Where is it Now?
(This story first appeared in Hawaii Review.)
Jeep cracked the toolshed door, smelled chlorine, and gently snapped it shut. Wanting to cry, he pushed his fingers into the pockets of his jeans and strolled the ruptured sidewalk toward the house.
His mother's head floated by the kitchen window. She did a double-take, and shouted through the screen, "When are you going to mow the yard?"
"I gotta use the bathroom first," he invented.
But then he had to make it look good by mounting the groaning porch steps and crossing the splintered floor where his baby sister Misty was hammering a loose nail with her baloney sandwich. He had to shake open the warped screen door and go through the kitchen, thick with the red smell of simmering tomatoes, where his mother's washed-raw hand reached out to snag him so she could study his mood.
"You look bad," she'd decided in advance. "No sleep again last night?"
"I'm okay." He squirmed and looked past her plaid shoulder at the silhouettes of dead bugs in the ceiling fixture.
He never looked at his mother if he could avoid it, not since her face had split in half, one side good and one side frozen in perpetual rictus. A stroke, the doctor had said. Of lightning, Uncle C.J. had overdramatized to Jeep.
She let him go because Cat was arm-wrestling Misty for the sandwich.
In the bathroom, he sat on the closed lid and pared his nails with his late uncle's pocketknife. He finished the left, easy hand, and carefully began to trim the pinkie nail of the right. The knife slipped, skidding harmlessly off his skin. He raised the blade to his nose and sniffed it.
"Jeep, don't go to sleep in there. You might fall in." His father's jackal laugh filtered between the door and the jamb.
Moaning, Jeep stood and flushed the toilet. He walked to the sink and ran the cold water tap full blast for a count of twelve. When he eased the door wide enough for his head, the hallway stretched empty.
The door to his room was exactly nineteen and a half steps away. He kept the hinges oiled and it moved like a dream.
He'd interior decorated in early paleolithic. The mud-brown walls and ceiling were as near as he'd ever come to a cave. His posters were all nature scenes, except for the one of Snoopy he'd secreted under the bed. He'd asked for a fake fur bedspread for Christmas, but his mother, who wanted everything machine washable, got him a quilt with a race car design. Jeep hopped into the air, turning, and came down on his back in the center of it. He stared at the Milky Way, straight-pinned to the ceiling, and thought about his uncle C.J.
There'd been something wrong with the old man's eyes. The pupils were always gliding back and forth, like he was reading. His hair stayed thick and black right up to the day he died, and he always claimed it was because he never combed it. But he never brushed his teeth, either, and they all turned color and fell out.
Uncle C.J. had lived in the peeling three-story next door. So had Jeep, as much as his parents would allow. He liked the conversation even better than he liked playing the games--hide and seek, kick the can, and where is it now, a private version of button-button.
A June day when the sun basted them in their own sweat, Uncle C.J. had lurched up from the cluster of garbage cans concealing him, and Jeep had seen the spirit of life desert him. The body spasmed and wilted like a punctured balloon before dropping, appropriately across the top of one clanging can.
His backbone snapped like a bowstring releasing an arrow.
"You get busy and start butchering grass. Now!"
"Yes, sir," Jeep agreed, rolling off the bed like he was jumping off a moving train.
His father filled the doorway, his beefy arms crossed as far as they would go over his cumbersome front. "Hut, two, three, four," he flogged Jeep verbally down the hall and through the kitchen.
The screen door nipped Jeep's heels. He negotiated the obstacle course of thumb-sucking Misty and shoulder-washing Cat; both of them gave him the evil eye.
"Where is it now?" began to saw his brain, and his steps shortened and slowed to match. But he still reached the toolshed door. He ground his toes into a tennis player stance, ready to leap either way, and quietly wound the knob. The door juddered open.
He sucked air through his nose. Mildew. rotten vegetation. A hint of dog waste. No chlorine.
He yawned the door full wide and hauled the lawnmower into the light. He checked that it had gas, slapped the choke on and the drive off. He jerked the starter cord like it was caught in quicksand. The motor howled lustily, and Jeep let it tow him into the open yard.
Uncle C.J. had mowed his yard once or twice a summer. He wouldn't have done it at all if the city hadn't issued fine warnings. He said plants have feeling, too, that if the mower wasn't so damn loud, you could hear the grass screaming as the blade slashed it. He wouldn't even walk on grass. How'd you like to be reincarnated as a grass stalk and be pulped by a giant shoe?
Jeep twitched his mind away from the tortures he was inflicting and thought of the stench that had made him an insomniac.
Uncle C.J. had initiated him in the natural laws of the supernatural, and, in the three years since, Jeep had read books that reinforced the confidence. Paranormal activity stinks of ozone--biting, germicidal, like chlorine.
Jeep shoved the mower handle in a careless, one-handed turn and paced the second lap. He wasn't afraid of a bogey making his sneaker slide under the whirling blade. The soul who was after his body wanted it in good condition.
He remembered sitting with Uncle C.J. on the singing porch swing, surveying the front jungle and drinking lemonade that had a disconcerting, garlicky aftertaste.
"We're like those TV aliens from outer space dressed up in human costumes," the old man had said, his flexing knees sounding like popguns. "The real me isn't this dying body. The real me is only living in it temporarily."
Jeep had this catechism by heart. "And sometimes there are cowbird souls who push legitimate souls out of their nests."
"Bad business." Uncle C.J. swallowed the dregs of his drink and belched extravagantly. "They've got bad, earthly business to settle. Revenge, maybe. They're outlaws, looking to steal an already occupied body."
"But they can't help warning you, like a rattlesnack," Jeep prompted.
"Instead of sound," Uncle C.J.'s voice plummeted to a painful whisper, "they give theirselves away by smell."
"You have to guard your body all the time."
"If you think a derelict spirit is after your fleshy home--"
"Don't even sleep."
"Especially don't sleep."
"It'll reach down inside you and rip you out and move in--"
"Lock, stock, and barrel," they chorused, thumped their thighs, and set the swing rattling in its chains.
Jeep let the mower browse too close to the adolescent peach tree, skinning bark. He swerved his eyes before anything welled out of the wound.
A hand clutched his left shoulder, and he nearly rammed the victim peach again. He looked to his left, where there was no one, and then to the right, where Paula's smug grin told him he'd fallen for the oldest misdirection trick in the world. He throttled down, irritably.
She screamed, "My mom sent your mom a counted-cross-stitch pattern."
"So?" Scorn was the basis of their friendship.
"So I wanted to show you my new dress." She posed like a movie starlet, hands under her hair. When she relaxed, one strap of the pink sundress slithered provocatively off her shoulder. Then she crossed her eyes and bent her joints into a simian stance, swinging a pendulum tongue from her rosebud mouth.
"I got work to do," Jeep delivered the requisite complaint, the grandiose sweep of his hand indicating not just this lawn , but possibly the entire block.
"See you, Jeepers." She inflected it like a threat.
"Not if I see you first, Polly-Bawly."
He turned his back and geared the mower to full shriek. When he finished the pass and spun around for the return, she was skipping out the side gate, her narrow legs winking sunlight.
He felt like a shooting gallery target, quickstepping the yard in parallel lines. Ding, twist, go the other way. Ding, flower bed. Ding, here I am, alive, alert.
When he'd finished and manhandled the mower into the shed without having to take a breath, his mother shouted him to supper.
Hunched over the red gingham oilcloth, he ate enough sweet corn to begin a cob cabin by his plate. He sent clandestine feelers to the others at the table, searching for a sign that it had settled for one of them instead of him.
Did his mother's zombie eye flash him a new intelligence before the good eye dragged it down for the next bite of bread? Did his father eat with less enthusiasm than usual, perhaps because the new tenant's attention was on exploring its vast accommodations? Misty met Jeep's regard serenely, her scissoring jaws drooling tomato seeds. He jumped when Cat's cool fur stroked his bare ankle, and, staring down into golden eyes staring up, he received a telepathic message involving feline superiority.
"You better go to bed early," his mother nagged. "If you don't get some sleep tonight, I'm taking you to the doctor."
"Let him have one of your valiums," his father said. Everyone knew this wouldn't happen.
While his parents stirred their coffee and voted on the night's television schedule, and Misty jettisoned pre-chewed cake to disdainful Cat, Jeep excused himself and went to his room.
The only scent was fresh cut grass. He went to his uncle's rolltop desk, ticked the front open the width of a finger, and scouted for odor before trundling it the rest of the way. He wriggled onto the oak stool and drew a wirebound pocket calender and mechanical pencil from their pigeonhole.
He found the place and noted on today's block: "Toolshed: 1:05, 1:43, 2:10 PM." His thumb rippled pages backward; most of the entries were within the last week. "Toolshed," four times. "Refrigerator," twice. "Bathroom." "Desk." "Mailbox."
He rooted the knife out of his pocket and whittled at his right thumbnail. His eyes watered with the effort of staying ajar. He kept them resolutely away from the siren bed.
Deep in the distance, the mincing theme music of his mother's favorite sit-com segued to staccato fanfare for the nightly news.
His cheek stung; his exploring forefinger knocked loose a nail paring impressed into the skin. He raised his knife hand to clean under his nails with the phosphorescent point.
If this one doesn't work out, he thought, I'll try the little bitch in the pink dress.