During the day, while Father worked, we were watched by a train of women. It hadn’t been easy for Father to find a girl. He’d taken to hiring daughters.
The first was the dentist’s daughter. Beaver was a plain honest girl who was looking to spread her Christian favor. She wore monogrammed sweaters which hugged the curves of her breasts. Afternoons she watched Daytime Television and read aloud to us from the marriage section of the paper. There was a glass of milk to be had at every meal and canned vegetables which she’d stripped to a slime by boiling them on the stove while she talked on the phone with her mother. Health clung to Beaver, a principle which confused me. She lacked everything of Mother’s flirt and grace. The only people I’d ever respected were those with a fondness for disaster. What I distrusted most about Beaver was her cheer.
The dentist lived in the house atop the hill next to the Steelhead brothers. Beaver took personal affront that her allegiance hadn’t rubbed off on those boys. She held her head high as she drove her VW Beatle out our drive and up the mountain each night. A disciple of the liberal brands of church where people prayed in stark wooden benches in the winter. Anyone could join and thus wondered why everyone didn’t. I heard she later went on to one of those women’s schools where everyone cut short their hair and became a midwife or an esthetician. I wouldn’t be surprised if Father’s dental bills put her through her first semester. Father kept a mouth full of eye sores. Always having some canal rooted or capped. Before he buckled under Mother’s pressure and paid for a bridge, he had a gap in his smile, a faint patch of blackness to the right of his front teeth where one of his soft spots had gone missing. He said it gave him a place to rest his tongue. “What needs resting,” Mother said.
Beaver dealt her own downfall. One night, she served my sister Birdie a glass of milk which she’d left sitting out in the counter before dinner. The glass was cloudy and sweating. Birdie eyed it throughout the meal. I could tell by the slowness with which she ate that she had decided on refusing it.
After a long period of silence, Beaver finally said, “Drink half of it and we’ll clear and have a story.” It was unclear whether or not this wager registered. Birdie continued to stare into the depth of her plate as though she could will herself to disappear behind it. I counted the imperfections in the wood of the table.
It is impossible to say how long we went on like that, the three of us sitting at opposite ends of the old table, so large it barely left room in the kitchen for us to pull out our chairs. It was now evening. The sky outside had taken on that plush velveteen quality which only the woods allow when the last speck of dusk has disappeared and the day has finally extinguished itself into the earth.
“I need to pee,” Birdie finally said.
“You’re excused as long as you return to the table when you’ve finished,” Beaver said.
As Birdie pushed back her chair, she reached for the glass. A few minutes later, she returned from the bathroom and placed the empty on the table. There was no evidence.
“There now,” Beaver said and she began to clear.
The last we saw of Beaver, I entered the kitchen to find her rummaging around in the craft closet. Bins of paper, blunted scissors of various shapes and sizes. Glue that had been left open and lost its stick. In the back of the closet mother stored rows of canning jars from which she made terrariums in the winter. Filling the jars with layers of peat moss, small stones, and sprigs of honeysuckle which she arranged in the jars and gave to the neighbors at the holidays.
Beaver happened upon the reserve of plastic bowls and plates which Mother kept in the cupboard over the microwave under the guise of birthday and holiday. In actual practice the plates served as flatware those evenings when Mother didn’t have it in her to labor over dishes. When I came into the kitchen, Beaver was lining a row of plastic bowls along the counter.
“Peel these,” she said. She handed me a shoebox of half broken crayons.
“How many?” I said.
“Just enough,” she said, “To cover the bottom.”
This struck me as an odd job but I accepted it readily. I was at the age where experiments were a matter of interest.
For the wick she’d planned on something quick to burn and generous in flame. A spool of thick cotton thread which Father kept in the junk drawer next his buckets of charcoals and puttied erasers which I’d only ever seen him take out on those rare series of nights when he decided to draw a portrait of Mother in various states of repose.
Beaver cut a series of wicks which I arranged in a line down the counter. I imagined this was how it was done in the factory where my uncle, Sterling, had once worked. I’d listened to Sterling talk about working the line those nights he had visited. How he stood amidst the noise of routers and blowers. His head cocked toward the conveyor belt, waiting for the next bottle to make its way down the line.
“What now?” I asked as Beaver handed me the last piece of thread.
“Nuke it,” she said.
Our original trial was a triumph. The crayons congealed at the bottom of the plastic bowl which retained its shape. The only imperfection, a small bump in the bottom of the bowl where the plastic had started to bubble.
Satisfied, Beaver placed the next bowl on the carousel and shut the door. Birdie padded into the room.
“Look,” Beaver said bending down to show her our creation.
Despite the fact that it was already afternoon, Birdie was wearing her pajamas. The kind with the thin strip of plastic at the bottom. You knew she’d wandered off when the soft rustle of her feet on the linoleum disappeared.
“Fire,” Sister said.
The smell followed the flame. The microwave erupted into a field of bright orange heat. Beaver had managed to demonstrate the splitting of ions itself – the raw protraction of two solvents which had suddenly parted ways. We were all paralyzed by the sheer energy of the reaction. It was otherworldly. This exuberant force unleashed amidst the small confines of our kitchen. Black tufts of smoke rose toward the ceiling, a series of darkening circles amidst the bald white.
I took Birdie’s hand. Together we headed for the sliding glass door which led outside. The door had been installed in the rear wall of the kitchen. It was part of the second wave of Mother’s ‘blowout.’ A long two story deck was to be attached to the back of the house onto which the new windows in the living room would overlook. The deck had not yet been built when she left us. All further construction halted in anticipation of her return.
There was a lock at the base of the runner where the door slid which acted as a stopper. With some force we managed to override the lock. The glass opened revealing a sheer drop to the ground below. The land behind the house fell off sharply as the property lost considerable altitude where it abutted the marshlands in the distance and the stream emptied out. I looked over my shoulder and surveyed the kitchen. Beaver was shielding her eyes while hurling water at the fire. The water only served to excite the electricity and heighten the flames. The heat surged the moment the water hit.
The drop was not overly ambitious. Enough of a distance that I worried about how we would land. Birdie and I lowered ourselves onto our bottoms and dangled our legs over the edge to reduce the fall. As I slid out the door I closed my eyes and imagined I was parachuting from a plane.
I’d overheard a conversation my parents had with Sterling one night when he’d stopped over for dinner about Argentina and the dirty wars. I’d taken an interest in the story as I took an interest in most of what Uncle said. The animation with which he talked brought to light topics which my parents would have otherwise kept from us. I sometimes wondered if half of what Uncle relayed wasn’t told for that purpose. That evening, he’d kept on about death flights. Recounted to Father an article he’d read that day in the paper in which an airline pilot had been arrested. A lieutenant in the navy who’d drugged and dumped live men – political prisoners, he’d called then – out of planes into the Atlantic. The lieutenant was German which figured into the equation. As Uncle spoke, I’d pictured a large blond haired man rolling stacks of men out the door of a jet. Brigades of bodies sinking to the bottom of the ocean in waves of camouflaged rigor mortis.
“Argentina,” Sterling said. “Is full of ex-Nazis.”
“Says who?” Father said.
“A girl I dated once had a grandfather who sought asylum there after the war,” Sterling said. “We worked in a swimsuit shop together. She told me that her Grandfather had changed his name and that he was German. She wasn’t a smart girl. She probably only half realized what that meant.”
“I don’t know how much history I take from the kind of girls who work in swim shops,” Father said.
“Your husband,” Sterling said turning to Mother. “Thinks I don’t understand what it was to be French during that war.”
“Neither does he,” Mother said. “It’s not as though either of you’d already been born.” They all laughed.
It turns out Father had a childhood friend, Chuck, who grew up with him at the tracks in Saratoga. Chuck’s father was a jockey who was born in Belgium. He used to tell my father stories about his Grandmother who fell in love with a German soldier. The soldier promised to come back for her after the war. After the Germans were defeated, all the women in the town who had taken up with German soldiers had been rounded up. Their heads were shaved. Swastikas painted on their faces. As I listened to Father recount the story that evening, I had no image for what a swastika was. I imagined it as a bright bulb of flame carved in red, or some equally disfiguring evil. I could tell from the hushed tone which Father took that it was something not to be spoken of in full voice.
“They were slaves then too,” Sterling said.
“Who?” Father said.
“Their whole country.”
“You know what they say,” Mother said. “About those who go quietly.”
“Right,” Sterling said. “Well, those were dark times.”
As Birdie and I plummeted to the ground, I remember thinking that we too had become prisoners of something, something in that house which none of us could describe. It was summer. A great change was underfoot.
Annie DeWitt is a novelist, short story writer and essayist. Her writing has appeared in Granta, Esquire, Tin House, Guernica, The Believer, BOMB, The Iowa Review, Electric Literature, The American Reader, Poets and Writers, amongst others, and been anthologized and translated into several languages. Her debut story collection CLOSEST WITHOUT GOING OVER was shortlisted for the Mary McCarthy Award. Her debut novel WHITE NIGHTS IN SPLIT TOWN CITY made the NYTimes "Short List" and was heralded by BookForum, amongst others, as "masterful" and "full of syntactic daring." She is a Co-Founder of the lit mag Gigantic and a recipient of a MacDowell Fellowship. Annie teaches at Columbia University (where she received her MFA), Bennington, Bard, Barnard, and The New School.