Sirens pounded in my head as I leapt up from the shattered glass table I didn’t see. Pops was carrying the heavier bags and ran ahead down the dark and empty street. “They ain’t gon’ come quick enough. Haha, we good. We good,” he whispered to himself while I limped behind. After an hour, we made it under the Jenson bridge and unpacked the goods in our bags to wheelbarrows. My leg was cut up and bleeding. It stung like someone was taking a cheese grater to my calves, but I kept packing and lay black tarp over the loot. “You ever think this’s wrong?” I asked as pops lifted the rubber handles. The rusted metal dug back into the mud and pops squeezed my jaw. His eyes were flat, like manhole covers, and he started talking like he was reading from a book. “Morality is optional,” he said. “And we opt out a long time ago.” He let me go and we got going down the moonlit trail. As the handles of my cart bounced in my hand over the gravel, I thought about what he said and couldn’t shake the feeling that what he really meant was that we’ve never had many choices and damnit this was the best one.
On the fifteenth day of the rainy season, I was in the doorframe watching the mud pool in the garden with a Malboro in my hand. I felt defiant, in a way that I knew to be ultimately small, to be a human—a goddamn human—who built the roof over his head and cheekily lit a cigarette as the rest of the world turned to mush, like pulp washing down cement rivers.
The echo of feet bounding inside found me and soon Rachel came to the doorframe with a jar and pail, her raincoat already on.
“Worms!” She shook her head like that wasn’t what she’d planned on saying. “Can I play outside?” I told her sure as long as she stayed in the yard and away from the roses. She leapt over slick flagstones and into puddles like it was the first and last day of her life and, throwing the butt into the rain, I tried to remember the last time I felt like that.
Henry Burton chucked the whiskey bottle out the farmhouse door as he came in, aiming loosely for the glass bin, and plodded into the kitchen for another. Briskly, he patted the cigarette smoke from his jacket, snatched a bottle off the cheap end of the rack, and staggered upstairs to check on the baby, who slept with one eye open.
My homework was my job, my father always told me. While he worked for the family’s well-being, it was a privilege, he said, for me to be blessed with a good set of words to learn, picked by teachers of rare quality. I understood. He was right, but I still resented memorizing such an arduous list of words—words that I might never use anyway. My homework consisted of looking the words up in a dictionary, and writing five complete sentences for each of the twenty words assigned that week. My father would always make a point of seeing my completed homework each night, but he never really studied it. A simple flash of marked paper would do and occasionally he would remind me, upon seeing my completed homework, that incomplete assignments resulted in one of his signature spankings. However, in the face of such a monotonous task as learning vocabulary, I began to learn some shortcuts. Without anyone to read my assignments, I could get away with half, and sometimes almost incomprehensible, sentences. On weeks that I particularly wanted to shirk my work, I would even write gibberish and squigglies in place of words, knowing that a few missing points here and there wouldn’t have any real effect on my grades. One day, returning from rough-housing in my neighbor’s yard, I found my slapdash homework in a pile on the living room table, where I accidentally left it, with my father reading a book on the far couch. Carefully, I flashed my homework to him and stuffed it into my schoolbag.
“Finished already?” my dad asked without looking up from his book.
“Yes, sir,” I replied walking toward my room. At the doorframe, I saw he had taken off his glasses and fixed his eyes on me without any trace of tension in his face.
“If you’re not going to do something well, why would you bother doing it at all?” he said, returning to his book. I didn’t move or speak.
Homework was my job, my father told me.