by Chelsea Seaberg
“That was the last one.” She says, raising her badminton racket to the sky and pointing at the roof of the house. We stand barefoot in the grass, our eyes fixated on the rain gutter, perplexed looks painted across our faces.
“You hit it so you have to go up and get it.” She glares back at me, her hands clasped tight to her hips. Standing a little over four feet tall, she is a menace in a pink polka dot shirt and jean shorts. I shrug and throw my racket onto the grass. I don’t know what I’m more terrified of, the plunge I would take from the roof to the lawn if I attempted to retrieve the birdie from the rainspout, or her. She whips her racket back and forth in her hand, loosening her shoulder and letting out an impatient sigh that sounds like a growl. I take another look up at the slanted roof and weigh the pros and cons. Level ground wins.
“Maybe there is another one on the porch. I think I saw one there yesterday,” I yell to her as I run up the steps to the back of the house, my shirt sleeve snagging on the warped wood of the screen door.
On the porch lay a large brown cardboard box filled to the brim with various sporting equipment from years past, all sorts of junk like tattered tennis balls, rusted hockey skates and old soccer cleats, stuff that should have been thrown out years ago. Daddy simply refuses to throw stuff away because, as he explains it, you may never know when you are going to need it again. Like one day one of us is going wake up trying to remember what we did with those old running shoes with the hole in the sole and missing laces and really be kicking our self when it finally dawns on us that we threw them out a long time ago.
I dive into the box with as much grace as a twelve-year old girl can spare, chucking a deflated volleyball to the side the smell of must and dust overwhelming my senses. On the very bottom, sitting between a partially strung tennis racket and a weathered hockey puck is a red shuttlecock with a white nose. I grab it in my dirty palm and run back out waving it back and forth in celebration.
“My serve!” I shout, grabbing my racket from the ground and getting into position, readying myself to launch the shuttlecock over the invisible net that separates my sister and I. Annabel runs to the other side of the yard, crouching into her spindly legs, brushing the hair from her face with the tail end of her racket.
The afternoon has now faded into evening and the sun hangs low in the sky, its amber glow only slightly visible over the western tree line. Mosquitos buzz around my exposed legs and I slap them away, occasionally catching one against my skin, causing it to burst into a bloody mess that I wipe onto the front of my stained white t-shirt.
We take turns serving the birdie to one another, tossing it up in the air and smacking it hard, letting out garish grunts as the birdie flies through the air and then falls back towards the earth, its plastic tail pirouetting all the way to the ground. We play for hours, not keeping score, simply lobbing the birdie back and forth at one another, our only goal to keep it airborne for as long as we can.
Eventually it gets too dark for us to see anything and we both decide to quit for the night. Annabel announces loudly that she won the game and starts waving to an imaginary crowd. She spins in a circle like she is thanking a stadium full of spectators, blowing kisses and even wiping a fake tear from her eye. I tell her she’s overdoing it and she sticks out her tongue at me and cradles the racket on her hip, strumming her fingers along the stretched strings, pretending to play it like a guitar.
It is too hot to go in the house so we throw ourselves down on the lawn, the cool leaves of grass brushing softly against our sun burnt shoulders. A wave of anxiety passes over me, my skin prickling with goose pimples as a cold wind blows across the yard reminding me that summer is in its twilight and school is just around the corner. I dread my return to high school, trading in long days spent basking in the summer sun for morning and afternoons spent under the harsh glow of fluorescent lights, sitting upright in a hard wooden desk with its top scrawled with racist graffiti, surrounded by a sea of judgmental eyes and gossiping lips. My insides turn to jelly at even the thought of going back to that brick prison known as William T. Sherman High School. I close my eyes and count to ten in my head; a trick the school nurse taught me after I visited her office too many times in one semester complaining of stomach cramps that she told me where the result of my worrying and not any tumors which is what I had suspected was the problem.
I gaze over at Annabel and let out a deep sigh. She’s looking over her shoulder, distracted by a car that just pulled into the neighbor’s driveway. I notice her hair has become much lighter with the sun and although it has been stick-straight our entire childhood, on the nape of her neck rests tiny little ringlets curled from the day’s humidity. I always wanted her hair, so movie star blonde and straight, just like Momma’s, nothing like the dishwater blonde curls I inherited from Daddy. I close my eyes and sink my head into the grass and lie there for a moment, listening to the cicadas calling from under the brush.
“A shooting star!”
Annabel’s hand snaps up from the grass, her index finger outstretched towards the blinking lights attached to the wings of a passing airliner.
“That’s not a shooting star. That’s an airplane, dummy.” I say, mildly disappointed.
“That’s not what I was pointing at! I saw a shooting star! I really did!” Annabel huffs and crosses her arms across her chest. She hates to be wrong.
“Okay, fine, whatever. If that is what you think.” I tear the grass from the soil underneath my hands and throw it up in the air, watching it listlessly cascade through the air.
“You don’t believe me but I did.” She is getting mad and I know that if I prod further she will erupt into a fit of anger and so I let it go.
We hear the back porch door slam hard against its frame. Daddy stands at the top of the stairs and lights a Marlboro with a match, its yellow glow like the tail end of a firefly. He yells at Annabel and me, the cigarette still hanging from his mouth that he is off to the grocery store to pick up some food to make dinner. He asks if we want to come along and Annabel jumps to her feet.
“Are you coming, Mary?” She says as she leans over me, dangling her head over mine and shouting so loud you would think I were more than a football field away from her face.
“Yeah, I’m coming.”
I lift myself to my feet as Daddy disappears into the garage and starts up his little Toyota pickup, the sputtering sound of the engine breaking the stillness of the suburban sprawl.
We all sit in the front of the pick-up, Annabel in the middle, me in the passenger seat and Daddy driving. He smokes his cigarette and we listen to the people talk on NPR. Daddy isn’t like the other dads who live in Henderson, while they are listening to country musicians complain about dead dogs and cheating wives, Daddy listens to National Public Radio. When I asked him why we always have to listen to boring people talk about nothing on the radio he told me that if I was actually listening maybe I would realize that they were talking about all sorts of interesting stuff and that it was our responsibility to learn about it by listening. I didn’t like this answer and asked him if we could at least listen to the country station on the way to school and he said no. He then added that as soon as I learned to drive and had my own car that I could listen to whatever I pleased. I told him I was counting down the days.
I stare out the window, watching the corn fields whizz by, scared that a deer or a dog might jump out from hiding alongside the road and cause us to get in an accident. Around these parts such stuff has been known to happen but Daddy tells me not to worry about it, that whatever’ll happen will happen and if it ain’t in our control, there isn’t much we can do about it. I shut my eyes real tight and try to think about kittens instead.
We pull into a convenience store right outside of town and Daddy tells us to wait in the truck while he runs in to get more smokes. As soon as he’s gone, Annabel opens the glove box and takes out a bunch of papers and starts looking through them. She always does that. Momma says one-day Annabel’s curiosity will cause her into some real trouble and always tells her to remember that saying about what curiosity did to the cat but Annabel never listens. She always goes through other people’s stuff when they aren’t looking and because she does, she knows lots of personal information about people that they don’t know she knows. Annabel is the reason why I know that Aunt Dorothy wears a wig and that cousin Edward is gay.
While she rifles through the owner’s manual and Daddy’s insurance papers, I fumble with the side mirror, picking out the reflections of trees and other stuff in the background and seeing if I can tell how far they are from the truck since they are supposed to be closer than they appear.
Daddy comes back with a bucket of chicken and some mashers and hands them over to Annabel and me to hold on to.
“I thought we were going to the grocery store to get dinner.” I say, looking questioningly at the greasy meat that sits in my lap, the oil dripping out of the bottom of the container leaving a pool of yellow liquid on the pale flesh of my bare thigh.
“This ain’t good enough for you or something?” Daddy asks, eyeing me. His beard glows a bright red under the dashboard light and I can tell from his look that he isn’t in the mood for what he calls ‘my antics’.
“Fried food isn’t good for you, Daddy. It’ll give you a heart attack.”
Daddy doesn’t say anything back, just mutters under his breath. He grabs a quarter that’s laying on the dash and scratches feverishly at a lottery ticket. He tips his orange baseball cap up and squints his eyes to get a better look at the ticket, holding it real close to his face and blowing away the silver flecks of dust onto the steering wheel and into his lap.
“Won a dollar! Woooo! I’m feelin’ real lucky tonight.” He says, his thick drawl accenting his excitement. He kisses the ticket and clips it under the visor as he turns the key and starts the engine; the old Toyota coming to life with a rusty rattle.
When we get home Momma makes me go change right away once she sees my shorts stained with chicken grease.
“You look like some kind of welfare child, Mary!” she says as soon as I walk in the door.
When I get back downstairs the bucket of chicken has been thoroughly picked through and all that remains is a sad looking thigh with half its skin missing and a bloody vesicle protruding from it. Next to it is an even sadder looking wing with a feather poking through the thick layer of breading that coats it. I settle on the thigh and help myself to a big scoop of potatoes. The thigh is slick with grease that gives it a high shine like it just came out of the wax cycle at a car wash. I tear a paper towel from the roll and blot at the chicken in an effort to sop up the extra oil.
“Stop doing that! Just eat it!” Momma yells at me from her seat on the couch.
“Gross!” Annabel adds, shouting out her shared disgust, her mouth full of meat.
“You think your daddy and I are made of money or something? Treating your food like that? Why don’t you just throw it right in the trash while you’re at it?”
Momma’s giving me a look that could skin a kitten. I mumble ‘sorry’ and sit Indian style next to Annabel on the brown wool carpet. I balance my plate on my legs, trying not to look at the globs of goo that are congealing on the white ceramic. We don’t talk as we eat; we just watch television and laugh in unison with the laugh track. I eat all my mashers but I can’t eat all my chicken, it is too soggy with oil and with each bite I feel a tightening in my chest, like I am one step closer to a heart attack. I set the unfinished chicken thigh back on my plate and get up from to throw it away in the kitchen. Momma calls to me before I even get out of the living room, asking me why I am throwing out a perfectly good piece of meat.
“I ate all my mashers and now I am full.” I lie.
“So you are just going to go and waste food like that? What do you think we are made of money?”
“I’m sorry, I just can’t eat it.” I say, looking at Daddy for some help.
“Let her be, Deidra.” Daddy says as he takes a swig from his beer, not looking up from the television.
“She’s spoiled, Henry. We don’t have enough money for her to be throwing away her dinner. We gotta teach her it just ain’t right to let food go to waste.” Momma leans her body towards Daddy who is seated in his big easy chair; his legs sprawled out on the footrest, his big toe visible through a big hole in his white sock. He ignores Momma and waves his hand as if it’ll stop her nagging but it just infuriates her more. Her knuckles are clenched around the fork she holds in her right hand and for a moment I wonder if she is going to lunge at him, it wouldn’t be the first time. Momma’s face is as angry as the Georgia bulldog printed on her shirt. I sit back down and set my plate next to me and pull a pillow from the floor to hug against my chest. Annabel’s laid out on her stomach, completely oblivious, a smile stretched across her face as she shovels fried chicken into her mouth.
“Oh, you’re ignoring me now?” Momma says to Daddy.
“Stop, Deidra. I don’t want to hear it tonight.” Daddy still isn’t looking at her and Momma is just getting more upset. She hates to be ignored and Daddy knows it.
“I’m sorry, you don’t want to hear it? Well, there’s a lot of stuff I don’t wanna hear neither like Hank constantly asking when we are gonna pay back that loan he gave us for the roof.”
“Your brother needs to keep his damn mouth shut; I’ll get him his money as soon as I get it.” Daddy says.
“Well, when is that gonna be? You just gonna magically get your job back? You think they’re just gonna bring GM back from the grave for you? Well, they aren’t. Why don’t you go to work with Hank at the lot? You know he would hire you if you just asked.”
“I don’t want to sell cars to people.” Daddy tips his hat forward, covering his face in an effort to signal the end of the conversation but Momma keeps at it.
“Oh, I forgot, the great Henry Sackett is a builder! A creator!” Momma scoffs. “Too bad you couldn’t build anything people were willing to pay for.”
Momma’s words coil around Daddy like a cobra. He takes a deep breath before telling her to shut it. As soon as he says that Momma loses it and leaps to her feet, screaming at Daddy all sorts of curse words.
Daddy throws down his plate on the carpet, chicken bones flying everywhere, the plate breaking into pieces that threaten to slice at unsuspecting bare feet. Annabel runs to the bedroom while I go grab a bag to gather the glass in. Daddy gets up from his easy chair and walks to the back door and snatches his key from its place on the hook, pulling the key holder off the wall, nails and all.
Momma and I stand in silence and listen to Daddy pull out of the driveway and speed down the street. She is crying and snot is coming out of her nose. I don’t say anything as I pick up the broken pieces plate and drop them into the bag.
Momma takes a deep breath. I stand there holding my breath. I can feel her eyes burning into me but I don’t dare look over.
“Happy now?” she says as she drops her uneaten chicken into the bag that I hold in front of me.
I am crouched on the floor, picking the tiny pieces of glass from between the carpet fibers. I speak so low that I barely hear myself.
She pauses for a moment, standing above me and I brace myself, thinking that she might smack me.
“Doesn’t change a thing.” She says as she shoves past me and slams the door to her bedroom.
Chelsea Seaberg lives and works in New York. She has been writing her whole life and just recently decided to get her act together and start writing stories that include both a beginning, middle and end. If she keeps it up Badminton may be the beginning of an actual novel.
What happens next.Why does Mary have the weight of the world on her shoulders. I welled up partly because it was written by you–my niece. I am very proud.