By Christine Rice
That summer everyone’s tongue clicked with the news: Katherine Godrich had come home. During her eight-year absence, the adults’ head-turned whispering kept us rapt and inquisitive. Especially clever or lucky children heard her name associated with heroin, and addicted, and men. Perhaps because of her great beauty, the rest of us let her legend spin, glittering and sharp, to prick our imaginations and fill the empty corners of our uneventful lives: she’d become one of the Flying Wallendas. She danced with the Rockettes. She performed on Broadway.
Undercutting the life we’d carefully constructed for her were the darker facts, the ones we tried to tamp down: the times she’d been arrested, the time she’d shown up at our preschool singing “Me & Bobby McGee” in nothing but a bikini and red cowboy boots, the rumor that a social worker held Edwina’s hand as a police officer escorted Katherine out of old man Godrich’s house for good.
I know now that she hadn’t kicked her heroin addiction when she begged her father to take her back. Which he did. I suppose he did it because he wanted to believe she’d changed, come out the other side, that his tough love had finally won out because after Katherine had stolen and hocked every last bit of her mother’s jewelry, after her daughter Edwina’s birth, after his wife died and he’d kicked Katherine out for good, he needed to believe in goodness again.
Maybe she’d tried to change. Maybe she’d been trying so hard it nearly killed her. I don’t know. I’m an ER nurse now—I see a lot of sick people, people who’ve done stupid things and people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time, and those who are just plain sick with addiction—but looking back on it, I’ll never forget the hungry look in Katherine Godrich’s eyes. The heroin had bullied her chemistry, mutated her nature, transformed her into something, I’m willing to bet, even she couldn’t recognize.
Katherine Godrich arranged to take Edwina’s best friends—me, my brother Gomer, and Astrid Miracal—to the carnival that appeared every summer in an abandoned field across from the US 23 Drive-in. She’d called our dad and Astrid’s mom and told them we would make a day of it, to send some spending money, not expect us home until late.
It was a Monday in mid-July, one of those still, blistering, humid Michigan days when you pray for the heat to break or a powerful diversion. The thrill of winning a stuffed animal or seeing a man with breasts or riding a rickety coaster made us beg Daddy to let us go and, even though he couldn’t get Mr. Goynes on the phone, he finally agreed. Gomer and I sat on our porch steps waiting for Old Man Godrich’s Buick Roadmaster to pull up our drive and, by the time it did, my sweaty palms soaked the ten one dollar bills Daddy had given me.
Miss Godrich flung her hand out the window as she pulled up our long drive, dust curling in the station wagon’s wake, riming the black walnut tree leaves in a silvery dust until she jerked to a stop in the barn’s shade. In my young mind, the Janis Joplin incident took daring and guts—something sorely lacking in other New Canaan adults. It had become one of those magical events, a wonderful dream, and the anticipation of seeing Katherine Godrich—again and in the flesh—nearly made me faint. I wasn’t disappointed. Her fashion prowess stunned me into silence. From what I could see through the windshield and then from the back seat where I sat between Astrid and Gomer, she parted her auburn hair, same color as Edwina’s, down the middle and tamed it with a bright orange scarf. She wore a gauzy long-sleeved top, huge white plastic hoop earrings that accentuated her long neck, a peace sign thumb ring and beaded bracelets that clicked when she moved her arm. I studied her reflection in the rearview, admired the quirky space between her two front teeth and the equally dramatic pause between her dark eyebrows. Her cheekbones seemed impossibly high and dramatic, like small cliffs carved below her eyes, and her bowed lips, painted orange-red, contrasted her pale skin. But when she removed the big, dark sunglasses to check her lipstick in the rearview, there was something missing in her green eyes; it was as if something had been snuffed out, broken or gone missing.
It’s hard to explain. Kids see things adults don’t. Or perhaps we—me, Gomer, and our friends Astrid and Edwina—were different; our circumstances forced us to see things others simply couldn’t. I’m not sure. Our mother died in 1970 and Gomer took it awfully hard. He’d stopped talking altogether for a while and this, multiplied by the fact that he hadn’t grown into those long legs and skinny arms, caused bullies to flock to him. Astrid’s mother rarely left the house (except every Sunday for mass), opting to stay in bed most of the day with a wet washcloth over her eyes. Edwina’s grandfather did the best he could (better, really, than could have been expected) the entire time Katherine had been away.
Edwina sat in the front and I noticed that she seemed as curious about her mother as we did, stealing glances at her profile every chance she got. Katherine seemed to regard Edwina as an especially adorable pet and kept referring to her as Sweet Pea or Doll or Gorgeous as if she couldn’t pronounce or remember her own daughter’s name. What Katherine lacked in affection, however, she made up in panache. She carried herself like a rock star or a starlet, had a dramatic way of speaking, taffied her vowels and flapped her hand to make a point, “You darlings ready to have fun?”
Turning her attention to Daddy walking toward the car, she adjusted her mouth into a neutral line. His face looked especially drawn that day as he walked slowly to the Roadmaster, wiping his hands on his thighs before resting one on the side mirror.
Miss Godrich tapped her painted fingernails on the steering wheel and, as if she’d long been accustomed to waiting, waited.
“Long time. How you been, Katherine?”
Katherine nodded, “Good. Real good, Mr. Goynes.”
“Well that’s good.” Daddy smiled and patted the mirror a few more times, like he wasn’t convinced. “That’s real good.”
She didn’t tilt her head up to Daddy but kept her face forward like she’d spotted something in the distance. “Been working. In Florida. Got some deals going. Real estate.”
“Real estate, huh? Well that’s just fine.”
“Yep.” There was an awkward pause and I wished Daddy would walk away but he just stood there, hand on the mirror, biting the inside of his cheek until Katherine said, “Well, nice to see you, Mr. Goynes. I’ll have them back before bedtime.”
“You do that.” Daddy tapped the mirror twice and stepped back to let her pull past, around the big oak and down our long drive. I looked at Daddy, just a speck then, as we turned onto the main road. He stood with his hands in his pockets and, for a brief moment, I felt panicked, felt the urge to jump out of the Roadmaster and run all the way back up that dusty drive and into his arms.
“Sorry about the air. Busted.” She looked into the rearview. “So you’re Blanche and Gomer.”
“Yes, Miss Godrich,” I said.
She tapped her fingers on the steering wheel. “You can call me Kat. No need to be so formal.” She drove with her right arm draped over the seat and, every once in a while, would touch Edwina’s long hair.
Edwina lowered her voice. “Are you sure Pops said it was okay to go?”
Katherine ruffled Edwina’s hair. “Stop being such a worry wart, Edwina.”
“I told him. Last night—after you went to bed. He said it was fine.”
“Before he left he told me—“
“Don’t worry about it, Sweet Pea.” She laughed. “Don’t you want to go?”
I couldn’t see Edwina’s face but watched her rub her left eyebrow with her knuckle the way she did when she got nervous. “Yeah, but—“
“Stop worrying and just have fun.” Katherine adjusted the rearview to look at us. “Edwina doesn’t know how to have fun, does she?”
It was one of those cheap questions adults aim at kids, the kind that brands you traitorous if you answer. We shrugged uncomfortably.
She readjusted the rearview. “How much money you got to spend?”
Astrid pulled a change purse out of her shorts pocket and pulled out two tens. “Twenty.”
“What about you two?”
“Ten each,” I offered.
She dropped her hand into the back seat. “I’ll hold it for you so you don’t lose it.”
Edwina shifted in her seat and Katherine shot her a look. “What?”
Edwina looked away as Katherine fluttered her fingers. We dutifully placed the bills in her waiting palm.
Katherine snapped her fingers at her daughter. “You bring any?”
Edwina didn’t move. Katherine looked into the back seat. “Can you believe Edwina doesn’t trust her own mother?”
Astrid elbowed me and gave me a look that said, What the? Gomer leaned forward like he was about to say something but didn’t. It was noon and even with the windows down, the heat felt stifling. I tried to keep from touching Astrid or Gomer but, sitting between them, and with the way Katherine drove, it wasn’t easy. She didn’t make full stops and swung the Roadmaster around turns so that the back end nearly fishtailed.
When we got to Main, Katherine turned south instead of north. “I need to make a quick stop before we go to the carnival.”
Edwina started rubbing her eyebrow again before asking, “Where’re we going?”
Katherine didn’t even turn her head. “Wouldn’t you like to know?”
Edwina turned, eyes wide and frightened, and a wave of fear washed over me. Katherine drove south and got on I-75. She kept chattering about things I suppose should have interested us: the Jackson Five, The Brady Bunch, the Osmonds. When “One Tin Soldier” came on WTAC, she launched into a fervent anti-war speech about Lyndon Johnson and Nixon and Kent State and Agent Orange and the righteousness of war protests. As we passed miles of corn and soy fields, Katherine kept up the rolling commentary and the more she talked, the more frightened I became.
Gomer bit the inside of his cheek like Daddy. Edwina kept rubbing her eyebrow. Astrid, used to the unpredictableness of adults, just stared out the side window. The landscape changed from cornfields to city streets and, the deeper we drove into Detroit, the more ominous and unfamiliar everything became. Burnt homes and businesses still wore boards over their windows from the ’67 riots and, besides a panting dog running alongside the car, the weed-cracked streets were deserted. Only occasionally, we’d see a woman, dark skin glowing in the heat, fanning herself on her stoop. Katherine swung into a ramshackle motel; its neon sign—ALGIERS in neon red, the A made of two scimitars joined at the top —flickered weakly against the blinding midday sun. The drive curved around the back of a U-shaped building, a low-slung, single story red-brick building connecting two three-story structures. An empty pool, its naked sides cracked and its bottom glittering with broken glass, occupied a trash-strew courtyard. A few cars with shiny rims, dull paint, curb feelers and Landau tops occupied the parking spaces.
Katherine pulled into a space in front of the low-slung structure, got out, walked around the front of the Roadmaster, opened Edwina’s door and told her to get out. As soon as Edwina did, Katherine reached into her daughter’s shorts pocket, grabbed her change purse, pushed her back into the car, and shut the door. “Wait here. I’ll be right back.” Then she looked around like she’d just noticed where we’d stopped and added, “And don’t get out of the car."
She strutted up to #7 in white go-go boots and a mini-skirt, knocked, and disappeared inside.
Edwina turned to us, bit her lip and looked ready to cry. “Sorry—“
“It’s okay.” Astrid tried playing it cool. “Adults get to do anything they want.”
Edwina nodded vigorously. Edwina turned to us and whispered as if Katherine might appear at any moment. “Pops and his brother took the Amtrak to visit their sister this morning. She had a heart attack yesterday.”
We nodded but even that motion magnified the heat; it felt stifling, like we would melt into the leather seats.
“As soon as he left she started going through everything—all the drawers and cupboards and closets—and kept asking me if Pops left money anywhere. She got really angry when she couldn’t find anything.”
Edwina kept looking at #7. “I think she’s buying drugs.”
Astrid, always impatient, said, “Well, she better hurry up and get them so we can get to the carnival.”
Gomer said quietly, “I can start it without the key. I know how. Drive us home.”
We’d been driving on the farm ever since our legs were long enough to reach the clutch and hotwiring the old Chevy pickup since the ignition went.
Edwina shook her head. “Not without my mom.”
There was no use arguing with that. We knew how Edwina felt. We opened the car doors to catch a breeze but nothing stirred. It seemed even hotter outside. Other than two guys, one black and one white, both shirtless and skinny, leaning on the balcony railing smoking cigarettes, nothing moved.
In anticipation of the carnival, I hadn’t eaten breakfast. “Your Pops ever leave money in the ashtray? Maybe we could buy some chips in the office.”
We started rummaging around between seat cushions and on the floor. Edwina found seventy-five cents under the seats. I found a penny and Gomer found a nickel.
Before we got out of the car, Astrid jerked her head up to the balcony that ran perpendicular to the building into which Katherine disappeared. “Those guys are creepy.”
The sun, bright and glaring, reflected off their sweaty skin. They wore dark sunglasses but I imagined their eyes following our every move. We walked toward the motel office. It was shaped like an aquarium; the front walls were glass from bottom to top and a flat green roof extended like a lily pad over the entire thing. As we approached, we spotted a thickly built man occupying a folding lawn chair. A little red cooler sat next to him with an open can of Stroh’s sweating on top. Hooked on the arm of the folding chair was a thickly carved cane. The cane’s top, where his hand now rested, had been carved into the head of a crow. The beak was long and pointed and made of silver and two large amber eyes shone out of the dark wood. The bottom half of the cane was at least three inches around and fully carved with crosses and swastikas and circles and triangles. The bottom third of the cane, the part that touched the ground, was made of a dull, silver metal. The man stared hard and tapped a folded newspaper on his knee as we approached.
Before we could step into the shade, he pointed the newspaper at us. “I’m no babysitter!”
We stopped, not quite sure if he was talking to us.
We shook our heads.
Edwina spoke up. “My Mom’s in number seven and—"
His eyes narrowed. He bit into a thick, soggy cigar and spoke out of the side of his mouth. “Number seven? You think I care? Now get!” He flourished the newspaper at us.
We’d never been spoken to like dogs and didn’t know quite what to do. Astrid stepped forward. “We just wanted to see if—”
He dropped his newspaper, grabbed his cane and pointed it at us. “I said I’m no babysitter!”
Astrid folded her arms. “We don’t need a babysitter!”
The man pushed himself up, leaned on his cane and limped toward us. He was taller than I’d imagined, his barrel chest thick in a once-muscular way. He wore white polyester shorts and his legs were solid and hairy above knee-high black socks. A faded tattoo of an eagle clutching the earth with an anchor tucked behind covered his right bicep. He leaned forward but before he could say anything, the guys on the balcony started yelling.
“What’s your problem, man? Leave ‘em alone.”
Eddie stepped out of the shade. In the light, I noticed how his hip stuck out and the painful way his torso bent slightly to the right. His skin looked yellow; the whites of his eyes matched his sick pallor. He pointed the cane at the guys on the balcony. “You two pieces of dog shit shut the hell up or I’ll call the cops!” He stepped closer to us and poked the air with his index finger. “And you—spawn of the bitch in number seven—crawl back to where you came from.”
Edwina’s bottom lip trembled but Astrid leaned in. “We didn’t do anything to you! Why’re you so mean?”
Eddie stopped, just for a moment, it seemed, to consider the question.
Astrid grabbed Edwina’s hand and turned. “We just wanted to buy some chips.”
“Don’t got chips.”
“We wouldn’t want ‘em if you had ‘em—” Under her breath, Astrid added, “Ugly old man.”
We walked across the parking lot, to the end of the two-story building, where an anemic crabapple offered lacey shade. The huge, V-shaped neon sign hid us from Eddie’s view and the VACANCY sign hummed and stopped, hummed and stopped. We squatted in a semi-circle, our backs to the stairs leading to the second floor, on ornamental white rocks that actually seemed hotter than the asphalt. My t-shirt stuck to my wet skin and I wanted water so badly my throat hurt.
Gomer rarely looked scared, but he did now. I could tell because he picked at the fringe of his cut-off jean shorts and kept tugging the brim of his Tiger’s cap. Rusty freckles covered his nose and cheeks and his sleeveless t-shirt revealed the bones of his shoulders and elbows poking beneath his skin. At ten, I was a carbon copy of him; the only thing distinguishing us was my long brown hair.
Astrid squatted to one side of Gomer, her long legs and arms very pale against a purple jumper and wild black curls. Edwina tried to hide the fact that she was crying and kept wiping her face with the collar of her shirt.
“Hey.” The guys from the balcony suddenly stood behind Astrid and, from my vantage point looking straight up, the sun outlined them in hot white rings. The white guy, still shirtless and wearing bell-bottoms, pulled a hand through his long, stringy hair. He paused to survey our little party while dragging a thumbnail across his belly. “I’m JT and—” he ticked his head to the black guy, “this is Skin. Come on up to our room and cool off.”
I’d seen hippies on television but never actually met one in person. New Canaan had hippies, harmless high school kids with long hair who protested the war outside city hall, but these guys didn’t seem like harmless kids or laid-back hippies. They were older, the skin of their faces taut and drawn, their pants barely hanging off jutting hipbones, their arms so lean and pockmarked that their veins bulged.
Gomer shook his head. “No, thank you.”
Skin took a swig from a clear liquor bottle and handed it to JT. “We got Cokes and air.”
“No, thank you.”
Skin’s Afro looked heavy and wet, like it would break his skinny neck. He leaned over Gomer. “You a polite little dude, huh?”
JT finished off the liquor and dropped the bottle at his feet. “In’t he, though?” He snatched Gomer’s Tiger’s cap off his head and tossed it to Skin who put it on top of his Afro. It sat on top of his head like a deformed mushroom until he threw like a Frisbee at the neon sign.
They suddenly seemed huge and dangerous, smirking and elbowing each other. I wanted to run or scream or cry.
JT lifted his chin. “These your sisters, little dude?”
Gomer swallowed. “Yeah,” he lied.
“All of ‘em?”
“What’s your name?”
Skin bit his bottom lip with his teeth and stuck out his top lip. “Go-mer! Come an’ slop the hogs!”
This seemed like the funniest thing in the world and they doubled over laughing. Their breath smelled of fermented things, sour and dead.
When they recovered, JT asked, “That your old lady went into number seven?”
Gomer hesitated and finally nodded.
“Chicks go in there don’t come out for a looong time.”
“If they come out at all,” Skin added.
JT leaned over Astrid, fingered her black curls, and lifted her chin with his index finger. “This one don’t look nothing like you, little dude.”
Astrid jerked her head away.
“Not as polite as your brother, huh?”
Astrid hugged her knees to her chest. A chorus of droning window units filled the air.
Skin stuck a bare toe into Astrid’s back. “Hey! He asked you a question.” When Astrid didn’t respond, he kicked her viciously in the back so that she pitched forward onto her hands. Gomer, Edwina and I stood quickly. My chest felt tight, like someone had bound it with rope, and that hopeless feeling, the one that accompanied me during Mama’s illness, wrestled the courage right out of me.
JT stuck his hand in his back pocket and, in a flash, a blade sliced the air. He leaned over, grabbed Astrid’s arm, yanked her up and pressed his skinny arm in a V against her chest; the hand gripping the knife hovering just below her jaw. The switchblade’s point rested behind Astrid’s ear lobe.
Edwina lunged to grab Astrid’s ankles but Skin kicked Edwina fiercely in the ribs to send her sprawling backward.
Blood trickled down Astrid’s neck. JT met each of our eyes. “See what happens when you don’t act right?”
As JT dragged Astrid toward the steps, Skin pointed a long finger at us. “You cats better come along. Never know what we might do to your sister if one a you leaves.”
Edwina pushed herself up. “I’m gonna tell my mom.”
The black guy leaned over her. “That junkie? She don’t give a shit about you. Wouldn’a left you here if she did. Besides, she’s higher than a kite by now.”
As he turned, Gomer picked up two handfuls of stones and hurled them at Skin’s back. Skin swung around and, in two great steps, grabbed Gomer by his t-shirt and shoved him against the tree. Gomer hit hard and slid to his knees. But he immediately pushed himself up, hugging his stomach and gasping for air as if he planned on charging.
“Hey!” JT pointed the knife into Astrid’s Adam’s apple. “You want me to cut her more?”
JT smirked. “I didn’t think so.”
As we made our way toward their room, I looked down to where Eddie sat, across the parking lot, in the shade, and even though it was a long way away, I thought his eyes flicked up, for just an instant, over his newspaper.
It took my eyes a while to adjust to the dimness of the room but the smell of piss and something skunky turned my stomach. Empty liquor bottles, spent needles, strange ceramic pipes littered the floor. Fist-sized pockmarks connected long, gaping cracks in the wall. Skin led Edwina into the room by her arm, followed by JT who ordered me and Gomer to stand against the wall next to the door. When we did, JT sat at the foot of the bed and pulled Astrid down between his legs so that her back pressed against his chest. He pushed her legs open with his free hand and then rubbed it on her crotch. I’d seen dirty magazines in the woods where we rode our bikes, damp and dirty under piles of leaves, with pictures of men and women doing things like this but never imagined an adult doing it to a child. Astrid tried to squirm away but JT pressed the knife into her skin until a steady bead of blood trailed down her neck. Astrid started sobbing but tried to hold it in so that her entire body convulsed.
“What’s your name?” The black guy ran his hand through Edwina’s hair.
“You two—” JT lifted his chin to Gomer and me, “sit.” When we didn’t move, he poked the knife into Astrid’s neck until we did.
Skin grabbed Edwina’s arm and led her to the end of the bed. Just as he pushed her, face first onto it, the door burst open and Eddie moved toward Astrid very slowly. I noticed, however, that he gripped the silver end of the cane so that the thick, solid raven’s head looked at me upside down as it passed on the floor.
“Hey, Gramps, you’re crashing our little party.” JT wiggled the knife on Astrid’s neck. “Get the hell out—“
Eddie didn’t slow down or hesitate. He limped right over to JT and swung the cane into the back of JT’s skull with such force that his chin hit the back of Astrid’s head with a crack. Astrid scrambled away from JT just as Eddie took a step toward Skin and, swinging the cane back, caught Skin on the side of his head. Skin teetered and, just for good measure, Eddie caught him again in the jaw so that his teeth popped and knees buckled before hitting the floor.
Gomer pushed JT’s torso off Astrid and I helped Edwina as the old man, muttering something about drug addicts and changing diapers, ordered us the hell out of the room. Astrid and Edwina stepped through the bright doorway but when I turned around to wait for Gomer, I found him kneeling over JT, lifting his head by his stringy hair, pressing the blade to JT’s neck with a trembling hand.
Eddie stood over Gomer. For a minute, I thought he would bring his cane down on Gomer’s head.
Gomer shook his head, his chest heaved and snot dripped onto JT’s oily hair.
“I said, leave it, goddammit.” When Gomer didn’t, Eddie leaned over and pressed his thumb into Gomer’s skinny bicep until Gomer dropped the blade.
Gomer dropped JT’s head to the floor and stood. Eddie pressed the end of his cane onto the blade until it bent, then jerked his head toward the door. My entire body shook so violently that I could barely walk. As I reached the bottom of the stairs, I spotted Edwina and Astrid standing outside #7, Edwina’s fist raised, ready to knock.
Eddie leaned over the railing and yelled for them to get away from there. He limped behind us, the metal end of his cane pounding the balcony like a drumbeat. When he’d made his way down the stairs, he told us to fetch the other two and bring them to the office. We led Edwina and Astrid, their faces smeared with tears, into the office where Eddie handed Gomer the phone. “You got someone can come pick you up?”
Gomer nodded but Edwina sobbed, “But Pops’ll find out. He’ll make her leave again.”
Gomer held the phone in both hands. “I’ve been driving on our farm since I was seven.”
“How old are you now?”
“Twelve, huh?” Eddie squinted at Gomer. “Got the keys?”
Gomer shook his head. “Screwdriver’ll work.”
Eddie pointed to a pile of thick phone books. “Grab a couple a’ those to boost you up.”
Eddie rummaged behind the check-in desk, produced a screwdriver and handed it to Gomer. We followed Gomer to the car where he popped the hood. Eddie watched intently while Gomer arranged the wiring under the hood then sat in the driver’s seat, pushed in the emergency brake and put the car into neutral. He popped off a few pieces of plastic around the steering wheel and then slid, face first, under the dash. It took about five minutes before the Roadmaster turned over.
Gomer sat on the phone books and adjusted the mirrors. I walked over to Astrid and Edwina, who held each other in a little patch of shade. They looked shocked or stunned or like they didn’t really know what had happened.
“Come on,” I said as softly as I could. “Let’s go.”
Edwina stepped forward but Astrid didn’t move.
“What about—?” Astrid tipped her head to #7.
Edwina didn’t even shift her gaze. “Leave her,” she said, her hand tugging Astrid’s, her body rigid, her voice terrible with certainty.
Christine Rice’s novel was recently shortlisted in the William Faulkner–William Wisdom Competition. Her writing has appeared in numerous publications and stories are forthcoming from the American University of Beirut’s Rusted Radishes and Farleigh Dickinson University’s The Literary Review. She’s the managing editor of www.Hypertextmag.com and the director of www.HYPERTEXTStudio.org.