I was riding in the back seat of my Aunt Belle’s Cadillac when my cousin Joanie whispered, “You want some gum?” then leaned over to me and stuck her tongue in my mouth. When she sat back, smiling, I found that she’d left her gum behind. It was gnarled and cold and foreign-tasting, I suppose because it was wet with someone else’s saliva.
Joanie was fourteen, three years older than me; we had known each other for all of two hours, most of which we’d spent riding silently in the back seat. Outside my window, the Ohio landscape was so odd and distant it might as well have been the surface of the moon: the plowed fields flat and suffocating, a place where there wasn’t even oxygen to breathe.
Aunt Belle was my father’s aunt, my great-aunt. She and her husband, Guy, were real holy rollers, the first I’d ever met. I’m not sure how my father decided I should stay with them, but I imagine he didn’t have any other choice. My mother was in the hospital, and he didn’t want to leave me alone while he worked long hours at the steel mill. He never asked me what I wanted.
My father wouldn’t tell me much about my mother. Every time I tried to ask, he would change the subject. “You won’t have to stay long,” he kept telling me, as we drove to the family reunion where he was going to pass me off to my aunt and uncle. My black suitcase taunted me like a bully. My father gripped the wheel with one hand. “You’ll just stay until.”
“Until what?” I asked.
The reunion was in West Virginia, and on the way down, my father told me stories about my grandfather, who’d died when I was three. “He had his own molasses mill,” my father told me, and, “He loved math. He charted how much the cows ate every day.”
I didn’t really remember my grandfather at all, except there was this picture someone had taken of the two of us together: he was zipping up my coat, and sometimes I thought I could remember what his hands looked like, big and trembling as they fumbled to zip the teeth together. I wasn’t sure if that was a real memory, though, or just something I had constructed from all those times my mother had shown me the photograph.
Now it seemed like my father was trying to tell me something. “Do you miss him?” I asked.
“Sure,” he said, shrugging. “I guess. Sometimes.”
“When you’re dead, I’ll miss you all the time,” I said.
My father glanced over at me. I liked to say big, dramatic things like that. My mother was a huge Elton John fan, and I had memorized the lyrics to every song on Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, even though I wouldn’t understand most of them until years later — songs about sex and suicide and how love lies bleeding. My mother played the album in the dark, late at night, and I could hear the music coming through my bedroom walls. I listened hard. Sometimes it seemed like the whole house was spinning on the turntable.
At the reunion, I spent the day thinking, These can’t be my relatives. None of my relatives talked about “hollers” and “Jesus” and asked, “You-all have a safe trip?” We ate macaroni salad and potato salad, everything covered in mayonnaise, and when it was over, my father said, “I’ll see you soon,” and watched me climb in beside Joanie in the giant back seat of my aunt and uncle’s Cadillac. Then he hugged Aunt Belle and shook Uncle Guy’s hand, as though some sort of business deal had been done. I hung my head out the window and waved to my father as the car bumped down the dirt lane and dust rose up into the back seat and settled heavy and dry on my arms and drifted down the collar of the dress shirt my father had made me wear.
Joanie had brown hair and wore thick, plastic-framed glasses. Every time she looked at me, I felt like I was being examined. The Cadillac was such a big car that the front seat seemed far away, as if I were looking down the wrong end of a telescope at it. Uncle Guy was listening to the Reds game. I was an Indians fan, even though the Indians never won anything.
“I’m an Indians fan,” I said to Joanie, whose only reply was a silence so stony I would’ve thought her deaf had I not heard her offer noncommittal answers to Aunt Belle’s occasional questions. Joanie had been staying with Belle and Guy for a month now. In the summer their farm served as a sort of repository for cousins who had nowhere else to go, children shipped off for reasons unknown or kept secret. Aunt Belle’s kids had all grown up and moved away; Uncle Guy was her second husband. Joanie was Belle’s granddaughter.
“I’m an Indians fan,” I said again, louder.
“Good for the Indians,” she said, and she gave me a coy look, as if she had just noticed me beside her. Her jaw moved slowly as she chewed her gum. Then she asked if I wanted some.
For the rest of the ride, I sat there chewing timidly, afraid of what might happen if I stopped. I was still sorting out the details, trying to decide what they meant: the way her lips had parted mine; the way her tongue had turned in my mouth, like some sort of secret handshake; then the soft withdrawal, the gum left behind. In my head, I replayed the event again and again.
It was getting dark. The Reds were winning. Guy turned the wheel, and the Cadillac heaved its way around a turn.
“We’re almost there,” Joanie whispered to me. In the front seat, the heads of my aunt and uncle were as still and steady as the headlights on the road. Joanie put her face so close to mine, I could feel her breath when she exhaled. She said, “I want my gum back.”
Our arrival at Aunt Belle’s farm made me think of the time my cat Yuckadoo had come home with his eye clawed out, the eyeball dangling from the empty socket. My mother screamed and ran away and spent the rest of the day in her room with the door closed. While I waited for my father to get home, I herded the poor, stumbling cat around, lamely offering him water and trying not to look directly at him, but it was too much, and I eventually went out to the driveway to watch for my father’s car.
When he came home, he put Yuckadoo in a box and drove off. He returned later that night without the cat. I asked what had happened.
My father said, “I gave him to this farmer I know.”
“What farmer do you know?” I asked.
Now I saw the big white barn looming behind Aunt Belle’s house, and I thought, Maybe I’ll run into Yuckadoo.
Inside the house, Aunt Belle showed me to the room where I would sleep. It was really a side entryway, but there was a couch and a dresser with a lamp.
“See you tomorrow,” Joanie said, winking at me when Aunt Belle couldn’t see.
Aunt Belle touched my hair as she left. The gesture seems kind as I recall now, but I remember thinking at the time that there must have been something wrong with my hair. I opened the biggest drawer of the dresser and slid my whole suitcase inside.
In the daylight, the farm was flat and seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. I thought maybe the neighboring farms, which I could see on the horizon, were like those one-sided Hollywood buildings.
There was absolutely nothing to do. They got about one and a half channels on the television, and every time something good came on, I wasn’t allowed to watch it. Aunt Belle thought most TV was either too violent or too racy, and the only thing she’d let me watch was this gospel show with four guys in blue suits singing about Jesus. One of them had a voice so deep that it made the little knickknacks on top of the television vibrate. The knickknacks were shepherds made from clear plastic, and you could see right through them, as if they were ghosts.
I was glad that Joanie had brought a lot of gum with her. We spent a whole day trading it back and forth. Every time her tongue brushed against my teeth, my skin tightened up between my shoulder blades and my insides went funny, like someone was rearranging them.
Joanie stayed at Aunt Belle’s house so much she had her own room. It was all pink and pillowy, with stuffed animals piled in the corners. Meanwhile, I had my couch in the side entryway, where the farmworkers came in and out. Big guys in boots and overalls were always knocking on the door. When I answered, they would stare at me, trying to figure out what I was doing there.
On the second day, we were having breakfast when Joanie said to Aunt Belle, “Did I tell you about my boyfriend?”
Aunt Belle tensed up, as if she had bitten into something hard. Joanie was smiling at me. For a minute I thought she was going to tell Aunt Belle what we had been doing. “Why, no,” Aunt Belle said. “You haven’t mentioned any boyfriends.”
“He’s a chef,” Joanie said, waving her triangle of toast theatrically. “He works at McDonald’s.”
Then she went on and on about all the things he did there, how important he was to the whole operation, how they couldn’t get by without him. Even at age eleven, I knew that she was full of it. When I couldn’t stand to listen anymore, I went to the living room to watch TV. But Aunt Belle was right behind me. The sound of the set coming on was like a fishing line, reeling her in.
“We have to get ready for church,” she said. She had been talking about taking me to her church ever since I’d arrived, saying things like, “I want to show off my favorite nephew,” and, “You’re going to make all the ladies swoon,” and, “Wait until you see how different our church is from that Catholic church of yours.”
She said this as if Catholicism were a puppy that I’d brought home without permission. She made me help her with the housework, and we had these conversations while she trailed after me with a feather duster, redoing whatever task she’d assigned to me, talking about her various church duties as a coordinator and a volunteer and an organizer. Joanie sat on the couch and watched me run the vacuum cleaner, Aunt Belle circling me with a can of furniture polish, raising her voice to be heard. She’d tell me about how she’d let Jesus into her life, then slyly ply me for clues about the Catholic Mass: “So that’s our Communion; I’m sure yours is no different,” she’d say, and raise her eyebrows expectantly.
As the time to leave for church approached, I hoped my father would arrive out of nowhere, just in time to save me. I dressed and listened for his car in the driveway. When I realized he wasn’t coming, I tried my best to find the positives in the situation. That’s what he would have wanted me to do. At least I’ll get off this farm, I thought.
Joanie came out wearing a dress that was all ruffles and bows. She blushed when I stared at her. Surely everyone could see she looked ridiculous. But Aunt Belle walked around and around her, cooing, “My granddaughter, my granddaughter!” and adjusting the fringes and ribbons as if they were another household chore to be done.
At home I never wanted to go to mass, but when we got to Aunt Belle’s church, I suddenly longed for Saint Teresa’s. At least mass didn’t take so long. At Belle’s church, the preacher went through four handkerchiefs, wiping sweat from his brow until each one was soaked. We sang hymn after hymn, and none of them had the soothing, dirgelike quality of the Catholic songs. People occasionally cried out, stricken with joy. Once Aunt Belle shouted, “Ha-lay-lou!”
For a while, I was allowed to stay in the church nursery, ostensibly to help keep the little kids out of trouble. I lied and told Aunt Belle that was what I did during mass at home, that the priest himself had handpicked me for the job.
There was a baby girl in there, and I watched as one of the women laid her on her back to change her diaper. I thought of Joanie lying on her bed. Guiltily I edged over so that I would be able to see what was underneath when the diaper came off.
The woman undid one safety pin and then the other. She lifted the front flap of the diaper down. I leaned closer. The woman snapped her head up and shot me a scathing look. I flinched and walked as fast as I could from the room, back to where Aunt Belle was sitting.
Everyone was singing something about light and the Lord and knowing Him and Him knowing you. I waited for the woman from the nursery to come up behind me and dig her fingers into my shoulder and lift me into the air like a bird plucking a worm from the ground. As the song rose to its dismally optimistic conclusion — “Jesus loves me! Jesus loves me!” — Joanie slid her hand up my thigh and let it rest where my leg folded into my torso.
Then the song was over, and we all stood up and shook hands with everyone around us and made our way to the gravel parking lot, where I saw the woman from the nursery glaring at me and whispering to a huddled group of old women.
All the way home, I thought about Joanie and her hand and the uncomfortable new thoughts that seemed to come not from my head, but from a more secret brain, much lower in my body. I thought Joanie might have suspected something, because she stayed way over on the other side of the Cadillac’s back seat, pushing down her ruffles with her hands. As soon as we got to Aunt Belle’s, she dashed to her room and closed the door.
I sat in the living room, feeling very small, and watched Uncle Guy read his newspaper. The whole thing was only about eight pages long, and he turned each page as if he were surprised to find more writing on the other side. Finally I got up and went to the kitchen, hoping to sneak some sort of snack, but Aunt Belle was talking on the phone.
“What kind of therapy?” she said.
“Well, is she a danger to herself?” she said.
“Is there a name for what she has?” she said.
When she saw me standing in the doorway listening, she blushed and started saying, “Mm-hmm. Oh. I see.” Then she said, “That’s right. He’s standing right here.”
“Is that my father?” I said. Aunt Belle nodded, scooting off her chair and moving away from me.
“Can I talk to him?” I said, but she was saying goodbye and hanging up the phone.
About five o’clock that afternoon, Aunt Belle came to me in the living room, where I was fiddling with the antenna on the TV, trying to get something, anything, to come in. “Time to get ready for church,” she said.
“We just came from there,” I said.
“Baptists go twice on Sunday.”
Good for the Baptists, I thought, though I had the sense not to say it. Aunt Belle had that serious, intent look I sometimes saw on my mother. “Let’s go to the grocery store,” Mom would say, even though we had just been to the grocery store, even though we’d just put all the groceries away. It was back in the car, back to the store, where my mother skittered up and down the aisles like one of those wheels that always kick sideways under the cart.
Maybe Aunt Belle was funny that way, too. There she was on Sunday evening insisting it was time for church, saying, “It’s time to get ready.” I trudged off to change, convinced I would never again hear news so terrible.
In her room the next day, Joanie was telling me what an awful person her mother was, like a wicked stepmother, only without the step.
We had been passing our gum back and forth, but then I’d tried to move my hands up her body, and she’d said I wasn’t allowed to sit on the bed anymore. So now I was sitting on the floor beside the bed, preferring that to the hard, uncomfortable chair that went with the dusty desk sitting unused in the corner of the room.
“That’s why she sends me here every summer,” Joanie said. “To keep the boys away from me.”
I nodded, but I was thinking about the pack of gum on her nightstand. It was Juicy Fruit, so delicious and shockingly sweet. If only real fruit tasted that good! Joanie leaned back on the pillows, her arms crossed over her chest. I felt bad sitting on the floor, and I tried to think of something to say, something that would make her let me sit on the bed again.
“Take your glasses off.”
“Take your glasses off.”
She blinked slowly, then reached up and worked the thick plastic earpieces off her ears. Her eyes were brown. They searched dully for me. When they seemed to find me, she said, “To keep the boys off me, that’s what my mother said. She said, ‘They’re like flies. And you’re crap.’ ”
She started to cry, and I had this vision of her as she saw herself, as if I were inside her when she looked in the mirror. She couldn’t have felt good to be kissing someone so young, but I wanted her to kiss me again, so I told her about the time my mother and I had lived in the basement.
“We were down there for a whole week, and we didn’t come out once. We went to the bathroom in a mop bucket. My father was away to visit his parents, and he came back and found us. My mother had locked us in. We had four gallons of water and some packages of peanut-butter crackers.”
“Why did she do that?” Joanie asked, putting her glasses back on.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I was six. We were hiding.”
“From what?” she asked, and when I shrugged, she said, “Do you think you could’ve died there? What if she’d made you stay there until you died?”
“She didn’t make me stay there,” I said, with a snap to my voice that I hadn’t intended. “It was dark and cool, and we sat and listened for sounds, but there weren’t any. Not until my father came home, and then he didn’t go away anymore.”
Joanie didn’t say anything else. I could see the lines on her face where her tears were drying. She took a piece of gum from the pack on the nightstand and sat there, holding it in her hands and looking at me.
Right before my mother went into the hospital, my father took me to a baseball game. We didn’t know yet that she was going into the hospital. On the way there, my father told me that everyone thought my mother was doing better, especially him.
“Was she doing bad before?” I asked.
“What do you think?” he said.
It was a good game, in the old stadium where the Indians used to play. My father taught me how to keep a score card, and I did pretty good for a while, until I started to get bored. Then an idea occurred to me.
“This batter has a nuclear bomb in his chest,” I said to my father. He gave me a sideways look, but I went on: “If he doesn’t get a hit, the bomb will go off, and we’ll all be vaporized.”
My father put down his pencil, and we watched the at-bat. The murmur of the crowd around us grew louder, like wind in a storm, and I thought about the bomb until my hands were trembling.
The batter swung and looped a fly ball just over the infield; it fell into the grass, and everyone cheered. “So we all live,” my father said. He picked up his pencil and drew a smiley face in the box where he was supposed to record the hit.
“You have to be careful what kind of things you let in your head,” he said.
That night when we got home, I went into the garage to put away my baseball glove while my father went into the house. Then he came running out, his face like nothing I had ever seen before. He sent me to the neighbors’, where I sat and watched television. I remember hearing sirens, but in no way did I think they were related to me.
I didn’t see my father again until he came to pick me up much later that night. He told me then that my mother was very, very sick.
After hearing about my mother in the basement, Joanie seemed less interested in sharing her gum with me. Instead, she wanted to have a conversation. We were in her room, lying on her bed.
“What are you doing here, anyway?” she asked.
“My mom’s in the hospital.”
“Oh. Must be serious.”
And then all at once it occurred to me that maybe it was serious. Until then I had assumed that everything would work out, the way it always did. I didn’t want to think about my mother not getting better, so I said, “Where’s your mom?”
“Shacked up somewhere,” she said. “Probably screwing some poor guy to death.” She said it as if she said that kind of thing all the time. She leaned back and looked at me for a reaction. I wasn’t even sure what she meant, but I started to laugh. I laughed until Joanie said, “I have to finish my book now.” She opened a drawer in the pink nightstand and pulled out a book with a picture on the cover of a man with long, windblown hair, his shirt open to reveal the sculpted lines of his chest. In his arms he held a woman who looked like she might be dying. Joanie held the book up close to her face, so that she couldn’t see me on the bed beside her.
I went outside for a while and wandered across the field to Uncle Guy’s barn, which was gray and white and humped in the middle like an elephant. There was this huge room in the center, all sliced through with knife-thin shafts of sunlight that looked a little like the heavenly beams of light in paintings where people were praying. I heard noises in the rafters, and I yelled, “Hey!” at the ceiling, and all these birds flapped out. Their beating wings sounded like hands clapping.
I went back to the house and walked down the hall to Joanie’s room, past all these pictures of people I didn’t know, yet was related to. At the end of the hall, I saw Joanie still on the bed. She didn’t seem to notice me standing in the doorway, so I said, “You should see all the birds in the barn.”
“I’ve seen the birds in the barn.”
“When they fly around, it sounds like applause.”
She looked at me as if she was deciding something. Then she said, “Come here. Close the door.”
She started to read in this quiet voice, like she was afraid Aunt Belle might be listening. She was chewing gum; I kept thinking of her tongue, shifting from side to side. I listened carefully, but I couldn’t tell exactly what was happening. Two people were doing something, but I kept picturing two flowers fighting with each other, so in my head that’s what I saw, like the morning glories my mother grew by the fence, all viny and twisted.
Joanie could tell I didn’t get it. She smiled, almost laughing, and said, “Why don’t you go back out to the barn?”
“Can I have some gum?”
She leaned over and took a pack off the nightstand. She used her fingernails to withdraw a single stick, pinching the silver foil. She handed it to me.
“I have to finish reading,” she said, but she didn’t raise the book. She lay on the bed watching me. Finally I got up and left the room. When I got to the end of the hall, I stopped. I’d left the gum on her bed. I turned and went back, but she saw me coming. I remember her legs swinging off the bed, the way she reached for the door, the way it looked closing in my face.
We went to church again on Wednesday, and then on Saturday, then twice on Sunday. On Monday my Uncle Baby showed up. From the moment he arrived, I could tell Aunt Belle hated him.
He was my father’s youngest brother, just five years older than me. Like me and Joanie, he was being passed around for the summer. He was only going to be at Belle’s for a day. Then he was moving on to West Virginia with Joanie and her mother.
Joanie seemed to like Baby, though she didn’t say much to him. Whenever he came in, she left the room, chewing her gum a little faster than usual.
Baby was tall and thin, and he had pitched a no-hitter for his high-school baseball team. We spent the day in Uncle Guy’s soybean field, and he hit me towering fly balls that went so high and came down so fast that I always ended up running away with my glove over my head. My father would have been disappointed, but Baby just laughed and let me wear his glove, which was too big for my hand but fit perfectly over my head as I ran. It snapped open and closed automatically, as if it wanted to catch the ball.
We took a break and sat in the shade of the only tree on the farm. I could see Joanie watching us from her bedroom window. Baby said, “I hear your mother’s sick.”
“She’s getting better,” I said. “That’s what everyone says.”
He hit me more balls until Uncle Guy came out and yelled at us for playing in his crops.
At dinner, Baby and Joanie sat across from each other. She told him about her boyfriend the chef, and after dinner, while Aunt Belle and Uncle Guy did the dishes, the three of us sat together in the living room, staring at the flickering shapes on the television. Joanie plopped herself on the couch between Baby and me, chewing her gum loudly. During the commercials, she stared at Baby.
Later that night, as Baby and I were going to sleep in the entryway, I said to him, “If Joanie offers you any gum, don’t take it.” I was on the couch; Baby was in his sleeping bag on the floor.
“What’s wrong with her gum?” he said.
“The gum’s OK,” I said. “It’s how she gives it to you.”
Baby propped himself up on one elbow and stared at me. When he asked how, I told him.
“With her tongue?” he said, then whistled, low and cool. “Look at you, getting started early.”
He looked proud of me as he lay back down and gazed up at the ceiling. I felt awful, thinking of the two of them in the back seat of Joanie’s mother’s car. It was a long drive back to West Virginia. “It’s terrible,” I said. “She tastes terrible.”
Baby didn’t say anything, and the room seemed to get dark and heavy. I thought about being in the basement and the baseball game Dad took me to. I was almost dreaming when Baby finally spoke.
“Will you have to go to confession?” he said.
“I don’t know.”
“That’s a sin, isn’t it? Having relations with your cousin?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe it is.”
The next day was long and sad as I waited for Joanie’s mother to arrive, and when she finally did, I went out to the barn and threw rocks at the birds.
That night, I finally spoke with my father on the phone. He told me that my mother was home and doing much better, and that soon he would come and get me.
“Can I talk to her?” I said. Aunt Belle was standing next to me in the kitchen, smiling at me. I smiled back.
“Sure thing,” my dad said. “I’ll go get her.”
The static over the line felt like a buzzing inside me, a twitching that I couldn’t stop.
“Buddy?” my father said when he came back. “She’s sleeping right now. I’ll have her call as soon as she wakes up.”
“OK,” I said, disappointed. I tried to find the positives: Now I have something to look forward to.
While I waited, I messed around in the barn and wandered the yard and even watched the gospel singers on television with Aunt Belle, her foot tapping primly to the music. How could I hate something that gave her so much joy, even if it was a sedate, proper kind of Baptist joy?
On TV they were singing about sin. I thought of what Baby had said, how I would have to go to confession. Maybe if I was truly sorry, I would be forgiven.
She stopped tapping and looked at me.
“What do Baptists do for confession?” I asked.
“Well,” she said, “that’s different for us. You all go in your little room and talk to a priest, but our sins stay between us and God.”
“But how do you get forgiven?”
She looked at me kindly and said, “Once you’ve been in the Lord’s light, you’re always in the Lord’s light.”
“Oh,” I said.
My mother never called that day. When I was in bed and half asleep, I thought I heard the phone ring, but I was already drifting off into a dream, and the whole room glowed until it was so bright, everything began to wither and curl, like the edges of a leaf before it burns.
At breakfast the next morning, Aunt Belle looked like she hadn’t slept at all. Uncle Guy read his paper silently. Once, I caught him looking at me, but he glanced away, turning the paper back over, even though he had already read the front page.
As he left the table, he put his big, calloused hand on my head, just for a second. When he was gone, I asked Aunt Belle, “What are we doing today?” I told her I was up for anything. I liked having things to do.
She was washing dishes at the sink with her back to me. “You just keep busy,” she said, her voice strained.
I spent some time in the hallway with all the pictures. I had looked at them before with Joanie, laughing at all the old farmers and the Southern-looking women. Now I was quietly ashamed of myself for being amused. There was even a photo of my grandfather, and the room in the background was the same one as in the picture my mother had shown me so many times. It was strange, seeing that familiar room without me in it, as though I had been skillfully cropped out of existence.
In the barn that afternoon, I debated throwing rocks at the birds again, but I knew I shouldn’t have done it before. They were just birds; all they did was fly around the rafters.
At lunch, Aunt Belle took one bite of her sandwich and left the room. I thought she was crying, and I remembered all the times I had seen my mother cry, and the way her tears would turn suddenly to laughter, and she would say, “Thank God nothing comes out of our eyes when we laugh.” To cheer Aunt Belle up, I puttered around the living room, dusting the ghostly knickknacks on the television. I liked lifting the little shepherds, rearranging the way they stood, imagining the conversations they might be having.
At suppertime, Uncle Guy came in and took a shower, and then the three of us sat at the kitchen table, eating. It was so quiet I could hear them chewing, the wet mash of food being ground between teeth. Then there was the sound of car wheels in the driveway, and a car door opening and closing, and the plod of heavy footsteps coming in the side entryway where I slept. I looked up and saw my father in the doorway.
For a moment, I was so unbelievably happy.