We got one channel that came over the mountains from West Virginia, and bad weather just about ruined that. On stormy winter nights Papaw went outside to turn the antenna while my big brother, Wendell, stayed in front of the TV, watching for the picture to get better. I stood in the doorway and yelled back and forth between them.
Papaw twisted the pole and hollered, “What now?”
“What now?” I said to Wendell.
“Nothing yet,” Wendell said.
“Nothing,” I yelled to Papaw.
He moved the antenna some more. When the picture got good, Wendell said, “Stop!” and I said, “Stop!” but usually Papaw was done past the stopping place and the picture went bad again. Sometimes if it wasn’t too cold, me and Wendell left Papaw out there for a joke, no matter what the picture did. After a spell, Papaw stomped inside cussing so fast the words ran together like fish on a stringer. The picture wouldn’t be any different, but we pretended like Papaw had made it better. Mainly we watched a good picture with bad sound, or a fuzzy screen that you could hear what people were saying on. We got to where we knew when to switch between them.
Our favorite show was cowboy movies. Wendell and me were always the good guys and Papaw was the one we went up against. During commercials we’d try and guess what they’d do on TV. It was pretty easy to figure out—the bad guys always captured the good guy, and somebody helped him get away. If a woman saved him, she turned out to be the bad guy’s daughter. If it was a buddy, he got hisself killed. The woman hardly ever died. Papaw said that made me lucky to be a girl. I couldn’t see the luck in being somebody who didn’t die if they wasn’t you in the first place. Wendell said I was a good thinker, like our mom was. I didn’t say nothing because I was thinking she was a woman and she was dead and there wasn’t no luck in that at all.
Wendell remembered her, but I never. He told me how she liked to sit by the creek and watch the spiders hop across the top of the water, how she washed her hair in the kitchen sink and made the beds every morning. Then a coal truck pushed her car off the road. My daddy was driving and they both died in the wreck at the bottom of Dry Creek Holler. Now I slept in Mom’s old room and nobody made the beds.
Our people were always fighters. Papaw’s family fought in the Civil War, some on one side, some the other. He said they’d sing to each other of the night, then shoot barbed wire out of cannons in the morning. Papaw kept his D-Day medals in a cigar box. The day Wendell turned seventeen he volunteered for Vietnam. He left his rifle at the house, which made me nervous until Papaw said they’d give him a new one that shot faster. Wendell’s was a flintlock he was two years making. He used broken arrowheads he found in the creek to light the powder. When he shot, a smoke ball flared by his face and sparks flew out of the barrel.
With Wendell gone, I was down to Papaw for family and he didn’t talk much. After school we watched Mr. Cartoon. He wore a straw hat, a striped coat, and dark glasses and was in charge of cartoons for a half hour. Sometimes he showed The Three Stooges. I liked Curly the best, but he quit and Shemp came. I didn’t like him, but he was a champion snorer. When Shemp snored, me and Papaw laughed like the dickens because Wendell sounded the same. Sometimes when I got worried about Wendell, we’d climb the ridge behind our house and lay on our backs and look at the stars. There’s about a thousand up there. Papaw said when he was a kid, the sky was what they had for TV. He said Wendell was looking at the same stars, maybe at the same time. I liked that. Whenever we’d see a shooting star, I’d think it was Wendell shooting somebody. If the moon was big enough to drown out the stars, I knew he was safe in a foxhole.
One time I went to where my mom and dad’s car wrecked at. It was a long walk by the railroad tracks, and when I got there it didn’t look like nowhere special. It wasn’t spooky the way I thought it might be. It was just a gap between two steep hillsides, same as any land around here. The railroad gravel was big and stained. I thought it might be from my mom and dad’s blood, but it was oil. I laid a little bundle of wildflowers on the track then sat for a while. There wasn’t any sound and no birds flying. Just those two long lines of shiny steel rails. The railroad ties on the white rock made me think of a piano. I stood up to leave and found a piece of rusted metal. It was red, the same color as my folks’ car. I carried it home and put it in a pillowcase and stuck it under the mattress.
Mr. Cartoon quit showing The Three Stooges after a boy in Huntington poked his brother’s eyeball out trying to act like TV. Papaw said that was about like West Virginia people. He said they couldn’t find their own hind end with both hands. He said The Three Stooges was fake, like the moon landing was. He said all TV was fake and I wondered if Vietnam was, too. It was on TV all the time and it looked like home except more jungly. There were plenty of soldiers, but they didn’t have the same uniforms as war movies, and I wondered if they’d run out. Some didn’t even wear helmets, just floppy little hats. I hoped they had enough helmets for Wendell. I used to think he’d come home a hero and we’d have the first dirt-road parade in history. I’d give him his rifle back and he’d salute me in front of everybody. I’d wear that red chunk of car metal on my shirt like a medal.
The leaves flew, and the weather turned off cold, and we burned chunks of stove wood that Wendell laid in before he left. Always before, he cut me down a Christmas tree for my classroom. But Papaw said with him gone we had to start doing more things on our own, and I told the teacher I’d get a tree. Then I forgot about it till the last day. Papaw didn’t like that. He said the axe handle was broke, no good except for kindling. I told him a little tree was all right, I’d got one picked out by the house. He said it was too dark, and I said I didn’t care about that because everything was still in the same place. I showed him the pine. He said it was his favorite, but he still yet hooked a chain to the back bumper of the truck and locked the other end around the tree. He made me stand way back. Then he drove fast. The chain snapped up in the air and the truck kind of bucked and the bumper tore off and went flying in the dark.
Me and Papaw looked at the tree. It was tilted over a little ways but still stuck in the dirt pretty good. I didn’t like the truck getting messed up and Wendell not being around to fix it. I said maybe it didn’t matter about the tree. Somebody else could get one for school.
“No,” Papaw said. “They’re counting on you same as Wendell’s buddies are counting on him over there.”
“Ever wish I was a boy?” I said.
“No,” he said. “Not yet anyhow.”
He laughed a little bit, not the laugh he does for watching cartoons but a deeper one, like whatever was funny was way back in his throat.
“How about you,” he said. “Ever wish I was a granny?”
I started in laughing and it felt pretty good for a minute, the two of us acting like we used to. Wendell thought everything was funny. Papaw said he was geared that way and it was a good way to be. He said most folks saw the world as good or bad, but Wendell never did. He just laughed at both sides of it.
We went up to the house and Papaw went to the closet and took down his shotgun. He’s got a rifle for game that he’d taught me how to shoot, but he said the shotgun had too much kick for me. We walked back to the pine tree. He told me to stay behind him no matter what, right behind him, and I was to hold onto his belt to make sure I did. Then he hunkered down close to the pine tree and shot it. He went around the tree in a circle, shooting and reloading, moving a little, and shooting again. The sound bounced off the hill and echoed back along the ridge. He went through half a box of shells. Finally, the tree shifted a little, like a dog settling, and tipped over.
Papaw broke the gun down and handed it to me. He pulled out his pocketknife and cut the last part of the tree away from itself. I’ve seen him use the same knife to skin a snake, cut an apple up, and whittle a gewgaw. The blade was thin from him sharpening it so much with spit on a flat rock.
We dragged the tree to the truck and the next day he drove me and it off the hill. I asked him to let me off a little ways from the school so I could show up dragging it like Wendell always did. In the daylight I could see some birdshot still in the tree, shining like those little silver balls that my teacher put on top of her holiday cupcakes. The whole class put the tree in a bucket of dirt and decorated it, and everybody knew I was the first girl to ever bring a tree in. For Christmas I gave Papaw a rock with a hole in it I’d found in the creek. He gave me a bracelet that had been my mom’s. We tried to have a good Christmas, but Wendell not being there made us sad.
That spring, the government sent some VISTA people to the hills and they was all over the county. Papaw said they was worse than locusts. They were odd-talking and tried to act like they’d lived in the woods all their lives. One came to the house and thought I was a boy. Papaw run him off. Then a lady VISTA sat me on the porch and asked if I’d started developing my bosoms yet. I told her something like that wasn’t none of her business. She wanted to say more to me, I could tell, but she stayed quiet as four o’clock. She was wearing clean boots and new blue jeans, and I could tell she didn’t want to get them dirty. Finally she left. I looked down my shirt and nothing was growing in there and I was glad. Then I started worrying that I was already supposed to have them and something was wrong with me for not. I wished that lady VISTA had gone to help somebody else who needed it worse than me. Maybe somebody close to her own house. They were still around when Wendell came home.
We didn’t have a parade when he showed up, but that didn’t matter because there’s no tall buildings to throw tore-up pieces of paper out of. He took a bus to town, then somebody gave him a ride up the creek. He came home early on account of getting hurt. Wendell had a limp and a big eagle tattooed on his arm. He wore dark glasses all the time.
I thought we’d watch Mr. Cartoon, but Wendell went up on the ridge by himself, and Papaw fooled around the house. Wendell stayed there all day and slept in the old smokehouse. Every morning he walked a game path to the bootlegger and back out the ridge. I told him I’d go get beer for him, but he said the bootlegger’s was no place for a girl, and I said I don’t care, I just wanted to go with him, and he said he was no company for a girl, either. I got mad and ran to the smokehouse. There wasn’t nothing in there but a blanket rolled up tight as bark to a tree. A mouse ran across the floor. I tried to stomp on it, but it got away.
One day Papaw said he’d about had enough and walked out the ridge to talk about war. I laid back, then followed him through the woods. Wendell was sitting with his back against a sycamore, drinking beer. He’d dug two holes in front of him and stuck his legs in them from the knee down, and filled the holes. Then he put his army coat around the tree, run his arms in the sleeves and buttoned it back up. He couldn’t move if he had to, couldn’t stand up or wiggle around.
Wendell was wearing his boonie hat and the dark glasses even though the woods were shady. Papaw hunkered down on a poplar log and started talking about D-Day. It was the one time he’d been out of Kentucky. He rode on a plane, a train, and a boat, all in the same trip. They had a ship with a trapdoor that dropped him in the ocean shooting his gun. All around him, the boys was dropping like stuck hogs. He ran up the beach screaming and got shot twice but kept on going. Finally Papaw stopped talking, like a clock that you forgot to wind and it runs down.
Wendell stayed stiff as a new fence post, hooked up to that tree with his feet buried in the ground. Papaw hunched his shoulders and his voice went low. “D-day was a hell,” he said. “Reckon you went through some your ownself.”
Wendell opened another beer. He had a way of doing it with one hand and lifting it to his mouth without moving any other part of him, like he was a machine. Papaw asked if he was on the front. Wendell opened his mouth three or four times and finally spoke.
“They weren’t no front,” he said.
“What kind of war ain’t got no front?” Papaw said.
“Mine,” said Wendell.
A long tear came out from under Wendell’s dark glasses. I’d never seen a man cry before, even on TV. I guess if I had to, it may as well be somebody I knew, but I wished it wasn’t my own brother. He didn’t make a sound and I figured it wasn’t really crying. He’d just got something under his eyelid that I couldn’t see for the dark glasses. I slipped off in the woods and went to the house.
Papaw came in at dark, looking wore down as an old shirt, like you could see through him in places.
“Best let your brother be,” he said. “War takes time to get over.”
“It’s untelling,” he said. “Some never do.”
I made a sandwich and watched TV and woke up on the couch with the TV buzzing and no picture. I lay there thinking how Wendell used to carry me to my room when I fell asleep at night. Sometimes I’d wake up a little and pretend like he was my mother tucking me in. Now I just went to bed on my own.
A few weeks later, VISTA took my class to see Mr. Cartoon at the high school gym in town. He wore the same hat, coat, and sunglasses as on TV. He showed Bugs Bunny on a special screen and did some magic tricks. Then he asked for questions. I waved my hand. When he pointed to somebody, I looked behind me to see who got picked and Mr. Cartoon started laughing.
“The girl turned around and looked,” he said.
I knew it was me, only I didn’t really have a question, I was just raising my hand like everyone else, like Wendell did for Vietnam. Mr. Cartoon left the stage and walked to me. All the town kids were looking. I was thinking about Wendell, so I asked Mr. Cartoon why he wore sunglasses all the time. He nodded as if that was a pretty good question.
“If I didn’t wear them,” he said, “you’d probably ask why I never did.”
I didn’t say nothing because I didn’t understand what he meant. For a quarter you could buy an autographed picture, but VISTA had some free ones to pass out on the bus. It was black and white and slick. When I got back to the house, I went to the smokehouse and showed Wendell the picture. I told him about getting picked for a question and how Mr. Cartoon’s answer didn’t make sense.
“Maybe not,” Wendell said. “Maybe he might know something you don’t.”
“Do you?” I said. “Is that why you wear yours all the time?”
“No. I used to. But now I don’t know nothing.”
“You can have that picture if you want,” I said, “but you got to watch his show with me.”
I couldn’t figure what he was thinking because the glasses were that big kind like teardrops turned on their sides that covered a lot of his face up. He went out of the smokehouse and in the house. I followed him, and we sat on the couch and turned on Mr. Cartoon. It was funny seeing a man on TV that I’d seen that same day in town. I wondered how he’d got back to West Virginia in time. Wendell didn’t laugh at the cartoons, but I could tell he liked them. It felt good to set there with him. Papaw came in for his favorite of Pixie and Dixie. They were mice who liked to fight. I told Wendell I seen a mouse in the smokehouse and he said it was the only friend he had left.
That night Wendell slept in the house, and in the morning Papaw tried to act like it was nothing special. I fixed coffee and poured three cups. Papaw said he’d took an overnight notion for fresh game.
“It’s been a year since we had a taste,” he said. “Wild meat keeps a man alive longer.”
Wendell stared at the linoleum like it had a math problem on it he was trying to cipher out.
“Four or five squirrels ort to line us out good,” Papaw said. “Don’t shoot no VISTA folks. I ate one once and they’re bad to be stringy. Worse than owl.”
I grinned but Wendell didn’t see the joke.
“I don’t plan on shooting nobody ever again,” he said.
Papaw stared at Wendell a long time. There was something flying back and forth between them that I wasn’t part of, like they were turning the TV antenna without me. I didn’t like it. I went to the closet and got the guns.
Wendell and me left the house and walked the woods looking for sign. Jaybirds squawked on the high limbs. I had a single-shot .22 that used to be his, and Wendell carried his long rifle. I asked him to load it on the run, but he shook his head. He was walking real slow, hunched over with his knees bent like he was ready to jump somewhere. It’s not how he taught me to move in the woods. I tried to copy him but it felt like walking to the outhouse barefoot in snow. I stuck to the regular way.
It ain’t nothing to hunt squirrel. They’re curious and you can draw them around the side of a tree by making a sound with your mouth, and they’ll hold still for you to shoot. You’ve got to hit it in the head or there’s not enough left to eat.
We came up on three squirrels gnawing acorns in a white oak by a dried-up well. Long time ago, somebody had built a house up there that burned down, and all that’s left was a pile of broken chimney bricks, the well, and them old yard oaks. Wendell hefted his rifle and took a steady aim. He’d never let anybody shoot it and for a minute it was like he’d never left, him standing spread-legged in the sun, birds singing all around, the ground fog rising off the hills. It was the best I’d felt in a long time.
Wendell had two or three sure shots but didn’t take them. Instead, he let his gun down real slow. I figured he was letting me shoot, and I squinted down my sights and missed by a mile. The squirrels all run off. That was the worst I ever shot and I felt like a fool.
Wendell wasn’t nowhere in sight. I jerked the bolt back to eject my empty shell. It made a noise and Wendell came crawling around the old well. His chin plowed the dirt and his body wiggled like a salamander. His gun barrel was aimed dead at me. I didn’t move, I was scared so bad. He laid there in the dirt for a long time. It was like all creation had just stopped what it was up to and was waiting to see what Wendell might do. There wasn’t any wind or birds. The worst part was him crying.
Wendell lowered the gun and stood. He stared at me, twitching all over, like a horse trying to get flies off. The sun sparkled on the wet below his dark glasses. He leaned on the circle of brick above the well, looked down it for a long time, and dropped his rifle in. It smacked the mud in the bottom. He took off his hat and threw it in, then his shirt. He unlaced his combat boots and tossed them in the hole. He took off his pants and underwear and threw them, too. Finally he dropped the dark glasses in. He looked down the well, and I got worried he might jump in.
“Wendell,” I yelled at him. “Ain’t nothing left to throw. Quit that and get on back to the house. You hear me? Just get to the house.”
He limped past me, along the ridge and down the hill. He didn’t act like the brush bothered his legs or the ground hurt his feet. It was like he didn’t even care that he was naked as a needle. I could see his wiener plain as day. I could see his eyes, too. They looked old as Papaw’s. At least he wasn’t crying.
Papaw was standing on the porch when me and Wendell came out of the woods. Papaw tightened his mouth like a drawstring game bag.
“Where’s your britches?” he yelled. “Where’s your sister at?”
“I’m right here,” I said and came onto the porch.
“What were you doing up there?” Papaw said to me.
“Just hunting’s all,” I said.
“Without a stitch on?”
“He took his clothes off when we were done.”
“And then what?” he said. “What’d he do?”
“Nothing,” I said. “We just come on home.”
Wendell stood there like it wasn’t nothing to hunt naked, like he’d learned it off Papaw and done it all his life. It was the first time I’d seen his hurt leg close up. In summertime, the edge of the blacktop turns soft enough for rocks and bugs to get caught in it. His leg looked like that.
“Cover yourself,” Papaw said.
Wendell went in the house. Papaw looked me up and down like I was a pup he wanted to make sure wasn’t crippled before he bought it. Then he looked at the woods and talked real quiet.
“Did he do anything funny up there?” Papaw said. “With you?”
I shook my head, thinking how a month of Sundays went by while Wendell held that gun on me. I knew he wouldn’t shoot but Papaw might think that was funny. I was afraid if I told him that he wouldn’t let me and Wendell use his gun.
“No,” I said.
“You sure about that?”
“He didn’t touch you or nothing?”
“No, we weren’t hunting that close together.”
He quit looking at the woods and took his rifle out of my hands and saw that it wasn’t loaded.
“Get ary fresh game?” he said.
“I missed my shot.”
“And your brother?”
“He throwed his gun down the well. Then his clothes.”
“God Almighty.” Papaw shook his head. “Good God Almighty.”
All the fight went out of him like a busted strut. He sat on the porch swing but didn’t swing. I’d never seen him look so skinny and little and old.
That night Wendell ate supper at the table. He was wearing his old clothes from before. I liked seeing his eyes, but they looked like they’d been took out of his head and rolled around in the sun, then stuck back in. He asked me to watch TV with him.
“We missed cartoons,” I said.
“I know it,” he said. “But we can watch the weather news.”
The picture turned out bad as ever, and Papaw stood to go turn the antenna.
“No,” Wendell said. “I’ll take point.”
He went outside and turned the pole. I told Papaw how the TV looked, and he yelled to Wendell. After a while I settled on a blurry picture that didn’t jump around too much. It made me feel good that they trusted me enough to pick out the picture. We watched the weather news, which was told by a man named Jule Huffman. Wendell said to look at him close. I’d seen him give the weather a hundred times, and he wasn’t nobody special.
“See anything you kind of recognize?” Wendell said.
“No,” I said. “Just the boring weatherman.”
“Pretend like he’s got on a striped coat and dark glasses.”
I looked hard at the little screen, and tried to imagine him dressed differently.
“Now,” Wendell said, “listen at his voice.”
I did but it didn’t make no never mind. Then he turned his body a little bit, leaning back on his heels as he did it, and cocking his head like a jaybird.
“It’s Mr. Cartoon,” I said.
“Yep,” Wendell said. “Now you know why he wears those dark glasses.”
We watched TV till way in the night. The picture got worse and worse and Papaw went to bed. I was half asleep and Wendell carried me to my room like old times. I could feel him favoring the bad leg, but not too much. He laid me down in the bed and left for his room. Pretty soon he started in snoring like Shemp.
I lay awake thinking it didn’t make sense to take The Three Stooges off TV and leave Vietnam on. Then I started in thinking how Mr. Cartoon was really the weatherman. Maybe it was the other way around and the weatherman was Mr. Cartoon. I figured he must have a big family and needed two jobs. He probably had a bunch of kids. For a while I wished I was one of his girls with sisters and a mom and him for a dad. But then, I wouldn’t have Wendell back home. I wondered if that mouse in the smokehouse was really his friend, and if the mouse missed him with Wendell sleeping in the house. Right as I went to sleep I woke myself up thinking I should take that piece of car metal out the ridge and throw it down the well.
In the morning, I did.