By Robert Smith
I'm twelve. In the backyard of the big house I make a fort-slash-cave inside a mountain of snow I pile against the wall of the garage. It's big enough to squeeze into so just my legs poke out. Not much to do in it but make-believe I'm somewhere else. I've never been anywhere so I have to pretend I know what that's like.
I hear the muffled sound of the back door shutting and a crunch of footsteps coming closer, and I can already tell you it's gotta be Dashboard Jenny. She stops somewhere right behind me. She's probably standing there looking down at my feet, trying to figure out the best thing to do, like she usually does: real slow.
Finally, she shakes my ankle and I let it just flop around. She calls my name and it sounds like "Wandy" instead of "Randy."
Like Elmer Fudd: "Wascally Wabbit."
I don't answer. Even when she pulls me out on my back, all dead weight, I don't move a muscle but play as dead as I can with my tongue fallin' out my head.
This is what Miss Jenkins would have called "noncompliant" or "indifferent character."
Jenny's got her face right over mine—her crazy wandering eye like a compass that points any direction but the one her whole body turns toward, and that big round bobble-head she don't have any control over. That's why she got the name "Dashboard Jenny."
Inside the big house is where all us kids come to live with Jenny and Miss Jenkins, at least until two nights ago when Miss Jenkins was taken out and put into the back of a white van. I didn't see it but Griffin did. He told me two men were carrying her and one of her boobs flopped out from under a blanket. Griffin said it had veins and lightning-shaped lines spread out all over like that glass ball at the Science Center—the one that shoots bolts of electricity when you touch it.
In the laundry room I unzip my snowsuit and pull off my boots, leaning against the washer machine so I don't fall over. I hang everything up on my hook, turn the light out and walk through the little swinging doors into the hallway. There's all kinds of clothes, broken toys, single shoes lined up along the baseboard—something Miss Jenkins would have never allowed. I pass Sammy and Griffin's room, then mine and Nicholas' room. Inside is the steady hum of the dehumidifier for Nicholas' "sticks and roses.” The humming keeps the air around him dry otherwise he's liable to get real sick. In between these two rooms, on the other side of the hall, is Dashboard Jenny's room that she gets to keep all to herself because she's a girl and Miss Jenkins' real daughter. Her door is always shut with a stupid note that says "Stay away, or else!" And then upstairs is the attic and Miss Jenkins’ room.
At the end of the long corridor I see everybody sitting around in the common area. Mr. McDaniel is standing next to some lady that kind of looks like Miss Jenkins, but isn't. Mr. McDaniel lives at the bottom of the hill, which also means other side of town. He hardly ever makes it up to the big house, especially in the winter when most roads are snowed over, like they are right now. It's been explained to us that this house and land belong to him and his family before him, and it's because of his "graciousness and goodwill" that we will always have a "house and home." I never could figure out which was which, and when, but felt stupid asking. Always looked like one thing, all the time, to me: the big house.
Jenny's got everybody seated like show and tell.
"This is Sylvia," Mr. McDaniel says. "Please introduce yourself," he prompts me since I'm the last to join. She says it's very nice to meet me after I tell her my name.
"Sylvia is Miss Jenkins' cousin and will be staying here for the time being."
Sylvia's arms look like overinflated balloons. Most people’s hang down at their sides but Sylvia’s keep bobbing back up, shoulders to her ears, reminding me of Nicholas when he wears his floaties in the pool. Her eyes aren't anything but two glassy buttons pushed deep into the tufts of an overstuffed face, and a pink nose pinched so tight it doesn't seem to me like she can even breathe out of it—probably why her mouth's been hanging open the whole time like the bottom-feeders sucking on the glass of Sammy’s aquarium. Her hair's pulled back into a tiny ponytail that looks as if it’s been stolen from a little girl somewhere along the way. I picture Sylvia walking around like the Stay Puft marshmallow man, swatting planes, peeking into skyscraper windows, snatching up ponytails and squashing them on top of her own sweaty head the way I stick fireflies to my ring-finger in the summer.
Mr. McDaniel asks Griffin, the oldest, to grab Sylvia's bags from the front porch and has Jenny show her around. Jenny, eager to please and acting special from being blood-related, takes Sylvia by the hand and leads her around like a stubborn donkey. Jenny's really digging in, trying to coax her along, stopping at the picture wall with all the school portraits, and whatever photos were brought with us when we showed up at the big house. One of those pictures up there is my mother, so I'm told. She's pregnant with me, that's why she's standing sideways, her hands on her belly like that. I never knew her. She died before I could remember.
Miss Jenkins says it's good to show parts of your story even if you don't know what it is.
Sammy, the cry-baby, runs to Mr. McDaniel and wraps his arms around his legs and starts wailin’ away for Miss Jenkins. Mr. McDaniel pats his head, promises him she'll be back before long, and says something about her just needing a rest.
I run out the back door, past the garage, across the field and along the fence until I squeeze through a gap in the chain link. I slide down the side of the ditch with the tiny ribbons of frozen water snaking along the bottom. I pull on the exposed roots from the trees above on the other side and lift myself out. This is where an unpaved country road cuts across. I'd only ever seen a car on that road once but I still look up and down every time. Across the road is another shallow ditch I slide into and back out of. The smell of frozen mud is so good and so strong, I smear some across my forehead. I just scoop it out from the ground. The dirt gets colder the deeper I scratch my fingers right into it and I know it's gonna be a long winter. In the mornings Miss Jenkins used to ask me “How's the honey pour?” And if I turned the jar upside down and it poured right out we knew it was gonna be a warm day, but if the honey took a good old time crawling to the glass lip, we put on extra layers and brought our arms up inside our sweaters like we were never even born with them.
I duck underneath a circle of pine where the branches near the bottom don't have their needles. I walk along crouched like this, from one tree to the next until I make it to a small clearing in the middle where I can stand up at my full height again and it's right there, square in front of me.
When I first found the little house I knew right away it used to be some kind of hunters’ shed, the kind where they hide inside with their guns sticking out the little slits in the cedar walls and wait for the deer to walk on by. I heard about men doing that and it always sounded like cheating to me. A body’s gotta get around and move about to take what it wants. You can't just sit and wait for it to come to you.
Things got crazy fast. Right away Sylvia left Jenny to do just about everything while she stayed upstairs, watching TV mostly, from what I can tell. Used to be Miss Jenkins was always in the kitchen or playing cards with Nicholas in the common area. Now it's Jenny and, so far, I think she can only make spaghetti and sandwiches. Sometimes she puts the two together and makes spaghetti sandwiches.
Sammy started up with his "cattle rattle" like never before:
"One dollar bid, now two, now two—will ya give me two? Two dollar bid, now three, now three—will ya give me three?"
And it always ends the same:
"Going, going, gone!"
When he first started, right after that "vocational counselor" got him all riled up, he'd practice auctioning off things from around the house—a can of ground coffee, a half-burnt candle, a jar of sand from some beach Griffin kept on top his dresser, one of Jenny's Precious Moments figurines. Miss Jenkins would keep time and we'd make pretend bids by holding up our paddles made from paper plates and Popsicle sticks. Even though it was make-believe, Sammy would get so worked up and upset whenever he'd get tongue-tied that it stopped being fun, and especially since we never got to keep any of the stuff we bid on anyway. Sammy was always "sensitive from his own personal story" all the time, which is why he'd get so hyper and I think must be why he walks around on his tip-toes like he does.
Ever since Miss Jenkins been gone he's been practicing his auctioneer voice almost nonstop, even in bed when we are all trying to sleep.
Sylvia comes around to make sure that big cup of hers is always filled to the top with Coke and ice. She's gotta eat too, that's for sure. If she had her own fridge upstairs, I bet we'd never see her, which seems to be just fine for Jenny and Griffin because they've been acting like now they rule the place just because they're the oldest and been in the big house the longest. Griffin even sleeps in Jenny's room all of a sudden, like they're boyfriend and girlfriend. They fight all the time the way I see married people do on the talk shows, then they make up and get real lovey-dovey.
What drives me the most crazy is how they think they can tell us what to do. They started making us sit at the dinner table for meals like Miss Jenkins used to have it, but instead of "three square meals a day" it's Jenny's spaghetti and a bunch of junk, but they think they're Mr. and Mrs. Big House, and what they say goes. Then, after they make a gigantic mess in the kitchen getting us all fed, they go about their business and just kind of act real important all the time. Sammy and Nicholas play along. Sammy because he's stupid; Nicholas because he doesn't know better.
I've been getting my little house ready, running out there with stuff every chance I get. I stole some towels from the hamper and stuck them in the little gun slits to keep out the cold. I spread out a bunch of blankets on the ground. Two blankets just about cover the entire thing, and then I stacked them three deep. I try to catch the grocery box that the guy from Welfare drops off before anybody else does so I can take some of the canned and jarred goods and all the cereal too. I dragged a little hope chest out there—took me all day—and that's where I keep the food.
I'm surprised to see Sylvia downstairs with Nicholas and Sammy playing the auction game. Nicholas has on his Superman cape, which is really just a vibrating vest that plugs into the wall that "shakes out the junk.” It's Big Old Sylvia sitting next to Nick on the couch, the both of them jiggling from the cape, betting against each other with their paper plates. Sammy has the TV pulled out from the wall and is standing behind it holding up that dumb glass jar filled with sand asking real fast “will you give me this, will you give me that,” and poor Nicholas sticks up his plate, then Sylvia, then they both start laughing because their plates are shaking like leaves. Sammy feels real smart because the numbers just keep going up and up.
"Do we have another bidder in the back of the house?" Sammy asks, like he's in a room full of people. Idiot.
"Grab your paddle, Randy," Sylvia's words come out like pennies on Griffin’s speakers when he listens to his Zeppelin tapes and this gets them to crackin’ up too.
"Whattaya think I want a jar of sand for?!" And I head around for the kitchen. As I walk out the room, I hear Sammy being a jokester: "Going, going, gone!"
"Antisocial," Miss Jenkins would have said. "We really need to work on that."
I steal a bag of chips for the little house then sneak out the back door.
Earlier, before he fell asleep, I decided to tell Nicholas about the little house, even asked him if he wanted to live there with me, and I meant it. I could just barely see the outline of his face in the bed next to mine, but I could tell he was excited.
I told him we would have to wait for the summer, when things dried up on account of his “sticks and roses,” because we can't plug anything in without any electricity out there, but promised him it would be ready by then. I asked him wouldn't he miss everybody and he said “not if I'm with you,” and we both agreed that without Miss Jenkins around things just weren't the same. I knew he was trying to act all puffed up about everything, but I knew he was scared too.
I'm still awake trying to figure things out. I'm thinking about how after holiday break it's a whole five months until summer, and somewhere in between that is my birthday. I'm wondering how I could get Nick's stuff out to the little house so we can move even sooner. He starts his coughing. I'm used to him choking and puking up little phlegm wads in the middle of the night so I'm not paying too much mind—still thinking hard. Nicholas rolls over onto his stomach and hangs his head over the side of his bed. I can hear all his fluids rattling around in his lungs like his dehumidifier does when the bucket of water gets too full and needs to get dumped or else it just sputters and gets sucked back into the machine, spraying everything in sight. That's what I wish I could do with Nicholas—dump him out.
Nicholas has his mouth open, a thin line of sticky spit connecting his fat bottom lip right to the floor. I can't see too good because it's real dark but his face doesn’t look right.
"You okay, Nick?"
He's trying to catch his breath but I can tell he's not gonna get it. I climb out of bed and stand over him like I've seen Miss Jenkins do and start karate chopping his back, all up and down real quick like a bongo drum, the way she did. She used to put her Harry Belafonte records on and sing along, and it would get Nick laughing, when he wasn't coughing.
I start singing "Day! Day-Oh!" I start singing about the daylight coming and wanting to go home. The spine bones under his skin feel like cutting teeth coming through gums so I try to keep to either side of them, afraid I'm gonna split his skin open and those bones come right through. I'm singing: "Day! Day-Oh!" I'm singing about the daylight coming and how I wanna go home.
Nick lets out a wet belch and I can hear him take in a big breath when suddenly Sylvia comes charging in, pushing me aside. In two seconds flat she's got Nicholas slung over her huge shoulder and carries him out the bedroom door, turning sideways to squeeze through, and then she gets him over her knee on the couch. She's slapping his back with one hand and has the phone receiver from the little end table next to her in the other. She sees me standing in the doorway and yells at me to go back to bed, but I just hide around the corner. Somebody must have answered on the other end of the phone because she's giving out our big house address, and then hangs up.
"Randy, I said get to bed, goddammit!"
I'm not sure how she sees me but I go.
The room fills with red and blue.
When I get up it’s already afternoon and I pee such a long pee I almost wish I sat down for it, but it's too late to stop now. Outside the bathroom window it’s all white snow everywhere, can't make out anything else for it. Before I leave the bathroom I get my hands wet in the sink and try to lay down the pokey hairs on the back of my head.
In the kitchen Griffin is sitting at the table with the newspaper playing all grown up, but I can see he's got it open to the comics. Jenny's at the sink, peeling a potato over a pile of dirty dishes.
"Good morning, Wandy," she says, but she's just messin' because she knows, and I know, it's not morning anymore. I pour some juice. In the living room Nick is sprawled out on his stomach across the couch. He's got his cape on. His arms are held out over his head: “flying over the buildings.” Tubes are stuck up his nose—I forget what those do because I've only seen them once before.
"You gonna work on the little house today?" Nick asks me. I tell him I came up with a good idea last night, and we might be able to move even sooner than I thought.
Out in the garage I've got a secret stash of bright orange extension chord, plugged back to back, all rolled up into a giant, tangled pile.
I found a bucket of white acrylic in the attic and every day I unravel a little bit to paint so nobody will see it against the snow coming out the big house, all the way to the little one.
Robert Smith has publications in several queer zines and presented original material at New Museum and Housing Works in NYC, most notably. He's been featured in Barney Rosset's Evergreen Review, and just recently, Wilde Stories 2014: the year's best gay speculative fiction. He now lives in Seattle.