by Samuel Cole
Walker Weebie understood setbacks, both in theory and in practicality. The upcoming weekend had the potential for setbacks, although he couldn’t imagine any worse-case scenario than being sunburned, tired, stinky and wet. He brought the cell phone back to his ear and listened to his older sister, Janelle, beg him to join her and her family (J.R., Jeremy and Janessa) along with Walker and Janelle’s older brother Ronnie, and Ronnie’s family (Rhonda, Rylan and Ricki) at Huntington State Park for a three-day Fourth of July weekend celebration.
“Celebration? Okay. If you say so,” Walker said.
“In case you forgot where it is,” she said. “It’s off Highway 91 by that big-ass rock that looks like a dildo.”
“What can I bring?”
“Just bring your sleeping shit and some water stuff and we got the rest covered.”
“It’ll be nice to see you.” He paused before saying, “And Ronnie too.”
“Come around three, okay?”
“Three it is.” He hung up the phone, comforted by the excitement in Janelle’s voice. It had been six years since their last visit. He scanned the home office, admiring the textured walls and complementary furniture, everything designed with a sense of purpose and order. Unlike Huntington State Park, a three-mile trek from his boyhood home—if a poorly constructed trailer house can even be called a home—where he played hide and seek with squirrels, floated the river on twisted branches, and climbed trees in which he often slept overnight, preferring oak roughness to the squeaky full-size metal-framed bed he was made to share with Ronnie. Ronnie? What a rotten name. And boy.
Nestled in bed against his wife, Laura, Walker dreamed overnight of frightening things he ignored in daylight. He awakened at 6:30 am and slipped out of bed, adoring for a few minutes Laura’s sfumato face, tan-brown hair, and High Renaissance body of which Da Vinci’s paintbrush would find greed and creed in painting. He showered and dressed in blue jeans and a favorite Handsome-Dan Yale t-shirt. Back in the office, he thumbed through a stack of cover letters and resumes from unemployed teachers looking for work—there were always so many. At 8:30 am, he went to the garage and carefully packed camping gear into the Porsche Cayenne, last year’s Christmas gift from Laura—Doctor Laura Livingston from the New Hampshire Livingstons—and stared for a long time out the den’s bay window at the row of pine trees in the backyard, wondering if forgiveness, like forgetfulness, is something only people who don’t need, find.
“Just remember who you are and who they are not,” Laura said, blowing kisses as he backed from the garage. Such a lucky man. Blessed even. Flourishing. Way ahead of most. A-OK.
Driving past ever-expanding tree groves confined to sparser and sparser small towns, he rubbed a thumb over the pink post-it note Laura had stuck to the dashboard—“Install GPS and don’t get lost.” So funny. So thoughtful. So sexy. But he didn’t need GPS. He liked finding his own way. She knew this. There were no secrets between them. Well, almost none. His cell-phone rang. DAD appeared on the screen. The hands-free Bluetooth took over. “Hey dad.”
“Laura says you’re going camping with them.” He coughed. “Tell me it isn’t true.”
Damn it, Walker thought. She promised not to tell him. “Did Laura call you or did you call her?”
“She said she’s not crazy about you going there.”
“I haven’t seen them since mom’s death.”
“They’re still the same.” He coughed (and coughed). “You could have at least taken Laura along.”
“The hospital needed her,” he lied. She could have come if she’d wanted too. Walker exited Highway 91 and turned into an Exxon station. His hands quivered against the steering wheel. “But I do appreciate the concern.”
“I’m sorry I failed you when you were little.”
“You didn’t fail me.”
“You’re too forgiving, Walker.”
“Have you tried the Nicorette lozenges I sent? You do like spearmint, right?” Walker wanted an answer, and he wanted it to be yes. One present-day yes to counterbalance so many long-ago nos.
“They’re bad eggs, son. They don’t see things like you and Laura do. Please turn around.”
Walker first saw Laura in the Yale University library, sitting in a cubicle studying the twenty muscles in the foot. He was finishing a research paper about Commerce and Ethics and The Role of Big Government in the American Public School System when a lavender scent, his mother’s scent, caught and held his attention. The small part of his heart that still belonged to his mother sought out the scent, and led him to Laura. Standing behind her, he closed his eyes and bathed in his mother’s memory. A fingertip tapped his shoulder. It was Laura.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
He hadn’t realized he’d been crying. “You and my mother wear the same perfume.”
Laura winked, and whispered, “I’m heading to the snack shop for some fries. You wanna tag along?”
In the time it took them to walk from the library to the snack shop, Walker knew he wanted to keep walking. With her. Forever. Fast friends. Boyfriend and girlfriend. Yale’s cutest couple 1997. Walker enjoyed learning about Laura’s childhood: book-reading mornings, pink bicycle afternoons, and firefly nights in the backyard beside an in-ground swimming pool with underwater neon lights. Walker spoke more coolly of childhood, careful neither to overshare the impoverishment nor understate the squalidness of his parents, Bob and Jeanine, and his two step-siblings, Janelle and Ronnie, who did whatever they wanted, however they wanted, whenever they damn well pleased.
Walker focused instead on what he called “The Illumination Outcome,” a concept grounded in the notion that although family dysfunction is a combination of genetic factors and environmental conditions, the dysfunction can be overcome through determination and hard work. Whereas Janelle and Ronnie were only half-blooded Weebie, he was full-blooded. Whereas Janelle and Ronnie quit school at the age of fifteen, he excelled at line leadership duties, Charles Dickens, the FOIL algebra system, public speaking, senior-class salutatorian, and tuition-free academic scholarships to Ohio State, Yale, and Cornell. His dissertation regarding Twenty Key Disadvantages of Children Reared in Cyclical Systemic Poverty in Small Town Rural America earned him both a second doctorate and The Fannie and John Hertz Foundation Prize for outstanding achievement in thought leadership writing. No other Weebie had made it past the ninth grade.
“Promise me you’ll keep your phone handy, okay, son?”
“You do like spearmint, right dad?”
“I wish you’d go back to Laura.”
“Janelle’s gonna be there so it’ll be fine.”
“That girl’s worse than Ronnie is.”
“I gotta go, dad. Goodbye.”
“Did you forget what he did to you?”
“I gotta go, dad. I’ll call you later.” Of course he hadn’t forgotten. Or forgiven. Another reason he had to go. Time to right the wrong. Time to repair what still hurt. Time for everyone to grow up and move on and, goddamn it, love.
Walker laughed out loud at the sight of the dildo—more like an erect piece of limestone jutting from a slate of sandstone—but the comparison, however rudimentary, was satisfactory. Odd that he’d never noticed it, he thought as he turned onto a narrow dirt road and followed two deeply imbedded tire tracks through monster trees, meddlesome critters, and a collection of human beings embellished in all manner of swim trunks, fair food, and perspiration. Campsite 27 slowly came into focus, every bit as provincial and vulgar as The Valley View Trailer Court where Janelle and Ronnie still chose to reside three manufactured doors apart. He parked in the only available spot, in between a dull-red Pontiac Grand Prix—the side mirrors were attached by duct tape—and a dilapidated black station wagon—with no back seat or radio. He saw Janelle, on her knees, rummaging through a blue suitcase. She wore a sheer, cream-colored nightgown. A red-tipped cigarette hung from the left corner of her mouth. Barefoot and 4’10 at her peak, she epitomized dense relegation. Dark varicose veins amplified her swollen legs, arms, and neck. So little. So sad. Fifteen or twenty feet may have stood between them, but the distance seemed like a million miles. Walker often questioned the privilege he’d come to find with Laura, unsure if it was on loan from someone else’s life: someone who’d lost their way; someone who was making a comeback; someone who was going to sneak up behind him when he wasn’t aware and snatch it away. For keeps.
He tossed the cell phone, wallet, a second wristwatch, and all of his dad’s and Laura’s apprehension into the center console, ready to forge ahead and secure some kind of familial alliance. If it was possible. And if it wasn’t possible, then he was finished. For good. All or nothing this time. No more floundering in the middle ground for the middle ground. He opened the car door and ground a new pair of Timberland work boots into the rutty soil. The wind stirred mercurial aromas: ragweed, pine, smoke, and liquor. He had to catch his breath. Twice.
“I wondered if you’d really show,” Janelle yelled, jogging toward him.
“Just point me to the outhouse and we can mark this weekend as officially started.”
She wrapped her arms around his waist, reeking of a successful tobacco industry. “I always forget how gorgeous you are until I see you again.”
“I see you’re still keeping our mother’s fashion statement alive.” He stayed with her hug for six seconds: five seemed dismissive: seven seemed heavy-handed.
“It’s outdoor camping, Walker.” She released her grip. “It’s not a fashion show.”
He wished he’d have said something complimentary. Laura, albeit insincere, would have complimented Janelle’s cerulean-blue eyes and the blonde and black highlights in her hair travelling to and from any number of greasy split-end destinations. Laura was the better word-savvy-savant. At their wedding reception, before the final tango, she’d lifted a champagne flute in front of the beautifully dressed crowd, and said, “To a man who overcame an unlucky childhood with a slick-oil brain, lifetime eyes, and a cute little ass that gets the privilege of cuddling up to mine for the rest of his. Now I ask you, is he not the luckiest man alive?” Everyone cheered, except for the Weebies, whose invitations were misplaced and never mailed, an accident Laura promised to make right—ASAP. Which she still hadn’t done. Failing to fulfill a vow made during a most sacred time in married life, at the beginning, when spoken words become the traction hope utilizes to cultivate more.
“How’s Laura doing?” Janelle asked, standing beside Walker in front of the outhouse. “When am I ever gonna meet her? I mean, sometimes I wonder if she’s even real.”
“Hospitals and sick people don’t get holidays off.”
“Get your ass outta there.” Janelle pounded the outhouse door. “Walk’s here and he needs to shit.”
“No, I don’t.” Had he said this to her? “Did I say ‘shit’?” He’d forgotten she called him Walk.
“You totally did. Like a second ago. Don’t you remember?”
He didn’t remember. Nor did he remember walking to the outhouse. And he didn’t have to take a shit. “You do know who’s inside there, right?”
“He’s been in there like for an hour.” She stroked an invisible cock. “We all know what you’re doing in there, you horndog weirdo.”
“Fucking leave me alone,” a male voice yelled back. “Goddamn stalker.”
“If you’re anything like your father you should have been done like fifty-five minutes ago.”
Walker laughed. He couldn’t help it. “All I have to do is pee.” He surveyed the campsite, looking for the nicest, cleanest spot to set up camp. “So, where is everyone?”
“Swimming or fighting probably. I’m just glad for a little peace and quiet. Don’t jinx it.”
He decided to pitch camp on a patch of dusty dirt to the right of a large purple tent. “Is that your tent?”
“Nah. It’s Ronnie’s.” She looked over her shoulder. “That mess over there is us.”
Pitched directly across from Ronnie’s tent, similar in distance to and from the fire pit, Janelle and J.R.’s dark-beige tent sat off-kilter and unsteady. A commanding breeze could end it all. Sweatshirts, bras, CD cases, beach towels, and flip-flops encircled the tent like a moat. So very, very Weebie.
“How’s Ronnie been acting?”
“Ronnie’s Ronnie. How else would he be acting?” The specificity of her words and the composure in her voice made it clear that over the years, years Walker had been away and years she’d been close by, she’d come to understand, tolerate, and accept Ronnie’s ways and means. Perhaps she even liked him. Perhaps she even loved him, too.
“Did I really say ‘shit’?” Expletives were forbidden at school; frowned upon by church friends; super tacky according to Laura.
“It’s just the word ‘shit,’ Walk. I mean, everybody says it and does it. It’s even allowed on TV these days.”
“Don’t tell me you don’t have cable.”
“We don’t actually watch much television.”
“Must be nice to live the dream instead of having to watch everyone else live it.”
He wished he’d have hugged her without restriction. Why couldn’t he do that?
“You do remember how to piss behind a tree, I hope.” She pointed to an oak tree leaning sideways across the gravel road, its branches stretching skyward as if pleading with heaven to uproot it and take it away.
“Truthfully, it’s been a while.”
“It’ll all come back to you soon enough. You ain’t that far gone.”
After Walker peed on the zigzagging roots of an oak tree, he setup camp beside Ronnie’s tent, which was furnished with all sorts of expensive-looking camping gear. Walker couldn’t help but wonder how much of it had been stolen. Ronnie was a notorious shoplifter in youth. He’d been caught stealing outdoor camping gear from Walmart, Gander Mountain, Cabela’s, and Sears more than a dozen times. Felonies. Without a record. Thanks to their mother’s speedy fake-tear involvement.
Walker pumped air into the mattress, made the bed, and refolded the clothes in the suitcase. He shook out the welcome mat Laura had rolled up and tucked into the backseat, saying, “Try to at least keep some of their Weebiness out of our tent.” How disparaging and mean-spirited. He rolled up the mat and stuffed it inside the rusty brown trashcan sulking beside the outhouse.
“Just my tent this time. Sorry love.”
“Looking pretty homey there, Walk,” Janelle yelled from inside a square, white canopy—the makeshift mess hall—encumbered with metal tables, antiquated cooking contraptions, and various-sized cardboard boxes Walker hoped held more food than alcohol. “I knew you still had a little Weebie left in ya.” Sweat beads pockmarked her face as she washed and rinsed white tube socks and long underwear in a five gallon bucket. She had always excelled at manual labor. Growing up, she washed and dried the clothes, nuked meals, vacuumed carpets, cleaned toilets, straightened rooms, beat rugs, made beds, and sewed bedroom window drapes from random pieces of clothing. Not their mother, but Janelle, shorter than every Weebie by a good seven inches. How could his dad say she was worse than Ronnie?
A swarm of yellow jackets from a hive high in the oak tree swooped down and encircled Walker’s tent. Like a warning call, letting him know something bad, something far worse than a swarm of yellow jackets was on its way.
“Nothing can be worse than right here,” he whispered, wishing he hadn’t spoken, bothered by the ears of this place, by the secrets the air knew about him, by the stench of familiarity that loomed like murky, achy nightmares. Yellow jackets are chasers, his ninth-grade science teacher had told the class. And their movements are fairly subtle, so be mindful, because you never know what they’re up too.
“So the townie came after all,” Ronnie said, walking his belly fat and crooked teeth toward Walker, his soggy family following behind: Rhonda, a chalk-stick wife; Rylan, a runt of a pre-teenager; and Ricki, a twig-twirling toddler doing a decent job of impersonating a snake. Rhonda’s long, blue t-shirt was impregnated with empty pop cans and plastic water bottles. “For the less fortunate kids at the boys’ school,” she said, without being asked. “Not every kid has it as good as ours.” Scorch-red hair emphasized her emaciated leather-tan face and ragamuffin body. Ouch, is all Walker could think.
Walker gave them all a quick smile. He considered giving a hug or offering a hand shake. But he didn’t. With so little to consider standing before him, it was easy to stand there and consider very little. And more, they were sopping wet. He said the only thing he could think of. “Seems like you guys got everything under control.”
“We know how to do some shit, too.” Ronnie unzipped the tent and pushed the boys and Rhonda inside. He turned around and pointed to Walker’s Porsche. “Those your wheels?”
“A Christmas gift from Laura.”
“Some people, man.” He disappeared into the tent, his plump shadow zipping the zipper in one quick blow. Not even a simple hello.
“Screw the pooch, he is alive,” J.R., Janelle’s husband said, standing between Jeremy, dressed in head-to-toe black, including a Fedora, and Janessa, dressed in a neck-to-knee leopard t-shirt and dark purple Croc’s. “Didn’t figure I’d ever see you around these parts again.” J.R. grabbed a Miller Lite from a red cooler, one of eight red coolers strategically placed around campsite 27: Weebie territory—intruders beware. Walker nodded at Jeremy and Janessa, who nodded back and walked away, whistling in different directions.
“Can I interest you in a cold one?” J.R. asked.
“Nah. I’m okay.”
“It’s hard to do this sober.”
Walker smiled, surprised by J.R.’s lucid deduction. Neither a complete idiot nor the worst drunk in the bunch, J.R. did fall well within the range. “Maybe later.” Walker lied. He knew firsthand the ill-effects of alcohol’s dangerous misapplications: how it had anesthetized his mother’s common sense and manipulated his father’s best intentions and deteriorated Janelle and Ronnie’s bodies and minds, inside and out. If there was any chance of reconnecting with these people, country folk with hard faces and sad eyes, the task necessitated sobriety. At all times. He had to find out if the weekend held within its actions anything beyond cessation proving to extinction the true meaning of split apart?
Friday evening drifted along smoothly. Everyone except for Walker adding little substance to a chinwag discussion about pop-culture comparisons: Adidas versus Nike, Lebron versus Curry, Vikings versus Bears, WalMart versus Target, Idiot Trump versus Crooked Hillary, Menthol versus Pectin. The logs inside the fire pit crepitated and spit up like a little baby, adding hedonistic flavor to the moon’s gleaming sheen. J.R. and Ronnie drank as many Miller Lites as Janelle and Rhonda smoked Marlboros. The teens made s’mores and paid close attention to their iPhones and ear-buds while Ricki turned a fascination with twigs into a triangle that no one noticed until Ronnie kicked it over and Ricki started to cry.
“Fucking bully.” Janelle slapped Ronnie’s bare shoulder. “He’s like five. I mean, Jesus Ronnie, leave him alone.”
“Kids gotta get his head outta the dirt sometime. It ain’t right.”
Rhonda grabbed for Ricki but Janelle was quicker, bouncing Ricki on her knee until he surrendered to spasmodic spurts of laughter. “Don’t fuss little guy. One day you’ll be tough enough to kick his ass for all of us.”
Ronnie flexed and kissed both biceps. “Ain’t nobody here got what it takes to bring me down.” He looked at Walker. “But I invite anyone who’d like to give it a try.”
Walker stood and pulled from his back pocket nine computer-printed copies of 20 Fun Things to Do While Camping, happy and surprised when no one scoffed, declined, boycotted, stood in defiance, or left in a huff. Even Ricki begged for a copy.
“I thought we could go around one at a time and read each number aloud and then decide which, if any, are doable over the weekend. I can start, if that’s okay.”
“Tell Early Bar-o-key ghost stories.” Janessa said, skipping numbers one through five. “What’s Bar-o-key mean?
“It’s pronounced baroque. It relates to a style of European architecture, music, and art from the 17th and 18th centuries.”
“Janessa Renee.” Janelle released Ricki back to the ground. “Can you not be a snot for one minute?”
“Check ya’ll bitches later.” Janessa threw her copy into the fire. “Have fun talking about retarded music no one’s ever even heard of.”
“Sit your ass down you little brat,” Janelle said.
“I’m so not hearing you right now, mom.”
“Fine, leave then, but that Spencer’s gift card is mine.”
“If you can find it, you can have it.” Janessa slowly faded into a sheet of mist hanging ominously low and thick at the entrance of the woods.
“Total mind of her own,” Janelle said, then yelled, “Don’t you go too far in there, missy. I mean it. I’m so not playing with you anymore.”
“Fuck you, too, then.”
“Should someone go after her?” Walker asked. “It’s easy to get lost in there, especially in the dark.”
“Does she look like she’s afraid of the dark to you?” Janelle said.
Walker stared at the mist. She didn’t seem afraid of the dark. None of them did.
“Use words that begin with a vowel and make up silly songs about nature,” Rylan read sluggishly, skipping numbers six through seventeen. “Lame.” He gave his copy to Rhonda and pushed white ear-buds into his ears. “Now this is a song.”
“Number 18.” Janelle brought the paper to her nose. “Play hide-and-seek using neon glow sticks, solar-powered night wands, or battery-operated flashlights.” She giggled. “What are solar-powered night wands? I mean, seriously, Walk, where did you get this list?”
“From camping dot com.” He looked up. “Is this not what people do outdoors anymore?”
“We never did these kinds of things.”
“Yes we did.” He remembered telling hundreds of ghost stories at Huntington State Park. Had he only told them to himself?
“No Weebie but you would wanna make up songs using vowels,” she said. “I always did think you came from another family.” She rattled the paper. “Now I have proof.”
“Number 20,” Ronnie said before Walker could argue the point. Ronnie brought an imaginary pair of spectacles to the tip of his nose and cleared his throat. “Bring extra cash for Sunday brunch in case of inn-clee-mint rain, wind, or cold weather.” He tore the paper in half. “I knew you were outta touch dude but come on, seriously, Sunday Brunch?”
“This list is so you, Walk.” Janelle laughed. “I’m dying right now.”
“No real camper does shit like this.” Ronnie stood and grabbed the papers from everyone’s hands, including Walker’s. Then he dropped them one by one into the fire, fell back into his chair, and chugged the rest of the beer. “Some people ain’t got a goddamn clue about nothing.”
“You know who’d think the list was a real hoot,” Janelle said, winking at Walker. “Mom.”
“To mom.” Ronnie lifted a seventh beer in the air. “She married a son-of-a-bitch and died too young but she was still the prettiest lady I ever did know.”
“To mom.” Walker grabbed a beer for the red cooler. The bottle felt cold and unfamiliar in his hand. He put it back.
“You think she really is resting in peace?” Janelle clicked her beer bottle against Ronnie’s.
“Rest well, Leona Charlotte Weebie.” Walker said.
“Here here.” Ronnie threw another empty bottle in the fire.
“To mom,” they said, each bowing their head. First Janelle, then Ronnie, then Walker. Things always ending with Walker.
“Night everyone.” Walker stood. “Thanks for a great evening.”
“Laura make you go to bed this early at home?” Ronnie asked. “Pretty short leash she’s got you on there, don’t ya think?”
“I wish we told ghost stories and sang silly songs,” Rhonda said, her voice trailing off by the time Walker arrived at his tent. Inside, he zipped the zipper and remaining fully clothed, including his boots, laying face up on the clean sheets and fleece blanket. “Night love.” He blew Laura a kiss but quickly grabbed it and held it inside a tight fist. “You know what? Not tonight, love. Not tonight.”
Listening to the brazen, monotonous, hum-drum sound of Weebies being Weebies, Walker released his fist and gradually, then all at once, fell asleep.
Saturday morning sunlight pierced through Walker’s mesh-net roof, warming awake first his face and neck and then the rest of his body. A plume of campfire smog hovered above the campsite, coloring everything gray. He sat up and scratched himself like the indigenous grizzly bear he had dreamed of fighting and conquering overnight. His stomach growled. He was hungry. Hungry as a grizzly bear. Well not quite. But close.
The other Weebies stood around the picnic table yawning, picking pajama fabric from their asses.
“Could easily top ninety-five degrees,” J.R. said. “Sure your city-slicker skin can handle that much wear and tear?”
“Three bottles of sunblock ought to do it, yeah.”
“Maybe if you swallow it or snort it.”
“Breakfast duty time,” Janelle said, dispersing the group to prearranged tasks without assigning one to Walker. “What can I do?” he asked. Nobody answered. Ronnie opened the lid to the grill and emptied a bag of charcoal. Janessa cracked a dozen eggs into a bowl of pancake mix which she whisked into a gooey lather. Rhonda bragged about her mom’s homemade maple syrup and organic strawberries. With metal tongs, Janelle poked strips of bacon, ham, and sausage that sizzled in a frying pan. Rylan separated black plastic forks from white plastic spoons. Ricki picked at his toenails. Jeremy tossed white paper plates into the air, finger shooting—pew! pew!—each one as it fell like a snowflake to the ground.
“You know how to work a grill?” Ronnie asked Walker. “Or is the rough and tough smoke too much for ya?”
“Walker’s helping me,” Janelle said, handing Walker the tongs. “Nobody cares about your stupid grill stuff anyway.”
Walker flipped the meat, thankful for its compliant nature.
After breakfast, energy and noise levels increased until pajamas disappeared into tents only to emerge moments later as colorful bathing suits, beach towels, inner tubes, and a dozen or so long, conical swim noodles. Walker hadn’t moved, staring at the sticky plates, toppled over cups, and broken plastic forks strewn across the table—a bunch of leftovers nobody else wanted.
“Look what I found in the trash,” Rhonda said, holding the welcome mat like a banner. “I can’t believe someone would throw this away. It’s like brand new.”
“Stop looking for shit in the trash.” Ronnie grabbed the mat and glared at Walker. “You know anything about this?”
“Give it back.” Rhonda grabbed for it but Ronnie was too quick. “It’d look nice in front of the tent and keep us from dragging so much dirt inside.”
“I better not see you touching this fucking thing again.” Ronnie made a fist.
“But it’s brand new. It’s like perfect.”
“I said no, bitch.”
“But it’s so nice.”
Ronnie’s fist retreated backward, and like a slingshot, thrust forward and landed on Rhonda’s right cheek. “I said no, cunt!”
“Fucking bully.” Janelle stood between Rhonda and Ronnie. She snatched the mat from Ronnie’s hands. “I mean, Jesus, Ronnie, it’s a goddamn mat. Let her have it if she wants it.”
“Oh, I’ll let her have it.”
“All I was saying is that it looked brand new,” Rhonda cried.
“If it ain’t sports, beer, or strip clubs, men can’t see shit.” Janelle stuck the mat underneath her arm and walked Rhonda to the purple tent. “I don’t mean you, Walk.” Janelle yelled. “I know you see things exactly as they are.”
Floating the river’s lukewarm current, heat pouring down summer’s sunny endorsement, Walker and Janelle lollygagged twenty feet or so behind the others who littered the river with expletives, off-key country music songs, and the hand-crushing sound of mutilated beer and pop cans. A few cans bounced against Janelle’s inner tube and against Walker’s chest before drifting to the community of refuse lining the river bank. Walker drudged barefoot along the sandy river bottom, holding like an umbrella over his head one of Janelle’s blow-up lounge chairs. In the rush to get to the river, he’d forgotten to put on aqua socks, apply sun block, or grab the brimmed, collapsible wicker hat. Jagged rocks and other indecipherable sharp objects stabbed his feet and toes.
“How much farther to the end?” he asked Janelle, spinning ass-deep in an inner tube.
“You used to love the water.”
“You loved it even more than me or Ronnie did. Do you remember nothing about growing up here?”
A beer can bounced against his chest. “So much for Rhonda collecting cans for the boys’ school.”
“That crazy crackpot prolly don’t even know the name of the school.”
“Like a few loose screws or she needs better medication?”
“Like cuckoo clock nuts. I mean, she still calls Janessa, Vanessa.”
“No, she doesn’t.”
“Have you not been listening to her?”
He hadn’t been listening to her. Nor to anyone. Not really.
“She’s like super bi-polar. I thought you being married to a doctor and all would know that.”
“Has she been diagnosed?”
“Haven’t you been watching her?”
He hadn’t been watching her. Should he have been? Maybe she was bi-polar. Maybe Ronnie was bi-polar—that’d explain a few things. Maybe Janelle and J.R were also bi-polar. And all the children. And his dad. And mom. Maybe the whole bunch suffered with mental illness. Laura regularly postulated the theory of Weebie abnormality, linking it to heredities, hyperbole, and hysteria.
“I can’t believe how big your kids have become.” Walker said. “Jeremy’s practically a giant.”
“He knows he’s fat, Walk.” She stopped spinning. “We all know we’re fat.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“We can’t afford fancy gyms and personal trainers like some people.”
“I don’t have a personal trainer.”
“You still work at the plant store?”
“I haven’t worked there for three years.”
“Is J.R.’s still working at the salt plant?”
“Jeremy don’t bring any of his homework home.”
“You still playing video games on the Wii?”
“That dumb school put him in summer classes but they ain’t helping him a bit.”
Walker didn’t want to bring out Principal Weebie. Not here. Not now. “Most schools do offer tutoring programs.” Weakling.
“Isn’t that what those classes are for?”
“A lot of tutors make house calls.”
“I don’t want some rich, nosey-ass teacher judging our house.”
Rich teachers? Walker wanted to laugh. But he didn’t. “Just throwing out some options.”
“None of the chairs around the kitchen table match and we still don’t have a couch. Have you forgotten what our house looks like?”
He hadn’t forgotten, staying overnight at Janelle’s request the evening of their mother’s funeral, made to use the convenience store toilet across the street, as hers was wrapped with blue tarp. The shower head trickled egg-smelling water. The tuna casserole had a long, black hair in it. The fork tines were bent. The one lamp in the living room was broken. And Janessa’s white sheets and pillowcase were stained with longitudinal brown lines and latitudinal red streaks. Lucky for Walker, Laura had enough foresight to tuck a set of 800-thread count sheets with two matching pillowcases into the bottom of the suitcase. As he changed the sheets, he vowed to never visit again. A vow he’d kept. A vow he planned on keeping.
“Did you know he was doing so poorly in school?” he asked.
“They sent this weird test home for me and J.R. to fill out.” She slapped the water. “Some dumb hundred and fifty questions that don’t have anything to do with math or science that’s for sure.”
Likely an IEP behavioral assessment. “Are the questions multiple-choice?”
“Circle S if he sometimes answers the phone correctly. O if he often hates doing chores. A if he complains about headaches. He’s never had a headache in his life. I mean, he has trouble reading. He don’t have headaches. It’s like they want me to say he’s retarded or something. But he’s not. He’s just unmotivated, and isn’t it the school’s job to keep him motivated and stuff? I mean, does your school send tests like that home?”
“We administer similar tests.”
“Well, what are they for?”
“It’s a standardized assessment tool designed to help parents measure and record for school staff their child’s behavioral and developmental state of mind.”
Dumb it down, Walker. “They want to see him through your eyes.”
“One of the questions is does he sleep with his parents. I mean, Jesus, Walk, we’re not lunatics.”
Walked laughed, instantaneously regretting it.
“Don’t laugh at me, Walk.”
“Sleeping with parents suggests the same room, not the act of sexual intercourse.”
“But it says word for word does he sleep with his parents.”
Walker set the blow-up chair on the water. He jumped aboard, paddled to Janelle, and grabbed the inner-tube. “A child Jeremy’s age sleeping in his parent’s bedroom is considered abnormal behavior.”
“He’s had his own room since he was a baby.”
“Then tell them that.”
“But the test only has letters to circle.”
“You’re allowed to add supplementary comments, questions, and concerns.” God, he sounded like a principal.
“What would I write?”
“That he’s had his own room since he was baby.”
“J.R. told me to bring the test, but I didn’t because I didn’t want you to think we were all stupid.”
“I don’t think you’re stupid.”
“Why don’t that school just call me on the phone and ask me if he gets happy or sad or angry really quickly.”
“You can phone them, too, ya know.”
“Yeah, and say what? I don’t know any big-ass fucking words.”
“I’m happy to go over the test with you on the phone, if that’d help.”
“You ever heard of the Tard-Yard?”
“The Tard-Yard. Some place at school where apparently all the retards hang out.” She fell off the side of the inner-tube only to pop her head through the center hole and set her chin and arms on the rubbery shell. “I guess that’s the group where Jeremy belongs.”
“I’ve honestly never heard that term.”
“It’s kinda hard to make him do something I can’t even do.”
“I can try to talk to him about school if you’d like.”
“But you have to be secretive about it. Can you even be secretive?”
Walker made an X over his chest. He could be very secretive. She had no idea.
“Part of me’s glad you’re not a secretive type of person but the other part of me wishes you’d stop being such a pussy and just enjoy the river for what it is. You know as well as I do how fast the summer comes and goes around here.”
“Enjoy the river. Got it.” He smiled. She was right. Summer did fly by fast, opposite in every way from the ever-winding river.
Going on and on and on.
Back at the campsite, thanks to The Huntington State Park Volunteer Transportation Patrol, Walker sat lazily on a fold-up lawn chair near the fire pit and listened to loons call out in melodic timbres, a sound only mother nature could create and the Weebies could disregard. Laura would insist he change out of his wet clothes and help clean up. But why bother. Sand in his eyes and ass seemed apropos. Even the wildest flowers here refused to blossom. The toughest grass failed to grow. Only yellow jackets flourished here, swooping and buzzing around his face.
Janelle tossed a bag of Doritos and peanut M&Ms on the picnic table. “Eat up bitches.” Rhonda and Ronnie went inside the purple tent and zipped it up. Rylan emptied the bag of Doritos on the table and turned the bag into a flying carpet ride. Janessa plopped on the ground and braided her own hair. Jeremy disappeared into the outhouse. Again. Rylan shoved earbuds in his ears and laid face up on the dirt outside the fire pit while J.R. mumbled to himself about who’d done what already and who better man-up and help him with dinner. Walker’s name didn’t come up, making it easier for him to close his eyes, wrap like a turban a beach towel around his face, and cover his ears with his hands.
“Sup,” Jeremy said, tapping Walker’s shoulder. “You ain’t much into camping, huh?”
“What?” Walker sat up. “What time is it?”
“It’s like four.”
“Is it really?”
“You ever been camping before?”
“Quite a lot actually. I know it’s hard to believe, but I guess I’ve come to enjoy nature more from the perspective of an indoor window or from a sofa in a four-season porch.”
“Mom told me to wake you up and say hey.”
“Said you weren’t having much fun and that I should talk to ya.”
Walker smiled. “Go on. I’m listening.” He did want to know more about the Tard-Yard—what an ugly word. And image. Kids cordoned by labels. Students at his school did not use this term. Jeremy sat quiet, staring at his own hands.
“Why so much black?” Walker asked.
“Touché.” Walker stood and made his way to the outhouse: a guy can only put off the call of nature for so long.
For dinner, Walker gobbled up Fritos, baked beans, hot dogs, white buns, and four Little Debbie Nutty Bars, proof that sugar makes everything better. Only twenty-two hours to go. Piece of cake. God, for a moist, gluten-free piece of cake. He walked to his car, mainly to check for cell phone messages—perhaps a sweet one (or two) from Laura—but also to relax in the comfort of an ergonomic seat with some fast-blast air conditioning. He stopped at the driver’s side door and sighed. A deep scratch was embedded from the door handle to the gas tank cover. He felt queasy. Upon closer examination, the scratch ended in a W. “Perfect.”
“That’s what happens when you have the nicest car here,” Janelle said, tickling Walker’s ribs. “I mean, get a rental car next time.”
“Why is this place always so difficult?” He retraced the scratch—definitely a W.
“You can’t do anything about it now so why waste time fretting about it.”
“Who would do such a thing?”
“I wouldn’t put it past that sneaky little brat Rylan,” she whispered. “God, I hate that kid.”
Retracing the scratch a third time, Walker couldn’t recall seeing Rylan do anything sneaky. And he didn’t consider Rylan a brat. No. That title belonged to Janessa. Walker sighed and turned to Janelle. “I’m not sure if you know this or even care, but dad’s health is pretty bad. He’s coughing a lot and I don’t think he’s taking his medication. I ought to check to see if he’s called and left a message.”
“Bet you didn’t know it was him who bought me my first pack of cigarettes.”
“No, he didn’t. Why would you say that?”
“Ask Ronnie if you don’t believe me. Who do you think got him started?”
Unfortunately, it made perfect Weebie sense. “So what if he did?” Walker sat on the ground, in the dirt. Janelle sat across. Like kids. Like friends. Like dirty Weebies with nothing better to do than be dirty in the dirt.
“His only condition for buying me smokes was that I had to smoke outside because he didn’t want any smoke around you.” She shook her head. “Didn’t care if it was around us, mind you.”
“I tell him to call you, to check in, to be involved in some way as a grandpa. I do.”
“I’m over it, Walk. He’s never liked me or Ronnie. I know that.”
“But he’s still your dad.”
“He’s not my dad.”
“I don’t understand why we can’t all get along.”
“If you and Laura got married today, would you invite us to the wedding?”
“I put your names on the invitation list.”
“Was dad at the wedding?’
“Did Laura not want us there?”
How to answer. What to say. What not to say. Always tiptoeing between fact and fiction. So many juxtapositions. So many spools of Weebie thread tightening and unravelling. “She grew up very different from us. I don’t think she’s been camping a day in her life.”
“What have you told her about us?”
Train wreck. Insufficiency. Embarrassment. “She’s an only child who comes from old money so it’s difficult for her to see anything, or anyone, beyond the eyes of privilege.”
“Is she a snob?”
“Growing up, she never once heard her parents fight. Can you believe that?”
“I want to ask you a question, Walk, but I need you to promise that you won’t get mad, okay?”
“Did Ronnie hurt you when you were little?”
Walker sat quiet. What to admit? What to omit? “Hurt’s an ambiguous term.”
“What’s am-big-u-ous mean?”
“Open to more than one interpretation.”
“Oh.” Janelle shrugged. “Well, there was this one afternoon when mom and Ronnie and I were smoking inside the house and dad came in with an almost empty bottle of whiskey and he looked pretty jacked up and he came at Ronnie calling him a rapist and said Ronnie was gonna burn in hell for what he’d done. I’d never seen so much hate in someone’s eyes and I knew one-hundred percent that whatever Ronnie had done dad wanted to kill him for doing it, but then mom stood up and got between them and told dad if he mentioned it to anyone, she’d blame him and just like that dad shut up and left the house.”
“He used the word rapist?”
“A couple weeks later, Mom was really jacked up on Long Island Ice Teas and we were sitting on the couch watching TV and she started yelling your and Ronnie’s names into her hands, like her tongue was stuck on replay. She kept calling you a liar and saying Ronnie was a good boy and then she slumped over on the couch and started snoring and I figured it was just drunk talking but then the next morning when I asked her about it she told me if I ever brought it up again she’d make me go back to school and take away my cigarettes and since I wasn’t gonna have any of that I just stayed the fuck quiet and smoked outside behind the house. Do you know what she was talking about?”
Walker nodded, sifting sand through his fingers. Janelle sighed, picking grime from her fingernails.
“Did he hurt you?”
“Did he hurt you?” Walker replied.
Janelle stood and pressed her hands against the nightgown. “Do you think it’s tacky that I wear these?”
Super tacky. “It’s your thing, so no, not really.”
“I feel comfortable in it, ya know? Like it’s a kind of super hero cape. Like I’ve got a little bit of Wonder Woman in me too, and even though I don’t have a hot body or nice hair or some invisible plane to fly off in, I’ve still got something to offer. Like maybe someday someone’s gonna get hurt and my nightgown is gonna keep them from bleeding to death or warm them up if they’re cold. I so much want Jeremy and Janessa to see themselves as Wonder Woman and Superman but I know they don’t and I know they wish for cool cars and lots of money and I feel like that’s my fault they don’t have those things because me and J.R. aren’t smart enough to find a way to get them those things even though we both want to. Do you think I’m weird for thinking that way?”
“Not at all.”
They sat quiet for a short time.
“Did Ronnie hurt you?” She lit a cigarette and offered it to Walker. “You can tell me.”
Walker took the cigarette from Janelle’s lips and brought it to his own. “How do I even fucking do this?”
“Just put it in your mouth, suck in, hold the smoke in for a second or two, and blow it out.” She laughed. “It’s not that hard.”
“I’m glad my first cigarette makes you so happy.”
“I’ve never heard you swear before and seeing you hold a cigarette is kinda funny. I guess perfect Walker Weebie isn’t so perfect after all.”
“I’ve never claimed perfection.”
“Then take a drag, Marlboro man.”
“Is there a wrong way to do this?”
“Not unless you plan on eating it.”
Warm smoke filled Walker’s mouth while the smell of burning ash soured his acidic stomach. How could anyone enjoy this? He coughed. Like dad. Tiny puffs of white-gray smoke escaped his mouth. He took another drag, blew it out, and handed the cigarette to Janelle. “This is definitely a sensation.”
“That’s the worst drag I’ve ever seen anyone take in my whole life.”
“So there is a wrong way to do it.” He coughed. And coughed. Waving a hand over his face.
“If you do it like that there is.” She brought the cigarette to her lips. Sucked in. Held the smoke for a second or two. Blew it out. Perfection. Skill. Wonder Woman. Of sorts. “Does Laura know you swear?” Janelle poked a finger into his bellybutton.
“Does she swear?”
“Only on the Bible and on elitist feminists.”
They laughed and laughed (and laughed).
“Do you have any idea the pressure I feel whenever you’re around?” Janelle asked. “I mean, before you came here, I sat all the kids down and told them what swear words were okay to say and which ones weren’t okay and to not be mean to each other around you and don’t tell dirty jokes or say sexual things because I didn’t want you to feel uncomfortable.” She laughed. “I’d never do that for anyone but you.”
Walker followed with a finger a line of ants marching forward, each one carrying its own weight, each one united in purpose and cause, each one caring for the other. “If I can get dad and Laura to agree to come here for Christmas, would you be open to that?”
“Does Laura think she’s better than you because you’re a Weebie?”
Walker rubbed a growing beard and looked directly into Janelle’s eyes, frightened by the dark-gray bags sagging underneath, and by the hardline wrinkles spreading across her forehead, cheeks, and chin. He wanted to tell the truth. About something. Once. Maybe once was enough. Weebie to Weebie. As it should be. But he hesitated, uncertain if Janelle was the right first person to tell. Did she possess enough intellectual acumen to comprehend both Laura’s Weebie prejudices and also the truth about Ronnie’s abusive, devilish cruelness? “Let’s talk more tonight.” He stood. “Maybe after everyone’s gone to bed.”
Janelle stood and wiggled out of the nightgown, placing it across Walker’s shoulders. “Let it help you, Walk. Let it heal whatever’s hurting ya, okay?”
“I think I’m gonna pack up and go home.”
“Nothing bad’s gonna happen here, especially now that you have the cape.”
He wrapped the nightgown around his waist and pulled Janelle into a hug. Ten seconds. The longest hug he’d ever given her. “Thanks, sis.”
“We’re family, Walk, and that’s what family does. Now let’s go to the lake and wash up, stinky man. And don’t you dare forget to talk to me later about the mom and Ronnie thing, okay?”
“Talk later. Got it.” He knotted the nightgown. Staring at his sister, standing in a tan bra and panties, rolls of fat plopping out from every nook and cranny, he’d never liked, nor loved, her more. “You are a wonder woman. Now get.”
“You really don’t think it’s tacky?”
“Yayzers.” She clapped, jogging to the tent.
Back at the picnic table, Walker stood behind Rylan, who was playing Solitaire. A half-empty bottle of Jameson whiskey sat well within reach. The campsite was eerily free of every other Weebie. Quietness pervaded the area, quietness Walker hoped might last for the rest of the trip. Janelle reappeared seconds later wearing a light-blue nightgown and lime-green flip flops. “You guys coming to the river to wash up?” She waved a small, mesh bag of mini-toiletries in front of her face. “I’ll share.”
“I think I’m gonna hang back here for a while.” Walker sat on the nightgown, across from Rylan.
“Suit yourself, Walk. Oh, and I am sorry about your car.”
He looked at Rylan. Was this little runt capable of keying a car? “You into cars?”
“No.” Rylan scowled.
“Got ya last.” Ronnie said, sneaking up behind Janelle, behind all of them, knocking the toiletry bag from her hands. Got ya last: a silly game Ronnie and Janelle played as children; a game they apparently still played as adults. If Laura had come, she’d tell Walker to get up and help Janelle pick up the toiletries, be a kind, helpful brother and decent human being. Which he was. And so much more. He wasn’t the snob. He wasn’t the liar. He wasn’t the elitist feminist. He grabbed the Jameson whiskey bottle by the neck and brought the opening to his lips, tilting his head back to allow the warm liquid to fill his mouth, throat, and stomach. Numb it all, mother fucker. Do your worst. Or best. I double-dog dare you.
Ronnie’s large hand came fast and hard at Rylan’s head, smacking the back of it, messing up Rylan’s swooped-to-the-right hairstyle that Walker believed was a bit feminine for a boy who already looked more feminine than most boys. “Keep your ass on this bench, talking to your mother like that.” Ronnie smacked Rylan’s head again. “Yeah, she told me what you said. I hear you’ve moved even an inch from this table, you ain’t gonna be able to sit for a week. You hear me, you fucking little smart-aleck?”
“You know how to play Rummy?” Walker asked Rylan. Another drink.
“It’s a game of skill and strategy.”
“I said it’s lame, dude.” Rylan played another game of Solitaire while Walker set the bottle on the ground and placed his hands, palms up, on the edge of the table, a compliant position he often used at school whenever he conferred with a child who had recently been hurt by a peer, a teacher, a sibling, or a parent. It happened a lot more frequently than people realized.
“We haven’t talked much, you and me. How about we remedy that over a game or two of,” Walker paused, “if not Rummy, what about Kings in the Corner?”
“That’s lamer than Rummy.”
“Then let’s play Rummy.”
“You play with ten or thirteen cards?”
“Ten.” Walker had never played with thirteen. Was that even allowed? Another drink.
Game after game, Walker lost and Rylan won, happy to play the victor’s role: fist bumping the air, his own knuckles, and the top of the picnic table. “You suck at this, dude.”
“Any fun plans for the rest of the summer?”
“I’m gonna see Kid Rock at the fair next month.”
“Is he a rapper?” Another drink.
“Rock and roll, dude. Rap’s lame.”
“Noted. So what grade are you going into next year?”
“That’s one way to approach it.”
“Math and science are lame but geography’s okay when it’s on Russia.”
“A man of the world, are we?” Another drink. “I like adventuresome people.”
Rylan won. Again. “You tired of losing, dude?” He yawned and outstretched his arms. “I can’t wait to leave this lame town and go to Russia and never come back.”
“I’m gonna be a spy for the KGB.”
“Why not spy for the American CIA or FBI?”
“American spies are lame.”
“How many American spies do you know?”
“I own like seventy-five spy movies.”
“Who are you gonna spy on in Russia?”
“Bad people who deserve to be caught.”
“Caught for doing what?” Another drink.
“Criminal shit, what else?”
“Like stealing stuff or murdering people or…”
“First,” Rylan interrupted. “I’m gonna machete every man who beats on ladies and kids and dogs and then I’m gonna hijack some money from some big banks and buy a big house with a big swimming pool and find some hot chicks who wanna get naked and party hard inside of it.”
“You ever heard of Russian Nesting Dolls?”
“Dolls.” Tiny wrinkles spread across his forehead. “Like dolls for girls.”
“They’re not Barbie dolls.”
“Dolls are dolls, dude.”
“A lot of men own them.”
“Who. Men like you?”
“Yeah, like me. Like your dad. J.R. All types of guys.”
“I said dolls are lame.”
“You say ‘lame’ a lot. Why is everything lame?”
“Lame. Lame. Lame.” He crossed his arms. “Lame.”
“I don’t think KGB spies say the word ‘lame.’”
“They would if what they were looking at was.”
“Nice rejoinder, but I still don’t think they’d say it.” Another drink.
“Whatever, dude.” He looked toward the river, at the tents, at the fire pit, at Walker. “So what word would they use then?”
“Lame suggests an appetite for apathy.”
“Do you know what apathy means?” There was a short silence. “It’s the condition of indifference, a lack of interest or concern. You don’t seem indifferent to me.”
“I don’t care how anybody sees me.”
“Wanting to save women, children, and dogs from abuse is far from lame. It’s actually quite noble. As for hijacking money from a bank, that’s a bit more lame than noble but it’s not entirely lame if the end result produces a few hot, noble chicks who want to party hard inside a big swimming pool. You feeling me, dude?”
Rylan giggled. “You’re weird.”
“Maybe I am, but I still think hot, noble chicks are better than hot, lame chicks. Do you agree or disagree?”
“As long as the chicks are hot I’ll agree with you on anything.”
“Smoking hot, my man.” Walker set the bottle on the table and squeezed the air around his chest. “Jugs the size of fully-fwilled, I mean, filled water balloons.”
Rylan’s posture, and eyes, softened. “So what’s so great about these Russian dolls?”
“To the naked eye, it appears to be one doll. But it’s a deception.” Walker sliced a finger across his chest. “The first doll can be opened, thus revealing a well-kept secret.”
“Can you open it with a knife?”
“Do you have a knife?” Another drink.
“What kind of secret’s inside?”
“Do you have a knife, Rylan?”
“I ain’t got shit, dude. Either tell me the secret or I’m leaving.”
“You’re dad’s not gonna like that very much.” Walker looked toward the river, at the tents, at the fire pit, at Rylan. “Does he hit you a lot?”
“Mom gets most of his shit.”
“Does he hit Ricki?”
“I don’t want to talk it about it, dude.” A mixture of acceptance, permanency, and disgust underpinned his voice. “Adults are so fucking lucky. You get to go and do wherever the fuck you want and nobody can tell you what you can and can’t do.”
The campsite started spinning: horizontally, vertically, sideways, tumbleways. Walker couldn’t blink it away. The action, like excessive drinking, was pointless. He stared at the tip of Rylan’s nose, trying to find measure and balance, flinching when Rylan’s nose turned into a fist that came fast and hard at Walker’s nose.
“You okay, dude?”
Walker slapped his own cheeks. “The secret of the dolls is that there are several smaller dolls hidden inside the biggest doll.”
“Do these dolls talk if you squeeze them?”
“But people never want to look inside things.”
“Are they all pink and shit?”
“People forget the bigger doll is supposed to protect the smaller ones.”
“I hate purple. Are any of them purple?”
“Bigger is supposed to watch over smaller.”
“They better not be any rainbow-colored ones.”
“Bigger is supposed to be a guardian.” Another drink. “A watchman. A superhero.”
“Do you have any of these dolls?” Rylan touched Walker’s arm.
“I said do you have any of those dolls.”
“Sorry, kid. Go on. I’m listening.” Walker went to take another drink but found the bottle empty, drained, finished. He tossed it on the ground and unleashed from his chest a loud burp. Laura would be mortified. He did it again. Louder.
Walker’s face and chest felt hot and wet. “Sorry, dude.”
“You ever been to Russia?”
“Twice actually.” Another burp. Louder. Riper. Pungent. Uncouth. Hilarious.
“You ever see any KGB’s?” Rylan’s eyes widened, his voice trilling with excitement.
Walker closed his eyes. Darkness eviscerates spinning, right? Not today. He blinked and blinked. He cracked his neck and knuckles. He took in a deep breath and exhaled. “I didn’t see any KGB’s but I wasn’t exactly looking for any either.” Blatant drunkenness. In front of a child. How stereotypically Weebie.
“Were the dolls expensive?”
“A thousand rubles or so.”
“What’s a ruple?”
“Ruble, with a B. It’s Russian money.”
“Is a thousand rubles a lot?”
“Not really. You should go online and check it out.” His stomach churned. And gurgled. And his heart hurt. So much.
“We don’t have a computer.”
“Your school has to have one.”
“I’m not allowed in the computer lab anymore.”
“Maybe you could use one of your friend’s computers?” Trees started coming at him. Squirrels. Red coolers. Moats. Snakes. Yellow jackets. The scratch in the car. The W. Who did it? Someone had to do it. Someone had to know. Someone had to pay.
“I ain’t looking up dolls on my friend’s computers. You want me to get beaten up even more than I already do?”
“I got beat up when I was a kid, too.” Walker bent over and freed from his mouth dinner, dessert, and every bit of the Jameson Whiskey. Pale greens, dull yellows, and bright reds pooled and mixed on the ground. “I’m not an experienced drinker like your dad and J.R.” He unwrapped the nightgown from his waist and wiped his mouth, flicking remnant vomit from his forearm. Rylan didn’t move. Or say gross. Or mock him. Or scowl. “I’m not normally like this, Rylan. You wouldn’t even recognize me if you saw me at home.”
“My dad says you think your shit smells better than ours. Is that true?”
“Does he do more than just hit you, Rylan?”
“He says you’re lame, that you ain’t a real man.”
“Men come in all shapes and sizes.”
“He says your spine curves like a woman’s.”
“Does he now?” Walker set his hands, palms up, on the table. Balance was returning. As were the five senses. Four. No five. Three. No five. Breathe. Exhale. “I could easily prove the theory of ancestral spines.”
“Let’s say my spine does curve like a woman’s. If it does, there is a high probability that so does your dad’s. Why is that, you might ask? Because we share similar DNA. Some of it exact. How do you think he’d respond to such an analysis?”
“Why does he hate you so much?”
“Does he use the word ‘hate’?”
“He’s been saying it for like two weeks.”
“You being a good KGB spy and all, why don’t you tell me why he hates me so much?”
“I think it’s cuz your teeth are white and cuz you drive a car without duct tape.”
“Have you been hanging around my car?”
“No, but it’s all he talks about in the tent like every goddamn second.”
“What’s he been saying?”
“None of its very nice.”
“I can handle it. You can tell me.”
Rylan shook his head. “It’s too mean, dude.”
“I promise to not take offense.”
“Mom tells him to stop saying mean stuff about you, but he listens to her about as much as he listens to me and Ricki.”
“Does he hit your mom a lot?”
“Does he hit Ricki?”
“Why does he call your car the faggot-finder?”
Walker laughed. “Faggot, like homosexual?”
“Mom says you’re not one but dad says you are one and I don’t really care either way, but are you?”
“No, I’m not. Are you?”
“Fuck no. Faggots are gross.”
“How are they gross?”
“Because they do to a dude what they could do to a woman. Which makes no sense.”
“You sound pretty homophobic and misogynistic. Is that how you want to sound?”
“He also says he has proof that you’ve done butt stuff in the past.” Rylan wrinkled his face. “Have you?”
Walker paused. Yes. He had done butt stuff in the past. Not by choice. But by Ronnie’s cruel hands. And force. And tools. And twisted brain. “Your dad hurt me a lot when I was your age.”
“I guess you could call it butt stuff.”
“My dad wouldn’t do that. No way.”
“Just because you don’t want to believe it doesn’t make it less true.”
“That’s fucked up, dude.”
“It is, isn’t it?”
Rylan and Walker sat quiet for a very long time.
“Has he ever done anything besides hit you, Rylan?”
Rylan nodded. “I think the real reason he hates you so much is because he wishes he was you and the only reason he calls you shit is because he feels so much like shit himself.”
“I think you’re gonna make a terrific spy.”
“Sup losers,” Janessa said. Walker and Rylan jumped a little off their seats. She pulled a piece of beef jerky from the front pocket of her jean shorts, ripped it open with her teeth, and spit the wrapper onto the ground. “It smells like a fucking outhouse over here.” She sniffed, staring at the pile of vomit on the ground. “Ew. Is that what I think it is?”
“Go away.” Rylan shot her the middle finger. “Fat moose.”
“Fuck you, short round.” She grabbed the nightgown from Walker’s hands. “What are you doing with my mom’s nightgown?”
“She gave it to me.”
“Why would she give you her nightgown?”
Back at home, at school, inside beautiful, sturdy stucco walls, Walker handled every situation with decorum, culture, and diplomacy. But out here, removed from scholastic rules, daily protocol, Laura, and basic human kindness, he was just another silly Weebie reliving the cycle of a poor, unfortunate past.
“Two props on my stage.” Janessa said. “Players getting played.”
“Yeah, well you’re fat and ugly.” Rylan yelled.
“And you’re a fucking dwarf.”
“Do you know how to play Rummy?” Walker spoke without meaning to.
“Does it look like I’m talking to you, you fucking dorkwad?” She stuck her hand in front of Walker’s face. “You ain’t nothing but a hoity-toity know-it-all with a nice car.”
“You been hanging around my car?”
“Fuck your car. Mom’s the one who can’t stop talking about the fucking thing.”
“You’re too retarded to play Rummy anyway,” Rylan said.
“Seriously, you guys, enough.”
“Stay out of it, douchebag.”
“Do not talk to me like that.”
“Leave him alone, Janessa.”
“I ain’t moving one inch, tiny Tim.” She chomped louder, swinging the nightgown like a lasso. “But go ahead and try to move me and find out how good I am with this here whip that I’ll use to tie you up and ram my fist up your ass.”
Ram my fist up your ass.
“Why don’t you fuck off, you fat fucking cow? Nobody here likes you or wants you around, because you’re nothing but a snotty, conniving lard-ass little snot-nose who has a disgusting body and an even uglier attitude.” The words flew out of Walker’s mouth so fast, so easily, so coherently, he didn’t have time to grab each one back, though he desperately wanted to. Verbal slushiness from a sunburn, tired, stinky, wet man who had stooped to the lowest form of cruelness by way of bruising a child’s fragile self-esteem. How unbelievable. How Weebie-wrong.
“Fuck you, you stupid jerk.” She ran toward the river. Crying. Loudly.
Walker and Rylan sat quiet for a short time. Walker removed sand particles from his hair while Rylan shuffled cards and stared at the river.
The swarm of yellow jackets swooped down, this time stinging Walker’s neck, back, and legs. One flew up his nose, but he didn’t move, swat, blow, shoo, or cuss them away. Rylan waved a hand over Walker’s face. “Dude, doesn’t that hurt?” He squeezed Walker’s arm. “You need to get outta here before anyone comes back.”
“I wish things were different for you, Rylan.” The yellow jackets retreated to the hive, leaving Walker swollen, red, and sorrowful. “I wish things were different for all of us.”
“My mom has a bee-stingy-healer-thingy in the tent if you want me to get it.”
“Nah. I’m okay.”
“Don’t the stings hurt?”
“You’d think they would, but they don’t.”
“She deserved everything you said about her.”
“No one deserves being called names.”
“But she started it.”
“I’m sorry your dad hurts you.”
“You rotten no-good mother fucker!” Ronnie yelled, running toward Walker and Rylan. Rylan ducked underneath the picnic table while Walker sat still. Ronnie grabbed a handful of Walker’s hair and pulled him to the ground, smooshing his nose into the pile of vomit. “Piece of shit.” He punched Walker’s spine. “How dare you bully little girls around?” A left jab to the ribs. A right hook to the jaw. “Faggot.”
Ronnie beat a path of tight fists across Walker’s back. Walker’s body, but not his mind, grew numb. As if he was looking through a View Master camera, Walker saw frame-by-frame color images of Ronnie’s fist thrust into his rectum. Hammers. Cucumber. Screwdrivers. Pliers. Corncobs. Pushed with such force and frequency, Walker began to accept the routine as inescapable. If Walker ran, Ronnie caught him. If he hid, Ronnie tracked him down. If he groaned, Ronnie stuffed underwear in his mouth. If he cried, Ronnie laughed. If he refused to sleep in the same bed, Ronnie made him sleep naked beneath the bed. It went on until the pain became intolerable, forcing Walker to vomit the truth to his mother who slapped his cheek and called him a liar, even as blood dripped from his rectum in the bathtub.
After his mother, Ronnie, and Janelle left the house, and after he plugged his rectum with toilet paper, he went to the garage where he found his dad building a birdfeeder. He showed his dad the blood and the toilet paper, groaned as his dad carried him to the car and sped to the clinic where a tall nurse squeezed ointment onto a cotton ball and rubbed circles around his wounds before a fat male doctor gave him four stitches and chatted with his dad about weather patterns and the civil war in Russia.
“Clumsy kids these days,” his father said, after the doctor asked what happened, inquiring neither about the reason for the wound nor the result of the blood. Which worried Walker. If nobody talked about it, it might continue. It couldn’t continue. It had to stop. Ronnie had to be confronted, punished, and made to make restitution. Promise to never do it again. And if he didn’t keep the promise, he had to be purged. From the trailer. Forever. Sent away. Far, far away. To the invisible places bad people on TV shows and the movies are sent to never return.
Back home from the clinic, Walker laid in front of his dad on the couch and watched TV until 10:36pm, the exact time his mother’s noisy car engine pulled into the driveway and sputtered out. His dad stood and paced the living room floor, pounding his fists into his own palms. His mom threw open the door and went to the kitchen, to the sink, where she stood and lit a cigarette. Walker had never seen her smoke. Nor had he ever seen his father punch his mother in the back. Nor had he heard them scream a litany of expletives, for an hour—arguing, punching, stumbling around Walker as if he wasn’t even there.
At 11:58 pm, hoarse and exhausted, they called a truce, a cease fire, a period of utter silence in which his mom smoked at the kitchen sink while his dad rested on his knees on the kitchen floor. It was the first time Walker understood the meaning of Weebie brokenness: some people don’t possess the necessary insight to overcome the ruination of their own past in order to change the outcome of their own future. At 12:37 am, his mother yelled, “If you even think of involving the police, I’ll blame you so fast and then who’s gonna watch over your precious fucking Walker Weebie.” She slammed the front door and drove away, staying away for two weeks and two days. Taking Ronnie. Leaving Janelle. And Walker. And his dad’s tears.
“You ain’t any better than us.” Ronnie turned Walker’s body face up. “You were a sissy back then just like you are now.” He punched Walker’s face. Walker faded in and out of consciousness. He could feel muscles tear. Veins pop. Bones snap. His left eye swelled shut. Just as it had been in boyhood, fighting back wasn’t in his genes. Then he heard other Weebie voices: Rhonda call out to God; Janessa laugh; J.R. yell, “Fight back, Walker. Show that mother fucker what you’re made of!”
Walker took a first swing. Air. Another swing. Wood. Another swing. Flesh. Another swing. Bone. He prayed it was Ronnie’s. He stood, staggering to find balance, boxing the air. Another swing. Chest. Another swing. Neck. Ronnie’s fatness fell to the ground. Blood dripped from both their noses. The small part of Walker’s right eye that could still decipher shapes enjoyed seeing surprise, anger, and disbelief on Ronnie’s face.
“You go Walker! Show that mother fucker who’s who!”
“You can do it, Walker.” Rhonda yelled. “Keep fighting back.”
“Use this.” Rylan put a thin, warm metal object in Walker’s right hand: the knife. Walker took a swipe. Air. Another swipe. More air. Another swipe. Flesh. The blade hooked bone and scratched a long line across solid yet pliable skin. “This is for fucking with my car,” Walker yelled, stopping at the spot he hoped was Ronnie’s heart, force-feeding the blade, his own heart beating wildly in his feet. Then he let go of the knife and collapsed. Ronnie kicked at the dirt and cursed the world to hell. Neither could stand on their own. “I never touched your fucking car.”
Walker laid still. Who else could have done it? The yellow jackets swarmed the area, this time focusing their time and talent on Ronnie.
“You need to get here quick,” Janelle yelled into Walker’s cell phone.
It looked like his cell phone. Were those his keys in her other hand? Was that his wallet, and wristwatch, and small square plastic container with a yellow lid which Laura had filled with fresh fruit, telling him, “If things go sour, be sure to eat sweet.” Was that his collapsible brimmed wicker hat sitting atop Janelle’s head? No. It couldn’t be. He wasn’t seeing things clearly. How could he, given the circumstance?
“Both my brothers are seriously fucked up,” she yelled. “Like seriously fucked.” She wiggled out of the light-blue nightgown and laid it across Ronnie’s body. Then she stepped back and grinned. At Walker. Snatching from Janessa’s hand the nightgown she’d given him—a superhero cape meant to heal his wounds.
“Dad,” he whispered.
“Laura,” he cried.
Nothing but a bunch of Weebies standing around yawning, picking fabric from their asses.
Samuel Cole lives in Woodbury, MN, where he finds work in special event/development management. He’s a poet, flash fiction geek, and political essayist enthusiast. His work has appeared in many literary journals, and his first poetry collection, Bereft and the Same-Sex Heart, was published in October 2016 by Pski’s Porch Publishing. His second book, Bloodwork, a collection of short stories, will be published in June/July 2017. He is also an award-winning card maker and scrapbooker.