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Polly's Ghost







Wisconsin Life

Gem wasn't eating his supper, was the next thing I knew.

A small thing to know in the face of all I didn't. Tip's world was a spiral of blown cherry petals, yet Gem's Aunt Carol's trailer was clear as day despite the rainwater stains on the walls and the scattered bouquets of fake flowers, dust caught in the scooped-out petals. I had to hold my hands close at my sides, although I had no sides, to keep myself from doing yet another person's housework. The dinette chairs needed taping. A fan wobbled in the ceiling. Lysle slurped as he ate, not a giant surprise in the face of all surprises yet to come.

I wondered, Why Lysle of all landlocked, blubber-eared types, when it was Sid I needed to help me sound out my way? Lysle was more beached ship than sailor, more lost than at sea.

If ghosts could sigh, my sign would have blown the alphabet out of his soup. From far, far away, in that eddy of unstuck petals, the fat girl sked, "How 'bout the striped?" She and Fuzzy Knuckles were at KMart shopping for plates. He was the one who knew how to cook, but she'd be the one to put meat on his bones.

What's a clit? I asked her for the twentieth time, only louder than before.

Lysle jerked his head up so fast, the ABCs splashed on his lap. Campbell's was Lysle's substitute for sending Gem to school. Gem had had his sixth birthday but couldn't tell his numbers from his name, and couldn't care less about missing kindergarten. The letters at home tasted better than at school, he guessed.

"Why aren't you - for shit's sake, why didn't you say you wasn't hungry," Lysle exclaimed, pausing to lick the last of the day's lesson from the lip of his bowl.

"I am hungry," Gem answered between gulps of tears.


"Than eat!" said Lysle.

"I can't," Gem sniffled. The middle fingers of both of his hands were trapped in the holes in the crate he was sitting on. Two plastic holes, one in each side, and in went Gem's fingers, and now they were stuck. He thought of one caramel in every box of chocolates, and how there's always one flavor nobody likes, to make the others taste better, Uncle Sid had explained. "Like chocolate-covered boogers, only judging from what I keep seeing you doing, that must be one of your favorites," Uncle Sid always added. More tears welled up. Gem's cowlick trembled. Lysle didn't know what to do with a crying child, but since his anger was always good humored, he said, "If you don't want to eat that soup, what the hell are you salting it for?"


Look under the table, I whispered to him. Lysle obliged. Gem's feet weren't touching the floor. There was blood on the crate round the holes where Gem's fingers were jammed.


"Well I'll be a witch's patoutie!"Lysle exclaimed. "Why aren't you yelling?"


"Because I'm brave," Gem answered.


"Braver than who?" asked Sid from the doorway, rattling his belt. His hair had come undone from its slim poke of braid. It was wispier than cigarette smoke, but his face wasn't an old man's, yet. I'm young, geologically speaking, Uncle Sid liked to say ever since he'd turned fifty. It was Sid's idea to flip Gem and the plastic crate gently backward on the floor, to take Gem's scant weight off the squeeze he was in. For week's afterward, Gem had scabs on the joints of his middle fingers, but somehow all that gazing into his soup had taught him his alphabet. A for Always, B for Bafflement, C for Contemplation, Uncle Sid drilled into him. Sid had replaced all the words of the military alphabet with words of his own. L for Lovelorn and Last Laughs. W for Watching, wanting, and Wandering, not to mention the Whitewall haircuts they used to force on recruits.


But never W for Susie Wong, the wealthy lady who owned half of Hong Kong Harbor.