f i c t i o n
A Childhood Tainted by Wisdom and Flames
(An excerpt from a longer work-in-progress with the working title They Still Believed in Fiery Angels)
It’s me borrowing the eyes of God and putting this tale into its frame, so you need to know about me. I started out as a compact child with hair plaited painfully and, it seems to me now, who was dressed younger than my years my whole life. I had a miserable face on account of my stick-out teeth. I had an overbite, Mrs. Chomska the school dentist told me, which didn’t sound so bad, except when I said that to kids they said, “Yeah, like an alligator, maybe.” I guarded those teeth under a pout that made me look like an argument that had happened. Later I wore wire correction braces on them, then had them fixed up to hooks and blocks, a miracle of engineering that gave me the smile of a tin can robot. I wore my pout to cover them up, and couldn’t get rid of it after. I damned the slanty eyes I got from my great granny, until the fire inside them made me glow, and caught others in its flares. I had skin that wanted to be brown, but just had a yellow tint, and didn’t look like I had a right to hair so blond it was almost white, but that’s what I had.
I had no sisters, had a brother name of Calloway who lay in his crib and turned the deepest blue and died six days after he was born. His remains were put in the graveyard behind our local little black church of the Holy Virgin under a stone that puns Little Calloway Called Away. Like most babies in our little Penn town of Balz, Calloway wore a red thread around his wrist, supposed to protect him from the evil eye till he got baptized, but it didn’t do him any good. I swore he’d be the last baby came out of our family to wear a thread.
When my dad’s noisy friends stopped by in their shiny suits and their twinsets, Dad jumped me through hoops to show what a clever girl I was. My teachers at Christ the Almighty Elementary School didn’t see me that way, flashed me indulgent smiles as they told dad I was a little slow, maybe. The gaze he rested on them said something like if they wanted him to arrange for the new heating system to be put in at cost, then I’d still pass all my tests, wouldn’t I, slow or fast?
I had friends who didn’t think I was slow. For a time I assumed this was out of loyalty, but it was mainly because they were even slower. I hung out with the rich set from the Cliff Crest quarter, where we lived. They were my own kind, or so I was led to believe, and I believed that for a long time.
Dad’s money came from his being a hotshot building inspector. He was a regular john building inspector till he blundered into a contract with a client by the name of Theodore House. Dad traveled all over for Mister House and attested that perfectly safe buildings were about to fall down, for some reason. Sometimes, he attested to the perfect safety of buildings that were really about to fall down. And sometimes, safe or not, those buildings burned, mysteriously, and were lost forever, left just blackened holes behind them that soon too became a memory. Somehow, Theodore House made money on the deals, and so did dad. He got behind the worsted shoulders of financiers and put his money into savings and medical and pension plans, wrapped up in this clause and that for this eventuality on the markets or that.
“Where does it all come from?” By the time I was at the age when that question popped up in my head, Dad answered with things like, “My princess doesn’t want to know that.”
I had to ask Mom. She told me, “I just spend it, honey.” I ha-hahed my way through this invitation into her women’s conspiracy, but I had an instinct that there was more to money than that. I don’t know how I knew that when nobody else around me seemed to. Maybe I wasn’t so goddam slow. The silver we had, the china, the cut glass, the knick-knacks and chatchkas on shelves, the garish oils on the walls, I just sensed one day that it was no earthly use to a soul.
I said we could easily give some money away to people who needed it someplace, I didn’t know who or where. Mom said the details of Dad’s money would get passed on to my husband when Dad got old. I thought, ‘Husband?’ I caught a flickered scene of some leering fat boy who slapped my ass in greeting every time he came home demanding his dinner. I blinked it to a close, said, “Then I can start giving it away?”
“My money is like an agreement, honey.” Dad winked. “Between gentlemen.”
“That includes me out,” I declared. “Because I’m no gentleman.”
Gentlemen or not, what would they be able to do once I’d given the money away to feed starving Indians, or whoever?
“Hey, us gentlemen would be mad as hell if my princess turned into a goddam pinko.”
“No doubt. What’s that?”
Dad didn’t let me raise the subject of money with him again. He didn’t get old, either. Instead, the summer I graduated, he shot into a canyon on the way back from a trip when the brakes gave out in the new Packard he was driving, and he made a flaming arc down the scree, and left a black one behind him. It dawned on me that Mister House and his friends did it for some unfathomable reason. I knew by then that gentlemen like that had a logic all their own.
I also thought I knew what happened to people who got caught in the orbit of that particular kind of gentleman. I kept my face from Mom, didn’t want her to see the knowledge there. In her widow’s weeds, she had to swear an affidavit to say she held ownership of a roll call of phony companies and got a deal that left her comfortable but beefing just the same.
Once that was done, one of the swells in the shiny suits came by around ten one night. He assured Mom that he wasn’t going to let no family of no friend of his go-to no wall, and could she just sign these papers, please? He came up the stairs and into my room to tell me the same thing. “Anything I can do for you.” He wet my ear with his breath.
“You tell me,” I said there was one little thing. “That’s what, sweetheart?” He thumped his chest. “You tell, I do.” I said he could certainly take his hand off my knee. He looked at me a long time, then got up, said, “Hey, I can tell you and me are going to be friends.”
I fretted about this, and about the papers, Mom signed, till maybe six weeks later when a whole circus troupe of guys in more somber suits swarmed over the house. They carried Internal Revenue and Customs Department ID cards, then carried out shedloads of documents from dad’s study, and put an end to the whole thing.
It was the end too for me and Mom of the whole business of Cliff Crest life, the parties and the friends and the noises they made that echoed through my childhood that, no matter what people said as they witnessed me dressed up as a child, got tainted by wisdom, and the knowledge that I was never far away from flames.
Laikonik Express, Nick Sweeney’s Poland novel, was published by Unthank Books in 2011. His novelette The Exploding Elephant is out with Bards and Sages. He is a freelance writer and a musician. More than any sane person could want to know about him can be found at http://www.nicksweeneywriting.com