The worst hangovers come on the sunniest days. Even at sixteen I knew
enough to expect that. The day when Jack drove me into town to buy aspirin,
the sun was shining and the sky was the brilliant blue of a crayon drawing.
Late summer in western Pennsylvania is muggy and oppressive enough to
make your head spin even on a good day, and the air conditioning in the
truck hadn't worked for years. My stomach rolled with each curve and dip in
the road, and my head was impaled on a hot hard spike that made my eyes
throb. I felt weighed down by the heat and barely alive.
"Josie," Jack said. "Okay?"
"There's a jackhammer in my head," I said. "Other than that, I'm
"You're not helping."
"I'm driving you to get aspirin, aren't I?" he said.
We turned onto the highway, the sun hit us head-on, and I didn't
bother to answer. Jack took a pair of sunglasses from above the sun visor.
He had the radio on. The beat was jarring and obnoxious and the announcer's
voice sounded like metal on asphalt. The glare off the road made my eyes
hurt, and underneath the sourness of my whiskey-burned stomach the old
familiar dread was taking shape.
I hated going into town. Town people stared.
Meanwhile, there was Jack, undamaged and cool as you could
possibly please behind his sunglasses, just as if we hadn't been up till dawn
drinking everything but the drain cleaner under the sink. That was my brother:
it was like he was his own species, one that had sneaked a couple thousand
extrayears in while evolution was looking the other way.
"You never feel a thing, do you?" I said.
"Not like you do," he answered.
I leaned my head back against the rear window and closed my
eyes. The truck hit a pothole and my head bounced hard against the glass.
"I want a pair of sunglasses," I said.
Which was how it came to pass that instead of getting the trip to
town over with as soon as possible, the way we usually did, I found myself
wasting precious time at the revolving display rack in the drugstore, picking
up and discarding one pair of sunglasses after another as I tried to find some
that would hide me from the world and still leave me able to recognize myself
in the mirror. Jack was standing by the paperbacks, reading the back covers
of the novels.
There had been a woman standing at the cash register when we
came in. The bell over the door jingled as she left, and Jack was suddenly
standing at my elbow.
"You've got an audience," he said, and I froze, the pair of glasses
in my hand halfway to my face. I thought he meant the woman. Like I said,
people in town stared.
"No, it's okay," he said. "The kid behind the counter."
I put the glasses on, turned the rack slightly so that I could see
the boy in the mirror, and looked.
The boy behind the cash register was about my age, with longish
hair and thin, rangy limbs. He wore a black T-shirt and jeans underneath his
blue store apron. Jack was right, he was staring; but as I turned my head to
get a better look he bent hastily over the magazine that lay open on the
counter in front of him, as if he'd been reading it all along, and started flipping
through the pages too quickly to see what was on them.
"So?" I said to my brother, who looked so easy by comparison in
his old stained shirt and sleep-twisted hair.
Jack turned back to the rack of glasses and started to spin it
lazily. "He's been looking at you since we came in."
Jack said, "We're undeniably charismatic," and picked a pair of
sunglasses at random. Then he told me to go ask my new boyfriend where
the aspirin was. I said I knew where the aspirin was, but he squeezed my
elbow and said to trust him, so I did.
When the boy saw me coming, he pushed his glasses up his
nose and ran his hands through his hair.
"Aisle five," he said when I asked about the aspirin. I noticed,
almost clinically, that his glasses hid a nice set of eyelashes, for a boy. They
weren't as thick as Jack's, but they were straight and dark. His long, thin
fingers, tapping on the counter, were tanned to a rich golden brown.
He was making me nervous, this boy, watching me too closely. I
realized that I was turning the sunglasses Jack had given me over and over in
my hands, and stopped.
"They'll look good on you," the boy said shyly.
I knew I was supposed to say something in return, but I didn't
know what. So I just smiled. The smile felt strained on my lips.
Jack saved me by coming up behind me. "I found it, Jo," he said
and held up the bottle of aspirin. He took the sunglasses and put both items
on the counter. The look on his face was distant and bored.
The boy's movements were studied, too casual, as he rang us up.
His eyes kept darting up at one or the other of us. Usually me.
"You're those Raeburn kids, aren't you?" he asked as he gave us
"No, we're the other ones," Jack said and handed me the
sunglasses as we turned away.
As the door jangled behind us, the boy called, "See you around?"
as if it were a question.
Back in the battered blue truck, Jack used his keys to break the
seal on the aspirin. He pulled out the wad of cotton stuffed in the top of the
bottle and threw it out the window. Shaking out four tablets, he handed two of
them to me and took the other two himself.
I wished that we'd thought of getting something to wash the pills
down with and dry-swallowed them.
"What was all that about?" I said when I could talk.
Jack stretched his arm across the back of the seat and tugged
lightly on my braid. His green eyes were amused. He said, "He likes you."
"You're still drunk," I said.
"He couldn't take his eyes off you," Jack said. "But he could
barely talk to you, and he was afraid to look you in the eye." He
winked. "Broadcasting loud and clear, little sister."
I pulled my knees up and braced them against the dashboard. I
could still feel the pills in my throat.
"He doesn't like me," I said. "He doesn't even know me."
"He doesn't need to," Jack said, pinching my thigh. He started the
truck's tired old engine. "You're good-looking. You take after me that way."
"Ha," I said, watching Jack, the good lines of his profile and his
hair, warm and golden in the afternoon sun.
"I know, it's hard to believe," he said. "Are you going to try on
those sunglasses I bought you?"
I'd forgotten them. They were sleek and narrow and the lenses
were a deep, smoky gray. When I put them on the world went mute.
"Look at me," Jack said as we pulled up to a stoplight.
He smiled. "Beautiful."
We lived about fifteen miles outside of Janesville, on a winding road that led
through a scattering of houses collectively called the Hill. In the nineteenth
century, the Hill had been purchased, parceled, and developed by small-time
industrialists from Pittsburgh, forty miles or so to the south. They came north
to try to escape the toxins that their steel mills and coke ovens disgorged
into the air, and when the wind was blowing in the right direction, they
succeeded. When the wind was blowing in the wrong direction, they took
their families and headed up to Presque Isle to take in the cleaner breezes
that blew off the surface of Lake Erie. These folks weren't Mellons,
Carnegies, or Fricks; they were Smiths, Johnsons, and Browns. A century
later, each of them was as long forgotten as the next, but their houses still
stood: decaying old palaces that were never as grand as they wanted to be,
with overwrought architecture that was both confused and confusing.
Corinthian columns supporting veranda roofs trimmed with pale pink Victorian
gingerbread. That kind of thing. Some of them had been kept up—there was
even a "Historic Homes of Janesville" tour, which split the town's less-than-
hearty tourist trade with a lackluster establishment called the Janesville
Shipping and Transport Museum—but most of them were like ours: too
expensive to maintain and too ugly and weird to sell. Every now and again we
found outraged fliers tucked into our mailbox about some developer who was
trying to buy a chunk of land and put in a crop of split-levels. Not being
particularly community-minded, we never did anything about them.
Somebody must have, though, because none of the new houses were ever
None of the ten or so houses on the Hill was visible to its
neighbors, but most of them faced the road with vast green lawns and maple
trees whose leaves swayed gently in the breeze. Our house was higher up
the mountain and deeper into the wilderness. It sat at the end of a long,
twisting driveway, hidden from sight by a tall overgrowth of hemlock until you
were nearly at the front porch and shadowed by two huge old elms that were
the last Janesville survivors of Dutch elm disease. It was always late
afternoon under those trees, and the path leading up to the porch was always
ankle deep with dead leaves, even in the summer.
Jack and I lived there, for the most part, alone. Our father, whom
we called Raeburn, taught physics at a small college three hours away. Too
far to drive every day, he said, but the house had been in his family too long
to sell and he'd never give up the tenure he'd spent so many years earning.
So he kept a room at the college's faculty house and lived there during the
week while Jack and I stayed home together.
Once, one of the men who taught with Raeburn stayed the night
with us on his way up to Canada, and he asked how we managed, staying by
ourselves all the time and not going to school. Raeburn told him that since he
wasn't around, we'd cut four days out of five anyway, so why bother? "The
American public school system is a doomed institution," he told the man. "All
they'd learn at that assembly-line idiot factory is how to sink to meet the
lowest common denominator. If they study with me, they'll learn things they
need." A nice theory, but the truth is that we rarely if ever actually studied
with him; when he left the house every Monday morning, there were two piles
of books on the kitchen table, with lists of assignments tucked between their
pages, to be finished by the time he returned. When he was home, he
preferred to spend his time locked in his study, listening to the radio, so
actually studying with him was restricted to the two or three grueling hours
that the three of us spent gathered in his study on Saturday afternoons.
Raeburn's version of education was grim and absolute: hard sciences,
mostly—physics, mathematics, chemistry —with some fringe politics and
economic theory thrown in, to show us what colossal messes human beings
could create when they attempted to form an organized society.
We were alone a lot, but we had always been alone a lot, and
Jack said that we were the sort of people who always would be. Crazy Mary—
which was what we called the mother we'd briefly shared—left my father
when I was two and my brother was four, and took Jack with her. I didn't see
him again for four years.
But then one morning when I was six years old, a strained-looking
social worker showed up on our doorstep with one hand holding an inch-thick
stack of paperwork and with the other holding—barely—my squirming and
fighting brother. I hadn't even known that I had a brother—I only vaguely knew
that I had a mother, and still wasn't entirely clear how I was related to the
man who called himself my father—and now there Jack was, in the flesh, and
he was the first person I'd ever seen who was even close to my size, and
besides, he looked like me. He had the same wide, smooth forehead, pointed
chin, and tawny hair, although his hair had been cut brutally short
somewhere along the line. There was an ugly gash near his left ear that had
been stitched up with spiky black thread. He looked straight into my eyes
and I looked straight into his, which were strikingly green, and we knew each
Later, when we were left alone together while Raeburn went
through the paperwork with the social worker, eight-year- old Jack reached
out and took a lock of my hair between his fingers. The housekeeper Raeburn
paid to take care of me had long since given up on my hair; it was snarled
and matted and it hadn't ever been cut, but Jack didn't seem to notice. He
looked at the greasy golden hank as if it were something miraculous.
"You have hair like Mary's," he said, his voice full of wonder. Then
his expression changed, became firm and efficient. "But you need to brush it."
"I don't know how," small Josie said. It's the first sentence I can
actually remember speaking.
"I'll show you," Jack said, and he did. Ten years later, I was
probably the only sixteen-year-old in America who still gave her hair the
legendary hundred strokes each night, and sometimes during the day,
because Jack loved to watch me do it.
Raeburn told me that Jack had come to live with us because my
mother was dead; it was Jack who filled in the blanks by telling me that my
mother and his mother and Mary were all the same person. "We're on our
own now," he said. "Just you and me." The world I lived in was a third again
as big as it had been a week before; I no longer felt alone, but I read the
solemn look in his eyes and nodded soberly.
Not long after that, the housekeeper was fired—I'd hated her
anyway, and much preferred spending time with my new brother—and the
stacks of schoolbooks began. By the time Jack and I were teenagers, we
had come to a silent understanding with Raeburn: as long as we spent the
weekends pretending to pay attention, Raeburn couldn't have cared less what
we did with ourselves during the week. And what we did, left alone in our
decaying old house, was this: ice skate in winter and stargaze in summer,
get stinking drunk on cheap whiskey and cheaper wine, smoke cigarettes in
bed, smoke pot on the front lawn, climb trees, walk in the woods, daydream,
sleep, fight, scream, laugh, and do whatever else we wanted to do. I used to
think that was all we'd ever do.
"Take functional relationships," Raeburn said, his mouth full of half-chewed
chicken wing. "We design the experiments that define them, we give them
names, we spend centuries proving and re-proving them; but we don't create
them. They are entirely separate from us. They're like invisible machines, but
far more intricate and fine than anything we could ever build. I am talking,
children, about constants." He brought one hand down hard on the table,
making the silverware jump. "John."
Jack, on my left, was staring blankly at the table. He looked up
when our father spoke. Raeburn liked us to dress for dinner, so he was
wearing a jacket and tie despite the heat. His eyes, the same green as the
beer bottles we'd buried in the trash that afternoon, were shielded and cold.
They might as well have been closed.
"Give me an example of a constant." A piece of breading from the
chicken fell onto Raeburn's shirt as he spoke. He didn't notice.
"Gravity," my brother answered.
Raeburn shook his head. "You might have been half right sixty
years ago, before space travel and experimental antigravity aircraft. The U.S.
government has successfully defeated gravity. Bully for it." He belched and
dropped the chicken bone, picked clean.
I kept my eyes on my own plate, with its untouched drumstick
and soggy heap of broccoli. When we'd returned from the drugstore, Raeburn
was already there, even though we hadn't expected him for another couple of
hours. He'd brought a whole chicken home with the regular groceries. Jack
had cut it into pieces and I had fried it at the stove, despite the summer heat.
It didn't take long, in the full stench of cooking meat and hot grease, for my
hangover to resurface. By the time I put the frozen spears of broccoli in a pot
of water to boil, my legs were shaky and the hair at the back of my neck was
damp with sweat. I'd wiped the sweat away with a cool rag when I was
upstairs dressing for dinner, but my stomach rebelled anew at the sight of the
separated chicken leg on my plate, the white knob of bone glistening through
the cooked tendons. It didn't look like food. It looked like a piece of a
dismembered corpse. Eating it, I knew, was a practical impossibility.
And yet somehow I couldn't look away from it. Maybe I was
making sure it didn't move.
"Josephine," Raeburn said. "There are many wrong answers and
only one correct one."
There are actually over a dozen universal physical constants, but
it didn't matter. There was never more than one correct answer with my
father. I knew this one; if Jack hadn't convinced me to do his physics for him,
he would have known it, too. I tore myself away from contemplation of the
thing on my plate and said, "Hooke's law."
"The ratio of a weight on a spring to the elongation of the spring."
Jack's eyes flickered at me.
"The relationship of weight to tension. Good." Raeburn picked up a
fork, speared a limp piece of broccoli, and stuffed it into his mouth. "Always
constant. Always the same. Nature makes sense, children. Logical, concise,
direct. It's humanity that's fucked it all up."
"Gravity is a natural constant," Jack said.
"Not once we've violated it. Then it becomes another part of the
universe that we've irrevocably destroyed." My stomach lurched
dangerously. "We've made all the technological advances we can make
without dooming ourselves; all that's left to us is destruction. This is our
dusk, children. This is our twilight." He paused. His eyes were sparkling and
his cheeks flushed. Our father liked nothing better than contemplating
humanity's imminent self-destruction. He gloried in it.
One of Jack's hands fell casually beneath the table and I felt a
light pinch through my crisp wool skirt. I grabbed for his hand. The tips of my
fingers brushed his skin as he pulled it away.
Raeburn looked from Jack to me and back again. He grunted and
took the other chicken wing. "One of my students —an exceptionally
perceptive young woman—she used the most wonderful phrase in her final
paper last term. 'Anything that humanity does from here on out,' she
wrote, 'is a wave at the band as we leave the dance floor.' Brilliant," he said
and tore the wing into two pieces.
Under the table, Jack's hand crept back into my lap and found my
"Josephine," Raeburn said, "you're not eating."
I tried to pull my hand away. Jack wouldn't let go. "I know. I'm
sorry," I said. "I'm not feeling very well."
My father stared pitilessly at me and said, "Will starving yourself
make you feel better?"
I didn't answer.
"Eat, girl," he said.
The dismembered chicken leg lay, lifeless and greasy, on my
plate. I picked it up and began to eat.
After dinner Raeburn sent Jack to put gas in his Buick and went to bed early
with a bottle of brandy and a hand-rolled cigarette. I stayed downstairs to
clean the kitchen. I moved slowly; my stomach felt swollen and hot and I
could still taste the grease from the fried chicken. I could still feel the squeak
of the meat between my teeth.
Eventually all the dishes were dried and put back in the cupboard,
the table and countertops were wiped down with a wet rag, and the garbage
was bagged and placed outside on the back porch, where it would ripen in
the heat overnight. By Monday night, when Raeburn left, the kitchen would
reek of rotting chicken parts. I tried not to think about it and crept upstairs to
I hung my blouse and skirt carefully in the closet, where they
wouldn't be wrinkled, and let my bra fall to the floor. Raeburn didn't care what
our bedrooms looked like as long as the rest of the house was clean. One of
Jack's T-shirts was balled up on the floor next to my bed and I put it on. I
turned off my light and stretched out on my unmade bed, pulling the sheet
over me so that I could feel the cool cotton against my legs.
My stomach moved inside my gut. I lay without moving and waited
for it to decide what it wanted to do, either throw up or calm down or leap out
of my body in one sick, throbbing piece. At some point I must have fallen
asleep, because when Jack pulled back the sheet and put an icy bottle of
beer against my bare leg, I woke with a start.
"Drink this," he said. There was no moon outside and all I could
see of him was the glimmer of starlight picking out his profile. "You'll feel
My stomach was still queasy. I shook my head.
"It's cold," he said. "Come on, Jo. Hair of the dog."
"More like feather of the chicken," I said, but I took the bottle from
"Move over," he said.
Carefully, I sat up against my wooden headboard, which was
blissfully cool, and pulled my knees up to my chest. Jack stretched out with
his head beside my ankles and his boots hanging off the edge of the bed. I
took a tentative sip of the beer. When my stomach didn't immediately object,
I took another.
Jack reached up, took my ankle in one of his hands, and moved
his head into my lap. His hair was soft and clean and tangled and it smelled
of the night air. He'd driven to the gas station with the car windows open.
After a while, he said, "Three days left."
"Two full days, one morning."
I felt his head move in my lap as he tilted it back to look at me. "I
think you should make friends with that kid from the drugstore."
I stared at him in surprise. "A town kid?"
"The pharmacist's kid," Jack said. "Josie, do you have any idea
what's behind the counter in the back of that store?"
"Allergy medicine and antibiotics?"
He squeezed my ankle. "All I'm saying is, the pharmacist's kid
might not be such a bad person to have on our side. We should go back
"How about the next time we're out of aspirin?"
"Sooner than that. This week, maybe." I felt his head move again
and he said, "And maybe you, my sister, could try your hand at flirting."
"You must be joking," I said.
"I can't flirt with him. I don't know how."
He grinned and said, "Sure you do."
"Jack," I said. "The only boy I've ever talked to is you."
"O ye of little faith. Don't worry, it'll come naturally. Besides, I've
talked to town kids. I promise you that either one of us is smarter than that
kid's entire family put together. You can talk circles around him, Josie my
"Talking and flirting are not the same." And I can't do either, not
with a town kid, I almost said. But instead I concentrated on my hands
working in his hair, unknotting it.
"For you, they will be," he said. "You had him the moment he saw
But first there was the weekend to get through.
Jack and I sat with Raeburn in his study, a dark, book-lined room
with one small dirty window and a stale, claustrophobic smell. A sepia-toned
globe lay pinioned in its wooden rack before us like a giant egg waiting to
hatch. Long outdated, it had originally belonged to my grandfather; ostensibly
we were studying geography, but the point had long since been lost, which
was the way Raeburn's lessons usually ended up. It's a wonder either of us
ever learned to think coherently.
My brother, bored, slouched next to me on the couch, digging at
the engine grease under his nails with the point of a compass. I was staring
out the open window. It was raining outside and the air coming through it was
moist and warm and clean-smelling.
"There is history here," Raeburn said. "Rhodesia. Persia. The
Ottoman Empire. All false constructs, created by the human urge to carve, to
parcel, to own. Even our United States is a construct—and a recent one at
that." He gave the globe a desultory spin. "All of the creations of man are
ephemeral. They'd pass away in their own time even if we didn't do our best
to destroy them."
His dry, droning voice choked the room like a noxious cigar. I
thought drowsily about wet leaves: not old, moldering leaves like the ones
that rotted beneath our porch, but fresh, supple, green leaves, washed and
shining with rain.
"Fascinating," Jack said.
Raeburn took off his glasses and stared at us, his watery eyes
narrow and annoyed. "The point," he said, "is that you may as well learn the
capitals for a country that no longer exists as for one that does. Does it
matter to the peasant whether he lives in Persia or Iraq? Does the
government that rules the city help him find food in the country?"
Jack made a noise of disgust and resumed cleaning his
fingernails. Raeburn's lips went thin and tense.
"I want you to learn these things—all things—so that when you go
out into the world, you aren't at its mercy," he said. "So that you will be
armed with information, and able to defend yourselves." The narrow line of his
mouth grew tighter as he watched Jack dig under his thumbnail with the
"Put that damn thing down," he burst out finally and knocked the
compass out of Jack's hands. It hit the dingy wooden floor with a clatter. I
jumped. A drop of blood, rich and dark, welled up from Jack's thumbnail.
Jack wiped the blood onto his white shirt, leaving a rusty
smear. "How much use do you think your peasant would have for all of this
information you're arming us with?"
"And you'd rather have what?" Raeburn said. "A cigarette?"
"Maybe a good heavy rock," Jack said. He reached down and
picked up the compass again. "Or a gun."
Raeburn sighed and rubbed his forehead. "Try to understand.
There is a greater philosophical issue at work." My father, I knew from old
photographs, had once been as good-looking as my brother. Sometimes I
could see Jack's face in his, particularly when he was scornful or annoyed.
He looked very like Jack now.
For a moment the three of us sat in silence.
Then Raeburn said, "Fuck this. I'm tired of wasting my time. I'm
tired of you. Get out of my study. Go away."
He didn't have to ask us twice. As soon as we were both standing
in the hallway on the other side of the closed door, the soft voice of the radio
announcer began to speak behind it. One of my most enduring memories of
my years on the Hill is the calm, tuneless drone of news radio.
There were two miles of forest between our house and our nearest neighbors.
When we were younger, when Jack was eleven or so and I was around nine,
we spent most of our time playing in that span of woods. We climbed trees,
we built forts, but mostly we played a game called Run. Jack made it up. The
theory was simple: I ran. Jack, in my memory all knees and angular elbows,
chased me. We did try it the other way around once, but I lost heart too
But Jack could, and would, chase for hours. The game ended
when he caught me, which was usually when I was too tired to run anymore;
and then we would retrace our steps back to the house. As we walked, he'd
say, "You could have hidden under this branch, in the hollow here. Or, look, if
there were leaves on that tree I wouldn't be able to see you from the ground.
How would you get up there? See, you could climb this little tree, and then
jump over on that branch, and then—"
Now, after all these years, I still couldn't walk in the forest without
looking for hiding places. The rain stopped just after we left the house, and
the forest was beautiful, all gray-green and sparkling with raindrops. So when
Jack said, "What do you think," I had absolutely no idea what he was talking
"What do I think about what?" I said, and he scowled and
said, "You haven't heard a damn thing I've said for the last five minutes, have
"Sorry. I was daydreaming." My toe caught a hidden rock and I
"You're still daydreaming. Watch where you're going, will you? I'm
not carrying you back to the house if you break an ankle."
"I'm not going to break anything," I said, but I watched my feet
Soon Jack veered off to the left, straight through the undergrowth. I
followed him as best I could. It was hard to see the ground through the thick
weeds. After a few minutes of hiking through the rough, we found ourselves
standing on a narrow path beaten through the brush, choked off by the high
bushes growing on either side of it. It was the only path to the pond. Nobody
else knew it was there. We were sure of that, because we'd made it.
Jack walked in front of me. Watching the way his shoulders
moved beneath his T-shirt, I stumbled again.
"Okay?" he said without turning around.
"I don't see why we need that drugstore kid."
Jack pushed his way through the undergrowth, held a branch
aside so that I could pass, and then we were at the pond.
What we called the pond was deep enough so that Jack could
jump into the deepest part of it without hurting himself, but too small for us to
get any kind of a race going from one side to the other. The soft mud on the
bottom rose steeply to the shore on either side, so all that the pond was
really good for was crouching in. On hot days, that was enough. But the
mosquitoes could be awful.
Now, though, the sun was bright and warm. The mosquitoes had
retreated to the still, shady places in the shadows of the trees, and the air
had a fresh, damp feel to it. There were rocks on one side of the pond, where
the spring was, and they caught the sunlight in the late afternoon. Jack took
off his T-shirt. There was enough room on the flattest part of the biggest rock
for the two of us to sprawl out, side by side.
Jack flicked an ant away and said, "It could be useful to have a
reliable source for real drugs. Think about it. When was the last time you saw
a doctor? I haven't seen one since I came to live here, and I don't think you
have either. One of us could get sick. But that kid could get us antibiotics,
painkillers— hell, birth control pills, even," he said.
I rolled onto my stomach and pulled my T-shirt up so that the
warm sun hit my back. I turned my face away from him, toward the pond. The
sun was beginning to turn the warm gold of late afternoon, and the shadows
of the trees were long across the surface of the water.
"Admit it," I said. "You want a new way to get high. All of this
antibiotic, birth control stuff is a cover. You want the good stuff."
I heard Jack move behind me. There was a small splash, like a
fish jumping, and then I felt him move my T-shirt higher on my back, pulling it
up so that my shoulder blades were exposed. His hands were cool and wet
with pond water. Slowly, he began to rub my back. I closed my eyes.
He dribbled water down my bare legs and said, "Consider this.
Friday afternoon. Raeburn comes home in a foul mood, as usual—snarling
and sniping at us, telling us how stupid and worthless we are, ranting and
raving and throwing things— and there, in the middle of it all, there's you and
me, Jack and Josie. We dropped a couple Valium a few hours back and
we're feeling no pain. We couldn't care less."
"And then he throws a plate at me and I'm too doped to duck," I
said. "Sounds great."
"I'll catch it before it hits you. Throw it back at him."
I turned over. The sun was behind him.
"We could drug his coffee," I said. "Then he'd leave us alone."
"That's my girl," Jack said and touched my face with his cool, wet
The morning Jack came back, when the social worker was gone and the
three of us were standing silently on the porch staring at one another, Jack
gazed up at Raeburn and said, calmly, "Mary says you're a crazy son of a
Jack was obviously repeating something he'd heard from Mary.
Even so, Raeburn flinched. But his voice was as calm as Jack's when he
answered, "Your mother was an ungrateful, degenerate slut."
Young Jack gave him a belligerent look. "You better not be crazy
with us," he said. My six-year-old heart thrilled at being included. Raeburn
told us to go away and I remember looking back at him as we left the porch.
His eyes were tightly closed and he was rubbing his forehead as if it was
hurting him. His hair was thick and dark back then, and he didn't yet wear
glasses. He couldn't have been more than forty.
It made perfect sense to me then that my mother had taken Jack
and left me behind. Jack was incredibly angry, even then, but he was also
smart and funny and beautiful, in a savage, hard-edged way. I wasn't any of
those things, but Raeburn hadn't abandoned me; he had kept me and fed me
and taught me multiplication tables and ancient Greek, and if everything he'd
done for me had taken more time and determination than love, all the facts
seemed to suggest that I really ought to be grateful for what little I'd gotten.
As I grew older, I abandoned this theory. By the time I was
sixteen, I knew that even though it was our mother that we called Crazy
Mary, both of our parents were mad. My brother Jack was the first person
ever to treat me with love or gentleness. He became my world.
By the time we headed back, the sun was starting to set and it was already
too late for us to make it home for dinner. Raeburn didn't like waiting. After
we'd battled our way through the undergrowth, though, Jack said, "Wait," and
"We should go," I said. "We're late already."
"Smell that?" Jack said.
I did. "Something's burning."
"It's a barbecue," Jack said. "Come on."
He turned in another direction, away from our house. We crashed
through another patch of brush and found ourselves standing on another path;
not as clear as the one we'd made to the pond, this was more of a track. We
followed it for several hundred feet and then Jack turned to me and said in a
low voice, "Quiet."
"Where are we going?"
"Show you something," he said and set off down the track again,
moving more quietly this time. I followed him and tried to do the same.
Suddenly I stopped, alarmed.
"I hear voices," I whispered to him.
He motioned to me to shut up.
A few more feet down the track, there was a huge copse of
hemlock like the one that surrounded our house. Jack crouched down and
led me between the bushes into a kind of natural den. There was a hole that
we could see through in the branches ahead of us. On the other side of the
hole was a big house, like ours; but unlike ours, this one was cheerful and
well tended. There was even a swimming pool a bit farther down the slope, a
blue plastic ring that sat on top of the grass like a discarded toy. A low net
stretched across part of the lawn, and two children in bathing suits stood on
either side of it, playing badminton with small, brightly colored rackets.
"I won, I won!" cried the girl, who was bigger.
"Didn't," the boy said. "I was sneezing. Do-over."
"Baby," the big girl said. She picked up the birdie, which looked
like a dead parakeet, and hurled it into the air. A neat swipe with her racket
sent it over toward the boy, who hit it this time.
On a wide wooden deck behind them, there was a man standing
near an outdoor barbecue. A woman pushed the door open with her backside
and came out of the house, carrying a plate. As she set it down next to the
grill, the man said something to her, and she laughed.
I reached for Jack's hand.
Suddenly the little boy shrieked. He was holding one hand to his
eye; the birdie lay at his feet.
"She hit me!" he wailed. "She hit me with the birdie!"
"Not on purpose!" the girl said indignantly.
"Let it go, and come eat," the woman said.
The girl tossed her hair and followed the boy up the steps to the
deck. The woman pried the boy's hands away from his eye, looked, and
hugged him. Soon they were all seated around a wooden table on the deck,
with plates of food in front of them. In the deepening twilight, we could still
hear the sounds of their voices drifting across the darkening lawn.
Jack let go of my hand and pointed back to the trail. My legs were
cramped from crouching so long, and raw from the rough rock at the pond,
but I made it out to the track, and then back through the brush to the main
path. Jack walked behind me.
Raeburn was sitting on the front porch, smoking and listening to
his portable radio. He barely glanced up when we came out of the woods. An
announcer's voice was talking about politics: somebody had a meeting with
somebody else, and they were going to sign something, and the voice didn't
think they should.
"I've eaten," Raeburn said curtly.
"Sorry we're late," I said. It was the first thing either of us had said
since leaving the hedge.
Jack pushed past me and went into the house.
Raeburn's eyes flicked up at me. "I'm listening to this," he
said. "Go clean the kitchen."
I followed Jack inside and found him standing motionless in the
doorway between the hall and the kitchen. I touched his back and
said, "What's wrong?" Then I looked over his shoulder and saw what he saw.
The floor was covered with food. The milk from the refrigerator, the
flour and sugar and cocoa from the cupboard, the pasta and the rice from
their jars on the counter: all of it mashed into a thick, gooey paste that
covered the linoleum. The bread had been pulled out of its plastic bag, slice
by slice, and ground into the mess on the floor. The condiments from the
refrigerator door, the pickle relish and the mayonnaise and the mustard, had
been thrown against the floor in their jars. Shards of glass sparkled like
diamonds in the muck. What couldn't be broken had been dumped. What
couldn't be dumped had been broken.
Jack turned on his heel and pushed past me without a word. The
expression on his face was dangerous. I let him go.
Slowly, I picked my way across the floor to the cupboard under
the sink, where I found a dustpan and a rag. I used the rag to push the mess
into the dustpan. There was an acrid chemical smell in the air, strong enough
to make my eyes water, but I didn't identify it until I carried the first dustpan
full of ruined food over to the garbage can and lifted the lid. There were three
empty bottles of cleaning fluid lying on top of the garbage inside.
I sighed and found a pair of rubber gloves under the sink.
After a while, Jack came down and helped me. Cleaning the
kitchen took us three hours, and the spoiled food filled two big garbage bags.
We were almost done when Raeburn appeared in the kitchen
door, red-eyed, with a glass of whiskey in his hand. He stood and watched
us for a few minutes.
"You're thinking now about the nature of my parental responsibility
toward you," he said finally. His words were slurred. "But you'll soon realize
that my parental responsibility is not the issue. Food is the issue. The
parental responsibility construct is of no consequence."
I didn't look up. Took a rag from the cupboard and began to wipe
up the last smears of food on the floor.
"Doesn't matter whether we're in Persia or Iraq," Raeburn
said. "You're still going to bed hungry. Do you understand? Finally, do you
Copyright © 2005 by Kelly Braffet. Reprinted by permission of Houghton