In Fairfield, On Earth
by June Sylvester Saraceno
Dare taught me all the really important things: how to throw rocks, keep from flinching when playing chicken, walk in the woods without making noise, shoot a gun and maybe the most important, how to spy on people. He was the one who saved me from my stupid name. When Mother brought me home from the hospital he called me Willie and it stuck, so later that’s what kids at school called me. That saved me a lot of fights. He could be nice like that. But he could be mean as the devil too. Still, he taught me a lot of the stuff he knew. I kept at it, too, whether it was tying knots, spitting or talking pig Latin because one day I planned to catch up. One day we’d be level equals.
The summer he read the Hardy Boys stories, we concentrated most on spying. We’d done it before, tracking Mother and Daddy undetected, even spying on each other. But it was time to branch out. We started going over to the Perry’s place after supper when it was just getting dark. They were old and spent most of the evening watching TV. We’d prowl around their little house peeking in the windows, tracking what they were watching. They didn’t talk much. Later we’d review, lying in the front yard with the heavy sweet smell of corn from the fields filling the air.
“Mrs. Perry sneaks candy when Mr. Perry’s in the bathroom.” I thought there may be some clue in this. We had watched her on several occasions go to the kitchen as soon as Mr. Perry headed down the hall to the bathroom. She’d take down a Whitman’s Sampler box from the cupboard, select a chocolate, pop it into her mouth, then return to the sofa all before Mr. Perry got back from the bathroom.
“Well it’s like she’s doing it in secret, hiding something, ya know?” I said cutting my eyes sideways towards Dare.
“Maybe she just don’t want to share with old man Perry,” Dare snorted. He had gotten in the habit, when no adults were around, of substituting “old man” for mister. There was a long silence before he said, “Sailors used stars to tell where they were when they couldn’t see land anywhere.”
“So what?” It was my turn not to care. He was just changing the subject to something he knew about because I noticed her sneaky ways and he didn’t. Why should I care about sailors anyway? They weren’t spies.
“SO, if we learn where the stars are in the sky then we’ll always know where we are on the Earth.”
“I already know where I am. In my front yard, in Fairfield, in Virginia, in America, on the Earth. That is exactly where I am.”
“But if you were on a ship in the middle of the ocean, and it was dark and all you could see was stars, then how would you know where you were?”
“Well, I’d still know I was on the ship.”
“How would you know where the ship was?”
“You already said – on the ocean.” Sometimes he wasn’t all that smart, I thought, satisfied.
“The trouble with you is that you just don’t know anything, and you don’t even know you don’t know.” He got up and walked towards the house. Spying was over for the night.
“The trouble with you,” I muttered to the thin air, “is you think you know everything.”
A few days later, Uncle Erskine came to stay with us for awhile. He was retired from the Coast Guard and had a tattoo of a big-boobed mermaid on his arm. Mother clearly didn’t approve of her brother, Uncle Erskine, which made him a big favorite with Dare and me. Once when Daddy asked him to say grace he prayed real fast: Good drink, Good meat, Good God, Let’s EAT! Dare and I kicked each other under the table and turned purple from holding back our laughter. Daddy cracked his knuckle on Dare’s head then addressed Uncle Erskine. All our forks lay unlifted on the table until Daddy’s scolding about sacrilegious attitudes that were not welcome in our home or any other decent God-fearing household was over. Uncle Erskine actually drummed his fingers on the table.
Before we went to bed that night Dare and I whispered it in the dark across his room to each other gooddrinkgoodmeatGOODGODLETSEAT! and buried our heads in our pillows to muffle our shrieks of laughter. But Uncle Erskine began doing something I couldn’t tolerate. He began to take Dare away from me. He lured him with jokes and stories that he wouldn’t include me in. One afternoon when I came into the family room, I overheard him say, “Shhh! Here comes your little sister. That ain’t fittin’ for some little girl’s ears, is it, Dare?” And Dare, in a supreme act of betrayal, shook his head no. After that I gave them both the silent treatment. They didn’t seem to notice, though, and that made things even worse.
When Uncle Erskine finally left, Dare talked about him all the time, and about how he was going to join the Coast Guard and see the world. I realized I couldn’t beat it, so I might as well join too.
“They don’t let girls in the Coast Guard, Willie. It’s just for guys; you get a tattoo.”
“Well I won’t tell them I’m a girl and I’ll get a tattoo, too. Only not a stupid mermaid with big titties. I’ll get a skull or something, like a pirate.”
“Pirates ain’t the same as the Coast Guard. They don’t even exist anymore and if they did the Coast Guard would arrest ‘em. And if they found out a girl was on the ship they’d throw you overboard because girls are bad luck on ships.”
I had a feeling that wasn’t true, but he said it with such certainty, and I wasn’t sure what Uncle Erskine had told him in all those private conversations, so I held my peace.
Dare began buying model ships with his carefully hoarded birthday and Christmas money. He spent hours indoors putting them together; the whole room reeked of glue. Sometimes I hovered around but anytime I tried to help he yelled at me to put it down. Finally, one day when he was somewhere else, I took three of his models down to the creek to see just how well these things worked. Even though I managed to retrieve one, I decided from the looks of it maybe I’d better not put that model back on his desk. I tried to act innocent about the disappearance of the ships, but he tortured the truth out of me. For revenge he took all the shells and the rocks I had collected in Georgia and threw them into the creek. Even though I could see there was some justice in this, it wasn’t entirely fair – he could go back to Woolworth’s anytime and buy new models, but I might never be able to go back to Georgia and discover rare stones again.
Eventually, though, we got back to sneaking around and spying. Then one evening we saw something I wish we’d never seen. Bored with the predictable Perrys, we were drawn by the yellow glow from the windows of the next house down the road, the Armstrong’s. Instead of going on the road, we went through the Perry’s side yard, through the vacant lot, into the Armstrong’s garden and up to their back yard. Some Sundays on the way home from church we’d see them cutting back their rose bushes, working in the garden or just sitting in lounge chairs with their iced tea in hand. Clearly they had not been to church. Mother shook her head; Daddy looked purposefully, unswervingly ahead. Their disapproval filled the car with silence. Mrs. Armstrong had long hair that she wore loose or in a pony tail, not like the other ladies who all had perms and enough hairspray to keep everything in place between weekly beauty parlor visits. On this evening we heard her laugh before we even got to the window. She didn’t even laugh like the other ladies. She had a loud, full laugh that sometimes ended in a coughing fit. We located her and her husband in the living room. Mr. Armstrong sat in a Laz-e-Boy recliner with his feet up and the TV on, and Mrs. Armstrong walked in and out of the room talking to him. Only a screen in the window separated us from them. The darkness behind us was growing, and the frogs got louder. Any passing car could have seen us there in the spilled-over light from the window. Then it happened. Mrs. Armstrong waltzed into the room with her slip on. Once in a great while I’d see my mother in a slip, when she was fixing her face or changing clothes. But Mrs. Armstrong was walking around the house in her slip. And it was black.
“Now what do I have to do to get your mind off that TV, Harlan?” she sort of sang out. It sounded like she was talking to a baby.
“Come on now, Bet, I don’t get chance to sit back and relax much. Don’t stand in front to the TV like that, honey.”
“You ain’t said a word about this new slip I got on. I thought it was right pretty, got it on sale too so don’t worry.”
“It’s nice, honey.” Mr. Armstrong shifted in his chair because she was still blocking the TV. Then Mrs. Armstrong started to lift her slip up like she was going to stand there and take it right off.
“If you don’t like it, I won’t wear it. Fact is I can still return it. Maybe I can find something else that would get your attention a little better.”
I knew we should scram. But my feet wouldn’t move. I looked at Dare’s face and it was like he was seeing a vision. He was transfixed. Mrs. Armstrong pulled the slip up over her head and dropped it right on the floor. She just stood there in her bra and panties. She didn’t even have a girdle on. Then she started kind of dancing and jerking across the floor towards Mr. Armstrong. She put her foot on the lifted leg-rest of the recliner and pushed it down, which threw Mr. Armstrong forward. Then she straddled his lap and pulled his face into her chest. My face and feet felt like they were burning up. Before I even realized what I was doing I grabbed Dare by his T-shirt and started to run. Broken from the spell, he ran too and soon bolted way ahead of me. When I reached the front yard, he was lying on the grass breathing hard. I threw myself down beside him. We didn’t speak for a long time.
Finally, Dare said, “Listen, you gotta swear on the bible not to tell anybody about this.”
“You too. You gotta swear too.”
Swearing was forbidden in our house and swearing on the bible was a sin that would land us into deep, deep trouble if we were caught. That’s why we saved it for really important things.
“I will. I’d get in more trouble than you anyway cause Mother will say I’m the oldest and ought to know better. Anyway if they ask let’s just say we’ve been building on the fort in the woods. Don’t say anything about the Armstrongs.”
“I wouldn’t anyway. I’m not dumb. What do you think happened after we left? I mean, I wonder what Mr. Armstrong did. She just put his face right smack into her titties …”
“Shut up! Just shut up. There’s names for ladies that act like she did, walking around with their big old titties out like that.”
“What kind of names? How do you know? Where have you seen any ladies do that before?”
“Never mind. You just better make sure you never act like that.”
A shiver went through me. What did that have to do with me.
“That’s plain stupid. Like I’d have titties I’d walk around shaking.”
“You’re a girl, ain’t ya?” he snorted.
A dark foreboding twisted through me, turning to queasy certainty. He was right. It would happen to me. I thought of the girls on the bus, their sweaters grown lumpy. The awful way they whispered and giggled, put lipstick on, and looked in their pocket mirrors all the way to school.
Dare must have noticed the way this was churning through my gut because when he spoke again it was in his soft voice, like when I’d busted my lip or gotten a goose egg from falling off his handlebars onto the pavement.
“Look, don’t worry about it. That’s a long ways off. Some girls don’t get ‘em even when they’re in high school. Kathy Magnusson is flat as a pancake and she’s going into tenth grade.”
I knew he was trying to make me feel better, but it was too late. It was just another thing he’d have over on me; he’ll always be older, he got a BB gun, and now this.
“Come on,” he said, “I’ll race you to the house. We can sneak up on Mother.”
“You go on. I’m gonna stay here for awhile and look at the Big Dipper.”
“We gotta swear on the bible …”
“I know, I know. Just leave me alone.” Oddly, he didn’t say anything. He always has to have the last word but this time he just got up and went inside, leaving me lying on the grass. It was night time dark now and I stared up at the sky, noticing that the stars had begun to swim a little. I thought I could feel the earth spin. It gave me an weird, off-centered feeling, like when an elevator goes up too fast and your stomach is out of place. I crossed my arms across my chest, closed my eyes and willed the weight of my body to press more firmly into place while crazy half thoughts chased around in my head I’m me, in my yard, in Fairfield, like normal, me – Willie. Then for no good reason I popped up and began to spin, turning around faster and faster, eyes open, arms spread out, tree tops and sky blurring, until my orbit got erratic and I fell down. Over and over, I staggered back up and continued to spin and fall, spin and fall. Finally beat, I made a drunken zig zag for the front door. When I went inside, there was a good reason I felt dizzy and near sick. But it was my choice, my spinning that did it.
June Sylvester Saraceno was born and raised in Elizabeth City, North Carolina. She received a BA in English from East Carolina University and an MFA in creative writing from Bowling Green State University in Ohio. She is currently English Program Chair at Sierra Nevada College, Lake Tahoe, and founding editor of the Sierra Nevada Review. Her work has appeared in California Quarterly, Ginosko, Pedestal, Poetry Motel, Rebel, Silk Road, Smartish Pace, Sunspinner, Tar River Poetry and The Rambler; as well as three anthologies: “A Bird as Black as the Sun,” “Intimate Kisses” and “Passionate Hearts.” She is also the author of “Altars of Ordinary Light,” a full-length collection of poetry, and a chapbook of prose poems, “Mean Girl Trips.” This story is part of a collection that centers on a young girl growing up in the South.