John Wayne Gacy buried twenty-three victims in the crawl space of his house. But when Carol Hoff, Gacy’s wife, was asked if she smelled anything, she said Gacy told her the smell was because of mice.
My father gulps purple wine, his pinky sticking out. I hate this pinky, and the way he masticates the delicate olives we chose for him, the way he spits out the pits and says Italian, like it’s a joke, saying the “I” the way you say the capital letter. Of course I don’t have the words yet, and I don’t know that it isn’t the chewing I hate, or the chewed up food in his open mouth. It’s his hands at my throat, when I scream and it is, of course, the pressure of those wide but surprisingly small hands in the small of my back as he presses down and says, Be still.
How my body disobeys my brain, when he says that. I can’t be still, and I can’t be quiet.
I climb the only tree in our yard, and my brother can’t, he isn’t old enough, so I am high above the clothesline and the honeysuckle, even the roof of our bungalow. I read up there, closer to the sky, throwing apple cores. Until I am called.
My mother stands naked as my father points to the different body parts for my brother. I am embarrassed, but if I say so he will punish me so I go to my room This house is not a rental, my parents bought it and so my room is my very own. I keep it very clean. My father painted fairies over the door, dancing fairies and lilies.
I fall down at school and skin my knee, and at the sight of blood I burst into tears like a baby. They walk me to the nurse and it’s too humiliating, I’m still crying, my nose is even running. I walk into the window unit sticking out of the nurses office and bang my head so hard there is a lump.
After that I just don’t cry. I mean, I never cry. Even when my son is born, I’m quiet. I stick needles through the fatty pockets of my fingertips, showing off. See? I say to my brother, no matter what the pain, I won’t scream. The past is growing its scabs. There are missing children on milk cartons, and my mother tells me about the evils, there are clippings on the refrigerator. Out in the field, I could be captured and sold. White slavery, my mother calls it.
At night he buries his head in her lap, he says, I’m so sorry, and I love you so much. And, I’m just a wee babe. I’m not sure he is talking to her when he says this, but of course how can I tell her this? She believes in him. He will forgive in himself what she forgives, which is just about anything. It’s what makes her so good. I believe in this the way I believe in prayer, the way I believe in Jimmy Carter’s essential goodness, the way I believe my dead grandmother can hear my thoughts, and the scapular I wear, even in the shower, protects my neck from vampires at night.
Why does she tell me this? Well, there isn’t anyone else to tell. But it is too much. She tells me during our coffee breaks; she will cut me a piece of apple crumble. She doesn’t eat much. Sometimes, a peanut butter cup from the 7/11; she’ll divide it in perfect fourths with a grapefruit spoon. She never eats much.
One day, after climbing too high, I fall from the tree and pass out. When my mother comes to get me I vomit the half-bag of Oreos I gobbled that afternoon.
I don’t know what your father would do, she tells me, when the danger has passed, after a night of shining lights in my eyes. I’m in a hospital bed, and the wallpaper, a bunch of paper doll cut-outs in blacks and reds, is making me sick to look at.
I don’t know what he would do, if he lost you. Probably kill me.
Claudia Smith Chen’s The Sky Is a Well and Other Shorts was Winner of the First Annual Rose Metal Press Short Short Chapbook Contest. Her latest full-length book is Quarry Light.