Authors: Christina Meredith
he door to our room is cracked open, out of habit mostly, because Billie was so afraid of the dark when we were little. I don't mind anymore.
Light shines in from the kitchen and makes a soft golden triangle on the faded pink rug between our beds, same as it did back when my mom's humming would lull us both to sleep while she paged through a magazine or mindlessly flipped through the channels on the TV, snapping through them all once before beginning again, always searching, as if something new were going to appear, like magic.
Dad waits at the kitchen table, his nightly vigil under way.
His arms are crossed over his chest. His eyes are unfocused, stubborn. Fresh scrapes shine from under his chair, a new layer dug into the marks already there. His coffee grows cold.
Eventually I hear the chair scuff across the floor and the mug clink into the bottom of the sink. He is giving up. Giving in.
I turn and squint into the light as he shuffles across the linoleum. His shoulders are square and strong. He moves carefully, a big man in a small kitchen.
My bed creaks and he pauses, hand above the light switch.
His eyes lock onto mine. He sighs, heavy, and clicks off the light.
I lie alone in the dark, eyes open long after he leaves for bed, long after I should, long past the point of remembering things that help, only things that hurt. I keep still, listening for Billie's breathing coming from across the room, even and thick, so I can drop off to sleep. But she is gone. There is only the sound of wind outside my window.
Tucking my covers in tight under my chin, I slide into a mental space that I only allow myself to find in bed, alone, wrapped in the safety of my sheets. Both my parents are there, happy and together. My brother, Winston, is there, and Billie, too, who seems less annoying late at night when I am sleepy and eager to drift off and dream.
I picture them all with me, lost in time, holding hands as the stars sparkle above us. I start to fade, lifting up and away from everything that holds me here, obeying the laws of gravity and cooking hamburger for dinner on a Saturday night, again.
inston,” Dad says, coming in through the front door with a stomp just as I set dinner on the table.
Winston slides into the chair facing mine and looks up. His hands are washed. His dark blond hair is parted and combed. He has on his favorite long-sleeve T-shirt with the hula girl on the front. Her boobs spill out the sides of her bikini top and make me want to blush.
Winston is making an unexpected appearance at the dinner table. He's usually out on Saturday nights, out in the garage, or out chasing down a car part, or out just being Winston, drifting and driving.
“Could you stop sleeping with the neighbors' daughters?” Dad asks, his voice gravelly. He blanches before he turns back to give the door a heavy shove with his boot.
Winston barks a smoky laugh and angles a taco over his plate. He hunches his shoulders, cracking into the shell.
“I didn't sleep with her,” he replies, a sly smile playing across his lips as my dad pulls out the chair at the head of the table. “Let's just say she has very soft hands.”
I look across the table at Winston in disbelief. Shreds of lettuce are hanging from the corners of his mouth. Hot sauce oozes over his chin.
My bite of taco scratches all the way down.
Most of the time I try to think of Winston as a very tall eunuch, so the fact that Carmen from next door, who is just a grade above me, has hooked up with himâprobably right there on our couchâwell, gross.
“Jailbait . . .” Billie sings.
She is busy picking the lettuce out of her taco until it is just sad, burned meat and shell.
Winston snorts. “That would be a great name for a band.”
I reach over his plate for the hot sauce.
“Speaking of bands . . .” he says, grabbing the hot sauce and holding it hostage. He raises his eyebrows at me.
“We weren't really,” I say, pulling the bottle free and giving it a shake.
Winston has a new job at the local radio station. It's housed in a small, dirt-colored building out on the highway, with a gravel parking lot and an old electric transformer planted out back. Ever since the day he started he's been begging me to stop by.
“Come on, Ted . . .” He nags, his mouth full again, “Come down to the station and meet the boys. Maybe bring your guitar.”
I picture a bunch of old dudes in desperate need of haircuts trapped inside, talking low and loud, inviting me down to the racetrack on Sunday, Sunday, Sunday, all while surrounded by half-eaten bags of Cheetos.
“I'll pass,” I say.
Winston sets his taco on his plate and stares down at the table.
“Ted,” he finally confesses, “I already played your thing for Randy.”
“That thing you made with Billie, in the garage. Your demo thing.”
“Who's Randy?” Billie asks.
Billie should know this by now. Randy owns the radio station. He's got a big Ford truck, a weak FM signal, and some family money (at least the chunk that he didn't drink away before he joined AA). He inherited the title of program director along with the station and has apparently taken a shine to Winston. Randy seems to think that Winston has potentialâand an unlimited supply of cigarettes. One of these is true, so he hired Winston on the spot. He is like Winston's new guardian angel.
“I do not have a demo thing,” I say.
“Well, that's what he called it.”
“That was just, you know”âI rock onto the back legs of my chair as my hands fumble in the air for what it wasâ“goofing around.”
Winston dusts his fingertips clean and watches me land. “Well, Randy liked it. And he'd like a second listen.”
I'm not sure I wanted him to have a shot at a first one.
“He said that?” Billie asks.
It's not like she did anything that day in the garage. She just hit some buttons. I could do that myselfâI haveâbut nobody, not even Billie, knows about that one.
“He did.” Winston nods, as if Randy's opinion were some kind of stamp of approval. Oh, the old guy who smokes a lot and used to be addicted to cough syrup? Yeah, well, he likes your songs, so you're all set.
“Randy likes to invest.” He shrugs as he finally wipes the hot sauce from his face, thank God, and gets up from the table. “You've got talent. He's got money. I see opportunity.”
I watch as Winston walks across the kitchen with his plate in one hand and the mostly empty milk jug in the other.
The last opportunity Winston saw left us with five cases of instant shake mix that promised we were “Guaranteed to Lose Weight!” The cardboard boxes still line the bottom of our hall closet years later. Winston never sold a single packet, and all we lost was $250.
Dad pushes at his shirtsleeves and, quietly listening, reaches for the last taco.
“You don't have to do anything,” Winston promises, his skinny butt sticking out of the fridge while he finds a place to stash the milk. “But what if I get some people together?” His long arm stretches out and drops his plate into the sink. He snags the dish towel hanging from the handle on the stove and turns to face me, “What if we could make some cash?”
“You mean what if
Because this isn't about me. Not really. How much cash can I make? I've never been in a band, never even set foot on a real stage. I'm not even legal. I'd be better off at Hooters. At least I already have all the right equipment for that.
Dad remains silent during Winston's entire pitch, apparently in full support of whatever it might take to keep his only son employed and accounted for, even if it is only part-time, even if it is something as sketchy as pimping his little sister out in a rock 'n' roll band.
I am almost with him, remembering the years when Winston kind of went missing. He skipped a lot of school. Dad bailed him out on a regular basis. Process servers and suspicious characters knocked on our door at all hours.
Dad used to wander around a lot and ask, “Where's your brother?”
Billie and I would shrug.
“Have you tried juvie?” I'd ask, and he'd grump and grumble away, his socks slipping across the cracked linoleum.
Maybe he is hoping that is all behind us now. That Winston is finally walking the straight and narrow and Randy is our beer-bellied salvation.
Truth is, we could use the help.
Dad is already working a second job on the night shift at the local warehouse, stacking pallets and other manual work that he is entirely too old to do, and things are still tight around here, as evidenced by the wilted lettuce on our tacos and the watered-down hot sauce.
Dad rolls his shirtsleeves down, his two tacos finished. I wait. His opinion is the one that matters; he is the only grown-up we have left.
My mom left us back when I was in the second grade. Mrs. Brewer was lumbering through a set of flash cards as a gusty autumn wind pushed the tire swing against its frame outside my classroom window.
Bump, bump, bump . . . 11 times 12 was 132. Bump, bump, bump . . . 12 times 12 was 144. Bump, bump, bump, while my mother packed a bag, swung the front door shut, and walked away on a sunny Tuesday afternoon.
Billie and I came home to a quiet house that day, which in itself wasn't unusual, but it was also empty. No smoke drifted from my mother's room, no mumbled phone conversation
dragged on behind her closed door as we ate cookies right from the bag, trying to hear what she was saying, chewing as quietly as humanly possible.
We were always trying to figure out what was going on with her. Everybody was.
“I don't think she's coming back this time,” Dad said to Winston as I watched from my bed that night, the door to our room left open wide.
He was leaning against the kitchen counter, a coffee mug in his hand, his eyes on the night sky and the empty clothesline in the backyard.
Winston sat at the table, taking the news like a little man, much better than Billie or me. He was twelve.
I never once saw him cry. But I bet he did.
Lying behind me, tight against my back, scared and shaky, Billie's breath hitched and caught in her chest. A flutter of air escaped from her, and a ragged leftover cry crept up my spine.
Billie took it the hardest.
She was only five then; she didn't remember a time before the fights or the heavy silence and tension that hung over our house like a dark cloud.
I did, but I was caught somewhere in the middle, between Winston and Billie, straddling stony silence and tragic heartbreak.
As far as I know, my mom didn't have delusions of
grandeur or talent that went wasted by the wayside. She just wanted to get out. Out of the small town she was born in. Out of the little life that she had lived until the age of eighteen.
She did have a bad case of wanderlust and a serious caffeine addiction.
They kept her up late at night thinking, smoking. Staring out the windows of our boxy little house, her eyes glassy as the channels clicked by, trying to see past the flat gray sky to something better, to that unknown oasis of fun or adventure or whatever it was just over the horizon. To something that made her feel whole, stable, and maybe settled. That stopped the churning of her thoughts and quieted her nonstop tuneless humming.
Maybe my mom had music in her head, but she didn't know what to do with it. She didn't pick up the guitar, or get obsessed with albums, or join the church choir.
She didn't curl up with a wrinkled notebook, filling page after page, fashioning a never-ending stream of dreams and hurts and secrets into songs. Not like I do.
Instead she sat and chain-smoked menthol cigarettes, hummed constantly, and played the piano once or twice a year. The rest of the time her tune was trapped, churning around in her head, like electricityâwith no outlet.
She didn't leave a note or anything.
She simply called Dad at work, broke the news, and then
slipped out the door before he could drive home. She was in a hurry, I guess.
For years we set the table for her, one empty plate and one empty glass left at the foot of the table at the end of every night. We've never even scooted over to fill up that empty space. We just pretend it isn't there.
Billie's next to me now, arranging bits of taco meat in a circle around the edge of her plate. The mom end of the table is empty, like always, and Winston's leaning against the counter with a towel trapped in one wet hand, waiting for me to respond.
Somehow his request to stop by the station has snowballed into the start of a band, complete with mountains of cash and the expansion of Randy's investment portfolio. How did that happen?
I look over at Dad. He rubs his face with his hands and sits back in his chair.
“Does this mean you'll keep your hands off the neighbors?” he asks Winston.
Winston grins and crosses his heart. “Scout's honor.”
We all know Winston left the Scouts when he discovered a skunk in the bathroom at day camp. Rumor has it he peed his pants on the way home. I can't be sure, though. Mom was still around to do the laundry in those days.
Dad pushes his plate away and nods at me: permission granted.
But it is up to me to decide.
“So, like a band?” I ask Winston. Might as well start at the very beginning, I think. We can get to the mountains of money later.
Winston shrugs his big shoulders again, easing me into the idea. “I could send out an e-mail from the station, set up some auditions, maybe put up a posting.”
Do I want Winston hunched over a creaky keyboard at the station, jabbing away with his oil-stained fingers, arranging my future? Seems like there must be more refined ways to break into the music business. Like sledgehammers or monster trucks.
“Maybe you could play some local clubs once you get practiced up,” he says, pulling a twenty-dollar bill out of his front pocket and unfurling it. “Get to know some of the presidents we never covered before Mr. Hansen curled up and died.”
Winston doesn't know that Mr. Hansen was replaced years ago. Besides, I doubt that we'll see many bills bigger than a twenty. More like lots of singles. Stripper money. We will probably only make enough money to buy some new guitar picksâif we're lucky.
“Come on, Ted,” Winston says as he wipes his hands on the dish towel and tosses it onto the counter. The towel slides to the floor.
“I'll think about it,” I say, but not believing that I ever actually will.
Mostly I want this conversation to be over, for Billie and Dad to be doing something other than staring at me with hope and expectation, just waiting for the second when I cave and do what Winston wants. What everyone wants.
“Fair enough,” Dad replies, and gets up.
He crosses the room and struggles into his brown Carhartt coat, the one with the flannel lining, that I'd love to borrow and never give back, his mind already on the task ahead of him, a night of lifting and stacking and cold, stiff shoulders.
“What are you doing tonight?” Dad asks Winston, pausing at the door.
He looks at me.
“Staying in,” I say.
We all know that going out means driving up and down the main street until somebody finds a place to have a party, and then everyone converges. It meant the same thing back when Dad was in high school.
He turns toward Billie and stares her down. “If your sister's not going, neither are you.”
He knows I will stay sober and take care of her. He counts on that.
“I don't want to stay in,” Billie whines.
“I don't want to go out,” I say, setting Dad's empty plate on top of mine and heading for the sink.
“It'll be fun, Teddy Lee,” Winston booms from halfway down the hall.
Right. It will be some random party, at some dumpy house at the end of some dead-end road, and Winston will be there, too, even though he's way too old, holding court in the back room and staying to the very end, until the keg sprays air and the easiest girls put out.