OUR LAND SAYS MY SISTER LOOKED PEACEFUL by Myles Zavelo

OUR LAND SAYS MY SISTER LOOKED PEACEFUL by Myles Zavelo

CW: Child sexual abuse

The cops are at the front door. The cops break the news to my father. My father screams at the cops. 

Then it’s six days later, but that’s irrelevant, and my father restarts his terribly rough anger from the tippy top every hour.

It’ll always be like this. This’ll always be the case. 

We’re in the waiting area outside the hospital morgue. My father is pacing up and down the hall. 

Well! What did you expect! 

He’s asking me such a question. He stops pacing. For moments. 

Your sister! She lived on beer and lettuce! 

My stomach’s empty, and my back’s against the wall, and my father’s breathing really hard at me. He has my tongue and sucks the words out of my mouth. 

My feeling is still shock beyond feeling. 

She was dating a hooligan! His jeans were ripped! They used needles together! 

It’s three–ten in the afternoon. My father’s livid as ever. He’s devastated, too, but you can only see the rage. He’s foaming at the mouth on the warpath. 

It’s the warpath that leads to skullfucking my sister’s Scumbag Boyfriend. 

My father wants to correct this situation through homicide. 

At least your mother isn’t alive to see this!

My sister even wanted to marry that Scumbag Boyfriend. She told me so the last time I accompanied her to the needle exchange. It was a long walk, no matter what route we took. 

That Scumbag Boyfriend was always a problem. 

I heard that that Scumbag Boyfriend used to beat up his mom. 

My father struggles with insomnia and anger management issues. He’s always tired and angry. A hoot and a half my father is not. 

He served in Desert Storm, where he accomplished a lot. He says the oil fires were something else: scorched earth, awesome worlds of flames you wouldn’t believe

My father actually has a private faith in God. He prays. And his upside down heart—it gets so big.

It’s just that grief only equals rage. When it comes to my father. When it comes to the air of Our Land. When it comes to the men of Our Land. 

But not when it comes to me.

No. 

Not me. 

Not me at all. 

I am not like that. I am not like my father. I am not like any of the men of Our Land. I am making a promise right now: I am drawing a line in the scum, I am separating and distancing. I move gently, deliberately. I am capable, smart, good, clean, kind. I am a swan. I could be great. 

I do realize these things about myself. I do not like Our Land. No, I do not like Our Land very much at all. 

It rains every Sunday, and my sister died on an exceptionally rainy Sunday. Our Land is covered in traffic jam after traffic jam. Nobody tells jokes in Our Land. 

And, in my opinion, my sister—when she was breathing, when her heart was pumping, when she was laughing, when she was alive and well, when you really start to think about it—was the definition of excellence.

Well, my sister was never that well. 

I mean, in my memory, my sister will be excellent forever. And this is how loss works. 

+

A sandstorm. A precinct of filth. An explosion of dirt. 

Real eyebrows and elongated feet and her pains that tickled. 

Our Land is a plush yellow car filled with scars only I can see. 

+

My father hasn’t stopped pacing the waiting area. He keeps checking his phone. He continues to talk about revenge. I stuff my hands in my pockets. I think my father has heartworm. I think about how my sister, when she was alive and never that well, was bad at grownup math, but was pretty good at little-kid math and thought she’d make a pretty good teacher. She thought she could teach little-kid math. You know, one day, maybe, if she absolutely had to. 

And, personally speaking, I think my sister would’ve eventually come straight up from the bottom like a ruthlessly legitimate dream warrior. And from the moment I shook his clammy hand I was never crazy about that Scumbag Boyfriend. (Look! I’m talking about a reliably horrible person here!) 

+

Our Land is made up of wet dogs and barely hidden flophouses and foreign cars wrapped around utility poles and ridiculous men with equally ridiculous names like Donny Donnelly and Johnny Cesarean and everyone is caucasian and the unemployed sons of unemployed clowns depress the street corners and the crab fishermen are always on strike and the houses made of eggshells are stuttering at the waterfront. 

+

Look at him. Look at everything about him.

My father would make me look at my sister’s Scumbag Boyfriend when he’d walk across our lawn and leave sneaker prints in the grass. My father hated him. My father hates him. My father was right about him. My father is right about him. 

My father never forgives. He never forgets. He remembers everything. He remembers every inch of desert in Desert Storm. He can remember every wrong, insult, unfairness. He doesn’t take jokes. He’s not evil; he just keeps score. He’s a by any means necessary kind of guy and will threaten to carve a living room into your chest with rusty silverware. He puts it this way: when cocksuckers order knuckle sandwiches from him, he serves cocksuckers the knuckle sandwiches they ordered.

That Scumbag Boyfriend is a hooligan. His jeans are ripped. He buys his ripped jeans at the ripped jeans store at the ripped jeans shopping mall. He comes from a big house where nobody has to work if they don’t want to. 

+

Over a quarter of Our Land’s citizens expire before they reach sixty-five. 

Each month, there are over six hundred hospital admissions for intentional self-harm.

+

My father is good with his hands! Same job working with his hands for thirty years, and he loves the work! 

+

That Scumbag Boyfriend drives a yellow plush car. He thinks he’s such a young stud, God’s gift to women. 

But he’s a sloppy manipulator. An opportunist. A small child. A user, a poseur, a midnight toker. He gets in faces and starts fights that he doesn’t finish. It’s none of your business is his favorite response. 

He kicks dogs and cats. He throws batteries out windows. He breaks countless laws. He made my sister break so many laws. 

He loves needles, and he showed her needles, and he was the one, and it was him. 

He’s just the sort of young man that comes with Our Land. 

Just another almost worthless image: my sister and that Scumbag Boyfriend marinating all day on his big couch at his big house stoned off his big needles.

It’s such a waste of potential. It’s such a waste of little-kid math. 

So, my thesis: my sister, my father’s favorite daughter by a long shot, was ultimately a victim of Our Land. 

Our Land—not anyone else’s!

+

The sun never sets on Our Land. 

Like it’s light all day and all night.

And the air: grief only equals rage

And the men: grief only equals rage

+

The joke is that my sister was my father’s only daughter. 

The joke is not that my sister died stuck somewhere between coke and dope. 

+

Our Land turns particularly bleak at night; bicycles are stolen and dumpsters are torched. 

In the morning, users who sleep rough light spoons and burn up powders in front of little kids going to school.

+

And this is where we look at her body, where we leave the hospital, where we go to that Scumbag Boyfriend’s big house. 

But that Scumbag Boyfriend: gone.

He split. 

He splat. 

He’s “on vacation.” 

That’s what his Trashy Trash Mother told us when we got out of the car. 

She met us between the two water features in front of their gigantic house. She said she was sorry for our loss and that my sister was in a better place. 

My father spat at her trashy heart. 

She squeezed out a smile and stood still.

My father very badly wants his blood. 

That Scumbag Boyfriend knows very well my father very badly wants his blood. 

Then we’re driving home and my father starts howling. 

That motherfucking Scumbag could be anywhere!

My father’s this close to erupting. I can’t even look at him. I can’t blame him. I still can’t get over that Scumbag Boyfriend’s Trashy Trash Mother. I can see her smiling as that Scumbag Boyfriend, her son, beats her. 

Then I start smiling. 

My father desperately wants to get his skullfuck on. 

He even wants to gouge out that Scumbag Boyfriend’s eyes. 

However, my father does want that Scumbag Boyfriend alive—alive, at first, to begin with. Just to begin with. Just for a few minutes. 

Well, a few hours maybe.

And then maybe a couple hours after that. 

I’m trying to talk about t-o-r-t-u-r-e here, but I’m just not very good at it.

And, when it’s all over, I don’t think my father will make any arrangements for that Scumbag Boyfriend’s remains. Because, if I know my father, he’ll light the rest of him on fire. 

+

My big sister also rode the high of anorexia. 

First it was hunger, and then it was powders, and then it was needles. For as long as I can remember, she starved herself in great bursts. 

She would pinch her belly in the bedroom mirror. She would count her ribs. She was running her fingers. She was closing her eyes. 

I would tell her she was beautiful just the way she was. 

You are ruining your life! Mom would scream into my sister’s bedroom. You are beautiful just the way you are! Get away from that mirror and eat a cheeseburger!

Go away! I hate you! I wish you were dead! 

My sister was screaming from in front of her mirror. 

+

My sister was the prettiest girl in Our Land. Some girls who were envious broke her arms, so Mom pulled her out of school when she was sixteen. No more school nights for my sister. She never had to wake up at 6:30 A.M. again.  

+

In the beginning, that Scumbag Boyfriend razzled and dazzled my sister, impressing her out of her pants. 

Her casts had just come off. Her arms were so weak and thin that she could barely pick up a glass of water. Even if she’d wanted to, she couldn’t’ve pushed him away. 

+

The girls and mothers of Our Land metabolize envy harshly. 

The girls of Our Land are taught envy by their mothers. 

+

In the beginning, he was sexing her like crazy. His kisses were very tonguey. They took many baths together. They had a lot of fun in the tub.

+

My father had my sister tested for AIDS often. 

Hunger, needles. It was always something with her. Needles, hunger. 

He and Mom used to discuss whether breast reduction surgery would help things. 

+

When that Scumbag Boyfriend got her pregnant, my father procured the abortion pills. 

Here, my father said. 

Take these, he said. 

No baby would be born. 

We all sat around the dining table. We made sure she took them. She used a cold glass of the coldest water around. I moved my chair closer and squeezed her arm. She refused to meet my eyes. 

+

But, eventually, my sister and the Scumbag Boyfriend stopped washing themselves almost entirely, and he quit sexing her, and when they slept they soaked through to the mattress with their sweat.

+

And the lies! My sister and her Scumbag Boyfriend lied about everything! They were all-day-long liars: the Scumbag Boyfriend’s motorcycle got stolen by immigrants; the Scumbag Boyfriend got a job modeling underwear for Calvin Klein, and they had to leave town for six days; they donated their cell phones and leather jackets to a charity for kids with leukemia.

+

I don’t even think bringing her back to life would make my father less crushed by pain.

+

My father’s best friend is a fanatic who lives next to a garbage dump. He has bags and bags of dried food stored for the end of the world. He’s a regular at the spy store at the strip mall. 

You go get him, the Garbage Dump Fanatic says to my father about that Scumbag Boyfriend, I’ll even help you get him

+

Some fathers are geologists or geographers who love, love, love. 

Not mine though. Not my father. He’s not a geologist. He’s not a geographer. He doesn’t love, love, love. 

+

Gosh! I can remember my father beating this Fat Old Asshole from down the street absolutely senseless. A neighbor! Just beating the ever living fuck out of him. 

That Fat Old Asshole was trying to molest me.

That Fat Old Asshole was molesting me. 

+

Okay. I want to start over. I want to really try and set the scene. I was dumb and young. I was barely alive. I was seven years old. It was a dry spring afternoon. A Fat Old Asshole was violating me. A Fat Old Asshole was trying to violate me even worse.

I’d gotten him pissed off. I’d done something extremely stupid with the paints in his garage. I’d probably been bored out of my mind. I’ve always been bored out of my mind. 

Anyhow, the Fat Old Asshole wanted retribution; he wanted to have fun. He got me face down on the garage floor. He was such a Fat Old Asshole but he was strong and his arms were big and he was running his hands all over me. Just up and down and up and down me. I was squealing hard. His need was bottomless. The garage floor was reverberating with his miserable moaning sounds. I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t make a sound. 

The garage floor wanted me badly, and my eyes were shut tight, and I heard his belt unbuckling. 

Why’s your face so shiny, kid? I ever asked you that before? 

Yes. 

Every time you see me. 

Every time. 

My father noticed I was missing. 

He heard my voice from the garage floor. 

He rescued me. 

He kicked some ass. 

There were pools of the Fat Old Asshole’s blood everywhere.

My father always says you cannot make the mistake of trusting anyone in Our Land. 

See, my father cleaned the streets of Our Land with that Fat Old Asshole. 

+

Now it’s three-ten in the afternoon again. It’s the day after we visited my sister at the morgue, the day after we visited that Scumbag Boyfriend’s Trashy Trash Mother. 

We are drinking coffee in the kitchen, and my father says Our Land said my sister looked peaceful. 

I mean, my father says the technician at the morgue said my sister looked peaceful. 

+

The Fat Old Asshole’s injuries healed, but he died three months later from the most massive heart attack. 

The Christmas lights of the ambulance lit up our cul-de-sac. 

I saw the guys put him on the stretcher from my bedroom window. 

He got what he deserved, said Mom, You did what you had to do. 

She gave my father a firm kiss on the lips. It was the breakfast table the next day. He squeezed out a smile. 

My father had rescued me. 

Once he was nice to me, said my sister. 

+

My father tried to prevent my sister from seeing that Scumbag Boyfriend, but he didn’t succeed. My sister was too charming, too quick on her feet, too in love with that Scumbag. 

My father didn’t understand my sister. My father never understood my sister. My sister didn’t want to be saved. There was no saving my sister. 

+

Your sister did look peaceful, my father says with a great big sigh, trying to agree with the morgue technician he talked to a few hours ago, trying to agree with Our Land. 

And then I hear myself start to ask questions. Dad? If and when you catch that Scumbag Boyfriend, just how badly are you going to hurt him? 

When, my father says.

He stands up a little straighter. 

This day is a million hours long.

+

Early on, my father went to the Scumbag Boyfriend and told him to stay away, but the Scumbag pretended my father was speaking a different language, and his dishonest family’s house was so disorientingly big. 

+

My father loves to hunt. I can always taste the ammo in his venison stew. I forgot to mention that my father had been friends with that Fat Old Asshole. 

The Fat Old Asshole used to be over at our house every Super Bowl, World Series, and Stanley Cup. My father, the Garbage Dump Fanatic, and the Fat Old Asshole were like the three musketeers for a few weeks every year. 

They drank beer. They shouted whatever they wanted at the television. They spoke very uncarefully. They felt very ferociously. They were effusive with their antisemitic and homophobic opinions. 

Their concerns were mostly local concerns. They were against the goings on about Our Land. They were against everything and everybody. 

Oh, but Mom just hated that Fat Old Asshole. 

Whenever she saw him, her face turned from whatever it was to hate. 

+

Now it’s three-forty-five in the afternoon, and my father’s pacing in our big green endless backyard, smoking a cigarette, and I’m still sipping my coffee, watching him through the kitchen window. 

Anyway, here is the plan. Here is what is going to happen next. This is what we are going to do. 

We are going to stake out the Scumbag Boyfriend’s sleazy mansion. We are going to see what we can find out. What kind of vacation is that Scumbag Boyfriend on? 

It is the next logical step. When you think about it. 

It’ll be nighttime. 

Obviously, the Garbage Dump Fanatic is going to lend a hand. 

This morning the Garbage Dump Fanatic motorcycled over there. He pretended to be a Jehovah’s Witness. He stuck microphones on the side of the sleazy mansion. He also has a couple pairs of night vision binoculars. 

We will be unnoticed. We will be dressed in all black. We are going to bring a gun each just in case. We are going to park on the opposite side of the street. We will conduct the stakeout from the Garbage Dump Fanatic’s car. 

If you really loved her, you’d come help, said my father twenty seconds ago when he came back inside. 

I’m not putting up any kind of fight, but he can already smell my ambivalence. 

He takes another swig of coffee. He throws the rest at the sink. 

You’ve always been smart. You’ll notice something we won’t. You’ll be our third set of eyes. You’re Mister Valedictorian. We’ll need an extra pair of hands. I might need you to drive

I can’t see his face. His hands are gripping the edge of the counter. The icemaker rumbles, and my eyes move to Mom’s old watercolors on the fridge. The Garbage Dump Fanatic’s car has tinted windows. 

And then, I don’t know. I don’t want to help conduct a stakeout. I look at my father’s silverback shoulders. He’s always ready for combat, and I just don’t see the point anymore. 

What’s the point anymore? 

She is dead. My sister is dead. 

His daughter is dead, dead, dead, dead, dead, dead, and there’s no bringing her back. 

I imagine what a spinal tap must feel like.

I’m too sad for a stakeout. 

I’m a swan.

+

I went and got that Fat Old Asshole so pissed off, and then that Fat Old Asshole was so successfully nevered, and I just haven’t gotten over the fact. 

+

Whenever Mom sneezed, it looked like she didn’t know what was happening to her. 

+

I was sixteen when Mom died. 

The land was Our Land, and the season was springtime. It was still quite wintry out. The neurosurgeons had rehearsed her brain surgery from every possible angle.

Later, after the operation went wrong, we all cried. 

Me. My father. My sister. All of us. 

But my sister sobbed so hard she passed out. 

My father loved Mom. Mom loved my father. They were like teenagers all the time. We’d watch them hug and kiss and hold hands all the time. 

My father gave the lead neurosurgeon—the one who’d held the scalpel—a very thoughtful beating. Then my father sued the hospital for the rest of the faulty operation. 

He won the lawsuit, and that was unexpected, and the surgeon who’d held the scalpel didn’t press charges. So my father did end up experiencing some satisfaction, which is a good thing: his having felt some satisfaction. Except for the fact that it didn’t bring Mom back. 

+

You smell like the toilets at KFC! Mom yelled that at my sister a few days before Mom died. My sister burst into tears because she knew it was true. 

My sister hadn’t showered that summer. 

My sister was marinating hard that summer. 

My sister hadn’t brushed her teeth that summer. 

My sister had been shown needles that summer. 

They could be so cruel to each other sometimes. 

And once my sister bit Mom, but for the life of me I can’t remember why. Sometimes when my mother and sister fought it was almost funny and they would start laughing.

But it wasn’t funny when my sister’s neglected tooth infection spread to her nervous system and she went into a coma. 

That was the first time we all met the neurology team at the hospital. 

A year later, my father would be skullfucking that doctor’s head into the tiled hospital walls. 

+

My father believes a cremation is in order. 

He doesn’t want shameful cemetery dirt. 

There were so many wake-up calls that didn’t wake my sister up. 

Though my sister did wake up from that coma. 

+

The second-to-last time we walked to the needle exchange, my sister and I took the back way, through the woods. 

We saw several toads. 

We were refusing each other’s eyes. 

My sister said she couldn’t stop thinking that her needles were responsible for Mom’s aneurysm. 

She worried that her broken arms and her breasts and her coma and her “lifestyle” and their constant fighting and all of Mom’s worry were the cause of it. 

I think I killed her, she said, keeping her pace, wanting something. 

You didn’t kill her, I said, but I still don’t know if I was lying.

+

I don’t lie, but I lie sometimes. 

I know how I was raised to behave, but I worry I’m a bad person. I haven’t saved anyone. 

Sometimes I feel adopted. I want to move to California. I’m afraid of not being who I could be. Something else terrible will happen if I don’t leave—and I’ll see it happen with my eyes. Sometimes I have nothing to say about anything. And it’s not a bad idea: me moving to California, me leaving Our Land. I’d have to run away, though. I’d have to leave my poor angry father behind. Also, I am somewhat XXXXXXXX, and it is the very last thing I want Our Land to know about me. But, my sister, she knew. That’s just the way that God made you, she told me. 

And my father, he says I have a mama’s boy complex. California would be different. 

California is not like Our Land. I could wear a pink tee shirt. I could get a job in a museum. I could wear my pink tee shirt to my museum job. I’d have a group of friends. We’d all cook together and talk about the books we’re reading. There would be surfers and guitarists on the boardwalk. I could hold hands with a beautiful someone special on the boardwalk. I could kiss a beautiful someone special on the mouth on the boardwalk. Someday I would tell them and all of my friends about my sister. Someday I could become a terrific neurosurgeon and none of my patients would die. 

And then I won’t come back to Our Land. 

And then I’m not coming back to Our Land. 

And then I’m never coming back to Our Land. 

And do I need some kind of reeducation when it comes to something important? And where are the keys to my heart? 

Goodbye, Big Sister. Rest in peace, Big Sister. 

Then the car with the tinted windows honks viciously from the street. 

Come on, says my father, Let’s go.


Myles Zavelo lives and writes in Brooklyn, NY. His writing has appeared in Muumuu House, The Harvard Advocate, Berfrois, NY Tyrant, Joyland, New World Writing Quarterly, and elsewhere.

Art by Jaime Goh

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