Fiction Journal, Spring 1999
1999 amy purcell
The enemy is coming for Christmas. There is
no sense fussing over it. Mama has her mind made up even though
Daddy is trying to talk her out of it as he scrapes the car windows.
He's in his undershirt, the snow sticking to his bald head, melting
and collecting along the creases of his neck.
"You're the only one who thinks this is
a good idea. Would ya stop pumping the gas," he yells over
her revving. "You're flooding the engine." He presses
his face against the window. "I know you can hear me."
I crouch down in the back seat in case the neighbors
are looking, which is likely with Daddy yelling. Mama looks at me
in the rearview mirror and I pretend I don't see because I am watching
my breath fog up on the window. I write "help" backwards
in it so people will read it when we drive by. If someone stops
the car and asks Mama who needs help, I will say it's me because
Uncle Walter is coming for Christmas.
"I'm not shoveling this driveway, Ruth.
Just try and make it back up here the way the snow's coming."
"I'll park at the bottom," Mama shouts
over the engine.
Daddy pulls his undershirt to his face to wipe
off the snow. The tattoo on his chest moves up and down with each
breath so it looks like the dagger is pointing right into his heart.
Above the dagger is a red rose and a swirl of thorny vines with
"Till death do us part" written in blue. Daddy said he
married the army. You have to marry the army.
I pull my hood tight around my head so it covers
everything but my eyes and start my beauty parlor. The ashtray cover
is the mirror and the seat belt is the hair dryer. Binky is my first
and only customer today. I brush the new purple fur Mama sewed over
Binky's holes. It falls off in clumps. I untie the hair ribbon that's
holding his leg and put the leg in my pocket. I whisper to Binky
that I am sorry to tell him this, but he has polio. I tell him it's
just a hunch because I'm just a beautician.
Mama puts the car in reverse while Daddy is
still wiping, still growling, and we roll down the driveway. He
wags his arms at us, kicking clumps of snow.
"He even makes snow look furious,"
says Mama, laughing. She pumps the gas one more time.
Roosevelt barks and runs between Daddy's feet,
hoping he'll get a snowball thrown to him. Roosevelt is our dachshund.
He has three legs instead of four, as one got caught in a trap and
the vet cut off the trap and the leg. Sometimes Roosevelt licks
the stump. Once, me and my brother Lenny took turns licking it to
see if a human leg would grow there.
"Wave to your Daddy, honey," Mama
says. She rolls down the window and sticks her whole arm out. Daddy
doesn't wave back. Across the street, I see Babs Cleary looking
out between lace curtains. She waves to us, but we pretend not to
"Does Uncle Walter have to come for Christmas?"
"Don't you start up, too." She throws
her cigarette out the window and pushes the car lighter into the
“I think Binky has polio."
Mama rests her chin on the steering wheel and
grips it hard so the veins in her hands pop up. We drive to the
Institution with the window open even though I don't think the cold
air is good for Binky.
When she honks the horn, Uncle Walter comes,
his medals pinned to his shirt, the ones he got for being a prisoner
of war. His hair rings his head like a horseshoe, only a few greasy
strands cover up that zipper scar. Lenny said the scar will open
some day and we'll get to see what's hiding in there. Mama said
something happened to Walter in the war, but Lenny said the war
just made him crazy and he's the enemy. When I asked Lenny if Daddy
was crazy, he said Daddy just does what sergeants do.
When Uncle Walter turns to say hello, I hide
behind Binky. Binky's got special powers only I know about.
Mama's watching me in the rearview. "Say
hello, Maggie." I lay down in the backseat.
"I just got tired," I say and watch
the sun and tree shadows bounce and flutter over Uncle Walter's
head, and when I shut my eyes tight, his blue-purple outline burns
under my eyelids.
* * *
Once, in the early morning when Mama left for
work and Daddy locked us out for the day, me and Lenny played under
the willow tree. We played Mama and Daddy in a fight. We pretended
it was about Uncle Walter.
Lenny walked back and forth, waving his BB-gun.
"Why do you bring him here? Don't we have enough troubles?"
"Family is family," I said.
Roosevelt was lying in the sun and his legs
were moving like he was running but he was only dreaming about digging
up moles with Daddy. Even his stump was moving. The dew spit at
my ankles as I circled the trunk of the tree. Smoky lines of fog
floated above the grass hiding Lenny's legs.
"You know what else, Ms. Smarty Pants?"
"What pearl of wisdom are you going to
offer me now?" That was Mama's favorite line.
"You want to know about Walter?"
“Do tell," I said, pretending I was
smoking a cigarette.
Lenny spit in the grass and Roosevelt got up
and rolled on the spot.
"The Japs took out his brain and put in
a short-wave radio so they can give him instructions. He's on the
enemy side now. We should be careful."
Lenny climbed up the tree where I couldn't reach
him. He pointed his BB-gun at me, closing one eye, taking aim.
"Are we still pretending?" I picked
a dandelion and rubbed it across my wrist to see if I was boy crazy
yet. I wasn't.
"Want to know what else?"
"Do tell," I said, trying to keep
up the pretend part.
"When he gets the signal, he'll blow up
and the Japs will come back for you because you are connected."
Lenny jumped from the tree and I started running
and Lenny yelled
"AMBUSH," chasing me all the way to
He pretend-shot me with his BB-gun. He pretend-pressed
the trigger over and over, screaming DIE! DIE! until I ran up to
the porch. No one got shot on the porch. Not even the Japs or pretend-Walter.
I pounded on the door but Daddy didn't come.
* * *
Daddy's got his head in the Christmas tree.
We bought the tree last night at Woolworth's because Roosevelt kept
peeing on the real one. When we finished putting the ornaments on
Mama rearranged them. Daddy thinks the tree is lopsided because
of so he's fixing it. She can never leave well enough alone, he
Mama is hiding in the kitchen so we can't see
that it's her ringing a bell and telling us Santa Claus in on our
street. She doesn't see Uncle Walter holding his hands over his
ears. Me and Lenny know there is no Santa, but I pretend and go
look out the window and say I don't see anything.
Next year, when I'm eight and Lenny is ten,
I'll tell Mama I don't believe anymore. She rings the bell so hard,
Uncle Walter bangs his fists on his head, whispering, "please
hurry, please hurry." It's what he says when his brain doesn't
know what else to say.
"Make him stop," I say.
"He can't," says Lenny.
Daddy pulls his head out from the tree and looks
at Walter. He walks into the kitchen to make Mama put the bell away.
Walter looks at me, his eyes have tears in them and I want to run
but my feet won't move, like when I'm stuck to the side of the Tilt-a-Whirl.
Daddy comes back with two beer bottles. He gives
one to Walter. Lenny asks if he can have a taste, and Daddy says
sure he can, it'll put hair on his chest. I don't ask. I don't want
the hair. Mama calls for me, but I run to my room instead.
I reach under my bed and pull out the box of
Walter's letters that Mama gave me. Some parts are crossed out in
black ink. Mama said the government had to do that for protection.
There's a picture of Walter, too, and he's standing by a bomber,
smiling, his face smooth instead of crooked like it is now, and
I think, wish, that maybe they gave us the wrong uncle back.
Lenny comes in and I shove the box under my
"You love the enemy," he says.
"Babs Cleary said he's not the enemy, he's
our uncle and he's readjusting."
"He'd kill you if he could. That's what
makes him crazy; no one lets him kill anything anymore."
I get my angel wings out of the closet, the
ones I wore in the school play. Sometimes, me and Binky fly around
the room and pretend we're in heaven. Roosevelt is there and so
is Babs and Mama. And we fix each other's hair in braids and drink
lemonade and decorate clouds which are the pillows on my bed.
"Daddy almost killed me last night,"
Lenny says, pointing his finger like a gun and pretend-shooting
Lenny got spatula swats last night and had to
sleep on his side. Daddy heard us pretending we were Walter, laughing
and talking in sputters. You never make fun of a soldier, Daddy
said, no matter what.
He got the spatula from the kitchen and when
Lenny didn't cry, Daddy hit him harder. I put Binky over my head
and waited for Daddy to find me too.
Outside, the snow came down in windy swirls,
the willow branches throwing shapes across the wall like big bony
hands reaching in, rescuing me and taking me to heaven with the
canopy bed and pink-painted walls. That's where I go when I am fake.
It's what me and Lenny do when we get the swats. If you stay fake
through all of them, the swats don't count.
Lenny came into my room and climbed into my
bed. I felt the heat from his legs and thought they must have been
as red as Mama's lipstick.
"Did they hurt?" I asked and he said
"I'm fake, remember."
"Do you think we'll get our presents?"
"I hate him," he said, but when I
asked if he meant Walter or Daddy, he pulled the blanket over his
head and pressed his legs against mine.
In the kitchen, Mama stares at the bowl where
she put the butter. I ask her what she's looking at and she says
nothing at all, but she wipes her face with the back of her hand
so I know she's crying. Her eyes have dark circles around them,
like big gray moons.
She looks up from the bowl and sees my angel
wings, and her hands go up to her mouth and her eyes get watery.
When I ask why she's crying, she says it's just so nice to have
butter in the house again, after the rations and all. I start to
say I love her but instead I tell her I'm going to fly away to heaven
"Look at our Christmas angel," Daddy
says. He's in his uniform coat now and his gun is sticking out of
his pocket. He's taking Walter outside. He's starting up a war story.
I watch him draw a map in the snow with a stick and Walter starts
marching across the yard. Daddy yells, "This is not a drill."
Lenny comes up behind me and grabs my wings.
"I'm going out there."
I don't want to go but I follow him. I scoop
up snow and throw it at Lenny's back.
"You throw like a girl."
"That's because I am one."
"You don't look like one," he says,
grabbing his shirt and pulling it out like he's making boobs.
"Where are yours?"
I punch him for that one, sticking my knuckle
out like he taught me, but Lenny says girls can't hurt boys ever.
That's why girls stayed home from the war.
When Daddy tells war stories, he forgets who
we are and calls us names like Jack or Eddie. His face turns tomato
red and the vein in his neck pops in and out. He gives us shovels
and we chase moles across the yard and Daddy pounds the grass yelling,
come out you blind bastards, telling us how he flushed out all kinds
of Germans all across Europe. We don't stop until Daddy says it's
time for someone to die and he shoots his gun in the air.
Some nights after the war stories, he goes down
into the cellar and stays there until Mama gets after him. Their
shouting rolls up through the vents and I run to Babs Cleary, their
voices following me down the street.
Babs turns on the television and makes Shirley
Temples and I take off my shoes and she paints my toenails bright
red and she fixes up my hair in curlers. We put our feet on the
coffee table and eat pineapple upside-down cake with our fingers.
We watch Uncle Milty and when Babs laughs, I think her laugh sounds
as strange as Japanese. I curl up under her arm and listen to her
breathe and say I want to live there and when I wake up later, there's
a blanket over me and Lenny is there, sleeping with Roosevelt in
the gray glow of the television.
I run across the yard, my angel wings catching
the wind, the snow hitting my face. I hold out my arms and pretend
I am flying, over the yard, the house, the willow tree. I fall through
the clouds and land on my back moving my legs and arms across the
snow to make an angel.
Then Lenny is on top of me, shoving snow in
my face and I kick my legs and scream for Daddy. Lenny's tickling
me and my breath comes in coughs and my legs are wet and cold and
I think I will get polio for sure.
I feel Lenny come off me and Uncle Walter is
standing above me, holding Lenny by his shirt.
"Don't kill me!" Lenny yells.
Daddy shoots his gun into the air and Walter
I hide my face in my hands and put my shoulders
up by my ears.
"Surrender!" Daddy yells.
I say it before Lenny can.
"He was gonna kill me," cries Lenny.
Daddy laughs, spins the gun in his hand and
walks to the cellar door.
I get up from my angel. It's ruined with footprints
except for one wing. I press my foot down hard there.
Uncle Walter follows Daddy to the cellar and
Lenny grabs me to go, too. Daddy drops his gun on the cot, sitting
down with a grunt. The furnace comes on and Uncle Walter shudders.
There are monsters behind it but I don't tell him.
"Want to hunt the enemy down?" Lenny
I pretend I don't hear.
"Am not." I push into his chest.
"Roosevelt shit," I say, glad I thought
Lenny shoves me and Daddy gives us the evil
eye. I hold my breath and make myself fake. Daddy goes up the steps
and I hear the icebox open.
"That's the fourth one," Lenny says.
He picks up Daddy's gun and runs up the steps and turns off the
light, but I can see his shadow. He's crouching down, the gun pointed
near Walter's back.
Daddy's voice is coming through the vents. He's
fighting with Mama. He's giving commands and Mama is laughing because
she doesn't know what else to do. I hear Mama scrape the fork against
plates and Roosevelt's nails scratching on the linoleum. Everything
is loud and dark. Mama is saying "You've had enough" but
I don't know if she means Roosevelt or Daddy.
Lenny moves closer. He's got the gun right at
"BANG! BANG! You're dead," he yells.
Uncle Walter's arms fly up and he covers his
head. He runs behind the furnace.
Lenny keeps the gun pointed at him. "I've
got you right where I want you," he says.
I run behind the furnace. Uncle Walter's head
shakes so hard I think his scar will burst open. He's rocking back
and forth, saying, "Please hurry, please hurry."
"Lenny," I say, but nothing more comes
"You're the enemy now," Lenny says,
running back outside.
I get on the floor next to Walter and press
my back against his so my wings touch his shoulders. We sit, rocking
back and forth together.
I take Walter's hand and he doesn't pull it
away so I just stay that way, watching Lenny build his fort, listening
to Daddy march across the kitchen floor and Mama crying in little
hiccups. I try and make myself fake, but Walter's hand is hot and
his breath comes in huffs, so I pretend we're trapped in a foxhole,
the kind in Daddy's war stories, and I think there is no hiding
from the enemy.
From the open cellar door, I see Daddy step
off the porch, the spatula tapping against his leg, only Lenny doesn't
run. He calls to Lenny in his war story voice and he pretend-shoots
Lenny, holding the spatula like his gun, and Lenny points Daddy's
gun at him and I think, yes, please hurry.