Buddy of mine used to have me over before his girl walked out on him. For supper, you know, or cards. Maybe beers, if one of us was going through it. We weren’t usually, back then. More like, we thought we were, but really we weren’t. I’d bring him Dad or Bert, he’d bring me working, or not. We laid it all out, sorted through it.
I ran into him on my way to work, this one night before we was supposed to get together. He cancelled, standing all crooked, thumbs stabbed through his belt loops, and I thought he was joking. I asked him what he’d said to make her run off like she did.
He told her she was ex-wife material. “She didn’t take too kindly.” Go figure.
I kept turning it over. Guess I’m still turning it over. What did it mean to feel into the future? To have a certainty the person you loved was going to break you, to see someday-pain wrapped up inside that somebody; know inch by bloody inch that pain would birth itself out. Know that cost and decide to risk it anyway.
He’d said ex-wife. Wife comes with that, too, but I guess it’d been hard for her to hear it.
Smack between coming and going, all I said was, “You’re a dumbass.” I didn’t have anything to offer. I didn’t know much about risk, or love.
Bert would call and check in, not just on me, but on dad through me. I must have been easier to talk to.
Those days I let her burrow in. I loved it when she’d tell me, “Don’t should all over yourself.” All that wisdom don’t ring true anymore.
The cracks started small. Before everything else, there was this day I was talking up this redhead in line at the post office. Real cute, had that Whitesville look about her, but a sweet smile, not a thing wrong with her teeth; trying my hand at charming, telling her I had to get my dad a sheet of one-cent stamps because they’d upped the price of postage again. He was always forgetting and melting down when his letters–all cramped chicken scratch–took their time coming back to him, undelivered.
“Kind of you,” she’d said. She fiddled with her purse strap, readjusted it on her shoulder. I was next in line.
“Ain’t kindness,” I said. “I should do it, so I do.”
She seemed disappointed then, or bored. “Well now,” she said, “don’t should all over yourself,” so I excused myself quick because it felt all the sudden like I was talking up my own sister. People make a lot of cracks about West Virginia. You know, and I shouldn’t have to say. I loved Bertie–I love Bertie. The normal amount in normal ways. You know what I’m getting at.
Forgot the stamps entirely. Called Bert and asked, straight out, where she’d gotten all that phone-call wisdom from and she said, “NA. What’d you think? Does it matter?”
Like that, air out of a balloon. I wasn’t sure why it mattered—only that it did.
After Bert got divorced she moved back to Wayne County, in with Dad. Not ideal. She’d been living out on the coast a long time, maybe too long to come home. When she was married she was always saying it was easier to stay clean up where she was. I don’t know about all that. Her husband had some money. That’s always the way of it.
They were doing all right, Bertie and Dad, for a while. Making coffee, leaving enough in the pot for the other, that kind of thing. Bertie took over stamp duty.
I spent more time on the job, or alone in my apartment, or walking the road ditches up the mountain, failing to take risks.
Everything was fine, but it wasn’t just the bedbugs that spoiled it. Yes, I should’ve told her, but there were a lot of things I should’ve done. I knew that, even then. I knew my sister and our father didn’t see eye to eye on many things. I knew how hard it was to try to know a man who doesn’t, most days, without the right pills, really know himself. God, I knew that. Likewise it had to have been tough on him being around her, feeling like maybe the way things had all shook out in her life were a little bit his fault. Maybe more than a little bit.
It was a bright afternoon.
That I remember.
I walked in, could smell coffee on and thought, good sign. Up the stairs and there was Dad, squat in front of the TV watching Judge Mablean.
“Shouldn’t you be working?” he asked, “It’s the middle of the day.”
“Shouldn’t you be–”
That’s when I heard Bertie stomping somewhere nearby, tap-steps, rapid-like. Then, hollering. God-awful. Like she was being stabbed all over.
Dad hopped up and I followed behind, waited like a bloodhound as he eased open one of the bedroom doors. There she was, slapping at herself, her hair big, thin arms flailing, screaming, “They’re crawling all over me, get ’em off,” over and over.
Big moon eyes, body—a knot of baby snakes.
Up close, my fists clamped around her wrists, and I still didn’t see any bugs. If I were a better brother I would’ve known that didn’t matter, known she could feel them, known that was enough. I just held her there, her hollering tongue a limp fish, fixating on the raw patches on her arms, her neck, her cheeks.
She moved in with an old friend from high school not long after that.
Then, there was all what came next.