Short Fiction/Part Three
We listened to “Sky King” together on the big floor model radio in the living room, almost like a real family. Afterwards, Ronnie whined at Ted about when he planned to buy a television. He kept on and kept on. Pretty soon Alice and Ted got sick of him and sent us both to bed. No fair. To say goodnight, Alice kissed Ronnie on his cheek and patted me on the shoulder. No fair again, but I didn’t care. She made us swear we’d do our homework until lights out at ten o’clock. Before we were even out of the room Alice made Ted put his paper off to one side, so they could talk. That was a bad news for him. Up in Ronnie’s room I could tell he was in a mood, too, because the first thing out of his mouth was, “Know who’s a better artist than you, Andy?” When I didn’t say anything, he answered himself. “Betsy the chimpanzee.”
I stayed quiet and took my shoes and socks off. Ronnie already had his off and was spreading and un-spreading his toes for exercise. We always did our homework barefoot. Ronnie said, “Just because you’re the best favorite in Miss Laura’s art class, that don’t make you—”
“Well,” Ronnie said, “anyway, that monkey is twice as better than you. Three times as better.” I could care less what Ronnie thought since I knew he didn’t know anything about art. Anyway, Betsy couldn’t draw, she just smeared finger paints around to make a mess. Ate more paint than she painted with. “Betsy’s the real genius,” Ronnie said.
“You read that in the News Post—same as me.” I could tell something else was on Ronnie’s brain. When he got bothered by whatever, Ronnie liked to fight me and he had to win, to show who was the boss. It was pitiful.
“Betsy had her pictures printed in Life magazine,” Ronnie said. “And where was yours?”
I came back at him with a low blow: “Yeah, and how come your daddy don’t come home from work most nights anymore—huh, Ronnie?” Give back better than you get, that’s my motto. Why not? “Ain’t seen Ted at the dinner table with food in his mouth for days.”
Ronnie gave out a puny, “Don’t care,” then he cried some. He used first one sleeve and then the other to wipe off tears and snot, then he shut down and stayed quiet for a long time.
After awhile I said, “Look, Ronnie, I didn’t mean to say that, what I said.” He kept on real quiet and pretty soon I caught on that he was staring at my bare feet. That was so creepy I quick pulled them up under me. “You shithead, Ronnie!”
“Your feet are so little,” he said, like it was the most natural thing in the world to say that. “I’ve got ’em memorized.”
“You know, Ronnie, you’re really one dumb fucker.”
“In case you come up hurt or dead, see?” Ronnie did a laughing snort. “Say one foot gets cut off and mixed in with a bunch of other feet, in a war, say—or a train crash? You’re laid up in the hospital delirious from pain. They go to sew your foot on and there’s a whole pile to choose from, but you’re in no condition to say which one? I’d know the one to point to.”
“They don’t sew stuff back on people that’s been cut off.”
“How about Frankenstein?” Ronnie waited to see if I saw some sense in that dumb statement, but I kept quiet. Ronnie kept at me. “Say you come up dead in the harbor, your head cut off. Hands and arms gone. What’s left for identification?”
“Feet and legs and—”
“Forget legs,” Ronnie said. “Legs are no good for identification—but feet, especially if someone swears they know them particular feet, that would work. You’d be easy, Andy, ’cause your feet are perfect and tiny.”
It took all I had to keep calm and not tell him where to shove his dumb idea. I just said, “Millions of people have little feet.”
“Not in South Baltimore.” Ronnie smiled. “One hundred, tops.”
“At least five hundred.”
“Not perfect-shaped like yours!” Ronnie gave me an oily grin that flipped my stomach. “Don’t worry, Andy, if something happens to you I’ve got ’em in my brain.”
“Ronnie, you best quit with that feet shit.”
“Even better—how about if your feet were a special color? Think about it. Blue, maybe! Blue is lucky. Yeah! If your feet were the only perfect blue feet in South Baltimore, why, anybody could identify ’em, assuming they knew Andy Givens had perfect tiny blue—”
“Screw you, Ronnie!”
“Let me paint ’em Andy!”
When he begged like that I first wanted to gag, but instead I just yelled, “Go to hell!” That was part fake, though, ’cause I was really mad and happy all at once. Ronnie was crazy—yeah—but in a good-bad way. He made it be really strange fun sometimes, us two living in that room.
Some nights Ronnie couldn’t go to sleep if he knew Alice’s tall glasses were mixed in with her short glasses. He’d wait until his folks were conked out and sneak downstairs and go through the kitchen cabinets. We whispered about stuff until we heard their snores. Ted was easy to spot because he snored big. Alice did tiny grunt sounds. When Ronnie got back from his kitchen raid he always saluted me like John Wayne and said, “Mission accomplished.” The next morning Alice would find her glasses in neat rows, arranged by height and color. She must have wondered how they got that way, but as far as I know she never let on. Ronnie did other crazy stuff, too. Like, that one night when he came in and went straight to his bed like he didn’t see me. He turned around five times and sat down. I kept my mouth shut. After awhile he got up and went to his closet and stood there, just faced the closet door, didn’t open it. It was like he sleepwalked over there. He waited awhile, then went back to his bed and turned around five times and sat down.
Finally I couldn’t help myself. “You must be crazy,” I said.
“Uh, uh—Huh?” Ronnie said it like I had just woke him up out of a dream.
“You’re nuts, Ronnie.”
“Another thing is, you’re also a big pussy.”
“Take it back,” Ronnie said.
“I will, Andy, I will.”
“Yeah? You and who’s army?”
“The three of us,” He said. And of course I knew what came next. Sure enough Ronnie said, “Me, myself, and I.”
That was so lame. Sometimes Ronnie disgusted me too much to even bother with. “O. K.,” I said, “you win.”
“No, Andy—first take back what you said.”
“I do, Ronnie. I truly do take it back.”
“No, say, ‘You’re not a pussy, Ronnie.’”
“O. K., you’re not a pussy.”
“Say my name, too.”
“You’re not a pussy, Ronnie.”
“Good thing, too,” he said. “That was just in time.”
Yeah, right, like what if I didn’t take it back? Ronnie was hopeless, so I gave up and shut up. The next morning, as per usual, I felt his sheets. So far the average for his sheets being soaked was five days out of seven. By the time Alice changed the beds each week all Ronnie’s piss had dried into yellow stains that overlapped and made rusty patterns—kind of pretty designs—light to dark and back again. Alice never let on and neither did Ronnie. Neither did I. That would have been just too mean.
One night I watched Ronnie with one of my eyes, the other one blocked by my pillow. I had been in the middle of a good dream about earwax when some kind of noise woke me up. Ronnie was on his bed by the window, moonlight behind him that made him look like a cutout. At first I didn’t move, kept my head down, half-stuck in the pillow. Ronnie sat still on his bed except when he swayed. He’d be still for five seconds—listening for who knows what?—then he’d do small rocking moves side to side. The sways were so tiny you could hardly tell. He’d rock side to side some and then sit like a statue, then do more moves. The house was quiet. I think I saw a bat go by the window, but maybe not—they’re so fast. Ronnie claimed bats were nighttime swallows that wouldn’t suck your blood. No matter what I heard about bats, I shouldn’t believe that, Ronnie said. “Trust me,” he said, “no bat will every drink a drop of your blood.”
Another night, Alice screamed from down the hallway and Ronnie glanced up from his jigsaw puzzle at the bedroom door, then back down. It was so split-second I almost didn’t catch him—one smooth action—just his eyes moving. That jigsaw was humongous. It had all the animals in some African jungle, plus grass and trees and bugs, and huge-beaked birds. Ronnie had the edges done on three sides and some on the last side. It was a big jaggie rectangle, empty in the middle. He pretended to work at it for five minutes—zero talk, just tiny whimpers—the same puzzle piece in his hand the whole time. Ronnie’s hand didn’t move. More time. Then Alice screamed again and grunted real big—then a bunch of grunts that went from high-pitched to low and then back up again real high. In the nighttime quiet her grunts came down the hall like a church bell. Ronnie still kept still. Then Alice laughed a big screeching laugh and Ronnie smiled but didn’t look up. Then his hand moved over the jigsaw like a helicopter and dropped the puzzle piece in exactly the right spot.
Part four of The Last Dog will post tomorrow.