Sidewinder, the kids called her, because of the way she walked, dragging her left leg, swinging herself along half sideways. A witch, they said. Boils cats and puppies to make her soup. No one knew where she lived, or how, or where she’d come from, or if she’d been born here. You would see her on Main Street, walking, you would see her on the hillside at a football game, silent and inscrutable and alone. Short and heavy, soft, with nut-brown skin like a Mexican’s, and one dead shuttered eye.
The two boys passed her while pedaling home from their baseball game at twilight, threading the summer-busy sidewalk of Main Street with its idlers and tourists and young bar-hoppers. Ball gloves hanging from their handlebars. Pony League, both of them fifteen that year. The one-eyed woman was coming toward them in front of the Oar and Anchor carrying a grocery bag stuffed with rags or old clothes. She wore a brown cotton dress, tennis shoes, white ankle socks. Sal passed her first and as Billy drew even with her she turned and found him with her open eye, watched him go by with what seemed a wary and malign curiosity. As if she knew him from somewhere and had conceived a grudge against him.
When they were safely clear of her, passing Smitty’s, Sal asked Billy over his shoulder if she had looked at him.
“I don’t know,” Billy said.
“She did, didn’t she?”
“She might have. So what?”
“The evil eye,” Sal said. “She’ll put a spell on you. A curse.”
“That’s bullshit,” Billy said, but the baleful milky eye followed him now in his imagination as he rode.
They turned onto King Street and the stillness gathered them in, the shadows under the old oaks and maples. There was no traffic and they rode in the street, in and out of the lemon halos of the street lamps, the dappled shadows.
“Howie Gladding said she spoke to him one time at a football game,” Sal said. “Wanted to give him a quarter, have him go down the hill and buy her a hotdog.”
“I guess he said no,” Billy said.
“No kidding,” Sal said.
Deborah Abramson was tossing a softball with her little sister Carol in the dying light in front of Billy’s house on Clearview Avenue.
“Who won?” Deborah said, noticing their uniforms.
“Us, of course,” Sal said.
“Because of Billy,” Deborah said.
“Because of me,” Sal said.
“You wish,” Deborah said.
She was two years ahead of them in school and “stacked,” as Sal put it. Carol was seven or eight. Deborah was lobbing the ball to her underhand. The boys got off their bikes. They stood watching the girls play catch, watching Deborah. She wore tight bluejeans and an untucked white shirt with the sleeves rolled, and she darted this way and that to grab Carol’s errant throws, agile on the balls of her feet, like a tennis player.
“Nice moves, Deb,” Sal said.
Deborah smiled and underhanded the ball to Carol, who caught it against her chest.
“You coming over?” Sal asked Billy.
“Sure,” Billy said.
“Come over to our house, Billy Boy,” Deborah said.
“I’ll come,” Sal said.
“You wish,” she said.
His father’s pickup was in the driveway, John L. Stancky, Quality Masonry arching across the cab door. Billy wheeled his bike into the garage and leaned it against the wall. His cleats pecked, scratched, on the concrete floor. He emerged carrying his glove and sat down on the bottom step of the kitchen porch and took his shoes off. It was darker than just moments ago and Deborah and little Carol had gone in. Fireflies winked above the little back yard. Lazy, adrift. Random. He could hear voices, low and indistinct, on the Crockers’ porch on the corner. He remembered the old woman, her eye fixed on him as he passed her. Sidewinder. He wondered how she’d lost an eye and become a cripple, and if that accounted for the solitary life she led, and for the ill will she seemed to bear the world.
The kitchen light was on and the door to the basement was open, the naked bulb burning above the narrow wooden stairs. His father was down there carpentering something. Billy put his glove and shoes and hat on a chair and opened the refrigerator and poured himself a glass of grape juice. He opened the cupboard and found a can of spaghetti with meatballs.
“Hey,” his father said.
Billy set the can down and went with his juice to the cellar door. “What,” he said.
“Because I said so, that’s what for.”
Billy finished his juice, set the glass on the counter and descended the narrow stairs, careful in his baseball stockings. The basement air was thick and dry and bitter with furnace dust. His father was at his workbench sanding a slat of pinewood. There was a huddle of empty beer bottles on the workbench. Narragansett, what they advertised during the Red Sox games. Curt Gowdy. Hi, neighbor, have a ‘Gansett.
“You win?” his father said.
“Yeah. What are you making?”
“Get any hits?’
“Couple of doubles. I almost had a home run.”
“Almost doesn’t count.”
“I know that.”
“Then don’t say it. Say two doubles, period.”
“Hot stuff, aren’t you.”
“Not especially. What are you making?”
“Little chest of drawers, all right?”
“Sure,” Billy said.
His father smiled, leaned back against the workbench and reached beside him for his bottle and drank. Skintight white T-shirt, khaki trousers. He was a smallish man, no taller than Billy, but he had broad shoulders and his upper body ran down in a beveled V. There was a runny-looking tattoo of a mermaid on his right biceps.
“What were you doing flirting with that Jew girl?” he said.
“What Jew girl?” Billy said.
“The one lives across the street, and don’t play dumb. I saw you out the window.”
“You know goddamn well where she is.”
“At work, I guess.”
Johnny Stancky took another swig of beer. His pale eyes were fixed on Billy and there was something cold and bright and electric in them. Billy’s gaze slid over to the workbench. A cluster of empty bottles, too many to count.
“I’m going over to Tassinaris,” he said.
“Why’d you ask me where Della was?”
“To get my goat, didn’t you.”
“No it wasn’t.”
“You know I don’t like it she works down there.”
“I’ll see you later, Dad.”
“No you won’t. Come here.”
“You like Deborah Abramsons’ tits, don’t you.”
“I guess so.”
“Jew tits. We got everything on this street but niggers. Jews. Wops. Irish. Get on over here. I never taught you to box, did I.”
“I know how to box.”
“Since when?” His father drained the bottle and set it down behind him. “Come here. Put your hands up. Like this.”
“What if I don’t want to?” Billy said.
His father came closer, wiping his hands on his trousers. “I’m going to throw a left at you. I want you to slip it.”
The punch was half speed and the fist loosely clenched but it flattened his right ear, set it afire. Billy blinked, backed away.
“I don’t have any shoes on,” he said.
“Get those fists up. Lead with the left. Right elbow down in your ribs.”
Billy raised his fists and backpedaled, glancing behind him for obstacles. His father came on in a fighter’s crouch and tapped his chin with a left, his forehead with a right.
“Fight me,” his father said, smiling. “Be a man.”
He jabbed Billy again above the eye—the sharp pecks had begun to feel like match burns over his face.
“Dad, stop it. Please stop it.”
“Are you crying?”
“Crying, oh boy. It’s about time we did this.”
“Tomorrow. Tomorrow we’ll do it.”
He blinked the tears out. His father dropped his hands and danced in place on the balls of his feet. “Hit me,” he said.
“I don’t want to,” Billy said.
“Sure you do. Hit me, or I’ll hit you.”
Billy put his fists up. He threw a half-hearted jab that struck his father’s muscled shoulder.
“That’s all you got?” Johnny Stancky said.
Billy gave him another tentative jab to the shoulder. His father coiled again in his fighter’s crouch. Billy kept his guard up and backpedaled. His father feinted twice, left, right, and Billy pulled back and nearly fell over a carton of scrapwood. His father hooked him with a left, mashing the ear again, and Billy, tear-blinded and desperate, took a wild blind roundhouse swing that landed by sheer chance, crushing lip against teeth.
Johnny Stancky froze. His smile fell away. He lowered his hands halfway and looked at Billy in mute surprise. His lip was split, you could see the flap of skin. His father’s tongue found it, tasted the blood.
“You told me to,” Billy said.
“Sure I did.”
His father was smiling again. A film of pink blood on his teeth. Billy thought it was over. He thought his father had gotten what he wanted and that maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing, after all. He didn’t see it coming and would not remember it, a left-right combination, the two jolts almost simultaneous, stunning him into a brief semi-consciousness, a gray twilight where the floor yawed and tilted under him. He turned, found the workbench, leaned against it with both hands till his vision cleared and the ground leveled and was steady again. His nose was dripping blood, both nostrils. He’d been hit as well on the forehead.
His father did not call after him, did not follow him up the stairs. His nose bled copiously and he’d been cut above his left eye. In the kitchen he tore a wad of paper towel and put it to his nose and climbed to the second floor. He went into the bathroom and dropped the blood-sodden paper towel in the wastebasket and snatched up a towel and put it to his nose and looked at himself in the mirror. His forehead was split and the blood ran down. With the towel still to his face he went back down the stairs and down the short dark hallway to the kitchen. His father had not come up. He could hear him down there, a busy rasp of sandpaper.
Sneakers would be more practical but he took up his baseball shoes and went out and sat down on the porch steps and pulled on the shoes with his free hand. He lowered the towel. His nosebleed had begun to clot, blocking his breathing. The nose was swelling and he could feel the skin stretching over it. It felt bloated, grotesque. The pain was building, savage in his nose. His forehead burned. He tied his shoes.
He found his bike against the wall in the dark and rode by the light of the street lamps, crossing town the back way, by the water. The towel draped his neck and when a car came toward him he would stop, straddling his bike, and turn away from the sweep of the headlights lest someone should feel moved to help him. Holding the towel to his face while he waited.
He turned back inland and made his way to Dr. Swain’s office, which stood on a tree-lined avenue a mile short of the west end of Main Street. It was a large old house of yellow-clapboard with a picket fence out front. The dirt parking lot was empty and the office dark, but lights were on upstairs where the doctor lived, and Billy leaned his bike against the fence and went up the front walk with the bloody towel and rang the doorbell.
After the fourth ring a light came on, and then the porch light, and a young woman opened the door. Billy had never seen her.
“Good God,” she said.
She looked to be in her early twenties. She wore shorts and a T-shirt and her feet were bare. She was lightly freckled and her skin was a pale caramel color, as if she’d been in the sun but not recently.
“Is Dr. Swain in?” Billy said. His voice was thick and seemed locked inside his skull.
The woman looked back over her shoulder. “Sam,” she said. “Sam.”
“Maybe I should come back tomorrow,” Billy said.
Dr. Swain appeared, faintly elfin, behind her. He wore glasses and had bad posture and a quick reflexive smile that seemed both chagrined and apologetic.
“Why, Billy,” he said, “what on earth happened?”
“I was in a fight,” Billy said.
“You’d better come in, son.”
“Wait,” he said.
There were white-painted loveseats on either side of the little porch and Billy sat down on one of the benches and leaned over to untie his baseball shoes.
“He’s bleeding, Sam,” the woman said.
“Use the towel, Billy. Just hold it there till I can look at you.”
He put the towel to his face and now the woman was down on a bare knee in front of him, untying his shoes. Her hair was light-brown and fell shining about her shoulders. She removed his shoes, tugging gently, Billy lifting one foot and then the other. It had begun to dawn on him that she was Dr. Swain’s wife and he wondered how this could be.
“Sorry to bother you so late,” he said, watching her.
“You don’t bother us, does he, Laura?”
“We can always use some excitement,” she said.
They left his shoes on the loveseat and Dr. Swain led them in, switching on lights—waiting room, doctor’s office with its cluttered desk, exam room, where Dr. Swain had given Billy his shots when he was a kid and stitched his hand when he cut it with a fishing knife and given him his physical for freshman football. He hoisted himself backwards onto the examining table. Dr. Swain ran water in the sink and washed his hands.
“Who’d you fight with, Billy?” he said.
“Just some guy,” Billy said.
“During your baseball game?”
“After,” Billy said. “It was a private fight.”
“It was quite a fight, I would say.”
“Yes sir, it was. He was older than me. Bigger.”
Dr. Swain tore a paper towel and dried his hands. Mrs. Swain stood in the doorway leaning sideways against the jamb with her arms folded and her ankles crossed, watching him.
“Take the towel, Laura,” Dr. Swain said.
She obeyed unhurriedly, uncrossing her ankles, unfolding her arms, stepping forward with her hand extended. She met his eye and smiled as she took the towel from him.
“I wonder if we ought to speak to the police,” Dr. Swain said.
“It’s not their business,” Billy said.
Dr. Swain took him gently by the chin and tilted his face to the light. “That cut’ll need stitching.” He turned Billy’s head another way. “And your nose is broken. It’ll have to be set.”
“All right,” Billy said,
“You’ll have to go to the hospital.”
Dr. Swain had stepped back. “I can’t do that,” Billy said.
“You’ll have to. I can’t give you anesthesia.”
“I don’t need anesthesia.”
Dr. Swain turned, looked at his wife. Laura Swain shrugged. She turned, used her foot to spring the lid of an aluminum garbage can, and dropped the blood-soaked towel into it.
“You’ve no idea how painful it would be,” Dr. Swain said.
“Then don’t set it,” Billy said.
“That’s out of the question,” Dr. Swain said. “Suppose I drive you to the emergency room.”
“No sir. Set it here.”
“Stitch his forehead,” Mrs. Swain said. “At least get that out of the way.”
The cut took four stitches. The shot of Novocain made Billy flinch, but he sat still while the needle lanced his frozen skin. Dr. Swain worked silently in his sterile gloves, squinting through his glasses. Laura Swain leaned against the doorjamb as before, her slender ankles crossed, watching. Dr. Swain finished suturing. He wiped the cut with alcohol and taped a Band-Aid over it. He dropped his implements into a stainless-steel tray.
“Come back in a week and I’ll take the stitches out,” he said.
“Set his nose,” said Laura Swain.
“Laura,” said her husband.
“Did your father beat you up, Billy?”
“Set his nose,” Laura said. “Just set it.”
“I promise I won’t be any trouble,” Billy said.
“Go on, Sam.”
Dr. Swain took his glasses off. He rubbed his eyes, digging with the heel of his hand. He was still wearing the gloves. He put the glasses back on.
“Lie down,” he said.
Billy swung his legs up and lay on his back with his head on the small pillow. Dr. Swain rummaged in a drawer and found a box of gauze pads in sterile packets. He tore open two packets and rolled the first square of gauze into a cylinder and leaned down.
“I’m going to pack it first,” he said. “This part shouldn’t hurt too much.”
Billy closed his eyes as Dr. Swain worked the gauze into a blood-clogged nostril, worming it deeper and deeper under the splintered bone. He packed the second nostril. He stepped back and Billy opened his eyes and his gaze met Mrs. Swain’s. Her eyes were pale-brown, almost golden. She nodded.
“Are you comfortable?” Dr. Swain said.
“No, he’s not comfortable,” his wife said.
“Yes sir, I’m fine,” Billy said. His voice sounded muffled. It was as if his nose had been plugged with wax.
“Take his hand, Laura.”
“Can’t you give him Novocain?”
“Not for bone. Take his hand.”
She came around the exam table opposite her husband. Billy’s hand lay at his side and she slid hers under it and Billy gripped it. It was soft. Warm. Dr. Swain leaned in again. He put the tips of two fingers to either side of Billy’s swollen nose and ran them gently up and down.
“Are you sure about this?” he said.
“Sam, for God’s sake.”
“I’m sure,” Billy said, and closed his eyes.
It hurt more than anything ever had, a raging fire that seemed to feed on itself, to bunch down and bore deeper and deeper. Mrs. Swain’s grip tightened. It went on awhile, the woman’s warm dry hand gripping his with a kind of urgency, as if imploring, willing him, to bear it. Three minutes, five, afterwards Billy had no idea. Dr. Swain gave the bridge one more excruciating nudge sideways. He felt up and down with his thumb and index finger. “Good,” he said. He withdrew the two sticks of gauze, which slithered out wetly, bringing more blood. Billy opened his eyes. Blinked. He’d broken a sweat. Laura Swain squeezed his hand and released it.
Dr. Swain stripped his sterile gloves and dropped them in the garbage can. Billy jackknifed forward and swung his legs down. Mrs. Swain wetted a washcloth and Billy tilted up his face and she wiped the new blood from his mouth and chin, scraping very gently. He could not smell her with his clotted nose and wished he could.
“I’m going to give you a prescription for pain,” Dr. Swain said.
“I don’t need it,” Billy said.
“Don’t be a fool,” Mrs. Swain said. She’d finished wiping and stepped back.
“No baseball for a while,” Dr. Swain said. “You break that nose again, it’ll be no easy thing putting it back together.”
Billy lifted himself down from the table. “I have to play baseball,” he said.
“I’m not sure you understand the risk,”
“I understand it.”
Dr. Swain smiled his weary smile. He shrugged. “I hope you’ll let me drive you home, at least.”
“I’ll drive him,” Laura Swain said. “You’re done in.”
“I am, rather.”
“Give him the prescription,” Laura Swain said. “I’ll bring the car around.”
At the front door Dr. Swain asked him why he wouldn’t go to the hospital.
“My parents don’t like me fighting,” Billy said. “I just as soon not make a big deal of it.”
The car rolled out from behind the house, a white Ford station wagon.
The Beach Boys on the radio, exclamatory through the open window.
Round round git around, ah git around!
“I need to know how much I owe you,” Billy said.
“Come back in a week and I’ll take out those stitches. We’ll talk about it then.”
Billy nodded. “I appreciate it, Dr. Swain.”
“I know you do, Billy.”
He picked up his baseball shoes from the loveseat where Laura Swain had placed them neatly side by side and padded down the front walk to get his bike. Dr. Swain stood in the doorway, in the amber porch light, watching as his wife opened the tailgate and Billy lifted the bike in and shoved it back and slammed the door. The grass was cool and dewy through his thin stockings. He waved to Dr. Swain and got in beside Laura Swain. He told her where Clearview Avenue was. She turned the radio off and they drove out the short dirt driveway and down the shadowy avenue toward Main Street.
“How are you feeling?” she said.
“Liar. Sam give you the prescription?”
Billy dug it out of hip pocket and read it by the dashboard lights. “Codeine.”
“That’ll work. We’ll stop at Kasselman’s.”
“I don’t need it.”
“Stop it,” she said. “You’ve been brave enough.”
“I don’t have any money on me.”
“You can’t pay for my medicine.”
“Want to bet?”
They turned onto Main, drove past the village green, past St. Andrew’s, past the white-shingle rectory. Then they were in the slow summer traffic.
“Where’s your hat?” Laura Swain said. “And your mitt?”
Billy looked away, out the window.
“It isn’t a mitt,” he said. “There’s a first baseman’s mitt, a catcher’s mitt. Fielders wear gloves.”
“Sam was right,” she said. “It was your father. You went home after the game and he did a number on you. You came straight to Sam’s and didn’t think to bring the mitt and hat for appearances.”
“Glove,” he said, still looking away.
“Has it happened before?”
“Has what happened?”
“Cut out the shit, all right?”
Billy looked at her.
“You heard me,” she said.
Again Billy looked out the window. Smiled. “He cuffs me around a little. I don’t usually mind.”
“Maybe you ought to tell somebody.”
“It’s between me and him.”
“Oh Jesus. John Wayne. High Noon. You’re too smart for that.”
Billy looked at Laura Swain. Studied her. “You swear a lot, don’t you,” he said.
“Men swear. Why shouldn’t a woman?”
“She should,” Billy said. “My mother swears a blue streak sometimes.”
There was a parking space a few doors down from Kasselman’s Pharmacy and Mrs. Swain put on her turn signal and backed in skillfully.
“I really don’t need any pills,” Billy said.
“You’re starting to disappoint me,” she said. “I’d hate for that to happen.”
Billy shrugged. He handed her the prescription.
“I’ll pay you back,” he said.
“You already have,” she said.
She got out and slammed the door. He watched her shoulder her purse, give her head a toss. He watched her till she disappeared inside Kasselman’s, then sat back and closed his eyes. His forehead was still numb from the Novocain. The pain still coursed in his nose. The nose seemed to be jammed up between his eyes and had swollen further, if that was possible. He wondered if Mr. Kasselman would say something about Laura Swain’s bare feet and knew it wouldn’t matter if he did.
She came back five minutes later and he watched her legs as she pivoted into the car and pulled the door shut and she saw him watching and glanced at him with what seemed to be mock reproach. Besides his codeine she’d bought them each a Milky Way and him a takeout cherry Coke in a Dixie Cup and herself a pack of cigarettes. She dug a book of matches out of her purse, lit a cigarette and placed it in the dashboard ashtray and unwrapped her candy bar.
“Take a pill,” she said.
“What’ll it do?”
“Make the pain feel like it’s somebody else hurting, not you. Might make you sleepy. Some people take them for fun, but I wouldn’t advise that.”
He tore the stapled bag open and uncapped the tiny pills. He lifted the plastic lid from the Coke and washed one down. Laura Swain watched him, smoking, eating. He unwrapped his Milky Way.
“I get a chance to smoke, I take it,” she said. “Sam doesn’t approve.”
“He’s right,” Billy said.
“Of course he is.” She took a drag and blew the smoke out the window.
“Then why do you do it?”
“Why do you think?”
“I don’t know.”
“Yes you do. You know all sorts of things. How old are you?”
“Hell of an athlete, I bet.”
“I’m all right,” Billy said.
“I won’t hold it against you,” she said.
”Why would you?”
“Maybe because I’ve had my fill of athletes.” She finished her Milky Way and dropped the wrapper on the floor. She licked her fingers and leaned forward and started the car.
“We could drive around by the water,” Billy said. “Avoid the traffic.”
She looked at him. Smiled up one side, as if the suggestion contained some element of humor. “Why not?” she said.
He ate his Milky Way. They went out Davis Street, past old white-shingle and clapboard houses with widow’s walks. The Shore Road was wide and sun-bleached in the headlights’ scour. The ocean lay calm, a satiny blue-black in the light of the misty half moon.
“Where’d you go to college?” Billy said.
“How do you know I did?”
“Anybody would know it.”
“I didn’t go for long. One year. Mount Holyoke. Then I married Sam.”
She reached for the cigarette, took a final drag and rubbed it out in the ashtray. “I grew up in Maine. Orono. My father teaches at the university. What else do you want to know?”
“Yes you do. You want to know why I married Sam.”
“It’s none of my business,” Billy said.
“Will you stop with the Marlboro Man routine?”
Billy looked out the window “How much older is he than you?” he said.
“Twenty-five years.” She glanced at him. “Shock you?”
They’d turned inland on King Street and he’d be home in a few minutes.
“What’s shocking about it?” Billy said.
Laura Swain smiled. “You’re getting the hang of this, aren’t you.”
“The hang of what? We’re just talking.”
Again she smiled. “I met Sam at a clambake at the Kennedy compound.”
They were on Clearview, where long ago Billy and Sal had stood watching Deborah Abramson lob a scuffed softball to her little sister. Deborah in her untucked shirt and jeans tight on her thighs and ass.
“Sam knows the Kennedys. He knew JFK. “
“Here’s the house,” Billy said.
The lights were on upstairs but he was sure that by now his father had drunk himself to sleep. His mother wouldn’t be home till after one. Mrs. Swain pulled over and shut the engine off.
“I’ll come in with you,” she said.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“He won’t hit you if I’m there.”
“You don’t know him.”
“I know him. Oh boy do I know him.”
“He’s asleep, anyway. I’ll be all right.”
Laura Swain looked away, toward the house. It crouched, covered in weathered shingles, with a roofed front porch with no rocking chairs, no wicker table. The concrete stoop off the kitchen was unroofed and on warm Sunday mornings his mother would sit out there in shorts and a halter top, her eyes closed and her head tilted to the sun. His father would find her out there and watch her awhile and then order Billy out of the house. Hey, sport. Haven’t you got somewhere to go? He would stay away till three or four and come in and find his father in his undershirt in front of the TV pulling on a beer. Hey, sport. Grab yourself a beer, I mean a Pepsi. Hell, have a beer if you want.
“I jilted my high school boyfriend,” Laura Swain said, “and he got drunk and hit me. Broke my jaw. If we’d been alone in the dorm he’d have raped me.” Her face was creamy in the light of the hazy moon. It was lovely. “He was a football player. A hockey player. Mike Brennan. I hate the name Mike.”
A car turned the corner, came on slowly. Mr. Lumbert in his dusty Chevy. He passed them and turned into his driveway just beyond. They heard his car door slam. In the house diagonally across the street, the Tassinaris’, you could see the blue flicker from the TV in the darkened living room. Sal’s bedroom light was on, Billy noticed.
“When I was at Mount Holyoke I dated a Umass senior. A pitcher on the baseball team. You know what he wanted to do?”
“Have sex with me on the pitcher’s mound on the nights before he pitched.”
She felt in her purse, found the cigarettes and matches. Billy watched her light up, watched her smooth cheeks draw in.
“Did you?” he said.
She shook out the match, turned and blew smoke out the window. “What do you suppose your father’s doing?” she said.
“I told you—he’s asleep. Did you?”
“Yes,” she said. “Every time.”
“He win?” Billy said.
She looked at him, and a quick light played in the golden eyes. “What do you think?” she said.
“I think it might spoil his concentration.”
Laura Swain smiled and blew more smoke. “You’re getting why I married Sam, right?”
“He helped Teddy Kennedy set up those free clinics the Republicans hate so much. Teddy wanted to take him on staff but Sam came home. Said his work was here, far from the madding crowd. It sounded noble. Mature. A different world from drunken football players, baseball pitchers who want to fuck you in the ballpark and brag about it afterwards. I was nineteen. You don’t understand ‘forever’ when you’re nineteen. You think what’s new is going to stay new.”
Billy looked at her. He’d never heard a girl or woman say fuck, not even his mother. “Do you love him?” he said.
“Old Sam? Sure.” She looked at her watch, raising it to the thin light. “Time for you to scram. Sam’s going to think you kidnapped me.”
“Maybe I’ll see you when I get my stitches out.”
“I’m not there in the daytime.”
“Where are you?”
“I’ll see you somewhere, I guess.”
“You never know,” she said.
Billy searched for what to say next but before he found it she leaned and printed his cheek with a kiss. Billy, beginning to believe anything was possible, went to put his arms around her but she grasped him gently by the wrists, held him where he was.
“It wouldn’t be a good idea,” she said.
Billy closed his eyes, sat back. “Yes it would,” he said.
“Go on beat it,” said Laura Swain.
He nodded, found his shoes on the floor and shoved the door open.
He’d swung his legs out. He looked at her.
“Why’d your old man hit you tonight?”
“He said I was flirting with Deborah Abramson, lives across the street. Jew girl, he said.”
”Flirt with her some more,” Laura said. “Go to bed with her.”
Billy thought of Sal, what he would say to that.
“Go on get your bike,” Laura said.
Again he nodded and lifted himself to his feet and went around and dragged his bike out of the station wagon. He wheeled it forward and stood looking down into Laura Swain’s upturned face.
“Your father hits you again, you tell Sam,” she said. She leaned forward and started the car. “And take that Jewish girl to bed.”
“The thing is,” Billy said, “she’s older than me.”
Laura Swain eyed him. Her gaze cool, appraising. Then a half smile, more smirk than smile.
“So am I,” she said, and put the car in gear and was gone, tail lights receding blood-red down the empty street, Billy standing with his bicycle, watching them.
The Tassinaris’ front door bumped softly and Sal whistled.
“Hey,” he said.
Billy laid his bike down on the lawn and left his shoes and the codeine and crossed the street in his stocking feet. He climbed the porch steps. The living room was dark, the TV no longer going.
“Where the hell you been?” Sal said.
“I had to go to the doctor,” Billy said.
It was very dark under the porch roof but Sal had seen the Band-aid and perhaps the blood on Billy’s shirtfront. Peering more closely, he got a look at Billy’s nose.
“Jesus Christ,” he said.
Billy sat down on one of the wicker rockers. His nose ached dully. It was swollen and still so clogged he couldn’t draw air through it. His forehead was still numb. He hadn’t thought about the codeine or noticed anything from it, but now a pleasant languor was coming on. Sal sat down.
“What hit you, a Mack Truck?” he said.
“The old man. He wanted to box with me.”
“What the hell for?”
“For nothing. He was sloshed.”
“You going to tell anybody?”
“Nah. He’ll just get after me worse.”
“What are you going to tell your mother?” Sal said.
“Say I was in a fight,” Billy said. “What I told Dr. Swain.”
“Hurts like a bastard, I bet.”
“Not too bad. He gave me some pain pills.”
“Those things’ll knock you out,” Sal said.
“It feels kind of swimmy,” Billy said.
They sat, looking out into the gray darkness beyond the porch. Billy had no idea what time it was. He had no interest in knowing. He looked at his own small house with its patch of front lawn so sparse and dry in summer it didn’t need mowing. His mother would come home and smell his father’s foul beery breath and if he woke she’d light into him for being “plastered” and the hollering would begin on the other side of Billy’s bedroom wall. Holler was all his father would do— years ago he’d given her a shiner and she’d stuck a screwdriver into his arm and he’d never tried to hurt her again.
The languor worked in deeper, made his head feel light. You’re too smart for that, she’d said. You know all sorts of things. He wondered if she was right and if others saw him as she did.
“Who drove you home?” Sal said.
“Dr. Swain’s wife.”
“I didn’t know he had one.”
“I didn’t either.”
“What’s she like?”
“She’s younger than him. She’s pretty. Real pretty.”
“Who’d have thought?” Sal said.
Billy let it go. If he talked about her he would lose her. They sat awhile, rocking.
“Sidewinder,” Sal said. “The evil eye. Didn’t I tell you?”
Billy gently felt his nose. It didn’t hurt at all now. “She didn’t look at me,” he said.
“You said she did.”
“You said it, I didn’t.”
“I guess I did,” Sal said,.
“She’s just a crippled old lady,” Billy said.
“Yeah, hell,” Sal said. “She can’t help it she’s got one eye.”
“She’s just trying to live her life,” Billy said.
He closed his eyes. Sal seemed far away. Somewhere a cricket chirred, and Billy thought of the cool nights to come, the early darkness, the bright fall days, a wide and serendipitous world where anything was possible.
The Evil Eye [is] a simple story, well paced and well told. I have a soft spot for boys who get beat up by their fathers, and I liked this kids insistence on his own ability to take care of his own problems. He was a believable and likable character and I would be willing to spend more time with him.
—Pam Houston, 2012 Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize Judge
John Hough Jr.