Fiction, Vol. 4.1, March 2010
Hillary picked her pack of cigarettes up off the floor, slunk across the peeling linoleum in the kitchen and stepped out the back door into the sunlight. She waded through the high grass, past a broken grill and a swingless swing set, and scrambled onto a rock. She pulled her T-shirt up under her small breasts and exposed her stomach to the sun. She imagined herself a sunbathing supermodel, but she more closely resembled a cold-blooded creature gorging itself on sunlight. Ted sat nearby on a picnic table, pulling the seeds off grass stalks and probing anthills with the stems.
Ted found the abandoned house one afternoon while hunting for aluminum cans. Permanence hovered about the house. Dragonflies and wasps buzzed around the windows and tarpaper shingles. Chipped green and yellow paint flaked from the clapboards and peeled off of the porch. Metal and plastic artifacts scattered about the lawn provided a glimpse into the lives of former inhabitants. A pair of rhododendron flanked the steps, flowering in the spring and dying in the winter, long after their original owners moved on.
No one noticed when Hillary left to live in the house with Ted. Her mother never bothered with her. Hillary had once overheard neighbors speculating whether her mother was retarded or an alcoholic. Her grandmother stopped by periodically and her father sent a yearly Christmas card from Florida, but neither took Hillary in. She was home alone with her mother when Ted showed up and said, Hey, Hill, you gotta check out this old house I found. Nobody lives there no more. We should fix it up. Hillary considered Ted’s proposal for a moment. She had nothing to lose and it might be fun. She yelled to her mother in the bedroom, Hey Mom, I’m going out with Ted. I won’t be back for awhile. Her mother only coughed in response.
Two weeks after discovering the house, Ted and Hillary sat in the foot-high grass of the front lawn. Myriad creatures communed with the pair, occasionally mistaking Hillary’s hair for part of their domain. Ted leaned against a rock and read to Hillary from The Lord of the Flies. Ted was nineteen and, unlike Hillary, he had stayed in school long enough to learn to read. Hillary loved to listen to Ted read. He often rode his bike six miles to the library and returned with a backpack full of books. Reading seemed like a mystical art to Hillary, and she enjoyed listening to Ted display his ability almost as much as she liked the stories. Ted only seemed to enjoy the challenge of reading. He liked the action of turning letters into sounds and he liked impressing Hillary. The meaning of the words escaped him.
Hillary quit school at fifteen. The special-education director said she suffered from a learning disability. Nature had robbed her of the ability to translate symbols into words, but she could follow plots and understand ideas. This was a constant source of frustration. The special-education director told her that she needed glasses and help practicing phonics if she hoped to read. Right then and there she gave up trying.
Ted worked a few hours a day for various manufacturers housed in an old mill. He earned ninety dollars a week crushing boxes, sweeping steps, emptying garbage cans and cleaning toilets. Ted liked the jobs because he worked with his father. His dad was in charge of greasing lathes and routers. His father, Griffy, was a work-rag of a man, covered in grease that would never wash off, matted facial hair, and ripped flannel shirts. His eyes peered out from far within his head as if someone had shot them into a formerly eyeless face, lodged them in their sockets, and created hundreds of tiny wrinkles on impact. After work, Ted and Griffy meandered down to the convenience store for whiskey, food and cigarettes before going their separate ways. Griffy limped off to his brother’s garage; Ted rode back to the house.
Griffy proved a divisive point between Ted and Hillary. Hillary feared Griffy. She accused him of staring at her crotch or chest. He often brushed against her as he passed, even in wide open spaces. Ted worried about his father. Griffy was over sixty years old and a heavy drinker. Ted was certain that his father meant no harm.
Early afternoon was a stagnant time for Hillary. Nothing moved except the birds and insects, clouds and leaves. She sat on the porch weaving stalks of grass into intricate patterns.
One afternoon she decided to take a nap. She closed her eyes and heaved a relaxed breath. A few minutes passed. Sleep remained a few paces ahead of her. Hillary had grown used to waiting for sleep. She closed her eyes and visualized she and Ted and the house in an alternate world. The house was immaculate and modern. A car sat in the driveway. The lawn was mowed. She stood at the kitchen sink in a clean dress and apron. She held a Palmolive bottle in yellow rubber gloves. She saw a little girl, her little girl, swinging on the swingset. Ted pushed her. She placed the Palmolive bottle down with her dream hand and lifted a warm Diet Coke can with her real hand. She swallowed hard and laid her head on the porch boards to continue daydreaming.
She had met Ted at the bus stop. They both lived in the low-income housing neighborhood. Hillary, an eighth grader, rode the bus with many of her peers. Ted was one of only two seniors on the bus. They sat together in the “scrub” section up front near the driver. Ted was a man on a bus full of children. Hillary was small and silent.
Ted wasn’t exactly Hillary’s boyfriend, but he wasn’t exactly not her boyfriend either. Sometimes she kissed him; sometimes she let him kiss her. Other days she wouldn’t let him near her. Twice, at night, she slid onto him as he lay on the couch and she let him do whatever he wanted, but those nights were mysterious and hazy in her memory. Why had she done those things? Ted was ugly. He was too tall and too skinny. His limbs swung awkwardly. Archipelagos of acne spread across his cheeks. Hillary thought he was kind and gentle, but too sensitive for a boy.
When Ted returned from work, he and Hillary lounged on the porch, reading. After finishing a chapter, they shared a joint Ted had bought off some kids, passing it back and forth until only a soggy brown piece of paper remained. Soon Hillary’s whole body became one sense. A thermometer in her skin measured the temperature drop outside. Ted put the book down on the floorboards and lit a cigarette. Fireflies began to spark and legions of moths kamikazed into an electric lantern. Hillary slipped her sandals on and floated off the porch into the grass, stepping lightly as if the ground were made of glass and the earth a free-blown globe. Ted had no idea where she was headed, but he didn’t wonder or worry. Her steps failed to interrupt the stillness.
After lunch on the third Friday at the house, Hillary and Ted sat on the rock in the backyard. The back door hung wide open, occasionally swinging and tapping against the house. Hillary pulled up her shorts to let the sun warm her thighs. Ted squinted off into the woods and smoked. He occasionally brushed a fly from his unwashed hair.
Wanna read some more? Hillary inquired, nudging Ted.
Sure, he said as he got up. We’ll pick up where we left off last night.
The day passed and the pair nearly finished the book. Hillary made Ted stop reading and save the rest for later. They headed inside to sleep. They made their beds from an old couch; Hillary took off the cushions and placed them on the floor. She covered them in a blanket and lay down. Ted slept on the cushionless couchframe.
When Griffy wasn’t at work the next day, Ted was worried. Had his father drank too much and fallen into a river, or walked in front of the train? Perhaps his wrecked body had simply given out on the mattress in Uncle Allen’s garage.
Where’s the old man? asked a machinist when he spotted Ted compacting cardboard all alone. Did he oversleep?
I dunno, Ted replied. I don’t live there no more. The machinist didn’t pursue the topic any further. They could easily do without Griffy.
Hillary felt that eleven o’clock in the morning was the most real hour of the day. Morning grogginess faded and afternoon malaise hadn’t set in yet. Hillary was in the living room when she thought she smelled a faint hint of cigarette smoke. She rose and moved to the front yard. The smell returned. Hillary struggled with her sense of uneasiness. Certainly it was only Ted home from work early. But being left alone had triggered an instinctive nervousness. She walked out the back door, around the side of the house, and kneeled beside the porch. When the distinct sound of a can being kicked echoed down the driveway, she scrambled under the porch. She lay flat on her stomach, crept under the latticework and lay motionless, ignoring pillbugs and spiders.
Moments later someone came strolling down the road and turned toward the house. As he approached, tripping over the rocks that jutted from the ground, Hillary recognized her visitor as Griffy.
Teddy? he hollered, Teddy you here? He stepped onto the porch, sat down and spoke loudly to himself.
He wasn’t home yesterday either. No place for his poor dad. He has a beautiful home and I get kicked out of a garage by my own brother… His voice trailed off as he remembered Hillary. She heard him stand up and walk slowly into the house.
Hello? he asked. You around here, Hilly? It’s me, Griffy… She listened to him pacing around inside. He eventually gave up looking, but he didn’t leave. About twenty minutes later she heard snoring from inside.
Ted arrived home late. Her fear of Ted’s father came from nothing concrete, but it felt so natural that she never questioned it nor thought of leaving the broken latticework cage, even when the echoing groans of her empty stomach would betray her presence beneath the porch. When around four o’clock she finally heard the tires of Ted’s bicycle grinding up the road, her head fell from exhaustion, hitting her forearms and filling her hair with compost.
Hey Hillary, he yelled dropping his bike in the grass. Look what I got! Hillary lifted her head to see Ted carrying a book and a bag of weed. She crawled out slowly, brushing off dirt and scratching bites from unknown creatures.
Did you lose something under there? Ted asked, his head cocked inquisitively to one side like a small dog.
Hillary put her finger up to her lips, motioning for him to be quiet. Ted stopped by the rhododendron and listened. Griffy’s snoring had subsided.
What? Ted shrugged. I don’t hear nothing. Ted began to brush bits of leaves off Hillary’s shorts.
Your father’s sleeping in the house, she whispered.
My dad? Ted stood straight up. How long has he been here? Hillary shrugged. Ted crept up to the door and peered inside. Griffy lay on the floor. The old man’s breathing came in heavy spurts, forcing air through years of congestion. Ted turned and looked at Hillary, then looked back inside. Slowly he stepped through the door and approached his father. He knelt down and shook Griffy’s shoulder a little, then a little more, harder and harder, each push triggering a slight cough. It reminded Ted of yanking the pull-chord on a stubborn lawnmower. Finally an abrupt shove snapped the old man awake with a furious coughing fit that made Ted jump back. The convulsions bent Griffy in half. He fought to right himself, careened toward the door, hit the door jamb and leaned heavily. A few seconds later, the coughing resumed after a spell of heavy breathing and intensified until Griffy expelled a large lump of red and green onto the porch.
Shit… he wheezed, stumbling outside. Hillary froze as Griffy’s gaze came to rest on her.
Where the hell did you go today? he demanded. I came looking for you and Teddy and nobody was here.
I went for a walk, Hillary mumbled. Griffy didn’t seem to hear her. He turned and went back inside and opened a beer.
Ted emerged from the house and began rummaging in his backpack.
Check it out, Ted laughed, holding up the book he brought home. Hillary was still visibly shaken by Griffy’s presence, but he didn’t appear to notice. The book was a paperback copy of Little Women. Hillary loved Little Women, but she couldn’t shake the foggy anxiety enough to show excitement. Ted looked disappointed, but made no attempt at further conversation. He put the book under his arm and went up onto the porch. Hillary followed, staying as close to Ted as possible.
Griffy never left that night. He haunted the kitchen, smoking, drinking, muttering. Ted read some of Little Women, but Hillary’s mind was elsewhere. She watched Griffy with sideways glances. Once he came and sat on the porch and listened to the story. His hands shook as he used a stick to scrape black from beneath his nails.
That night Griffy snored. The room reverberated every time his chest rose and fell. By two in the morning Hillary couldn’t take anymore, so she went outside. The night air invigorated her. She hugged herself against the chill and listened to the peep frogs. The smell of skunk tainted the breeze. She stepped down through the grass and onto the road. She knew a small pond lay a few yards off the right side of the road and she wanted to see it at night.
The weeds and underbrush grew densely and resisted passage. Sticks broke, branches rustled, leaves crunched. Amidst the noise Hillary didn’t hear Griffy stop snoring, nor did she hear him step out onto the porch. He spotted her immediately.
What the hell are ya doin’ in the bushes? he asked in a forceful whisper. Hillary knew her trip to the pond was ruined.
I was just coming in, she told him, still struggling onward through the brambles. I smell a skunk. Griffy raised his nose to the wind and sniffed the air. He nodded.
Skunk, he agreed, lighting a cigarette and offering one to Hillary. She accepted.
I like this place, he said. Much nicer than that shitty garage I’ve been sleepin’ in. Hillary knew what this meant―he planned to stay, to stay and ruin her solitude, to stay and monopolize Ted, to drink all the drinks, to smoke all the cigarettes and all the weed, to snore, to cough. Hillary put out her cigarette and went to bed.
Hillary awoke on her left side facing a tar-stained window. When she opened her left eye she could see the top of a tall weed over the windowsill. Closing her left and opening her right made the weed duck down behind the wall. The weed popped up and disappeared with her alternate blinking.
She stood up and looked around. Griffy’s trash littered the couch―cigarette butts, a plastic cup full of phlegm, and beer cans.
Maybe Griffy won’t come back, she said to herself as she flicked two cigarette butts off the couch.
The early August heat saturated the air. Hillary spent the afternoon dropping flower petals in spider webs and watching the spiders rush toward the vibration, only to be disappointed. For a moment she considered returning to her mother’s house, but the image of the gray living room felt too distant and hopeless.
On the way home from work, Ted and Griffy stopped by a stone wall for a break. Ted bore the heat fine, but Griffy wheezed and gasped.
I can’t work in dis’ no more, Griffy muttered, wiping his sweaty hands on his pants. Ted gave him some water. The house was still three miles off and his father had broken down.
Maybe the house is just too far for ya, Ted said, getting on his bike, See if Uncle Phil will let you back. Griffy nodded.
I prob’ly should, huh? he said. But he ain’t gonna let me. He’s a grudgin’ son of a bitch, but I’ll try talkin’ to ‘im.
Ted let him keep the bottle of water and went home. When Ted rode up the driveway alone, Hillary’s skin shivered and her eyes quaked. The question was loaded in her throat as she fluttered over to Ted.
Where’s your dad? she asked, trying to sound nonchalant.
He’s tryin’ to see if Uncle Phil will let him stay there again, Ted replied. Walkin’ to work from here is too much for him in the heat.
Hillary bit her lip to contain her excitement.
Can we read? she asked, leaning in and kissing Ted on the cheek.
Sure, Ted replied. Hillary went to find Little Women and grab a Pop Tart for Ted.
After Ted ate, they settled down, but Ted didn’t start reading. His eyes closed, his breathing became rhythmic and measured. Hillary gazed off into the trees. She could smell the pond and hear the trees come to life. She knew that at that time of the evening, the glare left the water and was replaced by reflection.
I’m gonna go to the pond, she told Ted. When he didn’t respond, Hillary realized he was asleep. She hopped off the porch as quietly as she could and headed toward the road. After pacing the edge of the brush for awhile, she found the path. This time no one would interrupt her.
The brush thinned out a few feet in, giving way to blackberry bushes and ferns. She could see the reflection of the trees in the pond a few yards off. The little pond, not much more than a puddle at noon, seemed an abyss at night. Hillary sat down on a rock beside it. The trees, shrubs, grass, and water all emitted thousands of beeps and chirps. She leaned back with her slender wrists bent and her fingers fanning out away from her, closed her eyes, and listened. The darkness landed on her eyelids, urging her to sleep. Hillary gave in by degrees until the ripe pond air had her completely anesthetized.
Griffy never lost the sense of danger that accompanies foot travel at night. Leaves move, crunch and rustle on the sides of the road; the sounds declare the presence of something, but reveal little about the nature of the source. When the road to the house finally came into view, Griffy broke into a lope. This exertion threatened to incapacitate him, but all the tension of the trek orchestrated its release through this feat. He barreled down the road until he discerned the house. His legs began to burn and ache. Griffy doubled over with his hands on his knees and fought for air.
Shit… he sputtered to himself. Griffy stumbled down the driveway, clutching his stomach until he felt like he would explode. He turned off into the bushes to relieve himself when he noticed that the brush had been trampled down. He vaguely remembered seeing Hillary fighting through the brush the night before. Staring into the darkness of the trees and allowing his eyes to adjust to the low light, Griffy discerned the outline of the pond and someone lying on a rock.
Hey…Hey, Griffy’s alcohol-spoiled breath forced Hillary awake. She sat up and rubbed her eyes.
What you doin’ sleepin’ out here at night? Griffy asked. You’re gonna get mosquita bites. Hillary didn’t answer. She stared at her feet, at the rock, at the water…
You got a smoke, Hil? Griffy’s voice seemed to boom above the chirps and buzzes.
Yeah, she croaked. She slid a cigarette out and handed it to Griffy, who accidentally touched her hand trying to grasp it in the darkness. Hillary shuddered.
Ya still gettin’ Teddy to read those books? Griffy probed the girl for conversation. Hillary nodded yes.
Smart kid, isn’t he, Griffy chuckled. Someone used to read me books. I can’t remember who it was, but I remember dat they read me The Call of the Wild―dat book wid do wolf or dog or something. I liked it. But I don’t see no need for reading no more. Hillary didn’t respond. Griffy pressed his cigarette firmly between his lips. He stood up, angled himself away from Hillary, gave a quick ’scuse me, and began pissing into the water.
The pond accepted Griffy’s offering. It turned the water dark. He had left a strange murkiness there. Hillary looked more closely, eyeing Griffy to make sure he didn’t catch her investigating. In the moonlight she thought she discerned blood. It dissipated quickly, but it heralded the fact that the man’s body had turned against him.
Ted skipped work the next day. Griffy slumped on the porch and told them stories about people with strange problems like Siamese twins and elephantiasis. After awhile, Ted, Hillary, and Griffy went inside to play cards.
Hillary looked up from her hand and studied Ted and Griffy’s faces. She wished they were reading. She waited for her turn as Ted squinted at his cards. Hillary felt that, from the first sunlit day in the dusty living room, she had been waiting. The stillness said, Wait, the gentle sway of the poplars said Wait, the grass, the floors, the pond, and the porch said, Wait.
I gotta take a piss, Griffy groaned as he set his beer down. He braced himself on a windowsill, stood up clutching his stomach, and headed outside. Hillary’s gaze followed him as slunk out into the brilliant light. Then she heard coughing and moaning and she knew what she waited for.