My father was one of those men who has signs made to advertise their opinions about God and the government. His were big and blinding-white, carefully hand lettered in red and royal blue. I was there when he and the delivery boy hung them on the gates and stood admiring. I hadn’t thought of him as an old man before that day. He had always seemed in the prime of life, with his lean frame and long black hair. Next to the delivery boy he looked crooked, bent and gray.
“Tell him he did a fine job, and that I might be calling for sale signs, and to read the book I gave him,” my father said and motioned for me to come near. He rested a hand on my shoulder, tugged my ponytail.
“Where’s my manners? This is my daughter Allie. Allie, this is …”
“Tim, why don’t you come on up to the house and have some lemonade or a beer?”
Tim looked at the largest sign, the one that said, among other things, that trespassers would be shot. “I thank you but I’m on duty.”
“On duty? If you was a policeman, you’d be shot already, according to this. No, you’re just out delivering. Come and meet my wife and a friend of mine and have a beer. It’s hot out here.”
He didn’t look to see if we were being followed up the long rutted driveway but sensed that the boy was within earshot. “I know you can’t stay long,” he said. “You can tell your boss you was doing a favor for me. He won’t ask. He’s a friend of mine.”
I ran ahead, knowing my mom would want some warning. It always surprised me to come around the last bend of our driveway into straight sunlight, acres of cleared land in the middle of woods and our fine log house in the middle of that. Its tall windows reflected the whole world: blossoming trees and darker woods beyond, a brilliant blue-green sky, and me reaching for the door. My mom relaxed on the floor with a thick book and a glass of water. When I called “company,” she whipped off her glasses and moved toward the bedroom to check her hair.
I crossed the kitchen to peer out the back door at Erving weeding vegetables. “Company!” I yelled from the door. He didn’t turn.
I wasn’t supposed to speak to our new hired help. I’d caught sight of him only a few times since he’d moved, in his tent, onto some undiscovered part of our property. The night he arrived and ate supper in the dark of the back patio, I heard my mom’s lowered voice quivering over exotic words like “transient” and “pervert.” The next day we took towels and iced tea outside to sun- bathe, but she stopped me from going into the little clearing when she caught sight of Erving nude, rubbing loose sandy soil over his body. Since then I had not been allowed to go out if the man was near the house. He had not been allowed inside.
“Erving,” I called. He didn’t alter his slow hoeing rhythm. I tiptoed past the patio onto grass. I had been curious about the face of this man with his odd summer outfit and heavy boots. My mom had said he smelled like an animal. I couldn’t smell him, though. I could only see shining copper-brown ringlets over an expanse of dark, dull wool. Close, now, I reached out to tug at his jacket.
A cool hand clamped down on my shoulder.
“Allie, get inside. Now,” my mom said, and he turned. His face was deeply sunburned, with fat child’s cheeks and milky blue eyes, not what I’d anticipated. He opened his mouth to respond, but my father was already calling from the house:
“Come on in, Erving, and take a break.”
It was late May, marked in my mind as the first day of the drought because my mom had asked if I wouldn’t mind skipping my bath. It was the first time Erving sat at our prim little dinette set. There were only four seats, so my mom leaned on the edge of the counter. Inside, Erving’s smell was profound, musky and ammoniac at once, reminding me not of so much of animals as moldering bulbs or dead cuttings hanging slack in water. I knew my mom would be afraid that Tim would think it was the smell of our house.
She lit a cigarette and let some of the smoke flow into the room before opening the window and propping the cigarette on the sill. The ashtrays hadn’t made the move with us since she’d been hoping to quit.
My father’s mission was clear: find out what church Tim belonged to, get him out of it, inform him of various conspiracy theories, and send him away ready to pass the information to a friend. This was a hobby when he’d still run the pawnshops, and now it was the joy of his retirement.
Tim evaded, kept telling me dumb jokes and asking about school. He had a way of flicking the bangs out of his eyes, and his voice away from our signs was throaty and confident. I noticed how he looked over my head to my mom.
“I was in fourth grade but I don’t go to school anymore,” I said in a vague attempt to shame my parents.
“Wasn’t much of a school,” my mom interrupted. “She’s better off at home. I used to be a teacher, you know.”
“Really?” Tim said. His chair leg squeaked as he shifted toward her.
“Or trained to be a teacher, practically a teacher,” she said. She wet the cigarette butt and sent it down the disposal.
I couldn’t blame Tim for wanting to pay her attention. She had a shapeless dress on, but it stuck to her.
“Take Erving here,” my father said, trying to recapture Tim. “He’s a good man, knows his Bible, strong worker. Know where I found him?”
“Sleeping in the alley behind the Bedford mega-mart,” my mom answered. “Imagine that.”
“That’s right,” my father said. He didn’t believe in acknowledging sarcasm. “He’s got ideas, too, on religion. I imagine what he’s mostly interested in is lifestyle, you know, diet, ablutions, exchange of goods. About right, Erving?
Erving scrambled to cover up the ketchup bottle—he’d been pouring his glass of water into it a few drops at a time—and mumbled something under his breath. We all leaned in close to hear: “No compunction about food. Dog food for a month one time. Ate eyeballs once, off a goat I believe.” He didn’t move or look up while speaking.
“Well,” Tim said, standing, “I do appreciate meeting you folks, but I need to get back to it now.”
Tim kept in touch. He was the one who delivered the water distiller later, when the well water came under question. He stopped in when he was out our way, just to check if we needed anything, but he never got to see my mom again.
My father made a lot of friends in dark junk stores or on the front lawns of white-painted country churches, but also people like Tim who happened to capture his imagination. My mom said he attracted people like bees to honey. In June one of these friends called, wondering if we’d like a little girl to stay with us for the summer. This friend was going to be doing some missionary work and thought it would be nice if the wife could come along.
He was an optometrist, the owner of a large shop in downtown Indianapolis.
When we went to pick up the little girl, her father walked us through the brightly lit glasses showroom, through a twisting hallway of exam rooms and supply rooms to his private office, then through a dark vestibule to the upstairs apartment. It was so dark up there, the mom had to pull the curtain to show us why. The windows on the whole front side looked out on nothing but a metal sign, the sign that advertised their business. There were slits in it, bent both ways to give a louver effect, but they didn’t let in much light.
Their old cut-velvet sofa reflected its strange magenta and chartreuse colors onto the nearly white skin and hair of a little girl about my weight, a little taller, with a long calico dress and Payless sneakers. “It’s fun to watch people from up here,” she said. “They don’t know there are any holes in the sign.”
“Hush,” her mom said. “You aren’t supposed to do that.” By the way she scowled, I could tell she watched too.
We went to Trina’s bedroom to collect her things. “Bring a swimsuit, and your schoolbooks or whatever. Oh, and bring all your Barbies,” I told her.
“My mom don’t want me to play with Barbie cause she’s too developed,” Trina said, stuffing a homemade doll baby into her duffel.
It was difficult to adjust myself to Trina because she was afraid to play in the forest and claimed she wasn’t allowed to watch TV. All she really wanted to do was sit indoors, but my mom fixed her up with sunscreen and a fisherman’s hat, saying there wasn’t any point in being in the country if she wouldn’t go out. So she sat outside, in a lawn chair or in the dirt, it didn’t seem to matter.
I told the secrets my mom had shared about Erving: he didn’t use a toilet or wash his clothes, he didn’t believe in money and had my father pay him in gold pieces pounded faceless with a hammer, he had been wanting a goat (if he got one maybe I could get a dog), and he would eat anything. She only said it was wrong to gossip.
I noticed that Trina said “please” and “thank you” and “I’m sorry” a lot, even when she didn’t really have to. She took whatever my mom gave her to eat and said “thank you” and threw away a lot of it. When we had soybean burgers with all the trimmings, Trina asked permission to eat outside so no one would see her doing away with the patty.
“You shouldn’t waste food,” I told her.
“I can’t eat meat,” she said absently, investigating the pickle slice on her fork.
“It isn’t meat.”
“It’s pretending to be.”
“Let’s go into the forest just a little way tomorrow,” I said. I hadn’t been nagging about it, but I knew we’d get relief from the heat if we spent our afternoons there. “There are salamanders all over in there, and I bet I could find you a turtle.”
“What’s a salamander?” she said.
“It’s a lizard all soft like a toad,” I said, hoping.
“If it looks like a toad you could get warts from it,” she said, then sucked and spat the seeds out of her tomato slice. “Plus I heard there was tree snakes in the forest, that drop right down on your head.” The skin where her eyebrows should have been pinched up on her forehead, and she stared at me for a minute before returning her attention to the plate. It was a challenge, maybe, but one I didn’t know how to meet.
I didn’t get a chance to talk to my mom alone until we went shopping about two weeks later. On the drive she seemed impatient and kept looking over to me.
“Can I tell you a secret?” she said. “Trina isn’t staying home because she has a headache. She’s got cramps.” My mom stopped to gauge my reaction, then added, “She’s got her period. She’s thirteen years old, fourteen in a few weeks!”
“She’s ten. She’s in fourth grade.”
“Her parents just matched the age to her grade level so no one would talk. What do you think of that?”
“I think she must be slow. She’s strange,” I said, ready to repeat all the odd things that Trina had said. I wanted my mom to say they were “stuperstitions.” I wanted to tell on Trina too, for wasting food, but I could see this wasn’t the time.
“She’s not slow,” my mom said and gently pulled over, turned the engine off. “They keep her up there in that prison where she never sees anybody. She never goes outside, doesn’t have a pet or a friend or a television, can’t even read well enough to read a good book.” My mom’s eyes were wet and bloodshot, but she didn’t cry or raise her voice. “I want her to stay with us,” she said. I told her I did too, just to make her feel better.
Our shopping trips hadn’t been easy since we’d moved to Indiana. We’d been driving the fifty miles to Bedford’s mega- market where we encountered Amish people. She had thought them picturesque when we first arrived but had grown more and more annoyed at how they avoided looking at us.
Inside the store, she bent down to my ear as I pushed the cart. “Look at that one,” she whispered. A cute little Amish boy saw us coming and ran around the corner for his mom.
“Look, Allie, we’re being shunned,” she said.
“Please don’t,” I said.
“They still have arranged marriages, right?” Shoppers seemed to edge away from us. “Be quiet,” I said.
She said, “I just wonder if that’s what will happen to Trina. I can just see her father, I don’t know, giving her away to someone.” When we got home, my father, Erving, and Trina were sitting on the front step. None of them got up to help with groceries. “Did you have a good time?” my father asked. “I sure hope you had a good time, cause you two won’t be going anyplace anytime soon.”
“What’s wrong with you?” My mom asked. She tried to hand him one of the bags balanced on her hips, but he didn’t take it. “Come on and look,” he said, and the four of us followed him into the kitchen. “What’s this, I wonder. Looks like someone left a cigarette burning. Looks like someone burned a big fucking— excuse me—a great big hole!” With that he slammed back out the front, leaving my mom to crouch down and run her fingers over a quarter-size charred spot in the new maple.
“There should be a throw rug there anyway, under the sink,” she said.
“Near burned down the house,” Erving said. He crouched down and wrapped a small filthy hand around my own. I cringed but couldn’t move. It seemed like everyone held their breath. I noticed Trina on the floor too, rocking slightly. She crawled beside us and took my other hand. When my father returned, Erving pulled him down with us, then turned to my mom and said, “We’ll pray nothing like this goes on again.”
“It’s time we should all pray,” my father said, offering his free hand to my mom. He smiled graciously. His dark eyes glittered, and the skin at his temples pleated into fans.
My mom stared at the half-circle of us. For an instant I thought she would stoop and hold my hand and pray. Instead, she rose.
“Not fucking likely,” she said, and stepped right over us. She shouted “Excuse me,” then slammed the door so hard that one of the panes in it broke. I tried to rise, to run after her, but Erving held fast. My father reached into his shirt to show me the license plates and keys.
“Don’t worry, she is not going to leave you,” he said, and we prayed for her.
The keys and plates were locked in my father’s rattly old lock box after that, and he did all the shopping at the country store. He made friends with the old man who owned it and would get groceries at night after paying a visit to the trailer out back.
My mom started spending most of her time in the bedroom, chain-smoking with the air conditioner on day and night. When the TV went off the air at one or two o’clock, she would get up to clean the house and make pies and casseroles for the family.
A couple of times her crying woke me, but when I went to see what was wrong, she was mopping the kitchen floor or turning chair pads.
“Just ask for the keys,” I said one time. “That’s all you have to do. I asked for them, but you have to do it for yourself.” I couldn’t believe she would have overlooked such a simple solution.
“Oh,” she said, pulling herself up off the floor, “I don’t need to go anywhere. When the weather’s better.”
“So why were you crying?”
“It’s just the heat, that and the goddamn—excuse me—the dirt.” She frowned at the wet floor, then ruffled my hair and went back to bed. It was so hot during the day, I could understand.
My father and I flipped a coin to see who would sleep on the couch because he couldn’t stand the air conditioning anymore.
Trina and I lost the bedroom, so we kept our clothes and bedding beside the front room’s wood stove. Trina liked the couch, but most nights I curled up on the floor in my mom’s room. The cool dry air made me sleep hours longer than I normally would have, but I dreamed of heat:
Night after night, I saw our car in the smaller clearing, bathed in such a rosy-bright, muted sunlight that it was at first unrecognizable. Butterflies, ripe blossoms and heavy dust motes hung in the air, stirred a little at my motion. I inhaled some with every breath, but couldn’t stop them going in because each breath was so shallow it left me wanting more. I floated over to the side door, but the handle was too hot to keep hold of.
Then all of a sudden I was in the back seat and the car was moving over the rocks and stumps of the little clearing. It fought its way out, scraping through trees until it was out in the yard, beyond the yard, pushing on soundlessly over dried-out cornfields, the little country store, and on past town and the next town. I opened my mouth to scream but couldn’t. The air was solid as metal, pushing against my teeth and lips. Nothing could get in or out. I felt my back burning into corded vinyl, and woke to a freezing-wet nightshirt. The worst part about the dream was that when I woke up, safe and still, I wasn’t grateful.
The drought had started with jugs full of distilled water from the supermarket and a few missed baths. Now the dishes started to look filthy from mineral deposits, and I always wondered if my plate was the one Erving had licked clean last suppertime. After bathing in a quarter-full tub once a week, I had to lean over and begin scooping out small buckets of soap-clouded water in order to fill the big bucket, in order to flush the toilet. By the time the bath was over, I was already sweating again.
The garden died when Erving stopped watering it. He started doing other work, like boxing up some of the things we didn’t use: knickknacks, board games, winter clothes. He wanted to use them to furnish a bomb shelter he said he was digging, but it got too hot and he decided it would be a root cellar. Finally he pushed the dirt back in and told my father it was a sandbox. I wasn’t interested, but Trina seemed to like running her hands through it. I would sneak her out a glass of water so her designs would stick until I discovered buried food scraps and a bubbling slime coated in ants.
In July Erving quit working so he and my father could stay inside all day, running fluorescent markers over their favorite parts of the Bibles and the dictionary. They brought out some of my mom’s books, like Walden and 1984, and investigated them until the highlighted parts all ran together. They started to talk about true names for God and the Devil, spirits and sins. I was afraid to mention anything related to these things because the judgments about the true names changed, and then they were angry to hear the untrue names. They never looked at me directly, and I started to feel there was something wrong about me.
Trina realized that no one cared if she stayed inside. She did not have much to add to the biblical talk but spoke about some of the customs at her house. Her mom would never have been allowed to have a car and money of her own, or jewelry. There were too many mirrors in our house, she said, and too much garbage everywhere, all these storybooks and magazines and televisions. Our kitchen contained coffee, alcohol, meat. We didn’t even fast.
Erving agreed with a lot of what she said. My father was less sure, so he went back through his books and found corroboration. And then there was the girl, bone-white and innocent as an angel, further evidence.
Erving ate the last of the meat in three gory platefuls; beer was poured into our flush bucket. My father never stopped buying cigarettes, though he kept them in a paper bag and delivered them directly to my mom’s room. He wanted to sacrifice, he said. He knew he couldn’t make her do it.
We would fast just two or three days a week. When he told me, his eyes crinkled up like they always had, but I couldn’t find the glitter.
I sat outside once on a Friday night, hungry and lightheaded, and stopped to wonder what I’d been thinking. It was dusk and the ground was still hot. Shards of brittle grass pressed into my bare thighs and ankles. I thought I could see lightning bugs but wouldn’t know for sure until it got darker. Then I remembered I’d been thinking “Want”—want an ice-cold Coke and a slice of pizza, want a bath in a tub full of clean hot water, want to watch Dallas, go to town or ride a horse or get away from Trina to read by myself.
I realized that I didn’t want any of it anymore. Everything was warm and comfortable. My stomach and mouth had gone numb, but I could feel pleasant vibration from all the muscles in my legs and arms. My whole chest felt clean and open. I smiled at Trina and took her hand. She was so sweet, so easy. We sat pointing out stars and lightning bugs, giggling to ourselves until we became too tired to look anymore and fell asleep still cross-legged.
My mom asked why I hadn’t woken her when Trina’s parents came. I told her there was nothing she could have done. That made her cry, as everything did anymore, but I didn’t much want to hear it.
“Tim stopped by last night,” I said.
“He honked and no one came, so he climbed the gate. He brought beer. Dad had a gun out—didn’t shoot it, though, don’t worry—and told Tim he didn’t need to be sniffing around. He said he thought he was a cop after all.”
She didn’t respond, and I felt sorry for bothering her. I patted her blanket-covered leg, “I hope you feel better soon.”
“Wait, Allie. Are you scared?”
“No,” I said. A second later, outside her door, I recognized my error. I shouldn’t have said “no.” I should have said “what?” and laughed.
She came out just as my father was leaving for a late trip to the store. When his pickup started, she sat for a minute before getting up, then pulled back the door’s lace curtain to peer out at the driveway. She fingered at duct tape holding the glass together. “Did you need something? I could still catch him,” I said.
She shook her head and asked me to look for a screwdriver, then left for the bedroom. In jeans and a flannel shirt, she flashed through the kitchen into the garage. Moments later, a sharp clanging noise jolted me up from the couch. She had an ax and was hacking at the lock box over and over, cutting it to ribbons.
“Stop, you’ve done enough,” I said as she raised the ax with all her force. She was so tall the blade nearly grazed ceiling beams. I waited until she lowered it and then showed her how to tip the box at an angle. We shook it like a piggy bank until the keys and the license plates fell onto the cold concrete floor. Other things fell too—batteries, shotgun shells, a Penthouse—but my mom passed her hands over the pile quickly, disappointed.
She switched on our halogen yard light, catching Erving in its beam. Without a word he edged around to my father’s van and lowered a hose into its gas tank. “Hurry up,” he said after he’d dropped the hose from his lips to the waiting can. She did hurry. The back plate went on with two screws, and the front plate was thrown onto the dash.
“Allie,” she said, “try to find some money.” I ran for the still-unpacked bedroom boxes, dumped some of them over in my search but found only a Mason jar of change. The coats! I rushed back to the front room and checked the pockets, found fifty dollars in my father’s big down jacket and a twenty in a pair of jeans.
“He’s filling the tank now,” she said from the front door. “What have you got?”
“Maybe a hundred.” I handed her all I’d found.
“It’ll have to be enough. It’s time,” she said and bent down to pile clothes on top of her armload of money.
“Are those your clothes?” I asked.
“It doesn’t matter. There isn’t time,” she answered, and I could see her shaking, faltering. Maybe if she had thought ahead, packed a box and hidden it somewhere.
“Wait here,” I said, and ran to my old bedroom where my savings lay in the bottom of a Whitman’s Sampler: silver rings and coins, birthday twenties and tens, a string of freshwater pearls. I scooped out about half of it, then another half of what was left, and hurried back, trying not to spill any from between my fingers. She wasn’t at the door.
I was sure she had left. Then I heard the engine start and fail. “Allie!” she screamed from the driver’s seat. I raced to her side of the car and spilled my handful onto her lap.
“Hurry,” I said, “he could be back any minute.” I kissed her sweaty cheek and stepped back.
“Get in the car,” she said. The wild look left her eyes and she smiled at me. I stepped back again.
“He’ll come after me,” I said.
“Get in the car.” She opened the door and started to step out when the car lurched forward and the engine died. She put it in park and climbed out. “Get in the car get in the car get in the car,” she repeated. She reached for me over and over as we moved in slow motion around the car. I can’t go without the dog, I thought, and turned to find him, confused for a minute because there had never been a dog, only a wish. I need my clothes and books and my … I thought, but she grabbed me. She wrapped her arms around my thighs and placed me in the passenger seat, holding me with one hand and trying to work the belt with the other. I kicked. I think I clawed.
“Some of y’all’s undies and whatnot,” Erving said, coming out the front door. When he noticed the trouble, he threw a heavy duffel into the backseat and held me in and shut my door. With his arms raised above me and his curls brushing my forehead, his smell was overpowering. I wondered how long it had been since I’d noticed it. When he let go of me to shut the door I curled in on myself, ashamed to look at either of them.
“Do you want to come?” my mom said, out of breath as she reclaimed the driver’s seat and put the car in gear. He didn’t respond. She was already rolling up my window, anyway.
“Hold up,” he said. He reached into an inner coat pocket and pressed a small soft bag into my hand, then stepped back so my mom could finish trapping me in the car.
“Please!” I wailed. Hot tears were already dripping off my chin. I knew I wouldn’t be able to breathe with the window shut.
She left the window cracked and the lights off until we had passed three or four bends in the road. I cried to myself for a long time but stopped gradually to check the rearview with her. She filled the tank in Bedford, and it was already a quarter empty by the time she spoke:
“I left my glasses, did you notice? I took them off when I picked up the ax and never even thought about going back for them.” After a while she added, “You checked the locks, right?” Her laughter faded into the hum of tires.
Suddenly I remembered the little bag I had been clutching. It had dropped and spilled small pieces of smooth gold onto the floor.
“Why did Erving help us?” she asked. “God, I hope he didn’t see which way we went.”
“I think we’ll be all right,” I said, holding a little piece up to my eye.