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I’d nearly forgotten what Poppa looks like until he walks through the front door. He’s wearing his old trapper hat, the same worn jeans and a brown leather jacket. He is thinner than I remember and his face is littered with sores. I try not to stare. Instead, I concentrate on washing the dishes, the yellow rubber gloves a bright contrast to my too big jeans and washed-out blue sweater. Momma sits in her usual chair and doesn’t say a word. However, she looks up; there is a flicker of recognition in her brown eyes, then she continues to gaze vacantly at the large wooden crucifix that hangs over the fireplace.
Poppa switches on the coffee machine and takes a small plastic container from his pocket. He’s been gone for five months; I don’t know where or why and I’m not brave enough to ask. He gently shakes the white dust, inside the container, onto a piece of folded paper and sniffs it quick. He looks at me and says, ‘You got a need for it, yet?’ I shake my head and wipe the same dish over and over.
Poppa is a fickle fire, sometimes warm and inviting; other times, he’s set to burn you to the ground. I don’t know what to say; words sail through my mind, edge to the tip of my tongue before scrambling back again. ‘Don’t you love me any more, June-bug?’ Poppa says. His voice is saccharine, as if he is talking to a child. My insides sink until there is nothing left, just a hollow cavity where my organs used to be. The sponge drowns in the filthy water as I embrace Poppa, resting my head on his frail chest. His hands slide up and down my back; droplets of water, from the rubber gloves, seep into his jacket and the familiar smell of men’s sweat clings to my clothes.
‘How old are you? I keep forgettin’,’ he says.
‘Sixteen.’ I search his blue, blue eyes. I find nothing.
‘You ain’t grown much.’ He leans back; his gaze rests on my breasts before meeting my eyes again.
‘I got you somethin’.’ Poppa retrieves a delicate gold necklace from his jacket pocket and places it over my head; a small crucifix hangs from it.
‘If it’s dirty, I don’t want it,’ I say, caressing the slender cross with my fingertips.
‘Don’t you worry, I bought it square.’ Poppa smiles like he used to and I smile back, the sweet taste of hope at the tip of my tongue.
Later that day, to match the beauty of the necklace, I wear one of Momma’s pretty white dresses. On the front porch, I sit with Poppa’s fiddle, plucking the strings. It’s cold outside, so I wear a large coat, thick socks and Momma’s hunting boots to keep my feet warm. Poppa joins me on the porch and takes the fiddle. ‘Damn, I ain’t played this thing in a long time,’ he says, placing the instrument under his chin. I pass him the bow and he sits down beside me.
‘I like it when you play,’ I say.
‘When you was a little girl, you and Momma used to watch me play at Ted’s Bar.’
‘I remember.’ I pause for a moment. ‘Why did you stop playing, Poppa?’
‘There ain’t no money in it. Momma was better off doing what she did and I was better off selling crank.’
‘Do you think what Momma used to do turned her mad?’ I ask.
‘Naw, she was always a dreamer.’
‘Poppa.’ My voice is small, almost a whisper. ‘I don’t like doing what Momma used to do.’
He turns to me, his eyes are hard and I feel as if the porch is sucking me in, Poppa rising above me like a demon.
‘We gotta make money … and you gotta do what you’s told,’ he says.
’Yes, Poppa,’ I say.
Poppa begins to play a slow country tune and I think back to when Momma wasn’t sick. She used to drink most nights and I would clean the vomit from her hair, feed her painkillers, and lie with her in bed until she stopped crying. Momma would cry for Poppa, cry for me, cry for herself and her terrible, terrible ways. If she weren’t crying, she would be praying: ‘Jesus, save me,’ she would whisper until she fell asleep and I would lie awake, praying for God to save us all.
Whilst Poppa continues to play, a stray dog lumbers up the dirt path, its muzzle pepper grey. The old dog often visits, either begging for food or, sometimes, it just sits and stares into the trees, waiting for something to happen. The dog lies by the porch steps, its head bowed low, its miserable, lonesome eyes gazing up at Poppa, and I know exactly how that dog is feeling.
Along with the night comes Poppa’s friend, Austin, a poker game and copious amounts of beer. The two men sit in a swirl of smoke and raucous laughter. After setting down a bowl of pretzels, I sit at the table, joining the game, laughing at the dirty jokes and prison stories; I swig from a bottle of beer and smoke rolled tobacco. I love and hate Poppa’s poker nights. I enjoy the fun and laughter and the tingle of booze in my blood, but these nights never do end well.
Austin is thirty and deals in second-hand vehicles, but from his sagging skin and missing teeth, I know he’s been cooking up meth with Poppa. ‘I swear, Wayne. This kid is almost a goddamn woman,’ Austin says, grinning at me; I put the cigarette to my lips and blow out the smoke slowly. Poppa snorts and rearranges his cards.
‘Takes after her momma, this one.’ Poppa chuckles. ‘Except not as clever.’ He taps his beer bottle to his head and continues: ‘If brains was leather, June wouldn’t have enough to saddle a June-bug.’ I laugh and roll my eyes.
‘Didn’t you like school, June?’ Austin says.
‘Naw, hated it; kids are mean, and don’t get me started on those damn teachers.’ I sip from my bottle of beer, the kitchen spins and I know I should stop drinking.
‘I guess book smarts ain’t for everyone,’ Austin says.
‘Amen to that,’ Poppa replies, clinking bottles with Austin.
‘Amen,’ I say, and clink my bottle too.
‘Amen,’ Momma calls. I turn to check on her, hoping that she’s finally out of her stupor, but she’s still sitting in that same chair, still gazing blankly at the crucifix.
For a while, there is silence, except for the crack and snap of the fire in the fireplace. The two men consider their cards. I study Austin’s face; his amber eyes dangerous, like a devilish jungle-cat I once saw on the television. Furtively, Austin moves his hand underneath the skirt of my white dress; he lightly scratches his nails against my bare thigh. I am a good pretender. I stare at the cards in my hand. Three of a kind: six of hearts, six of diamonds and six of spades.
‘So, Wayne, when am I gonna to get my money’s worth?’ Austin says to Poppa. With every thump of my heart, it’s as if my ribs are snapping into a million tiny shards of bone that pierce my lungs. Nevertheless, I pretend not to notice Austin’s sorrowful words and the hunger in his voice. Poppa looks at me. I know it’s time to go. I know that Poppa will never change no matter how hard I pray.
I lie on my bed; the lights turned low, thinking about Poppa. I once stood up to him and he locked me in the basement. He’d said that God’s wrath was pouring out over my head. On the third day, I made a bargain with God that if Poppa forgave me, I would never disobey either of them. Two hours later, Poppa let me out, crying and begging for forgiveness.
I hear footsteps along the hall and I begin to whisper a prayer, even though God forgot about me a long time ago: ‘Lord, I cannot say it in words, please just listen through my heart-’
‘June?’ Austin’s voice is low and solemn. I sit up on the bed. ‘Hey, darlin’, you ready?’
‘I’m ready,’ I say. No matter how many times I do this, it still makes my skin ache and my blood turn to acid. Austin stands over me, smiling. I close my eyes as he undresses me. I bite my lip as his hands run up and down my body. I hold my breath as he touches me in places that make me feel as if I don’t belong to myself any more. When he is lying on top of me, I concentrate on the soft pillow against my cheek, how it caresses my skin, as if the material loves me and wants to protect me. I pretend that this is not my life, that Momma hasn’t gone and lost herself and that Poppa actually gives a damn.
When Austin is finished, he stands and zips up his jeans. I sit naked on the bed except for the gold crucifix hanging from my neck; the callous air from the broken window pinches my skin. ‘I’ve paid your Poppa; this here’s for you,’ Austin says, reaching into his pocket and pulling out something with a ten-dollar bill wrapped round it. I unwrap the money to find a red lollipop.
‘Thanks, red’s my favourite,’ I say.
‘Don’t sweat it.’ He leans down, grasps my chin and kisses me on the lips. I kiss him back because he was gentle with me. ‘Stay sweet,’ he says, pulling away. He kisses me on the forehead and leaves the room. I hide the ten dollars in my underwear drawer and sit on the bed, wrap the bed sheet around my aching body and suck on the lollipop until all the sweetness is gone.
Later that night, after Austin leaves, the arguing starts. Momma is out of her stupor and shouting and slamming kitchen cabinets, whilst Poppa calls her horrible, horrible names. Momma tells Poppa that he needs to stop. Stop, stop, stop using me to make a quick few bucks. I stay in my bedroom and choose a CD entitled: All The Classics. I remove it from its case and place it in the stereo. A violin plays: soft, melodic. The volume drowns out Poppa’s angry hollers and Momma’s futile pleading. The tune twists and turns, initially restrained, then more erratic, unpredictable.
Thumping, thudding noises resonate through my bedroom walls and I scramble to the kitchen. Momma is holding the large wooden crucifix like an axe. Blood is smothered across Jesus, whipped across Momma’s cheek and dripping onto the kitchen tiles. Poppa lies on the floor, his arms out-stretched, and blood seeps from the dents in his head. Momma is crying: crying for Poppa, crying for me, crying for herself and her terrible, terrible ways. I scream and run to him, my eyes burning with tears. I look up at Momma, she grins, and the shadows in the room shape her face into something I have never seen before. ‘Jesus saved us, baby, Jesus saved us,’ she says.