Blow the House Down
“Blow the house down!” Tommy says. He’s in his pajamas, thin at the knees, too short. His ankles and wrists jut, pale angles. Her brother drops onto the couch beside Shelly, bounces up and down, his cropped hair sticking up every which way, mouth stretched wide.
Sounds good to her. She’s in. She doesn’t know what it means.
“Wait,” he says and goes into the kitchen.
The only light is the TV, flickering shadows on the walls.
He comes back with the carton of chocolate-covered malt balls, his cheeks gorged already.
“Here,” he says, but he holds the box up high, out of reach. “Jump.” His words slur with the candy in his mouth; a strand of chocolate-pocked saliva hangs suspended before it drops to the floor.
She won’t do it. She wants the candy, but she’s not going to do it. Shelly goes to sit on the floor in front of the TV. The linoleum is cold. She pulls her nightgown over her knees and tucks her feet under the material.
Tommy comes up behind and kicks her in the back. “Baby,” he says. She ignores him. “Baby, baby, baby.” He drops a malt ball on her head. It’s Saturday night; she’s washed her hair. It’s not even dry yet. The candy rolls away, under the TV set.
On the screen the actress says, “Oh, you’re going to miss me.” She has a red suitcase in her hand and wears shiny black heels. She doesn’t look anything like Mom. Mom doesn’t have a suitcase. She took her clothes in a paper bag.
Tommy backs up across the room and begins to pelt Shelly with the chocolate balls, easy at first, then harder and harder. She imagines blue bruises like peonies flowering across her back. The candy caroms across the room, hitting the walls, skittering across the floor. A malt ball ricochets off the window into her lap. Stealthily she closes her hand around it.
“Blow the house down!” Tommy yells. He places a chocolate ball on top her head, steadying it between thumb and forefinger. She pretends not to notice, and when he brings his fist down to crush the candy on her head she bites her tongue and tears smart her eyes.
She doesn’t move. Soon he’ll grow tired. Sometime he’ll leave the room, and she’ll eat the chocolate ball hidden in her hand.
It’s four o’clock in the afternoon and Shelly is to stay put in the living room. She sits before the TV tuned to old-fashioned cartoons, black and white. At the bottom of the screen, a bouncing ball ticks off the words of a show tune. The singing voices are pitched high, like mice.
Sometimes Shelly feels like a scratched vinyl record: a repeating pitch of lonesomeness mounting in her chest, falling off only to rise again. This becomes a pulse. The pulse is trapped in the cage of her ribs.
Behind the closed kitchen door Mom sits at the table with Jess Paul, the Jewel Tea man, and his wares. In school Shelly had a story in her reader about a peddler. Mr. Paul is like that, driving up in his boxy white van on Fridays. He comes to the door, carrying his stuff in cartons with handles like toolboxes. Mom buys coconut cookies sometimes, which don’t taste very good but have some sweetness.
The sun is high in the window and lights a rectangular patch on the linoleum floor. Shelly forms her hand into a shadow puppet. She doesn’t want to make a rabbit. Anyone can do that. She wants to make a kitten. Her fingers won’t cooperate; they’re too long. They form huge bumps for ears. “Meow, meow.” But this changes nothing.
From the kitchen comes laughter. The scraping of chair legs across the floor. Shelly shapes her fists into waves and crashes them across the light. Monster tides. Ferocious. Eating. Seething. Rising and falling, rising and falling.
They’re those kids that hang around too long in the toy store after school, the boy loitering at the matchbox cars, the girl transfixed by the doll house with actual electric lights. They’re those ones wearing stained jackets, something dark and greasy blotching the front of Shelly’s pink parka, a rip in Tommy’s dirty sleeve where the gray fiberfill spills out, looking like some live insect nest. They don’t have mittens, their hands are red, and Tommy’s raw too, because having no gloves doesn’t stop him from scooping up snow, packing it into icy balls, and pelting the storefronts.
They’re the brother and sister who, once they’ve been chased out of the toy store — You kids go on now! — bang into the Dairy Dell, causing the few customers at the counter to look up from their cups of coffee. The bells clang the door, and the waitress puts her hands on her bony hips, sharp angles of her pink uniform. Her white paper hat is slipping to one side, and even from inside the entryway they see the remains of her dark lipstick crusted in the corners of her mouth. She too wants to tell them to go on, get out; they’re those kids that don’t ever have a cent to their name, they’re not going to order a soda, and there’s no law that says the waitress has to bring them glasses of water while they pretend to decide what they’ll have from the menu. They stomp the snow from their boots and clomp across the floor tracking streaks of mud, laughing and elbowing each other to get first to the corner booth. Their eyes tear up from the warmth in the diner.
The waitress approaches their booth, slipping on the wet floor, and her face takes on a grim expression. “Not today,” she says, her hands empty.
“Menus.” Tommy’s voice is a command just this shade of mean.
The waitress shakes her head, the loose paper hat dipping toward her ear. “You got no money.”
Tommy gives her a wicked grin. He puts his hand in his pocket and pulls out a green bill, smooths out the five dollars on the tabletop, and Shelly remembers that morning. She remembers entering the kitchen to find her brother pushing Mother’s purse back into its drawer next to the refrigerator; his sweaty face. Something in her stomach pinches.
Tommy says, “Bring us the cherry pie.” Shelly unrolls the fork from the paper napkin surrounding it. She presses the tines into the back of her hand, knowing without knowing, nothing will be the same again.
“If you want to make me feel good here’s how,” Tommy says. They’re in his bedroom; he’s ten years old, Shelly almost nine. On shelves in the corner the spines of his books read Fahrenheit 451, Breakfast of Champions, Nineteen Eighty-Four. That summer Shelly will read Nineteen Eighty-Four and develop a new level of anxiety that will gnaw at her until seventh grade, when boys and bras, French kisses, and the dual meaning of rubbers permeates her consciousness.
But in her brother’s bed that night she thinks, Why would I want to make you feel good?
Tommy has dedicated his life to making her feel bad.
Her brother is what she has.
Why is she in her brother’s bed? She must be asking for bad things to happen.
There’s solace in Tommy’s room. He wants to be a scientist and he explains certain natural phenomena, like pheromones or ball lightning, while the shadows from the old sentinel maple in the backyard deepen across the window. Shelly believes Tommy. He’s a genius. Her third-grade teacher, who taught him too, said so, though she also said that he is lazy.
Tommy kicks the blankets to the floor.
He tells her that by the time she is out of high school — an unimaginable future date — they could be living on Earth’s sister planet, Venus. He says Venus with a kind of caress that makes Shelly understand how little she knows.
Shelly went out onto the porch, a piece of toast with burnt crusts in her hand. She planned to tear off the black pieces and toss them onto the lawn for the birds, and eat the soft buttery center of the bread. The sight of her brother’s friend Raymond sitting on the top step startled her. Raymond stared at the front of her blouse, where Shelly was flat, and she felt her face burn as he made no move to tear his eyes away.
“Take a picture, why don’t you?” she said. She sat on the swing and pulled her knees up in front of her.
Isn’t our girl brave?
“Don’t get all hot and bothered.” Raymond laughed. He sounded like a braying jackass, and Shelly would have liked to have said so. Ignoring Raymond worked better though.
“Where’s Tommy?” Raymond asked.
Shelly chewed her toast thoughtfully. She was careful to maintain an expression on her face that should be interpreted as if she were considering a private matter. Perhaps in the midst of an inner debate of significance. When school started next month, she would join the junior high debate team. She could be good at public speaking, she thought.
Seems like she’s got a bit of self-confidence. Let’s hope that lasts! (The empirical evidence shows otherwise, however.)
“You. Hey you.” Raymond broke a sprig off the boxwood shrub beside him and tossed it at her. The piece of greenery fluttered impotently to the porch floor before him. Shelly didn’t let the smile break out on her lips.
Tommy pulled up on the gravel driveway on his bike. “What are you doing here?” her brother asked Raymond. “I just came from your house.”
A puff of dust still lingered in the air near his bike tires. Later Dad would make him rake the gravel again. Tommy and his friends had an aggravating habit of leaving deep furrows in the driveway. They liked to do tricks on their bikes involving speeding and braking. From up in her bedroom window, Shelly often thought she’d see one of the boys lying in the stones with a broken bone jutting through his pant legs. It might be wishful thinking when it came to Raymond, but she didn’t think so; she wasn’t that bad.
Of course we know she’s not. You’re not, dear.
Raymond was bad, however. Shelly’d heard Dad yelling at Tommy one night. “If Raymond jumped off a cliff, would you do the same thing?” She’d gathered from Dad’s tirade that Tommy and Raymond had been spying through the bathroom door keyhole on Raymond’s mother.
In a couple hours, Raymond was now saying to Tommy, he was going on a trip with his parents to Intercourse, PA, he was saying now to Tommy. Laughing. Ha, ha. As if everyone didn’t know. As if he hadn’t been repeating the fact endlessly. Big deal. Shelly had looked it up at the library, Intercourse. There was nothing even remotely sex-related about the town. The Amish lived there. The Peoples Place Quilt Museum was there. Probably Raymond’s mother would drag him into the museum. Was he going to study the fabrics, the hand-stitching? The thought made Shelly smile.
“What’s with you?” Raymond said. He cut his eyes at Tommy, expecting her brother’s approval, no doubt.
Tommy said nothing but sat watching. His hands moved on the grips on his handlebars as if he were revving up a motorcycle engine.
“Wouldn’t you like to know?” Shelly said. “Mr. Rocking Stitch.”
Raymond’s eyebrows drew together. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
Shelly stood and walked calmly in the direction of the door. “Well?” he demanded.
“Let’s go,” Tommy said. “She doesn’t know what she’s talking about.”
Raymond left the step. “Crazy bitch,” he said under his breath. He picked his bike up from the ground.
Shelly pulled the door open without turning to look around. The boys were ready to pedal away. She heard Tommy say to Raymond, “Let’s go, Needle-nose.” And she thought maybe, just maybe, one day she and her brother might become friends.
Ah, Shelly. Tommy is simply referring to a kind of pliers, which has nothing to do with sewing of any kind.
I want you to look at my panties and love me, Shelly thinks, and she doesn’t know where the words have come from. She’s taking her new underwear out of the dryer, and she loves the color of these panties she stole from Kings’ — magenta or orchid. She doesn’t know who she’s thinking about, who the you is. It can’t be Tommy, though Tommy’s on her mind because she’s sure her brother’s going to come across the new panties sooner or later. He’s always in her room going through her things, and she’s sure he will know how she got them. The five-finger discount. He’s the one who showed her how.
She’s maybe thinking about her brother’s friend Gary, who often rides up the driveway on his shiny coppery-colored Schwinn. Gary appears in the yard and sits on the bike and waits for Tommy to come out, the sun glossing his lustrous blond hair. They ride off somewhere, to do any number of things, which might be look at magazines of nude girls. Tommy takes the magazines from the newsstand afterschool, sliding them up under his shirt.
One day when she knew Gary would be coming for Tommy, she peeled off all her clothes and wrapped a towel around herself, like she’d seen a movie star do in a late-night show, her hair pinned up. She imagined that as she passed by the door Gary would think she was simply returning from the shower and that he’d caught a lucky glimpse, though in fact, the shower, if it had worked, was nowhere near the back door. The bathtub was upstairs, with its useless pitted showerhead.
She stuffs the lovely panties under her shirt and runs up the steps, two at a time, and in her room, tucks them behind a jigsaw-puzzle box — two kittens and a unicorn — she received three years ago for her birthday. Back into the space where she keeps the stolen lip gloss, purple eye shadow, and a gold pinkie initial ring.
I want you to love me, she thinks again. She kisses the back of her hand, watching herself in the mirror, and closes her eyes.