By Krystal Sanders
Of the way you spend Saturday morning in your room, instead of helping Papaw with the lawn work. You watch him on the riding mower, in customary slacks and suspenders, coasting back and forth beneath your window as if the ragged scream of the machine will summon you like a siren to your manly duty. You raise the binoculars Papaw used when he was stationed in West Africa during WWII, long before his shoulders bowed and his skin darkened with liver spots. They are clunky, large in your hands even though you’ve had a growth spurt and you’re well on your way to catching up to Peter, who’s a whole six feet and had college basketball scouts watching him at every game last season. It was Peter’s senior year of high school, your freshman year. The fall had been glorious, riding the cloud of popularity as Peter Thompson’s younger brother. The other kids, the teachers and coaches, cafeteria ladies, librarians, all looking at you with an expectation that was not yet a burden. You joined the Fellowship of Christian Students, which Peter was president of, and took the Advanced Placement classes he’d taken. You had more friends than you’d ever had before. Through the lens, Papaw’s face jumps up at you. You’re intimately aware of every wrinkle, every nose hair. He guides the mower in long, straight lines, first in front of your window at the corner of the house, on the second floor, and then away toward the county road. The motor’s howl falls to a low growl, builds back up as he returns exactly two feet to the left, is eventually reduced to a low grumble at the back of the house.
Your mother wouldn’t approve of the way you watch the world, binoculars pressed to your face, aimed into the neighborhood across the county road. The man who owns the nearest corner lot, 5371, has some kind of shepherd. The dog roams along its chainlink fence, pants in the heat, takes a shit. You catch a glimpse of motion deeper in the neighborhood and sit up straight. You focus on the door that caught your eye, at 5377 striding out of the back of her house in shorts and a man’s plaid shirt. She is headed to the metal trash barrel at the back of the lot. You know she will stand there for a long time, and then go back inside. You imagine burying your fingers in the tangle of her long hair. She is barefoot, and the thought of the stiff crunchiness of the yellow grass against the tender arches of her feet almost makes you moan.
Of the way you jerk forward, startled, when Mamaw shrills your name up the stairs. The binoculars strike the window pane, and you lower them to touch your eye socket. You groan, very softly, though it wouldn’t matter if you screamed. It wouldn’t matter if you let loose the anger that has been simmering within you. Peter is gone. He left, without a word to you. Until your stomach feels hot, and you’re shaking, and you’re possessed with this incredible urge to punch the door, the wall, the desk. Papaw has a hearing aid he mostly leaves on mute, and Mamaw doesn’t even wear hers. No one would know. You are alone, stuck in The-Middle-of-Nowhere, Texas, for the whole summer. Until the weekend before school starts, when the mother who dumped you here with a promise that she will be praying for you finally returns. The friends who did not abandon you after Peter’s coming out—as if it were contagious—have simply forgotten you. One TV in the entire house. No internet. Not even a McDonald’s you can walk to for WiFi. There is a landline in Mamaw and Papaw’s bedroom, and another on the kitchen wall. You think about dialing Peter’s number sometimes, but haven’t. You glance at the biblical character calendar on the wall, a white, bearded Moses kneeling on the dry bed of the Red Sea, the dark water curled around him like wings. He glares down at the month of July and the countdown on each blank day. Today is number 47. Mamaw caws again, “Joseph!”
Of the way you stop to look into every photograph perfectly perched on the wall, slanting parallel with the stairs. You let your feet hit each step hard, only your head turned to study the faces in family portraits, the fixed smiles and stiff posturing. The marbled background of a Walmart studio here, the beagle in a bowtie fooled into looking at the camera there. Wide-eyed babies and home- made cherry pie. You have to hunt for Peter, since most traces of him have been scrubbed away; even the clay ashtray he made in the third grade that Mamaw kept potpourri in has disappeared. But you know where to find him, the eighth step down, nearly at the bottom of the stairs. An extended family portrait at a park, trees all around, the big reunion four years ago. You ignore the image of yourself—a little fat, confused by all the strangers who lay claim to you— to look past an aunt and cousin, to Peter, lost amid all those people, not even a whole head, just his face and a bit of brown hair. He’s grinning and making bunny ears over a cousin’s head with his fingers. You suspect he was keeping secrets from you even then.
Of the way you drag your feet across the kitchen floor, locate Mamaw in the giant pantry. It’s a whole room, shelves packed with food, cans double-stacked and three deep, organized first by type and then by date. Colorful boxes of cereal, mason jars of pickles, okra, strawberry preserves. Rubbermaid containers tucked beneath the bottom shelf full of bottled water, flour, sugar. Yesterday Mamaw had all the women from her church over for a day of pie baking. You spied as they gathered in the kitchen with their bags of flour and cartons of eggs, respectful as hymns in their homemade-looking aprons while Mamaw lectured on the importance of using quick, light movements to get the meringue to just the right fluffy consistency. The doorbell rang, and Mamaw screeched, “Joseph, dear, the door!” You inhaled sharply to discover her on the doorstep, the neighbor-lady in shorts and a man’s button-up, her hair coaxed into a messy braid, unsmiling. Her long brown legs looked warm. Her eyes met yours; you’d been unaware of their golden hazel. You felt your cheeks grow hot. For a half second you knew she knew that you’d been watching her, that she had come for you. Then Mamaw’s friend Mildred cried cheerfully, “Better late than never, Natalie!” You slid out of the way but saw that Natalie stiffly allowed herself to be hugged, listened as she was introduced as Mildred’s daughter-in-law. They made chocolate and coconut and buttermilk, and the heat of the oven turned some of them pink. You were the only one who noticed Natalie leave before the pies had cooled. The pies will be sold after the church service tomorrow, all proceeds going to send Jesus to Asia. You remember reading about how three-quarters of all the people starving to death are in Asia, and imagine a family gasping at the fortune in this pantry, how they could happily reside here, how they would kneel on the yellow linoleum and praise Jesus if that’s what Mamaw wanted, as long as they got to eat that night. Mamaw stands hands on hips, head tilted back to glare at a can of creamed corn on the highest shelf, as though if she stares long enough it will leap down and into her hand.
Of the way you sidestep Mamaw, grab the can effortlessly, thrust it into her hands without a word. You do not seek Peter’s picture on your way back up the stairs.
Of the way you are, since it happened. A week ago, in the car on the way to Papaw and Mamaw’s, she said she hardly recognized you. Didn’t you understand how hard this has been on her? She lost a son. She needs some spiritual maintenance. Evidently the kind purchased at a campy-sounding Christian adult retreat, where she could lose herself in her Bible, admit her failure to a flock that would assure her that she did right, that God wanted her to cast away her son. You said nothing.
Of the way that, even trapped in your grandparents’ house, your mind easily performs the mental gymnastics that make an especially shapely angel figurine on the downstairs hallway table provocative. After the pie baking, you were suddenly, embarrassingly excited by the sight of a sticky pink lipstick crescent on the rim of a glass. You ran your thumb hard over the stain, smearing it. Mamaw remarked with wonder at dinner one night that her stock of tissues has been going down. Peter nudges into your thoughts but you shove him away, disgusted. And then confused by your own disgust.
Of the way you throw yourself onto the bed, stare up at the ceiling restlessly. Your stomach hurts. You want to touch yourself, instead lie on your hands until your fingers go numb.
Of the way you wriggle Peter’s copy of The Catcher in the Rye out from between the mattresses, touch the pages with gentle reverence. What filth, she’d say. Even the third time around you enjoy the way Holden shares himself with you, while the rest of the world simply doesn’t understand. You imagine Peter wandering New York City the same way Holden does. The thought that Peter could be anywhere fills you with emptiness. You wonder if there is something in the air and the longer you are exposed to it the more you will become like them, like Papaw and Mamaw and Mother, and you will forget your brother. Your only brother, who in your earliest memory is pushing you in a swing. Your world tilts fast and your belly flips, makes you laugh hysterically, which makes him laugh. Who when you were so scared of being baptized—surely being born again would be painful—pulled you aside and murmured that it was okay not to go through with it. Who made lists of all the books he thought you should read, 1984 and To Kill A Mockingbird and Fahrenheit 451. Who knew you so well. How could you have failed to know him? You wonder if he has reached out to you, fear how he will interpret your Texas-enforced silence. Wonder if, perhaps, it would be best to forget him.
Of the way you leap up now, stuff The Catcher in the Rye into your back pocket, hook your tennis shoes with your fingers, pull the binocular strap over your head, slink down the stairs. The mower has stopped, you know that Papaw is in his shop bagging the grass clippings, cleaning the mower with a microfiber cloth. It will be best to go out the front. Mamaw is dusting in the living room, some televangelist on the TV, volume blasting. The man is speaking in a fury, working himself up, red-faced and sweaty under the camera light. Mamaw dusts her collection of baby Jesuses, captivated by the pastor. You creep behind her, steal across the room. The front door closing behind you instantly muffles the cries of Hallelujah! Glory be! Jesus, Jesus!
Of the way you hustle down the gravel driveway toward the paved county road, before Papaw wanders around the side of the house to admire his work. You walk alongside the road, around a big curve, exhaling as the house is hid- den behind a field of corn. The house felt so small, smothering. Now you inhale, nothing but green and yellow fields and blue sky and black asphalt. You want to go home. Your real home. Where your friends drop by on their bikes, and Carl’s mom will give you a lift to the dollar movie as long as you swear you won’t tell your mother “because by God you’re fifteen, it’s about time that woman let you have some freedom.”
Of the way you think about your brother, jogging and doing layups every morning, inviting you and your friends to play basketball, talking about books, sneaking into movies together, giddily guilty. He invited you to jog with him the morning of his graduation. You know he went slower than usual so you could run side by side. You breathed in through your nose and out through your mouth the way he taught you, and the sound of your footsteps in perfect sync made you grin, and he noticed and grinned back. When you reached the house again after three miles you slowed with relief, gasped hard for breath. He said, “I’ll go a bit longer, I think.” And the burn of your lungs somehow mixed with the sight of his back as he continued on without you. For some weeks he’d always seemed to have a foot out the door. You did not see him again until the graduation that night, clapping as he and his classmates filed into the auditorium, waving so he would be able to spot you. He walked the stage, posed for the camera, grinned, threw his hat and hugged those nearest to him. Afterward, families swarming in, the room crowded and hot and overly bright, all the faces beaming. There, grinning, Peter told you and your mother that he was gay. And you were confused, still confused even after your mother made him repeat himself, more so when she grabbed Peter by the arm and said that was impossible, and then that she would get him help, and then what did he mean he didn’t want help? She’d blanched, and then begun to yell, to call him foul, a sinner, a pervert. And you stood frozen as people turned to stare. With the sight of his back disappearing into the sea of black gowns, the same painful, breathless burn ignited in your chest.
Of the way you roam the countryside for hours in spite of the heat. Cut through corn and wheat fields, watch a soaring hawk through the binoculars, balance on the railroad tracks that run beyond the post office. You imagine being a tramp, running alongside the first train that comes by, jumping and hoisting yourself inside an open container, making rough but gold-hearted friends who you can be someone new with. They don’t know Peter, but if they did they would wonder why Peter left you behind. There is not a single train.
Of the way you have no concern for your grandparents, not just your grandparents but your stewards. Because try as they might to show you God’s love and God’s perfect way, one day you will have to decide for yourself, and if you decide wrong then there is nothing they can do to save you from Hell. This, as you stand in the living room late that night, Papaw having waited up for you. It is totally dark except for a lamp in the shape of a white-robed angel holding up a light, only strong enough to cast shadows across Papaw’s face and body.
Of the way you throw yourself into bed and rub one out. Not too long ago, you would have paused to pray. Instead, in the drowsy somewhere between consciousness and sleep you seek her, Natalie. She is crunching barefoot across the grass, her back to you. You try to catch up, but somehow she grows farther and farther away.
Of the way you refuse to chirp along with your grandmother at breakfast, This is the day that the Lord has made, I will be glad and rejoice in it. You want a break from church but go because it’s easier than refusing. Mildred mentions that they could use one more strapping young man for their servant auction, what with every cent going toward the Asia mission trip. Mamaw puts her claw on your shoulder and says to put your name down, certainly. You refuse to sit with the kids your own age. They are shiny and undoubting and eager to pray with you, and you are both repulsed and jealous that you were just like them a few weeks ago.
Of the way you grip the hymnal so hard the page to “I’ll Fly Away” tears.
Of the way you spend the forty-five minutes of sermon wishing you were anywhere else. Wishing you were older. In the future, you are you but better. Successful, wealthy, free to do as you please. You own a self-driving car, all sleek and curves, pull up to a fancy steak restaurant with Natalie in the passenger seat in low-cut red. And there is Peter, he’s the valet come to open your door. Life has made him gray early. It is when you are handing him the keys that he recognizes you, and he pleads forgiveness for leaving, has real tears in his eyes when he says he has searched for you for a long, long time. You pretend not to know him. Pretend that he wasn’t supposed to teach you how to drive, supposed to help you with Calculus, supposed to coach you through your first date and sneak you your first drink.
Of the way you’re so startled when people start moving that you jump to your feet, too, only to realize that everyone standing is heading to the altar to pray. Mildred stands there already, her arm around another woman, whether to comfort her or to force her to stay is unclear. Your focus narrows in on her. It’s Natalie. The pastor moans with sympathy and the congregation hums back. You’re swept up with Mamaw, who looks at you with teary pride.
Of the way you refuse to stretch your hand toward Natalie along with everyone else, while the Pastor prays, “Oh, Jesus, we feel your presence, we sense your glory.” You feel nothing at all. You raise your head, study the bowed faces around you. Papaw is still, like he’s sleeping, but Mildred’s lips move silently, and others screw up their faces with concentration. “Please, Lord, comfort Natalie, who has been left behind. Reveal to her that her husband is with you, that he is basking in your glory and singing your praises with the holy angels. Assure her that though life can be hard, loving you is easy and good, Lord.” Whispers rise up around you like wisps of smoke. Natalie. You lick your lips and say it, softly, “Natalie.” She turns her head toward you. Her eyes glint with a hurt and fury that is familiar to you. The recognition bonds you. Then she closes her eyes, lets the glories and the Jesuses and the amens wash over her.
Of the way you watch Natalie in the church event center, while you wait in line at the charity luncheon. She picks at her food, nods her head at the folks who pause at her table to offer encouragement and condolence. She purchases a strawberry pie. You wonder why she doesn’t leave. You load a plate with green beans, a twice-baked potato, pasta salad drenched in Italian dressing, sausage, barbecue sauce, and a wedge of brownie, made to be eaten on behalf of the starving people in Asia. When she thinks no one is looking, Natalie puts her finger in the pie topping, licks. Seeing that, you choke on a swallow of sweet tea and Papaw thumps you, hard, on the back.
Of your distinct lack of enthusiasm as you and the rest of the servants are summoned. You’re third in line, after Mark, who has some carpentry skill and shows in the school FFA program, and then Kristen, who’s great with children and a sewing machine. The auctioneer talks fast, points dramatically at every bidder, shouts, “SOLD!” so loud you jump a little the first time. When it’s your turn Mildred says you’re a city boy who’s handy around the house. The bidding starts at twenty dollars and steadily goes up in five-dollar increments. And then Natalie says in a voice that rings, “One-hundred-and-fifty.” A whole ten dollars more than Mark.
Of the way you shrug when, after the auction, Natalie asks, “Can you help me clean and box some things up for the church sale?” She frowns. “Tomorrow, then, ten ’o’clock. Mildred has the address.” Should you shake her hand? But she doesn’t put her hand out, in fact has both of them hidden in the sleeves of her sweater, only the pink curl of her fingers visible.
Of the way you make faces at your window reflection in the car on the way home. You arch one eyebrow suggestively as Mamaw says to Papaw, “Mildred is real worried about her daughter-in-law.” You frown dramatically and squint, listening. Mamaw caws, “She told me that Natalie won’t even answer the door half the time, like she’d be anywhere else now that she’s quit her job. Says she spends all her time in bed. Mildred invited her a dozen times before she agreed to come to the pie baking yesterday. Did I tell you she just disappeared? Gone! Not a word to anybody. I told Mildred she’s right to worry. We all know David is in Heaven, but, God love her, if that girl doesn’t shape up, she won’t be joining him.” You grimace and the reflection looks nothing like you now, the mouth a slanted gash in the kind of exaggerated anguish you have seen painted on the faces of martyrs.
Of the way you lean forward and say, loudly so you’re certain they will hear, “Maybe I can get a message to Peter and he can come help her out.” The car is silent the rest of the way home.
Of the way you cut through Natalie’s lawn the next day, crushing the dry grass and the weeds. When she opens the door you lose all your words. She blinks at you with those coyote eyes. You’re afraid she’s forgotten who you are but then she gestures you in. The lights are off and candles cover every flat surface: arranged along the top of the dusty TV, in between the facedown picture frames on the bookshelves, crowding the dirty mugs and glasses on the coffee table. In every color and size and shape. You smell lavender and vanilla and pine and sage. On the end table is a candle in the shape of Noah’s Ark, a boat with a purple elephant and a lion and a giraffe, a dark-haired man with his face melted into a blob.
Of the way you stare at her butt as you follow her into the kitchen. Lotus-shaped candles line the top of the stove. Orange prescription bottles form a pyramid next to the microwave. “Let’s get this over with,” she says, and then arms you with a duster, a dry rag, an unlabeled spray bottle. You collect the glasses in the living room and plunk them into the kitchen sink. She opens the curtains, sunshine bathing her face and arms, motes of dust shining around her. She sweeps. Together, you dust and wipe every surface. She takes out the kitchen trash while you mop, and then she pads out onto the floor while it’s still wet to do the dishes. Her feet leave faint impressions even after the tile has dried and you want to kneel, to touch every one. You do an exploratory cleaning down the hallway, locate an office with a burned-out bulb, a dusty laptop on a cluttered desk. You stare.
Of the way you eat the slice of strawberry pie she offers you with your fingers. You sit across from one another at the kitchen table. Thinking of Peter, you want to ask if she has internet. You want nothing more than to use her computer. The fear that she will say no keeps you from asking. She can’t say no if you don’t ask, and you could be quick. She drinks her milk slowly, looks at you over the rim of the glass. The absurd thought crosses your mind that she might want to fuck you. That she might want you to fuck her. And then she gets up, and leads you to the back of the house, into the bedroom. Your tongue sticks to the roof of your mouth, but she heads into the closet, grips the pull cord, and turns on the light. Grabs an armful of the men’s clothing hanging on one side, throws them on the bed.
Of the way you ask, “What are you doing?” She says, “What’s it look like I’m doing? Someone from the church is coming by later to pick this stuff up. Take the hangers off those.”
Of the way you don’t move, ask as if you don’t already know, “Whose were these?” She stops, arms midair, her face hidden from you. Then she grabs another armful and adds it to the pile on the bed, says, “My husband’s. His name was David. He’s gone now and someone else can use this stuff. Take the hangers off those.” You fumble for the neck of a dress shirt, ask, “What happened?” Natalie stares you full in the face. The look in her eyes makes you want to howl. You can feel your heart in your throat, like something you’ve swallowed. You do not mean to be cruel but want to hear her answer. “He died,” she says finally, as if she, too, has swallowed her heart. The hangers you pile on the pillow nearest to you. It’s hers. You can tell from the stuff on the nightstand, a perfume bottle and some dried flowers in a vase. You think you could go pick some wild sunflowers for her. The other nightstand still has a mason jar of loose coins, a black Bible, a skein of dust over everything. You imagine her on the roughest nights, clutching his pillow, gasping for the smell of him.
Of the way you have to excuse yourself, half-run to the bathroom, and hope she didn’t notice your erection. You splash water on your face and wonder what the hell is wrong with you.
Of the way you must look away each time she throws another handful of clothes onto the bed because you want to hurl her down on top so bad you’re shaking. When the boxes are stacked on the back porch you take another break. You both eat pimento cheese sandwiches and powdered lemonade. You remember what Mamaw said in the car after church. It bothers you that people think and say such things, and you’re glad that Natalie refuses to answer the door sometimes. Wonder why she bothers at all, why she showed up for the baking or for church. She goes to the sink to wash the plates, the glasses, the butter knife. And then she opens a drawer, grabs a box of matches, and heads outside.
Of the way you stand so hastily that your chair falls back and crashes to the floor. You run outside. She’s carrying one of the boxes, bottle of lighter fluid perched on top, she’s halfway across the backyard. You grab a box and hurry after, catch up at the rusted trash can. She tears the box open, dumps its contents into the trash can, tosses the box aside, squirts a long stream of lighter fluid over everything. Lights a match but stops with the tiny flame hovering over the greedy mouth of the bin. “All of this stuff belonged to him,” she says. She points to a checked navy shirt on top of the pile. “A complete stranger will wear it, or donate it, or drip ketchup onto it, or cut it up into rags, or toss it in the trash when it’s too small or out of fashion, or . . . I can’t stand not knowing. But I can’t stare at this stuff all the damn time, either.” You wonder if she’s seeing her husband the way you’re seeing Peter. She breathes, “He’s gone, isn’t he?” You grab the shirt off the pile. It smells like fuel. You ask, “What if you give this one to me? I’ll take care of it.” She is looking at you when the match runs down to her fingers and she gasps, drops it instinctively. She must know what you’ve been thinking all day. Her eyes are something new in the sudden glare of the acrid fire, flattered and hurt and who are you to know what she is thinking or feeling so you look away. But she steps closer to you, takes the shirt from your hands, holds it up against your shoulders. “It fits,” she says, and she is gripping your shoulders now, her weight shifting toward you, her head bowed as if to bless you or cry. She says, “Mildred won’t understand why I burned it all.”
You say nothing, do not move, let her lean on you as long as she wants. The fire chokes. She whispers, “But you can’t make everyone understand.”
You help, at first, bringing the boxes to her. But she seems to prefer to wrench them open herself, to burn the items one-by-one, and she does not notice when you slip away. The navy shirt slung over your shoulder, you go through her house to the office. Two bookshelves packed with books of all sizes and colors, spines jammed tight against one another. A diploma in a glass frame. And the desk, too small for the closed laptop, printer, framed wedding photo of Natalie and her husband laughing, zoomed in on their massive grins, bright eyes, the white icing on the end of her nose, the hint of her red lipstick on the corner of his mouth. There’s a flowered Seventies-looking mug crammed with pens and highlighters, a tray feathered with loose sheets of paper. It’s all positioned in front of a window, the blinds shut, light leaking in around the edges so you see the layer of dust, the yellowed top page in the tray, an expired credit card offer. You pull the chair back and sit down, hesitate before placing both your hands on the side of the laptop and opening it. You’re afraid the battery’s dead, or there’s a password, or Natalie will burst in. But it turns on with a soft hum, there isn’t a password, and something tells you she would understand.
You click and click and click and login. At first you’re disappointed not to find something from him among the automatic Facebook notifications and junk offers. But you check the spam filter, and here is an email from Peter. A list of titles, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Count of Monte Cristo, a dozen more and at the bottom, Your brother. You lean forward, pinch open the blinds, look out and see that Natalie is finished burning the clothes, but not yet finished staring at the fire. You sit back. You hit reply and begin to type: Peter, Hope you’re alright. I will be.
Krystal Sanders writes and works in Dallas. Her work has also appeared in Black Warrior Review.