EXCERPTS FROM CHRIS TUSA'S THE SONS OF GOD

Chapter 1 

      The baby was a white fist of flesh.  Mama had placed the photograph of the ultrasound atop her dresser in a sterling silver frame.  That night, when the pain bent her over in the kitchen, I imagined that same white fist punching her insides black-and-blue.  When Daddy called from the hospital to tell us she'd lost the baby, Silas said I shouldn't worry.  He said the baby didn't feel any pain, that at nine weeks it wasn't anything but a ball of meat squirming in Mama's stomach.  He said it hadn't even sprouted arms or legs yet, that it still had a fish brain and gills growing in its neck.  That night, I dreamed of Mama's flesh creaking as the doctor unstitched the trapdoor in her stomach.  Mama's insides looked like crushed red velvet. The baby's skin was blue as a robin's egg.  I imagined the stitches in her stomach.  Tiny black mouths puckering between the folds of her belly.  I remember wondering where the baby's cries had gone.  If they had stayed inside Mama's body after the doctors stitched the trapdoor shut. 

     Nearly a week later, I was sitting in front of Sacred Elementary studying for my Science test, thinking about the baby again, my fingers tracing the pink gills of a fish in my Biology textbook.  As I stared at the fish in my textbook, I heard the crackle of gravel and what sounded like the faint moan of a car horn. I looked over my shoulder and saw a rusted blue truck with a dented fender idling in the parking lot behind me.  It was Silas.

     Two years ago, Daddy had helped him buy an old rusted pickup truck from Snitch's Scrap Yard. Silas had spent the whole summer souping it up. It had knobby tires and silver spoked rims.  A tanned brunette in a yellow bikini was airbrushed on the driver's side door. She was riding a surfboard, her body bent beneath a curling white wave.

     As I walked up to the truck , Silas revved the engine.  The inside of the truck smelled like pot.  A voice was crackling on the radio. I climbed into the passenger's side, and Silas spun the tires. When he did this, a cloud of brown dust swallowed the truck.

     "What's up?"  Silas mumbled, fixing his hair in the mirror.  "Where you going?  Ferma's?" He had slick black hair that looked like it had been painted onto his skull. His arms were tanned and muscular. He had freckled skin and two green eyes swimming in his head.

     "Yep," I said, buckling my seatbelt. "Thought Daddy was picking me up." 

     Silas pulled a Picayunne from his shirt pocket and lit the tip of the cigarette with his lighter. The lighter had a skinny girl with curly blonde hair on it. She had egg-white skin and two bright green eyes. She was wearing a fuzzy pink blouse and shiny black panties. When he turned the lighter toward the sun, the girl's black panties disappeared, exposing a yellow mound of hair between her legs.

     "Mama asked me to do it." Silas took a drag and blew the smoke out his nose. 

     "Where's Daddy?"

     "Down at the poolhall." He took two quick drags and flicked the Picayunne into the wind. "Man stays down there much longer, they gonna start charging him rent."

      "Can you give me a ride to Meridian's tomorrow?"  

     "No can do." He took two quick drags and flicked the Picayunne into the wind. "Gotta go to New Orleans and meet with my parole officer."

      Silas had been arrested three times. Once for stealing a tractor from a warehouse in Point a la Hache, another time for snatching car stereos from the parking lot of the Gun Show in New Orleans.  When he got caught selling a quarter bag of weed to a boy over on Mercy Street,  Mama agreed to bail him out, but only if he  promised to join the church and get saved.  Mama said Silas' soul was blacker than mud, that only the preacher's water could raise up his dead soul. Me and Mama went down to the church that Sunday to watch Brother Icks dunk Silas in the baptismal pool.  When I asked Silas what it was like, he said it felt more like being drowned than being saved.  Mama was convinced that the water had cleansed his soul, though, because two days after he was saved, Silas went down to the tattoo parlor and had a line from Leviticus tattooed on his bicep. Wherever he went, he kept a pair of brass knuckles in his back pocket.  He called it The Fist of God.  On Saturday nights, he and his friends rode up and down Liberty Road in their rusted pickups looking for boys to save.  Most of them hung out in an old abandoned bank at the end of Goverment Street. 

     "So, when you gonna take me and Meridian down to the bank with you"?  I asked. I knew Silas had the hots for Meridian.

     "You too young to go down there, Hailey. For Christ's sake, you're not even in high school yet."

     "I talked to Meridian, you know.  She thinks you're cute."

     Silas grinned as he turned into our driveway.  "I'll think about it," he said fixing his hair in the rearview mirror, his eyebrows crawling like caterpillars.

     He put the truck in neutral, and I climbed out of the truck.  As he pulled off, I noticed Grandma rocking in the swing on the porch. The yard was littered with Daddy's clothes.  Jeans and workshirts, socks balled into tight white fists, shoes like empty mouths. A pair of his leather gloves was dangling from the branches of the crepe myrtle.  They were brand new, still stitched at the wrists.  They looked like two black hands dangling in some sort of upside-down prayer.   

     When I got to the porch, I asked her where Mama was.  Sleeping, she said.  The veins in her legs looked like red spider webs. The diabetes had wrapped her right eye in a filmy white shroud. 

     "Where Silas off to?" she asked, her voice the crackle of dead leaves. 

     "Think he's going back to work. Then down to Liberty Road for the races."

     "Has the devil himself burrowed into that boy's brain?" Grandma snapped, a glass of iced tea sweating at her feet. "He's gonna get himself killed in that truck. Gonna end up like that boy with the paper bag face." 

     Grandma had worked for a woman whose son's truck had fishtailed through a rice field while racing down on Liberty Road.  She said the rusted gas tank on the truck had burst into flames and the boy had been swallowed in an orange ring of fire. After the accident, she visited him in the hospital. She said the boy's face looked a brown paper bag with two holes ripped out for eyes.

     "Is anybody gonna pick up Daddy's clothes?" I asked.  "They're spead all over the yard."

     "Your momma put 'em out there."  Grandma flicked her ashes into a folded paper napkin in her lap and took another drag.  The tip of the cigarette glowed bright orange.  "Let your Mama pick 'em up."

     I motioned to Grandma for a drag of her Marlboro.

     She looked around for a moment then handed me the cigarette. "All right. Jut one quick one though.  And make it fast.  Your momma and daddy gonna skin me alive they see me sneaking you drags."

     I sucked the smoke deep into my lungs as Grandma stared across the muddy yard, the scatter of blackbirds reflected in her dead eye. 

     After I gave the cigarette back to Grandma, I kissed her on the cheek and went inside. I spent the rest of the day watching TV and studying for my Biology test. 

  

     That night, the moon looked like Grandma's cataract.  Stars clung to the branches of trees.  Around two am, I woke to the sound of Daddy's pickup growling in the driveway. I could hear his keys jingling in his pocket as he walked along the oyster shell driveway, the splintered floorboards creaking beneath him as he drifted down the hallway.  As I fell asleep, I listened to the rain-filled gutter outside my window, the slow drip of water like a wristwatch ticking in my ear.


 

Chapter 2

     The air was loose. Crows spotted the sky like black drops of blood. Magnolia blossoms opened their white mouths.  Me and Meridian were at Satan's Bayou sitting on the rusted hood of her father's pickup.

     Satan's Bayou was located on the east side of Sacred, at the end of Hwy 91. Originally, the area had been called Bayou Landing, but people started calling it Satan's Bayou after the sheriff received a phone call one Halloween that a group of Satan worshippers had conducted a sacrifice there.  Rumor had it, when the sheriff arrived, he found a pentagram of gasoline burning in the grass and a dead goat dangling from the branches of a blackgum. The goat had been strung from the tree by its neck.  It had been gutted, and its eyes had been plucked out.

     For the most part, the area itself was nothing more than an old burned-out log cabin surrounded by a wall of pine trees. The windows of the cabin had been punched out. Shards of glass flickered in the dirt like diamonds. On the porch, a red canoe was propped against the rusted skeleton of an old washing machine. Weeds sprouted through cracks in the boards.  A nest of sparrows squawked in the black mouth of a mailbox. A splintered pier with missing planks of wood overlooked the bayou. 

     I sat on the hood of the truck and watched as Meridian scrawled her phone number on Chase Haydell's forearm in bright red lipstick, her eyes the brown shells of beetles, a noose of black hair dangling down her back.

     Chase was Hollis' second cousin. Me, Meridian, and Hollis were in eigth grade at Sacred Elementary. Chase had gone to school in Slaughter.  Although he was supposed to be a senior, he'd dropped out in the tenth grade. He had been in jail twice.  Once for beating up a boy at the A&P and another time for smashing the windshield of his girlfriend's pink Corvette with a lead pipe.

     "Here," Meridian said, smirking as she handed the lipstick to Chase. "Put yours where I won't lose it."  She leaned back on the hood of the truck and lifted her blouse until you could see the edge of her black lace bra. Her gold waist chain flickered in the sun.

     As Chase leaned over Meridian with the lipstick in his hand, he looked at Lonnie and smiled, a strand of blonde hair dangling in his eyes as he scribbled his phone number across her stomach. He circled a chocolate brown mole on her hipbone with a number zero.  Drew a red number three that curved around her bellybutton.  As he did this, he glanced over at me.

     "Your brother's not Silas Trosclair by chance?"

     "Yep, that's him," Meridian said, sitting up.

     "He's hangs out down at the old bank with Moses Watkins and those boys, right."

     "Yep, that's him," I said.

     "Man, he's a legend.

     "They started some kind of gang or something?"  Hollis said. "The Sons of Jesus. Or something like that."

     "The Sons of God." Chase exhaled, his words wreathed in smoke. 

     Hollis grinned.  "They're the ones that vandalized that church in Boutee."     

     "My sister went to Sacred High,"  Chase said. "She had a Math class with Silas, way back when."         

      Meridian grabbed the lipstick from Chase and stuck it in the back pocket of her Wranglers.  "You got a cigarette for me?" she asked, fiddling with the pearl dolphin that dangled from her waist chain.

     Chase took a drag from his cigarette, pulled a pack of Camels from his shirt pocket, and handed one to Meridian.

     "Speaking of Math, how'd you two do on that Algebra test?" Lonnie asked.

     "Thibodeaux's a witch," Meridian wheezed, her voice the soft swarm of bees. "She never even covered that crap in class."

     "I don't miss that shit," Chase slurred, taking a sip from the beer in his hand, then squeezing the can until it crackled in his fist.

     "Miss what?" I asked.

     "Algebra, Geometry.  That whole mess."  Chase flicked his cigarette into the wind, then pulled a beer from the six pack at his feet.

     "You see her husband?" Hollis asked. "At the pep rally?"

     "He was there?" I asked.  "Which one was he?"

     "The one in the dark blue suit with the yellow tie. With the blonde hair.  And the glasses."

     "The one that followed her around like a dog the whole time," Meridian snapped. She took a drag, blew smoke out her nose. "Woman makes me wanna puke."

     Chase's mouth twisted into a smile. "Man, you got it in for that woman." He took a sip from his beer, then wiped his mouth on the green sleeve of his shirt.

     "Meridian's got it in for everybody" Hollis said, smiling as he opened a can of Schlitz.

     Meridian took a quick drag from her cigarette, staring at Hollis as she spoke. "Not everybody can be a stinking teacher's pet, Hollis."  She turned to me, grabbed the cigarette I was smoking from between my fingers and took a drag. "Shouldn't you be at work by now anyhow?"

     "Shit." Hollis yelled.  "Shit.  Shit.  Shit. "I gotta go.  Right now."

     Chase smiled at Meridian, exposing his small teeth. 

     "Chase," Hollis said, tossing his beer can into a patch of weeds. "I mean it. I gotta go."

     Chase rolled his eyes. "I just opened my beer Hollis."

     "I mean it, Chase.  If I'm late again, Lois's gonna fire my ass for sure."

     "All right, dammit. Gimme a minute." Chase walked over to Meridian and took the cigarette from between her fingers.  He took a drag, then handed the cigarette back to her. "Don't you forget to call me now, girl."

     Chase and Hollis walked over to the weedy edge of the bayou where Chase's car was parked. It was a sky-blue Trans-Am with a sun roof and silver spoked rims.

     "Nice, huh?" Meridian said. 

     "Yeah," I said. "He's cute."

     "I'm talking about the Trans-Am, Hailey."  Meridian took a drag, bit her lip, then blew the smoke out the corner of her mouth. "He's ugly as dirt." She smirked. "Gotta nice ass, though." She took another drag and smiled. "Maybe I could teach him to walk backwards."

     I laughed and took the cigarette from Meridian. 

     As Chase pulled off, Meridian was staring at a white egret floating against the sky. Her eyes followed the egret across the sky until it landed on a cypress stump. It looked like a white flag fluttering in the wind. Meridian raised her right hand as if it was a gun, took a drag from her cigarette, then pointed the tip of her finger at the egret, her left eye squinted. I leaned back on the hood of the truck and stared at the empty sky as sunlight ricocheted through the trees.
 

Chapter 3 

   A small halo of sunlight blinked through the clouds when I heard a car creeping down the oyster-shell driveway. I sat up in the lounge chair and saw Chase's sky blue Trans-Am flickering in the sun.  I stared at him from behind the black lenses of my Ray-Bans as he drifted across the yard. When he walked up, I was rubbing tanning lotion on my stomach. 

     "Hey Girl," he said, reaching into his pocket for a cigarette. "They got tanning beds for that now you know." He reached into his pocket and pulled out a silver Zippo lighter, the unlit cigarette dangling from his lip.

     I smiled as I put the cap on the tanning lotion, then propped my Ray-Bans on my head. "Meridian's not here."

     "I know." He cupped his hands as he lit the cigarette. "She asked me stop by and pick you up on my way. She wants to go over to the arcade. You up for it?"

     "Sure," I said.  I stood up and wrapped a purple towel around my waist.  "Lemme grab my flipflops.  And my purse."

     When I came back, Chase was waiting for me in the truck. He said he had to stop off at his place on the way.  He lived in a lime-green trailer at the end of Evangeline Road.  The windows of the trailer were covered with aluminum foil.  A pink Corvette with a cracked windshield and a rusted front fender was parked in the tall grass. On the edge of the yard, near a weedy ditch, a Rottweiler drifted in the shade of a sycamore tree, barking from a silver chain. 

     The inside of the trailer smelled like vanilla incense.  On the coffee table, a cigarette butt with lipstick on the end had been snuffed out on a blue poker chip. Two contact lenses floated in a pair of shot glasses.

     Chase wandered into the kitchen, and I sat down in a maroon vinyl sofa facing the TV. 

     "Wanna a beer?" he said, fixing his hair in the bronze reflection of the microwave.

     "Sure." I pulled a compact and a tube of lipstick from the mouth of my purse.  

     Chase walked over and handed me a long neck. "Here ya go."  He sat down in a barstool by the window, lit a cigarette, then took a drag.

     "So, you and Meridian, huh? You two go to school together, right?"

     "Yep" I opened my compact to check my lipstick.  "Met her in Ms. Thibodeaux's class."  As I stared into the compact, I could feel Chase watching me.  "You and Hollis close," I asked, capping the lipstick and putting it back in my purse.

     "Bout as close as second cousins can be I guess." He flicked his ashes in a moldy glass of Coke. 

     As I took a sip of my beer, I heard a faint rumbling noise.  When I looked down, I noticed a beeper vibrating across the coffee table.

     Chase walked over to the table and grabbed the beeper, hissing through his teeth as he reached down for it. "Damn back's killing me." He stood there for a moment, waiting for the beeper to display the number.

     "How'd you hurt it," I asked, taking another sip of my beer.

     "Got scoliosis." He was scrolling through the digitial display of the beeper.  

     "Me too." 

     "Really? He picked up the phone. "Give me one minute."  He dialed a number and stood there for a moment, smoking his cigarette.  He took another drag of his cigarette, waited for a moment, then hung up the phone. "Bastards beep ya. Then they don't answer the damn phone." He clipped the beeper to his belt, and grabbed his cigarette from the edge of the bar. "So, you got it to, huh?." 

     "Got what?"

     "Scoliosis."

     "Oh. Yeah. "

     "Bet yours ain't as bad as mine?" He took a drag of his cigarette and put it back on the edge of the bar, then turned around and lifted his shirt.  He had a purple-yellow bruise in the middle of his back. When he lifted his arm, a thin pink scar puckered between his ribs. "Pretty bad, huh?" he asked. 

     "Yep. It's pretty bad," I said, my eyes following the ripple of muscles flexing in his back.

     "Told ya." He held his shirt up and reached for his cigarette.  He took a drag, put the cigarette back on the bar, then turned around, lowering his shirt. "Yours can't be as bad as mine."

     I turned around.

     "I don't know," he said.  He paused for a moment. "Yours is pretty bad."

     I felt him get closer. He didn't say anything for a moment.  Then, I felt the tip of his finger touch the small of my back, tracing the curve of my spine.

     I glanced over my shoulder and saw him in the corner of my eye. He wasn't looking at my spine.  He was looking up, the way a doctor looks up while his fingers search for a lump of cancer.

     "Your spine's as crooked as a politician, girl." His voice felt like a hummingbird fluttering against my neck. 

     I could feel his right hand untiing the yellow bow of my bikini top.  His other hand drifted around my waist, then across my stomach.  When I felt his hand moving toward the bra of my bikini top, I pulled away quickly and slapped him.

     "Damn, girl," he snarled, licking his lips.  I looked up and noticed a thin line of blood on his lip.  His two front teeth were stained red.

     "You cut my lip with your ring."

     I raised my hand and touched his lip with the tip of my finger. He flinched.

     "I'm sorry," I said.  "Wait. You can kiss me."  I reached behind my back and tied the yellow bow of my bikini top. "Really. I want you to."

     He looked down at the gold Mother of pearl ring flickering on my finger.

     "You not gonna hit me again, are you?"

     "No," I said.  "I'm sorry. You can kiss me. Really. I want you to."

     He looked at me for a moment, then leaned down and kissed me.  His mouth was hard, his lips cracked and chapped. I coud taste the blood from his lip, mixed with beer and cigarette smoke.

     As he kissed me, a strand of his hair tickled my face.  His beeper vibrated against my hip, and I felt his hand groping for it. He raised the beeper into the light and cupped his hand around the digital display so he could read the number. "That's Meridian," he said, clipping the beeper to his belt.

     As he walked over to the phone, he looked at me for a moment, touching his lip with the tip of his finger.  He grabbed his cigarette from the end of the bar and dropped it into the glass of moldy Coke. The air hissed.

    

     It was almost three o'clock when we got to Meridian's house.  As Chase pulled into the gravel driveway. Chase blew the horn, killed the engine, and we climbed out of the car and waited for Meridian. A few minutes later, Meridian came out. She was wearing pink overalls with a black halter top and silver hoop earrings.

     "Hey kids," she winked, pulling a Capri from her purse and lighting the tip. She opened the passenger side door, and I climbed into the backseat of Chase's car.

     Meridian turned to Chase. "So, you miss me?"  She took a drag from her cigarette, resting her hand on Chase's shoulder. "Oh, by the way," she said, reaching into her purse. "I got some change for us.  Here, hold onto it for me Hailey. You know me. I'll lose it."

     Meridian reached over the seat.  I held out my palm, and she spilled a fist-full of coins into my hand.

I had forgotten I'd touched Chase's bloody lip.  While he drove down Liberty Road, I picked through the pile of change in my palm, staring at the blur of pine trees passing outside the window, glancing occasionally at the drop of dried blood--like a perfect red period at the end of my finger.
 

Chapter 4    

    Silas flicked the Picayunne into the cool black air, the ashes from the cigarette sprinkling his lap as he shifted the truck into second gear. It was Saturday night, and me and Meridian and SIlas were on our way to the old bank.  Silas had agreed to bring us to meet some of the members of The Sons of God, as long as we didn't tell anyone.  Of course, me and Meridian agreed. 

     When we got there, Silas killed the engine and we climbed out of the truck.  The building had once been occupied by Sacred Commerce Bank and Trust.  It looked the same for the most part, except the large glass drive-up window had been spray painted black.  Some of the letters of the name SACRED COMMERCE BANK AND TRUST had fallen down during Hurricane Camille.  A large black letter C still dangled from the side of the building like a broken halo. 

      I expected the inside of the bank to be dark, lit with candles maybe, or flashlights.  But Silas said someone had rigged the meter outside, so the electricity was still on.  The lobby of the bank was empty, except for twenty-or so lawn chairs and a stained matress with rusted springs sticking out the side. The teller counter had been draped with a white sheet and lined with candles.  It looked like an altar.  On the wall above the teller counter, someone had spray painted the words SONS OF GOD in red. 

     After introducing us to a few people, Silas walked us over to the teller counter and introduced us to the founder of The Sons of God, Moses Watkins.  He was a wiry black man with an afro.  He had a gold tooth with a star etched into it. He was wearing a white robe with the arms cut off and black jeans with missing knees. SIlas had said that a year ago he'd been hit by a car while crossing Government Street.  He had a thick purple scar on his head where his afro wouldn't grow. It was the shape of a question mark.  When he spoke, he looked like he was reading from flash cards pinned on the wall of his skull.

      While Meridian talked with the other guys who made up The Sons of God, I talked with Moses. As I spoke with him, he told me how shortly after the accident he'd seen the face of Jesus in the mirror of a men's bathroom. A few months later, he started The Sons of God.  At this point, they only had nine members, but Moses was sure that over time the membership would grow. He said that Satan was loose in Sacred.  And that the devil wanted to "plant himself like a seed, deep in the purple cow meat of our brain." He also taked about something he called Bad Religion.  He said it was the duty of The Sons of God to expose any church that practiced bad religion. "People think we're vandals, thugs," he said.  "But we're not.  We're messengers of God."

 

     Around nine o'clock, Silas motioned to me that he needed to leave.  Moses told me he had something for me, so I walked with him to his car.  He had a green Omni with whitewalls and a broken taillight.  The driver's side fender was dented. The windshield was a spiderweb of cracks.

     When we got to his car, he reached into the back seat and handed me a pink brochure. The words THE SONS OF GOD: A FAMILY FOR CHANGE were typed on the front in large, black letters. 

Moses invited me to come back whenever I wanted and then walked me over to Silas' truck.  When he got to Silas' truck, he told Silas they needed to get some bibles and maybe even some plywood so they could build pews.  "Later, maybe a chalice, a statue or two, a tabernacle."  Moses lit a cigarette and blew the smoke out the corner of his mouth. "Before we know it, the place'll look like a goddamn cathedral."  

 

 Chapter 5 

     The sky was blood-shot, the air ripe with dust.  It was Saturday, and Daddy was in the yard shoveling a mound of black dirt, his T-shirt a circle of sweat, a hose trickling at his feet.  The screen door creaked when I opened it, and Daddy looked up.

     "Hey, Baby Girl.  You hungry?" He wiped the sweat from from his eyes.  "How about scrambled eggs from Badeaux's?"  He stood the shovel against the tree and walked toward me.  "Lemme change my shirt and we'll go."

    

     When we got to Badeaux's, we sat down in a red vinyl booth.  The cook behind me was mumbling in Spanish.  I watched him crack two eggs into a frying pan. They hissed like yellow eyes. Daddy combed his bird's nest of brown hair as he read the menu.

     Our waitress, Hittie, was a strawberry blonde with freckled skin.  She had thin brown lines for eyebrows and two green eyes that drifted beneath crescent moons of silver-blue eye shadow.  Her cheeks were crabapples.  Her voice was soft and low.  When she wasn't speaking, her eyes blinked incessantly as if a word was lodged in the silver gears of her brain.

     "Bigg Trosclair! Decided to come back for more, huh?" While she spoke, she stared at the red heart tattoo beating on Daddy's shoulder blade. "You ain't had enough of me yet?" 

     Daddy grinned. "I'm here for eggs, Hittie."

     "I got eggs," she smirked, her long red fingernail tapping the formica table.

     Daddy lit a Picayune. "Heard you got yourself a roommate, huh?"  He took a drag from the cigarette and smiled at me, clicking his jaw and breathing three round circles of smoke.  His mouth was the perfect shape of an O.

     "Yep.  That warthog girlfriend of Bookie's moved in."

     "Cherice?"  Daddy took another drag from his cigarette. "When she move in?"

     "Been two weeks now.  And lemme tell ya, I've had it up to my eyes with Miss Cherice.  Girl sits around the house all day, hogging up all the bath water, shoveling through bags of chips with those frying pan hands of hers. Not to mention sunbathing on the patio.  Spends half the morning in the bathroom greasing herself up like a sausage."   

     "Sunbathing? Cherice? You've got to be kidding."

     "Nope. Every morning she shoehorns that fat ass of hers into this pathetic little polka dot bikini.  Then takes to strutting around the patio out front. You got to see this bikini, Bigg. Every God-foresaken fiber of that thing struggling to keep that woman's nightmare-of-a-body from full view."

     "How often she do this?"

     "Everyday. Like clockwork. Just this morning I woke up and looked out the window, ya know, hoping to catch a glimpse of a blackbird or a butterfly or something.  And like a damn cancer, there she was, as if Death had gone and dressed itself in spots and parked itself on my front lawn.  I can't even stomach going outside anymore."

     Hittie grabbed a pen from behind her ear. "Went out in the yard last Saturday to plant some tulips, and there she was again. Spent what coulda been a perfectly fine Saturday watching obesity have a picnic on my front lawn.  Anyway, look at me." She grabbed a pad from her apron pocket.  "Yapping my guts out. I'm sure you heard enough about Miss Cherice to last you a lifetime."  She  tapped her pad with the tip of the pen.  "You two must be starving. What can I get for ya?"

     Daddy ordered scrambled eggs with cheese, two strips of bacon, sausage, grits, and coffee.  I ordered a caraffe of orange juice and blueberry pancakes with butter and maple syrup. When Hittie left, Daddy reached across the table and put his hand on top of mine. The skin on his fingers was cracked and callused.

     "Whatcha say, Sweetie?  Wanna shoot some pool with your Daddy after we eat?" He snuffed his cigarette out in the gold tin ashtray.

     When we were done eating, Daddy pulled out a wad of bills and stuffed a twenty in Hittie's apron pocket. She kissed him on the cheek.  The kiss left a smear of red lipstick on his face.

    

     Paradise Poolhall was at the end of Liberty Road.  It was a pink building surrounded by a patch of dead grass.  The front of the building was cluttered with rusty engine blocks, chrome rims, and chicken coops.  In the gravel driveway, a yellow Chevy speckled with grey primer was propped up on cinder blocks.  A weedy ditch filled with muddy rain-water and trash snaked between two pecan trees.

     After we went inside, I ordered Daddy a mug of beer while he grabbed a table.  A few minutes later, I found Daddy on the back corner table racking the balls.  A black man with an afro was staring into a smudged mirror, picking his teeth. A fat man in overalls was leaning against the jukebox. 

    "They was at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans," the black man said, pointing the toothpick at Daddy.

     "Nah. It was the dog races in Mobile," Daddy argued, rubbing his hands together in a white cloud of chalk. "I heard it straight from Leander's mouth."  Daddy took a sip from the frosted mug of beer. He put the mug down and wiped a white foam moustache on his red handkerchief. "Leander said it was the biggest, meanest boy he'd ever seen.  Said he had a chest like a damn accordion. Arms like hamhocks." 

      Now Daddy was drifting around the pooltable, a stick in one hand, the beer in the other.  "Said he told Leander he was gonna split his lip, spill those gold teeth of his all over the floor."  Daddy lit a Picayune, his words rising like a ghost.  "In one quick lick, Leander balled up his fist and socked that boy with all he had. Caught him flat on the lip, turned the air red." 

      He squinted and leaned over a rainbow of poolballs, a cigarette twitching between his lips as he spoke. "Must have knocked his vision loose too, because that boy's eyes went North and South like his thoughts were crooked, like his brain was squirming in his head."  Daddy squinted again and tapped the cue ball with the tip of his stick.  When he did this, the nine ball disappeared in the corner pocket. "Then, right when that boy's arms went drunk, Leander leaned in and laid another one square in his gut. Bent that boy over like he was praying."

     As Daddy walked back to the table, he glanced over his shoulder and winked at me.  After leaning his poolstick against the jukebox, he walked over to me, the frosted mug of beer in his hand. He bent down and kissed me on my forehead. When he did, the beer tilted in his hand and drops of white foam sprinkled my knee.  He moved a strand of hair from my ear, and I felt his words on my neck.

     "I need my good stick if I'm gonna beat these wise asses."  He took a sip from his beer. "Whatcha say, Sweetie? Wanna go home and get it for Daddy?"

         

     Our house was only a few blocks from the poolhall.  When I got home, I opened the latch on the shed and the rusty door swung open. Whenever Daddy stayed at the poolhall too long, Mama hid his poolstick in the shed.  The shed was cluttered with stacks of books and boxes of clothes. I looked around for the Daddy's poolstick, but I didn't see it anywhere.  Toward the back, I saw a large black trunk wedged between a mattress and a rusted blue bicycle. It was long and slender like a coffin.  The top was chipped and peeling, caked with dust and rat droppings. I wiped the lid off with an old tube sock and popped open the latch with a rusty screwdriver. Inside, I found stacks of construction paper--mostly cards I'd made for Mama when I was in middle school.  At the bottom, I found a Christmas tree angel with a bent halo and a black comb with three missing teeth. I even found a drawing I'd made for Mama while I was in Ms. Scully's third grade class. I'd given it to her after our trip to New Orleans for Mardi Gras.  In the picture, Mama was standing under an orange sky, her fingers mangled, her mouth a crack growing beneath her nose. Two dimples opened like holes in her cheeks. A pink ear dangled from her chin. Her smile was crooked.  Her arms were waving in the wind.  She looked like she was drowning.  

     In the opposite corner of the shed, I could see what looked like a white tarp draped over some boxes.  I stepped over a pile of cinder blocks and a tractor engine.  Under the tarp, I found a pile of white statues stacked on top of each other.  It reminded me of the pictures I seen from the Holocaust. There was a statue of a nun with a missing right hand, a little girl with fat cheeks and wings sprouting from her back, a soldier with a sword strapped to his chest, a boy bent on one knee clutching a rosary.  While I was staring at the rosary in the little boy's hand, I noticed a silver flicker in the reflection of an aquarium. As I glanced over my shoulder, I saw Silas standing in the doorway.

     "Whatcha doing?"

     I covered the statues with the tarp, then turned around. "I'm looking for Daddy's pool stick,"  I answered. "Mama hid it on him again." 

     Silas stood there for a moment without saying anything. "You shouldn't be messing around in here."

Stepping over the stack of cinder blocks at my feet, I began to make my way toward the shed door--until Silas' voice stopped me.       

     "Fix the edge," he said, his words drifting in the air like smoke.

     "What?" I asked.

     "The edge," he said. He snuffed the cigarette out against a rusted screendoor that was propped against the wall. "Of the tarp."  

     As I glanced over my shoulder, I noticed the nun's left hand sticking out from under the tarp. I tugged on the edge so that it covered her fingers, then stepped over  the tractor engine and the stack of cinder blocks, making my way out of the shed.  As I got to the doorway, Silas reached behind a stack of fishing polls and handed me Daddy's poolstick.

     While Silas sat in his truck revving the engine, I closed the shed door.  He backed the truck up and swerved onto a patch of brown dirt surrounding the swingset then yelled to me across the yard.

     "Tell Mama I'm going to the cockfights in Slaughter.  Be back later tonight."  He put the truck in drive and spun the tires. I watched the pickup and the red sky behind it disappear in a brown cloud of dust.

    

     It was nearly noon when I got back to the poolhall with Daddy's lucky poolstick.  When I returned home, I found a pewter vase of purple carnations on the kitchen table.  Next to the vase was a torn piece of brown cardboard scrawled with the words: TO MAMA LOVE SILAS. Around three o'clock, Mama woke up and found the vase of carnations.  She put them on the dresser in her bedroom and slept most of the day.  I spent the day washing clothes and dishes. Pitch, a black mutt Daddy found at the dump kept me company.  We played catch in the yard with a tattered old baseball I'd found in the shed. I pinned clothes to the line while Pitch yawned on the porch, his tail swatting a blue cloud of flies, his pink tongue licking the air.    

     That night, around midnight, I woke to the sound of Mama's voice in my ear.

     "Wake up, Hailey."  She turned the lamp on and I saw the pewter vase flickering in her hand.  "These flowers Silas bought for me.  They not bought at all."

     I heard the front door open and slam shut.   It was Silas, home from the cockfights.  Mama yelled to him as he drifted into the kitchen.

     "This says IN LOVING MEMORY OF CLAUDETTE MANGOLD."

     A rose of blood blossomed in his cheeks. "What are you squawking about, Mama?"

     "This vase you gave me, Silas.  These flowers.  They say IN LOVING MEMORY OF CLAUDETTE MANGOLD." Mama had taken the flowers out of the vase. She turned the vase upside-down and pointed to the words IN LOVING MEMORY OF CLAUDETTE MANGOLD engraved in the pewter bottom of the vase. "Right here," she said, following each word with her finger as she read it.  "In Loving Memory.  Of Claudette Mangold.  It's right here, Silas. Plain as day."

     Silas stared at the pewter words. He didn't look up.

     "Is that the kind of Christian I raised you to be, Silas?  Stealing flowers from a grave?" Her words hissed like butter in a skillet. She handed the vase of flowers to Silas.  "These flowers ain't for me.  They for a dead woman," she said, shoving the vase against his stomach. "Go on. Take 'em."

     Silas looked up at her, grabbed the vase out of her hand, and stormed out of the house.  Mama went into her bedroom and came back with the bouquet of purple carnations in her hand.  As she stomped through the kitchen, purple petals sprinkled the floor behind her. She opened the screen door and threw the flowers on the lawn, then slammed the door and returned to her room. I left the trail of purple petals sprinkled across the kitchen floor hoping that Daddy would think Mama was being romantic.

    

     The next morning, I woke up expecting to find Daddy in bed with Mama, but he wasn't.  I looked outside for his pickup, but it was gone. The bouquet of dead carnations was still on the lawn. The sky was empty, except for a grackle fluttering above the oyster shell driveway, swooping down occasionally to peck at the dead petals.


Chapter 6 

     The horizon was empty except for a single black cloud drifting like a hole in the sky.  For nearly an hour, I'd sat in front on Sacred Elementary waiting for Daddy to pick me up.  When he  didn't show up, I called the house.  Mama answered and told me to come home. She said that Daddy and Silas had gotten into an argument. She said they were out in the yard marking their territory like a pair of dogs. 

     

     When I got to the house, I found Daddy sitting in the oyster shell driveway, his tortoise shell glasses cracked, a map of dirt on his forehead.  Silas' truck was gone.

     I pulled Daddy's red handkerchief from his coat pocket and pressed it against the line of blood in the corner of his mouth. He held the handkerchief against his lip with one hand as he pulled a Picayune from his shirt pocket.

     I asked him what happened, cupping the cigarette with my hands as he lit it.  "Are you all right?" 

     Daddy lit the Picayune, took a drag, then blew the smoke out the corner of his mouth. "That brother of yours can pack a punch."

     I took his cracked eyeglasses and put them in my pocket. "Did Silas do this?" I brushed the dusted bits of gravel off the leather collar of Daddy's coat.

     "Don't go blaming your brother for what happened, Hailey."

    "That's ridiculous," I said, combing his thin brown hair with my hand.  Don't make excuses for him."  I tucked a long curled strand behind his ear. "There isn't a reason in the world for anybody to go slugging their own father." 

     A smirk squirmed in the corner of Daddy's mouth.  "Come on, Hailey.  You know I ain't been the perfect father. Not to you.  Certainly not to Silas."  He pressed his tongue against his cheek, his finger tracing a line of blood in the corner of his mouth. "Hell, I spent most of my life giving you kids reasons to slug me."  He wet his finger with his tongue and wiped a smear of blood from his two front teeth.  "Tell you truth, I'm surprised this ain't happened sooner."  His bones creaked as I helped him to his feet.  "Naw, this ass kicking, this ass kicking was a long-time coming."

     As I walked Daddy toward the porch, I saw Grandma standing in the doorway.

     "You two finished beating the hell outta one another or what?"  She was holding a brown bottle of peroxide and a bag of cottonballs.  She handed Daddy the cotton balls and the peroxide.  "All that spitting and crotch grabbing's enough to make me puke."       

     "I grabbed the cotton ball and peroxide from Mama.  "Sit down, Daddy."

     "I'm fine, Hailey."  Daddy sat down on the couch.  Grandma walked back to her room.

      After she left, I blotted Daddy's lip with the peroxide-soaked cotton ball and kissed him on the cheek.  I put a frozen dinner in the microwave for him.    

      As I grabbed a Coke from the refrigerator, I could hear Mama calling to me from her room.

     "Hailey. Sweetie. That you? Would you get me a asprin for my head."

     On my way to Mama's room, I grabbed the aspirin bottle from the bathroom cabinet. Her room was dark.  Mama was buried up to her neck in a white afghan, her face glowing in the blue light of the television. 

     Mama asked me what had happened and I told her that Silas had punched Daddy.  She said she wasn't surprised, that ever since Silas was a kid, he didn't know any reasonable way to solve a problem, other than to beat it to a bloody pulp.  

     I opened the aspirin bottle.  Mama opened her mouth and closed her eyes. I placed the aspirin on her tongue.  I felt like the priest at communion.   

 

 

 

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