Innocence by Robin Gaines
If he were alive, my dad would not have let Uncle Wade in the front door. Dad had hated Uncle Wade, my mom’s brother. I never knew why. The reasons were explained in angry whispered conversations that led to Mom slamming the bedroom door after Dad would say, “He’s not welcome.” Mom had to wait until Dad died before her brother could visit, and then she had to wait another year until Uncle Wade got out of prison.
In my dad’s favorite kitchen chair, a man with eyes like mine is drinking beer with Mom. They are laughing about something when I bolt into the house running through the kitchen convinced somebody from Ben Franklin’s is chasing me after my best friend Mal stole a box of Snowcaps and some gum. I ran out of the store after her like I was guilty, too. Then stopped to pry my stuck tennis shoe from the fence behind the A & P, and lost her after that.
“Slow down, Claudia,” Mom says, “and say hi to you your Uncle Wade.”
"Hi,” I say weakly. I stand in front of him, stiff and ready to run if the store manager bangs on the door. Uncle Wade reaches up, tugs at a strand of my hair, and says, “You're the spitting image of Ma.”
I look at my mother, who is squinting at me with her fake smile, the one that looks like she's in pain, but actually means she's unsure about something and doesn't know what to do with her mouth.
“Not me,” she says. “Your grandmother.”
Since I've never seen a picture of this grandmother I don't know if Uncle Wade is telling the truth. Mom never talks about her except to say that she died a long time ago, that she didn't get along with her, and that Wade, the oldest of four, was their mother's favorite.
I remember thinking: Do all parents pick a favorite child? Between Burke and me, I wonder who my dad liked more. And Mom? She doesn't act like she has a favorite anything.
Uncle Wade sizes me up: dirty shoes, snarly hair, bitten fingernails on hands I try to slip behind my back. He stubs his cigarette out in the ashtray on the kitchen table with a smirk that says, “She's a stupid, ugly kid. Not important.”
“Give your uncle a hug,” Mom says. I lean down toward him, toward the grayish white T-shirt frayed at the collar. His arm pulls me to him. My nose wedges into his armpit. It has a peppery smell sweetened with deodorant.
“Claudia was so little the last time you saw her,” Mom says, watching Uncle Wade's hand reach up to rub the top of my head like he would a dog's.
“It was a long time ago, is all I know,” he says.
With close-cropped hair worn like a cap, Uncle Wade looks like the ink drawing of Julius Caesar in my dad's Shakespeare collection of plays. His deep set eyes, the color of swimming pool water, follow me as I get a glass from the cupboard and turn on the faucet. Inside the kitchen walls I hear the water chug up through the pipes then out of the tap into my glass as I think about the next weird thing in my life that is about to happen.
“Is he staying with us?” I say to Mom between gulps, knowing the answer already. Mom looks surprised. “How did you know? Yes, he's staying with us for awhile,” she says, patting the top of Uncle Wade's pale hand. “Won't it be nice, Claudia, to have a man around again?”
“Does Burke know?” I say. My brother should get a vote, and so should I. But we won't. Mom made up her mind after Dad died last year that as soon as Uncle Wade got out he was coming to live with us. I know this because I read every letter Uncle Wade wrote Mom from prison. So she wouldn't know I had rummaged through her box of secret stuff in the closet, every letter was refolded perfectly.
Some letters I read twice, especially the ones that mentioned the fire and the last one that said a friend named Raleigh Crowe would be dropping him off at our house after he was released on the morning of June 16.
Today is June 16.
Uncle Wade cracks his knuckles then stands up. “After four long years, those beers hit the spot.” He picks up a small black duffle bag from the corner, a worn out plastic bag, and a carton of Kools. “Where should I stash my things?”
“Is that all you brought?” I ask.
“It's enough,” he says, jamming the Kools underneath his arm.
“You'll stay in Burke's room until we can make some more permanent arrangements,” Mom says and starts to walk out of the kitchen, Uncle Wade following.
I say to Mom again: “Did you ask Burke about this?”
Uncle Wade stops behind Mom. “Fiona, I'm not taking your kid's bed. Let me bunk on the couch.”
My dad died on that couch. We should have buried it with him. We sit our butts on it. Lay on it. Now Uncle Wade wants to sleep on it.
“Yes, Claudia, Burke knows about this,” Mom says, bothered with explaining. “Plus, it won't matter anyhow since he never sleeps in his own bed.”
This is true. But once again, Burke and I are not allowed to tell Mom how we feel. “Feeling something,” she always says, “doesn't always make it real.”
* * *
Burke usually sleeps next to the cool air register on the floor in the hallway outside Mom's closed bedroom door. He wants to sleep with Mom but she won't let him. She doesn't want him to become a mamma's boy. Sometimes, if Burke's having a bad dream or can't sleep, he'll climb in bed with me. Lots of times I'll have to ask him if he's been crying because his face is all wet when he puts his head on my pillow. Usually he says no, but tonight, he says yes.
“Why?” I say.
“I forget what Dad's voice sounds like,” he says.
“Who cares?” I say, even though I, too, am ashamed about all the things I've forgotten. Instead of admitting this, I say, “Go to sleep.”
Tony Bennett is singing “The Best Is Yet to Come.” Mom and Uncle Wade are talking over the loud music, and I'm wondering why it doesn't sound loud to them. Maybe Uncle Wade went partially deaf in prison? Maybe Mom is trying to make his first night of freedom perfect because he wasn't allowed to listen to music? Burke and I get up and squeeze together behind the partially open bedroom door peeking between the door hinges down at them in the living room.
Mom is sitting on the couch, her feet curled under her, smoking a cigarette. “You did a bad thing and paid the price.That doesn't mean you're a bad person.”
“Oh, that makes me feel so much better about everything,” he says, his voice sounding wet, slow and mad. Uncle Wade tips his beer bottle back, and then adds it to the empties collecting on the coffee table.
“Joanna and the kids will forgive you,” Mom says. “One day, you'll see, they'll want you back in their lives.”
Uncle Wade lets out a long sigh then starts to laugh. “Just like Henry? He was pretty forgiving, huh?”
“Henry didn't understand you, that's all,” Mom says, and I wonder what my dad didn't understand about Uncle Wade. Many times Mom had tried to tell Dad how Uncle Wade saved her from their alcoholic parents. When Uncle Wade came home from the Navy he bought her clothes, cooked for her, and walked her to school every morning. The other two brothers left for the service and never came back. One died in Korea, the other in a car accident two weeks after he was drafted. She said Uncle Wade cared enough to come home to Detroit and rescue her from her parents' gypsy lifestyle. They moved, Mom said, every time the rent was due.
No matter what she told him, Dad didn't care about Uncle Wade's good deeds. “The bum's not welcome,” he would say.
From the letters, I know Joanna, Uncle Wade's wife, was the one who got him in trouble. I have a fuzzy memory of Aunt Joanna: black hair with orange showing through and eyes like a sad dog. She was at Dad's funeral, all droopy and runny looking. She made a honking sound blowing her nose as she stood over my dad's casket and didn't seem to care people turned to stare. I remember liking her instantly for that.
The hi-fi arm lifts up after Tony's last song and goes through its ticking motions before clicking off. Except for the insect racket outside the front screen door, the house is suddenly quiet. The smoky air in the living room still vibrates from the music as Mom walks around turning the lights off. Uncle Wade picks up his Kools and lighter from the coffee table and climbs the stairs to Burke's room.
* * *
Later that night, I cross the lawn, then the Ludwigs' driveway, and shuffle up to their front door. My feet are cold and wet and the hem on my pajama bottom is soaked. I don't remember opening the screen door or jiggling the door knob.
It wasn't the first time I tried to get into the next door neighbor's house in the middle of the night, but it would be the last. I had been to the Ludwig's twice before, but always rang the bell. At 3 a.m. if the doorbell rang, they knew it was the sleepwalking eleven year old from next door. Not tonight. Mr. Ludwig almost pulls the trigger on his shotgun when the door pushes open. Mein Gott! Mrs. Ludwig says to Mom later that night, Mr. Ludwig didn't have his glasses on and hesitated for a moment, realized it wasn't a burglar but me and cursed in German for five minutes before taking me home.
* * *
The sound of pounding wakes me. My pj bottoms are still damp around my ankles. I change and trudge down the stairs to the living room. Uncle Wade is standing on a step stool in jeans saggy at the butt, and he's attaching a small chain to the top of the front door.
With nails pinched between his teeth, he mumbles to himself. I watch for a minute then ask, “What are you doing?”
At the sound of my voice he teeters on the stool, dropping nails and the hammer to the floor.
“Shit, don't come up on a person like that,” he says. “You always so sneaky?”
He picks the hammer up off the floor, climbs back up on the stool and pounds the last nail in and slides the chain into the track. Stepping off the stool, Uncle Wade opens the front door to test the lock. The chain goes tight with the door open just inches.
“Now you can't escape in the middle of the night.”
“Did my mom say you could do that?”
“Whose idea do you think it was?”
* * *
The next evening I'm hiding in my bedroom. Mom is working late. Burke is with his friend Kenny riding bikes. Mal went bowling with her parents.
Uncle Wade and his friend, Raleigh, are in the living room watching a baseball game on TV. My diary is open in front of me, balanced on the folds in my bedspread. I reread the paragraph about Uncle Wade and Raleigh: They are too different to be friends with each other. Uncle Wade is the greaser. Raleigh the frat. Raleigh looks like Paul Simon with glasses. Uncle Wade bosses him around like he bosses us around. I hate him and wish he'd go back to prison where he belongs. How do you know someone is never going to do anything bad again? Can you see goodness in their eyes? And then I start writing about fire, the soft kind that you can watch forever. Like a campfire, or fireplace fire. Mom has forbidden all fires this summer and now I miss them even more. All the time I think I smell things burning.
The Ludwigs are cooking over charcoal. I don't even ha veto look out my bedroom window to know those fumes that seep through my screen are Mr. Ludwig's famous bratwursts. I am suddenly hungry and remember I forgot to eat dinner.
Climbing off the bed I open my bedroom door. From the top of the stairs I see Uncle Wade sitting Indian style on the floor next to Raleigh. He has fallen asleep on his stomach in front of the TV. Uncle Wade is holding something over Raleigh's calf. Scrunching down behind the iron banister I watch him carefully place a lit cigarette sideways over the leg singeing off curly black hairs one at a time. Raleigh doesn't move. His madras shirt is twisted up around his waist. His black framed glasses sit in the middle of empty beer cans.
Uncle Wade appears transfixed on Raleigh's calf, like a doctor looking for a stuck splinter. Maybe Raleigh has a splinter? A leech he needs to get off? No, it's something else. Uncle Wade looks too peaceful. Usually, everything upsets him. The hum of lawnmowers early in the morning, or the sun shining too brightly. I wonder if this is how the fire started. Maybe I'm next, I wonder, as I look down at the blond hairs on my legs.
Down the stairs, out the front door and across the yard I run. Barreling around the corner I startle Mr. Ludwig, who, with large tongs in his hand holds them up like a weapon. “ Vat ! he says, maybe wondering if I'm sleepwalking early tonight?
“Nothing,” I say, catching my breath. “It's nothing,” not wanting him to struggle with understanding in English what I have just witnessed. Is there a German word for “Freakazoid?”
I watch Mr. Ludwig cook a bratwurst for him and one for me and I eat it standing up watching the coals' red embers glow and pulse like the beating heart of Jesus on my dad's funeral card. He was right all along about Uncle Wade.
“ Gut?” ” he says.
“Yeah, good,” I say. “Thank you. I was starving.”
I've said too much, or said it too quickly. He looks confused.
Mr. Ludwig takes me by the hand like I am asleep and walks me back across the lawn to my front door. I've gotten loose again, he must think, and now he needs to show me the way home.
Walking by the picture window I see Mom in the living room cleaning up the beer cans. In the yellow light of the lamp she looks tired, her shoulders curved in like apostrophe marks.
“Thanks again, Mr. Ludwig,” I say, pulling open the screen door.
“Oh, Claudia, there you are,” Mom says, pushing her shoulders back. “Where's Wade and Raleigh?”
“Once again, they left a shitty mess for me to clean up. Do you smell something burning?” Mom says.
I want to tell her, but I can't. How do I make her understand that something really bizarre happened in this room less than an hour ago? Would she believe me?
“I ate at the Ludwigs', in case you were wondering,” I say, not wanting her to think I had anything to do with the mess.
* * *
I push the dresser over to the bedroom door and barricade myself in. If a fire starts somewhere in the house I will climb out my bedroom window using tied sheets from the bed. I've seen people do this in movies. Burke will have a straight shot from the hallway floor where he sleeps to the stairs and down and out the front door to safety. Or he can wake up Mom and go out the bedroom window with her.
While I sit on the floor forcing myself to visualize all the escape routes, the moon outside the window casts a hazy light on a hole in the wall where the dresser used to be. I stick two fingers in and feel around. The edges are ragged and I feel wood on either side of the opening. This is a special find, I think, a secret place to hide things. I'm not sure how the hole got there but Mom will surely blame me for causing it if I tell her about it.
* * *
“Claudia?” Burke bangs the bedroom door into the dresser trying to get into my room the next morning.
I get up and shove the dresser over covering up the hole, the edges of the wood legs pulling at the carpet. Burke looks at me funny because I'm still in the clothes I wore yesterday.
A big smile makes the freckles on his nose spread out across his face.
“Two dogs!” Burke sings. “One for you and one for me. Freckles is mine. Moonie is yours.
I rub eye crust deeper into my lashes. The sun's rays are hot through the thin flat curtains above my bed. The whole room is sticky warm and my head aches from sleeping on the floor all night. I want to climb in bed, but Burke's excitement is catchy. He's talking, so this must be a big deal since Burke never talks.
“What dogs?” I say.
“Come see,” he says.
I follow Burke downstairs and out the kitchen door. We watch at a distance as Uncle Wade and Raleigh command the white dog with rusty colored patches to “Stay.” The dog isn't listening and instead paces back and forth pulling the leash out as far as it will go. The other dog, gray with brown spots is named Moonie. He watches the white one for a minute, then follows its lead. Raleigh yanks at Moonie's leash and the dog sits obediently. That dog's mine, I think proudly, the dog that listens.
“God damnit, Raleigh, what the hell did you do to these hounds?”
Raleigh's legs, which I imagine are hairless and red with burn blisters, are stuffed into khakis. “Fed and ran them for you like you asked,” he says, his large glasses making his eyes appear twice their size.
“They're skittish and spooked. Not the same dogs when I left.”
“They'll warm up,” Raleigh says. “Give them time. They just have to get used to you again.”
I picture the dogs howling and scratching at a door trying to get out of the house as flames and smoke close in on them.
* * *
In Mom's closet is the special box where she keeps all Uncle Wade's letters. The letters came addressed t o Mrs. Fiona Goodwin in a scratchy, old fashioned handwriting, all sent in the same kind of thin blue envelope. I read all of them, even the boring parts about his lawyer and parole stuff. The first one was dated two weeks after my dad's funeral.
In the letters, Uncle Wade never says he was guilty of burning his house down while Aunt Joanna and his kids slept, just that he was “crazy with love” for them even though they didn't want him living with them anymore. Later, in another letter he said that if he couldn't live in the house he bought and paid for, then none of them could either.
* * *
Mal thinks I'm lucky to have two dogs to take care of, but after we've walked them around the block at least six times, she's tired and so are the dogs. Mom won't let Freckles and Moonie live in the house one more night so Uncle Wade and Raleigh Crowe are building a pen behind the back of our garage.It's our job to keep the dogs entertained until it's ready.
The best part is the dog house that sits in the far corner at the back of the pen. It has a peaked roof and a window box with plastic flowers. Raleigh Crowe brought this over in the back of his pick up truck.
Mal and I and the two dogs drink from the garden hose, then lay down on the grass under the front yard tree where there's shade. It's hot and humid and only 10:30 in the morning. There's haze in the air. Even the grass feels lukewarm on our backs. The dogs pant but don't sit or lay down.
Freckles and Moonie look off in opposite directions down Vermont Street as if waiting to be rescued.
“How long do you get to keep them?” Mal says.
“Forever, I guess.”
“Maybe they'll get friendlier or just used to you real quick,” she says.
“I probably wouldn't have picked out these two if I had a choice.” I say, disappointed Mal doesn't like my dogs. “At least we have dogs and not an old cat or a snake.” Mal's cat is like a hundred years old and doesn't do anything but sleep. Her brother Drew used to have a snake but threw it at some girls at recess and the snake snuck off into some bushes never to be found again.
I quickly tell Mal she can play with my dogs anytime she wants after feeling sorry for what I said. After all, she is the only person I know who doesn't treat me differently since my dad died. Sometimes she's nice to me, sometimes not.
* * *
That night I close my eyes and see our house on fire. Flames shooting up from every room in the house, the furniture melting into the floor like the water soaked Wicked Witch does in the Wizard of Oz . I grab at the air and holler trying to get someone's attention to help put out the flames but I pull emptiness to me instead. I reach for a body to hang on to like a person drowning, but I am always alone.
In the morning my arms are sore from fighting an imaginary fire. Through the bedroom wall, I can hear Uncle Wade snoring in Burke's room. I push the dresser back in front of the hole, put on some clothes, and head downstairs.
“You're like fruit,” my mom tells me after seeing the black and blue marks on my arms, “you bruise too easily.”
* * *
The next night, Mom is in the kitchen cooking dinner, roast chicken with potatoes. After setting the table, I help her chop up some carrots for the salad. We haven't had a real dinner like this in a long time. Mostly it's cheese sandwiches and Twinkies or handfuls of peanuts, whatever Burke and I can find in the pantry. His favorite meal is Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, but I never make it when Mom's around. She doesn't let me use the stove. Her skin isn't red anymore but still looks wavy like hardened lava in places from the time, by mistake, I turned the burner up under the pressure cooker and it blew up in her face. It was an accident I can't be forgiven for because every time I look at her I'm reminded of what I did.
Mom buzzes around the kitchen in her work clothes, a pink and orange shift with large patterns like puzzle pieces and big white hoop earrings. She's a Mazzy Girl for Mazzy Electronics. Mazzy Girls work the showroom floor selling stereos and 8track tape players. On the weekends, she's a hostess at The Lamplighter. There, she wears a short skirt and white blouse. Her clothes shout “look at me” and most people do.
“It's hotter than Hades in here,” Mom says, looking at my long shirt and pants. “Why don't you have shorts on?” She doesn't wait for an answer but tells me to grab a different knife from the drawer.
Mom's barefoot and humming and hasn't acted this happy in a long time. It makes me happy, too. But I still ask her, “Why can't it be just the three of us again? You, me, and Burke, and no one else?”
Like the sun, it's always hard to look at Mom directly but I do anyway hoping that by staring and wishing hard she might say the answer I want to hear: “You're right. It will only be the three of us. That's our family now.”
Instead, she says, “Convenience matters to me very much,” and goes back to chopping carrots. Then, turning her body to face mine, adds, “It's a couple's world out there, Claudia. It's hard to be a single woman. Some day you might understand this. With a man around, it feels safer.”
“Not to me,” I say. Burke and I should be enough for her.
“Besides, Wade is a big help around here,” she says.
So far all Uncle Wade has done is chain me in at night and build a pen for Freckles and Moonie.
I hate her at this moment. How does love and hate work at the same time?
Her watch is lying on the counter near the phone, the watch my dad gave her for their anniversary the month before he died. She doesn't deserve it anymore. The tiny diamonds along the face twinkle if the sun catches them on an angle. Will time stop if she doesn't have that watch to look at everyday? I take it and put it in my pants pocket when she's not looking.
That night, after sliding the dresser in front of my bedroom door, I feel my dad watching me from heaven, his eyes shining through the black sky, then through the roof of our house into my bedroom as I drop the watch down the hole in the wall and hear it land with a tiny thump.
* * *
“Have you seen my watch?” Mom asks the next morning before leaving for work.
I try to say the words I've been practicing: I saw Uncle Wade take it. But I can't. “No, I haven't.” Which is half true,
* * *
Every morning now I wake early to take care of the dogs. Burke and I are supposed to take turns hosing down the dog pen and feeding them and filling their water dishes with cold water.
But since I'm up before him to move the dresser back, I get the dog work done by myself then sit out on the street curb and wave to the neighborhood dads driving off to their jobs.
Before, when my Dad was getting ready for work, I used to love to watch him flip the tails of his tie over and around each other until a perfect little knot formed at his throat. His fingers moved fast like a magician. He even yanked his jacket sleeves up over his shirt cuffs to clear his wrists, as if he were about to perform a trick. He'd leave every morning and always come back in the evening. The big trick now would involve bringing him back from the dead. “Not going to happen,” Mom says. So I sit and wave at the other dads. Most of them wave back. A few ignore me. Like my dad, they all do something for one of the car companies.
After the funeral, some of the neighbors would cut the grass or invite Burke to a Tiger game with their family. My aunts and uncles would come over with food and sometimes with books of Green Stamps they had saved and gave to Mom so she could buy a new toaster or set of towels.
But we don't see anybody anymore. The whole world is shrinking day by day like a balloon losing its air slowly, very slowly, as all the people that used to matter disappear from our lives.
* * *
Today is the first anniversary of my dad's death. His heart gave up on June 29. So far, no one seems to remember. Maybe I should bring it up to remind people, but then wonder what's the point. I remember the sad dopey looks in their eyes during the funeral. Is this how I want to see people all day today?
Uncle Wade is sitting in the lawn chair, his feet resting in the water of the blow-up pool Burke and I haven't used since last summer. He's wearing Dad's swim trunks. Burke is sitting on the grass next to him sipping off a beer like he's an expert at it. What a show off, I think.
“Well, there she is,” Uncle Wade says, jiggling the ice cubes in his glass. “Where've you been hiding?”
“I'm not hiding,” I say wishing to get around him to the garage to get my bike. I'm riding over to Mal's and don't want to talk to him.
Burke takes a long swig off the beer and props it back up against Uncle Wade's chair.
“You'll get in trouble for that,” I tell Burke.
He slurs, “Mom?” then shrugs. Uncle Wade laughs with his mouth full of ice. “A man of few words,” he mumbles. Burke looks up at Uncle Wade with a smile then pushes his fingers down into a fist cracking his knuckles, imitating Uncle Wade's irritating habit.
“So, tell me,” he says, “Weren't you the one to find your Dad?”
“What do you mean?” A plane buzzes overhead as if sending a signal to my brain. My ears start to ring. Is this his way of asking me how crappy today feels? A year after my dad's death and now he's living with us? Burke looks at me with bloodshot eyes.
“Finding him. After his heart attack. Weren't you the only one in the house?”
“You were?” Burke asks.
“So what,” I say to Uncle Wade.
“I was just wondering, that's all.”
And I realize Mom must have told Uncle Wade everything in her letters. I was the cause of Dad's death. That morning I saw him on the couch clenching his fists, and I sat there and did nothing. I was the only one in the house. I had gotten up late, thrown on a pink shirt and shorts, tied up my red Keds and sat at the top of the stairs, elbows on my knees, my own fists propping up my chin, already bored with another hot summer day. Never asking Dad if he was sick, if he needed help. Never thinking of calling an ambulance, although that's what Mom did the minute she walked in the front door and saw him lying there and me just sitting on those steps. I didn't move. Did I think he was sleeping? I can't even remember how I felt at that exact moment. I didn't even have the guts to ask Mal if what I failed to do meant I was guilty of his death. There's stealing and burning down houses, but can you go to jail or prison for not doing enough when you should have? What if Mal said, “Yes”? Then what?
Maybe Uncle Wade is my punishment, sent by God to punish me for killing my dad. I guess I deserve it. I guess I deserve him.
* * *
It is the week after the Fourth of July. The summer half over. Burnt out sparklers litter the lawn. Every time Burke gets going along with the mower, he has to stop to pick up another one. His feet are green from cutting the grass barefoot. It was supposed to be Uncle Wade's job today, but the ladies are over again.
Almost every afternoon one or two of the neighborhood moms come over to chat with Uncle Wade while he sits in the lawn chair dangling his feet in the pool water. At the sound of unfamiliar voices Freckles and Moonie bark from behind the garage where no one can see them. Usually Uncle Wade turns the hose on them to get them to shut up. Otherwise everyone just ignores the yelping.
The “to do” list Mom had written when Uncle Wade came to stay with us sits next to the phone, the paper curling around the edges. Clean out gutters, paint fence, trim tree in the front—the ink smeared from water spots and spills, but still readable.
The neighbor moms like Uncle Wade. He's tan and filling out from beer and laziness. He looks unafraid than when he first arrived, when Mom still seemed in charge of everything.
Part of these afternoon chats includes drinking a Tupperware pitcher full of alcoholic drinks one of them has mixed up and set in the pool to keep cool. When the pitcher is empty they start on beer until about 4:30 when the moms start gathering up their things to beat their husbands home from work.
Sometimes I'm stuck watching their kids. Most days, though, I try not to come home until dinner time when I know my mom is home from work and Uncle Wade has gone to sleep off his afternoon of fun in Burke's old bedroom.
I've come home to look for Tiger Beat to take over to Mal's when Mom pulls up in the driveway, home early from work. I haven't cleaned up the kitchen from Uncle Wade's party and Mom is going to have a fit when she sees the mess. I take the magazine with me into my bedroom and hide behind the door, spying on her through the door hinges.
Mom whams her purse down on the dining room table. “Wade!” she yells.
After what seems like a year, Burke's bedroom door opens.
“What is it?” Uncle Wade says like he has peanut butter stuck to the top of his mouth.
“What is it?” Mom answers back. “The first thing to greet me as I pull up to my house after working all day is the smell of dog shit from those barking beasts. And then I get to come in to this pigsty of a kitchen! What was the party for? Don't tell me you finally found a job?”
“Do we really need to do this now?” he says.
“I want to know what your plans are. Tell me, Wade, do you have a plan?” Mom puts a hand on her hip.
“I'm working on it.”
“Really? Does working on it include taking money out of my wallet and stealing things from the house?”
“I don't know what you're talking about,” he says, his voice sounding dry and unemotional.
I squeeze tighter into my little space.
“I know you, Wade. I know what you're capable of,” Mom screams.
“You don't know jack shit,” Uncle Wade says.
Mom takes off a high heel and throws it up over the iron railing toward Wade. He slams the bedroom door just as the shoe hits and bounces onto the slice of hallway floor I see through the door hinge.
* * *
The big dinners are over. Now when Mom gets home from work she mixes herself a Seven and Seven, heads up to her bedroom and closes the door. Raleigh Crowe picks Uncle Wade up in the afternoons and he doesn't get home until dark. One night, Mom got mad and slid the chain lock in place at the top of the door to lock Uncle Wade out. He just popped the kitchen screen out and slid through. In the morning the house was full of mosquitoes because he never put the screen back in.
Burke and I have grown tired of taking care of Freckles and Moonie and let the pen go, sometimes remembering to feed the dogs and sometimes not. Someone calls the police because of the constant barking.
* * *
I've put on my green tutu from last year's ballet recital. It still fits, though it's tight through the torso. Mal is spreading rouge over my cheeks while eating another stolen box of Snow-caps. The rim of her mouth is muddy and sticky.
“You're going to get caught,” I say.
“They won't miss a couple of boxes of candy,” Mal says.
“Do you know the trouble you could get into to?”
“What are you, my mother?”
I smear on Mom's white lipstick, Mal teases the hair on the top of my head. We gaze at the greaser ballerina staring back at us in the mirror.
“Wow,” Mal says. “You're completely not you.”
That's the idea, I think.
* * *
I walk Mal down to the front door in my tutu and tights, my hair sprayed up with Mom's Aqua Net. Mal climbs on her bike, flashes me the peace sign and rides off. I turn to my mom sitting on the couch with her back to me, smoking a cigarette,the fan in the corner blowing the exhaled clouds above her head and out the screen door.
“Uncle Wade stole your watch,” I say. “I saw him steal it.”
Mom turns around, her eyes dark with suspicion. “What did you just say? And why are you dressed like that?”
* * *
Later that night I wake up having to go to the bathroom. With hands and hips, I pull the dresser back, open the door and quickly walk down the hall. The lights are off in the living room. The TV's on but the sound is turned down. The red tip of Mom's cigarette glows like a small faraway signal. She's thinking; I can tell by the way she stares straight ahead. Burke is asleep on the floor in the hallway and I stumble over his foot watching Mom smoking that cigarette, the red glow alive.
The barking wakes me up later. It's still night. I climb up to the window. Raleigh Crowe is leaning up against the fake dog house pointing a flashlight at Freckles and Moonie, the dogs leaping up at the light.
My bedroom door is wide open. The living room lights are on. Mom is sitting on the couch crying. It's that small hiccupping sound she makes when she's been crying for awhile. I get out of bed wondering if she's upset because I was sleepwalking and maybe close to getting shot again.
Uncle Wade is standing above her stabbing the air with his finger, a cigarette between his red knuckles, lecturing Mom about something.
“Don't call me Ma,” Mom says. “You know I hate that word.”
“You are Ma,” Uncle Wade says. “As much as you hated her, you've become her.”
“Oh, God Wade, just get out. Take your dogs and leave.”
I walk down the stairs into the living room. There is a dull stare in Uncle Wade's eyes as if the blue has washed out. His sunburned forehead creases for a moment.
“Look at you all high and mighty,” he says. “You are awake, aren't you?”
“Claudia, go back to bed,” Mom says, exhausted. “I can't deal with you right now.”
“What's going on?” I say, waiting to hear which lie or secret swirling in my head I will be called upon to spill my guts about. I feel a sense of relief knowing it will all be out of me in a moment if Mom asks what the truth is. Or, I can pretend to be asleep.
Uncle Wade looks surprised at the smile on my face. Then, as if he put on a Halloween mask, his eyes narrow, his mouth goes long and tight. “You're nothing but a sneaky little bitch. You know what you've done? Don't you?”
“Get out!” Mom shouts.
She stands up. “Now.”
I want to ask: Do you mean stealing the watch, or killing my dad?
“Yeah, get out,” I shout above Mom, “before you burn us out, too.”
* * *
A week later, Burke is back in his own bed, Mom is still taking her drink with her to the bedroom after work, but the house is finally quiet. The dogs are gone, the cyclone pen dismantled, the trash cans moved back to their spot in back of the garage. The only sign the dogs were ever there are the stains on the concrete in patterns and shapes that look like the continents of the world from my bedroom window.
* * *
Toward the end of summer, I wake up in the middle of the night and head downstairs. Mom hasn't been setting the chain lock because I haven't been sleepwalking. The door is open, the porch light off. Mom is sitting in the lawn chair looking up at the sky.
“Are you awake or asleep?” she says.
Moths dive bomb into the screen to get at the yellow light from the lamp in the living room.
“Wide awake,” I say. “What are you doing?”
“I couldn't sleep,” is all she says. “Come here.”
I open the door and step outside. The cement porch slab is cold beneath my feet. Mom gets out of the chair and comes toward me putting her arms around me. She feels stiff at first then softer when she kisses the top of my head and says she loves me and everything will be better now.
It wasn't though. It never got much better.
She squeezes me harder. “What would I do without you?”
I look up over her shoulder at the stars, everything seems useless and far away, but beautiful in a weird way, and I wonder what will become of us. Just the three of us.