I said, trying not to let my voice shake.
It was so hot Uncle David was already sweating, but he dug one of his winter flannels from the front closet and handed it to me. I could think of no other way to stall, so I followed him into the pickup, carrying the sour-smelling flannel.
As the truck rattled over forty-five minutes of highway I sat rigid. I thought I would drown in the hot air that passed through the windows; I shivered, too, wished I had a blanket, but didn't want the flannel of Uncle David's shirt against my skin. Every few minutes, my knees jerked up quickly, as if they were thinking about opening the door, jumping. I was too scared to really think of jumping. I could see my body bumping along the edge of the road, landing in the ditch, could see myself running up and over the rise, but where would I go then?
Finally we reached the site of the fire, an expanse of brush charred to the ground and sectioned off with yellow tape. It was a day-use area, and one of the picnic tables had turned entirely to charcoal and collapsed. A park ranger sat in his white truck.
Tell, my gut said. This guy is practically a policeman.
But Uncle David nodded to him and the ranger nodded back.
"Heard about Peterson's boy," the man said.
Uncle David grimaced. "Something awful, ain't it?"
Taking note of me, he said, "Got your assistant today, Dave?"
Uncle David thumped me on the back and I understood I was to smile, to look as if I was happy to be there. So I did.
And then Uncle David lifted the yellow tape for me, and I walked beneath it.
"Put this one out a few days back," Uncle David said, "but watch your feet. Hot coals can hang around a long time. Burn right through your sneakers."
Uncle David held an official looking clipboard and stuck a pencil under the edge of his brown cap, the same brown cap all the Kneeling County firemen wore. He walked the perimeter of the burnt area, and examined the trees. I walked over broken beer bottles, stood in the middle and turned circles, looking at the scorched and cracked ground, the roots of trees that no longer existed. Even the air seemed burnt.
Uncle David joined me in the middle, in the darkest ring of ash.
I wanted to know how it started.
Uncle David looked right at me, and I looked back into his eyes, blue pools, no reflection, pretending he did not terrify me. "It started the way most of 'em start," he said, holding out the cigarette he'd been smoking. "Some idiot drops a cigarette and even though he don't mean to burn down half of Kneeling County, look what happens." Uncle David paused, and then continued. "But, lucky for us those idiots are out there. Otherwise I wouldn't have this job, and if it weren't for that, we'd all starve to death. Gram, Aunt Roo, your ma, the boys."
I inhaled, feeling the rings in my throat tighten as he moved closer to me. But that was all he did. He did not actually wrap his hands around my neck.
I wanted to reach down, pick up a broken beer bottle, hold the edge to his throat. 'Leave town and don't come back,' I heard my voice say in my own head, 'Or you'll regret it.' How good it would have felt to kill him, to push that glass into his soft throat, hot blood spilling on my wrist. I could have done it.
But I didn't. I did the worst thing. I nodded. Just barely, but we both knew I did.
Uncle David drove me back home, where Ma, Grandma, Marty and Nan were assembled on the porch, ready for the boy's funeral.
I looked at Ma. I wanted so badly to climb into her lap, to tell her, but I could see that she was drunk, that she was angry that a little boy's death would force her to visit God.
Grandma Ruth fussed with Nan's hair, trying to get the wild feathers at the top of his head to settle down. I saw how old her hands were. How wrinkled. No, I could not tell her, either.
I went into the house. I crawled into Aunt Roo's bed, lifting her arm, putting it over me. I looked up into her eyes. "Uncle David is hurting Nan," I said.
"I don't know what to do," I said.
I pulled Aunt Roo's arms together, tried to press her hands between mine in prayer. I tried to pray, although I didn't know exactly how. I begged at something that seemed like a big open sky with a God I could not find or imagine.
But Aunt Roo's hands slipped, rubbing together like dry paper before one wrist clunked against the bar of her bed, her other arm falling back on me.
I kissed my aunt's strange and toothless mouth, and went upstairs to get dressed knowing that it was true. No such thing as God. She'd be better off dead.
At the funeral home, the mortician had reset the face, pulled the terror out, had given color to the skin. In the house of the dead boy, the mother had held her son's T-shirt, smelled the musty boy smell that clings to cloth. The father had gotten falling-down drunk and wept to friends who'd never known him to cry. The sister got a new dress. There was nothing left but to bury the boy.
At Saint Joseph's church, the priest tried to come up with good reasons for the death of a boy. Perhaps he would find peace with God. Perhaps he was needed for God's work. The pew was hard. The incense swirled in my still-tight throat. When the priest was silent, the family, then the whole town, marched down the steps behind the boy's father carrying his coffin. Uncle David, too, held a corner of the coffin.
At the cemetery, the dead boy's mother reached out a shaking arm as they lowered him into the ground. We dropped handfuls of dry earth on him and we walked away.
Ma and Grandma Ruth went over to the dead boy's house to see what could be done.
Uncle David drove us home. He stood with us in the driveway. He grabbed Marty's arm and said, "That teach you to stay out of that quarry? You hear me?"
Nan cowered. I suddenly hated his body, curved like broken stalks in the yard.
Marty smirked, jerked his arm away.
Uncle David hopped in his pickup truck, sped to pick up the girlfriend for Monday Night Matinee.
Before the dust on the road had settled, Marty was upstairs, pulling on his trunks.
"See ya, wouldn't wanna be ya," he said, running out the door.
I got up quickly, dug through the drawer for my bathing suit, and slipped it over my too-long body. I covered it with a sundress.
Nan stared. "What are you doing?"
"Going for a swim."
"Are you crazy? You heard Uncle David tell us not to!" Nan almost shouted. He grabbed my arm.
I shook him off, feeling that red current of anger rise in me. Why was Nan so faithful, so good?
I leaned into his face and said, "You aren't even my real brother." I spat each syllable so hard that he cringed again and again. "That's why you're so chicken." Before my back was even turned I felt tears starting, felt that ring in my throat dissolve.
I ran, trying to catch up with Marty. Nan followed me, of course, and Boomer followed him.
Halfway down the road I turned around, avoiding his eyes, and said, mimicking Marty's gruff tones, "Go home. You can't swim."
He clung to me, made me look at him. "Please, Treesie. I can do it."
I continued to ignore him, batting away his gripping hands and Boomer's nipping mouth.
"I can," Nan repeated again and again.
At the quarry, Marty lounged, already cool and dripping.
The water was blue, almost black. I stripped off my dress and threw it in a heap. I stood at the edge where little bits of mud crumbled between my toes. I leapt. Boomer's baying, like a man crying out in pain, echoed as I fell. Cold thudded into me like a dull knife. I kicked hard, surfacing, grateful for the sun on my forehead. For just a moment, I loved the water that had killed the boy.
Then I heard Nan's wailing voice dropping over the edge where he stood. I rubbed my eyes. Before I could open them, I felt that Nan was going to jump. I tried to say no, stop, but through stinging lashes I saw that he had already done it, his face briefly mirrored in its regret, its why-did-I-do-it-Treesie-help-me-Treesie. I felt the rush of bubbles as his body slid past mine. Help him, you've got to help him, some part of my heart was singing to my gut.
I took a breath, submerged myself, and reached for my brother in the blur of water. When I touched his skin, something inside me slipped toward mercy. Nan let me take him into my arms because he believed I would always save him. Imagine If. He put his arms around my waist. I felt him waiting for me to surface. But I didn't. I pressed him against me, making a cage of my body.
Everyone would think it was an accident.
Nan began to struggle, but I held him tighter. The tickle of the colder depth swallowed my legs as I exhaled. Nan's chest heaved as he was forced to breathe water.
Summer is also the gift of death: yellow grass, bird bones, ears of corn with missing kernels like the black in the mouth of a toothless cripple. Summer was the rooster crying at the wrong time of day, a mother passed out on the front steps, Boomer baying, baying.
It was Marty who heeded Boomer's warning, Marty who saved Nan. He dove into the quarry, knocking Nan from my arms. He dragged Nan to the mud and put him face down and pounded the hell out of his back until he puked coughing.
I climbed out, water streaming from my hair, my knees knocking together, my head sore. I picked up my dress and walked toward my brother and my cousin.
"What the fuck is your problem Treesie?" Marty asked, helping Nan strip off his clothes. Marty's words were quiet, almost whispered.
Nan tried to say something, but he was coughing too hard.
"It was a current," I said. Imagine If.
Marty stared at me, stared into me until I felt myself go as empty as the dress I handed to him so he could wrap it around Nan.
Marty hauled Nan to a sitting position between his legs, Nan's head on Marty's chest, Marty's arms wrapped around him. "You'll dry up in a second," he said. "Just keep breathing."
I knelt in front of Nan. I touched his forehead.
In a cracked voice he said, "It's just an accident."
"You're a trooper," Marty said.
We sat together at the edge of the quarry, breathing hard, deeply alive. We knew nothing of the future. Imagine if we never have to leave this moment, I thought. Imagine if we had a house, the three of us, right there, a house no one could find and the cool glint of water at night. A house somewhere else, maybe, somewhere no one had heard of. Imagine Nan was lucky enough to drown, his curled body hovering inside the cubed bars of an excavator's abandoned cab, his white hair lifting gently in the black water. Uncle David's cut open neck. California. Gold beaches and movie stars.