Hammy came home.
Late that afternoon, I watched our handsome brother step out of the Mt. Shasta blue Merkur he rented at the airport. I ran down the steps of the porch. “You look beautiful.” I threw my arms around his neck. Hammy and I looked exactly alike. Growing up, people had thought we were twins. Sadly for me, our features worked better on a man than a woman. Hammy looked like a movie star. I looked like Hammy in drag. But I was forty-three and had become comfortable with who I was. I’d never be a traffic-stopper like Hammy and that was okay.
Gene leaned on the door frame with his arms crossed. “Little Brother.”
“What’s this?” Gene picked up Hammy’s ponytail between his thumb and index finger like it was a dead oppossum.
“What’s this?” Hammy poked Gene in the gut. Then they wrestled on the porch like brothers.
“Boys!” I went in to check the orange-poppy cake.
Hammy dropped himself in the chair where our father died. He could be insensitive. He was, after all, the baby and Mom and I had spoiled him. I walked over and rearranged the plastic cover on the Louis XV reproduction our mother died in instants after our father. I was hoping Hammy would get the point. He didn’t. Instead, he pushed down on the arms of the lounger so the foot stool would pop out. Our parents passed immediately after two police officers sat down on the Duncan Phyfe and told them their son Tim was the Fox Gap Career Girl Murderer. Mom had offered the officers limeade and frosted shaggy dogs and they’d accepted, which struck me as strange, given they were about to advise our parents that their son had mutilated three short-haired career girls who vaguely resembled our mother and me.
We moved out on the deck and drank iced tea and Hammy regaled us with stories from the Left Coast. There was the shrink who skinny-dipped with his patients. “Boy, people are weird out there,” Gene said. The actor with seven Ferraris. “Some serious cake out there.” Gene rubbed his fingers together. There was the Raiderette who did the StairMaster at the gym and Hammy wanted to make his move. “You’re so L.A.,” Gene said after each of Hammy’s anecdotes. “This guy is so L.A.” I imagined Hammy out west, soaring through the sunny world in a red Miata, the Raiderette by his side, pushing it to ninety down Mulholland Drive. Hammy adjusted well to our tragedy. He’d really carved out a meaningful place for himself in California. My life went to pieces after they caught Tim. I kept seeing images of those poor girls wherever I went. I worked as a dancer at The Camelot in Shapsburg and married a Formica counter installer who liked my act but punched out my teeth. Three hours after we lowered Mom and Dad into the Mintwood Country Cemetery and Mausoleum, Hammy drove westward in a tan Delta 88. But now our baby had come home; home to the brother and sister who loved him. I felt happy and safe.
I’d marinated a top round two days for Sauerbraten and served it along side nutted wild rice, sweet & sour red cabbage and sautéed carrots mixed with snow peas. I asked Gene to slice.
“No meat for me, just the rice and vegetables.” Hammy held out his plate. Gene looked up from the beef. “I’m a vegetarian.”
“Since when?” Gene asked.
“Well, actually, since they got Tim.”
Gene let the carving fork and knife drop on the platter.
“Gene,” I cautioned.
“What the hell does Tim have to do with a perfectly fine piece of Sauerbraten?”
“It’s all right,” I said.
“It’s not all right. Your sister spends two days cooking for you and you show no appreciation. How dare you impose your morals on others.”
“Gene, could it be that you’re reacting so strongly because of your own doubts about eating meat?” Hammy asked.
“Don’t give me any of that L.A. nutrition-action-psycho-babble, hippie.”
“At least I’ve done something with my life.”
“You’re a scuba instructor.”
“At least I’m not living off my inheritance in Mom and Dad’s house.” Hammy then pointed at me. “Or spreading out for a bunch of hard hats like they were a gynecologist convention.”
“I wore a G-string,” I cried, my hand over my heart. “I was tasteful.”
“Like that husband who fucked up your face and made you more ridiculous-looking than ever?”
I sank to the floor.
Gene slammed the table with his fist. “This house takes enormous effort to maintain. And Trix and I have committed our lives to helping others.”
“Trix volunteers at the Community Center and I have my work with Tutor Tots.”
“So you can twiddle little boys.”
Gene shot up from his chair and flipped the oak table. “You,” he said through clenched teeth. “You.”
Hammy locked his fingers behind his neck and crossed his feet at the ankles. “Yes, Gene?” He said. “Me?”
“I don’t have to take this from a, from a, from a, from a,” Gene turned purple and lumbered to the back door with his arms out and his legs apart like a matinee mummy. Hammy and I watched from the dining room window as he staggered around the patio.
“It wasn’t supposed to be this way,” I said. “This was supposed to be a nice time. Family time. You were coming home to build on that.”
“Family time?” Hammy said. “I’m on my way to New York to pick up my advance on the book I’m writing about Tim.”
“Last Rites: A Killer Among Us.”
“Shit yeah. I’m gonna blow life into that son-of-a-bitch.”
I let out a scream that was so guttural, loud and blood curdling that I thought it was coming from someone else.
“Trix, Mom and Dad have any records? You know, from shrinks, report cards, clippings? Oh, I’ll need to take those photo albums. How `bout it, Trix? Any documents or reports?” I’d been sitting in Mom’s rocking chair all morning, laconic. Gene stayed outside and hit himself. “Trix?”
It seemed too big an effort to talk. “I… don’t… want… the… pictures… to… leave… the house.”
“Growing up, you kept diaries,” Hammy said. “I’ll need a look-see.”
“I’m not interested in your love life or lack there of, Trix. Just the goods on Tim. The seeds. Where it all began. Is violence hereditary? Is it learned? Some specialists believe deviant behavior can be traced in DNA samples. It boggles the mind, Trix. There’s a neurologist in Quebec who says the violent brain has an excess of metal manganese.”
“I thought I’d bake a broccoli millet casserole from The Tassahara Cookbook. Would that be satisfactory?”
“Make whatever you and Gene like and I’ll eat around it. Anyway, I’ve got miles of microfiche to zip through at the library. Don’t know that I’ll make it to chow.”<!â€”-nextpageâ€”->
Over the next week Hammy was in and out with stacks of old clippings, books and essays on deviant behavior, case studies that resembled Tim. “Yow, I never knew what happens to you when you get electrocuted. You sort of burn up from the inside out. And it usually takes a few tries.” He held up an article he’d Xeroxed at the library. “Tim’s eyes popped out.”
He went through the attic and basement, artifact by artifact, document by document, memento by memento. “Remember this?” He’d come across a grainy old photograph of himself sitting on a duck raft at the Fox Gap Lake Pool. He couldn’t have been more than seven. It was the Hammy I’d always remembered. A happy looking boy with a closed mouth smile and deep dimples.
“I was a pretty cute kid,” Hammy said.
“You were adorable.” Old pictures affect me like old songs. They make me sad. I wanted to put my hand into the print and pull out the boy I loved so much. Then I saw the blurry image of Tim on the left side of the photo, crouching down in the pool, water all the way up to his eyes like an alligator, staring into the camera. I could barely make him out, but there was no mistaking Tim. I was glad Hammy didn’t notice.
He interviewed me. “You said in your April 15, 1957 entry that Tim and Tony Saterswhite quote, seized and searched you. Can you explain?”
“I don’t remember.”
Hammy slid forward in his chair. “Trix, sometimes we say we don’t remember because we don’t want to remember. But it’s all up here.” He tapped his forehead. “It doesn’t go away… September 11, 1959. `Tim played the same note over and over on the piano for two hours and when I asked him to please play something else, he came at me with the beat wand from the metronome.’ Comment?” My jaw began to quiver. “Trix, is this about the money?” Hammy took my hands in his. “Because thirty percent is yours, Trix. This book’s gonna soar.”
“It’s not about the money. I don’t want the money. It’s about our name. I can’t have the family name besmirched anymore.” I broke down.
“Besmirched? You kidding? We’re gonna be on Larry King!” I started hitting him. “Not the face, not the nuts.” No, I wouldn’t hit him in his beautiful face and I certainly wouldn’t knee him in the nuts. I’d missed my chance having babies but I still had hope in my heart for a niece or a nephew. I kicked him in the shins over and over with my espadrilles and then Gene came in, red from the sun, eyes slanted and puffy like a big mad pig.
“There are rotting floor boards on the side porch. It’s not like when Mom and Dad were here to take care of everything, Gene. Old homes need attention and care.”
“I’m the one who wanted to close that room off fifteen years ago,” Gene said, cutting through Hammy’s ulna and radial artery with a number four scalpel.
“That `I told you so’ attitude is unhelpful.” I held open a lawn & leaf bag.
“I’ll call Dale Veeth in the morning.”
“There’s got to be another contractor in this Godforsaken town.”
“Dale’s had a rough time. I want to help him out.”
“We’re always helping everybody out,” I said under my breath.
“What did you say?” Gene asked. Hammy’s eyes and mouth opened wide when Gene picked up the head by the ponytail.
“Is someone being a Little Miss Me, Myself and I selfish bug?”
“He does bad work and he steals.”
“What’s that?” He cupped his ear with a bloody work glove and looked around the rec room. “Did I just hear a Little Miss Walk-All-Over-Appalachian-Children? No? Must have been the bug zapper by the Fieldings’ pool.”
“All right, enough.” I looked down at Hammy’s torso and felt ashamed of what I’d said about Dale. “Call him in the morning.”
We tidied up and went for a walk. It was a humid night. Everything felt dreamy and achey and the hot air seemed to go right through us. Gene and I talked and laughed and I felt better than I’d felt in a long time. He gave me hip-checks into the bushes and I took out my teeth and did my Zira impression from Planet of the Apes. We stopped for refreshment at The Fox Gap Lounge.
“Two more Sad Slammers, Kevin,” Gene told the bartender.
“No, Gene, three’s my limit. Oh, what the heck. Two more Sad Slammers, Kev.”
The place was full for The Lounge. Usually the proprietors only made money off the alcoholic fathers of kids we grew up with, but that night there were a few office parties, clear fresh faces, and a lot of laughter. The jukebox, usually dark, played one Top 40 hit from the fifties, sixties and seventies after another and people were dancing.
“What’s going on tonight?” I asked Kevin.
“The heat,” Kevin yelled over Moby Grape. “Make native yo-yo loco.” He moved his index finger in circles around his ear.
Then I noticed everyone in The Lounge was looking at us. Fear gripped me. They know, I thought. They know, they know. “Gene.” I grabbed his arm. “They’re all staring. Look around.”
Gene laughed and patted my hand. “I noticed when we walked in. They’re not looking at us. They’re looking at you.”
“Because you’re beautiful.”
I looked in the mirror over the bar. He was right. The heat of July had dried up the froth of spittle that perpetually bubbled through my dentures and somehow with Hammy gone, there was no one to compare me to. The only person our features flattered now was me. Then I knew what Hammy felt all his life, felt it myself in the gazes from the men at The Lounge. I knew how the head cheerleader felt, pursued by the quarterback and the science teacher.
“May I have this dance?” Gene offered his hand. There was an orchestrated intro, then Shirley Owens Alston fronting The Shirelles. I wasn’t a good dancer. I kept stepping on Gene’s feet and saying, “Oops, sorry. Oops, sorry.” But it felt great to dance with clothes on.
That night Gene jolted up in bed and switched on the floor lamp with the blue bulb. I could see his white fleshy back tinted blue, the folds on his bald head and the elastic waist band of his Ward’s briefs.
“What is it?”
“Hammy’s book.” Gene was short of breath.
“It’s gone. Forever.”
Gene turned to face me. With his thick puffy fat and alopecia, he looked more like beluga than a forty-six-year-old man. Perhaps Hammy was right. I needed to cook with less animal fat. At least cut back on butter and oils. “Does it have to be?” He asked. “I mean, what if you and I were to…”
“No.” I leapt out of bed and stormed into the bathroom.
Gene stood outside the door. “Trix, it could be good for us. It could be cathartic. Hear me out.”
“No,” I screamed.
“To hell with the family name, Trix. You think Tim’s a big secret? You think people don’t cross the street when they see us coming?” He was sounding like Hammy.
“I won’t have this.” I pounded the back of the bathroom door. “I will not besmirch the memory of our mother and father. I will not climb down into hell.” I heard Gene move away from the door and the creaking of Mom and Dad’s sleigh bed as he got back in. <!â€”-nextpageâ€”->
I woke up at five. Gene was already downstairs in the kitchen. He’d made coffee and there were cinnamon buns heating in the oven. “Smells good,” I said. Then I saw the white legal pad.
“Trix, please, just look at the outline.” I grabbed the pad and rushed out of the house clutching it to my chest. I threw it in the back of Hammy’s car and screeched out of the driveway. Gene chased the car halfway down our street in his underwear. I floored the Merkur up Monte Avenue, the legal pad in the back seat, and buried the document with Hammy in his shallow grave behind the Fox Gap Mall. Then I drove home, scrubbed the dirt out of my nails and made a sandwich. Gene crept up behind me. “It’s all up here, Trix,” he said in a gravely whisper and tapped his skull. “I don’t need a synopsis. I got it all up here.” I spread some Hellmann’s, rolled up a Kraft slice and gently folded over a piece of Levi’s Rye Bread, just the way I like it.
Gene was asleep on his side with the covers pushed to the bottom of the bed. I mixed some crystal Drano with warm water in the bathroom and filled a syringe. I watched him sleep for a moment. His lips moved silently the same way he read the newspaper. I leaned over, moved the elastic band of his briefs aside and stuck the needle in the top of his right buttock. He leapt up, complaining of a Charley Horse and ran to the bathroom.
“Zowie, that smarts!”
It was wrong to have attempted the injection during the light sleep of the morning hours. At three or four in the morning Gene was usually out cold so I waited up the next night. But Gene watched one video after another and never went to bed.
“Aren’t ya tired?” I kept asking.
“Nope,” he said, rewinding Darn Pets! Around dinner time it became clear that Gene had some ideas of his own about me.
We stayed awake three nights. I went to five doctors for five prescriptions of Benzedrine but Gene had his own rolodex of prescription-friendly doctors. On the fourth day we began to hallucinate. Gene bought dog food and fed Smarty-Pants, the springier spaniel we had back in the fifties. Hammy was all over the house. He shoved his leg under his arm and marched room to room like a soldier with a bayonet. His head was the Water Pik Shower Massager and told me I was ugly every time I got in the tub. And it was true. My stream of spittle had returned with the cold front from Canada and black circles had formed under my eyes. I looked like a sad, ridiculous Hammy.
On the fifth day, Gene foolishly accepted a bowl of my homemade vichyssoise which I’d thickened with 10,000 milligrams of Unisom. Now that he was out, I felt I could relax . That was the wrong thing to do. I did the laundry and watched The Frugal Gourmet. While the sheets were drying, I went upstairs to get the Drano and syringe and blacked out on the steps.
Two days later I woke up in a pool of urine with my dress up to my neck and no feeling in my legs because I’d been lying upside down. I heard Gene moving around the kitchen tidying up and singing the Lemon Pledge commercial.
“Hello?” I called out.
“Hello!” He rushed to the stairs. I looked up and saw his large glabrous head. “Trix, the most amazing thing. You’re not going to believe it.” His hand was behind his back and I was certain he had a knife. “Brace yourself.” He whipped his arm around and showed me something extraordinary. “A double banana!” Two fruits in one skin, like a pair of edible Siamese twins emerging from the Botticelli scallop shell. “How did it happen, Trix? A freak of nature gone sublime.” I reached my hand up to touch the pulpy twins and he let me hold them, their yellow peel draped over my fist like a mink stole. Then we both cried from the shear beauty of the fruit. “I’ve decided not to write the book, Trix. You were right. Our family name has been besmirched enough. We need to move on.” I smiled, happy to have my brother back. Then he wrinkled his forehead. “Trix, don’t you think you oughta go upstairs and sponge off?”
The next few weeks were happy ones. Gene worked hard at cleaning out the basement and organizing our parents’ things in the attic. Dale Veeth replaced the rotting floor boards on the side porch and stole our mother’s jewelry. “If he didn’t need it, he wouldn’t have taken it,” Gene made me repeat with him over and over. But sometime in late August, Gene came across Tim’s death certificate which I’d haphazardly shoved into a shoe box many years before. Then he found the clippings and printouts Hammy’d made at the library and got the book bug back.
“Independence Day, 1961,” Gene began. “`Tim locked Kathy Prig and me in a wicker trunk and said he wouldn’t let us out until we agreed to blow on his sparkler.’ Could you explain?”
“I thought I’d make a grilled skirt steak,” I said. “With a coriander garlic sauce and a side of herbed tomato chutney…”
“November 7, 1964… `Fortunately, we had Indian Summer while I was tied to the old Maple behind the Neilsons’ garage.’ Where was I during all this?”
“For dessert, fresh plum parfaits sprinkled with Amaretti crumbs and Ruby Port…”
“New Years Day, 1966…”
“And for starters, a nice cold vichyssoise.”
To hell with my dentures. I call the hotel from the car and ask the concierge to have a warm slice of their scrumptious blueberry pie waiting in my room s’il vous plait.
“Thirty Rock,” I tell my driver. “Wait, Harvey. Pull over.”
“You sure, Ms. Humford?“
“Of course I’m sure. They’re children.” I press down the window switch.
“Ms. Humford?” A small towheaded boy tiptoes up to the car with a much larger boy. “Will you sign our book?”
“I’m Edward and he’s Petey. He’s shy. Our brother Gary killed a nun.”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake. Petey,” I say. “I’m willing to bet 15% of my royalties you’ve got a set of dimples a fairy princess could eat custard out of.” This gets to him. He tries to fight it but breaks out in a wide grin exposing the dimples I predicted.
“Could you do that thing you did on that TV show?” Petey asks in a voice that’s tiny for a boy his size. “From Planet of the Apes?”
“Oh, all right. But then we’ve got to dash.” I take out my teeth and crane my neck towards the roof of the car. “Cornelius!” The boys laugh so hard they fall down on the sidewalk, their book on the ground, back cover up with a picture of me!, spittle airbrushed, false teeth twinkling through a star filter, hair like Kathleen Turner.