Where there are women there is safety. I am on the couch in my grandparents’ living room. My grandfather’s arthritic mutt, Prince is on my lap. I stroke him calmly while my mother, grandmother and aunt clear the dining room table. Their voices rise and fall reassuringly. This ocean-like murmur is interrupted only by my mother’s occasional laughter. She has a habit of laughing. She uses her laugh like punctuation, without regard to the fact that it is reminiscent of a hyena. Her laugh has great big teeth. I love her more for this. For a moment, I think I might cry, I love her laugh so much. My grandma pokes her head around the doorway. “Will you be having tea with us, William? Are you sure you won’t go out with the boys?” I nod yes, and then shake my head no. She laughs too, but it is elderly and entirely feminine sounding. She’s my father’s mother after all, and her laugh is a delicate lace handkerchief. She carries them in the sleeve of her arm, to wipe her eyes or blow her nose with contained sophistication. “I take it you will be having tea and won’t be going with the guys.” I nod once to that and she turns, saying to the kitchen, “Put one more cup in the kettle.”
I hear the snowmobiles start up, first one, then another, the third lost in the chorus of the other two engines. I turn up the television even though I am not really watching it. It’s a prop, the television. Really, I am just petting Prince. He’s asleep and I tell him how lucky he is to be a dog, how I’d trade places with him any day. I lean my head back against the couch and close my eyes. I wait for the snowmobiles to be a far off noise. I begin counting in my head. But the engines just idle. The first real snow of the season dumped two feet on West Central Illinois. School was cancelled on Thursday and Friday. Today, by the time we went to church, the roads were cleared so we had to come. Eddie was counting on us, my Dad said, and your grandparents are starting to need a bit of looking after. But I knew it was really about seeing Eddie. Riding his snowmobiles, cutting tracks through the untouched snow across my grandfather’s farm.
“Will,” my dad says. I open my eyes and he’s standing there, Eddie right behind him, nearly a foot taller. “Sure you don’t want to come?”
Eddie says, “You can ride with me if you hold on tight. We can take turns driving.” I don’t look at him. “Come on, Will. Don’t be a pussy. What kind of red blooded fifteen year old would rather sip tea with the woman folk instead of shredding snow with real men?”
I wait for my dad to reprimand Eddie for calling me a pussy. To defend me. Eddie smiles and looking at his face is like looking at a huge snow-covered field when the sun hits it hard. My eyes won’t stay there long. He wears mirrored sunglasses indoors, so I see myself and Prince, reflected there twice, once in each lens. We are revealed the way Eddie probably sees us. Weak and frail. A gangly boy with a long pimpled face and lips pressed together so hard they almost disappear, and an old, white terrier-ish dog, asleep in my lap. “No,” I say to my dad, “I really don’t feel like it.”
My dad moves in, takes a glove off and puts his warm hand to my forehead. “I don’t think you have a fever, ” he says frowning. Then he pats my head, like I’m a little kid. “I know you’d come if you were feeling up to it, but you rest. We won’t be gone too long and then we’ll push off, head for home.”
I want to stand up and scream, “I’m not sick” in his unassuming face. I am as tall as he is, for Christ’s sake. I just don’t want to go.
Eddie punches my dad in the shoulder with a gloved fist. “Oh quite pampering the cream puff, Pat. He’s not sick. He just doesn’t want to go, isn’t that right, champ?” He ruffles my head with the same hand that punched my father. I flinch so badly it wakes Prince up. I don’t say a thing. He thinks he can talk to me any way he wants.
“Tea’s ready,” my grandma calls and I don’t move, not until Eddie is in the kitchen. I hate it when he calls my dad “Pat.” His name is Patrick. My dad hates it too, he’s told me, but he excuses Eddie. They’ve known each other since they were kids. Old habits are hard to break. He’s like family, they’ve been friends so long. I want to shake my dad hard. I don’t understand it, how he can’t really see Eddie. My aunt on the other hand, Donna, barely tolerates him, and makes her disdain for him known. Last Thanksgiving, mere weeks ago, I heard her tell my grandma, “I can’t help it. The man gives me the willies. Sometimes he’s smiling but his eyes are doing something different. Like imagining me with my clothes off. Gah.” She was washing dishes, my grandma was drying, and my mom putting them away. I just sat at the small table, invisible.
“Patrick loves him. Like a brother, Donna. I think probably because he’s what Patrick has always wanted to be, everything that’s not in his nature. Outgoing, funny without trying. I tell Patrick that’s he’s too old to idolize Eddie. Plus, Patrick’s got a goodness that’s so evident, an intellect other’s envy, but I’ll forever have to put up with Eddie. He’s like an annoying teenager. And so lonely. He doesn’t really have any family.”
My grandma stood there, worrying the hem of her flour sack towel. “Eddie has a private mean streak that he keeps hid,” she said, “but we all have faults.” She looked skyward like she was offering up some prayer, “And Patrick’s right, he’s like family. They grew up together. Which means I suppose I mothered him if he was mothered at all.”
I got up then, pushing the table chair harder than I intended and my grandma looked at me like she wanted me to know something. Or like she knew all about what Eddie had done to me, and she loved me any way. Or that she took some of the blame for the way he was.
I was out of the kitchen, around the corner, staring into the curio cabinet like my grandparents’ wedding photo and china held a secret message for me. I stared at the green glass pear that had been there for always. You could see right inside it where nothing was. I wanted to feel its weight and contours in my hand, the lightness of the green glass, and then take it out to the tool shed and hurl it against the side. I wanted to watch it bust apart.
We have tea in the kitchen, although we always have Sunday dinner in the dining room. I love the kitchen best of all the rooms. My grandma asks if I want milk and sugar. She knows how I like my tea, but she wants to hear my voice. Sometimes, over tea, they ask me questions about my artwork, or school, or even girls, but mostly they just talk and let me listen. They don’t gossip, mostly just catch up. And then we play Scrabble and almost every time my Grandma wins. Today, we sip our tea, looking out the wide, low window at all the snow. For a moment, I feel safe.
My reaches over and touches my cheek. “Everything okay?” she asks and her eyes are so soft with concern and earnestness that I almost lose it. I almost start crying and spill everything. Instead, I pull back and say, “Yeah.” My grandma smiles a compressed, fake smile. “The teen angst. It’s all over the television. Totally normal.” My aunt is the first to laugh, then my mom too, and I break a smile as fake as my grandma’s. It’s better if they think it’s something normal and relatively innocent. I can protect them, and they’ll think I’m a normal teenage boy who takes after his father and loves art instead of sports and who doesn’t have darkness in his stomach like an oil spill, that moves around and gets bigger, and only shrinks back at moments like this, here in this kitchen, with these women.
Today, my grandma lets me win at Scrabble. I can tell she lets me win, although she’s good at acting like I was the better player and I think maybe I can tell her, because she knows something about acting. It’s so tempting when she says, as we’re clearing the game, “Come over here, Will. Let me love you up,” and she opens her arms wide. So much of her is like a pillow, and her skin is so soft. I’m taller than she is, so I have to hunch over to put my face in the safety of her neck like I did when I was young. It’s everything I can do not to cry, and she runs my back like I am crying. The back door slams and Eddie’s voice booms. I go rigor mortis. She lets me go. “Wooo-hooo,” he yells and his voice is like a tree felled and I imagine splinters shattering the warm air of the kitchen.
He is everything my father’s not and I’m glad for it. My dad is thin, his dark hair now graying and receding. My dad wears glasses all of the time and when he’s tired, he takes them off and massages the two red commas they’ve left on his nose. My dad smells like pipe tobacco and boiled coffee. He is a patient mine attuned to fine detail. He built the curio cabinet for my grandparents’ china. He works with wood almost like it’s clay. And he loves history, loves to read, loves learning even now. He’s into muzzleloaders, black powder, rendezvous where everyone wears period dress, sleeps in French Colonial tents. He has a tee-pee and he cut and sanded the poles himself, stretched and treated the canvas. He had me paint the door flaps with buffaloes, showing me photographs of the ones wall painted in the ancient French caves. I was only twelve but they turned out, and each year he has me touch them up. I used to love the rendezvous. There were always hordes of kids. And it was like I’d gone back in time and I could imagine what it must have been like. I’d help my dad make his musket balls by melting lead and pouring the mercurial liquid into a special mold. When the ball was formed, we’d drop them in cold water to let them really harden up. It was one thing he did that Eddie laughed openly at. It was one thing I had with just my dad. And then Eddie decided to come along to Prairie DuChien, the big fort in Wisconsin. I had to sit in the back seat on the ride up. And sometimes my father forgot I was there.
Eddie, he loved it. All of the women, he said, but that wasn’t true even though the women loved him. He looked like a lumberjack because he’s a big man with a loud voice. He can talk to any one and people love to comment on his red hair. Strawberry blonde, he always corrects them because he’s vain. He has blue eyes, but they are scary blue, not soft like my grandma’s but sharp as a paring knife. His pupils are outlined in grey the color of a wet sharpening stone. He’s handsome in a way that startles. I think he’s going to come apart at the seams one day, his lies all unspooled and him found out. I’ve sketched him hanging from the rafters of my grandfather’s barn. Only I can’t ever get his face right.
At Prairie Duchien, when the sun went down, everyone sat around their campfires and the men passed jugs of home brew, hard cider, or homemade wine. My dad always took a few slugs in past years, but with Eddie beside him, he drank far more than he ever had. It made me uncomfortable to watch, so I went to bed early. Eddie watched me go.
That year was different. I was fourteen and most of the kids were much younger. I had heard my fill of ghost stories and thought I’d sketch in bed, by the light of the lantern. Someone played a harmonica jauntily and I watched the men’s shadows dance, thrown from the fire to the canvas of the tent, from my camp bed. They didn’t look or sound entirely human, and when my father came to the tent hour later, his singing slurred and his walk crooked, his shadow showed on the tent wall like one of those mythical creatures that are half-goat, half man. “Eddie? Eddie?” he mock whispered. “I thought you were only going off to take a leak? Are you asleep?” He opened the tent flap and I closed my eyes, just as I had when Eddie entered the tent. Even with my eyes closed I knew Eddie’s smile. For my father’s benefit, I steadied my breath to mimic deep sleep. Eddie was on top of his sleeping bag, his boots still on, his shirt off. His buckskin pants unbuttoned. I had been listening to his snores for ten minutes, my breath held in, my pillow in my mouth to keep from screaming out. Anyone who looked could see what happened, but my father was blind. Blind drunk and just blind. When we packed up, he saw the blood, dried like some terrible continent on my sleeping bag. I stammered I had cut a finger while sharpening my pencil with an Exacto knife, and he swallowed that, my hands unblemished, shoved into my pockets.
I go check on Prince while my dad, grandpa and Eddie shed layers in the mud room. I can smell the winter air on them all the way in the living room. Eddie saunters in, and sits down hard beside me to take off his boots. He’s left a wet trail behind him. My dad steps in Eddie’s wake, in sock feet, his boots left in the mudroom where they belong. He doesn’t complain. Instead he says, “I’ll show you in a minute, Eddie. Let me hit the head first.” He takes the stairs fast.
“Your dad always did have a bladder the size of a pea,” Eddie says. I hear my grandpa making coffee in the kitchen. “How’s school, Will,” Eddie asks and his cheeks are wind burned and I think of the two Jonathan apples I painted last semester in art class. I think how I will burn it, and watch that still life go up, even though my art teacher said it was the best student work she’d ever observed. In one swift motion, he scoops Prince off my lap, the back his hand grazing my groin, and tosses him off the couch. Prince, barely awake, tries to land on his feet but his back legs go out on him and he yelps. Eddie makes as if to kick the dog and I lurch forward, my arms outstretched, and Eddie says, “Keep your goddamned yap shut.” He’s looking at Prince but I know he’s talking to me. Above us a toilet flushes. It is quiet except for the popping sound of Eddie’s leather laces pulled from the eyes of his boots.
My dad runs down the stairs. “That’s better,” he says, “How about you, Will? Any better?” I nod. “You look pale. We’ll go home soon. I promise. First, come take a look at the new muzzleloader I’m working on for dad.”
It’s in the dining room, leaning against a corner. It’s just the stock and barrel, pale, sanded wood. He makes Eddie hold it. “See how light it is?” I step back, away from them. “Here, Will. Give it a try.” Eddie hands it off to me, and says, looking right at me, “She’s a beauty. A real tight fit.” My father frowns. “Eddie, don’t be inappropriate. Although historically speaking rifles were usually referred to in the feminine.” Eddie heads to the kitchen for coffee and my dad lowers his voice and says, “Don’t pay him any mind.”
I am testing the weight of the rifle in my hands. It is missing the flint and steel, the sight and trigger. I can tell it will be beautiful. My dad tells me how he will build the rifle, what he will do next, the process, and I can see it, I see what he sees, what he sees this rifle becoming. I lift it to my shoulder, then look through where the sight will someday be, and Eddie steps into the doorway. I center the shot between his eyes, and pull the imagined trigger. “Bam,” I say, “You’re dead.” And in my head, I see the hole, near perfect, the terrible fall back, the stunned circling of Eddie by my beloved family. My grandmother pulling the lace hanky from her shirtsleeve to cover his face the way snow covers the fallow ground of this farm, and my words spilling out, my story being told, so they all understand, they all see Eddie, really see Eddie and they are all made glad that he is no more.
But he does not fall. He just grins and grins until my dad pries the dead wood from my hand.