by Steve Lambert
A massive live oak stood on either side of the entrance to Hatfield Estates Retirement Village. Their highest branches reached across the boulevard, into each other, creating a canopy under which Delmer Blevins now stood in the mottled shade waiting for his little sister’s school bus to peek over Grab-All Hill to the north on County Road 304. His little sister, Lila, called the two old live oaks Buford and Brutus, and they were as distinct as people to her. She’d climb them and talk to them, and once she was well into the dense top of one it was nearly impossible to get her down. She’d sit with her assortment of naked and half-clothed Barbie dolls and spend hours laying out static little scenarios with them. She didn’t give them the most eventful lives, but they were always a family—mom, dad, sister and big brother—and they’d have dinner and play games and watch TV, always together, always doing things Lila could still barely remember her own family doing. Other times she’d just sit as high as she could climb, her skinny body sprawled across a thick limb, and stare out over the tops of the cars flying by and think about the state of things in her own static life.
Lila hopped off the bus heavy with the day’s entanglements—pink backpack, orange safety patrol belt, a gray sweatshirt rolled up and tied around her waist, and a bright green science project poster board under her arm. She walked over to Delmer and he unburdened her of the poster board.
“Well,” she began, “I don’t advance to the finals.”
Delmer unfolded the poster board and took a look at his sister’s work. He’d helped some, mostly with the gluing and cutting and the layout, but she’d done all the research herself. He was proud of her for that. She was not a lazy child. On the back of the poster board, in the bottom-left corner, in red ink, was printed A- Great job, Lila!!!
“I think you done a real nice job of it.”
“Not finals nice.”
“Don’t matter,” said Delmer, hung-over and not in the mood for elaboration of any kind. The night before he and his good friend Lucien Nix had each made empty four quarts of King Cobra malt liquor while shooting at stop signs and billboards with Lucien’s two new handguns. As they rounded the left turn onto their street, he glanced back toward the entry where a Sahwoklee Regional Utilities truck was backing in. There’d been a thunderstorm two nights before and the electricity had gone out in the whole park. Lila had gotten scared and Delmer ended up reading to her by candlelight from her favorite book, Peter Pan, until the electricity came back on.
Lila talked the entire way home. “Well,” she began, as if in response to something Delmer had already said, “this black boy, Lionel Young, was running down the main hall by the resources wing and I told him to stop running and he stuck out his middle finger at me.” She paused. “So I reported him.”
“Tattler,” said Delmer.
Lila stuck her tongue out at him. “I’m a patrol. I’m supposed to tattle.” She put her hand on her orange safety patrol belt.
“Keep going,” said Delmer.
“Well, he got a detention, and as we were leaving Principal McGregor’s office, he called me a name I’d never heard before, but it sounded really bad.”
Delmer didn’t bother asking Lila what the boy had called her. He didn’t really care, and he didn’t feel like struggling to explain God only knew what.
“Well, he probably likes you. That’s what boys his age do when they like you.”
Lila tilted her head, considering the suggestion, then shook it off. “I can’t imagine ever liking anybody new anymore—not for a good long while.”
Besides their grandmother, Lucy Nugent, Delmer and Lila had one other living relative: an uncle, Goad Blevins, who lived in Cortez, the next town over. Goad owned a bar and was not married, had had polio as a child and walked with a pronounced limp. Though the limp was noticeable, it did not seem to slow him down much. He was, in fact, able to achieve a quick—albeit hard to watch—sprint, and was more agile than most when doing certain things, like tending bar. In the end, though, the judge had thought the grandmother a better fit for them, and so they went to live with her after the accident. But because Hatfield Estates was a retirement community, the judge had had to issue a court order to allow the children to live there temporarily until something better could be arranged. It was a nice place, but neither Delmer nor Lila particularly liked it there. No one talked to them except their grandmother and a smiley old widower named Buddy who lived next door. Everyone else either ignored them altogether or sneered at them and made faces. Sometimes they’d even say things around them, like, “Children aren’t even supposed to be living here,” as if Delmer and Lila didn’t already know it.
Delmer made Lila a snack of toast and butter, her favorite, and one of the only non-sweet things she’d eat without a fuss. Their grandma was away for the afternoon, and it was just them.
“Uncle Goad said he’d pick me up a little early so we can go to Dino’s before the movie.”
Delmer walked to the kitchen window and pushed aside the little lacey curtain. If he strained, he could just hear the utility truck’s diesel engine idling. He was pretty sure he knew what they were going to do.
“I can taste it now,” said Lila. She examined her plate, littered with dark brown bread crusts and black crumbs. “He always lets me order the banana split. No one else ever does. He’s the only one. Mom and Dad never even did.”
Delmer heard a high-pitched whine rip through the air and then die down to a stuttering rumble just above the sound of the truck’s engine.
“You still got about an hour yet before he gets here. You got any homework to knock out before he does?”
“No homework on Fridays, dummy. Last time I got nuts, but this time I think I’ll say no nuts because it kind of drowns out the flavors of the other stuff.”
Lila got up and put her plate of bread husks on the kitchen counter. Delmer heard the high-pitched whine again, but this time it lasted longer and was more violent sounding: a saw ripping into a tree branch. Lila squinted and angled her head toward the window.
“Just someone doing yard work.” He didn’t want to lie to her, but he didn’t want her freaking out either. She could really lose it when she wanted to. She’d scream and thrash and cuss. On more than a few occasions Delmer had heard Lila use cuss words he didn’t even use. He figured once Goad arrived, he could pull him aside for a moment, before they left for the movies, and tell him to take the construction access road in the back of the park and she’d never know the difference.
Lila shrugged and walked toward her room. Delmer told her to get cleaned up and to change out of her school clothes.
When Goad finally arrived, Delmer had Lila go get her science project to show her uncle. She rolled her eyes, moaned, and walked like a zombie into her room to get it.
“Don’t know if you noticed there,” Delmer said, once she was out of earshot,”but utility company come out to trim up those big oaks out front. Other night the electricity went out when a limb broke loose of one and knocked out a power line.”
Goad said he had noticed the utility vehicle.
“If Lila sees that, she’ll go ape shit crazy on you. You ought to take the back way out of the neighborhood.”
“What does she care?”
“She loves them trees, man. She got names for them and everything. I’ll tell her tomorrow, but there’s no reason for her night to be ruined.”
Goad agreed, and when Lila returned with her science project, he made a big deal out of looking at it, taking his reading glasses out of his breast pocket and examining it for a good long time. “Oo-wee,” he said. “Would you look at this here?” He told her how crazy the judges had been not to select it for the finals.
“I don’t even understand half of what you got wrote down on this thing.” He winked at Delmer and slapped his back. “Welp, we got banana splits calling our names.”
Once they were gone, Delmer walked back to the entrance to assess the damage. It was quiet out now. All the old fogies were either asleep or fixing to be. They’d done a superb hack job on the trees. The canopy, the whole leafy embrace of it, was completely gone. All the limbs that had reached over and into each other had been amputated nearly to the trunk. They’d pruned the very top limbs into an uneven v-shape around the power lines, and all the lower limbs were cut back so excessively that there weren’t really any climbing limbs left. The combined effect of it all was such that the once magnificent twins now looked solitary and abused and withdrawn. It was disrespectful, he thought. A violence had been done to the trees. They’d taken no care at all. It made him made. Lila’s gonna flip, he thought. People just do things, he said to himself as he walked back to his granny’s trailer.
The next morning Delmer lay in bed listening to his grandmother in the kitchen. She was watching TV and doing dishes. He heard her say, “Suits me. I never liked her character anyway.” After a few minutes, she said, “Well, good morning, Ms. Lila,” in a high, excited voice.
This is not so bad, he thought. Things could be much worse. Delmer enjoyed lying there in bed, eavesdropping on the tiny world around him, letting the day slowly brighten. The night before, once Lucy had made it home, Delmer had walked the three miles to Lucien’s and they’d messed around some more with the handguns. Lucien lived on thirty acres of nicely wooded land and they’d set up some beer bottles and cans as targets and shot and drank beer for a good while. Lucien sneaked his dad’s truck keys and gave Delmer a ride home at around two-thirty in the morning.
He listened to bits of talk: Lila telling Lucy about her night with Goad, about the movie they’d seen, and about banana splits, hers with no nuts, and about how she’d probably go back to nuts, because it’d seemed like something was missing. She told her grandmother about her science project and Lionel, the bad boy at school who’d called her a bad name. On and on she went, as she was prone to do. Eventually Delmer quit listening and got out of bed and began thinking about how he was going to break it to Lila about the trees.
Lucy had made biscuits and scrambled eggs and bacon, the remains of which were laid out on the stovetop. Delmer made a plate and sat down at the table in the kitchen, next to Lila, who was pushing a last lump of scrambled egg onto a fork with her finger.
Delmer asked her if she’d liked the movie. She said she had. “Uncle Goad fell asleep about twenty minutes into it, though, like he always does.”
“Always?” said Lucy as she put her plate into the sink.
“Mostways,” said Lila.
Delmer told Lila that after she’d finished eating and brushed her teeth and gotten dressed, he wanted to show her something, which was probably a mistake, because it made her so curious that she bugged him with questions the whole time he was eating.
He was done getting ready first and he waited in the kitchen for Lila.
“What’re we doing?” she said as she walked into the kitchen.
“There’s something you need to see.”
“What?” she said.
“Just come on.” He took up her hand and they walked out of the trailer and down the road toward the park entrance. It was already hot out. Buddy, their friendly neighbor was out in his yard, pruning his hedges. He stopped and waved at the two as they passed. They both waved back and kept going. Buddy stood and watched them, smiling, until they rounded the bend and he could no longer see them.
Once they were close enough to the entrance that you could just see the trees, Delmer stopped, whirled Lila around, and grabber her by the shoulders.
“There’s something you need to see and you ain’t gonna like it,” he said.
She just stared up at Delmer. He turned her around and pointed toward the two mangled trees. She walked forward, looking.
“What happened?” She held one hand up over her eyes.
“The utility workers came and pruned ’em up.”
“Remember when the electricity went out two nights ago?”
“It was the trees that caused it, so they had to cut them back. They had to do it.”
She pointed up at the power line. “They cut them back too far.”
“Well, they had to do it that way so they wouldn’t have to come back for a while.”
“It looks like they didn’t take their time with it. They could have done it so they’d look nice.”
“I guess they had other things they needed to get to.”
Lila slapped her hands against her thighs, and then, as casual as anything, said what might be described as a very obscure cuss word. It took Delmer by surprise and he tried not to laugh. The word was familiar to him, but he could not remember the last time he’d heard someone use it. Maybe he’d never actually heard a person use it. Maybe he’d read it somewhere. Anyway, it seemed to him like a very adult cuss word, unlike most of the ones kids usually tried out on each other. He had no idea where she might have heard it.
“You shouldn’t use words like that, Lila.” He didn’t want to make too big a fuss of it.
“That’s what that boy Lionel called me. What’s it mean anyway?”
Delmer could tell she was gearing up for one of her meltdowns: her narrow body was tensed up and she had made tight fists with her delicate fingers. Her hands were their mother’s hands. She used to put Lila’s hand on hers and say, “It’s miraculous, ain’t it, Lila? We’ve got the very same hands!”
“Never mind what it means,” said Delmer. “All you need to know is it’s any ugly thing to say and I don’t ever want to hear you say it again.”
“Seems like I don’t like what nobody ever does no more,” she said.
Hearing his little sister say such a negative thing made Delmer feel depressed.
She let out a long, slow groan. She said the word again, but this time she growled it. The small, dense word tore off her lips with conviction and proficiency, as if she’d been using the word all her life. Delmer moved closer to her and put his hand on her shoulder and gently rubbed it. He felt her body shake. He put his arm around her, half embrace and half restraint, and she let out a throaty scream. Delmer picked her up and held onto her tightly. She tried thrashing her body, but Delmer was too strong. In fits, she tried to wiggle loose of his grip until finally her small, sweaty body went limp, and she got quiet, her chest heaving with deep, stammering breaths.
“Gone,” she whispered.
He was sitting in the street now, cross-legged, holding her the way you hold a baby. He put his hand on her sweaty forehead. It was good to face a thing head on, he thought, so that you could move on with your life. Just bam, then go. She knew how to do that. He’d seen her do it with a thing far more traumatic. “We better head back now,” he said to Lila. He took her under the arms and lifted her off his lap and held her in place like a plank of wood with one hand while he got to his feet. He took her hand, and she did not pull it away, and they turned and quietly walked back toward the trailer. It was morning still, and he was glad for that.
Steve Lambert’s writing has appeared in Red Truck Review, The Gambler, Spry Literary Journal, Deep South Magazine, The Cortland Review and many other places. He is a three-time finalist (and third-place winner) in contests held by Glimmer Train Stories. His story, “A Helping Hand,” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and his story, “Deek’s Philosophies,” was nominated for the Best of the Net Award. He lives in North Florida with his wife and daughter.