Sometimes a FistfulLisa Piazza
“You know, your boy never goes anywhere empty-handed.”
“Of course,” my mom had said, but what did she know of the metal sockets and wind-up gears I tucked in my pockets? The coins I fingered, the nails and screws and sometimes a fistful of rocks.
I learned early on how to blink back at life. My older brother Dale (“You have a brother?!” Deed interrupts. I keep talking.) was born seeped in a foul mood and his rancor often shifted to the rest of us before we even knew it. That summer, when I was eleven and Dale was thirteen, he seemed impossible to avoid – lurking downstairs or in our shared room – eyes flashing and smile cocked. It wasn’t a happy smile. With Dale that look meant something was on the verge of falling or splitting or teeming or worse. With Dale anything at any time was apt to disappear, disintegrate, evaporate. Leave. Just like that.
Just like Dad.
By the time the dog showed up at Sheila’s that night, the party felt dreamy and unreal---detached. We kids had scattered ourselves behind patio chairs and skinny trees, under the deck and in the shed playing hide and seek. We liked this time of night best, when the adults became overly happy and seemingly unaware.
That night I climbed the tree house Rich had built for his sons. Most of the rungs were falling off the trunk, but I knew my way around that tree. I had sat up in the shielded fort many times when Mom and Sheila started in on the wine. I thought the platform floor of the fort was empty until I felt a thick shoe and the heft of Dale’s right foot, then his left as he tried to kick me down.
“I was here first,” he fumed.
Down below we heard one of the younger kids yell, “Ready or not, here I come!”
“Move over.” I push myself in. Dale was big but not fast. Sharp but not smart. He and I waited and watched as the other kids got found. Then like a flash, the dog came bounding up the stairs, entering the fray of Sheila’s crowded kitchen with an idiotic exuberance. He circled around the large kitchen island and wiggled under the stools, wagging his tail, licking at crumbs and feet. People laughed, then squealed, tucking in their toes.
“Let’s get him!” Dale whispered. Then, louder, “Let’s get him!” because he had stopped caring about the game. He climbed down from the tree house, breaking off a small branch on his way and carrying it with him like a spear. The adults, I knew, wouldn't notice a thing, but the other kids crept out from their hiding spots and crowded around Dale. He was alluring the way all danger is alluring at first. Under Dale’s lead, the kids took off, chasing the dog around the house, through the kitchen then back around.
“Play somewhere else!” The adults shouted as the crew sped by.
“Whose dog is that? Careful!” Sheila laughed, shooing the young ones.
(“Why didn’t anyone pay attention?” Deed asks. I tell her Sheila was the type who courted the best without counting the worst. Even then I saw it as a problem.)
At first the dog was game. It was a nipper who yapped back at the kids. The littlest ones laughed, asking, “What’s your name! What’s your name, dog?”
But Dale didn’t want to make friends. He was playing a different sport. I could tell by the aggressive way he lunged for the dog.
The night mellowed out when dessert was served. Most kids went in and sat by their parents for pieces of berry pie, warm with ice cream melting into it. I kept an eye from the fort. Someone may have asked, “Where’s Eric?” but from my perch in the tree, I couldn't hear.
One by one, the kids filtered back out. The sugar had made them hyper and they took off looking for the dog again. In the last bit of light I saw the mutt crouching, panting, hiding behind Rich’s garden shed. He was hidden, but Dale knew where. He had stayed out too, watching. He led the kids tip-toeing behind pots and shovels, bags of dirt, the compost heap.
When Dale trapped the dog and pulled his stick back I got to my knees and dug in my pocket. A marble, tiger’s eye, wouldn’t do. On the other side, thankfully, was something heavier: a rock, small and jagged, from our front yard. I cupped it in my fist, determining the sharpest point. I knew what I had to do. Not because the dog meant anything to me (“It didn’t?” Deed questions. “I thought this was your great dog story?”) but because I knew Dale wouldn’t be able to stop what he was about to start. That this night would only compound, growing a need in him, forcing an urge too big to quell.
I raised my hand and aimed, trying to focus my eyes in the dim strand of Christmas lights Sheila had hung between the trees. When I caught Dale’s outline (he was tallest by far) I threw the rock. The sharp point struck him on the side of the head. The other kids looked around, ducked. But Dale stood eerily still. The pain only seemed to infuriate him, triggering a hatred he heaved eagerly on the dog. When he plunged the stick forward the dog cried out low and loud and long. It was the true sound of pain.
One of the adults rushed out. Then another.
“Jesus. What happened?”
“Who did this?”
Neither one knew Dale’s name but they pulled him by the arm into the harsh kitchen light. He was still holding the stick, red on one end. The rock I had thrown had cut open his head, mixing blood into his hair. Sweat, and not tears, covered his splotchy face. Even from the tree house I could tell his angular jaw was set far from sorry. No. My brother was mad enough to peel off his own skin. And probably mine too.
(“God, this is awful. What did your mom say?”)
Mom did not rush over, but eventually she did come. I’m sure she expected Dale to be
involved somehow. Teachers had been telling her for years to get him some help. Probably some for me, too.
Rich told her to take Dale to the Emergency Room, just to be sure. Sheila offered to stay with me. She looked, but didn’t find me (curled in the treehouse) until morning.
Deed wants to know why I never told her anything about Dale before. “Wait. How come I didn't even know you had a brother?”
“He ended up fine. Couple stitches is all.”
“I mean, people like Dale always survive. They find a way.”
“Well, where is he now?”
“In L.A., maybe.”
“You don‟t know?”
“We don’t keep in touch.”
“Obviously. And the dog?”
“Don’t know, actually,” I say. I know it couldn’t have lasted long.
Deed says, “Eric, this isn’t about a dog at all! And you didn’t save it.”
I have to think about this for a second before I realize she is right. In my mind the night still comes out differently: Dale drops the stick, turns away. I climb down and cradle the dog, reassure it, pass it safely to some unknown owner waiting at the gate. In my mind Mom, Dale and I walk back to our house. Dad is waiting. Home to stay.
“I thought you lived with your grandparents?” Deed says and again, she is right.
Mom thought it best, for my own good, safety even, I guess, if I spent the rest of that summer (and then the rest of my schooling) at Pop and Gigi’s with Dad, who only so often stopped in to sit at the kitchen table with his head between his hands. He had grown a beard. It was shaggy and unkempt; no one said it looked good. No one said it was a sign of wisdom. When he showed up, Gigi would pat his back, as if to say, These things happen.
“Why are you telling me this?” Deed wants to know. I can’t answer her. It is quiet for a long time and I think maybe I have put her to sleep, but then she hisses, “You should have chosen something else.” I have pushed her to her limit. “You could have told me anything!”
I say it’s not all bad and tell her about the one time Dad came by, seeming almost himself. I caught the familiar light in his eye---not like Dale’s---because my dad was kind and inward in a way that really had only just gone too far. Being with him was like watching (from the top down) a person sinking to the ocean floor. But this time he made contact by putting his hand on mine; I knew it was his way of saying sorry. I looked at him, then out the kitchen window and down the path to the creek that ran behind Pop and Gigi’s. It was a small thing, a trickle, really. I liked it there. I spent hours sitting on the rocks, catching tadpoles, collecting more than a dozen in jars filled with moss and rocks.
A home away from home. I studied those things endlessly, watching for the exact moment those legless spurts morphed into their final form. They always made it look so easy.
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