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June 24, 2020 Nonfiction

Down Stacks

Rose Himber Howse

Down Stacks photo

Some days, Luke told me it hurt to sit down. Those days we played in the woods.

We took tarps and string from the shed to make tents between trees. We stole pennies and nickels from the house, put them in a Ziploc baggie and buried it in the loam beneath sprays of ferns. We drew a treasure map, black marker on yellow construction paper, hid that in the knot of a tree half a mile away. We brought a backpack with a half-eaten bag of Bugles we’d stolen from the pantry, built villages for fairies out of red clay. Chips of mica for windows, chimneys made of stones. The fairies left their gratitude by etching constellations into sticks, intricate patterns I now know were made by termites. We found a creek where Luke dared me to touch a salamander, slick as the inside of a mouth.

I have a feeling that if I went back, the woods wouldn’t be as vast as I recall—that the road that bordered their far side, with its dimpled asphalt and its sleek blind curves, would be a few paces from Luke’s house, not half a day’s journey. But I was five. My mother, the child psychologist, says the more times you remember something the less accurate your memory gets. Like touching an old photograph and leaving smears from the oil on your fingertips.

* * *

There are smudges on the corners of this one: Luke knocked me into his parents’ bedroom closet and locked the door. It was dark, small enough for me to burrow into clothes in any direction. I felt a string brush my face and pulled it. Weak, dusty light. “Did you find them?” he called.

The stack of magazines was pushed up against the scrunched ankles of an aquamarine track suit. I opened the one on top, its cover bent and curled from use.

A woman was naked except for a giant red hair bow and shoes like Dorothy’s from the Wizard of Oz. A winking man stood behind her, the white of his one open eye gleaming in the dull closet light.

“If you don’t let me out of here I’ll tell your dad,” I said.

The latch clicked in Luke’s frantic fingertips, sun rushing in.

* * *

Luke’s father Ronnie had a dog he loved. I remember it as a pitbull, but I was so afraid of dogs that it’s possible it was a beagle. Still, it growled. The dog was normally chained in the yard, but sometimes Ronnie would bring him in the house and approach me. “I’m gonna sic him on you,” he’d say, then laugh when I cowered. “He’s just a pup. He can’t do anything.” But then sometimes for good measure, he’d shove him in my face again, right when I’d finally calmed down. “Sic!” he’d say. I’d never heard the term, could only assume he wanted to make the dog sick, or make me sick, through some kind of grown-up alchemy. And he did have an air of dark magic, especially when he walked around shirtless: a tattoo of a boa emerged from his jeans, encircled his torso, and slithered down his forearm. When I was twenty-six I saw the Mona Lisa, and thought for the first time in years of that snake, how everywhere you went in a room, it seemed to look at you.

* * *

In the whole year we lived across the street from Luke, only once did we have a sleepover. I had to stay on the floor next to his twin bed, so we built an elaborate fort to encompass both the mattress and the pallet, dragged the mini black-and-white television underneath and played a sputtering VHS of Beetlejuice.

When something short-circuited and the TV went blank, Luke’s mother Nicole taught us to play War. “Split the deck into two down stacks—that means don’t look. Now you do a battle. Higher card takes the pair.” After an hour or four, someone’s got all fifty-two. I beat Luke in back-to-back games that night. Funny that it made me feel so good to win of a game of chance.

There was no bedtime there, so I have no sense of when it was that Luke left the fort to get creamsicles and came back without them, panting. “They’re drinking whiskey,” he said, and started to bawl. He was a messy crier, snotty sniffles and a whine like an animal’s. Maybe that’s why it bothered Ronnie so much.

I didn’t know what whiskey was, what it did or didn’t have in common with the shimmering “Grown-up Grape Juice” my mother enjoyed when she watched the news.

Somehow, we decided to march into the living room and tell Ronnie and Nicole to stop. This part is clear: Nicole said, “We’re just sipping it.”

Ronnie said, “Get back in your room.” He tapped his fingers against his belt buckle.

“I want to go home,” I said. “I want to call my mom.”

“Fine,” said Nicole, neutrally. She took me into the kitchen and I recited my phone number.

“No, no, everything’s fine,” she told my mother. “I think she’s homesick. You know how they get.” Somehow the whiskey had loosened her mouth, like a stretched-out rubber band, and you could see her single gray tooth, garish in the fluorescent light. This both fascinated and horrified me. 

When she hung up the phone, I asked how it got gray.

She laughed. “My ex had a temper.”

I stayed in the kitchen until my mom arrived. The refrigerator was the faded green of a rotting avocado and covered in those plastic alphabet magnets. I seem to remember a red X, an orange Z, no vowels. Nothing that could have been the making of words.

* * *

My mother read to me after she picked me up from Luke’s—Hansel and Gretel, which I never tired of, though I could tell that she did. She let me pick one more after that; I think it was then, kneeling at the shelf, that I wondered why there weren’t any books in Luke’s house.

I took out Where Do I Come From? My mother got pregnant with me at eighteen and was determined to prevent me from following in her footsteps. I’d had the book in my library since I was old enough to talk.

I remember leaning into her armpit and looking at an illustration of a cartoon man and a cartoon woman in the same bed. Single curlicue lines for hair, a sideways “v” for a nose. “Sometimes when people really love each other, they want to get as close as they can.”

Before she turned the light out, I thanked her for coming to my rescue.

“You can always call me if you need to,” she said. “But sometimes it’s important to be brave.” She must have known by then that she’d be starting a Ph.D. program in child psychology in the fall, that we’d be moving an hour away from Luke, my school, the woods.

* * *

The next day was one of those when Luke couldn’t sit down.

We followed the creek for a long time before we found the perfect place for the master fort we’d been plotting. Three tarps were involved, held down with logs we stole from the woodpile, decaying and covered in roly polies on one side. The front was open to the creek, so we could watch it from the shade, wait to see a cottonmouth poke its head up out of the water. Usually it was faster than a blink, though once we saw one swimming, its body whipping S-shapes toward us. On that first day, there were just water striders sailing across the surface, a Diet Mountain Dew bottle with a sun-bleached label that caught in an eddy and bobbed there.

“This is our house and you’re my wife,” said Luke from behind me.

“That means we have to kiss,” I said.

I don’t know why the hands that seized my shoulders when I said it reminded me so much of the gnarled talons of some forest monster, spinning me around. Luke pressed his mouth on mine, slimy tongue pushing at my clenched teeth. The scrape of chapped lips against my cheek. I swatted at him, grabbed the braided rattail that hung down his back and yanked it. He cackled at that.

The whole walk back home I remember trying not to swallow the foreign spit in my mouth, how it tasted like old deli turkey.

* * *

A few years after we moved away from Luke’s family, my mother told me on the way to school that she would love me even if I was gay. “I just want to make sure that you know that,” she said.

“Mom, ew! That’s so gross!”

“It’s not gross. It’s just how some people are.”

“What makes them that way?”

“I’m not sure anyone really knows. Maybe they’ve had a bad experience with the opposite sex.”

I was nineteen when I finally came out to her — the same age as she was when she gave birth to me.  All week I had been prepared for her to ask what had happened that made me this way. I’d rehearsed a joke about her pregnancy prevention talks really sinking in. I’d prepared to explain that my sexuality was not a wild onion whose root could be unearthed and held up to the light.

She didn’t ask any such thing. I guess it was me who really wanted to know. Me who’d been thinking of Luke and Ronnie, over a decade later. Ronnie holding that dog by its armpits like you’d hold a baby with a dirty diaper, back legs scrambling. Luke opening a palm to show me the syrup-glazed peach slice he’d brought me from the kitchen, remembering that I liked them, that my mom didn’t buy canned fruit.

Whenever I sat down to write that year, snakes appeared on the page. Cottonmouths peeking from creeks, copperheads sunning in wood piles, blue-inked boas circling biceps.

* * *

We left that fort up in the woods all summer. I nabbed a broom from Luke’s house and swept the leaves from the creek bank porch. We sat sucking and puffing on old juice box straws we pretended were cigarettes. Played War. My queen beat Luke’s eight. My seven beat Luke’s two. Luke’s five beat my four. Somehow it did not get old.

One day I won three games in a row and he got mad. Sent me to bring back a bucket of mud pies because I was the girl and it was my job to make dinner.

When I came back to the tent with the mud, I whisper-yelled the password. Gusher—a new gummy candy we had tried.

“Okay, you can come in,” he called. I pulled back the dangling tarp and Luke was lying beneath the pile of blankets. “Jump on me,” he said. I sensed the delight in his voice, had a feeling a prank was underway. I shook my head. “Come on, it’ll be funny,” he said. “I promise.”

When my feet left the ground, he flung off the pile of blankets. I saw the blur of skin, realized that he was completely naked. Of course it was too late, I landed on his body, the crunch of bones and the sallow softness of his skin all at once.

I scrambled off of him.

“You touched my dick,” he said.

“No I didn’t.”

“Did too.”

A fast-blooming fury that I didn’t understand sent me running. I jumped across the creek at its narrowest bend, deeper into the woods than I’d ever been, kudzu ripping around my ankles, thread-thin spiderwebs catching in my mouth and hair. Twice I went down on the same knee, skin shredded by the roots beneath the leaves.

I don’t know if I was disappointed or relieved when I looked back and saw that Luke wasn’t following, if I kept running even then to save face or out of fear of him.

The cicadas had begun their sundown warning.

I turned around, and around, and I wasn’t sure from where I’d come. Up ahead, I saw the road—I’d never been up to it but had seen the lights of cars in the distance. If I walked along it, at least maybe I’d be able to see where I was going.

I started toward the break in the trees at a trot, then heard Luke’s voice panting voice behind me. “Hey, slow down.”

I sped up, looking back — he was gaining on me, a few feet behind, and I was almost at the road.

“Watch out!” He screamed. He grabbed me by a single finger and yanked me back. My arm wrenched from its socket.

A rush of air as the car raced past. I tumbled into the ditch, dead leaves cracking beneath my weight.

I heard the driver screech to a stop, crank down his window. “Hello?”

“Shh,” Luke whispered to me. “Stranger. Pretend you’re as still as a statue.”

After a few moments the car revved off. Without its brake lights, I could no longer see Luke’s face, though I could feel his clammy hand. Smell his sweat, like salt and vinegar potato chips. I remembered a phrase, but not its source. Sometimes when people really love each other, they want to get as close as they can.

I don’t remember if I thanked him.

* * *

I live in a city now. Sometimes when I visit my mother, we take the dog hiking in the woods behind her house. Last time, I asked her about Luke, told her how I looked for him on Facebook but couldn’t find him. “It’s a common name,” she says.

“Luke knew a lot about sex for such a young person,” I said. “Do you think maybe something was happening to him?”

“In retrospect, it’s possible,” she said. “But if I’d really thought that at the time, I wouldn’t have let you go over there. It might have been all those R-rated movies they let him watch. There was no privacy in that house.”

The dog saw a squirrel and bounded off the path and my mom jogged after him, calling and waving a baggie of freeze-dried chicken treats. Standing in the path alone beneath shadows of long-leaf pines, I thought of me and Luke in our fort, playing War.

We don’t know what’s coming, that in his half of the deck there’s a jangling buckle, an ashen tooth, an orange plastic Z. In mine, a car loaded with furniture, sailing to a new city, a stack of worn books, a boy whose last name I can’t even remember. But Luke and I don’t yet know the game is rigged. We don’t question why we have been made adversaries. We just play war. Suck our creamsicles, listen to the creek hissing through our woods.

There’s a creek here, too, and that’s where the dog’s gone. Mom claps until he gambols out, rolling in the dirt and spraying water. I kneel so he won’t jump on me, rub his ears and tilt my head back.

The trees here are denser and sterner than the ones back then, but there is something in them that I’ve known since I was very young. It’s the way they filter and fragment the light, the spindly fingers of their branches grazing each another across the sky.

 

image: Aaron Burch


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