At the Root — Rebbecca Brown
CJ made a mother out of birthday cake, so I decided I’d force a father from the dirt I now tendered. CJ made that mother years ago from wanting something sweet to do a little disco on the back of the tongue, and once CJ was gone, I set about clearing the shed of rooty snags while I thought about the candy confetti of CJ’s mother’s hair. CJ always had one eye half open towards the sun, the other looking skitter round at everything all at once, this dancing eye the color of moss that furred in clumps around river rocks. The sun search eye was ocher burnt and blighted.
CJ had come after me to the place where shaggedy kids without folks tugged on one another’s arms. I was glad to finally have CJ since the others were left strewn across a land I crissed across. CJ brought wisdom to my misguide and showed me the ten different ways to stand on your head, told stories about the backwards alleys where snarling uncles danced, and promised that one day we would leave together if we joined the army, marching around like shell-shocked ants.
There was once a little boy with haystacked hair who watched them trail from the floorboard. He pinched and smashed them until CJ whacked him hard across the back and he rolled over like a pill. He was only with us a few days because he was cute enough to fit in the cradle of his mother’s fingers, which linked ratty little baskets around his cherub ass. CJ and I watched his mother jitter towards the car after talking with Ms. Debbie Sue, our caretaker whose pockets were filled with stale candies she’d sometimes slap into our hands.
Crown Royal, all right. CJ said.
Is she drunk? How do you know? I imagined floating in a pool of the amber burn.
Peach! Spaz mom’s car. It’s a Toyota.
I watched CJ’s lively eye trail across the patch burned grass.
I once had a gambling granddad who traded cars for land. I know a Pinto from a Pontiac, even though they died a long time past. CJ picked up a handful of those now empty seashells that somehow made their slow crawl from a sea that must have been a million miles away to die near a hose that Ms. Debbie Sue was always telling us not to slobber on. CJ circled an arm around seven times and flung the shells towards the car as it carefully crunched gravel, deliberately driving away in an excessive show-off slow. Some of the shells skipped across the trunk and sounded like the start of rain. The boy was sucking a pudgy thumb in the back seat, and the fake rain shocked him into a last look back. CJ raised a fist and pumped it in a heavy metal dance.
Where do you think they live? I asked, watching the boy’s disappearing glance.
The trailers, Peach. The ones that smell like raid and bleach.
CJ called me Peach, even though that wasn’t my name. It started the day we played Sway the Swing behind the shed, a blessing I wished for time and time again. I imagined the shadowy place behind the rusted building I now crouched in, bending back and forth like reeds as CJ invoked the laying hands. When CJ shouted Peach! Peach! Peach! I swear the sky brought down a lightning that zapped my spine through the blissing ground.
I crouched and cursed the tangled mess as I pulled root after root, not finding where one would start and the other begin. I missed CJ and wondered if my dirt father would marry CJ’s birthday cake mother so we’d be together again. With CJ gone, I’d do anything to make sure this father never did the things the flesh one did.
I tugged on one of the especially muscled roots and saw something squiggle. I released the clasping mass and found a worm draped around the root making a twined necklace you might see around a lady’s neck. I pulled it from its not worm friend and pressed gently against the wriggle. It coiled into a question mark and then played dead. I flung it to the root pile and set to work hoeing fresh dirt with my hands.
Before I made him, I had to clear the space of roots. This I knew from everything I’d heard: root of the problem, root root root for the home team, root of all evil, remember your roots, rotor rooter is the name, rooted in pain, rooty tooty fresh and fruity, and the one I remember most because CJ sang it as we showered: Die those roots! Die these roots! Die those roots! Even now I can hear CJ singing through the stalls.
I think CJ was maybe talking about hair because sometimes CJ pulled eyelashes from the sun-seeking eye and glued them into tiny people dancing the cancan on the underside of gum wrappers. CJ pressed these pictures in books and took them out two months later because that’s when CJ said the wishes would wind their way through the letters to a place where someone would understand. After two months, CJ strung together a mobile of the foiled eyelash dancers that still lingered with the scent of mint, CJ’s favorite, and hung it on the trees to draw the crows in close. When I saw CJ tying the sparkling string to the White Oak, this was the first time I believed in CJ’s something, because the crows sure enough came cawing. This sent me into a memory of the man with his hands in his pants. The White Oak shivered with blueblack feathers and sent me toward a sea I’d never seen.
CJ told me the White Oak was a Marker Tree that used to point the way toward caves or buried gold. CJ said the gold might be where the shed now stood, or else it marked the goodly dead, so CJ got on Ms. Debbie Sue’s generous side by scrubbing the bathtub until our gritty feet washed clean. But we couldn’t continue our plan to get quickly into the shed, which entailed us choreographing a dance so elaborate it’d take all the curtains to costume and Ms. Debbie Sue clapping and shouting Heaven’s to Bitsy! while CJ stole the key and I did my toe heel hop, because that’s when Little Pinch arrived howling in a satchel.
Little Pinch needled and mewled all day long, so right away CJ and I hated Little Pinch, the name we gave it after we took its marble yellow thigh between our thumbs and squeezed while chanting Pus! Pus! Pus! It didn’t matter a thing, because Little Pinch cried no matter what, in our dreams or as we sang or walked. We began secret meetings behind the shed beneath spiders’ glistening webs, because Ms. Debbie Sue was now occupied completely with Little Pinch.
Ms. Debbie Sue spent all her time boiling water and bouncing Little Pinch around, so CJ and I were free to dig for buried gold. We pretended we were miners as we pulled clumps of grass and dandelions while singing the song those little men sung. Ms. Debbie Sue once showed us a cartoon of yodeling miners while she cut pictures of women’s dresses out of magazines, because when the TV was on our mouths were closed. Cutting the heads and arms off women in magazines was Ms. Debbie Sue’s hobby, and she’d do it all day long if we didn’t bother her to feed us or borrow lipstick to draw clown faces on mirrors or make combat boots out of duct tape to hike through the surrounding woods. While Ms. Debbie Sue glued dresses in the big black book, CJ and I watched the TV and listened to the slivering scissors while we quietly poked fingers in each other’s pant holes. Ms. Debbie Sue’s book was the only thing she didn’t want CJ or I to touch, so you’d better believe we had grand plans to bury it in the dirt once we uncovered all that gold, a fair exchange with earth.
But what if there are ghosts? They’ll chop our hair off like they did in the old days. Mine was ratty and stuck out like a hedgehog. Ms. Debbie Sue never made me brush or wash it.
Didn’t you learn anything in school, Peach? People used to say they took the skin clean off heads, but that’s because people are dumb.
I wanted to cry then, so I turned toward the field and faked a sneeze and cough.
What’s wrong? Did you swallow a fly?
I got really angry. Tears were sliding down my cheeks even though I didn’t want to entertain them long. I turned to CJ with fists like hammers tapping against my hipbones. My father used to say that.
What? CJ dropped a clump of dirt with dandelion stems sticking out of it like an itchy bomb. When I didn’t answer, CJ sat down next to it in the grass. A shadow was moving along and covered CJ’s scatter eye from the sun. He said that you were dumb?
I squeezed my fists tighter but instead of pounding them against my hips or into CJ’s stationary eye, I put them on my waist and shifted from side to side like I had to pee. I swallowed a fly! I swallowed a fly! I live in a shoe and I swallowed a fly! I opened my mouth and spat as high as I could into the sky. Like a magnet seeking metal to hug onto, it landed with a phwack on CJ’s dandelion clump.
CJ jumped up and started spinning like a saw. Buzz Buzz Buzz! I’ll do it, Peach! I’ll cut his head clean off! Buzz Buzz Buzz! And this is when I knew CJ and I were like two steel irons shivered next to each other who’d stick like that forever.
That’s why I now scraped dirt and pulled roots alone, because Little Pinch ruined it all. When Little Pinch arrived, I didn’t mind the howls and cries, since sometimes they reminded me of the stringy cats jumping on top of one another in the alley if the raccoons hadn’t scared them off. When I was small I liked watching them wander below, sounding like need when they yowled. Little Pinch was like one of those lonesome cats that had snuck into my father’s basement, the gray one I couldn’t leave alone that ushered in the time my throat got burnt with soap.
CJ knew I didn’t like remembering most things and told me to look forward, make what you can, make everything move on, make it, make it, so I focused on pulling roots, but they were crabby and they clung.
I’ve got to make a tea to stop the screaming, CJ said one night as we lay with our toes tapping against each another across the edges of our beds. We had pushed them together to make a catwalk, and every night before we fell asleep we swayed our pajamas across as the porch light camera snapped.
Tea? It’s not cold. I took the edge of CJ’s pajama shirt between my finger and thumb. It felt like the blanket I once needed to clasp.
Quiet. We need it now. CJ’s still eye was looking right at me, and this is how I knew what CJ said was something serious.
Little Pinch? I don’t mind it. I stared at CJ’s face. The porch light had turned it into something still like stone.
You don’t know what it was like, Peach. And I know we don’t talk about it, and it’s good because we don’t want to bring it back-it’s gone. But it was loud. She was always screaming. I need to do it. For us. CJ placed a hand on my cheek and it was cold. I watched CJ’s eyes to see if they would wander but they stilled steadily. I should have never called you Peach.
You plus me and more. CJ ran a hand along my arm. Look at all that glitter! When the porch light went out, the rubbing made us spark.
I let CJ do what CJ would do, because all I wanted was for us to find gold and leave together. I stared at the White Oak for signs while CJ gathered plants to steep in a dead dog bowl. The Marker Tree revealed nothing to me, and I had to sit still while I waited.
One night Ms. Debbie Sue was bouncing Little Pinch on her knee while she searched for paper dresses. On TV, CJ and I watched a man in a cardigan take off his shoes. It terrified me that he could walk through walls and follow a train he talked to in whistles. CJ told me to stay put and went away while I shuddered against the couch because a blue owl that looked like a balloon was deflated.
Would you just stop? Ms. Debbie Sue had one arm wrapped around Little Pinch, who was folding back and forth and wheezing like an accordion, and with the other she was trying to cut the head off of a woman wearing an emerald gown. The magazine slithered onto the floor because of Little Pinch’s squirming. Ms. Debbie Sue jabbed the scissors into the table, silver eyes straight up and staring. She pulled Little Pinch onto her shoulder and marched towards her room, slamming the door like I had never heard her before. From behind the door, Little Pinch’s wails stabbed the air to shreds. CJ slinked in from outside and sat down next to me with a baby food jar full of slime. For a second I thought there were tadpoles inside, but they were little blossoms that looked like tightlipped mouths.
Ms. Debbie Sue slid around the door and closed it like she was carefully shutting a jewelry box. She wore ugly heels I had never seen her in before that were gruesomely scuffed. CJ slipped the jar in a cushion crack between us.
You two stay here. The baby is sleeping. I hadn’t noticed the sudden silence. Ms. Debbie Sue reached into her purse and pulled out two candies covered in gold wrappers. She placed them gingerly into our hands. I awaited the familiar sting, but there was none. I looked at my flesh for the blush, which didn’t come. I closed my fingers. Then Ms. Debbie Sue was gone.
Wait here, Peach.
I watched as CJ snuck into Ms. Debbie Sue’s room with the jar while the man in the cardigan began to put dress shoes on. I squeezed the candy tight against my palm. The man in the cardigan was tying his shoes and singing in a creepy voice about how we could be happy together.
CJ carefully came out of the room and walked over with a faint jangle. The baby food jar was gone. Together on the couch again, CJ grabbed the hand that didn’t hold the candy and dropped in a golden ring married round a silver key.
It’s ours now, Peach. We can make it.
That was the only night we spent together in the shed. CJ sang a little ceremony while we slow danced an X over roots that cleaved too strong.
They were almost all pulled now. This was where the feet would form. I had to work as fast as I could to make sure the job was done, since CJ and Little Pinch and Ms. Debbie Sue were now all gone. I knew there was no gold beneath, because I had held it only for a moment in my dirty making palm.
Little snail shell fingernails. Foil wrapper eyelids. Some of CJ’s eyelashes fluttered as I molded the eyes, carefully soft. I placed candy into the dirt mouth as a syrup suckled tongue and wrapped wriggling earthworm lips that smelled of sweet mint. I wound fingers with dandelion thumbs.
I looked through the shed door at the diminishing light toward the Marker Tree, now covered again with crows. They were cackling Die these roots! when he climbed upon me. Together we walked toward the cloudy sky, where I felt the magnet’s pull. Soon the rain began to pour, turning the father I made from dirt back into the mud.
Rebbecca Brown’s debut novel They Become Her was published in 2014 by What Books Press. Her work has appeared in print and online journals such as American Literary Review, Confrontation, Requited, New South, The Turnip Truck(s), 88: A Journal of Contemporary American Poetry and Ekleksographia (among others). A former Fulbright-Nehru Lecturer, she is currently an Assistant Professor of English at Western Kentucky University.