The best thing that could ever possibly happen happened that summer. He was forced to go live with people he didn’t know, people with reasons to try and undo him. Also, these people scared him because they lived in utter squalor. At first, he had no earthly idea why it happened. Though maybe that isn’t entirely true. Because he did know, and his family knew it, too — he was a coward.
But it wasn’t like anyone ever said so. There was no family meeting in which they all sat down to accuse and sentence him. As for cowardice itself, it was nothing to be taken lightly. Cowardice has been known to spread so fast, it has caused the downfall of armies. Thus, when it does arise, it must be put down swiftly. In fact, lots of poor panicked bastards have been snuffed out by their own friends, to prevent a mass retreat.
Also, there’d been trouble at school. He wasn’t handling himself there. Unless you called being kicked around like a stray mutt a style of handling oneself.
But what in the world happened to school, anyway? What happened to the sweet kids he’d grown up with? Where did they go? Suddenly, there were fights every day. Ten- and eleven-year-olds got caught screwing in the woods right behind the building. Certain eighth-grade girls vanished, only to resurface a year later at another school in another district.
Then again, he wasn’t stupid; he knew. He really did. But why did everyone have to suddenly be so vicious, violent, murderous and totally psycho?
Anyway, he had trouble at school. And when you were a kid, what you feared and hated worse than anything, worse than being stabbed to death in the bathroom, was causing your folks any trouble. Because, clearly, their lives were hard enough. They trudged in like zombies late at night and passed out in a chair well before bedtime. “Christ, just don’t cause them any more trouble!” you constantly screamed at yourself in your head. Or his brother Conrad screamed it at him. They screamed it at each other.
Then, just when it seemed things could not get worse, he found out he must go and live with Greta.
Was this some kind of joke? After all, the person who they should be sending, the one tough enough to take it and be unfazed, was his brother Con. But it was not a joke at all. It was life again.
And did he go to his folks and scream “I won’t go, I hate that place?” Did they call him to the table one night and quietly explain that cowards like him must go live with Greta til they’d learned to be brave? No — in fact nobody said a word on either side. It was just understood. For mysterious reasons, he must go to the bad place and live with his dad’s half-sister in a trailer. Who was the family outcast. Who lived in a tiny, dirty, roach infested single-wide that stank. And whose cupboards were always bare. She also had people coming and going at all hours — people with records. People who would hate his being there and need to attack him for being in the wrong place.
He felt like getting down on his knees and begging not to go, but for some reason never did. Though why had he not? Because he thought he had it coming. Clearly everybody did. It was just that kind of world back then. At the time, his grandma lived right next door in a little house she kept up all by herself practically, though she was ninety. All in all, she hadn’t had a good life. Nobody ever took it easy on her and twice her jaw was broken. Anyway, if you put the two houses together, there were lots of beds and plenty to eat for five people. Nevertheless, he must go to Greta’s.
They let him gather a few favorite items: a sleeping bag, his boy scout mess kit, a flashlight. He also snuck in a machete he got from army surplus, but that got confiscated. These paltry items were now all he owned, plus his few clothes. Just like that and much to his surprise, or maybe not, the world took away everything else, his family, his house, his room. And how stupid of him to have ever thought these things were really and truly his!
The place he was going wasn’t that far. But it might as well be Saturn because he didn’t drive and had no idea where Greta lived in relation to his house.
What was it his dad said before they set out? “You need to understand what it is you come from?” “You need to realize how good you have it, far better than you really deserve?” No — his dad didn’t say anything. They simply sat on the front porch under the Maple trees. His dad carved him a slide whistle using nothing but a branch from the tree and his pocketknife. It was like watching him weave a magic spell. It was like some kind of a goddamned miracle and took him all but ten minutes.
Then they simply went and got in the car and Wes knew he must allow a terrible thing to happen to himself, because it was simply the hand he was dealt. And forever after this moment, he always returned back here in memory and recall a nameless feeling that his family was asking him to do something awful and hard or things could not go on. He might not survive. Just the same, he must go become the person he must go become.
He was also dimly aware that his family had a very old and unspoken worry about him, having to do with a grandfather he never met, named Grandpa Troy. Wes resembled Grandpa Troy both in features and in manner and — though nobody ever said so — there was a secret fear he might be Grandpa Troy again. Grandpa Troy reincarnated. And Grandpa Troy had turned out beyond bad. Name all the worst things one human being can do to another, and Troy had probably done them. And although he’d done them in a small southern Missouri town long ago and far away, and was deceased now, there was this anxiety that maybe Grandpa Troy wasn’t really entirely dead.
By that age, Wes knew about good and bad branches of families. He knew he was in the good branch, but was about to be dumped into the bad one. Maybe they felt tricked by him, like he’d always belonged with the bad relations but somehow snuck in among the good ones.
Or maybe he just always felt this way around people. People always looked at him like he was trying to put one over on them. And when nobody else was around, now and then, some kid or grownup liked to get up in his face and let him know they, personally, were not fooled by his act.
“I’m sick of this,” Dad said very loudly one day, while they were standing in the driveway. “I’ve had it with all this.” That was how it started.
“He means you,” his husky, aggressive and fearless brother Conrad — Con — said to him quietly, so quietly he thought nobody else could hear him. “Why doesn’t anyone ever do anything about you? You go around acting like you’re special, but you make me sick, you little chicken.”
Their mother was out wearily dragging a rake over the rocky dry yard and she suddenly threw down her tool and gloves and said, “Well, we’re finally doing something. He’s going to go stay at Greta’s for a while. How’s that?”
“He shoulda gone a long time ago,” Con said. “Can’t you see it’s too late? Look at him now.”
“I’ve had about enough of all of this,” their dad answered, and went in the house. It was a Craftsman bungalow that originally came in a massive Kafka-esque kit, from Sears. At one time, you could literally buy a whole house out of the Sears catalog and put it together yourself, board by board, brick by brick, and that’s where their house actually came from.
Anyway, going to Greta’s was a threat he and Con were constantly making against each other. They’d actually only been to Greta’s place two times in their lives, briefly. But the very first time he saw where she lived and how, and had a minute to gape around at how poor she was, he’d had a weird feeling. It was like he was home.
“This is great. They’ve finally had it with you,” Con said to him later, in the sideyard, out of earshot of the house. “You’ve made Mom sick. She’s on this medicine now because of you. And dad doesn’t want to come home at all. This is all your fault!”
He and Con had never really trusted each other or gotten along, though. In fact, Con made it quite clear, and from an early age, that he didn’t really trust anybody. He was a loner.
So he went to see Mina about it. Mina had an accent, but whether it was supposed to be Greek or Italian or something else he was never sure. Dad said he thought she was German or maybe Swiss. She was the least religious old person he’d ever known and was quite blunt about not believing in anything after what she’d seen of life. Con called her a witch, though he didn’t mean literally. He just said that because she always scared him when he was little.
Wes tracked her down in her favorite spot, beside a garden shed that Dad crammed up under one side of her tiny cottage, as if for support. She was on her stool, her hands in the dirt, repotting her spider ferns. By her manner, it was clear his folks had already talked to her about what would happen. Or possibly she told them, since she seemed to know things. “Don’t you come here to spill out all your grief, Wesley,” she said with a wise grimace, not looking at him. “Just do what you should. Take your medicine.”
That took the wind out of his sails, and he felt sick suddenly at the feeling he was caught inside some scheme everyone understood but him. “But why?”
“Why not? I’m afraid I have to agree this time: it’s the best place for you. Who do you think Greta is, after all? She’s your family. You are not better than her.”
She often wore polka-dot dresses, but never a hat and she hated gardening gloves. Her yard shoes had once belonged to Satan, meaning her dead brother, Grandpa Troy, and were cleated with nail-heads so they could never wear out. In her life, she’d known terrible things: hunger, wars, the Great Depression. She could wring the head off a chicken and knew how to skin, clean and cook every sort of wild game.
But he considered her too old to truly understand modern troubles like this one.
She’d come from that ruthless, barbaric and backward world of Dad’s boyhood and you could see this in their eyes. It was in Con’s eyes, too, though Con wasn’t old — he just wanted to be rid of everyone who bothered him and that was everyone.
Anyway, they bundled up his things. His dad had to sort of drive him out of his room and the front door and into their rusted, white minivan. He wondered if they simply could not afford to keep two kids fed and clothed anymore? But he’d been so careful never to ask for more than three outfits for school. He thought about making this appeal now, to his dad, but sensed there was no way to appeal this. He just wasn’t wanted there anymore.
Then again, something could always happen. There might be a miracle, like the van not starting. But it did start. Or there might be a train at the crossing that smashed the van right in two. But his dad was a slow and doggedly careful driver.
His dad drove with chin thrust out. His Adam’s apple kept glugging like he was choking down some hard and globular mouthful of fruit. Of course Dad himself was never exactly wild about going to see Greta. They weren’t close. He only went if pressed, and that indicated the size of problem Wes had become.
Or maybe his parents were just in the process of dumping everyone and everything and trying to get their old lives back, the ones they’d surrendered to start this family. Maybe life had demanded they give up and hand over too many things, til one day they started fighting back.
They were almost there. Theirs was a biggish midwestern city, but it was still
full of sudden pockets and hollows and places where the earth just fell away down into ravines and tangled, messy acreage nobody really wanted. There were steep, rocky, woods packed bumper to bumper with bombed-out cars. You only snuck down into them if you wanted to screw or to fish on someone’s private property. But you probably better not, because they were rough places and you’d definitely meet someone bad.
His dad was clearly sobered by the excursion. He went on trying to swallow the pain of going to see his half-sister.
Looking back, he could never be sure if Greta knew they were coming. Her trailer was just a blank white rectangle with its two square eyes clenched tightly shut. Her shutters were a plastic joke about shutters. Her “porch” was four cinderblocks.
“Did you call her?” he asked his dad.
“Look. First of all, Wesley, nobody calls Greta,” Dad said after a little bark or what
passed as a laugh with him. “Greta doesn’t answer when she knows it’s one of us.”
“But why?” he asked.
“How should I know? She’s strange. She likes to live outside the city limits. She has always lived by her own law. A million reasons. Her last place was a little better, but it burned to the ground. Natural gas leak she said, but whether I believe that I don’t know.”
Greta had a brown Chevy Celebrity, with rust highlights. She lived hand to mouth and didn’t always have electricity and sometimes sold her blood for money. And she used to go to some weird charismatic church but she stopped for some reason.
“Look, I don’t want to hear you gave Greta a bunch of crap!” Dad said. “Don’t tell her
some sob story about how we just dumped you out here.” He took out and unwrapped a cherry sucker, because he was always trying to stop smoking. It kept clacking on his teeth as he talked and sounding like it hurt. Also, his teeth were a mess from grinding, so he wore a guard at night to keep from biting his tongue off during one of his frequent nightmares.
“Look. Greta deserves to see us now and then,” Dad added quietly. “She’d never admit it, but I think she misses the family.” He chewed the sucker several seconds and then said, “Geez, Wesley, she’s your only aunt, okay? Is that all right with you? She’s always liked you. Not that you would care about that.”
“Her house stinks,” he countered finally, but without hope. “She never has any food!”
“Stinks? Like poop?”
He shook his head. It wasn’t like anything. It was not a human smell.
There was nothing else to say. Dad reached across and opened the door. “Go on, get out now. Come on, Wesley, I’m tired.”
He rolled out onto his feet. Dad got out and started unloading about a dozen milk jugs of tap water onto the gravel. “And don’t drink the water, okay? She’s on a well, but there’s something wrong with it. If you need a drink, drink some of this.”
Then the minivan, with its one wrong-colored door, took off, gravel popping, which made him suddenly very hungry for hot buttered popcorn.
Looking back, he wondered if his folks just didn’t know about Greta and couldn’t really afford to know. It was best to think of it that way, he eventually decided. In the long run, he chose to believe that nobody — no matter who they are — can really imagine what it’s like to be anybody else.
Now, arriving at Greta’s, he thought of the last time he was there. It was the time he went to boy scout camp, but failed to stay. Apparently, it cost a lot of money and his dad got mad and — instead of coming and getting him and bringing him home — took him to Greta’s and left him there with barely a word. He wasn’t there that long, but long enough. That was when he learned Greta didn’t have anything, not even a toaster! Who didn’t have a toaster? And her milk was expired, but she smelled it and said it wouldn’t kill him and put it on his cereal anyway.
When he told this story to Mom, she said, “Look, Wesley, Greta is rough. She’s from the sticks. From someplace way back down in the Ozarks. I don’t know. They aren’t my people. They’re your dad’s other family. He never talks about them. They made his childhood sort of hell, I guess, but that’s all it is. She’s rough.”
He hadn’t liked Greta the first time they met. But it wasn’t exactly an ideal way to meet somebody. The truth was, he didn’t like almost anybody, and this was his most closely-guarded secret. He spent a lot of his class-time secretly sketching plans for a one-room cabin where he was going to live one day, alone.
Dad was this way, too. But for some reason, he’d gotten married and settled down in a city, and started a family — a family he did not seem to like very well, and always working for and with people who didn’t treat him right. When Wesley voiced a similar difficulty with school, his mom looked troubled and gazed off and said, “Wes, I don’t know where you get these ideas. But if you don’t face facts and adjust yourself to what is, you are always going to be a very unhappy camper!”
When Dad pulled away, Greta’s face at last flashed out from behind a shade and then was gone. The trailer door swung open, but she herself did not appear. So he stepped up the too-big first step into the living room and she watched him from back in her kitchenette, one eye blocked by the cabinet. She was never smiling, and in fact didn’t. Though she did laugh or maybe it was more of a cackle. She had a long crooked nose that had been broken in a fight in fourth grade and the absurdly long, crooked fingers of everybody on Dad’s side.
She was unhappy. Or she simply got more of the Finn nature in her than anyone except the old man, old Troy. And like his brother, Con, she was sardonic and suspicious and refused to pretend otherwise. Like all those on Dad’s side, she looked at you like you could use a good slap.
At Greta’s, certain places were off-limits.
Like her basement. Actually it was more like a root cellar dug into the hillside under her trailer. It provided added support so that the trailer could balance up there, atop the hill. The first time he visited, he ignored what she said about going downstairs and was down there snooping when she yelled, “Wesley, what did I just tell you about the storage? Did you just do the exact opposite of what I just told you?!”
She had a lot of strange stuff down there in rubber tubs and locked metal boxes. It was laboratory-type stuff, like beakers and graduated cylinders and flasks. And several school lockers secured with huge padlocks. Some crates were totally encased in duct tape and could only be opened with a knife. She told him this was yarn-dying equipment for her projects, that she was a textile artist. But he saw nothing made out of yarn in the whole trailer.
He was not quite eleven, but he could see what was really going on. Greta, who was about thirty-six or seven, was a bad person and belonged in jail. He began to suspect the real reason he was there was to see this. Dad was likely ashamed of how Greta was living. He was shocked at what she was doing to get by, his own half-sister. And wanted to remind her that she still had a family, if she ever decided to change. So it was like Dad was offering him to Greta, his youngest child, like some kind of offering to this slow, steadily-revolving whirlpool that was, year by year, taking her down.
The longer Wes was there, the more afraid he was getting that he was right. The only other explanation that occurred to him was that things at his own house, and within his own family, were suddenly so bad his folks actually thought he’d be better off at Greta’s.
Apparently, Greta had kids who she was not allowed to see, because he saw pictures but no evidence they had ever lived there with her.
But that was fine, because if they were hers, he didn’t want to meet them. Since fifth grade, he’d developed a definite preference for adults, because adults were expected to behave a certain way by law. By fifth grade, the kids at his school already figured out that laws were only there to punish adults. If you were a child, you could do what you wanted to other children without any fear of prison.
As he grew more afraid, he considered calling home — but that would be a violation of the conditions of his stay. Plus he didn’t have a phone, and Greta’s never left her hand.
The days started to tick by, first one then two, and then three and four and five. In a strange way, he started to wonder if he hadn’t been dropped there in order to save Greta. Maybe she had forgotten who she was and would at last come back to herself and get a new grip on life if she were forced to care for someone smaller and weaker?
She never said where to sleep, so he slept on the couch under a musty throw he found. He kept the TV on all day and all night, for the company, and for some illusion of normalcy. He had to eat whatever he could find, but it was never much. Even though Greta went to the store every other day for cigarettes, she never bought much and ate most of it right away, sunk in her black recliner, bloodshot eyes frozen to some reality show about a celebrity battling an addiction. She was a big eater, and yet constantly a bit underweight. She ate like somebody who couldn’t help it, who literally couldn’t stop til there was nothing left.
He found himself drawn to one particular picture of her two girls. They were like boys, very stout, and not even able to pose like girls, really. In dirty tank tops and jeans. What struck him about this picture is, they looked like young, female versions of his dad and his brother, Conrad. It gave him a hopeless feeling. And they were smoking. Lena and Rieta. He had a sudden wild thought. What if Con was his dad’s only child and he were really the son of some old boyfriend of Mom’s who blew in some weekend when his dad was out of town?
Greta showed him the fort the girls made once on a visit, which was hardly more than cast-off boards propped around a tree. “They’re really tough,” Greta told him, with a cackle of pride. “They’ve already fought everybody at their new school. I doubt you could even handle my little girl, Rieta. I’m sure she’d kick your ass all over this yard!”
He didn’t let Greta see it, but every word she said to him hurt. It was like he had gone back in time, and met Mina as a young woman, and she slapped him and called him a pussy.
Days passed. It was as if some piss-colored spirit light followed and hovered and shivered above Greta’s whole life. He felt like her only witness. If he hadn’t come, nobody would ever know all that was wrong in this desperate out-of-the-way corner of his family’s actual existence.
Now and then, she got suddenly furious at him and said, “God damn it, Wesley, I do not like your face. You have got this certain look and you have had it since you walked in here. And I am warning you — you had better change it or I’m going to change it for you, so help me.”
“How am I supposed to change it?” he asked.
“I don’t know, but you had better figure it out quick.”
“God, why do you hate me? Why does everyone hate me?” he asked. His eyes were hot and his jaw ached from the constant effort it took not to break down. “Jesus, what did I ever do to you? Why can’t you just let me go home?”
“If you don’t know why, then I can’t tell you. All I know is, Mack came and dumped you here and he wants you here and that’s that. Don’t look at me.”
“But you have to know why.”
“I don’t have to do nothing. And you sure as hell don’t get to tell me what I have to know, you little pussy! Look around. Why is anything the way it is? Does this shit look like fun to you? Riddle me that.”
So it was a standoff. And it just went on like that while he tried to pretend that, whatever was going on, it was not as bad as it appeared. He was not really at the mercy of someone who hated him and actually loved to see how much he was suffering.
But it began to seem to him that there was something strange and cursed about family, about all families, not just his. It was crazy how nobody could ever just love anybody else. And whatever was wrong, it always went back about a million years, and you would never ever figure it out.
Of course, the worst part of family was, you had to act a certain way to belong. Nobody could be ordinary. Nobody could be weak, or lose at anything. Everybody had to win at everything, even if you had to get mean and nasty. Even if you must be cruel to the ones you were supposed to love.
“Braden is coming over for a cook,” Greta said at some point in the following week, “and you definitely better fix that face before he gets here. He used to be a body builder and he took steroids and it messed him up. He’s been left with a lot of rage because his hormones are always out of whack.”
“I just want to call my dad,” he said.
“I just want to call my dad,” she mocked. “Why? What’s he going to do? He’s the one who dumped you here, remember?” She opened her kitchen pantry where a normal person might keep canned goods, which was empty except for a box of disposable latex gloves. “No, you can’t call your dad and you can’t go home. You have to stay here, with me, til the day they say you can come home. And nobody has told me shit about when that will be.”
She tied a green bandanna over her hair and behind her ears and flipped her long blonde braid streaked with black over a shoulder. Her very heavy large breasts were almost more than her shoulders could hold. Her stained sweatpants clung tightly to her boy’s butt. She always had a hungry face, though she ate and went poop every day. In fact, you could not avoid hearing when anybody went pee or poop in the tiny place. He never saw her without a beer.
As for going number two, he hardly did at all in two weeks, because he couldn’t.
Then he met Braden. Braden who did not want to come up and shake his hand and this was because Braden already had his number. He didn’t even try to keep his voice down when he went in the other room and said to Greta “So who is this little undertaker?”
“I told you, Braden. He’s my half-brother’s kid. They’re having trouble.”
“Baptist trouble or Methodist trouble?”
“Oh you can take your pick really. I got far away just as fast as my little feet would carry me.”
“Not soon enough and not far enough,” Braden said. Then a soft creak and squeak of the bed.
“No, Braden! No, goddamnit, get offa me,” she cried out. “We been all through this a million times now. This is just business.”
Braden came out of the bedroom and caught him pretending to see and hear and know nothing. He was big and most of it was fat with a small upper body and a kerchief tied tri-corner on his head like a pirate’s, with a long beard and sunglasses down on his nose. Scowling. “I see now why people don’t like you,” he said.
“Leave him alone, Braden,” Greta called, though half-heartedly.
Wes stood there in the living room stiffly and said nothing. It was strange how fast he had gotten used to being the one everyone hated and suspected, the one who was always wrong before he said a word. He also saw how such a thing might become a permanent, life-long condition.
He left the trailer and walked out in the dark. He went where nobody would see, down near the bottom of the black ravine. He cried hard, face in the dirt, but without making a sound. Grinding his eyes in his palms. This was the night he made the deal with himself that nobody was ever going to know exactly how he felt about anything, ever again.
The next day, Greta made him go with her to the store. They bought a lot of driveway cleaner, though she had no driveway to clean. Also boxes and boxes of red phosphorus matches, and rock salt, and drain-clog remover. Then they drove miles away to another store in a different county to buy rubbing alcohol and coffee filters one place, and iodine and batteries at another, and lye and nasal inhalers at a third. And then to an auto parts store for antifreeze, starter fluid and brake-drum solvent.
It wasn’t so much what Greta bought as how she did it that so depressed him. She bought in small quantities, cash only. It was like the clerks at all these places knew they were helping a bad thing happen. But as long as she stuck to her system, they could only sit by and watch as she waltzed out the door.
Afterward, she would sit in the car and laugh at him. She laughed at his obvious mortification and his outrage at what he was being forced to do, what his life had become. The part she seemed to love the most was how there was nothing he could do to change a single bit of what was happening to him.
“I’m sorry, but I just have to laugh at you, Wesley Charles,” she said. “We are just alike, do you not realize that? I was just like you once, Wesley! I look at you and I see dear Little Greta all pissed off and horrified by it all. But trust me! You won’t be after a while. You will get used to this shit, because a person can get used to anything. Look at me! Except I could not get used to your dad in a million years. Or your mom. Or those little choir concerts you sing in. All the shit you love is exactly the garbage I hate.”
His only freedom was refusing to look at her. Because so what? So what if he liked those things? What if he did like putting on the bowtie and the cafeteria meal they always ate afterward?
“Yeah, I’ve even been to one of your little concerts,” she laughed. “Course I sat way in the back cuz I am a disgrace. Watched you all blowing on your kazoos. You looked just like you were blowing on a — well, I won’t say what you appeared to be blowing.”
He kept his face to the window and — though he could not ever quite believe it was happening — he kept telling himself that it would all have some meaning someday, some reason for being. It was happening all right, and the world was definitely doing it to him, but the reason for it was simply too big for him to fathom at the moment.
“I really don’t care what your mom or dad — or dear Mina — thinks of me,” she said, with slightly greater venom. “I’m not stupid. I know very goddamn well that Braden would not be caught dead with the crap I’m hauling. No, I have to do it. Because he’s like all the guys around here, not one of whom has been right in the head since the Civil War. Not that your dad’s side of the family ever went to war. They were probably all too stuck-up to get killed over a principle. And you be sure to tell your dad I said so.”
The longer they sat, the more he expected the police, a bust, the sudden pounding of boots and cocking of rifles and barking of a megaphone. But there was never anybody, no intervention, no rescue, and the simple reason why was because nobody cared about stuff like this. Because Greta had worked out a system, and she paid with cash, and no store around there could afford to turn her in.
“The other funny thing about this,” she said, “which I cannot stop laughing about, is
that we are related and have the same last name! So if we get stopped, you look as guilty as me. They’ll take one look at your little sad-sack killjoy face and know you did it. Isn’t that just wonderful, Wesley?”
After a time, he said, “Did you get anything to eat?”
“Oh, you know what? Now that you mention it, your dad did give slip me some cash and tell me I was supposed to feed you. But the thing is, I must have misplaced it.”
Then she looked at him and cackled.
“God, Wesley! I’m bullshitting you, stupid. Here, you want some food?” She rummaged behind her and threw him a bag of pork rinds. “Braden told me he wanted these, but you can eat them. Maybe he won’t go ape-shit when he finds out, though I can’t promise. Anyway, what do you think I am, anyway? So what if I have to live in a trailer? That doesn’t mean you can give me these looks.”
Sometimes he thought his memory must be playing tricks. Later, he wondered if some of what he recalled wasn’t real. Or maybe it was heightened by his emotions or whatever. Because who would treat another person this way? Who would do this to a fifth-grader? So some of what happened must have been intended to be funny. But she just got carried away.
Maybe she’d gotten a trickster streak from Mina.
Mina was famous for her practical jokes, like putting you in the car and acting like you were going to the movies or something. But then, suddenly, you’d look around yourself and see that you were actually among the poor, riding down dirt streets where mattresses lay out in the intersections. Next, she’d take you in to meet their kids, who didn’t even own a clean shirt and smelled like pee. Then she made you bring in boxes of clothes and food from her backseat.
Afterward, she never apologized for the joke or really said one word as she took you back home to your nice, orderly house. Those houses always gave him a sick, dismal feeling of near-terror. It was an undefined, free-floating anxiety.
But the point was pretty clear. She was showing you something awful about the world. And then giving a little smile. She was saying, “Look. Just look at what is really out here. This is what’s hiding in the parts of town where people don’t like to go. Isn’t it terrible? What will you do about it? You can’t even tie your shoes! And what if it was happening to you? What could you do about it? Nothing. You couldn’t do anything, because you are just a little boy!”
In fact, this same thing had happened to Mina, once upon a time. And also to his dad when he was a little boy, and also to his mom. He’d seen the pictures of their dreadful little childhood homes that were no better than shacks. Places you never went back to visit, because the memories were all bad.
Greta kept fishing around in the bags as they chugged around in the Celebrity, then cracked the cellophane off some cigarillos. She lit one and took a drag and handed it to him. “Here. I want you to take a good drag off that. No, not a little puff. Take a real long drag. Taste it. Inhale, Wesley! Or I swear to God, I will dump you right here and you can walk by yourself, in the dark, through Knobtown.”
He knew the word Knobtown. His dad sometimes cut through it when they were on their way other places. It was crummy. It was just a bunch of awful little bars, like tiny rustic cabins, surrounded by pickups all jacked six feet in the air and caked with Missouri clay. Something about it seemed to draw Dad in close. It made him quiet and glum and his face got a darkness, like he was revisiting scenes that once broke him and made him cry and plead for it to be over. Dad couldn’t seem to keep away from it. He needed to go down there and scare himself with it, now and then. Pay a visit to the part of himself still stuck down there.
Greta made him take lots of big drags and watched to make sure he inhaled each time. “There you go!” she laughed, slapping the wheel. “Now you’re getting it, Wes. Now you be sure to tell your folks what I just made you do. Because I am a terrible, terrible person.” Then she laughed at him.
The buy took all day. They had to unload in pitch dark and tote it all down the rocky slope behind the trailer. Greta kept a yellow mutt chained back there who was so old, he could only groan at them. He snuffled Wesley’s fingers with a slimy cold nose, and moaned about how sharp the gravel was under the porch, how it hurt his feet.
“Guess what? He doesn’t even like to smoke!” Greta yelled when they entered.
“Does that surprise you?” Braden yelped, itching his cheeks through his beard with both hands. All this time, he was just sprawled there on the loveseat, bare feet high in the air.
“If he stays here, he’s gonna smoke,” she said. She pointed at him. “Every time I light up, he does too.”
“Why?” Wesley said, though he really knew why.
“Why anything?” she laughed. “Why Tuesday?” This was her favorite expression.
Never in his life had he so wanted a house of his own, one as far away from Greta’s house, and his folks’ house, and Mina’s house as he could possibly find. He didn’t even want to go home anymore. At some point, that world had simply stopped existing. Where was his real family after all? At last even the place he came from seemed evil. But if he had come from there, then who or what was he?
He noticed by his drying tongue that his mouth was now fixed open, maybe from the shock of knowing the truth. He tried but couldn’t even make himself feel homesick. That’s what happened to him that first time, at boy scout camp. He’d gotten so sad and scared, he was wretched. In fact, it was so bad, it was starting to spread to other campers, so they called his folks and said they had to get Wes out of there, fast.
But he couldn’t feel that now. This was a new feeling of wanting to go away from the world forever and never come back.
That was when he happened to think of Hansel and Gretel.
In the story, after their father dumps his kids in the woods, he finds he can’t live with what he’s done and so he comes and finds them and brings them home. But the story never says what happened then. For instance, what kinds of adults did Hansel and Gretel grow up to be? Did Hansel remain angry, cold and aloof all his life? Did Gretel start dealing drugs?
Later that night, a strange thing.
While they were watching tv, Braden suddenly jumped up and tackled Greta and they wrestled til he got her on her back with her legs in the air. He began to drag her on the back of her neck toward the bedroom while she screamed and tried to cling on to the doorframes. She was screaming, “Goddamnit, Wesley, HELP ME! Get up and stop him from doing this to me! Hit him. Jump on him! Don’t sit there while he’s raping me.”
Braden let go with one hand and pointed. “Wesley, if you come over here, you’re going to the hospital!”
He couldn’t hold back any longer. The tears just exploded forth and he openly wept.
Greta stopped shrieking and screwed her head around in her crazy position to gawk at him. Braden dropped her and they both stared in disbelief. “God, you little shit, you are worse than a fucking girl!” she laughed. “Christ, Braden, would you look at this candy ass.”
“He’s your nephew,” Braden said. “You better do something about this though. If he calls the cops, he’s dead meat.”
“That’s not going to happen,” she snapped. “But I can’t stay in here, not with that. This is exactly the shit I can’t handle.” She grabbed her cigarillos and lighter and ran to the back bedroom and slammed the door.
Braden went to the fridge, got a beer, and thundered down the backstairs to the dungeon laboratory to cook.
One thing Wes recalled about Greta was that Mina did try to help her once. She bought her different clothes, took her to classes for her GED, and brought her to church. Greta liked bible study and tore all the way through the good book. As it turned out, she had a photographic memory. She was a rising star in Bible Bowl with ribbons and trophies.
But like it always did for some reason, it all went wrong for Greta. She had sex with a youth minister and he resigned in disgrace. Wesley’s mom blamed it on the curse of Grandpa Troy. Also, Greta’s mom died of alcoholism and there was nobody to really step in to take over with such a big-hearted teenage girl. Unfortunately, Mina already had a child, a boy who was a handful and who she doted on to the neglect of all else.
It just never worked out for Greta. Wesley himself was the only one who ever lasted with the Bible Bowl set. Plus those kids couldn’t really get Greta and simply wondered why she wouldn’t just ask Jesus for help. Also, none of them knew where Knobtown even was.
At night, Wesley thought about Hansel. He’d been clever to think of those bread crumbs, but he forgot about the terrible hunger of birds in mid-winter. Wes liked to picture the moment when Hansel looked behind them and saw that the crumbs were all gone. It must have really hit him then, the true nature of what he was up against.
Greta came out of her bedroom later and found him, cigarillos in hand, and shook them. “Come on. Smoke time.”
“Don’t say no to me,” she laughed, horribly. “This is my house and you will do what I say. When I smoke you smoke. How’s that for a fair deal?”
He crawled off the couch and followed her out to the front, where he could stand in the grass and look down into the black pit of the ravine. To his right was the window of the storage, cracked and dirty, and behind it was Braden who was stirring something in a mixing bowl.
She watched Wes to make sure he inhaled every time.. But it was becoming second nature to him now. When she flicked her ash, she kept her pinky finger out, elbow resting in her palm. He found her pretty, regardless of what she was doing to him. He realized with a sigh that, all his life, he would be defenseless against women and love all their cute little ways, even when they caused him pain. “Look. Why can’t I just call — my dad?” he said, substituting that phrase for the word “home.”
“That’s for me to know. Maybe he made me swear not to tell the real reason you’re here. Or maybe it’s cuz they want you to learn to be tough and not a little whiny-ass. Or maybe they’re as sick of you as I am.”
She was angry about something beyond this situation. He could sense things like that now, feelings she maybe wasn’t even aware of herself. The family had done what it could for Greta, up to a point, but then they stopped.
“Does my dad know?” he asked.
“About what?” she said, squinting at him from her strap lounger, through smoke.
“What you do. You and Braden.”
“Why wouldn’t he know? I suppose you think your dear father wouldn’t dump you here if he knew what went on. Well, Wesley, my dear, that just means you don’t know shit, do you?”
He threw the cigarillo down. But she made him pick it up again and put it in his mouth because there was still one good drag left. Then she flicked hers on the ground, hard, so the cherry popped off and waited til he did the same. She was giving him lessons on how to live her life.
Braden opened the basement window and a white cloud burst forth smelling like a mix of lighter fluid and rotten eggs. Wes expected the trees to spontaneously combust.
“Isn’t it illegal?” he said.
Greta bent herself double with a convulsive fit of joy. It was scary, hysterical laughter.
“Hey, Braden!” she screamed in the window. “You better cut that out. Wesley says it’s illegal!”
Braden’s reply was muffled, like he was trying to talk through a Darth Vader mask.
“I just don’t want to blow up,” he said.
“A lot of things would have to go wrong for that to happen,” she said. “Braden’s a goddamn genius. Got s Pee-Aitch-Dee in molecular chemistry. But he can’t even work at the dog food plant cuz of the drug test.”
During the day, she sometimes left him alone to buy cigarettes, giving him time to search her closet. He kept thinking he might dig up a phone that still worked, but all he found were her yearbooks. She kept all four, but was not featured in a single class photo and not listed in even one sport or club. Greta was not even a footnote in her own life.
He jumped at a sudden concussion from the basement, but it was just a door slam.
“Christ, Wesley, are you scared of everything?” she laughed. “Does everything scare you? Have you even seen a girl’s tits yet? Do you even know how to jack off?”
“Don’t talk to me that way!” he said.
She sighed and noticed the pile of trash Braden had left in the grass. “Come here, help me,” she said. She shook open a trash bag and he loaded it with empty bottles and jugs dripping the nastiest, most deadly man-made solvents and acids you could buy.
“How much longer do I have to be here?” he asked.
“I want to call my dad!” she cackled. “Haven’t you learned by now, Wes? Nobody really cares about what happens to you. And they sure don’t care about me, that’s for goddamn sure.”
She snapped on a flashlight and began slashing it around the woods at various trees, like she’d heard something.
“At first I thought you’d put up with this a few days and then get sick of it and split,” she said, “but later I figured it out. You don’t have any idea where you are, do you? For once, there’s somebody who knows even less than me.”
Her light at last stopped on the trash barrel nearby. She went and dropped the bag in, lit a ball of paper and then threw it. A ten-foot flame shot up, making a Foof! sound.
“Hope you don’t burn up,” she said. “Hope you don’t have these fumes in your clothes. But that would teach your folks a lesson, wouldn’t it? If you burned to death while I was watching you.”
He gave some thought to never answering her again. What if he just stopped? What could she do?
“Wes, you gotta learn to answer back,” she said. “You have to have some Grampa Troy in you somewhere.”
She kept flashing the light behind, to either side, then straight up a tree. Then it was off. “Listen!” she said.
They stood in the faint traces of reflected light of the half-moon now gone below the hill. He heard leaves rustling in the rising breeze.
“What is it?” he asked.
“It’s a monster. And it’s coming straight down this hill to kill you. But you can’t see it, and you’re lost, so you don’t even know which way to run.”
“No, it’s not!” he said, but was dropping back a little, because it did feel like something was coming. But he was not going to run because there was no point. He didn’t care enough about his life to save it. Or he at last understood he was living on a planet where the people had no pity. He was finally grown up.
Then the light came on and Greta moved it all around, laughing. The trees weaved and shuddered and jumped toward him and then away, like they were being tortured to death but could not run, because of their roots. They were groaning with the agony of being alive.
When Greta went in, Braden appeared, sitting on the cinder block wall in a big rubber lab apron, covered in sweat and white chalky flecks, scratching his arms and smoking. “You little shit-for-brains good-for-nothing retard,” he said irritably, showing his teeth, that orange canyon of disaster. “Come on, say something. I dare you. I dare you to tell me to fuck off.”
“Is that all you can say? No? Okay, Doctor No, I guess I’ll see you later.”
Wes waited, not moving til he heard the low rumble of the F150 and the sizzle of flying gravel.
He went up into the trailer. In the fridge, all that remained that was food was half a package of bologna. He grabbed an inch of that and stood there rolling up and gobbling the slices one after the other. Then he checked in her oven for some reason. There on the rack was a gun.
He tried to sleep, but couldn’t. She was restless, too, and kept going out to smoke.
He came outside with a lit cigarillo in his mouth and she grinned and rocked harder in her aluminum rocker. The taste was becoming familiar. Without question, the first inhale was always the best.
For days now, he was fighting a sort of jaw-locking apoplexy, his throat cramped and his whole lower face aching. Smoking was the only thing that helped. What if he did manage to get hold of her phone and what if, when he went to talk, it was like one of those dreams where you’re trying to scream and you can’t make a sound?
“How. Come?” he asked.
“How come what?”
“You need to leave all my shit alone, Wesley. Stop snooping. There’s no phone.”
“Where’s. He live?”
“Not here. We’re not married,” she coughed, looking up and blowing smoke at the stars. She blew a ring and then shot a second one right through its middle. “He’s gotten so ugly, anyway. I’m sure you saw his teeth.”
He tried to blow a ring but only made a puff-ball.
“You really think this is so bad? Living here?” she asked. “This is nothing.”
He again wanted to point out that he was ten years old. But you got nowhere complaining to people, because only their problems were real to them. Another thing he had learned was, when you were in real trouble, you actually didn’t think of the perfect thing to do or say. But he needed to stop thinking, because it just made his heart flutter and his head light.
“My heart. Feels funny,” he said.
“Nicotine. I used to get such bad nicotine fits in school. I couldn’t think straight,” she sighed. “So they put me with the fuckups. The throwaways. Pretty soon, I got with the wrong crowd. Mina did try, in her way, but ladies of her generation have no idea what’s really going on.”
“How much?” he asked. “Money.”
“Oh, your dad’s money is long gone, Wesley. I gave that to Braden for cooking.”
“You don’t have any money?” he coughed. “Not any?”
“How does it feel?” she said. “You been living in a bubble, Wesley, and that’s cuz you’re a guy. If you were a girl, you’d know all this shit by now. It’s much harder for us to survive. You’ve probably never even heard of borderline personality.”
He looked down. In fact, that phrase had come up once before. He was snooping in his dad’s office upstairs a few weeks back and saw a book on the shelf that was turned spine-down. He expected it to be a dirty book. But when he opened it, his gut told him he’d found something worse. He’d been caught, snared, by the deep dark secret behind his screwed-up family.
The book was written by a Ph.D, some guy who knew the real reason he was at Greta’s. He tried to read it, but he’d need to be a genius like Con, who was reading four grade levels ahead of everybody. The book was like a black cave he couldn’t escape. In movies, what people did when they were trapped like this was, they got a gun, and put it to their temple, and closed their eyes.
Like his mom did with the radio in the car, when rough stuff came on, with lots of sex moans and screaming. She just reached up quick and shut it off. But you couldn’t stop horror and pain from entering the world quite so easily.
Anyway, his throat was now so tight, answering Greta was all but impossible. And his jaw. It was like it had been aching like this for almost his entire life.
“What’s the matter with you, Wes? Why the fuck do you always look like you’re gonna cry?” she demanded.
He shrugged. “When’s. Braden? —”
“Forget it. You won’t catch Braden around here again for a long time,” she said. Then looked off and got quiet, like she might cry.
“Don’t you work?” he asked.
“Sometimes. Don’t you worry. If I need money, I will get me some money.”
One thing she didn’t know was that he’d actually tried to hike out three times. The trouble was, he never came out anyplace that looked familiar.
“Your problem, Wes, is your age,” she said. “You have all these feelings and you think you’re very interesting and important to the world, but you’re not. I was just like you. I already know what’s going to happen to you in your life — and everything that won’t!”
He’d figured out from listening to her on the phone that a person could get by just by arguing with people. Greta could stay on the line til she made the other person so mad, or so tired, they finally just gave what she wanted for free and hung up on her.
But the worst part was, she had gotten his number.
She knew more about him than he did himself. He really could not stop feeling everything. Nor could he keep from crying whenever she got to him with her needling. At night, he now lay awake steadfastly hating everyone, and refusing ever to pray to Anyone or even to believe in Anyone to pray to, ever again.
Because how could such a thing happen? How could it happen to him?
At times, he sensed that a really massive black object was forming above him. He could do nothing about it but watch as it grew many thousand times his size. When it was done growing, he knew he was going to be forced to swallow it.
After all, Greta was right — he’d been clueless and lived in a bubble. His big brother Con had something terrible wrong with him, but Wes had kept from knowing, He ignored it when Con began rigging booby traps around the house. One had sent a razor sharp bamboo stake right through their dad’s foot. Another — a brick balanced on a partly open door — gashed the victim’s scalp and knocked her to the floor. When he arrived at the scene, Con was standing over their fallen grandmother and laughing in triumph.
At last one day, his sentence ended. One day, just like that, his folks showed up driving the rusted white minivan and he went out and got in.
He was numb finally and without any sense of relief or happiness. He didn’t feel like a survivor.
His folks looked like they’d just spent ten years in a Siberian labor camp. His dad’s skin was wrinkled, his hair gone mostly gray, mouth tucked in a tight, grim and skeptical smirk. His mom was a skeleton, her cheeks as flat as a famine victim’s, like her body’s only nourishment was her own muscle tissue.
“Con went away for a while, upstate,” his mom said tiredly. “We will go see him — I suppose — if he ever says he wants a visit from us. He’s pretty mad at all of us for doing this to him and at you for not being there to say goodbye. He won’t be nice to any of us for a long time, and he might always hate us, I just don’t know. In fact, I don’t think I know anything about anything anymore.”
Wesley’s sentence had lasted forty-five days and his summer vacation was now over.
As they drove, he understood he was going back to school and it would be hard because he didn’t like anybody anymore. The drive home seemed to take an absurdly long time, by a very winding route, like his dad couldn’t find their house. But it didn’t matter because that was their house now, not his. His house wasn’t built yet. He needed to find a place to put it that was far enough away from people, whereever that was.
When he’d been back with them about a month, his dad took him for a drive. His dad used the opportunity to tell Wes the sad story of Greta’s life, the girl who grew up motherless, female, unlucky, and a step child. It was a classic tale of a mother who only has the strength to save one child from a hard life, so she saved the one who was actually hers. Thus Wesley should always do whatever he could for Greta and never sit idle if he had a chance to help her and he must never bad mouth her or allow others to do so.
Wes listened quietly, when what he really wanted to do was climb out of his skin.
“Look, I know it was no picnic,” his dad said and looked over. It was a big deal when he actually looked at you and talked to you at the same time. That meant it was important.
He then waited for Wes to agree.