“What happened?” Zandy sat on the arm of my chair.
“Why did it happen?” Marsha asked from the couch. Her four daughters filled the other two cushions.
I looked at no one.
“It was an accident,” Mother said.
“No it wadn’t!” Biggy said from the kitchen door. “Don’t lie for him.”
“Just keeping the situation honest.”
“Cutie, you tell us.” Zandy baited her sister. “Was it just an accident?”
“He tried to off himself, but he just blew chunks instead,” Biggy said.
“Blue chunks?” Marsha was confused.
“He urped the pills,” Biggy interpreted joyously, “and his lunch.”
“He threw up the aspirin.” Zandy whispered across the room to Marsha.
“But why?” her daughter insisted.
“Biggy, you’re the man of the family. You should know this is nothing to laugh about,” Mother said. “So shut it!”
“We’re just concerned,” Marsha soothed. “After all, you were three days in the hospital.”
“Sister, I can’t imagine why a fifteen-year-old would want to kill himself,” Zandy said. “I think it’s better if we get the truth out.”
Here’s the truth. After this little family reunion, I’m gonna blow this Popsicle stand.
“It was an accident!” Mother screamed at the living room itself.
“He gulped three dozen pills by accident.” Biggy assured everyone with a satisfied smirk.
I should’ve known thirty-two aspirin wouldn’t turn the trick. They looked too small.
“Was it like Sister said?” Zandy kept up her living room psychoanalysis. “And why three dozen aspirin?”
“Because that’s all that was in the bottle,” Biggy sniggered his amusement.
Mother swatted Biggy’s flattop harder than she meant to.
Biggy cringed but retorted, “Don’t let this embarrass you, Mom. Hold your chin up. In fact, hold all three of your chins up.”
Mother’s face turned rigid. She was always mortified when anyone mentioned her weight.
Nan grabbed him by the wrist. Biggy had the muscle to pull away, but Nan had the tenacity not to let go. “You stand right there, Big Guy. You need to hear me.”
Biggy’s chest deflated. “I was just joking.”
“Virginia is your mother. Curtis is your brother. Do not disrespect your family.” Nan pinched Biggy’s lips together with her thumb and a forefinger. “You think it’s funny to hurt Sister’s feelings?” Nan had referred to her first daughter as “Sister” ever since my mother and Alexandria were children. The nickname had stuck.
“You hurt people’s feelings all the time,” Biggy defended himself. “So does Aunt Zan.”
“So we do.” Nan looked chagrined for a moment, then owned up. “But we do it with good intentions. To help each other. We don’t intend it to be mean.”
If Mother hadn’t rolled her eyes first, I would’ve. “Biggy wasn’t joking. And I wasn’t either. I just didn’t know I needed more pills.” That shut them up. Faces swung to me like compasses. “But if you ever need to know, thirty-two aspirin just gives your brain the drizzling shits.”
Every mouth unmuted at the same time, and the living room sounded like nine people in a phone booth.
“Everyone. Shut it!” Confused, they looked at Nan because the shout had sounded just like her. But it was Mother.
I didn’t think about what suicide would do to Mother. I just wanted to kill myself to get back at you, Biggy, but you figured that out, didn’t you? And you don’t even regret it. I think you’re actually thrilled.
“Marsha.” Zandy nodded at Marsha’s daughters, who were drinking in every word.
“Go play in the back yard,” Marsha snapped her fingers. They scattered like yearling calves. “Aint Sister, why is Cutie so unhappy?”
Finally, a sensible question. Shall we make a list? Vin’s a drunk. Mother’s never home. And then there’s her unspoken fall from grace–I think everyone knows Vin sleeps here part time, even though he’s not her husband. And the Andersens. And I may have gotten expelled from school. And I lost two fights in one day. And Hell Creek is just a wart on the Oklahoma prairie.
“What would it have accomplished?” Zandy paused. “Killing yourself?”
“Do you think you’re helping?” Mother screamed at her sister.
“Girls!” Nan scolded.
“I don’t give a damn,” Mother said. “Don’t correct me. Zan started this; correct my sister.”
“I’m correcting you both. You’re over forty years old. When are you going to decide to get along?” Nan sounded wounded. “What did I do wrong to have raised such hateful daughters?”
Hah! Exactly what you always say to me, Mother.
“Cutie, weren’t you going to write history books?”
“Actually, Nan, not textbooks, more like novels about historical events. I want to write history that’s like TV for smart people.”
“Won’t that be grand,” Nan encouraged.
“I hope he can do all that.” Mother sounded dubious.
“Aint Sister,” Marsha prodded, “you ready to give Cutie his home-from-the-hospital present?”
I opened the package from Mother. Three brass figurines.
Mother rushed to explain. “A month ago, we were in the PX. I saw you looking at these brass statues, so I bought a giraffe, an elephant and two seagulls. They’re for your room right now, but when you go off to college, you can decorate your dorm.”
“Thanks.” I held them up. “They’re so heavy. Are they solid brass?”
“God damn!” Biggy whispered at the top of his voice. “We should just tie a frilly apron around my little brother.”
You know all my buttons, don’t you? Because you put them there.
“Biggy!” Mother shook her head at him. “You are not helping.”
“I think they’re gorgeous, Aint Sister.” Marsha soothingly disagreed with Biggy. “And they’re something you can collect, Cutie. I think they’re the perfect gift for a boy. They’re decorations, but they’re–handsome.”
“Why must you always ruin our get-togethers?” Mother accused Biggy. “You wait until everyone is in the room, and just when we’re having a good time, you always say something to hurt Cutie.”
“Is not the wool of the black sheep not as warm as the white?” Biggy’s face feigned a wound.
Every eye followed as I headed for the bathroom. I checked the medicine cabinet. Mother had removed the razor blades. I slipped through the kitchen to the picnic table under the carport.
“You’re missing your own party.” Mother crowded next to me. “What’s wrong?”
“What do you think?”
“Billy does love you. And he protects you.”
“Yeah. How many times have you said that? That never fails to piss . . . ” My anger rose, but I didn’t finish because I detest the coarseness of public cursing. “Biggy has never loved me. And you should have his head examined. All those hateful things he says? Can you really not see how sadistic he is? You’re my original source for that information. You’re the one who keeps telling about how Biggy used to steal my baby bottle just to make me cry, and how he used to bite me. I’ve still got a scar on my cheek. Which makes me his lifelong victim.”
I stopped short of hurting her with what I really wanted to say: Why haven’t you protected me?“Maybe Biggy does have a heart the size of a pickup truck, but even if he treats me badly just five percent of the time, that means he hates me, and he makes me hate him.”
“Billy doesn’t hate you. He’s the middle child. Middle children demand attention because they don’t think they get enough. He’s just a little jealous.”
“You know, you keep telling me to let it go. You always excuse Biggy, but you’ve never forgiven Zandy. She’s a bully; he’s a bully. How can anyone defend bullies? It makes no sense. And what does he have to be jealous of? He has a car, he has friends, he had a girlfriend.”
“He broke up with Wendy?”
“Other way around. He got mad last week. Punched her while she was driving. She dropped him like a hot rock from Hell.”
“I don’t believe that.”
“She’s scared of him. She told me herself.”
“I don’t believe it.”
“He did the same thing to me. He picked an argument while he was riding behind me on my motorcycle. He clubbed me in the back of the head.”
Mother looked shocked, but she didn’t condemn her bully son. She’d always told us: no matter what we did, no matter what we became, she was still our mother. “I wish you could see that he’s got a good heart.”
“Isn’t a good-hearted bully still a bully? Does Zandy have a good heart? They’re both alike. She waits until the room is packed to rake you over the coals. Your exact words.”
“She’s just a loudmouth. Nan is the same way.”
“Mother, you keep defending them. And instead of having confidence in me when I say I want to do something, you say, ‘Well, I hope he can do all that.’ That’s some cold shi . . . feces.”
“You know Billy brags on you all the time?”
“So? Who cares? He never says he’s sorry after he hurts me.”
“Billy never apologizes for anything. I guess he got that from Nan and Zan.” She looked at her watch and sighed. “Got to get back to work.” She’d opened Casa la Bello Pizza this morning, and she would close tonight so the manager could take off.
“TV Guide,” she sniffed from behind two waterlogged Kleenex, “says Oklahoma! will be on Sunday night. I can trade a pizza to Dairy Queen for hot dogs. Do you want to watch it together?”
Not really. “Sure. Chili and yellow mustard on mine. No relish. And no ketchup.” Zan eats hers with sauerkraut. Nan relishes Tabasco and hot peppers. Mother desecrates hers with mayonnaise, for the love of Baby Jesus. No respect for the dog.
Mother started her car and waved goodbye.
I’ve always wanted a just-add-water kind of life, but that’s not going to happen. Maybe I should find a bigger bottle of aspirin. That would solve my Biggy problem, and I won’t have to go back to school and face the Andersens. Maybe Sammie’s right; maybe I should run away to California. If I have to fight for survival, I need Daddy to teach me how.
I was inside the kitchen door when I heard Nan knock on glass. Mother leaned across the bench seat to roll down her passenger window.
“Are you going to let Big Guy continue to terrorize Curtis?” Nan was hard of hearing, so she spoke too loudly.
“What am I supposed to do, Mother? Take sides? Billy will hate me.”
“I’ve learned: if you’ve never been hated by your child, then you haven’t been much of a mother. So yes, get mad at Biggy when he does something wrong. Choose. There will be some drama, but if you don’t, you won’t like the result. I didn’t.”