Knuckles

I meet Sparky in February, the week Nixon visits China. We’re backyard neighbors, separated by woods and a sagging wire mesh fence. We might as well be America and China. On Sparky’s side of the block, houses are built any which way—homemade additions, leaning-over garages, all clinging however they can to the steep grade. My street, Edgehill Road, forms a wide, flat bench in the middle of the hill. Three-story Victorians with deep back and front yards on one side. On the other, behind a tall, black iron fence that runs along the sidewalk, grass and trees and God at the top—the divinity school campus.

I’m not supposed to be home yet, so I can’t go inside my house. It’s cold, there’s snow on the ground. Voices are coming from the woods at the back of my yard. In my boots and parka, I walk around the house and across the back yard. Head down, I part the overgrown brush with my arms and push forward. Sparky and his sisters—twins named Carla and Darlene—look up at the swishing sound my parka makes against the branches. “I told you a girl lived there,” one of them says.

That year, the year I’m in sixth grade, I decide there are two ways of knowing: the kind that has no edges, that seems like you’ve always known it; and the sudden kind. My father’s story is the first. No one ever sits me down and says, Paloma, your father was the only one in his family to get out of Austria during the war. Just like no one ever tells me he’s dying. Sparky, though, he didn’t exist, and then I pushed down the fence and climbed over, and he did.

The kids are playing some card game, sitting in rusty lawn chairs around a spool table. “Why are you playing out here?” I ask.

“Our dad’s sleeping. He—” The girls both have the same ratty, dark brown hair that falls over their faces. I never learn to tell them apart. One of them says it.

Sparky cuts her off. “It’s an outdoor game.”

“What’s it called?”

“Knuckles.”

The boys in my school play this game when the teachers aren’t looking. I don’t know the rules, only that the winner gets to hit the loser. “I’ll play,” I say.

Sparky gathers up the cards, scrapping the round they’re playing. My bottom sinks too low in the chair he offers me. He deals, thrusts his hands in his pockets to warm them a minute, and then takes up his cards. “It’s like Old Maid, only the one-eyed jack is the card you don’t want to get stuck with,” he says.

When Sparky takes one of my cards, he smiles a quick, secret smile. His front teeth turn in, like he’s been punched. He doesn’t smile at his sisters.

I pick the jack from his hand one turn before he goes out. I have a two, a seven and the jack. The twins go out one after the other.

“Now what?” I look at Sparky.

“Cut the deck. The card tells how many times I hit you.” Sparky has a big, round face and small eyes. When he says this, his eyes narrow.

I  keep staring at him while I shuffle the cards and cut. The card I turn up is the king of clubs. The twins ooh. Sparky says, “Black means I hit hard.” I hold out my hand, my right hand.

The force of his hand pushes mine down when he hits me and I feel a sharp, cold sting. After Sparky hits me the eleventh time, I raise my fist for more. “All the face cards count eleven,” he says. I want him to keep hitting me.

Inside my house, Mrs. Shepler, my piano teacher, is talking to my mother on the phone, telling her that I’ve missed two lessons in a row.

Ever since my father stopped going into his office at the university, I hate playing the piano. I feel him there, listening to me, and the notes get tangled up. It wouldn’t be so bad if he’d criticize me. But that’s not how my family is. The first time I slept over at Allison’s house and heard her father light into her—about her math test, about not doing her chores—I was shocked. But now I understand it’s my parents who are different. The last time I played, my father got up from his chair and stood by the piano a full minute to catch his breath. “You must hold your hands above the keys—” he demonstrated with his own stiff hands “—like this.” My father pronounces each word deliberately. He was a piano prodigy before his hands were frostbitten during the war.

I lose two of the three rounds of Knuckles we play. The twin who beats me doesn’t hit as hard as Sparky, and it’s only five.

My mother’s waiting for me to get out of my parka and boots and open the inside door to the house. “I’ve cancelled your piano lessons,” she says as soon as I do. “We won’t have the money for that kind of thing.” My mother’s edgy since my father got sicker. The future tense means after he dies. As I start to go upstairs, the tea kettle whistles. “I want you to take your father his tea,” she says.

My father looks up from some show about China on the public television station. “Maybe someday you will return to the piano,” he says. “You have my fingers, so long and graceful.” When I set the tea down, he catches my hands in his. His fingers touch the dried blood on my knuckles, and he turns my hand so he can see. “Child, child,” he says.

***

That I’m not allowed to play with Sparky. That Apollo 16 has landed on the moon. That Allison Langdon says I’m a weirdo. That China gave us two giant pandas, Hsing Hsing and Ling Ling. That Betsy’s father moved into an apartment with one of his students. These are things I don’t know and then I do. That my mother has started going to church, that she doesn’t want my father to know. That I will go to a new school next year. That no one notices whether I play with Sparky or not. These are things I just know. At night, when I can’t sleep, I try to decide which way my father dying will be. Nurses come to the house. He refuses to go to the hospital. Sometimes I get out of bed and sneak into the room that used to be my playroom but is now my father’s sick room. I listen to to him breathe. I can’t tell if he’s asleep or awake. One night he whispers, “Paloma” and I whisper back without thinking, “Vati.” It’s what I called him when I was little. Once I started school I insisted on calling him “Dad” like the other kids. He asks me to start the record on the turntable. “Turn the volume very low,” he says. It’s The Emperor Concerto, his favorite Beethoven. When I was much younger, I would sit in his lap while he played his records. The music was his way of talking to me. Now, I don’t know whether to stand by the bed or sit. I stand there for a few minutes. My father says nothing more. Before the Allegro finishes, I tiptoe out.

***

Every day after school, three girls from the high school at the bottom of the hill chase me down Edgehill Road. It’s a game, I guess. Their black legs are as long as I am tall. To them, I’m a white kid from the private school. I run as as far as the gate in the black iron fence. Once I step onto divinity school property, the girls turn back.

***

Sparky’s house smells of beer, dust, and cat pee. His mother doesn’t live there. It’s the first time I’ve been inside. I stare at his father, who’s sitting at the table drinking beer. “What’re you looking at, Girly?” he says. I look away.

“Her father’s got cancer in his bones,” one of the twins says.

Sparky shoves her. “Get lost,” he says.

The father drains the last of his beer. He tells the twin to get him another one. Sparky pulls me down the hall and into his bedroom. They all must sleep there. There’s a bunk bed and a twin mattress on the floor. Sparky closes the door and sits on the mattress. “Don’t just stand there. Come here,” he says.

I sit.

“Fifty spacecraft have crash-landed on the moon,” he says. “Apollo 16’s sub-satellite will make 51.”

We’re studying the Middle Ages in school. Mrs. Gulliver reads to us from The Fairie Queene every afternoon. You can’t listen the way you listen to an ordinary story. You only get the meaning if you listen sideways. That’s how Sparky talking about spacecraft is too.

He moves closer to me. He says my name, “Paloma.” My name doesn’t sound like me when he says it. When I told him and his sisters my name on the afternoon we met, one twin said it was funny. But Sparky repeated it to himself—“Paloma, Paloma,” rolled it in his mouth. Now he says my name again and draws his fingers through my long hair. His hand feels like a mitten.

“Lie back,” he says. He puts his hand under my shirt. It’s cold. It hurts when he pinches one nipple. My breasts have just started to develop; I don’t wear a bra yet. I lie still, and he switches to the other one. Then he climbs on top of me. His weight is like when he hit me with the cards; I can’t resist the force of it. His breath smells like hot dogs.

A twin bursts in, making kissing and groaning noises. Sparky jumps up and chases her out of the room. He’s slapping her when I walk out the door.

***

My grandmother, Nonna Rosa, has come to stay with us. She squeezes my face in both hands and hugs me until I can’t breathe. My father’s recliner has been pushed to the corner to make room for the hospital bed. Nurses come every day. He calls me Analiese sometimes. My mother thinks it’s a sister. My mother has decided to finish her dissertation on New England meeting houses from twelve years ago. She was my father’s student before they got married. When she got pregnant, she quit. She doesn’t ask where I’ve been.

***

“Get your bike,” Sparky says to me. It’s the middle of May, two days after George Wallace was shot. The kids at my school say he deserved it. Sparky’s dad says he had the right idea.

We pedal all the way down the Canner Street hill. Air rushes past me, balloons my jacket and blows my hair back. For two minutes, three minutes, I am motion and wind, not Paloma. I won’t brake until Sparky does. I fly. A few feet before Whitney Avenue, he stands up and stomps on the brake. We both overshoot the corner. A car swerves to miss us, pulls up short and the driver comes out yelling. “You kids crazy? You could have got yourselves hit—. ”

Sparky turns his bike in the opposite direction. “Come on, Paloma,” he says, bumping up the curb and heading down the sidewalk along Whitney. I follow, let the man’s shouts fade into the noise of the traffic.

“Where we going?” I ask.

“You’ll see.”

We rattle down the sidewalk and then Sparky turns to cross Whitney, a busy four-lane road, without waiting for a cross walk or even a red light. Then we’re on streets I’ve never been on before. The air here smells like exhaust, seaweed, and dead fish; above us cars zoom over entrance and exit ramps to the interstate. When we get close to the train tracks, Sparky hops off his bike and drops it beside a bush.

I lay my bike next to his and run to catch up to him. He darts across the tracks.

“Hurry up.”

My toe catches on a rail and I stumble, scraping the palm of my hand on the rock chunks between the ties. I lurch forward, and then we’re across. Sparky turns left, walking along the tracks, picking his way through the litter.

“Should we be here?” I ask

He gestures ahead. “Just a little further.”

All I see is the highway overpass running perpendicular to the tracks.

Sparky tilts his head up to the sun that’s a dull lemon against the colorless sky, already low above the city. I’ve never seen the city from this angle. It looks dingy. “Come on,” he says.

At first, I think he’s brought me here to see the graffiti on the concrete walls beside the train tracks: “MAKE WAR NOT LOVE” painted over the picture of a man shooting bullets out of his thing. But then he strides to the middle of the wall and plasters himself against it. The wall is no more than ten feet from the tracks. “Hurry, Paloma,” he says, and I join him, flatten myself against the wall.

We wait, maybe five minutes. We don’t speak. The wall vibrates as cars drive across the overpass.

When I get home, the ambulance will be in the driveway. Nonna Rosa will rush out of the house in tears and hold me against her as the paramedics carry out my father’s sheet-covered body and load it into the ambulance. Nonna Rosa’s hand will move in the air. I won’t be able to see her, but I’ll know she’s making the sign of the cross. We’ll move. I’ll go to public school. I won’t ever see Sparky again.

I feel the train before I hear it, a hum that comes up through my feet. Just before it arrives Sparky says, “My mom, you know . . . .” Then the train is there and the world is sound, air, motion. It’s different from the slap of the cards because it goes on and on and I can’t tell when it will end, if it will. It’s now and always. Maybe I’m dead.

And then the train is gone, air fills the tunnel again. Sparky takes my hand and leads me out. I can’t hear the cars above us, or our feet kicking the debris.

Jenny Dunning writes short stories and essays and is currently revising her novel–from her desk with a view of the Mississippi River in Wabasha, Minnesota. Her work has been published in Literary Mama, The North Dakota Quarterly, The Tusculum Review, Beloit Fiction Journal and Talking River Review, among other publications.