Authors: Gloria Norris
The stone's been cast
And blood's thicker than water.
And the sins of the family fall on the daughterÂ .Â .Â .
âP. F. Sloan, 1965
For Shirley, Virginia, Susan & Doris
And for James
t was so hot you could die.
It was summer vacation 1963 and we were going to the drive-in to see a slice-and-dice called
We lived in Manchester, the so-called Queen City of New Hampshire. The drive-in was in the boonies, in nowheresville. We had a drive ahead of us.
My father, Jimmy Norris, herded us into his Pontiac Chieftain. He wanted to get there early. Normally, Jimmy never got anywhere early. Waiting was for jerkos. He preferred to let the other guy wait for him. But tonight was special.
“It's the hour of reckoning, little girls,” he cackled in his scary, Boris Karloff voice as he took the corner leading out of the projects at a speed fast enough to make the wheels emit a sharp squeal.
“Jim,” protested my mother, Shirley, clutching the paper bag with our supper so it wouldn't go flying. The word seemed to evaporate the moment it left her shimmery pink lips.
Jimmy crooked his right hand into a claw. There was dark hair growing on the knuckles, and mysterious grime under the nails. I had seen that hand rip out the still-warm guts of dead animals ten times my size. I knew what it was capable of.
Jimmy drove with his left hand and swiped the clawed hand behind him into the backseat. The Hairy Claw was going for any part of us it could get.
Virginia, my fourteen-year-old half sister, buried her head under her arms as she'd been taught to do in school to ward off a nuclear blast.
I was five years younger but I took on the Hairy Claw.
As it groped for a fistful of flesh, I grabbed it with both hands. It escaped and clamped down hard on one of my spindly wrists. My fingers with their gnawed-on fingernails wriggled helplessly like earthworms trapped in a Skippy peanut butter jar.
I tried to pry the Hairy Claw off, but it squeezed harder. I pictured my hand snapping off and my stumpy arm pumping blood all over the car. I thought how mad Jimmy'd be if I bled on the upholstery. I'd thrown up a butterscotch-dip
ice cream cone in his last car and he'd threatened to brain me one. Blood would be harder to wash out. It seeped right in and you could always see the stain no matter how many times you ran whatever bloody thing it was through the wringer.
My only hope was a sneak attack. Jimmy had taught me that that was the best way to get the jump on somebody in the schoolyard or on a battlefield. I lunged forward and chomped down hard on the Hairy Claw. The taste of sweat and pine sap filled my mouth. I was hoping for a taste of blood, but my chompers just weren't up to the job. A couple of baby teeth were wobbly and the others were pockmarked with cavities.
Besides, Jimmy's skin was tough as a moose carcass. He'd once had a two-inch hunk of wood embedded in his hand for weeks and didn't even know it.
The thing was, I'd never seen him in any pain. Not even when he dug out that hunk of wood with a bowie knife.
Jimmy laughed at me as I gnawed away.
“Dirty fighter, dirty fighter. If you were in the ring, we'd have to disqualify you.”
Jimmy often compared life situations to boxing. His father, my Papou Nick, had been a boxing manager and Jimmy had been his cut man from the time he was six. Jimmy could stop a bloody lip from bleeding faster than a guy could scream “Get back in there, you bum.”
“Get a loada that kid. She's got a lotta frickin' moxie for a nine-year-old,” he said to Shirley.
Shirley nodded, her mouth stuck between a smile and a frown. She quickly lit a Lucky Strike. Her long fingers holding the match shook. She blew some smoke over in Jimmy's direction.
“Hey, gimme that cancer stick, Olive Oyl,” he said. He called her that 'cause she was tall and skinny like Popeye's girlfriend.
He gave my wrist one last, extra-hard squeeze and finally let it go. I fell back into my corner, sweaty and breathing hard.
Shirley passed her lipstick-smeared cigarette to Jimmy and lit another for herself.
Jimmy drove faster. The wind from his open window blew smoke back into my kisser. It mixed with the rotten-fish smell from the bucket on the floor next to my Keds. I remembered that butterscotch-dip and felt my stomach start to crawl up my throat.
I tried to get my mind off the fishy smoke by playing a game. I peered into the cars whooshing by in the opposite direction and picked out the one with
the blondest family. I pictured myself a part of that family. I was on my way to the Ice Capades. My name was Kelly Swan. I had hair the color of just-churned butter and eyes like bright blue tiddledywinks. I had patent leather Mary Janes so shiny I could see my perfect teeth in them. My daddy was a doctor who saved people's lives on a daily basis. He made Dr. Kildare look frickin' sick. We lived in a big, white house. I had my own bedroom, all purple, with a window seat where I could read my Nancy Drews. Whenever there was a crime in my neighborhood, I solved it like Nancy. On Sundays, I went to church and sat beside Daddy. Sometimes he'd tickle me with his lifesaving hands. After church, we had churchy people over. We had banana splits in real banana split dishes. Never mind one cherry on top, we could put on as many as we wanted. It was frickin' maraschino cherry heaven.
Jimmy hit the brakes. A fishing pole that had been on the back window ledge flew into my lap. Its rusty hook slid around on my bare thigh. Virginia was fending off a pair of muddy trimming shears.
Jimmy's Pontiac had pulled up behind a creamy white Cadillac. An old lady was behind the wheel. I imagined she was on her way to bingo or a baked bean supper. She was not going Jimmy's speed. He drove an inch from her bumper, trying to get her to go faster.
“Come on, move that jalopy, you old bat.”
He looked over at Shirley. “What'd I tell you? Never get behind a Caddy. You could turn into Rip Van Frickin' Winkle before you get to where you're goin'.”
Shirley was already bracing herself against the dashboard.
Jimmy floored it and swerved around the jalopy.
As we passed, I caught a glimpse of the lady's watery blue eyes. She was scared shitless, I could see that.
An oncoming truck driver blew his horn and braked hard to avoid plowing into us. Jimmy scooted back into his lane.
“Chicken Little!” Jimmy called out to the passing truckie. “
Pluck pluck pluck!
The truckie flipped Jimmy the bird and barreled away faster to show he was no frickin' Chicken Little.
“See what I mean about women drivers?” Jimmy said to Shirley, jerking his head back toward the lady in the Cadillac, who was fast becoming a white speck. Shirley nodded, shooting a reassuring smile into the backseat that we didn't buy for a second.
The thing was, Jimmy didn't think women should be behind the wheel. He
said their hormones prevented them from making smart decisions. They didn't have hair-trigger reflexes like men had from firing guns. It was for my mother's own good and the safety of others that he had put the kibosh on her driving.
Recently, though, she had tried to change his mind. She came up with an angle she thought might win him over. Getting her license would free him up, she had insisted. He wouldn't have to drive her to work or the A&P. He'd have more time to hang out at the bookie joint.
“You'd cream us all,” Jimmy had laughed. “You'd cream your own kids.
Sayonara, brats. A car is like a gun. Unless a person knows how to handle it, they better not monkey around with it.”
“But what if I didn't go all the way to the A&P?” Shirley had tried to bargain. “What if I just went to the Temple Market and back?”
Jimmy nearly split a gut. “With your sense of direction, you'd end up in KooKooLand.” KooKooLand was what he called California, his least favorite of the fifty states 'cause all the people out there were surfing ding-dongs.
Shirley's doe-brown eyes flickered with doubt. “I guess you're right,” she'd said. “I don't want to endanger the kids.”
And that was that. Sayonara, driving, for Shirley.
The road was all Jimmy's now. I watched the needle of the speedometer glide over ninety on its way to ninety-five. I wondered what happened when the needle reached the end of the numbers. Maybe it exploded like in a Road Runner cartoon.
Meep! Meep! Kaboom!
Jimmy switched on the radio. Louis Armstrong's “Stardust” filled the car. Jimmy turned it way up so we could hear it above the roar of the wind coming through the windows.
“Hey, brats, listen up. This music is so damn beautiful, it'll break your heart and put it back together again.”
Jimmy made trumpet sounds along with the song, dueting with Satchmo. He sounded pretty good, if you liked that sort of music, which I didn't. I wished I could switch the dial to Radio 1250, WKBR, where they might be playing “Let's Turkey Trot” or “It's My Party.” Talk about a song that would break your heart. Poor Lesley Gore got dumped by her boyfriend for a two-face named Judy. At her birthday party, no less.
Life was like that. Sometimes it just sucker punched you.
Jimmy took a drag off his cigarette and went back to making trumpet sounds, letting the smoke seep out from between his puckered lips. He had wanted to be a trumpet player when he was twelve, but had quit after two lessons 'cause he stunk up the joint. If you couldn't be great at something, he
insisted, there was no point in killing yourself. He decided to stick to hunting and fishing, since he could clobber anybody in Manchester, in all of New Hampshire even, at those things.
. My head smacked against the window.
Jimmy had swerved to avoid a squished muskrat or possum or chipmunk. It was hard to tell which it might have been.
“Poor bastard,” Jimmy said. “Frickin' civilization.”
I stared out the window. I didn't see any frickin' civilization. Just a lotta frickin' trees. And ditches on the side of the road where some maniac could dump a dead body if he was so inclined. I sure hoped we didn't break down or anything. I sure hoped Jimmy's Pontiac didn't blow a frickin' gasket.
Finally a sign for the drive-in appeared. Jimmy pinched out the butt of his cancer stick and tossed it out the window. We took the turnoff and barreled down the winding dirt road toward the ratty-looking white rectangle that had been plopped down in the middle of a paved-over field.
Jimmy turned to Shirley. “Gimme a fin.”
Shirley dug into her purse, trying to hurry it up. Jimmy didn't like it when stuff took too long. He never failed to remind us that in the merchant marine he had made his bed in under a minute, no wrinkles, and corners folded so sharp you could cut your keister on them.
“C'mon, c'mon, make it snappy,” Jimmy barked, as Shirley fumbled with her red vinyl wallet.
We had reached the booth. A skinny man stood there eating a sub, waiting for the money.