Damn, but my head did hurt. I wished I could remember who whacked me with that whiskey bottle. I tried not to move too much, but I kept having to nod so Flo wouldn't know that I had no clue what she was prattling on about. If she figured out I didn't know, that the bump on my head had made everything a damn sight fuzzier than usual, she'd talk even more trying to explain it to me, and right now I really just wanted her to shut the hell up so I could think what to do next.
"...and he's got his double-wide parked right there on the front lawn," she said, "and he's living in the house like he owns the place -- insurance reasons, he says, but we all know better -- and he done dug up all Mama's tulips, God rest her soul, and is talkin' 'bout buildin' a big ol' shed for Caine's bass boat -- just plain tacky, if y'ask me, but nobody ever does --"
"Uh huh," I said. I nodded, then wished I hadn't.
I gazed out onto Flo's tiny back yard -- we were sitting on busted lawn chairs on her little concrete back porch -- and let the sound of her words wash over me without paying too much attention to what she was saying.
My eyes fell on her red Trans Am, which she'd pulled all the way off the driveway and onto the grass so it wouldn't be visible from the road. She didn't want no one stealing it, I guess. I made a mental note to keep my eyes open for a spare set of keys somewhere in the house. No tellin' when a boy might need to make a quick getaway.
The next thing I noticed, because they was barking something awful at us, was Flo's dogs. Damn proud she was of them, but they all looked like stupid ugly mutts to me: cross-eyed hound dogs, yappy terriers, mangy retrievers. The smallest and loudest was her pride and joy: Butchie, a half-Cocker Spaniel, half-poodle. Flo had called it a 'Cockapoo,' and I 'bout died laughing. She damn near slapped me silly for it, too. Stupid bitch didn't think it was funny even after I explained it to her.
The tone of her voice changed just then, so I started paying attention again.
"-- but now that you're back, you'll go talk to him, won't you, Cory? I mean, your claim is as good as anyone's, 'specially what with Caine havin' gone and blowed up your old trailer when it looked like you wasn't comin' back, and I'd be right behind you, I swear --"
"Uh huh," I said.
A bell rang inside the converted garage that housed Flo's Hair and Nail. "Oh, Lordie, that's my three o'clock," she said. "It's a color-and-perm, so I'm gonna be busy a while yet. Go on in the house and get you a bite to eat, and we'll talk more when I'm done, 'kay, hon?" She patted my knee. "I'm so glad you came by -- we've got a lot of catching up to do." She smiled, stood, and walked away without waiting for a response. I watched the ladybug applique on the back pocket of her jeans wiggle 'til it disappeared around the corner.
Then I made my way into the house.
The place had a familiar feel to it, and yet I couldn't quite remember whether I'd been there before. The plush gold overstuffed chair, the dining room table with the lion paws at the base of the legs, the "Count Thy Blessings" cross-stitch -- they all seemed like things from my childhood, and yet the layout of the rooms and the view out the kitchen window seemed completely foreign.
I grabbed a beer from the fridge and made my way into the living room. Most every free inch of shelf space was covered with crazy nicknacks -- blown glass animals, Niagara Falls shot glasses, a whole collection of toy Trans Ams in different colors -- except for the coffee table, which held only a dusty old family Bible. Well, then, that's where I'd sit at: I'd have a place to set my beer and something to look at while I drank it. And with all them clippings bulging out from between the pages, maybe there'd be some clue what the hell Flo was talking about.
I sat, I sipped, I read. Most of the clippings were about Flo. Damn, but that girl musta' been in every dang beauty pageant this side of the Mississippi, and won dang near all of 'em. Well, she was pretty, I'd give her that, but I'd bet good money none of them pageants was the kind where you had to have a talent or talk to the judges. Maybe it was all them hair-care fumes, but Lord-o'-the-blue, the girl had all the brains of a parakeet, and a dumb one at that.
It wasn't 'til I got well into Deuteronomy that I finally stumbled across something interesting: a little stack of Polaroids. I pulled them out carefully and turned them over one by one.
The first showed a young man, much younger than myself, with tousled straw-colored hair, wearing jeans and a bright orange "Hooters" T-shirt, arms around two gorgeous women who looked to be several years older -- and several inches taller -- than he was. He grinned like an idiot. He was no idiot, though, I knew suddenly. And I knew his name, too: Randy. He was my brother -- or was it half-brother? -- and yes, he was as sex-crazed as his name suggested.
The next picture showed the pale, unblinking face of Julian, the conspiracy theorist. He wore fatigues and a flak jacket. I remembered now that he lived way out in the woods in a bunker with a bunch of inbred hound dogs and the meanest damn horse you ever laid eyes on, and God-knows-what-all in the way of arms and provisions. I wasn't even sure whether he even still answered to his real name: the most recent time I'd seen him, he was calling himself "The Guardian" and telling us, without a trace of emotion, how the end was nigh and we was all gonna die. A real nutjob.
The guy in the next photo wasn't much better, I knew. His name was Caine, and he was as dark from his days on the lake as Julian was pale from his days underground, though they both had the same dark hair. He wore faded black jeans, a green John Deere T-shirt, and a black satin NASCAR jacket. He stood posing in front of a spiffy new bass boat, clutching a wicked-looking Bowie knife in one hand, looking as menacing as he could, which was to say, very. I didn't remember for certain, but I got the feeling that maybe he liked to hold up convenience stores for fun and profit.
I flipped the next photo up and instinctively made a face. Eric, my big brother, the insurance salesman. He wore a black suit and red power-tie, and he smiled like a politician or a guy in a real-estate ad. His bearded face looked respectable enough, and yet I wouldn't be surprised at all to learn that he was the one that whacked me with that whiskey bottle. I sure wouldn't put it past him. And that smile made me nervous. I set that photo aside pretty damn quick.
The next picture showed a tall, thin man dressed in brown coveralls, standing next to the prettiest dun mare you ever did see, holding a twisted walking-stick. His name was Ben, and he was the oldest of all us brothers (and half-brothers). He didn't talk much, I knew, or smile much, either, but I respected him -- maybe because he knew when to keep his mouth shut, unlike most of the rest of the family. Or maybe because he was such a damn fine shot, which goes a long way in my book. Some folk say he could kill a dragonfly with a shotgun and a rhino with a pea-shooter, and I don't doubt it one bit. Good man, maybe better than all the rest of us put together. No wonder he moved across the county line and hardly ever calls anymore.
I flipped over the next picture and damn near spewed Budweiser all over the coffee table. Unless I've got an identical twin I don't remember, which, all things considered, I very well might, it was a picture of me, Cory, dressed in a black leather jacket, tight black Harley T-shirt, black leather pants, and black biker boots. Hanging from the jacket zipper was an emblem of some kind, and I squinted to make it out. Yes, it appeared to be a chrome hood ornament in the shape of a rose. What was I, some kind of leather-freak pansy? I set the picture aside in disgust and flipped up the next one.
It showed a man, similar to me but larger and, I knew, slower, dressed in a frayed blue bathrobe, holding a can of Budweiser. He smiled. I smiled back. His name was Gerry. Strong as an ox he was, and about as bright. He'd never strayed too far from home, and still lived in a ramshackle trailer at the edge of the old homestead, scaring away trespassers, doing repairs, and fishing.
The next picture brought back a flood of memories, and I laughed. It showed a redheaded man, bearded, wearing a sissified red silk shirt and tight pants like one of them Shakespeare actors. He slouched on a La-Z-Boy with a banjo in one hand and a bag of pork rinds in the other, grinning like the cat that ate the canary. My half-brother Bleys, Mr. Barrel-of-Fun. Captain of the high school football team back in the day, banjo player in a not-half-bad bluegrass band -- even if it was that sort of arty bluegrass that don't go over so well 'round these parts -- always with a pretty girl or three on his arm. Always the life of the party, he was, and good at everything he tried, just so long as he wasn't competing with one of his brothers.
I flipped over the next photo, and for a minute there I thought it was another picture of the same guy. But no, I realized, this was Bleys's younger brother Brand. He sat in a high-backed chair with a ratty green blanket draped over his legs, staring out the window so that his face was half in light and half in shadow, his hair like a fiery red halo around his head. He'd been a good kid, I reckon, but then he went off to Nam and came back... not quite right. Sharp as a tack, still, but moody as anything. I mostly avoided him if I could.
I counted up the pictures I'd flipped, and the number seemed right, though if you'd asked before I'd started counting I probably wouldn't'a been able to tell you right off how many sons Dad still had living. But nine seemed about right, and that wasn't even counting his daughters. Horny ol' bastard, my dad was.
So the remaining four pictures were probably my sisters.
I flipped the first one over to find the painted face and bustin'-out-all-over body of Flo, clad in a halter top and cutoff shorts and with long nails and impossibly big hair. I didn't spend too much time lookin'. I mean, hell, the girl was right out in the shop if I wanted an eyefull. 'Course, that'd mean gettin' an earfull, too, so maybe there was something to be said for lookin' at the photo. I set it aside for later.
I looked at the next picture, and my heart damn near skipped a beat. A black-haired girl in a short, tight, sleeveless dress with a silver chain-link belt and no shoes gazed out the photo at me with eyes as blue as Amber Lake. Ah, sweet Deedee, was there ever a thing of beauty more... beautiful? My eyes filled with tears, my Wranglers with wood. I let out a sigh of relief: I guess I wasn't no pansy after all. But an instant later, relief turned to frustration: Lord, why couldn't she a'been my cousin instead of my sister?
The next picture was completely out-of-focus, a blur of red against a dark background, but I knew it had to be red-headed Fiona, full sister of Bleys and Brand. A dowser she was, and a midwife, and a teacher of herb lore. And for some weird reason, every picture of her came out blurred. Some folk said it was because the spirit of an old Cherokee medicine woman dwelled inside her, casting magics that obscured her image. But I think it was just 'cause Fiona moved so damn fast to flip you off as soon as you picked up the camera. She was a real bitch, and she hated having her picture taken. Just as well that I didn't have to look at her.
The next and final picture was perhaps the strangest of all: a green-haired girl dressed in green and purple who, more than any of my other siblings, was not like the rest of us. Her name was Ella -- I'm pretty sure it was short for something, probably something foreign or fruity, what with her mom being from California -- but I don't remember what. She only lived with us a little while before she went off to some fancy-pants Yankee college to major in Women's Studies. What is that, anyway, Women's Studies? I done me plenty o' women-studying' and I didn't need me no books to tell me how. Now, rumor has it, she's gone vegetarian and stopped shaving her legs and is in Vermont or some other God-forsaken place, living in sin with a woman who writes feminist porn, whatever the hell that is. The family don't much talk about her no more, 'cept in the kind of whispers you use when you're talking about cancer or bastards or Democrats. Of which she is two out of three, come to think of it.
Nine boys, four girls, and more sibling rivalries than you can shake a stick at. Yep, we was quite the family.
I hadn't heard Flo creep into the room, but sweet Mary on a milkbone, I heard her shriek now:
"Coaster, Cory, COASTER!"
She grabbed a lacy little pink thing from somewhere and slapped me on the head with it -- which hurt more than you might reckon, what with her managing to hit right on the bump from the whiskey bottle and all -- before she put it under my beercan.
"And what are you doing with Mama's Bible?" she continued to shriek. "You shouldn't be touching that -- it's a family heirloom, and you'll get everything out of order!"
"Now, Flo, how'm I gonna do that?" I asked. "See, look here -- Ruth still comes after Judges, which is after Joshua, which is...."
"You know what I mean!" she fumed. "Put those back and leave it alone! Lord, next thing I know, you'll be spittin' in the candy dish...."
Spittin'. Now, that sounded like just the thing. I felt in my pockets 'til I found what I was looking for. I dipped and tucked a wad into my cheek.
"Oh, no you don't, not in the living room, Cory!" Flo yelled, livid. "Take it outside before you get that vile filth all over everything!"
"I thought you was supposed to be busy," I said. It was sort of a dumb thing to say, but my head was hurting again.
"I ran out of rubber gloves and had to come in for more," she said. She tried to flip her hair, all haughty and superior-like, but it was sprayed too stiff to move, and she just ended up looking stupid. She knew it, too, because she turned real red -- I was sorta surprised I could see it under all the make-up -- and roared, "Now scoot, before I whack your backside or change my mind about letting you stay here!"
I scooted. Better an hour on the porch than a night in the EconoLodge, I figured. I mean, Flo and me did have some catching up to do. It'd been years, I realized suddenly.
And anyhow, Flo had cable, and a full fridge, and a spiffy Trans Am with the keys hanging by the back door on a ZZ Top keychain, just waiting for the right moment to be borrowed.
And besides that, I was flat broke.
This story copyright 2002 by Karen Alfrey, who - despite some similarity to Llewella - might just be a redneck.
Last modified: 23 Apr 2002