In five words, my sister dismissed the question that had taken me weeks to screw up the courage to ask. The final authority on everything from our parents’ break-up to the monthly rounds of cramping and bleeding which had descended on me last winter, Anna Marie lay beside me on the blanket, soaking up the early June sun. Round, white breasts pushed beyond the limits of her bikini top, making me painfully aware of my own deficiencies. I rubbed my foot against Fluff, the gray Persian, who stretched long and soft and purring on our blanket, and wished I hadn’t asked.
It wasn’t like I could get anything out of Mom, except a litany of Daddy’s shortcomings. Clearly, she was more than happy to have him out of the picture. In a Muskingum River town like ours, Mom was no Donna Reed. If being without a husband distressed her it was for one reason and one reason only. With Daddy gone, her earnings at Penny’s had to cover more than cigarettes and spending money. Early one rainy morning three months before, I had heard my parents’ parting argument. Kneeling at my upstairs window, I watched Daddy load his barbering case and clothes into the cab of his pick-up, and I tortured myself with the idea that if I ran downstairs and begged him to stay, he might not leave us. An inadequacy I didn’t understand had prevented me, and I watched him get into the truck and turn left out of the driveway, passing his next door barber shop and disappearing up the street.
Daddy had grown up on a family farm, and he used to talk about moving us all out there once the place was his. Mom said it would be a cold day in hell before she gave up indoor plumbing, and Anna Marie refused to leave her friends. No one had asked my opinion. Since that morning, I’d imagined dozens of happy scenarios in which one parent or the other had a change of heart and we were all back together again—either here or on the farm. But on that warm June afternoon as I felt Fluff’s satiny fur against my toes and watched Anna Marie’s foot jiggle in response to Elvis’ crooning from the transistor, I had to admit that my daydreams were as unrealistic as the black and white sci-fi movies we watched on Saturdays at the Opera House.
It was a couple of weeks later that Mom decided to confront Daddy with her terms for settling things. She’d waited long enough, she said. Either he would assume his responsibilities and support his family properly or he could meet her in divorce court. She chain-smoked the whole thirty-two miles to the farm. Anna Marie sat beside her, one arm hanging out the window, her long fragrant hair sweeping over the back of the seat like a curtain. In the backseat I took the brunt of the wind and watched the ash from Mom’s cigarettes disintegrate in the rush of air. Once we turned onto Lookout Hill, dust as fine as flour billowed out from the tires. The farm house and out buildings, all bearing the gray patina of unpainted wood, came into view. Mom pulled into the dooryard right behind Daddy’s truck, but we didn’t find him in the house.
“Where can he be?” Mom asked, as if the cluttered, unkempt rooms had the answer.
Outside, Anna Marie spotted him crossing the field where shafts of cut hay browned in the sun. “Over there,” she said as casually as someone pointing out a misplaced sock.
Anna Marie and I stood beneath the fronds of a weeping willow as our parents met in the field. Minutes passed, and Mom did the talking while a heavy wooden hay rake rocked steadily on Daddy’s shoulder. During an emphatic gesture, her cigarette flew into the mown hay and a faint ribbon of smoke rose. Daddy stomped the smoldering hay with his work boot, and then upended a jug of drinking water, dousing any remaining embers. He reached into his overalls pocket, and drew out a wad of bills. He peeled off a number and handed them to Mom. She thumbed through them as she marched back to the car, mumbling what sounded like “What a cheapskate.”
“Come on, little sis,” Anna Marie said “Show’s over.”
Mom slid into the driver’s seat and Anna Marie resumed her co-pilot position, but I held back.
Daddy had retrieved his rake but appeared to be looking off into the woods that bordered the field. I hesitated for a minute and then barreled through the willow fronds, not stopping until I had both arms around his sweaty neck. He let the rake drop and hugged me fiercely for a second. Then he loosened my hands. “I’m sorry, Punkin.”
Mom laid on the horn, loud enough to scatter the blackbirds pecking greedily at the seed loosed from the hay. I realized that no matter what I saw in Daddy’s face, he was never coming back.
The day after our trip to the farm, a For Rent sign appeared in the barber shop window. A week or so later, Anna Marie and I came home from a morning at the pool to find Mom talking with a tall, thin man in jeans and boots. His slicked-back hair was a dusty blond, his face hard and weathered. Anna Marie slowed as we came closer. “What’s she up to now?”
“Maybe he’s going to rent the shop,” I said, although the man didn’t look much like a barber.
Anna Marie and I cut through the yard behind the shop and past the pick-up with Spence’s Contracting painted on the door. In the kitchen, she opened the refrigerator. She took out the orange juice carton and drank from the spout. She handed me a package of bologna. “Make me a sandwich,” she ordered, just as Mom and the man came through the screen door.
“Girls, this is Harry. He’s rented the building.” Mom refused to call it a barber shop, even though the barbering paraphernalia remained intact. “And he’s taking us out to lunch to celebrate. Hurry up and change.”
Harry put on a smile and reached out to shake hands. First Anna Marie’s hand was swallowed up, then mine. I expected his hand to be as rough as his face, but it was so soft and moist that I was rubbing my hand against my cotton shorts before I realized what I was doing.
Cool as anything, Anna Marie lied. “Christy and I had hot dogs at the pool.” In front of us on the counter lay the makings of a sandwich.
Harry’s grin stretched his mouth but it didn’t reach the slate blue eyes. “We’ll make it another time with the girls, Eileen.”
They crossed the porch and got into the pick-up. Guns filled the rack across the back window. Guns had always made Mom nervous. Now she was riding around in a cab full of them.
On her way upstairs to shower off the chlorine, Anna Marie repeated her order. “And put lots of mustard on it.”
Harry wasted no time clearing out Daddy’s shop. He stacked chairs and mirrors and sinks behind the building and threw a tarp over them. He treaded lightly where Anna Marie and I were concerned, not quite sure what to make of us, and my sister took full advantage. She butted in whenever Harry and Mom were talking, diverting Harry’s attention, while Mom fidgeted, trying to hold onto her smile. Once Harry renovated the building, he offered Anna Marie the job of taking his calls when he was out. She wasn’t about to pass up a chance to make money, even from a creep like Harry.
By August, Harry had begun spending the night at our house now and then, parking his truck just off the back ally, a concession to Mom’s reputation, as if the neighborhood gossips weren’t already dissecting her piece by piece. I expected plenty of commentary about this from Anna Marie, but by then she was more intrigued by boys in cars with loud tailpipes and girls squealing in the back seat. If Mom hadn’t been so preoccupied with Harry, she would have had a fit. If Daddy had been home, he’d have run them all off.
School started, and I was glad to have something new to think about. Anna Marie continued to answer the phone in Harry’s office, and I did my homework curled in one of the armchairs while she tipped back in Harry’s leather swivel, feet on the desk, talking to her friends between business calls. Harry spent a lot of time at building sites with bricklayers, plumbers, drywall installers, and electricians and depended on Anna Marie’s precise note cards filled with her clear, back-slanted script.
One golden afternoon the last week of September, Anna Marie and I walked in from school to find boxes and suitcases heaped beside the stairs. For a crazy minute I thought Daddy was back, but in the living room, the glass doors on a gun cabinet stood open, and Harry had one of the guns out and opened up for Mom to look at. Her smile was rigid, and a small pile of ash from her cigarette lay ignored on the arm of the couch where she perched.
Harry looked up as we entered and put on a broad grin. “I’ll bet the girls could learn to shoot. How about it? Want to give it a try?”
Before I could speak, Anna Marie shoved me aside. “Sure, Harry. I’ll try.”
Sometime in November, Mom and Daddy went to court. The divorce wouldn’t be final for months, but Daddy picked up the last of his things while Anna Marie and I were at school. I thought he might at least have left us a note, but my sister just snorted, “Are you really that naïve, Christy?”
Thanksgiving approached, and Harry went into the woods one Saturday morning and came back with a brace of rabbits riding in the pouch of his hunting coat. When he held them up for Mom’s approval, she barely glanced at the staring eyes and the matted patches where buckshot had penetrated the grayish fur. “Take them outside, Harry,” she said, her raspy voice catching on the words.
Harry laughed humorlessly and continued to hold the dead rabbits by their long hind feet. He turned to Anna Marie, who leaned in the doorway. “You scared too, Sis?”
Anna Marie walked over to the rabbits and took one out of Harry’s hand. Its silky ears swayed loosely toward the floor and its underbelly and tail showed up white as she gave it a half-pivot. “Show me how to skin them, Harry.”
Harry glanced from Anna Marie to Mom. He couldn’t have missed the quick, darting look Mom gave Anna Marie, or the smug expression that settled into Anna Marie’s face. He led the way outside and she followed, carrying her rabbit just as he carried his. I trailed along as far as the back porch.
Behind Daddy’s barber shop, Anna Marie watched Harry slit open the rabbits’ hides and remove their guts. I took as much of it as I could before going back inside. Mom was lighting another cigarette, her hands shaking. Her mouth a thin line, she stared at the thermos Harry had taken to the woods. There were smudges of dried, brownish blood where his fingers had touched. Later that evening, Harry took his twenty-two-caliber target pistol—his baby, he called it—out of the drawer of the gun cabinet and let Anna Marie get the feel of it. Mom pretended that the gun didn’t bother her, but there might as well have been a live snake in the room, as jumpy as she was.
Saturday, snowflakes blew in on the wind rattling the upstairs windows, but Harry and Anna Marie were set for a trip to the firing range. I sipped hot chocolate at the kitchen table while Harry put his pistol into a carrying case. Anna Marie ran upstairs to get her jacket, and Harry went out to warm up the truck.
Mom put down the coffee mug she’d been holding against her lips, both hands cupped around it. “Get dressed, Christy. You’re going, too.”
I had a bad case of cramps that morning, but Mom wouldn’t listen. She took my cup and dumped the contents down the sink. Storming upstairs, I passed Anna Marie coming down.
“House on fire?” she asked.
I heard Mom pipe up. “Christy decided she wants to go. Give her a minute, Anna Marie.”
The firing range, a flat stretch off the main highway, had shelters with gun rests fastened between the posts. Against the facing hillside, bales of straw supported all kinds of targets: circles with black bulls-eyes, outlines of game animals, silhouettes of men.
Harry took us to a shelter and loaded the pistol. Anna Marie seemed more interested in watching Harry handling the gun than in what he was saying, but as soon as she lifted the pistol and aimed it at the target I knew she had been paying attention. She kept both eyes open, and her hands remained steady as she squeezed the trigger. The barrel jumped as the bullet left the chamber, and a tear appeared in the target, a few inches above bulls-eye, not far from dead center.
Harry let out a whistle of admiration. “The girl’s a natural,” he said, getting behind her and positioning his arms over hers. Anna Marie’s next shot was off to the right, but the third was centered, still high.
I huddled against the wall of the shelter, hoping they’d forgotten me. The force of a bullet ripping through the gunmetal barrel set my nerves on edge, just as it would have Mom’s, and Harry knew that as well as anybody. When I was back home, icy fingers wrapped around my second cup of hot chocolate, I realized Mom had sent me along for one reason only: so Harry and Anna Marie wouldn’t be alone.
If there was one occasion I wasn’t looking forward to, it was Christmas. Not that the holidays had been great before, but we had always put up a tree with ornaments and strung garlands. When I was still young enough to believe things could change, my wish had been to get up on Christmas morning and find Mom and Daddy smiling at each other. For that, I would have traded all the dolls and books and new clothes on planet Earth.
Harry knew how to do Christmas. He hauled in a huge Norwegian spruce and all the trimmings. By the time he and Mom and Anna Marie were finished, the place was a sight. Evergreen boughs and tinsel and red bows were everywhere; they’d even hung mistletoe in the archway separating the living room from the front hall. Mom’s chain-smoking was worse than ever; she kept a wary eye on Harry and ragged on Anna Marie about her skimpy outfits and make-up.
Christmas break was three days away when the first real snow piled up around streetlights and layered cars at the curb. Anna Marie got a ride home with one of her friends, and I came along later, walking. I crossed her footprints leading to the front door as I headed around back. Mom was working late, and Harry’s truck was nosed into the driveway. As I let myself into the kitchen, I heard scuffling in the living room and Harry’s laugh followed by my sister’s taunting snort, the one she used when she had someone exactly where she wanted them.
I edged around the door. Anna Marie and Harry were pressed together under the mistletoe, his size making her seem small and fragile. When his hands ran up over her blouse, she shoved away from him, the fun gone from her voice. “Stop it, Harry.”
When Harry saw me, he tried to make a joke out of it. “Your sister was picking on me, Christy. I was trying to defend myself.”
“You’re a son of a bitch, Harry,” Anna Marie said, and she was up the stairs like a shot. Harry didn’t do a good job of hiding his thoughts. The look he sent after my sister gave me a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach.
I knew Daddy wouldn’t be around on Christmas Day. Even so, when the day came and Harry made a big production out of giving Mom a diamond cluster cocktail ring and Mom handed us money in Christmas cards that Daddy had sent, I had trouble pretending everything was fine. Anna Marie took her money out of the envelope and stuffed it into her jeans pocket. She gave the envelope, card and all, a rip down the center and crammed it into the bag with the used wrappings.
The morning after Christmas, Mom went back to Penny’s. Business was always heavy with everyone returning gifts and hunting bargains. Harry went over to the office. Anna Marie brought a blanket downstairs and curled up on the couch beside the monster spruce and flipped on the TV. We were out of milk and cereal, so I walked the couple of blocks to the neighborhood supermarket. The snow had melted as soon as it fell, and the air was mild for December. I didn’t intend to be gone so long, but I ran into Michelle and Jan from school, and we wandered around for a while, complaining about the lousy Christmases we’d all had. It was nearly noon by the time I got back to the house. Harry’s truck was gone, so I thought I might talk Anna Marie into going to the matinee.
As I put the cereal and milk away, I could tell from the kitchen pipes that water was running in the bathroom upstairs. I made a sandwich from left-over turkey and took it into the living room where Miracle on 29th Street was playing. Anna Marie’s blanket was twisted and half off the couch; I folded it and laid it on one end. After eating, I took my glass and plate back into the kitchen. Water still surged through the pipes, so I decided to see what was going on. Upstairs, Fluff was sitting in front of the bathroom door. He meowed as I topped the stairs.
“What are you doing in there, Anna Marie?” I yelled, shaking the locked door. There was no answer, so I found the wire hook Mom kept for picking locks and jimmied the door knob. When I saw Anna Marie crouched in the bottom of the shower, her shoulders hunched to her knees, I thought of the tangled blanket on the couch. And the way Harry had looked at her after their scuffle under the mistletoe. The turkey sandwich turned sour in my stomach. Swallowing hard, I wrapped Anna Marie in a bath towel and rubbed her with another one, forcing warmth into her. When I offered to call Mom or try to get in touch with Daddy, her sarcasm flared.
“Like Mom is really going to believe me? Right. And Daddy suddenly remembers he has a family and runs to the rescue. Forget it, Christy. Just make sure you stay away from the bastard.”
She didn’t come downstairs that evening. I told Mom that she was taking a cold and carried a bowl of chili up to her. She lay in her dark bedroom, one arm across Fluff, who rumbled in contented warmth, oblivious to the ugliness of the human world.
“Thanks, Christy,” was all she said. I wanted her to talk to me, to reassure me that this awful thing wouldn’t happen again, but I knew she couldn’t. I left the chili and crackers and a glass of milk on the night stand.
Harry’s joking during supper was pretty lame. While I was doing the dishes, he came up behind me to put his plate in the sink. His breath felt hot and moist on my neck, and I dropped a glass I was washing against the drain board and drove a sliver into my thumb. Bright red blood spilled onto the dishes, and I grabbed the towel and ran upstairs. The bleeding stopped fast enough, but my imagination didn’t. I’d always felt safe in my room, even with Mom and Daddy fighting. But Harry, if he decided to, could pick any lock in the house as fast as I could.
It was well before daylight when I packed a gym bag and padded silently down the stairs. I filled a thermos with milk and laid it and the peanut butter jar, a knife, and a package of crackers in on top of my folded clothes. Fluff, having slipped out of Anna Marie’s room, wrapped around my ankles, begging to be fed. I had to ignore him and do my own silent slipping into the chilled darkness. I ducked through the still neighborhood and took Main Street through town until it turned into Route 60. Walking along the berm, cinders crunched under my feet and worked their way into my tennis shoes. I had to stop a couple of times to shake them out, vulnerable in my one-footed stance as early traffic whooshed past, creating a vacuum that tried to pull me off-balance.
I’d started out thinking I could walk indefinitely, but after a couple of hours, I began to tire. Cars and trucks whizzed by, tires kicking up a light spray of cinders and salt left from treatment in advance of the snowfall. Low riding clouds seemed to sit on the hilltops, threatening more snow or rain. I had planned to refuse any ride I was offered, but when an old Chevy sedan with rusting fenders slowed, stopped, and backed up, I reevaluated my situation. The woman on the passenger side rolled down her window. “Where are you headed, honey?”
“County Road 648,” I answered, “Lookout Hill.” She opened her door and pulled up the seat. I squeezed in amid boxes and bags and stacks of papers. The woman seemed happy to have someone to talk to, and it was obvious why; her husband gave his full attention to driving, hands on the wheel at ten o’clock and two o’clock. Despite her chatter, I had dozed off by the time we reached the road to Daddy’s farm. I climbed out and thanked them and watched the old man ease back onto the highway.
The first stretch was a long, graveled hill leading to the ridge. How many times had I topped this hill, mechanical horsepower delivering me to its summit? Using my own two feet the climb was much longer and slower. Half-way up, I stopped and tipped the thermos, swallowing thirstily. I didn’t want to take time to spread peanut butter, so I ate crackers and licked peanut butter off the knife blade.
The wind had picked up, and a fine drizzle started. I pulled up the hood of my jacket and rejoined the trek uphill. The drizzle became drops I could feel through my jacket and hear as it pelted the brown winter grasses in the field and leaves that remained on the oaks. The rain added a shimmer to the slick needles of the evergreens, and before I topped Lookout Hill, I yearned to curl up in a pine copse where silence and warmth reigned, forget my mission, and sleep. But afternoon light was fading, so I trudged on. Reaching flatter ground, I felt a resurge of energy and picked up speed.
By dusk the farmhouse came into view. Daddy’s truck wasn’t there, but I managed to raise one of the front windows, careful of the loose boards on the porch, and climb through. In the round-bellied heating stove ashes glowed red, and the paper and wood I added soon had the fire snapping. By then, I was too exhausted to wonder how Daddy was going to take my sudden appearance or what I was going to tell him. I shed my damp jacket, wrapped up in a blanket lying on the studio couch beside the stove, lay down, and fell asleep.
I was awakened when Daddy came through the door, flipping on the light. “What’s this?” he asked. He didn’t appear upset as he added wood to the fire and adjusted the draft, or all that surprised. The fire showed red through the smoky glass on the door and I roused from my nest. Daddy bent and smoothed back the tangled hair hanging in my face. How I had missed the touch of my father’s big, rough, gentle hand.
Before I could find words to explain my presence, the sound of another truck in the driveway sent him back to the door with me at his heels, my blanket trailing. He turned on the outside light, and I knew before I saw Mom’s skinny figure and Harry’s tall one looming behind her that they had come for me. I wasn’t expecting Anna Marie though, but she crossed the porch behind Harry.
“You’ve got the nerve,” Mom began, “bringing her down here without a word.”
Daddy looked at me, and I wished he could read my mind and spare me the telling. I looked at Harry, who was assessing the place and Daddy, and then at Anna Marie. Nothing in her face suggested what had happened the day before.
“Get your stuff, Christy,” Harry ordered. When I hesitated, Mom took me by the arm. I didn’t intend to hit her, but in jerking free, my elbow caught her in the mouth. Her hand came away from her face with blood on it. Harry stepped between us and pinned my arms to my sides. Daddy grabbed the front of Harry’s jacket and sent him spinning across the room. Anna Marie stood silhouetted in the doorway, arms extended, just like I’d seen at the firing range. Her stance and her two-handed grip on Harry’s pistol looked professional, experienced. She had the firearm trained on Daddy.
During a second-long pause, Anna Marie managed to look them over, the three of them, suspended on the other side of the room. In Daddy’s face I saw the kind of pain I’d carried around since the morning I watched him pull out of the driveway in his pick-up, leaving us, as it turned out, for good. I’d seen it in his face before too, last summer when I ran to him in the hayfield. Anna Marie moved her aim a few centimeters to the right, bringing Harry into range.
“Holy shit,” Harry exhaled.
I felt my voice coming out as soft as a prayer. “No, Anna Marie.”
My sister looked at me, her eyes a clear amber, their expression knowing and sane. As if she had planned every movement in detail, she eased her finger off the trigger and engaged the safety with a click that seemed to echo around the walls. Anna Marie walked across the room and handed the revolver to Harry, barrel down, the way they had passed it back and forth at the range.
Three of us—Mom, Daddy, and I—stood rigid, uncertain what was coming next, but my sister exuded a calmness I recognized as part charade, part self-preservation: classic Anna Marie. Harry’s evaluation of our assemblage yielded a conclusion no one could have misread: he wanted none of it. He went out through the open door into the rain, the pistol hanging loosely in his hand. I heard his truck start and watched the headlights come on, and I felt the wind blowing rain through the door, wetting the linoleum floor. The fire in the stove surged with an intake of air and the draft rattled in the pipe. Daddy crossed to the door and closed it against the outside forces.
Mom let out a wail as pitiful as a rabbit’s. I thought of the long, gray bodies and Mom’s shuddering at the sight; I thought of the way Anna Marie had watched them laid open, raw and bloody, behind Daddy’s shop. And when I thought of rubbing my sister’s death-cold skin back to warmth, I reached out for her hand only to find it closing on mine.
Lois Spencer’s publishing credits include Ohio Teachers Write, Iris, Anthology of Appalachian Writers, The Poorhouse Rag, and Women Speak. She earned two Ohio University degrees, BSED and MSED and her MALL at Marietta College. A memoir, In the Language of My Country (Outskirts Press 2017), highlights a uniquely Appalachian experience.