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Tiff Holland

The Boys

The Boys, they call my brothers in the neighborhood, or Those Boys. The Taylor Boys. Sometimes, Mom calls them Thing One and Thing Two, like in The Cat in the Hat. Those bad boys. Nobody has brothers like my brothers, kicked off the school bus, barred from JC Penney only allowed one at a time in the corner store, where we go to buy Momís cigarettes with a note please sell Billy, Matty, Kimmie two packs of Marlboro Red. Mom likes the hard box so they wonít get squished in her purse. Mostly she sends me for her cigarettes because the boys are never around. Theyíre always off getting into trouble.

Iím old enough, twelve, to know my brothers arenít really that bad. Thereís worse trouble they could get into than playing doctor behind the chicken coop, even worse than making bombs to throw at passing cars. Their bombs might smell bad, but rotten apples and stagnant water from the grape arbor, all wrapped up in a baggie, never hurt anyone. Mom says they try her, but she says I try her, too, and Iíve never gotten kicked out of anywhere.

***

Right now, sheís in there crying, but I canít figure out why. No one got sent home from school with a note, or bit the teacher. Itís been a long time since Matty showed Angel Gustino that condom. I donít know where he got it, but I have my ideas. Probably he swiped it when we went to Woolworthís with Gram one Sunday. But Iím not sure. Weíre still allowed in Woolworthís, all of us and Gram takes us every Sunday so Mom can go to church, can ask God for help.

Momís been crying since we walked home from school yesterday. We walk now every day since the boys got kicked off the bus, and I almost like it, except for getting sent right out again, for cigarettes. She stopped crying long enough to give me the note, the same note we re-use every day that she keeps under the phone the rest of the time, so itís easy to find.

Please the note says all folded up in my pocket while I walk up the road, not getting dirty or talking to any strangers. Please I whisper when I walk past the church.

***

Iíve tried hitting the boys so theyíll stop making Mom cry. I popped Matty one in the nose, which I shouldnít have done, the way it bleeds with the slightest touch, but I wanted him to know I was serious. Mom crying is serious. This isnít the first time she started. Once, Aunt Cathy even took Mom to see a doctor because she couldnít stop. The doctor sent her back home with some pills. Aunt Cathy told Dad the doctor said he sent Mom back home because she had the three of us to take care of, but Mom started right back up again, after wiping her face and telling Aunt Cathy she was alright so she would leave, go back home to her own kids, and I wanted to bring Mom one of those pills fast with some water. Instead, I went up to the corner to get her more cigarettes and left the brown sack on the table with the cigarettes and the note and all her change even though she said I could buy myself a Milky Way for walking up there, or a Reeseís. After a minute, I heard her fish in the bag for a pack, and breathe out the smoke. That was the day I hit Matty in the nose, and when I came back from the store, I made Matty take off his t-shirt before there was too much blood. Mom doesnít need to worry about a bloody t-shirt, too.

Right now, the boys are being good. Theyíre on the back road with the frisbee, throwing it back and forth at each other. At each other, not to each other. Itís a game they invented, taking turns throwing the frisbee at each otherís feet, knocking the white gravel out of the sticky black tar to use in their bombs. Theyíre always together and never want to play ball or shoot hoops out back of the church anymore or run races down the hill, even though you get to going so fast you feel like youíre flying when you run down that hill, even though I let them win sometimes, so theyíll want to race again. Sometimes, I get one of the neighbor kids to race me, even though most all of them are forbidden from playing with the Taylor kids.

Iím not going to hit the boys today, neither one of them, even though I want to hit something, want to hit something bad. Dadís going to get out the belt when he gets home, to teach us for making her cry. It wonít matter that we were good today. So, Iím not going to hit my brothers. What Dad does later will be enough.

***

The thing is, what I donít understand, is how me sitting here, reading all day after school can make her cry just as hard as when Billy got suspended. She looks at me, here in front of the window, watching the boys so she wonít have to worry and reading one of the stack of books I bring home every week from the bookmobile, and she shakes her head and starts again. Iíve only ever been in real trouble myself once, and I had to punch Jerome that day on the school bus, he said the boys werenít really my brothers, or that Matty wasnít, that he is really Gramís, which is silly because that would make him my uncle, and Iím older than Matt, older than Matt and Billy who are ten and eleven, so close that when they were little people thought they were twins, but not twins. They donít even look anything like twins, Matt big as a eighth grader and Billy short and skinny as a stick. Itís not easy having famous brothers.

***

If I hear her, Iím going to stop reading, but right now, sheís in there, curling that phone cord around her wrist so tight her hand looks white from the doorway, like sheís not getting any blood to it, and I hope she smokes another cigarette soon, so sheíll unwrap the cord to tap one from the pack.

I donít think Mom could make it without her cigarettes, not through another day, and I wish she could reach God on the phone instead of Gram and Cathy and Mary, my aunts. Then she wouldnít have to wait til Sunday. Cathy and Mary listen good but they always have to hang up to cook supper for my cousins, and it makes me sad to listen to her talk to Gram, I just canít take it, Mom I hear Mom say, day after day between cigarettes.

***

This is one of Momís cigarettes I have now. Dad smokes Pall Mall which are just for grownups, you can tell by the pack. I donít really feel better when I smoke, but I keep trying. I figure if they can make Mom feel that good, good enough to stop crying, then theyíll make me feel better, too. I keep this one hidden behind my book in case she were to come in here, and I think it helps me to concentrate, keep an eye on the boys so they wonít get into any trouble. Probably, cigarettes are like sex. I didnít like it the first few times Matty stuck his fingers in me, but Iím used to it now, and it probably isnít even a sin, since heís not really my brother.

I want Matty to be my brother I want all of us to live here together forever even though Dad told Gram last Sunday, youíll have to take him back. Matty swears he is my brother, and he should know whose kid he really is, right? Heís been here as long as I can remember, we have pictures of the three of us, together in the basement when the boys were real little, two and three maybe. The boys in the red wagon Gram brought Matty for Easter one year, and Billy and me with chocolate smeared all over our faces from the baskets she brought us.

I made Matty touch me because just once, I wanted to have him to myself, away from Billy. Just once, I wanted to be part of The Taylor Kids. Usually, people donít even mean me when they say The Taylor Kids, and I was jealous, too, I admit it, of Angel Gustino. How could Matty show a perfect stranger a condom when me, his own sister, his flesh and blood has never seen one?

***

Click, click, click, Dad goes down the hall. Itís five-thirty. He is home from work, wearing his dress shoes with the thick heels, the noise they make like Momís pumps only deeper. I look out the door when I see him on the porch, his shoes louder on the bricks, sharper, and then down the hall. He has his suit jacket over his arm and his vest is unbuttoned, hanging from his shoulders like the saloon doors in a western.

I put out my Marlboro. I listen when he closes the door to the kitchen where Mom has been on the phone now all afternoon. We never close the door to the kitchen. I forgot it even closes, and then it clicks.

If he goes, I go, I hear Mom say as Dadís shoes move back and forth across the room. The tile in there is orange and his shoes are shiny and black and I think of Fred Astaire when I hear him.

Theyíre driving you crazy, he says back.

I think of the thin nylon socks he wears underneath, the way they could slide across that floor. It would be a smooth ride, but Dad keeps his shoes on. I canít make out what heís saying, even though his voice keeps getting louder. Now sheís crying again. The door opening.

***

He doesnít have the belt in his hand. He has Mom. Heís helping her up the wooden steps with his belt still on, still buckled around his waist. Sheís moaning softly when he sets her on the bed. He turns the light on and I can see the flowered wallpaper, roses, that always give me the creeps when I lie in there with her. I go to bed with her some nights, when sheís waiting for Dad to come home from his second job, and she doesnít want to be alone.

He helps her lie down with all of the roses looking on, open-mouthed but not saying anything. He leaves her alone with them.

I wait until heís gone to curl up beside the door. I listen for her breathing, and then when itís dry and even, I head outside.

***

I look around for Billy and Matty, but theyíre nowhere in the yard, gone from the street. Iím tired of reading. Iím tired of smoking. Dad has a ladder laid out against the house. Heís changed into jeans and a green t-shirt with a pocket for his smokes. He must not be going to his night job today. Heís cleaning out the gutters, pushing big glovefuls of leaves out of the grooves with one hand, holding the ladder with the other. I stand right under the ladder, and I can see the soles of his tennis shoes, all squiggly-lined rubber.

Goddamn kids he says, plucking a six inch maple sapling from the muck and tossing it down. I want to ask him if Mom is going to be alright, but then I start thinking how easy it would be for him to fall.

He sees me and yells down, donít bother your mother! Right as I give the ladder a good shove. He comes down quick, nothing like TV, not slow motion at all. His Pall Malls hit the ground, and then he hits the ground with a umph and the ladder cracks on top of him. He closes his eyes for a minute before he tries to get up while I donít run and donít try to help. When he canít do it himself he says, from the grass go get your mother, more tired than angry which is what I expected him to be, and then I run, and then she calls the ambulance since she canít drive, and the ambulance takes them to the hospital.

***

Dad isnít allowed to go to work for two weeks, maybe longer. He broke his clavicle. His shoulders are all tied up in a figure eight, like a big white bow. Theyíre in the living room now, smoking, and the boys are at Gramís since Mom is busying taking care of Dad. It seems quiet here without them, without even the sound of the frisbee bouncing off the road.

Dad canít do anything himself, not take a bath or even get out of that chair without help. When he wants up, Mom gets under the arm on his good side. Sometimes, she yells for me to help.

Donít pull on him Mom tells me, and I kind of push from the back. All week theyíve been in there, watching tv during the day. I bring them bowls of chips and cokes and Mom explains the soaps to Dad.

Devon, she says, needs an operation and Amanda has amnesia.

Dad pretends not to listen, but he stops chewing at the sound of Momís voice, and I know he hears what I hear, how clear she sounds, how sure. The room is all warm and close and smells of smoke, which has settled over them like atmosphere. She puts a pillow under his bad arm and every few hours she shakes a percodan from the brown bottle and gives it to him, waiting beside him with the water glass until heís swallowed. I know he knows I pushed him, that between the plucking and the ground he saw me, underneath him, that second he was part of the air, but he doesnít say anything to me, just gives me a be careful look when Iím helping him up. The first time I touched him, he flinched.

Iím heading to the store now for their cigarettes. I have a new note, because I have to get Dadís smokes, too. Please sell Kimmie a packs of Marlboro and a pack of Pall Mall, the note reads, and on the other side thereís a list: milk, bread, coke, pound of chip chop. It shouldnít be too much to carry. I think Iíll get myself a Reeseís. Iím going to take my time.


A native of Akron, Ohio, Tiff Holland and her family recently relocated to Round Rock, Texas. Tiff earned her PhD at Southern Mississippi in 2004. She has received Zurava and Wick awards for poetry. Her poetry and fiction have appeared in dozens of literary magazines and e-zines. She is a contributor for thenervousbreakdown.com and a fiction reader for Small Spiral Notebook. She has twice been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Her chapbook Bone In a Tin Funnel, published this spring, is available through Pudding House Press.

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