Gail read an hour a night, mostly books by old men whose names sound like things you rest your head on: Bellow, Roth, DeLillo and Russo.
“Know your enemy,” she said.
“Philip Roth’s your enemy?” I asked. She was older than me, and wiser, but not everything she said made sense. Daddy loved Philip Roth, thought he ought to have a Nobel for Sabbath’s Theater alone.
“All men are enemies,” she told me. “Philip Roth especially.”
I wanted to understand, but instead got potatoes to peel.
“Best you don’t know,” she said, contradicting herself. And then she left me to it, because that chicken wasn’t going to fry itself.
I liked Gail, but I wasn’t so sure men were the enemy. Some of them, yes, of course. But some of them, no. “That,” Gail told me, “is because you’re not old enough to know better.”
“How old are you now?” Daddy asked. I was sitting on his lap, trying to dig my elbows into his belly hard enough that he’d call me funnybones.
“Twelve.” Which was practically true. I’d be twelve in May.
He took my elbow, guided it out of his tummy until I had to stand up.
“Twelve’s too old,” he said, which was unfair.
“You let Gail sit on your lap,” I said, “and she’s near twice my age.”
“I’m not Gail’s daddy,” he pointed out.
“Fine,” I told him. “In that case, I’ll sit on someone else.”
This made him angrier than I’d expected, and he shook my arm, which hurt. “No sitting on anyone,” he said. “Any spare time you’ve got, spend it on your schoolwork.”
I wanted to cry, but I wasn’t a child, so I pulled myself together. “You’re fat,” I told him, both barrels. “And you ought not to smoke. You’ll die of cancer, if a cardiac doesn’t get you first.”
This wasn’t supposed to calm him down, but it did. He laughed and pulled me in. “Come here, funnybones!” he said.
In the end, I always got what I wanted.
Mostly men on the farm, of course. For ten years, there was Mom and me, then Mom drowned in the lake. I took over the cooking, the sewing, the cleaning, the woman’s work that’s never done. On the sixth month I had une mauvaise rencontre with a big pot of bouillabaisse stoo and scalded myself. One arm, one leg and half my face still red years later, like a frozen crabstick. The doctor said it’d go away one day. Daddy said I was beautiful no matter what pair of colors I ended up.
Someone told Daddy I was doing too much. Shortly after, Gail came to be his new wife. She was nineteen then, and not too pretty, but she knew how to fix a tractor and could wring a chicken’s neck faster than Colonel Sanders. I think she came from an ad.
“Your father’s right about your schoolwork,” Gail said. “There’s little future round here for women who don’t know their six times sevens.”
“Daddy hurt my arm when I sat on his lap,” I told her.
She laughed through her nose. “You tell me if any man here really does hurt you, and I’ll charge him down. I’ll stab him with this knife. Or smack him with this pot.” She often spoke like that. I could picture it too. Gail hated men.
“Best you smack him with the pot,” I said. “You’ll go to jail for a stabbing, but you smack a pot into a boy, he’ll know he had it coming.”
“Christ! That sounds like something I’d say.”
I cut my hair short, same as hers. Watched her round Daddy. She kissed his cheek twice a day: once in the morning over breakfast and once in the evening, after his third beer and her second. They slept in separate rooms except for Saturdays. So, most Saturdays I asked Daddy to take me to the movies or out for ice-cream. Things I knew he liked.
I had a boyfriend, Darrel, who was sixteen and helped us load eggs onto trucks on the weekends and holidays. One day, to see what would happen, I told Gail that Darrel had forced me up against the coop and lifted my skirt. I wanted her to charge him down with a knife or a pot, but instead she told Daddy. We never saw Darrel again.
“It’s okay,” I told Gail. “I forgive you for that.”
But I didn’t.
One morning shortly after, I cooked Daddy eggs, mushrooms and beans for breakfast, what was normally Gail’s job. I’d traded her breakfast duties for help with my geography homework. She didn’t know geography was my best subject. Mount Chimborazo is higher than Everest. Everything began in Ancient Greece. I kissed Daddy on the cheek, which I’d started doing now, and put some bread under the grill for him to sop up his sauce.
“No Gail?” he said, mouthful of sunny side up.
“Do you remember,” I asked him, “when it was just you and me?”
“Sure I do, buttercup,” he told me. He stopped eating long enough to throw an arm around my neck.
“Daddy? Did Gail tell you about her and Darrel?”
His arm wrapped around me, I felt the muscles in it slowly contract and relax.
“I saw them by the coop,” I told him.
After a while, he said, “Buttercup, nothing happened between Gail and Darrel at the coop.”
I didn’t say anything. I sat on his lap.
Not long after, Gail was gone, and it was the two of us again.
Sometimes I swam in the lake that Mom died in. I learnt to fix a tractor, and to wring the chickens by the neck. I kept my hair short. I read some of those books by Philip Roth. I cooked breakfast. Drank two beers at night.
My skin’s still redder on one side than the other. Daddy and I like it that way.
Photo courtesy of Global Pillage
Christopher James lives, works and writes in Jakarta, Indonesia. He has previously been published online in many venues, including Tin House, McSweeney’s, Smokelong, and Wigleaf. He is the editor of Jellyfish Review.