Denny’s sitting at the kitchen
table, staring at a banana-yellow flier advertising a gun show in Marshalltown
weekend. When I reply, “What do I know from guns?”
he glowers over the lip of his coffee cup,
his head hanging from going out to the bar last night.
When he looks like this in the morning, I
think of a toy I played with as a kid, called Magic Face, or Magnet
something like that, where a magnet used with microscopic iron filings
a beard on a man’s face. It made the guy
look like one of those cartoon characters in gray and black prison
who, when they died, an x-mark appeared in place of their eyes. I loved that toy so much, I played with it for
hours, drawing and drawing the beard, making it as opaque as possible,
picking up the box and jiggling it around, replacing the man’s sinister
expression with a fresh appearance. That
damn toy always pops into my head when I see Denny like this in the
and sometimes I wish I could shake him just to get that growth off his
“What do you know from
guns?” Denny mimics in
a singsong voice. This is not news to him, I have told him a thousand
that I don’t want to know, I don’t like guns, and I don’t want to hear
them. I always think our family is about
two seconds away from being one of those you read about in the scroll
CNN. When the kids and I lived in Texas, it
every time I turned on the TV a story appeared about a toddler getting
of the gun his dad kept in the pickup and shooting a sibling, or
himself. Denny inches his coffee cup
towards me. “Jesus, Amy. We got a cabinet
full of guns
down the goddamn hall. You’d think you’d learn something about them.”
don’t want to learn about them.” I pick
up his cup and walk to the coffeemaker to refill it.
fingers the flier as I return with the fresh cup. The
whiskers that mask his cheek and chin
project like those iron filings against his ashen skin.
“Are you trying to piss me off again?”
I sit down
across from him and take a drag on my cigarette. “No.”
A burst of noise comes from the
living room, a Pop Tart commercial. “You guys want to turn that shit
Denny yells. Out of the corner of my eye
I spy Shea hunting for the remote.
say, “Just get up and use the button on the TV.” Shea
glances at me and then complies. He needs
a haircut. His fair hair, so much like my
the top of his hunched shoulders. Shea
is ten, our first-born; I had him when I was sixteen, when I was a
stands and tosses his napkin on the table. He
looks at me full in the face for the first time that
sorry about that.” He nods at me. I
stand and begin to clear the breakfast dishes, licking my lips, which
large and puffy. They have that metallic taste, as if they are still
blood from the night before. “I was
thinking, you know, maybe about going back to meetings.”
good.” The dishes clatter as I place them in the sink.
walks to the counter and picks up his wallet, and keys. “Maybe I’ll try
to one tonight,” he says. I attempt to
smile at him, but my bottom lip feels stretched, as if it were a
to burst. “Come here, babies, and give
your daddy a kiss goodbye,” Denny yells towards living room. Shea and Mallory dash into the room. Denny whooshes Mallory up in a hug, her
little curls springing like corncobs around her neck. “Who loves
asks her, and she tucks her head into his neck. “Who
loves Daddy?” They laugh, and the noise throbs in
tempo with my
aching cheek. Denny places her in my
arms and rubs Shea’s head with his hand. “Be good for Gramma today.”
as Mallory slithers out of my grasp. “Let
me down, Mommy!”
that.” Denny smiles. “Three years old and already she pushes her mommy
around.” Mallory prances around his
legs, grabbing his knees. Denny pries her loose and strides out the
first hot day of the year, early, the first day of June. Half past
the temperature is near eighty degrees, by evening it should be closer
ninety. It’s wrong, somehow, to have the
heat be hard this early in the summer and it makes me feel off, shaky. The kids’ faces scrunch in the sun as I
hurtle them to the van. Our neighbor,
Mrs. Pearl, skirts around the corner of her house with a hose in her
hand. She’s wearing her standard
smock, with matching neon-pink lipstick. “Good
morning, Amy,” she says, squinting. It’s
been raining all spring, and I’ve been
successful in avoiding her, placating her by a wave or two.
I look down
as I open the door. “Hello.”
on the handle of the sprayer and starts watering the bed of petunias
the side of her house, which runs parallel to our driveway. “Where you
Stop,” I say, my back to the open door as I buckle in Mallory.
still at the Bridal Barn?” She hollers over the whishing of the hose.
weekends.” I slide the van door shut.
didn’t take you back full time?”
some girl that had a degree from Iowa
to do the alterations.”
“Really.” Mrs. Pearl turns
off the hose and shuffles
towards me; her fat legs make her look as if she’s walking on stilts. “A degree?”
know, my boss told me that she’s some sort of textile genius.” I stride around the front of the van, and
open the driver’s side door. “You know,
worked in the costume department or something.”
“Hah.” She stands on the
other side of the van,
peering at me through the passenger side window as I get in the seat. “You taking care of yourself?
You’re so damn skinny it makes me think you
never eat. All I ever see is you going
back and forth out of your driveway.”
“Got to pay
the rent somehow.” I slam the door and start the car. “We’ll see you
She waves as I pull out of the driveway, her mouth continuing to move
I say, as I start down the street.
Mallory yells from her car seat. “FUCK!”
that’s naughty,” Shea says, peering at me through the rearview mirror.
I take a
breath. “Mallory, that’s not a word for kids. You
FUCK! Mommy say FUCK!”
Mallory giggles and Shea giggles along with
bleeds through the car’s windshield, intensifying the throb in my head. I place my hand on my forehead and my elbow
on the lip of the window as I drive to my mother’s apartment. “Stop it, guys,” I say. The
pounding under the skin behind my right
cheekbone crawls up towards my eyeball.
continue to taunt me. “Fuck fuck fuck!” they sing.
serious.” I grit my teeth. “Shut
up. Both of you. Shut up.”
They echo my words, this time “shut up shut
up shut up.” The droning of high-pitched voices stabs my eardrum, and
next red light, I turn around. “You guys
don’t shut up I’m going to kick the shit out of both of you. You think I’m kidding?” I’m
screaming so loud the edge of my voice
strains. “Take a chance.
I dare you. You got that?” They stare with
ghostly blank eyes. They have the same eye color as their father, an
pale it is almost colorless.
has on the Cartoon Network, and the kids settle to watch as I turn to
leave. Mom doesn’t say anything about my
face, just like she doesn’t say much about my life anymore. She simply returns to her perch on the
lavender recliner, dressed in her blue hydrangea-print housedress. She pokes a cigarette in her mouth, picks up
her romance novel, the cover and binding cracked and white from
and begins to read.
At work, my
boss, Theo, stands at the square stainless steel table in the back
shaping cookie dough with his fingers. He
glances up at me and sighs. Theo is tall
and has a five o’clock shadow, like Denny. In
the bright whiteness of the workroom, his
bald head shines; if he tilts it at the correct angle, it could
a blinding beam of light. He’s been
losing his hair since we were in high school. “Let’s try to keep you
back,” he says. I finish the cookies,
and then make burgers during the lunch rush.
By two, the
restaurant is dead, and I finally get my lunch break.
I go into the washed-out tile bathroom, and
fish out the pregnancy test, which I purchased at Drug Town
three days ago then hid at the bottom of my purse, under the Kleenex
diaper wipes. I pee on the stick and slide it back in the box, and tuck
in my purse. I look in the mirror to see
if I notice any changes. I don’t, just
the same old me under the fluorescent light, complete with the black
split lip. I didn’t feel sick with Shea
or Mallory; my body chemistry never seemed to evolve.
Girls I know, they’d start throwing up within
a month of getting pregnant, or notice their breasts hurt, something,
more, but my babies grew in secret. With
Shea, I cheered basketball games for three months, growing to five
never suspecting a thing.
I exit the
bathroom, step out the back door onto the loading dock, and light a
cigarette. I sit against the side of the
building, the stone wall so cold it feels wet against my back. I pull
test stick. Already there are two
significant red lines. My eye pulsates,
fresh, as if Denny struck me right then.
return inside I stab at my lunch in the break room, and then Theo tells
work the counter so my co-worker can get her lunch.
He probably thinks it’s slow enough, the way
I look can’t offend too many customers. It’s
quiet, just the ambient sound from the sporadic
through the front windows. I spray and
wipe the trays left over from lunch, praying the place stays dead.
After a few
minutes, though, two women come in, delivering a smattering of street
through the door. They look to be mother and daughter, the daughter
age. They approach the counter and order
salads and waters. As the older woman
digs into her thick leather purse to pay, the girl looks at my face. “Hey, I know you, right?” she says, snapping
gum through her pasty teeth.
I shake my
head, avoiding her eyes, but she continues. “Yeah, I know you. You’re from the bride store.” I glance at
her. The girl has long hair that shines
an impossible blonde. She turns to her
mother, whose streaky gray hair swirls around her head like a question
mark. “This is the girl that works at
the Bridal Barn.”
her mother says. “Oh honey, you do marvelous work. You should have seen
wedding. Amber looked amazing.”
is tanned and has a sparkly diamond wedding ring, scans me up and down. “What are you doing here?
Don’t you work at the Bride Barn anymore?”
on the weekends,” I say, my back to them as I assemble their salads. “They already have a full-time
seamstress.” I circle back, put their
bottled waters on the tray and push it towards them.
“Thanks.” I say, as I pick up a rag and wipe
down the counter.
hesitate, and the mother says, “Honey, you are an artist, an artist.”
return to the stack of dirty trays. I
remember them in an instant. I remember
kneeling at the bride’s feet last year, pinning the hem of the pearly
dress, eavesdropping on the conversations they had about the reception.
fought over the food (shrimp or chicken skewers?) and that the mother
find enough slate gray candles. I
remember the mother telling me, no, honey, just an inch lower, but
enough, dear, for the shoes to peek out. I
remember picturing the fiancé in my head, the
perfect man with the
mahogany hair and the pressed button-down shirts, the college degree. Months later, as I scanned the paper for her,
like I always do with my brides, I saw them. The picture didn’t show
just a headshot of the bride and groom, grinning as if they’d found a
only the two of them shared. Her husband
looked exactly as I imagined, maybe even more good looking, more
perfect. The opposite of Denny,
clean-shaven, with the
happiest smile meant just for her. I cut
out the picture and put it in my portfolio, even if you can’t see the
dress. I figured it still counted.
I get off work after six,
and drive to my
mom’s to pick up the kids. They’re
ready, side by side on the couch, like sparrows that sit on the
in the winter. We stop by the grocery
store on the way home. I avoid eyes,
avoid running my cart into anyone. The
aisles are plump with customers, carts banging about like bumper cars. People are looking at me, I can feel them, I
can feel their direct stares at my face. Now
I am thinking I can feel the baby flip in my stomach.
I do the math, figuring I’m five or six weeks
along. I probably got pregnant right after we returned to Denny. We fill the cart, and then we approach the
beer and wine department. They place it
smack in the middle of the store, surely on purpose.
You have to walk past it to get to the milk,
or the produce, or the meat. Shea
watches pokerfaced as I hesitate in front of the stacks of cases of
“Don’t look at me like that,” I say as I pick up a twelve.
The kids choose their favorite frozen pizza
and we get in line to pay. I had to wait
until today, the first of the month, for the food stamp card to allow
shop. I don’t like this new electronic
thing, because I assume that it isn’t going to work and I’m going to be
hanging. But it’s kind of nice to look
like everyone else, using a card that swipes through a machine. I don’t care what anyone says about helping
the poor working mother, if you’re using food stamps the people behind
line scrutinize your purchases, frowning if you buy something special,
cheesecake or chips. Look, I want to
say, I work too. I’m not what you think,
I don’t sit on my ass all day like some girls I know.
truck is in the driveway when we return home. I
usher the kids through the back door before I enter.
Denny sits at the kitchen table, empty except
for the crowded ashtray and the solitary can of beer directly in front
immediately head into the living room, and click on the TV. After I unload the groceries out of the car I
ask Denny if he still plans to go to the gun show this weekend.
why?” He tips the last of his beer into his mouth.
Barn has some hours for me on Saturday,” I say, putting a plate of
fried chicken and mashed potatoes into the microwave.
I can go Friday night.”
Denny.” I sigh. “That’d be great.” I
fetch him another beer, take out his plate and set it in front of him. He finishes his meal as I put the kids’ pizza
in the oven.
when we first got together you’d burn everything.” He tosses the napkin
table. “Even the corn on the cob, remember that?” We
both laugh, and when he smiles like that I
always think about that boy I knew in high school. Back then, I
consider breathing without him right by my side. “But now, I can’t
finish my own dinner, I discover several empty beer cans in the sink,
on top of
the breakfast dishes. I realize Denny
had not gone to work. When the three of
us returned home from Texas, Denny’s father, who most days didn’t want
bother with his son’s existence, had finagled Denny a job working
in Marshalltown, and Denny went every day this spring, even though he
complained that it didn’t pay enough. I agreed, it didn’t, six dollars
hour. Try to live on that, I always
wanted to ask his boss.
I load the
dishwasher, then rinse the cans, putting them in their cardboard
setting them out on the back deck. From
the deck, I see that Mrs. Pearl, or more likely her son Michael, who
blocks over, has extended her petunia beds, which now snake around the
her house. I don’t remember if I’ve told
Mrs. Pearl more that petunias are my favorite flowers, so it’s nice to
them there, kind of smiling at me. She must have worked on the beds
today. The sun sets over her fence, and
the dusky twilight
bleeds throughout the reds, whites, the velvety purples.
“Lovely, lovely, lovely,” I whisper.
I wouldn’t mind standing out here all night,
despite the pain in my face and my lingering headache, and the throb in
arch of my feet. Even though I am so
tired I could sleep for days, maybe a year, I’d like a chance to see
flowers disappear into the dark as the day breathes cool. I’m confident
they’ll still be there, blooming in my blindness. Instead,
hearing Mallory cry, I return
inside, sliding the glass door behind me and pulling the curtain shut.
I give Mallory her bath and
put her to bed,
and change my clothes, peeling off my work uniform, shaking the stink
burgers and fries out of my hair. I find
Shea and Denny in the living room, watching a reality show where the
vie for a job with a big shot in New York. We’ve watched this show
before and it confuses
me, how people cheat and lie, and treat each other so maliciously just
to get a
job. The people remind me of the first
social worker I met, from Cedar
who was so determined to get me away from Denny. She actually used that
malicious. “Don’t you see it, Amy? He’s malicious. He’s a menace to your
family,” she said, her eyes shining behind her black-framed glasses. I think she was just as bad as those people
on TV, like she had a goal that I wasn’t aware of, a goal that didn’t
anything to do with me.
I sit on
the stuffed couch across from Denny, who is on the Laz-e-boy. I close my eyes against the noise. Denny
provides a running dialogue throughout the show. “If
I were on the show,” he says, as he pulls
the lever to put his feet up in the recliner, “I’d win in about two
seconds.” I open my eyes to notice that
he has on steel-toed boots, and it flashes through my brain how
annoying it is
that he wears these boots in the house, even in the middle of a heat
at least today, I won’t have to sweep crumbs of sand and dirt from the
my concentration. “Maybe you should get on the show, Dad.” He’s on the
in his t-shirt and summer blue pajama pants, lying on his stomach, his
legs in the air.
should. Except they wouldn’t give me a chance.” Denny lifts his can to
me. As I get his beer, Denny continues to
talk. “Because I didn’t go to college.”
The kitchen is around the corner and he can’t
see me as I
lean my head against the refrigerator door.
Shea asks. I open the door and stare at
the twelve pack of beer, which is now half-empty.
not?” Denny says. “Because your mom got
stupid and got knocked up with you.”
I grab a
beer out of the box, and slam the door, causing the contents of the
refrigerator to ring like bells. I walk
back around the corner to the living room. “Shea,”
I say. “Time for bed.”
not even nine,” he says, looking at Denny for confirmation. Denny’s staring at the TV.
snap. “Now.” Shea scrambles up, marches
to the bathroom, and slams the door. I
give Denny the beer and sit back on the couch. “I wish you would stop
stuff like that to him.”
what?” Denny asks, slurring his words as if he’s learning to talk.
that,” I whisper, my breath hot on my tender lips.
“Like he ruined your life.”
the bathroom door and starts toward his bedroom. “Hey,”
I say, and he stops, staring at me
down the hallway. The bathroom light
pulsates behind him. “Come give me a
kiss.” Shea trudges into the living room
and kisses me. His cheeks are pink-lined
and downy, and I put my hands on the sides of his face, rubbing with my
thumbs. “I love you.”
he mumbles, and he throws his arms around me. I
pull him tight. He’s so
for his age, and I want to pick him up and put him on my lap, like I
he was a baby and we lived with my mother. “Good night, Mom.” He lets
go of me
first, and gives Denny a hug.
until the door to Shea’s room clicks shut. “Seriously, Denny.”
fuck,” he says. “You want to keep the
truth from him?”
fucking stupid.” He pops open the can.
“You don’t realize, do you, what having that kid did to me.”
you?” I pick up a pillow and wrap my arms around it, pressing it
have been one of those people,” he says to the TV.
were you going to be one of those people? You
barely graduated from high school.”
need this shit.” He pulls the lever of
the recliner, and bangs down the foot of the chair.
at me,” I say, standing up, my feet seizing on the carpet. “I told you
going to put up with this anymore.” He is two feet from me, his face
reddening. I edge backwards into the
follows, his beer can still in hand. He
corners me, my back against the curve of the whirly gig.
“What’s your fucking deal, Amy? You
think I want to fight with you every
night?” The veins in his forehead throb,
and he bares his yellow teeth like an angry dog.
“Did you go
to work today?” I ask, and then cover my mouth with my hand.
the beer can towards the counter. The
beer sprays over the cabinets and the floor. Then
he hits me with his fist where he hit me last night.
Then he strikes me again, with such brevity
that I can’t begin to defend myself. I
sink to the floor, and he kicks me in the stomach with those steel-toed
each kick timed with the syllables that spew out of his mouth. “This
day isn't over yet,” he says. “I will kill you.”
He keeps talking, but I don’t hear or feel the rest because I crawl
When I wake
I can’t gauge how long it’s been. I hear
the local news anchors chirping from the TV, so I assume that it’s been
least an hour. The beer puddles around
my shoulders, and my hair is glued to the side of my face.
I pull myself up by the lip of the sink, and
stumble over to the table, grabbing my purse. I
need a cigarette, and I sit, smoking it. It tastes
great. It may be the best cigarette I have
smoked. I put it out with relish.
down the hall and open the bedroom door, and find Denny asleep in bed,
to the door. He’s still wearing his
clothes and the boots. He grips a beer
can in his hand and I assume that he must have stepped over me to get
it out of
corner is the wood baseball bat that he keeps by the bed, because I
him keep a loaded gun unlocked in the house. He used it when he played
school baseball. Denny’s told me a
million times that he wanted protection even though we live in crappy
rental. It seems to me that everyone in
town knows better, and even if they didn’t, all they’d want are the
frankly, they’re welcome to them.
the bat and stand at the edge of the bed, bracing my knees against the
the mattress. I lift the bat over my head
and bring it down, hard, on the back of his head. It
doesn’t sound like I thought it
would. I thought it would echo and maybe
reverberate. But the sound is more like:
crunch. Denny’s body jerks, but he
doesn’t wake. I lift the bat up and hit him, again.
Again. Again. Again. Five
times, total. A river of blood streams out
at the doorway, his eyes huge, like bull’s-eyes. He
asks, “Is he dead?”
I say, “I
don’t know.” I lay the bat next to Denny
and pull the wedding ring quilt I made for our wedding over Denny’s
“Shea, open the linen closet and get every blanket in there.” Shea bangs open the door and climbs the
shelves like a monkey, yanking blankets until they are stacked on the
floor. We haul them into the room, and
cover Denny, layer after layer of blankets, afghans, and quilts that I
my mother made or that we got at Wal-Mart. “Go
downstairs,” I say. “Get
sleeping bags. Hurry.” Shea retreats to
the basement door off the kitchen; I can hear him padding down the
steps. I empty out my drawers, the closet,
my clothes into Mallory’s room. She’s
asleep, in her crib, her little bottom in the air. I take a moment to
her scent. To me, she still smells like a baby, sweet and intoxicating. Shea returns, his arms circling three
sleeping bags. He helps me spread them
on top of Denny.
says, as we stand over his father. “What if he wakes up?”
“Then I’ll get a gun.” To prove myself,
I crawl behind Denny, lifting up the blankets, and remove the wallet
his belt. I smooth the blankets back in
their place and then taking the key, I open the gun cabinet that stands
corner of our bedroom. I remove a Smith
and Wesson .44, the one Denny carried everywhere, favored like an
child. Shea nods as I tuck it in my
blankets rounded over Denny’s body remind me of my last memory of my
who died before I started the fourth grade. We
never had money—he was a farmer in perpetual debt, so
it figures I
can recall with such clarity the one summer day he took Mom and me on a
vacation, a driving trip up to the Effigy
Mounds National Park near Marquette.
“See, Amy?” He pointed to the grass-covered humps nestled between
trees. “A thousand years ago Indians
buried their dead here and shaped these mounds into animals.” I remember thinking that they looked like
little hills covered with grass, and my father, standing in the hot
his overalls and white v-neck t-shirt, was playing tricks.
I’m not sure I even knew what burying the
dead meant, but I learned just three weeks later, after he died in a
accident just west of our farm.
I say, and guide Shea out of the room, my hand on the back of his neck,
the door behind us. I had turned the
lock on the knob, and I double-check to make sure it is secure. We walk
the hall to the living room. I grab the
remote from the table next to the recliner, and sit, pulling Shea into
lap. I hold him like a baby, as I wanted
to earlier that night, his head tucked into the triangle of my elbow,
splayed over my upper thighs. He mutely
lets me rub his hair as he stares at the TV.
I flip the channels one by one, and come across the show we had been
watching earlier, repeated on one of the cable channels. Shea
falls asleep on my lap, but I cannot
sleep, at least not until I find out what happens at the end of the