In the dry summer heat we run
through the tall yellow grass, scratchy
against our tanned legs. We catch caterpillars
in jars prepared with grassy habitats, and cup
grasshoppers in our hands as long as we dare.
“Watch out for dragonflies,” Bobby warns, as we
plot to catch every insect we see. “They can bite
the heads off bumblebees.”
Dragonflies skim over the surface of the pool.
The three of us duck under the water, yell
Dragonfly! as a warning when we see one coming.
Butterflies skirt and flutter along the edge of the house,
hover above the overgrown grass. The last grasshopper
is a small dry corn husk in my hands. It leaves a splotch
of brown in my palm. I throw it down and run. My Dad says
I probably scared it.
From now own, I am scared of grasshoppers.
When we opened the front door after a week away,
valentines fluttered to the ground around our feet like
red rounded leaves or dozens of butterfly families
My parents let me read the Valentines
over and over again as I tried to drift
to sleep in their bed. Surrounded by small gifts
from my friends, I still couldn’t forget the
small piles of my grandfather’s ironed
and folded handkerchiefs on the dresser,
his cane hanging on the door handle,
the gift box of English Leather,
the beige canoe bank filled with pennies,
the stack of our cards and letters.
That December my mother buys brown wrap paper
from the post office. She neatly wraps the three bottle gift set
of English Leather for my grandfather and asks us to help
tie the parcel. My brother and I take turns placing our index
fingers over the knot while our mother ties the strings tight.
Kevin and I sign the Christmas card in pencil crayon,
watch Mom tuck our 3×5 school photos into the envelope.
Our mother unravels and cuts extra string to tie careful
double and triple knots. In February we bring home with us
the opened card with our pictures, and
the unopened box.
My cousin, my brother and I are passing
the basketball back and forth in the carport.
“Stand here,” Bobby says to us, putting the ball down.
“I bet I can beat you in a race. I can run all the way
around the house in 2 seconds flat.
Close your eyes. OK, see I’m back!”
He hasn’t moved a muscle.
I can’t believe he thinks we are that stupid.
That afternoon we dive for pennies wearing
masks and goggles. He shows me all the water
poses he knows. When our parents go out
and my grandmother is inside making tea,
I lay face down in the pool, spread out my arms
and legs like a starfish and stay very still.
I keep holding my breath and finally Bobby notices
hear him call my name, feel him poke my limp arm,
the commotion as he climbs out of the pool
and runs into the house in 2 seconds flat.
When he runs back outside with Grandma
I am practicing my freestyle.
It happens every night we are there. Around nine o’clock
the black rotary phone that sits on the kitchen counter rings.
My aunt answers but no one speaks. Sometimes she thinks she hears
breathing. After she hangs up, the phone rings again and again, and
by ten a voice on the line is telling her he is watching us, and knows who’s there.
The ringing stops for awhile and starts again just as we go to bed . My aunt
lets the phone ring and ring off the hook past midnight. I wonder how anyone
can sleep as I lay downstairs with my heart in my throat. My cousin agrees
to walk me up the stairs for a glass of water. I stare at the phone and wonder,
Will the doorbell start ringing? Can the mystery caller see me right now
through the thin kitchen curtains? The water is hard and hurts my stomach.
I don’t linger when my cousin goes back downstairs to bed. I step quickly down
the hall to where my parents are also not sleeping. I end up in my aunt’s pink bedroom
in the small bed against the wall. A large crucifix hangs above me, and I watch it
for hours, wondering if Jesus will open his eyes and look at me. I shut my eyes
and pray for all the souls in purgatory as I wait with my heart beating fast and hard
in my ears until morning.
In the evenings, the grown ups play cards. We kids sit and munch potato chips,
try to understand the game until we are dizzy from the cloud of cigarette smoke
hanging over our heads. Talk stitches back and forth: people we know, old relatives
in Quebec and St. Boniface, legends told and re-told as they take turns dealing the cards
around the table. We resist sleep as long as they can, but when our eyes burn
and we can no longer breathe, we go downstairs into the lure of cool air.
My cousin takes his yellow plastic car track out of the toy cupboard and we watch
the cars and trucks circle around. Sometimes we stand in the driveway and spin ourselves
until we’re dizzy, then look up at the stars.
At the end of a game, my Dad steps outside and says, “I bet the water in the pool
is warmer than the air.” My aunt always says yes and we rush to change into our bathing suits.
My Dad holds the ladder as we climb in. He is there on a patio lawnchair, watching us
run as fast as we can in a large circle along the sides over and over and again
feet tucked under in canonball position.
Eyes in the corners of the walls, sometimes
I can feel their stare even in the day.
In my cousin’s pale blue room, where the ouija board
is kept high on her closet shelf, I am sure I am being watched
as I touch the glass perfume bottles and boxes of blue eyeshadow
neatly lined up in a row on her dresser. Bobby told me
that ouija boards can never be destroyed. “You can’t even burn them.
They’ll come back.” I hurry when I am sent on an errand to find
something in this room where my parents sleep. Downstairs I know
there is something alive. I feel the walls breathe at night when the house
is quiet. I try to sleep in the twin bed across the room from where Bobby
and Kevin sleep, squeezed tight with my back against the wall beside
the laundry room. A square hole was once cut above this bed, a window
where in the day we take turns peeking into the two rooms. As I fall asleep
I see a pair of arms reaching through.
When we visit my Uncle Bert’s house, my cousin,
Big Gerry, who lives next door and has two sons
a few years younger than me, comes over to see us.
He sits beside me and grins, calls me Nikki Nikki
as he pulls my pigtails. “He teases you because he wishes
he had a little girl,” my Mom tells me. I smile quietly
and inch away on the orange footstool.
In the front yard as we’re getting ready to leave,
Big Gerry squirts me with my uncle’s garden hose. “I’m just
trying to cool you off, Nikki,” he says, his eyes squinting
in the sun, grinning still. “You’re not mad, are you?”
I can’t look up and try not to cry as I climb into the car
beside my brother, whose summer clothes are dry.
Years later, when we are much older, I ask my cousin
about the thing that lived with them in the house on Falkirk.
Did I imagine it, or did the basement have eyes? He said they all knew
something was there, but it was good, it was protecting them.
“It scared me,” I say. He says he sometimes thought
it was grandpa, that his mom kept seeing him down there
when she went to change the laundry. “Dad,” she said one day,
“You have to leave.” I never thought it could be him, and I feel sad now.
I remember the bare light bulb hanging from a wire over Gerard’s bed,
my spot on the mattress under the hole in the wall
on the other side of the room. I see my grandfather now,
lost in his navy suit-jacket, his long arms reaching through.
That evening I lie on my aunt’s long brown couch with its recurring pattern
of horse-drawn carts and oversized wagon wheels. The front door is open,
I can hear the Regatta fireworks popping and cracking the sky, and crickets
chirping close by. The blue TV light flickers in the living room where I am the
lone watcher of the summer olympics uneven bar competition. Brian calls
through the doorway to the kitchen where the grown ups play cards, “You know
what we do with sick kids, don’t you, Nickel?” I watch welts appear on my arms and think
about how long it takes for the sound of his voice to hit my ears. My brother asks
for more cinnamon toast. Aline says, “I bet Kevin could live on it”. I see him standing
on a land-sized piece of toast, where he has just staked a flag. I see the Snells’
brown-trimmed yellow house through the window, the silhouette of a man crossing
the street. It is suddenly dark inside and out, the night a blue-black bruise of sky.
The black rotary phone rings far away somewhere. My aunt asks “Hello?” and “Who’s this?”
and “Hello?” A breeze pushes itself over me through the front door again and again
until I completely disappear.