Donna D. Vittucci
He had a chance to open the cellar when his grandmam wasn’t watching. Rake, ax, pick and shovel, the cellar’s dirt floor and there stacked jars of whatever Grandmam had boiled up, sifted and sealed.
Nah eating none of it; he swore not, and she said fare thee well then you’ll starve and he swore no he’d not, and stomped off to his wood fort. But now she lay dead on the bedroom floor, expired and left him to catch the mail, milk the cow’s swollen teat, and crack open the sealed uglies. The lump in his throat toggled. A boy of nine couldn’t shove a woman of stones even a foot.
Grandmam had been his familiar, to climb over and climb upon, a step stool. He’d patty-caked in her lap, one shelf, and wiped tears on the second shelf, her breast. He closed the door on her, never again to enter. He swore he’d not.
Hold back your salt, boy, he heard her ghost claim as rigor took her form, and flies settled on her open mouth and nose. That’s it, then! Just watch. He’d shove the pickled pigs feet in his mouth, sour and raw-tasting, and munch on them as if he chewed his own knuckles and he’d suck his spit through the brine she’d once eyeball-measured.
He tore up the kitchen hunting for a screwdriver or a bottle opener, the uglies in their jars in a row on the counter, primed for smashing, forever in the losing of their patience.
In his science class, some large animal’s brain in a jar. And fetal pigs, an appendix, a pile of gall stones, a hairball tumor, grapefruit-sized and cut from the stomach of the old one. He was a student of reality and wouldn’t close his eyes to the worst-looking abomination. The farm was taken, or rather he left it behind, the farm and his unburied grandmam moldering behind the door. Ten-year old on the trail, walking, with scabbed ankles, bloody knees, more flies, his hands in his pockets when he wasn’t pulling them through berry bushes. Them berries were long gone, but he didn’t know. He’d never gone to school under Grandmam, kept on the farm like a butter churn.
The sisters, who were praying in a field as they raked for potatoes, they dropped their tools and ran to him, fluttering their white hands over his body once they’d shed their gloves. They’d each secretly always pined for a baby, and God had heard and delivered. He attended school and never stopped. He learned and got promoted, then graduated, then matriculated, and the sisters took him under their robe-wings each night for curt counsel and vocabulary and Latin roots and pudding. They raised him to be a teacher, not a carpenter. Many mothers he could claim, mothers who were sisters, with Grandmam not gone for good, no never, only dormant, in wait for him to acquire all the sisters and their God promised.
The sisters’ house worked hell on his memories even though he did still gravitate close to his grandmam. What was old in him comforted him. A wisp she’d once wrote him bookmarked a page in his New Testament tucked inside his jacket pocket, and he read it every day. When alive, if she wished, she could sound like an angel or a god or a railroad hand. Counter-balancing were the sisters, praying as one, singing as one, lifting him as one. With them he felt cerebral and lofty; he thought he might be on the road to saint, levitating, he just needed to trick up some miracles.
Conversely, he also thought of the sisters as one huge dove, wings expanded, hideous shade from which he might never escape. Grandmam could sure blister, but she more often shushed away his dark, pish-poshed his refusal of pickled and canned garden stuff. If he didn’t care for vegetables, so what? The nut that required cracking was the gross-out quality of her jar uglies. These he couldn’t stomach, his mouth a thin white line. His protein intake drooped, so he drooped too. It’s where he was when she left.
As for career development, what was it about a priest that made him fair game to those gathered on his steps following Mass, the old widow and the newlyweds and the sore losers and the hungry and the smacked down all closing in for a touch of the wise man’s sleeve? Even if he was saintly, how much could he afford before all good in him got sapped, leaving a husk so close to the world’s fiery wick? Better to be a sister, his celibate companion.
And besides, the sisters wore skirts, and he did adore, as a boy, playing up in their habits. The skirt fabric skimming the hairs of his boy legs tingled him toes to spine.
At twelve years he begged the sisters, Why can’t I please have a girdle? They patted his head, laughing softly among themselves—everything they did was pale and muted and easeful, barely a brush; they could have disappeared as a group against a bland scythe line, they themselves the horizon.
And gosh almighty, they dug him up a corset once belonged to an abbess of their order. Girdle-wear was fading, yet he pulled the elastic tube up his hips and his lower belly, which at his age was nonexistent; really he was a bean pole. So restricted, he relished the feeling of being held back, as Grandmam had insisted he always be, Tongue bit and fisted, enduring a little penance, she said.
Blood in the moment meant nothing, but blood over time built a story. They were, all of them, miserable women and they drew the love they needed from him the way a farmer pumps water from the ground for his poultry. They tapped his innards, strew them out across the ground for their pleasure and left him harden in the sun. How’s that for frying eggs and brains on church Sunday?
Grandmam’s specialty was with a side glass of tomato juice, peppered and pretty stalk of celery leaf. Once, when her back turned, he sipped and the spike about gagged. The boy’ll never be a drinker, she said. Why’d she turn to the stove in the first place? You need to give a rabbit full run, she said. Oh, Grandmam, chock to the brim with her sayings and curses.
For all his aberrations, alcohol wasn’t one of the ice picks poking holes. She caught him sashaying about in a church dress of hers. Now that was more Sunday business than slugging back vodka, which she did after the tomato juice ran out, in the stuffed arm chair, ass back and sinking, never intending to rise. She’d sleep there come dark, might piss herself. So, left hand gripping the arm rest, she thought on it, thought, what harm? It was just they two. With her right she gripped the drink and pointed off with her pinky, directing him. Okay, now twirl. He belted it with a long string of costume pearls—nice touch. Looked better on him than on her. Looked like a goddamned rosary ‘round his waist, chipped tooth in that wide beatific smile, his facade even at nine or ten years old hinting at its adult lupine shape, snappish and wary.
Well, he’d been enveloped by women from the get-go, Grandmam to the gaggle of sisters. The nondescript no-name sisters, they were interchangeable yet cherished. Yes sister, no sister, please sister, won’t you sister?– petitioners at the gates fully expecting to be heard and catered to and rosaried.
With his feet bruised from the stones trapped in his shoes, he pretended to be a novice among the flock in their grey and white dresses, his waist the tiniest of all. The parishioners and penitents sought kindnesses and prayers, the healing massages for which the sisters were famous. This wasn’t Lourdes or Fatima, this was a two-stop-light South Dakota town. There wasn’t much to do or much else to get excited by.
Inside the grounds on Saturdays they massaged the public and individuals paid what they could—sometimes coin but more likely eggs, a quilt, or knitted hats for the impossible winters, carrots straight out of the ground. Among the bent and the sore roamed the sisters, and he, playing a sister before he ever became a science teacher, he did, too. This was when he was teenage-ed. He touched many with fingers not yet ape-knuckled, the backs of his hands not yet thatched with hair, and he had no beard nor whiskers nor shade on his upper lip. Among the sisters, doing the sisters’ work, mimicking a sister, he massaged many, he touched many, with the skirt he wore thrilling his thighs and what connected to those thighs.
He had a strength in his hands that few sisters had acquired, and the face of a boy-angel. He was blond, it would three more years before puberty caught up. The wimple and the habit concealed him well. He released their aches and they blessed him so, they thanked him so, while he rose under his skirt, levitating again, confused and wanting and awash in celibacy and already redefining celibacy, begging even the disastered South Dakota trees for their pardon.
The sisters fed him boiled quail eggs, they pierced his negative force field and began softening him with their malleable hands. They fostered a young man who taught other village boys how to be men by, himself, impersonating a sister, and eventually, when the sisters all died, he forsook their graves, graves with delicate flowery script and angel wing engravings, tulips.
You would have thought modesty in death as in life but he made sure they were the showiest in the churchyard before he left the village for good. He’d loved the sisters, loved them in arrival as in departure, while the boys he’d known cried, waving their fathers’ limp handkerchiefs at their science teacher’s leaving, and the fathers sharpened their knives for later ambush of who they called “professor,” in derogatory and dangerous tone. Here, the first miracle: his extra-sensory hearing, for he’d swear, in his walk-away, he heard the tiniest fly buzz, the mute flowers turning their heads, even the long-dead cow bawling madly from his grandmam’s farm.
His students’ fathers approached him, head-on, behind and from the left. Left-handed by nature, but since Grandmam had broke that variance, tying his small boy hand around a fork with clothesline and forcing him to eat the right way or no way. I’ll have no sinisters here, she claimed. So in this one-against-three fight he had a tiny bit of play, his natural left hook what she could not quit him of. Ninja moves were barely known outside Asia, but he Bruce Lee jump kicked, dispersing their knives. The sisters’ dove spirits, like their once-dove-like hands, fluttered amid enemy metal, and their cooing, again dove-like, roused his ears until they bubbled full of women’s prayers. By the heart and brain and tail they had him. Not the paltry fathers, heavens no, but the sisters. They had him in their grips as sure as did his grandmam.
It was like being born all over again in the huddle of those fathers, like they were elements of a football squad dispersing a play, heads in as one, and he dispatched them by broke jaw and split shin and hematoma. If the mud picked its victims, then he rose out of their fracass-ing middle, up amid their stink and sweat and his own power, identity encrusted and grave, he the only one in a skirt. He would never be the same. His face was lined. He’d glance all serious from now on, no playful massage or feather touch, no aid, and you bet you no mercy.
For weeks in this new place he had not stepped outside his new digs in anything but dungarees. He had not displayed his long fingers, poised as they naturally were for piano keys or smooth supple muscle. He kept his hands in his dungaree pockets, his arms bent akimbo, a man in a Western, nothing to lose. A hat the one thing he missed, but in such wind nothing hat-like would stick. They have tornadoes in South Dakota, they were having one now, and what ripped from the ground’s zipper were the guts of all he’d planted to eat. Up against the glass vegetables flew. Food the smaller of loss, since grave stones and hail stones rocked each end of the new town he insisted making home. He had to dodge projectiles on his dash to the storm cellar.
He huddled close to the floor on bent haunches with arms hanging monkey-like over knees and knuckling the dirt. His pupils enlarged to dime-size to make out through the gloom the jar uglies sitting beside.
Don’t hide your light, Grandmam said. Beat that bushel to death. Shine shine shine.
And if legs are wrapped up in a dress, what then?
Keep such inside your walls, she said. Scrub your nails as if you are about to do surgery or just done murder. Visine your eyes and rinse your mouth with peppermint. Step into some pants, for God’s sake. Save the twirling for your private minutes.
World crashing outside and above while he breathed dank air, thought about it tainting his lungs, the two pink heavers, laughed at himself calling pickled cucumbers and cauliflower and pigs feet the name he’d as a boy given them. Just about then the wind cranked the lid and brought sky and all those jarred uglies, still intact, not a one cracked or spilled, onto his legs. He was pressed on pause, pressed into service, pressed beyond any iron that could flatten, by dead weight, stump and pain, wind in the willows gone, silence trying to even out the pressure of a yellow world. Not the sun, but the very air tinted so the jars on his legs glowed. Everything lay comatose and ruined until his ears popped and soundtrack entered him like electric switched wrong on an old house. Pfft. Shingles flapping, water dripping, walls bent and sighing, shoes all over town getting ready to drop, one siren too far away to count, something else preparing to blow, or maybe already all blown out and accepting the toll of the next breath, and another. You ain’t done yet, Grandmam whispered. And you nigh ain’t alone.
He walked a half mile through what his eyes barely made sense of. With geography leveled, he had to wonder where once stood the barber’s pole, St. Vincent DePaul, Grinder’s Pool Room, the Day-Night Laundry? Industrial washers and dryers relocated by wind? That he just could not fathom, and him a pretend scientist, too. Others milled about, emerging cautious, dazed as he, chests heaving, grunting like hogs, all faces down to earth, a dazed populace looking for things left to cherish. Things only, the sisters said, for they lived in his mind, held hands there with his grandmam. He didn’t have that much to call loss, but others did, and they woke out of their amazements, clutching what hadn’t broke or been left to rot, bad-mouthing folks from the insurance companies on down to their next door neighbor. They accused some of hiding.
Where was Mr. Norris, or his brother Vaughan, who’d first opened the place for tour, tapping the scarred butcher block counter with his Chevy key, anxious until the duplex lease got signed, his young cousin Dottie sticking selfies on the internet while she waited in the car, passing time? People hoard guns, he’d said, I mean, have guns, just advising, but the sisters had taught non-violence from the beginning.
He said, In this house no weapon.
Weather’s severe, said the realtor. Was me, I’d get myself a snow shovel and a window A/C. And a flashlight with provisions below, extra batteries, water. A gun.
The agent wore desert boots with crepe soles that gave off nary a sound. He heaved open the double doors of the storm cellar to show it off, in boots that never touched no desert, and cellar doors that sounded and smelled like iron. Enter the dungeon, the mine, your own private earth. Wind later bent them easy as pop tops off a soda can; sucked him out of the grave like he was Coke at the end of a straw.
Tired of the weather and needing a haircut, he struck out through town, casting looks, still wondering where that damned barber’d gone. Red and white pole swirling the razor’s blood, white for cream and skin and talc. Where the hell’d it blow to? The structure of a novena drew latticework around him as he walked. He felt protected inside his own force field, though he was a boy, still a child in his head, still a girl in his groin, mixed up throughout his heart’s cage, legs rangy like a spider’s, letting his feelers down to ankle length like a long skirt so it could trip on the hum penetrating the earth in the after-storm. He clutched his scalp and scratched, scanning for scissors or even a razor among the ruins.
For the millionth time he wished for his students, the logic of their unfermented brains, their smart language, their clean filed fingernails. He wished for any one of them to step through this muck and say, Hey Mr. Pershing, Padraic Pershing, Mr. Paddy Wagon, all their cutesy familiar names for him, and his for them.
By the time the waters receded it became tough to hang on to his eyeteeth. First in need of a barber, and now scouting for a dentist. The hawkers and pubs had returned, even the food trucks parked for the lunch hour before disappearing behind the Black Hills. The town swayed like a hastily patched barn. Bar folk lay bets on how long until either the cable came back on or the generators crapped out. Final Four season and everybody’s lives hung in the balance.
He sat in the square, where hangings had been commonplace. His tongue worked his toothaches like a hen checking on all her chicks. He thought he’d be man enough once he grabbed up a wrench and pliers, but he could not pull his own teeth.
Grandmam bleached string off the butcher’s package and tied it around his loose incisor.
Not that loose, he said around her fingers working his mouth.
She said, It’s a baby tooth. Stop being a baby. It’ll come out in one slam.
He laughed out loud in the square, where they milling around pegged him a fool, a hobo. They gave him wide berth. Grandmam, with her remedies and disappointments, lurched behind any slammed door, so he closed this one gently along with his long-lashed eyes that some of his students had butterfly-kissed. He put those boys, too, on the train and sent them packing.