Elizabeth Kerlikowske



If Bud gets to Gran and Grandpa's early, he snoozes. He stretches himself across the couch, his polished shoes untied and dangling from his feet. He sleeps with his hands cupped on his chest; he falls quickly and stays deeply. His lips smack together except the notch where the cigarette goes; his exhalations blow through there, grabbing some of the loose upper lip like a sail. Gran tells us not to wake him when we get home from school. I peek through the French doors. Look, I tell myself, he has come to visit, but a spell is on him. He can't wake up. He is the opposite of Sleeping Beauty, a beautiful man sleeping until his princesses come. His hair is as black as coal; his skin is mottled like ripe peaches; his lips are not as red as blood, but brown like the coffee staining them. Still, he is beautiful to us. My sister and I will write a song to celebrate him. She has her triangle. I need my xylophone, which I can see on the top shelf of the book case. Quietly as children raised in a mausoleum, we open a door, move one chair and I'm quickly up, my hand feeling for the xylophone, each key a color of the rainbow as it shoots past me and lands on an end table with a melodious crash. Bud's body rises from the couch like a plank, his right shoe soaring across the room; I am drunk on the cocktail of exhilaration and dread.



We have twin beds but we are not twins in the house our grandparents buy when they inherit us. The brown rug feels like the fur of my sister's bear I cut open to see what is inside. Our bedspreads are identical chenille—she wakes from her naps impressed with cotton measles. We share a dresser split down the middle, each a bedside table. All the furnishing are Colonial and have nothing to do with children. Shades are eyelids, always half-closed. We read by different lamps—hers has pink ruffles and a ballerina that dances. Mine is a carrousel horse with the tail glued back on. Her Baby Dear doll has good hair because we haven't step brothers who will hurt it. She sleeps with Baby every night and a stuffed dog. I lose my dog when Bud kidnaps us back. There is no room in the mirror for me. I look out the window to find myself or watch Mrs. Bauer's St. Bernards sleep in the street. I go once and lie between them because I want to die but no car comes. The love seat outside our room is the only love in the house. I am allowed to leave my light on late because I am older but that is the privilege of nothing at all. The organdy curtains our grandmother washes and starches and presses at the change of every season are knives embroidered with vines and flowers I think is the alphabet of old women. There is a rocker where Gran holds Sis but I am already too big too big too big. When the thick canvas awnings come off in the fall, the room is relieved. Brown and ink wall paper flowers bloom against the snow. Throw rugs hook our feet first thing each morning and last at night. Chairs are needle pointed. Furniture wears skirts and dust ruffles, more clothes than us. We say our prayers together. "If I should die before I wake" makes me an insomniac. My mother is already dead; I have this sister instead who has not known the other life, only this antiseptic home, this highly polished, dustless, mangled life that keeps us quiet, afraid to cough too loud or make a door noise in the night, not children but an obligation they never let us forget.



The sticky smell of cotton candy, candied apples and caramel corn cakes our nostrils with sweetness. My aunt is a member of the Booster Club, and when Bud takes us to their concession, the Booster Girls spin extra clouds of blue cotton candy for Sis and me. She eats hers like an ice cream cone and soon has spun sugar stuck to her hair and face. I have learned to pluck tufts of confection so I only dirty three fingers. Bud is content so smoke until we're done, perfect oscillating rings rising from his lips. Then we move onto the midway of Old Fashioned Days.
      First the baby games that Sis likes, games where we can't lose. She nabs a wobbly rubber duck from a tin trough of water, reads the number on the bottom and the toothless, tattooed man jabs her with a paper fan. I'm not much for games. I'm waiting to ride the Tilt-a-Whirl, which I'm trying to edge Bud toward. But first he has to pay a man two bits to slam a hammer on a box that makes a metal ball shoot up and ring the bell: Strong Man! Everybody looks. A woman with flowered breasts guesses our weight—always too low because that makes people happy.
     We're almost to the rides. I pull him by the hand, but he's a gambler and has to pitch the nickel. If his nickel lands smack dab on the center dot, he wins a giant panda bear. His deep pockets are full of Doublemint gum and change, and in only a moment, he's won a huge pink bear. Anything pink automatically goes to my sister. He looks at me. I look at him. He pulls out more nickels. He tries for ten minutes but we win only ceramic dwarves and small Japanese sabers. The carnie breaks a twenty. A small crowd has gathered, egging Bud on. I don't want a bear anymore. I want to ride the Tilt-a-Whirl. He keeps lofting those nickels, one at a time, smoking and throwing, squinting at the dim platform under the dark tent. I say, "Throw a handful all at once." He flashes his green eyes at me. "I don't want a bear," I say.
     "You're getting a bear," he says. My sister starts to cry. She looks so awful with blue crud in her hair, and the sky has gotten dark. The crowd is changing from kids to teens and I'm hungry for real food and just want to ride the Tilt-a-Whirl when the miracle happens—his nickel on the center circle. The man pulls down a big blue bear. I can't say I don't want blue again because that's all there is—one last blue giant panda bear. The line for the Tilt-a-Whirl is as long as the line for the Scrambler but we're done with nickels finally, and with our bears, we head for the Tilt-a-Whirl but Sis has that funny look and I know before it happens that she's going to throw up and ruin everything, but Bud doesn't have a clue.



These pieces are from a manuscript I wrote this summer about my dad. "Midway" was the first piece, and the rest of the manuscript grew around it.