Among the Leaves
By Wendy Rainey
After my dad left my mom I had a lot more chores to do when I came home from school. So as soon as Mrs. Miller, my sixth grade teacher, dismissed us from class for the day, I’d grab my books and hop on my bike, making my way through the alley, up Kensington Street then through the empty lot where the leaves fell in droves and dried up in the afternoon sun. I rode over them in my bicycle, enjoying the crunching noise as the wheels of my bike sliced through pile after pile of them. Then I’d turn left on Foster Road, the street I lived on. The sidewalks and yards were full of leaves that needed constant raking. It was a never ending chore and I knew when I got home I would be met with a yard full of leaves that had fallen since I had last raked them the day before.
With dad out of the picture, mom was forced to go back to work full time at the phone company. I was always the first one home. Mom didn’t get home until 6 o’clock. She was always tired and cranky by the time she got off of work, plus she’d really hit the bottle. She liked Gallo Burgundy in the large tinted glass gallon size. I’d always have a glass of Gallo burgundy waiting for her on the little table by her easy chair. But sometimes she preferred vodka and tonic or a screwdriver. I eventually learned how to make Bloody Marys. She liked those a lot. “Oh, there’s my drink. That’s my girl, Cathy,” she’d always say, then sit down in her easy chair and turn on the evening news with the remote. My brother, Keith, had football practice until 5:30 most days. I always arrived home by 3:30. I’d start out washing the breakfast dishes and then go to the basement to start the laundry. Then I’d vacuum the living room and change the cat box. After that I’d start making something for dinner, usually something like spaghetti or chili or meatloaf. These were the three main dishes that mom taught me how to prepare for the family dinner. Then I’d walk our dog, Gerald. Gerald loved to play in the small piles of leaves that our neighbor was always raking. Looking back on it now, I realize I shouldn’t have let Gerald mess up old Mr. Marshman’s leaf piles, but at the time it didn’t occur to me that I should be disciplining him. I just couldn’t bring myself to deny him this pleasure which he full heartedly thrust himself into with the kind of ferocity that only the very young understand. Sometimes I still think about Gerry running into piles and piles of leaves and rolling over on his back and hopping up again to mess up the next pile. He’d get so excited that he’d start jumping in the air between piles, yipping and barking. Sometimes he’d get so wound up he’d do flips in the air. I’d fall on the lawn laughing so hard and sometimes I would roll with him into some of the leaf piles, the two of us wrestling and making noise. Anyway, old Mr. Marshman would come out of his house, yelling at us both to get off his lawn. I’d call out to Gerald then turn around and smile and wave at the old man. He’d eventually smile and wave back at me as I walked away with Gerry. He wasn’t such a bad guy, old Mr. Marshman.
When we’d get home I’d go get the rake and Gerryboy would “help” me clean up the yard. It was always chaos, Gerry, yipping and and racing through our yard, but somehow I’d get the job done and soon we’d be inside, G-boy gobbling up his kibble, me finishing up my other chores. Then my brother would come home from football practice. Keith hadn’t always been a football player. He had taken up the sport a month after my dad left. I came into his room one day while he was studying and I noticed that he had a football playbook in front of him. He was studying plays in this book he had borrowed from one of his friends at his high school. I looked at the playbook. “Football?” I asked. He looked up pushing his wire rimmed glasses up on his nose and running his fingers through his long, blond hair. “Yeah, I thought only idiots played the game, turns out I was wrong. It’s not just a game of brawn. It’s a game of strategy and skill. I’ll need the brawn too, though.” My brother was tall and lanky. Although he was good looking and soft spoken (most of the time), he had a nervous energy that some kids seemed to find noteworthy if not strange. My brother would be quiet for long stretches of time then suddenly burst into fast paced talking, monopolizing the conversation. Highly intelligent and studious, he would stay in his room and read for hours at a time. He never got anything but an A in all of his classes. “What do you mean, you’ll “need the brawn?” I asked. He looked up from the playbook, “Huh?” He said, putting the book down. “Oh, I’m going to start training on my own. I’m going to build up my body. I’m going to get a weight set and bench and put it in the garage and start bench pressing. And I’m going to start running and boxing. I already bought some supplements and shakes. I’m planning on being a quarterback so I’ll need to increase my body mass, my strength, and my endurance before I try out for the team.” He stood up from his desk and sat down beside me on his bed. “How are you doing in Mrs. Miller’s class?” he asked, “Keeping up the good grades I hope.” “Yes, I guess I am,” I said, my voice trailing off. But the truth was that I really wasn’t doing as well as I had before I started to take on all the extra chores around the house. “Are you really okay Catherine?” he asked, looking at me. “Uh huh,” I said. “Is there anything I can do to help you? Do you need help with your homework?” he asked. “No, but maybe you could, ya know, vacuum your own room, Keith, and do some of your own laundry and clean the bathroom sometimes because that stuff takes up a lot of my time after school,” I said, looking at him. “And maybe you could lift the toilet seat up before you pee. It doesn’t feel good to sit on a wet seat and get your icky pee all over me for crying out loud.” “Oh right,” he said. “Of course I’ll take care of my own laundry and vacuuming and the bathroom. You shouldn’t have to do that. You’re not the maid, for God sakes,” he said. “Hey, you are doing your homework, right?” he asked. “I’ll put it this way,” I said, hands on my hips, “if you really start helping me more then I’ll have more time to do it.” “Aw geez, I haven’t helped you enough,” he said, holding his head in his hands and falling backwards on the bed. “Oh, man. We all put too much on you,” he said, sitting up again. And then he did something uncharacteristic for him, he reached over and hugged me. We weren’t a demonstrative family. Well, unless you count the times dad beat the crap out of us kids. I guess that was demonstrative. But you know what I mean, we weren’t too inclined to indulge in displays of affection. “Do you miss him?” he asked after he was finished hugging me. He meant did I miss dad. “No,” I said, “Hardly ever. Do you think he’s coming back?” “Oh, he’ll be back alright,” he said. “It’ll probably take him a year, but he’ll be back and this time I’ll be ready for the bastard.” He got up off the bed and walked back to his desk and started to read his football playbook again. I watched him for a moment longer and started to get up to leave. He said, “Wait a minute. Come back here.” I walked over to him. He stood up. I want you to hit me as hard as you can, Catherine. Now, I know that might sound crazy to you, but just go ahead and hit me hard. Come on, give it all you’ve got. Think of it as an experiment.” He pointed to his stomach. “Hit me hard,” he said. “No, I don’t want to, Keith.” I said, turning around to leave. He grabbed my arm and said, “Look, you’re gonna hit me now and you’re gonna hit me as hard as you can, got it?” I looked at him, “No, I don’t like to hit people and I don’t want to hurt you.” “Oh my gawd,” he practically screamed, throwing his hands up and rolling his eyes. “A little ten year old girl is not going to do any damage to me.” “I’m not ten, I’m eleven, ALMOST TWELVE! You know that.” “Whatever!” he yelled, starting to lightly push me and mutter something about a ten year old girl in a frilly little dress who could hardly find her way out of a paper bag much less do any damage to him for God sakes. He kept up with this kind of pushing and taunting for a few more moments and then I really let him have it. I mean I just really started pounding on his stomach and I could hear him saying, “That’s it! Use your fists! Good! Punch me harder! Give it all you got!” So I went behind him and started punching him in the back real hard. I noticed he stopped talking then, except he made a strange noise and slumped over a little bit. I went on like that for awhile. And then I jumped up on top of his desk and jumped on his back, grabbing his neck then twisting his ears. His glasses fell off and he started floundering around and I heard him muttering something to himself. Then I reached over and grabbed a Webster’s Dictionary off the shelf and hit him on the head with it. “Ouch!” he screamed. “Sonofabitch!” “Is biting and spitting allowed?” I asked. “No! Get off of me, for Chrissakes!” He grabbed me and threw me on his oversized beanbag chair. “I was just going to go for your eyes,” I said, panting. “I saw on the news that if someone is going to attack you then you should try to gauge their eyes out with your fingernails, or even just pee or barf on them! And if you could poop on them then they’d just get so disgusted with you that they wouldn’t even want to be anywhere near you. They’d probably just run away. They also said that sometimes if you start acting really crazy, like if you start speaking gibberish that could be helpful. Or even just pretend that you are having a medical emergency, like pretend that you are going into convulsions.” I started making facial twitches which progressed into my having a full seizure right there on the bedroom floor. He started laughing, “Jesus Christ,” he said, “I had no idea you had it in you. I’m sorry I underestimated you.” He sat down on his bed. “Hey, you were hitting me pretty hard. I mean I know I asked you to, but are you mad at something?” “Yeah,” I said. “What are you mad at?” he asked. “Everything I guess,” I said, walking to his desk and sitting on the chair. “Look,” he said, “I think we need to take some of that anger you have and harness it and channel it into something constructive.” He was making “harnessing” and “channeling” gestures with his hands as he talked. I got the feeling that he must have been mimicking the football coach at his high school. I had heard him on the phone asking his best friend if he thought anyone would mind if he sat in on one of the practices. I had heard all about how popular this football coach was with the guys. “I mean it’s good that you know how to put up a fight. That’s a big relief to me on many levels, but I don’t want you turning into some kind of psycho kid, ya know?” He was looking at me and adjusting his glasses. “I’m going to tell you something.” He put his head in his hands again. “Maybe I shouldn’t tell you this. I’m not sure that I’m doing the right thing here, but heck, I’m just going to tell you anyway.” He came over to where I was sitting at his desk and kneeled down in front of me. “Listen to me, Catherine, I’m going to tell you something that I think will help you so you have to listen.” He looked at me. “Nothing you do will ever be good enough for mom and dad. It won’t matter how hard you try, nothing will ever please either one of them. Whatever traits people are supposed to have in order to be good parents, whatever gene or chromosome that makes people know how to act, well, those two are both missing it. That’s just how they are. Nobody could ever be good enough for them. There is no right answer and there is no way to win with them. But you still have to do your homework. You still have to do a good job in school. You still have to have goals and passion for what you want to do in life. You have to have passion and commitment. But you need to do all that stuff for yourself not them. You have to do it for yourself. Do you understand? Don’t do it for them because they don’t care. I mean they don’t even seem to care all that much for themselves let alone us. So it’s all on you. It’s all up to you. That’s the most important thing for you to know. I’ll only be living here maybe another two years. You’ll be here another six years and then I figure you could go away to college.” He paused. “Do you have any input at this time?” “What?” I said. “Do you have anything to say?” “No, Keith. I guess I better just go do my homework now.” “Yeah, good idea,” he said, getting up off the floor. And I got up and left the room.
After my brother made the team and became a quarterback, he shaved his long, blond hair off. That alone would have been startling enough, but his whole appearance had changed so drastically over the months, that he didn’t even look like the same guy anymore. He put “before” and “after” photos of himself in his room. I think he wanted to remind himself of all the work he’d done to change his body. His neck had become a lot thicker, and along with his new crew cut, I barely recognized him sometimes. His shoulders appeared to be broader and his legs more muscular. It seemed to me that his voice got even deeper. Plus, he shot up to 6’4”. He was huge. And the coach was impressed with his performance on the field. He became good friends with a few of his fellow teammates. They gave him the nickname, “Trunk.” Nobody really knew how the nickname started. Some people said it was because of his tree trunk like neck. Others said it was because he locked up his feelings in a trunk. At any rate, he even dated one of the prettiest cheerleaders for three months until she dumped him for another player. He had changed on the outside, but he hadn’t changed as much internally, except he did appear to be more self assured. But he would still stay in his room for hours reading philosophy books and studying for school when he wasn’t playing in a game or practicing. He did help me out more with the chores. He actually did his own laundry and vacuumed his own room and occasionally remembered to put the toilet seat back down. True to his prediction, dad came back. It took him just under a year to break up with his new girlfriend and decide that he wanted to get back together with my mother. Of course, she took him back. He was standing in front of my brother with his mouth wide open when I walked into the living room. Dad had just shown up one Sunday night, unannounced. The two men circled each other silently in front of the fireplace. As I say, my dad had his mouth open but my brother was smiling. Keith finally pointed to the backyard and they both went outside through the sliding glass door. Although I couldn’t hear what they were saying, I could see them talking to each other. Keith was clearly bigger and taller than my dad and my dad was clearly intimidated by Keith’s physicality and new found confidence. They were so involved in their discussion that I knew it would be safe for me to get closer to the window so that I could hear them without being detected. I was able to pick up a few fragments of their conversation. “And there’s another new rule,” my brother was telling my dad. “ If you ever feel like beating up that little girl in there you better check in with me first, got it? Step into my office know what I mean?” And then my brother grabbed my dad and gave him a big bear hug that appeared to be knocking the wind out of him. He seemed to be crushing dad like a rag doll. Finally Keith threw dad on the lawn and shouted, “I just want to welcome you home, motherfucker,” then he kicked dad in the gut and started walking back toward the house, his feet crunching through the leaves.
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