Momma's in her room getting ready. I sit on her waterbed and watch. I know she's leaving because last night she made a big batch of spaghetti. She also put a box of fudgesicles in the freezer. We stayed up late last night, and she taught me the Good Time line dance. Momma loves her some Alan Jackson. She said he's the handsomest man in the world next to me. I think he looks like a catfish with that long mustache of his, but Momma don't. She's blow-drying her hair and singing along to "Don't Rock the Jukebox," using the blow dryer like it's a microphone in front of the mirror, and I laugh watching her hair blow up in the front. After, she shuffles me out her room so she can get changed. I turn the TV on, and there's a nature show on LPB. I watch it even though I've already seen it because it's the only channel that comes in clear. In a little while Momma turns the music off and comes into the living room wearing a fancy yellow dress, holding a big white Wal Mart bag stuffed full of clothes and make up and hair stuff. She puts it by the door and asks me how she looks, doing a little spin around with her hand on her hip.
"Hubba," I say. That's what Mister Kyle used to tell her.
"Ok," she says, and walks into the kitchen. The whole room smells like her perfume, like honeysuckle, so strong it stings. She comes back into the living room and pats her piled up blonde hair. "Just warm up that spaghetti if you want, and there's also some crackers and pop tarts and ice cream."
"Come give me some sugar," she says and opens up her arms.
I move into them, and she wraps me up and squeezes me. She won't kiss me because it'll mess up her lipstick, so she tells me to kiss her and holds her cheek out.
"I'm gonna land you a daddy," she says, opening up the door, and then, "Love you, Boo. I'll call and check on you later."
I listen to the car start up and back away, and I turn up the TV and breathe in her perfume. If I close my eyes, it's like she's still here, but she won't be back for days.
Mister Kyle came home with her one day and didn't leave for a whole year. I thought he was ok. He was tall just like Alan Jackson, and he even had a mustache, too, except for his hair was black. Him and Momma would drink from a bottle and dance in the kitchen all night long, and Mister Kyle would take the ice cubes into his mouth and chew them up in tiny little bites. He was always doing that with ice cubes, and it would drive me crazy, especially when we was watching TV. Except for that, I liked him a lot. He used to take me squirrel hunting out around Bayou Pigeon, and then Momma would fry them up in a stew with okra and carrots. He left the day before my tenth birthday. Momma took me to the roller rink for my party, and she spent the whole time crying. I remember skating around with the two boys who'd come to my birthday and watching her sit next to my cake with her head in her hands, shaking. I wanted him to be there, too. I liked her to be happy, but I didn't miss the ice cubes.
Some lions are creeping up on some zebras, and I can still smell Momma's perfume hanging around. I think maybe if I go out for a while, then it won't be here when I get back. Sometimes I don't know what to think about that perfume. I like it and I don't at the same time. The crazy thing about it is when she comes home from work late at night, it still smells just as strong on her as when she left the house, even though her work clothes smell like French fries and grease. It's better when it's mixed with the Waffle House smell than when it's just by itself, when she's leaving. I go get myself a fudgesicle and go outside. It's still light out, and I stand on the carport and look down the street. There's only four little houses down our dead end road, and ours is all the way at the end, pressed right up against the woods. This one kid, Owen, is in his front yard shooting basketball at a rim with no net that his daddy put up on an old tree. He's only nine, and he'll follow me around like a baby duck if he sees me, so I stay under the carport. He's always picking his nose, and he stinks like natural gas. The phone starts ringing inside, and I go get it.
"Long residence," I say, and I think it sounds funny from the ice cream I just ate, like my mouth is asleep from the cold. But nobody's saying anything. "Hello," I say again, but still nothing. I can hear something, though. It sounds like someone breathing through their nose into the phone, like static on the TV. I don't say anything and listen to it. Sounds like quiet little waves coming into the beach. "Who is this?" Nothing. Just waves breaking. I hang up.
I walk out into the backyard to the fence and look down into the canal. I have a rope I connected to our magnolia tree that I used to use to shimmy down the ravine and play in the water, but Momma told me that canal was a lot of sewage water. The rope's still snaking through the yard from the tree, through the chain link fence and down the side. I don't see no turtles down there. I used to find big chunks of concrete and bring them over to the fence and chunk them down at the turtles. Momma had a boyfriend named Mister Lonnie, who was a policeman, before Mister Kyle. He saw me dropping rock bombs on turtles down there, and he gave me this big long talk about cruelty to animals. He stood out in the yard in his blue police uniform and kept saying, "How would you like it if I dropped a boulder on your back while you was watching TV?" I told him I wouldn't. I quit hurting turtles and shooting birds after that, but I still like hunting squirrels and rabbits if I ever get the chance to go. Momma saw the policeman for not very long, and he only ever came over on the weekends, and always in his uniform. He made me nervous, and I was glad when I didn't have to see him anymore. After that, Momma said she was gonna find someone better, and that's when Mister Kyle came around. When Momma sets her mind to something, she can always get it.
I'm leaning on the fence watching the woods across the canal get darker when I hear the phone ring again. I go back on in.
"Who is this?" It's a man's voice, heavy and raspy like croupy cough.
"Kevin." Then there's nothing, just those waves again. I can tell it was the same breathing as before. "Who is this?" I say.
I listen to the static of those waves for just a minute, and then right when I'm about to hang up, the man says, "Kevin."
I say what Momma always told me to say when she ain't home. "She's running some errands."
"I know that's a lie, Kevin," he says, "Put Diane on the phone."
I tell him again.
"Well, then where's your daddy?"
"He's out, too."
"And where do you suppose he is?"
I hang up then and stand looking at the phone, just waiting for it to start ringing again, but it don't. After a minute I go back to the couch. I can't smell Momma no more.
I sit there watching the TV with no volume and wonder who would call Momma Diane. No one calls her that except Maw Maw, and she's in heaven. Everybody else just calls her Dee, except Mister Kyle. He always called her Sugar. Ain't anyone ever asked me about my daddy, except for my two friends, Troy and Greg. They was the boys at my birthday party. They're brothers who lived about two miles down the road in a fancy neighborhood called Pecan Shadows, but moved away after school to go live in Florida. They thought it was cool that Daddy worked on an oil rig way out in the Gulf, so I didn't tell them he had died when I was just a baby. Momma said the oil rig caught on fire and he jumped off and got drowned. I told Troy and Greg about all the fish Daddy and them catch at night when they ain't working, and how the food out there is better than anywhere else.
I dream the phone is ringing, and when I open my eyes up, it is. Some new nature show's on TV, but the volume is still down. I let it ring a few more times before I go get it.
"I know whose damn house this is."
It's the same man from earlier. I don't know what to say. I don't like the way his breath sounds in my ear. "Listen," I say. "You got the wrong..."
"I ain't got a goddamn thing wrong, and your name ain't no Long."
My heart is beating in my throat like a toad, and I'm shaking a little. The kitchen light seems weird, like in the back of an old grocery store.
"Kevin. You there?"
My voice gets shaky, and it feels like I'm gonna cry, and so I cram the phone down on its cradle, and it goes bing like those bells on desks people ring when there ain't nobody there to help them. It lasts for a few long seconds, and then everything is too still. It's dead quiet except for the crickets outside. I go and lock the front and back doors and then lock all the windows. I go to Momma's room and turn on the lights. Her bathroom light is still on, and there's a few dresses hanging up on her shower. I go to the hallway and turn that light on and then get my room light on. Back on the couch I don't sit all the way back. I lean forward and keep staring at the TV show with no noise. This time when the ringing starts, I just let it go. It's so loud, and it makes the house seem big and empty.
After a while the ringing stops and don't start again. I can't stop thinking about what that crazy man said about my name ain't no Long. I try and think about some of Momma's friends who might be the one calling. I know Mister Kyle's voice, and it ain't Mister Lonnie the policeman because he had a voice sort of like Willie Nelson. Every time I hear Willie I can't help thinking he's gonna sing a song about throwing rocks on turtles. Before him there was a man named Mister Earl. He drove trucks and always came over late at night and would stay with us for a few days and be gone again. I was just a boy when I knew him, but he'd always bring me stuff like a coonskin cap or a keychain with my name on it. Momma said he had another wife somewhere and even some little kids. His accent was funny though, like up where it snows all the time. Before that I don't remember too much about her friends. I used to go to work with her at Waffle House, and she'd put me in a booth and let me color. Miss Kris would bring me milkshakes and as many Cokes as I wanted. She was the blackest lady I ever seen. She still works with Momma up there, and they talk on the phone sometimes. If I answer, she'll always say, "Alright, Kevo." I remember Momma's boss fighting with her once about me taking up room for customers, and she started letting me stay at home right around then.
I'm in the kitchen heating up some spaghetti when headlights swoosh through the kitchen. I walk over to the window and move the curtain to the side. There's a big truck sitting in the driveway. I can't see the driver except for a shadow because them lights are so bright. It makes a big grumbling sound. I back up next to the stove and just stand there. The spaghetti is boiling now and little splotches of red go flicking all on the white stovetop like it's a volcano. I turn the heat off and stand there, quiet. The windows are all lit up with light, and then the lights turn off. It's quiet except for the popping sounds of the red sauce, but they get quiet, too, after a minute. I hear someone walking under the carport, and I swear I can't hardly move. When the knocking starts, my heart jumps in my throat. Three soft knocks on the wood. Silence. Then four more, a little harder. I don't know why, but I squat down right there and sit on the kitchen floor, Indian style. I hear a cough, and it bounces around under the carport. I scoot backwards through the kitchen like a crawfish. When I get to the hallway, I stand up, and there's a rap on the glass pane of the door. The glass rattles like it could break.
"Kevin!" It's that same man's voice.
I can't move, hardly. The man's voice sounds angry, and when the door knob starts jiggling, I run into Momma's room. Mister Kyle used to have three guns he kept in Momma's closet. I wish he was here. I know Momma has a pistol, but I also know she's got it in her purse. I root through her drawers, but I ain't finding nothing except pennies and safety pins. I know I ain't gonna find no gun. The doorknob stops jiggling, and I know I need to call Miss Kris.
I walk real soft into the kitchen and up to the phone. Momma has some numbers written down on little yellow papers stuck up on the wall next to the phone. There ain't many, and I see Miss Kris' and pick up the phone. There's another cough under the carport, and I hear something like a zippo snapping shut. I dial Miss Kris. The phone rings three times before someone picks up. It's a little boy.
"Hello," he says.
I don't want to talk too loud. "Is Miss Kris there?" I ask, just whispering.
"What? Who is this?"
It's just a little kid. I can hear a bunch of kids screaming in the background. "Can I talk to Miss Kris?" I'm still just barely whispering, and then the doorknob starts jiggling again. "Let me talk with Miss Kris," I say, talking loud now. There's a noise on the phone like a clap, and then a girl gets on.
"Who is this?" she says.
"I'm Dee's kid. Can I talk to Miss Kris?" Some more knocks come on the door, on the glass, and I'm scared it might break.
"Momma ain't here," she says and hangs up.
I put the phone back on the cradle, but it slips off and falls to the ground. The knocking stops, and I stand real still.
"I hear you in there, Kevin," the man says. "Open the door and let me see you."
"Who are you?" I shout. "Momma's coming back with her friend right now." My heart's going crazy and my voice is too shaky.
"Good," he says. "I'd love to meet her friend."
I hear the zippo sound again and another cough echoing around. There's a big thud against the door like he's leaning into it and then another jiggle on the knob.
"I got a gun," I say. "You better get out of here."
I hear him laughing out there. "You ain't gotta be like that," he says.
I think if I can get out the back door, then I can slip around the side of the house and run over to Owen's. I stand still, though. The phone's lying on the kitchen floor barking its alarm to be hung back up.
"Go away," I say. "Law's on their way."
"You're about as good a liar as your momma," he says and then coughs. "Don't you want to know how come I know your name ain't Long?"
"What you want?" I'm angry, but I'm also crying a little, and I don't want my voice to be doing like it is.
"I want you to open the damn door," he says, and raps the glass again. "I won't come in, I swear. I just want to look at you."
I start walking back into the kitchen to dial 911, and his fist pounds the door.
"I swear if I hear that phone hang up, I'm coming in."
I turn and run to the back door and open it up as soft as I can. Outside, I shut the door real gentle. I look straight through the back door window to the front door, and I can see the doorknob still dancing. I can hear him talking, too, but I can't hear what he's saying. I turn to run around the side of the house, and right away I bump into the barbeque pit and fall down with it. I scramble up in a second. I can't hear anything except my heart in my ears, but I know he's coming around the side of the house now. I run straight to the back fence and hop it and almost fly off into the ravine, but I catch myself, barely. I bend down and grab onto the rope winding under the fence and lower myself down over the side. I don't get far when I hear him in the yard and I freeze. The zippo clicks. My face is pressed up against the wall of the ravine against the dirt and roots, but I look up. My heart's leaping in my throat, in my ears, but I'm real quiet, dangling there. I can see a little bit of the light from the house above me, and then I see a cloud of blue smoke go sailing through it.
"I know you're out here, Kevin."
I can't even move when I hear that voice. My eye burns with sweat, and I lower myself down the rope just a little, trying to be as quiet as I can. I look down, and I can't even see past my feet, it's so dark. I know the canal is down there. I know the water's there.
"Kevin, I ain't gonna hurt you, son. But you need to come out of them woods before I come looking for you."
His voice is over near the woods at the other end of the yard now. I look back down into the darkness, and I know I have to drop. I done it a thousand times in the daytime, but I can't seem to let go. There's an old ladder a ways down leading out of the canal near where our street turns off the main road. I know I got to let go and go get someone to help, maybe Owen or somebody.
"Suit yourself." The man calls out, and I can hear him lifting the barbeque pit back up under the porch, and that's when I know I didn't lock the back door. I pull myself up the rope to the edge and look over it, careful not to show too much of my head. I'm right even with the yard, and I can see the porch and the barbeque pit back up like I never knocked it down. The lights are all still on in the house, and I can see inside. Everything's just like it was. The TV is still on, and I can barely see part of the screen sticking out the side of the couch. My arms feel tired, and I want to pull myself back up, and that's when I see a little cloud of smoke float up inside of the house. The man comes walking from the kitchen where I just was, and looks at some of the pictures on the wall. After a minute he comes through the back door. He's standing on the porch looking off to the side, toward the woods.
"I see your mother still keeps her room like a tornado came through it."
I look at him underneath the yellow porch light, talking to the woods. There's a bottle in his hand, shimmering with the light. He's tall and thin. His hair is cut in a flattop, and his raggedy blue shirt is tucked into his blue jeans. His clothes look too big for him, and he keeps hitching up his pants. His arms look like they got writing all over them from his elbows down. I never seen him before. He looks over his shoulder into the house, and then back at the woods, and then at his watch. When he takes a step forward into the yard, I lower myself down the rope real fast. I hear the zippo crack again, and I lower myself all the way to the end of the rope. The rope seems to tug back for a second, and I freeze. I hang there, and then I hear the fence rattle like he's leaning on it. When I look up, he's looking down at me.
"Damn, son. I thought you done run off in them woods."
"Leave me alone," I say, and then look down into the dark. I know there's water down there. I look back up and I can only see his shadow looking down at me. The light from the house floats around his head like a ghost.
"What the hell's down there?" he says. "Don't tell me y'all live on the edge of a cliff?"
I hold onto that rope and my arms are sore. I know all I have to do is kick off the side and then let go. I done it a thousand times in the day. I just can't see the water, that's all.
"I tell you what. You shimmy up that rope and let me get a good look at you, and let's have ourselves a talk."
I put my toes against the dirt wall and get ready.
"I ain't gonna hurt you now. I'm on this side of the fence and you're on that side, and after our talk I'll leave, I promise. Listen, I'm sorry if I scared you before."
I look back down and then up at him again. He puts a cigarette in his mouth and cracks that zippo again.
"See," he says, and puts his arms up in the air and steps backwards. I can't see him anymore, just his cigarette smoke drifting through the haze. "I just want to have a conversation, is all," he calls out.
I dangle there and don't know what to do. I can't hold on too much longer. After a minute I hear him cough.
"You can hang there like Tarzan 'til kingdom come if you want. I'll wait."
My arms are shaking, and I pull myself up the rope so I can rest my elbows on the ground. There's only about a foot of grass between the fence and the edge, but I need to rest. The man is sitting in our white plastic chair in the middle of our yard, and he's looking right at me and breathing out smoke through his nose holes like a dragon. He takes a long drink from the bottle and then sets it in the grass by the chair.
"See. I told you I ain't gonna hurt you. There ain't no way I can what with you being on the other side of that fence. I wouldn't do it anyway. Hey, I'm sorry if I scared you earlier. You want me to go in the house and get you some water?"
"Stay out of my house," I say, catching my breath a little. I know if I need to, I can drop off and go get help. That man looks pretty comfortable, sitting back in the chair with his leg crossed over the other one.
"Ok, ok. I don't want nothing in there. I just went in before because I wanted to see how your momma keeps things."
"How you know my momma?"
"Oh," he says, and leans back in the chair. "We go way back before you was even an eye sparkle."
I see the red of his cigarette drop to the grass, and then he puts his boot on it.
"You sure you don't recognize me? I bet if you take a good look, you might could place me."
"I can't see you good."
When he leans forward, I think for a second he's getting up, and I let go of the fence and grab onto the rope again to get ready to shove off the side, but he stays where he is. I pull myself back up again and sit on the grass. He clicks that zippo and holds it in front of him, and the flame coming out of it is big and orange. He puts it down in front of his chin and his face flickers around in the light. His cheeks are rough like the moon, and his nose is long and smooth. His eyes are buried back deep, and I can just see the shine in them like dimes underwater. He has a big dark canyon on his chin, slicing right perfect down the middle, and then he snaps the lighter and it's dark again, except for the porch light behind him.
"Well," he says.
"I don't know you."
"I see there ain't no pictures of any men hanging up on the walls. Where's your old man?"
"He drowned in the Gulf of Mexico when I was just a baby."
He leans back in the chair and whistles up at the sky. "Well, I'll be goddamned," he says, and laughs. He's still looking up at the sky. "I had no idea about that."
"It ain't funny." I scoot up a little more and grip the fence. "Did you know him?"
"Oh, sure," he says and crosses his leg over his knee. He's kicking his boot in time like he's listening to music. "Paul was a real genius."
His voice is strange sounding, like it's caught under something heavy. It's weird hearing someone say Daddy's name. I never heard anyone say it before. Momma told me the story only when I was real little, and says it's bad luck to say a dead person's name or to do much talking over it.
"What else?" I want to know.
"What else what?"
"What else about my daddy?"
He leans back and kicks that boot. "Well, he was terribly handsome, and the ladies couldn't get enough of him. He could wrestle alligators and make hammerhead sharks eat sausages out of his hand. He was also hung like a buffalo."
He rocks back in the chair and whistles up in the sky again, and it sounds like a bottle rocket screeching up into the sky and then fading out. He looks like he's gonna sit there awhile, and I pull myself up to where I got my butt on the ground with my legs hanging over the side of the ravine. I make sure to keep the rope in my hand, just in case.
"You got a flashlight in that house where I can get a good look at you?"
"I don't want you going in my house."
"Fair enough," he says. "I saw your picture in the hallway. You're handsome like your daddy, sure are."
"If you know Momma so good, how come you ain't been around before?"
He leans forward and clicks that zippo. He blows out a huge cloud of smoke, but it don't blow my way this time. It floats behind him to the house where it swirls around under the porch light like a dishrag under water.
"Well, it's sort of complicated, you know. I wanted to come around, but I just couldn't, see. If I could've, I would've, I assure you. I want to ask you a question, though. What's your Momma doing leaving a ten-year-old boy at home alone?"
"I'm eleven," I say.
"Not yet, you ain't."
I don't know what to say. I want him to leave. "Please go," I say.
"You know when I was your age, my momma was dead and my daddy left me alone same as you. Maybe if he would've stuck around and did like he should've, I'd have turned out different. You like being the man of the house?"
"I ain't the man of the house. Mister Kyle is. And he's big as two men, and they'll be back any second, so you better go."
"Yeah, but he ain't your daddy. Don't go getting your panties all bunched up just yet. How often does she up and leave you to man the house?"
"She ain't gone long. I can take care of myself." There's some more smoke swirling around under the porch, and I can see the TV flicker inside of the house.
"Oh, I bet you can, little man." He brings out his package of cigarettes. I can hear the plastic crunching when he balls it up and throws it in the yard. "You like this Mister Kyle?"
"He good to you?"
"Yes, sir. He takes me hunting and fishing and everything." I tell him again they're on a date, and they're coming home any time now. I tell him about the time I saw Mister Kyle shoot a squirrel out of a tree a football field away. "He ain't gonna like it if you're here when he gets here."
"I don't reckon he would. And your momma likes this fella?"
"Yes, sir. They like to dance. That's where they went, but they're coming back any second."
"So you said. What's this knucklehead do for work?"
"He works up at EXXON. He's the boss of a bunch of men."
"I bet he is." He gets up and steps back, facing the house, and stops. His back is to me, and he grabs on to the chair and squeezes it tight. He just stares at the porch like he's watching the TV show through the window. Bugs bump around his shadow in the porch light, and he just keeps standing there watching, and the only sound is those bugs bumping the light. I don't feel scared now, but I feel like the house and the yard with him standing there in front of it all just gets smaller and smaller. A sweat drop slides down the back of my neck. Then, all of a sudden, he lets go of the chair and marches off around the side of the house. After a minute I hear his truck door open and shut, and then he comes back into the yard again holding something under his arm. He stands next to the chair he's been sitting on and holds out some kind of package, but it's hard to see it in the dark.
"Now, Kevin," he says. "I want to trade you something."
He starts walking toward me, and I grab onto the rope and ease my butt off the grass and get ready, and then he stops.
"Ok," he says, stopping with one arm out. "Don't go jumping. Now, I'm going to go set this down over there under the porch, but I'm gonna take something for it."
"What is it?" I want to know.
He don't answer while he's walking back to the house. He sets the little bundle under the porch in front of the door, and I can see it's a shoebox. He wiggles his pants up around his skinny hips and walks into the house again. He walks over to the wall by the kitchen and takes down the picture of me Momma has framed. I hate he's in my house, but he's only in there for a second, and then he comes back out into the yard. When he don't stop at the chair, I ease over the side just in case. I can hear him lean on the fence above me.
"Just look up, son. I ain't gonna hurt you, I done told you." His voice gets real soft and the gravel is all gone from it.
"You can't have that picture," I tell him. "What's in that shoebox?" I ask.
"That's something your daddy wanted you to have, but you going to have to hide it from your momma. Put them under your bed or something."
I move down the rope just a bit, but my hands are tired, my arms, too. I look up and see his shadow up there at the fence. "Please leave me alone," I say. I'm crying now, and I hate it. "You can't have that picture."
"Ok," he says, and rattles the fence. "You just tell your momma you lost it, ok?"
I can feel him standing there. I'm working up the nerve to let go.
"So long, Kevin," he says. "I'm real sorry about your daddy."
The fence rattles again, sort of soft, and I can hear him move away, back into the yard. I don't want him to go in the house, and I climb up the rope until I can see the backyard again through the fence. There's nobody there. I'm looking at the empty white chair he was sitting on in the middle of the yard, and the little bottle next to it, when I hear that truck start up. I can see just a flash of light off to the side of the house when the truck drives off. It's quiet now. The yard is still like there was never anyone there, except for the little package in front of the door and the crumpled up pack of cigarettes next to the chair. The inside of the house is the same as it was when I was in there, but different, too. I can see the empty space on the wall where my picture was hanging. I don't feel I want to be in there now. I want to pretend I can see Momma up in there, and me, too, with Mister Kyle, practicing the Good Time dance. I can't hardly stand to look at that empty house with the lights still on and that box under the porch.
I move down the rope as far as I can go and kick my feet out into nothing. I tell myself I just can't see the water now. But I can still picture it from earlier, and I know, and I know. I close my eyes and let go, and know it will be there.