I lost my virginity to my cousin when I was fifteen years old. We were the same age, but she was infinitely more experienced than I, and — well, to tell you the truth, fifteen is a very horny year.
It’s not so incestuous as it sounds; Chrissy is my uncle’s stepdaughter, so we don’t share more than the normal amount of random genes. She’s been my best friend since I was four years old, so it was inevitable that we would do it. After all, that crap about guys being friends with girls and not wanting to get in their pants, that’s just pure propaganda. Generated by us guys, of course, in an attempt to strip off all of our female friends’ underpants.
I tongue the memory idly in my brain now as I drive down the flat, two-lane highway between circular fields of cotton and maize seven years later, cotton drifting lazily across my windshield. I could make this drive home from the university in Austin with my eyes closed; all I have to do is aim in the direction that smells the dustiest, blows the hardest, changes the least.
I feel like a stray calf cut away from the herd, being here, humming over these sand-swept highways without her egging me on to do something stupid or just downright offensive. I’m starting to wonder if all the twine and barb wire that held us together as kids is starting to unravel. We live four blocks away from each other now in Austin, but I haven’t seen her in a month. Used to be I’d wake up every morning itching to find out what mess she’d throw me into by nightfall; now all I think about is passing my anatomy exam, acing my MCATs, and convincing the brunette in my biochem class that despite my skinny frame and permanent bed-head, I’m the Ron Jeremy she never knew she needed. Chrissy, with her crooked smile and crater-filled heart, is drifting from my mind. I can’t help but think that’s a good thing.
My rusted Chevy chatters into the city limits, melting me back in time as it rattles over the red brick main street between the false-fronted stores of downtown Brownfield. Most of them are boarded up and crumbling down. The front window of Green’s Department Store still suffers the spider web I knocked in it when I was eight years old. I pass Fuller Estates, the local low-rent trailer park that my grandpa lords over like a medieval aristocrat, and enter the neighborhood where my father’s great-grandparents were born.
When I was just yea-high, Papa Fuller would pack me and my cousin Chrissy in his big red Caddy and motor around town, pointing at houses and commenting, “This is where your mama’s daddy’s daddy was born,” and “Your kin on your daddy’s mama’s side bought that ol’ house in 1933.” When Chrissy was old enough to drive, she and I would poke around town, creating kinfolk in every house, inventing relationships and family dramas. Chrissy always told me that there was a Brownfield “Adam” who begat us all, and that we were a town of Fullers, a population separately evolved from the rest of the human gene pool. “He plugged them all, Jake, anything without a peter,” she’d say. “Propagation of the white trash species.” We always ended the game when that thought overtook us.
After that monumental act that catapulted me into manhood – or at least into adolescent lusthood – Chrissy and I lay in the back of the baling truck, raw cotton itching all over our naked adolescent bodies. I tried not to look at her. My upper brain was working again, and I suddenly wondered if bonking my step-cousin was illegal. It probably was to Uncle Rick and Papa Fuller. I figured I was going to get my balls hacked off. Hell, they could do it to a two-ton bull using nothing but a rubber band. I’d be an easy mark.
Chrissy wasn’t nearly as worried about my testicles as I was. She wasn’t worried at all. She mimed smoking a cigarette and whispered in her best Lauren Bacall voice, “It was good for me, baby. Was it good for you?”
I inhaled a cotton boll and almost choked.
Laughing, she thumped me on the back. She jumped out of the truck and ran buck naked through the water spray raining out of the circle system. I gathered our clothes, fearing some telltale piece of underwear would wind up baled in with Papa Fuller’s cotton, processed in Papa Fuller’s gin, woven in Papa Fuller’s factory, and embedded into one of Papa Fuller’s button-downs, whispering to him for all time about what I’d done.
Then I saw her, watched her standing naked under the mist. The water struck the dust and kicked it up, painting her pale body with red clay. It never washed her, just muddied her until finally she returned to me. She dressed and drove us home with cotton in her hair and clay gilt on her legs.
I let that day fade from my mind as I pull into Granny’s drive, parking behind my uncle’s gigantic Chevy dually. Wouldn’t do to have incestuous relations on the brain for the big family gathering.
My mouth waters as I stroll through the carport, for a different reason now. My nose cheers and twitches in ecstasy, preparing the rest of my body to ingest Granny’s fried turkey, smashed taters, and punkin pie. Her favorite holiday has always been Thanksgiving. She prepares for weeks, baking pies, cakes, fudge, and sauces, selecting premium potatoes and turkeys and fruits, all designed to make the whole family as obese as her husband. The leftovers could feed an entire village of fly-speckled starving kids for three months, but the uncles generally consume everything by noon the following day.
This year when I walk through the heavy oak door, almost everybody is lounging in and around Granny’s perpetually dimly lit living room. I blink for a few moments, adjusting my eyes from the bright sunshine outside to the wan light filtering through yellow pebble glass on all of Granny’s windows and the various fringed lampshades. I stand in Granny’s small foyer next to her bench full of creepy dolls with changeable faces, and look into the living room.
Daddy, as the eldest brother, has taken advantage of his status to claim Papa Fuller’s old orange velour recliner and command of the remote. He’s fully engaged in debating the day’s football games loudly with Uncle Rick, who reclines as best he can on one of Granny’s heavy, ornate dining room chairs that he’s dragged into the living room. The Cowboys game hasn’t started yet, but all the pregame blowholes are calling up the stats, predicting game outcomes, and anxiously awaiting John Madden’s six-legged turkey.
Uncle Wayne, the youngest, has made it this year, too. He doesn’t come back often, and I don’t blame him. Men who wear purple silk shirts and yellow silk ties and present an endless string of “roommates” don’t often feel that comfortable shooting the shit with flannel-draped cotton farmers. He’s family, though, and Rick’s wife is always damn glad to see him. He and Aunt Suzie sit side by side on the camel-hair loveseat, sipping iced tea and trying to hold a sophisticated conversation over the din of football. Aunt Suzie occasionally casts disparaging glances at “the boys” while she attempts to hold up her end of the conversation. After all, it isn’t every day she gets to talk to someone from the big city, someone who dresses in something other than coveralls and actually wears name-brand cologne.
I loiter in the entry hall for a spell, watching them and letting the warmth of home drift over me. I suck in the turkey, pumpkin, and cigarette aroma and quietly set my keys on the side table. I smile and reach out to rub the barbed wire and dirty cotton sculpture that’s been sitting on that table since I mangled it together for a high school project.
I’d pulled that same cotton out of Chrissy’s hair that afternoon, once we got our clothes back on and headed home for dinner. Through the din of five years and the Fuller men yelling at the TV from the other room, I hear her forced laugh, see her labored wink as she whispers, “Good eye, Jakie. Wouldn’t do to have Papa Fuller know how much fun his baling trucks are, would it?”
I jerk away from the twisted old wire boll when Granny pops me with her dishcloth. She’s telepathic, and knows what I’m thinking. I swear.
I smile guiltily. “Hey, Gran.”
She hugs me with her wrists, keeping her flour-painted hands off my shirt. She pulls back and examines my clothing.
“Since when did you start dressing like your grandpa?” she asks.
“Snappy shirts are back in style, doncha know?” I reply. “Plus, they’re like a dollar at Good Will.”
Granny laughs and smooshes a huge kiss on my face. “I’ve missed you kids around here.” She looks behind me and asks, “Didn’t Chrissy come with you?”
“No, ma’am. Why, was she supposed to?”
Granny goes back into the kitchen, waving for me to follow her. She resumes kneading biscuits on her cutting board. “No, I just thought maybe she would come with you.”
Shows how much she knows.
“Papa Fuller here?” I ask casually. I can’t recall doing anything lately that would earn his ire, but you never can tell. He’s almost omniscient, and sometimes I think he knows it when I’m only considering engaging in some form of misbehavior.
“He had to run out to the gin for a while,” Granny says, winking at me slyly. “You’re safe from whatever punishment you deserve for at least a coupla hours.”
I grin and make a show of wiping a nervous sweat from my brow.
From the living room Daddy hollers, “Jake! That you?”
“Yeah, Dad.” I press my mouth to Granny’s dry, powdery cheek, swipe a yam and a beer, and wander into the living room.
“Hey, Jake.” Uncle Rick grins at me. Rick only smiles with one side of his face – I’ve never been able to determine whether he actually can’t move the left side, or if his grin is just some hick imitation of James Dean. The Bluebonnets Feed cap sitting on his knee has left a hat-crown in his thin brown hair, and I wonder vaguely why Rick’s hair never grays, yet Daddy’s turns lighter every time I see him.
Uncle Wayne rises regally from his end of the loveseat, clasps my shoulders, and kisses each of my cheeks. I compliment his shirt and tie, earning snorts from Daddy and Uncle Rick, and haul another dining room chair next to Daddy.
Daddy claps his meaty hand on my knee and bellows, “How’s school?”
“Not failing, are you?”
“All right.” Mandatory paternal conversation over, he resumes yelling at the TV, slamming his beer on the laminated section of tree trunk Granny uses for a coffee table. “Who hires these idiots? It wouldn’t matter a dadgum bit if Johnny Unitas came back from the grave to quarterback. Not when the line is a bunch of ninety pound pansies.”
“Go on and give the TV station a call, Marshall,” Uncle Rick says, winking broadly at me as though I’m still seven years old. “I’m sure they’d hire you on quicker than you could spit.”
“I did.” Daddy flashes all of his fluoride-browned teeth and prepares to spin a yarn. “They offered me Howie’s job, you know. But I said, no, no. I wouldn’t want to show all the other guys up. They need Howie, you know, so all the rest of them can feel really smart. If I were there, they’d all be crying like little girls at the staggering power of my superior football knowledge.”
Mom swishes in from the dining room, where she must have been setting the table. As though anyone would actually drag themselves away from the ball game to eat at a table with napkins and silverware.
“Don’t believe a word he says.” She winks a thickly shadowed eye at Daddy, leans over the back of my gargantuan chair and kisses me, leaving a pink lip imprint on my ear. I cough, searching for oxygen around the cloud of her sweet perfume. “He’s too afraid of heights to sit all the way up there in that booth.”
Daddy shudders. “You could fall right out. What if Aikman threw a bad pass — God forbid — and broke those windows? You’d get sucked right out.”
“Oh, Marshall,” Uncle Wayne wrinkles his nose and shakes his head. I’m waiting for him to faint from the overdose of testosterone he must be getting here, but I figure that after spending his whole life with a bunch of rowdy farmers and ranchers, he’s learned to tolerate it. Same as they’ve learned to tolerate him.
Aunt Suzie finally sets her iced tea on a coaster and tries to shove herself gracefully out of the sagging loveseat without wrinkling herself or getting any rhinestones out of place. I always thought Uncle Rick ought to have a cowboy’s wife, pregnant and barefoot, just like his daddy had. But no, he has Suzanne. I feel sorry for him sometimes.
The She-devil herself strolls over to me, grasps both my hands and pecks me in the vicinity of each cheek. “Hello, Jacob. Did you bring my lovely daughter with you?”
“No, Aunt Suzie.”
“Don’t call me that.” She grimaces and glares at Daddy. “If you hadn’t referred to me as ‘Suzie’ all throughout that boy’s childhood, I wouldn’t be stuck with that idiotic nickname.”
Daddy grunts and increases the volume on the TV.
I withdraw my hands from hers and retreat – mentally, anyway – to my favorite anti-Aunt Suzie hiding place. Every time Aunt Suzie starts to irritate me, which is pretty much every time I have to be in the same room with her, I let myself drift back to a big purple tractor with a rosy background.
Chrissy and I were so proud of that tractor. When Chrissy was about seven Aunt Suzie stuffed her into a lacy, flouncy, pink go-to-meeting dress and packed her off to Sunday school. Chrissy waited demurely all morning, singing “Jesus Loves Me” and thoroughly astonishing our teacher with her model behavior. Then came a moment without adult supervision. Chrissy instantly hopped to the front of the room and produced a set of eight Crayola markers, inviting every kid in the room to draw anything they liked on her beloved gown. By the time our plump powdery teacher, Mrs. Dixon, could pull everyone away and confiscate all the markers, Chrissy looked like a kindergarten bulletin board. Stick dogs and blue trees and red smiley faces cavorted all over her, and my incredibly well-drawn purple tractor chugged across her right shoulder blade.
When Aunt Suzie she saw our artwork, she screamed. An actual open-mouth, Night of the Living Dead screech. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Chrissy prouder of herself. The memory sustains me to this day.
The front door slams, and Granny’s surprised “Chrissy!” floats out from the kitchen.
Aunt Suzie rolls her brilliantly outlined eyes and sits back down on the couch next to Uncle Wayne, muttering, “Well, I’m so glad she decided to grace us with her presence.” Uncle Wayne murmurs reassuringly, but it doesn’t help Aunt Suzie’s attitude much.
I get up and follow Granny’s voice into the kitchen. As I step onto the brown linoleum floor, I hear Granny ask Chrissy, “What will your mother say? She’ll be horrified.”
I can only see Chrissy’s hair down her back, but I can clearly hear her mocking smile when she answers, “Granny, when was the last time I gave a rip what Suzanne thought?”
Granny sighs and looks at me over Chrissy’s shoulder like whatever this is, it’s my fault. Sure, blame it on the only man in sight. “Jake, did you know about this?”
“Know about what?”
Chrissy turns around.
“Holy shit.” I reach up to touch the black stain swallowing her right eye, the tiny slash over her cheekbone. She winces and slaps my hand away. “What the hell happened to you?”
“Got in a fight.” She shrugs. “I’ll get over it.”
I glance at Granny, then back at Chrissy. “Got in a fight with who? Don’t tell me Mike Tyson was in town.”
“Ha, ha.” She pulls a hair-tie off her wrist and tugs her straight brown hair into a loose ponytail, further exposing her crunched face. “Who cares?”
She steps into the living room, yelling, “Hello, family. Happy Thanksgiving!”
I hear nothing for a long moment, and then Uncle Rick says, “Nice shiner, Muhammed.”
Uncle Wayne’s voice comes next. “Oh, Christina, dear, you need to get a comfrey poultice on that eye. It will draw all that nasty bruising right out.”
I move to stand behind Chrissy so I can fully enjoy the adults’ dismay, and revel in Aunt Suzie’s shocked gaze.
Aunt Suzie touches her stiff, frosted curls and says, “Christina Fuller, what in God’s name is that?”
Ever the soul of subtlety, Daddy answers, “It’s a black eye, Suzie,” without ever looking away from the game.
“Thank you very much, Marshall,” Aunt Suzie snaps. She launches off the loveseat and thunders over to her daughter — well, as much as a woman built from water and lettuce can thunder – and manages to drag her as far as the foyer, where Chrissy plants her feet and yanks free.
“For Christ’s sake, Suzanne,” Chrissy says, “it’s a black eye, not a tattoo.”
Aunt Suzie’s harsh whisper drowns out a stuttering John Madden. “I don’t care what it is! What reason can you possibly have to stroll in here looking like a piss-poor boxer? Don’t tell me you’re still with that Mexican boy.”
Granny comes out of the kitchen, standing next to Chrissy as Aunt Suzie hooks a talon on her upper arm.
“Adele, thank you for your concern,” Aunt Suzie says sharply, not sounding grateful at all, “but I can handle my own daughter.” Aunt Suzie shoves between Chrissy and Granny, dividing the allies, and continues her rant.
Granny throws up her hands and retreats to the kitchen, sticking her tongue out at Aunt Suzie, though good ol’ Aunt Suzie is too pissed to respond properly. I leave Chrissy looking bored and disdainful — after all, if Granny has been shot down, I’m sure to be next. I go out to the backyard and sit in Granny’s wrought iron porch swing to wait, thinking.
I’ve never met him, never met any of the latest in her string of boyfriend-slash-criminals. Thank God. Chrissy started in with them, one after another, in the tenth grade. Okay, so it was earlier than that, but she got seriously focused on them around then. They were challenges, conquests. Fuller by blood or not, Chrissy has Papa Fuller’s instinctive desire to subjugate everything and everyone around her. She plays a good game, collecting everybody’s pieces and crowing like a rooster with every triumph. Eventually, though, she always winds up the loser, and I’m generally the consolation prize. It’s not my favorite role. I stopped trying to understand her need for them a long time ago.
“They’re fun,” she told me once, shrugging.
“They’re stupid and hairy,” I said condescendingly. I’m not exactly Einstein with the body of Van Damme, but at least I don’t hit women, commit adultery, or shoot neighboring dogs with my BB gun.
“Some are better than others.”
“Oh, yeah, those with whopping IQs of 83.”
She just grinned. “Hey, a couple may have been around 90.”
The only thing really keeping her in line anymore is Papa Fuller. Well, Papa Fuller and the snappy belt. When things start getting really bad, these guys just kind of mysteriously disappear. My grandfather, the one-man mafia. I consider myself a walking, talking miracle because I haven’t vanished my own self.
The sliding glass door next to me shudders open. Thanksgiving potpourri from the warm house snakes its way up my nose as Chrissy plops next to me, vigorously kicking the swing into motion.
“Escaped, huh?” I say.
“Yeah. She just had to bitch for a while, as usual. I don’t think Rick pisses her off enough when I’m not around, so she just lies in wait for me to show up.”
“You give her a lot of reasons to bitch.”
She laughs. “Ain’t it grand?”
We’re quiet for a minute, listening to the swing chains rub heavily against each other. Then I say, “I called you at the store last week. They said you quit.”
Chrissy says nothing.
“So I called your roommate. After several hours of torture, she finally admitted that you moved out like three weeks ago.” I hate that the news came from a random roommate rather than straight from my cousin and best friend’s mouth.
She still doesn’t say anything, and out of the corner of my eye I see her touch a blunt, lime-green fingernail to the cut on her cheek.
I exhale forcibly. “You’re not still staying with him, are you?”
“No.” She glares at me as though I just asked her if she likes playing catch with armed nuclear warheads. “Like I’d stay with the prick after he did this.”
“So where’ve you been?”
Yeah, she’s been around all right. I focus my gaze on the Easter bunny, Granny’s old lop-ear, munching on mint leaves in the yard. I don’t want to look at Chrissy, at the evidence of her descent, and the rabbit is a much more pleasant substitute. “I don’t get this, Chris.”
“It’s my life, Jake, not yours.”
I stare so hard at the fat brown rabbit crouching in the grass that its ears start to disappear. Maybe if I stare long enough, this whole situation will fade into black. “So that’s it, it’s just none of my business?”
“Bullshit.” The rabbit’s ears reappear, and her face wobbles into darkness.
Chrissy sighs at me and scratches a fingernail backward over her scalp. “You’re beginning to sound like sweet Suzie in there.”
“She’s your mother. She cares about—”
“Yeah, like she cared so much when I was three, and when I was five, and when I was fourteen.” Chrissy jumps up, blocking my blurry view of the rabbit. I now have no choice but to look at Chrissy. At the bruising, at the girl who is quickly becoming someone I don’t want to know.
“Chris, this isn’t about that.”
“Yes, it is. It’s always about that. It’s about him and her. Him and me, and her never lifting a finger.” She turns her back to me. I think maybe she’s spotted the Easter bunny, and she’s now the one gaining strength from our old pet. “Every time he came into town, I was there, and she was hiding. She hid behind Rick and she hid behind me.”
I don’t say anything. This is why I was willing to draw purple tractors on her lacy dresses, and smart-mouth my Aunt Suzie every chance I got. Because I met him that once, Chrissy’s dad, and I hid from him with Chrissy more times than anybody cared to know about. He smelled like Johnnie Walker and chewing tobacco, and his face had the wrong kinds of wrinkles. Not the kind people get just from being old or squinting into the sun too much, but the ones that get carved into faces by other people, people who don’t care that what they do hurts for generations.
I’m waiting again, waiting for the Cheshire rabbit to impart her wisdom to Chrissy, because I still can’t say a word.
Finally, Chrissy rejoins me on the swing. I take a deep breath, inhaling the courage to tell her all the profoundly comforting and insightful things that are running around my brain, but all that comes out is a feeble, “So, been going to your classes?” That’s right, Jake, ignore it all and it will go away. For today, maybe.
“Sometimes.” She smiles a little and drags her eyes away from the brown rabbit. “Okay, mostly not.”
“Well, then I guess you’d better learn how I like my burgers cooked.” I force a grin, trying to be okay with the decisions she’s not making. “Hey, would you sneak me fries? The good ones, you know, long and squishy and greasy.”
She pokes me hard in the ribs and laughs at my pained grunt. “You’ll be in a grease joint before I ever will, Mr. Perfect Attendance. You know no matter what happens, I always come out on top.”
I stare at her puffy, blue-black eye. “Yeah, I guess you do.”
She breaks eye contact, and for a minute she deflates, all the warm air whooshing out of her. A numbness creeps into my gut, that same feeling I got when I was five and I pulled Santa’s beard off at the mall. But then she sucks it up, swats my knee, and bounces into the house.
I stay outside until Uncle Wayne calls me in to dinner, fervently pretending I never saw the beard slip.