Body, remember not only how much you were loved,
not only the beds you lay on,
but also those desires glowing openly
in eyes that looked at you,
trembling for you in voices.
—Constantine Peter Cavafy, Body, Remember
Gretchen is special.
This is how she thinks of herself, without self-consciousness, thinking of herself as “my little princess” in the voice she remembers, she thinks, from her father. “Who do you think you are, my little princess?” she remembers, a specific tone and voice, the feeling that it is a scolding, but also altered by her thoughts of Bill that shifts the shadow of the brief barely remembered father voice, to become a sincere and lovely question.
“I am a princess,” she says out loud to herself. She is nearly twelve years old.
Gretchen stands naked in front of the long flaked mirror that is hung on the back of a door in an old, large bedroom in one of the houses she often hides in. The afternoon sun is bright through the windows in the wall to her right, the warm light shines through the floating dust in the bare room, the light unfettered by the other empty houses that stand in this section of Lowell. The light falls through the windows on to the scratched fir floor, reflecting on the light yellow walls and the water-stained, sagging ceiling.
Gretchen never moves around the first floors of her favorite houses because people might look in and see her and want to know what she is doing there and scold her and make her go back to chores she doesn’t want to do.
The warm light in the room is so yellow and solid it makes Gretchen feel excited, almost like feeling she wants to pee. She runs her hands along her stomach and her chest slowly, and she watches the movement along her skin in the mirror. She breathes in with a start when her hands brush over the front of her thighs.
Her eyes break away from the mirror when Danny makes a sound. She looks at him in the reflecting mirror.
Danny, who is almost eight, loves the time he spends with Gretchen. He has a child’s steadfast conviction that she is his only friend.
“You’re ascared,” Gretchen says to him, through the mirror, squinting her eyes at him.
Danny stays silent, hunched down on the floor. He is wearing a big pair of jeans that have big tears in the knees and flannel backed cuffs that are folded over a number of times. He wears a pink girl’s pullover sweater, made up of yarn that is shiny with woven-in glitter even with it all dirty. He doesn’t think of it as a girl’s sweater or a boy’s sweater, but only as one of his favorite things to wear, and he almost always wears it.
His clothes are hot in the room. His hair is moist from perspiration. He looks at the mirror, at her making a face at him, and then his eyes are drawn to her sparse pubic hair. It is a surprise to him that the color of this hair is darker than the blond of her hair. He looks back at her face.
“I mean scared,” Gretchen says, “not ascared.” She nods at him. “It is scared or afraid,” she says, sounding old and grown up. “Bill taught me that,” she adds, with another nod. She moves a half-step back. One of her heels rests on her pile of clothes.
“I’m not scared,” Danny says. He has a hoarse young voice. He is looking at her face and sees that she is looking at herself again.
“Taking off your clothes is dumb,” he says. Gretchen makes a small dance-like leap toward the mirror, looking to see if her little breasts jump when she comes to a stop.
“I can see your bum,” Danny says.
Gretchen doesn’t listen to him. She is again pushing her fingertips down over her hip bones, looking at how her skin stretches over the points of bone.
Gretchen still always thinks about Bill. She misses him. She remembers so much about him. Gretchen so often feels so alone without him, unsafe, uncomforted, the breaking fear she feels about it can still flood into her, even though Bill has been dead for more than a year.
Her disappearances from the house where she is supposed to be with all the grown-ups, her escapes from the chores they want her to do, and from their concern and uneasiness and bursts of anger, make her feel better. Going back to the secret place, keeping away from everybody, helps her believe that things are still the same, that Bill will be back soon, playing with the thought that he will be back any minute, that he is just off on another of what he called runs. Supplies, he’d say, for The Alamo.
She can’t go to the actual secret place because she is pretty sure that she wouldn’t find it.
That’s what he used to call it, when he would leave their place, their secret place, hidden in the basement of the old apartment house where she knows she must have lived once in an apartment she can recall even less clearly than she remembers her parents. “Time for another run,” Bill would say, and she would wait, just as he instructed her, waiting quietly in the dim light of their sparsely used candles, or in the quiet blackness, listening for the knock that meant he was back, that meant she should pull the rope that would lift the board that held the wooden panel flat into the wall so that it would look just like a part of the wall.
Sometimes she thinks about those days, and before, even remembering her parents. Sometimes it’s like a flash: a moment when her mother dresses her in what she half-recalls she had called her bunny coat, or her father coming into the house—the apartment—grinning one day, barking like a dog, making her laugh.
But when she thinks of them she remembers mostly the fear and the stillness with which she would hold herself, the memories filling her with a sensation like holding her breath, like being caught. Pictures she doesn’t like can rise in her mind, of her father grasping her mother’s arms and shaking her, his face twisted in a snarl, or the other times that come back to her thoughts like a crash of things flying about and broken in the house, or of the two of them moving in frenzies of shouts and accusations, of being screamed at, or the slow creeping sense of the evenings when Gretchen would sit behind the sofa, quietly watching her mother cry. These memories, crushing and shattered, sometimes come to Gretchen unbidden, but Gretchen has learned how to block them away.
But the memories of the days after, the memories of Bill, the hours and months and years with Bill, these she thinks of as her home, the secret place, filled with the feelings of tenderness and comfort and attention.
She knows that Gus Have thinks she is strange. She secretly calls him Gus Have, for Gus have a bee in his bum, which is what she silently recites over and over again whenever she has to talk to him, with him always yelling at her and even hitting her. She knows that Gustave and the other adults she is supposed to live with in the house think she is strange, but she doesn’t care, even when one or another loses what little patience they have when she doesn’t do what they tell her to do. Sometimes Gus or one of the others slaps her. She enjoys getting the adults angry, making them rage or look at her with stupid faces. But she doesn’t show it, even keeping herself from laughing when Mary—The Cow—stares at her with those big dopey eyes and her face all slack and pasty.
But Gus, Gus Have a bee in his bum, does scare Gretchen. He has been yelling less at her and hitting her more. A new shallow bruise has risen along the side of her face, with red marks showing the fingers of his hand rising like steps from her jaw toward her ear and temple, the crack of the blow is still repeating, echoes of a burst of darkness and a fury and frustration. Gretchen almost always is wishing that Gus would die or go away.
But Gus is speaking softly to her now, sitting on the edge of her bed. She knows he is looking at her as he speaks, even though she keeps her burning face beneath her arms, huddled down with her back against the bureau, on the floor, fighting against tears, singing inside herself against her pain and surprise and fury Gus Have a bee in his bum, over and over again, until she knows she is not going to cry, until the anger is pure and without fear.
“You are good enough to eat our food,” Gus is saying, and the softness of it makes Gretchen stop her inward chant and listen. “You think you are good enough not to have to do the weeding, anything,” he is saying, and the soft tone almost undoes Gretchen, and she squeezes her knees fiercely with her arms, feeling the muscles of her forearms tighten and push her resting head up and down as she flexes them, but then she stops because she knows Gus is looking at her and she is afraid that her head moving up and down can be seen by Gus and make him mad again.
“You’re old enough to be helping out,” Gus is saying and she looks up when the bed springs creak and she sees his pant legs move past her face. He stops at the door and she looks up at him. Gus’s face is dark with sun, but he holds it without expression, looking down at her from the open door. “Every morning,” Gus is saying, the top of his head reflecting the window’s early sun where his thinning hair starts its straight run back, “every morning from now on, I’m going to come and get you and we will go out together with the others and there will be no more of this foolishness and disappearing, and there’s not going to be any more trouble from you. Clear?” Gretchen looks back at him, matching his own lack of expression, saying nothing.
“Good,” says Gus. “Be downstairs in two minutes,” he says. “I’ll have your breakfast and you can eat it on the way.” Someone, it sounds like Sandy, the one adult she likes, who is gentle with her and who teases her, calls up from the stairs about getting going and Gus yells back over his shoulder that he’ll be right there.
“Two minutes,” Gus is saying, as he shuts her door.
Bill had taken care of her. Bill, whose face still swims into her thoughts whenever she thinks of him, the thin, long face with its long nose, the spouts of gray hair that curled out over his forehead, the soft, adoring voice that could ring like iron with sternness or grow silly and laughing, Bill she remembers. She remembers the smell of him, the sway of his arm muscle, pale, luminous in the candle light as he lay beside her stroking her, the different tastes of his body, its tremblings and spasms. “You’re my little rosebud,” he would say to her, softly and gravely, sometimes just for no reason, or when he had undressed her, on their bed on the concrete floor, holding her against his shaking body in the darkness.
After seeing the fancy set table when she comes into the house from the fields on a Saturday, Gretchen realizes that Carlos, the Argentine friend of Gus’s, must be coming over. Gretchen has recently figured out that this is a regular event, one she believes follows the meetings Gus goes to that she is pretty sure has something to do with the farms. Gretchen finds herself wondering what the treat will be tonight.
She is puzzled about the excitement she feels toward these nights. She knows that she doesn’t like Carlos or the teasing he first tried giving her that she met with sullenness, and these occasions mean extra work in the kitchen for her, but lately she has been more attentive to the business of the adults. These visits by Carl, as Carlos insists everyone calls him, often fall into talk that lasts for a long time after the meal is over, talk which she is growing to like, wanting to know more about things even as she remains steadfast in her refusal to ask. The most frustrating thing about these special dinners is that it is often hard for her to keep track of what is being said because she has to clear the table and clean up after the meal with the two women.
Standing in the hall, lost in a trance-like state like the feeling that she is thinking of everything and nothing at once, Gretchen sees Pauline come out of the kitchen with some wine glasses. Pauline notices Gretchen by the dining room doorway. Pauline smiles at Gretchen. “Go get cleaned up and changed,” she says to Gretchen. The smell from the kitchen, even the sense of heat, moves over Gretchen.
“It smells good,” Gretchen says, surprised by her own speaking. The late afternoon sun is bright and warm through the curtained windows of the room.
“Carlos has sent over another roast,” says Pauline, straightening out silverware. “Wine, too,” she adds, before disappearing back into the kitchen.
Gretchen frowns at the mention of the wine. The adults think she is too young for it, and that annoys her, even if she doesn’t like the sharp sour taste.
She turns and jumps up the stairs. At the top landing Gretchen sees Sandy coming out of his room down the dark hall, his hair still dripping and his body, wrapped in a towel at the waist, beaded and running with water. Sandy wags his eyebrows, and raises one of his hands toward her, shaking his finger. “Control yourself,” he says, grinning, his other hand holding the towel closed. His clothes are draped awkwardly over the arm he gestures with. He wags his eyebrows at her again as he walks toward her, passing her, back toward the bathroom at the top of the landing.
“How come you’re back already?” Gretchen asks him. She likes the way Sandy looks. He looks strong. She watches him move past her, she is now looking at the puckered scar that runs from under his left armpit down toward the middle of his back.
Sandy opens the bathroom door and turns to look at her with another funny face that wrinkles his nose and pulls up his lips. “I’m a V.I.P.,” he says. He shuts the door.
“What’s that?” Gretchen asks, moving closer to the door, speaking through it.
She hears Sandy laugh from the other side. “Very important person,” he says, and she hears him start running the water in the sink.
“Oh, like Gus,” Gretchen says. The water has stopped. The door opens a crack.
“You know how to hurt a guy,” Sandy laughs, peering through the partly opened door. She sees that he is lathering his face with a shaving brush. Gretchen pushes the door open and stands in the door way.
“You’re weird,” she says, catching his eye in the mirror he’s turned back to.
“Gus asked me to go with him to the meeting this afternoon, it looks like he’s going to be the head of in-town farming, the whole thing.” He draws the razor up under his chin and winces when it nicks his skin. “Fuck,” he says, quietly, making a face.
Gretchen keeps standing in the doorway, watching as he continues to shave.
“Hey,” Sandy says, after he nicks himself again, swearing. “This is always pretty ugly, you don’t want to watch.”
“I like to,” Gretchen says.
He rinses out the blade and puts it down, turning around to look at her. He’s smiling. His cheeks are still mostly covered with the soap. “Come on,” he says, using one of his funny voices, the deep gravelly one. “Go do what you’re supposed to be doing, will ya?”
Sandy is the only grown up in the house she talks to. “I’m supposed to be getting cleaned up and changed,” Gretchen says, petulantly. “I can’t help it if you’re hogging the bathroom.”
“Well, go ahead, get ready,” Sandy says with another laugh, turning back to his shaving. “I’ll be through in just a sec.”
Gretchen steps through and closes the door and then pulls her tee shirt off in one motion. Sandy freezes, his razor resting against his cheek for a moment as he looks past himself, at Gretchen, through the mirror. He puts the razor down and turns around slowly.
“Hey,” he says, a slight frown on his face. “I said I’d be through in a minute.”
Gretchen stands against the wall, not quite looking at him. “We can share it,” she says, and then she moves toward the bathtub in which Sandy’s used bathwater still stands.
Sandy turns further around to watch her turn the water on. Her smooth skin is sharply marked with tan along the arms and neck. Her tiny breasts have tight little pink nipples. She starts undoing her pants.
“Come on,” Sandy says, seriously. “Get out.”
“I want to watch you shave,” Gretchen says, stopping to look up at him. Then she turns to shut the water off.
“Jesus,” Sandy mutters. “You like to drive everybody crazy, huh?”
Gretchen looks at him, puzzled.
Sandy laughs, but not really a laugh, shaking his head. He turns back to shave. “I thought we were kind of friends,” he says. He glances at Gretchen in the mirror and sees her nod, still puzzled. “Save the crazy stuff for Gus, will ya?” he says, trying to sound funny again. Gretchen’s look of confusion grows in the mirror.
“I hate Gus,” she says.
“Your shirt,” Sandy says. “Put it back on and get out of here for crying out loud.”
“Why?” Gretchen asks with a small voice.
“Because you’re old enough to wear it, that’s all,” he says, trying to go back to his shaving. “Because you’re too young,” he says, a blush rising over his face.
“I’m old enough and too young,” Gretchen says, trying to make a funny face at Sandy.
“Jesus,” he says, shaking his head, almost laughing. “Put your shirt back on and get out of here.” He sees Gretchen’s eyes go cloudy. Without thought his mirror gaze drops to her breasts for a moment before breaking back to his own face, which he then seems to be studying with intense effort. “Git going,” he says, pulling at his nose to shave his upper lip.
Gretchen moves behind him and pulls her tee shirt back on but remains behind him near the door. “I hate everybody here,” she says very quietly.
“Well, you shouldn’t,” Sandy says, also quietly. “I like you very much, Gretchen. Everyone means well.”
Gretchen says nothing, behind him.
Sandy shuts his eyes for a moment, but his eyes jump open again when he feels Gretchen’s arms reach around him and lean her face against his damp back.
“It’s right if people love each other,” Gretchen says quietly.
With his free hand he gently takes one of Gretchen’s arms and moves it off of him. “Come on,” he says, very gently.
“Okay,” says Gretchen, with a quaver in her voice. She throws open the door and it bangs into Sandy’s back. Gus is climbing up the stairs.
Gus starts to say to Gretchen, as she comes to a stop before him on the landing, “Dinner is all —” but he stops when he sees Sandy stepping back from behind the door, wrapped in the towel, face still half lathered. Gus’s eyes move from Sandy to Gretchen, Sandy following his glance until they both see the top of Gretchen’s unfastened pants.
Sandy grunts out a huh. “Don’t,” he says to Gus, holding up the wet hand still grasping the razor. “Don’t. Say. Anything.” And Gretchen is past Gus, her face burning, racing for her room.
The meal was really good, Spectacular, Gretchen thinks, trying out the word.
The roast Carlos had dropped earlier managed to be cooked quite well despite the wood stove the women are always saying was too hard to use. The wine was real wine too, from Argentina, and not the homemade stuff that the adults sometimes get a chance to drink. And the occasion is a happy one for the adults, a celebration of the news that Gus is being named to head all the growing efforts for the fields in and near the town, and the greenhouses, with Sandy up for membership as Gus’s replacement on the something committee. Three of their neighbors have joined them at the table.
Swainy, a fat moody man, and his wife, a thin silent woman, are regular visitors and of little interest to Gretchen, who thinks of them as boring and unpleasant. Swainy’s wife always makes Gretchen think of the wicked witch in Bill’s story about a place called Oz that she would always ask to hear again and again, and Gretchen always expects the woman to speak with the high-pitched whine Bill had used in his recitations, but the woman is almost always silent. The third neighbor is new, a young nervous woman called Ellie, or Ellen, who Gretchen thinks is pretty, and who Sandy seems to like to talk to even though the woman appears to Gretchen to be flustered by almost everything. Gretchen started seeing her around in the fields only after the summer was half gone, when she had started bringing Sandy and the others something to eat or drink. Gretchen has the impression that this woman Ellie has not been in Lowell for too long, but she refuses to let herself ask.
Carlos also sits at the table, next to Gus who always sits at the head of the table in front of the hutch. Opposite Carlos sits Sandy, and next to him Ellie, then Swainy’s wife, then Swainy. Alex is at the other end, which is tight against the window because they have had to put the extra table leaf in. Gretchen sits next to Alex. James, Pauline, and Mary round out the side of the table nearest the kitchen door. The wood and brass lamp over the table, hanging from the ceiling by a brass chain with a brown electric cord running through the links, gives off a yellow light from the two bulbs shaped like candle flames which have been tightened in the sockets to make contact. Usually, Gretchen knows, only one of the bulbs is allowed to burn, even though there are six sockets for bulbs. Even the refrigerator, which is usually turned off this late at night, is humming in the kitchen.
“So,” says the man Swainy, to Gus, speaking with a soft voice that always sounds as if he has a bad chest cold, “you gonna always eat like this now, huh?” He looks slowly around the table at some of the others and Gretchen realizes he is making a stupid joke.
“We almost always eat like this,” quips Alex from the end of the table next to Swainy. “This is just the first time we invited you for it.” Ellie’s eyes grow round, but when the others laugh, she smiles, tentatively.
“You better have another taste of the wine,” Sandy says, reaching past Gus to take the last bottle from in front of Carlos.
“It might be my last, huh?” Swainy says, and this time he even seems to be smiling. His wife is picking up her utensils, and then her husband’s. She is starting to stack their plates.
“Oh, leave those alone,” Pauline says, standing, gathering the dishes. “Just sit, Maureen, for goodness sake.” Pauline looks to Gretchen and Gretchen makes a face but stands up too. She starts helping collect the dishes.
Mary gets up from her chair, and Carlos stands slightly, to give Mary some room and to nod at the women.
“I hope everybody likes apple pie,” Mary says, pausing to take some of the dishes from Pauline’s hands. “First of the season,” she says, brightly. Maureen is up and Pauline turns and gestures for her sit down.
“Go ahead, sit down kid,” Swainy says to his wife, in his phlegmy voice, and he starts to cough, but stops and then has to clear his throat. Maureen hovers near her seat and Swainy frowns at her and she sits down with a sudden passive fall.
Alex says, from his pushed back chair that is now right back against the window, “With this seating only the shrimp can get past me,” and he looks at Gretchen and nods. “See if you can squeeze through,” he says to her. Gretchen makes a face of disgust and moves around James to Mary’s empty place to reach over the table for the others’ dishes.
Sandy begins speaking as the two women disappear into the kitchen. “I don’t know if they’re really going to want me on the committee,” he is saying to Carlos. Gus is watching Carlos.
“Oh, give ’em hell,” James says with a snort. Gus laughs and Carlos is looking at Sandy with a neutral expression.
“Sandy thinks the growers don’t get the right share of resources,” Gus says to Carlos.
“That’s right,” Sandy says, and then he is interrupted by James’s outcry.
“Hey, the bastard’s finished the wine!” James says, holding up the bottle that had been placed in front of Swainy. James’s face, with its look of mock crying, makes some of the others laugh. Swainy clears his throat again, but is smiling. His wife looks alarmed.
“He had to so you wouldn’t get more drunk,” Alex says, pushing James back into his seat with a hand on James’s shoulder. James’s fake hiccup is ignored. Sandy is speaking again.
“Really,” Sandy is saying, “there is too little in gas, for instance. We’re lucky the season went well considering the delays they had at the Chelmsford farms because we didn’t have any for the tractors for almost two weeks, right at the worst times.”
“Diesel,” Gus says, to no one in particular, but then he’s turned toward Carlos, smiling. “Sandy is our resident complainer,” Gus says.
“Things are getting better,” Carlos says, shrugging. “I hear that we are trying to get a tanker up here for you on a regular schedule. The harvest this year is good, yes?”
Sandy grunts. Gretchen turns into the kitchen with her wobbly pile of dishes and cutlery, and sets it down on the counter with a controlled crash, making Mary and Pauline look up from their oven. The oven is a big metal drum up on cement blocks. It has a firebox taking up the top half of the barrel. At the bottom of it there is the oven with its own small curving door that never shuts completely The warped door is attached to the drum with old door hinges that always need tightening.
As usual when the stove is going, it is hot and smoky in the kitchen. The flue rises up from a thick iron plate that sits atop the barrel, traveling in the room for almost six feet before it exits out of a window pane where the glass has been removed and fiberglass stuffing is pushed around the metal pipe. A gas stove sits between countertops almost opposite the drum, to the left of the sink along the other wall. The stove has two wide boards over the burners. The boards are crowded with spice bottles, cooking oil, a flour canister, other things. A long, narrow awning window is cranked fully open above the sink, but the smoke and heat of the kitchen seems unaffected by it.
“It looks fine,” Pauline is saying to Mary, after the two have turned back to the oven. Gretchen puts the stopper in the sink and turns on the water. She reaches over Mary, who still peers into the oven, to take hold of one of the kettles of hot water from the stove top. Pauline sees Gretchen getting the water and tells her to use the other kettle.
Gretchen ignores a fleeting image of pouring the hot water over Mary’s bent back.
Pauline moves to the cupboards to gather dishes for the dessert. A burst of laughter comes through the door from the other room. Gretchen pours the steaming water into the cold water in the sink and starts pushing the plates into it.
“Please, be careful,” Mary says. She’s holding the pie in her hands, using an old bath towel for a hot pad. A plate slides against one on the wine glasses in the sink with a snapping sound. “Oh dear,” Mary says, her big eyes wide in her round face.
Pauline looks up from filling the coffee pot and sees what happened. “Oh brother,” Pauline says with the tone of perfect disgust. She puts down the coffee measure and comes over to the sink. Gretchen feels like laughing with the two of them so serious.
“It’s just a stupid glass,” she says.
“Don’t get cut,” Mary says, concerned, but Pauline tells Gretchen to leave.
“She’s always doing that,” Pauline says, as if Gretchen’s not there drying her hands. Mary is still standing there, holding the pie with the towel, starting to say something about her being just a kid, but the door is swinging back behind Gretchen, dimming Mary’s words.
Gretchen takes her chair again. Gretchen is angry. She hates them all, they are always telling her what to do. She even hates Sandy tonight, glaring at him across the table. Sandy is trying to explain something to stupid Ellie.
“Well, you know,” he is saying, talking quietly enough so that Gretchen has to strain to hear what he is saying amid the other talk. “There are still a lot of people out there not doing great,” and Ellie is nodding solemnly. Gretchen notices Gus and Carlos are listening too, but she can’t hear everything Sandy is saying because Alex and James are talking across her about something some guy did, and Swainy’s bubble-filled voice, although very low as he speaks to his wife, is very distracting. She manages to make out that Sandy is talking about food, fields, but there’s something else, too.
“For pete’s sake, Sandy,” Gus is saying, glancing to Carlos for a moment. “You make it sound like we’re horrible.”
Alex and James have stopped talking. Swainy’s soft rasping bubbling voice continues.
“Not feeding starving people is killing them,” Sandy says.
“That’s stupid,” Gus says, annoyed with Sandy’s tone.
“There are many in the world who are hungry,” says Carlos to Sandy. “Are we all murderers because we do not starve with them? Is that the only moral ground you are saying?”
Sandy stares at Carlos. “It’s a good question for your country to ask,” he says. Gretchen glances at Gus and sees the familiar face of his anger.
Carlos smiles, a patient smile. “It is understandable, I think,” he says slowly. “But my country is not without problems, yes?” He waits for Sandy to say something but Sandy remains silent. “I am sure it is not unknown that we have troubles too, yes? We have fighting, our sister countries are not all as generous as you might wish for them, some of our own people want more….”
“You’re not thinking, Sandy,” Gus says. “We throw everything open and there won’t be enough for anyone, there—“
“—Look, I know—” begins Sandy, impatiently.
“—You don’t sound it, you sound like a child, like there—“
“—Oh, for god’s sake, Gus, ease off on the patronizing,” Sandy sharply replies, and then he sits back in his chair. “My only point is that if we weren’t so conservative, if we got behind the move to spread the farms, really behind it—“
“—Christ!” Gus hisses, slaps his hand down on the table. “We are helping a lot of people, we got farms all the way out past Groton this year. Groton, Pepperell, hell, people out in Townsend. Some of our people think we’re moving too fast.”
“Some of our people,” Sandy says, after a moment, the strain in his voice evident in the new quiet, “some think we’re losing our market. Some of our people think all farms should be ours.”
“They’re going to love you on the committee,” Swainy says, wheezing out a laugh.
“Really, I hope you can stick to business,” says Gus. “God, you scare me,” he says, with the trace of a smile.
“I don’t understand,” Carlos says. “You are saying that you should split up all the agriacola, the, um, materials for everybody who wants it?”
Sandy grunts, a small laugh. “Not even I think that,” he says. He looks around the table, catching Gretchen’s eye and winking at her. Gretchen flushes, and sinks lower in her seat. “It more a question of priorities, of getting the resources we need to get our jobs done,” he continues.
“Here, here,” Swainy bubbles.
“He likes to scare me,” Gus says, shaking his head at Carlos.
“More booze!” James cries and Alex pretends he’s about to cuff him and the kitchen door swings open with Pauline behind it with a tray of real coffee and the apple pie.
“I’m supposed to be in school,” Danny says. Gretchen and Danny are in a basement in one of the other houses where she likes to go and play. Sometimes, when she can slip away from the adults, she goes and waits at the building where Danny lives, watching to see when he comes out to play in the asphalt yard, waiting for him to go off with her.
They are in one of the areas where many houses stand empty, not far from the big wall that is pushed between buildings. Here the wall is high up and runs along one street. It is made of stones and pieces of metal and wood and brick and mortar and dirt. Gretchen mostly keeps away from the brick buildings that are part of the wall. People with guns walk along the wall, even on top of it, and sometimes these people will go in the buildings.
Gretchen sits on an old workbench, swinging her legs. It is a raw gray day outside. The rain comes and goes and sometimes the wind whips drops of it against the glass of the tiny window above them that lets in a little light into the damp room. “You’re getting all dirty,” Gretchen says to Danny, who is sitting on a wooden box filled with metal things and oily rope and hooks. She picks up a big wood chip from the bench and flicks it toward Danny.
He ignores the chip that sails past him. “I am not,” he says, but he gets up and wipes at his pants seat and moves over to her on the worktable.
Gretchen grabs him between her legs. He turns, and when Gretchen tightens her grip, he stands passively, held by her bony legs. He starts picking at the worn corduroy at her knee, tugging on one of the patches, letting Gretchen take some of his weight.
“I could teach you,” Gretchen says. She starts squeezing her legs together and Danny yelps. He tries to squirm out, laughing, until the pressure of her locked legs begins to press too hard on his ribs. “Ow!” he shouts and punches her thigh. Gretchen squeezes as hard as she can and then lets go. Danny, struggling away from the trap of her legs, stumbles to the grimy floor, but he jumps back up instantly.
“Cut it out,” he says. He crosses his arms.
“You’re such a baby,” Gretchen says.
Danny looks at her with a frown crossing his face, his lower lips slightly trembling with a mix of hurt and anger.
“Don’t cry,” Gretchen says, taunting him.
“I’m not!” Danny shouts loudly and Gretchen shushes him, making a face, eyes open and lips pursed.
Danny pantomimes surprise and embarrassment and then grins. Gretchen rolls her eyes, but is smiling.
“That school stinks,” Danny says, “there’s only babies in it.” He pronounces babies like it is something no one would ever want to have to say.
Gretchen, twists around on the work table to finger some of the dusty glass jars full of screws and nails and bolts.
“You’re my only friend,” Danny says sadly. “All the other kids are really little.”
“How many kids are there?” Gretchen asks brightly, turning back around. She has one of the jars, a small baby food jar, in her hands. She starts working on the lid, getting it open.
“I dunno know,” says Danny, cranky.
“Don’t you count?” asks Gretchen.
“Yeeaaas,” Danny says, making a face. Gretchen holds out a hand toward him. She has brass screws in it. “How many?” she says.
“You’re not my boss,” Danny says, but then he looks at the handful of screws.
“You don’t count,” Gretchen says, jiggling the large handful of screws toward Danny. Two screws fall from her hand.
“One two three four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, TEN!” Danny recites rapidly, ending the string with a firm, emphatic cry.
Gretchen ignores him and says, “How many do I have in my hand?”
“This is dumb,” Danny says, but he peeks again at the hand Gretchen holds out toward him.
“You’re dumb,” Gretchen says. “You can’t even count to 22.”
“I don’t want to,” says Danny, but his face looks hurt again.
Gretchen picks one screw out of her palm with her other hand and tosses it at Danny. “One,” she says, picking up another, tossing it. “Two,” and another, “three,” and Danny is dancing away from the flying screws, as Gretchen continues her count. The fifteenth screw catches him under the eye and he screeches.
“Shut up,” Gretchen says, tossing the rest of the handful up in the air. The screws bounce off the floor boards above, the pipes and wires above, and rain down on Danny.
“That hurt,” says Danny, with a quavering voice, and Gretchen hops down off the bench and grabs him in her arms, trying to kiss his face. Danny is crying and pushing away from her and she is saying that she is sorry and tries to kiss him on the mouth and Danny sobs and says, pushing against her, “Kissing is stupid.”
“You’re my little Rosebud,” Gretchen says tenderly.
“Hey baby,” one of the guards up on the wall calls down to Gretchen as she and Danny move between two of the houses at the wall where they go exploring. It is a clear, bright Sunday and not a work day, so they can walk around outside all they want. Danny looks up at the guards standing above them, squinting against the sun that hangs above the soldiers. Gretchen ignores them. Danny waves.
“Is that your girlfriend, kid?” the guard who has called out to Gretchen calls down to Danny, and then he laughs. The other guard says something to the laughing guard.
“She looks fine to me,” the laughing guard replies loudly, and the other guard says something low and sharp to him, but the first guard ignores the other guard, still looking as the blond girl and freckled, sweating smaller boy move away. “Little school girl,” the laughing guard is calling after Gretchen, but when the two move into the brick building under the wall, all they can hear is that something else is being shouted.
On some Sundays Gretchen and Danny like to go into this brick building that forms part of the wall, because it still has a small window up on the top floor that hasn’t been blocked up. From this window they can look out across the street where houses used to be. After an open stretch, some old buildings still stand.
It is an area where the outside people come and camp and tables and stands get set up. On some days flashes of light off the Pawtucket River can be seen from this window, between two of the buildings at the farthest edge of the area. Gretchen always looks for the water by looking for the smoke stack of the long dark building that rises just beyond where she knows the small river runs, where some of the people that come to work the fields come from, the people no one talks to and are under guard when they work, people who always look dirty.
Sometimes Gus or Mary or Sandy or others from her house have a stand out in front of the wall where they talk to the people who come, trading corn and vegetables for other things. Since summer is nearing its end, the crowds have grown bigger, and Danny and Gretchen can spend a lot of time going from one spy nook to another and see lots of things past the wall.
The two children climb the stairway in the dark building. As they reach the third floor, Gretchen senses that something has changed in their lookout, and she realizes that an old stained mattress has been dragged up into the room. The old closet door is half-open, the table with the broken leg is still on its side against the pale green wall, the blackened lightbulb is in its socket in the shattered ceiling fixture. The calendar with the picture of a snow covered red building over a little river is gone from the wall behind the door, she sees as she looks back toward the hallway. She says nothing to Danny about the mattress. He doesn’t seem to notice it, even though he has to step on it to reach the window, which has been pushed up in its frame.
Danny is half out of the frame, looking out. Beyond the wall there are many people and shade cloths and some smoky fires with clusters of people around them. The sound of the people below floats up on the warm air rising from the building’s face. Gretchen prefers to remain inside the room, in the shadow.
“There’s your table!” Danny says, leaning further out and pointing with his right arm. Gretchen sticks her head out and looks and sees Gus and the woman Pauline sitting on chairs behind a long table piled with corn, talking with two women and a man standing before them in front of the table. One of the women is showing them something. It flashes in the sunlight. A breeze gusts along the wall, bringing a puff of warm air and a sound that might be Gus’s laugh. The canopy above the table, an old bedspread that is tied to poles and staked, fluffs up in the breeze.
A shout to Gretchen’s left draws her attention and she turns to see the crowd there boiling. Suddenly a man bursts through the crowd. He is holding something to his chest. And then he is turning and runs right into another man and knocks him over. Stumbling from the crash, the running man disappears behind a make-shift structure built on to one of the old foundations, and then Gretchen sees that three other men are after him. One of the men has a rifle, and the crowd around them is hooting and calling things out after them. As soon as the three men go behind the foundation where the man has vanished, the man who had been running appears back in the crowd. Gretchen sees him sit down against a thin sapling before the crowd shifts again, blocking him from her view.
Danny has already stopped looking at the disturbance, scanning the open area for more interesting things. “Over there!” Danny shouts, delighted. He is pointing over to the far side of the area at a place where the buildings start again. In front of a rust-smudged, windowless building, on an expanse of asphalt, there is a large group of people in a rough circle. Some are standing high up on the roof of a bus. Over the heads of the crowd, Gretchen sees something moving. Although only his head and torso can be seen, the man seems to be gliding.
“He’s standing on a bicycle,” Danny says, eyes round. Gretchen sees the man half-totter to one side, still moving, and then he is steadying himself and flips off backwards. A moment later a cheer from the circle of people reaches them. Danny pulls himself into the room from the window frame and slides down the wall to sit under the window. The sound of a tinny drum and what Gretchen thinks might be a guitar floats into the room.
“I want to go out there,” he says. Gretchen leans against the wall, the side window frame, looking down at the top of Danny’s head. He looks up at her. “You go out there,” he says with a mix of awe and accusation.
“To the stupid fields,” she says.
“Not just that,” Danny says.
“With Gus, working at that stupid table,” Gretchen replies, with a face. Danny continues to look at her, his mouth set.
“I hate them,” Gretchen says simply. Danny is nodding knowingly at her, but then he stills and his eyes grow round. He is listening to a sound from the lower floor.
“Someone’s coming!” he says in a shaky whisper, but Gretchen is already at the doorway, listening. They hear the low voice of a man, and then a woman says, clearly, “Give me a taste,” and then the man says something else, and Gretchen grabs Danny’s arm and pulls him toward the closet door. Danny and she get in the closet and drag the door closed as quietly as they can, but it won’t shut fully. They slide down against the back wall of the closet, against each other. A moment later they hear the man and woman come into the room.
“There’s pigeon shit all over the place,” the woman says.
“Jesus,” the man rumbles. “Fussy?”
“Just let me look for nests,” the woman says. “May be eggs.”
The man says something Gretchen can’t make out.
“They’re good,” the woman says, defensively.
The man mutters something, and the woman shouts at him.
“Wild woman?!” the woman shouts, making Danny jump by Gretchen’s side. They see her briefly as she moves past the open crack of the closet door. “You don’t know what it’s like!” she says, still shouting, but not so loudly, right on the other side of the door.
The man says something.
And then she is saying something else and then says, quietly, “Hemingway used to eat them when he was young and poor.”
“Who the hell is Hemingway?” the man mumbles. Gretchen doesn’t know anyone by that name.
The woman laughs once, sharply. “And I’m the savage,” she says, as if to herself. Then she speaks to the man, who is already lying on the mattress, his shoes and pant legs in Gretchen and Danny’s line of sight. “Hemingway the writer, For Whom the Bell Tolls, you ignorant—“
“—Don’t be a bitch,” the man says lightly.
The woman laughs at this, a quick tight burst, but then she continues. “Big game hunter, The Old Man and the Sea, `Papa,’ blew his head off with a shotgun, as a poor young writer in Paris he used to catch pigeons in the park for food, you ignoramus.” The woman moves past the closet again.
“Yeah,” the man says, defensively, “I remember that.”
The room is silent. Even in the closet Gretchen can hear the outside noises.
“Nice view,” the woman says, so quietly Gretchen can hardly hear her.
“Keep away from that goddamn window,” the man says sharply. “You’re not even supposed to be in here.”
The woman says something Gretchen can’t catch.
“It’s just a place we hang out sometimes,” the man says clearly.
The woman says something else, and then there is silence for a while.
“Come here,” the man says softly. A shadow passes over the small opening of the closet door.
“Take off your clothes,” he says.
The woman is standing at the foot of the mattress, right across the closet’s small opening. She drops her shirt to the floor. It is a hooded, torn gray sweatshirt that zippers down the front. She starts humming, and then she says, “ta-dah, ta-dum,” a couple of times and kicks off the over-sized pants she has dropped to her feet.
“Why you crying?” the man asks from down on the mattress.
“I’m hungry,” the woman says, not sounding at all like she is crying. Gretchen leans forward and looks through the crack at the back of the woman. The woman’s skin is white and dirty, and along the ridges of her ribs there is a long scabbed scratch that runs from her bottom rib up toward one of her breasts. Gretchen looks at the large bruised veiny breast hanging from the woman’s chest. When the woman turns slightly, Gretchen can see a long dark nipple, and then the woman turns back the other way and Gretchen’s eyes are drawn to the way the woman’s flat, stretched buttocks move. Danny is leaning forward too.
“You like it?” the woman says.
The man grunts. Then he says something.
“Let me eat first,” the woman says and she bends over to grab the wrinkled paper bag by the man’s head, but the man swings it out of her reach.
“I got something for you to eat,” the man says, in what sounds like a low sleepy voice. Gretchen leans forward more and can see, through the woman’s legs, the man’s hand tugging at his zipper. The woman crouches down between his legs and pulls at his pants. The woman says something and then leans back and the man’s fly is open and his penis is erect and being held loosely in the woman’s left hand. The woman’s other hand is up to her own mouth, and as she takes it away Gretchen catches a flash of teeth. The woman carefully wipes the floor with the edge of her right hand, holding the dental bridge carefully up in two fingers, away from her sweep. She places the dental bridge down on the cleared spot on the floor.
“A convertible,” the man grunts, but the woman says nothing and leans forward and moves the tip of the man’s penis into her mouth. Gretchen glances at Danny and sees, lit by the strip of light falling through the opening, that he is open mouthed. The man moans, and the woman starts working the penis in her mouth. Gretchen can half feel it in her mouth, the warmth, the smell of Bill, but her heart is racing with a fear that confuses her, making her shut her eyes because of a gripping in her chest and the taste like violence in the room.
“Jesus,” the man gasps, and Gretchen’s eyes fly open to see the man grinding his hips upward, making the woman gag. The woman starts moving her mouth up and down over the penis. “Shit,” the man says, or half says, repeatedly, and the woman is breathing harder and the man is breathing harder. The woman is hunched kneeling between the man’s legs, her buttocks and back arcing in a tight half curve. The sound of woman’s mouth on the man mixes with the sound of the man’s clothes and his own sounds and bursts of noise from outside the window. Danny’s nails are biting into Gretchen’s arm and his face, she sees, is either sweaty or he is crying.
Then the man starts moaning faster, bucking his hips, and the woman’s head and back rise and fall over the man. “Aaah, shit, aaah,” the man cries, and he grasps the woman’s head with his hands, and then he grunts and thrusts with his hips, arcing his buttocks off the mattress. He calls out again, and the tension in his upraised legs trembles. He slowly brings his hips back to the mattress and the woman’s head stops moving and she turns her face on to his thigh, and Gretchen can see that she is slowly still sucking the man and trying to swallow. The man is gently stroking the woman’s hair. The woman sits up and wipes at her mouth with the back of one hand, and then Gretchen sees her wipe at her eyes with the back of her other hand.
“Whew,” the man says, from beneath the arm he has thrown over his eyes. A moment later he says, softly, “Shit.”
The woman has stood up. She bends down and picks up her bridgework and puts it back in her mouth. She goes over and picks up her pants and puts them on.
“Here,” the man says shyly, sitting up, refastening his pants. He hands the bag to the woman. She takes it, but she doesn’t look into it. Instead she keeps looking at the man.
“I could use some medicine,” she says. She looks away and finds her sweatshirt and pulls it on. Zipping it all the way up.
The man, who is in the process of standing up, stops for a moment, then he stands, staring at the woman. “You’re not,” he says, then stops. Gretchen can see his face turning red, a sweep of fear passing over it. “Shit,” the man says.
The woman laughs a sharp, bitter laugh. “Don’t worry, lover,” she says, “you can’t get what I need medicine for.”
The man frowns.
“It’s not what you think,” the woman says, angrily. “I have a kind of epilepsy. You can’t catch it.”
“Oh,” the man says. The man slowly stretches.
“Oh,” the woman echos. Then she asks again about medicine, naming a specific kind, a strange sounding word.
“Jesus Christ,” he mutters. “You think I can get shit like that, there probably isn’t any anyway.”
The woman is silent.
“Shit!” the man says.
The woman has moved toward the window and Gretchen leans forward and can see her shrug. She turns to the man who is standing toward the front of the room now. “Can you help me get in here?” she asks quietly.
“Shit!” comes the reply. “That’s not, you expect—“
“—It’s just a goddamn question!” the woman screeches, and they are both silent for a moment.
“You got to go through regular channels,” the man finally says, and the woman laughs.
“There’s always the Factory,” the man says in a low impatient voice. The woman says something else.
“Of course I seen it, I pull duty there for crying out loud,” the man replies. The woman says something else that Gretchen can’t make out, and then the man, who has moved toward the window, his back to the room, says, “No. It’s pretty okay.”
“There are better deals,” the woman says, walking up to the man, placing her hand on his arm as he turns around.
“Suit yourself,” he says, shrugging off the hand.
“How about here,” the woman says, nodding at the room. “You have friends, don’t you?”
“Maybe,” the man is saying, but he stops, hearing a bell rung twice, from through the open window frame. “Shit!” he says, after the bell rings twice again, and he goes back to the window and leans out.
“What is it?” the woman asks as the man leans back into the room.
“Probably another fucking riot or something.” he says. “Shit!” Gretchen can feel his shadow race over the crack of the closet door, followed by him.
“Let’s go!” he shouts from outside the room at the woman. “I got to get you out and report.”
The woman says something softly to herself, and then Gretchen sees her shut her eyes and lean wearily against the wall, still near the window. The man barks something from the hall and the woman pushes herself off the wall, standing for a moment, her face a stone. Gretchen glances at Danny in the darkness of the closet, his eyes are screwed tight shut, and then she turns back to look through the crack of the closet door. The woman has taken another step toward the man in the hallway, and Gretchen freezes when she sees that the woman is standing stock still looking right at Gretchen. And then, after a moment, the woman disappears through the doorway, hurrying down the stairs.
“It’s okay,” Gretchen says, after sitting in the closet for some minutes. She pushes the door open slowly. Danny is still against the inside wall and his eyes blink open and then shut again.
“They didn’t love each other,” Gretchen says, standing up.
Gretchen knows she’s likely to get in trouble, but she doesn’t care. All morning she’s been working in the rows of corn, with some teenagers she sometimes has to work with but hates, especially the two who are brothers who are always mean, kicking or stepping on her or trying to stick their hands into her. Instead of coming right back to the field with Mary—fetching Mary, the reason why the crew leader Arlene has sent her back to the house—Gretchen tells Mary she’s there because she’s gotten sick and she rushes into the downstairs bathroom and makes retching sounds through the door.
“Are you okay, honey?” Mary the Cow asks. Gretchen makes a face at her behind the door, and then pinches the skin on her cheeks and forehead. In the medicine cabinet mirror it makes her skin looks blotchy and red. Gretchen unlatches the door and opens it, and looks up at Mary with a downturned lip.
“”I’m sick again,” Gretchen says, making her voice quiver. Mary places a hand on Gretchen’s forehead. Mary’s lips turn downward, her big cow eyes round.
“I’m, I want to go to bed,” Gretchen says quietly.
“Should I stay with you?” the Cow asks.
Gretchen makes herself lean against Mary, crouching over a bit so that her head rests under Mary’s big breasts. She tenses her shoulders so that a shudder runs through her body. Mary puts her hands on Gretchen’s shoulders, rubbing them gently.
“I’ll be okay,” Gretchen says in a hoarse whisper. “I don’t want Gus to be mad at me, I’ll go back out.”
“Oh, for goodness sake, honey,” Mary gently says. “If you’re sick, you’re sick.”
Gretchen pulls away from the Cow’s hands and looks up at her with wide eyes. “Gus will even be madder if you stay here with me.”
“Well, let’s put you to bed,” says Mary. They go upstairs and Gretchen continues to insist, with a kind of passive whining, that she will be okay. After getting her a glass of water for her bedside and tucking her in and sitting by her, Mary finally leaves.
Gretchen counts slowly to three hundred and sweeps off the blankets. She quickly moves to the bedroom door and opens it and calls out for Mary. She waits for an answer and calls out again to make sure she is gone. Gretchen dresses and goes downstairs.
In the kitchen, Gretchen opens the refrigerator door, and then goes to the breadbox that sits on a small table and pulls out an old cloudy plastic bag in which part of a loaf is wrapped. She goes back to the still open General Electric refrigerator but sees nothing in it that she wants to eat and she slams it closed. The rubber magnetic strips absorb the force of the hard-swung door, but the sound of contents shifting on the metal racks make her heart jump.
Pinching off pieces of the bread to eat, Gretchen heads outside. It is a beautiful day, and she stops to look around for a moment. Swainy’s house, a tiny dull asphalt shingled place, stands across the driveway that ranges along the side of Gretchen’s house. A weed-choked chain-link fence blocks the view of Swainy’s basement windows, but Gretchen knows that the half-crazy boarder that lives down there is out in the fields with Swainy and his wife. Gretchen freezes for a moment when she sees a curtain move in one of the windows on the third floor of the triple decker peeking over the low roof of Swainy’s house, but she decides, after staring up at it, that it is only the light breeze that moves the cloth across the sill.
The houses are all silent. The shadow of the mid-day sun falls over the faces of the house across the street from her, and the sun lights one half of the old red van that is parked in front of the duplex with the falling down porches. The van, without wheels, has always been there.
Everyone is out in the fields, Gretchen tells herself, but she is feeling anxious and afraid, but excited too, something like hungry and excited, a grasping for touch, to touch, to be touched, something that makes her belly warm, but lower, not her belly, feeling like she wants to hide, to feel safe and loved, to be touching, being touched, and Gretchen turns back into the house, to her room, she’s in her bed, covers up over her head, her pants undone, her hand moving between her legs, like Bill showed her, the slippery wet, she is in the secret place, Bill is touching her, Bill loves her, she gasps and is crying, she is keening, a high monotone through clenched teeth, her grimace, tears squeezed from eyes tight shut, she is rubbing herself hard, she is with Bill, his face floats above her in the dark of the other place, their secret place, their Alamo.