For Lynn Hildebrandt
For a long time we lived way out in the country, where giant spiders would chase me over the hill and my sister got stung by a wasp while rolling around in a cardboard box and there was a fountain in the back yard at the edge of the wheat field with gargoyles that spouted columns of sulfury water as bubbly as lemon soda. Then we moved to the suburbs, where everything was boxed in and the trees were stuck in the ground like lollipops every ten feet and the roads were painted black and the women were all crazy and pale and the men were all drunk and had grease on their hands and were going to screw something if they could just get ahold of it. They did that in the suburbs — screwed. I didn’t know what screwing was. As far as I knew, they didn’t do it in the country.
I went on hearing the term now and then, but I didn’t bother myself much about screwing until somebody said that Barry had screwed Maria in the catwalk, a narrow, fenced walkway overgrown with bushes. I pictured a yellow-handled screwdriver and decided that Barry must have fixed something for her: her skateboard, maybe. Barry was three years older than me and Maria was a year older and pretty. Her father was Greek. I sensed dimly that there was some connection between screwing and growing older. The yellow-handled screwdriver kept popping into my head, but it did not connect logically, so I put the matter aside. I had more important concerns. Like hunting sparrows.
I had a bow and arrow, and I clung behind walls, trees, and hedges with it, sprang out and fired, but was usually about eight seconds off, which was all right with me. I didn’t want to hit one, really — though maybe my mom could clean it and we could have sparrows and asparagus for dinner. But any good hunter will tell you: the hunt is always better than the kill.
I didn’t know what was wrong with the women in the suburbs. The girls were all right, but their mothers would spill out of the houses in the evenings pitched and frazzled, combing the streets for their young; they wanted to keep the children in, keep them prisoners — keep them from screwing, I guessed. Screwing was something that girls got done to them. They could not have liked it. The mothers did not want it to happen to their daughters. Their eyes bulged in the twilight and their lips wriggled as they searched the neighborhood. While the mothers roamed, the fathers belched softly through the kitchen windows, then finally came out, steering sagging bellies, beer cans welded to their palms, dirt under their nails, and looked up and down, blinkety-blink, heads whirring, slap of beer, soft belch, the sound of children’s names keening across the air. Somewhere, in the shadows, under the stairs, in the catwalk, in the bushes, even I knew, those girls were getting screwed.
My mom was not crazy. She was from the country. People in the suburbs might screw, but that was none of her affair. She put dinner in the oven, vacuumed, told me to put my toys away. She asked if I’d gotten any sparrows, how the dam I’d built in the gutter was holding up; she did things like look in my ears — practical, definable things. Once I was inside, I felt safe. I’d look out the windows and watch the bug-eyed mothers roaming the neighborhood.
My friend Timmy lived down the street. He was a sparrow hunter, too; he’d invented a whole new sparrow-hunting system consisting of a flat, grooved piece of wood that you fit a custom-made arrow into, then notched back with a rubber band, and let fly. Far superior. You might get within three or four seconds of a sparrow, actually see the arrow release before the bird took flight. I’d hunt sparrows with Timmy and then we’d go inside for Velveeta sandwiches and chocolate milk and watch Felix the Cat on his big color TV that was mostly green. Timmy’s mom was a divorced barmaid who worked late hours, so we’d have the house to ourselves, except for Timmy’s sister, Snooks, who was two years older than me. She had a mop of red hair and a short, turned-up elf’s nose and orange freckles like stains all over her face, and she’d watch me while I watched Felix the Cat. I didn’t like the way she looked at me.
“Too bad we don’t have another girl,” she said one day.
“Why?” I said.
“We could all fill each other up.”
Snooks never made any sense. She irritated me. “What are you talking about?” I said. “Gasoline?”
“Mike and me did it last week in the tent in the back yard,” she said.
“Did what?” I said.
She wiggled her eyebrows and fluttered her lashes at me.
What a nut, I thought. Like a grown-up. Then it occurred to me. “You mean like screw?” I said.
She leaned back and kicked her legs up, and her eyes sparkled.
The screwdriver popped into my head, then a picture of Snooks and Mike in the tent in the back yard. But why would we need another girl? That didn’t make any sense. It was exasperating. I looked over at Timmy, who was lying on the floor engrossed in green cartoons and working on his second Velveeta sandwich, squeezing blobs of Miracle Whip out the sides. He didn’t pay much attention to his sister. That was what I liked about him: levelheaded.
Hunting sparrows with my bow and arrow got to be a little dull. I tried catching them with bait and box and string, and I think I could’ve done it, too, but that wasn’t really hunting. The bird would still be alive, and what would I do with a live bird? My dad gave me a knife. It wasn’t a real knife, but a flat steel rectangle that held a thin, crosshatched, half-inch blade more like a file. It was a fingernail tool, but it was about as good as a knife. You could flick it in the ground. You could carve your name in a tree. You could be a pirate. You could scare people with it. You could even kill people with it if you had to. I sat on the curb and whittled a leaf with it. (It didn’t whittle wood very well.) I worked on that leaf, cutting out all the flesh from the veins until it was just a skeleton leaf. Reedie Graves came up and sat down next to me. Reedie did not have a home and never slept. His face was dirty and his nose was always wet. He snuffled.
“What are you doin’?” he said.
“Whittlin’,” I said.
“Wanna see sump’n’?”
“Two people screwin’,” he said.
“Screwin’?” I said.
“Yeah, you know what that is?”
“Sure, I know what it is.”
“What is it?” he said.
“It’s like fillin’ up.”
“Fillin’ up? What’s that?”
“It’s like screwin’.”
“You don’t know what it is.”
I went back to whittling.
“Come on,” Reedie said. He tugged at my sleeve. “I’ll show ya.”
I looked back at my house, saw my mom wading like a dream through the warm light, the blue smoke of my father the wheat-farmer-turned-schoolteacher’s pipe. Then I scuttled after Reedie. He was only half my size, and I was small. He stole into the neighbor’s yard, dragging one arm along the ground like a hunchback.
He looked back, eyes wild, a finger crushing his lips.
“Where’re we goin’?” I whispered.
We scampered along the McDermotts’ lawn, through the purple shadows under the hedge, then got in close to the house. We were in a cactus bed filled with orange-cream rocks that glowed in the last rays of the sun. Yellow light shone down from the window above us. Reedie snuggled in under it.
“I just seen ’em,” he said. “They were doin’ it.” He pushed himself up the wall, painfully slow, one eye bulging, and slowly swiveled his head. Then he dropped back down like he’d been shot. “They’re doin’ it,” he said, swatting me on the shoulder. “Go ahead. Go on up and look.”
I pushed myself up the wall exactly like Reedie’d done it, though I didn’t want to look. My forehead seemed to swell, and I grew dizzy. The window ledge floated at eye level, as if I were coming up from underwater. The curtains hung loose — limp yellow curtains with red ponies on them — leaving a triangle at the bottom where I could see in. My eyes rolled over the dingy walls, the tilted pictures of inky brown ships, the black vinyl furniture, and then down to the floor, to the tangled nightmare on the brown carpet. It was worse than anything I could’ve imagined, worse than a car wreck. I stared for a few seconds, then dropped, horror-stricken.
“What are they doin’?” I said.
“Whaddaya think they’re doin’?” Reedie said, inching back up the wall to take his turn.
I crouched there for a few seconds, blinking in the dusk. “Why?”
“I dunno. Cuz they like it.”
Like it? I thought. Like it?
“What’s wrong?” said Reedie, looking down from the window.
“I gotta go,” I said.
“Wait a minute. Ouch. Where you goin’?”
I ran for home as fast as I could. I couldn’t run fast enough. I tumbled down the street, legs three feet in front of me. My mom was out by the garage, calling my name. I jumped on her and grabbed her leg. “What’s got into you?” she said.
When I woke up the next morning, I was still astonished. It was Sunday and warm, but I stayed in the house all day. So that’s what it was — some kind of animal thing. No wonder the mothers were afraid; no wonder they were bug-eyed. It was worse than any horror movie. It would have to be stamped out somehow. I began to devise plans to eradicate the screwers. I would use my fingernail knife, my bow and arrows. Timmy would help me. Thank God my parents were not involved. Thank God we were from the country.
The slow days of summer arrived, and I was halfheartedly hunting sparrows one afternoon when a herd of children came thundering down the street. Randall Kelton stopped long enough to squawk in my ear: “Lonnie is screwing Debbie in the Clarksons’ back yard!” Heart trilling, I rose up and joined the mob.
We stampeded down the sidewalk, swept over the lawns, walloped against the gates, and lined the fence around where Lonnie and Debbie were going at each other, snatching and banging and seesawing, Debbie’s pink-and-white-checkered dress pulled up, her toes curling and uncurling, Lonnie’s behind bobbing and shining like two red apples. This was what dogs did, what cows did; it was outrageous, vile. How did they do it? Why did they do it?
Timmy’s sister Snooks slipped in next to me, bumping her shoulder into mine. She was flushed and out of breath. “Hey,” she said, “wanna come over and see my shell collection?”
What’s wrong with this girl? Who would talk about a shell collection at a time like this? I’d never heard her talk about shells before. She grabbed my hand, and I took one last peek over the fence before she pulled me out of the crowd and across the street. The neighborhood seemed deserted, not a child in sight. I felt suddenly ancient and dissolved, the summer and time draining out of me like a ghost. I looked up and saw my old friends the sparrows darting among the trees.