BY Devin Murphy
My mother called the people who lived together in the state run house down the street ‘mongoloids.’ My sister, Jamie, would crunch up her face at the term like someone had just scratched their nails down a chalkboard, but I just forgave our mother because she was from Europe, and maybe didn’t know any better. She was nice to them though, and waved as they passed while making their way to work at Tops Grocery Store up the road. They tended to bagging the groceries and wrangling of the shopping carts there.
They’d all commute at the same time and crossed the street as a group. The fat one with the weak mustache ran ahead. He’d do his best to sprint the length of the block and wait huffing for air at the next corner. The woman who wore the red Christmas hat year round was the slowest. Her left leg moved like a noodle and she’d jump forward on her right leg and swing the left behind her. Between those two the rest would be spread out and they’d slinky down our street twice a day. The skinny balding man with the mismatched eyes and horseshoe of curly hair was in love with my mom. He’d stop on the sidewalk in front of our house and square his shoulders so he could stare directly into our kitchen window. From thirty feet away I’d be spooning cereal into my mouth and looking into the eyes of this man who was peeping into our home.
“Oh, just don’t pay him any attention,” my mom had told me when I pointed to him standing out there. Though once, when I was alone in the kitchen, I went to the window and lifted my hands to my face. I hooked my pinky fingers into the corners of my mouth, my ring fingers at the flap of my nostrils, and my pointer fingers at the edge of my eyes, and pulled my hands away from each other so my face flailed out grotesquely, leaving my middle fingers raised to the street.
The man kept staring—unfazed by or unfocused on me at all, still as a stone.
“What are you doing?” I heard my mother’s voice from behind me. She grabbed the back of my shirt and pulled me away from the window.
“You ought to me ashamed of yourself,” she said, “making faces at those poor mongoloids.”
Both of my sisters and I folded ourselves in with our friends' families to escape our own. Beans, had just started college and was forever going home with new boyfriends or housemates on her holiday breaks, or taking summer jobs at a YMCA camp up in Maine so she wouldn’t have to come back to us. Sissy’s friend, Carmen Fisher, had a family that took Sissy to Wheeling West Virginia for a country music festival every summer. There, the whole lot of them would get drunk in a field, pass out, get sunburn, and come home drooling what I thought were hick songs out of the fried red faces. The Fishers kept a big male German Shepherd in their front yard that would bite anyone who came too close to the house, so I never got to know those people too well.
Though, from what I could tell, I had the best deal. I’d just spend all my time with my classmate Nathan Riley, whose father was a caretaker for a giant horse estate on the outskirts of town. The job came with a house and free reign of the estate for Nathan who was my best childhood friend. We’d swim in the pool, play on the tennis courts, and chase the horses in the paddocks with the dogs. His father would help us build hockey and soccer nets out of pvc piping, and once he helped us build a triangular wedged bike ramp out of plywood and left over two-by-fours. Nathan and I would play this insane sort of bicycle tag on the gravel parking lot between his house and the horse barn, but once we got the ramp finished, we upped our game. We were going to play a full on game of chicken when where we were supposed to ride over the ramp, and meet in the middle if neither of us bailed out—which neither of us did. Our tires met head on and we each smashed into our handlebars, then to each other, and then to each other’s handlebars before crashing on the gravel. Nathan fared better than I did after our crash, as I had skin shorn off my knees that were now bleeding and bejeweled in gravel.
Nathan’s father asked to see the cut and had me put my foot up on the wooden fence so my knee was facing up to the sky. Then he took the can of Bud-light that was in his hand and poured it over my kneecap. “We’ll put some alcohol on that and you’ll be fine,” he said. I watched the beer fizzle up on my open wound like the bubbly head of a skin-colored Coca-Cola. He reached down and dowsed my other knee before I felt how bad they both stung, and he laughed as he turned away from us and said, “Now I need another.”
Nathan’s father had an eight inch scar down the center of his chest from a horse kick. We had seen him carry two fifty pound bags of shingles up a ladder on one shoulder, and who used a horsewhip to fight four feral dogs off of his golden retriever. What he did and said was law, and when he tied a rope between his four wheel drive jeep and a toboggan in the winter, I happily hopped behind Nathan on the sled and let him drag us over the fields. It was fun too, until I lost my grip on Nathan and went rolling backwards off the toboggan, tumbling over the icy road and into a ditch where I watched the Jeep speed off without me, not yet knowing it would go hurtling over that property without tending to who he had left at home.
I did not know it at the time, Beans may have, but I’m sure Sissy didn’t, but there was too much drinking with all of those people, and in one case or the other, too much or not enough sex in and out of the marriages, and those families imploded, and shot me and my sisters back to our own, where our parents were slowly fighting their way over the hump of the last two troublesome decades together, settling into their pasts, and welcoming us with sorrowful and joyful hearts home, where they tended to our sunburns, and brushed us clean from the snow.
Devin Murphy's recent work has appeared in The Greensboro Review, Many Mountains Moving, The Missouri Review, Shenandoah, and The South Dakota Review. He is currently at PHD student at The University of Nebraska-Lincoln.