With school out, every Thursday morning his sisters and Mother went to town for the weekly sale specials. They clumped together like wet clay. Jeremy guessed it was important for them to maintain a social network, but not so important for men. The first Thursday they were gone, Jeremy stayed with Papa who made a nest of tools in the garage tinkering on the rototiller. The cars had become too computerized and he took them away to be fixed. At least he could manage the simple tiller machine with the two cycle engine.
As Papa made random adjustments between four cycle engine and tines, Jeremy handed him greasy tools like screw drivers and pliers. This made Jeremy’s palms and fingers greasy. He decided to avoid further fatherly direction.
“Papa, what tool do you need now?” Jeremy asked. Papa didn’t answer. Jeremy guessed it would have broken Papa’s concentration loosening a rusted nut.
“Adjustable wrench,” he said. Jeremy thought Papa sounded like a doctor doing open heart surgery.
Jeremy gave him the wrench with one hand and a small hammer with the other thinking a few whacks on the nut would help. Papa ignored the offered hammer. Jeremy put it back.
“Hammer,” Papa said.
Jeremy gave him the hammer and picked up the pliers from the floor. Immediately, Papa reached down for the pliers that weren’t there.
“Why did you put the pliers back? Hand them here.”
Jeremy handed him the pliers and waited for further instructions. All he got were grunts from his Papa struggling with the nut. Jeremy circled his father to see what tool he would be expecting when they suddenly bumped legs. Unexpectedly, Jeremy fell backward throwing his greasy hands behind him to keep his pants off the dirty concrete floor. The grease on his hands took hold like grease would do on concrete floors, and Jeremy slid backward fast while kicking out with his legs for balance. He hit Papa’s ass who in turn lost his balance and tipped the rototiller over in his effort not to. The exposed tines looked like a laughing skeleton.
To break the silence of Papa sitting in his toolbox, Jeremy suggested they buy a new tiller. Papa spit out some distorted words which Jeremy never remembered. He backed out making sure he didn’t slip on the greasy concrete floor and proud that he kept his pants clean. He looked back once to watch Papa climb out of the toolbox with grease smeared in splotches on his pants.
Jeremy took this opportunity to sneak into his sister’s bedroom. Men never stayed together, anyway. At least that’s what he learned every Thursday in the summer. Besides, Jeremy figured it was time to learn something about these other people he shared a house with. Maybe I’m supposed to be with them instead of Papa, he thought. I could have this all wrong, this male-female relationship, he thought.
All three sisters shared one room that was three times larger than his, but to hold three developing girls it had too many clothes and looked smaller. That was his first impression as Jeremy pushed open the bedroom door with his heart thumping as if he was running a marathon. When the floor creaked, Jeremy jumped. It was not because he was scared. He was just being careful.
He flipped on their overhead light to better see the scattering of clothes and size of the room. Wendy the youngest had clothes piled on the floor next to her made up bed. Glenda, too. The oldest Sarah had the messiest part with clothes and shoes even on her unmade up bed. Maybe his sisters had more clothes because they were shaped different from him, Jeremy thought. He did not understand the blouses with buttons on the wrong side and skirts that wrapped around their thighs. These clothes looked like it would be harder to run fast or climb things.
Their big room that looked bigger with the lights on. It looked bigger than the dining room and kitchen put together because it was. You could make three rooms out of theirs and each one would probably be bigger than mine, Jeremy thought. They even had their own bathroom. Jeremy was not going in there. He did not want to accidentally find female products that they used in places Jeremy had not figured out yet.
Standing at the doorway, Jeremy almost forgot why he entered his sisters’ bedroom. He still did not know why, but he figured their bureau would be a good start. He felt pretty good about things as he pulled open the top drawer.
Jeremy could not figure out who owned the lacy underwear. He did not know why he touched the lacy things. But, the fingers on his left hand just ended up tangled in the elastic and silk. It was a trap. He shook his hand trying not to mangle the rest of the slippery material meant to cover leaky holes and support bags of flesh. He did not want to think about that since they belonged to the sister family. The material was so fragile that they moved on their own into contorted shapes that did not look like a neatly folded patterns. Why did they have a messy room and a tidy bureau drawer?
He had to get away. Jeremy could see his whole arm being dragged inside the long drawer. Finally, Jeremy shook his hand free leaving a clump of twisted, slippery material looking like a dead body. I didn’t do anything wrong. “Just curious”, Jeremy told the room. Shaky voice he almost did not recognize as he closed the door.
He figured he had been their too long already. Jeremy thought about what it would look like getting caught holding his sisters’ underthings. He suddenly remembered that some of the under clothes touched body parts that were alien to him. He did not want to catch anything. They talked about cooties when they talked about boys. Jeremy did not know what cooties were, but they sounded like something girls gave to boys who touched girl things.
Later, while pretending to read in his room, Jeremy he heard the threesome and Mother come home. Among the spill of chattering and a chaos of shopping bags, he suddenly remembered that he had left the bureau drawer wide open. Panic feeling came right into his throat. He felt like an idiot and a fool.
Jeremy heard them pile into their bedroom still chattering away like a flock of crows cawing at each other for attention. With a glass cup shoved so close to his ear that it hurt, Jeremy heard someone shove the bureau drawer closed without breaking stride in their chatter. He swallowed that hardness in his throat and vowed not to go snooping again.
The next Thursday, Jeremy made it back into his sisters’ bedroom after they and Mother left for town to shop. At first, Jeremy approached Papa in the garage, but his father’s look told him to get lost. In his sisters’ room, Jeremy stayed away from the sinister bureau drawer with the dark, unspeakable secrets that had it out for him. Instead, he stood near the beds smelling sweet perfume and surveying Sarah’s vanity at a distance.
One thing Jeremy learned from Sarah’s vanity was that she was the first to use makeup. He studied the tubes, canisters, and brushes without really seeing them. Somehow, this world of his sisters contained fragments of a society he had yet to fully understand one day. They had connection with each other made by the makeup and pieces of clothing they used to create an attraction. Jeremy wondered what it would feel like to fix his body so that people noticed and liked him. But, people might see something I didn’t want to show them, he thought.
Jeremy walked out of the room slowly and steadily knowing that he wouldn’t be found out. There was no one to see him come or go from this adjoining room to his. He regretted that he had not found something to prove that the sisters had been in his room and been just as curious. There was no evidence that they had any interest in who he was. Until the next month.
In July 1983, Glenda hit sixteen like a locomotive smashes into a car stuck on the tracks. Jeremy saw more of her skin than ever before. On the night of her birthday party, the house filled with giggling and gaggling girl chatter.
“You’re a boy. You think boys will be attracted to this body and love me?”
Glenda had pounded on his door with her foot and Jeremy wondered why she did not feel pain. They stood facing each other on the threshold of the door. Jeremy only hoped one day to be taller than she.
“What about your party?” Jeremy could hear people singing ‘Happy Birthday’ in the dining room.
“They don’t need me. They know the words. Are boys going to love me?”
Predictions like this had no meaning to him at his less than mature age. “Yeah, of course boys will like you. Why wouldn’t they? You didn’t get a tattoo, did you?”
“No, stupid. Why would I get a tattoo? Will boys like me if I had one?”
Jeremy did not like this situation. Glenda sought his brotherly advice on a topic he still did not understand himself. “You’re a girl. You’re not fat. Your face isn’t scarred. You got hips and breasts, so you got all the right equipment. And, your skin is hairless and smooth and fleshy.”
“I know what I want. It’s to get laid before I get out of high school. If I can’t do that on my own, I expect you to help me when you get older.”
She spun around and left as the singing died down. Jeremy shut his bedroom door trying not to picture Glenda having sex with someone he knew.
That evening, Jeremy saw her reading Christine. Jeremy imagined the evil car driven by a maniac Glenda running him down over and over because he could not provide her a suitable suitor.
To avoid Glenda’s presence for the next few days, Jeremy stayed outside pushing the vibrating rototiller between plant rows. A hot humid sun pushed sweat from his face that fell in a spiral and bounced off the hard clay. Through his salty haze, Jeremy scrutinized tomato vines slipping through wire mesh and green leaves that dangled pea pods from narrow stems. He puzzled at the onion sprouts and cabbage balls and wondered at how living things could creep up from such inhospitable clay. He admired his Papa’s talent to mother plants into living things from this incompatible soil. Why couldn’t the edgy moods of his sisters be put to greater use and come out to witness life’s growth?
Papa had placed the plants with enough space for Mr. Rototiller to breeze through. Jeremy just had to keep the machine from running away and taking him with it. He hit as many rocks as he could so that fixing a jammed rototiller engine would make Papa happy. Sometimes Mr. Rototiller hit the rock Jeremy meant for it to hit, spun in a non-straight direction, and took out one of those precious plants. Maybe his duty out here on the hard clay tundra of Papa’s farmland included hope that life would spring up despite loss. At least the tines would need sharpening so Papa would be happy with something to do.
Whenever Mother took the sisters in tow, Papa did not take his son. Papa had the clay soiled farm to hunt for spots to grow eatable plants that only he could do right. It was a question of communication. Jeremy thought that Mr. Rototiller clipped down those plants on purpose to bring about communication with Papa that didn’t happen.
At the end of July, Papa divided the girls’ bedroom into three. This caused a major renovation to one side of the house that ended with a reduction to Jeremy’s room. Another question as to why being the son was so good. Outside, Jeremy pushed Mr. Rototiller feeling his brain vibrating in his skull while inside his house world got smaller.
In the heat of summer and under the solitude of a hot sun, Jeremy felt the ground beat back. He watched the clumps of clay get smaller with each churn of the tines; he imagined the same thing happening to him and his bedroom. Maybe Papa did not realize this. Jeremy pretended he did not, anyway.
Published on August 25, 2009, by Thirteenth Warrior Review