When Mama died last fall, Velvet would come in and read until I fell asleep, that is, until she started seeing JC. And it was JC who gave me Buttons, until the men from the animal hospital came and took him one day while I was away at school. Daddy says he thinks it was Pastor Jim who told them to come to take Buttons, but all Pastor Jim wanted to know was why we hadn’t been going to church since Mama died.
“I just do not get,” says Daddy, rising up from his tray of food, “what kind of man takes another man’s dog? Something there ain’t right.”
“I miss old Buttons.”
“Buttons smelled like a turd!” Dawn hollers.
“That’s cause you girls never washed him,” says Daddy. He was winking at JC, and JC blushed, but also nodding, the way he does whenever Daddy makes him shake hands.
“I’d’ve bathed Buttons if I coulda got him up,” says Velvet. “Even JC couldn’t lift him on his own.”
“He snapped once at JC!” says Dawn.
“Old Buttons,” Daddy sighs, “he was too good for this world.”
“I was just trying to get him to take his business outside,” says JC, smiling from one side of his mouth, smiling at no one. “But Buttons wouldn’t budge.”
“There’s still that stain on the floor where he used to lie.”
“I musta scrubbed at it a hundred times,” says Velvet, “and it still stinks like something awful.”
“It smells like fish farts!” shouts Dawn.
All of us laugh except Velvet, whose mouth and eyes bug out. She and Dawn must’ve fought a hundred times because of old JC.
“Why I’ll have you know there ain’t no such thing.”
“Ain’t no such thing as what?”
“As fish farts, dummy. Fish ain’t got but just one hole where they do all their business.”
“Say what?” says JC.
“Now there’s one for the quiz bowl. Tell me what’s the name of the hole they got?” says Daddy. Velvet is studying for the state quiz bowl. If she and her team can make it to the finals, she’ll get a scholarship that will let her go to the capital for school for just the price of a bus ride.
“He was too good for this world,” says Daddy, “old Buttons.”
At that, a clabbering comes over our heads. From the chair and couch, all of us watch it, following that noise until one by one we stop chewing. The noise goes a-brushing and a-scraping and a-shuffling from one end of the house to the other, from the kitchen off toward Daddy’s room. The noise is as close as it can be coming from inside instead of out.
“Please don’t say it’s a ghost!” says Dawn. “I’m terrified of ghosts. I hate ghosts, no!”
“Why maybe it’s the ghost of Buttons,” says JC, smiling. He’s telling it to no one, but he’s telling it to Dawn. “Old Buttons is coming back from the dead to stop your jibing.”
“Save me! Save me, JC!” screams Dawn. But Velvet is too busy thinking of what that word must be to give her anything but a look.
“It’s that damn possum on the roof,” says Daddy, his mouth chock-full of food. “One of these days I’m gonna stay home and shoot me that bugger. I got my twelve-gauge pumped and loaded.” He pretends he’s sighting him through the roof. “Phew! Goodbye, Mister Possum.”
“Cloaca!” says Velvet. “That’s it! That’s the word I was looking for!”
Daddy glances at my plate. “How come you ain’t eating them green beans?” There ain’t nothing on my plate but green beans. “Them’s the stuff that’s nourishing. Make you grow up big and strong.”
“The word for what?”
“For what fish tend to their business through.”
“Speaking of business,” says Daddy. He wiggles the table from the couch so he can stand up, scratch his belly, and groan. “I gotta get me off to work. And these little varmints gotta get off to bed.” Daddy’s eyes are small from sleeping or too much food; it makes him hover over JC like a moccasin waiting to pounce, like he’s something dangerous.
“Yeah, I’d better get on going myself,” says JC, who also wiggles his table at the far end of the couch. Daddy sits between them whenever JC comes over to visit Velvet. “I know Velvet’s got more studying. See you later, Velvet — I mean, tomorrow at school.” He waves to Velvet, then to the rest of us.
“Come back, JC!” says Dawn. “Don’t be no stranger!”
At the door, he and Daddy shake hands like they were proud of just being men, like something that allowed them to knowing a handshake for a club, though JC always shakes hands like he’s a little confused. Daddy gives him a thud on the back as JC walks to the dark.
“You ever joining the army, JC?” we hear Daddy asking JC outside. “As I recall, you was saying something bout how you was supposed to be shipped off sometime last month.”
“Yes, sir, Mister George. As soon as I get my wisdom teeth out, I aim to ship right off.”
“Well, when’s that gonna be?”
“About as soon as I get the funds, Mister George.”
“About as soon as you get the funds,” says Daddy.
We hear the keys jingle in JC’s hand, and we hear the truck door open, and we hear them keys slip in.
The three of us on the couch listen to that old pickup of JC’s rattle and cough and get to moving; we can’t hear a word now that’s been said. The truck drives down the road out the park, and Daddy comes to the door, but not without glaring up.
“I don’t see that damn possum!” he shouts into the dark, poking his head up at the roof. “Your days are numbered, Mister Possum! I’ll be coming for you with my shotgun.”
By the time we hear Daddy leave for the plant, Dawn and I are already in bed and Velvet is in the kitchen doing dishes. She is putting things away very quietly, and if her shadow didn’t break the light under the door now and then, I’d say she weren’t in the house.
“I miss old Buttons,” I say to Dawn. She is lying on her back, still awake.
“Hush now. Buttons ain’t never coming back, so hush.”
“You think Miss Evelyn will come over maybe this weekend?”
“I think JC’ll come over ten times before Miss Evelyn comes over once,” says Dawn.
“Daddy says Miss Evelyn’s got a big real house. He said she’s got a TV and a fireplace and a big old yard that goes down to a creek, and in the yard’s a doghouse. You think if we move in with Miss Evelyn, she’ll let us go get Buttons?”
“Hush,” says Dawn.
So I hush.
It was a while, and then I was dreaming. Whenever the covers were lifted, I was smelling a whiff of Dawn’s feet, a whiff of that stink that smelled kind of musty but also a little bit sharp, like something was dead in the wall, and then when them covers went down I no longer smelled it so much, only if I breathed and really tried, I could catch a whiff of her feet, and then my dreams were running and going, and the stink was the smell of a fat man. He was young, but not so young it couldn’t’ve took him some time to eat him all of that food, which is how come he got so fat. Watching him walk was something funny, and all of us laughed and laughed at the silly way he had of walking himself. He was just there skipping along and swaggering like he thought he wasn’t so fat as he really was. Just a-skipping along and swaggering. He had a thin little kind of black mustache and a rose between his teeth like they do in the cartoons. Well, the reason he was skipping, the reason how come he was so durn smart, was because he was on his way to paying a call to the lady he was in love with! And once she opened the door, the group of us saw she was the prettiest little lady that any of us ever laid eyes on; you could see why he’d been skipping. Then the pretty lady came out, right there on the step, and the fat man gave her a hug and a long smooch (the rose was gone from between his teeth, which meant he must have eaten it), and then all a sudden the fat man who’d been fat, he wasn’t fat no more but skinny like the little lady he’d been hugging, only the little lady was fat as the fat man had been. He’d give her all his fat! And that little lady who’d got big, her face was round as pie and her titties were hanging off her like two big ham hocks. And the fat man who’d got little, he was smiling and still thinking he was so durn smart, and the little lady who’d got fat, she was smiling and something happy, and before you knew what they were smiling about, she reached up under her dress and pulled out a baby and plopped him on her titty. Then that little baby, the group of us watched him suck, and he was sucking something hard at that there titty, and the more he sucked and harder, the bigger he began to get while the fat lady began to shrink, and when he finished sucking, the baby turned to a full-grown man. It was just the three of them there on the doorstep, pretty as a picture, and all of them skinny again and smiling, and then I awoke because I could feel Dawn awake beside me, though I couldn’t smell her feet.
The light was on under the door, and Velvet wasn’t in bed.
“What’s that creaking noise?”
“Shh!” says Dawn. “It’s just that possum on the roof!”
And somewhere in the sound came Velvet’s whispering, “I ain’t doing it without protection.”
For a while the two of us listened to the noise — it sounded like the possum was out there scratching and using his claws to dig a great big hole up through the floor because there was something in there he needed to get at — Velvet’s voice now and then crying out the way she does sometimes late at night when she thinks the rest of us are asleep, until the noise laid off, Velvet, the possum, and JC.
The next day on the bus, Seesaw told us we had a test that neither of us had studied for, so me, Eugene, Seesaw, and Margie decided we’d cut school, so we snuck off to the woods, where Seesaw built a fire, and the four of us passed around a cigarette that Eugene had stole from his brother and took turns telling stories. Eugene told a story about a dog who’d come on his lawn, who his older brother shot from a point-blank range, and Seesaw said he’d shot an eight-point buck with his daddy over last Christmas. Then Margie told a story about a woman looking for work, and how she and her daddy had caught the woman dancing around buck naked on a cow trailer, so they had to run her off. Then after Margie told the story, Margie and Eugene began to kiss, and Seesaw and me went off in the woods so they could be more private, and Seesaw asked if I wanted to kiss, and I said I guess I wouldn’t mind trying it, so the two of us started to kiss, but the whole while I kept on thinking, wondering about Buttons, if the people at the hospital were helping him get better, and if I should ask Daddy if we could go to church so Pastor Jim would tell us where that hospital was, so we might go get Buttons or check on how he was. Then Seesaw asked if I still wanted to kiss, and I said I was done, and then I went around a bush to pee.
Around lunchtime, I was awful hungry and I decided to go home. Neither Velvet nor Dawn was there, only Daddy, who was sleeping in his room. There weren’t nothing in the fridge or cupboard. I poked around until I found a can of lima beans, but I got tired of eating them after a couple bites.
Since Velvet was staying late to study for the quiz bowl, Dawn came home alone. She threw her pack down against the wall so that the princess plates rattled, hard enough to wake up Daddy.
“You’re gonna get a whopping.”
“How come you wasn’t at school? Debbie said she heard you and Seesaw skipped with Nathan’s little brother. You’re the one’s gonna get the whopping.”
“I’ll show you something if you swear you won’t fudge on me.”
“Swearing’s wrong!” says Dawn. She was following me to the bathroom. “But maybe I might could promise.”
There in the trash can, buried under some paper, was a long yellowish packet like a big balloon before blown up or one of them packets of milk with some milk left in the corners.
“Gimme that!” says Dawn, snatching it out of my hand. “That’s not for little girls.”
“What is it?”
“It ain’t nothing,” she says.
“I’ma go ask Daddy.”
“Daddy don’t know what it is. He dropped out the fourth grade and can’t spell ‘depot’ or your own name sometimes.”
“I’ma go ask him all the same if you don’t tell me, Dawn.”
“It’s a summons for minding your own business is what it is,” says Dawn. She was fingering the packet with the tips of her fingers, her eyes gigantic and imagining, like she was hoping it might be full of milk or what was left of it hadn’t gone bad. “But I’ll tell you if you promise not to go telling the whole world. Not Velvet, not JC, not Daddy.”
“It’s a tool for measuring spit. You spit in the bag, and if it comes out a little you know you’re thirsty.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“Well, believe me or not, little girl. You swore, so don’t go asking what ain’t is none of your business in the first place.”
That night JC drove home Velvet, and since JC was planning on staying for dinner, the two of us went to get dressed, but when Velvet saw there weren’t any food, she made JC drive her to go get groceries, and by the time they come back Daddy had already left for the plant. It was already way past bedtime by the time she took the pizzas outta the oven.
“Don’t tell Daddy JC was here this late,” says Velvet once we was all alone on the couch. “Or else JC won’t be allowed to come back.” JC was coming back from excusing himself. “I’ll ask JC to bring us to the fair and give us a ride on the Ferris wheel if you all promise.”
“On whose dime? On whose dime, Velvet?” says Dawn, and Velvet shot her a look that said she had better shut her mouth if she knew what was good for her. “Don’t worry, JC. Your secret’s safe with me.” Dawn winked at JC as he sidled back on the couch. He was using Daddy’s own pizza tray. JC blushed, kind of smiling, looking confused and a little afraid, the same way he does whenever Daddy makes him shake hands.
“Hey, JC,” says Dawn. She ate all her food while JC was in the bathroom, so he wouldn’t have to hear how loud she is at chewing. “I was just wondering — do you know who the best-hung man in the entire world is?”
Velvet sets down her pizza and is about to tear Dawn’s head off from the neck.
“Dawn, I swear! You say one more word, you and your filthy brain, and I’ll give you a hiding so hard you’ll — ”
“Jesus! That’s Jesus hung on the cross! Did you think I was being dirty? I wasn’t being dirty! I ain’t nothing but pure of heart!”
JC is laughing so hard he may be choking on his food. I know I’m supposed to be laughing too, but I don’t see what’s so funny, but I go on and laugh anyway. Only Velvet looks like she wants to die, that is, die or maybe kill Dawn.
“That’s pretty good,” says JC. His cheeks are puffy, and what with his stubble, his skin might be a baby porcupine. He ain’t looking at nobody in particular, just talking as he does from one side of his mouth. “They teach you that at school?”
“We heard the possum on the roof last night,” I tell him.
“Hush, Jolene!” says Dawn.
“I know,” says Velvet. “Remember, I was right here with you when we all heard it?”
“No, I’m talking later. Once we was in bed. Dawn and me — ”
But Dawn gives me a good kick in the shins. “Ow!” There’ll be a big old bruise there come tomorrow. I slap her across the jaw, and it takes JC both and Velvet tearing us apart and yelling before the two of us can hope to stop.
“You two ain’t nothing but little varmints!” says Velvet. She is picking up a piece of pizza that got thrown over during the fight. “This the reason how come Miss Evelyn won’t come over no more. Daddy says he’s got to protect her from y’all’s roughhousing. Now, what’s this about the possum?” She turns to me, staring me to the bone. I can feel Dawn’s eyes burning, the hurt blood throbbing in my shins.
“Nothing,” I go.
“I heard that possum out here with y’all.”
After spraying the carpet where it got the red stain, Velvet comes back, sitting between me and Dawn. I can tell Dawn is glad about getting to sit next to JC, even if she’s ugly from crying.
“You know, it ain’t even a possum — the critter up on the roof. Today we learnt at quiz bowl ‘possum’ is all wrong. It’s ‘opossums’ in America. Everyone else, they got to say ‘possum.’ But they ain’t such thing as possums in this part of the world.”
With that Dawn makes us go to bed. Velvet says JC is going to leave as soon as he’s through with helping with doing the dishes, even though we know he might stay till after we fall asleep, and sure enough, while I’m brushing my teeth I nod off once or twice and hafta catch myself from falling into the sink. Dawn is already asleep — pretending to be — when I crawl in bed, and before I can think to smell her feet, I am out of this world we live in…
It’s a house. I think, Miss Evelyn’s. The roof is as tall as the rest of the house is by itself, and coming from the back, I hear a deep-sounding dog scampering around in the yard, the tags on his collar going clink clink clink, barking at us through the fence, barking because he’s happy to see us visit him. I can tell he’s shaggy and large. They’s flowers by the door in tubs, and the smell of someone cooking is what makes me open the door. And inside I hear a noise. I have heard the noise of this noise before: it sounds like a million crickets all crammed in under one roof, the noise so loud it makes my head start spinning, and sure enough, they are there in that big room, from one wall to the next. Not a space to move through or step in since they are piled up together, all on top of another. But the noise, it ain’t from crickets, but’s the wailing and crying of babies. Babies more than a mind can count. Some of them babies older, and some of them babies younger. Some of them babies in bowties, and some of them babies in glasses. Some of them babies with skirts and aprons on, and some of them fooling around. Babies being tended, and babies tending to. Babies of all sizes. I suppose it was a whole house just filled to the brim with babies. Babies of all sorts. And them babies was having babies, and them babies was having babies, and them babies, they was having babies, too! There ain’t nowhere in the world, I reckon, where they’d got together more babies.
Well, the next time we saw Miss Evelyn wasn’t until next year, wasn’t until that spring for Velvet’s graduation, which was a downright shame since by the time she paid us a call I’d forgotten all about my dream and couldn’t remember what that house that had all the babies inside looked like, so there was no way in the world I could remember to know about asking her if hers looked like the same one in my dream or not. Velvet’s team didn’t even make it to the finals, which meant there was no more getting a scholarship to go to school in the capital, which was also a crying shame since that night at dinner Miss Evelyn said she had good friends down there in the capital that Velvet coulda stayed with if she had just come up with the funds to pay tuition, which she couldn’t have done anyway. By now, I’d almost forgot about Buttons.
Velvet had just finished setting out dinner when Daddy awoke. Before he could hope to sit at his plate, though, Miss Evelyn held out her cheek, which was to say Daddy shouldn’t even think about sitting down, not until he gave her a good smooch.
“Howdy, Mister George,” says JC.
“What you doing, JC? You protecting Miss Evelyn from the likes of these here varmints?”
JC blushes, not sure if or what he should answer.
“George, you ain’t yet asked about Velvet’s big day or offered your congratulations,” says Miss Evelyn. “Velvet was at the head of her class and gave the most wonderful speech I ever heard at a high school.”
“Oh yeah?” says Daddy; he is already good into his chicken.
“It ain’t but something I wrote when y’all was away last week,” says Velvet.
“Oo!” goes Dawn. After bending over, she sets down her chicken, because lately, she can’t hardly stand it whenever someone else is talking and’s been wanting to hog the attention. She’s now as big as JC!
“You ain’t gonna eat them wings?” says Daddy, eyeballing the stuff on her plate, leaning over some in his chair.
“Oh, George, you ain’t even ate all your chicken. Give the child some peace.”
“I’m just making plans,” says Daddy, justifying himself. His eyes are narrow from either having been asleep or from filling himself with food. “A man’s always got to be thinking on down the road. Ain’t that right, JC?” The grease from the chicken makes his lips and chin look shiny, like he was putting on gloss while he was driving over a road with holes.
“It’s a downright shame Velvet won’t be going no more to the capital. Velvet and I were just saying she coulda stayed with some good friends of mine. The capital is just to die for in the spring! All the azaleas in bloom and honeysuckle. The governor’s ball is something else. Did I ever tell you the lieutenant-governor is my second nephew once removed? I could’ve introduced y’all two.”
“Oo!” goes Dawn again. Every now and then she runs off to go puke, but today she’s just being ornery.
“I call dibs on this here drumstick,” says Daddy. He reaches over a finger and touches the one he wants.
“Go on,” says Dawn, “I don’t care.”
“You know big-city living works wonders on a young lady’s form,” says Miss Evelyn. “I know it certainly worked wonders on mine. I went down with the soles of my boots clapping on the sidewalk, and the very next week I was wearing fifty-dollar blue suede shoes. I thought I looked pretty smart.”
“I got an uncle who lives in the capital,” says JC. These days Daddy don’t mind if he and Velvet sit side by side on the couch so long as nobody takes his tray. He says he likes having his space.
“Why that must be Lena!” yells Miss Evelyn. And at that, all of us turn at once as if expecting to find a ghost, but before it can say “boo” or we can say “where?” Miss Evelyn raises a thick bright purple fingernail. “In that there picture! Why that’s exactly the way I imagine her — pretty as a picture! And you,” she says, turning and sizing me down, “you take right after her down to the freckle. You got the same sky-blue eyes as the color of that dress.”
“Married in sky-blue silk the color of her eyes,” says Daddy from under his chicken.
“Oo!” goes Dawn. The way she’s always rubbing her belly makes me think she ate too much chocolate.
“Lord, child, just go excuse yourself.” And to forget about Dawn being obnoxious, Miss Evelyn scratches the back of her neck and goes, “Speaking of marrying” — she ain’t touched a lick of her corn or her baked chicken cause at the party she ate too much cake — “I don’t mean to seem like prying, but what’s the reason how come you kids ain’t tied the knot? When I was your age I’d already had my third bun in the oven. What, JC, you got cold feet?”
“No, ma’am,” says JC. “I’m just still working out all my prospects. Looking on down the road. I suspect we’ll like to tie the knot as soon as most folks,” he speaks from the side of his mouth. For all the world, he wouldn’t look at nothing but that tray of food.
“JC’s working on fixing up an old Mustang his buddy Fred sold him. We’re gonna sell that Mustang to pay for the wedding and a down payment on a house,” says Velvet. “What with my working nights at the ValueSave, it oughtn’t to take but six more months.”
“By house, you mean a trailer?” says Miss Evelyn. She’s poking her chicken to test whether the meat’s still warm.
“You can’t get married!” goes Dawn. All of us stop our chewing from how loud she yelled. “You can’t get married cause JC’s already mine! I’m gonna have his baby!”
Daddy swallows whatever he’s got left in his mouth, then stops. JC, who is looking down at his lap, smiles as if trying to keep himself from telling Dawn how crazy she is. Miss Evelyn scratches the bite she got on her neck. Only Velvet is seeming like she’s ready to go off, like those seconds when the fuse of a Black Cats is lit and you’re clenching to try and prepare yourself for the bang. But it is Miss Evelyn who says, “Hush, child. Being jealous is the Lord’s foreworst sin. It ain’t right to covet what ain’t yours.”
“It ain’t that I’m being jealous, I’m just telling y’all all the truth! If anyone should be jealous, it’s her should be jealous of me!”
“Dawn, you shut up!” says Velvet. JC goes on staring at his lap, smiling that smile, like there was someone down there telling him funny jokes that if he laughed at he’d lose a bet.
“All right,” says Daddy. “Dawn, you mind yourself. Let’s don’t be messing with your big sister on her big day.”
“She ain’t the one that’s big! I’m big!” says Dawn, and up she stands and shows us that big belly of hers that is not so fat now come to look at it but pregnant. “JC done knocked me up!”
All of us are looking at JC, daring him to tell us it ain’t so, especially Daddy. But old JC just keeps on grinning, sort of rocking himself, still trying to keep himself from going off, laughing, losing the bet, until finally he says out the side of his mouth, “Nuh huh, Dawn. You’re crazy.”
“That’s a fact,” says Daddy.
“I never touched her, Mister George.”
“He ain’t touched her with no ten-foot pole!” says Velvet.
“He ain’t maybe touched me,” goes Dawn, “but JC good as give me his seed, and I’ma have me my and JC’s baby.” Not one of us is chewing or thinking bout dinner, not even Daddy. “I found me one of them bags. It was thrown away in the bathroom.”
At that Daddy wiggles out from under his table and trudges back toward the bathroom to take a look, all of us watching him, watching Dawn, watching JC, all of us waiting to see if he will come back with some kind of proof to show Dawn she doesn’t know what she’s talking about, but it is not the trash can in his hand he comes back with but his shotgun, and before the group of us has time to wonder if he is bringing it out as a present, as some kind of prize for all of Dawn’s craziness, JC is plumb out the door and Daddy behind him. Miss Evelyn screams. Somewhere in the night, there’s a shot.
Velvet springs up from the couch to try to stop him. All of us is out the door running after.
That old pickup of JC’s rattles and comes to life, and a blast of Daddy’s pellets strikes somewhere off the tailboard as the last of the shotgun dies at the moon. All of us, except for Dawn, are out there standing amongst the trees, all of us watching the taillights of JC’s Ford grow smaller as he hurries away from the park. The light from inside the house is too bright to be looked at directly. Then all a sudden a scraping sound and rattling starts making its way from one end of the roof toward the other — Daddy is still holding up his shotgun, the smell of the shots still burning the hairs in our nose, and only once it draws close does he turn from staring after JC — to a sweet gum by Daddy’s room and scrambles down the bark.
“It’s that damn possum on the roof!”