That summer, the summer Mama came home from the hospital with Richie and our step-daddy, Jack, left for a job on the Gulf—six weeks on, two weeks off—the heat spiked and flared and settled in at a hundred for weeks. It broke a new record nearly every day, and Jack stayed on the rig during his two weeks off, claiming his truck’s rusted engine, which ticked and choked if he pushed it past sixty. In August, the temperature spiked again, and the obituaries were filled with photographs of old people we didn’t know, who were like the lilacs in our dried-up bed, Mama told us. Withered from the heat. We knew it was bad but not because of them. We had heard for ourselves the mid-day crickets go silent and seen the public pools deserted and even tried to coax the mailman out of his air-conditioned cab, but he only honked his horn from the curb and flung our mail onto the dead yard.
Afternoons, when no sane child was outdoors and all the hula hoops and bicycles and borrowed-forever scooters lay abandoned, we closed the blinds and undressed the couch and piled in front of the TV like some mongrel litter, all ashy feet and unwashed hair and sun-baked skin, everyone giggling and farting and trying to be still, Lorraine shushing us for Mama’s sake, but by then it was too late. The window unit began to sputter from the heat of us, and Mama came from her bedroom like some nest-haired queen. Without a word, she gathered our cast-off floppers into a Wal-Mart sack and threw the sack out the front door. Then she stood in front of the flickering blue screen, which shone through the fabric of her housedress, outlining all the new parts of her since Richie. “Get out,” she said, and she only had to say it once. We had seen her face like that before. So we got.
“Don’t come back until the sun goes down,” she yelled through the mesh, and then thumbed the latch. It was only noon, but already the sidewalk was sizzling. We hopped around, scrambling for our shoes in the sack, grabbing any flopper that would fit, not caring if the left one was Addie’s size four and the right one was Mac’s size eight—anything between our feet and the sidewalk, which would be humming like a charged wire by five o’clock, when the heat would be more than heat, when the sun would be sharp-toothed and full of meanness.
We stood there, dressed in our wrong shoes, shielding our eyes with our flattened palms, thinking she might change her mind if we gave her a minute alone. Sometimes she was like that, especially in the last few months of her pregnancy when Richie was giving her back pain, and later, when he wouldn’t latch on, and Lorraine caught her in the bathroom crying, dabbing her eyes with the receipt for the formula she’d bought, black ink running down her cheeks. And then she did come back to the door. She unlatched the hook from its eye and stepped onto the landing. Scooter whispered, I knew it, and we all held our breath.
But then, as if she were just some farmerlady scattering chicken feed, she flung coins at our feet—nickels and dimes, probably five dollars in change studding the burning sidewalk like little melted pools of mercury. “For the vending machines,” she said, and then she was gone again.
We each bought a grape, except for Addie who bought an orange, and we sat for a while under the shade of the awning, swallowing and burping, until Mac stood and tossed his can in the trash and made a clicking sound in the corner of his mouth, which was our signal to follow. The playground was deadly—all that metal and rubber. The monkey bars, we knew, would give you blisters the size of bottle caps. The swings would melt your ass cheeks together. So we skirted the edge, following Mac in a line, oldest to youngest with Addie at the rear, past the laundry mat we’d been forbidden to enter ever since Scooter locked Lorraine in one of the dryers, and past the office, which was just a little shed at the entrance to the park, where Peg, the manager, chain-smoked all day. There, Mac hesitated. He turned to Lorraine, who was the only good one among us. “You okay with crossing the street?”
Lorraine looked back at our trailer in the distance, which was sad in its smallness. Then she shrugged. “If she doesn’t care, then I don’t. Grab Addie.” And then she took Scooter’s hand despite everything between them and looked both ways. Mac hitched Addie to his shoulders, and we strode across the blacktop. When we reached the other side, Scooter shook his hand free of Lorraine’s and Mac set Addie on the ground, and we all turned to look at the vast subdivision stretched out before us like the board game we’d found once at Goodwill that still, miraculously, had all of its pieces. So many angled roofs, so many newly painted porches and squares of green grass, each with a single tree dead center. It did no good to think of our own yard, which was dry and yellow and felt like brambles to walk on. It did no good to think of Mama, who stayed all day in her dark bedroom, where the bare windows were covered with Jack’s old work shirts, the blue fabric pinned to the walls like spread-winged birds, beheaded.
“Is it locked?” Addie whispered, even though there was no gate and no fence, even though there was a great stone sign marking the entrance that read, Welcome to Bridgecrest.
“Not today,” Mac said, and clicked his mouth again, and we all followed him past the entrance, walking straight down the middle of the street, the newly poured asphalt still gummy under our floppers. At the stop sign, we discovered how many ways there were to go and each of them identical.
“Left,” Lorraine said, and we took up the sidewalk again, which wasn’t pockmarked or red-stained from the blowing dirt like the ones at home, but smooth and gray and flecked with shade. At the end of the block, a white structure rose up against a pool of green, and we began to move toward it. Closer, three wide steps led to a many-sided stage. The walls were made of lattice, and above, a vaulted ceiling.
“A dollhouse!” Addie squealed and ran up the stairs to stand in the center and open wide her arms.
“It’s too big for a dollhouse, stupid,” Scooter said and then looked sideways at Lorraine. “Right?”
“It’s a gazebo,” she said.
“What’s it for?”
“Dancing,” she said, but at the same time, Mac said, “Rich people,” and Lorraine gave him one of the looks she’d learned from Mama, a hardness around the lips, the eyes like stones.
“What kind of dancing?” Addie asked, and did a crazed version of the soft shoe, kicking up her heels so that her floppers flew off and landed in the shadows.
Lorraine stilled her by the shoulders and then took one hand in hers. The other, she looped around Addie’s back. “Slower,” she said. “Like in The Sound of Music.” It was one of Mama’s old videos. The sound faded in and out and a black bar stretched permanently across the bottom of the screen, but we watched it nearly every morning that summer, leaning forward over our bowls of cereal, even Mac and Scooter mouthing the words to “So Long, Farewell.” Mama hated it, would cover her hands with her ears or run the tap on high in the kitchen to cover the sound, but she never made us turn it off. She never hid the tape or threw it away like she had with Addie’s old Speak ’n’ Say, whose lowing and squawking none of us besides Addie was sad to see gone.
In the gazebo, Lorraine hummed the tune of “I Am Sixteen, Going on Seventeen” and pushed Addie around the floor, waltzing as best she knew from watching Leisl glide about with Rolfe in the moonlit garden. We sat cross-legged in the shade and watched, thinking Lorraine did look something like Leisl with her dark hair and pale skin, but how she’d also begun to look so much like Mama over the past year, her height, her long arms and legs, her eyes which changed depending on her mood. Now, Lorraine’s eyes were warm, the color of fallen pecans, but she wasn’t looking at us. She lifted Addie off her feet and twirled her around and all the while stared at something far off in the distance that none of us could see, even with the flats of our palms shading our eyes.
Who knows how long they danced that way? Until the sun drew afternoon shadows across the floor and Scooter’s foot began to wag restlessly at the ankle. Eventually, he got up to wander around, and we followed, knowing that when Scooter went off by himself, he usually came back with blood on his knees or wasp-stung eyelids or his pockets filled with the black plastic caps of tire pressure valves from cars in the parking lot. We knew it was only simple curiosity and not badness that made him steal or fight or thrust his hands into places he could not then get them out of, but Mama didn’t stop to ask questions when she got in a whipping mood. That summer, she had whipped Scooter so many times we had all lost count. But it hadn’t made Scooter mind. It hadn’t made him any less willing to touch or take or, when Mama’s back was turned, say words under his breath he couldn’t have known the meaning of. If anything, he got worse.
This time, we found him half-disappeared under the gazebo with only his legs sticking out, but he was elbowing his way further inside. Mac grabbed his ankles and pulled hard and, when Scooter’s face emerged, he was half-smiling. “There’s all kinds of stuff under there,” he said, and kicked his ankles free and disappeared again before any of us could grab him.
“You better not,” Mac called into the darkness, but at the same time Lorraine said, “Like what?” and we all turned wide-eyed to look at her.
She shrugged. “Rich people don’t want anything that’s been lost.”
“Are there any toys?” Addie called. “Or books?” She hunched over and peered into the darkness and cupped her hand around her mouth. “Maybe a little girl lost a doll down there and she won’t care if I take it home?”
“Nope,” Scooter called back at her. “But there’s a ton of these!” And then he threw something white that whizzed by, inches from Addie’s face. We turned to look at it bouncing away, down the green slope of the hill. Then another. And another. One struck Lorraine in the shoulder, and we all ran to get out of the way while Scooter hurled the hard white golf balls from under the gazebo.
When it was safe, we scrambled around, collecting as many as we could in the pouches of our t-shirts and in the pockets of our shorts. Scooter stuffed five or six into his underwear before Lorraine made him stop. When we were loaded down with as many as we could carry, we started home. But we’d only reached the welcome to bridgecrest sign when Lorraine stopped. She looked up and then back at us. “Wait. Mama’s going to think we stole these.”
“We did,” Mac said.
“No, she’s going to think we took them from someone. Someone who wants them. If she sees them, she’s going to whip us.”
“Let her,” Scooter said. “I’m not afraid of her.” And we knew that he wasn’t, that all of Mama’s whippings had changed him, had made him harder.
But Addie stopped in her tracks. She’d only once been really whipped by Mama, and it was nothing we liked to think about. She had been too scared to cry and had laid across Mama’s knees like one of her own limp dolls, bearing the slaps on her behind in silence. The silence, we agreed later, had made Mama whip her harder. It went on for longer than we cared to remember. When it was done and Addie stood, her face was white and empty, and we knew she had gone somewhere else during the whipping. No matter what we tried to make it better, she would not speak. For days, she hid behind the couch, refusing dinner, and only came out when Jack came home. She sprung into his arms and buried her face in his neck, and from the way Mama turned and left the room, we knew even she was ashamed of what had happened.
On the sidewalk, Addie’s chin began to tremble, and she let go of the ends of her t-shirt and ran to Lorraine, who loosed her own shirt so she could pick Addie up. The golf balls bounced on the sidewalk and rolled off the curb and into the street, making a sound like popcorn popping in the microwave. And it was something beautiful, the sound and the way they seemed to bounce all at once and then separate, shooting in every direction, spreading out so white against the newly black street. Like stars, we thought later. Like the brightest stars on the blackest night.
When the balls stopped rolling, we looked at each other, and then, without a word, the rest of us dropped the ends of our t-shirts and watched the whole thing over again. It was too wonderful to say anything about. We stood in silence, smiling for a while, wishing we could do it again, wishing we could press rewind and watch us watching. But we could feel the sun on the tops of our feet and on our scalps, burning us where we’d parted our hair.
“I’m hungry,” Addie said.
When we neared the trailer, Mama was standing in the doorway, watching us walk up the sidewalk. Her lip was turning up at the corner. “And where do you think you’ve been?” she asked. We had no answers. How to say we had been dancing in a giant dollhouse? How to say we had borrowed the sky? We couldn’t, not when here everything was the same as before: brown and dirt-stained and covered in rust. Not when Mama was still wearing her same, faded housedress, her hair greasy at the temples.
“Well?” Mama asked.
We all looked at Scooter, who looked at the ground. Finally, Lorraine said, “The playground,” and because it was Lorraine and not Scooter, Mama nodded and pulled open the door.
We could already hear the baby screaming from inside. “Just try to keep him quiet while I rest for a while. I’m so tired, I can’t see straight.” We could tell it was true. Her eyes were shot through with little red veins, and there were dark smudges above her cheekbones. Richie was lying on the living room rug on his back, shaking his wet fists at the ceiling. The sounds he made were not the kind you could ignore. Lorraine went to him and picked him up, tucking his little head into the crook of her shoulder, but he pushed back against her, which was his new thing. She tried for a while and then passed him to Mac, who tried for a while and then set him back on the rug and stood over Richie, eyeing him suspiciously.
Next, Scooter tried his tickling routine, and when that didn’t work, he hid his face with his hands and then peeked out from behind them, saying, “pee-pie!” in a sweet voice he might have been ashamed of otherwise. In the kitchen, Lorraine started making a bottle, even though we all knew Richie wouldn’t take it. When he got like this, you mostly just had to sit back and watch the veins in his forehead grow to bursting. Eventually, he would cry himself out and afterward sleep for hours and hours, not even waking for his two A.M. feeding. Those were the best nights, the trailer quiet as a cemetery and all of us sleeping like corpses. Mornings after, Mama would rise and shower and cook us breakfast with Richie on her hip, and we would wake to the smell of cooking meat, which is a much better smell to wake to than the smell of nothing. Those mornings, it didn’t matter if Jack’s check hadn’t yet come or if strangers looking for money called while we were eating. Mama took the phone off the hook and we got busy chewing, and it was like we lived in a different place, somewhere like Bridgecrest with its free gazebos anyone could use for dancing and its houses all in a row, houses where babies didn’t cry and the money always came on time and the sun, for once, took a break from its beating.
But just then it seemed like Richie would never pass out. We all sat on the couch looking down at him, and every once in a while Lorraine would bend down and press the plastic nipple to his lips, but he would turn his head away and heave and heave, as if he couldn’t believe she had the nerve. Between his sobs, we could hear Mama crying in her bedroom behind the closed door, and the two of them, that terrible, two-toned crying, made Scooter smash a pillow into his face and Addie find two of her talking dolls and hold their chests to her ears, which is where the sound really comes from. The chest, not the mouth like everyone thinks.
After a while, Mac got up and switched on the television and there were the children, lined up on the staircase, singing in their sweet bird voices to Maria, who could look sad and happy all at once, which is what we liked most about her. Mac turned up the volume until it matched Richie’s screaming and we heard Mama come out of her bedroom, though none of us turned to look. On the screen, the children were riding bikes along a canal with Maria in the lead, and Mama sat down in her rocker but didn’t rock. She leaned forward with her hands on her knees and watched for a while and then began to say over and over in a soft voice we almost didn’t hear, ‘Turn it off, Mac. Please. Turn it off,” but she didn’t get up and she didn’t look away. She didn’t know about the gazebo and the golf balls like stars and the green, green grass less than a mile away. We should have told her, but we didn’t, and we never would. We would keep it for ourselves.
The next morning, we would get up early, but the golf balls would already be gone, swept away as if they had never been there. But that wouldn’t keep us from going back. That whole summer while Mama cried in her bedroom and Richie cried on the rug and Jack worked for weeks on end only to come home and sleep for days, we would go back and back to dance in the gazebo and to crawl underneath to look for treasures. Once, we would find a race car cake topper still blue from icing. Once, a single earring like a tiny chandelier. And then one day we would arrive to find they’d fenced in the gazebo with black wrought iron, the kind with spikes at the top. On the lock was a keypad. We would try all kinds of combinations. Each of our birthdays and Mama’s. All the numbers in order. A bunch of zeros. But nothing would open the lock, not then or ever.
On the screen in the living room, the Von Trapp children were laughing and racing, and in the baskets of their bicycles were flowers, and we were all watching so closely that we didn’t hear that Richie had stopped crying and was staring up at the screen with us, watching the colors speed by in the background, and even Mama seemed lost in that world, Mama whose eyes were glassy with tears and who held the frayed hem of her housedress in her hand. I couldn’t watch the screen anymore. I could only watch her, and nearly all at once I began to understand that she didn’t hate the video like we’d always thought. She loved it like we loved it, but it made her sad in the way it would one day make us sad. And even though she was crying her silent tears that would have been easy to ignore, something made me stand and walk to the television, me who never said a word, me who always followed the others and nodded and slipped from room to room unnoticed. I stood and turned off the screen, despite Scooter’s cursing and Lorraine’s gasp, which caused the baby to take up his crying again. I turned it off even though my cheeks burned from the way the others stared at me. I couldn’t say why I did it. I couldn’t tell them it was the way Mama’s face had been cast in those colors as she mouthed the words she knew by heart.