Excuse me, who are you? Ronnie asked. She had her sassy mouth on, but was still trying to be kind, as though the man were one of the rich neighbor kids who wouldn’t play with us.
Image by Rudy Cremonini, Swimming pool party, 2013. Courtesy Galerie Thomas Fuchs
It was the summer our parents got divorced. Mary was five, I was eight, and Ronnie was ten. Five, eight, and ten. Even before Mom told us, the house entered a fevered state—the hot air thrumming, the walls damp with fuzzy moisture. She had a way of trying to keep my sisters and me from unpleasantness, and during those long, hot weekends, she would send us from the house. Girls, go ride your bikes, she said. Go play with the neighbors. The rich neighbor kids with their freckled noses and heads of thick, preppy hair, cut short and boyish—they ignored us, did not once invite us over. We viewed them as one might celebrities, as people who you recognized but who did not, in turn, recognize you. Around their property ran a tall white fence and from our backyard we could hear them across the street splashing in their pool; we could see their heads popping up above that fence as they leaped from the diving board into the water. For me, the scenes taking place inside that yard were central, real, and whatever was happening inside our home—Mom closing the front door despite the heat, Dad talking fast and sharp into her ear—was the thing keeping us on the other side of their fence.
Our dad was a drinker—a drinking man, I would overhear my mom say—and during his last weeks before leaving, he drank more. I remember but one night from this time. Mom was working late at a dentist’s office an hour out of town, and Dad was on the living room recliner, tilting his head back to drink from a can of beer, then setting it down on the side table. His drinking seemed to coordinate with the setting of the sun: one gold can and then another disappearing, the light outside moving from blond dusk to dark. I felt uneasy, but couldn’t say why. We were doing just what we always did—Ronnie and Mary and I sat drawing quietly at the dining room table, looking up from time to time to the TV in the other room—but our movements felt slow and intentional, as men floating weightlessly in space.
After the local news, Ronnie rose and turned on the tall lamp in the corner. It was like someone folding shut a large book, the pages closing heavy and certain—upstairs a door creaked open—because with the lamp on I realized what was bothering me: all the shades were up. The night had fully darkened and the lights were burning in the house so that we could not see the world outside, but it could see us. Ronnie squinted at her reflection in the window. She was tall and slender, already moving past the white-blonde hair Mary and I still wore, the soft flesh of our adolescence. Because of Ronnie’s height and graceful posture, people often thought her older than ten. She occupied that maturity most naturally in our mother’s absence, giving Mary her baths and telling us—as with a guiding hand on the smalls of our backs—when to brush our teeth, when she thought we hadn’t eaten enough. I often felt myself waiting for her to tell me what to do.
Putting a hand on her hip, she looked into the living room where Dad’s head had fallen back, his eyes closed and feet up. At the table Mary yawned and scratched the side of her neck.
Ronnie said, Come on, Mary. Let’s go to bed. I’ll read you your book.
The two of them trudged slowly upstairs, Ronnie’s hand on her shoulder. I went into the living room, dark save for the light of the television. Dad’s face was small, his cheeks and chin bony, scattered with blond, wiry hair. When I think of him now, I see him as I did that evening, his face still, yet seeming to move away from me, as though at the end of a long hallway.
I put my hands on his arm.
Dad. I pushed gently. Dad, wake up.
He sighed, opened his eyes to dull slits, and said my name: Frannie. Then he crossed his arms over his chest and closed his eyes. I climbed over the side and wedged myself between him and the recliner’s arm.
Hey, there, he said, shifting, putting me in an awkward embrace, my arms pinned to my sides, my head hard against his bony shoulder. If he hugged me, it was like this—uncomfortable and stiff—like he didn’t quite know how to do it, as though I were a pillow he held onto for some absentminded comfort. His breathing grew sleep-heavy, his arms loosening, and my body began to slide into a crease in the chair, its fake leather cool and slippery. I felt a sharp fear that I was falling into an unretrievable space, that I would fall and fall and forever be away from Mom and Dad and Ronnie and Mary. I imagined a blackness that was so complete it erased even their memory of me. They would not notice my absence, I decided. They would not even look. Then Dad cleared his throat and said, Go to bed, Frannie. He turned away, curling deeper into sleep, and I unwedged myself from the chair and went up to my dark bedroom.
He left the following week with little fanfare. I don’t remember boxes being filled or boxes carried from the house or the image of his car loaded with boxes. I remember only weeks later, my mother talking on the phone to some unknown listener, her whisper crisp with intent: He had his problems, she said. It was my choice, but truth be told, he couldn’t wait to leave. He was just itching to get gone. A man unto himself, as they say. It sounded like she’d listened to the country station for too long and had internalized its string of sassy, heartbroken-woman clichés.
She started working Saturdays at the dentist’s office in town. Buying school supplies and new clothes hadn’t been easy before, but now, even with child support, I felt the weight of her steady denials at the grocery store, the pharmacy. No. No, she would say quietly and then look away, pushing the cart out ahead of her. Saturday mornings she would drive us out to the edge of our small farming town where my great-grandmother lived in a white clapboard house at the intersection of two gravel roads. One road ran out into corn and dust and hot light, and the other snaked between a shadowy forest and muddy creak, the latter aptly named Widows Road. My great-grandfather died in that house before Ronnie was born, a heart attack falling him as he was returning from work. The steel-gray mailbox at the front of the property bore his name, BULLOCK, the block letters scrawled angry and childlike.
Even after a man from down the road sneaked in the back one afternoon and went through Grandma’s fridge, she kept both doors open for the breeze.
Through the house’s front door were the living room, a dark hallway and pantry, kitchen, and then back door, which opened out onto a treeless swath of sun-bleached grass. We had been told that it was bad luck for the doors of a house to line up in this way, for someone to be able to stand in the threshold of one and see clear through to the other. Something about good spirits too easily entering and then exiting the house. But there was no changing it. Even after a man from down the road sneaked in the back one afternoon and went through Grandma’s fridge, she kept both doors open for the breeze.
In the afternoons when she watched her soaps in the living room—the volume turned to its highest setting—my sisters and I would creep up to the second floor, the steep wooden stairs hidden behind a crystal-knobbed door off the kitchen. A closed door at the top of the stairs, and on the other side, a series of rooms. When I think of those rooms, I am alone in them. Just as in dreams, I am the sole protagonist. It is Me and the Rooms. Me and Them. I see the low ceiling and the living room’s long, mauve couch without anyone sitting there. But I know I am wrong. I was too scared of the space to have ever ventured up without Mary or Ronnie, the three of us on hands and knees, crawling, searching. Still, in my memory, when I see a dead cockroach behind the flower stand—crisp, flipped onto its back, legs curled—I am the only one who sees it, it is always my small fingers picking it up.
The whole place was furnished—the couch, a Formica table in the kitchen, a small, black television on a short stand—but it was otherwise blank. Mom had told us that the space was once rented out to itinerants. Drifters, she said, men looking for work on the surrounding farms or passing from one side of the country to the other. But after my great-grandpa died, Great-Grandma decided she didn’t want people coming and going, and she closed it up.
We would bring our books or poke around to see what we could find: a stack of yellowed Farmer’s Almanacs and Look magazines next to the couch, empty mouse traps inside the kitchen cabinets. Other times we’d sit at the kitchen table and play house. Ronnie was the father and I was the mother and Mary was the child. Ronnie would boss me and Mary would pretend to cry or get worked up and cry for real and I would say, Shush shush shush, little child. And Ronnie would say things like, Baby, you’d better hush, or, Wife, it’s time for you to make me supper. Because I’m the man of the house, that’s why, despite never hearing anything like it from our parents’ mouths. Ronnie would pretend to read the paper and I would pretend to wash the dishes and Mary would draw the three of us standing before a blank landscape, a single, uncurving line, and when we heard the theme music change on Grandma’s TV, we would snake back downstairs with our tracing paper and crayons and books, and refill the spaces on the living room floor or couch where our bodies had once been, as though we’d never left.
It was a hot Saturday. Ronnie and me on the living room floor, pushing around a set of cars Great-Grandma had saved from old Cracker Jack boxes. Mary asleep on the couch with her head in Great-Grandma’s lap. She was too old for regular naps, but Grandma still laid her down after lunch and stroked her hair until she fell sleep. Mary’s thumb was in her mouth—a habit no one was trying very hard to break in her—and her white-blonde bangs had fallen over her eyes. I wanted to reach out and smooth the hair away from her face, but before I could, the roaring theme music of Days of Our Lives opened its mouth and swallowed the living room: Like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives… Mary woke, shifted, and whined. She may have gone back to sleep. She may have joined us on the floor, running parallel lines with our car wheels through the thick, green carpeting. She may have followed us when Ronnie and I rolled down the hallway, opened the door to the stairs, and then closed it behind us, ascending.
Just inside the entrance was the door to the bedroom. It was the door we would not open—by its position in the apartment, the room would be windowless, dark, and airless—so when we saw upon entering that the door was cracked, Ronnie said, Oh. And I echoed her, Oh. And Mary, who might have still been downstairs with Grandma’s fingers in her hair, said nothing. I felt the same mix of fear and excitement as when we played hide ‘n’ seek with our cousins and I would sit squatting in the back of a closet or behind a chair, crawling into some space not meant for human bodies. That tingling feeling of simultaneously wanting to giggle and needing to pee. Like before a thunderstorm when you say, It’s going to rain, and then two beats later it does, and you don’t know whether it was your own premonition or just a couple of early drops falling on your arms, because we passed the open bedroom door—that tingling still alive up and down my back—and rolled forward into the living room where we saw the man sitting on the couch.
Ronnie stopped her car and sat up on her haunches, and I, just behind her, stopped and sat up. Mary, who might not have followed us up, who might have followed us up and then left once entering the room and seeing the man, whispered, Who’s that?
The only people who wore suits were the town’s two lawyers on Water Street and Mr. Reeves, who owned the funeral home behind the diner.
The man wore a three-piece suit and a white, collared shirt. We were close enough to see that his shoes were not new, but still clean, well kept, buffed to a Sunday shine. People did not dress this way in Wilmington. It was mostly farmers in blue jeans or women in stretch pants with the cuffs stuffed into their shoes. The only people who wore suits were the town’s two lawyers on Water Street and Mr. Reeves, who owned the funeral home behind the diner. Even so, the man did not look like any other man we knew. He did not have the large, bony nose of my father or his sandy blond hair or short stature. He did not have my father’s casual, sloppy way of sitting, and he did not have my father’s extra beer flesh around his middle or his sleepy blue eyes.
Instead, the man was tall and slender, with a head of thick, wiry hair that might have been brown or black, his eyes no color I could name.
Um, excuse me, Ronnie said. She used her adult voice with her nose up, hands folded in her lap.
Moving only his head, the man looked down to regard us, his face the gray of a stone worn smooth by water.
Girls, he said. As though he were about to address us. Girls… Or with merely a sense of recognition, as though we were a pack of gazelles and he a man viewing us through a lens, pointing a long, thin finger out: I see…girls. Just there. And he said, Girls, not Girl, which is how I know that I was not alone that day, probably never alone in that room, despite my wont to blot out Mary and Ronnie and even the man himself from any of these memories.
What have you girls got there? the man asked, nodding down to the floor.
I looked to see what was in my hand.
Cars, Mary or I said, while Ronnie shot me or her or us a reproachful look.
Excuse me, who are you? Ronnie asked. She had her sassy mouth on, but was still trying to be kind, as though the man were one of the rich neighbor kids who wouldn’t play with us.
I’m the man of the house. He opened his arms, like Moses parting the Red Sea.
Ronnie raised an eyebrow.
I’m a friend of Mrs. Bullock’s, he said.
Mrs. Bullock was our great-grandmother. And she did not have any friends. Even then we knew she didn’t have friends. We knew that sometimes the kids from down the road brought her tomatoes from their garden, and that sometimes on the mail lady’s day off, she would stop by with her kids and visit and make tea for all of them, while my grandmother would tell her about the three of us and my cousins and Bo and Hope and Marlena on Days of Our Lives, all in the same breath like those characters were real and were hers and were part of her life.
Now girls, you should be playing with dolls, not these cars. Where’d you get those?
Great-Grandma, I said.
Mrs. Bullock, I said.
He nodded slowly, looking from Ronnie to me then beyond us to Mary or the carpet where she might have once been. Looking back to me he said, Might I see one of those cars? He leaned down, opening his hand.
In one memory, I never get any closer than this, than placing the tiny, blue shell of a tin car in his palm. The man was nowhere close to my great-grandma’s age, yet his skin had the same watery translucence, skin that I knew would be soft and loose upon touching it. I placed the car in his palm. I placed the car tire-side down, as if it might drive up his wrist then forearm then shoulder and into his ear. His fingers closed around it.
Woo-ee, the man whistled, holding it up. That’s a real beaut. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a fine automobile. Such a fine, tasty-looking car.
Tasty? Ronnie said.
The man put the car in his mouth. He clamped his lips down and made his mouth big with chewing. He chewed and chewed and then swallowed, making it disappear.
Ahh, the man said. Thank you, my dear. He smiled at me, showing his teeth then clicking his jaw.
I couldn’t help but laugh.
I thought about the tin of saltines in the pantry downstairs. I thought about the way Grandma overfed us, but how we ate and ate.
Ronnie shook her head at me. He didn’t really eat it, she said.
I certainly did, he said showing us his palms. A man’s gotta eat. Even in these hard times. So, so hungry. He rubbed his stomach.
I thought about the tin of saltines in the pantry downstairs. I thought about the way Grandma overfed us, but how we ate and ate. The desperate zeal from never having enough. Chicken fingers, macaroni and cheese, bananas, ice-cream bars, sliced peaches with sugar sprinkled on top. One thing after another. Then mints and gum and tea after it was all over, as though we were adult guests and not children, not little bodies with little mouths and stomachs to fill.
Grandma has some snacks, I said.
No. No, Ronnie said, turning to me. Mom had recently become miserly, overly careful with food, and Ronnie had followed suit, tin-foiling anything beyond a spoonful that she hadn’t finished.
We don’t even know if he’s Grandma’s friend.
He’s hungry, and Grandma barely eats anything.
Just because you don’t see her eat doesn’t mean she doesn’t.
I sighed deeply.
Girls, he said again, girls. This time a reproach, this time a preface, an open, hanging sigh. Girls, the man said, I’ve got an itch.
Instinctively, I scratched the back of my neck.
I’m just itching.
So, scratch yourself, Ronnie said.
It’s no good, he shrugged. I itch all over. I scratch one place, and it starts an itch somewhere else. It never ends.
That sucks, Ronnie said.
Ronnie, I hissed, poking her side. We weren’t supposed to say suck.
Ronnie? he asked, raising an eyebrow.
Veronica, she corrected.
Veronica, he said, and then, looking in my direction, asked, And who might we be?
Frannie, I said.
Frances, Ronnie corrected.
And Mary, I said to Mary beside me, who might have no longer been beside me.
Ronnie and Frannie and Mary, he said rhythmically. It’s like a little song. I’m sorry, he said putting a hand to his chest, Veronica and Frances and Mary.
Now girls, he said. About that itch. He stretched out his right leg. It’s my ankle.
You can scratch it, Ronnie told him.
Can’t reach, he replied, and he made a show of stretching down and not being able to get there.
You can so, she said. Just bend your leg.
Can’t. Too stiff, these old bones. He wrinkled up his face, leaning back.
I scooted forward.
I gave her a look, then turned back and scratched at the slice of pale skin between his sock and pant leg.
Oh, oh, he said, closing his eyes. You’re an expert scratcher, Frannie. You’ve got it. But then he dropped his leg and put up the other. He opened his eyes: Now it’s my other ankle. He shook his foot at Ronnie.
She rolled her eyes and moved forward, scratching at him as one might a stray dog.
Oh oh oh! he said again. Just like your little sis.
And Ronnie gave up a giggle, too.
We made a game of it. I itch here! he’d cry and point to his elbow and we’d scratch it. And I itch there! he’d cry and point to his shin and we’d scratch it. I itch here and here and here. We got so worked up, scratching and giggling and tickling, that the whole thing took on a life of its own and started to get away from us, started to bubble over with too much good feeling. But then we must not have gotten to a particular itch to his liking because he dropped his face into a well and said, Scratching around a thing is not the same as scratching a thing. I filled my cheeks and swallowed and felt the bottom of my stomach hollow out. I stood up from the couch, because he looked like a different man just then, a new, older man, and I saw Ronnie stiffen and heard her say, Frances, with her same tone of warning, like, Frannie, stay away from that stove, Frannie, keep your hands inside the car, Frannie, Frances, but nothing about Mary, who was not even there, who was not there and had never been there the whole time, Mary, who was climbing up onto the couch beside the older, deeper man.
When I drink, I drink too much. My nights get smudged, as water stains bleeding into newsprint. I can hold onto the headline, the lead, but the details—the walk home, all the in-betweens—lose shape somewhere in the middle of the night, and when I wake in the morning my head is a sponge, the rest of my body a mysterious bruise. It tells me something, and that’s usually: there’s more that you don’t know. Somewhere those nights have burned to ash and I no longer own them, if I ever did. It leaves me with a fear so familiar as to need no introduction, just as one can navigate even the most complicated rooms of her home in the dark.
I’ll be fine and then it’s like the furniture in my house has shifted. Nothing is where it was before.
Mary has been going to therapists on and off since high school. Ronnie says that she doesn’t believe in all that, doesn’t know what she’d talk about for an hour with a complete stranger every week. Divorce, I can hear Mary say, then a man older than her writing it down on a pad of yellow paper. Ah, yes, divorce, a puzzle piece, because I’ve seen those looks of recognition, too. I’ll be fine and then it’s like the furniture in my house has shifted. Nothing is where it was before. The bedside lamp and the spider plant start to hide from me. I’ll get dark and darker and then go to talk to one of those older men sitting in a beige armchair and it’s like I am very precisely describing a dark gray pool of water. Divorce and the man nods and asks me about my week, but we never get to the long shadow I’m pulling behind it.
I call Mary, then Ronnie.
I say, Remember that man at Great-Grandma Bullock’s?
And Mary says, What man?
And Ronnie says, There was never a man up there. That upstairs was creepy, though, she agrees. All those dead bugs. I hear her shiver over the phone. But never a man, she says.
I remember the kitchen, Mary says. You guys would yell at me until I started crying. She is matter of fact, not angry, but not happy either. In her story, we are the doers of many wrongs, and they’re the only things she can remember.
When I think of my great-grandmother’s house, I see the things farthest away from me first: the bright rectangle of sunlight coming through the back screen door, her tin of saltines in the hallway pantry, the blue and green living room with the shades pulled down. I see the front screened-in porch, my sisters and me on the tile floor, Grandma on the porch swing, all of us bathed in creamy yellow light. I see the stairs on the other side of the hallway door going up. I see the stairs going up to the second floor and Mary on the couch. Mary on the couch and the man with his hand in her hair and her thumb in her mouth. I see Ronnie’s bare slender arms moving out ahead of her, she saying, Mary. Frannie, go. Go downstairs. I see a dark circle in the light brown carpeting and me in the living room downstairs and Mary on the couch with her head in Grandma’s lap crying, with Grandma looking sad and saying, It’s a hard time for you girls. And I’ve wet myself. I remember I’m eight years old and on the floor and I’ve pissed my pants fully, all the way through, no hiding it, but Grandma hasn’t noticed yet and I’m not saying anything because I’m too old to piss my pants and it is this knowledge—too old—that gets me crying along with Mary, not thinking about my dad sleeping in a different house or my mom and my sisters and me in that big house all by ourselves eating cream of mushroom soup and toast for dinner, and I look to see if Ronnie is crying with us, to see if she’s seen that I’ve pissed myself, to see if I should be feeling what I’m feeling, but she’s not there and her cars aren’t on the floor and I don’t know where she might have gone to. And then the music is changing again on the TV that is turned up too loud and Grandma is saying, Well, shoot, I’ve seen this one before.
After that summer it wouldn’t be a year before Dad would move out of state and stop sending the child support checks, eventually disappearing altogether, and Mom’s pay at the dental office wouldn’t be enough to keep us in the house we’d grown up in. We moved into an apartment complex behind the grocery store, where I would pine for my old bedroom, while Mary would eventually come to say that she couldn’t remember the old house at all, couldn’t remember our father in it. She would suck her thumb until she was ten and then bite it absentmindedly when anxious or in deep thought. Ronnie took to reading books with dark images on the covers—teenage girls in oversized sweaters staring out windows, a look of overblown anxiety on their faces; books with shadows of butcher knives jutting across the front, the title font jagged and slashed. I’d pick them up when she finished but would stop reading before anything would happen—before the babysitter could get caught by her charges’ father, before he locked her in some hidden closet, before she could narrowly escape.
We moved into smaller and smaller apartments. Square, pale brick complexes where people smoked in the halls and yelled through the doors, no matter the hour. Mom did her best to keep things good. We’d go to the movies on discount nights, she sneaking in greasy brown bags of popcorn and cans of soda. But once during a showing of Labyrinth, the manager found her in the dark and asked that the four of us leave. That night at home we’d hear her crying in the bathroom, door shut, the three of us on the other side. Great-Grandma would pass soon after the first move, and my sisters and I would come to take care of ourselves after school, watching hour after hour of TV on the set we’d taken from her house. For dinner we ate beans and rice or noodles that looked like hay. Breakfast was oatmeal made with powdered milk, the four of us growing lean and hard, then thin and thinner, our bodies receding to bone, breath quieting to whispers, as though God were trying to erase us.
“Girls” is the 2014 Dzanc Books/Disquiet International Literary Program Award-winning short story.
Laura Adamczyk was born and raised and still lives in Illinois. Her writing has won awards from the Union League Civic & Arts Foundation of Chicago and has appeared in the Chicago Reader, Ninth Letter, PANK, Passages North, The Rumpus, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Washington Square Review, and elsewhere. She earned an MFA in fiction from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.