Read Little Deadly Things Online

Authors: Harry Steinman

Little Deadly Things (9 page)

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Marta thought about Abuela’s words to her. A child teaching scientists about Yocahu? A battle with Juricán? It seemed farfetched.

“Abuela, the doctors aren’t going to listen to me when I tell them about plants. And how am I going to fight a god?”

“Hija, you know almost as much as any bohique. Yocahu has given you this knowledge and you learned it well. My heart sings to watch you grow.”

“I can’t say that your prophesy makes me feel very optimistic,” said Marta. The sarcasm that ebbed over the summer crept back into her words. “Let’s see, I’ve got disease from my mother, a helpless father, and a battle with the God of Evil in my future. Is that it, Abuela?”

“No, hija. There is one other thing,” the old woman said.

“Oh, great,” Marta muttered and rolled her dark eyes.

Abuela smiled. She reached behind her neck and her fingers worked for a moment to untie a knot in a leather cord. It was attached to a leather pouch she carried between her breasts, next to her own medicine bag. This one was older, tanned more deeply. A delicate image was burnt into the leather, a branch with twenty-four long, thin leaves. Marta recognized the leaves of the cojobana tree, giver of visions.

“I was saving this for the right moment. I think that is now.” The old woman grinned.

“This was my mother’s. Now it is yours. This is part of your legacy, too. Pain and healing dwell within you. Give each one its voice, but do not let one drown out the other. And do not let these voices drown out your own voice.” The old woman’s arms encircled Marta and hung the pouch around her neck.

Marta hugged her grandmother and breathed in deeply. She closed her eyes and fixed the image of the twinned vines of her parents’ legacy. Her meditation shifted to the golden strand of her own life, and of the one to come. She visualized growth, impervious to the black filament. Her vision expanded to include the rich soil of El Yunque nurturing the roots of her vine. She felt powerful, connected. The spirit of the forest was substantiated within her. Then she walked away to the publico with grace and purpose and turned back once more.

Abuela called out, “Hija. Your mother was always proud of you.”

Then the old woman vanished into the forest.

      
04

___________________________________________

A BOY AND HIS DOG

PASADENA, CALIFORNIA
APRIL 2022

J
im Ecco, age thirteen, and Ringer, age three. A boy and his dog. On the good days, Jim and Ringer visited the Pasadena library. Ringer waited at the entrance and ignored slinking cats, curious dogs, nervous passersby, restaurant aromas, and branch-borne squirrels, although that was difficult even for a Good Dog. On the better days, Jim could slip into the passages of the books he brought home on his dataslate or on paper, and his own world disappeared. On the bad days, Jim and Ringer curled up together and listened for the weight of Dad’s approaching footsteps.

Ringer was a mutt, Heinz 57, as far from the show ring as a stevedore from a fashion runway. She was part terrier, brave and independent, part German Shepherd, protective. Her coarse undercoat resisted brushing and shed uncaring torrents of light brown hair. Jim’s mother vacuumed it from the sofa and the carpets. She cleaned hair in the kitchen and the family room and especially from Dad’s chair.

Jim was thirteen but displayed few marks of maturation. Classmates teased him for his soft looks. His Adam’s apple, cheekbones, and jaw line were still undefined, and framed by a mop of sandy brown hair, as unresponsive in its way as Ringer’s.

Mom called Jim. “Clean up before your father gets home. Let’s have a nice dinner tonight.”

Mom’s voice sounded strained and Jim guessed Dad had called ahead, in a mood. Galvin Ecco, his father, was an attorney. Lawyers in the movies were smart and always in control. Lately, Dad was not in control. He stared and snapped, and then there would be a reckoning. Sometimes just a slap, sometimes more.

When Dad talked about law, he was at ease. “A thing is, or it is not,” was his favorite saying. Mom said he was too rigid and that was bad for business. Jim didn’t know who was right but that more and more, Dad lost his cases, his clients, and his temper.

“Jimmy. Clean up now before your father gets home.”

Too late. Dad arrived. He walked as stiff as a man with a rash and wore a dark navy suit with faint white pinstripes and frayed cuffs. His hair was shaped into a precise crew cut that would please a drill sergeant. Its color reminded Jim of a thunder cloud.

Jim watched as Dad looked left and right, peering over his glasses. “I can’t control the courts,” he often said, “but the damned house better be clean.”

Dad’s first words to Jim were, “Is your room neat?”

“Neat as a pin.”

“I’ll be the judge of that. I expect your room to be immaculate. You know what immaculate means?”

Jim said nothing. Housekeeping was a herculean task for the thirteen-year-old dreamer, and his father exacted a military standard.

Pinstriped dad and dungareed lad marched to the child’s room. Jim’s bed was in the far corner. Wall-mounted bookshelves crowded a desk and straight-backed chair. A nightstand supported a reading light and Jim’s current printed fare, a pile of old graphic novels, tales of amazing feats and dark retribution. Ringer lay on the Berber carpet. Mom had said that dog hair would be less noticeable on the tan and grey weave, but the carpet’s geometric pattern seemed to showcase every bit of dirt or scrap of paper, every piece of furniture even a degree off-square.

Two years ago Jim enjoyed a larger room in a larger house. Then the family moved into smaller quarters. When Jim asked why they were moving for the second time in as many years, Mom smiled and said, “We’re saving for the future.” She took too long to answer.

When Dad walked in the room, Ringer’s shoulder muscles bunched, her weight shifted to her hindquarters and her ears pulled forward. Now she looked more like a shepherd, protective, curling half into a prey bow, rather than her happy-go-lucky play bow.

Jim fidgeted while Dad inspected. The books were arranged on the shelves, from tallest to smallest: Dad’s Rule. School supplies in a pencil cup, pens down and pencils up. Dad’s Rule again. Clothing was put away. No litter on the carpet.

Then Dad looked under the bed and found a tangled clump of dog hair. Jim didn’t think anyone else in the world would care but Dad acted as if it were a malignant mass poised to metastasize, to cover Jim’s room, the whole damned house, with canine detritus.

Some other day Dad would understand that under the bed doesn’t count. He would sigh, shake his head, and dismiss the furry tangle. Or Mom might intercede, “Galvin, the boy has homework. Let me finish so he can get to his studies.” Dad might let it go. Or maybe not, and Jim might hear them argue—or more. They were like dancers in a tango of insults and hands. He could picture Mom. Her words were her weapons. She leaned into Dad’s blows, to store each impact and then return his fury with her own taunts and barbs.

Dad held the offensive find between the tips of his thumb and forefinger. He glared stony-faced at Jim. Ringer’s ears pricked.

“You too lazy to vacuum?”

Dad held the mass, extended his hand, and dropped it back on the carpet. “You think this is clean?” He swept his right arm across Jim’s desk, knocking pens and pencils to the floor.

“I’m sorry. I’ll do it again.”

Too late. Dad’s face reddened and he picked up his son, his flesh and blood, the vessel of his hopes and dreams. With one arm around the boy’s chest, the other around his legs, Dad held him head first like a SWAT officer might hold a battering ram, poised at a felon’s front door. He swept the boy across the desk. Jim’s books, tallest to smallest, scattered.

“You damned well better learn to clean up after that goddamn dog.”

It’s not Ringer’s fault, Jim thought, but kept silent—no way to know how Dad might react.

That was the problem. Jim never knew what to expect from his father. He thought of last summer’s family vacation. They drove the rocky central California coast through Big Sur, north toward San Francisco. The narrow ribbon of road hugged steep cliffs and presented spectacular ocean views. Jim peered down to the Pacific and back to the car’s odometer, counting down the miles to Monterey. The Monterey Bay Aquarium drew him as surely as a siren’s call. Never mind that the Parkfield earthquake destroyed half of the collection just nine months earlier. The Kelp Forest survived and Jim was eager to see the thirty-foot fronds sway in an oversized tank.

What set off Dad that morning? Maybe it was the traffic or something between his parents. They seemed to have a special language—one with unspoken shades of anxious meaning, an emotional carrier wave under plain words. As Dad instructed his car to pay for parking, Jim urged his father to hurry. There was a whole forest of kelp to see. Dad turned and slapped him. Not too hard, nothing that would leave a mark. Dad called that his Simmer Down Slap.

From up the street, someone yelled out, “Hey! Leave the kid alone!”

Dad ignored it, but not Jim. This was a family affair. Before he could stop himself, Jim yelled back, “He can hit me anytime he wants!”

Uh-oh. There’s going to be heck to pay for that one.
But Dad’s shoulders drooped. “Never mind,” he said. “Let’s go see the kelp. Just don’t talk like that again, okay?”

Dad was quiet that day, even kind. But that was Dad. He might beat Jim with a belt, and often did, but then he was quick-witted, engaging, eager to explain how the world worked.

But not today. Not when Jim failed inspection.

As he left Jim’s room, Dad aimed a kick at the Ringer’s hindquarters. The dog scampered out of reach.

“Please don’t hurt Ringer. It’s not her fault.” Frustration and rage were boiling inside of him and he struggled to control his voice.

“Don’t
you
tell
me
what do!” He turned and stepped back toward the dog.

Too much. Jim took three fast steps to stand in front of his father and screamed, “DON’T YOU TOUCH MY DOG!”

Dad looked startled. “Or what? How are
you
gonna stop me?”

Jim’s hands shook but he clenched them into fists. Dad raised one hand in a warning but Jim stood his ground. After all, there is something about a boy and his dog.

“Get to work. Clean your goddam room.”

The door slammed behind Dad and Jim knelt to hug Ringer.

“It’s okay, girl. It’s okay.” He shook as the adrenaline in his bloodstream tried to activate every muscle in his body.

Jim caressed the dog’s long, smooth muscles, running his hands from her withers to her hips. Ringer’s ears moved back as the effleurage calmed them both. The simple act of stroking the dog—and being stroked by the boy—triggered a release of oxytocin in both the boy and his dog. The hormone enhanced their bond and calmed them.

Jim stroked Ringer from shoulders to brisket, collecting dog hair as he went. He twisted it into a ball so that it would not litter his room, adding it to the offensive mass discovered under the bed. Later that evening Jim pushed the clump up into the muffler of Dad’s car. The next time his father drove the car long enough for the metal to heat, the dog’s hair would smoke. No harm to the car, no evidence of Jim’s payback—save the stench of burning hair, brief enough to be inexplicable, strong enough to make his father gag.

At bedtime, Ringer curled at the foot of Jim’s bed. Mornings, Jim woke to find Ringer’s muzzle perched inches from his face. Did she stand sentry all night? How else would Jim awaken every morning to the sight of two soft, brown eyes?

One morning, he awoke slowly, wrapped in the helpless pleasure of sleep’s immobility. He imagined that he was an Indian papoose, swaddled and strapped to a cradleboard. Safe. Ringer was still at the foot of the bed. Jim’s breathing changed as he emerged into wakefulness. Ringer stood, stretched, front legs down and hindquarters up, her back bowed. She took her customary post, snout resting lightly on Jim’s bed.

She hears my breathing change. She hears me wake up. That’s how she does it. What else does she notice?
he wondered.
I’ll watch her and learn.

He learned to react with Ringer. She alerted him to the subtle signals of Dad’s anger, like the tightening of his neck muscles. When Dad was in a mood, Ringer’s ears snapped erect. Then Jim saw his father’s skin flush with anger as clearly as a lighthouse beacon. He saw the flare of nostrils, the widening of his pupils, the shift in balance. Dad had a tell, like a poker player staring too long at a hole card. If Dad rubbed the back of his neck when he was angry, then he was about to lose his temper.

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