The heavy peg-door had been left open. A naked bulb, swinging violently from a loose electric cord, exposed the front porch. Trapped within the wrap-around veranda of the long-neglected Victorian, a hellish wind whipped the house with its own private cyclone. The carpet of brittle oak leaves covering the planks danced in mad circles, as if some irreverent spirit twirled in feverish merriment. And, like a chorus of mournful sopranos in the final act of a tragedy, the gusts wailed and flung their anguished torrent against the structure. The weathered planks rattled, shook and begged to be ripped from their frame. The bitter tempest whistled through the aluminum screen door, throwing it open with a jerk and pitching it back again with a bang, and so the screen, skewed and beaten, played on with unrelenting percussion to the wind's symphony.
The lights inside flickered in a wary vibrato of illumination on the bottom floor. Upstairs was dark and the whimpers behind the second-story window were heard only by the four walls of the unlit bedroom.
She sat on the second of five splintered steps that led up to the house. Feet crossed and toes twisting, Callie brushed the tangled golden tresses of her Barbie doll, not once minding the bang of the screen door or the fervor of the wind. Her own hair was slapping her cheeks and her gingham nightgown billowed about her bare legs, but she continued, unmoved, smoothing down Barbie‘s flailing nylon locks. It was near story time, as dusk had just bowed out of the day, giving the night a handful of stars to begin its reign. Callie glanced up at the star-scattered sky, and she looked out over the dry, dusty field and dirt road on the other side of the gate.
Evelyn's little girl was waiting, so she could ignore the rape of the wind and the frantic dance of the wizened foliage at her backside. She could silence the screams that echoed from the very soul of the house and ... just ... keep waiting. For a moment the screen door stopped banging and the girl turned only when she recognized the familiar tap-tap of Babe's paws across the porch. The old black lab jumped down to the third step and sat close to Callie. Reaching under Babe’s chin, turning white as an old man’s beard, the raven-haired child gave him a couple of gentle scratches, and smiled. Babe responded with a quick run down to the bottom of the steps and over to the open gate. He jumped up and down on his hind legs, a customary greeting for any visitor coming across the field.
The screen was held open again, as second set of footsteps came down onto the porch. A hand released the door, returning it to continue with its hounding rhythm. Callie waited for the heavy scuff of boots to draw near, and for the scent of new leather before she released Barbie from her clenched fist. She called to Babe, who returned to her with a bound up the steps, knocking the doll over the side and into the dirt.
In the distance, two headlights pierced the dark. The combination of wind and wheels kicked up so much dirt it appeared as if the vehicle was traveling with its own low-riding cloud. The dust cast across the headlights glimmered and scattered as if it was child‘s glitter. The old Toyota pickup slowed down as it passed Callie and Babe, honking a customary greeting, barely heard above the persistent gusts. The driver waved, a wave to say "git inside girl, out of this weather'" and then sped up again.
Callie watched the blue truck as it disappeared up the road and manuevered round the bend. She didn’t know the driver, but she knew the truck. She knew all the old pickups, blue with gray primer, white with gray primer, rusted with primer, that traveled this dirt highway, north to south, south to north, day after day. No real name to this road outside the city limits of Coalinga, just an unpaved, gutted path that carried familiar pickups packed with hired farm help, legal and illegal, to the fields, and faded green Oldsmobiles or beat up red Mustangs that taxied wives and children going into town to pick up the mail and groceries.
Weekday mornings, Callie stood in front of her house and watched for the yellow bus come down the road, stop and open its doors to take her to school. She looked out the window as her mother waved goodbye and went down the same dirt highway to and from town with other big-eyed children, nose to the pane. And afterwards, after school, when chores were done, Callie waited for her daddy to come down the very same dusty pass. She’d sit on the step with Babe and watch, waiting for his truck to rise up out the horizon. Some days his pickup never showed, but on those day when it did, it might have been better if it hadn‘t.
But each day, that long road had held promise for Callie. It had held a promise ... Tuesday afternoon. Now the sun had set on Tuesday's promise, the road lost to the twilight's horizon.
Evelyn Jane was tired. She had tossed and turned last night in an empty bed. Once up, she had felt queasy all morning, and spent a good deal of time in the bathroom. Damn ... damn, the 30 year-old former beauty queen sighed, examining the stranger in the mirror and touching the shallow crow's feet radiating out from the corner of each eye. At least she had managed to get Callie off to school without letting her daughter see her sickness. God, if she could just climb back into bed.
Evelyn forced herself to trudge back up the stairs. Hands on the rail and eyes closed, she took step after heavy step up to Kenny's room. Kenny had been fitful when he woke, earlier than usual. There'd be no nap taking, not with Kenny so colicky.
She could feel the dread rising up in her as she bent over the play-pen to pick up her red-headed toddler. He wailed again on cue, and try as she might, she couldn’t please him. He was her baby boy, but she didn’t know how to play with him. He seemed odd to her, like this foreign thing in a child’s body that left her cold and unresponsive. Callie had been so much easier and Evelyn had played with her baby girl day and night. Nowadays she missed Callie while she was at school, felt frightened even, at the nine year-old's absence. Mornings were long and tedious while Callie was away, and Evelyn’s nerves were on end until the girl jumped off the bus, came threw the front and set her pack back down on the kitchen table. She’d give her school girl a big hug and kiss, and breathe a sigh of relief.
And so Tuesday morning had passed with the weight of a slow laboring tick-tock of a wind up clock. The yellow bus had come down the road and delivered her daughter. Nearly mid-afternoon, and almost time to start dinner, Evelyn wandered over to the living room’s big bay window to take a peek outside. She had called the forth-grader in to do homework several times already and had gotten no response. Callie was pretty, just as story-book pretty as her mother had been when she was little. Pretty or no, a mother's instincts were usual right and there was something different, like her son, about Callie. Mrs. Greenwood, the third grade teacher had called Callie “very precocious,” and the girl was about to get a scolding, until Evelyn had had the good sense to look up the definition of precocious. Evelyn knew her daughter was smart, but figured very precocious must be why she sat on the step, looking down the road, calmly expecting her dad … no matter 'bout the fights or the sometime drinking.
Callie was faithful, but the anxious mother didn’t look to or down the road, not anymore. She hadn’t waited this afternoon, at the window or on the porch, as the winds had started to come up ahead of the pickups. She’d just kept looking outside at her daughter trying to understand, calling her to take care of homework simply to fill the void. She swallowed on a knot of unexpected jealousy, longing to be able to it force down her throat.
Waiting on the second step, Callie was steadfast, over and over again pushing back strands of tangled tresses going crazy-wild with the increasing gusts. Finally, she dug a rubber band out of the pocket of her lavender jeans and pulled her hair back into a pony tail. She sat down again, patiently looking at the distant horizon of parched fields, lost in her expectations, even as Mama called her name one more time, insisting she ought to tend to her homework.
“Ain’t got no homework, Evelyn,” Callie yelled back.
Evelyn pushed open the screen door and stepped down onto the porch, “Callie Macfarlane, you think ‘cuz you turned nine years old, and ‘cuz I just bought you a pink lipstick you can call me what you want?”
Callie thought better than to argue her independence, “No, Mama.” Looking back over her shoulder she gave her mom a grin, "Thank you for the lipstick, but its not pink, it’s bubble gum."
“Still looks plain pink to me. You don’t have no school work?”
“No, Mama, not today.”
Evelyn started to go into the house, but stopped, and with her back to her daughter, asked, “Callie, why do you put yourself through this every day, baby? Why do you wait on him? You waited for nothing yesterday. When he comes, he’s most likely to be in a mean way. He was real mad leaving Monday morning.”
“Because, mama, today. . . today could've been a good day. You wait and see, he’ll be happy today. He don‘t mean the things he does, Mama. He don‘t mean them, I know he don‘t.” Callie wanted to add, he's not mean to me, Mama, but thought better of it.
“You hope for us, honey, that he don‘t,” Evelyn wearily surrendered, and left her daughter to her waiting and her innocence. “Maybe, you're right Callie. Maybe today will be a good day. Your daddy loves you.”
“I know, mama,” Callie smiled, happy to hear her mother say so.
Evelyn didn’t share her daughter’s faith, nor did she share with her the whole ugly truth. "Truth is not for those you love" had been a favorite saying of Evelyn’s own mother, who had been an overly sensitive and self-deprecating woman. So it wasn’t in Evelyn to even try to explain to Callie, a child who loved everything pink and violet, how sometimes two people can just be plain nasty to each other, out of habit, out of spite… out of boredom…. and there was likely nothing going to change it.
She wished she could pull Callie aside and wrap her in a mother and daughter hug of spirited reassurance to set the day right, but it wasn’t in her to do so. It was only guilt she felt each morning as she made breakfast for Callie before school, because she knew she'd live another day of overwhelming emptiness, dreading each lifeless, exhausting moment. Still she loved her daughter and it was Callie’s hope … Callie’s belief that tomorrow would be better, that kept the last little bit of faith inside of Evelyn alive. She desperately needed her daughter's strength. Needed it to turn around and step back up into this old house. Needed it to pick up Kenny, Callie’s two-year-old brother, and allow herself to kiss him. She needed it now to stop these crazy thoughts that this new baby she was carrying would somehow just up and die inside of her before she would be forced to tell her husband.
Stepping up into the foyer, Evelyn called over to the old dog, sprawled by the kitchen door, and who looked earnestly toward the outside and freedom. “Pretty Babe, go on out now and sit some with Callie,” she held the screen open, waving her hand in the direction of the dog‘s desire.
Ears perked up immediately , and the aged lab rose to all fours with difficulty, his excitement revealed in the wag of his tail. He hobbled toward Callie’s mom, who wearing a mischievous smile, held out the Barbie doll her daughter had left on the small side-table next to the front door. Babe grabbed the blond bombshell and held it firmly between his muzzle. Evelyn chuckled and patted Babe on his head. The happy dog looked up at his old friend and she gave him a gentle tap on his hind end to send him out the door.
Evelyn Jane felt guilty every time she looked at Babe. She figured his hip joints were worn close to flat, and she knew he was in constant pain. Not a thing she could do, because first, there was no extra money, and second, even if there was, her husband never let her use it on a “stupid dog.” Babe walked with an obvious limp and sat down with a thud. His limbs so stiff, he could no longer make it up the stairs to Callie’s room, and up until last summer, every night at bedtime the little girl stood looking down at the bottom of the stairs, where the old pup sat looking up at the tearful girl. There wasn’t anyone couldn’t help but break down and cry looking at the two of them, thought Evelyn. So, finally no longer able to handle the sadness in either of their eyes, she had let Callie sleep on the living room couch all last summer, and even now during the school year, she let her daughter sleep downstairs Friday and Saturday nights. The grateful dog would hunch up against the couch as close as he could get to Callie, who dangled her arm off the side so she could pet her devoted friend.
Babe walked across the porch and down two treacherous steps to get to Callie, playfully dangling the plastic blond from his jaw. He looked as if he wore the same naughty smile as the mother, and his tail wagged with frantic acceleration in anticipation of being scolded. Right on cue Callie squealed with familiar high-pitched exasperation, “Babe, you give me that doll now! Bad boy! You bad, bad boy. You made her hair all goobbery. Yuck!”
Babe was in heaven.
She tugged her doll loose from the old dog’s jaws, and shook her finger at his wet nose, admonishing him for his misbehavior. The dog licked the wagging finger and Callie squealed again. Satisfied, Babe, limped back up the two steps, and plumped himself down on the porch, panting from all his efforts, but so content any cat would have been jealous.
Callie laughed and turned back to her vigil. The wind had begun to sing in a low steady whine, but above the whistle, Callie still heard Kenny’s cries upstairs. She recognized Mama’s voice get angry for some thing or other … some thing or other that Kenny had done. Kenny cried a little louder and Mama’s voice got a little meaner.
The girl turned round, looking up at her little brother’s second story window. She didn’t see her mother through the glass. Callie didn’t like it when her mother used that tone of voice. It frightened her. Sometimes, after hearing her mother get mad at Kenny, she’d turn around, look up . . . and see her standing, staring out the window, a peculiar faraway look on her face. It seemed like Mama didn’t know where she was, like she was searching for something in the field across from the house. Mama hadn’t always worn that strange expression on her face. It was a new face, one that made Callie worry, but she couldn’t put a name to the worry.
Kenny kept on crying and Callie thought maybe she’d better go help. She'd watch her brother so Mama could start dinner. Still she sat on the step, looking down the road, squeezing her Barbie. She squeezed it a little tighter with yet another muffled, but frantic outburst of angry talk coming from upstairs. Barbie now bounced off her knees with a tap, tap, tap, each tap a little harder, as she tired to remember that Mama loved Kenny, it was just that he was so hard to manage and Mama was awfully tired lately. Daddy always said that Kenny was just full of spit and vinegar, like he was when he was a boy.
Another holler upstairs from Mama . . . Barbie stopped moving in Callie’s lap. She’d best go on in and help her mother, besides the wind was kicking up pretty steady and stinging her eyes, making them water. Least that's what Callie told herself as she got up from the step and brushed off her bottom.
“Babe, come on,” she bent down and gave her quiet companion a kiss on top of his head and a quick scratch under the chin. Callie took one last lingering look down the road. There was a thick cloud of dust kicking up in the distance, another truck making its way home. She’d stay until she was sure it was her daddy’s or not.
It was Jamie Macfarlane come home.
Her daddy’s truck wasn’t new, but it wasn’t near as old as most of the trucks that came down the road. Callie could tell you exactly what kind of truck her daddy had … a two-tone, red and black, 1990 F150, 4X4 with an 8 cylinder engine, and she let you know that he kept it clean. There wasn’t one patch of dull gray paint anywhere on her father‘s truck. The nine year-old was proud of her daddy‘s Ford. Callie wished that their house had a garage, she knew that would have made her father real happy, but there wasn’t one so washing the truck was a regular chore. But, it was a chore her daddy let her share with him. She’d hose the 4X4 down, expect for the top, next they’d soap it up together and then her dad would hose it down again and dry it, while she sat inside and did the windows. Callie thought it was just about the best time to be with her dad and the fact hadn’t slipped by her that he’d have a huge smile on his face as soon as he fetched the bucket and sponges out of the shed.
Those were the good times. But right now, Callie peered deep into the cab, as the truck approached the house, never taking her eyes off the man behind the wheel. She’d know soon as he turned off the engine, when he’d look up and over at the house, how her father was feeling. How he held his head, whether the corner of his mouth turned up … or down, and whether he closed his eyes before getting out the truck or not, these were the expressions Callie knew in her father’s face. Just like his big smile when they were washing the truck, figuring out how her father felt was important to Callie. She always felt better if she half way knew what to expect once he had gone in the house . . . once he’d start talking to Mama.
Jamie slowed gradually as he passed the oak that stood just outside the picket fence, it smaller branches now whipping back and forth, it leaves being sent helter-skelter. He passed the gate and turned carefully on to the pea gravel at the side. He braked and turned off the ignition. Running his hand across his mouth, Jamie closed his eyes, and hesitated before opening the door. Callie had not seen her daddy since Sunday night last. Monday morning he had left very early, and had not come home that night.
Tuesday. It had not been a good day. It would, most likely, not be a good night. But maybe, just maybe … Callie was not without hope, as she waited for her father to open his eyes. Eyes reopened, Jamie looked at his daughter, he smiled and waved to her. The girl waved back.
Jamie MacFarlane jumped out of his truck, pushed down the lock and closed the cab door. As he walked away from the Ford he gave the hood a couple of gentle pats. Hunched down, bracing against a sudden gusty upsweep, he walked toward the house, jangling the keys inside the pocket of his denim jacket. His long wavy hair fell over his eyes, but he let the wind play with it, as grinning hugely he approached his daughter. Jamie had that odd colored dark-orange hair, unruly and thick, and a full wide mouth with a genuinely handsome smile. He was good looking in a rugged sort of way, and he knew he turned the ladies’ heads, and the men’s too. He’d often used his robust appeal to his advantage on both sexes, to talk a deal or win a favor, and as long as his attitude stayed in check, people legitimately liked him. But, get on his wrong side, do or say something he took offense to, and Jamie turned ugly more times than not. His temper was quick, his mouth obnoxious, and until he regained control of his emotions it was best to keep some distance and let him be.
However, it was Jamie’s eyes that made a stranger stop and stare, believing they were looking at something unnatural and someone undisciplined. They were prettier than any girl’s, and meeting Jamie for the first time, people were distracted, uncomfortable because they’d just seen eyes too beautiful for a man. Callie had her Mama’s shiny brown hair, but her eyes were like her dad’s, big and deep vibrant blue, though her lashes weren’t as generous or as long, still they were striking. She’d blush every time someone compared her eyes to her father‘s. Evelyn had once told her daughter that the first time she looked into Jamie’s eyes, she thought there was magic behind them and she knew instantly he was the man she wanted to marry. The girl often reminded her Mama of that story.
As her father drew near Callie kept waving and wiggling, and all the while, studying him too. The juggle of the keys, the hand wiped across the mouth . . . she knew these gestures were not good signs. She understood it meant something was bothering him and bothering him [I]bad[/I]. She ran every reason she could through her head. Was her daddy angry about work again? Maybe it was just the bad weather building up that bugged him. The old house and never having enough money always upset him, and he was worried the roof was going to leak with the next rain. Or was he still mad at Mama about last Saturday? News on TV made him swear all the time, and maybe he’d just heard news he didn’t like on the radio coming home. There wasn’t much that didn’t trouble him, too much for a little girl to ever figure out.
Callie caught her daddy glance over at Babe. He was forever mad about the dog, because it had to be fed and that took money that couldn‘t be spared. The lab had been Grandpa Long’s and when Grandpa died three years ago, Mama had insisted on keeping Babe. Her daddy said that the dog was useless, but there was no changing Mama’s mind.
Callie stopping waving and took a deep breath. She hated it when her dad was mean to Babe.
“Damn, stupid animal! Oughta put him out of his misery and save us some damn money,” Jamie grumbled loudly as he passed Babe on the steps.
Callie cringed and scratched Babe behind the ears to make up for her father’s outburst. Her father had just made her sad. He often made her cry too, but not that he knew. Feelings she couldn’t explain nor be expected to understand at her age, nonetheless kept her awake nights, tearful under the Tinkerbelle comforter she pulled up to her chin. Her father confused her, his sweetness and his meanness. Callie knew for certain that her father loved her … and Kenny. She understood that he came home for them. She could tell how much he liked to tug at her ponytail and call her silly nicknames. She could see how much he loved running down the stairs with Kenny in his arms, yelling “Kenny’s gonna get ya” and chase her around the living room. Her baby brother went crazy when Daddy played with him, he was so hungry for attention. Callie adored her brother’s laugh. She’d end up giggling hysterically when the boy’s laughter turned into hiccups. She loved that her father could make Kenny laugh.
And although Callie was just a little girl, she was aware of the way her father tried to apologize … wanted to apologize when he didn’t come home for a day . . . or days. He’d return with some M & M’s in his shirt pocket. They'd sit down together and separate the candy into colors, Kenny would get five M & M’s and she would get the rest.
It was her father who read to her and Kenny on a peaceful night. He was the one that always gave her a hug and promised everything would be all right . . . but he was also the one whose face got so ugly yelling at Mama and calling her stupid and worthless. Under her Tinkerbelle cover, Callie would wipe her tears, thinking that all the shouts and mean talk were like a game … a game between her mother and father. Daddy would be mad and Mama wouldn’t say anything at first. Daddy yell again and then Mama just couldn’t help it and she’s start with all kinds of nasty things to say to him. Maybe, Callie thought, her mother should just be quiet, but she knew that wasn’t fair. But that‘s the way it would go … Daddy got mad and Mama would try to stay calm but it never worked. Laying in her bed at night the bewildered girl wondered why her parents just couldn’t talk. Why couldn’t they talk about money or what the house needed? Why was it so troublesome to talk about Kenny?
“Callie girl, come on, inside now. It’s too windy to be out, Pumpkin. Tell me what you did in school,” Jamie grabbed his daughter’s hand as he took the steps. With his other hand he continued juggling his keys. Going up to the house, he looked irritated again. “Damn screen door could drive a person crazy in this wind.”
Callie took her dad’s hand, tucking her doll securely under her arm. Babe was left outside struggling to get up. Once her husband and daughter were in the living room Evelyn went back to the screen door and held it open for Babe. Babe was grateful for her kindness. "Nasty weather is coming," whispered Evelyn and closed the front door behind her. Babe made his way into the kitchen to keep her company.
From inside the kitchen, Evelyn observed father and daughter in the living room and their ritual of quality time. She knew she should be thankful. Jamie loved his kids. In fact, Evelyn realized that being a father was the one thing with certainty that made him happy. Listening to the back and forth chatter between the two almost made everything seem normal. But her mind drifted, wondering if Callie had stolen Jamie’s heart. She felt her jaw tighten. “The girl makes him happy,” slipped out from under her breath. Continuing to intrude upon their intimacy, she stood, and scrutinized her husband and daughter until Babe yelped for attention.
The bark made Evelyn startle and she snipped at the dog, “Hush boy!“ But now drawn back to reality she returned to fixing dinner, slowly slicing the over-ripe tomato for the salad.
“You have a good day in school, Callie girl?”
“Yeah, daddy. I got a B+ on my math test,” Callie answered. She loved telling him about her grades.
“Hey, Pumpkin, you are one smart kid,” Jamie praised, giving her a kiss on the forehead. “I’m very proud of you, baby girl.”
“Thank you, daddy.”
“Ah . . . you make any new friends today? Who did you eat lunch with?”
Callie squirmed in place at his question, “Maybe. I don’t know. I ate lunch with Sarah Miller, but it’s not the same. Nobody’s the same as Manda. She was my best friend ever and nobody is the same as her, daddy.”
Amanda Johnson had died of leukemia eighteen months earlier. Callie and Manda had been fast friends since kindergarten . Manda had been sick for a long time, and at the start of second grade the leukemia worsened despite all advanced treatments. No one in Manda’s family was a match for the needed bone marrow transplant and an unrelated donor was never found. Manda, unable to attend school, continued to weaken, but Callie remained a true and constant friend. Eventually, the sick girl could barely get out of bed. Never complaining Callie was content simply to sit at her side. Callie’s parents really hadn’t known Manda’s folks. Their house was about two miles up the road where a few other Black families lived. Both sets parents neither spoke much beyond a hello or a wave when the girls visited. Whatever uneasiness they felt about each other, they put aside because of the friendship. When Callie realized that there was no hope for her friend, she cried every morning and didn‘t want to be in school. Evelyn managed to get her on the bus each day, but not without guilt, knowing that Callie wanted to be with Manda “until the angels came” for her best friend.
“Mama, I don’t want to go. I want to sit with Manda.”
“Not your place Callie.”
“Just not your place. It’s Manda’s mama’s and daddy’s place. Your place is at school.”
Manda had passed away after Thanksgiving. When Manda’s parents asked if Callie could join the family at the funeral Jamie thought it was too much for an eight year old, but Evelyn finally talked him into it. She respected and admired her daughter’s devotion. Evelyn also sensed that Callie's recovery would be a long time coming. Nearly a year and a half had gone by and she knew her daughter still talked to Manda. She had heard Callie carry on whole conversations with her friend while sitting the steps waiting for her father or while up in her room doing homework.
Jamie gave his daughter’s hair a tussle and pulled an M & M packet out of the flannel pocket, placing it on the coffee table. “After dinner, OK?” He kissed her cheek, and pulled on her pony tail … and leaving walked across the foyer into the kitchen.
“Is Kenny asleep?” Jamie asked his wife. He walked to the refrigerator and got a beer.
“I don’t know. Maybe. He was difficult again today,” she answered without looking up from the kitchen counter. “Dinner won’t take long.”
“What do you mean difficult, Evie?”
“You know what I mean…difficult.”
“No, I don’t know what you mean. Did he come downstairs to play today?”
Jamie waited for a response but got none. Grabbing his keys out of his pocket he threw them at the counter into the salad his wife was preparing. He turned around and headed up stairs.
“Kenny? Big boy, daddy’s here!”
“Dinner‘s set. Come down an' eat.” Evelyn shouted upstairs. “Callie, come eat honey.”
At the McFarlane house dinners were always early, around four o'clock ... no later than four-thirty, and even though money was tight, Mama was never stingy with the meals. Yet despite her mother’s excellent cooking, Callie dreaded dinner time.
Late afternoon meals were spent in one of two manners, both of which were as if the perimeter of the kitchen table was that of impending battlefield waiting to be crossed over by uncompromising parties. The more tolerable of the two situations was dinner eaten along with an uncomfortable quiet, a brooding silence broken by a curious question about school or play … that or tending to Kenny’s squirming. The perimeter … the boundary of the table's edge maintaining a tenuous civility, the parties glancing across the Formica territory, suspicious and weary. The second deadly scenario was a meal spent with her mother and father arguing and yelling between every bite, a war of tempers and insults, and good food left unfinished or digested without pleasure.
Yet, in spite of the constant apprehension, for Callie there was always that jewel to be found … that promise to hold on to, that unexpected occasion when dinner was laughing and smiling, and complementing Mama on her good cooking. Something or other would make Daddy wink at Mama and she‘d grin and wink back. Giggling, whenever she saw her mother wink, Callie believed during those precious happy dinners that all the food tasted better, that all her parent's troubles would soon be gone and all the wrongs would be righted by tomorrow as long as they all kept laughing while they ate Mama’s cross rib roast. These were special times round the table much like those she had been invited to at Manda’s house. Dinners like these were as beautiful as a long awaited birthday or Christmas present. So at every meal whenever her father was home Callie pulled out the chair from under the table, knots in her stomach and a quick prayer on her lips … a prayer for “happy” dinner.
When Jamie came down carrying Kenny, Callie and her mother were already settled at the table. They always waited for Jamie to get Kenny in the highchair and seat himself before starting to eat. Mama liked proper etiquette. Saying a second secret prayer, Callie lifted her fork. She thought about Manda’s house, and how Mr. Johnson always recited a prayer out loud before everyone ate, and how she had cried the first time she sat down to the Johnson’s kitchen table. Poor Mrs. Johnson was so concerned that their new guest didn’t like the meal that had been prepared, but Callie explained she was just so excited to be invited to their house for dinner. Mrs. Johnson had taken her hand and given it a tender squeeze. Callie lingered over the memory and said a whispered Amen. She gave Babe, who had nuzzled at her feet in hopes of a nibble or two being dropped to the floor, a pet on the forehead. Looking up, Callie took a deep breath and chewed her first bite cautiously.
Except for the clamor of the wind and the sound of Jamie’s fork hitting the plate, dinner began with its customary hush. Jamie always stabbed at his food as if it were trying to escape him. A few quiet bits into the meal and Callie was hopeful. Looking up from her plate she returned the funny faces Kenny was making at the mashed carrots in his plastic bowl, till Evelyn told them both to mind their manners and spooned a mouthful of orange mash into Kenny’s sealed lips. Babe made an attempt to get up on all fours and beg for scrapes, but unsuccessful lay his head back down on the cold linoleum. The knots in Callie’s stomach were starting to ease . . . then came an extra loud stab of the fork hitting the plate.
“Al Hernandez got the new foreman’s position,” Jamie muttered and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Fucking asshole, don’t deserve the job.”
His wife looked up at him. She should ask him not to swear in front of the kids, but instead looked away and continued to eat.
“Don’t know why I bother working my ass off over for that damned company. I get screwed every time I turn around, ” Jamie continued, the fork adding emphasis with each jab at the meat on his plate. “Screwed, every … god … dam … fucking … time!”
Evelyn winced with each emphatic beat. She looked up and knew she had better say something, “We’ve been doing ok on what you make. Don’t think about it.”
A beer bottle slammed down on the table. The plates jumped and Babe tried to scramble, his nails scrapping the smooth floor.
“Oh . . We’ve been doing ok. . . we’ve been doing fucking ok . . . Jesus, that’s all you have to say. Shit, that’s not the point!! I deserve that job. I deserve it and I know it.” Jamie’s face contorted with anger. “Shit, Evie, don’t you understand. I’m getting screwed here and all you can say is don’t think about it. You want to tell me what else am I supposed to think about?”
Evelyn looked over at Callie who kept her head down, trying to eat as if nothing was happening. She reached for a napkin and wiped some more carrot mush from her son’s cheeks. She bit down on her tongue. She was trying. God, she was trying.
“Or don’t you think I deserve it Evelyn. You think that Hernandez deserves it more. Young buck Mexican, you think he deserves it more than me?”
“Stop it Jamie. I didn’t say that. I just. . . ”
“That fucking wetback should get the job over me… that’s what you think?” Jamie stood up from his chair, hands braced along the table’s perimeter, leaning into his rage.
Evelyn spun around away from Kenny, “Jamie, stop it! You work hard, but sometim...”
“Don’t you tell me to stop it! But what ….? But what …..? What do you know anyway … what do you fucking know…. Nothing! What to you do but sit here getting fatter everyday? Sit here on your fat ass everyday.” Jamie exploded at his wife, banging his first on the table. The screen door banged in counter point and Babe barked.
Callie got up and started to get her brother out. Kenny had started crying and kicking his legs against the high chair.
Her dad turned to her, his face twisted with shame and guilt along with his unharnessed anger. He managed to take a deep breath, brushed his red hair back from his forehead, “Sit down. Finish your food.”
Callie stared at her mother, recognizing that look in Mama’s eyes. All she could think was “Mama please don’t … I’ll sit down. He’ll get over it … he’ll stop.” She held her breath, saying to herself over and over again “please don’t say anything, Mama … please don‘t say anything, Mama.”
“Don’t tell her what to do! You got no right to tell her what to do!” Evelyn jumped up, pointing a vicious and accusatory finger at her husband. “She doesn’t have to sit here and listen to you. She doesn’t ever have to listen to anything you tell her. Ever! Never! You go off like a nut-job and don’t never think about how you scare her and the boy. Don’t you dare tell her anything …. anymore.” Evelyn succumbed to her own rage, shaking but in no way backing down. “Do you think she’s stupid? Don’t you think she can’t see what you do? My God, Jamie, even she can figure out why you didn‘t get the position. You can’t control your own mouth, Jamie. You never can.”
Jamie had moved around side of the table, and Evelyn had moved in back of her chair keeping it between them.
“I work damn hard!!” screaming in defense of himself. “Fucking harder than every God damn person down there!”
“You think you got to have all muscle and no brains to get yourself looked at?” Evelyn screamed back at her husband. “You really can‘t figure out why you didn‘t get the damn job, can you! God help you."
Evelyn turned to her daughter, “Callie take your brother and go upstairs. Go now, girl! You can finished your dinner later.” Her head down, but loud enough for her daughter to hear, “I’m sorry baby, I’m so sorry.”
Callie did not look in her dad‘s direction. She had to get out of the kitchen. She pulled Kenny out of the high chair and carried him best she could. All the way up the stairs she could hear her parents railing at each other. Tears welled up in her eyes and spilled over on her cheeks, down to her lips and she knew the familiar taste of salt as she caught each sob on her tongue.
Once in Kenny’s room she tried to put the two-year-old in his play pen, but he kept climbing back over. Half-heartedly Callie tried to cheer him up which only succeeded in Kenny getting a hold of her hair. He wouldn’t let go, so relenting she wrapped her arms around her little brother. He snuggled deep into his sister’s frail chest, his cries soon becoming a whimper. They sat on the floor, big sister rocking lonesome little Kenny in her lap, whispering in his ear and waiting for him to fall asleep. All the while she listened to her parent’s battle down stairs and to Babe’s barking.
Callie sighed a sigh deeper than any ten-year-old ought to…. but Daddy had had the look about him when he got home, so she guessed she shouldn’t be surprised. She had hoped just the same …. she had prayed just the same, because ya’ never knew…ya’ just never knew. Callie rocked back and forth, holding her little brother tightly, “ I love you, Kenny. Mama, loves you, Kenny. Daddy loves you, Kenny.”
The wind outside had kept a steady pace of growing stronger and louder. Callie wished the wind was even noisier so she didn’t have to hear the yelling in the kitchen. The tearful girl thought of Manda, and how they used to laugh when the wind messed up Miss Anzilonni’s fizzy hair, and made their school principle look like a Halloween witch. She suddenly felt angry at Manda, because all she wanted to do was to be able play with her best friend and her best friend had left her.
Callie had stopped crying and Kenny had fallen asleep, his fat little fingers loosening their grip on his sister’s hair. When his thumb finally found its ways to his mouth, Callie gently set her little brother down in the play pen, and turned off the light. She cautiously closed the his bedroom door. Downstairs the fight was over.
Going into her own room, Callie changed into her yellow nightie. She lay down on her bed cuddled up in her comforter and stared out the window, watching the old oak being slapped around. Maybe the weather outside had been too loud, but she knew she hadn’t heard the usual sound of the pickup squealing off down the road. Normally the obedient young girl wouldn't dare to, but tonight Callie felt like she had to go down and see what Mama was doing and if Daddy was still around, despite the fact no one had given her a holler to come down.
Callie descended the stairs. The kitchen was quiet, but not silent. Reaching the bottom step, she leaned over the rickety banister. It creaked as she put her full weight on it, bending forward as far as possible in order to see her mother. Mama shoulders were shaking, and she was standing with hands braced against the kitchen counter. Babe was eating the food thrown on the floor. Thank goodness Mama had not heard her come downstairs. Tiptoeing, Callie made her way past the kitchen door into the living room. Spotting her doll on the couch, she picked it up and brought it to her lips, holding it there, moving her mouth, questioning. Where was her daddy?
Callie continued on, still on tiptoes, to the front window. Peering out she found him ... there he stood under the porch light, drinking another beer. The bulb was swinging wildly over head, the light dancing about her father’s figure. The bouncing light and shadows reminded Callie of the Haunted House ride at Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. She had clung so tight to her dad’s arm the whole ride, he swore he was going to be bruised. She watched him now, standing on the porch, and she kept casting looks back her mother. He was going to leave, pull out of the driveway crazy fast and the trouble would be over at least for tonight. That was usually what it came to ... the way every fight ended ... and it meant her daddy'd come back when they were all in bed, or maybe not at all.
Callie moved closer to the window and rested her forehead on the cold glass. She watched her father intently. Something was different this time… something was making him stay … waiting there looking out into the field across the road. He was thinking.
Jamie heaved the beer bottle into the front yard and it bounced off the gate. He’s leaving, Callie gave a sigh, a combination of both relief and disappointment, as her father walked to the bottom of the steps. But he stopped and the daughter watched, holding her breath, as he turned around and looked up at the house. He looked up at Kenny’s window. She bit down on her lip hard as Jamie started to walk back up to the house. When he got to the second step down from the porch, he spat over the side. He paused, digging his hands in and out of his pockets. Callie brought Barbie doll up to her lips once more. Catching the movement on the other side of the living room window, Jamie looked at his daughter. There eyes met. “I’m sorry,“ he mouthed.
Looking into her father’s eyes was painful but Callie did not break away. Finally, Jamie did and he lowered his head into his hands. It appeared as if he was going to change his mind again and finally leave. Instead, he spat for a second time, bounded up onto the porch, catching the banging screen and threw open the front door. He neglected to close the old peg-door, the cold and the wind rushing in and through the house.
Callie ran to peer inside the kitchen and saw her mother stiffen when she realized her husband had returned. Lurching round toward the sound of her daughter’s hurried footsteps, Callie recognized that look, that far-off frightened stare in her mother’s eyes. It was that look, one that saw through her and her brother, Kenny, one that looked past them, but never at them. It always frightened Callie. Then Callie watched her mother do something very odd. Putting both her hands on her stomach, she pressed down deeply, and tilting her head back, with one slow deliberation motion twisted it side to side. As her father entered the kitchen, Evelyn turned back to the counter.
Jamie walked up behind his wife, “Evelyn?”
There was no answer. “Damn it, Evelyn, look at me,” Jamie put his hand on her shoulder as he spoke.
At his touch Evelyn spun around, arms thrown up and thrashing above her head. Jamie screamed, “God, Evie, What are you doing? God Evie, are you crazy? No... no!”
Jamie‘s shock left him defenseless. He merely stumbled back a few steps gaping at his wife, paralyzed with disbelief. Her husband’s combined look of horror and disbelief, empowered Evelyn as she lunged insanely toward him, attempting to plunge the long butcher knife into his chest. Jamie had managed to jump back and the stab was superficial. She pulled out the tip of the knife. Jamie’s arms flailed, lost in hysteria, he tried to fight off his wife. She came at him, slicing at his hands and arms. Jamie faltered and she drove the 10” blade down hard just below his collar bone and pulled it out, poised to come at him again. Jamie crossed his arms over chest, his voice stammering pitifully as he begged her to stop. Evie hesitated and for one infinitesimal moment thought about the piecing blue of her husband’s eyes.
In his wife's momentary hesitation, Jamie took a step toward his wife, his arms stretched out beseeching. He stopped, turned his arms over and over again, examining them, trying to comprehend the sight of his own blood gushing out of his wounds. He looked at Evelyn for an explanation and saw nothing in her expression as he held out a hand in supplication, sobbing as he called her. She stabbed him as he cried out her name. She stabbed him as he said he loved her. She stabbed him as he told her he was sorry.
Callie stood frozen at the kitchen door, transfixed at the sight of the knife and the woman who plunged it in and out of her father, who still stood on his feet. She wanted to run, but couldn’t move. Each time the knife was pulled out of her father, she managed an imperceptible “stop” until he shrieked her name with all the life that was left in him.
“Callie! Callie! Callie!”
Her mother raised the blade above her head.
“No, mama! Please, mama, stop! Stop!” No. . . no. . . not again and she rushed to her father, leaping up and throwing her own arms around his neck to protect him.
Callie clung to her father’s neck as the steal blade came down, piercing the back of her own soft neck all the way through to her father’s. Evelyn stood there holding the knife lodged in both her daughter and husband and as she pulled it out, her daughter fell to the kitchen floor. Jamie swayed, his cry now a whimper as he looked down at his daughter lying at his feet. God gave him a final breath and he collapsed over Callie’s tiny body.
Babe had ceased barking and lay whining piteously under the kitchen table. Upstairs was still. Evelyn stood mute …vacant, knife clenched in her bloody palm, surveying what she had done. A pool of red was inching toward her feet, her husband's and her daughter’s blood indistinguishable, slowly encircling her once white terry slippers. She could feel the warm liquid saturating the slipper’s soles. Its warmth soothed her tired feet and she closed her eyes, inhaling and exhaling stingily. Her arms hung loosely at her sides, the knife now gripped lightly in her right hand. Her blood-spattered face stoic, she methodically raised the arm holding the knife. Lowering the tip of the blade to her stomach, she traced a line across its middle, right to left. And as if no other thought possessed her, again with slow precise intent, Evelyn MacFarlane elevated the blade high above her head. Her chest expanded with a long and deliberate intake of air, and she held it … one … two … three seconds maybe. The air exploded from her lungs, the arm dropped down with calculated force and the cold steel impaled her rounded tummy.
Evelyn gasped, wailed in utter anguish. With the knife protruding from her stomach, she dropped to her knees. Quavering, struggling for her balance, the horrified mother reached out for her lifeless daughter and screamed over and over again, screams of unfathomable pain and sorrow. One final cry and then Evie relented. Her fight was over . . . it was finally done with forever. She held her stomach with both hands, sucked in air and then gathered all her strength Gripping the handle of the butcher knife, Evelyn sliced her stomach open from one side to the other in short spastic jerks.
Callie waited with Babe on the second step…for what she didn’t know. She patiently brushed the tangles from her doll’s hair. Then she saw her skipping down the long forsaken road. Skipping faster than the wind kicking up the dirt. Manda was smiling and waving to Callie. She skipped right up to the old oak and stopped, bouncing in place on her toes.
“Callie, come on now,” Manda laughed. “Come on. Come play with me.”
Callie looked over her shoulder when she heard her father‘s footsteps come across the porch.
“Can I go daddy?”
“You go, baby girl,” her father answered.
“Can I take Babe?”
“No, he can’t go yet. Soon, but not yet.”
Headlights were coming down the road, another dented pickup that honked as it went by. They watched it bump down the road and when it all but disappeared Callie jumped up, dropping Barbie, and ran over to Manda.
“Manda, you’re here,” Callie giggled.
Sheriff Valenti walked heavily up to the front of the MacFarlane house and approached his deputy. “What have we got here?”
“Double homicide and suicide … the mother killed her husband and daughter. . . a knife. . . Jamie and Callie MacFarlane. . .little girl is about nine or ten. . . the mother killed herself with the same knife, big ol’ butcher knife… Jesus, I never seen such …. such a … damn! … mother’s hand is still wrapped around the knife in her stomach,” the deputy could barely get his words out. “There was a two-year old. . . boy. . . upstairs unharmed.”
“Who found them?” the sheriff asked looking over the steady caravan of pickups that kept arriving and pulling up near the house.
“A Mr. Johnson. He’s real broke up. . . said the little girl used to be his daughter’s best friend. . . You remember reading about that little local girl died of leukemia last year …the girl’s school held a special memorial in the park … my sister’s kids went … that’s his daughter and the man’s really broke up right now . . . real broke up,” the deputy pointed to a black man sitting in back of a patrol car that had driven up to the gate.
“Yeah, I can imagine.”
“But Sir, we got a couple of strange. . . ah. . . unusual stories hear,” the deputy looked up from under his hat at the Sheriff.
“What exactly do you mean, strange?”
“Well,” the deputy looked over at the neighbors pointing this way and that, “You see, Mr. Johnson says that he was heading out to work just before dawn and as he come by the house here . . . he swears the old black lab darted out into the road and he thought he hit it. . . the dog. . .couldn’t believe it, he thought to himself because he knew it was an old dog that never darted out like that. . . but he stopped . . . looked around the car. . . no dog in sight, but he thought he’d better tell the folks here, case the dog had run off hurt round the house. He said as he was going up to the house he could hear crying coming from upstairs . . . he noticed that the door was open and he could see lights on through the screen door. He says then . . . ah. . . that he called at the door . . . but got no answer. . . he went on in and that’s when he saw it. . . dad lying almost on top of the little girl. . . the mother was nearby.
The sheriff looked annoyed. “What is so strange, Deputy Willis?”
“Well, you see sir. . . the dog . . .the one he thought he hit . . . was lying there . . . dead too. . . next to the bodies. . . But anyways this dog been dead for a whiles. . . but it ain’t been stabbed. . .sure wasn’t hit by no car. . . must have died of a heart attack. . . I mean. . . I guess a dog could die of a heart attack. .”
“Damn it, son. . . I don’t know if a dog can have a heart attack. It could have been another dog he hit . . . a stray. . . neighbor's dog run out into the road,” the sheriff answered not buying into anything strange. “Anything else?” Any one hear anything. . . see anything?
“Look, Sheriff, we got two people say they saw the little girl. . . Mr. Cochran, over there in the 49er's jacket . . . said he was coming home late last night about 11:00 p.m. and . . . he swears he saw the dad and the little girl . . . Says the little girl was sitting on the steps holding a doll….the dog was sitting next to her and the dad was on the porch. . . thinks he saw another little girl too standing over by that tree there, but maybe that was just a shadow. . . said he honked at them,” the deputy stopped, waiting for the Sheriff’s response.
“You said there were two people,” the sheriff stared at Willis.
“Yeh… a Mrs. Lopez . . . said she saw the little girl sitting on the step with the dog about 6:20 p.m. . . . the coroner estimates it was between 5:30 to 7:00 p.m.” The deputy continued, “and the doll . . . they bagged a doll found on side of steps here . . . the doll is soaked in blood.”
Sheriff Valenti looked up and surveyed the steps and porch. He bounded up to the porch and over to the front door, peering through the screen. “There doesn’t appear to be any blood trail, Deputy,” he said with his back turned.
“Exactly sir. There’s a lot of debris on the porch, but at first glance there’s no blood anywhere 'cept in the kitchen, and on this doll.”
The sheriff looked back at the deputy. “Hum . . . that so. . . thank you, son.”
“Sheriff, Sir . . . ”
“Something more, son?”
“It’s . . . It’s ah . . . It’s pretty bad inside. Why do you think a mother do something like that … why do you think……..?” the young man voice broke off and he lowered his eyes as he attempted to warn his superior.
The older man did not respond. With a hand clutching the latch, the sheriff warily surveyed the porch and down the steps, then pushed open the screen door and pitched it back with a bang.