They Were Gods
Hildy is holding Nemo under his front legs with one arm, letting his hind legs and tail sway back and forth under his bloated stomach. She is calling him “my baby” and reaching for a popsicle that I’m holding just out of her reach, just for the hell of it. Every time she reaches for it, I pull it away and Hildy jerks forward to try and reach it again. In this manner, she has stepped on Nemo’s tail four times, each time sending a low growl up into his throat like a pump organ. I hold the popsicle over my head. Sticky red syrup drips onto Hildy’s mom’s couch, which is new and white leather and wraps around the perimeter of our living room. We have the same dad, but Hildy is a pretty stupid kid. For example, she’s nowhere near old enough to have a baby, and Nemo is a cat. It’s fairly obvious.
“Is that your baby?” I ask her as I bite the top off the popsicle. “Is that your big ugly baby, Hildy?” I ask her as I rest the remainder of the popsicle between my cheek and bottom teeth. She erupts in a wail that sends Nemo flying. “Can you say ‘pussy’ Hildy?” I ask her. “Go tell your mom your pussy ran away, Hildy,” I say as the popsicle melts down the side of my face.
“Jeremy,” Hildy’s mom says, suddenly in the doorway. “We are using ‘vagina’ with her, and you know it. Don’t you have homework to do?”
They’re having a party tonight and I’ve been asked to retire early. One of the televisions has been wheeled into my room as a bribe.
My mom threw a party once. Only her sisters showed up, but Mom said the fact that they’d left their husbands at home made up for the fact that they only had half a brain between them, and not the smart half either, the half with all the blubbering and liberal arts in it. When Dad poked his head in from the kitchen, she told him to go upstairs and to stay there, and he did, looking sad and calling me “champ” as he passed me on the landing. My aunts laughed but probably would have left if mom hadn’t guilted them into staying. I wanted to leave too, but I’d had my leg stuck in the banister of the landing since before Mom put her makeup on. She walked right past me when she went downstairs to put the ice bucket out; she just patted me on the head and asked me where my brother was. I don’t have a brother, but she’d been asking me that ever since she came home from the hospital empty handed.
When my mom lived here we had a regular fabric couch but at least she wore normal pants. Hildy’s mom wears loungewear, and even when she was pregnant her velour track pants were tight enough to make out every curve, each round cheek. She caught me looking at them once and told me I should have seen them five years ago. “They were gods,” she told me.
Dad and Hildy’s mom are putting Hildy to bed now, and I can hear her crying. Hildy is afraid to go to sleep because I told her there’s a pair of Italian gangsters under her bed waiting to chop her hand off if it ever swung over the side. She tried to tell our dad but he didn’t understand what she was saying.
I give Nemo my popsicle stick and rub the red liquid candy into the soft skin of the couch with my thumb.
When they took Mom away I climbed the tree in the front yard and stayed there for an entire day and no one noticed. I broke a branch while I was up there—stepped on something too small and left it hanging by fibrous threads. When I got back inside I went into her bathroom and pulled the mirrored door of her medicine cabinet open. Inside among the pill bottles there was a small tin of gauze and tape. I don’t remember the walk past the television, the argument in the kitchen, the trip back down stairs. Back in the tree, in a little spot of sun among leaves, I pulled the fibers of the branch back into place and wrapped the gauze around it, securing the bandage with tape.
Someday when I think it’s been long enough, I’ll go back up there and take it off. And the branch will be whole again.
Illustrations by Meghan Murphy