“Respect is an invention of people who want to cover up the empty place where love should be.” —Leo Tolstoy
“Your eyes,” the boy whispers. “I could fall in love looking into your eyes, Alice.”
My name is not Alice.
He’s not looking into my eyes—in fact, he’s clumsily trying to unbutton my blouse, and, of course, I don’t know his name either.
Brad. Bob. Perhaps I forgot to ask. I don’t need to be present in my body for this encounter, so there’s no reason why an exchange of names or any other whispered pleasantries should take place. I don’t want him to fall in love. He’s trying too hard to impress when there is no need.
Maybe, a nagging voice in my head chips in uninvited, you want to be wanted. No, that’s not right; you want to be loved and you settle for wanted.
That smug little voice is a source of annoyance, not insight. I want to erase the anger that rushed through me when my stepbrother made fun of me. He was surrounded by idiot friends and those empty-headed girls, and he acted as superior and judgmental as they are toward me.
Are you so sure you don’t want a little love?
If I did, this college boy who is all hands is not where I’d start looking. He doesn’t want love either; the only thing he wants is no resistance to his rough advances. And why would I start now?
The voice finally falls silent, and no longer distracted by my internal argument, I’m suddenly acutely aware of the heat radiating from this boy. The sound of his breathing fills my head, and I wish I’d stayed distracted because as reality tightens its focus, I feel a rush of self-loathing.
“Hold up.” I pull away.
Although he pouts, he doesn’t call me a rude name. In fact, there’s even a hint in his expression that he knew this was too easy. That makes me want to like him and tell him my name is Lane.
But that would be foolish, so instead I take a sip of straight vodka from his hipflask. He nods for me to take another, so I do. I shrug my blouse off, and to his credit he hesitates but not for long. With the vodka burning in my throat, it distances me from his fumbling and meaningless words until the edges of the world blur just as I need it to be.
The door flies open, and the light snaps on, bright, unforgiving, providing outline to the edges. The sound of the slamming door is the only warning before Stevie hauls me up and shoves me across the room.
“What the hell, man?” starts Brad.
Stevie answers his question by picking up Brad and slamming him into the opposite wall, where he holds him there by the throat.
“Nothing happened,” I say helplessly as the boy kicks out at Stevie ineffectively.
“Get your clothes on,” snarls Stevie as Brad claws at his hands. Stevie finally lets him go, and he drops to the floor, sobbing. In response Stevie kicks him in the ribs. Brad curls up, whimpering, begging Stevie to leave him be. Stevie rubs his hands as I back away.
“We need to go.” Stevie grips my arm tightly and shoves me into the next room where the party is still going. They’re playing the Rolling Stones. I see a red door and I want to paint it black. Oh, I hear that, Mick.
“You have no self-respect.” Stevie shoves me along the pavement homeward. “Don’t you know what they call you at school? I’ve heard things about you that are just plain sick.”
“Recreational activities in Edison are severely limited. I might as well get in a little free love; it’s not as though the local chapter for Youth for Christ will be sending me a membership form any time soon.”
“You think you sound so smart with your sarcasm and two-dollar words, but you’re just a pathetic little girl who sleeps around.” There has been no letup on that theme on the walk home, and it is becoming very tiresome.
“Are those girls at the party any different? They come from nice families and lie about doing it, whereas I don’t feel the need to pretend.” I put a high value on honesty. I don’t see what the big deal is about purity. I’d take straight talking over mealy-mouthed morals any day. “You and your friends are high school heroes approaching the end of your shelf life. Don’t act so superior.”
I see by the bright red spots on his cheeks that hits home, but the expected retort doesn’t come. His expression freezes, and I don’t have to look around to know things have turned from bad to interminably bad as we walk in the door. The room is cold, and an anger crackles across the room with toxic energy. Standing in the darkened room, cracking his knuckles waiting for us, hearing the shouted argument from half a block away, is my stepfather Kronos.
He has a lot of nicknames around town, such as that mean as hell son of a bitch Lloyd Tremaine. But my nickname, Kronos, is accurate too. Smartest person I ever met, although nuttier than a squirrel turd and, when he is vexed, deadly as a wrathful Titan. That’s the force of destruction I call Daddy to his face and Kronos behind his back.
We’re unprepared for his early return from the last business trip. The house is a mess. I bet he checked the fuel gauge in the car and calculated that we have been using it while he’s been away, and now he’s caught us breaking curfew. He’ll be delighted to bust us on a misdemeanor this early on.
Stevie stutters an excuse about late basketball practice, although the argument Kronos overheard refutes that. My stepfather operates a policy of permanent house arrest and will not tolerate a jail break. The one thing he hates more than a jackrabbit parole is a poorly fabricated excuse. That panicked lie from Stevie flicks his switch, his fuse burns down, and rage bursts forth.
Stevie gets it first. Kronos is the only one who gets to call me a pathetic nymphomaniac.
“She’s sixteen! You should be protecting her from your depraved friends.” Kronos adds punctuation to his sentence with a full-stop smack to Stevie across his face. A trickle of blood from Stevie’s nose provides an exclamation mark.
Stevie’s hurt is my hurt too. I try to divert Kronos away from him. “His depraved friends are scared of me, and I don’t need any protection from anyone. It is not depravity that afflicts the human race so much as a general lack of intelligence.” I glance at Stevie. “Insightful. Have you ever met any of his friends.”
Kronos recognizes the quote, and angry frustration creeps across his face when he can’t place it. I’ve inadvertently highlighted the slow damage all that corn liquor he’s been pouring down his throat is doing to him.
“Oh Jesus, you are the best excuse for an old-fashioned book burning I know.” Although I duck, he’s faster and lands a slap that sends me through to Christmas. His lips are moving as my world tilts and a dizziness sets in.
“Yessir.” Stevie nudges me to answer whatever was said while my ears were ringing. “I know we let you down. We’ll try harder.”
Kronos rubs his hand, and as the buzzing in my head stops, I can hear his words again. “You’re going to get yourself into some scrape you won’t be able to talk your way out of. You listen up and you pay me some respect, you hear? It’s because I care that I do this. For your own goddamn good.”
It dawns on me Kronos is waiting for reassurance that he’s father of the year. Although he would swallow us up without chewing, I nod vigorously. Absolutely. Whatever he wants me to agree to. Still not good enough, I get a smack on the back of my head. “Yessir,” I say tightly. “Love you too, Daddy.”
Love and respect.
Kronos logic. I never show him respect, and my stepfather beats me up because he loves me.
“You are grounded. You hear. Until you turn goddamn twenty-one.”
I know the script, but my weakness is ad-libbing.
“Are you volunteering to homeschool us like Amish children?” My smart mouth won’t stop flapping because I spar with Kronos using words. I owe Peter Funk of the Reader’s Digest a debt of gratitude for enriching my word power. “Education or indoctrination?”
Stevie throws me a warning look. “Would you just shut the fuck up,” he hisses. “Stop talking.”
He’s expressing what Kronos is thinking but still must dodge a smack for profanity.
“It’s bad enough she’s mixing with your deviant friends without her having to listen to your deplorable language. It’s a good Anglo-Saxon word, Stevie, but you demean it with overuse.” Kronos emphasizes the word deplorable,and maybe I didn’t get my love of words entirely from Peter Funk, but I would rather credit the Reader’s Digestthan acknowledge any legacy from my stepfather. He turns to me suddenly, eyes twinkling as if we have suddenly plunged into another world. Mood swings are part of his routine to keep us constantly off-balance. “Agnes Repplier. Got it. Since when have you been quoting obscure old lady essayists? I thought you were still trying to hide Anais Nin in your underwear drawer.”
Stevie and I are silent, searching each other’s expression in case the other has any clue which direction this is heading. There’s no reasoning with Kronos, no pattern, no rules; we just have to wait it out till the bourbon wears off and the full moon wanes.
Stevie mutters finally, “You’re both nuts.”
Kronos doesn’t hear him. He’s too busy cackling because he’s recognized that obscure quote is by Agnes Repplier, and that has finally shut me up. He’s elated because despite the abuse, his brilliant mind is still threaded together. Stevie hasn’t caught up with his quicksilver moods and thinks he’s still got to talk his way out of taking me to the party, and he’s annoyed with me as if I have somehow sided with Kronos against him.
“I didn’t ask her to go to the party. I don’t want her near any of my friends. Tramp. She just showed up to embarrass me.”
Kronos beams, enjoying the dissent between us, watching solidarity disintegrate. The man is capricious, and the wave of his inconstant anger is like a storm blowing in.
“What is wrong with you kids?” He tells us what’s wrong with us at any opportunity, so clearly that question is rhetorical. “You spend all your time together. You bicker like a married couple.” Kronos is getting warm with that observation, but he’s watching me and doesn’t notice Stevie looking like a rat caught in a trap.
I can see why Stevie and I might remind him of his marriage to my mother, which consisted of shrill profanity and indiscretions throughout, slaps and kicks and denials to friends and police. She lasted three years before Mom slunk into a bar named Alcoholic Demise en route to Oblivion. She didn’t look back when she left and hasn’t contacted us since. Good riddance.
I shrug ruefully toward my stepfather, which is the closest to a sorry he’ll ever hear from me. This time I keep my smart mouth closed. Not out of respect for him, you understand; it’s for Stevie and I don’t want Kronos to know I found that quote in the Reader’s Digest Quotable Quotes section. Stevie’s right, I use two-dollar words and bluff that I’m smart when actually I possess a Reader’s Digest condensed intelligence, a long way from the sensational brilliance of my stepfather. I’ll never be better than trash from the bayou Kronos fished my mom and me out of.
Kronos assumes my silence is the respect he’s owed, and his needle clicks left of blind rage.
Click. He closes his eyes.
Click. He takes a deep breath that is more of a sigh.
Click. Eyes open and some of the rage and madness dissipates. His eyes are bloodshot but without regret that Stevie has blood dripping onto his T-shirt and I have a mild concussion. The important thing is that he loves us, and we’ll only succeed in life if we learn to accord our superiors respect and practice meekness.
“You’ll thank me one day,” says Kronos sadly as if slapping us into next Tuesday isn’t a chore he enjoys.
Love and respect. Got that? And gratitude.
Taking advantage of the lull in my stepfather’s rage, we scuttle away like frightened ants escaping the rain of his thick-veined hand upon us. Swelling bruises rise like black clouds on our skin.
For now, it’s quiet at least until Kronos decides he owes us another round of respect. Stevie fixes me with a miserable, accusing stare, wiping the blood from his face, and follows me to my room.
Closing my eyes, slowing my breathing, I imagine Kronos convulsing, slumping to the ground. When he stops twitching rabbits and squirrels dance on his chest. I hold out a finger for the crows to land upon and caw their raspy hoorah. I am Snow White passing poisoned apples to bad men.
Snow White if she had the same psychological makeup as Lizzy Borden, I guess. Forty whacks are a messy business, and there are less bloody alternatives.
When I open my eyes, Stevie is still scowling, whereas I am regenerated by my vivid imagination.
“We could wire up the house, electrocute him when he staggers in drunk,” I muse out loud. Our little brother Alfie spends an inordinate amount of time playing with wires and circuits. Perhaps it’s time to push that hobby to more pragmatic gain. Stevie’s glassy stare prompts me to add, “Sorry.”
Sorry you got beat up because of me.
Sorry I’m a tramp.
Sorry I have nothing to help in this ugly situation except cathartic plans to kill a man who is trying to beat love into us.
“Drop a toaster into his bath.” Stevie finally speaks. I clap my hands as he continues the theme of electrocution, cutting out the need for accomplices. His eyes are bloodshot and shining with tears, but he’s starting to reconstruct himself. It is a strange ritual to get to a place where we can start again. But that is the life we live.
One more year. Stevie will be in college then, and I’ll run off and live with him. Just one more year of this, although this year is the worst yet.
“Slip rat poison in his heart pills. Just go for it with a baseball bat…” Stevie strokes my arm as if the thought of battering his father into a bloody pulp gives him a sense of warm contentedness.
I bask for a moment sharing that warmth—until he runs his hand from my arm to my cheek.
My muscles clench. Stevie is the only person who ever had the patience to love me. It takes everything I have to hold my ground.
He touches my lips with his finger, and I must shift somewhere else in my head.
When I met Stevie for the first time, he was six and I was four. He was a tall, gangly boy wearing a Davy Crockett hat. When I got out of the car, he took on a look of surprise when he saw I, too, was wearing a Davy Crockett hat, along with a matching resentful expression having heard of the plan to merge our raggedy families. We recognized our mirror twin, and resentment evaporated into wide grins. If we were a handful before, once we teamed up we were a force of nature.
Since Mom left, Kronos has deteriorated. He was angry at her; he was angry at us, and that anger is relentless, and it has eaten away at him. I have only made it this far because of Stevie. This complication between us is our Splendor in the Grass phase. It will run its course, hopefully before they send me, like Natalie Wood, to the madhouse in Wichita. I’m mindful though, there is a precedent to commit willful females in my stepfamily.
Although, giving it some consideration, I have little in common with uptight Deanie in Splendor in the Grass. Sexual repression drove her mad, and if there is a correlation with sex and sanity, then dammit, I’ve got to be the sanest girl in town. Sex and a sharp tongue are my only weapons, and I use them recklessly.
When Stevie touches my lip, he looks into my eyes just as Joe College did but doesn’t waste hollow words telling me I’m beautiful or he could fall in love. All the while my stomach ties itself in knots because nothing, absolutely nothing about how we live makes sense.
Nobody at the party saw Stevie drag me out, slap me hard, and fling me onto the pavement. Stevie is careful to make sure nobody knows how often he hits me. Perhaps he’s overanxious. Edison, GA, is a small town south of civilization, and smacking women around is commonplace.
I guess so is screwing your stepsister.
My stomach drops as though I’m on a roller coaster, and a voice says flatly, You used to be feisty as a pepper pot. You have it in you to get through this without him, you know.
I have christened my inner voice Sanity, and I’ll miss her when she finally abandons me. She has a twang like Tennessee country girl Dolly Parton and similar down-home country wisdom to share. And she is generous to a fault when it comes to sharing her point of view.
“Hey.” Stevie gives me a light pat on the cheek. “Where’d you go just then?”
I wonder at the words that I hear in my head. Am I Joan of Arc? Is God whispering in my ear? Saint? Nope. God? No, if that deity had any investment in my future, I would not be living this life.
And the charged moment has passed. Stevie frowns and moves away from me. Relief washes away the jitters in my stomach. Relief we’re friends. Relief it stopped short of complicated this time. In the still that follows, I luxuriate in silence. It is usually brief, so I have learned to wallow in the rare peaceful moments. Leaning against Stevie makes me want to say sorry over and over, although I don’t know what I am sorry for—everything, I guess—but the voice speaks up immediately.
Do not apologize, you hear me?
Oh, not tonight, little voice. Not now. It’s rarely peaceful, and for this moment, it’s just lovely. I can almost hear soft wings in flight.
That little voice tries to tell me again something is badly, awfully wrong.
Like Scarlett O’Hara, I’ve learned to think about it tomorrow. I whisper, “Little voice, you have said enough tonight.”
It’s not love.
Shhhh. Hush now, it’s close enough; let me have a moment where I can pretend we hold each other like lost children in the woods. Defective, imperfect, and broken, Stevie and I belong to each other in a way that the rest of the world can’t understand. We fit together to make a ragged whole, making do with extremes. That’s how Kronos sees fit to raise us. Love, hate, and gratitude.
And respect. I always forget that one.
Maria Wickens won the 1993 Reed New Writers Fiction Award with her novel Left of Centre (Secker & Warburg 1994). She has a MA in Modern Literature in Translation from Birkbeck College London, and have worked in PR and finance. She lives in New Zealand with her husband and two sons.