Turn the Wheel
by Roland Allnach
“Is this thing recordin’? I’ve been savin’ up to tell this for a long while, so now that I got myself up to it, I only want to take one round at it. Anyway, here it is.
“It was a day that started like any other, back then. It was Summer time up in the hills where we lived, and I’d spend my time ridin’ my dirt bike in the woods. I miss those times, ridin’ alone with the wind on my arms, some mud on my goggles, my ears ringin’ with the popcorn-whine of the bike’s two-cycle engine. Usually those times was good times, bein’ out on my own with nobody yellin’ at me, but the particular day of this tellin’ it wasn’t so good. I was standin’ on the foot pegs of my bike, ridin’ the way I always did. My ridin’ friends, they thought I was kind of crazy ridin’ like that all the time, because my butt hardly ever touched the seat. Really, though, it was one of those little half-lies, of which there was many. Most times, it just hurt too much to sit on the seat.
“My Ma caught me that mornin’, caught me sleepin’ after Pa went off to the bike shop. She come in my little room and like usual she started swingin’, ambushin’ me before I woke up. It was always that first shot that stung the most, and she always made a point of plantin’ it right on my ass, so none other would really know she done it. I got wise to her though, usually makin’ sure I was up and out of there before she rose from her whiskey coma to take out another day of misery on me. But, the night before, me and my friends stole a few cases of beer and got awful piss-drunk, so she was hot-mad because I come home late and didn’t have none for her. So it was a double beatin’, the usual for bein’ on the planet, and the other for bein’ a selfish drunk. She broke it on me, the plastic bat she’d found in the trash. No bother to her. She’d find another, like she always done before. She’d taken a likin’ to them bats, that’s for sure. See, those bats got this seam where they put the two halves of the mould together, and if you open it up some with a knife, when you hit a body with it, well, it just burns hot, like lightnin’.
“So like usual by the time she was done and left me pretty much a mess she gone and flopped back in bed and I got the hell out. And that’s why I was ridin’ up there in them hills, only stoppin’ when I had to steal some gas that afternoon before makin’ my way back, knowin’ my Pa would be comin’ home. Ma knew better than to be takin’ hand with me under his watch.
“Pa, you see, he’d been ‘round the rough track, and come back a different man. He gone to jail for stealin’ some snowmobiles while Ma was pregnant with me, so he wasn’t there while I was little. Before he come home there was word goin’ ‘round that he killed a man in prison. Got away with it, too, they said, ‘cause there was a riot or somethin’ goin’ on. I first met him when I was still a boy. I came home from school one day and there’s this man sittin’ on the step of our trailer, and he says he’s my Pa. And the thing about my Pa, since I didn’t know him before, is that knowin’ him as he was then, he has this thing of puttin’ different ideas together in strange ways, like connectin’ stuff that don’t get connected. ‘Juxtaposition,’ he used to say, when he was workin’ on some of them foreign bikes—but then again, he used to mumble to himself a lot.
“Anyhow, that day I first met him I come home from school and there he was sittin’ on the step, and he stuck out his hand to shake, which I liked ‘cause it made me feel like a man, and he told me he was my Pa, and he done some wrong things, and he gone round the wheel the hard way, but he’d found the Lord before he come back to me, and he was goin’ to see to his best to keep me from makin’ another turn of the wheel like he’d done. I don’t know, it made no sense to me, but at least he was there, and I thought it would make life—as it was—better.
“So anyway, on the day of this recollection I come ridin’ back to our trailer out of the woods, and there’s my Pa sittin’ on the step of the trailer, just like he done that day I first met him. And he was havin’ a smoke, which was odd, ‘cause he said it was bad to smoke. The door was open behind him, swingin’ on a broken spring, creakin’ away, which was out of sorts, ‘cause it was the only sound, and it wasn’t ever quiet like that in the afternoon, at least not with Ma ‘round. So it was in a careful way that I rolled up to the house, and I kept my distance some, but Pa waved me over, and patted his hand on the step next to him. So I sat, because I knew better than to say no to Pa when he seemed in one of those quiet moods. And the minute I sat, I knew somethin’ was really off, ‘cause he lit a smoke and gave it to me. I thought it was a trick of some kind, ‘cause he’d beat me before for catchin’ me with smokes.
“‘It’s alright boy,’ he said. ‘You go ahead.’
“So I took it, and we smoked a while, but my heart was poundin’, ‘cause I knew somethin’ was up, and near the end of the smokes, that’s when he told me, with his eyes lookin’ out over the trees, and what he said then, I’ll never forget. And these are the words:
“‘Son, when I met your Ma I was six years old, just like she. And I thought that first time I saw her that she was the prettiest little thing put on this Earth. She had this hair, like angel hair, almost white, she was so blond, and it was in a long braid, and she had this beautiful smile. I came to think that smile was for me, ‘cause she always laughed at the stupid things I done.’ Then he ground out the smoke under his foot and looked right at me—through me, you could almost say. ‘Life put her to the Test, son,’ he went on, ‘and part of that was my misguided ways when I was young and wicked. So I’m sorry for what she done over the years, but you’re free now, and I want you to know none of it’s your’s for the blamin’. But she was your Ma, even for all she done. So you remember her just as I told, ‘cause she was a lost girl, and the sadness got the best of her.’ He opened his hands in front of him, like he was offerin’ somethin’, but then he lit another round of smokes for us, and he went, ‘Now you can go in if you want, but I don’t want any questions ‘bout it. You can take a look, but then you go back and wheel ‘round the wood chipper so I can take care of it all.’
“That’s about the time I understood. I went in, and it looked like a tornado come right through there, tearin’ it all up inside. Not that any of the three of us was much on housekeepin’, but it was like somethin’ exploded in there. I found her back by the kitchen, under a pile of cans and pots that had tumbled out of the pantry. There was just this mess, and her bare feet stickin’ out, and by the way they was, I could tell she was face down under all that.
“Pa often said he had violence in him. He said it was like some thing we pass on, like blue eyes. But he told me once there was two kinds of people with violence: ones like him that are just lost in it and don’t know better, and then there was the other kind, the ones who were just plain dangerous. He said to me sometimes that Ma had become one of those, that the drink had put a madness in her that stole her soul and sent it away somewhere. Standin’ there lookin’ down on her, I believed him, ‘cause for some reason, in that moment, I knew I had no memory—not one—of her with a smile on her face.
“I remember not thinkin’ or feelin’ too much. I was just sort of numb, I guess. I didn’t give a thought as to what made it happen. I guess seein’ her there took away any need to know what made him do it. I always thought one of us was gonna end up face down one day, the way things was in that house, but seein’ it, it was like bein’ free and not free at the same time, like floatin’ under water, that moment right before you run out of breath, when you’re still okay, but you know you’re just hangin’ on.
“So I started movin’ like I was told. I went out back and brought the chipper ‘round and left it there. The chickens was struttin’ ‘round the coop like usual. I don’t know why that sight stuck on me. Pa got up and told me I best be gettin’ on, and not to come back ‘til later. He said it was his to clean up, and he didn’t want me takin’ any hand in it, except to stay quiet ‘bout it, ‘cause it was just ‘bout us, and our concern, and none other. I got on my bike then and went off, up into the hills, and I couldn’t hear the chipper runnin’ over the popcorn-whine of my bike, and I didn’t miss it none.
“Up those hills I rode. I don’t know, but lookin’ back on it now, I don’t remember what I was thinkin’, all I remember was wantin’ to get away. And that’s where the other half of my life came in, the half Ma and Pa knew nothin’ ‘bout, that I kept as my own. You see, there was this program at the high school, kind of like this charity thing from the families that had somethin’, to make themselves feel good for helpin’ people like me who were livin’ on nothin’ up in the hills. So I got picked as one of their charity cases earlier that Spring, and the girl that was doin’ my outreach, she said she picked me ‘cause my Pa been in jail and ‘cause of the rumors floatin’ ‘round ‘bout what my Ma done while he was sent up. Truth is, I signed up ‘cause all those girls runnin’ that charity were pretty, even though some of ‘em were up-tight church types. But the girl who got me, she was real pretty, and to boot she wasn’t one of them Bible-thumpers, and once we got to talkin’, she said I had a real nice smile. Thinkin’ back on it now, I bet that’s why she picked me. Her name was Lucy Sue Everly, so that first day I met her I took her initials and just called her Elsee, and she smiled real bright at that.
“Anyhow, we got right friendly as school ended, and sure, even though she was a senior, and bound off to college in the Fall, and kind of popular, she always found some room in her time to talk with me if I came by her house. Her family had some money—they had a house, all brick, with air condition, and with a pool and big yard. The hills ran along behind their yard, so if I wanted, I could come up real quiet by rolling down the hill to the back of the house, and then roll away just as quiet down the side slope of their land to disappear back into the hills. Her dad was some professor at the state college and her mom was some kind of special kid’s doctor. They were both real nice to me, kind of those high-minded liberal types, so they were okay with me bein’ there to see their daughter now and again, long as I behaved on my best and brightest. My world didn’t cross with theirs anyhow, so they wouldn’t know nothin’ ‘bout my lesser moments.
“Well, it was gettin’ on evenin’ by that point, so I rolled down into their yard, and as luck would have it, her parents was out. I walked right up to Elsee’s window, bein’ the house was like a big long ranch, and knocked on her window so as not to scare her too much. She was sittin’ at her desk typin’ somethin’ on her computer, and when I knocked she jumped a bit, but when she turned and saw me she smiled, pretty as can be. So after beatin’ the trail dust off my shorts and shirt I came in the window like usual, but she went and got me a towel anyway so I could wipe down my arms and legs and face. Normally talkin’ with her was real free and easy, ‘cause she always had a way of makin’ things seem not so bad, and makin’ me think I could do somethin’ with myself other than scroungin’ for a life, like most people I knew. It was nice and all, but it was like a dream, ‘cause she didn’t know nothin’ of what was goin’ on for real, since I made a point of never once tellin’ her. Comin’ to see her, that was my escape time. I guess that’s what brought me there that day.
“She started talkin’, bright like usual, but I didn’t say anythin’ back, and so she knew somethin’ was up. And I don’t know when it happened, but next I know, I was curled up like a baby by the side of her bed, against the wall, with my knees pulled up to my chest. I wasn’t cryin’, ‘cause I stopped cryin’ long ago. Elsee came over to me, and I think she didn’t know what to do, but then she sat down next to me and put her arms ‘round me and held me, and for some reason, even with all that I’d just rode away from, I got this warm feelin’ in my chest, and it was like I was bare before her, just me, and not all that vile stuff back in my life, just a kid lost and lonely. All the things in my head that I’d built up ‘round her, well, they all became real, so she was like some angel come to me, and she was all mine. I loved her so much right then, and she was so beautiful, that I think now it couldn’t have gone any other way. The happenin’ of it, it’s like a blur now, bein’ that I was just a kid, but I think that was part of it, ‘cause even though we were right there in her room findin’ the mysteries that exist between men and women, it was real innocent, like child-innocent, if that makes any sense.
“After, we was layin’ in her bed, and I was starin’ at her as she lay there with her head back on her pillow, her eyes closed, this lazy smile on her lips, and all that chestnut hair of hers spillin’ like waves across her pillow. We had the sheets pulled up, way up to our chins, like we was hidin’ or somethin’, and that’s when things started to change in me. Like I said, I was just lookin’ at her as she was layin’ there next to me, and I could hear the crickets makin’ their racket as the sun was settin’, and this thing woke up in me, and I wasn’t there with Elsee anymore, and this beautiful thing we just had, it fell apart. I remembered what I’d said to her when she held me on the floor, these half-lies that I was goin’ to miss her, that she was the only good thing in my life, that I loved her, and I started thinkin’ that I’d played her, played her the way people play in gettin’ other people, the way they pay for gettin’ other people, and it’s just this cheap dirty thing between people.
“You know, I have these memories in my head, things stuffed way deep down, and they came floodin’ back on me then, these pictures of my Ma when I was a little kid, when Pa was still in jail. I’m peekin’ out of my room ‘cause of all the gruntin’ I hear, and I just see her bent over the dinin’ table, and men—different men, different times, but somehow all the same—behind her, some lookin’ angry, some lookin’ mean, but all of them lookin’ like they’re runnin’ some tough race, like they bein’ chased by some demon. And some of them, they push her face down hard on the table, they pull her hair tight, they call her all sorts of vile things, and I guess it’s like they got to demean and degrade her, ‘cause they know they’re givin’ in to the filth they got inside themselves. It’s all hate and anger and corrupt and when it’s over and it’s just us again she pushes my colorin’ books aside and tells me to sit at that same table. Then she counts up some money, or looks at me with those glazed, hard eyes of hers and tells me not to worry, ‘cause there’s gonna be electric, or food, or television again tomorrow.
“And somehow, someway, but anyhow kind of sudden, I was lookin’ through those memories at Elsee, and that thing stirrin’ in me, it grew by leaps. It had some kind of voice in me, kind of low and slithery—like a snake, I guess—and it told me I should do to her like those men done to my Ma, give her somethin’ else to add to that snotty little smirk on those lips of hers. Maybe she’d even like it, me puttin’ the force on her, puttin’ the violence on her, callin’ her all sorts of ugly things, ‘cause in the middle of that nightmare runnin’ in my head I thought again of how we ended up there in her bed, of those things I said, and they got all twisted in what I’d seen my Pa had done and how it got that way. I thought maybe Elsee saw me less like some pity case, that she’d drew me in her arms so some night when she was fat and fifty and lookin’ at her borin’ husband she’d satisfy herself knowin’ there was some stain of me still in her, from the little walk she took with her dirty boy from the other side of the tracks.
“I rolled away, ‘cause I was feelin’ bad lookin’ at her right then, but then other things came to me, like the Spring-fresh smell of her flowery quilt and sheets, the white walls of her room, the shelves of trophies over her desk, her cheerleader uniform hangin’ behind her door—all those things of a shiny life I had no part in, that I had to hide away from in this horrible thing that had come into my life, that was eruptin’ in my life as my Pa worked away on cleanin’ things up. But cleanin’ what up? There were stains all over the world that day, all the ones you can’t ever see under the sun, but blot out the light in your eyes. And I knew I had to go, ‘cause that thing growin’ in me was the violence, come to visit me, sprung up from its roots buried in me. I had to go, I had to stop it. I knew, I knew from tip to toes if I stayed I was goin’ to hurt Elsee, and there’d be no comin’ ‘round from that, just like there was no comin’ back for Ma.
“I got up and got dressed. She sat up and looked at me, wonderin’ where I was goin’, but I gave another half-lie and told her my Pa needed me for somethin’. And before I bailed out her window I turned ‘round and took my last look at her, and she was kneelin’ up on her bed, holdin’ the sheet over her chest, ‘cause she was a respectable girl. And she smiled on me, that beautiful smile of hers between those waves of hair fallin’ to her shoulders. So I waved, and lit out of there, and got on my bike, and tore up into the hills.
“Now this next part here I never told, not to no one. You see, the thing is, I didn’t go home. Least not straightaway.
“No, it took some ridin’, and I had to get my courage up to do it, but the more I rode, the more I tried to hide from it all, the more I knew I had to do it, ‘cause the more I knew it was what my Pa was expectin’, what he’d planned from the get go, when he told me to leave him to do the cleanin’. So instead of goin’ home I went toward town, and outside the bar where Ma used to wait tables I knew there was a pay phone. And my heart hurt so bad it felt like it was breakin’, ‘cause I knew what I was ‘bout to do. You know, even though we was poor, and I got a beatin’ more times than I could count, the only good memory I got was me and Pa fixin’ up my bike. He’d pulled it from the junk pile and gave it to me one Christmas. But I put that feelin’ away, and I put a rag over the phone, and I lowered my voice, and then I done it—I told the state troopers what Pa done to Ma, clean and simple. Then I hung up the phone, and the shakes that came on me were like nothin’ I’d ever known, worse than not havin’ proper heat in the Winter. I had to stop ridin’, and somewhere out in those hills, lost in those trees, I cried, I screamed, I puked with the mess of it all, ‘cause I knew what was goin’ down, and how Pa had made it all be the way it was gonna be, and even though he took his hand to me on occasion I finally understood him, understood his way of lookin’ at violence, and how this had to go, how this had to end.
“By the time I got to the trailer it was over. The troopers told me he’d come out the door blazin’ away with the shotgun, so they did what they had no choice but to do, and they put him down. One of them was firin’ wild, though, and blew off the latch on the chicken coop, so all them birds had come runnin’ out, flappin’ their wings in a panic in the headlights of the cars. By the time the troopers got everythin’ squared up there were these white feathers spread all over the ground, with my Pa layin’ there dead in the middle of it all. They found the chipper behind the house, soaked from bein’ washed off, but sittin’ in a big red puddle. The story made some news, but most folks waved it off, figurin’ it was one of them crazy hill-people stories.
“Well, I got shipped off to the next town over, where one of my Pa’s cousins took me in. And things got better, ‘cause that family done right by me, and done the best they could for me. I was a handful for them to deal with, what with me smokin’ and tearin’ off on my bike to get piss-drunk with my friends. Elsee went off to college at the end of the Summer, and I never did see her again.
“Anyhow, that’s it. Now it’s all there, not just what was in the files and so forth, so you might know a little bit more why I’m comin’ to the sessions. I got a wife, I got a boy, and I got to do right by them, but sometimes it comes up on me, and my temper gets white hot, and the violence stirs up those knots deep inside me. When that happens I think of Ma, and I think of what Pa done, and what he said, and I think of Elsee, and the way it all come together that Summer day.
“So that’s when I pray it’ll be alright, and thank Pa for makin’ me as free as he could, so that maybe I could go ‘round in some better way, and I’d have my own chance to pass the Test.”