Frightful Small In Here Tonight by Annie DeWitt
A story about young hypocrites and old lovers
AN INTRODUCTION BY SAM LIPSYTE
Annie DeWitt needs no introduction, not because she’s already famous (give it a few months), but because her work more than does the trick. It’s almost a sacrilege to put words in front of her words. Annie DeWitt needs no introduction because her sentences are not interested in politesse, in needless etiquette, in ceremonial throat-clearing. They are body snatchers, heart snatchers, her sentences, her paragraphs. They get you into their clutches with a rich lyricism cunningly undercut by the laconic, and with that swerving way they build a grand emotional logic.
But White Nights in Split Town City, the novel from which the piece below is excerpted, doesn’t want to hurt you. I mean, sure it does, it certainly does, but it wants to hurt you in just the way you want art to hurt. This novel wants to hurt you in just the way you want art to hurt, and it also wants to slay you, the way art just wants to fucking slay you. And it will. It will also deliver you, unless you really can’t handle beauty, violence, comedy, loss, desire, and decay. But of course you can. You wouldn’t be cruising the stalls of Electric Literature if you weren’t out for the serious stuff, the grown-up play.
Well, here it is, in concentrated dosage, told through the eyes, or, more precisely, the interior utterance, of a young girl in early adolescence in small town New England. It’s 1990, Desert Storm. The world is changing and so is Jean, who watches, and watches, and imagines and questions and finally dares herself into the strangeness of life, the horror and the joy.
Okay, then. Consider DeWitt’s soon-to-be-famous work needlessly introduced. Now dare yourself into its clutches.
Author of The Ask
Frightful Small In Here Tonight by Annie DeWitt
Callie kept a frozen chicken in the cupboard over the sink. The mass of flesh was stacked on the pile of china next to the whiskey and the boxes of bullion. She kept a styrofoam tray wedged between the plate and the bird to catch the runoff from the thaw. It took a day for a bird like that to shed all its ice.
The evening after the bonfire at the butte, Callie had invited us to a meal. Birdie and me and Father with her husband, The Little Wrestler, and their three young brutes.
It was late in the afternoon by the time we arrived. The previous night was still heavy on us. I could tell Father felt it too. “You look tired, Jeanie,” he said as we got out of the car. “Why do you look so tired?”
When we arrived we gathered around the little table in the kitchen and watched Callie prepare the meat. Never has a woman performed such surgery. The way she massaged that carcass you would’ve thought she was trying to resuscitate some old heart. After each of the cuts was slick with dressing she floured both sides with a grainy cornmeal.
“Test the fryer for me, baby,” Callie said to me, motioning toward the pan once she had one breast good and white on both sides. “Toss a little water in with your fingers and see if it sizzles.”
We were there under the auspice that Father knew something about pipes. There was a clog in her disposal. Callie said she thought one of her boys had stuck an action figure in there again. “They’re trying to replicate war,” she’d said when we’d come in motioning toward the battlefield in the living room. Apparently the disposal gave a good mangling to the leg.
“What do you make of my handiwork?” Callie’s husband said to Father as he came into to the kitchen. “I was just under there myself a few days ago.”
“A fine job,” Father said where he lay on his back with his head under her sink. “I’ve never been much good with my hands. Just thought I’d lend an eye to it while you were out.”
“Don’t they teach you professor types which way to turn a screw in law school?” the husband said.
“Rick’s an engineer, Dan,” Callie said looking down at Father as he pulled himself out from under the cabinet.
“That explains why he’s fixing my drain pipe,” the husband said.
He laughed then. “Next time she’ll bring in a damn preacher to teach our sons to shoot hoops. If you need me I’ll be out in the yard with the animals.”
Dan let the screen door go behind him as he made his way out back and into the yard. It slammed a little on its hinges. The spring was still tight.
“Why don’t you put all that away now, Rick,” Callie said gently. “I’ll get you a clean towel.”
“I suppose it would be good to freshen up,” Father said, brushing his hands against his knees as he righted himself in the tight space of the kitchen, ducking so as to avoid the low-hanging lamp.
“Let them golden,” Callie said. She handed me an old plastic spatula and motioned toward the chicken where it popped and fizzled in the pan. Father followed her down the hall toward the bathroom off the kitchen.
I watched Dan through the window over the sink as he made his way into the yard. There wasn’t much anger in him. He had a flatfooted way of walking that betrayed a low center of gravity. According to Otto, the old farmer who lived across our road, Dan had been a wrestler. Callie had met him while he was out on the circuit. Otto had raised her as a child when she’d gotten into some trouble she couldn’t get out of. “Back then she would follow anything around with a Harley and a helmet,” Otto said. “First it was the rock bands, then the bikers. Eventually she landed with a crew of wrestlers who frequented the bar where she worked. Dan was a little man. It was all she could do to show herself off to him.”
The way Dan shot hoops now with his sons you could tell Callie had taken so much of the lay out of him. He had that short guy’s way of aiming high such that the ball bounced off the backboard and rebounded on the front rim before meeting the hoop. He tossed one after another like this. I’d seen carpenters nail a board with more energy. Maybe Dan was a bird lover after all.
Their house was a one-story ranch. It sat a good way back from the road on a plot of land next to the commuter highway. An old swing-set floundered in the front yard. One of the swings was broken. They’d strung it up short with the chain. In back there was a tool shed which they’d turned into a barn where they kept a few chickens and a small brown cow. In front of the barn they’d poured a square of blacktop. At the end of it stood an old basketball hoop. Several dirt bikes were parked in the knoll under the tree next to the little barn.
My sister Birdie was out there on the blacktop with Dan and his sons.
“You get too close to the thing,” Dan yelled as the largest of the boys landed under the hoop, bending backward and hurling the ball over his shoulder with a clumsy underhand. While the boys shot around, Dan took Birdie up on his shoulders. Every third throw he’d walk her over to the hoop and let her shoot. Birdie reached for the rim like she wanted to hang for a minute. One of the older boys came over and lifted Birdie up under the arms until she was standing on his shoulders. He stood under the hoop while she lunged for the rim. She made the catch and hung like that for several seconds, pumping her legs every now and again.
Down the hall Father ran the water in the bathroom. As the faucet clicked off, Callie called out to him. “I’m in here if you need a towel.” Father followed her voice in his flatfooted shuffle. I could hear him lumber into the hallway and down the hall a few strides. He paused and then turned. I waited for a few minutes, listening to the chicken fry. The flesh was still pink in the middle and good way away from being cooked through. I put the lid on it and slipped down the hall after Father.
Father had left the door to the bathroom slightly ajar. The window above the toilet was shaded by the yellowing lace of a curtain covered in a layer of dust. The bathroom itself was from another era. Thick yellow and black tiles lined the backsplash. The linoleum around the sink was worn away and brown in patches. A room spray glowed a sea sick green where it was plugged into the wall. The muted blue acrylic of the shower stall — clearly a recent addition — shone in contrast to the faded 70’s veneer. Around the mouth of the tub lay an assortment of plastic action figures. A single naked Barbie hung upside down from a string around the spigot over tub. I wondered which of Callie’s young brutes played with the doll in his bath.
I flattened myself against the wall and peeked around the corner. Through the doorway to the bedroom, I saw Father standing at the foot of the bed. Callie was bent over, rifling through the top drawer of her dresser. Father watched her in the mirror, admiring her cleavage. “I thought I had an extra towel in here,” she said. As she slid the drawer closed, Callie turned around to face him and tugged at the string of her dress. The dress fell open, revealing the flat tan of her stomach where I had seen her rub oil so many times those mornings she sunbathed on Otto’s lawn. I watched as Callie’s lithe form moved across the room toward Father as though in slow motion. I waited for him to stop her.
When Callie was just in front of him, inches from his face, she stood with her feet shoulder width apart. She reached for Father’s hand, moving it up to her shoulder, pausing for a moment to trace the outline of her breast. I watched as she slid the strap of her bra down the curve of her arm. The rosacea on Father’s forehead flared as it often did under stress. Callie eased her way into him and pushed him back on the bed.
As their bodies met the mattress, the waterbed gave way beneath them. The movement seemed to momentarily revive Father. He put one hand on Callie’s chest and pushed her slightly away from him. With the other he reached behind the small of his back. “There’s something underneath us,” he said. From behind his back Father produced a plastic action figure. The toy was missing a limb. Father held it in front of his face. “I told those boys not to play in my bed,” Callie said. “No harm done,” Father said placing the toy under the lamp on the nightstand beside a bottle of antacids. Beside the bottle sat a book which read The Dance of Anger and an empty wine glass stained red at the bottom.
“I’ll just wait for you in the kitchen, then,” Father said. “I’ll check on the chicken.”
“Wait,” Callie said.
I slipped away from the door and tiptoed down the hall.
The chicken was burnt and slightly charcoaled on one side. “Something smells mighty good in here,” I heard Father’s voice call out.
As he came up behind me, Father put his arm around my shoulder as though to steady himself. “Good girl, Jeannie,” he said. “I can always count on you to take up the slack in a pinch.”
As Callie came into the kitchen, I felt Father stiffen. “Let me at least set the table,” he said picking up a stack of plates. Callie reached for her pack of Marlboro Reds on the table where she’d left them next to the chopping board. She picked up the pack and flicked the top of her nail several times against the bottom as though to tamp something down. “It’s your call,” she said.
As Father disappeared into the dining room with the plates, Callie turned toward the stove. “Dinners on,” she yelled casually to the boys out the window over my shoulder. As Callie exhaled a long deep drag of smoke, Birdie let go of the hoop where she hung. It was Dan who inevitably made the catch, cradling Birdie in his arms as he walked toward the house. In the light of the flood, the two looked triumphant. Birdie’s blonde ringlets spread out over his shoulder. Her hair gleamed against the red flannel of Dan’s shirt.
“Who’s ready for some bird?” Father said as Dan and the boys came into the kitchen from outside, drying his hands on the side of his pants.
We ate in the dining room, a small square set of oak erected in an alcove off the kitchen. The walls were papered in a faded pink floral. The floor was carpeted in a worn orange shag. Save the vintage chandelier Callie had erected over the table, the room had the feel of having once been something else, a nursery perhaps.
“Yes to everything,” Father was saying, “That’s the problem with kids these days. They’ve never been told no.”
Father was telling Dan about his trials with the Steelhead brothers who lived at the end of our road. Lately they’d been calling the house at night and hanging up the phone. Liden was onto Fender and I about the magazines we’d been stealing.
“Oh, I don’t know,” Dan said. “Boys will be boys. If you burn too much of the fist into them they turn into a pack of wailing sissy’s. And there’s nothing I hate more than a sissy.”
“Right,” Father said crossing and uncrossing his legs. “Well I suppose it’s different. I’m surrounded by a house full of girls.”
“Lucky man,” Dan said, smiling at Father. “I suppose there’s always room for another in the mix. Isn’t that what you’re up to here.”
“You’re insufferable,” Callie said to her husband under her breath. She looked proud of herself. Her cheeks flared a little under the bone.
“When’s the last time someone said no to you, Rick?” Dan said to Father.
After dinner, we all went out into the yard to feed the yearling. The cow was waiting for us at the gate near the shed. They’d set him loose in a small run which they’d patched up out of an old white slat board fence and patches of chicken wire.
“Sturdy little fellow,” Father said, holding Birdie up over the fence so that she could reach him.
“The way that thing is growing, we should have steaks by fall,” Dan said.
On the way home Father was silent.
“He used to be a wrestler,” I said after a while. We were sailing down the big hill on Merriam then past the farmhouses in the center of town.
“Reach into the glove compartment,” Father said. “Give me one of those cigars.” He didn’t hesitate to light one as he drove.
When we got back to the house Father settled into the couch in front of the news. “I’m going over to Otto’s to check on the Sheik,” I said.
“What time is it now?” Father said looking out over the porch at the amount of light left in the sky. “Alright, so long as Otto’s over there in the barn mucking the stalls. Be back before bed. And take the flashlight with you so I can watch out the window when you cross the road.”
Light blasted through the stalls that lined the front of Otto’s barn. It reminded me of an old movie theatre, each window screening a different run. I ran toward the barn, flashing the light once behind me so Father could see. It was good to be free of all that.
When I came in, Wilson, Otto’s son, was raking the hay out of the aisle. People said Wilson was slow. Mother always said “he’d been touched by something.”
“Hi Wilson,” I said. “It’s just me. It’s just Jean.” Wilson looked up from his raking and focused on me for a minute.
“I went to camp today,” he said. The way he was standing there, belly over the belt, his chest all puffed out, I could tell that today was a proud day for him. It was odd to see such an old man look so young again. He was bald and fat and graying. No less than forty in the light, the way the shadows clung to his face. And yet standing there in the aisle in that moment, his cheeks looked like a six year old’s the first time he hits his first solid ball over the diamond. A good wind comes in from the outfield and brings some color to the face.
“Was she pretty?” I said.
“Yes,” he said. “Daddy’s proud of me. I went to camp and I met a red head. A pretty girl.”
“Your Daddy’s always proud,” I said.
“You’re pretty too, Jeannie,” he said. “Daddy says I like the pretty girls.”
“There’s few things I’m less wrong about then women,” Otto said. I hadn’t seen the old man standing there at the far end of the barn. He must’ve been in the tack room when I came in settling the evening’s chores. I knew him to go there occasionally when the feed was on and the horses were settled for the night. I’d walked in on him one evening sitting at the draftsman desk he’d bought for His Helene back in the days when his wife still kept the books for the riding lessons which they ran out of the barn.
Otto’s face that night had that drawn, wan look that accompanies sleeplessness and other privacies of the mind. I went to him out of pity.
“Tell the story again, old boy,” he said to Wilson as I snuck up under Otto’s armpit, wrapping one arm around his waist.
“What story?” Wilson said.
“The one about getting chased,” Otto said, draping his arm over my shoulder with some confidence.
Otto’s body was fit for a man of his age. It had that taut tension that comes from the inhalation of a parent thrilling over witnessing some act of their child’s bravery.
“I went to visit the red head in her cabin today,” Wilson said.
“And who caught you, son?” Otto said, egging him on.
“The counselor,” Wilson said. “He chased me out with a broom.”
“And what did you tell him when he chased you?”
“I told him my Daddy said I like the pretty girls.”
“That a way, son,” Otto said. “You old bastard you. You’re just like your old man.”
I looked up at the light in Otto’s eyes. Something was rising in them, some old glory which he’d once thought fondly of and now recalled. They were laughing. The pride was rising up.
“That was a good one,” Wilson said.
“It sure was,” Otto said. “I’m proud of you. You might be ugly as shit but at least you’re still chasing tail.”
The two were laughing together then. There was something in the way Otto laughed, his body doubled over, leaning forward toward his son standing in the thin light down the hall, that made me realize that this was something he’d been deprived of for a long while, the ability to look forward to connecting with his son one day as a man. He glimpsed that for a moment. It felt damn good. They both felt damn good.
“The counselor said he thought he wanted to rape her,” Otto said between breaths. He was laughing so hard now he seemed almost to be sobbing. “I got a call this morning. Can you imagine. That dim wit actually thought my son had enough man in him to rape that girl.”
Wilson took his father laughing as a sign of encouragement.
“Rake a girl,” he said. “My Daddy says I’m gonna rake a girl.”
Wilson took the rake in his arms and started spinning with it. He almost looked light on his toes, like someone had dropped a harness around his belly, lifting him up toward the rafters and lending him some grace and spin.
“Maybe I’ll rake you, Jeanie,” he said. “You’re a pretty girl too.”
Otto was chuckling all the way to the house. His arm was heavy on my shoulder as we walked. After all that laughing, he seemed to have given up on something of the evening. I looked at the stars over top of us and thought of Wilson dancing in the barn and the sight of the power lines over Bluecreek. I thought about asking Otto what Wilson had meant by all that in the barn.
“Back to work now, son,” he’d eventually said to Wilson when he got the air in his chest again. “That’s enough of that.”
“Will you be alright then?” I said to Otto.
“Right as rain,” Otto said. “Why don’t you come in for a minute and see if you can make that old piano play again.”
The piano was a small upright Otto kept in the backroom near the porch. The top of it resembled a bench from another era, a resting place where all the old faces still sat around and kept watch on the day. It was lined with frames and trinkets, things from an age when his wife, His Helene, had still been working her hand and saying her say over her two boys. The collection had the feel old albums do when you put all the best moments together despite the shit faces and gap teeth.
I started in on a sonata, quietly and without much breath at first. But then with a good bit more confidence as I went. There was a seriousness about Otto which I respected enough to employ. His was not a soul easily turned over.
I looked over my shoulder at one point while I played. Otto was sitting in the recliner. A peacefulness had invaded his face.
I hadn’t seen His Helene in the other room watching. She was sitting in her wheelchair with her feet in a bedpan. Here you are, she seemed to say, a bit of my letting go.
There I was, all these trinkets of hers, and her husband’s eyes, boring into me. By the time I got to the final movement I knew something of her inner life. I tried to tell it just as I heard it. Strong faithful chords. Easy on the flutes and the runs. I wanted so badly to splay the notes in her good conscience.
“You’ve been lonely then too,” His Helene said from the other room, when I had finished.
I went to her then, kneeling down at her feet and putting my arms on her legs. I tried to be rough with her when I could to remind her that she was still a woman.
“Do you want to go for a stroll, Helene?” I said.
“Sure do, darlin,” she said. “It’s frightful small in here tonight.”
We bundled her in the old fur we found in the front closet and all Otto’s gear, her throat every bit covered. On her head we put the old coon hat Otto wore riding in the winter. Wilson donated his glasses to shield her eyes. “We can’t let the wind take those, now can we,” Otto said affixing them to her face. “There’s no natural tears left.”
It was true. I’d put the drops in. What water His Helene had left in her had congregated in her feet. They were bulbous and bloated. The doctor said next it would move to her heart. That’s what would take her. That one big rush of her own stream.
She took her grapes with her. I put them in a small blue bowl which I wedged on her lap. In a panic His Helene liked to feel a frozen grape on her tongue. The nurse had shown me how to place it.
Otto took the flashlight. Together we rolled her out into the night. He’d built a ramp off the back porch which she’d used to wheel herself out to the barn when she’d still had some strength in her arms.
“Take her around front,” Otto said. “I want to show my wife off one last time even if there’s no one to see her.”
You could tell it took too much out of him to push. He wanted to run alongside and watch the fear being lifted from her face. I broke into a steady jog after we cleared the drive. The shadow of the branches overhead splayed out on her lap. I watched them move over her as we ran. I wanted to get her heart going for him.
“Go, go, go,” His Helene said.
After a few laps, Otto sat on the porch and held the light for us. We made a few more runs in front of the houses. I wondered if Father was watching as we passed. I wondered if someday I wouldn’t be doing this with him too.
When we feared the cold would take her, we took her in. As we undressed her, His Helene started to panic. She could feel the gravity shifting. The water in her feet had begun its migration.
Otto went for her box of shots in the freezer. Some high altitude sedative. That kind of devil had to be kept fresh. Once the needle was under the skin, His Helene looked peaceful. We laid her out on the pullout in the front room. She slept on the ground floor of the house now. Otto feared she’d fall down the stairs. The other night she had managed to push herself out of her bed and take a few steps. After that she’d crashed into the bookcase. Otto found her on the floor struggling to lift her face out of the carpet. She’d fought him off kicking and wailing.
“You’ll suffocate yourself,” he’d said.
“Who says I’ll let you kill me like this,” she’d said.
Otto wouldn’t get a night nurse. He said people wait for everyone to leave a room before they die. “Sometimes,” he said, “I pace the house just to give her room to slip off.”
Once His Helene was quiet we went out onto the front porch to get some air. Outside there was a weightiness between us. I stood next to Otto on the mat that lined the front door looking out at the road.
“What do you do,” he said, “when there’s almost no one left.”
The way he took me in his arms, pulling the small of my waist into his belt, I felt the sudden surging up of all the ways I’d wanted to be needed. I saw Mother in Father’s arms that morning they’d danced next to the drain board in the kitchen. I saw Callie push Father into her bed. And too, I saw everything of His Helene. I tilted my head back. He was careful with my lips.
Afterward, Otto took my face in his hands and turned it sideways examining my profile under the gloomy spin of what was left of the porch light.
“You have a long nose,” he said.
“It belongs to my mother,” I said.
“It’s good to know what belongs where,” he said.