Mary Newton is a fiction writer, poet and retired teacher. She attended UCLA, where she received a BA in Creative Writing. She also holds an MA in English Literature from San Francisco State University. Her work has been published in Westwind, UCLA’s literary magazine, in The MacGuffin, and is upcoming in Evening Street Review. She currently lives in Oxford, Ohio.
AFTER THE SOLSTICE
The summer I turned eighteen, my mother quit cooking, running errands, and paying bills. When her teaching semester was over, she took to sitting in her robe, staring at dust motes. She told me she was not meant to be a mother of four, that if it had been up to her, she’d have opted to be an agoraphobic poet, like Emily Dickinson.
My mom is rather pretty, but as a child I believed she was beautiful because of the way my father looked at her when she couldn’t see him doing it. Like she was some precious, rare bird he had that might someday fly off. My dad was not into rare birds and probably should have married a different kind of woman, but the two of them had gotten stuck together at a young age. And at twenty she got pregnant with me and dropped out of college to marry him.
Mom finished her education but it took her many years because of me and a few other people, like Blake, Eli, and finally Cress. So I hated to see her sitting in that bathrobe. She wanted me to go to college and to not let anything bog me down. I had the grade point average, and my Grandfather Whitson said he’d pay for it, but I heard they made you live in the dorms at first, and I wasn’t sure I could leave Mom to deal with Dad, Blake, Eli, and Cress all alone.
The application lay on my desk through the spring, gathering dust. It was still there on the summer solstice when she shocked us all by packing a suitcase and driving off without a word. Hours later she called to report that she was in the mountains with her aunt, Virginia, and that she’d be there until further notice. But instead of filling out the college application, I found myself cooking, running errands, and paying bills for Dad, Blake, Eli, and Cress.
At the time my sister, Cress, known as Tinker Bell, was an eleven-year-old who had nightmares and got knocked over easily. Eli was thirteen, a wheeler-dealer built something like a groundhog who loved music and ate everything he could get his hands on. And all his life Blake had been given to hitting and kicking Eli, who had endured it because Blake also hit and kicked people who picked on his brother at school for being a clowny fat kid. At sixteen Blake’s aggression was reserved for an endless war with Dad, and the battles that summer were all about what recent events had driven Mom insane.
Since she’d been gone, Dad was like some lion that had been shot by a hunter, where it wasn’t hurt badly enough to die but obviously wasn’t doing well. He drank whiskey late at night and fell asleep on the couch. And he only talked about Mom when someone else brought her up. So when Blake said Dad had driven her away with his anger management issues, Dad punched a hole in the wall of the den. The blow landed a foot away from Blake, who bolted from the house, almost knocking Tinker Bell down on his way out. We expected him to come back in an hour or two, but the day went by and then the night.
“Hunger will drive him home,” Dad said. “Sooner or later. And if it doesn’t, he’s a Roe. And I’ll take my hat off to him.” But he said I’ll take my hat off darkly, as if it was a threat, and we all took relief in the fact that Dad didn’t wear a hat. However, he left the back door unlocked and the kitchen light on, hoping Blake would sneak back and spend the night in his own bed. Instead a bag of Oreos and a package of Oscar Meyer wieners disappeared mysteriously.
In the morning I peeked into the garage to see if he was, maybe, asleep in there, since the box of camping equipment contained sleeping bags. He wasn’t but the box had been thrown open, and a bag was missing, along with a lantern and a tarp. Which meant he planned to live in the woods, something he’d been threatening to do since Mom left.
The days went by and he still didn’t show his face, though things like Cheerios and cans of Spam continued to disappear while we all slept. Dad quit mentioning Blake but he took to staring out the window at the line of oaks where our backyard ended and the woods began.
I watched the trees myself, mostly through the window above the sink while washing dishes. Through the same window I’d sometimes see Tinker Bell climbing the back porch’s stair rail, where she’d hang upside down by her knees, and I knew it was because she had a full view of the forest from there. And then one night, while taking out the trash, I caught Eli out there smoking.
“I can feel him watching me through the trees,” he explained. “And I know he’s smelling the smoke. Sooner or later he’s gonna come around and want a cigarette and then we’ll talk. He’ll be hungry and need a shower, and he’ll quit trying to be that guy in Castaway.”
“Won’t he be pissed that you stole his stuff?”
“It serves him right for taking the whole bag of Oreos. Anyway, I’m almost out but I can get my friend Worrell to buy me more. He’s sixteen.”
“And why would Worrell spend his money buying you Lucky Strikes?”
“He won’t. I’ll sell stuff to get the money.”
“There’s this old decrepit dude who buys vinyl records. They’re collectors’ items now. Some of them. And I told him about all those records Dad still has. And now he wants this record of Dad’s, No Way Out by the Chocolate Watchband. He said he’d be willing to pay some bucks for it.”
“Have you told Dad you’re trying to sell his records?”
“Dad doesn’t care about those corroded things anymore. That’s why he keeps them in the attic.”
“You’d better ask him.”
“I did ask him. Like, through the door when he was taking a shower. He didn’t hear me but at least I asked.”
“That doesn’t count.”
Eli lifted the cigarette to his lips and smoked, staring at the woods.
So I’d almost forgotten Eli’s plan when a message in an unknown voice was caught on the answering machine tape. “I’m callin’ the kid that’s got No Way Out.” It was a male voice, kind of deep and hoarse.
Dad came in from the other room, and we both stared at the machine with its tiny, blinking light.
“Who in the world is that?”
Dad lifted his hand to shush me.
“The Chocolate Watchband,” the guy said. “I’ll give you thirty bucks. But only if it’s in good shape.” The caller hung up and Dad gazed at the machine, his face blank, his hand curling like he was thinking of making a fist.
“Blake,” he muttered. “It’s Blake the guy’s trying to get ahold of. He’s been in here night after night stealing wieners and lanterns. And now he’s selling my records.”
“Eli’s the one who’s into music. He probably mentioned the record to the guy, thinking you could make some bucks off it.”
Dad bellowed up the staircase for Eli to come down. Oddly, he bellowed for Tinker Bell too. He seemed a little unhinged. Especially when he made us all sit side-by-side on the couch while he faced us in an armchair, bolt upright, his arms on the rests like it was some throne.
“Something’s going on,” Dad said. “And I’m going to need your cooperation to address some crap.” Then he said what I already knew. That he had reason to believe Blake was selling records that belonged to him.
“Don’t look surprised, Eli,” Dad said. “You know Blake. And you know he’s a little sack of shit as well as I do.”
“I don’t think Blake would do that,” Eli said. It must have been easy for him to sound earnest, since the statement was true. “I mean, yeah, he takes wieners and Oreos. But he wouldn’t sell your records. Who’d do that?”
Dad’s face was carved from granite.
“You’re defending your brother because you have a good heart.” He said “good heart” with scorn, like he was really saying “face of a dog.”
Tinker Bell raised her hand, and I thought she was going to ask what Dad planned to do to Blake. Instead all she said was, “Can I go now?”
“I need the three of you to stay upstairs for the rest of the evening,” Dad said. “And keep the lights off.”
Tinker Bell was already trying to slither from the couch, but I pulled her back onto the cushions next to me.
“Why do you want us to do this, Dad?” I tried to sound as respectful as possible.
“So Blake will think we’ve all gone to bed. He plans to sneak in tonight and make off with something he wants to sell. I plan to stay up and wait for him.”
“What are you going to do when he gets here?” Tinker Bell used her little, tremulous voice.
“It’s time for this shit to stop,” was all Dad said. He looked like some obelisk with a human face, but Eli was kind of twitchy and sweaty.
“So repeat it back to me,” Dad said. “What’s the plan?”
“We have to keep the lights off,” Tinker Bell said.
“And stay upstairs,” Eli said.
“You’re going to confront Blake,” I said.
Should I snitch on Eli? A glance at Dad’s marble face made me decide not.
After that the three of us tiptoed upstairs to my room. And as soon as the door was shut, I asked Eli when, exactly, he planned to tell Dad the truth. His answer was to sink into my only chair and stare at the floor.
“Do I have to?”
I sat on my bed, and Tinker Bell climbed onto it next to me.
“Of course you have to. His relationship with Blake is psychotic under the best of circumstances. I don’t know what he’ll do to him or say to him. But I don’t want to see it. I want to prevent it.”
“He keeps looking at his hand,” Tinker Bell said. “That Blake accidently slammed the car door on that time. And flexing his fingers.”
“Okay, so Blake isn’t planning to sell Dad’s record,” Eli said. “But he really did slam Dad’s hand in the car door. So he deserves whatever he gets for beating up on me all these years.”
“I thought you wanted Blake to come in out of the rain. And quit living like the guy in Castaway.”
“I do. But not if I have to tell Dad I was trying to sell his crud. He’s in a bizarre state of mind.”
“Okay. But you’re the one trying to sell the freaking record. Tell Dad it was you making record deals. He’ll probably forgive you. Then we’ll all go back to normal.” I kind of choked on the word “normal.”
“Dad doesn’t really care about the record,” Eli said. “It’s just the idea of someone selling it without asking him.”
“It’s the idea of Blake selling it without asking him.”
“I’ve been eating so much, I’ve gotten all big now. Almost as big as Dad. What if he punches me in the head?”
Dad had never punched anyone in his own family. However, right now he wasn’t in his normal state of mind, and no one knew what he might do that he’d never done before.
Eli rolled out of the chair and onto my bed, the part where Cress and I weren’t sitting. He lay face down.
“Why don’t you tell him?” he muttered into the pillow. “You’re the one who can talk to him when he’s like this.”
When I was little it used to feel like my dad had an invisible cord attached to him, and the other end was attached to me. When something made him angry, I’d feel a tug, like someone had yanked my end of the cord, and I’d look up just in time to see him crunching an empty beer can in his fist. I’d hang around him and try to distract him from whatever he’d remembered that had made him mad because everything felt safer if he wasn’t pissed off. So in light of Eli’s cowardice, I groped my way downstairs in the dark, alone.
When I entered the lighted kitchen, Dad was in the chair by the back door with his legs stretched out in front of him. His arms were folded across his chest, a bottle of whiskey next to him on the counter.
“Tara. What’s up?”
“It was Eli who called the collector about your record. He didn’t think you wanted it.”
My dad’s eyes are dark brown, with tiny gold flecks in the irises. For me they always bring to mind some deep lake where a golden carp is hiding in the gloom, and I feel like I can almost see glints of it if I look carefully. But it’s never helped me figure out what he’s thinking.
“Nice try,” he finally said.
“I’m not lying. Eli tried to sell your record. Not Blake.”
“Tara, don’t cover for Blake.”
“He needs to be held accountable,” I said. “I understand that. He does bad stuff. He’s broken windows and stolen—stolen crud. But don’t hold him accountable for something Eli did. Please. It’s not fair.”
“Eli put you up to this.” Dad’s eyes glinted again. “He’s always been a better brother than Blake deserves.”
“No, Dad. Eli didn’t put me up to anything. And what are you going to do to Blake?”
For some reason my heart was starting to beat hard.
Dad unscrewed the cap on his whiskey bottle and drank. Then he put it back on the counter and folded his arms. He didn’t answer the question, and I remembered Eli saying, “I’m almost as big as Dad now. What if he punches me in the head?” I ran back to my room very perturbed.
I arrived in time to hear Tinker Bell say, “There he is. I see him.”
The three of us peered out the window. It was dark but we could see the glow of a battery lantern moving through the grass toward the house, like a giant firefly.
“Should we go out there and warn him?” Eli said.
“Dad’ll flip if we interfere with his plans,” I said. “So no. We should try to mediate somehow.”
When we got to the kitchen, Blake had just come through the back door, the lantern in his hand, a duffel over his shoulder. He looked startled by the sight of Dad. It was like he’d sneaked into a haunted house in time to see some long-dead ancestor materialize in a mirror. Blake put the lantern on the counter, Dad watching him like he was seeing his own reflection in something you’re not supposed to see yourself in. Like maybe water breaking up under a pier.
“My grandmother almost shot me once,” Dad finally said. “The grandmother who raised me. At about this time of night. She thought I was a prowler because I’d climbed in a window. You’re lucky I don’t have a gun.”
“You’d shoot me, wouldn’t you?”
Blake sounded like he’d relish that because it would prove how evil Dad was. His jeans were smeared with mud from the creek, and he’d grown a little beard, like some painter living in a garret in Paris, France. It made him look more intelligent than he really was.
“I’m only here to get stuff of mine,” he said.
“Stuff of yours?” This question referred to the old vinyl record that was a collector’s item but Blake had no clue.
“Okay, I know most of my stuff came from the sweat off your brows,” he said. “But you can keep anything you ever gave me. I’m taking stuff Mom gave me. And stuff I got with the sweat off my own brows.”
“I know what you really came in here for,” Dad said. “No Way Out by the Chocolate Watchband.”
“Dad’s talking about a vinyl record,” I said. For the first time they noticed Eli, Tinker Bell, and me lurking in the doorway. “A record that belongs to him. He thinks you want to sell it without asking.”
“I don’t want his weak old records.” A smile came over Blake’s face. “Nobody wants that trash.”
“They do too,” Eli said. “I could’ve gotten got thirty bucks for it.”
Dad’s lips parted in shock.
“See?” Blake said to Dad. “Your good son was going to sell your record.”
He sauntered toward the staircase still carrying the duffel, like he planned to go up to his room and get stuff and then leave again. And it really hurt. Because we’d all been hoping, deep down, that things would resolve now that Blake was talking to us again.
Dad stood and said, “This isn’t what I wanted for you.” I’d never seen tears in Dad’s eyes before.
“What did you want for me?” Blake said. “College?”
His face was like the laughing mask in that comedy and tragedy symbol.
“I wanted you to grow up to be a Roe.”
“I don’t want to be a Roe.”
He was halfway to the staircase when Eli got in front of it.
Eli was a lot bigger than he ever used to be because of all the eggs and noodles and pears he’d been eating lately, which had given him a growth spurt, but Blake didn’t seem to notice. He pushed Eli, trying to get him out of the way of the stairs. Then, to everyone’s shock, Eli punched Blake full in the face. Blake went down, his head hitting the linoleum with a thud. He lay still, with his eyes closed, and didn’t move.
There was total silence, the kind I imagine probably exists in outer space. Blake looked peaceful, almost saintly. Except that he was dirty and kind of pale.
An old hippie once told me that on LSD, time slows down and you’re never sure what’s real and keep thinking, “Is this really happening?” It was like that when Dad crouched down and felt Blake’s chest to see if he was breathing.
“You just knocked your brother out cold,” he told Eli. “If you concussed him, it could be bad. We have to call paramedics.”
“I didn’t plan to hit him,” Eli stammered. “It just happened. I’d never want to hurt him. He’s not used to it like I am.”
While Dad called an ambulance, Eli patted Blake’s cheek and whispered his name. Blake’s eyes opened, glazed like he’d spent the last three years smoking opium.
“I decked you,” Eli said.
“You were being a jerk.”
“What did I do?”
“You said you didn’t want to be a Roe.”
“Why did I say that?”
“I don’t know, Blake. You tell me.”
“I’ve been living out in the woods,” he said, as if that explained it.
It turned out Blake didn’t have a concussion, much to everyone’s relief, and as soon as he was home from the ER, he got into the bathtub and turned on the shower. He stayed in there for some forty minutes, and afterward the tub was the color of a thunderhead, the drain clogged with pebbles and little twigs.
Eli and I went out to the woods, where we found Blake’s lean-to and took it apart. Its tarp roof was covered with tree sap and ants. Oreo bags were strewn about, and broken glass, and he’d carved a smiley face in one of the tree trunks for some reason. We took the tarp down, and I gathered his dirty, wrinkled clothes. And while they eddied in the washer, I went upstairs to my room and closed the door.
The college application still lay on my desk, a child’s desk Mom had given me for my tenth birthday. I still used it when I needed to write, sitting in an old dinette chair because the one that went with the desk was too small. I took a ballpoint pen out of the drawer. It was too late for the fall semester, I told myself, but I could maybe start in spring. I didn’t know what I planned to major in. I wasn’t a rare bird type of girl and had no desire to be an agoraphobic poet. Still, I thought of Mom as I filled out the forms. It was what she wanted for me. And besides that, I wanted to go.