Thirteen-year-old Classy mourns the loss of her big sister in childbirth, but doesn’t know how to deal with her good-for-nothing uncle; by Alecz Hansen.
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Doll sat with her puffy bottom plopped down in the dirt that I liked to pretend was grass. She buzzed and bubbled her lips making airplane noises for her toys even though none of them were planes. When the sun hit her face just right, I smiled and thought to myself that the nickname “Doll” was so fitting. She was born Jorja Lee Shmooter, but thanks to my baby sister Reece, she was deemed “Doll”. Reece didn’t understand how a person could be so small. She jumped up and down when my older sister Finny brought her home.
“I wanna see! Lemme see!” Reece had screamed. Her tiny body jittered with excitement for her niece that was only seven years younger than herself. Finny then knelt down on the busted wooden floors of Mama and Daddy’s house and let Reece peek her button nose over the top of the blanket. “Wow!” Reece’s eyes widened to the size of her head. She reached one of her fingers up to the babe and slid it across her cheek. “Where’d you find a doll so soft?”
Mama had started snorting along with the rest of us and said, “That ain’t no doll, Reecy Bear. That’s Finny’s baby.” But as much as we tried, there was no convincing Reece that Jorja was anything other than a toy, so the name stuck.
But sitting out in the yard, at only two-years-old, in the Carolina heat of July, that poor child would’ve probably been better off as a toy. Finny had passed away about a month ago. She had some complications trying to give birth to Doll’s younger brother, Johnny. She was set up in the shack that Mama had all of us girls in, and the midwife, Miss Kinley, was the same woman who had helped Mama birth us. Miss Kinley was getting up there in age, but Daddy said she was still smart as a whip. When Finny started pushing, the baby got stuck, and Miss Kinley had to use her whole hand to get Johnny out. By the time the baby started crying, Finny had already stopped moving. I had never seen my Mama so broke as when Finny quit breathing in her arms, but Miss Kinley said there was nothing we could do about it. So, the town let us bury Finny in the backyard, and Daddy let Mama grieve for as long as she needed to. She was still grieving.
“Car!” Doll pointed a chubby finger towards the driveway. “Classy, look! Car!
Dirt clouds welcomed a station wagon that tore its way up to the house. I knew exactly who it was. I grabbed up Doll by her armpits and slung her onto my petite hip. I turned towards the house and tried to get inside before the driver got out, but I wasn’t quick enough.
“Hey there, Class,” a not-so-welcomed voice greeted from behind me.
My feet stopped in their tracks, and I turned to meet Barkley Hollis with a scoff.
“I don’t know when Mama’s gonna be back, Barkley. So, you might as well go home,” I said. His black hair looked wet, as always, and reminded me of one of them damn snakes that liked to get into our strawberry bushes. Seemed fitting. Barkley had been awfully snake-like ever since Finny passed. Even a little before.
“Good. I wasn’t hopin’ to talk to her, anyway,” he said. The screen door flicked open behind me, scaring Doll into a whimper. Daddy made his way onto the porch carrying a bag of sunflower seeds and not a whole lot of patience. His jaw clicked with every chomp and spit that littered the ground. “Harvey! How the hell are you?” Barkley asked as he put on his best ass-kissing smile and acted as if he expected Daddy to offer him up some of his seeds.
“Barkley,” Daddy grunted. “I don’t know what you could possibly want. I believe our last conversation ended with me bein’ very clear.”
Barkley nodded but never once lost that stupid grin. “Yes, sir. But, you see, I’m not sure that I was clear enough.”
The sparkly new dress-shoes on Barkley’s feet smacked down onto the steps of the porch and brought him only a few inches away from Daddy’s reach. Just a couple of days after Finny passed, Barkley had decided to clean out their house before Mama, or Daddy, or I had a chance to go get her things. He sold all her clothes, quilts, shoes, and even her diamond ring. She never wore it, anyway, but that was beside the point. Barkley took anything and everything that was left of my sister and sold it to the nearest pawn shop. I didn’t expect him to get much. That ring was the fanciest thing Finny had ever owned, but somehow, he got enough money to move to the next town over and buy himself some snooty new clothes. He was what Mama called “city rich,” now.
Doll laid her head on my shoulder. If she had any inkling of the fact that Barkley once used to tuck her into bed and kiss her forehead at night, she wasn’t showing it.
“I want my kids,” Barkley said.
Daddy took another handful of seeds into his mouth and chomp, chomp, chomp, spit onto the ground. He had never been one for talking. He usually just grunted, smiled, wheezed, or yelled. Mama did most of the negotiating and chit chat.
“You might wanna talk to Ritta about that,” Daddy said. I could see Barkley’s smile melting away as if Daddy’s noncompliance was hotter than the air. He straightened his tie with an apprehensive hand.
Chomp, chomp, chomp, spit.
“That woman don’t listen to anyone. She keeps sayin’ that I can’t take the kids away from Finny.” Barkley ran his fingers through his wet hair. The beads of sweat in his bushy eyebrows ran down his face like tears. My teeth gritted a little at the sound of him criticizing Mama, but I knew that if I spoke up Daddy would shush me, anyway.
“Kids need their mamas,” Daddy replied.
Chomp, chomp, chomp, spit.
I would’ve loved to have gone back inside, but Daddy blocked the door, and I was afraid that moving might make coiled-up Barkley attack.
“Their Mama’s dead. I know that, and you know that,” Barkley replied. The thought of Finny made me cling to Doll a bit more. She huffed at how tightly I held her and tried to push my chest away with her tiny little arms.
Chomp, chomp, chomp, spit.
Daddy’s saliva-covered shell splatted onto the laces of Barkley’s sparkly shoes. “Woops,” Daddy said through the side of his mouth.
“Damn it, Harvey! Those kids belong with me! I’m their Daddy. I’m the only person they’ve got left,” Barkley yelled and stepped closer to Daddy so that their noses almost touched.
Chomp, chomp, chomp, spit right into Barkley’s salty eyebrows.
“Son of a bitch!” Barkley hollered. Turning to wipe his face, Barkley barely missed the end of Mama’s shotgun. He raised his eyes, slowly, to meet the face of a battered woman.
“Ritta,” Barkley tried to plead, but Mama pushed the barrel closer to his mouth. “I thought you weren’t here.”
Obviously, Mama wasn’t interested in discussing her whereabouts with our guest. “Get the hell off my porch, Barkley. I don’t mind diggin’ another grave,” she said. Mama’s eyes never left his sight. Her focus made my stomach churn, and, for a second, I could see the tip of her finger turn white on the trigger. I flinched even though I knew Mama didn’t have the heart to hurt a fly.
“Those kids,” Barkley whispered, “are mine. Just because Finny’d never wear the damn ring I got her doesn’t mean I don’t have claim to my own family.”
“They ain’t your goddamn family!” I had never seen Mama so angry. There was a pool of spit collecting in the side of her mouth, and her eyes were stinging with tears. “Last I checked,” Mama said, “the birth certificates have ‘Shmooter’ written across them. Not ‘Hollis’.” Mama’s chin started to quiver, and her hands were too shaky now to hold the gun steady. Barkley could tell that she was vulnerable. He grabbed the barrel in his right hand and reached for Mama’s arm with the left. I tried to cover Dolls’ eyes from the scene, but she was already wriggling to get away. I silently pleaded for her not to remember any of this.
“You think I don’t know that? I begged her to put my name on those kids,” Barkley spat back. “But the girl was just like her mama: stubborn and stupid.”
I was too busy wrestling with Doll to notice Daddy’s hand clamping down on the back of Barkley’s blue, striped button-up. Barkley was only about five-foot-nine, and Daddy stood at a strong six-foot-two, so it didn’t take much effort to pull Barkley’s fancy shoes right off the wood of the porch.
With a heave and a shove, Daddy sent the seething snake tumbling down the steps and into the dirt he came from. Barkley fumbled around trying to stand and looked like one of them scattered squirrels in the yard.
“My daughter didn’t wear your ring because you were never around to give a damn,” Daddy said. He reloaded his mouth with seeds, causing Barkley to take a step back for fear of being spit at again. “Maybe if you weren’t chasin’ every piece of ass that skipped by your house, you would’ve been home to see your kids.”
Chomp, chomp, chomp, spit.
“I was home every goddamn night to kiss my baby,” Barkley argued. “And I would’ve kissed my other baby if you hadn’t taken them.”
“So, where the hell were you in the daylight?” Mama asked. I could see her arms shaking, but the grip of her boney fingers around the gun made her knuckles burn white. “You don’t have a job. You don’t have family outside the state of North Carolina. If you cared so much about those kids, then where were you?”
Daddy noticed Mama’s wavering grip. He salted away the bag of sunflower seeds under his arm and took the gun by the barrel from her hands. She didn’t seem to protest. I wondered if Daddy took the gun to keep Mama from doing something stupid or if he had stupid plans of his own. I had only seen Daddy shoot a deer before. But Mama said that long before I was born, Daddy used to be in the war. He had fought bad guys and some good guys for a whole year before he got to come home. Mama claimed that Daddy used to talk a lot more before he left, but she didn’t mind the silence. She always knew exactly was Daddy was thinking. Well, almost always.
The screen door shook open as Reece strolled outside to the commotion. Her lips were still stained red from the popsicles we had earlier, and both of her ponytails were crooked.
“Mama,” Reece said not noticing anything out of the usual. “Can I have a popper?” That’s what she called popsicles. Mama nodded, but I knew she wasn’t listening.
“You just had one, Reece,” I whispered.
“So? Mama said yes!” She left before I could argue anymore. The slamming of the door made Doll fuss at the idea of going inside and out of the heat, but again I just couldn’t bring myself to leave. God only knew what Mama or Daddy would do if I left, and with Finny gone, I knew it was up to me to look after them. It might sound funny for a thirteen-year-old to need to look after her parents, but someone had to be the voice of reason in the house.
Doll’s fussing slowly turned into a low moan as Mama and Barkley started up again.
“How is it any of your business where I was?”
“Because I know you were out whorin’ around when you could’ve been watchin’ my grandchildren and givin’ my daughter a break.”
Chomp, chomp, chomp, spit.
“What’d that girl need a break for? She only had one kid to watch.”
“She worked a full-time job at the diner and kept up that shit-hole you put her in!”
Chomp, chomp, chomp, spit.
The moans from Doll grew into a gentle sob and then a not-so-gentle holler. I shushed and shushed, but she wouldn’t stop. I wanted to join her in screaming, but it wasn’t like more noise was going to solve anything. I patted her bottom with my hand and told myself that everything would be over soon.
Finally, Barkley took a step towards the porch with outstretched arms. “Aw, baby. Don’t cry, Darlin’.” He tried to make his way towards Doll and me, but Mama cut him off.
“Don’t you touch a soul on this porch,” she said, placing her arms out like a bird about to take off with the wind.
“Woman, get the hell out of my way.”
“Leave.” Mama shoved at Barkley’s shoulders, but he was bigger than her, so her shove didn’t do much more than just make him mad. Barkley’s reflexes were faster than Mama could think. He lifted a hand to fight back.
Chomp, chomp, chomp, Boom.
I wrapped myself around Doll’s head and huddled down by the porch swing. At first, I couldn’t hear anything but a hum of silence. Then, Doll’s whine began to pierce through the muggy air a little at a time until her cry became clear. She screamed as if she heard the same ringing that I felt in my eardrums. Doll put her porcelain face to my chest and wet my collarbone with her tears.
“Please don’t be dead. Please don’t be dead. Please don’t be dead,” I whispered to myself. I decided to peek above my arms and noticed that Barkley was gone. Or so I thought.
“Ritta,” Daddy said. His face was cold and staler than the gunpowder still floating above the porch steps. “Go get me the shovel from the back yard. Then, go call the sheriff and ask him how long until he gets off work.”
My mama stood with her back to me, but I could tell she was crying from the way her shoulders heaved. She didn’t move at Daddy’s first request. He had to walk to her side and slowly nudge her through the door with his palm. “Go on,” he said. “And don’t let some no-named deputy show up in my yard.”
It was as if I didn’t even exist at that moment. All that existed was the powder, and the heat, and Barkley, and the wet marks on my face. Apparently, I’d started crying. I couldn’t bring my crumpled body to unfold. Doll fought me to let her go as she continued to scream, but I didn’t release until Reece came running out to the porch.
“What was that?” She peered off the edge of the stairs, putting her hand over her mouth at the sight of what I had not yet witnessed myself. “What is that?”
“Reece, take Doll and go back inside.” I let the toddler escape from my grip as I barked orders. “You can each have another popper but just stay in your room!”
“But what was that noise?”
“Reece!” I placed my palm onto the wood and my other hand on my knee to lift myself. “Go back inside, check on Johnny, and wait for me to come get you.”
Reece nodded and took Doll by the hand to retreat, but I could tell she wasn’t happy to have me bossing her around. Reece was nine, and I was only four years older than her, so she hated it when I “acted like Mama” and told her what to do. Too bad I didn’t care at that point.
My feet shuffled closer to the edge of the porch. The sun blinded my eyes, so I lifted a quivering palm to block the rays. I could now see Barkley’s body clearer than ever. Daddy had obviously shot him in the head. If you could even call that a head, anymore.
At first, all I noticed was the blood. Then, I started to see the chunks. They weren’t pink chunks of brain or fleshy-colored pieces of his ears like you would think. They were just red, clotted, shiny clumps that spotted the dirt. I can feel the sting of stomach acid rising up in my throat as the scent of burning flesh hit my nose, but I did my best not to add to the mess. Daddy took off his shirt and started to gather up the pieces into it. He was knelt down too close to the body to notice the parts that had been flung onto the hood of Barkley’s car.
With a shaky voice, I pointed and said, “Daddy.” He looked up as if it startled him that I was even there. His eyes then followed my finger’s direction and noticed the other chunks. One of his hairy arms reached up in a swooping motion and brushed the pieces off the hood and into his flesh-filled shirt.
Mama emerged from the house with the shovel and said, “The sheriff is on another call across town. He won’t be off work for a while.” She made her way down the steps and placed the handle in Daddy’s palm. He traded her for the shirt holding Barkley’s smaller pieces.
“Put that on the wood pile out back and light it,” he said.
“You want the neighbors thinkin’ we’ve burned the house down? That smell’s gonna travel, Harvey,” Mama said. Her voice was emotionless. It seemed as if any reaction Mama had from earlier had turned into numbness.
“Damn it, Ritta! Just do it,” Daddy said. “It’s none of the neighbors’ god damn business what we do over here, anyway.”
Mama headed back into the house with her orders in tow, as Daddy stood with the shovel in hand. He looked like a statue: tall, powerful, but empty inside all the same. People used to tell me that I looked like him, but in that moment, I wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or not.
When Daddy first asked for the shovel, I thought it was just to dig a grave, but I quickly learned that he had other plans for how to deal with Barkley’s body. Daddy took the blade of the shovel and placed its sharp edge onto Barkley’s shoulder, right above the armpit. His foot raised onto the head of the blade as if this were just another hole in the yard that needed to be filled.
Chomp, chomp, chomp, spit.
Daddy heaved down on the blade with all his force, but it only went halfway through Barkley’s left arm. He heaved a second time, and I could hear the bone snap under his weight. The sound crawled up my own arm and made me grab my shoulder to assure it was still there. He heaved a third time and cut Barkley’s arm clean off. Well, almost clean. Daddy noticed a little piece that the blade didn’t quite cut through and heaved again to detach it.
It took a while for Daddy to take apart all of Barkley. Mama still hadn’t come back from burning the shirt, so I was left to help transport the parts to the backyard. There was a sheet that hung out on the front porch for when the air conditioning would break, and Reece would decide that we should have a picnic outside to cool off. Daddy snatched the sheet off the ratty banister and started collecting the parts of Barkley onto it.
“Get down here and help,” he said.
I looked down at my favorite dress that was covered in a blue flower print and thought to myself how hard it would be to get out any blood stains. With that in mind, I put the pieces onto the sheet as quickly as possible so that I didn’t have to touch them for too long. Even only using my fingertips to move the well-dressed limbs made me want to gag, but I knew that if Daddy thought for a second that I couldn’t handle it, he would send me back inside to watch the kids.
Once all the pieces were collected, Daddy and I took corners of the sheet in each of our hands and lifted Barkley off the dirt. We waddled around the house and through the fence to the backyard. We could see the smoke rising, so we knew Mama was out there. Rounding the corner, Daddy and I could see Mama gazing into the flames of the wood pile with her arms crossed under her chest as if the fire and Carolina heat weren’t keeping her warm enough. I was pretty sure that I almost saw her shivering.
“Ritta,” Daddy said, “You wanna help?” This time, Mama didn’t jump to what Daddy said. She just kept her eyes settled on the sparks. Daddy guided us over to the mound where Finny was buried. I let go of the corners when he did and watched with confusion as he started to dig at the mound. This obviously caught Mama’s attention, too, because she moved around the wood pile to get a better look.
“Harvey, what are you doing?” she asked.
“What the hell does it look like I’m doin’? The sheriff comes by and sees two dirt piles in the backyard, he’s gonna get suspicious,” Daddy answered back.
My eyebrows raised as I realized what he was saying: Daddy had broken the body down to fit it into the wooden box with Finny. Mama realized it, too. She grabbed Daddy by the shoulder and tugged.
“No!” she screamed. “You ain’t makin’ my baby rest with that bastard!” Daddy shoved her off and stopped his work. I could tell he’d had enough because he kept chewing on the same seed without spitting it out.
“Listen! We got one option. One! We bury the boy in this box with what used to be our baby girl, we cover both of them back up, and when the sheriff gets here, we say that Barkley stopped by, threatened us, and took off.” I didn’t like the plan. Putting Finny in the ground was hard enough. Digging her back up again just sounded like unnecessary torment. Mama didn’t like the plan either and tried to argue with Daddy. I could see that he didn’t want to fight with her, not over this.
“Please?” He asked Mama, trying not to sound too desperate, but his eyes said something that I had only seen them say once before.
The day after Finny died, Mama wouldn’t do anything. She just sat on the floor of the kitchen crying. Daddy said he had decided to sleep in that morning, but I knew that he could never sleep past seven o’clock. He had probably been up for hours just staring at the ceiling. That’s what I had been doing. That’s what Reece had been doing in the bed next to mine. When I heard Mama get up, I jumped out of bed and told Reece to stay put. I decided to help Mama fix breakfast, but she said she wasn’t hungry. She told me to bring Johnny to her, and then she slid down the front of the cabinets, onto her bottom, and rocked the baby with her expressions tucked away in her back pocket. Daddy finally woke up a few hours later. When he walked into the kitchen, he seemed confused. Then he locked onto Mama with her lifeless face and desperate hold on her swaddled grandchild. His eyes said the same thing as now: “I’m sorry.”
Mama didn’t answer. She just crossed her arms again and walked towards the back door. Daddy started digging. It took a solid hour and some change to get through all the clay even though it’d just been dug up a month ago, but he got there. Once we reached the box, Daddy and me climbed down into the hole and pulled open the lid. The smell of Finny’s body breaking down flooded the hole and made my eyes start to burn. I couldn’t hold my stomach any longer and started gagging over the body that looked like it was starting to turn black around the edges. I was sure that Daddy would start yelling, but instead, I felt his hand rub my back as I dry heaved again and again. Nothing came out but some spit and some tears. Once I was done, Daddy handed me a cloth from his back pocket and told me to tie it over my nose.
“And breathe through your mouth. It’s only gonna get worse once we add him to the mix.” Daddy pointed to the sheet that was barely hanging over the rim of the grave. He gripped the corner in his hand and started to slowly lower down the pieces of Barkley one by one.
Piece by piece, bone by bone, chomp by chomp by chomp, Daddy and I decorated Finny with the scraps of her children’s father. As I was laying one of his legs by her head, I thought about taking his shoes. They had to be worth something, and I didn’t think Finny would appreciate having his fancy leather stuck up next to her face. Then again, I was sure that Finny wouldn’t have appreciated any of this.
Once the pieces were all laid in place, we closed the box and pulled ourselves out of the hole. Daddy started packing the dirt back down onto the box and started chewing and spitting again. It took him a minute to realize that I was still standing there watching him cover up what we had just done.
“Go on back inside, Classy.” He gestured towards the back door. “You’ve got dirt on your good Sunday dress. Tell Mama to put it in the wash with some bakin’ soda.” He never lifted his eyes to me, but I didn’t expect him to. I think Daddy was afraid to look at his now-oldest child and have to explain how all of this came about. I didn’t need an explanation, though. I knew that Daddy always did what he had to do, and he did it with as little words as possible. That was another reason people used to say I was like him. Neither one of us liked to talk unless we felt we had something worth saying. In that moment, I knew, and he knew that nothing could ever be worth saying about this.
I trudged through the back door when I heard the Sheriff’s car pull up. Mama swatted at me with her kitchen towel as she peered out the front window and whispered, “Go get your daddy. Go!”
My feet flew back out to the yard where Daddy was still moving dirt into the hole.
“Daddy,” I said. “Sheriff Gowdy’s here.” His eyes finally perked up in my direction and realized that of all days for the Sheriff to be somewhere by a decent time, he picked today. Daddy dropped the shovel by the mound and hustled back into the house in front of me.
“Well, folks. What seems to be the problem?” asked Gowdy. Mama didn’t answer. She just walked into the kitchen and started washing the potatoes for dinner and humming her hymns to herself. Daddy put on a grin and shook the sheriff’s hand hard. He had grown up with Gowdy as a boy, and they’d always had a friendly way of talking to each other.
“Oh, you know how it is,” Daddy said, still shaking his hand. “Another day, another problem.” They both laughed at a joke that I obviously did not understand. The sheriff peered down at Daddy’s hands and clothes before finally furrowing his brow at how he looked.
“Y’all been playin’ in the dirt or somethin’?” The sheriff turned to me and made a face that said, “Young ladies really shouldn’t be playin’ in the dirt while in their church clothes.” I tried to hide my frustration with his reaction, but Mama spoke up for me.
“They’ve been plantin’ my petunias,” she hollered as she emerged from the kitchen. “They were Finny’s favorite, and um.” I could tell that saying Finny’s name was making her choke up a little. “I thought they’d look nice growin’ out by her grave.” Mama covered her mouth with her hand, trying to keep herself from crying. The sheriff looked as if he was sorry for even asking.
“Well, I bet they look lovely.” Gowdy smiled at Mama and turned back to Daddy as she left the room.
“Barkley stopped by,” Daddy finally said. “That boy sure is relentless.” Gowdy snickered and took a seat with Daddy on our worn out, brown, checker covered couch.
“He still here?” The sheriff asked in confusion. Daddy furrowed his brow.
“Well, no. You think I’d be sitting on my ass if he was?” Daddy laughed and tried to play it off as less than nervous, but Gowdy narrowed his eyes and turned back to look through the front door.
“Ain’t that his station wagon sitting in your drive?”
I heard Mama drop a potato from in the kitchen and sigh as she reached down real slow to pick it up. Daddy’s eyes flickered back and forth like the flames from the wood pile as he searched for a good excuse.
“Well, no. That’s Ritta’s car.” Daddy said. “I’d been savin’ up to buy her that thing so she wouldn’t have to walk so damn far to get to town.” The silence in our house was thicker than the blood still caked under my fingernails.
“Really?” Gowdy asked as he rubbed the back of his neck. Mama handed him an opened beer from the fridge. He took a swig before continuing. “Well, it’s got that same crack on the back of it from when Barkley’s drunk ass hit the neighbor’s mailbox.”
“Yeah,” Daddy said. “I didn’t say I was rich. Couldn’t afford anything much nicer.” Gowdy stared at Daddy for a minute as if talking to him with his eyes. He didn’t say anything to disagree with Daddy, but everyone in the room knew that Mama had never learned to drive.
“Mama,” Reece yelled from the other room, breaking the tension. “Can we come out now?” Mama ran out of the kitchen, past the sheriff, and slammed the bedroom door shut behind her. I tried to think of an excuse to follow her, but somehow I’d been initiated into the men’s club.
“Well, Classy,” Sheriff Gowdy finally said to me. “How’s your summer been so far?” He acted as if nothing was wrong, as if nothing had happened, as if Daddy had only called him over here to chit chat. I looked back at Daddy and tried to ask him with my eyes if there was anything worth saying.