I am an only child. My mother almost died having me. I’m glad she didn’t, though, because I have no idea how it would be at home with nothing besides the one word conversations between me and my dad.
“Morning,” he’ll say from behind his newspaper, if we happen to see each other in the morning. Usually it’s only on the weekends before I’ve escaped to do whatever.
“Morning,” I’ll say. This is all he wants.
I saw this lady on TV talking about how two or three children are the ideal family. Only children have a tendency to be “introverted and antisocial,” which means weird and quiet. I don’t want to turn out that way. Sometimes I think I already have. How would I know?
A family at the end of our street adopted a three-year-old Vietnamese boy named Ping. I ask my mother about the possibility of adopting another kid, maybe a girl, a little sister, but a brother would be fine, too. She just laughs and says I’d better not try that on my dad. Later I ask if we can get a dog. She smiles and says she knows what I’m up to, but I’m completely serious.
I think hamsters are stupid. Not good company at all. What could I possibly have in common with a hamster? But this is what she offers me, after “a great deal of serious consideration,” as if it’s such a big deal and I should be oh so grateful. She says she’s glad she didn’t get it as a surprise because the cage and the wheel and all the other hamster stuff cost around fifty dollars. My mother thinks spending more than forty dollars on anything but a necessity is a sin. Obviously, a hamster is not a necessity. She tells me most girls my age would love to have a hamster. She is going against her principles to try and be nice to me. She doesn’t say it, but she wonders what is wrong with me. I want a brother or a sister, and I am not backing down.
My sister and I could figure out how to French inhale like Tatum O’Neal in Paper Moon. My sister would explain why my parents ignore me and say they’re not doing so. My sister and I could sit side by side on lawn chairs in the yard on long hot summer days. We could get colorful matching sunglasses and discuss each neighbor who passed by, their lives, their clothes, their hobbies. In winter, we’d make ice cream out of yellow snow and give it to the neighbors we didn’t like and laugh and laugh and laugh. My sister would refuse to settle for a goddamn hamster.
I make a friend named Kate.
She learns about being blood sisters from a book about boys.
“Blood brothers, blood sisters. Same difference,” she says.
We have to prick our index fingers so blood comes out, then hold them together so our blood can “mingle,” then drip our blood into a box.
We talk about how we have never made ourselves bleed on purpose. About how, before today, we couldn’t imagine a suitable reason why we would. It is very dramatic. We decide to prick each other’s fingers to make it more like at the doctor. Kate has stolen her mother’s Cricket lighter and uses the flame to sterilize the end of a tiny gold safety pin. We have each chosen an “item of import to our hearts,” clipped bits of our hair, and written and folded into special blood sister triangles private notes to one another.
These things are laying in a Keds shoebox on Kate’s toilet seat awaiting our combined blood. We will bury our blood sister box in Kate’s backyard. I put my silver locket in it, the one my parents brought back from their second honeymoon in New Orleans. My mother would kill me and call me a heathen if she knew I was doing this. Kate puts in a yellow plastic miniature treasure chest filled with all of her baby teeth. We both cut hair from the front of our heads using an example in a magazine to “create wispy bangs” across our foreheads, letting the hair fall into the box over our treasures. The wisps will “emphasize our eyes.”
I don’t want to be poked with the pin first, nor do I want to poke Kate first so we rock-paper-scissor for it and I lose, which means I get poked first, which is fine. I squeeze the tip of my index finger hard and Kate squeezes her eyes into narrow curves, bites her lower lip and pushes the pin in fast, with a single jerk of her arm. At first, I feel nothing, but then it hurts, just a little, like a mosquito bite. I want to put my finger in my mouth and suck the blood away.
“Okay, now me,” she says, holding her fingertip. She has poked the hole in my left hand and I am left handed, so I hold the safety pin between my bleeding finger and my thumb.
“Lay your finger on the sink,” I say, because I’m afraid I’ll miss.
“Jesus!” she says, but she does it.
After the ceremony, I look at Kate with new eyes. We are family. We are sisters. We will be friends forever. I don’t know how I ever got on before I knew Kate. I want to tell her everything.
“My dad’s killed people,” I say, “in the war.”
“Mine committed suicide,” she says.
“Woah,” I say.
“Yeah,” she says. The air conditioner clicks on and the noise sends a rattle from my stomach to my throat. I push at the bathroom door with my toes.
“I found him,” she says.
“Did you try and stop him?” I imagine Kate’s dad with a huge dagger, about to stab himself in the heart.
“He was already dead,” she says.
“Oh.” I look her in the eye. She wants me to ask more, but I don’t want to.
“Was he all bloody?”
“No,” she says, “more blue,” like she’s describing a dress, or a pair of shoes. I picture Kate next to her dead, blue father, standing hand in hand. It reminds me of a movie, I don’t know which one.
“Wanna see something?” I say, because I don’t like the picture in my head. I show her how to lace up her shoes so the bow is at the foot rather than at the top. We wear our shoes to school this way so everyone will know we are best friends.
Then she starts up with Sooty.
Sooty’s a nickname; his real name is Nathan Quavis, Jr. We started calling him Sooty after he sang the chimney sweep song from Mary Poppins in Spring Sing two Spring Sings ago, but I can’t remember ever calling him Nathan. I like him a lot, I like him too much, according to Kate.
I used to stand next to Sooty in chorus until the teacher figured out I was a soprano, not an alto. Now I stand next to Robert Girard, who I hate. Instead of sneaking peeks at Sooty, I just look at my song book and mouth the words to songs, or stare out into the empty, brown seats. Kate isn’t in chorus but I think she might join, just to keep tabs on me and Sooty.
The complicated thing is, Sooty might like me, too. We sit together before we’re asked to take our places in chorus, and he always picks me in drama, when Miss Levinson says find a partner. And there’s more. My dad hates Sooty’s dad, something about the army and being a coward. I’m not sure of the specifics, but they definitely hate each other. At the Fourth of July barbecue, my dad spit right on Sooty’s dad’s foot and called him a goddamn nigger, even though he’s white. Then my dad insisted we all go home, he didn’t care that Mom and me hadn’t eaten anything yet. I don’t think we’ll go to the barbecue next year.
The first time I see Sooty smoke a cigarette, it shocks me but I act like it doesn’t. We are walking away from school and I think, what would Kate do, which is nothing, it wouldn’t faze her, so I try not to let it faze me. All I see, though, is the glowing tip going to and from his mouth and I can’t think of anything except that I am with someone who is doing something I am not supposed to do.
“You think she likes me?” he asks, and I am glad he wants my opinion. I say no.
“Shit,” he says. Swearing. Another thing I am not supposed to do.
“I mean, she likes you. I’m just not sure if she likes you, likes you,” I am lying, something else I am not supposed to do, but I want this to lead to some other kind of conversation, one about him and me.
“I really like her,” he says.
“I know,” I say.
“She likes you,” I finally say.
“Yeah,” he says.
Most of our houses are the same, but they’re decorated differently.
It’s a little creepy to go to a new kid’s house for the first time, because you kind of know where you are, it feels like you’re home, but it’s different because of carpeting or furniture or toys or basements. Kate’s has a second story. Sooty’s is exactly like ours, except he doesn’t have a TV room in back.
The first thing you see when you walk into Sooty’s is this giant laughing Buddha on a table covered with mostly used up candles, ugly colors, yellow and green. The first thing you see when you walk into our house is an oval brass mirror with a brass basket below it that’s supposed to be for umbrellas or mail or mittens or something, but no one ever puts anything in there. Sometimes bugs die in there and just dry up.
The only time we light candles at my house is when the power goes out, and usually not even then because nobody can ever find any matches. Sooty’s dad collects matches. There’s a big glass bowl on Sooty’s coffee table filled with matches from all over the world. Kate’s mom keeps ashtrays everywhere.
Dad always says our neighborhood is small, but it takes me at least fifteen minutes to ride my bike home from Kate’s. Sooty’s is even farther. It’s not like I know everybody, but Mom and Dad do. They only spend time with a few people on our block. I am not really friends with the kids whose parents Mom and Dad invite to our house. I’ve tried to be, but those kids are either boring or strange, too young or too old.
My dad is convinced Sooty’s dad has been stealing our newspaper in the mornings. We haven’t gotten it in four days.
Mom says why would a man drive across town to get our paper when he could walk to the end of his own street and get one out of a box for fifteen cents. Dad says she doesn’t know what the hell she’s dealing with. Mom says why doesn’t he just call the people at the newspaper, find out what’s going on, but Dad’s been waking up before the sun comes out and crouching at the window, hoping he’ll catch Sooty’s dad. So far, no newspaper and nobody in the yard, just squirrels. Dad is disappointed but very determined and keeps to his schedule.
I am tempted to wake up early myself, to put on my shoes and socks and traipse out the door and down the street and buy a paper, throw it on our lawn. When my alarm rings so early and I’m sleepy and it’s just getting blue outside I think: he’ll probably catch me and I’ll panic, caught on the driveway in his flashlight, street shoes on with pajamas, nothing to say.
Me and Kate and Sooty sometimes go to movies together and Kate always sits in the middle, even though Sooty and me like our popcorn the same, butter and salt. Kate eats it plain. We pass our popcorn over Kate, she doesn’t mind. At Fantasia, we accidentally spilled the whole goddamn bag on her. Grease spots all over her blouse, she went home right after the movie, instead of going ice skating, which was what we’d planned. She wouldn’t let just me and Sooty go.
We’re in Mr. Deletsky’s class learning about the ancient civilization of Sumer and I’m sitting next to Sooty, Kate’s across the room, that’s the seating chart for now. I feel Kate watching us, we’re not even doing anything, just listening to Mr. Deletsky, which is what we’re supposed to be doing. I don’t look at Kate, and I don’t look at Sooty. Mr. Deletsky says count off into groups and both me and Kate are two’s, so we’re in the same group. Sooty’s with the Salter twins, Justin and Jason, they’re identical, red-headed and skinny. Kate acts happy to be in my group. She keeps doing and undoing her pigtails, asking me how they look and not helping me and Kurt Kunkler with the diorama. They look the same each time, and each time I tell her they’re fine. Kate is too old for pigtails, but I’d never tell her that.
At lunch, as usual, we three sit together at the same end of the same long gray table next to the same poster of the four food groups. Someone has drawn mustaches on the boys and boobs on the girls in the poster. We pretend not to notice, but we all notice. I trade sandwich halves with Sooty, I’ve got peanut butter and he’s got baloney. We sit next to each other because of the trade, Kate sits across. Kate eats her tuna salad like none of this means anything. Later, in drama, me and Sooty talk a little bit.
“Do you think she minds, me going to the movies and trading sandwiches and all that,” I say.
“No,” he says.
“Can I have one of your t-shirts?” I say.
“Sure,” he says.
I’m disappointed by the one he pulls out of his backpack. It’s just a plain men’s undershirt with a decal ironed crooked onto the front. The decal came in the newspaper a few Sundays ago, we all got one. I accept it but will probably never wear it. He obviously didn’t understand what I meant. Kate meets us after school and we walk down by the old road, near the river. It’s not on our way home, it’s just someplace we go.
Kate and Sooty hold hands, I walk behind, watching their hands swing forward and back. The ground is dark and soft and wet in places. Our shoes stick in the mud and make loud sucking noises. Kate doesn’t know I’ve got Sooty’s t-shirt in my bag and I don’t tell her.
I feel the place on my finger where she poked me with the pin.
I can still feel something, but not that much. When we get to the concrete bridge, we stop.
Sooty skips stones, Kate and I watch, sitting on our wind breakers.
Neither Kate nor I know how to skip stones. When he’s done, we walk back together, Kate and me with our muddy wind breakers tied around our waists, Sooty on the other side of Kate, until it’s time for us to split off for separate houses.
I walk in on the middle of a big conversation.
Everyone’s talking at once. My Dad has killed Sooty’s dad, or tried to kill him, or it’s the other way around, I can’t tell.
My Aunt Karen’s over, along with four or five of the neighbor ladies.
I don’t see Mom or Dad. Someone threw a brick through the other one’s window and the one whose window it was beat the other one with the brick until that one died, or almost died.
Beyond this, nobody knows anything, they all seem to be repeating themselves, and they don’t notice when I leave.
I go by Kate’s but she’s at Sooty’s so I go by Sooty’s but there aren’t any lights on so I go down by the old road, near the river and they’re side by side, leaning against the base of the concrete bridge.
I stand on the other side of Kate. If they were talking before, they’ve stopped now. We stay, quiet for a while, then Sooty goes to skip stones.
“I can’t believe he’s dead,” I say.
“Yeah,” she says, picking bits of dried mud off her windbreaker. I do the same.
“Is he dead?” I ask, not sure if it’s my own dad I mean, or Sooty’s.
“I think so,” she says. We watch Sooty, throwing two stones at a time, each stone skipping three or four times, every time. It starts to get dark, but they don’t move to leave, so I don’t, either.
“Murder,” Kate says.
“Here,” I say to Kate, and hand over Sooty’s t-shirt.
“I already have one,” she says.
“Oh,” I say, and stuff it back into my bag.
Since Kate’s dad is already dead, whatever happened will make me, or Sooty, or both, more like her.
“I can’t believe nobody’s looking for us,” I say, squinting at the disappearing circles Sooty’s stones are making in the water.
“Yeah,” she says.
On the way home, I think of what I’d miss most about my dad and can only come up with five or six things. He goes to work early, he’s gone by the time I get up for school.
I’ll miss seeing his empty coffee cup, I guess, and the way he still picks me up for a hug, although I’m much too big, and the funny faces he makes and the way he smells of soap and tobacco.
I wish I’d at least tried the trick with the newspaper, maybe he’d still be alive.
I wonder what Sooty will miss if it’s his dad, but I don’t ask him. Sooty’s mom lives in Kansas or Florida or somewhere, so he’d probably miss his dad much more than I’d miss mine.
My dad would have one of those fancy, flag-folding funerals they give to soldiers. Maybe some of the people from his work would come, and his and mom’s friends from the neighborhood, with their unfriendly children. He’d be buried in his uniform. I wonder if anybody would cry besides Mom. I wonder if I would. I probably would.
Aunt Karen would come. We wouldn’t have to take those awful car trips to see the state capitols over spring break any more. And Mom would probably find a new husband, hopefully one who loves dogs and sail boats, and everything eventually would be fine.
Sooty’s dad would definitely have a better funeral. I bet he’d want to be buried in that Fuck Nixon t-shirt he always wears. Either that, or the one that says I Love My Hooker Headers. I can’t remember seeing him wear anything else, though I’m sure he has other clothes. I probably wouldn’t be allowed to go, though.
And Sooty would have to move away, most likely. We all try to guess what time it is before we split off, me and Sooty say eight, but Kate is certain it’s later.
Mom is sitting in the kitchen waiting for me and I know exactly what she’s going to say. “I’ve been worried sick,” she says, but doesn’t sound like she means it.
“Sorry,” I say, looking at my muddy shoes, wondering if I’ve made marks on the way in, hoping she won’t notice if I did. She stands up, holding out her arms, and I slip between them. She brings me close, rubs my back and rests her chin on the top of my head.
“Is Dad okay?” I ask, face pressed tight against her chest.
“He’s in the hospital, they’re taking care of him,” she says.
“He’s not dead?”
“No, no, sweetheart, he’s not dead.” I feel her start to cry.
“What happened?” I ask.
“Mr. Quavis,” she says, and sniffles. Then she releases me, moving one hand to my shoulder, using the other to wipe her nose. “Mr. Quavis and your father, they had another fight.”
“Is Mr. Quavis dead?” I ask.
“No, honey. No, nobody’s dead.”
“Well that’s good,” I say.
Dad threw the brick at Mr. Quavis’ window and Mr. Quavis chased Dad with the brick all the way down the street and around the corner until he caught up and hit him on the head with it. I want to laugh when I hear this, at the sight of them in my head, and I think good for him, good for Mr. Quavis, Dad is always so mean to him, good for Mr. Quavis, but I just listen until Mom finishes telling me and says it’s time for bed. In bed I let myself laugh out loud a little bit before I fall asleep.
After school, Mom and I go to the hospital to pick up Dad. She buys me a Dr Pepper out of the machine in the waiting room and I sip at it while she fills out some forms on a clip board. In the car, all Dad says to me is are you drinking that Dr Pepper or can I use it for an ashtray. I give it to him, even though I’m not done. I stare at the back of his head while he smokes and think of Mr. Quavis hitting it with the brick. I want to ask why do you go around throwing bricks in people’s windows, but I know he’d just get mad and not answer. Plus, why can’t he use the car’s ashtray?
At home they argue about putting Sooty’s dad in jail and about who’s going to pay for the window. I change into Sooty’s t-shirt. The decal is stiff and tickles at my chest. I put a sweater on over it and ask if I can go out. Dad says not if it’s to play with that little son-of-a-bitch Nathan, Jr. and I say it’s not and they argue about that, too, but they let me go.
I see them for more than a block before I reach her driveway. The garage door is open and Kate is sitting cross-legged on the trunk of the Volvo watching Sooty shoot baskets. If he misses the basket he could hit her with the ball, but this wouldn’t occur to Kate. I stand on the driveway behind Sooty shifting my weight from leg to leg, listening to the ball smack the pavement, feeling a sting in my cheeks until Kate says c’mon, c’mere.
I lean against the car bumper and whisper do you think somebody’ll have to go to jail, and she says that’s entirely up to my dad.
“But he broke the window. That’s illegal, right?” I imagine Sooty’s dad and my dad in a jail cell together, my dad calling Sooty’s dad a son-of-a-bitch, Sooty’s dad calling for a guard. Sooty walks up to us then, ball under his arm.
“Can I have my t-shirt back?” he says, but he looks at Kate, turning to me only after he’s done talking.
“I’m wearing it,” I say, and lift up the front of my sweater to show the decal, more for Kate than for Sooty, so she’ll know exactly which t-shirt he means.
“S’okay,” Kate says. “You can go inside and change.”
“But this sweater’s all itchy with nothing underneath,” I say.
“Borrow something from me for underneath,” she says, and they wait for me to do something, so I go inside.
Kate’s bedroom is twice the size of my own, but I know where everything is. I tug open her t-shirt drawer, take whatever shirt is on top without looking at it and pull my sweater off over my head. I take off Sooty’s shirt and leave it, inside out, on her dresser. I don’t realize until I’m getting ready for bed that the t-shirt I took used to be mine.