Michael Backus

Peter Peter’s Family Album

Shit, he says to me, this guy from the playground – goofy smile, beanpole thin with floppy Maravich hair – you can play a little, but I already knew that and I have other things to worry about. Like keeping things civil between David and Dad. And scoring. It isn’t my father’s first priority. He dreams of the bone-bruising hip check, of the shivering elbow. He wants to block David’s shot, steal the ball, send him reeling into the concrete, skewer him with a swivel of his butt. He wants to cut and gouge and puncture, to dominate and humiliate.

The rest is up to me.

I have Goofy Guy covering me, he and David against my father and me and he’s too much, with at least three years and six inches on me and dart quick, with a feathery way of elevating, like he’s caught on an updraft at exactly the moment when he should be coming down. He’s got to be playing high school ball but still I cross over between my legs and go left and flick it up and through from 18 feet and this guy says it again. Shit, you can play a little. What are you, maybe 12, and I’m like yeah, yeah that’s right. I’m 13 but it’s better if his expectations remain low.

So he has the ball out top of the key and it doesn’t really matter what I do and we both know it. If I get too close, he goes around like I’m a statue, if I back up, he pops from where he stands. I stay back. You can’t really be beaten if you don’t try, but Goofy, with an earring and that dopey grin has something going on inside. Maybe a mean streak, maybe more, but he sees what’s happening between David and Dad and instead of just going over or around me and putting an end to this, he tosses it into David. He holds the ball, then goes right, my father overreacts with the force and elegance of a bull cutting off the matador’s escape alleys even though David only has the one move and everyone knows it’s left. Sure enough, David crosses back – Dad gives him a little knee to the thigh which David ignores – and starts his move, a running left-handed hook shot and it doesn’t matter how hard Dad charges, he’ll never get to it.

I stand and watch while David’s little hook clanks off and my guy is there dunking softly free and open and then bringing the ball to me with that look of his, like a child who’s just answered his own question.

“Goddamn it, let’s fucking gear up here,” Dad yells, using a word that sounds all wrong out of his mouth. He’s always had more intensity than me and I want to answer him in kind, say, Who the fuck has kept us in this game? Not you. Instead I take the ball.

I’m beginning to like Goofy. He knows he’s better than me, of course he does. But he’s not laying off or standing back, he’s right there in my face trying to stop me. Giving me the respect of playing hard. I don’t want to let him down or do something to change his mind about me so I bounce the ball into my father, who has David posted up around the free throw line. He makes his move and though he’s more naturally gifted than David, we’ve all seen this one before; a fake hook and step-back fade-away, a beautiful shot if he has the time, but age has taken some time from him and David moves forward and stuffs it back.

So David does have a point where he gets fed up coddling his girlfriend’s father.

The loose ball takes a crazy spin bounce and I’m able to beat Goofy to it. I move left, wait for him to use his quickness to get in front, then spin a half-moon right, using my left hand, something he hasn’t seen before, and it clears me for a wide open lay-up.

“Nice,” my guy says, meaning it.

“Here, here,” my dad says. He’s calling a foul on what was clearly clean, taking away my lay-up.

“Aw come on,” David says, turning away and dropping his head back, as if looking to the skies for help. Catherine is still there on the hill, dramatic now against a fading western sky, a hippie silhouette in her paisley sun dress, a thin rope of cigarette smoke curling and rising and catching the last moments of the sun.

I thought this was a bad idea from the beginning. I just wanted to shoot around, but my Dad pushed and David said, Sure, it might be fun, not really thinking about it the way he should. Like he’s living with my sister, like this is my parents’ first visit to their house in the southern part of the state, like my mother had an actual heart attack a week after it first came out that Catherine was living with a man, like David is exactly the kind of guy my Dad has contempt for: gentle with long hair, a big wooly dog, chickens in the back yard, incense burning inside, a friendly loopy grin. So we marched on down to a single hoop below where they live where Goofy was shooting by himself and my sister watched from her perch with a look I understood while Mom stayed inside using their wood-burning kitchen stove to cook us dinner.

Maybe it was inevitable, basketball was the one thing Catherine had gently pushed over the months as something David and Dad might share – common ground. And every time it came up, Dad scoffed and snorted and dismissed it as clearly ludicrous – David a basketball player! – not even worth the effort of words to mock. Then a couple months ago, they visited home for the first time together and the three of us played in our driveway and there was no edge, just a simple game of 21. David played hard and hustled and he had that little hook and even my father had to admit to some of that.

Now on the hill above us, my sister understands her mistake.

Peter Henry, she said to me before we descended to the court, pulling me out of Dad’s earshot. You keep things smooth and even, you make sure. And I said Cathy – she hates Cathy – please, Peter or Pete or Petey – I never liked Henry and she knows that, and I said I’d try, I’d push for David and Dad to play together, I’d try. But it wasn’t possible, Dad was never going to play on David’s team. Even David seemed to want it, like he actually believes my father when he starts to go on about the glory of competition, about the band of brothers at the center of every sport. Catherine is the same way, stuff that just rolls off me like beaded water, she takes to heart.

David has the ball up top, he fakes left and my Dad’s hand slaps out, catching all skin and the ball goes loose and I grab it and hold it, knowing what’s coming.

“Let’s go!” he says, clapping his hands. “Move. Move. MOVE!!”

“You hacked that man,” Goofy says.

“Bullshit. Are we playing or are we talking?”

I hand the ball to Goofy, Dad steps in front of me.

“What are you doing?”

“Let’s play,” I say.

“Our ball,” Dad says.

“Maybe we should go eat,” David says.

“We finish the game. Our ball.”

“If we’re going to play, it’s our ball,” Goofy says. “You flat hacked that man. Shit, skin on skin was like a rifle shot.”

“I didn’t hear a call. Our ball.”

Dad smacks the ball out of his hands and Goofy just stands for a long moment, hands in front as if still holding the ball, and I get the feeling he’s been through some things on a basketball court; hard play turning to anger and bubbling to the point of violence.

Finally he says. “Fuck this, I’m gone,” and he walks off.

“What? Now? You’re leaving now, you little pussy,” Dad says and Goofy stops and says, “Maybe you ought to think before you say anything else,” and I admire the guy. Dad outweighs him by 75 pounds and carries a lot more mean than goof. They stare hard at each other the way people do until David steps between, and says to my father, “Come on Bob, come on,” and I can see the hate in my father’s face, David using his first name like they’re friends.

“That’s all shades of wrong,” Goofy says, backing away, hands up. On his way off the court, he toes the ball on the ground, spinning it soccer style up onto his shoe top, then he flicks it towards the basket and now he’s dunking, pulling himself up on the rim and slapping both sides of the backboard before floating to the ground and disappearing into the surrounding murk. I’ve never seen anything like it, someone who can jump like that. Even Dad seems transfixed, like Goofy had just sprouted wings and flown away. Catherine appears, breaking a spell, and Dad brushes past her, stomping his way up the hill. David puts his hand on my shoulder and I shrug.

“Some block, David.”

“Some job, Peter Henry,” Catherine says to me. “Way to keep it steady.”

“Thanking you Ma’am,” I say, a line from a TV western I used to torment her with when she still lived at home.

“You’re such a fucking idiot,” she says, but she’s smiling and gives me a shove.

“Lots of kinds of idiots in the world, Fucking Idiot sounds okay to me.”

“Dinnah’s Readeee,” Catherine says like she’s Katherine Hepburn, then returns to regular. “Can’t you feel my excitement?”

“No,” I say, because I don’t like how she said that last thing.

She laughs and kisses David, he gives me a friendly wave and we head to the house.

The dinner is laid out on the rough wooden table – a door sitting on two carpenter’s horses – steam rising from three cast iron pots and a pan of corn bread and another of peach cobbler, but only my mother is there and she has her purse over her shoulder and is turning to leave. She stops, looks at me and there’s no recognition on her face, nothing of her I know, then she smiles like she’s very tired, and walks out.

I ask my sister, then David.

“They say they’re going back to the motel,” she says.

“Now? Before we eat?”

“Your mom was crying,” David says.

“Why don’t you stay and eat with us. They can come back for you,” Catherine says. My father blows the horn one, two, three times, holding on the third. I look around their living room, so different from any place I’ve seen, with its ragged green couch and chairs with stuffing sticking out, its wood floors and oriental rugs and long beads acting as a door to their bedroom, bright blue and red cloth on the walls, another brown cloth with paisley patterns hanging like a sail in the wind off the ceiling, a seemingly endless number of cats in and out and one large hairy black dog with crazy off-kilter eyes like he’s looking everywhere and nowhere.

“Wait here,” she says and disappears and comes back a few moments later.

“You’re in,” she says. “They said they’d pick you up at 8 a.m. tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow?” is all I can say. Then I sit with my toes turned in, my arms hanging between my knees. My sister gets on the phone and says, “Yeah, can you believe it, a fucking feast I’m telling you.” David puts on music that sounds like blues except in an African language, Catherine opens a bottle of wine and pours me a glass. I’ve had vodka and gin and schnapps, sneaking bottle cap fills when my parents are away, but never wine. It tastes bitter. They stand together in the middle in a half-dance, half-hug, swaying, I’ve never seen them do this and I’m embarrassed even as I realize there’s no reason to be. I pet Crazy Eyes until he puts out a growl so low, I can’t source it at first.

“He likes you,” David says over my sister’s shoulder, but it doesn’t sound friendly and I settle my hands in my lap. There’s a knock and three people, a man and two women, rumble in laughing, hair jutting, arms flying, carrying bottles in brown bags, everyone hugging and kissing each other on the tops of their heads. The new man looks like David with shorter hair and paint splatters on his pants and shirt and the two women seem like twins at first with two shades of bright red hair, shocking lipstick, and long flowered dresses worn over blue jeans and sandals, twins until you really look. Mostly it’s in how they dress.

I stand up, my hands palsied in front of me, eyes fixed on the spot where their dresses stop and the pants start and everybody kind of giggles and one of them says, “Oh he’s just adorable,” and the other says, “You’re blushing, that’s sweet, he’s blushing.”

Finally I sit down. Even though I wear these shorts, this Washington Bullets Bobby Dandridge number 10 red and blue basketball jersey, and these clompy high top shoes basically everywhere – school, mall, movies, neighborhood – I wish I wasn’t wearing them now. I cross my legs the way David does, like a girl, knee over knee instead my usual ankle over knee, and their attention wanders to the food and the music and especially the wine. The new man cranks the music, the women dance with each other, giggling like they don’t really mean it, and David sits at the table rolling cigarette after cigarette. One of the women looks in the oven and on the stove at Mom’s food – cornbread, macaroni and cheese, chicken-mushroom casserole, green beans with bacon, and rice pudding for dessert – and says, “Freaky, really,” and my sister says, “I was raised on that shit, can you believe it,” and David says, “I know, I know but it’s tasty and once in a lifetime isn’t going to kill anyone.” In unison, they turn and look at me.

The woman with the brightest lipstick sits very close, crowding me, and says, “Boys are so cute at this age,” and the new man says, “Irene really,” and Irene says, “All right, they aren’t, it’s true, I lied, but he is. He really is.”

“Your name’s Irene?” I say. It sounds like a granny name.

“See he can talk,” Irene says.

“Why would you think I couldn’t talk?” I say.

“I guess it was the whole, you not speaking thing,” Irene says, her breath on my neck, her smell smoky and earthy, like clay; pleasant but not completely human.

“He grunted,” the other woman said. “Grunting is kind of like speaking.

“I hear Peter’s quite the basketball player,” the new man says to David like I’m not in the room. Then in the voice of an adult talking to a child, “I hear you’re quite the basketball player.”

“He’s way beyond me,” David says. “He was scoring on Roberts down there.” And the new man says, “Roberts? From Bloomington North?” And David says, “That Roberts all right,” and the new man says, “Wow.”

After dinner, everyone rolls fresh cigarettes and sits around with their legs splayed like they’re locked into a pose, one arm cocked in the air blowing smoke in thick streams and picking bits of tobacco out of their mouths. Each time Irene draws on the cigarette, a little curl of smoke escapes her mouth and is inhaled through her nose. She leaves a trail of red smeared cigarette butts everywhere she goes.

For awhile, they mostly talk to each other, mentioning names and events and places I don’t know and for the thousandth time since she moved out, I’m struck by my sister’s life. I can’t imagine creating a life like this away from our parents.

Then the woman who is not Irene looks at me in a way that makes me wonder what to do with my hands, whether to cross my legs, whether to hold her stare. She breaks first, draining her glass of wine in a flourish, like the cameras are rolling and she says, “So Pete, you’re what, 12? No, no, 13, you’re 13. Have you kissed a girl yet, Peter, Peter?”

“No, no,” the new man says. “This is the new generation, they’re connected, man, from like birth; their lives are a speeding bullet so the question isn’t kissy kissy, the question is this. Have you felt up your first female? Have you touched some titty, that’s the question Peter Peter.”

“Your mother doesn’t count,” the woman says and my sister laughs and says, “Shut up Maggie,” but Maggie looks at me and even though I haven’t been around a lot of drunk people, I know she is drunk.

“You didn’t answer Peter Peter, have you kissed a girl yet?” Maggie says. “Other than your mother.”

People giggle and there is a demanding silence, like they’re waiting for a real answer. I just sit there, my hands in my lap and I want to shut my eyes and click my heels and be somewhere else, anywhere else; a basketball court where everything comes easier. Or somewhere dark and quiet, where I can find space to think this out, come up with an answer everyone can live with.

“Peter Henry, do you remember my birthday party, my 13th, the same age as you right this very second which means you were what, five or six?” my sister says.

“Six,” I say, though I know the story and would prefer she not go on.

“He was so cute, running around after all the girls, grabbing at our legs, asking over and over if he could play, asking my friends to kiss him, asking if he could be It, if he could play house, if he could be the doctor,” she says and again everybody laughs.

Maggie sits on the other side of me and puts her arm around me. She smells different from Irene, more natural, like real people smell after sweating but still not unpleasant. Irene leans over and kisses me softly on the cheek the way my mother might do it and says, “You never answered the question and I don’t blame you, I wouldn’t either but now I have for you. You’ve kissed a girl.”

And Maggie snorts and says, “Kiss? That ain’t no kiss,” and she turns my head with her finger against my chin and kisses me full on the lips. I even feel the tip of her tongue and I look at my sister who is smiling and then back at Irene and everybody bursts out laughing.

“Oh you scoundrel, Peter pumpkin eater, he’s kissed a girl before,” the new man says. “I’ve seen that look, Irene. He’s seeing if you’re going to top that. He wants more.” And I turn away and blush heavily because that isn’t it at all. I’ve never kissed a girl and I wish it had been Irene with her lips and her tongue instead of Maggie.

Both girls collapse against me, laughing and squeezing, the electric life of their bodies sparking something in me.

“I love how he turns red as a beet,” Maggie says.

Irene says to my sister, “You have to show us some photos, do you have any photos?” Catherine gets all strange and quits smiling, folds her arms, turns her body.

“No, no photos,” she says. I don’t understand, my parents brought her a brand new album full of old pictures, a kind of housewarming gift. When I see she’s not going to say anything, I stand and get the album myself and sit back down. Maggie and Irene crowd in around me, letting their weight sag against me and the new man sits at my feet. I open it right up without ever looking at my sister, ready and thankful finally for something familiar and concrete to do.

“This is us in the Grand Canyon,” I say. “My dad traded in his 1964 Mustang for a station wagon for that trip. The new man says, “With the 289?” And I say “Yes, yes that’s right, you know the car?”

“Know it? Shit, goddamn, I know that’s a fucking shame, all right, a fucking station wagon. That’s a sin in my books.”

“Mine too,” I say, happy to be able to agree with someone.

“Yellowstone and bears?” Maggie says, impatient, turning the page for me.

“Yes and yes.” I keep going. “Here’s Yosemite, you can’t see it but there were two guys half way up the side, hanging on ropes. And this is Disneyland. We saw a giant Pluto throw up on the feet of Sleepy the Dwarf.”

Maggie says, “You were a beautiful child.” Then to my sister, “God Cathy you were beautiful children,” and I look up at Catherine and she’s let her cigarette go out, staring off into the unknown, drinking her wine. I return to the pictures.

“Here we are in our back yard. See the stump. I could tell you some stories about that stump.” Maggie laughs and says, “You know what that looks like Peter Peter?” Irene is caught in the middle of a giggling fit.

“A stump,” I say looking back and forth between them. “It looks like a stump.” And they collapse more against me, their bodies shaking with laughter, pinching my stomach, running their hands under my shirt.

“And here we are in Florida in 1971 at my Granny’s. We listened to American Pie all the way down.”

“Bye bye Miss American Pie,” sings Maggie.

“Drove my Che-vy…to the le-vee,” says the new man, speaking it in a solemn Orson Welles voice, like he’s mocking the song.

“What’d you get for Christmas?” Irene says.

“A .22 rifle with a scope. What’d you get Sis?”

“I don’t know,” she says. “I don’t fucking care. Can we put this shit away now?”

“Come on,” Maggie says, “I’m loving this.” Irene looks closely at the pictures and says, “Sad sad Catherine, beautiful child,” and my sister says, “You see it then? It’s so right there.” I say, “Right there? I don’t get it. What’s right there?”

“Look at me in those pictures,” she says, “do you ever look at me?” and I think no, why would I? I look at myself and the bears and the bubbling pools of Yellowstone and the castle at Disneyland and the Grand Canyon and the Tetons.

She says, “Just fucking look,” and starts crying and leaves the room, spilling her wine. David goes after her so I close the book, confused and say, “Look Sis, I closed the book, look.” She doesn’t answer.

“Let me see, let me see,” says Maggie, crowding in, opening the book, her cheek touching mine, her shirt gaping, nipple showing. Irene lays her head on my other shoulder, her hair tickling my ear, her lips just touching my bare shoulder, leaving a spot of moisture, and I’m thankful for the album in my lap so they can’t see what’s happening there. They’d think it was cute.

Irene and Maggie run their fingers together down the rows of pictures and turn the pages and I can feel them deflate, their bodies drooping like something is escaping from them, their weight pressing me into the chair, and they turn the page again and Maggie says, “God, I think,” and Irene says, “Yeah, yeah, shit, I see it, I do,” and Maggie says, “You’re right, she’s right. She’s right, your sis is right, Peter Peter.” So I look.

I see my father and mother and Catherine and me with the backdrop of a bubbling pool of brown Yellowstone mud.

I see my sister in the back seat, bears rambling right up to the window outside.

I see the Tetons behind us, mountains the way a child might draw them, my sister and I on top of tired looking horses.

I see the three of us, my father’s long rubbery shadow a fourth figure floating above us, standing on some endless flat plain, table top straight in every direction.

I see us in our bathing suits standing hip deep in the aqua water of Florida, people dotting behind us like specks on a glass.

I see a girl’s face, over and over, a flat straight mouth staring blankly out beyond the frame, looking for something, a small sad face with deep set eyes sinking deeper, shoulders turned in, arms crossed, her legs tensed as if ready to push off and away, the face of an interloper, someone plopped into the middle of our family wearing a mask so blank, anything might be written on it. A stranger.

This isn’t my sister, this isn’t my reality.

~~~

Michael BackusMichael Backus’ writing, fiction, and non-fiction has appeared in Cleaver, Okey Panky, One Story, Exquisite Corpse, The Writer, The High Hat, The Portland Review, and The Sycamore Review, among others. His short story “Coney on the Moon” was published in early September 2017 in an illustrated Redbird chapbook and Xynobooks published his novel Double in 2012. His novel The Vanishing Point will be published in 2018 by Cactus Moon Publications. He teaches beginning and advanced fiction writing for Gotham Writer’s Workshop and Zoetrope Magazine and lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico. You can find out more about Michael Backus on his website.

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