We’d never really known how Vin Trainer felt about us. I’d tried to like him, but he’d kept repeating his bad-man patterns. Nan and Grand were teetotalers, and so was Mother. She’d carp about his drinking and Vin would storm away. Then he’d get drunk or sorry or lonesome, he’d want return to the fold, and so he’d slowly and creepily drive by our house. He could’ve stayed more often if he wasn’t perpetually embalmed. He knew Mother wasn’t here this evening; he just wanted us to spot his pickup. “He must be drunk. He’s driving about twelve miles an hour.”
Vin had bought the Chevy new, but he’d never waxed it, so ten years of weather had worn green paint to brown primer on the fenders and the roof.
“Horny bastard,” Big Guy muttered through the curtains.
My frown admonished him. “That’s not a nice thing to say about your own mother.”
“It’s true. He’s going to whine and apologize, and then she’s going to invite the bastard over for a late-night snack.”
“He tries to be our dad, a little. Remember when I told him about the rodeo parade and the clowns on stilts?” Using two-by-fours, Vin had supervised while I’d sawn four-inch blocks from each eight-foot board. Then we’d halved those square blocks at forty-five-degree angles and nailed them to the planks, and my old leather belt became two stirrup straps. Vin couldn’t walk on stilts because he had a stiff right knee–one of two World War II wounds he intentionally exposed as he sat in his white boxers and undershirt on what he’d adopted as his living room rocker. But he’d shown me how to swing my shoe into the left stirrup, then step onto the right block. Voila. I was nine feet tall.
Vin parked in the driveway.
“He’s coming in,” Biggy said. “Stay out of his way, Cutie.”
Vin opened the kitchen door without knocking, groaned as he sat in his rocker, and watched TV without a word to us. I could smell his breath; he’d made more than a passing acquaintance with Adolph Coors tonight. Five minutes later, he stood and went back to his truck.
“Good,” Biggy said. “Call Casa la Bello.”
Although he was already bleary-eyed, Vin returned with a six-pack, sat it beside his rocker, and guzzled two cans in two minutes flat. From the thousands of empty tins at his four-room shack, we knew alcohol and loneliness were Vin’s steadfast companions.
Mother arrived in ten minutes. “Vin, do you want to talk to me?”
He didn’t look up.
“In the bedroom.”
“I don’t need no bedroom to talk. I don’t got no secrets. But you do. What th’ hell you doing, signin’ my name?”
So, he got liquored up to pick a fight with Mother? And he wanted Biggy and me to hear? We already knew: she’d never divorced Daddy, so the loose talk about Mother and Vin had become family legend. And we knew that Jonathan Robert Pye had busted their credit, so Virginia Pye had told Montgomery Ward that she was Ginny Trainer in order to buy a new divan. We’d seen her sign checks with Vin’s name. She could almost argue it was to make a better home for us all, but she was the one who wanted new furniture instead of the corner-worn couch Biggy and I had pushed out of a dumpster six years ago while she’d pulled from the outside.
“I’m signing my name.”
“Ginny Trainer? Ginny Trainer’s your name?” A lightning-blue wishbone vein streaked across his forehead.
Someone had to get between Vin and Mother. It was brave of Biggy, but what he said was stupid: “You son of a bitch. You’re just a missed opportunity for an abortion.”
Mother knew what would happen next, so she grabbed Vin’s hand. “Com’on.”
Vin pulled away, but his eyes followed her to the bedroom.
They argued loudly, and he must’ve hit her hard. The next morning her shiner was already a prism of red and orange and yellow.
I wished he hadn’t left in the middle of the night. I wanted to call the cops. I didn’t blame Mother for getting hit, but I was exasperated at what she said.
“I’m going to invite him back tonight. To live here. We can’t make it without Vin’s money.” Mother appealed for Biggy’s approval. “We don’t have Daddy’s allotment checks anymore, and Casa la Bello only pays me twenty-five a week. The mortgage is twenty-seven. It’s thirty more to feed all three of us. After that, I don’t have enough left to pay the water and the gas and the electric and the phone. And keep the Rambling Wreck running.”
All true, but she also left Monkey Ward every few weeks with a throw rug here or a knickknack there. These days, we had the best turned-out house in our family.
“‘Goddamned old sonofabitch,’” Biggy imitated Vin’s guttural voice. “He’s dangerous.”
Mother sighed, but she had made her decision. “Call Nan.”
I’ll say this: when one of us needs help, our family responds posthaste. Nan and Grand’s house was twenty miles away, but they arrived at Mother’s house in seventeen minutes. Big Guy and I–and sister Sandy before us–had spent many of our growing-up days at their farm, where we couldn’t walk a mile without crossing a cousin’s path.
Aunt Alexandria, trained by the Red Cross in World War II, examined Mother’s discolored skin for ruptured blood vessels. Her thumb pressed the eye socket. “Does this hurt, Sister?”
Mother winced. “Not so much, Zan.”
Zandy sighed. “Why do men always go for the face?”
“Whose fault is this?” Grand interjected.
“Oh, mine. He just lost his temper. I said something I probably shouldn’t have.”
Actually, Biggy said it.
“What could you say that would make a man punch a woman? I’ll tell you this right in front of your daddy.” Nan took every opportunity to refer to Grand in the third person. “If my husband ever woulda hit me, I’da told Papa, and Papa woulda went and got my brothers, and then my husband never woulda hit me again.”
Grand’s sheepish look said he wasn’t allowed to defend himself, so he condemned Mother instead. “You keep choosing the same worthless drunk: Xavier Charles Thurman and Jonathan Robert Pye. Not one worth two shakes of a mule’s ass. Just in case you wonder, that’s why, of a million men in Oklahoma, you picked Vincent Elvin Trainer.”
“I thought I could change him.” Mother looked for confirmation from Nan and Zandy, but felt cold denial instead. “He’s a good Christian man when he’s not drinking.”
“Good Christian,” Grand scoffed. “Vin Trainer couldn’t name the four Gospels if you spotted him Matthew, Mark and Luke.”
“Where is he now?” Nan asked.
“He’s coming over tonight. I’m going to tell him not to come back.” Mother looked mortified at her own lie. “That’s why I want you to take the kids till tomorrow.”
Grand huffed and puffed about blowing down big bad Vin’s unelectrified shack, but Nan’s expression told us her husband would do nothing. “Well then,” he said, “guess we’ll get to know our grandsons a little better.”
Aunt Zandy gave us the poor-relations stinkeye.
“Sandy,” Mother said, “take your little brothers outside.”
“Come here!” Our big sister opened the kitchen door.
Uh oh. The feces is just about to strike the oscillator.
Biggy looked at me, deciding whether to obey, but walked toward the kitchen. “Sonofabitch’s too cheap to go down to Hell Creek Hotel and pay a prostitute.” Biggy whispered quietly enough for Mother not to hear.
“Don’t never talk that way about your mother.” Sandy laid a firm, disapproving hand on Biggy’s shoulder.
Biggy never considered disobeying Sandy. She was the oldest, and she was Biggy’s and my favorite sibling. Sandy was everything Biggy wanted to be, but he could never live up to her cool persona: competent, responsible, high achieving. Mother always said she loved her children equally, but Sandy Thurman had always been first among equals. Biggy demanded most of Sandy’s attention, so I knew what it meant to be last among equals.
We sat at the picnic table under the carport. “What do y’all want for Christmas?” Sandy, who had never wanted to be a girl, stuck her boycut between us. Her face was identical to Biggy’s, but her hair was cropped closer on the sides.
I took up the conversation. “Our favorite Christmas gift came from you.”
“Oh? Yeah? What’d I give you?” Sandy asked.
“After Mother left Daddy,” Biggy nodded. “Our first Christmas in Oklahoma.”
In 1961, the navy had given holiday liberty to Sandy. Our holidays were always at Nan’s. We’d arrange ourselves around the tree on Christmas mornings with Aunt Alexandria and Ethan and Seth and Marsha and Marsha’s four daughters. They’d pile so many gifts under the tree, it was hard to find ours. Mother was usually broke; she could only give us one box each–always shirts or jeans. Or worse, underwear.
“Did you hear that, Marsha?” Sandy had cupped a hand to one ear.
Sandy and Marsha, the first of our generation, been each other’s only cousins for twelve years. A year after Mother had married Xavier Thurman, Zandy had taken her second husband, but he’d only lasted a few years. Probably died in self defense, knowing Zandy. Then Biggy and I came along, and Zandy had Ethan and Seth.
“Bells.” Marsha had made big eyes at her brothers and daughters on the floor. “Is someone coming?”
Sandy had gone outside and come back a minute later with two Woolworth sacks. Wrapping paper was never the important feature of her gifts. “Saw an old fat man in a red suit at the end of the driveway. He said to give these to you.”
I’d never gotten such a heavy Christmas present before, so I was ridiculously thrilled. This one must have weighed five pounds. It was a genuine leather gunbelt with Fanner .50s–two cast-iron popguns, each in its own holster, each with enough gunpowder caps to smoke the living room with the acrid smell of carbon and a dirty hint of charcoal. Which was exactly what Biggy and I had done. Sandy grinned every time we squealed.
Nan had been annoyed. “Take those things outside.” Her voice never allowed argument.
Biggy rarely touched anyone, but today he threw an arm around Sandy. “You gave me my best birthday present too. Two years ago, after I bought my motorcycle, you gave me tools.”
Exactly Biggy’s opposite, Sandy turned on the tears for every occasion. “Oh, that was just a little chest of used screwdrivers and wrenches.”
We shared the same mother, but we all had hollow fathers, unworthy of the honor. Sandy had become protector-at-large whenever our hearts needed guarding. Grand and Nan had been surrogates too, but all were substitutes for the real thing.
“I know I’m just your half-sister, but I try.”
“You’re our only-ist sister,” Biggy said. I nodded.
Sandy studied our faces and tried to changed the subject, but her eyes overflowed. “Y’all look more alike every day.”
So people say. Same brown hair, but Biggy was inches taller and bigger boned. I was built like a skeleton from a doctor’s office. Sandy was the only true white person among us three: ginger hair like her father, Irish freckles, milk-bottle forearms.
After she left Daddy, Mother hadn’t been able to support three kids, so Sandy had joined the navy as soon as we’d moved back to Hell Creek. We hadn’t seen much of her in the last six years. “Y’all don’t like Vin, I know.”
Biggy shot me a knowing look.
As a twenty-seven-year-old woman of the world, Sandy explained that even at forty-seven, Mother was still a young woman. “She has needs. Y’all ain’t gonna understand this now, but someday you will.”
“Yeah, well, we get it that Vin is horny,” Biggy said. “But that old goat is a good ten years older than Mother.”
Grand had been right: our mother was an eternal misjudger of men. She’d known all three mates were flawed and that she couldn’t change them, but she’d engaged in magical thinking about whether they’d be good family men. Somewhere in the back of the hall closet, a green duffel stamped U.S.M.C. was filled with Daddy’s civvies and shoes. Why had she brought that bag when she left him in California? Had she really expected her husband to put aside his loose women, stroll through her front door one day, and beg her pardon? Forgiveness, as some insightful philosopher had once said, is love practiced poorly.
“Sandy,” Biggy asked, “what was Daddy like? Was he better than Vin?”
Sandy faced Big Guy, but she scooted down the bench a few inches and curled an arm around me. I could see Biggy’s eyes burn. I’ve never gotten along with my brother. Or, to be more accurate, he’s never been close to me. Envy had always goaded him to harass me, and sibling jealousy incinerated whatever sibling affection had existed.
“I was born after Pearl Harbor, so I never met my daddy but once, after World War II was over. Mama divorced Xavier Charles Thurman a year later–1946–so I knew your daddy sixteen years longer than mine.” My family had a way of referring to our fathers in third person, and by all three names. Something far away appeared in Sandy’s eyes, in her voice, and in her avoidance to answer Biggy’s exact question. “Jonathan Robert Pye, well, he was good to me.”
“What happened?” I prodded for details. We’d gotten fractions of Daddy’s story third-hand from a dozen family sources, but Mother and Nan and Grand and Zandy had always dropped their conversations about Daddy whenever we walked into the room. “Why did we leave him in California?”
“The day before Mama lit out for Oklahoma, Jonathan Robert Pye made his mortal error. Mama had to go to work, so she asked him to pick me up from school. He had to work that night too, but he was supposed to bring me home to babysit y’all. Now don’t never mention this to Mama . . . ”
“Why?” Biggy challenged.
“She’d be hurt.”
Biggy and I looked at each other. We didn’t understand.
“He told me he had to manage the NCO Club. Instead of taking me home, he put me in the back seat, went inside, and it was sunrise when I woke up. Car was parked at a house. I went up to the porch. Some strangey woman came to the door, put her arm around me, and marched me back to the car.”
“Where was Daddy?”
“He came out a few minutes later and finally took me home.” Sandy turned to me. “Mama still hadn’t gone to work. She’d waited up all night, and let me tell you something: when we walked in the next morning, she threw a double-geared, walleyed hissy. She demanded to know where we’d been all night. That was Jonathan Robert’s great fault: the truth weren’t in him. Ever’ word that came out of his mouth was a lie, including ‘pass the black-eyed peas.’ So as soon as he left for the base that morning, mama started in on me. All day. You know your mama; she’s a snapping turtle. And she didn’t let go till I told her where we’d been.”
“Then what?” Biggy ate family gossip with a spoon.
“When he came home that night, Mama marched your daddy into their bedroom. She tore into him like she was God’s own wrath.” Sandy sniffed. “Your daddy came out of that room so mad, he only spoke to me once after that.”
“Why?” Biggy didn’t get it.
“Daddy wouldn’t take the blame?” I asked, but it was a comment.
“He told me once, a long time ago, ‘Don’t put your faith in me. I’ll disappoint you.’ Guess he never spoke truer words.” Sandy’s nod was miserable. “Mama told him that she’d forced me to tell the truth, but Jonathan Robert, he never forgave. Now let’s drop that right here.”