My best friend Christie and I were coming back from the store one Saturday afternoon – the Chinaman’s, my mom called it, as in, “Rachel, go to the Chinaman’s and get me some cigarettes.” It was down our street and around the corner, about halfway down the block. Today I wasn’t getting any cigarettes, though. Christie and I both bought watermelon gum. They came three to a bag and were green striped on the outside and pink on the inside. They didn’t really taste like watermelon, but they were sweet, and kind of sour, too.
Lots of people thought we were sisters. Her hair was brown and mine was blonde, and she was a year older than me. I was afraid of the big, black dog in the front yard of the house beside the store. Christie wasn’t. She said they used to have a dog, Tinkerbell, who got run over. This day it was too hot for the dog to run up to the fence like it usually did. It sat on the verandah and barked instead.
The house was two-storeys, white, and the upstairs windows had brown shutters with silhouettes of sailboats cut into them. One of the shutters hung by one hinge, looked like it would fall off.
Christie nodded at the house as we walked by. “A girl in my class lives in that house. Her name is April Muller.” Christie had just finished grade one and I would start in the fall.
She continued. “She used to have a little brother. Stephen.”
“What happened to him?”
“He bit his own wiener.”
I was confused. “He died from biting his own wiener?”
“He bit it and he swallowed the pee. It poisoned him. They took him to the hospital, but it was too late.”
I didn’t say anything else. It sounded kind of crazy, but it seemed like the world was full of crazy things. And I had a little brother. One thing I definitely knew about boys – they were weird.
When I went back into our house around supper time, I knew my mom and dad had been arguing. They had arguments a lot, sometimes little ones that they thought I didn’t notice. They’d talk through clenched teeth, or sometimes didn’t talk to each other at all. Even though they were trying to pretend they weren’t mad when they did that, I knew just because they weren’t yelling at each other didn’t mean they weren’t having an argument. This one might have been a big one, one of the ones that just seemed to start like something exploding. They didn’t even try to pretend those ones weren’t happening. They’d launch into yelling, screaming, throwing stuff, crying and it was like Wayne and I weren’t even there. We’d go outside if it was nice out, or daytime. But sometimes we just had to stay in our bedroom. There wasn’t anywhere else to go. We could hear every word they said through the thin walls.
This one looked like it was over, mostly. Wide World of Sports was on but my dad wasn’t really watching it. The TV flickered in his glasses. The muscles in his cheek rippled as he blew smoke out his nose and looked out the window. Mom was making supper. She slammed the cupboard doors shut, banged the pots onto the counter. I thought she’d break the plates the way she threw them on to the table.
Before I answered I tried to think – what had I done? Was it something about me they were fighting about? “Yes, Mom?”
“Go find your brother.”
Wayne wasn’t four yet, but sometimes it would take me a long time to find him. Sometimes that was good. Sometimes I thought Wayne was a lot smarter than me.
Wayne and Dennis from down the street were crouched at the end of the alley, their blond pigshaved heads almost touching.
“Wayne, it’s time for supper.”
“Wait a minute. Look at this.”
They were poking with sticks at something on the sidewalk.
“What is it?”
“We got it out of a robin’s nest,” Dennis said.
A baby bird spilled out of a blue shell. It had huge, closed eyes that would never open, transparent skin, no feathers.
“You killed it.”
“We thought it was ready to hatch,” said Wayne.
I had to stop looking at the dead baby. It hurt to look at it. “C’mon, Wayne. We have to go.”
When we got home Mom gave Wayne and me our suppers, said nothing.
“Where’s Dad?” Wayne asked. I’d been thinking about the baby bird, forgot about Mom and Dad.
“He went out for a beer with Gil. Eat your supper.”
Wayne opened his mouth like he was going say something else, but I kicked him under the table. I could see that Mom was not in the mood for more questions.
The next day was Sunday, another hot day, and we had to go to church, like we always did on Sunday. I wished there was a Baby Jesus to look at in this church, because I liked babies. But there was only the old, scary Jesus on the cross, and the other sad one with his heart on fire. The crinoline Mom made me wear under my dress was hot and itchy, and I knew if I tried to scratch in church I’d get in trouble. Once communion was over, every time we got up from sitting or kneeling, I’d think it must be the end of the mass, but it seemed to keep going on and on. Finally, though, the priest said, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost,” and we all answered, “Amen”.
Lately, when we crossed ourselves in church I wondered what would happen when I developed. Was there a special way ladies did it so that you didn’t accidentally touch one of them? I watched my mom and the other women as they crossed themselves, but none of them ever seemed to accidentally touch one. I was sure I would, and it would be awful. Maybe you had to practise in front of a mirror for a while to get the hang of it.
After lunch I called on Christie. She said it was too hot to go out and we should play in the basement. Christie had a lot of Barbies, but her little sister Tillie had cut the hair off almost all of them. So her mom knitted hats for them. We played Barbies behind the big stack of boxes of Pablum in the middle of the rec room floor. Rows and rows of pink-faced babies with spoons in their mouths stared at me and Christie and the toque-wearing Barbies.
“Why do you have all this Pablum? Isn’t Tillie too old to eat it?”
“It’s not for Tillie. My dad’s a salesman and those are samples he has to take with him when he goes out of town.” Christie’s dad was Gil, the guy my dad went out for beer with sometimes.
I didn’t say anything else, but it made me a little mad to know that the Kendalls had all this baby food in their basement, and my mom was about to have a baby, and they didn’t give us any. Come to think of it, Mrs. Jeworski from next door had a new baby, and so did Kenny’s mom. All these babies around, and all this Pablum in the Kendalls’ basement. It didn’t seem right to me.
“Christie,” Mrs. Kendall called down the stairs. “Tillie’s going down for a nap right now, and I need it to be quiet in here, so you girls go play outside.”
There was a big tree in Christie’s front yard. We sat in the shade and smashed our leftover watermelon gums with big rocks. The ones we’d chewed tasted good at first, but once you chewed all the sugar out of the gum it was stiff and kind of bitter. Ants came, red and black, and crawled all over the smashed gum. We poked them off with sticks and they kept coming back.
Two older boys from down the street came by on bikes and stopped in front of us. One had red hair and freckles and the other had black hair and black-rimmed glasses. Christie knew them from school, but I didn’t. I felt kind of shy of them. They talked to Christie, who laughed at the jokes they told, but I kept quiet. After a while the one with glasses asked me what my name was. Before I could answer, Christie said, “Her name is Rachel. She’s not in school yet.”
“Hey, Rachel. Do you know what a cunt is?”
I’d never heard the word before. I looked at Christie, but she just shrugged. “No,” I answered.
The red-haired one spoke up. “Why don’t you go ask your mom?”
“Why don’t you ask your mom, Christie?” After all, we were in her yard.
“Tillie’s sleeping and my mom doesn’t want any noise.”
“Oh, yeah. Okay,” I said, getting up to cross the street. “I’ll be right back.”
It wasn’t much cooler inside our house than it was outside. Mom was watching TV on the couch.
“Mom,” I said. “What’s a cunt?”
Her face went all white, and she stood up and stared at me. She looked really mad and for a minute I thought I was about to get it.
“Where did you hear that word?”
“Two big boys came up to Christie and me and asked us if we knew what it meant.”
She was out the front door before I even knew what happened. I couldn’t hear exactly what she said, but she was yelling at the boys. I was glad she wasn’t yelling at me. I looked out the screen door and saw the boys ride away on their bikes, and my mom came back into the house red-faced to the roots of her dark brown hair.
“Don’t you ever say that word again.”
I still didn’t know what it meant, but I could tell it was something bad.
My mom and dad hadn’t been talking to each other since he went out for a beer with Christie’s dad. At least that was quieter than when they were yelling, but it still wasn’t any fun. If they wanted to talk now, they’d talk to me and I was supposed to talk for them.
“Rachel, ask your dad to pass the sugar, please.”
“Tell your mom I’m going out tonight so don’t wait up for me.”
Part of me wanted to ask them why they did this, why they made me part of their fight when they knew I didn’t want to be. But I knew I couldn’t. I was just supposed to do what they told me to, no questions. I was supposed to be a good girl. But when they acted like that I wanted to take off and stay away all day the way Wayne did.
A few days later we were playing in Christie’s basement again to be out of the afternoon heat.
“Come and see this calendar my Dad’s got,” Christie said.
We went into a part of the Kendall’s basement I hadn’t seen before. There was a bench with tools hanging on the wall behind it. And a calendar with a picture of a lady sitting on a leopard skin couch. She had long red hair and orange lipstick and wore a black nightie, and held a drink in a fancy glass. Then Christie lifted up something and suddenly the lady had no clothes on. The black nightie was just printed on a piece of clear plastic. Christie flipped the plastic back and forth and the lady’s nightie appeared and disappeared. I was speechless.
“My dad thinks I don’t know,” Christie said, “but he has a whole box of magazines with pictures of naked ladies like this in the garage.”
I wondered if our dads looked at pictures like these when they went for beers. Probably. That must have been why they couldn’t just drink beer at home. That’s what Mom always asked him, why couldn’t he just have a beer at home? Now I knew why. No wonder Mom was mad at him.
A few days later Christie and I played hopscotch on the sidewalk in front of her house when the same two big boys came up to us on their bikes again.
“Hey, Rachel,” the one with glasses said. “Did your mom tell you what a cunt is?”
He looked across the street at my house to see if my mom was around. They began to pedal away, but he turned around just before they ducked into the alley and said, “It’s a girl’s dink.”
A girl’s dink? I was so confused. So was Christie. As far as we both knew, girls didn’t have dinks.
A little while later Christie had to go in, so I went home. And even though I wanted to ask my mom, or someone, about the whole girl’s dink issue, I knew I didn’t dare.
When I came into the living room, Mom and Dad were lying on the couch and kissing. I don’t think they even noticed me. I knew this was another one of those times not to talk to them, same as when they were fighting. I went through the kitchen and out the back door and sat on our swing set.
After a while I heard some stirring in the kitchen. Mom must have been starting to make supper. “Rachel,” she called out the screen door. She probably wanted me to go to the cellar to get some potatoes or set the table, or maybe go to the store to get something.
I kicked at the dirt under the swings for a minute as Wayne and Dennis ran laughing past our back fence. Mom called me again. But before she saw me, I slipped through the back gate and down the alley. My heart pounded as I ran free after my brother, and I laughed, too.
Lori Hahnel is the author of a novel, Love Minus Zero, and a story collection, Nothing Sacred, which shortlisted for an Alberta Literary Award. A new novel, After You’ve Gone, is forthcoming from Thistledown Press in Fall 2014. Her fiction and poetry have been published across North America and in the U.K.; her credits include CBC Radio, The Fiddlehead, Prairie Fire and Room. As well as teaching at Mount Royal, she has served as writer-in-residence for Alberta Branch Canadian Authors Association and The Alexandra Writers Centre Society.