Mama placed small bags of popcorn on the coffee table while Father set up the new-fangled television—the first in this town of 113 citizens. Five-year-old Wendy skipped around the living room, dropping napkins on every seat until she fell over the footstool and into her father, almost toppling the Motorola off its stand. He grabbed her arm, smacked the back of her legs three times, and ordered her upstairs to bed.
She didn’t go to bed, and though she wasn’t allowed in her parents’ room, she stood at their window, clutching and twisting the curtain as chattering grown-ups crowded through the front door, their kids squeezing by them, shouting until her father’s voice boomed, and everyone quieted. Lively music chimed through the floor boards, the new TV switched on.
Wendy released the crumpled window lace and tiptoed into her own dark room to creep under the blankets. For her, there would be no playmates, no popcorn, no I Love Lucy.
* * *
After moving to Oregon, Wendy and her folks drove back over the Rockies each August, the Dodge sweltering with windows up, ice melting in the tiny air cooler. Still, she was glad. She would be ignored in the Midwest, her father thankfully distracted by relatives and long-time friends.
Inside her grandparents’ clapboard house, she slept in the attic, read books, drew pictures, and when her folks went visiting, she spent time with her grandmother, feeding wet laundry into the washing machine ringer while they sang “Are you sleeping, Brother John.” She trailed after her grandfather through rows of vegetables, feasting on peas straight from the pod, breathing in the rich smell of soil and tomatoes and corn.
But once in a while, her father insisted she go visiting with them. One of the families had a simple wood-frame swing set in the backyard, two plank seats on long chains. The kids challenged each other to see who could swing highest. Wendy took her turn against one of the boys. He was bigger, stronger, so she pumped with all her might, the breeze cooling her face, the chains beginning to jerk. The others cheered “higher, higher” until Wendy felt grass rushing toward her, the kids yelling “jump, jump.” She leapt off just as the wooden contraption tipped to the ground. The boy broke his arm. Her father blamed Wendy, his anger hurting more than the pulsing pain in her sprained ankle. Her mother sat silent.
* * *
Even in the kitchen, on the opposite side of the old Victorian from where her father slept, Wendy and her mother spoke in hushed tones about Wendy’s community college classes, her newly-made friends. Wendy washed the breakfast dishes, her mother dried, until a skillet slipped and clanged onto the tile floor. They froze, eyes locked.
He didn’t always wake to noise, but still, they held their breath until they heard him shuffling down the hallway. Wendy turned back to the sink, splashing water. Mama nudged glasses in the cupboard into precise rows.
“What the hell!” He was in his underwear, big hand swiping his bed-lined face, barking, “Can’t you two shut up?”
“I’m sorry. Clumsy me.” Mama gave a flustered laugh, then asked if he wanted coffee or a grilled cheese sandwich since he’d slept through breakfast.
His mouth twisted with disgust. “You pinheads are useless,” he said and scuffed back to bed.
Mama silently closed the cupboard door. Wendy drained the sink. They no longer talked.
* * *
Stalled on a railroad track, her parents were killed by a train, leaving Wendy alone in the thick forests of coastal Oregon where fog and cold seeped into their drafty Victorian.
Her father’s sister called from the Midwest after the funeral to see if Wendy wanted a box of her father’s memorabilia. “You know, pictures, diplomas, that kind of thing.”
Wendy surprised herself and said, “I have vacation time. What if I come for a visit?”
“That would be lovely.” Aunt Dinah was pleased.
“But I don’t want his stuff.”
In Indianapolis, in the small tract house where her aunt now lived, they reminisced about the farm, egg collecting, hiding in the hayloft, riding cows with her cousins.
“It was my favorite place,” said Wendy. “I always felt so free there.” They were sitting at the old oak table brought from the farmhouse.
Aunt Dinah reached out and took Wendy’s hand.
“I’m sorry we couldn’t go to the funeral,” she said. “My broken hip—”
“That’s okay,” said Wendy. “I didn’t expect you to come.”
The aunt leaned closer. “I loved your mother, you know. And I know how hard your father was on the two of you.”
Wendy felt her eyes prickle and asked a question she didn’t know she would ask. “Why was he so mean?”
Aunt Dina leaned back against the chair. Sighed. “He was always like that. He didn’t get along with me or your Aunt Eunice. I guess it was because he was the youngest and the only boy.”
“So, they doted on my father? Spoiled him?”
Aunt Dinah looked surprised. “No. Not that. It was the opposite. Your grandfather beat him every day of his life.”
Wendy frowned. “Beat him?” Her grandfather has always been so kind to her, she never suspected him of doing anything mean. She stared at her aunt. “Every day?”
The older woman shook her head. “Maybe not, but it felt that way. He never touched me, but he’d get drunk and pound on your dad.”
The sun streamed into the kitchen, a car horn honked on the street, and Wendy squeezed her aunt’s hand. “He never hit us, my mother or me.”
“There’s that, at least.”
“That’s a lot when you think about it.” Wendy studied the grain in the table, its dark and light golden swirls. Something was loosening. She glanced at Aunt Dinah and said, “Can we look at that box? The one with my father’s stuff?”
Gay Degani has a chapbook, Pomegranate, a full-length collection, Rattle of Want, and a suspense novel, What Came Before. Most of her publications have be published in online journals including Atticus Review, Smokelong Quarterly, 3 A.M., Yellow Mama, Gone Lawn, and Fictive Dream.
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