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.