The Broken Cross, Part 2

By on Sep 12, 2011 in Fiction

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Broken Cross graphic

Jacqueline Stiles’ home was on the west side of Lorrence in a new housing development, a fifteen-minute bike ride from our house on Willowyn Terrace. A white-clapboard, black-shuttered ranch, the house’s screened-in breezeway connected the house to a one-car garage. Two houses away, workmen hauled and hammered shingles on roofs of brick-front houses with a stone chimney. The summer wind through the oaks and sycamores along the street sounded like water spilling over rocks.

That first day I checked on Jacqueline Stiles’ house, I parked my bike in front of the breezeway. Nervous about being where my parents did not want me to be and curious about the unknowns I might find inside the house, I unlocked the garage doors, left the lock in the hasp, and swung open both doors. The aroma of oil, grease, and wood was pleasant. Ed Outerbridge’s Ford pick-up sat nose-in on the concrete floor. The truck’s polished red body shone glossy even here in shaded daylight. The power mower waited in the corner behind me, the engine’s housing and the blade’s red metal shield clean as the truck’s panels. Everything in the garage seemed in order, nothing disturbed, and the front and back lawns did not need to be mowed. I closed and locked the doors and entered the house through the breezeway.

I was less afraid but more curious now: to see the rooms and to know Jacqueline Stiles. First, though, the cat — Molly, according to its food dish, and gray with flecks of white around its paws and ears — greeted me in the kitchen. Molly peeped rather than meowed at me, but after I scratched her neck, she nuzzled the bottoms of my jeans and purred and yipped for food. “You a dog or a cat?” I asked her. I poured dry food into her dish, emptied her water dish, added fresh, and set both dishes on the pink plastic mat near the breezeway door.

For two months I had seen Jacqueline Stiles only from a distance: a woman with dark blond hair that fell over her forehead in even bangs, a small face, narrow lips, and straight mouth. Today that distance changed. She was over a hundred miles away, but I felt closer to her now than when I had seen her in and outside of church. I walked through the house. The living room off the kitchen: chairs and sofa creeping over the edge of a beige rug; a lighted lamp in front of the curtained picture window that looked onto the front yard; framed pictures on shelves and lamp tables — the cowgirl-hatted, gleeful daughter riding a pony; mother and daughter together, a birthday cake in front of them , the daughter blowing out candles. Other pictures — grandparents? Cousins? All smiles.

The beige carpeted hallway led from the living room to bedrooms. First, a bathroom on the left. Next, on the right the little girl’s bedroom — pink walls, baby blue rug. Toy chest in front of one wall, white plastic script above the toy chest identified “Jennifer’s Room.” Book-stuffed shelves on another wall. Under the window a single bed with pink coverlet, two pink pillows, and Raggedy Ann and Andy propped against the pillows. A wooden crucifix with a carved wooden Jesus over the bed. Protection? Someone to pray to?

Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord… I had grown away from that prayer a long time ago. I no longer recited prayers before I went to bed. No need to.

Where was the kid’s father? I wondered. “Two daughters, both with absent fathers now,” my mother had said but did not elaborate on where he lived or if he had any contact at all with his daughter.

Diagonally across from Jennifer’s room was her mother’s bedroom. Bed, unrippled, unruffled white coverlet and four pillows — two on each side. The bed looked more like a neat showpiece than a place to “screw around,” as my father had defined Ed Outerbridge’s behavior. He had continued, “He’s hurt a lot of people; friends and family. I know you feel you have to do some work for him, David, but I hope you think about what he’s done. If he asks you to do these things again, well, you’re going to have to make up your own mind.”

Now I stood in the bedroom doorway and stared at the bed. I was conscious of the absence of any noise in the house. Workmen’s voices and hammers down the street seemed like muted thumps on pillows. I was conscious of my fantasy of a man and woman moving together on the bed, moving in a rhythm I had only experienced in dreams. I did not hear the words the man and woman spoke to each other; I heard only their whispered pleasure. Then, for the first time since I had entered the house, I felt like a trespasser; an invader. I walked away from the fantasy. I watched my right hand lock the breezeway, kitchen door behind me. My mouth felt dry, thirsty. I did not go back into the house that day.The next two days I stopped there only long enough to feed the cat.

Friday, the day before Jacqueline Stiles, her daughter, and Ed Outerbridge returned from their vacation in the Poconos, I waited for showers to pass before I mowed the Stiles lawn. The humid air was like a heavy blanket wrapped around everything, the grass a high thick rug, but I mowed the lawn anyway. The mower’s lunging whir overwhelmed sounds of house construction, my focus intent on avoiding stones and toys hidden in the grass and on finishing early so that Joey Wicklund and I could meet Wayne at Halcyon Lake. The engine’s noise and my concentration were why I did not see Susan Outerbridge park her bicycle beside mine; why I did not see her sitting on the back steps until the front of the blade’s shield nicked the walkway.

I pressed the metal tab to the battery. The mower shut off.

Can I trust you? Her eyes and half smile expressed that uncertainty. Susan was thinner than when I had last seen her. Her baggy jeans made her look boyish, but her bud-like breasts pointed beneath her lime green polo shirt. Strands of dark blond hair that fell over her eyes looked like long arrows. She hunched her shoulders and wiped the back of her hand across her forehead. She sounded apologetic when she said, “I scared you, huh?” and hunched her shoulders again.

“What d’you want?” I was annoyed. I wanted no interference, especially from her. I had chores to finish: rake the cut grass, make the yard look neat, check things inside the house — responsibilities her father had asked me to do and was willing to pay me for.

She shrugged. “I dunno… I just wanted to see if my dad was here,” she said.

“He’s not. Not till tomorrow.” I waited to see if she would say anything else. While she seemed to think about something, I said, “I’ve got to finish the yard,” and released the throttle and yanked the starter cord. The engine caught on the first pull.

Susan still watched me from the steps when I finished. She swiped at the arrow-like strands in front of her eyes as she watched me clean wet clotted grass beneath the metal shield, brush grass and dust from around the engine base, carry the wet grass and dump it into a tin trash container beside the back steps. She even followed me when I pushed the mower to the garage.

The right-hand door was open. I wheeled the mower into the back corner, handle toward the garage door. I checked the street to see if Joey was in sight: not yet.

“That’s my dad’s truck,” Susan said.    

I did not answer her. I wanted to close the garage door. I wanted her to ride off somewhere, but she stood in my path.

“I’ve ridden in it,” she said, proud of her accomplishment.

“Yeah? Where?”  When I moved toward the door Susan stepped back and stood in front of our bicycles. Hers, painted in red and white stripes, looked like a candy-cane on wheels.

I closed the garage door, but in asking “Where?” I had opened another. Susan needed someone to talk to, someone to listen: a friend. I told myself that I would not be her friend. I would just listen.

“All around town,” she replied. Her voice grew louder as she followed me through the breezeway into the kitchen. “He even let me shift gears. It was neat. We went by the middle school. I’ll be in eighth grade next year… Ooo, there’s that cat! That must be Molly.”

“Watch out; I have to feed her,” I said, giving Susan an order, and motioned her away from the food cabinet.

“Can I?” While Molly waited for one of us to take care of her, Susan stood close to me. If I had wanted to, I could have pushed her away. In fact, part of me wanted to shove her out of my way; another part of me held my temper in check. Her body smelled of perspiration and soap.

“Fill the water dish,” I ordered Susan, hoping she would stop pestering me.

She didn’t. After she had finished her cat chore, she asked, “What else?”

“Nothing. Just get outta here. I got other things to do.”

“Hey Harper, you in there?”

I ducked into the breezeway. In front of the garage Joey Wicklund dismounted from a new, glossy black 3-speed bicycle, a beach towel clamped between the seat’s springs. He looked at my bike, then at Susan’s.

“I’m here,” I called to him. “Gotta couple things to do, then we can go.” I stepped back toward the kitchen doorway.

He peered through the breezeway screen. Crooking his thumb toward our modes of transportation, he said, “You got a little sister I don’t know about? Whose —”

“Tell you later,” I said to Joey.

Susan stepped forward and said to me, “I wanna see the rest of the house.”

I imagined a revelation: “I saw where Dad lives,” Susan would tell her mother. “I saw where you live,” she would tell her father. I would be blamed for allowing Susan to be in a house where she was not invited. And Joey Wicklund would ask me more than twenty questions.

“I don’t think so,” I said.

“Why?” She put her hands on her hips.

“You can’t. It’s not right. Come on, Susan. Get outta here.”

“It is so right. I’m allowed to be here. My father lives here.”

Joey appeared in the kitchen doorway. “I heard voices,” he said, his face in mock surprise.

Susan paid no attention to him. “But that’s what my mom said about Dad leaving her and me to live with his girlfriend. It’s not right.” She nodded toward the rooms behind me and said, “I wanna see where they live.”

“You’re crazy, Susan!” I said.

She did not move. She did not say anything.

“Go back to your stupid choir,” I said. I immediately regretted it but did not apologize. 

Susan held me in her eyes as long as it took Molly to lap some water, and then she stomped past Joey and through the breezeway to her bicycle. She pushed the striped candy cane on wheels to the street, swung on and pedaled away.

“What the hell was she doin’ here?” Joey asked.

“She’s crazy,” I said.

… continued in the next issue

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John T. Hitchner was raised in Pitman, New Jersey, graduated from Glassboro State College (now Rowan University) and from Dartmouth College. He has also studied at the University of Bath in the United Kingdom. He presently teaches Creative Writing and Coming of Age in War and Peace at Keene State College, in Keene, New Hampshire. His poetry has been published in several journals, including the Anthology of New England Writers, the Aurorean, Clark Street Review, Tar Wolf Review, Paper Street, and Poet’s Ink. His chapbook, Not Far From Here, was recently published by Scars Publications. His short fiction has appeared in First Class, Lunch Hour Stories, Ginosko, and most recently in Timber Creek Review.