I have a hard time sleeping at night. I have what my doctor calls night terrors. My mind is working like I am awake and my eyes are open. Most nights I scare Regina so much that she does not want to share the queen-size bed with me anymore. I think that’s great because I hate her rough feet rubbing on my legs and kicking me all night.
My sister Regina is 12 and sometimes picks on me but is mostly nice and funny. She prefers to be called Reg because Regina is too girly. We get along pretty well for sisters. Reg gave me chocolate Ex-Lax once and lied and said that it was leftover candy from Halloween. I was mad, but I never told on her because I know Daddy likes me best.
Regina wears flannel shirts, jeans, vests, and big clunky hiking boots. She has her curly, dirty blonde hair cut really short and people are always calling her young man. She rolls her eyes and holds back her tears once in awhile, but instead of wearing dresses or makeup, she talks with a deep voice and struts.
Mrs. White takes care of us while Daddy works. I like her because she shares her dinner, usually soft foods like cheese and bread and yogurt, with me. Each night she brings the same crumpled brown sack with oil spots on it to the table in my dining room and spreads the food out. We both like soft things because both of us are missing some teeth and she says the last thing two beautiful girls like us need is to worry about chipping our beautiful smiles on something hard. I especially like her because she calls me the baby even though I am seven years old. “Where’s the baby?” she will ask Reg when she arrives late at night.
We can hear Daddy cry through his locked door and see his face grimacing like it did when he tried to hold in the tears. He cries so hard his body shakes. I just watch him cry because I know there is nothing I can do for him.
Mom went to Oklahoma to try and get a better job and then she’ll send for us. That’s what she told us when she left, before I started Kindergarten last year. One time when I was awake in bed, I heard her yell at Dad, “I’m tired of arguing with you — what’s the point? You’re going to get your way anyhow so why even argue?” Reg and I squeezed hands real hard, but didn’t say a word.
Dad inherited a four-post bed from our dead great-grandma that is so high that I can barely climb onto it. Reg and I love to climb onto the bed Saturday mornings. She kneels and lets me climb on her knee and then she pulls herself up, and we pull Daddy’s eyelids open. Sometimes he’ll crack up and tickle us then pretend to be asleep again. Then we do it again, but only twice because after two you are cruisin’ for a bruisin’.
Daddy once put a loaded revolver in his mouth and was going to pull the trigger on account of Mom leaving us. He said he was so lonely. Regina and I cried real hard and begged him not to do it, said that we loved him and who would take care of us. Daddy cried a lot that night, but he took the gun out of his mouth and hugged us real hard because we are his girls.
Sometimes at night I get trapped between our bed and the wall and can’t get out. Once I opened the drawers of our dresser and climbed it and it fell on me. I screamed because in my mind I was being crushed by big rocks. When things like that happen, I’m glad Reg and her rough feet are there with me.
One time Regina locked herself in the bathroom when she knew I needed to go and I couldn’t hold it any longer. I banged on the bathroom door and woke Daddy from his nap. I peed and felt it run down between my legs and saw it collect in a puddle on the floor then run down the hallway.
When Daddy saw that I had peed on the floor, he kicked open the bathroom door and pulled Reg out by the arm. He pushed her into his bedroom and slammed the door. I heard her crying and then I heard him say, “I’ll give you something to cry about!”
Soon Reg’s crying stopped except for her sobs, which happened for a long time. I went into our bedroom and found some clean clothes, then went into the bathroom and took a bath with tons of bubbles. That made me feel better, like a princess, and I sang “Annie’s Song” by John Denver because my mom used to sing that to me as a lullaby and I missed her.
When Daddy worked until four he’d come home and check the mail, shower, and then we’d all go out for a meal. I liked it when Mrs. White came out to eat with us because she always prayed and we knew if she was there Daddy wouldn’t yell at us and if he did, she would tell him, “Excuse me? I don’t think that’s any way to talk to these nice young girls.”
Mrs. White would wipe her mouth on the corners so she wouldn’t smudge her lipstick and throw her napkin next to her plate when she said things like that to him. He would end up apologizing and Reg and I would excuse ourselves to go to the restroom and laugh our heads off; it served him right.
Reg was in Daddy’s bedroom so long I went into our room and arranged and rearranged the teddy bears and my Cookie Monster on our bed. When Daddy took Reg into his room it made my stomach knot and I wished I could pull her out through the ceiling and bring her with me into the closet where I hide.
“It’s not true,” Reg said, choking on a sob. “She’s a wonderful mom and she’s a better parent than you are!”
“She had an abortion. She killed a baby because she’s lazy. I offered to take care of it, but she killed it.”
“That’s not true,” I said and made my eyes look like coin slots. “She loves us and she’s coming back and she loves babies and she’d never kill a baby. You’re a liar and I hate you.”
Daddy’s room has cream-colored wallpaper with three-inch red roses in full bloom all over. Mom had wallpapered the room because the other wallpaper was so ugly; it was green stripes. The curtains used to be a sick green color but one day I was playing with matches and set them on fire so now the curtains are rough and white. I was so scared when it happened that my mom didn’t even bother to punish me.
Finally, Daddy’s door opened and Regina came out slowly, hunched over a little. When she walked past me I could see a big red spot on the back of her jeans. “Reg? Are you okay? You have some blood on your jeans.” I knew all about periods, but I was just trying to get her to talk to me. Reg told me all about the filmstrip she and the other girls in Mrs. Pasquerella’s class had watched. She said it was outdated; it starred the original Broadway cast of Annie.
Daddy yells at us to keep it down while he is watching HBO or talking on the cordless. He likes to take a shower twice a day and always wears cologne. I like the cologne when we are in the house, but when we get in the car it makes me carsick. But when he smokes his pipe with wild cherry-flavored tobacco, the smell stays in my hair. The smell calms me down if I get nervous at school, like if we have a class spelling bee.
After he put the gun in his mouth, Daddy met a woman named Diane. She was a nurse with frizzy blonde triangle-shaped hair and she was always taking bubble baths in our bathtub. She had a long pointy nose and a big butt with skinny legs sticking out from her bottom like toothpicks in a tomato. She cried when commercials with puppies came on television and she snored. They started dating after school started and in winter they spent two weeks in the Bahamas. Grandma lived in the house with Reg and me.
Diane’s snoring is different from Reg or my Daddy’s; it sounds like, “Uhhh…uhhh…uhhh.” Like she is pushing a big stone uphill like the guy in the Greek story Reg told me about. I can hear her scream at night when she sleeps in my Daddy’s bed and think how lucky I am that my night terrors aren’t so bad.
Diane gave Reg and me dickeys for Christmas. Reg’s was red with gold sparkles and mine was green with gold sparkles. We joked that she couldn’t afford the whole sweater and we knew it was just a shitty gift she picked up at K-Mart at the last minute to make it look like she actually cared.
Reg looked through me and walked into our bedroom where she opened the dresser we shared and pulled out some clean underpants and picked up a pair of jeans from the floor then went into the bathroom. Dad, who stood watching from his doorway in just a pair of pajama bottoms, was red in the face. The vein on his left temple was really sticking out like the time we spilled red finger paint on the green dining room carpet. He smirked when Regina closed the bathroom door, and then locked himself in his bedroom. I heard the lock turn and then it was silent until he turned on the television.
“Your father made me mow the lawn while I was pregnant with you.”
I knew Mommy wasn’t happy about that because now I’m allergic to grass. She moved the furniture by herself, not like Daddy, who really strained to push the couch. She said fucking shit and grunted when she lifted the tiller out of the garage and tilled the whole garden and moved the living room furniture. When she worked in the garden, she cried.
Daddy told our principal, Dr. Mason, not to let our mom or my cousins or Aunt Tootsie or Grandma or Grandpa or anybody in her family see us or talk to us on school grounds no matter what. Tiffany Johnson, from my reading class, told everyone so I stole her pink unicorn eraser from her desk and tore its head off, then put it back.
While Daddy is at work and Mrs. White is napping, Reg and I creep into his room, pretending it is bugged and we check under the bed and phone for taps and surveillance things. Then, when we are satisfied that we are alone, we sneak over to the far side of the bed next to his nightstand. Sometimes we read his cards and letters from Diane. Some of them are sexy and Reg reads them, but won’t let me see.
We like to wear our dickeys over white T-shirts and wrap ourselves in the sheer curtains on the dining room windows and pretend we are dressing up for a double date with Darryl Hall and John Oates. Mommy and Aunt Tina always used to listen to their music and would grab our hands and dance around with us like we were their dates. Reg and I used to pretend to be a little embarrassed when they started it but we really liked the attention.
We haven’t heard from Mommy in a long while. Daddy won’t let either me or Reg answer the phone because once a person called (I think it was her) and hung up and he got really angry and punched the mirror at the end of the hall and made his fists bleed. Maybe she did kill a baby and maybe we were so bad that she wanted to kill us so Daddy made her leave. Maybe that’s what there was no point in arguing about? Sometimes I wish I could go and live with Mrs. White.
I tapped on the bathroom door. While I waited for Reg to come out, I stared at the patch of light purple paint I had been peeling off a little at a time whenever I was bored. I liked when a spot of white showed through and this one looked like Charlie Brown’s head. I liked to peel off the paint; I couldn’t stop even though Daddy told me if he saw me doing it, “Christy, what did I tell you? You’re cruisin’ for a bruisin’.” Maybe my next patch would look like Snoopy.
Daddy’s dresser is covered in loose change since he comes home every night and empties his pockets of mint-flavored LifeSavers, change, and a butterfly knife first thing. I love to watch him flip the knife open, the way the handle spreads and closes like the wings of a real butterfly. He is always practicing with the knife and whittling me small toys. Once he made me an elephant on top of a post. Maybe it was a bookmark. I loved it, then one day it was gone.
He also carved Big Bird from a bar of soap once and Spiderman for Reg. I want to try it too, but Daddy is strict about not letting us touch any of his things. Especially his records: The Beatles, John Denver, Led Zeppelin; three milk crates full. Daddy has collected them since he was a young man and told us they are very valuable and we are not to touch them. We sneak the John Denver one every once in a while because we miss Mommy.
One day Regina dropped Daddy’s shaving mug with the expensive soap in it from Italy on the bathroom floor. She tried to cut herself with a jagged piece. It was not sharp enough to hurt her and she cried because she said she can’t do anything right. Mrs. White held Reg and told her it is okay and rocked her until she calmed down. Reg thought Dad would beat her when he came home. But he didn’t. He put on his bathrobe and flopped onto the couch, flicked on HBO and ate a one-pound container of ricotta cheese like it was ice cream. Then he cried.
All these girls from the filmstrip were wearing pink clothing and lip-gloss, batting their eyelashes, talking and giggling about tampons and sanitary napkins; it made Reg want to gag. I think she was really jealous because she didn’t have a mother to tell her about those things like the other girls in her class. We had some good laughs, though, mostly at the expense of the girl who played Annie who was so friggin’ cheerful. Reg liked it when I said friggin’; it made her smile.
“Reg?” I whispered to the bathroom door. “Let me in.”
We pull the clinking handle on the dark cherry-stained night table and try to quiet the creaking sound that comes from getting the drawer open. Then we look at the revolver. I think it is more like a gun, but Reg told me it’s not so just shut up. It looked pretty basic, like what I’ve seen on the Magnum P.I. reruns Daddy watches. It had a brown handle and dark metal barrel and trigger. It was wrapped in a soft old flannel that Daddy used to wear when he was working around the house. Daddy quit wearing the flannel after Mommy left and that was okay because he didn’t work around the house much now.
“No. I’m fine.” Her voice wasn’t shaky. I heard cellophane rustling between her fingers. I heard the toilet flush. I knew she was done crying and that she’d come out and we’d play like always, but it was like each time Dad took her into his room a little part of her disappeared and she became a fake person, not really Reg, not really anyone or anything, just skin. She opened the door and said, “Let’s go outside.”
We never do homework and nobody ever tells us to. When Dad doesn’t do our laundry, we use the large bottle of perfume called Les Fleurs that Regina got from Grandma last Christmas. We douse ourselves in it. One day Mrs. Boozer, my first grade teacher, asked me if I had bathed in perfume before school and asked me to please stand away from her desk.
Dr. Williams, my psychologist, says she’ll talk to Daddy about my night terrors, but he’s never said anything. I wish she would tell him that when he cries so much he gives me night terrors and he should try to stop, but that is never going to happen. Grandma says I will outgrow it and I just have to be patient. So I am.
The only picture on Daddy’s wall is an unframed painting of a ship being tossed on the stormy sea. I think he bought it at a gun show. It looks nice, like a painting from an art book. I like the white tips of the waves and the swirly clouds at the top. I wonder why Daddy’s never put it in a frame.
Reg told me the stain on her jeans was from when we were playing Witch’s Brew, a game we invented, and she fell into the strawberry patch. We played Witch’s Brew when either one of us was angry or upset. We wanted to be powerful like the witches in Macbeth that we saw at Cuyahoga High, our Aunt Sandy’s school, last spring. It was scary and neat; the high school girls who played the witches were dressed all in black with long scraggly wigs and they danced and chanted. We would dig a hole in the soft dirt and fill it with water. Then we would pick up whatever we could find: berries, twigs, flowers, leaves and acorns and throw them into the pot of water.
We each had a long stick that we used to stir the brew and we chanted to cast spells to get whatever we wanted. Sometimes we’d chant, “Wake me up before you go-go” or “I am what I am and that’s all that I am.” We’d chant it over and over until the words felt funny and didn’t make sense.
Diane spent the night on a Friday and on Saturday morning Daddy took us to see Grandma. Daddy invited Diane to come along, but she said she felt like doing a little cleaning and to just go without her. She hadn’t been staying over much lately and she seemed a little angry about something, maybe she heard Reg and me making fun of her snoring this morning?
When we opened the flannel wrapped around the gun, we were hit with a scent of oil and metal mixed with Dad’s Old Spice. We took breaths through our mouths to avoid the scent as much as possible. Then we were left with dry mouths and bitter tongues. We held the gun by its handle wondering how it would feel to pull the trigger, felt surprised by the weight of it. Sometimes we could see him smooth the oil over it when he came home from work, usually late at night.
I get Oates, I always get Oates because we’re both the shortest, but his moustache is creepy the way it hangs like the moss I saw in National Geographic and I’m blond, so I should be with Hall. I know Reg won’t play with me if I say I want Hall so I just let her have him. We can only play when Daddy is not at home or else he’ll yell at us for pulling on the drapes. We really don’t pull on them at all because who would want to get their goddamned asses blistered over an imaginary date?
Sometimes on the weekend Daddy takes me and Reg to gun shows and we try to be patient, but all the men are wearing jeans and flannel shirts and some don’t have all of their teeth. He reads Guns and Ammo and we ask if we are going to leave soon, but Daddy always says no that he’s not ready and so we have to try and breathe out of our mouths so we don’t smell the gun and oil smell. We end up smelling it anyway and feel sick to our stomachs.
Daddy covers his eyes when the water works start, that’s how we know we have to move into our nursing phase. Regina and I both hug him and tell him what a great job he is doing. Usually he’ll ask which one of us is wearing so much perfume as he wipes the snot from his face on his robe. The first few times I liked being needed and Reg did, too. After a while, though, we both got tired of the responsibility and wondered who would take care of us if we cried.
We were at Grandma’s for the whole day and came home at about five. When we pulled into the driveway, we saw the trash pile smoking and saw sheets of ash fluttering around. Daddy parked the car and went to the pile to make sure the fire was out completely. Reg and I followed behind him because we had always liked the smell of burning leaves, what we thought Diane had been burning. As I got closer to the pile, I could make out faces stuck in the black and gray; half of John Denver as well as Paul McCartney’s legs crossing Abbey Road. Daddy howled like a coyote and Diane came running from the house.
Daddy has a lot of rifles and keeps them in special cabinets in our house. He keeps the shells separate from the weapons in the top shelf of his closet all the way to the back and right side under his green sweater with the ducks on it that he never wears.
“What’s the matter?” Diane was out of breath.
“You tell me, you crazy bitch!’ He turned what was left of Paul McCartney with a stick. The vein on his head was popping out. He was starting to sweat and his hands trembled. I thought for sure he was going to hit her and Reg and I backed closer to the car and started to fake looking for pretty rocks in the gravel.
“You have a problem with letting things go. I’m just trying to help.” Diane threw Mommy and Daddy’s wedding picture onto the pile.
“Girls, get inside.” Daddy was really red in the face now and when we didn’t move right away he added, “Now!” And boy did we run
At dinner Daddy says he wishes he had pulled the trigger that night and Reg and I nod like we’re his old friends. Daddy’s tears fall onto his empty plate mixing with the juice from his steak. I want to sop up the juice from the steak with white bread like we always used to, but I know it wouldn’t be right to cheat him while he’s so upset.
Reg and I go into our room and open the window so we can hear what is going on, but Dad and Diane are talking so fast and quiet and over one another that we can’t make much of it.
“Do you think she’s going now? For good?” I ask Reg, arranging and rearranging our stuffed animals on the bed.
“I don’t know, shut up I can’t hear anything with you talking.” Reg stands next to the window but fakes like she is reading a book in case Daddy comes in the room. I hate her when she is like this. Now I am mad at her and start to cry. The sobs come so I run to the bathroom so she won’t laugh at me.
I hear Diane crying and blubbering and mumbling and Daddy following her saying, “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. It will never happen again. Baby, come back, come here, let me hold you.” And all I hear then is the sound of Diane’s big butt leaving the house and her wheels spinning in gravel. I peek out from the bathroom and see Daddy’s back as he is heading into his bedroom.
“Daddy? Are you alright?” I am trying to pry a booger from my right nostril with toilet paper. I’m sorry about Paul and John and the others.”
“I’m fine. Everything’s fine. In fact, everything is just perfect.” He smiles even though he chokes on the word perfect and then I hear his bedroom door shut and the lock click.
Reg and I sit at one end of the table and Daddy sits at the other end. We are so far away from each other it makes me think of the movies where a person has to shout for another person to pass the salt. We watch Daddy cry again. He gets up and clears the dishes from the table and we hear his door close and the lock turn. Reg washes the dishes and I dry, then she takes my hand and says, “Let’s go outside.”
Tramon Crofford recently graduated from Loyola University in Chicago with a BA in English/Creative Writing where she received the John Gerrietts Award for Excellence in Creative Writing.Elephants is her first published fiction. She lives in Chicago and has a love/hate relationship with the city. She grew up in a rural area where she feels her true home is, but the city has so much to teach her and so much to offer in that there is a huge population where no two people are alike. She likes the mystery and anonymity of the city, and often catches glimpses or scenes, but seldom gets the whole picture. Since there are so many different ways to fill in the blanks, she can never be too sure what is reality (and what is dream/memory). She likes to revisit a moment in time, but her memory is not always as reliable as she’d like it to be: the colors, moods, motivations and outcomes all change blending into a daydream.