The Unimpressive Storyby Janet Mitchell
YOU WANT a story? I’ll give you a story. But I don’t promise you’re going to like it very much. I’m not even sure I like it very much. Here goes:
Summers, hillside, nearby our house, my brother showed me how to make music from grass. Plucking some long strand, he placed it long-ways between his thumbs and blew with his eyes shut. I sat so close I could see the small veins in his eyelids and his long, long eyelashes. I wanted to feel his eyelashes so I leaned toward him. He must have felt my knee moving against his knee, or else he felt my body coming toward his body, because, as I leaned ever closer, he always opened his eyes on me. My brother had eyes the color of the sky after the rain: that slate gray, not quite blue color.
Lies, lies, and lies.
My brother liked to stand underneath the awning of the outside bar before the rain came and feel the wind stirring. “Come out and feel it,” he would say to me. I would be standing behind the screen door. “It makes me want to take my clothes off and run in it,” he would say, sometimes, unbuttoning his shirt. Mother would zip me into my elephant slicker, tie on my hat and pull on my boots before letting me go out to him. I would climb up onto the bar and dangle my feet against the wood. My cheek would press his. Blinking my eye very slowly, I would give him butterfly kisses. He would touch the top of my hat and tell me it was nice, but he’d had enough.
“God’s bowling today,” he would say. “Listen, he’s made a strike.” And I would see this giant God, this blonde-bearded God with a long hooked nose and a huge forearm letting go of this giant bowling ball, and the giant ball flattened the clouds as it rolled on toward the pins, giant white pins, WHAMM-O!
“What?” my brother said. “Is this what you want?” He picked a fresh strand of grass and placed it between my thumbs. “Now blow through.” I blew, but I made no sound. “Keep trying, you’ll get it,” he said. I rolled onto my back, onto my side, on down the hill. The hedge stopped me. My brother stood above me. The shadow of his body was on mine. “I can’t see the clouds,” I said. “Come down, and watch the clouds with me.” He lay down beside me. I could hear him breathing. I tried to match my breathing with his. I thought I had it when he asked if I saw the elephant chasing the lamb chasing the bear. I said I didn’t. I saw the arches of heaven and mustangs galloping on through. NEIGH!
My brother sang and played the guitar back then. He leaned against the trunk of the crab-apple tree, as I swung on the swing attached to the thickest limb. His voice wasn’t anything close to being beautiful, but he thought for a while he would become famous with it anyway. Often the crab-apples fell as he played. They would hit him, his guitar. He would stop playing, and holding the guitar to his chest, he would look up at the crab-apples as though, he thought, just by looking at them he could keep them there on the branches. I thought if I pumped my legs hard enough, I could get high enough to fly off into the sky, to sail out over the tops of the trees surrounding our house to land on top of the clouds I liked so much to find animal shapes in.
How old were we then? I don’t remember. Were we eight and four? Eleven and seven? I don’t remember. Why didn’t we take more pictures? And yet I know that summer was not so long ago. It could not have been so long ago, because Mother has not been gone for that long, and I could not have gotten so old, as old as I am now, too old for my own liking. But however long it has been, those past summers have already merged into one summer, and no matter where I am, I am forever that girl, in that place, with those people.
Most days, my brother and I stayed at the river. He swam. I knelt on the bank, skimming stones. With each PLUCK! I imagined my brother bathed in a different color: in ink blue, dark violet, orange orange, rock-star red. Sometimes I threw in handfuls of rocks and watched my brother in the midst of the flowing rainbow.
After swimming a good ways up the river and back on down, my brother swam over to where I was. He placed his wet hands on the grassy bank and pressing down, slowly up out of the water, he rose: his dripping forearms, his dripping chest, his dripping stomach. He held himself there. “Coming in?” he asked. “Is it cold?” I asked. Before he answered, I leaned forward and laid my hand on his chest. I rubbed my hand all the way down to the hair below his belly button. I rubbed slowly, pretending all the while there was a photographer in the bushes capturing us forever.
I’m sorry. I have to stop here. I have to take a breather. I don’t like much of this story I’m writing down. Maybe I shouldn’t even be writing it, saying the things I’m saying. I’m not even getting it right. This brother is nothing like my brother. I mean, I don’t even have a brother. I used to, but he’s a dead one now. Years ago, I don’t remember when exactly, he slit himself up real good: over the selling of the house, over the loss of a cat, over something we didn’t even know was inside of him that had made him so unhappy for so long he couldn’t stop it once it started to come out.
Is that true? Is what I just wrote true? I think it is. It feels true. But even if it isn’t, it doesn’t really matter because I have told myself this story for so long it has become true, and this brother has become my brother, the one in the frames on the walls of where I live now. The brother with the curls I wish I had even now.
Daddy forced my brother and me to have our picture taken for Mother’s Day. The photographer kept saying, “Smile. Smile. You’re much too pretty of a girl not to smile.” I kept my lips together. I certainly did not think Mother deserved anything for Mother’s Day, let alone a picture of children she did not love so much. Daddy said she did love us very much, but I told him that if she had loved us, she wouldn’t have left us. He said I was just plain wrong about that.
I can still see Mother stomping her feet on the tiles she and Daddy had brought back from Italy. These lapis blue and emerald green tiles that my brother hated at first and then came to love so much once he got used to them that he insisted on taking them out and wrapping them up for posterity before Daddy put the house up for sale.
Now that’s the story I should be telling you. The story of when the house was put up for sale and what happened afterwards. That For Sale sign was shoved midway up the hill. It had giant black and red letters so as not to be missed. Lawyers bought my house. A husband-wife team, who stayed in it for little over a year. Just long enough to rip off the wallpaper in my room and paint over the mural my brother and I made—when?—I don’t remember—back around the time I have been telling you about. I remember our mural looking so nice. Mother, Daddy, both agreed, they’d paid the extra to have it covered over first before the regular wallpaper went over it. So much for the notions of childhood. Say what you will, it is not right to sell off a person’s place in the world, and you wonder—right?—you wonder then, why your child cannot sleep at night and turns her face away in the day.
Mother was stomping her feet, banging her fists against the sides of her legs, saying things I don’t even want to remember her saying, and yet I do.
Yes, Mother, still. I’m not going to say, though. I’m going to keep being a lady as much as I can.
Daddy was leaning against the stove with his arms folded across his stomach. That was the first time I saw how old Daddy was: how lined his skin was, how puffy. His mouth hung open and down, as if at any moment he was going to speak or cry. He didn’t. He left and drove off somewhere, probably the woods from the looks of his car when he got back: the bugs on the windshield, the mud on the chrome.
From behind the patio railing, I watched my brother and Daddy wash the car. They were saying things I could not hear. When I said I couldn’t hear what they were saying, they stopped talking. My brother said, “Go out back, swing, do something.” “You go do something,” I said and stayed where I was. A demon with fairly spectacular wings floated across the sky.
Mother left days, weeks, months later. My brother and I came back late from the river to a house which looked as though she was still in it. The lights were on in every room, and none of the curtains were closed. I called to her, the way I did every time I came in, and when she did not answer, I ran room to room, den, kitchen, dining room, bathroom, saying, “Do you know what he did to me?” The house had never seemed so big. My brother had already gone upstairs. He had gone up as soon as we had come in. I took the stairs two at a time and ran into her room, the bathroom, the hallway. The attic door was open. Over by the window, Daddy was sitting, my brother standing before him. Daddy said maybe we should all just go and be outside for a while. It is good to be outside.
Oh, boo hoo, I say. Boo hoo for me.
Summer nights, hillside, nearby our house, my brother watched me catch fireflies. He said, “No, over there, there’s one.” I brought them to him in cupped hands and placed them in the jar he held. The ones I couldn’t catch, the higher up ones, he might try for, usually not. “Leave them be,” he would say. “They didn’t do us no harm.” Soon the other kids were out catching fireflies too. If enough kids came out, we would stop catching fireflies and go play kick ball. The girl who lived down the street always brought the red rubber ball. Her name was Kiki. She was younger than my brother, older than me, and she had big, gooey-ooey lips that smelled like strawberries.
Isn’t it funny: how I tell you her name? Hers and not my brother’s? It’s simple, really. His matters, hers doesn’t.
Kiki always made sure she got on the same team as my brother. When their team was up to kick, she sat next to him. Instead of watching the game, she would look at him and talk, talk, talk. He would answer her, but he would keep his eyes on the game. He said he liked to see who let the ball go through their legs the most so that when he was up to kick, he would be able to kick a homer.
My brother started watching Kiki after she started looking like the girls he had taped on the back of the stolen For Sale signs that covered the walls of his room. I was in his room just to be there when he was off doing I don’t know what when I knocked into one of the signs. The sign fell onto the rug, backside up. And there was Miss April. She had giant breasts and curly blonde hair curving all the way down to her bushy blonde crotch where her long red fingernails rested. I wouldn’t say she was beautiful. She was something, though. Something other than me. I had never seen a Miss April before. I had not even seen Mother naked before. I hung the sign back up on the wall and turned over the other signs. Each sign had a different Miss month, but all of them had the same giant breasts, the same bushy crotches, crotches matching the color of the hair on their heads.
My hair was brown, but my crotch wasn’t. It was hairless and soft, softer than my eyelids. My breasts did not even look like breasts. They were flat against my skin. I didn’t want my body to be the way it was. I didn’t want it to be the way Miss April’s was either. The first hairs I plucked out as soon as they grew in.
Those lapis blue and emerald green tiles I was telling you about. I have them still. My brother gave them to me, because I had a house, and he didn’t, and he kept moving around so much and wanted to know where they were so he could feel okay about them. So he didn’t have to worry. So he could always come back and get them. He put them in the crawlspace in the back bedroom, behind some children’s books I never had the heart to get rid of. I haven’t looked at them since we put them up there, but they should be all right. The crawlspace is insulated. There is no reason why they shouldn’t be all right. But I should check after I’m done writing this just to make sure.
I heard them as I was walking home from the kick ball game. They had left early, and my brother hadn’t come back to get me like he said he would. They were a little ways back in the woods, underneath the oak I always thought would have been a good tree to hang a swing from. She was on her back. Her knees were bent. Her fingers were curling his hair. His face was between her legs. His shirt was off, but his jeans were on. “Come on,” she said, and she pushed my brother’s head away. He stood up and walked over to her. She sat up. He undid his pants and took himself out. She dropped her head, turned her face away, but he grabbed the back of her head and forced her to take him. He moved her head with his hands. Before he was through, he let her go. She stood up and leaned against the tree. “Let’s finish it,” she said, and he pressed himself against her.
I wish my memory was better. I wish it was so good I could tell you things you have never heard before.
That night, when my brother pulled the sheets, the blanket, the bedcover with roses on it up to my neck and smoothed them with his hands, I held my body tight. “Don’t touch me,” I breathed. He leaned into my face. I turned my face away. “You don’t want a bedtime kiss?” he said. “Getting too old, all grown up, is that it?” He stroked my hair. I thought he smelled of her. I grabbed him around his neck, tried to pull his face down onto my neck, and he said, “Hold up, little Missy.”
I wish I could go back to this moment: my brother holds his hands in front of my face and says, “Look at these hands. You have never seen such hands.” He is right. I have never seen such fingers, fingers thicker than big toes, and I have never seen such palms, palms as wide as they are long. “Go ahead, touch,” he says, and his palms feel like the dirt that is in the creases and underneath the fingernails he has not chewed down all the way. When I take my hand away, I take away some of the dirt. “Okay, ready?” he asks and takes my hands in his. He pulls my thumb straight out and hard, real quick, until I hear the pop. “You are going to have the biggest knuckles of any girl in town,” he says, going on to the next finger, pulling that until I hear the pop; then pull and pop, pull and pop, until he has pulled and popped every one of my fingers. He lets go of my fingers and looks down at my feet. “Not the feet,” I say. “Just don’t do the feet.” But his hands are taking off my sandals, wrapping around my feet. “You’re going to pull off my foot!” I yell. “Always wanted a foot,” he says and covers my toes with his palm. He pulls down with his wrist. All my toes pop at once.
My first was all sweat. He was about the same as my brother in the chest, but different down there. When he got off me, I stood up and walked down to the river.
I hope you excuse me the details. The only one worth telling was how my head kept banging against the root of the tree, and he didn’t seem to know.
Even though I told him not to, he followed me. He watched me stepping into the river with all my clothes, my shoes on. I told to him leave. When he didn’t, I told him if he didn’t, my brother would beat the living shit out of him. He left. As I pulled off my shirt, my bra came off. I dropped them in the river and watched them float until I could no longer see them floating. I pushed my panties down my legs and worked them off with my feet. I stepped on them, pushing them into the bottom of the river. I rubbed my hands over my body, over all the places where he had touched. Taking handfuls of mud from the bottom of the river, I smeared it on my legs, my stomach, my chest, my neck, my arms, my face and even my hair. A stone skimmed my way. He was back.
They always come back. No matter what they say, they do.
He wanted to take me home. He gave me his shirt. His shirt hung down past my knees. As we walked, he tried to hold me around my waist. I told him he had done about as much touching as he was going to do. He walked next to me, slightly ahead. He kept his hands out in front of him, open, as if I was going to fall, and he was going to catch me.
I don’t know what my problem was. He doesn’t sound all that bad to me.
The screen door was open, thank God; my keys were in the river somewhere. I was certain of that. Daddy was snoring on the couch.
“He’s asleep. He must have fallen asleep,” I said to him through the screen door. “How about a goodbye kiss?” he said. “I’m not your girl,” I said.
I didn’t say that. I never said that. Who would say that?
I watched him walk away from the door, walk around the side of the house. I went upstairs and into my brother’s room. He was sleeping with his face facing the ceiling. I unbuttoned the shirt and dropped it to the floor. I wondered if he knew I was there. I leaned closer and he opened his eyes on me.
So that’s it. That’s all I have to say. I don’t think it’s much of an ending, but that’s okay. It is how the story ends. It’s not impressive, but then I never was an impressive girl.
Janet Mitchell's short stories have appeared in The Quarterly, among other venues.