Beauty of the Broken
MOMMA AND WILLY MACYNTIRE MADE Iggy in a barn. It was an act of passion, I heard my momma say to her cousin. She was on the phone at the kitchen table while Daddy was off on some hunting trip. Why she was baring her heart to this relative she sees maybe once every five years, I don’t know. She says she’s like a sister to her, but I don’t understand how because they almost never talk. Then again, Daddy never did let Momma have friends, and he thinks Momma’s family is a herd of Godless heathens. He keeps us away from them, and Momma lets it happen. Momma lets Daddy do whatever the hell he wants. Why wouldn’t she? He’d bust her wide open if she didn’t. Plus, my guess is she’s trying to
make up for cheating on him all those years ago when they were engaged. As far as I can tell, it’s not working. Daddy still hates Momma most days.
When I heard about how Iggy was made in a smelly barn and not a sacred marriage bed, it made me want to throw up. It’s been almost a year, and I still feel like barfing at the thought of Momma and this man humping away in the hay, their bare, pasty skin all covered in goose pimples and sweat. I can’t stop thinking about it though, even when the sick taste is in my mouth, and my throat is as tight as a fist full of quarters. I think about it before I go to bed, as the floorboards are creaking and Daddy is grunting and Momma is making no noise at all. I think about it in science class when Mr. Farley talks in his deep, garbled voice about stamens and pistils, and shouldn’t we all know not to giggle at these lessons by now, shouldn’t we think of flower reproduction as a gift from the good Lord and not fodder for dirty, hell-spawned thoughts? I think of it when Iggy wonders why Daddy hates him. But I never tell Iggy what I know.
Sometimes when I imagine Willy Macyntire, he looks like Bugs Bunny, buck teeth and all. Sometimes he looks like a movie star. Sometimes he looks like the devil. I’ve never seen him, and I never will, because Momma said even before
she knew she was pregnant, Daddy took his rifle to Willy’s house and told him to leave town or he’d kill him. Willy left. When Daddy says he’ll kill you, you believe him. His eyes get flat and shiny, like asphalt on a hot day. They go dead.
Sometimes knowing is torture. You wish you could hide your secret away in a dark, cobwebby shed, shut the door, and break the key in the lock so no one can ever get in again. You wish that you could go to sleep and have your last thought be anything but the buttery light of the New Mexico moon sneaking in through the cracks of an old barn’s walls. But you can’t erase the knowing, and you can never tell your secret. If there is one thing this world has taught me, it’s that no matter how bad things get, they can always get worse. Secrets should stay secrets. It keeps them tolerable. Telling secrets turns them into full-on hell.
I think all this as I stare at Iggy. We’re lying under the porch. It’s so hot, sweat is trickling from the sandy tips of Iggy’s hair and zigzagging over his freckles, mixing with the tears that keep sneaking out of his rust colored eyes. He’s trying not to cry, I can tell. He never cries anymore. Not even in front of me. But today Daddy said he was gonna kill him, and today we believe him.
“He’ll never find us here,” I whisper. When I touch Iggy’s arm, I notice how small and white my hands look. My fingers
tremble at my bold-faced lie. Still, I say it again. “He’ll never find us here, Iggy.” I lie partly for Iggy, partly for me. Maybe Daddy won’t find us. You never know. But deep down I know the truth. Daddy always finds us.
Iggy only cries harder. He squeezes his eyes shut to make the tears stay in his head. We can hear Daddy in the house, calling for us in his thunder voice.
“Mara! Iggy!” The way he says our names makes them sound like cusswords. If we were close enough, we would smell the whiskey on his breath and see the bulging vein in his forehead.
But we aren’t that close. We’re under the porch praying Daddy won’t find us and take the belt to Iggy. Bars of sunlight fall like slices of heaven between the slats of the porch above us. Dust swirls in the light. To me it looks like a golden cloud. When I try to catch it like I would a firefly, it slips through my fingers. I try again. You gotta try to hold on to beauty when you find it.
“I’m just gonna do it, Sis,” Iggy says. “I’m just gonna go out there and knock the shit out of him.”
“No, Iggy. No,” I whisper, because last time Iggy tried that, Daddy nearly killed him. He was out of school for two weeks. Granted, Iggy was six inches shorter then and had a lot less muscle, but still. The thought of losing my brother
scares me more than anything in the world. He’s my only safe place. I’d die without him.
“Don’t go, Iggy,” I say, and he thinks for a minute.
I grab Iggy’s hand, and we catch some dust between our fingers. After a moment he says, “Fine.” The sweet smell of the corn that’s ready to be harvested and the musty smell of the mist rising from the river on the other side of the fields waft in on the breeze. We just lie there staring at the sunlight falling over our hands, noticing the way they fit together so perfectly. I watch my skin glow, thinking maybe I’m an angel sent from God to protect Iggy because God knew what a screwed-up family he lived in. I always thought that Iggy was my angel, but today I wonder if it’s the other way around.
When I was little, in Sunday school, they told us that the angels have big strong hands and fiery swords that they use to vanquish all their foes. They told us that no man on earth or demon from hell can stand up before the power of those flaming swords. But I feel like an angel with small hands and no sword.
“I didn’t lose the fucking hammer, Sis,” Iggy says. Of course he didn’t. I know that. Who doesn’t know that? What would he want with Daddy’s old hammer anyway, for God’s sake? I squeeze his hand.
He shakes his head. “Then why the hell is he after me again? I hate that crazy son of a bitch.” I think like mad. How can I explain Daddy’s anger without lying? I’m two full years younger than Iggy, and he’s usually the one explaining things to me. Iggy has see-clear-through-you eyes, eyes that see everything. He taught me just about all I know. He taught me about science and math and verb conjugations. He taught me how to gut a fish. Iggy’s the smart one, but today I’m the explainer, because I know what I know. I know he’s a bastard, and that’s why Daddy hates him. I know Daddy proposed to Momma because in those days she was movie-star pretty, with soft blond-white curls and legs as long as the railroad tracks between Barnaby and Santa Fe. And I know he married her even after he found out about Willy because no way in hell was he going to let her shame him with her whoredom. Momma said so on the phone, and now I know Daddy hates Iggy because he’s a walking sin, and that’s that.
But I can’t tell my secret, so I say, “Iggy, you’re not the reason Daddy gets mad. He was born mad. I hate him for not seeing how good you are. Someday, I’m gonna leave this town. Leave all those dresses he buys me so he’ll miss me when I’m gone. I swear, I’m gonna make him cry the way he makes you cry.”
We huddle there on the musty earth, sweating, our palms pressed together, listening to the whisper-whisper of our breathing and the stomp of Daddy’s boots as he searches heaven and hell and everywhere in between for the sad likes of his wife’s bastard son.
“Someday,” whispers Iggy, “I’m gonna leave too, and I’m gonna do something great. I’ll become a pilot or a president, and then he’ll know what I am. He’ll look at me and say he’s sorry, and I’ll tell him to go straight to hell.”
I don’t say anything to that. Momma once told me, “Sure enough, your brother is a gentle giant.” She took a long drag off her cigarette. “But someday, you mark my words, your brother is gonna snap. Someday, when your Daddy gives him what for, he’s gonna give it back to him. You just watch out for that day.” She seemed hopeful when she said it. Smiled a little secret smile. Remembering her words now, I feel anything but hopeful. I pray today isn’t that day. Above us, the screen door slams.
“You hear that, Sis?” Iggy asks me. When he talks, his breath is low and raspy, like he’s swallowed a swarm of bees.
Daddy’s thunder gets closer. He’s outside now, and his footsteps pound on the porch. “Iggy, is that you?” he bellows, and we can see the waffle prints of his boot soles overhead. Iggy holds my hand tighter.
“Get out here now, boy, or I’ll whip you double good!” shouts Daddy. Iggy looks at me, and I kiss his cheek. My eyes beg him to keep his mouth shut.
“I’m under here,” he says. He starts to roll away from me.
“No, Iggy. No!”
Daddy looks under the porch. I’m not sure whether he is a man or a demon as he stares at Iggy. That blue vein is bulging. “You been hiding from me, boy?” When he grabs Iggy by the arm and yanks him from his hiding place, I wish that I had a fiery angel sword. I have only my small hands, so I crawl out and stand there trembling while Daddy stares Iggy down, breathing hot and heavy and slow. Daddy’s holding a warped two-by-four.
“You hiding from me, boy?” he asks again.
Iggy balls up his fists. He stares right back at Daddy, into his dead eyes. I can’t believe how brave he is. The bees are still buzzing in Iggy’s throat, long and low. “I didn’t take your hammer, Daddy,” he says.
Daddy lifts the two-by-four. “Come again?”
Iggy has never been in a fight before. Not really. He tried to stand up to Daddy that one time, but other than that, Momma’s right. He’s a gentle giant. He fishes. Chops the heads off the chickens so I won’t have to. But mostly he hates to hurt anything. Right now though his face has that
hard look, the one he had the day he fought back. He raises his fist, and I almost feel hopeful, almost think it’s going to knock Daddy straight into forever.
The two-by-four slams into the side of Iggy’s head. He groans, stumbles backward, falls to the ground in a crumpled heap, like a pile of dirty old laundry. Daddy drops the two-by-four.
“You wanna repeat yourself, boy?” Daddy’s fists whistle and whip through the air, finding Iggy’s face and his back and his freckled arms when he holds them up to stop the blows. Everything is happening so fast. I can’t see what part of Iggy Daddy is gonna hit next, and I can’t remember which part of him he hit last. I can’t tell where the blood is coming from, and I can’t tell who’s screaming no—me or Iggy.
And then Daddy’s footsteps fade into the house, and he’s gone. Iggy’s curled up in the grass. I wonder if he’s dead.
My scream gets caught in my throat. Finally it breaks through my lips, coming out a hoarse whisper. “Iggy.” I stare at my brother’s bloody face, his twisted hands, the stillness of his eyelids. “Iggy!”
His body lurches, and he starts to shake and sob. He’s not dead. The blood that’s pumping down his cheek is hot, fresh, alive. I’m thankful for that, so thankful my chest almost explodes. I race to his side and hold him and say,
“I hate you, Daddy. I hate you, Daddy.” Daddy’s back in the house so he can’t hear me, but Iggy tells me not to hate because it will eat me up like the Hansel and Gretel witch, and I wonder where in God’s name he comes up with this stuff anyway. Why does Iggy suddenly care if I hate Daddy when ten minutes ago Iggy was saying he hated him too? How can he not hate Daddy after what he just did?
We huddle together until the sun falls behind the low, rolling hills, casting orange light over the cornfields and golden grass. Daddy’s boots stop stomping, and we know he’s hiding in his room now, the way he does when his hitting is done. We know he will pass out soon. We know he won’t come out until morning.
The summer heat still rages. I worry that we will get ticks behind our ears from lying in the grass for too long, especially with the smell of Iggy’s blood to attract them. Some of the blood is coming from Iggy’s eye, which is purple and swollen halfway shut. I know ice is the thing for bruises and swelling, so I take Iggy’s hand and help him up. We tiptoe into the house and into Momma’s kitchen.
She’s sitting there at the table, her delicate, clean hands folded neatly in her lap. She stares at the pink roses embroidered on her white lace tablecloth. She doesn’t look up when we walk in.
“We need ice, Momma,” I say, and she nods, standing slowly, as if she’s a beauty queen being called to the microphone to talk about starving children and how she’d love to fill their bellies with nice, warm milk. Momma smooths the wrinkles in her apron. I wonder how her candy-apple-colored lipstick stays so perfect, not a bit of it gummed on her straight, white teeth in this humidity.
“You okay, sport?” she asks Iggy. She reaches up to tousle his wheat-colored hair and dabs at the clotted blood with the corner of her starched apron.
Iggy nods, and she smiles and says, “That’s my boy.” She opens the freezer and a breath of winter comes whooshing out, cooling us down a little bit. Fanning her face with her manicured fingertips, Momma slowly presses her breath out through her big lips, the way she does when she’s smoking cigarettes. “It was a hot one out there today.” She laughs and takes the ice trays from the freezer as if she intends to plop the cubes into a glass of fresh-squeezed lemonade.
“I swear, Mara, I was never meant to be a farmer’s wife. That much I know.” She sighs, folding a checkered dishcloth around the ice cubes. “I shoulda gone to Albuquerque with my cousin. When Wanda went off to that cosmetology school, I shoulda gone there too. She makes forty dollars an hour now. Did I tell you that?”
I shake my head no.
“Well,” she goes on, “she does. And I’m not sure this life is suited to me.”
I think she’s right. She has a magazine-girl hairstyle and white, oval fingernails. She should be one of those women in the television ads that click-clack around their city houses in fancy shoes and designer jeans, dusting things and declaring that they could never live a moment without their Swiffer mop. She presses the dishcloth to Iggy’s eye. He raises a hand to hold it, and when she sees the way his pinky finger sticks straight out to the side, her face crumples like she’s gonna cry. Instead she pulls it together and says, “I do declare, Iggy, the scrapes you boys get yourselves into sometimes.”
If I had my angel sword, I’d hit her over the head with it for being so dumb and blind. She knows how Iggy got hurt. Maybe a good whack with a fiery sword would get her thinking and talking straight. I cross my arms and stare hard at her, knowing that she’s trying to make up for what Daddy did.
She wipes at Iggy’s eyes until the blood is gone, and she kisses him on the cheek and says, “You’re the boy I always wanted, Iggy. If I could have any boy in the whole world for my pick, it’d be you.”
His eyes flare like the August sun, like he has been waiting
all his life to hear someone say this, even though Momma says it every time Daddy beats him.
Momma takes Iggy by the hand and leads him up the stairs and tucks him into his bed. He lets her, mostly for her sake. That’s how Iggy is. Always taking care of me and Momma. Always trying to make Momma believe she’s a good momma even though she fucking sucks. If she needs to treat him like he’s four to make up for what Daddy did, Iggy’ll let her. But it’s not bringing him comfort.
I know Momma expects me to go to bed too, though she’s so busy making up for Iggy’s bloody eye and busted finger that she doesn’t have time to say so. She knows I’ll do what’s right without being asked, because that’s what angels do best. I huddle in my bed, listening to Momma trying to sing Iggy to sleep, even though he’s a full seventeen years old. When her shoes click-clack down the stairs, I tiptoe across the hall and crawl into Iggy’s bed.
“Hey, Sis,” he whispers, and his hand finds mine in the dark. We lie there together, side by side, watching the window as the moon rises into the sky like a lost lemon meringue pie. We don’t talk. Iggy will cry if he tries, and if I talk, I’ll tell my secret for sure, and how will that fix anything? So I don’t say a word.
We fall asleep with our hands still stuck together and
me thinking that everything will be all right in the morning. Momma will cook us breakfast and sing about clowns with their pants falling down and how the world is a stage of entertainment. The pancakes will be warm and just the right kind of brown. Daddy won’t be drunk anymore, and he’ll call me his rosebud and send me off to school with a kiss on the cheek. And there I’ll learn that flies carry so many germs it’s a miracle that any of us filthy hooligans are still alive, and scientists think that cell phones might cause cancer, and the lark’s on the wing and the snail’s on the thorn and God’s in His heaven, and all’s right with the world.
• • •
Iggy wakes up in the middle of the night barfing, making this awful, roaring sound. It scares me. I switch on the lamp just as he finishes. Vomit is everywhere. On his bed, on the walls, on the rainbow-colored rug Momma bought him at Walmart. It has even splattered on some of the drawings I made for him, which he has pinned to the wall. The whole room smells sour. It might piss me off if Iggy didn’t look so scared. So different.
“You okay, Iggy?” I ask.
He just sits there shivering, his arms wrapped around his knees, staring at the ceiling.
“Iggy,” I say, “let’s go to the bathroom, okay?” But he doesn’t. He just pukes again, right on his bed. “Momma!” I
holler, and half a minute later she comes running in, tying her bathrobe.
“What is it?” Her hair is a mess. Her eyes are wild. Seeing the barf, she stumbles toward Iggy. “My baby,” she says. “You feeling sick, honey?”
Iggy just stares.
It goes on like that for a long, long time. Momma and me asking Iggy questions. Iggy answering by barfing and staring. Daddy must still be too drunk to hear anything, because we’re making enough noise to raise an army of dead men, but he never comes in. Thank God. The last thing we need is to deal with his ugly face.
It seems like forever before Momma says, “Get dressed, Mara.”
“Why?” I ask. Something tells me I should remember her words. Something in me knows they will change everything. Nothing will ever be the same again.
“We’re going to the hospital,” she says, and chokes a little, like she’s going to cry, but doesn’t. She takes the afghan Grandma made Iggy from the chair in the corner and wraps it around him. “Come on, baby,” she says. “Let’s get you to the doctor.”
She doesn’t tell Daddy we’re going. I worry. I wonder what Daddy will do when he finds us gone. I wonder if he’ll
kill us all. Never in our lives has Momma ever done anything without Daddy’s permission. Iggy stumbles to his feet, shuffles along beside Momma as she leads him down the stairs, her arm around his shoulder.
“If I could pick any boy in the world, it’d be you,” she keeps saying.
He never stops staring.
I follow them, watching Iggy’s head nod like one of those bobbers on a fishing pole. “Momma, I’m scared,” I say.
She says nothing.