Iggy crouched under the eves of the house and peered through a small crack between the shingles on the porch. Svez sent him up there to chase out squirrels from nests under the rafters, and he found a tiny opening. He saw the pump, the basin on the washstand, and if he squinted he could see the hole in the floor where the mice came in. Mice weren’t so smart. Pa set his traps by their hole. Thelma weren’t so smart either to chase him outside so she could wash up in the porch when the kitchen got too hot.
Iggy wiped his mouth with his sleeve. He grinned when his sister glanced out both windows but not up toward his peephole. She returned to the sink, loosened the towel from her naked body and let it drop to the floor. He silently exhaled as he waited for her next move, something different she’d been doing since Freddie came to live with them. She cupped one of her breasts and pulled on the nipple like a baby would suck. She don’t got no milk, and it won’t do the baby no good if there ain’t nothing for him to drink.
He tried not to think of how babies were made and longed for the time when such things weren’t important to him, back when he and his sister could swim naked in the creek behind their barn. He closed his eyes and concentrated on the games of cops and robbers he and his friend, Larry Collins, used to play. Once he climbed up into the branches of the oak tree alongside the creek, but Larry spotted him right away.
“Robbers don’t climb trees.” Larry pointed and laughed. “They hide behind rocks and things.”
“I didn’t think you’d find me.” Iggy scrambled to the ground.
“Well, I did. It was too easy.”
Iggy kicked a stone into the water. “When I hide too good you quit looking and go home.”
Larry shrugged. “Sometimes, I get tired of the dumb game.”
“Let’s do something else when the game’s not fun no more.”
“It’s already not fun. Let’s swim.” Larry swooped his arms as if he was either flying or swimming and ducked out from under his shirt when it ballooned in the wind. He unsnapped his pants, spun around and kicked them into the air as they fell to his feet.
Iggy slowly unhitched the straps on his bib, let his overalls drop and stepped out of them. While unbuttoning his shirt, he felt Larry’s stare.
“You don’t got hair like me.” Larry puffed up his chest and put his hands on his hips.
Iggy brushed a few strands from his face.
“Not up there, stupid. Down here.” Larry held one hand over his penis and pinched thin strands of pubic hair with his other. “I got hair down there, and you don’t got none.”
Iggy covered himself with both hands and wished he hadn’t undressed.
“Let me see.” Larry shoved Iggy’s hands aside. “I thought so. Nothing. Wanna see what else I can do?”
That day down by the creek, he wanted Larry to stop but was too astounded to speak. He wished he hadn’t shown Larry his pubic hair when it began to grow. He worried Larry would ask him if he ever jacked off or even make Iggy prove it while he watched. But Larry only shrugged.
As Iggy crouched between the roof and the rafters to watch his sister explore her body, thoughts of games with Larry Collins faded. Touching his crotch, he glanced around to make sure Pa and his brothers were still in the barn. He remembered the time Pa caught him masturbating, and he made Iggy feel bad by laughing and shouting something to Arnie. Arnie who seldom laughed chuckled, and Iggy cringed. The next day his mother, not his father, demanded he confess his sin to Father Reinhardt. A year later, he still hadn’t told the priest.
He did tell Larry Collins while sitting on the bank of the creek. “Remember what you told me to do?” Iggy pointed at his crotch, then shoved both hands into his pockets.
“One time we went swimming.”
“We gone swimming a lot.” Larry pulled a blade of grass and slid it in and out through pursed lips.
Iggy’s face reddened. “When I showed you I had hair too.”
“Yeah, what about it?”
“Ma wants me to confess to Father Reinhardt ’bout what I did.”
“Reinhardt don’t need to be told nothing.” Larry pulled the frayed stem from his mouth and grinned through teeth stained green. “Better yet, just tell him you jacked off.”
Iggy giggled, but he knew he could never say that to a priest. Larry wouldn’t either, but his mother hadn’t forced him to confess it. If Father Reinhardt agreed it was a sin and he must stop doing it, he would have a bigger problem. He avoided telling Larry about his lie to his mother. Larry would laugh but Iggy didn’t feel good about his dishonesty.
Kneeling beside his mother during Saturday evening devotions at St. Alphonse, she nudged him and pointed to the confessional. “Go tell the priest all your sins.”
“Awe, Ma, not now.”
“Go. I’m trying to say my Novena.”
Iggy stood behind three other people in line. He felt his mother’s eyes on him, yet every time he peeked around the pillar she had her head lowered with her hands covering her face. When his turn came, he tiptoed inside and fumbled with the curtain that protected him from probing eyes outside the enclosed cubicle. A window slid open and the priest’s head became faintly visible.
“I teased my sister.” He whispered a sin that wouldn’t rile the priest like telling a lie or missing Mass on Sunday. But, if the priest asked him to explain, he’d have to admit he watched her take a bath. He panicked and quickly added, “That’s all, Father.” The priest asked about additional sins, but Iggy just repeated the line he remembered from catechism class. “That’s all, Father.”
When they left the church his mother asked, “Did you tell the priest your sins?”
“Yeah, Ma. I told him.” He put his hands in his pockets, turned and stared up at the steeple.
“Did you tell him the one we talked about?” She touched his shoulder.
He nodded and faced the ground.
“Did you say your penance?”
“Yeah.” Next time he was forced to confession, he’d include this lie with the bigger one. He hated whispering secrets, listening to little bits of advice and being told to say Our Father and Hail Mary. He didn’t know all the words to these prayers, and when the priest recited them in church he didn’t understand what they meant.
She said, “You can drive. And, let’s stop at Emma’s Café for ice cream.” She slid onto the passenger seat and clutched her purse. “You did good tonight.”
When they got to the café, Iggy rushed in and sat at a booth near the front window. His mother joined him carrying two dishes of ice cream. He felt her eyes on him while he ate.
“You don’t go to Ida’s, do you? You know, to do chores and stuff.”
His face flushed, and he heard his breath as it passed though his nose and mouth, something he usually got scolded for. “No, Ma. Ralph helps her when George and Herman are busy. She ain’t never asked me to help.”
He knew something was not right about going to Ida’s, because whenever his brothers mentioned her in front of Thelma she told them to shut up. He knew why his friend went there, but Larry never talked about helping with chores.
“Pa thought you might.” Her eyes fixed onto his. “I don’t want you to go there.”
“Even if she asks for me to help? Her pa’s dead, and George said her brother’s too crazy to do any work.”
“She never asks. The boys just go.”
Iggy watched a man leave his booth, pay at the counter and walk out. Two boys got up from the same booth and followed. He licked his spoon and held it like a lollipop as he stared at them through the window. They jumped onto the front seat next to the man.
“Do you ever hang around with Ozzie?” She guided his hand with the empty spoon back onto the table.
He lifted his dish, slurped out the chocolate colored liquid and mumbled, “Who, Ma?”
“The man who just left. I hope you don’t ever hang around with him.”
“I don’t know who he is. I never come to town, ’cept with you or Pa.” He wiped his mouth with his sleeve.
She brushed a shock of hair from his eyes. “You’re just like your brothers.”
“I think so but Thelma doesn’t.” He grinned and a dark trickle appeared from the corner of his mouth.
“She’s probably right. You’re different, but you resemble them with wild black hair always hanging down your forehead. You should get Thelma to cut it shorter. I hope you don’t ever take a notion to grow a mustache like your brothers. They try to look like Pa.” She shook her head and shuddered. “With your dark eyes it’d make you look like the devil.”
“I wanna be a vampire. Larry said I’d make a good one. Will you make me a black cape sometime? Larry said all vampires wear black capes.” He held up both hands, shaped them into claws and bared his teeth.
“Please, don’t do that. It makes you look silly.”
“That’s how vampires act. Larry got this paperback and we read about it.”
“At least, stop those gurgling sounds when you breathe. I’m sure it’s not something vampires do.”
“What sounds, Ma?”
“Never mind. It’s something you do when you’re excited. Try to breathe without making noise.”
“Do you like Father Reinhardt?”
“He’s all right, I guess. He don’t get mad like Father Busch did.”
“Father Busch was getting senile.”
“Just old. He wasn’t in his right mind any more. Father Reinhardt’s much nicer, don’t you think?”
Iggy nodded. “But he scares me.”
“You keep telling him all your sins, and he’ll help you be a better person. You did tell him everything, didn’t you?”
“Yeah, Ma. Can I eat your ice cream?”
“Yes, but I’m afraid you’ll have to drink it.”
“I’ll lap it like Podue.” He showed her his tongue.
“Don’t you dare.”
He sucked it back as she reached with her thumb and finger pretending to pinch it. He enjoyed his mother’s teasing.
Memories of ice cream, vampires and Father Reinhardt disappeared when Thelma moved from his line of sight. He awaited her next move and bit his lip to keep from crying out.
She returned to the mirror, held her flowered nightgown over her head and glided it past her shoulders and over her breasts. It stopped below her knees. He had watched her sew the nightgown from old flour sacks and wondered if she wore anything under it. Since learning her secret, he imagined the soft cotton cloth against his skin.
Saliva gurgled through his nose and she glanced up. He edged his way down from the rafters and plopped onto the dry grass behind the house, his legs too shaky to run and hide. Thoughts of Thelma chasing him in her nightgown excited him, until he realized how mad she’d be for his spying on her. He didn’t feel safe again until the light came on in her bedroom.
He felt lonely and wished his friend was with him. They shared their sexual fantasies, but Iggy never admitted to any including Thelma.
Once, after describing Ida’s shapely body, Larry added, “. . . not all humpty-dumpty like your sister.”
Thelma broken into pieces like the egg in the nursery rhyme was funny, but Pa and Arnie laughing at him was not.
“That’s not what it’s ’sposed to be for,” his father had scolded.
But, what it’s ’sposed to be for is what he wanted to do with his sister. Animals from the same litter tried, but his pa always kept them apart. Iggy never understood why.
ARNIE, SVEZ AND LIZ
Arnie stood outside the pigpen, arms crossed and rested on the top rail of the fence, and studied a dozen shoats as they grunted and shoved up to the feeding trough. One aggressive young boar alternately ate and snapped at the others, and they gave him the space he demanded. Arnie hit him on the head with the pail and watched his reaction. Selecting a few more at random, he repeated the process until he felt satisfied.
“Which one do you think?” Svez approached and being taller stooped to settle alongside Arnie.
Arnie paused. A direct answer might damage his imagined thread of authority over his younger brother on whom Arnie depended for his existence. He nodded toward the boar he had chosen. Svez would approve because selecting animals for breeding was Arnie’s specialty.
The years eroded each of their unique physical differences. Aging slightly loosened the skin on Arnie’s more rotund face, while excess flesh sagged around Svez’s once taut cheeks and neck. Arnie usually shaved near the end of the week, even though he stayed home Saturday nights and seldom went to church on Sundays. Svez shaved often and kept his small mustache well trimmed. Arnie’s hair changed from auburn to snow-white while Svez’s turned medium gray. Both men wore Oshkosh overalls, Arnie’s jacket was buckskin and Svez’s denim.
Arnie rolled his tongue over his upper gums and dislodged a flake of tobacco from the space between his two front teeth. “Him.” The end of his finger extended from a gnarly knuckle and pointed at an angle missing its intended target. “The one with the spot over the side of his face.” The eye in the center of the spot briefly met Arnie’s, and then the pig continued to chomp into a mixture of ground oats and kitchen scraps. “He’s too busy eatin’ to care when I hit him. I think he’s the one who chewed the ear off the solid one.” An all-pink pig, smaller and missing half an ear, had been squeezed out by two larger boars as they stuck their front feet into the trough. Failing to nose his way back, he wandered to the end of the line. With his good ear erect, he entered the trough with all four feet and ate his way forward and backward, his snout reaching the corners neglected by the larger animals.
“He’s too smart.” Arnie frowned, and slanted lines etched toward his drooping eyelid. “Hard to keep a boar like him penned up.” The skin across his forehead tight and shiny as the jacket he had rubbed smooth with the palms of his hands. “Gotta keep one what just eats and fucks.”
“Remember to separate him from the rest after he’s castrated.” Svez pushed himself from the rail but continued to lean slightly forward as if denying his full height. “Gotta get some weight on ’fore we butcher him.” He put his hands on his hips, momentarily stretched and then resumed his normal posture. “I’ll get the boys to move the one with the spotted eye to the barn so they don’t castrate him by mistake. Jake’ll be good for one more season, and then this one can take over.”
Since childhood, Arnie named many of the animals, especially those kept for breeding. He felt sad for the old boar he called Jake in honor of the hog buyer from Iowa who tried to cheat Svez.
“You got a name for this one?” Svez asked.
Arnie produced a tight half-smile, turned his head and looked up from the rail. “How ’bout Reinhardt?”
“The priest? Liz would kill both of us. You don’t gotta go to church with her like me and the boys. I’ll bust out laughing every time he climbs into his pulpit.” Svez paused and faced the house. “Every Sunday lately.” He shook his head. “She wants me and the boys to go to church every Sunday.” He shrugged. “You gotta think up a different name.”
Arnie considered Svez’s oldest son, George, who bragged about getting served moonshine in the back room at Bud and Emma’s Café but changed his mind. “How ’bout Buddy?”
“Good idea. It’ll get a laugh whenever George says he’s going to have a few drinks with Buddy.” Svez glanced down. “And when Herman and Ralph get the notion, they’ll be nosing up to Buddy’s pig sty like boars at a trough.”
Arnie reflected on the pig with the missing ear and thought about Svez’s youngest son, Iggy, trying to squeeze between his brothers. Would Iggy figure out a way to fit?
“The baby?” Arnie didn’t finish his question but waited for the furrows to deepen across his brother’s forehead.
Svez continued to stare into the hog trough. “Liz’s sister’s baby. Freddie.”
Arnie remained quiet.
“He’s here to stay.”
Arnie grimaced. He already assumed Freddie moved in, but wanted to hear his brother admit it. His hernia, not the new baby, bothered him, and he needed to get his truss tightened. He left Svez standing at the hog pen and walked to the house.
Although separated by a span of ten years, the two brothers had been close since childhood. They worked on their father’s farm until he died, and their oldest brother took over the family homestead. Svez and Liz became free to marry and move to their own farm.
Arnie, then a forty-year-old bachelor asked, “What about me?”
Liz said to her husband, “Let’s take Arnie with us to our new home.”
He’d been part of the family nearly a quarter century.
Liz had been darning socks in the front room when Thelma stopped snapping beans and yelled from the kitchen, “Ma, Arnie’s standing in the porch in his underwear.”
“He probably needs help with his truss.” Liz wanted him to have an operation to repair his hernia, but he found an ad in the Sears and Roebuck catalogue, his source for all items not available at Cunningham’s Implement or York’s Mercantile in Bovine. Arnie, who seldom bought anything in town and never went to a doctor, asked Liz to order it for him. She joked about the cute nurse shown in the ad not part of the order. She teased that it belonged in the women’s clothing section. She reminded him that his rheumatism and arthritis would make it difficult for him to reach the straps in back. But, he remained determined.
When the truss arrived, Arnie managed to get it on but couldn’t apply the necessary pressure to hold his hernia in place. Liz realized it embarrassed him to ask for help, so she offered to take the place of the nurse in the ad. From then on, Arnie came to the house, waited for Liz to help him, grunted approval and headed back to the barn. At night and in the morning, he managed to remove and replace the unit or, as Liz suspected, slept with it on.
Liz faced Thelma through the archway to the kitchen and said. “Help him.”
Thelma glanced out to the porch and grimaced.
Liz decided to spare her daughter this embarrassing task. She scooped up Freddie from his crib near the kitchen stove and yelled to Iggy who had sneaked into his parents’ bedroom searching for Christmas gifts. Liz started buying and wrapping presents early, right after Thanksgiving, and Iggy couldn’t keep away from them.
“Arnie needs help. See what you can do for him.”
Iggy stepped out of the bedroom clutching a long slender package. “Ma, you gotta do it.”
“I’m holding the baby. Besides, this is a man’s thing. It’ll be your chore from now on.” Since talking to Martha’s doctor, Liz had been slowly delegating more and more tasks to other family members, mostly to Thelma. Iggy set the present on the couch and groaned all the way through the kitchen and out into the porch.
Arnie muttered, “Yank on the strap,” unconcerned about who did it.
From the kitchen, she watched Iggy tug and run outside, apparently forgetting about the Christmas gifts.
Still holding Freddie, Liz waited until Arnie hooked the straps on his Oshkosh overalls and then went to him. “I hope Iggy did okay with the strap. I’m sorry my hands were full, and,” she lied, “Iggy wants to be more useful around here.”
Arnie gazed at the child.
“My sister’s baby.” Liz waited for his reaction and it surprised her.
“When Svez was a baby he had dark hair. Ma said I had yellow hair like Martha’s baby. But now it’s white.”
Liz considered the differences between Freddie and her children. All four boys had dark hair, narrow faces with thin lips and small pointed noses. Freddie’s face was round with a small flat nose, similar to Thelma as a baby.
“I guess all children are different, Arnie, but this one’s special.” Liz wanted to continue their conversation, hoping it would encourage him to accept the new member of their family.
“Ma called me her special child.” He reached and pulled back the blanket half-covering Freddie’s face. “Not special no more.” As he walked away, he mumbled, “Not special, just different.”
Liz followed him with her eyes all the way to the barn. “I bet you were her special child.” She reflected on Iggy and said under her breath, “All my children are special.”
Iggy appeared from behind the large oak tree in their front yard and wandered back into the house. “Ma, I don’t wanna help Arnie no more. Let Thelma do it.” He returned to the front room and picked up the curiously shaped Christmas present. His eyes bright with anticipation and his breathing accented with a guttural sound, he shook it and pointed it toward the ceiling.
Liz decided he was a little more special than the others. Same as Arnie? What did Arnie mean, not special, just different? Had he used those differences to survive? She remembered her mother-to-son talk after Svez caught him masturbating. Would Iggy turn to Ida? Her older boys went there and gave a ridiculous excuse about her chores. Could Father Reinhardt save him from Ida? From abusing himself?
“Please don’t make those noises. They make you sound like Podue.”
“Pa says George, Herman and Ralph are tomcats. I don’t wanna be one of them.”
“I’m sorry I compared you to a puppy. Your brothers aren’t tomcats either.”
Iggy clutched the package under his arm. “Is this one for me? I think I know what’s inside. Is it mine?”
“We’ll see.” Liz pointed toward her bedroom door. “Now, put it back where you found it.” She placed Freddie in his crib and returned to her darning. Could her son learn something from Arnie? Could he gain strength from his differences, maybe even power? Or had he already figured that out?
She glanced up at Iggy still standing in the doorway to her bedroom. “Helping Arnie with his truss is your job from now on. You guys all have to pitch in and do more of the work around here.”
“It feels like a shotgun. Is it mine?”