The Ghost Between Us — Part Two

By Amber Burke

Outside, our house was like millions of houses: boxy, with a pointed roof and gray siding, an aluminum awning over the front door, a scrap of yard. But inside, our house, never neat, began to fall apart. Doors splintered off hinges, drawers fell off gliders, rugs turned up at corners. Paint peeled.  Dad took to repairing things with duct tape: the pipes below the kitchen sink, the bathroom mirror, the couch. Our shoes. He was satisfied with these fixes and viewed them as permanent.

So when the ceiling in our room began to crack, and plaster crumbled down onto the blue carpeting between your twin bed and mine, Dad brought up the duct tape and a chair from the dining room.

“Watch this,” he told me. “Watch and learn.”

I don’t know if you were there or not. I can’t remember. I was only looking at him. He climbed onto the chair, and reached up to the ceiling with an armslength of tape. He stuck a large silver X over the worst of the cracks. I was amazed that he could touch the ceiling; he seemed impossibly tall.

He climbed down and looked up, standing with his hands on his narrow hips.

“Better,” he said.

I don’t know why I am telling you this. No. I know why: it was a moment when I believed that fixing things was easy, that my father was a giant, that everything was going to be okay.

*   *   *

I was sure we would be better off without Mom there to make Dad angry. When Dad did one nice thing the summer after she died, and got us a dog named Pittsburgh, I thought I was right.

Pitts was a pit bull from the pound. Mom hated dogs, and she would have hated Pitts, with his eyebrowless red eyes and ears in points. He didn’t look like a good dog, but he was. You don’t remember Pitts. I’ve said, “How can you not remember Pitts? You loved Pitts!”  But I don’t push the issue. I don’t tell you about the sweet things Pitts did. We didn’t have Pitts for long.

*   *   *

We wore clothes that didn’t fit right. We always needed haircuts. We were never clean. We ate a lot of canned nuts and processed meats and cheese slices, because that was what Dad bought. I believe now that we were close to scurvy. But we had each other, and then, we had a dog.

We spent our days outside with Pitts that summer, patrolling the long, concretized blocks of our neighborhood. We tried to take care of him. We didn’t train him; we didn’t know how. But we fed him. We hosed him down. When we threw bottles in the street for the sounds they made, crashing into splinters, we held him back by his collar. And when school started in the fall—I entered third grade, you first—and Pitts peed all over the house during the day, we cleaned up after him before Dad got back from coaching. We even took Pitts to our room when we went to bed. But we couldn’t stop Pitts from barking at night. Dad would come down, fling open our door, stand in his underwear and say, “What the hell do you think you see?” Then Pitts would, or wouldn’t, shut up.

I heard Dad roar in the middle of one night: “Goddammit, I can’t sleep in this house.”  He came into our room. “Pitts!”

Your eyes were open: big and scared. I could feel you willing me to protect our dog.

“Don’t, Dad!” I said. I was up now, standing in the doorframe as Dad chased Pitts toward the basement.

“He’s gotta learn.”

I heard Dad slam a door in the basement, then I heard him coming back up. I ducked into bed, under the covers, removing myself from the wheeling periphery of his attention. Removing myself too from all the urging in your eyes.

Dad, in his room on the second floor, would not have heard Pitts after that, whimpering in the basement, but we did. In the morning we went down there. We didn’t see Pitts at first, but then we heard him: he was inside the closet, scratching at the door, and squeaking a wheezing squeak.

“Get him out,” you said. You were almost crying.

“No,” I said.  I was being tough like Dad. If Dad put him in the closet, Dad put him in the closet for a reason.

*   *   *

Our walk to school was somber. Dad had decided at the beginning of the year that I was big enough to walk the two of us there and back. Dad taught at St.Vincent’s, on the other side of town, but we went to the public school near us. Each class took its recess at different times, so you and I didn’t see each other until school let out.  That day, I was glad I didn’t have to see you, because of the way you looked at me.

When we got home, Pitts was still in the closet, and I told you to leave him there. We waited for Dad. But when he came home that evening, his face was closed off, as uninviting as a bolt.

I couldn’t eat dinner.

“Eat your hamburger,” Dad said.

I asked, “Dad, can we let Pitts out?”

You looked at me in gratitude because it turned out I was on your side.

“Gotta teach that dog a lesson,” Dad said, chewing. He settled his gray eyes on me, and I did not say another thing.

*   *   *

That night, I told you to put your fingers in your ears, so you wouldn’t hear the sounds Pitts was making. You did, and I did, but you kept looking at me in expectation. It is unbearable, being an older brother.

I gave in. I went down to the basement and let Pitts out. Pitts licked me all over. The closet smelled like shit and piss. So did he. I took him upstairs, and gave him food, and wiped him off with my towel. I did that, but he wanted to sleep in your bed, on top of your stomach. I watched the two of you. You looked happy in your sleep.

We woke up in the morning when Dad threw our door open. Dad grabbed Pitts by the collar, and dragged him out of our room. Pitts was a good dog: he didn’t bite Dad. He just whined. I followed, at a distance, as Dad punted him down the basement stairs, back in the closet. I went as far as three steps down. I could see Dad rummaging in the drawer where he kept his tools and duct tape, I could see him bring out a hammer and a handful of metal and walk back to the closet. I was thankful when he just nailed metal from door to doorjamb, sealing the door shut.

“Stay!” he said to the dog, who seemed to be tossing his whole body against the door. “Stay out!” he said to me.

*   *   *

I tried to forget our dog was in the closet. But I was continually aware of him. Wherever I went, he came with me, as though he were inside me, as though he were my heart throwing itself against my ribs.

At one morning recess, during the time of Pitts’ incarceration, I wandered away from the other kids on the blacktop, toward the playground, which was lined by tires half-submerged in sand. The playground consisted of stacks of larger tires on their sides, two tire swings, and for tunnels, the big, concrete cylinders they use to make sewers.

I saw a kid named B.J. hiding in one of the tunnels. He was the kind of kid other kids would pelt with rubber balls. It was easy to make him my prisoner.  I found a long stick and I poked it at him if he moved. I commanded him to stay right where he was, even after recess ended and I went inside with everybody else.

About an hour later, in the middle of math, B.J. came back into the classroom. He was crying and I was in trouble.

Mrs. Olson pushed my desk into the corner. I didn’t know the right answers to any questions that day. Mrs. Olson shook her head at me and said things like, “Louis, pay attention. Louis, you don’t do your work. Louis, you’re not even trying.”  I wanted to be big enough to pull her swinging hair. She didn’t know anything.

*   *   *

Several days later, when we came home, the closet was empty and open and smelled like bleach, but also piss, and there was no Pitts. You cried, but I didn’t cry, because there was nothing inside me anymore to let out. I didn’t have to keep thinking I should do something: now there was nothing to do.

At dinner, I was mad at you for crying. You knew how much it irritated Dad. I was even beginning to understand why it irritated him: you looked swollen and dirty, your eyes ratlike; you looked like BJ coming out of the tunnel I put him in, an accusation for a face.

I hated you. I was alone and you were alone.

Dad told you to shut up about Pitts, and when you didn’t, he spanked you and stomped our toy trucks into debris, to teach us to listen to him, or perhaps to teach us not to be sad. You cried more. You sniffled during the night. It seemed to me that your sadness was the beginning of your sickness. You didn’t stop sniffling, not for a long time, and you developed a cough that got worse when you lay down.  It annoyed me when you coughed at night. I told you to shut up. You were becoming a kid it was easy to be mean to.

I skipped school sometimes, that fall. I didn’t go to the movies, or to the mini-mall that had an arcade; I took the bus to St. Vincent’s. I would watch Dad through the squares in the wire fence. He stood in yellowing grass at the edge of the field, usually wearing an open windbreaker over a striped shirt tucked into his tightly-belted pants, a stopwatch around his neck. Boys bigger than me ran laps around him. He whistled. He gave high-fives. Once, I saw him laugh. He was turning around, toward me; I almost didn’t recognize him. His face looked like a different face; it split into angles and teeth. He laughed and I felt like crying.

I didn’t, though. I ran.