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The Barcelona Review

Author Bio




In the little courtyard of my brother's place I close the six-foot-high gate behind me. Coming over without calling first shouldn't be a big deal, since I usually spend half my life here. Since I was born, I've never gone this long—three weeks—without seeing Steve, and that's no exaggeration. Not to be a drama queen, which I'm not, but ever since his Summer Solstice party, I'm feeling sick and weird, and twice Steve hasn't returned my phone calls. Maybe the brats were undercooked or got left out in the sun, and that's why I've been shaky. We fought at the party, and I said, Fuck you, and carried a bottle of tequila down by the pink peonies—I remember that much—but then I woke up at home. Woke up in the shower, to be precise, with cold water running over me and my boyfriend, JC, yelling. No surprise that I can't stand for JC to touch me since that night.
       Vines with glossy leaves obscure most of the privacy fence, and the beds of gladiolas and irises have gone crazy, so they crowd the flagstone path and paint my bare legs with mustard-colored pollen. This spring, I helped Steve unload a truckload of cow manure, which caused his neighbors fits, and I can still smell it. As I come around the corner of his house, pink fobs on a flowering bush thump me and wag as if mounted on springs. On either side of the door are hanging baskets brimming with dark purple wave petunias, and the smell is too much. I lean over a fountain of yellow daylilies and throw up. I'm thinking about going back to my car and wiping my mouth—there's a brown cloth glove on the back seat—but the security light comes on, followed by the light in the kitchen.
       "Look, it's Janie," Steve says to the toddler on his hip, and at the sight of him and his three-year-old daughter, my heart swells.
       "Hey, guys," I say. "Long time no see."
       ''And your aunt Janie has orange hair. What the hell did you do to yourself?"
       "Hi, Pinky," I say. Her real name is Patricia, but nobody calls her that. Pinky has rosy cheeks and curly hair, dark like Steve's, like mine before I made the mistake of bleaching it. I can't stop smiling at the sight of my brother and my niece, and I wish I'd brought the kiddo a present, a book with pictures or something glow-in-the-dark.
       "I finally decided to go to college. Clown college," I say and follow him inside. My hair looks bad, I know—I don't need to hear it from anybody else.
       Pinky looks cheerful, as if she's being carried somewhere she likes going. At three she still always wants Daddy to pick her up.
       "Hey, shut the door behind you. I got the AC on," Steve says. "Were you born in a barn?"
       "Same barn you were born in, dude."
       His one-story house is about as big as JC's house, where I've lived for two years, but Steve has a big back yard where he grills out in the summer. The lingering smell of what must've been brats for dinner threatens my stomach again, as does the sight of greasy paper plates in the garbage. I want to ask about food poisoning, but I don't want to start on something negative.
       "Do you want a glass of wine?" Steve asks and puts Pinky down. "And seriously, what happened to your hair?"
       "I washed it in the Kalamazoo River," I say and follow him into the kitchen, onto the yellow-and-white flooring that compresses under my feet—it feels weird if you're not expecting it. Right before Pinky was born, he installed cushioning under new vinyl, so it's more forgiving if she falls on it. He lays floors for a living, so he knows about all your specialized materials.
       I accept the white wine in a wine glass with a couple of ice cubes, hoping it'll settle my stomach, and decline the cigarette Steve offers to roll for me. I've been trying to quit, though I already smoked three at work today.
       "So what've you been up to besides ruining your hair?" Steve asks when we settle on the couch. In front of us, almost blocking the TV and crowding the furniture, sits a big plastic playhouse. This house within a house takes up a big part of the room, looks bright and safe with its gently sloping magenta roof above yellow walls with smooth window openings. Under the window facing us are stickers depicting fruit. I hate the way the playhouse makes the room feel crowded, but I'm not going to start bitching right off.
       "I was just trying something out," I say. JC thinks my hair is a sign of me losing my mind. I've promised to color it black again, but the chemicals in the hair dye were sickening the first time, and I'm not ready to smell it again.
       "Well, you stay away from Pinky's hair," he says, like nothing is off-kilter with us. Maybe his phone hasn't been working, and maybe he hasn't been ignoring my calls. The wine has a sour flavor. I prefer mixed drinks when it's hot like this, or just a few shots. Not as many as I had at the party.
       Steve sits up suddenly, as though he's been pricked by an electrical charge. People always say Steve and me have a lot of energy. Our dad has the same energy, too, and he uses it to tinker with the electronics that entirely fill his trailer, except for the cot he sleeps on.
       "Hey, Janie, you've got to help me with this playhouse. I tried to get the Bitch to do it, but she says she won't be around me and power tools. She says I have inner rage. I told her, You used to love my inner rage, Bitch."
       The Bitch is Pinky's ma, who still comes over to watch Pinky sometimes, though she lost her custody rights when she was convicted of cooking meth.
       "Aren't you going to put that thing outside?"
       "It was a hundred degrees today. My crazy kid'll sit out there and cook herself. I'll take it out through the slider when the temp drops." He nods at the sliding glass door as though he and the door have made an agreement.
       "It's my fun-fun-funhouse!" Pinky says.
       "That's what they call the one at day care." Steve turns to Pinky and speaks in an animated way. "It's fun, isn't it, your funhouse?"
       With a great show of bending her knees and swinging her arms, Pinky jumps in the air about an inch and then runs to the playhouse and opens the saloon-style doors. She disappears inside. I wonder if ever in my life I was that young or joyful.
       "Looks like it's all plastic. Why do you need power tools?"
       "The roof came off when she pushed on it with the broom. Some kind of factory defect. I don't need the roof falling on my kid's head," he says.
       Pinky comes out of the playhouse and sits beside me on the couch. I put my arm around her and worry about whether she really would let herself cook in the name of having fun. She's lucky to have a dad who will protect her. When Steve leaves the room to get his cordless drill, I let out a breath I haven't realized I've been holding. When he returns, he opens his hand to show four three-inch galvanized deck screws. His hand is shaking just like mine.
       I drain my glass and put it on the shelf behind the TV. At the party, I saw Pinky drinking out of glasses people left on the coffee table. You wouldn't think a kid that age would like the taste of watered-down mixed drinks and stale beer and wine. When I brought it up to Steve, that's when we got in a fight.
       "Lean on this part," Steve says and taps the edge of the hollow roof before crawling inside on hands and knees. Seeing her daddy, over six feet tall, crouching in the playhouse makes Pinky laugh. She reaches in through the window and taps Steve on the head. He doesn't seem to notice her touch as he fusses with the adjustment on his drill. He contorts himself into an upside-down position, and Pinky jumps away as the drill engages, covering her ears at the grinding-whining sound. He secures the roof easily while I lightly push down with my forearm. After the second screw, I move to the other side, where a sticker reads Gas, and above it there's a gas hose—a length of shiny rope with a plastic nozzle at the end.
       On the TV is a report about the fair tax. I've been hearing that phrase, wondering if it really is fair, and so I lean on the roof and watch the screen, but with the drill screaming, I can't make out what they're saying. When it's time for the fourth screw, Steve says, "Push down hard right here. This is where it's not lining up right."
       As he engages the drill, I push my forearm harder against the roof, and suddenly I feel more than pressure. Something bad is happening; there's a screw grabbing me, going through my skin, and the drill's scream vibrates through my arm and shoulder. When I try to pull away, I feel tearing. "Hey, Steve, dude, could you back that screw out?" I pant, my voice like a robot's, trying to keep calm so I don't alarm Pinky. My heart is pounding, though, and sweat bursts out over my whole body.
       "Did the screw go through the roof?"
       "Yeah. Back it out." I push my arm hard into the plastic roof where it's pinned, trying not to tug against the screw.
       "That fair tax is bullshit," Steve says, suddenly angry, shaking his head at the TV, though his view of the screen is partly blocked by being inside the playhouse.
       "Yeah, could you back that screw out? Uh, right now, bro."
       When Steve first reengages the drill, I feel a jarring, and for an instant the screw goes farther in, and maybe even hits my bone.
       "Sorry," he says. He reverses the direction and backs it out.
       "Fuck," I whisper and try to catch my breath. I lean against the wall and press hard on the wound to stanch any bleeding, but don't dare look at it.
       "Shit, now it's sticking out in here." The drill grind-whines again. "I'm surprised it went through the roof." He reaches outside through the window above the gas pump and runs his fingers over the roof until he feels the hole the screw made. Without my weight compressing the roof, the screw no longer sticks out the top. His arm out the window makes me think of Alice in Wonderland grown too big for a house after eating some cake. "You notice the price here on the gas pump? Only two bucks a gallon. Now there's a happier time."
       Steve pushes on the roof from below, assures himself it's secure. After he gets his drill back in its case and crawls out of the little house on his knees, he notices me grimacing. "What's the matter?" he asks. "That screw didn't go into your arm, did it?"
       "Yeah, it did."
       "Let me see it."
       I clutch the arm tighter.
       "Just come over here and let me look at it," he says and pats the couch cushion. When I sit beside him, he takes my arm and squints at the wound. "Looks like it just broke the skin."
       "Really? You don't think I should go to the ER?"
       "You go to the ER, you'll be paying that bill for years. You know that, right? Does it hurt?"
       "No. But it felt weird when it happened."
       "Looks fine to me. Look at it yourself You think it did more than break the skin?"
       "It felt like it did." I look. Turns out it's not bleeding at all. The wound looks like nothing, just a red spot. His reassurance calms me, as always, more than my own thoughts do.
       "Well, I can't drive you anywhere, that's for sure. If I drive with Pinky after I've been drinking, it's child endangerment. I'm just saying, from my eyes it looks okay."
       "You're probably right." I take one more look at the red spot.
       "I just saw a news show about emergency rooms." He's shaking his head. "That's probably the biggest problem with health care in this country, people using the ER as their doctor. Costs taxpayers more than an average month's rent just to walk in the door, and that's before any tests." Both of us like to laugh at this world, but Steve's able to move right from joking around into his real opinions, and then he stands by them, while I find it easier to go along so nobody has to argue.
       "I don't really have a doctor," I say. "Except at the women's clinic."
       "My new funhouse!" Pinky announces. She's back inside, leaning out between the shutters, resting her elbows on the window ledge above the pictures of oranges, apples, and bananas, as though she is a chubby miniature shopkeeper from olden times. Clutched in one hand is a stuffed rabbit with a pink ribbon around its neck. I gave that rabbit to her for her birthday in April, and I feel ridiculously grateful that she likes it.
       "That's cute as hell, her standing there in that window," I say.
       Pinky waves, and we both wave back.
       "Remember our playhouse?" I ask when I settle myself on the couch again with a second glass of wine.
       "That was a great playhouse," Steve says. "But I still don't know how the Indians cooked inside their teepees without smoking themselves out."
       The summer when he was fourteen and I was eleven we slept out there so we could smoke cigarettes and pot. In October, though, we tried keeping a campfire going inside and burned the thing down. There was an older neighbor, a friend of Steve's, a pot dealer, who used to hang out with us. Once when Steve wasn't there, the guy climbed on top of me and pinned me on the old rug. He was wearing shorts, so I was able to reach under and pinch his balls, and I kept squeezing until he howled and let go. It sounds like nothing now, but I was freaked out and shaky for days, and after that I never went into the playhouse without Steve. Steve thought it was hilarious, my pinching the guy's balls, and a few months later, after the guy stopped coming around, I, too, could see how it seemed kind of funny.
       Pinky waves out the playhouse window again, and the motion makes me feel tearful for no reason, so I ask my brother about the fair tax. He's always kept up on politics and likes to rail against the conservatives. I'm pretty sure I feel the same way, but I'm no good at explaining why, especially to JC, who hates Democrats and Republicans alike.
       "Oh, it's some Republican bullshit sales tax," Steve says. "If it's up to those fuckers, we got no taxes and no labor laws, no unions, no EPA. You know, I have to think about that environmental shit now, with Pinky in the picture." He's agitated, but when he looks back at the playhouse and waves at Pinky, his agitation falls away.
       "She's got more hair than when I saw her three weeks ago," I say. "That curly black hair is really something."
       "Strangers go crazy over it," Steve says. He has one ankle up over the other knee and he's flexing his foot against his carpeted floor. "People tell me at the grocery store how pretty her hair is, and at the doctor's office. And it's hard work brushing a head of hair like that. And I had to learn how barrettes work. I'm learning how to fucking braid. That's not the kind of shit a guy just knows." He stops drumming his fingers and lights a cigarette. When he offers it to me, I accept, and he rolls and lights another for himself. He keeps the window behind him cracked open, but blue smoke still hangs in the air. Steve's wavy black hair is thinning, though he's only twenty-six—could that have happened in three weeks?
       "How's things at the Smart Mart?" he asks.
       "Sucks dead donkey dicks, same as usual. This guy comes in this morning with a fucking sweat sock full of pennies, and they're nasty. He's counting out three dollars on the counter, and there's a line behind him, so I make this cardboard sign: No sweaty pennies. Right then Matt comes in and throws the sign at me and tells me I've got to clean the bathroom before I leave."
       "Well, get your damned GED and get a better job."
       When Steve says that, my arm aches a little more. I finish my wine and go into the bathroom to look at it in the mirror. The wound is still just a red spot, now stuck with fuzz from the couch. Maybe there's some swelling. I pee, flush, and come out, thinking I'll ask Steve to take a closer look.
       When I get back, Pinky is leaning against the coffee table, holding my wine glass, looking like a tiny, chubby barfly. As she lifts the glass toward her lips, I grab her hand and peel off her fingers.
       "Thanks for coming over," Steve says, and his eyes are watering like he's about to cry. His forehead wrinkles. "I've been wanting to tell you I'm sorry about what I said at the party, calling you a dumb cunt. I know you hate that word." He watches Pinky open the saloon doors and shut them carefully behind her. "I guess I was too high, and the Bitch was here, and we were fighting, and I was on those antidepressants that fucked me up," Steve says. "You'll be glad to know I got off those."
       "Just don't start bawling like a dang baby," I say. But then I start crying out of relief, and once I'm crying, the pain in my arm—it really is hurting now—makes it hard to stop. I move over on the couch and hug my big brother with one arm. I'm not going to ask him why he didn't return my calls—we'll just move on from here.
       "I guess it wasn't any of my business," I say. "What I said. I shouldn't have said that."
       "What? I'm trying to think what you said."
       "About Pinky drinking out of the glasses on the table. I was worried."
       "Now I remember. You said I was a bad father."
       "I didn't say that, did I?" I pull my arm away. "I wouldn't. You're a good dad."
       "As if you know a fucking thing about being a parent." He shakes his head like he's getting pissed off again. "Now I remember."
       "I didn't mean to say whatever I said. I was just worried."
      "The Bitch was supposed to take Pinky for the night, but she decided to stay and party." He raises his voice as he goes on. "I would've asked you to watch her, but you were too drunk already. And you getting so drunk and sloppy at the party when Pinky was here didn't help. I don't need her seeing that kind of shit."
       "What shit? She knows people drink," I say.
       "Do you even remember getting home that night? Roger said you fell on your face right at your front door. He was worried about you."
       ''JC was pissed at me. I know that. I was already fighting with him, and then he finds me on the front doorstep at three a.m." I lean back on the couch. JC said somebody rang the bell, and by the time he got out there, I was passed out alone, with puke on my shirt.
       "I'm sorry to say this, Janie, but JC's a dick. He bosses you around like you're one of his kids. And he's like a Tea Party member or something, isn't he?"
       "You don't really know JC. He's a good guy. He just—"
       "He's a dick, Janie. All men are dicks," Steve says. "Trust me, I am one."
       "He's pissed at me now because I don't want to have sex with him."
       "Why the hell won't you have sex with him? Seemed like you were all ready for action at the party."
       "I don't know. I just don't want to." I'm never going to tell Steve that JC and I usually have sex on a regular schedule twice a week, Friday nights and Sunday mornings. He'd think I'm a freak, but I just like to know what's going to happen ahead of time. Since the party, though, the thought of sex makes me sick to my stomach.
       "How old is he now, anyway? Forty?" Steve asks.
       "He's too damned old for you. Pick on somebody your own age. Go with one of those guys you were screwing at my party. Roger's a good guy. He's got a decent job."
       "What do you mean, screwing?" I ask. Through the window of the funhouse, I can see Pinky addressing the stuffed rabbit over some serious issue. When she sees me watching, she closes the shutters.
       "Just what I said. Screwing," Steve says quietly. He rests his eyes on the TV, but he is weighing his words carefully.
       "I didn't screw anybody at your party. You know I'm not like that."
       "You didn't used to be." Steve shakes his head, though he's looking more intently at the TV now, bouncing his leg with a lot of energy. "You seriously don't remember what happened with Roger? And that friend of his, Mickey?"
       "What are you talking about?"
       "You were humping your bottle of tequila down by the peonies, and they were out of booze, so I told them to go down and harass you."
       "Sons of bitches better not have taken my tequila," I say and force a laugh. I do remember the peonies close to my face. They weren't pretty anymore, but were splayed on the grass, as though the tired stems couldn't hold up the big, ragged flowers anymore. I also remember the splintery leg of the picnic table with the paint peeling off. Now that Steve has said it, I remember somebody yanking the tequila bottle out of my hand, though I was holding it tight.
       "That guy Mickey took pictures on his phone," Steve says. "Don't worry, when I saw him showing Roger, I took his phone and deleted them all."
       "Pictures? What pictures?"
       "Not the kind of thing a brother wants to see."
       "You say Roger took me home? Why didn't you take me home?"
       "I couldn't drive you because Pinky was here. Anyway, Roger wasn't as drunk as I was."
       "He doesn't even have a driver's license, does he?" I say. "You're fucking with me, aren't you? Stop fucking with me, Steve." I get up and roll myself a loose, crooked cigarette and sit back down. "I've been feeling shitty. I was wondering if maybe we ate some bad meat or something."
       "You got some meat, all right. Mickey was pissed when I erased the pictures, but I figured you didn't want them getting back to JC," he says and glances to make sure Pinky isn't listening before adding, "And a brother doesn't want to see his sister with some guy's dick in her face."
       "It had to be somebody else." I look out through the sliding glass door and can only see the patio, but I know the peonies are only about a hundred feet beyond. Anybody could've seen me lying there.
       "Oh, it was definitely you. The first picture was Roger licking the Tasmanian Devil tattoo on your boob. No mistaking that."
       An electric sensation zaps my left breast. Steve gets up and puts something special on the VCR for Pinky and tells her it's a half hour before bedtime, and Pinky scrunches down in her tiny armchair, a miniature of the chair an old man would use, only pink. Cartoon bears tromp across the screen.
       "Fuck," I say under my breath. I can't stop shaking my head. "I couldn't have."
       "Don't rag on yourself. You were drunk. You were fighting with JC. You were finally relaxing, having some fun."
       "But you said I was passed out down there."
       "I figured you must've woke up when things got interesting."
       "You're saying I had my shirt off with a stranger."
       "Roger's not a stranger. You've seen him plenty of times over here. He's a good guy."
       I've always been shy about undressing in front of JC and never make love with him unless I've taken a shower and brushed my teeth.
       "After I erased the pictures, I went down and put your damned clothes back on you. And you weren't helping. It was like dressing a damned corpse. Give me a squirming kid any day. At first I felt bad for you, but then I was just pissed. Some money and pot came up missing while I was screwing around trying to get you dressed. Maybe you shouldn't drink so much, Janie."
       My arm aches so badly now that I can't stand it. I should do something, something to change everything. Stand up and scream, make the whining-grinding sound the drill made. Quit drinking, cold turkey, right now. Or maybe tomorrow. Go to the ER and see about this arm. But I don't like to make a big deal out of nothing, and this has to be nothing. I'm waiting for the punch line that'll let me know this is just Steve's joke. When he gets up to put Pinky to bed, I curl up and fall asleep on the couch to the murmurs of him reading her a story.
       I wake up later to lonesome crying that feels like my own, but it's coming from Pinky's room. The little house is dark except for the TV with the volume turned way down. My arm is throbbing, and when I stand, pain rushes me in a wave, and I'm smelling grease from those brats again. There's a note on the counter saying Steve's gone out to get juice for tomorrow's breakfast, he'll be right back. Pinky's room smells of baby powder, some kind of air freshener, and urine, and I see my way to her by the glow of a pink rabbit-shaped night-light. The girl stops crying as I lift her out of her crib-bed. Thank goodness she clings to my shoulder like a baby chimpanzee, because I can't muster much strength in the throbbing arm. Gingerly, I shift Pinky to my other hip and carry her into the bathroom, smooth her nightgown under her bottom, and situate her on the sink. When I turn on the light, the fan comes on, and Pinky rubs her eyes. The smallness of her fists makes me feel melancholy. I wonder if Steve will meet another girl or get back together with the Bitch so he can have another baby, give Pinky a brother or sister. He's said that I ought to come through with a cousin for her to play with so she won't have to be alone when she's older. I would have been lost growing up without Steve.
       When I touch the red spot on my arm, I expect blood to gush out, but there's only a little puffiness. With one arm balancing Pinky on the vanity sink, I rummage through Steve's medicine cabinet. When I hold a prescription bottle up to the light, I see the two pills inside are Vicodin, though the bottle says prednisone—Steve's probably hiding them from Pinky's ma. When I shake a pill, etched with a V, into my hand, Pinky reaches for it, so I hurry and swallow it.
       "What the hell's going on?" Steve says from the bathroom doorway, his face shiny with sweat. I didn't hear him coming in. There's a way that meanness and good humor face off in Steve at certain times, especially when he's high, and usually I can nudge him toward good humor. Now, though, as the heat and humidity billow from his body into the little tiled room, I don't feel like I could influence anybody.
       "She was crying, so I picked her up."
       "You don't have to pick her up every time she cries. Sometimes she cries in her sleep." My brother's movements feel off-kilter, but it seems unlikely he'd be getting high so late at night, so maybe it's just something off-kilter about me. His broad shoulders fill the bathroom doorway, and he looms over me and Pinky. One word from him would have stopped those guys by the peonies, whatever they were doing with me. If they were doing anything.
       "I thought she might be afraid," I say.
       "She must've sensed I was gone," Steve says, softening his tone. "We've got a strong bond, me and Pinky. Don't we, Bright Eyes? You need a new diaper—your aunt should've changed you." While he gets her changed and back into bed, I return to the couch with another loosely rolled cigarette and study the plastic funhouse. We didn't have anything like this when we were kids, though JC complains my generation is spoiled. I wonder what JC is doing, if he's worried, if he's made a checklist of what he wants to talk to me about. In a million years I couldn't tell him what Steve says happened. He'd just yell at me, and the thought of the photos would make him lose his mind, even if I promised they were erased. When Steve comes out of Pinky's room, I hold up my arm in the dim light.
       "So you think this is okay, even with the way it's swelling?"
       "It doesn't look that bad to me, Janie. It's just a spot. But it's your arm, you should know." Steve rubs his eyes. Nobody should make decisions late at night, I think, not when everybody's so tired. The Vicodin starts to kick in and the pain lessens.
       "Are you making that up, about the pictures?" I ask.
       "Why would I make something like that up?" he says. "I don't want to see that shit. A couple of guys giving it to you."
       "I think I must've been asleep."
       "Come on, Janie, a person doesn't sleep through something like that."
       "Was it really sex, like sex?" I ask and close my eyes. "With both of them?"
       He shrugs. "Roger said you were into it."
       "Damn, Steve. You should've stopped them." I put my fingers into my hair, which feels frizzy, like somebody else's hair, and yank. "You shouldn't have told them to harass me."
       "Don't put it on me, sister," Steve says, and something about the way he says it makes me think he's thought about it plenty and has made up his mind. "You should've told them no if you didn't want it. You should've pinched their balls. You said you were fighting with JC. I figured you wanted to teach him a lesson."
       "But you should've protected me." My voice goes squeaky.
       "Protected you? Hell, if you ever come trying to protect me when I'm in the bushes with two hot babes working on me, I'll kick your ass." Now he sounds like his normal self. "You know, I had to take Pinky into her room and read her a story to make sure she didn't see you down there."
       "I think maybe they raped me, Steve." The word raped feels all wrong, and my heart pounds in a sickening way.
       "Roger? Get real. I work with the guy every day. He's a decent guy, maybe not the brightest bulb, but he's not a rapist, Janie." He says rapist as though he might be saying Martian.
       "Or something like rape," I suggest. The second time I say the word, it feels even more off-kilter, like I really am a drama queen, creating from thin air a victim and perpetrators and accessories.
       "That's not how it looked to me, that's all I'm saying." Steve takes a draw on his cigarette, exhales deliberately, and then crushes it out. "I guess you're the one who should know, though."
       I sigh. Steve goes off to bed, and I lie down on the couch. Everything is muddled right now, but I can sense the wilting peonies close to my face—or is it skin pressed against my mouth? —and I can smell the cool grass. Remembering these things is like remembering something ancient from before I could talk, like my dead grandfather's great height—he died when I was Pinky's age, but I used to hide behind the couch from him, afraid he might step on me and crush me. I have a clear sense of my pants being tugged off in that cool grass, of being dragged by my feet. The weight of a body on my body. I try the word rape once more, and it still doesn't fit with stupid Roger or anybody at one of Steve's parties, doesn't fit with the peonies or picnic table. If only I could see those photos, then I could know what happened. Were my eyes open?
       Steve has music on in his bedroom, so he doesn't hear me leave. The side door shuts with a sucking sound, and I gently close the storm door. The pink fobs and daylilies nose me, and I get the feeling that if I stand still, the vines are going to slither down the fence and grab me. In my car, I'm having trouble holding my arm up to steer, and I reach across to shift into drive with my left hand.
       After sitting in the hospital parking lot for a long time, I get out and walk past the big-shouldered guard, who turns out to be a hulking woman, who probably knows exactly what happens to her every minute of every day, no matter what. I check in at the ER desk and then take a seat in a chair near the door and watch a dark-skinned woman with gray hair vacuuming. She seems like someone who tolerates no nonsense, so I move to an area she's already cleaned. Remembering the peonies in my face and the grass and my jeans being tugged off doesn't prove anything, but now I can't imagine not knowing those things. After a half hour, a tired-looking triage nurse directs me into a little room with a desk and takes my blood pressure and pulse, listens to my no-insurance lament. Afterward she lifts the arm gently, studies it, and nods. Having someone acknowledge that something is wrong feels like the wind abruptly changing direction.
       "We get a lot of power tool mishaps," the nurse says after I explain about the drill and the deck screws. ''A lot of guys fall off ladders with saws—chain saws, circular saws. Table saws are big trouble, too. Why did you wait to come in?"
       "It's just hard to know if something's really wrong," I say and wonder if I really know any more now than I knew before. "I don't like to be a drama queen," I say. "It just looked like a red dot."
       "Well, good thing you didn't wait any longer," she says.
       The nurse's words give me the relief I feel when I take that first sip of tequila after work, but then I vomit into my lap even before I can ask her for a towel.
       "Sorry," I say. "I keep doing that lately. Don't take it personally."
       "How long have you been vomiting?"
       "For three weeks. Just now and then. It's worse tonight, though. "
       She blinks at me, and I feel an opening, a place where she might want to hear how I feel, might want to hear what I think happened, what I fear happened, but I don't know how to start. And anyhow she'll probably think I'm a slut and tell me to join AA.
       "Is there any chance you're pregnant? We'll do a test," the nurse says before I can answer, no, I'm on the pill, which I take at exactly the same time each morning. I had a period two weeks ago, but the world has become a place where anything is possible.
       She walks me farther into the hospital, into a windowless room, and pulls a curtain across the entrance so I feel shrouded and alone, frozen in a moment in time. When the doctor arrives, a small, chubby man with a tag that reads Dr. Sethi, he studies my arm without even introducing himself, asks questions in accented English, adjusts his gold-rimmed glasses, and explains soberly how he will open the wound and release whatever blood and serum is building up inside it. "You have noticed the swelling," he says.
       "Yes," I say and feel proud of myself for having noticed. After the X-ray shows no damage to the bone and the pregnancy test comes back negative, Dr. Sethi injects me with a numbing agent. His assistant swabs the area with antiseptic and tapes sterile gauze over my arm to create a window for the procedure, so a rectangle of skin is all the doctor sees when he returns. His voice is soothing as he cuts into my anesthetized arm. When pink fluid is released onto the gauze, my relief is instantaneous. He takes up the hemostats—like the ones Steve and I used to use as roach clips—and slowly removes something from my arm and holds it up. I have to squint to make out a little magenta spiral, more than a quarter-inch long. As I watch, a tiny drop of watery blood slides off the plastic onto the gauze.
       "It's a party favorite?" Dr. Sethi asks, and we all three study the little corkscrew.
       The assistant's eyes smile behind her mask. She's about my age, twenty-three, with hair the honey color I tried to get out of a box. A job like hers helping people would be nice, though my tendency to make light of a situation might not go over well here. I'd like to work in a clean place like this instead of behind the cluttered, greasy counter at Smart Mart. Since the party, whenever I see kids grabbing at candy and gum, I'm thinking of Pinky's chubby hands on the wine glasses and beer cups.
       "It's part of a funhouse," I say.
       "Funhouse?" the assistant asks.
       "It's a little girl's playhouse, but she calls it her funhouse. It's what my brother and I were working on." I suddenly fear the doctor might blame Steve. I want to say, Whatever happened is my own fault. He didn't know I had my arm right over where the screw was.
       "Funhouse," the doctor says, still holding the plastic corkscrew, and the way he says it makes me laugh. Who wouldn't laugh when a man has pulled a tiny bloody party favor out of her arm?
       "You think there's anything else in there?" he asks. At first he is serious, but then he laughs in response to my continuing laughter.
       "It's hard to know," I say. I admire how all the cabinets and drawers in this room are labeled by their contents: Sponges and Bandages, Face Masks, Swab Sticks, Specimen Jars, Drapes and Covers. I like being in a place where a person can always know what's inside from the outside.
       "This could have caused infection," the doctor announces, "but we have nipped its bud."
       I wipe tears out of my eyes. I thought I was laughing, but now I'm crying and choking. I'm imagining Pinky as a teenager. She'll have long legs like her ma and wild curly hair like her dad. She'll sneak out her bedroom window on summer nights the way any girl would, but she won't have a brother to look after her—she'll be all alone. I don't know how anyone can stop a girl from drinking so much she doesn't know what she's doing, what's happening to her. All the precautions in the world might not be enough for a girl who loves fun. For starters, I should've rinsed out my wine glass and put it in the sink before I left Steve's.
       "Jodie will clean you up," the doctor says and disappears through the curtain. The assistant unwraps and exposes the rest of my arm. She tears open a paper wrapper and is about to apply a special bandage to close the wound, but she pauses.
       "Is this hurting you?" she asks. "You're holding your breath."
       What's done is done, I think, but she's asking as though she really wants to know. I feel myself about to spill over, but telling won't make it better, and it will open up a whole can of worms, so I take a deep breath and concentrate on not vomiting. When I think of Pinky safe in her bed in her room with the pink rabbit night-light, smelling of baby powder, surrounded by stuffed animals, I can finally exhale. She's okay for now.
       "Miss?" the assistant says. I realize that I've pulled my bleeding arm away from her, that I'm hugging myself.
       "Uh-huh," I say, squeezing myself harder, despite the way blood is dripping onto my jeans. "I guess it really does hurt. Now that you mention it."

© Bonnie Jo Campbell

 This electronic version of “Playhouse” appears in The Barcelona Review with kind permission of the author. It appears in the collection Mothers, Tell Your Daughters by Bonnie Jo Campbell, published by W.W. Norton & C. Inc., 2015. Book ordering available through and

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Author Bio
Bonnie Jo CampbellBonnie Jo Campbell teaches in the low-residency MFA program at Pacific University. She is the author of Once Upon a River; American Salvage, finalist for the National Book Award and National Book Critics Award; and most recently, Mothers, Tell Your Daughters. She lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

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author photo: Bradely Pines