Olivia McPherson

Upwards

It was me and Little Girl, sitting out back on the porch when our mom started yelling. It was August, hot as I ever can remember. Dry grass would cut our bare feet like little razor whips. We never wore shoes. Not even the big boys didn’t. Dougie, just the day before, stole mom’s secret lighter for her secret Virginia Slims and torched the plastic milk jug, making molten droplets shoot to the ground. But his naked foot didn’t get out of the way fast enough. When the hot melted plastic came whistling down it landed right on top of his foot, forming to the shape of it before it was hardened by the hot air. He hopped and screamed, but we just laughed cause things like that happened to all of us. All of us boys had to have our heads butterflied at home, with no tools except for a razor to shave our heads and shreds of tape to hold it together. My mom was my first doctor and surgeon.

Sitting on the back porch, we didn’t even look up at mom’s shrill yell, it was so commonplace. It was the background noise to our childhoods. I could hear everything, our back door had the pane busted out from Vincent throwing a brick with Jeremy like a football, and all we had was a screen now. Mom had gotten mad at Dad and threw her wedding band across the kitchen this time. She couldn’t find it, though, when she went to look for it a minute later. She was in there crawling around on her hands and knees. If she wasn’t such a good housekeeper I don’t think she would be doing that. We were poor, true enough, but our house was always spotless. Mom said poor was no excuse for dirty.

Jeremy and Vincent came up and said we were all going to play. Little Girl couldn’t come. She was just a baby, so I opened up the door and set her in. She crawled on to Mom. I had to run to catch up to the big boys. They said, “Get up here ‘wick”. They were making fun of me cause I can’t say quick, just “wick”. The also called me a “weer”. But that’s what big brothers do, Dad told me when he heard them making fun of me. That was right after he went to the grocery store and took up all the Cornish game hens he could get his hands on, boxes of butterflied shrimp and turkey and ham too, threw them in a cart and went out the door. Didn’t pay a nickel. And the people working there were just too shocked to say anything, plus my dad was a big man. They saw him in there, paying most times. I could almost see their faces, wondering if they were seeing right or if they were mistaken perhaps. My ma said it was cause he had some liquid courage, but Vincent said it was because he was sick of seeing us all be hungry every day. He was just getting even. He was mad a lot. Normally when he did something bad like going free grocery shopping our mom would jump on his back, yelling like a Comanche in a cowboy movie, and hit him in the head with a skillet. But she didn’t this time. She just turned the oven on. We were quiet and we ate. Since there was seven of us kids, we were always loud, yelling at each other, hitting, rolling on the floor. But Dad didn’t yell at us because we didn’t act up that day. We were a little afraid to say anything at all. One time I told my dad, when it was just us two in the car, that us kids were afraid of him. I don’t know exactly why I would say it. He got so quiet. Then he said something like, “That’s no good.” He looked a little sad, to tell you the truth, but I didn’t mean it that way. I was just saying the truth. We were driving, that day, to a house he was selling insurance to. He was good at selling things. He was friendly and he could talk to people. I was usually the only one who went to work with him because I was the quietest, also I was the only one who ever asked to go. Even though I was afraid of him, I still liked him in the nice times.

I was the middle brother. There was Cynthia, Vincent, Jeremy, me, Dougie, Anthony, and Little Girl. Smack in the middle. I was 7 when Little Girl came, and really the only one who paid much attention to her except Ma. Of course, she was always Dad’s favorite. Since she was 4, he would leave for whatever job he had that week in the morning, and she would chase him on our side of the fence, yelling what she wanted him to bring back for her. M&M’sCOKESPRITESNICKERS! I think she figured if at least one of those things stuck in his memory she would be set. Usually he brought her back 2 or 3. Never for us boys, and surely never for Cynthia.

I think about everything that happened then, how it was all just life. Now I have 5 of my own kids and I think that the way I was brought up was back asswards sometimes. We ran wild, even as little things. We didn’t know, were taught not to care what was going to come next. We moved a lot, making both good and bad memories in each of our houses. The first house I remember living in was on Kelly Street. That was the house Dougie and I tried to run away from. Our parents had gotten into a fight with the both of us. Maybe we had broken something. We hid upstairs in our room, banned from sitting at the dinner table with the rest of them, and plotted. Anthony was in bed with a fever, sleeping deep with his mouth open. He smelled like a sweaty, sick little boy with milky foam on his breath. I told Dougie if we ran away we could do whatever we wanted. I was 7, and already knew the reality of obeying someone else was nothing favorable. He smiled at me excitedly, shaking his head up and down, tongue out, like a dog. He got his coat on. I stopped him, thinking I heard something outside the door. I listened. It was nothing, just Anthony breathing. We decided he might tattle on us, though he was out like a light bulb. We rolled him up in his threadbare quilt, swaddling his small frame several times, and tucked him between the wall and the bedframe. He looked snug, still asleep. I opened the window with only a little help from Dougie. I made him go first, shimmying down the poplar that ran alongside that wall of the house. He carefully made his way down, and I was following. I really did hear something this time. In the dusk, I saw our dad standing at the base of the tree, holding his hands out greedily to get ahold of his next palm-to-ass victim. I shimmied up in a hurry, hoping beyond all hope he hadn’t seen me. I jumped in bed, pretended I was asleep, so worn out from crying and moping I had drifted away. In came my parents with a squawling and wriggling Dougie. I kept up the act. There was a faint moan, so very faint I was the only one who heard it. I remembered Anthony then, my heart heavy. My dad jerked me upright and pointed his healthy finger in my face. I started crying. He did scare me, and I wasn’t sure what he was going to do. Dougie slumped next to me on the bed. My dad took his coat off gruffly, telling Dougie he should take his coat away too, see how that would be when November came to a close.

My mom shrieked, “Where is Anthony?” My dad craned his neck around to his empty bed, then back to me and Dougie. Our countenances remained blank slates. I was already in this much trouble, why would I admit to more? Dougie finally broke, wailing and confessing what I had done to cover our tracks. Mom and dad promptly pulled Anthony free from the grasp of his hard little cocoon, gasping for air and slick with sweat. Mom and Dad never did thank me for breaking his fever, though the method was harsh. We lived that way on Kelly Street, some good times, some bad. Sometimes we had no money. My mom, though, was good at making food for a lot of us with almost nothing. We ate sour kraut and hot dogs more often than I’d like to recall.

One time my dad was leaving work during one of those times we didn’t have a lot to spare. He walked past the dumpster behind the warehouse and spotted a neon sign in it. It was a sign advertising Stroh’s beer. He brought it home, bent on the idea of fixing it and selling it to a pub near our house. The funniest thing about Dad was that he could make a plan like this, stick to it, and make it work. He spent every night for a week and a half in the basement, rewiring and polishing the massive maze of plexiglass tubes. The night he fixed it, I was by his side. He plugged it in. It looked perfect, like new. He smiled slowly, then took a pull from his Tom Collins. We all got into our station wagon as he drove to the pub. I had to sit on Vincent’s lap. Anthony was lying down in the trunk next to the light. Off we went. Dad and mom were both in a good mood, I think expecting a payday to put us back in the black for a minute. I knew the only reason we were all there was because dad was taking us somewhere with the money he was expecting. I didn’t say anything, though. Dad parked on the curb and went in, ready to wheel and deal, work out some arrangement with the bar’s owner. I knew dad could convince this guy he needed a refinished Stroh’s light. It was sitting there in the trunk, vulnerable next to Anthony. Suddenly, without provocation, Jeremy reached over the back seat and started poking Anthony on the face. The favorite thing of the big boys, Jeremy and Vincent, was to pit the little boys, Dougie and Anthony, against each other. So when Anthony (sleeping at that point) woke up confused and angry, Jeremy blamed Dougie. Mom started yelling. Dougie got tossled over the back of the seat and on top of Anthony. They started wrestling. Mom, of course, continued to shriek over the sound of my older brothers cheering on the little boys. I covered my ears. Not even that, however, could muffle the worst sound in the world, the crackling of glass by a wild kick. Instantly, silence showered the car. My dad came out, light footed and practically whistling with happiness. He winked at mom as he came around to the back. She was too terrified to make eye contact, like the rest of us. He then popped the trunk and saw the damage. Anthony and Dougie were gone, hiding on the floor boards at the big boys’ feet. He shut the door so gently it was chilling. We went home, riding in complete and utter silence. We never talked about it, not even us kids amongst ourselves, not a word.

Like I said, my dad was never one to play by the rules 100 percent. I think he never really had a choice. He was raised by the wealthiest family in Indianapolis in their time, the owners of the coal company. It would have been handed down to him, but not being the type, he turned it down. The company dwindled after the family died off. As a teenager he tore his Jaguar through the streets, terrifying the local kids, including my mother. His parent’s house was the only one in the city in front of which no cars were allowed to park, his grandpa being the city councilman. He was never one for working sun up to sun down. Instead he would get a job on his charm and promise of hard work, only to leave when he got sick of it or bored. One time, during his boredom with the last job, our gas was shut off. My dad stood in the dank basement as the gasman came and put a brake on the line. All five of us boys lined the stairs and watched. My dad was polite to him, shook his hand and apologized for the hassle. It didn’t seem right. I couldn’t help but wonder when the storm would emerge from the sheet of calm draping him. I only imagined this poor gas man dead at the hands of our dad. We would really be afraid to go into the basement then.

Instead, that night, my dad somehow got the brake off. How is anybody’s guess. He was smart, I know that, but maybe he distracted the guy to the point of a mistake. Anyway, he got the brake off, and gas was supplied to the house. The following Monday morning a worker in a faded blue jumpsuit from the gas company was knocking on our door. Cynthia answered, her beautiful auburn hair half in curlers.

“The gas company?! Well, how should I know what is happening with our gas line?” she exclaimed. Cynthia never would never stoop to concern herself with such dull matters. My mother charged to the door next, shrieking in earnest confusion about the shy allegations from this man that perhaps the gas was leaking. She was near hysterical, saying this was her husband’s business, and he was at work, so it just wasn’t a good time. The man rubbed the back of his neck, feeling he had been a real imposition, feeling kind of low, I guess. Mom kept shrieking about our gas getting turned off, how she was expected to feed and clothe all her kids, even after he was well off the steps and down the sidewalk. I was 5, already acquainted with shame.

But we kept getting gas to power our house, and every once in a while a worker from the utility company would come to the front steps. Sometimes it would happen when were right there in the front room, in sight of the gasman. My dad would then talk over the knocking, turn up the radio, or just ignore him completely. Every once in a great while he would answer and vehemently deny any such thing as us getting power. He would get a real sad look on him and say something like, “You all turned that off a while back.” The gas man usually left pretty quick. There were five in rotation whose faces became familiar to me: Mickey, Ted, Hal, Davey, and Frank. I always talked to Hal because he had a scar that started in the middle of his forehead and scratched diagonally to his cheek bone, deforming his eyelid. He listened to me, through the stutter and muted r’s, nodding his head patiently. Once I had a patch over my eye in this time when the gas men were coming around. I was in the garage, and for some reason Cynthia, outside of the garage, had an old fishing rod that she rammed through the window, hitting me in a tragically miraculous and strange way directly in the eye socket. She claims she didn’t know I was there. So I had to wear the patch over the good one so the hurt one wouldn’t be lazy. Hal asked about it, saying we might look something alike, with our funny eyes. He laughed a little, not mean, more of a smile with sound. He was my first friend. Dad stepped outside then and told the gas man to get the hell off his sidewalk.

Hal did get off the sidewalk, and he stayed gone forever after that, as did the rest of them. Forced to believe there was no gas leak at our house, the gas company tore up the sidewalk to get to the gas line that ran along Kelly Street. It was early on a Saturday morning in June. It was going to be a beautiful day, and my dad sat on the front porch with his coffee, observing the havoc that he had wrought.

By the time we were a little older, about junior high, we started wanting to look like other kids. We weren’t dirty. Mom always was the type who thought cleanliness was next to godliness. It was just that our clothes were ragged, and we almost never got new ones. Vincent and Jeremy taught us younger boys a scam that allowed us to buy ourselves some new clothes through the years. We would sneak around the back of Stagg’s Grocery to the shed where the glass Coke bottles were stored. We would take turns hauling a case up to the front and collecting the deposit.  A few hours later another one of us would take his turn, sneaking a case and collecting the deposits on glass he had never bought. For us younger ones, it bought us candy bars and full bottles of Coke in Stagg’s, but the older boys started saving it for movies, candy for girls, or new pants if he was very determined. I started saving like the older boys did. I grew out of my stutter and impediment, and they were a little more willing to hang out with me. The little boys, still running their scams or collecting tin cans for money, continued to spend it as fast as they could make it, greedy like the kids they were.

We did have rich cousins who would come to Indianapolis every August. Their boys were only a little older than us, and always had clothes to give away. I always made sure I was there when they showed up, because my Uncle Chuck would take 2 or 3 garbage backs from the trunk of their Tempest and walk quickly up to the porch to set them down and shake my dad’s hand. I would rummage through the bags before anyone, even my mom, had the chance to see what there was. Later, the big boys would come. The little boys never cared, they just wore whatever. One time, Vincent found a pair of corduroys and a plaid barn jacket, valuables for the winter. He was maybe 14. I still don’t know what he was thinking, but he put them on. It was August and I could see the sweat forming immediately. He was just proud of those new clothes. He walked down to the ball diamond and leaned against the fence, much to the deep hilarity of the kids there.

 

Vincent never had much luck with clothes. One time when mom and dad had actually scraped enough together to buy each of us boys a button up and a pair of khakis and a dress for Cynthia, Vincent wore his new pants out to play. We told him not to, even little Anthony tried to reason meekly. We were running through an old abandoned warehouse that had crates upon crates of oil paints in tubes. It was an art supply warehouse.  We all took tubes out, crushed them under our feet, and watched the paint explode against the walls and floor. I liked to mix them against the wall, layer them by stepping on them and squirting them in the same place. Vincent picked an apple red tube and stomped. No one was paying attention. He was constantly laughing, an unnerving, booming sound of a person who would grow to be 6 and a half feet tall and over 270 pounds. When he stomped on that apple red tube, his confusion stifled that echoing laugh. He looked around, wondering where the paint went. Jeremy looked at him, and immediately doubled over in laughter, though the sound that came from him was more of a hyena cackle than real laughter. The inside of Vincent’s leg was streaked with beautiful crimson. I didn’t want to look, foreseeing the horrible future my brother was going to face when my mother saw. If there was a sound more terrible than Vincent’s constant loud laughter, or Jeremy’s breathless cackle, it was my mother’s ear drum piercing scream. I dreaded that for his sake.

 

I am a senior English major at Hanover College in Indiana. Currently I am spending the semester in Philadelphia, doing an internship at the Arden Theatre Company. Besides writing fiction, I also love to paint and spend time with my family.

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