Nicole Reid is the second place winner in the 2009 Literary Awards Program. Below is the first section of her entry, This One Last Thing.
Phenomenology of a Braid
I’m her girl, the second. The baby. Or third, if you count my brother who is dead.
We live in Blacksburg, Virginia on a dead end by the old, paved-over railroad tracks. The calendar page hanging in Ma’s kitchen is a fluffy dog, white and black like a cow, with her paws on her snout like she was naughty. Little muddy paw prints spell out August 1982 across the top. I don’t like numbers that end in evens. I like threes or sevens, not ones. I like the calendar, though, even if Ethel thinks it’s for babies.
Ethel is older by three years. I am eight and she’s eleven. Ma wanted us separated three years perfect, but I was preemie and plus her math was off. Ethel says I’m still squishy dough because Ma didn’t cook me long enough. Ethel calls me underdone. She calls me half-baked. She says I’m the runt but I’m not smaller than she is. I’m thick like Daddy, who says that’s a sturdy way of living. Ethel says it’s being fat. She doesn’t know. Once she blew away in the wind tunnel in Chicago when Ma went to see her one old friend’s new baby who she doesn’t even talk to anymore, and couldn’t keep Ethel from being pulled up into the snowy air. Ethel likes the story, though there’s not much story to it; she likes thinking of herself as someone who can easily blow away. She tells me that if she were to go back to the wind tunnel now, and I were to go with her, the two of us holding hands, I’d be her anchor and keep her safe.
Truth is that’s not what Ethel wants. But this is how she loves. The one thing she wants in this world is to be blowable, so this is her way of saying I’m needed, even though I’m not. What I need is something I don’t know yet. It’s blue, I think, the color blue. Because that’s my favorite: color of air and of night around a moon and of Daddy’s eyes and favorite dress shirt. More than that, I don’t know it.
Last week Ethel broke Ma’s last glass elephant. Snapped the trunk right off when picking him up and that’s how all the rest broke too so why she didn’t lift him proper I’ll never know, except that Ma’d sat Ethel at the kitchen table all morning long with her oatmeal and raisins and nobody, but nobody—meaning me—was allowed to talk to her ‘til she ate every spoon of the gloopy-glop. Only she didn’t eat it. So Ma finally let her up when it was lunch and the carrot sticks came out for her, and peanut butter & honey sandwiches for Ethel and me.
“Go on then,” said Ma, and shooed Ethel who looked her real hard in the eye. She went right for that poor old last elephant, the green one with bugged-out orange daubs for eyes. Ma heard the thwunk the body made falling to the Persian rug. She didn’t bat an eye, just cocked her head stopping chewing a second, then went on with her carrot sticks. She didn’t speak to Ethel for three straight days.
Ethel and I play in the pines off the side of the house, the ones that make a wall marking where we end and the Thomson’s begin. Sometimes we climb them. Sometimes, more times, we swing on the wisteria vine looped over a high, thick bough like a lazy snake ‘bout to fall. And sometimes Clint Thomson watches us.
“I’m coming up,” he’ll say from the bottom of the tree we’re in, him not knowing which is the only branch to grab and so figuring on all the wrong ones, then getting stumped and fed up. He has this way of only looking at Ethel when he talks, and I don’t know why but it makes my stomach grip up for hours after.
“The hell you are,” says Ethel, calling down to him.
“Hell you are,” I say. She tips back her head so’s I can see she’s rolling her eyes at me.
We’re swinging on the wisteria vine. His dog Basey is down there, too. Some little mixed-up beagle thing with a coiled tail and a scruff of hair at the base of his neck for when he’s feeling ornery, which is almost all the time but especially when our dog Floey’s out playing too. Today she’s inside ‘cause Ma’s making her a fairy costume for Halloween. This is only August but she’s wanting an early start.
Clint grabs hold another branch and lets it take the weight of him but it’s the wrong branch and there’s nowhere to go from there, so he just sort of grips at the sticky needle tufts coming at his face and leans there. Basey’s sniffing around every inch of forsythia and brambledy blackberry bush we’ve got, peeing every step of the way. And he’s got these funny short legs, and one’ll spring up in the air. Ethel calls it peeing with gusto and it about tips him over lifting that leg so danged fast and high.
“He’s doing it again.” I nudge her to look down at Basey in the currant bush.
“Stupid dog,” she says. We watch him move around the yard, rooting his nose in the dirt, stopping stock still to catch the edge of a breeze coming through.
“He can’t help it,” I say.
“That is the trouble with being stupid, Enid. You cannot be anything but.”
We’re carrying on this conversation loud enough for Clint to hear it but high up enough he can pretend not to if he wants, and he must ‘cause he’s still leaning on that first branch of the pine and now kind of pushing up and down on it, still hanging on to the trunk of the tree. But in a few minutes he hops off and Basey follows him back into his yard.
“Stupid boy,” says Ethel.
“Stupid,” I say, and she flicks my big toe while she’s hanging upside down from her knees.
The screen door slaps shut and out comes Floey running that happy-dog run of favoring one front leg and angle and moving like a horse or the wind. Right to our tree, she comes. I see her catch on that Basey was here and she’s so smart, my dog, that she turns her head and looks hard—downright studying—into his yard.
“Good girl,” I tell her. “Smart girl.”
Then she’s off walking the bushes, sniffing everywhere he’s been, stuffing her nose right into all those drips of pee.
“Do you ever wonder what it’s like,” says Ethel, pulling herself back up on the vine to sit by me, “to think about things or do things that other people don’t know you do?”
You know, secret things.”
“Oh, never mind, Enid. You’re too young.”
“I am not,” I say and shove her once, but just a little ‘cause I don’t like it when she shoves up high in the tree.
She elbows me back anyhow. “Floey’s going to find him.”
“What did you do?” I say.
“Don’t be stupid, Enid.”
“I’m going out,” Ma calls from the screen door. She’s in her tennis togs. She’s clutching her tennis satchel. But she doesn’t go get in the car, she heads back into the house.
We don’t know about this, ‘cause she never takes her racquet. And you can’t play all by yourself, but no one ever calls her to reconnoiter—that’s one of Ma’s favorite words—and she never calls anyone.
“Bye,” she says to us, once she’s made it out the door twirling her keys, and still we don’t answer because we’re watching the sun catch in the pleats of her white skirt, the pink balls bouncing from the backs of her ankle socks. Her ponytail ties with a lemony bow.
She backs the Datsun out the gravel drive and neither one of us can watch that.
Ethel swings upside-down again, says, “She lies to us.”
My stomach drops like over a hill too fast and now I’m afraid. Of being up high. Of Ethel falling and landing on her head. Of Floey gone to find Basey and what if she does find him. Of this being the start to the end of summer. Of Daddy not knowing the particulars of this day for us, ‘cause this isn’t one of his days—it isn’t a spend-the-night day and it isn’t a barbecue-grill day and it may not even turn out to be a phone-call day. He doesn’t so much like it when Ma answers; he called her ‘smug’ once. I don’t mind him saying it. She’s mean and sometimes I have to count my fingertips against the inside of my hand until I calm down, and there are always ten fingers to press, so sometimes I tap out syllables people say, over and over again, until I end on the last finger and everything is on kilter again.
This world feels entirely dangerous. Flat, almost, like to fall off at any rim of earth. Speeding dump trucks everywhichaway.
I’ll say now that Daddy doesn’t live here anymore. You should know that ‘cause it’s everything, I think. And we don’t live with him ‘cause Ma said ‘no’ and Ethel said nothing and I said ‘yes’ and that was that. He left ‘cause she said so when I was only four, or something like that. Four years ago, nearly. He’s in an apartment, first one I ever saw or at least stepped into the inside of, over by the university—which I guess is convenient, that’s what he says; Ethel says, “At least it’s not Christiansburg” and we laugh ‘cause everyone knows what do you get when you add hot water to Christiansburg? Instant Grits, and our daddy is no gap-toothed, greasy-haired Grit.
First time we visited, every time since, it’s the speed bumps that get me. Ethel’s always yammering on about grilling ‘cause Daddy likes to grill for us and she knows I don’t like her talking about it ‘cause I don’t know why except when she does, it’s like everything’s for her. She’ll make such a big show about telling Ma, even though it’s plain she doesn’t want to hear it either. Chicken Hot as the Devil’s his specialty and nobody notices me picking off the whole peppercorns that bite into my tongue and leave the tip bruised and bumpy for days, me not able to taste a dang thing except sometimes strawberry ice cream—which he makes sure to have on hand for us, too, even though I’ve never liked the kind with hunks of berry hulls getting caught in my throat. Ma says I’m a creamy girl: mashed potatoes, yogurt, pudding, real loose oatmeal all make my head spin. She says I’ve a sensitive tongue; Ethel says I’m just a pig who likes slop.
Anyhow, so Daddy’s apartment’s way at the back, through several side-turns and a couple curves. And every few feet, the Datsun goes up-down, up-down and Ethel keeps talking not even understanding that we’re going to see him in this place, this place!, that may as well be Christiansburg for the babies in sogged-out Pampers running away from ugly teenaged sisters with tank tops and bra straps coming down over their shoulders. And marking each doorway are these green shutters all shiny gloss-painted like they must get a fresh coat every Wednesday. And why I don’t know ‘cause the rest is just dirt yards and pickups with their hoods popped.
It’s all wrong.
So last time Ethel was saying, “Enid peels off the skin to eat it first—all crisp and golden. Enid flips over the skin.” Which is a lie, ‘cause she doesn’t know everything and skin’s something squeams me out just enough to give it up if she thinks it’s all that special to me. “And he’ll probably have corn. He likes us to have corn.” She was in the front seat—’cause she’s older, even if I’m bigger—flipping her ponytail and waving her bird arms all around, looking out the windows but not seeing it. Not seeing how wrong it all is.
We got to the door—Ma was already backing the Datsun out of the parking slot, already starting away from us over that first bump—and he was there. So small in his doorway, his own slicky-green shutters framing him. His own face not ever remembering how to look, how it used to look in our house.
He’s wide and thick through his legs and middle, spread like someone sitting even when he stands. Prettiest blue eyes, like china flowers on plates. Ethel went right in. I saw the back of her neck, so pink from sun getting under her ponytail all summer. I wanted to reach for her hand ‘cause these are the tunnels I find so windy, but she was gone. To our room, the Hide-A-Bed room. The one with Golden Books and stuffed bears and nothing I own or recognize except the matching pillow that goes along with my baby blanket he made me leave here so I’d come back after the first time.
That was all wrong, too.
This last time, he hugged me sideways, just an arm draped over my back for a second, then was out through the sliding glass door to the baby Weber grill on his concrete quarter slab. Ethel carried out the platter of raw burger patties, hot dogs, and silk-tasseled corn. He slid the door shut behind her and it scraped in its gritty track. She started shucking the ears into a brown grocery sack.
I stood there. Watching them. His hands flipping and squishing the burgers. Ethel’s fingers tugging out the silks from the corn. Her hands skinny like Ma’s, the way her face goes quiet and her lips go mad. I looked around at the things I still remembered were ours, seeing them in his rooms like someone had rearranged them and they just can’t find their way back: the one Persian rug Ma let him take out of the bedroom squeezed onto his living room floor, one end running up the baseboard three full inches; the smeary painting of greens and black and brown over his fake fireplace; the school pictures of Ethel and me from off our piano’s wall, holes in that grid Ma still hasn’t filled with our new grade pictures.
I was in the kitchen. In the fridge. Into his yogurt but it was sour; Plain it said. I squirted the honey-bear in long hard squeezes and scooped spoonfuls of cinnamon sugar right into the tub. I ate it and then didn’t know what to do. I sucked the spoon clean, wiped it in my shirt and laid it back in the silverware tray, though I could see the difference—its cloudy film. I put the lid back on the yogurt tub and squeezed aside the milk and juice to push it to the back of the fridge’s middle shelf. Then I thought better of that and took it to my knapsack, stuffed it underneath my underpants and blue Jellies.
I’m a bad daughter. I know this with positive certainty.
I went to find them and stood on the concrete with the spray bottle for when the flames flare up.
“Easy, Sister,” said Daddy.
“She’s getting them all wet,” Ethel griped. She shoved me back. “You’re getting them all wet.”
He put a hand on her shoulder. There they stood, together, as close to one solid person as possible. I couldn’t hardly feel the trigger anymore, or the weight of what little bit of water was left in the can. But he reached an arm over to me, too, said, “You’re my girl.”
He flipped the burgers and fussed around with rolling the hot dogs back and forth. They were bubbling up like to burst and two of them had shot open at the ends. Char marks zigged and zagged, and they were dewy with grease. Ethel told him which ones to move and how far to roll each. I went back into the Hide-A-Bed room. Got my yogurt cup. Held on to it, not knowing what to do.
Clint’s at the base of our tree again. Basey’s sniffing around after Floey who was here a minute ago but now’s gone off exploring. Ma’s back home and Ethel’s inside getting the pins stuck in her Bambi costume. She’ll have a tail sewn on some brown shorts and white patches on the insides of tan legwarmers pulled smooth all the way up her thighs, a thrift store brown turtleneck, and an old Easter basket with twigs for antlers on her head. What she wants is what I want. Something in a kit, store-bought. Something brand new.
“I saw you,” he says to me, looking up but into the angles of the tree limbs not at me.
“Saw me what?” I call down.
“Which branch to start with.”
“Did not,” I say. “Prove it.” But that’s the last thing I want him to do. “Get out of here! Go on back and take your mangy dog with you.”
“It’s this one, right here,” he says, and makes like to start climbing. The silver clip jingles on his Scouts shorts.
“You don’t know anything,” I tell him. I rip off a hank of needles and toss them at him. He blinks, this time looking up at me which clamps an instant vice around my middle so bad I can’t move a good minute.
“Come on, Basey.” He pats his side and that dumb dog sort of turns his way but then thinks better of it and keeps on with my yard. “Come on now,” says Clint. He goes after him and takes hold of Basey’s loose red collar and starts dragging him home by it.
I swing on the wisteria vine. I swing upside-down. I swing rightside-up. I swing and swing. Ma’ll make me a pirate next.
Nicole Louise Reid is the author of the novel In the Breeze of Passing Things (MacAdam/Cage). Her stories have appeared in the Southern Review, Quarterly West, Meridian, Black Warrior Review, Confrontation, turnrow, Crab Orchard Review, and Grain Magazine. She is recipient of the Willamette Award in Fiction, and has placed in Press 53 Open Awards, Pirate’s Alley William Faulkner Short Story Competition, the F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Society, and Glimmer Train. She teaches creative writing at the University of Southern Indiana, where she is fiction editor of Southern Indiana Review and director of the RopeWalk Visiting Writers Reading Series. For more on Nicole, check out this interview at GMU’s MFA blog.