Jesse come in from the spot across the way where Daddy had him throw the last of the matchboxes. Daddy let Jesse carry em cause they was light, and Jesse liked helpin. Jesse counted 38 full trash bags of matchboxes from Daddy and Uncle Shane. Jesse took em out, come back in the trailer and plopped down to play in front of the TV.
He slid his fingers between the hinges of a old Nerf gun while Annie tottered unsteady across the trailer den, cradlin a tore up purple Poppel and brushin it with a stiletto comb. Jesse’s Nerf gun had round gray plastic parts and orange parts with corners, and there was also some foam stuff and a laser sight on the top. Jesse’s older cousin Maggie was squallin the day before because a singer on the TV had killed hisself. Maggie’s boyfriend said the dead man was a junkie, but Daddy said we didn’t say that word. Jesse heard the dead man sing and holler and play guitar on TV all mornin while he carried them bags of matchboxes, and the newsman said he had killed hisself even though he had a little girl. And that made Jesse sad for that little girl. He thought he wanted to be a singer, but he didn’t know anymore. He did know he didn’t wanna go to Seattle and shoot hisself. While he watched Annie, he thought about it, then forgot. Cause it was a special day. Daddy was cookin.
Jesse always had fun when Daddy cooked. Uncle Shane would come over with his boxes and bags fillin up the bed of his Ranger, and him and Daddy would hang up visqueen between the kitchen and the den. Jesse thought the lights behind that visqueen looked like the neighbors’ Christmas lights through the back window, cause that window was always foggy around Christmas. Daddy told Jesse when that visqueen was up that the Wizard was payin a visit, and that Jesse couldn’t never, never look behind that curtain. Daddy said Jesse’s job was to watch his little sister and make sure she didn’t get to see the Wizard neither.
While they was cookin, Daddy and Uncle Shane would come and go from behind the plastic, always wearin their lawnmower masks, mostly outside to smoke cigarettes. Daddy and Uncle Shane smoked a lot more when they was havin a cookin day.
Jesse knew the smell of cigarettes, and he knew all the smells from behind the curtain, too. Sometimes it smelled like burnt out birthday cake candles. Sometimes it smelled like Aint Maudie’s house, with that mean-damn-Teddy-Ruxpin cat that peed all over the rugs. It smelled like when the babysitter would burn her hair with that old curler. Sometimes it smelled like when Jesse would help his mama clean the bathtubs at the motel while she cried and listened to Mary Chapin Carpenter sing about passionate kisses.
With them smells there was cracks and hisses, and Jesse had to hold Annie every now and again when the noises started, as she’d go to squallin and would want to see Daddy. But no matter how big a fit she thowed, Jesse never, ever let his sister behind that plastic curtain. His Daddy had gave him a job to do, and he was gon do it. Daddy liked jobs. Daddy liked work.
“Jesse,” Daddy says as he dips under the plastic curtain like that skate rink limbo bar, “if a man don’t work, he don’t eat. You wanna eat, don’tcha?”
“Yeh, Daddy,” Jesse would say. “I always wanna eat.”
“Then you gon’ have to work, son,” Daddy said, as he peeled off them green gloves of his.
Daddy pulled his Camels out the front pocket of his old denim shirt. Jesse saw Daddy’s hands just ‘a shakin, but he could only see em shake real good when Daddy lit up a cigarette.
“Whatcha wanna be when ya get grown, Bubs?” Daddy said.
“I’m gon’ be a astronaut,” Jesse beamed.
“Hot shit, then! A astro-naut!” Daddy hollered. He looked at Annie.
“How ‘bout you, Firework?”
“M’own be a goat,” Annie cooed soon as Daddy asked her, eyes lookin at the floor like she did when anybody’d go to askin her questions.
“A goat!” Daddy cried, “Hell, Lil Firework, that ain’t no kinda thing to be.”
Daddy took off his yellow plastic apron and slung it over one of the old foldin chairs that sat around the dinin room table. It made a cracklin sound like the Slip ‘N Slide after it was put up and dryin.
“Come on up, Bubs,” Daddy said to Jesse, as Jesse crawled up on Daddy’s knee. “Whatcha gon’ do if NASA ain’t hirin?”
Jesse thought hard. “President?”
“Now that would be a hell of a thing,” Daddy said, blowin smoke from his nose, then his mouth, then his nose again.
“Daddy, how come I never get to work with you?”
“Cause what Daddy and Uncle Shane cooks is a little stout, boy. Ain’t no place for a little man, that kitchen.”
“I’m big,” Jesse said, “I’m big now and I wanna cook and I wanna be like you and do what you do.” His words was runnin together cause he’d been wantin to say em.
“You doooooo?” Daddy said, makin his voice sound like he did before he got Jesse and Annie with a Tickle Attack, when they didn’t know if he was serious or not, “Well. Gotta remember, Bubs. Sometimes cookin’s dangerous.”
“I know, I member,” Jesse said.
“Damn ole Roscoe. God bless im. Tell me what happened to Roscoe.”
“Daddy, you already know.”
“You want in that kitchen, boy, you gon’ tell me so I know you know it ain’t no game in there,” Daddy said, spittin a little.
“Roscoe come through the doggy door and ate up some uh what yall had done cooked.”
“How’d ole Roscoe do?”
“He gone to crappie-floppin all over the tile like a devil movie.”
Daddy thowed his head back and howled laughin. “That’s right, Bubs,” he said, his face purple. Then Daddy turned his red eyes down and got dark and looked at Jesse hard like he was gon call im a liar. “And you look at me, boy. Don’t you fuckin forget it. That shit in there? You putt’at shit in ya, it’ll kill ya. Period. Period.”
Jesse looked away from Daddy’s eyes, then stuck his tongue through the spot where his bottom front tooth done come out.
“Still wanna come?” Daddy said, back to smilin and lookin Jesse over.
Daddy called over his shoulder, “Shane?”
“Myuh huh,” Uncle Shane’s voice boomed from behind the curtain.
“Wizard still back ‘ere?” Daddy said, then whistled real quick and small.
“Nawp. Wizard’s gone,” Shane said, soundin like he’d done ate gravel all day.
“Well,” Daddy said, “guess it ain’t gon hurt to give you a little look-see, long as you keep your head right. Can’t tell nobody though, Bubster. Daddy and Uncle Shane got a secret recipe.”
“Like Orville Redenbacher,” Jesse said.
“Yessir, indeed,” Daddy said, “Just like ole Orville.”
Daddy set Jesse down on his feet, then leaned over to the visqueen. He reached out a rattlin hand, then looked back at Jesse.
“M’own. Stay close,” Daddy said as he run his tongue out his mouth along his gnawed bottom lip. Jesse thought his lip looked like a raw steak through cut up butcher paper. “Daddy gon show you how to smoke.”
Daddy pulled back the curtain.