The sitting room was in the front of the house just to the right from the doorway and before the den which was where everyone normally sat to watch TV and drink sweet iced tea. Elmo wondered why the sitting room was so named. Everyone was absolutely forbidden to sit on the fake Louis the Sixteenth love seat and chairs. They were, in fact, wrapped tightly in heavy, transparent plastic to prevent sitting and to protect them from any spillage or damage that might result from not being sat on.
So, he sat instead on the one carpeted floor to observe his mother stand and jiggle like a human jello on the “reducing machine” which had been placed in the center of the sacred room like an alter to inevitable obsolescence. Her scalp was crowded with pink plastic curlers which looked to him like a festive gathering of giant caterpillars. She wore a polyester short sleeve blouse and a pair of yellow pedal pushers which were too tight to allow her flesh to vibrate properly.
Elmo considered the fact that her too-tight pants were counter-productive to the aim of using the machine which ostensibly vibrated the fat from one’s frame. Women on the TV commercial smoked cigarettes and drank martinis while their vibrating fat mysteriously dissipated. He wondered if they had had to practice a lot to hold and drink their martinis while vibrating without spilling them. They looked so casual and contented. They must have been experts. The more he studied the machine, the more it resembled a giant blender. He wondered what unintended uses he might find for it when his parents were not in the house.
“Mama, when yur done can I staind own it awhile?”
She looked down at him and smiled. She had deep brown circles under her eyes. Her face was sweet, and was pretty one moment and plain the next. She always looked tired.
“Boy, you ain’t got no fat on yur bones. Yue don’t need to staind up here. If yue loose iny weight yu’ll shrivel up and blow away.”
“Just for a minute? I wunna see how it feels. Can I?”
She was anxious to study her body in the full length mirror that hung on the back of her bedroom door to see if she could detect any progress. And she was getting thirsty.
“Aright. Go git me a Coke outt’a the fridge and brang it to me. Then you kin staind up here for just a minute.”
Elmo jumped to his feet and ran into the tiny kitchen where he took out a cold bottle of Coca-Cola. He opened it with an opener that was built into the refrigerator door, then ran the bottle back into the sitting room for his mother.
“Stop! Don’t brang that in here where it kin spial own the rug. Stand there and I’ll cum git it. Then yew kin try this thang out for uh minute.”
She flipped a switch and removed the belt from around her waist, stepped down and took the cold bottle from the boy. Her hands still felt as though they were shaking. Elmo stepped up onto the platform and placed the belt around his mid-section. Because he was short the belt came all the way up underneath his arm pits. He flipped the switch and laughed at the undignified jiggling of his body. His mother laughed to. She had just filled her mouth with a big thirsty swig when the laughter hit her and she spewed it out all over herself and the hallway linoleum, which only made her laugh harder. This made Elmo howl. The little boy cackled and vibrated ridiculously while his mother snorted and brayed, trying not to fall over for the fit she was having.
The front door opened and a human walrus lurched in, his white overalls covered in house paint from a day’s work of ruining some innocent home owner’s trim with the wrong shade as well as having sprayed much of their brick work with a compressor. None of this bothered him; nor did the fact that he had in any case bullied the customer to pay him for the shoddy work without agreeing to fix it. Nevertheless, he was belligerent, for as with an actual walrus, pugnacity was his only mood.
His sudden presence made them both wince and cringe in preparation for whichever form of abuse he was bound to dole out. She stood straight and began to explain about the Coke on the floor. Elmo flipped the reducer on/off switch and stepped down.
“Get yur goddamned fat ass outta my way woman” he said quietly as he deliberately stepped through the sticky drink and tracked it through the house, tapping the ashes of his spit-wet cigar as he went. Elmo ran to the kitchen for a towel to help his mother clean up the mess. When he returned, she took it from him and told him to go play.
He walked out the door into the dry heat of a summer evening. The air smelled like cut grass and gasoline. And dog shit. He had stepped into a pile of dog shit. It was a medium sized dog judging by the size of the turd. He wondered whose medium sized dog had shit in his yard. He walked down to the curb by the street where he sat down and scraped at the shit with a large twig. It was difficult to get it out of the deep grooves of his rubber soles. He would need to find a nail for that.
“What’r you doin?” asked Eli.
Elmo looked up from his noxious task. Eli looked uncharacteristically at ease even though he was wearing a multi-colored daishiki and a copper Aztec God medallion that belonged to his mother—either of which, and especially in combination, made him more vulnerable even than usual to ridicule and physical assault.
“I stepped in dog shit. Can’t you smell it?”
“What’r yeu wearin?”
“It’s stuff of my mom’s.”
“Yer wearin women’s clothes?”
“They’re men’s. My mom just wears ‘em too. I’m bein a pirate. You wanna be pirates?”
Elmo considered the possibilities and the limitations.
“We’ll need swords.”
“We’ll pull some of those signs that say to vote for this guy or that guy outta peoples yards and use the wooden sticks that hold em up for swords.”
Elmo nodded. This seemed like a good idea. And stealing them from people’s yards seemed like a risky—pirate sort of thing to do.
“We’ll need a ship.”
Eli shrugged his shoulders and looked around.
“We could use the back of your dad’s El Camino. We can make it rock around back and forth like a ship in a storm.”
“We’ll need a flag.”
“Yeah. A skull and cross bones flag.”
“We can make one. We can paint one on something.”
“On one a my old t-shirts.”
“You got any paint?”
“At my house.”
“Ya’ll got any Kool-Aid?”
“We can make some.”
“You got some piraty clothes like that that I kin wear?”
Elmo beamed contentedly.
“Well gimme just another second then. I gotta git the rest o the shit off my shoe.”
Poem: Three Bricks
I lay three bricks
and as I lay the forth I see he has pulled one down. And so it goes.
He laughs, both for my trouble and for the scolding I give him,
with an unselfconscious cackle that is unaccountably sweet.
When at last the bricks are laid, the roof is trimmed, and I am satisfied,
I stand away to survey the last coat of paint,
and I can see that where it has dried, he has already begun
to tease away tiny chips here and there.
Eventually he will peel it all
will rust the nails and blow the windows out of their frames like soap bubbles;
will follow each resident of this house with his infectious grin, unmaking everything they do;
will sit in their laps and playfully comb away their hair and stretch their faces
until they hang like rubber masks;
will clog their arteries and suck away their breath—with mischievous delight.
In patience, I would learn from him his joy.
He drives the vines that take back every work, the roots that break foundations and floors,
the winds that wear, and rains that rot and score.
He makes the bread to rise,
makes the savor that makes mouths water,
and spines of lovers arch with pleasure like a lilly’s calyx
full-stretched and trembling to be taken.
Looking behind me as I walk, I watch his little head, sweeping away my footprints contentedly.
I want to tell him
My sweet little imp—I would bludgeon you. I would beg you.
I would take you in my arms and rock you to sleep.
I would hold your little hands in the summer grass and spin you like a clock.
Piss trickled from his hair into his face where it converged with a tear. From his chin it dribbled onto his shirt, and then to the sweltering asphalt where it spattered his shoes as he limped home, sore and bleeding. He was accustomed to getting his ass kicked between school and his house, but urine and a boot in the face was a novel humiliation. He always tried to defend himself, but it seemed he lacked some ability that other boys had innately, or perhaps had learned from sadistic siblings.
Until recently, his experience, and consequently his assessment of existence, had been uniquely innocent, at least for the place and time in which he lived. He had not been prepared for the possibility that he could be abused in this way and that not even his parents would defend him, and it occurred to him now, as he walked into his house, announcing with a shout that he was home, that he had learned to tolerate it, and the realization made him grind his teeth. Wet sneakers squeaked with each step as he shuffled to his room. He changed clothes, washed his face and hands, then threw himself onto the living room sofa to dissolve in an anesthetic of televised drivel:
“ If you think it’s butter, but it’s not—it’s Chiffon!”
”It’s Slinky, It’s Slinky, it’s fun for a girl or a boy! It’s Slinky, it’s Slinky, it’s fun—what a wonderful toy! “Stay tuned weekday mornings at 11:00 for Dialing for Dollars, right after the Jack LaLane show, here on channel 11!…”
He watched an episode of Popeye with Alice the Goon and Jeep and Sweet Pea. It was followed by one of the old episodes with Popeye in a dark-blue sailor suit instead of the white one he wore later. This was followed by a Merry Melodies and into a Looney Tunes. Just as Bugs Bunny slipped a stick of dynamite into Elmer Fudd’s pants, his mother turned off the television and stood over him, her hands on her hips. The world came swirling back like toilet water flushed in reverse.
“Go outside and play, sweetie. You can’t sit around all afternoon and watch TV.”
“I got beat up again. They pissed on me.”
She studied the small coagulating scrape below his eye and turned his face up into the light to examine another on his chin, then ran her fingers through his hair, still damp and sticky. She smelled her fingers and cringed. Walking towards the kitchen sink she suggested he take a warm bath and change clothes, and then walked back into the room, drying her hands on a dish rag.
“Can I just wait ‘til bedtime?”
She paused and frowned as though trying to solve a difficult math equation.
“Shit, honey. I don’t know.” She polished her wedding ring roughly, starring out a window.
“ Well, when your father comes home you’ll need to tell him about it. He’s late again. He should have been home an hour ago.”
She turned back to face him and slipped her hands into the pockets of her skirt.
“ I guess you can if you want to. Right now I’m gonna get a couple of band aides for your face.”
He noted her anxiety as she walked out of the room, but did not dwell on it. He looked toward the window that she had been looking out of and remembered that it was Friday. That meant he could disappear until late.
In his room he put on a badly worn but dry pair of canvas sneakers, then ran out the door, slamming it behind him. As he crossed the yard, he could still hear her though the windows were closed. She had returned to singing scales on the piano. Her voice sounded operatic and powerful, but almost comically uninspired.
He stood on the curb for a long moment, studying the street from one end to the other, trying to calculate his chances of walking any distance without being harassed. For the moment, it was empty, so he stepped down tentatively, and followed the slope of the curb where it leveled alongside the asphalt. With every other step he kicked a Coke can, sending it ahead of himself as if to scout out a safe passage. After a few kicks, he decided instead to crush it with a carefully aimed stomp so that it wrapped around his foot in a sort of tap shoe that would rasp along the concrete with an obnoxious clatter.
As he arrived at the driveway of the Skuglick’s house, he wedged the can off of his shoe with the toe of his other shoe, skipped up to the door, and rapped hard, hurting the middle joints of his fingers. He wished they would fix their goddamned doorbell.
Inside it was dark, shades down, curtains drawn, like a cave lit only by the flickering television. Mr. Skuglick reclined next to a broken AC window unit, a sweating glass of sweet iced tea in one hand, a burned down Muriel cigar in the other, and his fat belly peeking out from under a sweat-stained t-shirt.
“Boy, when you gonna learn to come oun in without knockin? Sheit, yeu practically live here. How many times we gotta tell you to just come own in skinny-boy? God daiumn!”
He fixed Eli with a long stare, then leaned back again to face the television.
“ Elmo’s out back”, he growled.
Eli nodded silently as he walked passed, hoping to avoid a punch in the shoulder with a protruding knuckle, or having his arm wrenched behind his back, these ostensibly examples of the human walrus’s good-natured playfulness. He hurried out the back door unmolested and found his friend hiding behind the backyard shed.
A skinny tow-headed kid named Steven lived in another house over the chain-link fence and beyond the alley. Stephen was throwing rocks from his yard at Elmo. Eli dodged a flying stone. It whipped passed his head and bounced sharply off a rung of a ladder that had been left leaning against the house. He dove for the shelter of the shed, then grabbed a rock to throw in one hand, and pried up an aluminum lid from a nearby trash can with the other to use as what he imagined to be a Roman shield.
Steven squealed gleefully, “Eli, you better hide —you piss-faced chicken shit monkey fucker!”
“How long’s this been goin on?”
“Since I got home pretty much.”
“Mother-fucker! Piss faced pussy shit-ass sorry mother fuckin dick-suckin God-damn fuckin ass-hole whore dog son of a bitch! Yer Mom and Dad are nigger-lovin dope-smoking hippies and you are too, you piece-o-shit! Come on out and fight!”
Rocks hit the shed like a flurry of hail. Steven, now joined by his brother had collected an arsenal to pull from. Eli and Elmo crouched behind the tiny shelter and listened to rocks and insults land, waiting for the enemy’s supply to run out so they could jump into the open to return fire. Elmo turned to Eli and sniffed.
“You smell like pee.”
“Yeah. I know.”
Elmo looked at him quizzically and Eli looked away. It wasn’t just pee; it was humiliation that had dried into in his hair. Anyone could see and smell it. It marked him. His face burned with indignation, and he gripped his rock and shield tightly.
“Fuck you, Steven!” he roared, running out into the open, shield aloft, deflecting rocks. He let it down just long enough to wind up his pitch and take aim. Then, only sky and cottonwood branches. He felt warm blood running down his face from above his eye. It filled his ear and trickled down his neck. Everything went black.
He woke up as his father was loading him into his new green Ford. Eli lay in the back seat and held a towel against his eye, anticipating stitches with dread. Remembering the familiar slow press of the needle through his flesh from past stitchings, he began to panic.
But upon arriving at the emergency room, Eli forgot to continue indulging his panic. He was distracted by the nurse resembled Susan Dey from the Partridge Family. The texture of her skin reminded him of rose petals he had rubbed against his lips and cheeks. She was tanned and silky, and smelled like Coppertone coconut suntan lotion. Her white uniform’s short fitted skirt revealed long, brown satiny thighs and the low-cut blouse permitted her plush, pushed breasts to brush lightly against him as she reached for something behind him. He swooned.
He imagined her being attracted to him, kissing him on the lips, and running away with him to live on an island with palm trees. They would strike oil there and become wealthy and buy Six Flags Over Texas, and build an elaborate tree house right in the center of it. He watched her lips. They were so close. They made him thirsty. He wanted to put them to his own. He wanted to drink her down like a curvy bottle of Orange Crush.
He followed his father, stoned and feeling as if he was dreaming as they crossed the caliche drive into the improbable ranch house where Gail Montana was cooking in a small kitchen in which a variety of drying herbs were hung from the ceiling, enhancing the impression that they had entered a fairy-tale witch’s house that the outward appearance of the place building suggested. In her long, brightly colored patchwork skirt, cowboy boots, a low cut Mexican cotton blouse, and big silver hoop ear rings she looked more like a gypsy than a witch, Eli thought. Her skin was smooth and dark, and so was her long plaited hair, and she smiled white and toothy like a Cheshire Cat when she greeted them.
“ Caleb, if I’d’a known you were comin I’d’a bought more tequila.”
She held out her arms and embraced Eli’s father and kissed him on the cheek.
“Welcome Eli. I assume you’re Eli. Either that or your dad’s been cloned. Come on in. Ya’ll can go on out back if you want and have a beer. There’s a keg out there.”
Eli liked Gail immediately. She fed them on her back patio where a number of people were juggling plates of tamales and bottles of beer. He was relieved to find that there were a couple of people he already knew. Bill Swift was holding court telling long stories to a pair of women who Eli took to be a gay couple while Richard Wilkinson who had driven down from Ponder smoked his pipe and stared out into the trees as though he was alone. Someone Eli did not know was playing guitar poorly, with another who played a decent blues harp. Eventually someone set a needle down on an old Bob Wills LP, and couples danced as night fell, and almost everyone sang along to Faded Love and Rolley Polley.
Eli two-stepped and waltzed around the huge tile patio with a young woman from Austin. When they slow-danced to Time Changes Everything, she lay her head against his chest as though she had always known him. He was so taken with her that he had not even thought to ask her name, and was more than a little disappointed when a man ten years older than he showed up and turned out to be her boyfriend. In the end, it didn’t matter. The sky was bursting with stars, the beer was cold, the music was good, and he was very stoned.
Eli and his father drank tequila and beer on Gail’s back patio until late into the black hill-country night. Some had gone to sleep, some had gone home, some were sitting talking quietly and drinking. Gail’s voice lifted above the other sounds from somewhere off to their left around the patio.
“Hump the dead cat Rosy-Bob”.
Eli looked around the corner to where Gail was holding a limp cat up while a white female bull-dog pretended to be a male bulldog screwing the cat while the cat pretended to be dead.
“What are ya’ll doin?” Eli whispered.
He was whispering because he was too drunk to speak any other way. Gail explained to them that all of the animals on the ranch were given the surname Bob regardless of gender, and that she had once owned two bull-dogs, Rosy-Bob and something else Bob. The other dog Bob had been the male of the pair of siblings. On the ranch, days get long and nothing much happens for long stretches of time, so the dogs had invented a game to play with the cat– whose name was Zippy the Pinhead Bob—who generally seemed to be as enthusiastic (if one can rightly call pretending to be dead a sign of enthusiasm) about the game as the dogs were.
Rosy-Bob would gently hold the cat in her mouth while the cat played dead for the other dog Bob (the male) to hump. It was a bestial, necrophiliac, interspeciel group sex fantasy role play between a cat, a bulldog, and his own sister which made it incestuous as well. The felicitous arrangement came to an end when one day Gail accidentally backed her truck over the male dog and killed him, so the two surviving animals were comforted by continuing the original game with Gail’s assistance, though Rosy-Bob now had to play the role that the male dog had formerly played which technically, Gail explained, made Rosy-Bob a canine lesbian interspeciel necrophiliac cat molester. But of course, they were only pretending. Eli thought about this, trying to make sure that he had really understood all of this correctly while he watched Rosy Bob strain to balance her considerable bulk on her rear legs while pumping her non-existent member into the dead cat which seemed to be trying to stare Eli down defiantly with one half-opened eye.