by Wendy J. Fox
In the tiny house they lived in, Kathleen’s three sisters were all older than she was, her three brothers all younger; she was a middle child by chronology but also the last of the girls, the elder to the small boys. Her brother Sammy was the closest in age, just eleven months apart. As children, they were always together, grubby hands clasped, with the two other brothers padding behind. When Kathleen’s sisters were rouging their cheeks and stealing cigarettes, she was in the trees, in a pair of hand-me-down jeans, hair tangled, hands scraped and scabby. One by one the sisters left, into early marriages and cashier jobs, but the house was just as cramped as the boys grew taller, their massive feet spreading into the vacated space, and the drains still clogged with hair as they passed puberty and proceeded to directly balding, like their father.
She was not sure what she wanted then, but sometimes Kathleen passed her sister Rose, clerking at the grocery store, and her sister Jeannette once in line, already with a child. They lived in a small enough town that she knew her sisters’ husbands, who they had mostly met at school, and when she saw her siblings or their spouses, it was like running into a friend who used to be close but had moved away, but it did not seem sad to her. Rose had graduated, just barely passing her final classes, but Jeannette had dropped out to get married, and then her belly ballooned. Darlene was in Oregon, and the summer before, Kathleen had taken the bus to see her because she was lonely and Kathleen was the only one of the women from home who had time to go. Her parents took her to the bus station, and she rode for two days as the plains dissolved into mountain and then to plains and then mountain again.
The sisters had their lives now, some of them doing better than others. Rose and Jeannette gave her quick hugs and then wandered off, back to work or back home, and even though she traced their steps in the house, wearing their old clothes, Kathleen did not exactly miss them. She felt sure she would have her own family one day—one that belonged to her, instead of one she belonged to. Always, the siblings swirled in and out of the house, orbiting her parents, and she loved the static of her mother and father. Even when she saw old pictures of them, they seemed the same, despite the way age now layered on them like paint. Now, it was she and her brothers at the house, her sisters with their new families, their own families. Her mother was tired, always tired, and years later Kathleen wondered what her mother would have been like if she had not had so many children, if she had not spent so many nights without sleep and a baby at her breast, sometimes two, like with her and Sammy when Kathleen refused to wean.
Kathleen was tall like her brothers, and she played basketball with a handful of other awkwards, her hair reaching down her back and swishing in the gymnasium. A few of the girls had moaned that the uniforms were castoffs from the boy’s C-squad. They were supposed to have been grateful; some of the neighboring schools did not even give the girls uniforms, if they had teams at all. Wearing old polyester with a sagging crotch was their toll for daring to be female athletes, like picking lentils from the fireplace. Since she was used to wearing someone else’s clothes, Kathleen had collected all the uniforms in a garbage bag and dragged out the dressmaker’s tape, and her mother had helped her chalk and cut down the shorts and tanks with pinking shears, taking up the hem and cropping the sleeves. In hers, she made an extra slit on the edge of the side-seam almost to the waistband.
She liked the effect, if a little bohemian, of the zigzagged edges. In their first game of the season, when she was fouled and took the line, to the dismay of her coach, even the slow bend to bounce the ball exposed her leg, and sore from the scissor handles, she wished she had had her fingers taped.
The rest of the administration, and the parents, had noticed, so the Lady Bears all agreed to go shorter, and after practice one night, they sat in the park under the crunch of autumn leaves, clipping and tearing until the tops and bottoms were mostly thread, using scissors and a hole punch and stitching on rhinestones someone had filched from her grandmother. Kathleen liked the circle of young women, giggling and punchy from the thrill of defiance.
At the next game, their teenage legs flashed on the court, like fish jumping in water, thighs exposed, the fabric just skimming the back of their butts. The away crowd cheered hard against them, and the referees had to stop to sweep bits of glitter and ribbon from the court floor, and then they were suspended until the school received a letter that there was a new law, and under the rules the school must provide equal access to athletics. The school librarian had helped Kathleen with the text, and the art teacher had given her some heavy paper-like legal stationery and made a logo in watercolor. The librarian had a sister who worked at the capitol, and she posted the letter from there in case anyone checked the postmark. They had said they should have thought of this themselves, that they were not sure what they had been waiting for—the law had been in effect since two summers before, but no one had pushed on the school yet. While there was still time left in the season, new uniforms, women’s uniforms, arrived.
It was in her crisp new shorts and matching tall socks the whistle blew for no reason, and the coach approached Kathleen on the floor.
“It’s Sammy,” he said, guiding her by her elbow. “Go change.”
Winter had come quickly, and the nights fell into a fast freeze, turning the river to a bridge of gloss ice. Early in the season, even a light boy’s foot could crack it, and the river still gushing underneath.
Sometimes she would wonder why, if half of the human body were really made up of water, it could sink so easily. She would remember how at Sammy’s funeral there was nothing to say; he was young, he was gone before he could do much. The way that he was special was in small things, like gripping two strings of fence wire between the barbs and pulling one hand up and the other down to make a door for her to pass through so she would not snag her clothes when they cut through a field. The way his blue eyes were almost navy. When it was his turn to do the dishes, he almost always dropped something, and whenever they pulled out a newly chipped mug from the cabinet, they would examine it, shaking their heads at him. Even years later, when Kathleen would feel the smooth edge of a cup with a fleck of the finish missing ceramic, she would think of her brother, his rough hands deep in the suds.
When she cleaned out the side of the room he shared with another of the boys, there was nothing but dirty clothes and magazine scraps and her mother, sitting on the corner of his mattress so it sunk to the floor, her face ash, the same color as Sammy’s had been in the open casket, washed clean and cold. The carpet in the room was old and dirty; her brother Mikey, who had shared the room, had been sleeping on the sofa. Kathleen’s father sat at the kitchen table chain-smoking cigarettes and putting ice in his whiskey to make it last longer.
After the funeral, except for a few T-shirts Kathleen stashed in her drawers, they burned his clothes—too sad to save—her father splashing used oil and tractor gasoline on the pyre of old jeans, a motorcycle helmet Sammy never had a bike to match with, and the shards of his own chipped mug he used to drink coffee from, even though their mother thought he was too young to drink coffee, until the fire grew so high and so bright they all thought it might take them and the house, and Kathleen held her mother’s hand, and her sisters’ babies cried, and she understood that even if Sammy had not been perfect or promising or even nice all of the time, he had been theirs.
Another thing: a girl, with dark hair and hollowed eyes, who cried into a dirty bandana and who she recognized from school, in a black skirt and blouse at the service. There had been a handful of other kids, but this girl stood apart from them too. Did she imagine the bump at her belly, the shine on her hair? Kathleen had never been in love, but thought if her brother had been, he would have told her.
She found the girl in between classes, just off school property, where the kids who smoked would congregate on breaks. There was a light and dirty snow on the ground. The girl was easy to spot, a freshman, but glowing.
Kathleen weaved through the cloud of tobacco and fogging breath, stepping carefully though a ring of ice and stamped-out butts—the girl saw her coming, and her eyes narrowed.
“You knew my brother,” Kathleen said as a greeting, and put out her hand.
“Sure,” the girl said.
They heard the bell ring, and the few other kids around flicked their cigarettes, popped gum, and headed back toward the building. She turned and looked at the sky, a clear blue with clouds slung low over Pikes and Longs Peaks, streaks of gray at the top, more snow.
“He talked about you,” the girl said. She had on purple fingerless gloves and an oversized pea coat, tall black boots. She lit another cigarette, and the smoke curled from the tip.
Kathleen tried to remember if she had seen her somewhere else, but she could only find Sammy, the casket her father had grumbled about paying for, staring at the sum on the sales receipt, incredulous this was the last thing he would give to his boy, and the girl, graveside, taking off her cap so she could cry into it, her mascara streaming. When everyone eased back into their cars, she set out walking.
She finally extended her own hand, and Kathleen reached immediately. Her name was Irene, and she shivered.
“Thanks for coming to the service,” Kathleen said, and wished she had more to offer. They heard the bell sound again, for the start of class, and they both turned toward school, walking together, but not close, as if Sammy were between them, ready to link either of their arms.
She wondered where Irene had been when Sammy had crashed from the slick plane of ice to pure cold. It had been city police who had found him, less than fifty feet from where the river cracked. From the vantage of where he touched ground, it was obvious no one should have tried to cross—the water was marked, in the slower eddies, by patches of a crystalline patina that broke apart when the current shifted even slightly.
The next day Kathleen packed two lunches, and she brought one to Irene, saying, Eat, you need to eat, you’re too tiny, and Irene looked at her in the hallway, mortified, but she took the crumpled paper bag, soft on one side where jelly had leaked through, and then sat with her on the steps of the school and talked about Sammy and talked about Irene’s life. She lived with her father, and it sounded like he was not around much, working the night shift or sleeping, and Kathleen recognized the street as a place that had a reputation, fair or not, for being the bad part of town, but she could not say she had ever actually walked down it.
She saw what her brother could have loved about Irene, her earnest face and the way she looked to the side when she was talking, her dark eyebrows. She wondered if her brother had seen this girl and wanted to pull her in. He would have known, like Kathleen did, that there was always room for one more; this was the blessing of a large family, as imperfect as it was. Kathleen asked if they could meet the next day, and Irene looked away but said, Okay, and Kathleen could not tell if Irene was distracted or if she was embarrassed to have been brought the sandwich, even though she had eaten everything but the crusts. Next time, Kathleen would remember to trim them off.
That night she worried about how to get Irene to confess. She understood the consequences. If the school found out, they could make her leave, and her father might kick her out, so Kathleen started planning. She thought she could live at home for another year after school, in a house with closets stuffed full of old infant clothes and boxes of toys in the garage, in a house that was impervious to children. Her father would still drink whiskey at the kitchen table, and her mother would still be tired, but they would have part of Sammy back. The other boys, Mikey, fourteen, and Thomas, thirteen and they still thought of him as the baby, would not be as used to a scream in the night or the low stink of the diaper pail, but they would survive.
She wanted to hear that Sammy had wanted the baby. She wanted to hear something like he planned to take the GED and get a job, and that he would support Irene staying in school.
The next day, she tracked Irene down, and all she could do was grab the sleeve of her coat and hold onto it for a moment, saying, I know, okay, I know. She could not tell if Irene’s face was full of fear or relief then, but she accepted another lumpy lunch bag, and they chewed through their food quietly while the other kids spun around them.
Irene’s belly grew, and in the space of a few weeks, all Kathleen did was see her, skipping basketball practice to meet her in the library, shadowing her almost. She brought some of her sisters’ old clothes in case she finally began to put on weight, she told her she should stop with the smoking, and she made an appointment at the public health clinic for a checkup, and they ditched school to walk the few blocks through the crunchy snow to learn there was nothing irregular, as far as the nurse practitioner could tell.
Kathleen quit the basketball team for good and got a job in the kitchen of the hospital, standing on the concrete floors until she thought her legs would give out. She molded tub after tub of Jell-O, and after the chickens were roasted, she picked the carcasses clean and boiled them for stock for the endless bowls of soup. The other kitchen ladies asked her about her boyfriends—her long legs, her long hair, she must have a steady—but she ducked her head and focused on water coming up to a boil or perfectly cubing potatoes.
“You should learn to type and get a job where you don’t have to wear a hairnet,” said one of the women. She lifted her dress to show Kathleen her web of purple and blue spider veins, visible even through the compression hose. She said the floors would wreck Kathleen’s pretty calves.
After work that day Kathleen went to the drugstore and purchased orthopedic shoe inserts and a jar of witch hazel. She soaked a cotton ball and rubbed her skin to ease the tension and strengthen her vessels, because she had heard this produced results. Her mother sighed and said she wished Kathleen were still on the team—she had her whole life to work, and anyway she thought castor oil and elevation was better. She brought Kathleen a pillow and massaged her feet.
The money was adding up very slowly, but Kathleen was thinking of Sammy. She was thinking of Sammy when she pulled tendon from the bone, when she dressed salads of nearly translucent iceberg lettuce with grated carrots, when she broke down the wax-covered produce boxes and fed them to the trash compactor. Irene’s grades had improved, and Kathleen had brought her home several times to study—the first time, Kathleen saw her eyes shine at crossing the threshold of her lover’s home, not a bride exactly, but welcomed. Her mother asked, How do you know that girl? and Kathleen said, From school. Her mother said, She’s got a baby on her, and Kathleen said, I know. Her mother said she liked Irene, and she thought she knew her father. She said he was mean twenty years ago, and he was probably meaner now.
She wanted to say—That is Sammy’s baby. She wanted to say—Can we take Irene to live with us? But she could not yet, so she smiled at her mother and made Irene a cup of tea in the mug chipped from Sammy’s dish washing and steaming.
The school counselor called Irene into his office, and she refused to talk to him until he called for Kathleen as well. He said that Irene could not stay in the school if she was with child.
Irene denied that she was pregnant. “I’ve gained some weight,” she said. “I’m not happy about it either.” Her jaw was set in the lie, and Kathleen thought she looked believable.
The counselor shook his head, and he referenced school policy. Kathleen wondered if it was a bad idea for her to be there, if perhaps he remembered the basketball uniforms. The girls were at the district finals, though the boy’s team had failed to qualify. There was a moment when Kathleen remembered being on the basketball court and how she had loved the finality of the rules. The parameters of the game were very unlike life. Steady. Refereed.
The radiator in the counselor’s office was making a popping sound. It had been painted gold once, and the color was coming off in small chips, sparkling on the dull tiles.
“She married my brother before he died,” said Kathleen. “She’s widowed.”
The counselor did not look convinced. The radiator burped, but Kathleen felt in control, allowed to remake her brother’s story. She knew she could not change the ending, but she could change what it meant. When she said that she had been their witness, the shine in her eyes was real, thinking of her brother, too small for her father’s one good shirt, walking proud toward his lover even in a collar that was permanently crumpled and the loaned fabric stiff with starch and bluing. They would have borrowed a dress off one of the sisters, a dress that had already been remade several times so the stitch marks crisscrossed like quilting. Even low heels would have sunk into the soft grass in her parent’s yard as Irene walked the aisle made by splitting the family into two lines. In the absence of a string quartet to play the wedding march, they would have rung bells from her mother’s Christmas pile, glass and pewter, copper- and brass-plated to look like gold.
They would have barbequed afterward and drank beer all night, and when the water took Sammy, he could have thought of the late autumn sun and his wife and the smell of charcoal and the heat of their lips pressing in matrimony.
The counselor frowned and straightened some papers on his desk. He referenced the policy again, said that he’d need to see the documentation, and Kathleen saw the opening, in his admitting he was not sure what to do. He said he had never had the situation before, and even if she was married, Irene might need to leave the school, that he would have to check with the board.
“We’ll go to the safe deposit box today,” she said, knowing she was only bargaining for a little more time.
When he excused them, they walked out into the narrow hallway, waxed tiles and rows of grubby lockers.
“If he would have asked me—” Irene started to say, and Kathleen put her arms around her where they stood, flanked by the lessons behind the closed doors, squeaking shoes in the nearby gymnasium, and the smell of dust until the bell rang and the other kids spilled out around them.
Her mother was mending socks at the kitchen table, and her father was staring at pounds of ground beef, calculating how many patties to make. It was only the five of them now. Once, they had almost twice as many, and out of habit he had thawed too much. He asked Kathleen to chop an onion. It always made him cry. Her work in the hospital kitchen had given her some expertise with a knife, and she sliced quickly after washing her hands. She helped her father form the patties and walked with him to the grill. The light above her mother in the kitchen glowed yellow. She could hear her other brothers in the house, and Mikey had just started sleeping in the room again he had once shared with Sammy.
One thing that Kathleen remembered about Sammy was that he liked to barbeque because he liked to be outside. He was not good at it and he was not precise, but he enjoyed especially being under the fall leaves, just when the first bite made the air smell amber, face against the heat of the charcoal and the stainless tongs flashing.
She had not talked with her parents about what she would do after graduation. She knew she could go full time in the kitchen, and as awful as it sounded, she did like having her own money. All of her sisters had moved right on from their father’s home into someone else’s, to the home of another man, to a shared apartment with a girlfriend; Darlene, even, had moved out of state, but she was with her fiancé’s parents. Kathleen did not know if this was the expectation or just how it had worked out.
Her father was scraping the grill, and even this small motion showed the muscles at his back and across his neck. He was handsome. He had never hit any of them, but Kathleen thought that if he had, it would have surely hurt. Once, her mother threatened her with the belt, but she never wore a belt, and by the time she found one that was not looped through pants that were on a body that was out of reach, her anger had quelled, and Kathleen’s punishment was to organize the hall closet and the closet she shared with her sisters, and she spent the rest of her summer afternoon going through old shoe boxes and re-hanging crooked, mostly worn-out shirts and shaking the dust off their winter coats and checking the pockets for change. She found thirty-five cents, a stick of gum, and a handful of crumpled cigarette butts. She also found an attachment that had gone missing from the vacuum, but no belts, and when she closed the closet doors, she liked the clean feeling of it, everything neat and contained, so she took the sponge from the kitchen and scrubbed at brown marks around the doorknobs that had built up from being touched by so many hands. In school, she had learned that finger grease was from the eccrine glands, but she did not remember what the real purpose was.
When her father put the burgers on the grill, there was a sound like a can opening, a hiss. She thought to ask him about staying on after graduation. He was nudging the meat with the spatula and kicking at a piece of snow. It had been sunny that day and there was some low cloud cover that had come up at dusk, so the air was warm for the season, but the ground was still frozen in the places that had stayed shaded.
Maybe she would not stay. Maybe she would talk to the counselor about taking early graduation so she could get on full time before the baby came. Maybe they could find a converted garage or a mother-in-law somewhere, and Kathleen could find a job on a night shift so she could be home in the day when Irene was at school. Being poor did not scare her, and she knew it did not scare Irene either.
What scared her was the slipping. Her sisters had slipped from the house into lives that did not seem that much different to Kathleen. Sammy had slipped on the ice, and away from them. Her father turned all of the burgers and asked her to go inside and set the table, and she did. She put the plates out on the worn tablecloth and sliced a tray of pale wintertime tomatoes and took a new jar of mustard from the pantry.
On the basketball team, she had liked the idea of them all as moving parts. At first, they ran their plays poorly, but when they started to get it correct, the moves felt sure and fluid. At work, sometimes all the kitchen ladies synced into a perfect rhythm of grating and stewing and plating, the clatter of crockery and cutting boards being flipped percussive against the stainless steel countertops, and order after order was loaded up onto the delivery carts, smoothly and quickly.
She wanted this sureness, this feeling of doing things right, and as her brothers and her parents sat down at the table she understood why her sisters had left. The chance to change. The chance to have their own table, something that belonged to them. Like when she had lied to the school counselor about Sammy’s troth, the chance to take the story and bend it as much as the facts would allow—not always to a happy ending, but a better one.
Wendy J. Fox earned an MFA from the Inland Northwest Center for Writers in Spokane, Washington. Her debut collection of stories, The Seven Stages of Anger and Other Stories, won Press 53’s inaugural award for short fiction