A journal of narrative writing.
That Country Dead

Ifelt him rub up against me as I bent over the sink, my hands dripping wet. "No," I said warily, straightening up and reaching over into the other side to grip the skillet handle. He humped me again. "No, Dale," I said in that Bad Dog voice, turning to face him wielding the pan as weapon. He raised his bleary eyes to the skillet, smiled, and reached for a coffee filter sitting on the counter in the midst of beer cans and egg shells.

"Gonna help clean," he slobbered, spilling thin brown liquid and coffee grounds all the way across the kitchen as he headed for the trash can. Then he turned and trudged back toward me, smearing dirty trails all across the white tiles. "I love you," he mumbled, lifting his eyes to mine.

"No," I said, "You love Lelei."

"Lelei," he said, smiling dreamily.

"Yes, Lelei," I said and lowered the skillet, seeing I had made some headway. "Lelei needs your help," I leaned toward him conspiratorially. "Go to her now." He began slopping his feet through the coffee toward the door. "Wait," I whispered. "You'll need to be very quiet. Shhhh," I put my finger to my lips. "Take your shoes off so you won't scare her. He squatted, untied his hiking boots, tossed them toward the corner, and stood smiling at me like some stupid dog.

"Shhh!" he said, putting his finger to his lips. He tried to wink. Then he tiptoed out in his sockfeet back to the bathroom. I hoped he'd cut his feet on the crunch of broken mirror or find a sliver big enough to slit his wrist with.

It had all crescendoed that evening when I was in the bathroom brushing my teeth. I had just leaned over to spit out the toothpaste, my toothbrush raised in my right hand, when Lelei burst through the door. Dale followed. It wasn't exactly hard to break the door open considering the lock had been broken a dozen times before and the frame was loose, but I had hoped for a moment's privacy. "I saw you with him," he screamed, his hands extended. Lelei grabbed the glass of water off the sink and winged it at his head. He paused, narrowed his eyes, then threw his beer can at her as he stumbled backwards. I ducked when I saw the yellow liquid streaming across the room in slow motion, heading straight at me in the mirror. The can hit just above my head, and shards of reflective glass flew over me and into the tub. Lelei cowered. Dale regained his balance and charged toward her, his head down like a bull, knocking her into the tub and dumping himself in on top of her. Her head rested crookedly against the side of the tub, and I thought she might be dead, but then she began to moan and Dale began strangling her in the midst of the broken mirror.

"STOP IT!" I screamed, and time stood still. The two in the tub looked up at me, then back at each other; then, Dale began petting her and crooning.

"My Precious, Lelei," he stroked, gathering her into his arms. "I love my little, Precious," he said, kissing her. She wrapped her arms around his neck and began kissing him back. I headed toward the nearest sink to spit out the rest of the toothpaste.

The kitchen counters were covered in spoons dripping batter, McDonalds wrappers, and half empty beer cans. Two griddles were stacked on top of dishes in the right sink, a pancake stuck firmly to the surface. It had held tight while I wielded it toward Dale. The left sick was full of grapefruit halves. There they sat, their pinkish rinds open like a million crying mouths, mocking me from the depths of the porcelain. I had flipped the water on, spit on top of them, rinsed my hands, and was just ready to look for a towel when Dale had begun humping me from behind like a dog.

I stood there now, hands still wet, and surveyed the damage. How could anyone eat so many grapefruits? The sink was absolutely full of the ripened fruit cut into halves and sucked or spooned dry. A few seeds and little tear-shaped pieces of the fruit stuck to the sides of the sink. I ripped a strip of paper towels from the roll, dampened it, and began mopping the coffee grounds toward the trash can. Then I took the can over to the sink and dropped the grapefruit rinds into it. I had just finished scrubbing the burnt pancake off the second griddle when Mom came into the kitchen.

"What have you been doing!" she screeched. "You know your father hates to be late. You can't go looking like that. Get in there and change so we don't have to wait on you." She spied Dale's hiking boots just as she was going out the door. "And take those things to your room," she said, "You know better than to leave those in here. Somebody could trip over them."

I picked up the boots and turned them over. "Twyla" as written on the bottom of one in purple glow pen. Twyla? Who was Twyla? Then I remembered. Lelei had arrived late Friday night in a beat up red pickup with a half dozen bulging trash bags in the back. I imagined decapitated corpses and various body parts, but she pointed to one of them as she swung out of the truck. "Get that one," she said, "I think it's my clothes." As I lifted it from the truck, the heel of a pink sandal poked a hole through the plastic and came tumbling out the side. Lelei looked back and saw it. "Oooo," she said, "Can't lose them. Them's my partying shoes." She picked the shiny slipper from the sidewalk, and I carried the bag in for her, following her up the stairs, and laying it on the bed in our old room. "It's been a long time," she said, collapsing in a chair.

The family had made it through Saturday, through the party with cake and silly pointy hats, and Father had looked almost happy as he opened his presents. "My two girls," he'd said over coffee, looking at Lelei.

Lelei had been trouble since birth. He'd beat her with a stick once for lying to him, but Lelei had continued to lie. And steal and run away. It wasn't that Lelei was a bad girl; it was just that she didn't see the world quite the way anybody else did. If someone had a husband and she wanted him and he wanted her, well then there was no reason she couldn't have him. And she'd had a plenty. When I was in college, I'd had frantic men calling me at all hours. Not a single one asked me for a date; they just begged me to come get her out of their houses. They'd take her home from bars, and then they couldn't get her out. She simply wouldn't leave, so they'd call me, and I'd have to miss my Physics finals to take her home. More than one A report card had been reduced to Bs at the last minute by Lelei's antics. I never was quite sure how they got my number.

I'd find her, sometimes sprawled on their beds in her lacy underwear, her long black hair trailing over her like silk, unable to wake. "She never drank nothin'," they'd swear, guilt written all over their faces. Other times she'd be sitting naked and silent in a chair, staring deeply into the darkness inside as though looking for herself. She 'd be dead those times, nearly comatose, and I would slip her soft white arms though the sleeves, wrap her up, and take her home to bed. She'd lie there, sometimes for days, her black eyes open, never moving. Then one day she'd simply get up and go out again.

No, it wasn't that Lelei was a bad girl. Part of it was just that she was so beautiful that men couldn't keep their hands off of her even when they knew what she was. I watched her that night, sitting blankly at the table, lifting forkfuls of birthday cake into her mouth, her black almond eyes empty, and I wondered why she'd gotten all the beauty. I glanced from Father's broad round face to hers and found no trace of him in her high thin cheekbones. Only the eyes betrayed her heritage.

Father had gone stateside at fourteen, leaving behind his country and heading on a creaky ship for new land. He never spoke of Vietnam, and it was an unwritten rule that nobody asked. I'd broken that rule once when I was in middle school and the teacher had told us to go home and ask our families about out culture. I'll never forget the finality in his voice when he said it: That country dead. He had that way of closing a door and moving on, never looking back. That's all he said, and the teacher let me do an oral report on My Antonia to make up for it. "Your mother's Midwestern, isn't she?" she'd said with a kindly smile, patting my arm. "Willa Cather will be perfect." But Willa Cather or not, it was not my mother who looked back at me every time I glanced into the mirror — the roundness of my cheeks, the chubby legs and arms, the short torso all were clearly my father's.

It seemed Lelei alone had skipped a generation of genetics, and there she sat, beautiful as ever, eating cake at my father's sixtieth birthday party. He'd come to America and made it good, taking a simple Midwestern farm girl as his bride, and building room after room onto the house, until at last it was a gangly misshapen thing of mismatched thresholds and doors that wouldn't' shut.

We'd been eating cake late Friday, when Lelei's friends arrived. They tumbled in, reeking of beer and shouting obscenities, and after Lelei leapt on Dale, squealed and kissed him, she introduced the rest of them. Twyla, a pale beefy girl in hiking boots; Danger, a biker covered in colorful tattoos; Larry, a potbellied cowboy—on and on the list went until our rambling house was filled with music, smoke, and vials of things I'd never seen before. I had gone to bed and covered my head with the pillow, fairly certain that my husband had been right.

"I'm not going," he said.

"But it's his birthday," I'd wheedled. "Can't you least support me for that?"

"I do support you, Lana," he'd said, holding me close. "But you know how I feel about your family. You feel the same way. Why do you even bother to go?"

I wriggled away from him. "What do you want me to tell them, then?"I said, another tactic to make him change his mind.

"Tell them I'm working. Tell them I died in a plane crash. Better yet, tell the truth for once. Tell them I think they're all nuts," he said. He'd said that the first time I'd taken him home. "Is your family all crazy?" he'd asked. I'd wriggled my fingers around my head and made a face.

"Oooo," I'd said, "Aren't you afraid of what you're getting into here?" I waved my engagement ring at him.

"No," he'd said gently. "But I am afraid of what I'm taking you out of."

Lying there with the pillows clamped to my ears, I wished he'd taken me out of it for good. I had thought of it many times — what my life would have been like if I'd just left them all. If I'd just left Lelei out on the streets somewhere when she went into one of her fits, if I'd just left the kitchen pile higher and higher with the clutter and filth, if I'd just let Father go on believing everything wasn't about to come crashing down around him. But I wasn't the kind of person who could do that. I kept coming back, kept trying to make them see that Lelei needed help, that they needed to face the truth. Trying to fix things and somehow make it all okay.

They'd sent her once to a psychiatrist after that problem with her first husband — and made me follow her to make sure she actually went to the appointments. "Take keys," Father had said. "Stay far back." I guess it had actually scared them when she came home that day, her long black hair hanging wet down her back, carrying a basket of laundry. Her eyes were dead, blank, as she covered the back wire fence with black lacy underwear and jeans.

"Go help her," Mom had said from the kitchen, afraid herself to go out there. I called to Lelei, but she went on hanging clothes. She hadn't been home in months and then she just showed up that one day with a basket of laundry. I touched her arm softly. She looked at me, her eyes blank, no pain, no anger—nothing.

"We must have clean clothes," she said finally, reaching into the basket for another t shirt.

"Who are you?" I asked, walking over to the guy who waited in a semitruck outside the fence.

"Will she be all right?" he said, taking a drag from a droopy cigarette he held between his thumb and finger. His hand was shaking. He told me how he'd been working construction at the new mini-mart and picked her up. He'd had her about two months when she went comatose on him. "Just like some trance," he said. "Then she come out and went to washing clothes. She don't make no sense."

"How'd you get her home?" I asked.

"I brought her back to town and some guy knew her," he said. "Will she be all right?" He took another puff, his hand still shaking.

"I'll take care of her," I said, turning my back on him, unwilling to give him the satisfaction of knowing he hadn't caused it. I heard the engine start up behind me as I led Lelei back into the house. She continued staring into the empty basket.

Her friends partied deep into the morning, and my head ached until I finally fell asleep. They were a motley crew — druggies and deadbeats leaving butts, syringes, and broken tubes strewn all around the house. The funny thing was, Lelei never touched the stuff herself, didn't smoke or drink or touch drugs, but I guess she must have found solace with the company of those lost in their own worlds as she was in hers.