HOLES IN THE SCREENS of the little house by the levee let in flies by day and mosquitoes at night. Down the tar and gravel road, past corn fields and the granary and the smokestacks of Peabody Coal, where black mud meets the Mississippi, tendrils of moss hang from the bare branches of half-submerged trees. When the sun goes down, heat lightning silent as prayer slides across the darkening sky. Swallows soar and dip in the damp air, feasting on fireflies, and in the glare of the flickering street lamp across from the house, June bugs big and hard as pecans buzz and whirl in frantic configuration. When the sky opens, rain pounds the levee and the levee breaks and Joey and his brothers play in the swirling brown water.
JOEY LIES IN THE DARK AND LISTENS. She’s going to tell him. She always does. When the front door slams, Joey jerks and curls into a ball.
Why are you awake? he hears his daddy say.
I’ve had enough! Enough! he hears his mommy scream.
Joey imagines her crooked mouth, her glassy eyes.
What is it now? his daddy says.
He blew up a frog with a firecracker! He peed on the neighbor’s porch!
He’s just a kid.
He stole a quarter from my change jar!
I’ll give you a lousy quarter.
I don’t want your goddamn money!
She coughs, then growls deep in her throat.
I’m tired! he says. Do I have to come home to this night after goddamn night?
She calls him a cocksucker and a whore monger and says how he did that dirty thing to that dirty girl Pauline in the loft above the feed store. He says, That was a long time ago! And she says, So I should forget, you dirty cocksucker?
He pulls off his leather belt and goes into Joey’s room where Joey is surrounded by his brothers in their sweaty underwear on the smelly mattress. He turns the light on. He fills the whole doorway. He looks scary but sad, like the clown in the Barney and Billy Circus. When he swings, Joey crawls under his brothers and they get the strap, too. When Joey puts his hands up and says, Please stop, he sees that his daddy is crying. Afterward, Joey crawls out the bedroom window and goes into his fort made of boxes and boards and sits on the tar paper floor and plays with his flashlight under a blanket. He listens to his mom and dad scream half the night: about him, about God, about the whore above the feed store. When it’s quiet, he sneaks back into bed. In the morning, his sister, Angela, comes into his room and says, Let me see. She fingers the raised welts gently. Does it hurt? she says. No, he says, and it really doesn’t.
SOMETIMES WHEN IT’S DARK, Joey climbs up on the roof and hangs over the edge and looks into Angela’s room. Music comes from the record player: Soldier Boy, Oh My Little Soldier Boy. Angela is naked and holds her self and dances in front of the mirror. She has hair down there, and Joey gets a funny feeling in his pants.
ON THE WALL IN THE FAMILY ROOM is a picture of Jesus with stickers in his head and his eyes rolled back. By the front door and by the door of each bedroom are holy water fountains. Joey and his brothers and his sister dip their fingers and cross themselves coming and going. At night they say the rosary after supper. The mom lights candles and they kneel on the hard tile floor each with a rosary in hand. Sometimes Joey’s mom is the leader and sometimes Angela. The leader says half a prayer and Joey and his brothers answer back the other half. There’s stuff about the living and the dead and the forgiveness of sins. And about God’s hollow name, and how his mother would be dead in an hour except she has fruit in her room, Amen. Then the leader names a mystery. There are Joyful mysteries and Sorrowful mysteries and Glorious mysteries and Luminous mysteries. Everyone must think about the mystery while they say tons more Hail Mary’s and Our Fathers, till their knees are screaming. Joey likes to think about the Luminous mysteries. They have light inside. Do they glow in the dark?
JOEY’S MOM COUGHS AND GROWLS deep in her throat. She holds a handkerchief to her mouth and says, I’m so tired! She lies on the couch and puts her arm across her face. Joey, she says, mommy is so tired! Would you be a good boy and rub her back? She turns over on the couch and Joey rubs her back and says, Mommy, are you going to die? She sits up and yells, What? Don’t you ever, ever, say that to your mother again! She coughs and growls and spits into her handkerchief, and Joey runs away.
JOEY HAS A FRIEND, BOBBY BECKER. Bobby’s mom won their house on Queen For A Day. They’re from another state—Arkansas. Joey’s mom says the Beckers are Hill Billies. Bobby has a new dad, a stepdad, a skinny man who doesn’t talk much, just sits on the porch and drinks beer all day, and a fat mom who tells the skinny dad: You ain’t got a lick a sense.
Bobby is a few years older than Joey and combs his hair back greasy duck-butt style and sings Ain’t Nothin But A Hound Dog. He goes to public school and calls the kids at Catholic school Cat-lickers. The kids at Joey’s school call the kids at Bobby’s school Publics. Sometimes Joey and Bobby go to the A & P and play Finders Keepers, Losers Weepers. They go up and down the isles and put stuff in their pockets: cellophane tape, scissors and pens, candy bars, cough medicine and cigars. They go out back and sit under the construction trailer on rolls of tar-paper and count the price stickers on their stuff, and whoever has the most gets to smoke the first cigar. They swallow cough medicine and smoke till they can’t stand up, then the Public teaches the Cat-licker to cuss:
Goddam motherfucker, shit piss fuck! Bobby says.
Then Joey says it.
Goddamn, titty ca ca, fuck a duck! Bobby says.
Then Joey says it. He doesn’t know what it means, but it sounds good, like praying on the beads of a rosary.
And time passes hazily on a hot day away from the house by the levee and too many brothers and the marble eyes and the flies and the holy water fountains.
JOEY ASKS HIS MOM can he have Bobby over to say the rosary.
It will do that little heathen some good, she says.
Bobby doesn’t kneel on the floor, he sits on a chair and fingers the beads. Angela leads the rosary and Bobby looks at her butt and mumbles along, and he and Joey look at each other and smile and look away.
JOEY’S DAD COMES HOME with a flesh-colored plastic Jesus wrapped in cellophane. I bought this at the novelty shop in town, he tells Joey’s mom. It’s luminous, it glows in the dark.
Joey’s mom gets red in the face and screams: Do you think I don’t know what luminous means, you ignorant cocksucker? Do you think this is funny? Do you think it’s sacred? It’s profane!
Her eyes are big and bright and her lips are crooked. She throws the plastic Jesus into the trash. Angela picks it out and says, Mom, we can donate this to the church for the Oktoberfest carnival. They need prizes.
I don’t care. Just get it out of here!
ANGELA TAKES JOEY to the Oktoberfest carnival in the school cafeteria. The tables are cleared away, and there are games and a pile of prizes. Joey enters the apple bobbing contest. The apples are too big to bite and bounce off his teeth. He gets one against his upper lip and nose and plunges his head into the water, pushing the apple to the bottom. He stays down until he can’t hear the sounds in the room, only the tinkle of bubbles that brush past his ears. He gets the stem of the apple between his teeth and bursts from the water when his lungs are screaming.
He points to the plastic Jesus in the pile of prizes. I’ll take that one, he says to the little nun who guards the pile. It’s luminous.
JOEY TELLS BOBBY: Come over tonight! I have a surprise!
Bobby taps on the window. Joey climbs out clutching the plastic Jesus. Under the blanket, he shines the flashlight into its face for a full minute, then hangs it by a nail on a board and flicks off the flashlight. The face glows with a weird and sorrowful look.
It’s a mystery, Joey says.
Yeah! Bobby says.
Joey pulls two rosaries from his pocket. I’ll lead, he says, handing one to Bobby.
Goddamn motherfucker, shit piss fuck! he says.
Then Bobby says it.
Goddamn, titty ca ca, fuck a duck, Joey says.
Then Bobby says it.
Let’s take off our clothes and do Hound Dog Man, Joey says.
They take off their clothes and count their pubic hairs. Bobby has one more than Joey. They shake their hips and Joey plays the air guitar and Bobby sings, You ain’t nothing but a hound dog, just a rockin all the time!
Joey says, Let’s do Jail House Rock.
Everybody let’s rock!
Everybody in the whole cell block
Was dancing to the jailhouse rock!
OUTSIDE, THE TREES ARE CRUSTED IN ICE and the frozen mud is frosted with snow. Joey’s mom packs a little suitcase and puts on her little round hat with the little feather, and her long grey tweed coat, and her black boots and gloves. She gives Joey and his brothers and Angela each a hug and says she’ll be back when she’s feeling better, and Joey’s dad takes her away in his car. Joey sneaks a dollar from her change jar and buys a bag of apples at the A & P and puts them in a bowl by her bed, where the sun lights them up and makes her room glow. But she doesn’t come home to see them, not that day, nor the next. Soon, the apples are shriveled and dark. Joey shines his flashlight on them, but they won’t hold the light.
THE NIGHT BEFORE HIS CAR spins round on the rain-slicked road, like a carnival ride gone off its track, and plunges into the swollen creek, Joey’s dad warns him: The law’s getting mighty tired of messing with you, son. You’re not a little boy anymore, you’re a grown man. Any more funny business, you’ll do a grown man’s time.
I HAVE TO GO, Angela says.
Her perfume smells like the first day of Summer.
She wears her dead mother’s pearls.
In Chicago, she says, I’ll have a life. There’s nothing for me here. I mean, you’re here, Joey, but…you’ll be alright, won’t you? Say you understand! Say you’ll miss me! You will miss me, won’t you?
Yes, I’ll miss you, Joey says, and he really will.
PIGEONS PERCH IN THE RAFTERS of the abandoned warehouse where Joey stores the stuff he burgles from houses in neighboring towns and sells at the flea market every Saturday on the lot of the old drive-in movie, where they haven’t shown a film since Black Board Jungle. He shines his light on the pile and picks what he’ll put on plastic tarps and folding tables tomorrow, loads it into a wheelbarrow and rolls it outside to his pick up truck. He goes back for another load and another, and when he’s finished he covers the stuff with a canvass cloth and lashes the cloth to the side of the bed with a cord, just as the dark of night explodes into blinding light and a rasping amplified voice commands that he put his hands on the side of the truck and spread his feet wide and way behind him, farther, farther, boy, or I’ll blow your fucking head off!
JOEY IMAGINES BOBBY’S BLOATED CORPSE lying face down on the steaming floor of a jungle on the far side of the world. Better, he thinks, then being a three-time loser in the County Jail waiting to be shipped to the Big House, the weight of a dozen years on your narrow shoulders.
ANGELA COMES DOWN FROM CHICAGO, where she does who knows what for money. She’s left her and Bobby’s baby with a friend.
Joey thinks her heels are too high, her skirt too short, her lipstick too red, but it’s her life. She has brought him sympathy and a few dollars and a rosary. That night he lies on his back on his bunk in his cell and fingers the beads.
Goddamn mother fucker, shit piss fuck, he says.
Goddamn, titty ca ca, fuck a duck, he says.
It helps the time go by…