Shirley Moody got sick in our house that night from sunburn, and that night — two nights after my ninth birthday — my daddy had a little too much whiskey and drove the Austin-Healy through the fence down on the canal. He was damn lucky he didn’t pitch into the water and drown. All he did was bust his head on the windshield, just enough to knock him out, and the whole Vinson family, who lived at the very end of our street, ran out and pulled him from the car. They brought him into their house and called my mamma, and my daddy lay on their couch till she got Mr. Sullivan next door to take her down to get him.
Meantime, back at our house, my sister Bobbie and her friends had just got back from Pismo, and Shirley Moody, who was a tall, skinny blonde with pale skin, had just fainted on the blue linoleum of our bathroom floor. Bobbie and the others — our house was always full of her friends — were standing over Shirley, getting ready to put a cold washrag on her face, which looked like boiled meat, when she woke up and vomited all over Carol Sue Arnold’s foot. My sister was nineteen and beautiful, an olive-skinned brunette who never burned, just got darker and darker until her skin seemed to glow with warmth like fresh toast. She used to tell people she was Mexican and adopted, which was a bald-faced lie and made my mother furious. “Why in God’s name do you want to tell people such stuff?” she would say.
I was standing on the rug in the hall watching the scene. They were all — five or six of them — packed into our little bathroom, and they started shifting around like worms in a can, grabbing towels and stuff to clean up Shirley and the mess. Carol Sue was wearing rubber thongs, so nothing much was damaged.
“Here, move over so I can wash my shoe off,” Carol Sue said.
Then my sister’s voice came floating over their heads like a balloon: “Jenny, where’s Mother?” She always called Mamma “Mother,” just to be hoity-toity.
“She had to go get Daddy,” I said.
“What do you mean, she had to go get him?”
“He had a wreck.”
This got everyone’s attention, and five heads perked up and set eyes on me; even Shirley Moody, who was still on the floor, quit moaning for a minute and tried to focus her eyes.
“He had a wreck? In what? Is he all right?”
“I think so. He run the Austin through the canal fence. Mr. Sullivan went with Mamma to go get him.”
Once they were sure Daddy wasn’t killed or in the hospital, they started to concentrate on Shirley Moody again.
“Shirley, can you stand up?”
“Come on, let’s get her into bed.”
“Here,” said Bobbie. “Let’s put her on Mother’s bed.” I thought how if I was sick like that I would want to be at home in my own bed, and Shirley Moody lived right across the street, so it wasn’t like it was any big deal to take her home. But these girls all acted like our house was their house, helping themselves to iced tea from the refrigerator and borrowing my mamma’s cigarettes and bobby pins without asking.
I thought how pleased Mamma was going to be to come home and find this big broiled girl laid out on her bed with Noxzema all over her and the quilt, with my daddy in no telling what kind of condition.
The girls all stayed fussing over Shirley, getting the big red crockery bowl in case she wanted to throw up again, putting cold rags on her face. They were already starting to fan out like they always did, sitting cross-legged all over the two beds, filing their nails. The smell of nail-polish remover was already in the air, and it seemed to perk up Shirley, who was propped up on the pillows with just a towel covering up her flat breasts, saying she didn’t think she’d ever be able to wear clothes again, and enjoying being the center of attention.
I went to the kitchen to look out the window for Mr. Sullivan’s car, and pretty soon here it came. Mr. Sullivan pulled right up in our driveway, and he didn’t get out, but my mamma got out, and then my daddy did, looking unsteady. He had a big cut, not deep, on his forehead from where he’d busted the windshield. Mamma took his arm to help him, but he pushed her away.
I opened the kitchen door for them, and Mamma, who had noticed Shirley Moody’s Thunderbird convertible out front, said, “Are those girls back?”
“Yes,” I said, moving aside to let my silent father pass. “Shirley threw up on Carol Sue.”
“Have they been drinking, too?” My mother sounded like she was ready to sell us all and start over.
“No,” I said. “She got too much sun.”
Daddy stumbled into the bathroom and leaned on the sink, scowling at himself in the mirror.
Bobbie stuck her head out of the bedroom.
“Are you OK, Daddy?”
He grunted, and tore off a piece of toilet paper. He soaked it in Listerine and dabbed it on the cut in his head, wincing.
Mamma went to the bedroom to look at Shirley. “My God,” she said, “don’t you girls have any sense? Has anybody called Vivian?”
My daddy lurched out of the bathroom, the cut on his head oozing a little blood and starting to puff around the edges. As he passed the bedroom door, he looked around my mamma at Shirley Moody and said, “What the hell happened to her?” For some reason, all the girls burst out giggling, including Shirley, who followed her giggle with a groan and reached for the red bowl.
I couldn’t decide whether to join the girls in the bedroom and listen to their talk, or watch “Dick Tracy” on the TV. I finally settled down to watch “Dick Tracy,” because I knew if I saw Shirley Moody throw up in that red crockery bowl I would never be able to eat anything fixed in it again, I don’t care how many times Mamma washed it out with Purex.
My daddy went to his room, and I could hear him bumping around, and then my mamma went in there. I could hear their voices, but not what they were saying. My mamma stayed in there a good while, all through “Dick Tracy” and “Mr. Magoo,” and halfway through “Mr. Magoo” it got real quiet and I heard the slide lock on the door click shut. Finally my daddy came out in his robe, and sat down in the old green leather recliner.
“Would you get me a beer, Jen?”
I went and got him a cold one and brought the bag of Fritos, too. We watched “Gunsmoke” together. I had a big crush on Chester.
Mamma came out of Daddy’s room and started cooking dinner. Bobbie came out, followed by Carol Sue and Jeanette; they always traveled in packs of three or four. Bobbie leaned against the wall over the furnace and said, “Is the Austin OK, Daddy?”
Daddy was pretty deep into “Gunsmoke,” but he finally looked up and said, “Windshield’s busted, is all.”
“Well, how come you didn’t bring it home?” She was way more concerned about the Austin-Healy, which Daddy bought mostly for her to drive, than she was about Daddy.
“I don’t know,” Daddy said. “Ask your mother.”
After “Gunsmoke,” we ate: fried round steak, fried potatoes with thick, white gravy, lettuce and tomato salad, mustard greens, and Sunbeam white bread that you could tear in half and it would part straight down the middle like perforated paper. Vivian Moody came over to get Shirley and stayed to eat, too, and more of the Arnolds came over to find out what was going on, and the kitchen was full of people talking, laughing, my mother hovering around making sure everything got passed to everybody, and chipping ice for more glasses of iced tea. Everything was fine until I was finished and started to get up and go back to the TV.
Bobbie’s eye lit on me and she said, “Hadn’t you better say, ‘Excuse me’ when you leave the table?” Well, I knew she was putting on airs because everybody was there. She was always reading those women’s magazines and fussing at my mamma for not putting the knives and forks and spoons in the right places. But nobody in my family — including Bobbie — ever said “excuse me” when they left the table, and I wasn’t about to be the first. I jumped up and lit off into the living room, laughing, thinking they would all just let it go. But I should’ve known Bobbie wouldn’t. I heard her voice rising, griping about how nobody around here had any manners and how I was nothing but a tomboy, and if they weren’t going to take me in hand she would, by God, and the next thing I knew, here came my daddy, just like we had not just sat and watched “Gunsmoke” together, with a look in his eye that worried me.
“You want to come back to the table and say ‘Excuse me’?” It wasn’t really a question, the way he said it. Vivian had gone into the room where Shirley was and shut the door, and I could hear the Arnolds leaving, and I couldn’t do anything but sit there and look sullenly at the floor.
“Jen?” said my daddy, looking at me with narrowed eyes. I knew this meant his whiskey was wearing off and his head was probably starting to ache. I still sat there, though, like a mole on somebody’s chin, until he said, “Do you want me to whip you?”
I shook my head. He looked at me, knowing I was about to cry, and knowing I wasn’t going to say a word, and finally he took me by the arm and led me into his room, shutting the door behind us. The room was cold and smelled like leather and Old Spice and the honeysuckle outside his window. He sat me down in a chair, and went to get his big leather belt with the wagon wheel buckle that hung on a nail in his closet, and he wrapped a piece of it around his hand, and stood in front of me. “If you don’t say it, I’m going to whip you till you can’t sit down.”
I could feel the hot tears starting down my face. I bit my lip, trying not to make any sound. I was trying to figure out what had happened. When had something changed? What had I done? Balanced like the helpless point of a tripod between fear, stubbornness, and mute astonishment, I tried to consider. My daddy had never whipped me in my life, never even threatened to. I got a swat from my mamma sometimes, or she would break off a mulberry switch and threaten me with it, but this leather belt stuff was new. I knew, though, that I would rather die than give my sister the satisfaction of knowing I’d said “excuse me” because of her.
I sat there with tears dripping down into my lap, waiting for whatever was going to happen. My daddy stood there with the belt wrapped around his stubby fingers, and waited, I don’t know how long. For a while he looked angry, and I expected to feel the strap come down on my legs any minute. I couldn’t hear anything but my own sniffling and the roar in my head, and it seemed as if the whole world had ceased to exist except the two of us, me in the chair, him standing there with his big belt. Finally he sat down heavily on the end of the bed, his knees splaying out and his beer belly poking out through his robe.
“I’ve got to get some rest. You sit there till you get ready to say it.” He took off his robe, and lay down on the bed, on top of the covers. I saw the sweat gleaming on his forehead around the cut place just before he turned off the light. He hung the belt over the headboard of the bed, and I sat there for what seemed like hours, until I heard my mamma and sister go to bed, and the house started to creak and settle, and my daddy started to snore.
I walked over and looked at him, and he didn’t look angry, or scary, or mean the way he had with the belt in his hand. He just looked ghostly white, and a little fat, and a sour beery smell hung over him like a cloud.
“Excuse me, Daddy,” I whispered.