The looking glass began to pour over her a light that seemed to fix her, that seemed like some acid to bite off the unessential and superficial and leave only the truth. What was unessential about her? She needed her clothes and shoes. They were essential for getting around. She didn’t live in a nudist colony. She wore a watch—perhaps it was not essential. But without it, she might be late for things she had to do. Even with her watch, she sometimes didn’t know what time it was. Did this make her unusual? She also wore some pieces of jewelry. They were definitely unessential, but they had emotional meaning, and she would miss them if they were gone. But this looking glass was pouring light over her, and the light was eating away at these trappings, though it was not eating away at her skin. She was not receiving a dangerous tan. But she was basking in something indescribable—it was the truth, which like invisible ink showed up only in this light. The truth glowed like fluorescent colors on a black-light poster, and she looked like a piece of art from the Sixties. Either that, or she looked like a crystal mineral in a natural history museum’s ultraviolet display.
In the morning, I watched while my father took two bowls from a shelf and placed them on the floor. He spooned canned pet food into one bowl and poured milk into the other. Immediately, the family cat began to eat from the food bowl.
The cat’s meal was cut short by the arrival of our two dogs. They used their noses to push the cat away. Then they butted heads for sole possession of the food.
I didn’t care which animal won, because I was more concerned with my own food—a bowl of cereal. I was lucky my brother and sister and I didn’t have to fight for it. We didn’t have to stick our noses in the bowl to see who could lap up the cereal the fastest.
I ate my breakfast with a spoon and watched the pets go through their routine. My father had left the room, and my mother had left the house for work. My brother and sister were still asleep. It was just me and the pets, eating in concert.
My father took me and my siblings to watch a hill-climbing race. During the event, stock cars roared up a closed road one a time, running against a clock. We were stationed at a curve in the road; we could hear the cars coming and could see them briefly as they rounded the turn. Between the screams of engines, there was relative calm—murmurs of spectators, wind in the trees, bird calls.
Presently, my brother got tired of standing, and my father picked him up in his arms. My brother leaned his head against my father’s shoulder. I had never seen my father hold my brother before.
At one point, a car wiped out. It spun off the road and raised a cloud of dust on the shoulder. But it didn’t flip over; it rolled on two wheels at an angle to the earth, then bounced down onto four wheels. After a few moments, it crawled back onto the road and continued toward the finish line.
Later, my father took me in his car to visit a boy who lived a few miles away. We parked at the side of a dirt road, then walked across a yard.
I heard a man call someone a shithead. Presently, the boy we were visiting appeared.
“It’s the only way I can get his attention,” his father explained.
“Hey, buddy,” he said to my father. “I brewed something.”
The man led us to a small closet off the kitchen. On the floor were a couple of ceramic crocks covered with cheesecloth. The brewmaster lifted a corner of one of the coverings, and a sour smell filled the air. In the containers, wilted yellow flowers were floating on top of brown liquid. “It’s dandelion wine,” the man said.
“It smells bad,” I said.
“I think it smells good,” my father said. He bent down toward the crocks to get a better sniff.
My father and his friend drank the hooch while I went outside with the boy. We stood in his large back yard and looked at a pond in the neighboring field.
“I fell in there once,” the boy said, “and I didn’t know how to swim.”
“What did you do?”
“I sank to the bottom, but I was carrying a baseball bat. I used it like a vaulting pole. I stuck it in the mud and pushed myself to the surface.”
I pictured him planting the end of the bat and extending his arms, then shooting up through the water, feet-first.
After a while, the boy said, “I’m not a shithead; I’m a spy.”
He went into the house. When he came out, he was wearing a suit and tie and carrying an attaché case. “Did you bring a weapon?” he asked.
“I have a compass,” I said, “at home.”
“What would you do with it?”
“Find my way home, I guess.”
We hiked on the dirt road away from the boy’s place until we came to the next house. Two red-haired girls were sitting on the steps of the front porch.
“They’re twins,” the boy told me.
Boldly, the boy approached the pair and said, “Hands up!” When they didn’t respond, he reached into his pocket and said it again. Surprisingly, they raised their arms.
“All the way up,” he said, and they stretched their arms overhead.
He took a flashlight out of his pocket and pointed it at them. “Security check,” he said.
At home, my father told my mother about his new drinking friend. “He spent some time in Hollidaysburg,” he said.
“How did he get there?” my mother asked.
“He went crazy,” my father said, “it was either Hollidaysburg or jail. He chose the crazy bin.”
“How long was he in for?”
“I don’t know. But he came out with a certificate of sanity. I saw the paper. He’s the only guy I know who can prove he’s sane!”
“Did he do something wrong?”
“Listen. He said something that made a lot of sense: ‘People wouldn’t go crazy if they could only pay their bills.’”
“Where I grew up,” my mother said, “the only people who went crazy were the ones who smoked opium. They were dreaming all the time. They dreamed so much they never woke up. That’s why we had the Opium Wars, but the wars didn’t work.”
I rode my bicycle to my new friend’s house. At the beginning of my trip, I took a road that passed through a cemetery. The gravestones on one side of the road were smaller and more worn-down than the ones on the other side. On the ground between the newer stones were a couple of rectangles of newly turned earth.
Presently, I came to the foot of the Ridge. The hill was too steep to climb by pedaling, so I got off my bike and walked. At the top, I could see the spine of the Ridge stretching out in both directions. Across the divide, I flew like a bat around hairpin turns. I scraped gravel and raised dust. I raced against a clock in my head, setting a time that anyone coming after me would have to beat.
I turned left onto a farm lane and rolled past the redheaded twins’ house. Again, the two girls were sitting on their front steps. Most likely, I thought, they were working undercover, keeping their identity secret from enemy agents.
I gestured with a wave as I went past.
In my new friend’s living room, I saw the boy’s father sitting in an upholstered chair. His eyes were open, but he didn’t move or acknowledge my arrival.
As I walked by him, he said, “If money is the root of all evil, shoot me the roots, Toots.” I didn’t know who he was talking to; then I saw his wife in a corner of the room.
In my friend’s bedroom, I sat on the floor and told the boy I’d seen the twins.
“What were they doing?” he asked.
“Sitting on their porch.”
He took out his wallet, opened it, and withdrew a single-edged razor blade.
“What’s it for?” I asked.
“In case I’m away from home when I have to do it.”
“What will you have to do?”
“Slit my wrists. Whether I slit them or not depends on what the twins say. If they say the wrong thing, it’s all over. But before I do myself in, I’ll give them one last chance to say the right thing, the thing that will save my life. If they don’t, I’ll reach into my pocket, flip open my wallet, and slice, maybe dig, then watch as this world goes dark and the next world takes shape. Maybe then they will see their mistake. Maybe then they will regret letting things go downhill.”
“Do you need both of them?”
“Two are better than one!”
On my way home on my bike, I looked for the twins but didn’t see them.
My father showed me a charcoal image he’d made by rubbing a headstone in the nearby cemetery. The piece of drawing paper had the outline of the stone, with the name Keturah Candy on it. The inscription said she’d lived to the age of 16 during the 1800s.
“I’m going to put this girl in my artwork,” my father said. “I wrote a poem for her. It goes: ‘Hello, lover! How is it down there? All stone and leather?’
“I have a silkscreen print to go with the poem,” he added. “It shows the gravesite, overgrown with weeds. Things were better then, when Keturah lived.”
In the morning, my father put out the pet-food dishes, and our cat arrived first. Shortly, our dogs got wind of the food and trotted into the room. They frightened the cat away and started to huff and chew. My brother and sister and I ate cereal at the kitchen table and watched the dogs.
“We’re going out to the fields,” my father announced, “and we’re going to pick dandelions. There are acres of flowers. We’re going to fill buckets with blossoms.”
Soon enough, he was overseeing my brother and sister and I as we pinched flowers off their stems. We picked until there were no more yellow flowers in sight. When we were finished, we had a full quart container.
Our father took our harvest and brought it into the house. “I’m going to start my own winery,” he said. “I’m going to crush these flowers in a tub. I’m going to throw in some yeast, and I’m going to wait until the sugar turns to ethanol. Then I’m going to drink until I go blind.”
“You can use the wine to celebrate the lunar new year,” my mother said. “Where I grew up, it’s a time of harvest and celebration.”
Later, I noticed that one of our dogs was missing. I asked my brother and sister to help me search for it.
We found the dog’s corpse between our yard and the neighbor’s place. Someone had shot the animal with a small-bore rifle.
I walked to the house next door and saw a teenage boy sitting on the back steps.
“What happened to the dog?” I asked.
“I took him out,” the boy said.
“Why?” I asked.
“He was running across my yard, so I picked up my .22 and plugged him.”
Later, I looked out my window and saw a crescent moon. I saw a star not far from the crescent. The star was behind the curve, not between the points. It didn’t make sense, where the star was. I wanted the star to sit in the concave space, between the moon’s horns.
I looked out across a farm field and saw animals sleeping on the ground. They might have been horses, cows or bales of hay. I couldn’t tell.
It was the start of the lunar new year. Soon, the dandelion flowers we’d gather would ferment, and a sour smell would fill the house. The flowers’ sugar would turn into ethanol. My father would drink all of the juice when it was ready.
Thaddeus Rutkowski is the author of the innovative novels Haywire, Tetched and Roughhouse. He teaches literature as an adjunct at Medgar Evers College of the City University of New York and fiction writing at the Writer's Voice of the West Side YMCA in Manhattan.