“Wake up! Waffles are ready!” John appears next to my bed; his stuffed monkey clutched in the crook of his elbow like a ragdoll. I’d been waiting for him to wake me ever since the sun’s rays came peeping through my bedroom window.
“Is today Sunday?” I ask, sitting up. John holds the monkey to my face; makes it nod. I yawn as I push his friend away and hop out. “After breakfast, we have mass.” I scurry down the hallway after my brother, toward the sound and smell of sizzling bacon.
“By the time we get back,” he says, pouring syrup all over his plate, “Dad’ll be in the workshop.” Dad never attends church with us. ‘Pray for me,’ he always says. He spends Sundays making things, and drinking glasses of bourbon.
“I’m gonna see if I he’ll let me use his measuring tape,” John says. He just wants to see how much taller he is than me. Finishing the last bite, he takes a gulp of milk and wipes his white mustache away with his hand.
He may be fourteen months older, but we’re equals. Mom and Dad have four other kids, and we’re the youngest; we band together like teammates. Mostly, he lets me lead. Especially after last Easter, when he got us both in big trouble, after suggesting we load up all the pastel, hard-boiled eggs—the ones Mom had made from scratch--from a platter on the kitchen table. We filled our jacket-pockets with the entire dozen. Mom was washing dishes with her back turned when we hauled them outside to crack-off their shells.
One-by-one, we threw the sticky eggs at our brick house, as high as we could, just to see if they’d stick. Oh, they stuck alright. Once we were discovered, our brother Phil had to get up on the tallest ladder Dad has, and scrub away the mess.
“Go straight to your rooms, right this minute!” Mom scolded, her arm out-stretched. “There’ll be no Easter dinner for either of you,” she added. Our time-out was worse than a switch or a spanking. The scent of ham, potato casserole and homemade rolls wafted down the hallway. In the future, I’d have to take charge.
Dad’s shop isn’t exactly a basement; more like an over-sized root cellar he and Phil dug out when our house was built, when Mom was still expecting me.
Once we enter the windowless room, it takes me a minute for my eyes to adjust. Maybe that’s why Dad always keeps the door open to the outside.
The floor is as tight as cement, packed-down from Dad’s size-eleven work shoes. At 6’3” he has to duck a bit as he moves about. We don’t dare get a toe in his way when Dad goes across the room, searching for something in a shadowy corner. He picks up what looks like a ruler from some shelf. He sits down on a low stool at his plywood table and goes to work sharpening a saw with the ruler-thingy. The shop air is cool; the hard ground glistens in reddish-brown, Virginia clay. It leaves a stain on the bottoms of our bare feet, like the burnt sienna crayon in my Crayola box. John searches for the measuring tape while I stand still watching Dad tighten a bare lightbulb. It hangs straight down from a black wire attached to a hook in the dirt ceiling. My brother loses interest in the tape when he can’t figure out which end to start with, or how it even works, so we wander back outdoors, leaving Dad to tinker all by himself.
It’s an Indian summer’s day, dry and sticky, with no rain in sight. I fill my short pockets with black-walnuts in their shells, gathering them from underneath our gigantic tree. Then I find a white rock that can act as chalk, and make a hop-scotch board on the driveway. I hop on one foot, drop a walnut shell into a square, and turn to pick it back up, never once losing my balance. Out of the corner of my eye, I notice Dad leaving his shop. My “Fun with Dick and Jane” reader page comes to mind, the one with the dad mowing the lawn.
“Away I go,” said Father.
I spy him a few minutes later, walking back into his cave with a drink. I plop down in the middle of the driveway, and black walnuts spill out of my short-pockets. I need Dad’s hammer to break open the shells, but I hesitate when I hear the screeching buzz of his electric sawblade, and see sawdust flying out the door like a swarm of gold gnats.
“Look, oh, look. See them go.”
The next time I see Dad shuffling down the yard, he’s freshened his drink again. Maybe he’ll give me a sip. But he stops to make a funny face when he sees me staring. I giggle when he juts out his chin, using his tongue to pop out his false teeth. His bottom dentures hang at the end of his lips like they’re gonna fall out. Then he sucks them back in, but not before I spy the shiny pink plastic underneath his fake teeth. John and I laugh as we pull at our own teeth, but they won’t budge. As he ducks back into his shop, Dad whistles a tune, and we file in behind him like we’re following the Pied Piper. When he sets down his drink after taking a big swig, the liquor is the same burnt sienna as the shop floor.
John’s and my eyes light up when we realize Dad’s latest project is making us a Santa Claus: a life-sized, mechanical, battery-operated, super-hero! He will rock side-to-side and wave to our neighbors every Christmastime from his perch on the side of our house.
John and I stand on tiptoes, watching Dad concentrate. He applies a generous stream of wood glue across the middle of Santa’s red suit, then affixes a trim piece of plywood, tightening a vise around the jolly old man. Every rotation by Dad’s thick, strong hands is precise: turn, turn, turn…not too tight.
Waiting to see the finished Santa is like waiting for Christmas Eve, so we head to the house and wash up for quick peanut butter sandwiches.
Back outdoors, a not so itsy-bitsy spider, a Daddy Longlegs, crawls up the back of my brother’s white undershirt. I’ve seen hundreds of them, so I just reach up to wave the spider off. But when John feels my fingers brush his back, he turns around, following the Daddy’s path as it high-steps along the yard on its own stilts.
“Don’t lose him, he’s mine!” John yells, picking up the weightless creature and mimicking him. John high-steps out into the field, letting the bug crawl up his hand, and smiles as it tickles the hairs on his arm. When he finally flicks it off, John finds a long stick like the switch Dad sometimes uses on the back of our legs. Scratching it along the driveway, John pesters a wooly caterpillar, coaxing it out of a crack. But the creature doesn’t like the switch either, so he curls up, refusing to play with us. We run back into Dad’s cave to check on Santa’s progress.
He stands frozen, propped up against the wall next to a fan slowly drying his glue. The piece of wood scrap has become his belt: Dad’s already painted it black, with a silver buckle. Loose arms and legs on hinges will be attached like real joints. Dad grabs a hammer off the shelf, and with a ping…ping…ping, taps the hinges into place.
By late afternoon, Dad has made countless trips indoors. When he returns the last time, the sun is low in the sky. His lower lip is swollen, but no drink this time. Just a can of Zippo lighter-fluid, the one he usually keeps under the kitchen sink for filling his and Mom’s cigarette lighters. I don’t think much of it when he holds the can in one hand, a stick with a rag wrapped around it in the other, and staggers to the base of the black walnut tree. He reaches up with a lit torch, catching a branch with a big worm nest on fire.
A gust of wind catches my attention, blowing up dirt in every direction. The unexpected air current clips-off the dead branch, along with the cluster of white cobwebs, the ones with sizzling worms. When I look up, the leaves on the black walnut tree have sprung to life, clapping their hands like tambourines. The breeze coaxes the leaves to become partners in a fiery, autumn hoedown. I hold still, shielding my eyes with my bent arm from a sudden assault of smoke, but it finds its way up my nose. I pull my t-shirt up over my face, and run towards the driveway.
Moments later, adults come running outside screaming, “The field’s on fire!” I smell lighter-fluid, and spy flickering embers like daylight fire flies. Maybe Dad should’ve picked a calmer day.
John and I obey Mom’s voice, urging us toward the house. We run with our heads turned back toward the spectacle: pop-up blazes light new fires along the dry reeds in the open field, the one we run in with our friends when we play cowboys and Indians. The fires play Leap Frog above our favorite hill, the one we sled down in winter.
Mom unwinds the garden hose and pulls it taut to the back yard. Is she crying? Neighbors come running with pails.
“Over here!” someone shouts. People form a line from a neighbor’s water spigot. Ours is at full throttle. Buckets-to-hands, hands-to-buckets; turn and pass them quickly to the next person, like a game of Hot Potato. Mighty small buckets for such a big fire.
In the distance, a screeching siren rings out. In minutes, a gigantic red fire truck pulls into Lebanon Manor, sounding like my whiny cry, over and over again. It barrels up our gravel road where our old dog had been lying. Willie lazily got up, and moved in the nick-of-time!
“Run, Spot, run!”
John and I stay indoors at the picture window as the firemen smother the last of the flames and rewind their hoses. By nightfall, everyone returns home.
Mom says it was a “close call,” but Dad is awfully quiet. All that’s left of the field is a wet, smoky expanse of charred sticks. But our yard, the house, and all of us remain unharmed. Santa is still intact. And we all survive, even the black walnut tree, from what I remember.
Sarah Robinson's works reflect her recovery from the effects of alcoholism and sexual abuse, and reflect a restorative work in her once-broken heart. Her writings have been published since 2009 in newspapers and magazines: Outside Bozeman Magazine; WV Living Magazine; Morgantown Living. Grand Prize winner: Greater Greenbrier Valley Foundation Poetry Contest, 2010. HM: WV Writer’s contest, 2012. Diner Stories Anthology, 2014. Madwomen of the Attic Anthology, 2014.“The Skinny” Poetry Journal, July 2016.