First our neighbors only wanted wood, remember?
“Give us the good stuff. Make sure it’s dry. Nothing sappy, nothing that spits when it burns, or doesn’t burn,” the talking guy commanded. He was slightly shorter than the one who never spoke. Prettier, too. Both of them always looked thuggy, guarding the corner in front of their building. When you and I were little we crossed the street to get out of the range of their mean, protective view. But we were getting bigger now. We had clubs afterschool and books to get at the library, so I felt bolder and changed our path.
“Two pieces each time you come,” the talking guy said, nodding. The bigger guy nodded, smacked a fist into his palm, bam. This was the first time they’d ever asked for anything. We nodded. “Go back and get some now, if you want to walk past.”
We scuttled home, half sideways. Older kids asked these guys to buy them beers, which I could never imagine doing.
“Who died and made them king?” you asked as we took split wood from our pile.
“Doesn’t matter,” I said. “They’re tough, we’re not.”
Secretly, I loved the thrill of being needed. And that someone that wasn’t family needed me. You and I were nowhere near old enough to live on our own but I sure didn’t want to be who Mom and Dad wanted me to be, stable, married, working. Coming home to sigh. I wanted to be someone else. I wanted to be more.
Having neighbors ask for wood seemed a way to try out a new identity, and the possible me, that maybe those guys saw, excited me. Plus I was a little scared, afraid the guys might act out the music they liked, full of violent brags.
“Here,” I said, a single word. I dropped my piece of wood on the sidewalk.
“Pick it up,” he said, and the bigger neighbor leaned toward me a little, as if I wouldn’t.
“Where do you want it?” I asked.
“Round back, by the trash. Move the cans and start a stack under the awning.”
I wanted to argue that the garbage would get wet but immediately I saw the answer – the wood would stay dry.
“Kings of the neighborhood,” you whispered. “Who made them kings?”
I handed you my piece of wood and dragged the trashcans into the yard. We put down our wood. Two sticks, they looked insignificant. The big guy showed up to investigate. He nodded at our work and waved his hand to the sidewalk, showing us the way.
“Thanks,” I said to the prettier one after we turned the corner.
“Just remember,” he said. “Every single time.”
“We will,” I assured him.
“This is stupid,” you said. We were barely out of earshot.
“No, it’s not,” I said. That winter, the big ice storm had thrown branches down like rain. Nights, we drove around with Mom and Dad, filling the station wagon. Mornings, before school, we stacked the chunks of wood, building a woodpile. Giving our wood, what had come from heaven, from a storm, to the neighbors seemed natural, a currency I could afford.
“Dad’s going to kill us,” you said.
“He’s never going to find out,” I said. I tried to hulk over you, but it was no good. We were nearly the same size.
“You think Dad’s not going to notice?”
“I’ll start hauling all the wood in, so he won’t see the gaps,” I said, and that is what I did.
“Let’s take the long way around,” you said one day.
“They’ll just see us coming home,” I said.
“Tax us double,” I predicted.
“You do not know everything,” you said, though only recently, maybe a year ago, maybe a month ago, you still believed I did. I wanted to ride your adoration, stretch it into the future as I watched it disappear. I hadn’t loved the way you looked up to me, but I wanted it back. What a tax, to be needed. Twenty years later, I wish you didn’t need me. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mind helping you. But I would like you to help me too. And I never expected your dependency to return.
Next, the neighbors wanted casseroles.
“We got enough wood. Time for food,” the talking one said. They never burnt a piece of the stuff we brought them, preferring, I guess, to heat up the entire Northeast. Their windows were open all the time. You could see the heat breathing out in waves. We figured they bossed around somebody at the power company, because the only work these guys ever did was hug the corner, keep the edge of the building from taking a walk.
“Okay,” I said, “what kind?”
“Nothing spicy, nothing that burns. No dairy, either. It interrupts his digestion,” the pretty king said, thumbing the air behind him. The bigger king nodded, ran his fist from his belly up his throat, made a move like he was burping.
Jesus, I thought, casseroles without cheese? Disgusting.
“We’ll bring you one tomorrow,” I promised.
“No, now,” the pretty king said, and the other one stepped between us and the rest of the sidewalk.
“We’ve got to go to the store,” I said. “For ingredients.”
“Use something from home. You telling me you don’t have noodles, a can of soup?”
You wanted to pour dry noodles in cream of tomato soup, bathed in Tabasco.
“Where do you think that will get us?” I hissed in the kitchen, though secretly, I was curious about defiance. What would happen if we quit answering their demands? My mind went to a castle. I saw a stone tower, saw myself in a dungeon at the bottom, chained to the wall. Our neighbors became ruffians of a different era. I saw the pretty king kissing me before he and his pal, my defenders, my jailors, went off to fight a battle.
“You are so gross,” you said, folding your arms across your chest.
“What?” I asked, blushing.
“You like them, don’t you?”
“Come on, let’s make the food,” I said. “Don’t you want to go to the library?”
You shook your head. The water boiled and I poured in noodles. We stared at the pan, stirred down the froth. Once the noodles were done, we stirred the mess together, covered the pan in foil.
I carried the package, wrapped in newspaper, like a gift.
“Bake it at three fifty for twenty minutes,” I said, presenting the casserole to the one I imagined kissing me. The other guy reached for the food. “Don’t forget to preheat.”
“Right,” the talky one said. He looked down the block, not at me, as if he had actually kissed me and wanted to punish me for his mistake.
You didn’t talk to me all the way to the library, and not that night either, as we read new books in our room.
“Goodnight,” I said once I finally quit reading. I’d gotten a paperback romance with a busty woman and a knight on the cover. The librarian gave me the evil eye. It was a free country. She couldn’t stop me.
You ignored my goodnight. I could hear you shifting and breathing. Lots of sighs. None of this made sense to me, your rejection, our neighbors’ sudden interest, my need to respond. “Goodnight,” I called again, in case you’d missed the word. It took me a long time to sleep, getting used to your dismissal. I wanted you to share my excitement.
I dreamt a dream that you and I had daydreamed not long before, of marrying brothers. We planned to live side by side in matching farmhouses, a field between us. You and I would bake in each other’s kitchens, apple pies from the old trees in the orchard we shared, trees that gave perfect apple-y apples, as appealing as Eve’s. You would roll the crust one day and I would roll a crust the next, and our husbands would compare our efforts, put us up on pedestals, and we would live a simple life. There would be housedogs and barn cats and cows that needed milking and I would learn to make cheese and you would make the best butter and our men would never have crops that failed.
Waking up, I wanted to remind you of this plan. You see, I wanted to say, these guys might be our men. That the firewood and casseroles we gave them were a dowry. That they would drop their attitudes and change their clothes and learn how to farm. That we could find a farm for cheap because the nightly news was full of stories of farmers going bankrupt, of empty silos and equipment auctions. This dream could happen.
The pattern continued, and pretty quick, we ran out of pans so I used foil trays from pound cakes and pies.
“Is there a kitchen thief?” Mom asked at dinner. “Someone sneaking in just to get our pots and pans? Do I need to lock the cupboards?”
We were eating a casserole topped with strings of pully cheese. I looked at the walls. Counted the flowers in one column, ceiling to floor. Forty-eight little roses. No thorns.
“You girls have got to know something,” Dad urged.
“Spring concert is next week,” I said. “Can I get a new skirt?”
“Do not change the damn topic,” Dad said.
“Don’t curse,” Mom said.
“Jesus,” said Dad. “I’m just trying to help.”
Dad threw his napkin on the table and we were off the hook. Still, I felt guilty.
We were beginning to have reasons to be alone, alone from home and alone from each other. I had history club, you had piano lessons. Even with the excuses, time apart felt decadent, almost wrong. Especially when I went to the bullies without you. Sure, we should cleave from our parents. But each other? Unnatural. I had to remind myself to breathe.
I skipped history club and walked home. Over the hump of Memorial Park, where the memorial the park was named for was never installed. Unpaid carvers, I knew from my extracurricular activities, sold their work to another town, chipping out the information that referred to the dead our city had betrayed. I felt responsible, somehow, for the error, even though I wasn’t related to anyone involved. The mistakes were big, and gave us an empty park. I could see the ghosts accusing me of complicity: that was the wrong color granite. Bayonets instead of cannons? Even when I wasn’t in a rush I scurried up one side of the park, through the middle and down, eager to get away from spirits who might want to settle things.
All the way downhill to home, garbage cans, emptied after people left for work, rolled around and cluttered the street. The weather was too cold for them to smell.
Our trashcans were still out, too. Good. My parents weren’t home. At the corner, I stood in front of the guys empty-handed. The bigger one had a baseball cap, its brim studiously crimped.
“Nothing?” the speaker said.
I shook my head no.
“Why?” he asked.
“We’re out of pans,” I said. These words had been well considered. I thought about referring to my mother, but realized that I couldn’t approach one authority with the needs of another.
“Isn’t that special,” he said. He looked at me until I looked at the ground. He whistled and went inside. I followed him like a dog.
Their building smelled odd, told me I didn’t belong. The hallway was scarred, walls bruised from furniture digging into plaster and paint. They lived on the third floor.
I am sorry now, to have never told you this before. You assumed we shared everything. But there was so much I had to protect you from.
Sister, walking up those stairs, I was in another country. I was in Morocco, though I was just down the block. If you were home, standing in the bay window, you could see where I was and not have a clue what I was doing.
I began to smell something awful. I was ready for a human disaster, some other girl like me done in and dangling in the middle of the room, a light bulb stuck in her mouth, somehow glowing. But what stank was our work, the stack of foil-wrapped pans, the pans my mother missed. The food was stacked willy-nilly, not neatly like the firewood. Why had they brought them upstairs if they didn’t want to eat them? Every white dish with blue flowers had foil on top. Every foil pan was shrouded, too. Ants crawled under the lids I’d pinched into place, and the shiny silver crowns were bulging.
How could you? I wanted to scream.
“Take what you want,” he said. “It’s all yours.”
We both laughed at his bad joke.
“Do you have a bag?” I asked, trying to picture how many I could wash before Mom got home. Did I have time to get a casserole back here, too? Because even though they had cheated me, hadn’t eaten one thing I gave them, I still felt like I owed them. Such was the charm of our bargain.
“Wait a sec,” he said, and while he went beyond the pile of sweating, useless food, I remembered that daydream I dreamt. I wished that my world, our world, could change.
Seeing the food as unused as the wood, however, I realized that these guys were not our men. This didn’t spoil my sense of obligation. The pretty king knew I was glued to his demands, and gave me a big smile as he returned to the room.
“Do you want some help?” he asked, and I nodded. We filled the bag until it sagged heavy. The back of my hand fell into the cup of his palm.
“I think that’s enough,” I said, the words coming from my stomach. My hand was hot as fire.
The sensation lingered, an imitation of sex. Or what I thought sex would feel like. The feeling clung to me like the spray of a skunk.
I was mystified that no one, not Mom or Dad at dinner, not you, at dinner or in your bed, could smell it. Or maybe all of you could. Maybe I reeked of the distance that connection gave me, because I certainly knew I was not at the dinner table. I was hovering back in that searing moment as we filled the bag.
Maybe he could be a farmer, I thought that night after I gave up on reading. Maybe the guys could go to college for agriculture and you and I could buy a pair of houses straddling a field. I pictured this property waiting for us just outside the city. Like it would be as easy to get as a pack of Twinkies.
“Where’s the food?” the pretty thug asked on Monday. Their garbage pails were smelly, tipped over on the sidewalk. Over the weekend, the weather had warmed. I’d kept myself hostage indoors, reading, thinking. Not thinking. Not reading.
“I’m not bringing you any more,” I said. But we both knew I wanted to be upstairs, so we went inside. Mr. Big Quiet overtook us, his giant strides swallowing the steps in threes and fours.
“What else can you give me?” the pretty king said. The food was gone, but composty smell seemed as big as a person, a giant crying baby made of foil.
Mr. Big Quiet was making noise in the kitchen, thunking ice in a glass, fizzing soda. The plastic bottle sucked in air, and he popped it back in shape.
The pretty king wanted me as little as he wanted anything else I gave him. He leaned me into the sofa, and I imagined other girls like me piled underneath him, the sticks of our bones stacked like a cord of wood, the radiator ticking near the casseroles, overheating the spring room.
And yet we, me and the other girls – I assume you were not one of them – our bodies, the girls’ bodies were used more than the other stuff we gave him. We were more needed than the food, than the wood.
Later that night, I sat in the dark wanting to tell you the story. I left my underwear over there with all the ants and roaches. I couldn’t tell you that.
I taught you how to tie your shoes, how to find a bathroom in a public place. I wanted to teach us how to shave our legs, but I still had to learn, and what I’d done that day, what had been done to me, I couldn’t communicate. It was a lesson you didn’t need.
I listened to you fall asleep. Your breath shifted into a pattern that reminded me of how the pretty guy – his eyelids were just as dreamy as the deep brown planets of his irises – how he had pumped himself on top of me, until finally, without crescendo, he stopped, extracted himself and said, “Well that’s enough of that.”
The other guy was watching TV on another sofa. I had happened so often I didn’t matter.
I stayed at history club the next day, and swept the kitchen when I got home. I did everything I should. Still, when you saw me, you exploded.
“You stink like pot!” you accused. “You smoke it every day.”
“I do not,” I insisted, though I couldn’t name my skank: you knew I’d betrayed you. I stank of independence.
Mom came home from work and ignored our fighting. She had sisters too. Our fights, like the missing pans, were problems she didn’t try to solve.
Did she ever talk to you about what you needed? Did she talk to you about men, how they might want something you wanted to give them? Did she ever say, you don’t have to need that? You don’t need to give?
If she had said that to me, would it have made any difference?
“Let’s play a game,” Mom said that night, and we all sat in the living room, a table lamp lighting up our bay window. The neighbors could have looked over and seen us playing cards. Mom could have looked at them, too, but she’d never see the bugs eating what the thugs wouldn’t touch.
We don’t play cards now. I read you books, but I’m not sure what you hear. When we watch TV, your eyes follow the motion. The thugs collected stuff. We have collected time.
Our union is not what we imagined. You need me, I feed you puddings and soft rice. The bullies have been replaced by other thugs. From the bay window, we watch the boy men change guard. The demands repeat. Always a boyman getting. Always a girl giving.
If you could talk, would you tell me what I want to hear? That it was okay, what I did?
I had to divide from you. It was essential, like a sunset. And I came back, just as soon as you needed me.
I know you by heart, or at least I think I do. But how can anyone ever know anyone else? I know your body, your food, your wakings and sleeps. I think I know what we wanted when we were little girls, but I can’t see the pictures you drew in your head of our future. Maybe it looked just like this.