The Honorable Bantam

Jackie was a pretty good smoker, actually, and certainly the only second grader around who could do a French inhale.

We saw the plastic milk crates sitting as spot markers in the yard as we climbed off the bus. Four of them, which meant the dogs had had an especially good day. Our dogs — one mostly blind after a run-in with a deer’s antler and the other missing most of one hind leg that he’d chewed off to get himself out of a coon trap — got their jollies from sneaking into neighbors’ chicken coops and killing for sport. They’d bring home their broken trophies and drop them in the yard, no longer interested. To hide this from the neighbors, our parents would conceal the chicken corpses with milk crates. Our duty, then, was to pick up the dead by their waxy, scaly, fake-yellow feet – our faces turned away from the stiffened feathers crusty with dog spit, the limp neck, and the tiny, beady eyes that were frozen open and watching us – and stuff them into trash bags. Sometimes we used a shovel to scoop the chicken if it was especially mauled and gory. When the trash bags were full and the yard emptied of milk-crate markers, we’d trek down the gravel road and into the woods, and then launch the bags as far into the sky as we could. We’d make a game of it, allotting points for the farthest throw, bonus points if you managed to land a bag in a tree. Being the oldest, I usually won.

So the three of us saw the milk crates, and without a word we split: Jackie to the first milk crate to wait, Kara to the back porch for the brown work gloves with nubby plastic dots on the business side, and me to the kitchen for the trash bags. Mom was busy cooking dinner. From the smell of it, it was her “Swiss steak” concoction that consisted of non-steak, stringy meat floating in a red sauce made chunky by undercooked carrots. Mom was a good cook, and I don’t know why she insisted on making this terrible dish.

Reconvening at the first milk crate, we got to work. Jackie picked up the milk crate and stacked it next to the barn while Kara held the bag open and I handled the chickens; then we went to the "dump site." When we got back from disposing of the poultry, Dad was parking his truck.

“Girls?” he questioned.
I gestured to the stacked milk crates. “Four chickens today.”
“Who won?”
Kara pointed at me. “Annie.”

“Go wash up now. I’m gonna check on my turkey.” Dad had his own bird to tend to, a pet turkey. My sisters and I didn’t know the name of this turkey, only that it was wild yet contained somewhere in his bedroom closet, which was off limits.

We headed in to set the table, hands unwashed. I poured the sun tea, Kara got the plates, and Jackie put out the silverware and tore the paper towels in half (a money-saving gesture dictated by Dad).

Dad came back from visiting his turkey, a little more fiery-eyed than before. I was thankful to sit down to a quiet and uneventful dinner. After dinner, we three girls cleaned the kitchen, playing the game we used to speed up the process. Kara set the oven timer. If we didn’t have the dishes done by the time the bell rang, the whole kitchen would blow up. We ran around quickly, brushing crumbs and chunks of food to the floor and slopping the orange-ringed, gray dishwater against the walls and counters in our haste. But we made it, running breathless from the “clean” kitchen 17 seconds before the timer went off.

I went outside to indulge in my favorite past-time: drop-kicking a ball onto the roof of the old country store that my family owned, now just an empty building next door to our house. Bounce, bounce, bounce. If it was a perfect kick, the ball would arc beautifully as it came off the roof, landing in my arms as I stood in the exact position from which I’d launched the ball. As an extra challenge, I’d try to kick the ball up again as it descended, something that rarely worked. I was such powerful a kicker at that time, though, that I’d often kick the ball clear over the roof. It would land on the other side and take off down the road. Sometimes I could persuade my youngest sister, Jackie, to stand on the other side of the building in wait for the errant ball.

After kicking the ball around for about an hour, I headed in to start homework. My sisters and I shared one tiny room; they had bunk beds, and I slept on a pull-out bed that went back to being a loveseat during the daylight hours. I thought it rather neat that I had a bed that I could tuck away during the day. My favorite way to do homework was in the dark. I’d turn off every light in the room save the little 25-watt bulb in the hutch of my desk. The circle of light that spilled onto my desk was the circle in which I tackled math problems, devised mnemonic devices, put things in order on paper. I loved the solitude of the darkness, the focus of the concentrated light. My sisters, who were too young to have any real homework anyway, agreed to let me have my darkness while I did my homework. Well, at least Jackie was agreeable to this. Kara was not.

Kara was a “pistol,” as the old-timers say. She could push my buttons and piss me off like no one else. Tonight was no different. I turned the overhead light off, the hutch light on, and quickly became absorbed in my math homework. Kara entered the room about ten minutes later and turned on the overhead light.

I swiveled in my chair, eyes squinted against the brightness, and glared at her. “Quit it!” I hissed.
She smiled at me. Flicked the light off ... and then flicked it on again, still smiling. I felt my blood getting hot. Jackie sat on the bottom bunk, watching but not watching because she didn’t want to get Kara started on her. Fights between those two usually led to violence and ended with long, red scratches and broken necklaces. I was the peacemaker who avoided confrontation, choosing instead to just shake ineffectively, tears of rage in my eyes, as my petite middle sister taunted and bullied me. Kara had a mean temper and it scared me, as hard as that was to admit. That’s why I’d let her beat me over the head with wire hangers or one of Jackie’s big, cheap, hard-plastic dolls with ratty hair.

I tried the silent approach this time, turning in my chair and going back to work. If you don’t give them bait, they stop biting. But she was smarter than that, my little bantam-sized tormenter. She knew what I was up to. Off, on. Off ... and on. Just as I was getting ready to yell (but not so loudly as to rouse the parents), we heard Mom’s voice call out.

“Kara Louise. Come here. Now.”
Her voice had that tone to it that tells you something big is going down. That tone of voice that tells you the parents have some water — definitely deep and definitely hot — into which you’re going. And then it got worse.
Dad called out, “Your mother and I would like to see you.”
Dad.
Kara’s face lost the glow it had acquired while infuriating me and took on an oh-shit-I’m-scared-better-get-composed look as she slowly turned and plodded toward the kitchen, toward the crime she’d committed, not yet sure what that was.

Jackie and I crouched in the doorway to listen. Our house was very small, so we could hear everything. There was nothing but silence for at least a full minute.

“Well, you want to explain these?” Dad’s voice had that flat but eager sound to it, parental but tinged with a small bit of pleasure. He knew he had this girl on the hook and could make her squirm a bit. He was very good at interrogation, smart and slippery like a well-schooled lawyer. Even worse, he seemed to enjoy it. “Oh, and here’s your lighter, in case you were wondering where it went. It’s a nice one. Where’d you get it?”
Realization dawned on us, and my eyes met with Jackie’s, which were wide-open with terror. Cigarettes! Dad must be talking about cigarettes. Kara, who’d been in charge of our latest pack, had been caught. Stupid! How could she have been so careless? When it was my turn, I wrapped them in a plastic bread sack, rubber-banded it, and hid it outside in the barn. What was Kara doing? Keeping them on her bedside table?
Mom piped up. “We found them in your purse.” Mom felt no shame about her blatant snooping, especially when it turned up a treasure like this.
Kara, though a ten-year-old tomboy, insisted on carrying around this grungy little purse Aunt Lucile had given her. In it she kept chap stick, a comb, a pencil, and, apparently, a pack of cigarettes and a lighter.
“Why were you in my purse?” Kara demanded, opting for the indignant approach.
Dad’s turn. “You aren’t the one asking questions here, now are you?”

Jackie and I knew this day would come. Kara was reckless, not to be trusted. I’d once walked into the bathroom after Kara had been in there and almost keeled over from the smell of fresh cigarette smoke and even fresher Aqua Net, the cover-up scent. She had some gumption, that girl. But Jackie and I didn’t, and we were going down, too. We all smoked.

We smoked down at the creek every night or else behind the barn if we were feeling especially brazen. After smoking, after we were in for the night, if our parents came up to us before we’d had a chance to brush our teeth or if we’d forgotten our gum, I’d instructed my sisters to suck in and hold their breath to keep the cigarette smell from coming out. Ridiculous advice, but oddly, we hadn’t been caught before Kara made the fatal error of stowing the smokes in her purse.

Kara spoke again. “I don’t know where they came from.” Approach #2: absolute ignorance.
“That’s a real wonder, isn’t it? Someone’s stealing your purse, putting cigarettes in it, stealing it back whenever they want a smoke, and then returning it to your side, with you never any the wiser?” Oh, Dad was shrewd, all right. Jackie and I prepared for our own inquisition, soon to come. Then Kara copped.
“Okay, they’re mine.”
Jackie and I looked at each other. “Mine,” not “ours”?
“I got them from ....”
Would she give away our source? That we were stealing cigarettes from our grandpa who lived down the road?
“... Karl.” Brilliant move! Blame it on the older, ruffian cousin, the troublemaker, the one who had just been here on a visit and who, conveniently enough, smoked. But wouldn’t they check this? “He doesn’t know I took them. I stole them.”
My God, she was good. Jackie and I grinned at each other from our crouched position.
Dad wasn’t done. “How many do you and your sisters smoke? Do you smoke every day?” He was trying to trick her into spilling information. Our grins faded. The loophole we were crawling through had just clamped tight around our ankles.
Mom’s voice, very concerned, pointed out the obvious, “Jackie is only eight, Kara! You and Andrea don’t have her smoking, do you?”
Jackie was a pretty good smoker, actually, and certainly the only second grader around who could do a French inhale. I was even more scared for myself now. Being the oldest at age 12, I held the most accountability for steering my sisters wrong. Kara could actually turn this around now and hang me in an effort to lessen her own guilt. There was a long pause from the kitchen, and I could hear Kara’s wheels turning.
“No, it’s just me. They won’t do it.”
I couldn’t believe it. Neither could Jackie. She’d taken the fall, the complete fall. She hadn’t wavered, even under Dad’s cunning gaze and tight-lipped smile, Mom’s concern and mumbled prayers.

We didn’t have TV or an allowance because of Mom’s strict religious beliefs, so “grounding” wasn’t an effective punishment — there was nothing to be grounded from. Instead, our mom handled the discipline, and it came in the form of a swift, mean, slotted wooden spoon (slotted for less wind resistance; that sucker would whistle as it sliced through the air). Dad left the table, his work done. (Facing the music with him as the bandleader was almost as bad as the spoon.) When we heard the chairs scrape back, Jackie and I scurried to our original spots at the bed and desk. Then we heard the sound of the spoon coming out of its holster, the whistling, the thuds, the cries.

Kara walked head down and tears streaming, holding her gaping purse, now emptied of both cigarettes and lighters. Those spankings really, really hurt. We all knew from experience. When all three of us faced “the rod” (as in “spare the rod and spoil the child”), we’d stand in front of our bedroom mirror when it was over, underwear pulled down, comparing welts. Jackie and I didn’t know what to say or do. We were bowled over by her compassion for us, by her honor. We hadn’t seen this side of her before. Jackie scooted over to make space on the bed; Kara sat down. We all looked at each other, back and forth, mine and Jackie’s eyes full of respect for this new version of our sister we’d just met.

“You can leave the light on if you want, Karrot.” It was all I could think to say.

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