had on his red swim trunks with fish that squirmed when he walked. Stains
rimmed the armholes of his wife-beater undershirt. The worst name ever. He
pocketed his car keys and grabbed the deck of playing cards with pictures of naked
his arm hair. “Can I go with you, please?
I won’t make a peep. Promise!”
this time, honey. Besides, Mom is on her way home.”
could’ve at least pretended to have a job—to pack a lunch pail and head out in regular
clothes. Every time he left I had this fear he might not come back. He was in
such a damn hurry he forgot to kiss me good-bye.
shadow wobbled inside the truck cab as he backed out the driveway. I pressed my
nose to the smeary front window and flipped him the bird. He slowed at the curb
to wave but my nine-year-old fists were frozen to glass.
truck evaporated and I wondered when mom would really be home. First she had to
stop and scoop up my little brother from a lady with a house full of other
off the couch and attacked Daddy’s argyles with scissors making a spiffy skirt
for my doll Carol Sue. Then I scampered off to the bathroom, squinting at the
peach fuzz between my eyebrows. Mom said I was too young to pluck. Maybe a
razor would work?
the kitchen I stretched the curly cord on our Bakelite phone. It had a pullout
drawer with a thin pad inside. The number of Mom’s work was written in red
pencil. I’d only called a couple of times because the manager always sounded
like he wanted to smack someone.
traced a hole on the dial with my finger, wondering if my friend Bonnie could
come over and practice smoking? We’d never truly be grownup until we could
inhale without coughing. And I wanted to teach her the right way to hold a
cigarette. Not between her two middle fingers.
wall clock said six-fifteen. She’d be combed and spruced at her dining room
table with cloth napkins her mother had ironed while wearing red bareback
pumps. Her father would be passing a bowl of fluffy potatoes made from a box and
a platter of pork chops with crispy fat.
it was hard being Bonnie’s friend.
would ditch dinner to come over; he loved me that much. I picked up the phone
and started to dial his number, then slammed it down, because there was this birdbrained
rule against girls calling boys. Instead I called the cocktail lounge around
the corner. “Is my daddy there?”
guy who answered said, “What’s his name?”
heard him holler, “Anyone in here named John?”
kid,” he said when he came back. “He’s not here.”
you sure there isn’t a John?”
what do you people do? Pee on the floor?” He laughed before hanging up, but it
didn’t make me feel better.
slid a stick of Beech Nut into the phone drawer for later, snatched a steak
knife off the kitchen counter, and wound it in a paper napkin.
sun gave up the day beyond the window and backyard fence. It blew me a fiery
kiss and I blew one back, heading to the tree in the front yard. It grew from a
square of dry weeds between the sidewalk and gutter.
our nosy neighbors were probably watching I made a big show of hiking up my
skirt before hoisting myself onto the lowest limb. From there it was an easy
climb to the branch that was all mine—the one near the top under the
streetlight. Not that I was afraid of the dark. I liked places where no one
could see me.
legs dangled, ankles hooked, as I uncurled a thick strip of bark. The flesh
underneath glistened, and smelled slightly sweet, as if Green Apple Kool-Aid
gushed through its veins.
felt light-headed from going all day on a single peanut-butter-and-graham-cracker
sandwich. The leftover goop that stuck to the roof of my mouth was long gone. I
carved a lazy S, pressing down hard,
watching the tree bleed. I didn’t care that I was scarring it, because there
was love in what I was doing.
and Roger sitting in a tree, k-i-s-s-i-n-g . . .” I hacked a crooked W for my last name. “First comes love,
then comes marriage . . . ” I wiped the blade on my skirt, then dug in to carve
our Rambler before it floated below me into the driveway. Mom got out and
walked to the passenger’s side, her kitten heels clicking. She moved slowly,
like she didn’t want to get to where she was going.
inside the house, the lights flicked on. She’d put my brother to bed, probably still
in his play clothes, without brushing his teeth. I’d never get away with that.
she come outside to look for me? Maybe if I faked a cough she’d smear an old
t-shirt with Vicks VapoRub, wave it over a flame on the stove, and smooth it on
The porch light twitched. “Sherry, are you out here?”
Mom moved into the amber light, shading her eyes, a skinny shadow of herself. “Are
you up in that tree?”
“Coming!” She hadn’t forgotten about me after all.
honey. You shouldn’t be up there in the dark. Where’s your father?”
at the Piggly Wiggly?” No way I’d rat him out. He got in enough trouble on his
took my hand as soon as I hit the ground and I knew all I needed was her
warmth. “Have you had dinner?”
took off my headband because the metal teeth were scalping me. “Not yet.”
about a fried Spam sandwich? I’ll let you open the can.”
loved the tiny key that hooked over the thin sliver of metal. I loved twisting it
and hearing the sucking noise of salty-jelly just pink enough to let everyone
know a pig had been pulverized before being squeezed into a tin. And I loved my
mom because she never forgot I loved those things.
next morning I threw back the covers and slid from bed, hoping to catch her in
the bathroom before work, drawing on cat eyes with liquid pencil. She’d paint
her naturally plump lips with Pink Minx lipstick in a hairspray fog. I doubted
Daddy appreciated his wife’s movie star qualities.
No answer. “Mom!”
house was quiet. Nothing left but her smells. I stood in the bathroom where
they were strongest, inhaling sprays, sticks, and creams, wondering if my
parents even liked each other.
seen the employee’s lounge at her work—a square room behind the office where
the mean manager hung out when he wasn’t bossing people around. The room had a midget
refrigerator, a portable hot plate, and a square table to eat on. If I
squinted hard enough I could picture Mom’s overnight valise and fuzzy slippers between
the wooden legs of the cot.
climbed on the kitchen counter for a box of Cocoa Puffs figuring Daddy spent
the night somewhere else. Then I saw him in the backyard through the window. He
was dead asleep in the hammock in a weird position, looking like a rubber toy.
kids learned to tiptoe on days when their dad worked graveyard. I learned to do
the same after one of Daddy’s all-nighters. I eased the sliding glass door over
its gritty runners, stepped out and dropped to my hands and knees, then crawled
toward the hammock.
was no reason to sneak. Daddy probably wouldn’t wake up if I turned the garden
hose on him. He never looked like this, not even on his worst hangover days.
Pale and grinning too hard, matching that awful snapshot in my dreams.
got that upside down fizzy feeling in my stomach and inched closer seeing a
spider on his shoulder. I figured a spider could kill a man who cheats when playing
checkers with a fourth-grader.
wake up! There’s a spider!”
jolted from his stupor. “You trying to give me a heart attack!”
. . . . your shoulder!”
jerked and the hammock swung, nearly dumping him on empty beer cans. He seized
the culprit, squished it gutless with his fingers, and displayed what was left
on the tip of his thumb.
black widows. Females are the worst. That’s why you have to clap your shoes together
before putting them on. Always remember that, okay honey?”
Daddy.” He pulled me in and I pressed my cheek to his t-shirt, because stinky
dried sweat was better than nothing. “You saved my sorry ass, honey.”
life-saving deed did something to me, made me feel it was my job to look after
him. Maybe because we didn’t have a dog or cat that would scratch my
eyes out or one of those goldfish from the school fair that you get when your
Ping-Pong ball lands in a glass bowl. Or maybe because no one else cared enough
night I felt like such a baby cradling Carol Sue, when just the day before
Roger and I had been practice kissing on top of my bedspread. She shook in my arms
when wordless voices bled through the wallpaper. First rat-a-tat anger, then a
dull sob. “Can’t take it anymore . . . . .”
stroked Carol Sue’s stiff hair and told her the lie that everything would be
Mom pleading. “Just sign the papers.”
slipped from bed and pulled a sheet of paper from my notebook. Using my ruler I
drew a straight line down the middle. A stick figure of Daddy on one side and
Mom on the other. I set the paper on my dresser, folded it in half, and creased
it until my thumb hurt. Then I folded it the other way and did the same.
voice. “I’ll get a job.”
Who’ll hire you?”
tore the paper carefully, starting at the top, working to give my parents equal
halves because I wanted to be fair. The teensiest scrap fluttered away on its
own. I figured that lost piece was me.
grabbed a bobby pin off my dresser and stuck in Carol Sue’s skull. Dumb doll.
* * * * *
Before, Sherry Shahan watched the world from behind; whether in the hub of Oxford, an alley in Havana, or alone in a squat hotel room in Paris; whether with a 35 mm camera or an iPhone. Today she hangs out in a laid-back beach town in California where she grows carrot tops in ice cube trays for pesto. Her work has appeared in Oxford University Journal, Exposition Review, Los Angeles Times, F(r)iction and is forthcoming from Fiddlehead and Progenitor. She holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults.