Dill brung Rita a whole lot of long flowers after he run his car up in her yard and smashed Julie’s trike. The box them flowers come in was near about the size of a kiddie coffin.
He didn’t bring them flowers right away though. First, he let his car sit there for something like two days while he laid up on the couch smoking Basics and talking ugly every time Rita told him to get cracking.
When he did finally get up and went to make coffee, Rita said she weren’t running no roadhouse and he would have to straighten up and walk right if he wanted to stay with her.
Dill turned around real quick and said, Of all the good goddamn—
He raised his hand then like he was going to throw the mug across the room at me and Rita.
I could see his lines were circling around, getting smaller toward the middle like a dartboard do. When somebody’s engine blanket gets to moving that fast, it’s hard to tell what’s going to happen next. But pretty soon Dill’s face changed and his circles stopped. He lowered his arm real slow and got all quiet. He looked over at me right quick and then back at Rita.
Then he said, All right, well, a halfway house then.
I saw how Rita looked at me sideways then like she didn’t want me to see her looking. Pays the rent, don’t it? she said to Dill.
I have my own place. I do still have a place of my own, Dill said and went slamming out the back door.
When Rita looked back at me, her engine blanket looked like two snakes dancing. But I turned away, cause I know what halfway is and I want to go the whole way.
I’m still working out what that means, the whole way. But I think it might have to do with finding somebody whose engine blanket matches up with yours like I remember feeling with Mama sometimes.
Next morning, Dill brung the flowers right before I went to work. Rita said they musta cost him an arm and a leg.
At work, Shane said he was expecting a delivery, and when it come, I asked Shane what did he want with all them kiddie coffins.
Got to move them, Al, he said. Get them upstairs till fall. That’s when people’ll be asking for them.
It was just April, but Shane was thinking ahead.
They was all soft colors, mostly white, couple blue. The one I liked best, though, was the shiniest one. The only silver one, all by itself, with little vines and flowers painted on the sides like it was already in the ground. I didn’t want to put it away, so I moved the others first. Every trip down from storage, I’d stop a minute and look at myself in that shine.
I could see right much of Shane’s place in that shine too and I got to moving around the little coffin, leaning over it and trying to make out how the helmet on the wall over by the make-up department looked smaller in there, but I could still tell it was part of the Roman warrior that just come back from a rental. And when I moved some more, I could see the swords in there too, just a little bit more silver than that coffin color. I liked the way Bridget hung them up on either side of the helmet so they went cristcrost. It made me think of my engine blanket that time when everything lined up, inside and out.
At State, when they asked me what was I seeing, engine blanket was the nearest thing I could think to tell them. I thought of that cause of the game I played with Mama before she got sick. She died too, but first she got sick. Before all that, Mama showed me how to pull the string. Mama used to say I was stronger than I knew. Got to be gentle, she said, and she showed me how to pull the string easy and switch it from my fingers to hers. And then it would work out so the string made different shapes and one of us would hold it up and say, cat’s cradle or Jaycup’s ladder or engine blanket. Engine blanket was the one where all the strings went cristcrost.
Course back then after Mama died, I got to seeing real bad wiggly lines too, messy like the string before we pulled it tight and called out the names. And I couldn’t hardly tell where them lines started or ended. I couldn’t tell what was inside and what was out.
Then for a while, when I left State and went to live at Rita’s, I didn’t see no lines at all. But then it was even harder to pay attention. Made me feel like I was all alone even when I weren’t. I stayed back in my room at Rita’s a lot. Least I didn’t bang my head. I hadn’t done that since I left State. But Rita said it weren’t right. Said I had to go to the doctor anyhow. She took me to see one of them docs where she works answering the phones. She told him I was forgetting everything all the time and sitting around like a bump on a log.
It ain’t right, she said. How’s that boy supposed to work? How ever can he do for himself, stuffed so full of meds he can’t function? Rita said all that with her hand up under her chin, sitting by the little table in the doctor’s office.
The doctor said for me to try some new meds. He told me don’t isolate. Stay connected, he said.
And pretty soon, engine blanket come on back. It’s better than it used to be cause this time I can tell that all of the lines ain’t coming from me. Everybody’s got their own engine blanket is what I figured out. My lines is almost always cristcrost and when I see other kinds of lines coming off other people, I can pretty near always tell when they don’t belong to me.
I kinda like having engine blanket back, long as it don’t get too confusing, long as I can learn to think ahead.
Thinking ahead is how Rita says Shane got where he is. I figure if somebody works hard and pays attention, they get to have a gorilla over their front door, if they want one.
Shane is Rita’s cousin and he has me to work at least three days a week. He says he’ll be needing me more in the fall. That’s his busy season.
Dill says Wayne Shane’s a flaming faggot. He says everybody down at the hardware is still laughing about all them gallons of purple Shane bought to paint his building with. Two-toned, Rita calls it. She thinks it’s a nice change. Little Julie says she likes how the light purple star bursts out behind the gorilla. Rita says lilac is the color of that star. But Dill says it’s a crying shame. The whole block looks like a goddamn circus.
Rita said she thought Shane’s money for purple paint spent just as good as anybody’s.
It’s true about the block though, cause Shane owns the whole building, so even the post office on the corner has to live inside them purple walls. The postman has to go in the back door, Dill said, cause he can’t stand to look at the front.
What I know is that the paint job, like that gorilla over Shane’s front door, is good for business. I heard Shane saying that. He said that now folks can see his place from the freeway. And that makes them want to stop, the ones that ain’t coming in anyway for bally slippers and them stretchy leostars. Or parties. Some people wear costumes to parties, no matter what time a year it is. Plenty of days, Faith stays by the register, ringing people up while Bridget waits on them.
But Shane’s best business is Halloween. And then come the holidays with all the Santas and clear on through till Easter—he stays busy. Shane makes the bunny costume for the Easter egg hunt at the White House. I mean the real White House where the Presidents live. He’s made bunnies for the last three presidents. He keeps pictures of them in a case up front. Three different presidents with the same smile, standing beside a tall bunny that Shane and Bridget made themselves right there in the back workroom. I asked Shane if he was inside the suit, but he said no, that was a job for the Secret Service. I like the way that sounds. Secret Service. Like you’re doing somebody a special favor but you don’t let on.
That silver coffin was the smallest one, too. I didn’t even see how a kid could fit in there but then I thought, oh yeah, babies.
For a while there, that morning, nobody noticed me looking in the top of that kiddie coffin cause the man come to deliver the pink panther suits. Shane rents them out to the muffler franchises all over the tri-state. They send them back to get cleaned up or when there’s a rip or something. That means Bridget spends a couple days in the back with the washers humming and shaking and all that pink fur dripping down into the big sinks.
I got to leaning so far over that little silver one that I bumped my sore arm. It was sore from where Dill had grabbed me one morning when I was getting on my bike to come to work. Even though I’m taller than Dill and some heavier too, he come behind me and wrenched my arm around hard. His engine blanket made little boxes then like a checkerboard, only the boxes was smaller and closer together.
While he had my arm wrenched like that, he said, You’ll keep your mouth shut, if you know what’s good for you. But all that happened was that Rita asked at breakfast did I get enough sleep cause she knows how them new meds is keeping me awake and all I said was how I woke up on account of the racket Dill made when he come in.
After while, Shane come up behind me and, tell the truth, it scared me a little, somebody coming up behind me like that. I stood up real quick, but I could tell Shane was wearing a nice face. Shane’s engine blanket has snaky lines, too, sort of like Rita’s but Shane’s go in both directions. I can’t always tell if they’re coming or going. Can’t always tell if he’s going to be mean or nice.
One last trip, Al, he said. Stay focused now.
So I picked up my favorite silver one and headed upstairs. Since it was a light load, I didn’t go up the side steps. I passed through the laundry and up the back steps. I wanted to see what Bridget was doing. She had all them panther heads lined up on the counter, having a good look at them. She was tugging on the ears and poking around them dark spots on the snouts where whiskers should be growing out of.
How come they don’t have whiskers, I said.
Used to, she said, but it was a pain in the butt to keep replacing them.
Oh, I said and went on up the steps.
I stopped on the way to look out the window. I never knew you could see clear over to Skylers Meats from Shane’s second story. I could just make out the tops of two trucks there waiting. Some days when I’m not working, I count five or six trucks going down the street in front of Rita’s. Through the holes in the sides of them trucks I can see little pieces of cows—one big eye or an ear twitching or just part of a big black spot somewhere. They’re still alive then, moving around inside the truck.
When they get down to Skylers, the trucks back up to the building and men come out and poke the cows down the ramp and into a pen just inside. I rode down that way after supper once. I got up right close to the building, and I could hear them mooing and stomping around in there, waiting to get killed on the morning shift. If a truck comes late on a Friday, them cows got to wait all weekend. That’s what Dill said. He said they wait in there till Monday morning when they go down the chute to the knockbox and the knocker drives a bolt into their head.
I asked Rita did she think it was mean. But Rita said that’s just the way it is. She said, Don’t I like steak? Don’t everybody like their steak?
I said I do. Sure I do. But I thought about Julie that time we was having ribeye and Dill and Rita had went to the back door to see somebody. I looked over then and seen Julie was taking the little hunks of steak that Rita cut up for her and scooting them into her napkin. Then she opened her pocketbook with the hello white kitty on it. She stuffed the napkin with all that meat in there and snapped it shut.
I wonder all the time if them cows know they’re going to come out the other side in pieces. That’s where the meat goes—into the silver trucks waiting down at the other end. They don’t got any windows in that place, but once they left the big door open and I seen inside. Cow bodies with no heads was hanging there, all white and red without any skins on. There was a rack too with nothing but fat white tongues. Kinda like the opposite of the pink panther suits, I guess. The insides without the outsides.
Dill was working at Skylers till he got laid off. He was a ribber. He keeps his own knives. All the ribbers and gutters do. Since he started moving stuff into Rita’s, he keeps them up on the shelf in the hall. The smaller ones he uses to do what Rita calls whittling—making little ponies and people out of wood. But some of them, the longer ones, are for the cows. Have to keep them sharp, Dill said. It’s a dull blade that’ll cut you. He took me outside then and showed me a dried-up-looking stick thing nailed to the side of the porch. That’s a bull penis, he said. Dried it out myself.
Shane come up behind me on the stairs while I was looking over at Skylers. Alvin, he said. Then he raised his voice. Keep moving, don’t stop, he said. Alvin!
I heard him the first time but the second time I jumped a little.
Jeezle petes, Alvin. Where you at? Don’t block the stairs. We got work to do.
In the storage room, I took the silver one over to the pile and stacked it up with the rest of them. I run my hand down along that shiny surface one last time.
Funeral home went out of business is how Shane got hold of them. He said he got them for a good deal and come Halloween, people’ll be wanting them.
Once he set down the boxes, he come over and said, You watch, by October they’ll rent them like crazy.
They seal up tight like a real coffin? I said. I was thinking of Mama and how they said she was sealed up good and tight. Said nothing could bother her under the ground, sealed up like that.
These are real coffins, Al, he said. Should be airtight.
Oh right, I said, I know. Right. Airtight. Right.
Lookahere, Shane said and he bent down and unlatched a blue one and lifted the top. Inside was all pretty and silky like the quilt on the end of Julie’s bed.
You can do all kinds of things with them, he said. Put a fake corpse in there or do the blindfolded thing when you have to touch all the mushy scary stuff—you ever do that? You know, the peeled grape eyeballs and the spaghetti brains? People could use them for that. Lot of folks’ll serve dinner there, buffet-style. I’ve seen that, too. Gives atmosphere to a party.
Shane pulled his tie from out of his shirt then and looked at himself in the silver one. He passed his hand through his hair, licked his finger and pushed down his eyebrows. Then he threw a big plastic cover over them all. He said he had an appointment and for me to sweep out the workroom while he was gone. Then he asked me did I want some extra work on Friday evening. He said he was going over to some lady’s house to help her get ready for a party. Sure, I said.
Passing back through the laundry room, I seen Bridget again only she was too busy with the panther suits to talk to me. Sometimes that guy Tuck comes around and visits Bridget on her break. They stand by the back door and smoke. I wonder do Tuck’s lines match up with Bridget’s. I can’t tell. Maybe that’s something you can never tell about other people, how the lines go between them.
That day, Tuck come by just before we closed and waited around outside when I was emptying the trash. He had some kinda sweet smelling cigarette and asked me did I want a puff. Before I could answer, though, Bridget come out and said, Don’t tease him, Tuck. Last thing he needs is any more dope.
How old are you, Al? he said. I told him eighteen almost, even though my birthday’s in November and it was only April. I was practicing thinking ahead.
I had the day off next day and I rode my bike around the Camp for a while. I rode over by the hardware. Rita says it used to be businesses all up and down Township Road but now it’s just Shane’s at one end and the hardware at the other. Everything in between is shut up. Then I stopped off by the grassy place with the sign that tells the story of the Camp. Rita read it to me one time. It says something about how the neighborhood of Camp Washington used to be a place for herding cows and mustarding soldiers. Says it’s named after a President, but Rita said he won’t one of them in the Easter Bunny pictures. There’s a tall thing coming right up out of the ground there, too. It’s made of black shiny rock with little speckles in it. You can almost see yourself in that rock. Rita said it’s there to make us remember the soldiers from World War Two. When I asked her what was the number of the war we got now, she said she thought people were losing count.
I turned down by the Hotdog building where Tuck lives, but I didn’t see Bridget’s car in the lot. Sometimes she leaves it there and walks to Shane’s. I went around the corner then and that put me on the street near Skylers. There was three trucks waiting. The last in line weren’t a big truck, more like a long car pulling a little pen with three cows in it. I watched the lady driver get out and check the way she was parked along the street. She was wearing a jacket with diamonds on the back. Not the sparkler kind but the diamond shapes made of cristcrost lines. They was all over her jacket.
I rode down the street a ways and slowed up beside one of them long trucks full of cows. They got to mooing when I went up next to the truck and I could smell their muddy grassy smells. I leaned over and stuck my finger in one of them little holes on the side of the truck so I could touch the fur. It’s scratchy and stiff and not as soft as I thought it would be. The cows were stomping around even though they was so crowded in there, didn’t look like they had room to move. I don’t know how to explain about the engine blankets on them cows. They ain’t the same as people’s, but I could tell them cows weren’t happy. The driver opened his door then and hollered at me and I got back on my bike real quick. Those little brown spots you see all over the sides of them trailers, turns out those are cow pooh. I got some of it on my sleeve and it smelled all day.
Friday after work, me and Shane went to the lady’s house. It was a good ways over there and seemed like the closer we got to her street, the bigger them houses got. Then Shane pulled up in a long driveway and stopped in front of a house that looked like a castle made of gray rocks. It even had a round tower with the missing teeth at the top like I seen in pictures. There was a big flag too, hanging down from the tower. It had a twisted yellow ribbon on it like you see stuck on the back of cars now. In the front yard there was a great big dandelion. Not a real one. It was made of metal, far as I could tell, and it was black, not yellow, but it had leaves and a stem in the middle like a dandelion that’s lost all its fuzz.
She lives here? I said. Pretty near all the time I feel large, but that house and that dandelion made me feel small. Wow, I said.
Wow, indeed, Shane said. This is the Eastside, Al. Old money. Things are different over here.
That’s when Peter come out the door. I met him a few times before when he come by Shane’s. He’s short and real skinny, Peter is, and his engine blanket is mostly straight lines like that fold that runs down the front of his pants.
I asked Peter did he live here too. But he said no, only when Harpy was out of town.
Harpy? I said.
Harp-ER, Shane said then, looking at Peter with big eyes. Mary Harper-Harrington. But you call her Mrs. Harper-Harrington, you hear, Alvin?
Harper-Harrington. Harper-Harrington. I said it a few times just to get it right.
Peter said he was the caretaker of the place. You got a lot to take care of, I said. Shane said Peter had a lot of help. He said Peter’s main job was to keep Mrs. Harper-Harrington and all her pillows scrunched up just right.
We heard her voice calling then from somewhere up near that tower. Peter, Peter, what are we doing? she said.
Coming, Harper! Peter said. He ran inside then and said for us to meet him in the kitchen.
There was so many couches in that house it made me think of the furniture department at Lazarus where I sometimes wait for Rita. Only there was pictures all over the walls too, large pictures in lots of bright colors. And there weren’t a table in there you could set anything down on. One was covered with tall blue glass, another one had all orange stuff and another was full of red things. Mama used to call them gimcracks—all the little things people set around like that.
And that was just in the first room. Shane said we had to keep going back to the kitchen. We musta walked through something like five rooms. And there was lots of pillows, like he said. All different colors and sizes, but all scrunched up the exact same way—pressed down in the middle so the corners leaned in like ears. I could see where that could keep Peter busy for a while.
Shane said for me to pay attention and be extra careful and not to touch anything. He said the house was full of expensive stuff from all over the world. Harper’s a collector, he said. The house is full of her collections. That made me think of when Mama and I used to go to Sacred Heart and they’d pass around a collection plate and she give me a quarter to put into it.
Harper’s kitchen was more like a giant room with a whole wall of windows. There was a stove and a table and regular kitchen stuff over on one side but mostly it was full of long red couches. Only Harper, she called them sofas.
We’ll keep everybody to this room and the yard, Harper said when she got to the kitchen. She had big sparkler rings and fat bracelets that took up half her arms. She was wearing a loose floppy black dress that made me think she was fat at first, but when she stood over by the door and the breeze blew it up against her, I could tell underneath she was near as thin as Peter. Her blonde hair went flying out from the sides of her face and she put her hand on her head and shut the door.
She told Peter she wanted two people just to stand guard. She said half the time the parents don’t pay attention. They get talking and before you know it, the little hellions are running their greasy fingers down my walls, she said. At least this year, we don’t have to worry about stains. I told the people at Partybox not one thing that will bleed or stain. Not one damn thing. Milk. White grape juice. Ginger ale. Vanilla ice cream. Yellow cake. That’s all there is to it. I love the darlings, but they are a mess.
Turns out those sofas all come apart and me and Shane and Peter musta been an hour moving them sections every which a way.
No, no, that’s not right, Harper kept saying, and we would lift them and line them up a whole nother way. What a mess, she said. I don’t know why I think I can do this. She sat down then and told Peter to get her some water. She looked like she was out of breath but she ain’t moved a thing. I seen she had a lot of knots in her engine blanket then. Dark spots where all the lines was tangled up real bad.
By the time we finished, looked like them sofa sections was pretty much back like they was to begin with. I moved some coolers up from the cellar where there was bottles stuck in all the walls. Then Peter showed me the folding chairs in the garage and I made a lot of trips bringing them to the place Harper called the patio.
After while, I heard knocking and her calling, Yoo-hoo, what’s your name—set them up!
I looked up and saw her at the window. Alvin, I said, but she didn’t hear. She kept on talking, saying, Set them up, don’t leave them on the ground!
Her hair looked funny, like it was sideways or something. Okay, I said. Okay, Mrs. Harper-Harrington. Since I had been practicing it, I wanted to say it.
She laughed then and said, Call me Harper and put them in rows! Then she shut the window.
I unfolded the chairs and set them in rows like we used to do at State when we had a meeting or a show. After I got all the chairs in rows, I looked up and seen all them things in the yard. All down through the grass in between the trees, there was more tall things like that dandelion. There was a big bucket and a huge clothespin. And there was a dog with flowers on it. And a little further away, looked like a great big spider.
I went back in the house when I heard Shane calling me.
Where is that kid? Goddamn airhead, he was saying to Peter when I come through the glass doors into the kitchen.
I’m right here, I said. When Shane turned around I could tell he tried to change his face real fast so the outside would look different from the inside. There you are, he said. I been calling you.
I was looking at the big things in the yard, I said.
That’s sculpture, Alvin. Art, Shane said like I was supposed to know.
Give him a break, Shane, Peter said. Not many people know what the hell to call that stuff.
Shane asked me on the way home did I want to come back Sunday. I didn’t know what he was talking about. Sunday, Al, he said. The day after tomorrow, for the party. Harper needs somebody to help dig.
Dig? I said.
Yes, Shane said. Dig. Harper’s decided she’s having a treasure hunt. The gardener is going to bury stuff all over the yard tomorrow and she needs somebody to help dig it up at the party. Don’t ask me, it was Peter’s idea. We’ll put you in a pirate costume, maybe give you an eye patch. What’d you say? She’ll pay you something and there’ll be plenty of leftovers, there always are. You think you can handle that?
A pirate, I said. Sure I can.
When I got to Rita’s, it was past supper and she made me a sandwich. Dill come in while I was eating and said he was going to be pulling in some good money again. Said they had called to say they needed him back at Skylers on Monday. Rita said good for him and he pulled her close. We going to be right as rain, baby, he said. Right as rain.
For a minute their heads went together, her brown curly one and his black greasy one. It won’t a hug exactly but they did kiss on the mouth.
He told her he was going be a sticker now, not a ribber. He said that meant he’d be working on the kill floor, making more money but doing a harder job. He didn’t look that happy then, but Rita did. You can do it, baby, she said. Otherwise they wouldn’t ask you.
I reckon I can, Dill said.
Little while later, when it was getting dark, I went to the porch to tell Julie it was bedtime. She was playing in the dirt with Spongebob. She said she wanted to stay playing and I told her Rita said she best get in her pjs.
Dill was around the side of the house. He was standing in the light and he had the radio going. I could see just a little bit of him, his shoulder, maybe his elbow, poking around the edge of the house. I told Julie again what Rita said and Julie said she weren’t coming to bed yet and ran around the house toward Dill. I was going to go around the other way and try and catch her at the front, but when I heard her scream, I went right after her. Whittling was what Dill was doing cause when I come around the house, he was standing holding his little knife high up in one hand and a hunk of wood in the other. He said she better watch where the hell she was going. Rita came to the window then and made Julie come inside. Do me a favor, Dill, baby, Rita said, keep your sharp toys to yourself. Dill said he knew what the hell he was doing and went inside for another beer.
Rita had set two chairs out that week. I sat in one and looked up at the bride over the freeway. That bride had been up there for a while, but it just started being warm enough to stay outside and look at her. I sounded out the Bride-o-rama part by myself, but Rita told me that meant the convention center’d be full of gowns and lots of fancy wedding stuff for like about a week. They do it in March, she said, cause people get married in June. That’s some thinking ahead right there.
That bride was sitting with her knees spread open, not so you could see up her dress cause it covered her legs, but still Rita said it weren’t exactly a ladylike pose. Dill said she was a damn sight better looking than most brides he’d seen including the two he married. Rita was a bride once, too. I seen her in an old picture, standing next to what she said was Julie’s daddy, but his face was all x-ed out. Rita said that was how she thought of him now, one big X. I could understand that, her wanting the outside to look like the inside.
I looked up at the big bride for a while, thinking I liked Bridget’s mouth better than hers. I was wondering if Bridget was going to marry that boy Tuck. He’s nice enough, I guess, but I was wondering if maybe Faith was right, if Bridget could do better. I heard Faith telling her that once. Faith said Bridget better be careful not to tie herself down with some two-bit bunco living in an old sausage factory. Faith said he wouldn’t ever make enough to treat Bridget right.
Bridget said that all depended on what you thought was right. Said she’d rather live at the Hotdog with a man who had music in his soul than be stuck up in some McMansion with the walking-dead.
I reckon I’d been sitting in the yard a good while cause I heard the back door open and close, heard Dill pop a couple cans, but I didn’t know it was late enough for Leno till Rita called out to say he was on, meaning I should get to bed.
Now, I know it ain’t exactly right, but I had my hand down my pants and when Rita called me, I was just finishing rubbing things to where they felt real good. I called back at her that I’d be in in a minute.
Dill come around the house then. He stepped over Julie’s smashed trike and yanked me up from the chair. He pulled my hand out of my pants and said, You little pervert out here whacking off. His face was wrinkled up with mean. Engine blanket got real wiggly then, moving all around Dill’s head. I shook my own head to make it stop but it didn’t, so I figured they were his lines.
I said I was sorry. I was sorry. I know better than to do that where people can see me. They told me that at State. I know better, but I forgot. And it was dark. I said that to Dill. It’s dark out here, can’t nobody see me, I said. But he just kept pulling me over by the house. I shook my shoulders a couple of times and he almost lost his grip, but I know better than to fight, so I went along. Besides, I had to keep hold of my pants so they wouldn’t fall down. When we got over there, he picked up his whittling knife and pointed it at me and asked did I know what happened to feebled-minded people that can’t leave themselves alone?
They cut it off, Al, he said. They cut it right off.
He said he’d be glad to do it for them and he sort of laughed and coughed all at once. Looked like he was losing his balance then. All his lines went flat. He turned me loose and caught his self against the house. Rita called out again and I went running inside.
I stopped in the kitchen and buckled up real good. I could tell then something’d happened with my own engine blanket. My lines had went a little wiggly, but they was straightening out.
In the living room, Rita was laying on the couch wearing her furry brown bathrobe. Her hair was up in a towel and she had cotton between her toes. She asked me what Dill was doing out there and I told her he was leaning up against the house. She didn’t ask me what I was doing, so I didn’t tell her.
He put up his knife yet?
I told her it was still out there.
Lord, if he don’t put them things away when he’s drinking, he’s going to hurt somebody one of these days, she said. She sat up then and wanted to know why I was sweating. I said I didn’t know. I didn’t know I was sweating even, but when I reached up, I felt the water coming off my head.
Them meds is something, she said. She patted me on the arm and told me to get a cool shower before I went to bed. When I moved in with Rita, she told me she weren’t a hugger, but she do pat me on the arm sometimes.
I got me a shower like she said, and got in bed, but I couldn’t get to sleep. After while, I heard Dill come in and bang around. I got to thinking maybe he was going to come in my room and try to cut it off, but then it sounded like he stopped in the living room. Probably laying up on the couch like he does. Rita always says his bark is worse than his bite. She told me with times being so bad around here, with nearly all the plants up and down the Westside laying people off, all Dill needed was a steady income and he’d settle down.
I got up real late the next day and Dill was already gone. Rita didn’t say nothing so I figured Dill didn’t say nothing about me touching myself. And when he didn’t come home on Saturday night even though she had supper waiting, I figured she was madder at him than she would be with me, even if he did tell her. I was tired and I tried to go to sleep early that night but I laid awake again for a long time, watching the lights that run across my room when a car comes down off the freeway. Seemed like I hardly went to sleep before Rita was waking me up and telling me to hurry and eat something and get over to Shane’s.
When I got to Shane’s he got me dressed up in a shiny purple shirt and black pants. He gave me a belt to wear too. It took us a while to find size fourteen boots but when we did, he told me to tuck my pants down into them. Then he said my hair was all wrong and went and got a red bandana and tied it over my head.
Bridget showed up then and Shane told me she was coming to the party too. It was going be her job to keep the kids out of the house. He told Bridget to draw a mustache on me. I have a little bit of one anyway, but I was sure glad I had shaved it off the day before cause then she sat me in the make-up chair and leaned over me. Hold still now, Al, she said. She pressed down on either side of my mouth and started drawing on my skin. I got a good look at her mouth then. Her mouth is the best part of her face, if you ask me. She has thin stretchy lips that make one straight pink line when she presses them together like she was doing some while she was drawing my mustache on. I could smell something she ate too, onions maybe, and also cigarettes.
The lines in Bridget’s engine blanket look like D’s sometimes and sometimes they look like V’s. Right then I could see that she had some V’s that wanted to be W’s. And if you turn a W sideways then it sort of looks like half of a cristcrost. It was nice to think of Bridget’s lines being maybe just a little like my cristcrost ones. It was nice to think about her turning sideways too, and lying down like she done on the hood of Tuck’s car one day.
When she was finished she went and got a loopy earring and pinched it on my ear. Then she let me look in the mirror. I couldn’t hardly recognize myself with all my front hair under that red scarf and that black crayon mustache curling down around my mouth. Shane gave me an eye patch but said I had to wait till we got there to put it on.
What about a sword, I said. Don’t all pirates have swords?
He said all right and got me down a plastic one. It weren’t too long, but still, I liked having it there, tucked into my belt. Shane told me to set it in my lap for the ride over and once we got there not to go knocking around Harper’s house with it.
Bridget said she was going to follow us there. She had changed out of her overalls and put on a Snow White costume. Bridget is prettier than the Snow White picture they got up behind the register. Only Bridget’s hair isn’t black like Snow’s. She has white running all down through her dark hair kinda like a chocolate and vanilla at the Dairy Freeze.
When we got to Harper’s, there was people in the kitchen getting food ready and Peter was running around with a tall hat under his arm, looking for the balloons he put somewhere. Shane told me to put on my eye patch and sit in one spot till they needed me. Pretty soon the kids started coming. There was something like twenty of them plus mothers. Some of the kids was so little the mothers had to follow them around. When Bridget asked who the kids was, Shane said they was just another one of Harper’s collections. Peter said she throws a party for them every spring.
Hello, my little jewels! Harper said when she came in. She put her arms up in the air and clapped her hands. The kids didn’t hardly notice her, but the mothers rushed over and kissed her. Harper was wearing more bracelets and rings and another big dress with pink swirls on it. She had an orange scarf tied around her hair. Her face looked sort of yellow but her eyelashes were thick and dark like black stars twinkling in her face. She still had a lot of bad tangles in her lines, far as I could tell, but there was so many people standing around her, it was sort of hard to know what lines was coming from what people.
When Harper saw Bridget, she didn’t look happy. She said to Peter, I told you two people. One isn’t enough. Unless Shane plans on standing by the door all afternoon.
Shane came over then and said, This girl wrangles panthers for a living, Harper, she can take care of a few kids.
Okay, Snow White, Harper said, I hope you’re up to it. But when you let them back to the bathroom—and only that bathroom, be sure they don’t slip past the fountain and get into the rest of the house.
Got it, Bridget said. Soon as Harper turned around, Bridget rolled her eyes.
I got to feeling sleepy, leaning against the wall and waiting on Harper to explain how it was going to work, how the little kids was going to have a balloon show and the older ones was going on a treasure hunt. When your name is drawn out of the hat, she said, the pirate will help you dig up the treasure. Are you ready, Pirate? Mr. Pirate?
Oh, yes, I said. I stood up then and all the kids starting screaming and running around me.
Outside, this minute, Harper said. Outside with all of you. She started clapping again and putting her hand on the tops of the kids’ heads and turning them toward the door. Everybody went out then.
On the way, one of the mothers said, This is so nice of you, Harper, honestly.
Harper didn’t seem all that nice to me, honestly, but she was nicer when she was with the kids outside. She put her arm around them and held their hands. And some of her lines did change a little then, but them tangles didn’t get no smoother.
The littlest kids sat with their mothers in the rows of chairs while Peter made balloon animals for them. The bigger kids came with me and Shane and Harper out into the yard where a big map was hanging from a tree. There was little flags all over the yard and every time a kid pointed to a spot on the map, I went to dig beside one of them flags.
Be careful, Alvin, Shane said. Just one scoop off the top to lift the grass up and then just shovel up a little dirt and you’ll feel the box.
It took me a few tries, but I got the hang of it. All the kids came around and watched while I was digging at each place. Inside every box was shiny stuff, jewelry sometimes and some toy soldiers and other things I didn’t get a good look at.
After all the digging was over, I walked out past the big tree and took another look at all them art things in the yard. Down by the spider, I seen a tall bumpy man. There was a woman, too, or part of one with a whole lot of boobies. Something like five or six pair, I counted. Way too many to be real.
When I got back near the tree, I heard Shane talking to Peter. Jesus, he said. Did you see some of that loot those kids got? Fabulous vintage stuff, he called it. Real bake-it-light, he said.
But Peter said that was nothing and asked did Shane see the real diamond necklace that last girl got.
She can’t take it with her, I guess, Shane said.
For a while, the kids went running around with their new stuff but once the mothers got a good look at it, they started taking it away, telling them to leave their treasures in the boxes while they played. Some of the kids were playing cowboys and engines until one boy started crying and then another one and pretty soon most of them was crying or screaming, one.
Spoiled brats, Shane said when we was walking toward the house.
He said for me to sit tight till the kids was done eating and then I could have something. When he brung me a piece of cake, he said some of the mothers had dropped off their kids and it looked like him and Peter was going to have to run them home. Ask Bridget to give you a ride, he said.
And I did, I went over to ask her. She was in the middle of a bunch of kids, all circling around her, waiting to use the bathroom. Shane says to give me a ride home, I said.
Okay, Alvin, okay, just use the bathroom in the front of the house, she said. That’s where all the mothers’ve been going.
I didn’t need to use the bathroom, but I thought maybe I would go anyway since she told me to. I walked through all the rooms and there was so many funny-looking gimcracks, I forgot to look for the bathroom. Silver letters were lying all over one table, a heap of them, like somebody spilled the alphabet. There was a bag of money, too. Not a bag full of money. The bag was made out of money. Old money, I thought maybe, since that’s what Shane said, but I touched it real quick and it was crisp like new money. I figure, being that rich, Harper probably had both kinds, old and new.
When I got to one of them long sofas that was real soft-looking, I sat down and leaned back on the pillows. I remember moving my sword around so it weren’t uncomfortable, and the next thing I knew, I heard somebody calling for Peter.
It took me a while to remember where I was. Something was funny and then I felt my eye patch. Soon as I took it off, I knew where I was. I sat up then and listened. It sounded like Harper calling from somewhere upstairs. I walked around but I didn’t see nobody. The house was pretty dark cause it was getting dark outside. The kitchen was all cleaned up. Only one little light over the stove was on. I was hungry and I ate some white cheese cubes out of the fridge. And then I used the bathroom all the kids had been waiting on and when I come out, I heard her calling again. I found some back steps and went up and just kept on going down the halls till her voice got closer.
I called back to her. Harper? I said.
She sounded upset. Peter, Peter, where are you?
It’s Alvin, I said, but she kept on calling for Peter.
Coming, I said. I got to some more steps then and went up those. I found Harper up there in a round room. It was dark outside by then and the room was dark too. I could just make her out. She was lying on the floor. It was chilly in there. One of the windows behind her was open.
Harper? It’s Alvin.
Who? She lifted her head and I saw she was bald.
The pirate, I said.
Oh, the pirate, she said. The pirate has come to my rescue. Though I’m afraid I’m a little too far gone to care. She laughed then, a funny sort of laugh.
I went to cut on the light by the door, but she screamed and said, Turn that off! So I did.
I’m far too ugly without my hair, she said. That’s the trouble, you see. My wig. She propped herself up on her elbow and rubbed her hand over her head. She said she was sitting by the window, looking out, when her wig fell off.
I can go down and get it, I said.
No, no. It seems to be dangling out there, caught somehow, I think. I tried to get it but I got dizzy. That happens all the time now, she said. Everything goes wiggly and I can’t stand up.
Wiggly, I said. I know what you mean.
I wished my engine blanket could match up with Harper’s then. She looked so pitiful on the floor like that. I thought of Mama and how her lines looked before she went. They was so tangled, there was no matching up with them. You dying, ain’t you? I said.
Yes, she said. And it sucks. Excuse my French, young man, but dying fucking sucks. She sat up a little more and leaned back against the wall. On second thought, she said, maybe you can reach my wig, if you would. Though I don’t suppose it matters.
There was a seat with a cushion by the window and I kneeled on the cushion and looked out. I could see the wig caught there, hanging off that pole with the yellow ribbon flag on the end. I couldn’t reach it. But then I remembered my sword and I pulled it out of my belt. I reached out with the sword and hooked it up underneath the wig and brought it inside. Got it, I said, and handed it to her.
She took it and then she patted her hand on the floor like Mama used to do when she wanted me to sit beside her. I sat down engine-style and put the sword across my lap. She put the wig in her lap and petted it like you would a cat.
I don’t know why people insist that I continue, she said. Once you know, you know. It’s best to put creatures out of their misery, she said. It’s the least they can do. Who wants to live out their last days bald and reeling and sick as a dog?
It’s always better when the insides go with the outsides, I said.
Yes, she said. It is that. She leaned back. Get me some water, would you?
Shane and Peter were in the kitchen when I got down there. Shane wanted to know why the hell I was still there.
I said Bridget left without me and it was a good thing I was there cause Harper needed some help. I felt like a real pirate when I saw Shane’s face then. She’s upstairs in that round room, I said to Peter. She wants some water now.
Couple days later, I was riding home the long way by the Hotdog. I was hoping I might see Bridget. She weren’t at work that day and I hadn’t seen her since Harper’s party. But her car weren’t in Tuck’s lot. Then I turned up the street by Skylers. There was one truck there unloading and I stopped to watch. A man come out from Skylers and hitched up the back of the truck to that ramp they got. Pretty soon he and the driver had them cows moving down the ramp. He was poking at them with one of them wands that makes a zapping sound. He got all but one inside. The last cow sort of tripped on the ramp. The man zapped it, but it didn’t go nowhere. It looked like it got stuck somehow.
We’ll take care of it, the zapper man said to the truck driver. Go around front and get your money. He unhitched the ramp from the truck and the truck pulled away. Then he put down his zapper and stood behind the cow. He tried pushing it but it didn’t move. It was a big white cow with black spots on it.
Motherfucker, he said. He climbed down off the ramp. I got a little closer then and I seen what he saw. The floor of that ramp musta broken cause one of the cow’s legs was hanging down. It had come clear through the bottom of the ramp.
Fuck, he said. And he called out, Dill! Then he jumped down and went inside the building, hollering, Dill, get out here and give me a hand.
I leaned my bike up against the fence and I went over behind the dumpster where they put all the guts. I could see even better from there and couldn’t nobody could see me.
Before long, Dill come out with the man. He was wearing a long yellow apron splashed all over with blood.
Deal with this, the man said to him. Get the goddamn animal inside. And do it right. I’m tired of your half-assed shit.
The cow was struggling. More he moved, more he got to sinking down in that hole. Dill tried to push the cow forward and then he climbed up the other way and tried to push it back. I could tell there weren’t no way that cow was going anywhere unless somehow Dill could lift it out of that hole. And it was too big for that. Dill looked real tired. Fuck, he said, real soft. He went inside and come out again with a long saw. He climbed down with the saw and I seen what he was going to do. His engine blanket was making boxes again only they was tilting to one side.
Before he could do anything, somebody called him back inside. Get back in here, Dill, the voice said, we got a live one loose on the kill floor.
Fuck, Dill said louder. He put the saw down and looked around. Then he hitched up his pants and took his glove off and wiped his face. He moved real slow, but he went back inside.
When Dill put the saw down, the boxes in his engine blanket was leaning sideways for sure. The look on his face was a look I remembered seeing once before. Finding another engine blanket to match up with your own ain’t just about thinking ahead. It’s also about thinking back. That’s what I know cause right then I seen the boxes in Dill’s engine blanket leaning so far sideways they turned into diamonds. All his lines went cristcrost.
I thought back to when I was in State and how I used to bang my head. One time a nurse said to me, Alvin, if you keep doing that, they ain’t never going let you out of here. The last time I banged my head, I only did it once cause I remembered she said that. And I stopped. And when I stopped I seen my face. We didn’t have no mirrors in our rooms there, but I seen my face in the window. The glass in that window had wires in it, all them wires that go cristcrost and make diamond shapes. Soon as I stopped banging my head, my engine blanket settled down and my lines matched right up to them lines in the window. It was like I seen a picture of my insides on the outside. And seeing my face in that glass, I seen how bad I was feeling. How I wanted to be anywhere but there. I could see myself inside and out. And I could see how the two went together. That was the look I seen on Dill’s face. The very same. And cause his lines went cristcrost just like mine, I knew how Dill was feeling then, inside and out.
I come around the dumpster and picked up the saw. I knew that cow was as good as dead anyway. I bent down under the ramp and took hold of its leg. The cow got to struggling but I squeezed the hoof tight and pressed my shoulder hard against the ramp until the cow was still enough to where I could start sawing. I’m stronger than I know, that’s what Mama said. I had a time getting the saw to catch right, bent over like I was, but pretty soon it started cutting. While I was sawing, that cow got to knocking around again and I thought it was going to kick right through the ramp and come down on top of me, but I held onto it and kept sawing till the blade come all the way through the leg. The cow stopped moving then but it was still making awful sounds and blood was spitting everywhere. I picked the leg up off the ground. I threw it in the dumpster and put the saw down where Dill had left it.
I just did get behind that dumpster again when Dill come back out. He seen the cow was cut loose and bleeding. He looked around and took up the saw and looked around again. I stayed real still and he didn’t see me. Pretty soon, a guy come out and sunk a hook in the back of the three-legged cow and dragged it on into the building. Dill stayed where he was. He put his head in his hands and didn’t move for a while. Then he got up and went inside.
When I got home, Rita was just coming in from work. She asked what I had all over my shirt. I told her it was some of that fake blood they have at Shane’s. Course I had to think ahead to come up with that.
Time we got you a couple new shirts anyway, Rita said. You can use that extra money you made at the party. She patted my arm then and said, You’re looking better all the time, Alvin.
Right as rain, I said and went down the hall to get a shower.