Photo Credit: Jonathan Kusek
by Amanda Kusek
My mother walks through the beaded curtain hanging in my bedroom doorway. I hear the tinkling of the gem-shaped plastic beads before I see her.
“Why are you in here all alone?”
“Come spend some time with your cousins. You’ve made them feel bad,” she says, parting the clear, tear-drop beads aside to leave. She doesn’t even look back at me because she knows I’ll do what she says. I’m that well-trained. I had gone to my room to escape my younger cousins, who apparently had blabbed the moment I did. My brothers never have to babysit, but I do.
I roll off my bed, plant my feet, and sigh looking at the collage I’ve made on my wall. Usher taped next to Brad Pitt above Keanu Reeves and the words “Totally fabulous” not far from his left cheek. I stand, hoping I’ll melt through the floor. I hear Fleetwood Mac and the laughter of adults not far from my bedroom door. Our house is Ranch-style and my bedroom is at the end of the hallway, closest to the kitchen.
I follow her perfume through the plastic beads. I look left, it’s empty, quiet, inviting. I hear someone flush the toilet in the bathroom one door down. The quick flick of the sink–on and off– and the door is open. It’s the neighbor kid Alex, my brother’s best friend. He plows past me yelling something I can’t make sense of. He has his shoes on. My mother hates that. I turn right and enter the center of our house. “You can call it,” Stevie Nicks goes on, “Another lonely day.”
Living room, dining room, kitchen. All open to one another. There’s bowls of chips and Cheetos on the dining room table, birthday gifts for my younger brother in the living room where I spot the cat rubbing its ribcage against a big box. “You can go your own way,” it’s the Best Of album. I look out to my left through the screen door that separates the dining table from our deck. I see my mom, a couple aunts and uncles, my adult cousins, all with beers and wine coolers in hand.
Instead of completing the journey, I turn dead right out through the front door. The cat scurries out with me. From the top of the concrete steps I see only the woods and the highway beyond . Fleetwood Mac is drowned out. Cars go by as I descend. I pick up a pebble and start playing hopscotch down our stone path.
I look up. My dad’s youngest brother is smoking a cigarette at the end of the path. We’re not supposed to know he smokes but I’m 13 and not completely stupid. He has a silver ring in his ear; he looks just like my dad if my dad was younger, and hipper, and gay.
“What are you doing out here?” He asks me between drags.
“Mom wants me to play with the girls,” I say. Dropping the pebble and looking at my feet. I’m still shy at this age.
He doesn’t acknowledge the fact that I am disobeying and just says, “Go ahead around, I’ll be there soon.” I look at him wishing to god I had a bad habit I could use to hide out. The cat passes us and I follow it. Around the corner of the house, past the eight cars parked in our driveway. The music is off which means my mom is switching the album. Sure enough as I round the corner of the house, I hear Steely Dan. The tinkling of bottles. At the foot of the deck stairs is my dad. He’s in front of the grill, flipping burgers, rolling hot dogs around, keeping an eye on buns.
“How’s it going?” I ask him.
“Hi Manda,” he says, “How many hot dogs did you ask for?”
“All of them,” I say. And he laughs knowing I’ll barely finish one.
“Going to play with your brothers?” He asks me.
“Yep,” I say. I look to my mother on the deck opening another Heineken. I can get away with some baseball for now.
I pass by the weather beaten picnic table, once blue to match the house, now sort of grey and tired. My brothers are engaged in a baseball game with Alex and our cousin Matt. I stand behind the rebound net. Behind me the adults are laughing and singing along with Donald Fagen. And in front of me my oldest brother, Christopher, chucks a pitch at my little brother, Jonathan. He swings and misses, the ball bounces off the elastic strings inches from my face.
“You playin’?” Jonathan asks me.
“Yep!” I say. Running to play left field which the spot just over the slightest bump in our yard, to the left of the crabapple tree. The tree is second base. With the sun directly above us I’m already sweating. I watch as my dad pulls a stack of burgers off the grill and heads up the stairs. My uncle comes out from the sliding door onto the deck having gone up the concrete steps out front and through the house rather than around it. The cat is walking across the picnic table, smelling meat in the air. There’s no sign of the girls. Alex is on third base, eager to take off. Chris winds up and throws a pitch fast and dead in the strike zone.
Jonathan gets it good, the metal bat making a small “ting!” sound. The ball is on its way back, on its way to me. It bounces once. Alex is on his way home, and Chris is there waiting for me to throw the ball the length of field. I give it a chuck. It makes it almost to the plate, skidding into his glove. Alex is forced back to third.
From the deck my mother calls us, “Kids! Food’s ready!”
They tally up the score while we walk to the deck. We pass the picnic table. The cat is gone. We climb the three deck steps, no one’s there but the coolers. Chris slides open the screen door because it sticks and I break it a lot, and the rest of us follow him indoors. The adults are already inside, rounding the dinner table where my mother has laid out the ketchup, and mustard, and potato salad. The big plate of hamburgers is steaming and the buns are toasty brown.
Out of the corner of my eye I see the girls come out of my bedroom. The beads sound. They’re at the dinner table in seconds looking for plates. Where they had been 15 minutes before that, I do not know. While I’m eyeing them from the table, my mom’s eyeing me from the counter with a beer in hand. I round the table and ask Jen if they’re having fun. Making sure I’m seen doing it. The adults are peeling off from the table to seats in the living room and back out on the deck. I invite the girls to sit with me at the old grey picnic table, knowing my brothers will be there, and then turn to claim my hot dog. My grandmother eyes Alex’s dirty face. Chris is stacking three burgers up on his tiny paper plate. An older cousin is asking my mother if she needs any more help. My mother is bending over into the fridge and I spot the cake.
Before exiting the kitchen, I catch the door behind her, and look at it. It’s white and blue and red and it’s real frosting and I can’t wait. I’m leaning in when she steps up behind me, the glow of the fridge on both of us and sighs saying, “Please go spend some time with your cousins.”
And I take off again.
Amanda Kusek is a writer and poet living in New York City with her neurotic Jack Russell Terrier, Ajax. Most recently her poetry was featured at the Westmoreland Arts & Heritage Festival. Her work has been published in Blotterature and across the web. She studied English at the University of Iowa and maintains her own blog at CheapCourage.com.