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"Out Back," short story excerpt

Tuesday 1/11/22

“I’m going out back,” my father would announce when he was at his angriest and didn’t want to show it or had hurt himself in a way he thought was stupid, like by banging his thumb nailing a board to the wall, as if there’s a smart way to hurt yourself. We had lot of boards to be nailed to walls in our house, it seemed, especially by windows.

“Is that where the cold gets in the most?” I remember asking him when I was a young girl and hoped he might involve me in his repairs.

“Cold gets in where you let it,” he said, and I was proud we had the authority to decide, which is how he made it sound. In what passed for our backyard was a well that’d also been boarded over, having stood there for 100 years, one of those numbers that really means, “longer than I know, so what can I tell you, kid?”

Now it was my father’s sitting place, but he said that me and my sister Abigail were never to sit on the boards of the well, because something could give and we’d fall in, though he’d take the risk, without a jacket, when the talk of wind chill seemed more of a constant than the existence of weather itself, smoking as he sat when it was just me and Abigail in the house.

Abigail used to ask me if we were poor, and then after, when she was a little older, how poor we were, and always where was our mother, how come she worked so many nights when she didn’t have a job that we knew about. There were weird questions, too, like if she kissed our father when she got home, as if this transpired somewhere beyond the bounds of our witnessing, as though there was an alcove stashed away in our house for this purpose. The kissing ledge, or some such.

I’d say, “work is hard to come by for dad just now,” filling in vague, theoretical details about the new laws at the factory in our town, which is where every man worked pretty much unless they were a doctor or a principal at the schools or had a store.

Abigail would say that her friends told her our mom was a slut. She broke up families. She loved it, too. Took delight. She was a whore. Abigail liked the sounds of certain words, one of those people who repeats them with the lick-smacking satisfaction of the gourmand.

“Slut slut slut,” she’d say, smiling, as though it’d be fun for me to join her for a chorus, clog-stepping to the repetition of a syllable whose meaning she didn’t understand.

We watched my dad out back smoking while we did what passed for our talking, lost and logy in trying to determine how long, despite his resilience, or the sustaining heat of his anger, he could endure the cold, and how he endured it like he did, making certain he didn’t vanish between the blinks of our eyes, so that we’d have to run out there and try and find a way to rescue him from the bottom of the well.

“Do you like to eat?” I’d say, thinking about how some of those men from the factory had been my dad’s friends, men I used to call uncle, whose backs I’d ridden at cookouts in their yards when it seemed we were always the first to show and the last to leave, and my parents looked so in love with each other when one of them spoke and the other beamed, as if the North Star had finally popped out from behind the clouds and those who had been waiting could find their way again.

I’d think, “Why are we here, when they really just want each other?” but then I realized it was for us. We didn’t go a lot of places, and those were the spots of getaways that could be looked forward to on a Friday.

Abigail would think I was asking her if she wanted food right then and there after I asked her if she liked to eat, so I’d make her a sandwich, telling her the bread was supposed to be that way when she complained it was stale, and no, peanut butter didn’t go bad, which was peanut butter’s saving grace, or words to that effect. She’d munch as we returned to the window seat, back at our observation post, her free hand under her mouth, to catch the crumbs as if they were shaved from gold.

“Is he cold?” she’d ask, which really meant, “How can he not be cold?”

I’d tell her he was used to it, and the cold only gets in where you let it, which is the same for a person as it is for a house, or for some people who make up their minds in certain ways.

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