Featured Fiction: Fiddlebacks by Kimberly King Parsons

Fiddlebacks

This house is a house where you shake out your shoes. We have bloodsuckers, see. Creepy-crawlies. If it’s pissed off and fits in a boot, we’ve got it. Conenoses and masked hunters, lone star ticks and brown dog ticks. We have scorpions. Scorpions. Bull’s-eye bugs, my brother calls them. Bugs that put you in a wheelchair or make it so one side of your face droops for always. They’re sprung and ready, waiting to strike at your dark toe.

We keep our boots set heel-to-heel in the mudroom, Mother’s orders. We do guesswork on socked walks down the stairs. It’s gotten to be a competition now. We all want to escape something spectacular, but it’s my brother who gets the best crawlers. By best I mean worst. I don’t scream anymore, but sometimes I still get the shivers. “It don’t matter,” my brother says and pats down the hair on my arms. “That’s natural.”

My brother, he’s fearless, and he keeps track. He tosses the horrible ones into a glass jar with spiked cotton. He kills them enough to get a pin through, labels them with the tiniest block letters you’ve ever seen. That folded foam board, his pride. “Hurts me more than it hurts them,” he says. “But, you know, science.” The legs keep on moving until they stop.

This setup works double time to spite Sis, who is worse, my brother says, than a gee-dee fisherman. She swears she tipped a silver-beaked assassin once when nobody but her was there to see it whole. She kicked a quick foot at us that day, said, “I’m lucky I’m alive.” What she showed off was mostly smeared and so pushed through with her pink sock you couldn’t tell much about it. My brother and I squinted at what was left on the floor. I couldn’t see any beak in the mix, but I’m no expert.

“Bullcrap,” my brother spat at Sis. “No assassins around here. Longitude, among other known facts.” He forced a no-smash pact and made us do our handshake. Now we tap-tap shoe-by-shoe when he is there to interpret what scuttles out. You don’t mess with my brother’s bugs.

Sunday mornings, our house is ours alone. Mother catches a ride to the early service, leaves with wet hair and nothing fixed for us to eat. We pit stop at the pantry, make due with dry spaghetti noodles we lick and dip into the sugar sack.

In the mudroom, my brother sets up his jar at the threshold. He uses a dishtowel to rub at his magnifying glass. It’s ladies first.

“Left foot,” he bosses.

I turn a June bug and Sis turns a June bug. They crawl in a clump on the floor until my brother crunches them. If there is one thing our board has enough of, it’s June bugs.

My brother clears his throat. He shakes out his shoulders, makes a bridge with his fingers to pop every knuckle. He picks up the boot and holds it high over his head like it’s the Jesus cup and we’re the ones at church. “Get on with it, ” Sis says.

He’s tipping slow, slow and then all at once it’s over. We know before the thing hits the floor that we’ve lost. My brother has topped us with a giant stag, the king of beetles. It’s harmless but horned, blueblack and glittering. “Who’s my rascal?” he says, letting it crawl over all over. “Who’s my big boy?” He puts it on his head, spins around in circles, does a little do-si-do all by himself. He whispers something only the beetle can hear and drops it in the jar.

“Big shit,” Sis says, “when you have boats like those.” It’s true that my brother is all boot. When he wears them you can push your thumb anywhere a toe should be and feel nothing pushing back.

“You’re a triple socker,” Sis says to him. “You’re a fake.”

“Secondhanded,” my brother says. “Circumstances extenuated.”

Mother says better too loose than too tight. It’s the golden rule of thrifting. My brother flaps around like empty clothes on a line, his pearlsnap shirt to his knees and those billowy bluejeans. He doesn’t mind a little room, he says. He’s trying to trigger a growth spurt.

Our right feet are a bust—a clot of roly-polys and a stuck-together Band-Aid. Nothing worth taking, my brother says, “Let’s hunt.”

He has another jar for keeping, not killing. It’s cozy, holes punched in the top and a bed of sand at the bottom, a frogman from the fish tank for company. When we go looking, my brother holds this jar out front, level as a lantern. He has fiddleback hopes. It’s eating him up—all he can talk about. He wants to set one loose in some poor bastard’s mailbox.

*

Stubbs is under our Wrangler, just legs sticking out. The long block has been knocking, he says, and he is changing the oil, too. Stubbs is like this, Mother says. He goes down once and does it all. Old oil rainbows our drive. My brother doesn’t know about long blocks, but he doesn’t want to learn from Stubbs. Sis and I don’t want to hand Stubbs the plus screwdriver or the minus screwdriver or the tools we have no way to tell apart. Stubbs is the type that, when you’re walking with him, will put his hand on the back of your neck to steer you.

We leap over the legs on tiptoe, quiet and fast like when we play Hell over the space between our two couches. Stubbs says, “Hey strangers,” from under our truck because we aren’t fast enough or quiet enough and our house sits in a way where there’s no place to go but straight out.

“Got a hand?” Stubbs says.

Stubbs under a truck is his best first impression. So much is wrong with his face, you don’t know where it is you should be looking. The trouble starts at the nose and goes neckward.

“He’s getting a lot closer to what he was,” is what Mother says. “Doctors work miracles these days.”

She says the proof is in a snapshot he keeps taped to his dashboard—a young Stubbs posed on the hood of a hot hotrod, facing the camera full on. Stubbs is so brave, Mother says, a real work in progress. My brother says we’ll have to take her word. He says we won’t be riding around with Stubbs anytime soon, that if he had been a better driver, maybe he wouldn’t have flipped his IROC and turned hisself into a monster. The closest I ever saw Mother get to popping my brother in the mouth was when he wondered, “How come somebody that butt ugly isn’t rich or smart or not boring as hell to cancel it all out?”

“God’s plan,” is what Mother said when she was finished being furious.

“That stuff coming out the tailpipe weren’t water,” this is Stubbs, still talking. If he makes it past noticing whatever is right in front of him, he’ll start in on the weather—or worse, school.

Our best bet is to get out of earshot, hightail to make the legs and the Wrangler and our house into very small things. We sprint until we’re nowhere, past our neighbor’s neighbor’s plot. It’s just highway and pasture dotted with buzzcut alpacas, skinny and scabbed around the ears. Sis starts in with her cartwheels all in a row like magic, her yellow hair fanning out. I know less and less about what she’s thinking, why she still does some things the same as she always has and why she scrunches up her dumb face at others. She’s always telling jokes my brother and I don’t get—insults we can only reckon by the stupid lilt in her voice. Once we three took baths together, the water rust orange and flecked with our dirt, Sis the one in front who made sure nobody got scalded.

My brother is picking apart bugsong—telling us which is cicada and which is katydid. On down the road, too far for us to see, is town. Town is the church with Mother in it, our school, and not much else.

Sis gets a stitch in her side and stops to find the kind of rock that makes stitches go away. She toes road trash while my brother and I stand around not helping. The trick to a stitch rock is that only the person who’s hurting knows which type will work.

Our breed of heat catches up and straddles you. Standing still is when you start to sweat. Sis is taking her sweet time, bending at the waist when the big rigs go by, priding herself on the horns that blow. Now she has her t-shirt bikinied, the bottom pulled up through its own neck hole. My brother looks at her, looks away and hocks a glob on the asphalt. He tells us now is no time to forget about the fiddleback. “Kill two birds,” he says to Sis. He says spiders seek shade, same as we do.

My brother lets me hold the special jar for a while. Believe me, the fields are nothing but loopers and bagworms and boll weevils, but this doesn’t stop my brother from turning me down a row of cotton that doesn’t belong to us.

“You’re evens,” he says and sets out for odds.

Our sun is so bright you can’t tell apart the real-world grit from what’s floating on the behindside of your eye. The heat gets you crazed. You walk around with the word “modicum” on repeat in your mind. It’s a word my brother taught me.

Walking a row over, my brother is in love with the sound of his own self. He is off, spinning out. It’s a little known fact, he says, that spiders move their legs with blood pressure and muscle both. Did I know that in spiders the number of eyes range from zero to eight?

“For example,” my brother says. “Case in point,” he says.

He is tromping on our neighbor’s plants, dreaming out loud. When he gets a fiddleback he will name it Lucifer, Jr. or Mr. Kill. He will feed it lard with his fingers. He will fatten it up and when the time is right he will pick a stranger from the white pages. It’s the perfect crime, he says. Nobody my brother doesn’t know is safe.

*

Sis still has her stitch when we start back empty-handed. We are sticky, the tops of our ears pink and crisp. “It’s triple digits,” she guesses. It’s time to head home or fall down crying.

My brother points to thunderheads Sis and I can’t see. “We’ll try again tomorrow,” he says, “when it’s cooler and when the rain has flushed out even the shyest ess-oh-bees.”

Sis and I are walking in step, our sweaty arms slapping against each other. She’s got a slime to her, thanks to that lotion she wears, but I don’t mind it too much. She smells like watermelon and chemicals, not so bad. Some of her glitter gets on me and I don’t mind that either. I figure this is the closest I’ll get to her letting me borrow any. My brother runs up ahead, then bends down on one knee and whistles low into the burnt grass. “You ladies ever seen a Texas-bred fistface?” he shouts back to us. When I rush over to his cupped hands he throws nothing in the air and cocks his arm back like to hit me. “My fist, your face,” he screams and dies laughing.

“Didn’t even flinch,” I say, and it’s true. My brother would never hit me, not ever.

“Jackasses,” Sis says, and saunters past us both, up to the house. We’re used to this. At school she’s a traitor, walking faster than my brother and me, leaving us behind at the flagpole so she can bust through the front doors alone.

Stubbs is still legs only—the greased-up guts of our truck spread out in the drive. It’s too hot for games. We don’t run to jump over the legs and this time the legs don’t ask us for help.

On our porch, my brother gets his second wind. He jumps up and dunks Sis’s head like he’s dunking her under water. She tries to knock him in the solar plex but he slips away. “Too quick for chickens,” he says, highstepping into the house, still king.

*

“It’s kid dirt that baits them,” Mother says. She means the bugs. “What we are,” Mother says, “is infested.” Church gets her worked up. She has come home at the best or worst time, depending how you take it. My brother is sticking his stag in two places because it’s so huge and so not dead it keeps spinning itself around on the board.

“He’s a fighter,” my brother says, so proud.

“Mercy,” Mother says. “Not in the house.” Mother’s theory is like draws like, that bugs beget more bugs.

We’ve moved our whole operation into the living room because our show is on. I’m in charge of reception. I hold the antennae in one hand and aim my other arm out the window. Every fan in the house is plugged in and pointed just so. Sis has ice chips melting in her bra.

“It’s no wonder,” Mother says, on her knees, whisking at ants.

The trail of them goes up and over the coffee table. They drown and collect in iced tea rings or sluicing lakes of cola. Some survive to trudge into shag. The strongest make it across my brother’s sweaty socks and under the couch where he sits lolling. He pinches one and holds it to the light.

“These,” my brother says to Mother, “are nobody’s fault.” He rolls his fingers together. “These are fire,” he explains. “Not sugar. No ma’am.”

“We live in filth,” Mother says. “We’re disgusting little piggy people.”

Sis turns up the set with her toe. My brother has let her have the best couch, the one with the better view and the butt divot. My brother picks his battles and is busy, besides.

I hear a woman crying, hospital machines bleeping. “Somebody say what’s happening,” I say. If I make a move to look, the screen goes haywire. Sis sighs her sigh—the same one she uses when she tells some little story or jokey thing that I don’t get and I ask her to break it into pieces for me.

Sis says, “When it’s commercials.”

It’s a real-life emergency show about people who have been mangled by machines or who have lost limbs to wild animals or have had both sides of themselves stabbed through. The surgeons are the stars. They have tiny cameras clipped to their masks. There’s nothing they won’t show on our show.

My brother is copying the stag’s genus and species from the Britannica, blocking it out in Magic Marker. Mother is on a tear, pointing to potato chip dust ground down in the carpet, sticky midnight dishes stashed in the laundry basket.

“If you start with the vacuum,” my brother says to her, “then I don’t know what.”

When my arm muscles start to give and the picture is not what it could be, my brother says, “Enough’s enough,” and puts Sis at the TV.

“Only because I want to,” Sis says. “It’s cooler standing.”

My brother gets up and poots into the box fan, and Sis and I holler and breathe into our hands. He takes Sis’s seat and I take over at the board. His sloping script is hopeless. I trace it over to make a neater job, but I have my work cut out. White froth spews from the stag and makes everything smeary. I remember too late that beetle stink takes forever to get off your hands. Onscreen, there is something bloody and peeled back. It could be a kneecap or not.

“You hate to see that,” the surgeon says, his scalpel a pointer pointing.

“All right,” I say. “Tell me what it is I’m looking at.”

Mother is mopping herself into a corner, saying, “Out, out, every blessed one!”

She could disinfect us to death and wipe the wood grain off the kitchen table, but terrible things would still squeeze through clefts in the floor. Horrors would come up the sink or else ride in on the dog’s back or else fly through the windows we keep cracked to catch the cross breeze.

*

When the sun goes down, Stubbs is at the screen door, his cap pulled low and his collar flipped up. Sis is always the first of us to answer a ringing phone or a door that starts knocking. My brother toes the TV off and flips open the Britannica quick to make like he has been reading.

Stubbs is shuffling his feet on the porch.

“You need to use the crapper, use the crapper,” Sis says to him.

“Can Claris come out?” Stubbs says like that, like Sis is the mother and Mother is the daughter.

“Mama,” Sis booms. “It’s him.”

Mother comes out of the kitchen drying her hands on her apron. She’s the type who ties one on to boil water.

“Mother mama mommy mom,” Sis says. “Mom!”

“Stop yelling, you,” Mother says. “You see I’m coming.”

Stubbs takes off his cap when he sees Mother. The bare porch bulb doesn’t do him any favors. When you catch him in the corner of your eye, you’re sure somebody masked is coming at you. Mother dusts the front of her blouse and sweeps hair out of her face. Sis keeps to her post at the door. My brother has given up his pretend reading. He and I are chinning the best couch, turned backwards to watch.

“Lost my light,” Stubbs says. “Finish her up tomorrow.”

He sets a dented hodgepodge can down by the door. “Keep these little bits from rusting?” he says. “What’s spread out there is tarped.”

Stubbs thumbs over his shoulder. “Rain on the way,” he says.

“Let me make you a plate,” Mother says to Stubbs. She touches the screen with her flat palm.

Stubbs says. “No need.”

“Pie?” Mother says. “Coffee?”

“Water’s fine,” Stubbs says. “Since you’re insisting.”

Mother turns back for the kitchen.

“Deedra,” Mother says and stares at Sis.

“Claris,” Sis says and rolls her eyes. Mother stares her mother stare until Sis sighs and follows her. The truth is all of us are a little afraid of the things Sis might say. My brother and I watch Stubbs.

“Rain,” he says to us and thumbs over his shoulder again. “Break this drought.” Stubbs’s face is divvied up. His seams stay white even when the rest gets a suntan.

Sis comes out sullen with the good silver pitcher and a pair of forks. Mother is behind her with cloudy mug from the freezer and the biggest slice of mud pie you can fit on a plate. She has matches between her teeth.

“Gonna have my one smoke,” Mother says with half her mouth.

“You already had it,” my brother says.

Mother pops the screen door open with her hip.

“Last night,” she says. “It’s last night you’re thinking.”

“Tonight,” my brother says. “Just before.”

“Last night,” Mother says. Stubbs takes the pitcher and the forks from Sis. He takes the book of matches away from Mother’s lips.

“Don’t come crying at me when you’ve got tarlungs,” my brother says and Mother flaps her hand at him, low and quick.

Sis closes the screen door behind Mother and Stubbs. She closes the oak door, too.

“Now we can’t see,” my brother says.

“Nothing to see,” Sis says. “Except him making a mess of that pie.”

It’s true that Stubbs jaws his food sideways. Sis sits down and pulls on her lip. She is thinking something through, getting mean.

“Let them have their fun,” she says, buckshot straight at my brother.

He throws her a look, then goes to the window and splits open the drapes.

“I’ll do it,” I say and jump up quick. “Read your book.” It’s easier this way.

I watch Mother and Stubbs set up a lap picnic on our hanging swing. Stubbs cups his hand and lights two cigarettes. He passes one to Mother.

The wind picks up, blowing Mother’s hair, streaming it across her face and across Stubbs’s face, too.

The crickets cut off.

Our rain starts out silent—the thirsty dirt sucks it in too quick to hear a splash. Then a patter gets going in the cotton plots. It starts to thump on the rusted silo that says the name of our dumb town. It falls on the dusty topsides of our neighbor’s slack cattle, turns to a silvery drip in our back lot ditch. Big slugs pelt heavy on burned-out horse stalls and scattered trash. Then all at once it swarms our house, which is not tin-roofed but sure does sound like it.

“Anything to report?” my brother says.

I say, “I’d say if there was.” My best thing, if I have one, is knowing when to keep my mouth shut.

Mother and Stubbs, they are porched and dry, watching it come down.

*

Rain or no rain, this is a house that heats up at night. The living room is the coolest room, the couches more comfortable than our beds, besides. My brother’s sticky feet are in my face, on my pillow because of how we are staggered. Sis is a furnace—she throws off her swelter when she dreams. Nobody can stand to be near her. Since she doesn’t have to share, she gets the worst couch. It’s a trade my brother and I can live with.

My brother never stops, even when we are supposed to be sleeping.

“Hard to find the fiddle right after they molt,” he says. “That’s a fact.”

When the highway is wet, even all the way out here, you can make out the steady black-slush sound that comes off the semis.

“If there’s a trick to the recluse,” he says in the dark, “then maybe the trick is to find out what they want. Set a trap. Bees to honey.”

A flash cracks white and we all pop up. I am counting Mississippis and nobody is saying anything, so I think my brother and Sis must be counting them, too. When the rumble comes, loud but far away, I stop holding my breath.

“Idiot,” Sis says. She throws her pillow at my brother’s head. “Bees to honey. Why don’t you go catch a cow with milk?”

Mother comes out into the hollow dark of the hall.

“Mercy!” she says. “We’re electrified.”

Her hair is wrapped up neat in her scarf. It’s too dark to see, but you can bet she has her makeup off and her wrinkle grease on.

“Guess the drought is busted,” Mother says. “To farmers rain sounds like money falling.”

She comes to each of us and nuzzles our heads. “How are my littles?” she says and we pretend push her away. She leaves her smell all over us. Mothers, they can tell their children apart. Even in blind dark, Mother knows who’s who.

She is tiny in her pajama set, tiny standing in the shadowed living room. The only time Mother can be still is when it’s too dark for her to see our messes that need cleaning. Mother gets under the covers with Sis like she’s one of us, one of the kids.

She used to pester on Sunday mornings, yank the sheets back, threaten us with pots and pans and thrown water. She was lavender soap and hairspray, hovering by our beds.

“Don’t make me,” she would say. “Don’t think I won’t do it.”

But Mother did not, not ever. Instead she made a big show of clomping around in her Jesus heels, slapping at us through the blankets, but soft like we were little babies and Mother was some mother trying to get her babies to burp.

*

“That them?” my brother asks. It isn’t.

Mother and Stubbs are catching the late show. We have done the movie math, accounted for the previews, the credits even. Mother is late, and in this weather to boot.

“Then what are you looking at?” my brother wants to know.

“Flyers are out,” I say, peeling back the drapes and pointing.

The rain has not stopped all week—the drought busted wide open and soggy. Our Wrangler is still tarped, my brother’s fiddleback still running free. Winged things have come in from the wet. They press themselves against our house or spread out flat under the eaves.

“Anything worth a gee-dee?” my brother asks. He has a lip print from mother’s bird-peck on his cheek. We all do. He doesn’t look up from the set where a man is gurneyed and snakebit.

“Moths,” I say. Powdery skippers and flashers, looks like. Nothing we haven’t already got. They bat against the windows and beat around the porch lights. I’m on watch for sicklewings, my brother tells me, but I’m not sure what to look for.

“Yell if you spot purple,” he says.

Then it’s the local news—a fire put out and a forecast for more rain. Sis paints her toenails red and my brother says she’ll kill us all, breathing her poison. Then we three are squished on the good couch and it’s a grown-up movie, like the one Mother and Stubbs are watching but with all of the grown-up parts cut out. We stop watching because there’s not enough left to make sense of. Every light in our house is lit.

My brother gets up to pull the drapes apart.

“He drives like hell,” my brother says. “You’ve seen the dust he kicks up.”

“No dust to kick tonight,” Sis says. Our land is churned-up mud, black pools knee-deep.

“Fiddlebacks,” my brother says. “I’m going out.”

“In this,” Sis says. “You’re an idiot.”

“I’m waterproof,” my brother says. “I’ll drip-dry.” Sis stands next to my brother and looks outside.

“Y’all can come if y’all want to,” my brother says. Sometimes he talks so big.

“Let’s take a vote,” I say.

“I vote no vote,” he says, and that’s that.

I don’t know why Sis decides to come along, but I know why I do. It’s because my brother takes my hand. He is such a good talker, the kind of person who makes you believe you can be led to someplace better.

So we’re running to the mudroom like it’s the most natural thing for us to do, to go outside in the deepest worst of night, wearing trash bags with holes slit out for our heads. We do a quick boot tip—a silverfish for my brother, zilch for Sis and me—and then we are out in the drench, flashlighting our way down the drive. My brother has his special jar armpitted under his Hefty bag. He tells us to train our eyes for small things.

“They’ll tend away from the beam,” he says. “Watch for what’s running.”

The tarped Wrangler looks and sounds like a nightmare, furious and flapping behind us in the dark. There is no path we can take away from it, so we stomp straight through the muck. The drizzle comes at us sideways, pinpricking our faces.

“You should be looking down,” my brother says to Sis and me. “Why aren’t you looking down?”

There is never much to do out here and there is even less to do now, in the pitchblack wet. We go to the side of our house where there is our pile of junk. Some of the mess is made up of things that used to be ours. Some of it is trash that belongs to nobody, and some of it comes from strangers passing through—drivers losing their sunglasses or hats to the wind. I see sunglasses and hats. I see a jumbo roll of carnival tickets and a dinner plate with a woodpecker painted on it. There is Mother’s old housecoat in the heap.

My brother shakes loose a tangled water hose, flips up a flattened kiddie pool. It seems to me he is kicking things for kicking’s sake.

“You know to always be looking for eggs, right?” my brother says to Sis and me.

“Cottony,” he says. “Like mold but white.” He has to shout over rushing water and the squish-suck of our boots in mud. “Eggs is the best case scenario.”

We are soaked through, shivering.

“Asinine,” Sis says. “Spider hunting in a flood.”

*

It is my beam that catches Stubbs’s parked car, pulled off on the side of our house like that. For so long I have been looking for tiny things running—the car seems bigger than a car should be, and Mother and Stubbs seem bigger than two people inside of it.

“Here they are,” I say, like it is Mother and Stubbs who we have been looking for. At first there’s not much I can make out about what’s happening in the car. Then I can. I let my flashlight fall. The pelt dampens and nobody hears me.

Only Sis is too close behind. Her ray replaces mine, on Stubbs’s car, on Stubbs and Mother inside. I see my same thoughts cross her wet face. The windows are fogged, steamy but still see-through: the back of Mother’s head a nest, snarled. Stubbs’s stitched face straining. Their pairs of locked legs. A slick foot on the windshield, sliding.

The car is moving up and down, squeak-squeak. I think of the joke Sis once told me about not knocking when something is rocking. Sis shines her light at me, at my face.

Our brother, he has fallen behind, but he is coming now and coming fast, his flashlight aimed low at the sodden ground, seconds away from what he already knows.

 

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KimberlyKingParsonsPhoto-2Writing by Kimberly King Parsons has been published in Gigantic, The ASDF, Time Out New York, The Collagist, Everyday Genius, and elsewhere. She earned an MFA in fiction from Columbia University where she was Editor-in-Chief of Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art. In 2015 she was runner-up in the 11th Annual Black Warrior Review Prose Contest. A native Texan, she currently lives in Queens, New York with her partner and two young sons.

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