Authors: Ashley Hope Pérez
“Fire the gun, Robbie.” Henry said, louder this time. “Aim and press the trigger. A man knows how to fire a weapon.”
It was only a tin can propped up on a log, Beto told himself. But he couldn't move the trigger. Henry grabbed the gun from him, took aim, and fired. The tin can spun to the side and fell from the log, but Beto saw something else: an explosion of red. Crimson blooming against yellow. He heard a cry.
“Christ Almighty, what you hollerin' for?” Henry growled. He did not look at Beto. “Men fire guns, men eat meat. That's how it is.”
“Come on, Henry, lay off the boy. Hardly big enough to shoulder the recoil anyhow.” Vince Harris stood back a little from Henry and Beto, his foot propped up on a stump. He drained his beer and then tossed the can down into the brush.
Henry took aim again and fired into the trees. Beto saw a shadow drop heavily from the tree onto the dried pine needles that covered the forest floor.
“See what I mean?” Henry said. He slung the gun across his back and went to examine his prey. He lifted the bloodied mass of gray by one wing.
It was a dove. Had been. A sob caught in Beto's throat, and when it couldn't find a way out, something else turned loose.
Beto's face grew hot. He prayed that his father would stay where he was, would not look at him. He fixed his eyes on the cottony bits of cloud stuck in the gaps between the pines above him.
A moment later, Vince sniffed. “Uh, Henry, I think ... it looks like your boy...”
Henry looked up, squinting. His grin twisted with disgust. “Tell me you didn't just piss yourself.”
“I didn't...” Beto stared down to see urine running down his leg and pooling in his shoes.
“Then why are your goddamn britches wet?” he roared. “You're some boy, sissier than your sister. Too much time around women, it's turnin' you queer.”
“Whoa, now,” Vince said. “Go easy, Henry. It was an accident, that's all.”
Henry shook his head. “Come here, you little shit.” He tossed the dove against a tree and stared at his son.
Beto ignored his father and ran toward the bird, though he knew it was too late. He stooped down to see the dove, but Henry grabbed him by the collar. “Hold on, there, partner,” he snarled. He shoved the shotgun back into Beto's hands. “Fire on that,” he said, jutting his chin toward the bird. “Do it now. It can't get away from you, so you'd better hit it.”
“Kid's upset, Henry, don't you thinkâ”
“Fired my first gun when I was five, reckon you did, too. Don't be makin' excuses for him. We're six beers in and we're still shootin' straight and keepin' our pants dry.” Henry's hand tightened on Beto's wrist.
“Do it like this, Robbie,” he steadied the shotgun against Beto's shoulder, forced his finger onto the trigger, and took aim over his shoulder. Henry pressed down on his finger, and the gun fired.
For an instant, the bird came back to life. It leaped with the shot and then landed, bloodier than before, on the forest floor.
Tears flooded Beto. Snot poured down his face. He tore off through the woods toward the truck. He imagined his own body ripped by bullets like the bird's, and he sobbed harder. By the time Henry and Vince returned, the crying had passed and there was only fear and, in spite of everything, a desperate wish to please Henry. On the way back to New London, Beto lay still in the bed of the truck, the certainty of his father's disappointment holding him down like stones.
It was late by the time Henry and Beto came back. Cari was already in bed, but Naomi had waited up. The radio hummed with the faint warble of the gospel hour program. When they came into the living room, she looked up from the pile of pale blue fabric in her lap and smiled. She was putting the new machine to good use and getting a head start on an Easter dress for Cari. They'd spent the evening looking at a catalog until Naomi knew just what her sister wanted. It had kept Cari busy, and Naomi had managed to deflect her increasingly insistent questions about their mother. No, she could not tell a new story while Beto was away; that wouldn't be fair. But she knew Cari wasn't satisfied.
“How was it?” she asked when they came into the living room. “You missed the roast.”
“Fine,” Henry said tightly. “Robbie fired a gun.”
Beto looked away.
“Did you eat? I can warm you up a plate,” Naomi said. “There's buttermilk pie, too.”
“No need,” Henry said.
Naomi's eyes flicked from Henry to Beto, who did not meet her gaze. She thought about telling him that, along with the roast, there'd been mashed potatoes and creamed corn, his new favorite. But he looked too tired to be interested. She stood up and walked over to him and lifted his chin.
“You're not hungry?”
He shook his head.
“Say good night to Daddy,” she prompted, “and thank him for taking you.”
She might have imagined it, but she thought she saw Beto flinch when she spoke. He mumbled the words without looking up from the floor.
When Beto had gone into the bathroom, Naomi turned around and found Henry standing uncomfortably close to her. He didn't meet her eyes but snaked an arm around her waist. “You look pretty,” he murmured.
She slapped his hand away. “You promised,” she said. Her whisper came out like a hiss. She took another step back from him.
“You don't have to be cold,” he started in toward her again.
She did not let him continue. “I can take them back.” She let the threat hang in the air between them.
Henry crossed his arms. “Look at what they've got. A real decent place to stay. A good school. You'd take that away from them?”
“I can take them back,” she said. “You promised. No more.”
Henry's shoulders sagged a little. “Promise,” he said. It came out like a question. He gave her a final, pleading look before trudging down the hall and into his bedroom.
Suddenly, Muff's idea about Henry didn't seem so fanciful. What had the hunting been about? Making a man of Beto. And if Henry couldn't make Beto into a proper son, maybe he was thinking he'd try his luck at making one inside of her. She sank down into her chair and pressed her forehead against the cool body of the sewing machine he'd given her. There were always strings attached to his gifts. Always.
When Beto came into the bedroom after changing his clothes, he could feel that Cari was hurting with him. She climbed into his bed and wrapped her arms tight around him.
,” she said, “I'm real, real sorry.”
Beto swallowed and shut his eyes tight against the new tears. They burned behind his eyelids.
“Read to you from the Cs?” she offered.
They lay snug in his bed like matched spoons. Cari scratched his back and recited the encyclopedia entry on China from memory until he fell asleep. Then she lay awake for a while longer, thinking of a gray bird dancing in its blood. Beto had shared the sight of it with her, but it was not a good luck thing.
Later that week, Henry came home covered in mud and oil but happy as hell. He was also bone-tired and ready to get out of his mud-caked boots and overalls. He turned onto the gravel drive and pulled the truck in alongside the house. He was surprised to see light coming from the side window of the living room. He looked down to check his watch, but it was as mucked up as the rest of him. Thanks to him, they'd brought in a well in less than a week. Graham Salter said there'd be fat bonuses all around.
He thought about calling to Naomi for a towel as he stripped off his boots on the porch, but he didn't want to wake the kids. He peeled off his shirt and socks and rolled up the bottoms of his work denims. Muff had told him after church that he should be grateful that Naomi kept the house neat as a pin and ought not make extra work for her.
The kitchen was dark and still. Henry felt like turning on the lights and making some noise. Most of the other men had gone off to Big T's to celebrate. He'd begged off, but he wanted at least to tell someone about the strike and the extra fat check he had coming.
He went and wiped down and pulled on a clean undershirt and pants before walking the rest of the way down the hall to the living room to tell Naomi.
She was curled on the edge of the sofa, her shoes still on like maybe she had only meant to take a little nap. That was it; the lamp by her sewing machine was on, too. She'd been working on something. Henry went over to see what it was. He studied the small heap of light blue cloth still held in place by the machine's presser foot.
He'd seen her working on a dress for Cari, but this was something else. He could tell from the collar and the size of the sleeves that this was a man's shirt. It was far too big for Beto; that meant that the shirt was for him. Blue was his favorite color. Easter wasn't that far off, or maybe it was a gift to thank him for the sewing machine. He pictured himself walking into church with the shirt on. “My shirt?” he'd say. “No, it's not store-bought. The missus made it.” He'd turn and wink at Naomi. She might blush a little and look away, but she'd be warmed at the thought of his pride in her work.
He tiptoed out of the room. He wouldn't let on that he'd seen the shirt.
Things were looking up more quickly than he'd expected.
â â â
The next day when he got home from work, Henry sat on the porch steps, elbows on his knees, boots unlaced but still on. Naomi was walking out with her laundry basket when he'd driven up, and when he asked, she told him that the twins were off running in the woods.
Now Henry watched Naomi as she took the laundry down from the line, admiring how her body moved under the thin yellow dress, the dress she'd made from his Christmas gift. He could watch her all day, that stretch and bend, stretch and bend. The movements made her dress love on the parts of her that he, too, wanted to touch.
“Naomi, come over here,” Henry said. His voice cracked a little.
She glanced up, and a clothespin slipped out of her fingers. She bent quickly to retrieve it. Her braid swung down over her shoulder as she knelt.
That sweetness, he thought to himself. Yes, that.
“I've been meaning to talk to you about something.”
, he thought, but decided not to say.
“Oh,” Naomi said.
Henry swallowed hard and smiled at her. “Have you ever thought maybe...” he trailed off, losing his nerve.
Naomi blinked at him. Her fingers were on the end of her braid.
“What would you say if...” Henry tried again. He could feel his nerves stretching a ridiculous smile across his face.
Naomi said nothing.
“How are the two wildcats?” he asked.
“Like I said, playing in the woods.”
“But,” he faltered. “School? That okay?” He clasped his hands together.
She released a small breath, then nodded. “Miss Bell's been talking of skipping them to the next grade, you know. I heard about it from my Spanish teacher.”
“They've got you taking Spanish?” he asked.
Naomi reddened. “Everybody takes it, so...” she trailed off.
“I've been thinking,” Henry tried again, “that maybe you and me ought to...” Henry wasn't looking at Naomi, but if he had been, he'd have seen her eyes widened in alarm. “How about you and meâ” And then he sensed her dread. That was the only word for it. He looked up and saw the twins on the far side of the Humble Camp fence, coming their way.
“âtake the kids for some ice cream?” Henry shouted the last words loud enough for the twins to hear. Then he laughed a little. Delaying the question freed up something in him that usually stayed knotted.
“Ice cream!” Cari shouted. “Beto, ice cream!”
â â â
Henry took a sip of his malt, swallowed. “Some weather, huh? Everybody wants a bit of cool.”
“It is hot out,” Naomi said. Her spoon dipped dutifully into her dish of ice cream. Plain vanilla; she hadn't even let him talk her into a sundae.
It was the first time Naomi had sat next to him, he realized. He wanted to take it for encouragement, but it was only because Beto hadn't wanted the seat. The boy was still sore about the hunting trip. Henry knew he'd been hard on him, ugly even, but they were out eating ice cream; there was no call for sullenness.
He attempted a smile at the twins. “You like it?”
Cari nodded. “We do. Thanks, Daddy.” She licked the butterscotch from her spoon, then dipped it into Beto's dish. He didn't protest.
“Robbie,” Henry pressed, “How's the fudge?”
“Good,” Beto mumbled. “Thank you.”
The boy wouldn't look at him, just sat there like a lump. Henry sighed and looked around. The ice cream parlor was packed with men in shirtsleeves and women who had gotten out their summer dresses early. Children darted between the crowded tables. Everyone else was sweating but happy.
He drained his glass without tasting it. “Let's finish on up. I reckon somebody else might want the table.”
Naomi had an idea of what was coming from Henry. Still, she hoped against it, did everything she could not to think of it. She pressed Wash into the tree every chance she got.
“You're hungry for kisses,” he teased, but she would not be dissuaded.
She would have preferred an intimate celebration for Wash's birthday, too, but the twins had been getting ready for it for weeks. Together, they planned a little party for him on the last Saturday in February. Cari and Beto brought along a gift they'd prepared on their own, something bulky in a burlap sack, and they had made a cake.
Naomi's first thought was to make their picnic on the riverbank. There'd been too much rain, though, and the gnats and mosquitoes were worse by the water. Naomi pointed out a sunny patch just off the path in the woods, and they spread an old sheet over the pine needles. Once the cake and gifts were laid out, the twins ran off to wait for Wash to finish working for Mr. Crane.