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Also by Amy Sage Webb:
Lost and Found | Blood


It is an envelope inside a box inside a bag at the back of my mother's closet which contains the scraps, a shifting pile of torn pieces from letters and envelopes. She has saved only the drawings, all of them in blue ball-point, the cross-hatching shading men with pitcher-shaped ears, guns, planes, and jeeps. Occasionally part of a line remains between drawings, the greeting, Hi Angel, and part of a line, . . . so then we went—. Among them is a complete Christmas card made from thick paper folded into quarters, the front of which depicts a motorcycle gang whose jackets read Hell's Angels. The inside of the card reads, Hark the Herald Angels Sing. My favorite is the back of an envelope completely covered with the menacing face of an alligator, its saurian eyes, thick skin, and teeth carefully shaded in layer upon layer of blue lines. It must have taken him hours, days, even, to draw them. And these are all that is left. These and the few photos, and the ring.

Most of the photos tell me nothing. An entire roll of parachute pictures, taken from the air, each shot growing closer to the ground. A few shots of my mother with her hair piled on top of her head, glancing sideways at the man in khakis with the sad face and short, light hair as they cut a cake. A few of the photos open whole stories: The sad-faced man with big ears sitting on a green locker playing a guitar. The sad-faced man wearing sandals with a cigarette clamped between his toes. The sad-faced man seated, wearing shorts in the back of a canoe with his paddle dug into dark water while my mother in a tight black sweater raises her paddle in the front. The ring sits nestled among these inside a folded, white leather square. It is a delicate, perfect gold band fastened to its white pillow by a tiny white satin sash like a small death.

When she is busy in the garage or some other part of the house, I open the bag and the box and the envelope. I pull the snaps of the white leather square and spread the pieces before me, stitching together a story from these clues. She usually scolds when she catches me, but once, just a week ago, my mother simply sighed and folded the bits together. You're getting to look just like him, you know, she said. Just like.

Today my mother is talking on the phone to my aunt, and I am rolling sandwich cookies back and forth on the kitchen table. My cousin has left only minutes before, having walked me home. Mr. Sellars has been flashing kids again, and David walks me home every day now. One of the cookies hits my mother's make-up mirror and she makes a sharp gesture of one finger sliding across her throat.

Yeah, my mother says. She holds the phone between the tilted side of her head and her bare shoulder. On the weekends we wear my father's bandanas tied around us like bikinis and clean the house. That is, we usually do, except when my aunt calls.

You know, you could just come over, my mother says into the receiver. She makes a sour face. Aunt Becky and my four cousins live on Hackney, the street behind us. My mother and her sister can see each other from their back stoops. When they talk on the phone instead of in person, it is trouble. I know to go outside, letting the screen door back into the frame softly.

My father is on the road again this week. That is his term: on the road. The garden he dug in the corner of the tiny yard has gone weedy, and I found a snake in it yesterday with my cousin Rita. We are keeping it in a jar in the garage. The grass is high and the honeysuckle weighing down the fence is as fragrant in the warm air as something baking. Overhead, a biplane drones by. Here on the ground, the air is drowsy with bees. I lie in the grass and let the sun seep into my skin. Not the heat, but the light is what tans you, my mother has explained to me. This is what I know: I do not have eyebrows. My hair is too white. Yesterday, I cried that I will never have any facial expression. My mother talked to me while scouring the tub with white powder, and assured me that when I got older I could use make-up pencils. Until then, she said I should stay out of the sun. I lie in the grass and think about it. The eyebrows win out. I go back inside, where the kitchen looks greenish until my eyes adjust again. I pull the make-up mirror to me and look at myself. My face is pink, shiny, and blank as a dime.

So we'll deal with it, my mother says into the phone. Just get off my ass, Beck. I'll take care of it, okay? For chrissake. She sits down next to me at the table and begins drawing on her eyes. Her red hair, redder than any hair I have ever seen on anyone, even on television, is tied back in a bandana. Okay, okay, she says. I'll call you when he gets here, all right? Good. She leans across the table and clanks the receiver onto the phone on the wall. What a pain in the ass! she says, looking at me. You'd think we were harboring a criminal or something!

She means my uncle Dan. He is coming today from Florida, and I am not sure if he is a criminal or not. Uncle Carlie, Becky's husband, says he is a drug addict and an idiot. Before he left last week, my father sighed at my mother and asked why Dan had to stay at our house. It was a national landmark, Linda. How do you drive your car into a national landmark unless you're blown out of your mind?

They stood in the hallway where my mother was painting the walls with images of tree branches and leaves. She blew hair out of her eyes and glared at him.

Maybe you can get him to help you wallpaper over this, my father said, glancing around him at the trees. Through the window behind him, the street shimmered like water with early summer heat. Anyway, I'll be back in a week or so, okay?

I saw that my mother kissed him, pressed close against him, did not get paint on his jacket.

As of today, my father has been gone almost the whole week, and today my uncle Dan comes from Florida. He has a metal pin in his shin from the accident. Uncle Carlie insisted over dinner at Becky's last night that Dan will not even be able to get through the airport with metal in his body, but nobody listened to him. My mother blew her bangs out of her eyes and glared at him. Drink your beer, Carl, she said, and kept talking. Nobody ever listens to Uncle Carlie. Now Dan is coming today. Next to me at the table, my mother draws her lips a frosty color. I try to imagine my face as it will be when I am older, the sad lines firming and molding into something sharper and lively, like my mother's face. But the face I think of is the other. Mine is the face of the man who left.

What happens is that I go to Aunt Becky's for the rest of the day. My cousin David comes home beat up from a fight, and Uncle Carlie makes him go over to the kid's house to fight him again. It makes Carl Junior so scared that he hides under the steps. The house is full of screaming. My cousin Rita sits on the green-striped couch with a fork, swearing if anyone comes near her she'll stick them. She is bony and has asthma, and my father is always saying the craziness of that house is going to kill her. What I do is sneak out the basement cellar steps, climb the honeysuckle fence, and wait on the front steps of my house for my mom. The house is dark, but inside it I hear a throbbing like a heart. When I knock on the door, a man answers. He holds a red guitar in front of him, suspended by a colored strap around his neck. It is attached by a cord to a big speaker that is humming. He plucks a note and smiles at me.

Bum-bum-bum, bum-bum-ba-bum, he sings while he does the scales. Smoke. On the wa-ter. Bum-bum-bum, bum-bum-ba-dum. I see he has blond hair, very light like mine, but unlike mine, it is long. He is not wearing a shirt, and ropes of white shells swing back and forth against his deeply tanned skin and the guitar as he plucks the scale. Ay- mee-pie. Ay-yay-me-sky, he begins singing my name. My mother comes from the back of the house, rubbing her eyes.

Amy honey? I fell asleep after the airport, baby. Did David walk you home?

I shake my head no.

Why not? They let you walk home by yourself? She begins banging through the tiny living room, turning on lights. I tell her about the fight, and Uncle Carlie making David go over to that kid's house, and my mother flings herself onto the couch. You see what the hell I'm talking about? She looks at Uncle Dan. He's outta control. Those kids, god. Becky oughtta take em and just disappear one night.

Dan leans down, lifting the guitar off his chest and laying it on the speaker. Amy, you remember me? I haven't seen you since you were just little, huh? He holds both of my hands in his. I nod my head, though I really do not remember him. I know him from pictures. Come in here. I wanna show you some things I brought from Florida. He pulls me up so I am standing, and places my feet, one after the other, on top of his own, then begins to walk into the next room, holding me up by my hands. In the hallway he stops and adjusts me, grimacing and stamping his foot. This is the leg with the pin in it, I think. You're a lot bigger, he says.

I'm gonna call over there, my mother says from the next room.

What he has brought me is a shark tooth and a candle which is a lot of shells glued together with wax in the middle. We sit in my room in the dark and he lights it, and the red in the checkered curtains on my windows looks black. He sets the shark tooth on my dresser beside the bed. I got that on a beach in Saint Augustine, he says, very quietly. In the other room, I can hear the sounds of my mother talking on the phone, mostly the esses and tees of what I know is her conversation with Aunt Becky. We were walking along the beach and we found a shark. Big shark. He holds one hand off the ground as tall as my father. We figured it was dead, so we got a bunch of people to haul it out into the ocean. Get it off the beach before it starts to smell, right?

I nod.

But the thing was, it wasn't dead. He holds the tooth up in the light of the candle, and I see the silhouette of its jagged edges clamped between the callouses on Dan's forefinger and thumb. We got it out there and let it go, and started wading in, and then we saw a fin behind us in the water. Been out there on the beach all night, and we put it back in the water and it was alive. I couldn't believe it.

Were you scared? I do not know exactly how the shark in the water corresponds to this tooth, but I take it from him and run my fingers across its edges.

You bet. I'm scared of everything, he says.

I don't like thunder, I tell him. But Mom says it's beautiful. She likes to sit out on the porch and watch lightning.

She does, huh?

I place the shark tooth carefully on my dresser next to the piece I am saving from a toenail I lost. Now I have this, a candle, six rhinestone rings from when I suffered shots at the doctor's office, plus the snake in the garage. It feels good, and I am sleepy. From a case on the floor near the door, my uncle takes out another guitar. This one is light brown. No cord. I lean back onto my bed so that my head is on the windowsill and I can see the moon and a few stars. The wind comes in, smelling like flowers and sewage, two smells that are immediately the same smell, and Dan begins to play. To me, the sound of the guitar is like the color of the light that flickers in the room. Gold light. He plays something sad. There's someone who had a pretty face. He is singing that when my mother comes in and sits on the floor beside him, rocking back and forth. Their voices are deep, similar. The sound of them singing reminds me of water, the room is full of warm water and gold light, this music. This is the last thing I remember.

The next day is maybe not the day that follows the singing, but memory conflates events and time such that they are all, at once, one long day. My father has been home again and gone. Dan has been around long enough that I trust him to clip my toenails, even the broken one. We forgot about the snake in the garage and it died. What my mother tells me this day is this: Amy means beloved. At the kitchen table, light streaming through the orange curtains and making bars in the dust floating in the air, my mother sits with me and Dan and we dunk oatmeal cookies into glasses of milk.

A name is for life, she says. You gotta choose wisely. Look at Becky, right?

Hmm? Dan squints at her.

Rebecca. It means cow. Mom sure did a number on her.

My aunt Becky married Carlie when she was sixteen, and had my four cousins by the time she was twenty-one, and now they'll probably be living forever on Hackney Street, is what my mother reminds me whenever she gets talking about Becky. Serves her right, my mother says. Marrying an Italian. When Carlie speaks of Aunt Becky, he says it serves him right, marrying an Irish. Where we live is a dead-end. People drive to the end of it all the time and have to turn around and go the other way. The kids play tee-ball out there, the sewer is home base, and we are always getting out of the way because someone has to turn around. My father says the good thing is that they have to go slow, so it's not dangerous. Still, Uncle Carlie once paddled all five of us, my cousins and me, because Julie, the youngest, went into the street between two parked cars. The rule was that we all had our names on the paddle, and whenever someone got three marks, we all got it, regardless. When my mother found out about that, she didn't let me go over there for two weeks until Carlie promised to get rid of the paddle, or at least removed my name.

And Linda means pretty woman, Dan says, scooping cookie from where it's broken and fallen into the bottom of his glass.

You bet, my mother says. She raises her red eyebrows up and down and winks. This is the same facial expression, I remember, which once caused my father's friend Joe to pick my mother up over his shoulder and toss her out the back door into the snow. My mother, at thirty- three, with hair so red it cannot be real but is, blue eyes, milk-pale skin, is as beautiful as she will ever be again in her life. On this day I do not know this. What I know is that hers is a face that startles people, that makes men stop automobiles with a screech to let us pass at crosswalks and makes ladies like Mrs. Carson and Mrs. Evanczik squirm and poke at their own hair and clothing when they meet her on the street.

Pretty smart woman, Dan says.

We're all smart, for chrissake. We're Sages. She pulls a raisin out of the top of her cookie and sets it aside. Smart enough to get the hell outta here, if I have anything to say about it.

Dennis earning good money?

Yep. Bringing home that bacon.

For some reason, this makes them both laugh. Then, my mother stares out the windows.

So what are you gonna do? She is not eating now. Neither of them is paying any attention to me.

Get a job. Work. Maybe finish school eventually.

Well do it then. Becky never finished anything, and look at the mess she's in. You can do it. We both can. I'm telling you. I'm gonna finish art school and get myself together. I'd like to go back to the studio and be able to ask for twice the salary. I want money, and a house somewhere Amy doesn't play in the street.

The truth is, I don't play in the street that much. I play in the bad- smelling little creek between Hackney and Patricia, our dead-end. I skid down the spillway every chance I get, poking around in the water under rocks and being quiet so my cousins don't know I'm down there. Still, I know it will not make my mother feel any better if I say this, because last summer someone found a dead cow in that creek. A real cow. No one knew how it got there, in the middle of the city. The kids stood at the top of the spillway and threw rocks at it until the city people came and hauled it up the embankment with a rope.

What I know is this: My uncle Dan is leaving in three days. My mother and he have been talking about dead-ends. I know this, and I know Amy means beloved. We finish the cookies, and I want to go play before we have to go to Becky's for dinner. If my father were here, he would eat before we went over. As it is, the three of us are eating cookies so as to be full. My mother is fingering a bandage on her hand. Before my father left again, she wanted to make him a fruit salad to eat in the grass. Our back yard is not very big, especially with the whole corner carved out of it for my father's garden, but it was important to my mother. I sat on Uncle Dan's lap, though I was too large, and listened to the rumble of his voice in his chest.

It's okay, Linda, my father told her. He was wearing bermuda shorts and a tee shirt instead of his blue suit, but he still wore dark blue socks. Let's just eat the chicken. I don't want any fruit.

I'm making fruit. She kept peeling apples at the sink with her back to all of us. My father shrugged at my uncle.

And by god, we're gonna eat it, too, Dan said, laughing. He reached for a pack of cigarettes on the table, my father frowned, and he let his hand drop.

We always used to eat fruit salad. Mom made it, and you loved it. She turned to Dan. You did. She began peeling a pear, still looking straight ahead, and gauged the knife into the hand holding the pear. God damn it! She turned the tap on full blast on her hand. God damn it! She reached for a towel and knocked the bowl of fruit onto the floor, scattering little pieces of apples, pears, raisins and oranges everywhere. They looked like confetti on the brown tile.

You okay, Lin? Dan leaned forward, holding me around the waist, and my father moved closer to the sink.

You okay? My father asked.

My mother began to cry. No, I am not. I am not. No one is okay. I cut my goddamned hand and I am not okay.

My father put his arm around her, pulled the knife out of the one hand where she was still holding it, and set it very softly in the sink. He turned off the tap, and pulled her to him, wrapping her hand in the towel. My mother cried without making any sound, and while I watched them, my father pulled her hand out of the towel and kissed it, very softly, once on each finger.

What happens in the kitchen now is that I get up from the table where my mother and Dan are still sitting, and go out the screen door. Don't be late, Amy, my mother calls after me. We gotta go to Becky's. Dan groans. Becky always makes spaghetti with a big piece of fatty pork loin in it, and everyone is supposed to sop up the grease with white bread. This is why we eat before we go. My stomach sloshing with milk, I begin running across the blind street, through the Hatchell's yard, skirting the fallen Russian olive tree thorns in the grass, stepping lightly through the knots of rotted acorns under the tree in Overhauser's little yard, and then skid down the spillway, making whiffs with my tennis shoes on the way down.

The water makes gurgle-gurgle sounds all around, and it sparkles with gold afternoon light. It makes me want to sing something, and I find a rock to sit on in the middle of the water, my feet submerged and full of sand. I do not know all the words, but I sing the parts I know of the sad song Dan sings. Oh my, but you had a pretty face. For some reason, sitting there with the cool water on my feet, the sun warm on my back, watching the shifting patterns of sun on the water, I feel very sad. I am thinking about my mother and Dan singing in my room. I squint my eyes together and try to cry, but I can't, so I just sit for as long as I can until the water has made my ankles blue and cold. I know my mother will make me change my shoes because she says they stink like dead fish when I wear them in the creek.

When I get back, the sun has just gotten behind the houses on Hackney, and the air seems colder. Coming up the driveway, I see my mother and Dan have the garage door up and are looking over some of the canvases she has painted. Dan has changed into some jeans that don't have holes in them and a white shirt, but my mother is still wearing her pedal-pusher pants and a big shirt with paint smeared on it. In jars like the one Rita and I kept the snake in, she rinses brushes in turpentine while they talk.

I'm just figuring it'll be awhile before we can get things together and get out of here, but it's going to happen. I know it. Things have been a little rough, but you can get through it, you know? My mother wipes a jar with a towel. You can, I told you. We both can. Just force yourself to get over the past. Get on with it. She turns toward the entrance of the garage. Oh jeez. Look at you! My mother shakes her head back and forth.

Amy, you been in the creek again?

I tell her yes, and she tells me to go change. And wash your legs. They're all covered with mud.

I look down and notice I have black lumpy spots all over my shins and ankles where I had my legs in the water. Then Dan comes closer, smelling like the cigarette he holds in between his teeth. He kneels down and looks at my legs. Come here, Amy. He prods one of the lumps. It doesn't move.

Oh shit. Lin, look at this, he says.

My mother puts down her jar and brushes, and leans down in front of me with him. Oh my god. I can't look. I couldn't even stand watching African Queen. Where've you been, Amy?

Just the creek, I tell her again.

We'll have to burn them off, she tells Dan. Randy showed me once. It was disgusting. Dan looks at her, his hair swings into his face, and he brushes it back. I notice, in the light from the naked bulb in the garage, that the shadows on their faces are just alike. My mother paints faces like this, half dark with shadows.

Do you want me to do it? he says. I'll do it. just tell me what to do.

Please. I just can't watch it. You wait'll you have kids. It makes your stomach turn every time you think about the things they do to themselves. Last time she came home with a tick in her head. And before that it was a thorn through the foot. All the way through. Like a crucifixion. jeez! She holds me by the shoulder and looks into my face. Now you just hold still and let your uncle Dan get those things off you, okay? She turns to Dan. I'll get you a needle and you heat it up in your cigarette and stick them. That's what Randy used to do when we went fishing. But be careful not to burn her, okay? He nods. She stands up, hands on her thighs, then turns to me, pausing. And Randy is?

She aims the question at me like a dart.

My first father, I answer.

That's right. And where is he?

He's dead.

Yes. He's dead.

Jesus, Linda. What the hell is that about? Dan holds me around the waist and glares up at my mother.

I just want her to know, is all. We're not keeping any secrets around here.

So you've got her reciting that her father is dead? What are you gonna do if you and Dennis decide to have your own kids? What are you gonna tell them?

She is his own. And we're not going to have any. My mother pulls at the hem of her big shirt.

Because you don't want them, or because you're never in the same zip code?

She does not answer him, and walks fast through the garage to the kitchen door, then is gone.

The story I know is this: The man with the sad face in his car by the river. The windows taped up and the engine on, and one long tube taped from the tailpipe to the driver's side window. What I want to ask Dan is if he knows this story too, or if he has heard it differently than I have. I want to know, did he listen to the radio? Sitting there, in the dark by the river, the engine running, it seems as if he must have listened to the radio as the car filled with fumes. How could he have done it without at least a song pulling him into sleep? And what, I always want to know, would the song have been?

It's gonna be okay, Dan says, rubbing his hand on my head. Won't even hurt. Not even as dangerous as trimming your toenails. My mother comes back with a needle and gives it to Dan. Just don't give me any shit, okay? Just get the leeches off her. She looks at me, her eyes sparkly and wet in the dim light. Hold still for Uncle Dan, okay? Then she goes back into the garage and begins tossing brushes into jars again and wiping them with a towel. Dan sits me down on the cool cement floor of the garage and pulls one of my legs into his lap. He puts the needle through the lit end of his cigarette and puffs at it, sending up clouds of smoke. The red ash glows, grows longer, and the pin begins to redden at the tip.

He lowers the pin onto the first black lump on my ankle, and I hear it hiss-spit as it hits the leech. I notice my mother is staring at us from the back of the garage, my uncle staring at me, both of them looking as if they expect my blood to Jackson-Pollock onto the garage wall when the leech lifts away. It rises, writhing, a black oval arching back and forth on the end of the pin, and he lifts it from my leg, where a red welt is welling with blood. My mother rushes back across the garage, dropping the brush she has been wiping.

Does it hurt? Can you feel it? She strokes my head.

Yes, but it doesn't really hurt. It sort of itches.

Don't burn her, for god's sake. Just don't burn her. Here, let me help you. She takes my leg into her lap and holds it, stroking my foot. Dan begins heating the pin in the flame from a lighter.

So aren't you worried she isn't gonna have any brothers and sisters? he says, staring into the flame as the pin tip reddens again. She'll be alone.

No. I am not worried. What matters in this life is who loves you, not who has the same blood you do. She'll have me, and she'll have Dennis when things get better and he's home more, and she'll have the friends she makes in her life. That's the most any of us can hope for, I think. What else can you ask from people?

Her father should be doing this, Dan says, and begins lowering the pin to my leg again, and my mother's cool damp hands tighten around my foot. As the leech is lifted from my skin, I look at my mother and see she is crying, little black lines running down her cheeks. Dan is whispering the same words over and over. It's okay, it's okay, it's okay, it's okay. Outside, the street lights have come on, and the cement floor of the garage feels almost warm now that the air is cooling. This is what I know. In the fading light, the blood trickling from the welts on my legs looks black on my skin, and Dan's faded jeans, and my mother's shirt. Dan is leaving in three days. I cannot know that I will not see him again for nearly ten years, or that my father will be home soon, one of these times to stay. What I know is this moment of half-light, where, unlike my cousins, there is only one of me, and my name means that I will be greatly loved.

Printed in the Fall/Winter 1999 issue of CLR

Amy Sage Webb

Amy Sage Webb teaches creative writing, literature, and film at Emporia State University. Her fiction appears recently in Red Rock Review and Eclipse. She is the recipient of a research and creativity grant for the completion of her first book of short fiction this year.

You can find Amy Sage Webb on the web at:
—  Emporia State University
—  Flint Hills Review

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