In 1959, Daddy drives a short-bed pickup.
I’m 10 years old, barely a head above the door handle.
Weekends with him are patchy, an orange sherbet at Baskin-Robbins or lunch at My Brother’s Barbeque, a restaurant with a big brown and white plastic cow on the roof.
Daddy scoots behind the wheel of his pickup, cigarette smoke making dragon shapes, while me and my brother Steve elbow each other for shotgun. “My turn!” The drive to meet our grandmother takes about an hour.
She tells us to call her Butch. “Everyone does.” I love her right off because she stains her snowy puff of hair a scandalous red. She doesn’t wear eye or face makeup but applies coral lipstick and stays in the lines without a mirror.
She painted her house herself, dipping her brush into rust-red to match the trunk of her redwood trees. A forest of green that never changes color, right in the middle of a city. The branches are close together, throwing shadows at us. If I could’ve climbed to the top, I would’ve gotten an impressive nosebleed.
The house has simple furniture and smooth plastered sea-foam green walls. No alcohol or cigarettes allowed, but I bet she’d go to a PTA meeting if I asked. I never heard of a grandmother who lived by herself in a house she bought and paid for herself and painted herself.
Her kitchen cupboard has things I’ve never seen: blackstrap molasses, mineral oil, apple cider vinegar, witch hazel, henna. She lets me sniff jars of spice. If I were a spice, what would I smell like? I settle on cinnamon because there isn’t anything better than the smell of cinnamon, sugar, and butter bubbling on toast under the broiler.
Butch teaches me how to tie string around her stuffed cabbage rolls and stir grated carrots into wheat germ cookie dough. I want to close the windows when something is in the oven to keep the goodness inside.
Porcelain elephants gather on a shelf in the living room. “I’ve been collecting them for years,” she says.
I kneel down. “Can I touch one?”
“Elephants are the smartest animals in the kingdom.” She hands me one about 4 inches tall. “Their exceptionally large brains help them store information from the past.”
I run my finger over its tiny white trunk and across its back. It has green eyes, like mine when I wear my olive mohair sweater.
“They never forget anything,” she says. “Good or bad.”
I reunite the elephant with its family.
Butch takes my hand and leads me through the kitchen. Beyond the sliding glass door, a fishpond sits in the ground. The fish are bigger than a football, blackish or dull white with swirly pink splotches. Some are the same orange as the goldfish in small glass bowls at our school fair. I won one by landing a Ping-Pong ball in an empty bowl, a bit of luck.
The fish have whiskers and frown at us through clear eyes. On these weekend visits, she lets Steve and me sprinkle dried fish food over the water. Sometimes we tear up wilted lettuce. Pieces float like leaf boats before big sucking lips gobble them up. The fish slide all over each other when they see my shadow. Maybe they remember faces the way elephants do? I give them dog names: Spot, Max, Fluffy.
One lazy afternoon, my grandmother says, “Did you know your dad built the pond? He dug a trench and mixed cement in a wheelbarrow. He painted the bottom blue and filled it from the garden hose.”
I close my eyes, wondering what land I’ll be in when I open them.
“See that pump?” she asks, so I have to peek. “It’s an old motor rigged to keep the water clean.”
“When did you do all that?” I ask him later when we’re poking around the garage. It smells damp, like the first shovelful of dirt after it rains. I’ve never seen a wringer washing machine before.
“Back when I had the pool cleaning business.” He sprinkles sand over a mosaic of oil leaked from her car. “Do you remember that? I used to set you on the counter so customers saw you first thing when they came in the door.”
I want to say, Goddammit, Daddy, why didn’t you build a pond in our backyard?
But I don’t yet swear in front of adults. “Why don’t you go back to cleaning pools?” I pray for a Daddy who comes home from work with a lunch pail, ready to throw a ball around so the neighbors can see he’s a good guy.
“Oh, honey.” He taps his shirt pocket for his pack of cigarettes even though one burns between his fingers. “You need a store, equipment and supplies, and advertising so people can find you. All that takes money.”
It makes me mad that he doesn’t want to be better, because I haven’t given up hope that Mom still loves him and a real job would steal her away from my stepfather. If only he’d try, he could take us to fancy dinners so she can show off her Cadillac and mink coat.
Daddy unhooks two rakes from nails on the garage wall and we go outside to scrape up pine needles. The smell of pine breathes in my face, sweet and sharply strong at the same time. We rake needles onto a piece of cardboard to dump in the oil drum incinerator.
He pauses, leaning against a tree. “Gotta go to the gas station and pick up a quart of oil for the Beetle.”
I tug on his sleeve. “Can I go?”
“Sorry, honey, you need to stay with your brother.”
Steve has been rubbing a stick against a rock until it’s sharp enough to stab a squirrel — though he usually fires at stink bugs with his dime store six-shooter. “Bang! Bang!” His fringed cowboy shirt and holster look dumb. He needs something more like Steve McQueen in Wanted Dead or Alive.
“Hey, Steve! Wanna go to the gas station?”
Daddy opens the door of his truck, tapping a fresh cigarette on the outside of the hollow pack. “Not this time, honey.” He scoots in and slams the door on us.
I pitch my rake at the tailgate. “No fair!”
Wherever he’s headed, I hope they only serve high-priced beer so he won’t get too drunk and will run out of money and have to come back.
Steve and I spend the rest of the afternoon working on our fort in the tangled shrubs by the pond. He pulls weeds and I weave them through twigs to make the walls stronger. Then he sits cross-legged, patiently holding a twig over the pond.
I almost like him during those long summer days, settling into slow lizard time while we play. “If you really want to fish, you need a line and hook,” I tell him. “You can dig worms for bait.”
He squints real hard and aims his twig at me. “Bang!”
I grab it from him and break it in two. “You’re stupid, you know that?”
Butch comes out with silverware knocking around in a mason jar for our mud pies and faded beach towels so our fort will have rugs. “Supper will be ready soon,” she says before going inside.
I watch her through the open kitchen window and breathe in garlic and onion. I learn about exotic seasonings, the differences between tomatoes from a vine and those from the grocery store. Her tomatoes are little taste bud bombs.
Because my mom considers herself a modern parent, she only buys the most advertised frozen and canned foods. Swanson TV dinners fill the pullout bin in our freezer. Aluminum trays with compressed fried chicken, mashed potatoes, a slime-bomb vegetable, and some sugary dessert.
“Fish fry!” Butch calls to us.
Steve unfolds his legs and throws himself on the ground because he thinks she speared Max or Fluffy. I pin his arms and dangle drool over his face. He screams, squirming to get away. The fish dinner doesn’t come from a market. Our grandmother bought rock cod from a neighbor with a fishing boat. We clean our plates, never mentioning Daddy or his whereabouts.
Butch puts us to bed in his childhood room, an add-on just off the master. The step-down area is naked, except for two twin beds shoved against walls. The bedspreads look new, like she bought them just for us. A turquoise background with orange and yellow boats bob when we jump from bed to bed. A shower curtain hangs over the closet instead of a door.
Butch tucks us into the same bed, reading us poems that don’t rhyme, written by poets with foreign names, from thin books that don’t have to go back to the library. I can’t wait to tell my fifth-grade teacher that not all poems sound like “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”
I picture him winking at me. “You should be in college.”
As soon as Butch turns off the lights, I ditch my brother because he kicks like a wild donkey when he sleeps. I line up my shoes just so by the other bed and crawl in. The room is too hot. It makes me sticky and thirsty.
“Wanna run away?” Steve asks through a yawn. “We could build a fort under the pier.”
“Nah. Who’d take care of Daddy?”
I can’t keep the pillowcase cool no matter how many times I turn it. If I were at home, I’d sneak into the bathroom and drink from the faucet, letting cold metal press into my cheek.
I wonder if Daddy got his unemployment check. Would he get extra drunk to have a supply of alcohol in his body to last him through the night? Or maybe he’d gotten into a good game of poker. Or was passed out on a stack of bottles behind a liquor store.
The only phone, on a kitchen wall, tosses out high-pitched screams. Branches creak against the roof. Gravel in the driveway, quiet. Then whining tires. A door slams. Something in the living room crashes. I scoot lower and tug little boats over my head. Not the elephants!
I hear my grandmother. “You’re drunk.” I imagine Daddy shrinking back like a little kid. “Go to bed and sleep it off.”
The door to our room bangs open and I hear Daddy swear and stumble down the stairs. Clothes rustle and I stop breathing. Is he in the closet? Then something else. Whooshing. Pee? No. Yes. That’s it. He’s peeing in the closet. I smell it!
Then, thud. Daddy lands across the foot of my bed, sinking the little boats and poisoning the turquoise water. I’m not sure what happens next. Either I fall asleep or my mind creates a space where I can hide.
It must be morning because the room is triangles of bright light. My brother is still asleep, tangled in his bedspread. Daddy has gone. I go straight to the bathroom to practice my nothing’s wrong face in the mirror, but can’t get it right.
I pause in the living room, relieved to see the elephants standing unharmed. “Good morning,” Butch says.
“Morning.” I slide into my chair at the kitchen table while she fixes me toast with marmalade from oranges she squeezed herself and eggs-over-easy. “How’d you sleep honey?”
I pretend the yolks have the right amount of runny for toast dipping and think about elephants and how awful it must be to have a brain so big it remembers everything.
Sherry Shahan’s writing has appeared in national and international newspapers, magazines, and literary journals. She holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: sogni_hal/Flickr Creative Commons