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Oct/Nov 2016 Spotlight

Unnatural Selection

by Jason Lee Helm

Image courtesy of the British Library Online Photo Collection


It was a Saturday night in February, and I was sitting next to Angel, who looked both older and younger than nine in the oversized down jacket she'd picked off the pink rack at Goodwill. We huddled close in the cab of our dad's pickup because the heat was "on the damn fritz." My sister and I lived with our mom in Cedar Falls, and Dad lived in our hometown, two hours away. It'd been a year since he was released from the state pen, and we'd only seen him once. At the time I was seven and I didn't know squat except that Dad had been awarded visitation for "good behavior" and we were supposed to be celebrating a belated Christmas. After picking us up on Thursday, he'd left us at Grandma Patty's and lickety-split. No explanation. For 48 hours we'd been trapped in the odors of mold and menthol, listening to his mother complain about ours, the beautiful barber on College Hill. I'd been wondering all weekend long what had happened to every promise he ever made us. Still, there we were, barreling down Lincoln Highway, headed to the Boone Regal Cinema, acting like all this was normal.

"This night's gonna blow yer damn minds." Dad used both hands to show his head exploding. "Boom," he said, and then he double-fisted the wheel as I stared in disbelief at his muscular body and gaunt face. Dad was handsome. He didn't wear a proper jacket, instead sporting biker leather. Dad was cool like that. "We ain't never done nothin' like this before," he told us, which was true. "It's gonna be a real hoo-ha," he howled, and I added, "Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy," delighted by his delight.

Outside, the fences lining all the Iowa farmhouses that clipped past looked crisp, frozen in time. Since we barely knew each other, the world was an opportunity to break the ice. Look at that pink house. Look at that cow. Is that her calf? Wow, look at her calf. We were connected by discomfort: me, bouncing up and down on the beige seat, Dad, talking, talking.

"See that there?" He pointed a hairy hand over Angel's lap, which triggered her "instinct"—she involuntarily kicked the dash with a rainbow moon boot. "That's what's called hoarfrost."

"I can see it," I said. "I can."

We marveled at frosted-over barbed wire surrounding a soybean field; it was made visible by a layer of dew turned to ice that coated everything. For a few hours the world would be a precious gem. These nights were rare, unnatural and short-lived.

"This is really fun," I shouted for no reason, just to fill space, and Angel elbowed me hard, like "SHUT UP!" although her arm was coat-covered. I had on my own puffy brown and tan jacket—a color combo my mom called "Star Wars"—so I barely felt a thing, except shame. When Angel raised her sharp chin, when she set her eyes to tomboy steel, I knew why.

On our last visit Dad had led us, in the middle of the night, onto the rickety tracks of the Kate Shelley Railroad Bridge. Overlooking a dark valley, which lay 200 feet below, he pulled Angel and me into a tight embrace. As he inched us toward the ledge, he announced, "I can't live without Jeannie-Lee. It ain't fair. Not a-tall. None of us can live without each other. That's what I decided."

I was convinced we were going to die.

That was Dad for you. This was the reason we'd spent our childhoods moving from town to town, living in trailer parks and apartment buildings. Or crashing at the farm in Waverly, sleeping in the back room, in the closet. We'd grown up in a perpetual escape. Our Great Aunt Henrietta once confided in Angel and me: "Bobby likes to hurt people; it's just the way he's wired. He'll never stop until it's over."

"Listen up," Dad announced. "We got some unfinished business to take care of. Before the show," he informed us. "Pit stop." He kept glancing at us as though, if he didn't pay close attention, all of a sudden, poof, we'd pull another Houdini. "Business before pleasure," he said. "This is some serious shit, man."

All I wanted to know was if we were still going to see A Christmas Story, but Dad was impossible to read. His close-set eyes made it look like he was always scheming. That visit I was learning it was okay for him to disappear, but for us it was unforgiveable. Unlike dealing meth or kidnapping a deputy sheriff and beating him to within an inch of his life, abandoning Dad was a real crime. I remember thinking, "He still has his addiction. He still has his addiction." He caught my eyes—which are also brown and close set—and I leaned back in the seat, busted for thinking bad thoughts.

When the rusted-red Ford slowed to exit the highway, a howling wind demanded entry and we all willfully ignored it. My thing, I was trying not to touch frosted glass with my "dirty fucking fingers," because I'd already been warned once and I did not want to get warned again.

"Angel." I nudged my sister, who, below new bangs, was silently seething. "Look at that huge house." I waved a bare hand right in her face. Grandma Patty had lost our mittens. Boy was Mom going to be pissed! "Did you see how big it was," I asked her, "did you see it, Angel?" and she pretended not to hear me, although her lips were pursed in a quiet protest, her face puckered sour.

My sister was angry because Grandma Patty had insisted we wear snow pants, which were damp, so our jeans were now moist beneath down. She'd attempted to reason with our grandma, but Patty, after one too many Southern Comforts, wouldn't listen. "Doncha get lippy with me, baby doll. I may be yer grandma. I may love ya like the dickens, but talk back to me, kid, and I'll break yer fuckin' arm off and beat ya with it." Ever since then Angel had been in the kind of mood where she might cut off your hair and hide it in the toy box. It wasn't her fault, this attitude. She'd inherited a mean streak.

"Come on," Dad taunted her. "Doncha wanna know, man? Where we're goin'? What all this is 'bout?" He was begging for Angel's attention. People were like that with my sister. "Ain't ya the least bit curious?" he asked, desperate, and her response was no response.

Our mom would have been disappointed.

Two days earlier, under the tiny arch outside our duplex dubbed The White House, she'd insisted we use "company behavior." When she gripped too hard while snapping snaps and flattening fabric, I knew Mom was serious. Both her hands and voice trembled. "Pay attention," she said. "Don't forget where you are."

"Where are we going anyway?" Angel broke her vow of silence. My sister pulled the sides of her hair down to its full length, acting out nonchalance. She was suddenly a different girl. Angel was a daredevil but not stupid.

"Everythin' is gonna change tonight." Dad raised his thick black brows up and down, up and down. "Ya got no idea'r." His plush lips were holding in a big secret. When he hit the dash—Ping—with the flat of his right hand, Angel and I both jumped. "Som'n spiritual is happenin,'" he told us. "I can feel it in my bones."

"That's gross!" I cried, covering my mouth with both hands. "That's grody to the max," I said, truly shocked. I'd envisioned the time Tommy Swinton flew off a sled at Lincoln Park and landed on his left leg, which bent back and snapped, the bone a chalk-white knife carving through flesh. I couldn't get over the image. "In your bones?" I cupped my hands into a megaphone. "That's… SO… GRODY!!!"

"'Grody to the max,'" Dad said. "What in tarnation?" and Angel reprimanded me, "Jacob!" using mom voice. She placed a mitten-less hand on the knee of my tan snow pants. "Stop talking like that."

I was flexing and balling cold fingers, flexing and balling.

"Where in hell'd ya learn to say som'n like that?" Dad demanded. Without heat, the front windshield had frosted over. Dad used his leather-covered forearm to scrape ice, his large effort cultivating in a small peak at the world. I caught a glimpse of a new rising moon.

"I can say it," I pleaded my case. "It's okay to say that," I doubled down, "because you're being grody."

"That just ain't the way men talk," Dad said. He shook frost off his sleeve, some of it snowing on Angel, some of it snowing on me. "That's some baby shit, buddy," he chided. "Darn tootin'."

I insisted, "I am not a baby," taking it personally.

Dad nudged Angel with his elbow. "Did yer mama teach him that shit?" he asked her, and my sister made things worse.

"Mom always tells him he's her baby."

They shared a look that was a conspiracy.

In response I drew a small "x" in the frost on my window. Through cleared space I saw the curb, behind it a red fire hydrant. No one caught me, but right away I regretted my act of defiance. Unlike my sister, I was no good at keeping secrets. I was a tattletale, a compulsive truth teller. As much as I tried, I could never hold back. I always had an opinion. Always spoke my mind.

Through fish lips, Dad mumbled, "Hmm." He was still trying to make sense of my reply. After whistling two catcalling notes, he insisted, "Don't no one talk that way, buddy."

"That's some baby shit," Angel repeated his words, trying them on for size.

"What in hell's wrong with ya?" Dad asked, this time more intrigued than angry—his pretty tenor voice barely even raised. When he bent over Angel and leaned in my direction the truck veered to the right and we dipped momentarily onto the shoulder.

"Nothing," I said, watching Dad recalibrate. "Nothing." This was my token reaction when my brain made me do bad things—I was referring to the "x" and not my comment, as in "nothing happened." I'd first tried to hide my mistake with the sleeve of a brown jacket. Next, I got on knees, risking boots on seat in order to cover it. No one was wearing a belt because Dad had told us "seatbelts are for pussies." As I prepared to offer my final defense—"I heard it on Cinemax at Grandma Patty's"—Dad exclaimed, "Uh oh," then warned us to, "Hold on," before hitting a bump.

The truck skipped like a record, and we all shook.

Together we laughed as though we'd been through something.

"People do say 'grody to the max,'" Angel finally came to my defense. "The Go-Go's do it." She raised both arms like "What ya gonna do?"

"Well, people's all differ'nt," Dad said. "But after tonight," he told us, "you two'll see where ya belong. And ya ain't never gonna talk that way agin'."

 

That morning at Grandma Patty's, after Strawberry Pop Tarts and Apple Juice, Angel and I had been given our Christmas presents, but they were all wrong. For me, a couple of Hot Wheels—a red Lamborghini, a yellow Dump Truck—and a Willie Nelson tape. I didn't listen to Willy Nelson. I was a Cyndi Lauper guy through and through. For Angel, a two-foot tall doll named Sally Sunshine who had bone-white skin and hair curled into tight yellow ringlets. I could tell my sister hated that doll—Angel's roving eyes revealed betrayal—although she claimed the opposite.

"I just love her cherry lips," she said, holding Sally Sunshine at arm's length.

"These ain't the only gifts yer gonna git," Grandma Patty cackled, and Angel told her, "I adore Sally's red legging and denim skirt combo."

"Gonna piss yer damn pants," Grandma Patty prophesied. "Both of ya. Just wait till ya see what yer daddy's got in store tonight. Som'n big. It's all 'bout blood." Our grandma was a short, stout woman. She wore an enormous, white knit sweater. Her arms were crossed and resting over a bulging chest, what she called her "shelf." "Family ain't just one thing," she said. "Ya two don't know yer whole family yet. Y'ain't seen 'em." Grandma Patty unclenched her hands, sharp elbows poking up like chicken wings, to shake out a mane of stringy gray hair. When she stopped, she looked wild, like a crazy woman. "Tonight," she said, "yer daddy's gonna show ya the truth 'bout where ya belong."

As soon as she received "the call," Grandma Patty ordered us to single-file it into the one working bathroom. In her bedroom, she told us to strip off shirts and took point. She was going to spritz us up for a special night.

"He better get his sexy ass over here quick," Grandma Patty complained about her son as she flicked on the bathroom light. I peeked around her huge frame, clutching her blue Moo Moo. The wooden floor was littered with dirty clothes, the walls painted white over teal over white. "I love him to death," she insisted, "but that man's gonna be late for his own damn funeral. And I sure as shit don't like waitin'."

I stepped onto the scale because of "the piles"—no room—and Angel slouched underneath a towel-less towel rack, crisscrossing skinny arms to cover a bare chest.

"A lot of times he doesn't come at all," I told the truth.

"Like this morning," Angel said, "for Christmas."

We weren't worried about getting in trouble. Grandma Patty ignored anything she didn't want to hear. Instead of getting angry, she gave us whore baths in the sink, soaping and scrubbing our half-naked bodies with a red rag. She used a smelly towel—retrieved from the floor—to rub us dry, then told us to follow the narrow path back into her bedroom and dress in dirty jeans, new T-shirts. In the far corner of her room, we dug in bulging backpacks. Angel sported Punky Brewster, me He-Man. In my mind, I was a Master of the Universe.

"Get yer asses in here," Grandma Patty barked, as if we'd been dawdling. "We don't got all night," she screeched, like we were two Lazy Janes.

I received the full treatment, my already-trimmed nails fully decapitated, a light blond dew slicked back. After a slow up and down—"Studly"—Grandma Patty admired her work. "Next." She'd almost finished brushing Angel's chestnut hair when she full-stopped to look at herself up close in the mirror.

I'll never forget the way Grandma Patty became enthralled, almost possessed as she pulled back branched-out crow's feet, tightening loose skin. She lifted her lips to examine yellow teeth and then—the best part—she set down the brush to grab hold of a curly chin hair. It was a witch whisker! Speaking to her own reflection, she said, "Yer a beauty, Angel, with them high cheekbones. Porcelain skin and dark hair. Ya look like one of my damn dolls. With them hazel eyes, ya look just like her."

"Who's her," I asked, and Angel told me to shush. "Who's her?" I whispered, a finger pressed tightly to lips and, embarrassed, I figured it out on my own.

"She made my life a livin' hell," Grandma Patty repeated her speech for the hundredth time. "Takin' you kids away from us. I was nearly ruint." No one in Boone would ever forgive my mom for saving our lives—that was a fact. "Almost kilt me," Grandma Patty said as she clown-grinned, first down at me, then Angel. "But she done one thing right. Yer gonna be a stunner, Angel. A real man killer." She shimmied side-to-side to shake her maracas. "Not like yer ol' grandma." The minute she stopped dancing, she started to pout—Grandma Patty was master of the mood shift. She bowed her head toward the sink, a double chin coagulating into a quadruple. "Life's a trial," she said. "A real shit show, that's what it is. Ain't fuckin' fair—never was."

When she caught sight of me in her periphery, I blurted out, "I think you're pretty, Grandma." I honestly believed it to be true.

Grandma Patty laughed, a series of bronchial booms, and then she coughed. "Yer som'n special, Jakey-Bakey." After clearing her throat, she pointed toward space. "Out of this world." When she reached down to grab my cheeks, Angel had to dodge an elbow and I grit my teeth, both of us prepping for pain. Grandma Patty didn't notice either of our reactions. "I ain't stupid." She squeezed my skin with a fury. "Yer grandma is one ugly so'm'bitch," she said, a great joke. The whole time I was staring at that whisker. "I know what I am," she admitted. "A dog. Used up. Ugly as spit, that's it. Ha!" she yelled, pleased as punch. "I'm ugly as spit. But, the two of you—my babies—the two of you is perfect."

"You're perfect," I parroted, a compulsion, and Grandma Patty laughed until her eyes leaked. Luckily she didn't start crying—that was the worst. At the same time Angel swiped the wood paddle brush off the sink and continued to untangle her hair, performing independence. "Thank you," she said, able to take a compliment. "I like my hair. I admire my hazel eyes."

That was when we heard the front door creak open, announcing Dad's arrival.

"Ohhhh shit," Patty squealed. "She won't able to keep my babies away from me no more," she told us. "Just you wait. You two're gonna piss yer goddamn pants!"

 

"It's on Story Street," Dad announced. "Two more blocks."

Through frosted windows the truck was bathed in the yellow alien glow that emanates from small town street lamps. Even if I couldn't see, I knew we were in downtown Boone. When Dad turned right, he didn't use his signal, but I made sure to keep my mouth shut. I'd heard Mom's strict voice in my head—"Just because you think something, Jacob, doesn't mean you have to say it." I was dying to come clean about that "x," but there was another problem. Obsessing over my defiance had inspired a second, then a third, as well as a lopsided "o." That was when it occurred to me, my great revelation. We were on Story Street and we were about to hear a story! Dad was right. This was a spiritual night.

At that moment the wheels on our side scraped curb, and Dad slammed on the breaks. He reversed, and we all banged around in the cab. As soon as he killed the engine, he stripped off his jacket, discarding leather on vinyl. Underneath it, Dad was wearing a teeshirt that said "Slaughterhouse Six" over a skull and crossbones. You could see his flexed arms even when he wasn't flexing. After cracking the door, he paused to breathe in crisp winter air.

"Everythin' is finally comin' together," he said. "Us." Dad slid out of the truck to eye our destination.

I had to throw my whole body against the passenger-side door to get it open so my sister and I could see what Dad was looking at. He'd street parked ahead of a dirty white garage attached to a two-story house even smaller than ours. I counted three visible spots where the roof had caved in, warped tiles hanging inward over edges, like icicles. What I really looked at, though—what I imagined we were all staring at, Angel and Dad and I collectively transfixed—was the red side door. It caught the eye, lit and glowing, as if the place itself had been waiting for us.

Dad skirted around the truck, headed on a direct path toward the house. His huge body, leaning forward, created momentum. He made big man prints in the snow as he went. I noticed that, just like Grandma Patty, Dad was sometimes able to forget about us. There were times in their world when Angel and I stopped existing, moments when we witnessed their real lives.

While Dad trudged through the half-yard, Angel said, "Jump, dummy!" and it surprised me. "What? Were you planning to sit there all night?"

"Knock it off, Angel," I told her, and she pushed me, but not too hard. I'd been spacing out, which used to be and still is one of my problems.

"Stop acting like a pussy," she told me, and I swiveled around to look at my sister, who, blocked in her middle seat, wasn't annoyed, just pretending—she was playing the part. Angel's lips were cherry red. They clashed with her bright pink coat.

"Angel?"

"What now, dummy?"

"Are we still going to the movie?" I was ashamed and relieved to have said it aloud. It was all I could think about!

When she bit her bottom lip, I could tell Angel was finding a way to break bad news. With Dad, plans changed. Promises didn't count. We'd been through this before. Mom had even prepped us: "Don't believe a word he says." Still, I knew I was going to cry. I could feel the tears creeping up on me. Just when I needed her most, "That's ga-rody to the max," Angel exclaimed. She muppeted her head around like a madwoman. "As if," she said, "like, gag me with a spoon." She even stuck a finger down her throat, and I laughed easy, not forced.

It felt like home.

"Kids," Dad yelled at us from the house. "Hurry up. Scootch yer bootch." He kicked steel-toed boots against the foundation and rubbed his hands furiously together, before pounding—Boom, Boom, Boom—on the red door.

"Scootch yer booch," Angel whispered to me. Holding up a single finger, "Darn tootin,'" she added, and we shared a case of the giggles.

I turned around and leapt to the curb, finally ready.

On her way out of the truck, with a thick pink sleeve, Angel cleared my window, removing all evidence of disobedience. "You're such a dummy," she reminded me, and this time I fully agreed.

As we entered the yard, crunching snow, Dad stepped aside and the door opened. I couldn't believe what I saw! We were looking at a thin blonde made up in even more blue eyeshadow and heavy rouge than Grandma Patty when she was taking us out for a night on the town. But that wasn't all. Her hair was huge. It was the biggest part of her, the curled bangs sprayed high, the mid-length sides winging out, ready to fly away. Wearing a sparkly gold top and a short denim skirt, this woman looked like someone from Solid Gold.

"Get in here, ya asshole," she snapped at Dad, her voice giddy. I'd never seen anyone dressed like that in person. "Ya gonna pay my heating bill? Finally movin' in?" She tapped Dad's nose playfully with a magenta press-on nail. "Where's my ring, big shot?" she asked, and Dad said, "Shut yer damn yapper, woman"—he cupped her neck and gave her a soft kiss on the lips—"my kids is here."

It felt right seeing Dad with a woman.

"I know that, Billy," she told him, ignoring us. "Duh," she said, "I ain't stupid," and Dad lifted the corner of her skirt so Angel and I could see her blue underwear. She punched his shoulder with a soft fist, then rubbed the hair above his collar in slow circles, living in his eyes. Behind them, I caught sight of a brown banister made of dark wood and some stairs.

I wondered what they led to, what this woman's life was like.

"This here's Lilly," Dad interrupted the greeting to address Angel and me—we'd frozen halfway to the door, a silent alarm going off in both of our heads.

"Oh, shit." Lilly snapped out of her trance to examine us on the lawn, a prize she now wanted to claim. "I'm sorry, babies. 'Xcuse the brute," she apologized for Dad. "Honest to goodness, I've been waitin' to meet you two for a long time." Her sharp, oval face transformed from sultry to welcoming, both expressions forced and also sincere. "He can be a real jerkwad, can't he?" Lilly wanted too badly for us to be on her team. When we didn't join, she changed the subject. "Well look at them snow pants. Ain't you two just the cutest things ever."

After that, I knew she didn't stand a chance.

"Why, thank you, Lilly," Angel told her, striding forward. "You're so beautiful." Angel smiled brightly, eyelash batting. "I admire your hair," she said. My sister was the smartest person I knew.

"Oh, you could not be more precious!" Lilly curtsied awkwardly, and I saw her underwear for a second time. "Angel," she said, reaching out to part my sister's silky brown bangs. "And Jacob," she announced, pointing at me like she was taking a test. "I've been dyin' to meet you two. Feel like I know ya already. Now listen up," she told us. "I want y'all to feel welcome. Just think of this as yer home." Lilly held her hand out, palm up, like a sacrifice, showing off the tight muscles in her wiry arm. There were visible veins, and I imagined the bones underneath her skin.

Before entering, Angel took Lilly's hand, a Disney Prince, and kissed it as if that was her go-to, my sister the professional charmer.

"G'on now, Jacob," Dad called to me over his left shoulder as he pushed past Lilly. "Move yer ass, boy."

I was the last to cross the threshold. For me this was a ritual which involved held breath and closed eyes—I always prepared for trans-dimensional portals when entering new spaces.

Once I was inside, Lilly let the red side door slam shut and rubbed my back. She whispered, "Hello, handsome. Ya look just like yer daddy." The moisture of her breath tickled my ear. That was what made me turn; that was what helped me see the truth. There were puckered skin bags living under Lilly's light blue eye. Beneath a layer of caked-on foundation, her chin was chafed red and raw, her forehead covered in a rash of small round pimples. Up close she looked like an old child playing dress up, and it embarrassed me.

"Welcome to hell," Lilly said, lifting her hands like "Ta da," while Angel and I began to explore the room in our full winter regalia.

The walls were empty except for one oil painting. A blond Kewpie-doll girl, standing in a wooden fishing boat, was inclined at a severe arc to kiss a blond Kewpie-doll boy. Neither had a bite—two red and white bobbers rested buoyant on still lake waters. This, what I guessed to be Lilly's prized possession, hung over a ratty orange and gold couch, which was bookended by speakers. There was no record player in sight. The speakers were being used as coffee tables. One of them held a green ashtray, the other a pack of Marlboro Reds. I noticed a matchbook that read "CHEATERS" in red bubble letters, the "T" a pitchfork.

"Hey," I yelled, directing everyone's attention to an emaciated black cat, who scurried through a cracked door into what I guessed was the kitchen. It was a witch's cat!

"That's Shitface," Lilly said. "Forget him. He's a grouch."

While I inspected the ground for other hidden secrets, I noticed Lilly was barefoot and thought about those holes in the ceiling. The house itself wasn't much warmer than Dad's truck. She had to be freezing. "One rule," Lilly told us. "Ya gotta keep it down." She jabbed her pointer finger three times toward the stairs. "My other little shit is—"

Before she could finish, Dad lunged forward, grabbed Lilly by the waist and lifted her off the ground. His black shirt pulled all the way up and I saw his muscular torso. It was the first time I'd ever seen Dad's broad back.

"Wait," Lilly yelled, breaking her own rule. "Stop it," she demanded, encouraging him to continue as she clutched his round shoulders. Lilly scissor-kicked taught legs, toes pointed, one at a time, behind her. She was a dancer. "Yer a maniac, Billy," she teased him. "A gall darn monster."

Dad posed for a moment with Lilly held over his shoulder like a hay bail. When he launched her into the air, he was making a concerted effort to show no strain. "What do ya think?" he asked his kids. "Should I?"

"Yes," Angel said, and "yes," I heartily agreed, wanting a show.

Spinning in a small circle, Dad twirled Lilly, lofted eight feet up, then dropped her, SMACK, flat on her ass at the base of the stairs.

"Jesus Christ," she cried, squirming around on the slippery wood, attempting to stand and failing. "Ya fuck!" she snapped at Dad, who was grinning at Angel and me with that scheming look in his eyes.

We shared a mean laugh. Like it or not, we were in on the joke.

"It ain't funny," Lilly yelled as she pulled her skirt down at the crotch. Her hair, now lopsided, looked clownish, and I felt ashamed. Right away I wished I could take it back. "I ain't a toy," she scolded all three of us, readjusting her top. She scooped one boob, then the other, before shaking them both in place. Lilly used the banister for support, finally standing. "I ain't some play thing. I'm a fuckin'—"

"Don't pout, Lilly Flower." Dad stepped forward to grab her chafed chin and raised it slightly. "It ain't becomin'."

"Watch yer goddamn hands." When Lilly slapped his arm away, the gold sequins on her chest flickered. "I'm the best damn woman y'ever had, ya dumb redneck!" Her voice was gaining steam. "And ya'd know it, too, if ya weren't so hung up on—

"Watch yerself," Dad warned her.

"—Jeannie-Lee," she finished the thought with a pensive open mouth. You could tell Lilly regretted her words. "Oh, crap," she backtracked, shaking her head like she was confused, as though she'd been possessed. "I didn't mean nothin', Billy. Shits and giggles," she claimed, nervously laughing, "that's all." She strode cautiously over to retrieve her cigarettes and matches. Beside the couch, she fluffed the flat side of her hair, giving it life. After glancing at the Kewpie-doll kids kissing, she slunk back over to grab Dad's crotch, and he let her.

The whole time he made sure his kids were watching. "One day." He pointed at her neck like he was choosing a spot. "Yer choice."

That was when we heard a baby cry.

"Oh, shit." Lilly released Dad's junk and lit her cigarette. She dropped the matches and took a slow, hungry drag. On the exhale, "Look what ya done," she told Dad, who lifted his hands in glory as if this had been his plan all along.

"It's time," he said. "It's finally time." He turned his head, directing all our attention to the stairs; his head slow-bobbed up and down as if he were climbing them one by one. "This is it, man."

When Lilly attempted to lead the way, Dad held her back.

"Them first," he insisted, pointing at us.

Angel pretended to unbutton my coat. "It's a game," she whispered, and then she grabbed my hand. Together we walked past Dad, past Lilly, over to the foot of the stairs. In moon boots, leaving behind pieces of gray slush, we climbed those dark wood stairs, my sister first, me stamping along right behind her, following the cries of a howling baby. The whole time our snow pants ruffled together at the thigh, crinkling, crinkling. Behind us, we heard Dad escort a mumbling Lilly: "I had a couple drinks, that's all. Ya know me, Billy. It ain't no thing. I can handle my liquor. I don't get why yer all worked up."

When Angel reached the landing, she stopped, and so we all stopped. Without turning around, my sister asked, "Can we turn on a light?" and we felt Dad nudge both our backs with his flat fists, pushing us forcefully down the hallway toward the first door on the right.

As we entered the room, "Angel?" I asked.

"It's Sally Sunshine," she reminded me this wasn't real. "I'm the newest Go-Go," she assured me we were okay.

The baby was shrieking away in a pitch-black room that smelled like shit. We followed the sound; we followed that smell. After eight small steps, I kicked something, not too hard, not too soft, and the wailing intensified. I was sure I was in big trouble, but no one scolded me.

Instead, Dad flicked the light.

We were looking at a playpen—four blue plastic poles holding up a low mesh net—acting as a crib. Imprisoned in the center, a red-faced baby wore a white onesie and a look of panic. With squeezed fists and a puckered face, his tiny body convulsed like he was in some serious pain.

"Don't worry, Jacob." Dad had snuck up behind me. "He's a tough bugger." He punched my shoulder way too hard. "Like his old man," he said. "Like you."

"Jesus, Billy," Lilly whispered. "At least let me pick him up."

We all turned around to see her smoking in the doorway. She was stepping from side to side like she had to pee. "I can calm him," she insisted, and Dad warned her, "If ya ruin this, Lilly..."

He was slow-shaking a fist at her.

I acted like I wasn't listening and inspected the room. In one corner, I saw a sock monkey and a set of multi-colored plastic keys—blue, red, yellow—discarded on the floor. The closet was cracked, a pile spilled out: oversized knit sweaters, bibs, a few disposable diapers, and some unpackaged wet-wipes, dried out, parched.

Beside me, Angel unbuttoned and re-buttoned her coat like she was bored. "Is this it?" she asked Dad, and he settled one large hand on her padded shoulder, the other on mine. He pulled us in close and knelt in the center so that his head was at our level. It reminded me of being on the Kate Shelley Bridge. We were all going to jump. We were about to take a plunge. Dad opened his mouth as if he wanted to speak but didn't say anything. I could smell his breath, which was chalky and rancid. He looked like he was going to cry. I could tell for him this was a religious moment.

"Do ya know who this is?" he finally asked.

And right away, "It's a baby," Angel said matter-of-factly.

"His name is Henry."

"It is a baby," I affirmed. "He's really cute."

"That ain't what I mean." Dad tongue-clicked "tsk tsk," shaking his head—we'd gotten it all wrong. "Listen to me." His gripped us tighter, his voice low and crackling and raw. "This here is—"

"He's wet is the problem," Lilly explained from behind us. She pounded softly on the wall—bang, bang, bang—with the butt of her hand, once again demanding our attention. I saw her flick her cigarette to the ground, stamp it out with a bare big toe. "He needs to be changed, Billy. He ain't gonna—"

When Dad said, "Shut yer fuckin' mouth," Lilly froze in place.

We all froze.

"Just ignore her," Dad told himself, and then, "She don't matter," he said to Angel and me. "You two... you three are all what matters to me." With his powerful, naked arms, Dad hugged us so hard I felt his stubble against my face—I imagined it was the same for Angel. We were conjoined then, less than a foot away from that playpen, watching this baby wriggle around as much as he could, which was very little. Dad took a deep breath. "This here," he announced. "This here is little Henry. He's yer kin. Yer blood. Doncha see?" he asked us. "Doncha get it? This is where ya belong. With family."

When neither of us responded, Dad asked, "Well ain't ya got nothin' to say?"

"He's really cute," I repeated myself, and Dad shifted his weight, turning entirely toward Angel.

Her hazel eyes were on fire, both nostrils flaring. She looked pissed.

"Come on," Dad said, testing her temper. "It don't matter what yer mama says. Ya can't deny blood. Go on, now. Tell me what ya think 'bout—" he began, and Henry screamed like he was dying. Flailing around in a small storm, he'd had enough.

"Shut the fuck up!" Dad growled. "What in hell is wrong with ya?" he asked the baby. "What in hell is wrong with him?" he yelled back at Lilly, digging his fingers into Angel's and my shoulder, holding us firmly in place.

I winced, but I didn't pull away. I withstood the pain.

"For God's sake, Billy," Lilly responded. "Just let me pick him up."

Dad loosened his grip, and we all turned in time to watch her break the rules. Lilly stepped one foot into the room. "Please, Billy," she said, "he'll be okay if I—"

"Fuckin' crackhead bitch." Dad stood, swiveling at the same time, and knocked Angel and me to the sides as he bee-lined toward Lilly. "Ya ruint the goddamn moment!"

"I didn't mean no—"

"Doncha play dumb with me, stripper whore. Ya know 'xactly what ya done!"

Lilly gasped when he gripped her sprayed blond hair at the roots and used it as leverage, yanking her this way, then that, almost knocking her to the ground, although she somehow managed to remain standing.

"Ya wanna make it worse?" Dad threatened her, while "Stop it," Lilly screamed, grasping hold of his hands, her thin body searching for any kind of stability.

"Shit, Billy," she cried, "my fuckin' hair!" over the howling baby.

Angel and I watched Dad drag Lilly out the door, saying, "Ya done this on purpose, and ya goddamn know it!"

This was the dad I'd been waiting for. This was the dad I remembered.

As soon as they were out of sight, Angel and I focused on Henry, only Henry. Nothing existed but this tiny baby, who was still wailing and thrashing. I understood exactly how he felt. We were, all three of us, living in a world that was cold and unfamiliar. After a while I couldn't take it anymore. I bunched up the right sleeve of my tan coat and pushed an arm through mesh, expanding the netting. While I reached for Henry's leg, toward five pea-sized toes, I thought about Grandma Patty—"Family ain't just one thing." I wanted to make things better for all of us, but Angel stopped my hand. She pulled me back.

"Remember where you are," she said, and I understood.

In the hallway, Lilly was cussing—"Ya fuckin' mama's boy piece of shit. Think yer big dick can make up fer"—and then she was choking, no more words. The whole time Dad laughed; this was another one of his games. It was just like Great Aunt Henrietta had told us. He would never stop until it was over.

Right there, in that dank, cold room that smelled like shit, Angel stood and leaned over a blue mesh ledge. She used both arms to carefully pick Henry up, cupping his head gently in one hand, holding the length of his body in the other. As my sister cradled and rocked him, the baby continued to cry. "It's okay," my sister said over and over. "It's okay." She looked just like our mom.

"Please," we heard Lilly whisper, her voice now hoarse. "Please, please." Dad was daring her to move, playing chicken. I could imagine the whole scene. "Please," she begged him, "please, please, please."

"Jacob," Angel said, and she turned Henry to the side, making sure to include me. I breathed on his little red head. I wanted him to feel something soft. I wanted him to feel something warm, and he gurgled, a strange noise and calmed down a little.

"Ya ready?" we heard Dad ask Lilly. "To act right?"

At the same time Angel said something against Henry's forehead, right above his soft spot. She glanced at me so I knew she was speaking for both of us: "You're perfect," she'd told him. "Perfectly ugly."

As Dad reentered the room, I couldn't stop myself.

"You're ugly," I blurted out. "Ugly as spit."

 

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