13 Ways: The Offering
Posted on December 5, 2011
Della’s sneakers hit the asphalt as she stepped off the bus from school, and immediately she regretted not having worn her better shoes. The rubber soles of this pair were rubbed so thin that the heat coming off the street seared the bottoms of her feet.
“Like two catfish in a frying pan,” Janice would say later over dinner, laughing when Della told her the story. “I told you to stop wearing those ugly things a while back, didn’t I?” Janice was good natured, and would not give Della too hard a time about it; nevertheless, she relished handing out an “I told you so” to her daughter on occasion.
Della lived with her mother and her six-year-old brother, Cayce, in a working-class neighborhood outside town. The house they rented didn’t look like much, but at least it was weatherproof, and a lot better than some of the places they’d lived since her parents’ divorce.
Della knew that Janice struggled to meet their bills every month, despite their modest needs and natural thriftiness. Della did not mind where they lived, as long as the three of them were together and safe from her father; but she did wish they had not moved to so sultry a climate, a thousand miles from where she grew up. She wished, too, that more girls her age lived nearby. From what she could gather, most of the girls at school lived near one another and far from Della – their houses dotted around town, or at least within walking distance of the shops and cafes. Some of them had a house in town as well as a ranch or farm out in the countryside. Della could only imagine what such luxury might be like, and she hoped she might one day receive an invitation to ride horses with them.
Janice had chosen a good school for Della, and she worked hard to pay the fees for her to attend, so it was no surprise to Della that most of the other girls’ families were better off, financially, than her own. Della was proud that her mother wanted the best for her, but sometimes she felt guilty about the cost.
The heat and silence of the street were so total that it reminded her of a science fiction movie she’d seen on TV, about a whole town whose people disappeared one afternoon: no birds sang, no dogs barked, and no children played in the yards. Reflecting on this, Della was overwhelmed by a sense of desolation, so she distracted herself by calling to mind her old town and its seasonal treasures: the feel of fresh snow pelting her face, like the soft paws of kittens; the shock of flinging her sun-burned body off a pier and into a cold lake; and the gentler pleasure of the local park in autumn, where leaves tumbled endlessly on the wind.
Della was learning that late May in the South, at least where she lived, meant intolerable heat, humidity, sweat, and mosquitoes, and she felt as though it was nearly impossible to dress light enough for the weather. Her school’s buildings were comfortable enough, but the enclosed bus with its windows that only half opened was stifling, and she was nearly an hour getting to her stop by the time all the other kids were dropped off.
Still, the bus was nothing compared to her full exposure to the glaring sun. The jeans she wore felt too heavy. The Madonna t-shirt she’d scrounged from her mother’s dresser was loose on her, and worn thin from two decades of washing, so she’d hoped it would keep her cool; but only a block and a half from the bus, it felt damp, and stuck to her body in various patches. Even her eyes were sweating, where plastic sunglasses met tender skin.
Della mulled over her options for managing her own comfort better, especially in the hot nights. The house was stuffy and they could not afford an air conditioner, but her mother did not like Della’s makeshift bedroom out on the front porch, where she would drag her mattress in hope of catching a breeze through the fly screen.
“What breeze?” Janice would ask. She had a point. It occurred to Della that the breeze may blow only in her imagination or memory, but she needed to believe in its possibilities, nonetheless. Janice insisted that the porch might not be safe, as there was no lock on the screen door, and the screens themselves were half torn off in some places. It caused arguments, and Della hated arguments like she hated the heat. She preferred people and conversations to be cool and calm.
Della considered this as she readjusted her sunglasses, swept her hair off her face, and moved past her neighbors’ houses. She could end the arguments, and they could all live better, if she could just earn some money; but what were her options, at thirteen? Della thought about the pros and cons of being thirteen, which she had been contemplating for all of one month. One big pro was that thirteen beat eleven or twelve; those ages felt like years ago to her now, located in the distant country of childhood. Of course, Della thought, she was mature for her age, way ahead of most of her peers. She knew other girls believed this about themselves, too, but she was sure that in her own case it was true.
Another pro of thirteen was that she was starting to look like a woman instead of a little girl. Boys were noticing her, and she was noticing their noticing. This was scary, but it felt good, too, like being an adult. Della liked best of all that her outside self was starting to catch up with her inside self. Curvy, capable, confident, and clever: those were the four Cs of womanhood her mother had taught her. She’d been teasing somewhat, Della thought, but not entirely. Whether or not Janice had been joking, Della had liked the sound of those words, and she repeated them to herself as a kind of mantra, aiming to embody them.
What she also liked about turning thirteen was that this made her – at least technically – one year closer in age to Reese Baker, who lived next door and seemed hardly to notice her. Della figured this was partly due to her age, and partly because, when he wasn’t at school or practicing with his band, Reese usually had his head stuck under the hood of his car; so it was no wonder he’d not had a good look at her since she’d moved in next door. But Della had enjoyed watching him work on his old Ford from the privacy of her porch, where she perched on a high stool to improve her view, and struggled to pay attention to her homework. She often wondered what it would be like if Reese ever looked up and saw her watching him, and invited her in for a glass of iced tea or a Coca-Cola. She wondered if she would be embarrassed, or if it would just feel natural between them.
Just now, though, her burning feet kept her daydreams about Reese from wandering too far, and brought her back to reflecting on the limits of her youth. Mostly, there were practical problems. Thirteen was still a couple years shy of being able to get a regular job, or a driver’s license. She also knew that, even though she worked hard at school, that wasn’t going to pay any bills, at least not yet. One day, though, she would earn enough money to take care of her family, and her mother could stop working two jobs and relax a little. Della would buy them a big house, surrounded by shade trees, with an air conditioner in every room. Maybe they would even have a swimming pool, and a car that didn’t break down, so that if her mother did want to have a job, she could get there on time every day. For Cayce, Della would find a special school that could help him with his learning problems.
For now, though, her options for employment were few. If they had not moved from Dargo, she would still be earning babysitting money. She had stashed some aside, but it was not enough for an air conditioner, she knew that. She wondered if the neighbors around here might want a babysitter sometimes, and then realized that they hardly knew her, so why would they trust her with their kids? Then again, why not? She had an honest enough face, right? Maybe she would ask around.
Della had walked two full blocks and was nearing home when she took action to gain some relief from the swelter. She dropped her book bag to the ground, pulled off her sunglasses, grasped the bottom of her t-shirt, used it to scrub the sweat off her face and neck, and then tied the ends together under her bra. That done, she stuck her glasses back on her face, and reached down to roll the cuffs of her jeans up to her knees. She was alarmed by the dizziness that overtook her when she righted herself again, but figured she’d be fine once she reached the shade of her front lawn.
Della pushed her book bag back onto her shoulder, scooped her hair into a pony tail, and secured it with a rubber band chosen from the several encompassing her left wrist. She felt a bit better having done these things, though her breathing was becoming labored, and she wondered if she was developing asthma from this new climate. She longed for an ice-cold drink in a way that she could not remember ever having longed for one.
In the late afternoon deadness of her neighborhood, Della heard Hank Williams Sr. singing Hey, Good Lookin,’ and noted that the song sounded scratchy and old-fashioned, like somebody playing a record instead of a remastered CD. Della knew about these things because her father had collected old Country & Western records, and because he’d loved Hank Williams, and all the kinds of things Hank Williams stood for. Della’s mother had not loved these things.
Della felt a quick stab of longing for her father. A memory rushed to her, unbidden, sharply focused. She remembered being little, and her father scooping her up to dance her round the house – a big grin on his face, his powerful voice joining in with Hank’s. She had felt safe back then, when he would hold her high in his arms, or close to his chest as it resonated with Your Cheatin’ Heart. That had been back when her love for her father was a clear and sparkling stream, not the murky swamp it was now. Yearning for him and hating him all at the same time was a complicated way to live, but she was used to it (mostly) and figured her mother must feel the same.
Della’s straight path home led her soon to the source of the music, right next door to her own house. It was here that she spotted the yellow rabbit, and the pink bear: stuffed toys sitting side by side on a fence top, bordered by Easter baskets, all slightly askew.
Her first reaction was to laugh, happy for the distraction from her family worries. She knew these toys. They were from this past Easter, when, as every other year, Janice had filled a basket for each of her kids and hidden them in the house, along with a new stuffed animal – typically a rabbit for Della, a bear for Cayce. Della and Cayce would devour the chocolate bunnies and eggs first, and then gobble up the jelly beans, gummy snakes, licorice whips, candy corn, sugared eggs, caramels, and all-day suckers that never did last all day. This left only the plastic grass and a few dyed eggs banging around against the straw sides of the baskets. These they returned to their mother, pleading innocence and requesting refills, which was also part of their family tradition.
“Seriously, Mom, they came like this – totally empty. Well, except for all the fake grass and boiled eggs. I don’t know how a thing like this could happen. It’s weird – or, at least an oversight. How about you fill them up with sugary goodness now, and then hide them, and we’ll find them all over again? Cayce and I will overlook your parental negligence this time …”
Cayce would fall about laughing when Della and Janice teased each other like this. Often, he did not understand the content of their banter, but he could infer from their voices and smiles that it was meant to be funny, and that was enough to crack him up.
“Refills coming right up!” Janice would reply. “Check back with us in a year. The Easter Bunny should have them ready then, and I promise to deliver on time, with my usual level of efficiency.” Janice would take the baskets then and empty them out, saving the eggs for their lunches, and tossing the plastic grass into the trash bin.
Della stopped walking and stared at the things on the fence, from the dirt strip in front of the Baker’s house. She was sorting through her thoughts, and trying to calm a rising unease in her gut. She felt slightly sick and her muscles were cramping – but maybe that was just from the heat? Or maybe not. Were these her and Cayce’s things, or did they just look like them? No doubt, the stuff was cheap, and could be purchased at any drug store in town. But Della wondered now where her mother had left their Easter baskets and plush toys once the holiday had passed. Hadn’t they been on the porch, with Della?
Hank sang, There’s soda pop and the dancin’s free, so if you wanna have fun come along with me. The record had been restarted. Della glanced around, but saw no one who might have done it … Of course not, why would she? The little kids would not be playing outside in this intense heat. There were no other kids Della’s age on their street, that she knew of, and the adults would be either at work, or inside looking after children, cooking meals, and keeping house – or so she imagined. She really had no idea what these people got up to when she wasn’t around, now that she thought about it.
One step farther from the dirt strip brought her close enough to the fence to notice that the toys and baskets rested, not on the fence itself, but on the tops of the green plastic bins pushed up against it. Were these things for sale? Were the Baker’s having a garage sale, selling her and her brother’s Easter gifts? This was too bizarre to believe – unless it was a prank, set up to get her attention. With a rush of excitement, Della imagined that Reese had been seeing her all along, and that this was his way of letting her know. Surely, Cayce or their mom had left these toys in the yard, and then Reese had gathered them up as a kind of joke, and set them on the fence, so she would see them and have a laugh – and maybe stop in for that long-awaited glass of iced tea or Coke? She wondered. Her head ached and she recognized that she wasn’t thinking all that clearly.
As she thought of drinks, her throat ached too. She realized that she was probably becoming dehydrated, and then remembered the water bottle that Janice usually filled and packed into her bag. Della tossed her book bag to the ground and rifled through its contents, eventually finding the bottle, empty and half crushed beneath her English and Algebra books. As she stood upright again, her earlier dizziness returned, so she took a deep breath and tried to steady herself.
Right about then, she realized that someone was watching her from the shadows just inside the Baker’s garage. No doubt the same person who was replaying old Hank’s number one hit, but Della knew even as she said his name that it was not the one she’d hoped for.
The man stood up from where he was perched on a stack of something Della could not see clearly, and walked up to the fence to greet her.
“Well hello there, Miss Della … ain’t that right?”
Della pulled her sunglasses back over her hair, since her mother had taught her never to greet someone without looking at them directly, which meant not through dark lenses.
“Oh, hello Mr. Baker. Yes, it’s Della. I thought you were Reese there for a minute.”
Mr. Baker laughed, and Della smelled beer on his breath, even though he was a good three feet away from her. She knew that smell from back when her parents were still together. She did not like it. To Della, Hank Williams and beer had meant an inevitable degeneration into yelling and hitting – a swift and total destruction of the calm, cool world she preferred.
“You know my boy Reese, do you?” Mr. Baker asked, and leaned on top of the fence post. He was ropey and shrewd looking in his dirty t-shirt, with hair like dried grass, and skin burned to leather from years in the sun – all of which meant that he looked like dozens of other men Della had known. The kind of men who drank too much and swore too much and hit their wives and kids whenever life took a swipe at them – which was often, in their own minds. It occurred to Della that Reese might one day look just like this, that what made him drop-dead gorgeous now was his uncorrupted youth. He had not yet repeated his father’s life.
“Uhmmm … sure, I know him a little.” Della was close enough to the fence to get a clear look at the Easter gifts now, and she did not know what to say. The baskets belonged to her and Cayce, no doubt about it, as did the toys. Mr. Baker watched Della inspect them, but said nothing by way of explanation.
“So, are you selling these or something, Mr. Baker? Why are they on the fence?”
“Ha! Selling them? Oh no, lordy me … No, not sellin’ ‘em. Not at all. Why don’t you look a little closer, missy? See what the Easter Bunny brung you.” Mr. Baker reached out a hand to Della, which she pretended not to see; but she wondered at his comment, so she did move closer, finally going up on her toes to gain a full view into the baskets. As she did this, she wondered, too, if Mr. Baker was crazy, or just drunk. Easter? Easter, like Della’s birthday, was in April, and that was long past now.
The yellow rabbit whose ear she caressed was her own, and in its accompanying basket was an assortment of sweets that were turning to goo in the heat. Cayce’s things were next to hers, on the right, but the other baskets perched there belonged to neither of them. Della wondered what kids he’d gotten those from, as surely Reese was too old and too cool for such things. Inside the largest, outermost basket, was an assortment of colored plastic eggs, the kind that you could hide things in, and beneath those, bright silver coins shone out at Della. Della heard a scratchy sound coming from the garage, and noticed the music had stopped. Her headache persisted, throbbing now, and her throat felt swollen. She thought she should leave, but she could not stop staring at Mr. Baker’s weird Easter shrine.
“So what you think? See anything you like, Miss Della?” Della reached forward to touch the cheap baubles, bemused, yet mesmerized by the oddity of it all. Mr. Baker pushed various things aside to unlatch the gate that stood between them, and beckoned Della inside the fence. “You’d best step into the shade, missy, you’re lookin’ ’bout on the verge of heatstroke. I have some ice-cold lemonade and Co-Colas here in the garage. You like some of those?”
Della blinked hard at him. White circles swam up in her vision.
“Yeah, I guess so.” She was overcome by an image of herself at home, drenched head to toe in a cold shower, and felt suddenly desperate to be there; but it occurred to her that Mr. Baker could be right about heatstroke. Della could not remember when she’d last had water, and she regretted the salty potato chips she’d eaten for lunch. She wasn’t sure she could make it even as far as home.
Mr. Baker took her arm gently and led Della through the gate.
“Well, you sit down right here, missy, and I’ll get you that cold drink. You want to come on inside the garage with me?”
“No, I’ll be okay here, thanks, Mr. Baker.” Della dropped her bag and then herself into an old office chair at the opening of the garage door, at the edge of the shade. It was a relief to sit down, and she noticed that she was no longer sweating, but then remembered from health class that this may not be a good thing. Wasn’t sweating supposed to cool you down?
Della watched Mr. Baker walk farther into the garage, where he crouched next to a wind-up portable gramophone. Della knew what it was, but it was the first time she’d seen one in person, and her curiosity was piqued in spite of her discomfort. She wanted to go closer to have a good look, but instead she stayed put and watched Mr. Baker wind the wooden handle on the machine, and then move the needle back to the beginning of the record. She remembered her dad telling her about the little boxes of steel needles that came with these players, and how you were supposed to change the needle every time you changed records. But Mr. Baker had not bothered with that, as far as Della could tell. He just used the same needle again. He hadn’t put on a fresh record either, so Hank’s crooning was filling the garage and pouring out onto the driveway again. She wondered if maybe Mr. Baker didn’t have any other gramophone records, but thought that was unlikely. No one who kept a beautiful old player like that would have only one 78 to spin on it.
Mr. Baker delivered the Coke, which Della figured was the best thing she had ever tasted, and she was grateful to him for providing it. After gulping down a first bottle, and accepting a second one as a chaser, Della’s nausea and dizziness subsided, her vision cleared, and she felt her breathing returning to normal. Mr. Baker seemed content to stand near her, watching her drink soda, and listening to Hank. From time to time, he pulled a bottle from his hip pocket, which Della recognized as whiskey: Jack Daniels, in fact, which was her Dad’s brand.
As Della watched, Mr. Baker swaggered into the garage and added a few rotations to the already-wound gramophone. Unbelievably, he started his record playing again, and she wondered how many times he’d listened to it today. Della did that sometimes, too – played her favorite songs over and over, especially when the album was new. So maybe that wasn’t so weird.
All Della’s family loved music. Once in a while, Della and Cayce would arrange an impromptu dance party for Janice, to lift her spirits. They would dress up in their mother’s old t-shirts, kick off their shoes, and shove the furniture back to the walls in the living room. Then, they would entice Janice into the room by putting on some of her music from “my happy carefree days,” as she called them.
Della understood that this meant Janice’s life before she met the man she would marry, and whose children she would bear. The one she would fight with, then forgive, then fight with again, and finally leave in the middle of the night, in a worn-out station wagon, with just a few suitcases and their two kids packed in. When Della danced with Janice, she could see in her mother’s joyful movements how young she’d once been, and how untroubled. She loved to see her like this.
Yet somehow, it felt different watching Mr. Baker play his Hank Williams record over and over again. Della could not understand why. This was not one of C&W’s sadder tunes about a man or woman who’s lost everything they once held dear. It was supposed to be a light and happy song about flirting with pretty women. But Della could feel no joy emanating from Mr. Baker, despite his efforts to seem cheerful. She understood enough about adults, though, to recognize that there were other feelings here that were far more complicated and disturbing than the freaky Easter tableau. It was all mixed up with the dark, sweltering garage, the cagey way Mr. Baker paced back and forth between her chair and the gramophone, and the sour, tangy blend of his breath and sweat, which she smelled every time he came near. He came nearer every few minutes. Della searched for something to say that would relieve the pressure of thinking about this.
“So, Mr. Baker, those Easter toys, where’d you get them? See, my brother, Cayce and me, we have some just like that, from our mom this past holiday.”
Della regretted asking this, almost before she’d finished the question, but Mr. Baker did not seem at all embarrassed, as Della would have been under the same circumstances. He was smiling and looking her straight in the eyes, but a bit shyly, like she’d just walked in on a surprise party he’d arranged for her, and hoped she’d be pleased.
“Well, Miss Della, I thought maybe you would enjoy a refill, seeing as how they were all empty, you know?” Mr. Baker leaned close to Della where she sat on the office chair, and she instantly pulled away from him, hoping he didn’t notice her repulsion. She’d appreciated the Cokes, but she wanted to go home now, and she wondered how long she might need to stay there in order to avoid seeming rude.
Mr. Baker moved then, too, until they were separated by mere inches, and that was when Della saw up close the contents of the largest Easter basket, which he perched on her lap, where it felt heavy and warm.
“Look here now. See what the old Easter Bunny’s got for you here. And by the way, you can call me Bobby, if you like.” Mr. Baker winked at Della, and took her empty Coke bottle away, tossing it into the grass nearby.
Until this moment, Della could have summed up all that she knew or cared to know regarding the Bakers, in a few brief sentences: Reese Baker was sixteen and hot hot hot – a bit of a fail at sports, but admired by girls and boys alike, because he played electric guitar like a rock star; because he could fix any engine that was not electronic (that meant vintage cars, which were cool); and because he wouldn’t take grief off anybody. These were the important things, Della thought, which a girl her age, who lived next door to such a boy, would want to know.
But what else had she heard about the Bakers? She tried to recall the gossip other people had blabbed to her or her mother, which she would have ignored at the time as irrelevant to herself and her family. One thing she remembered now was that Mr. Baker collected silver dollars, which he had done for years, and everyone guessed that he probably had thousands of them by now, but he never let anyone see them. Another thing she remembered, which seemed obvious now, was that Mr. Baker was a drunk, and that he’d been an unemployed drunk ever since he’d been laid off from his last job in construction ten years ago.
No one talked bad about Mrs. Baker, and all Della remembered now was someone telling her and her mom that Dee Dee, as she was called, worked at the bakery in town, attended the First Baptist Church on Sundays, and got on with life as best she could, despite being married to “that drunken old coot.”
At the moment, the silver dollars seemed to be increasingly relevant to Della’s life, because there was something Mr. Baker was trying to tell her about them, as he loomed over her and gestured at the basket on her lap. He yammered on, pausing only long enough to restart Hank again. Della tried to listen and understand, but she felt hot and exhausted, and distressed by his nearness. She tried to reassure herself that, despite all his faults, he must be okay. He was Reese’s dad, after all, and his wife was a Baptist baker. How bad could he be? But the longer he talked, the more his voice took on the quality of someone calling from a great distance, and Della felt herself slipping into a kind of reverie.
She was too hot again, and feeling sick, and the dizziness was returning. The overwhelming smell of him did not help at all with her nausea. Still, she waited for a pause in Mr. Baker’s monologue, when she could make an excuse and leave. It seemed never to come.
Eventually, Mr. Baker took one of Della’s hands in his own, and pushed her fingers through the mound of silver. Some of the plastic eggs popped open as he did this, revealing the currency inside. “A crazy man’s treasure,” Della thought, but she didn’t say this. Mr. Baker did not seem to want her to speak. Occasionally, he asked a question of her, which he then either answered himself, or assumed to be rhetorical.
“You see there, Miss Della, that’s a nice little offerin,’ wouldn’t you say? If you open up the rest of them eggs, you’ll see there’s even more inside there, all for you. What you think of that, huh?”
Della was silent. She didn’t know what to think of that.
“Say hey, sweet baby … “ Mr. Baker sang along with Hank now, wiggled his hips a little as he took hold of the basket she held, and then two-stepped away with it, into the shadows behind them. The record wasn’t even finished yet, but he wound the handle of the gramophone and restarted it again anyway.
Della started to rise, but then Mr. Baker was behind her, reaching around her to grasp her forearms. He bent them upward, pressing them hard against her chest, so that he held her tight and still. Della froze.
She could feel Mr. Baker rubbing himself slowly but firmly against her back, which she realized she’d made easy for him by the habit she had of sitting sideways in chairs. When she was too warm, she liked her back free to the air, and not resting against anything. Except now it was resting against Mr. Baker.
Della thought that to someone seeing them from the street, at a distance, it would look like nothing much at all. They might think that Mr. Baker was her father or uncle, playing a game with her in the driveway. Nothing worth glancing at a second time. And maybe it truly was nothing at all, to other people. Della wasn’t sure. But she wanted it to stop.
“Mr. Baker, I think I need to go home now,” she heard her own voice, rising from a well inside her.
Della was sure now, with a startling but irrelevant clarity, that neither her mother nor Cayce had left the Easter gifts in the yard, or tossed them into the recycle bins, or left them out for the Salvation Army pick-up that came around now and again after the holidays. Della understood that while she had slept on her porch, or perhaps after she’d left it, Mr. Baker had watched, and waited, and eventually walked right into her private space and taken what belonged to her.
Mr. Baker sang, “I’m free and ready so we can go steady … ”
“Mr. Baker? Mr. Baker, I have to go. My mom should be home any minute now … ”
Mr. Baker did not respond, and when Della tried to stand, Mr. Baker used the pressure of her own arms to crush the resistance out of her, until she thought her ribs might break. Yet she did not cry out.
Della was remembering something she’d learned at a self-defense class she’d taken with Janice, back in Dargo when she was eleven: that sometimes, talking a lot was a good way to get an attacker off you. Sometimes, talking was all you had. Della wasn’t sure if Mr. Baker counted as an attacker, but she was sure that she wanted him off her, so she summoned her voice again, and tried to hold it steady while she told the first story that came to mind. It was one she had not told before.
“Do you know, Mr. Baker, one time, when I was about six years old, just before my baby brother was born, my daddy took me into the city, and we rode on a train?”
Mr. Baker was mute, but his body was not. It had a lot to say to Della. Della felt his urgency in a way that she neither fully understood nor wanted to contemplate.
“We spent the day there, and he met a man about maybe getting some work with him. And when it was time to go home, the trains were delayed for a very long time. While the train was delayed, as we stood there on the platform, I saw this little rat struggling on the tracks. I think it was hurt, you know, because it could not get up off the tracks and get itself to safety. It was just right there where anybody could see it, anybody could get to it.
“So I asked my daddy if we should help it, but he just said, ‘Don’t be stupid, it’s a damn rat – anyway, there’s nothing we can do for it.’
“And after a while, while we were still waiting for the train, this other, much bigger rat came along and it grabbed the little rat and dragged it away, off to the side of the tracks, underneath the platform.
“So I said, ‘Daddy, look, that big rat is saving that little one, look at that!’ and I was so happy, because I didn’t know that rats looked after each other like that, that they could be so kind and gentle.
“And you know, he just laughed and laughed at me, and when he stopped laughing, he leaned me over the side of the platform just enough to see underneath, and there they were. The two rats. The little one half eaten by the big one.”
Mr. Baker made a noise that sounded like choking, and thrust harder into Della’s back, jolting her to action. Adrenaline surging, Della pushed as hard as she could, thrusting herself up and out of the chair, determined to get away, even if her bones broke in the process.
Mr. Baker was far gone by then, fully in thrall to a fantasy of good looking women and hot rod Fords, but he was also fast and mean as a rattlesnake. He pulled Della into the garage, where they grappled so fiercely that Hank was kicked off the turntable, and then crushed underfoot by Mr. Baker’s boot. Della felt the thin hard ropes of Mr. Baker’s arms tighten around her waist as he hauled her farther into the dim, suffocating garage.
Mr. Baker had arranged a spot where they could not be seen from the street. A blue tarmac hung from the ceiling, separating the front half of the garage from the back, and it was behind this that he dragged her, before shoving her hard up against an old dryer, bending her over, and pressing himself tight up against her backside, trapping her. Bile surged into her throat as she understood what he was planning to do. She tried to think clearly. Mr. Baker was pulling her arms behind her, so she used her legs and feet, kicking backward and stomping repeatedly, hoping to connect hard with a boney knee or shin. Her sneakers were no match for his boots, so his feet were safe.
She won a brief victory when her right heel slammed hard and at a harsh angle into Mr. Baker’s knobbly right knee. He cried out and backed off her just far enough for Della to get one arm free and swing it round to his face. But Della had never punched anyone before, and she only grazed his jaw. Within seconds, he had hold of her arms again and was bending her back over the dryer. Della kicked out as hard as she could against it, nearly knocking them both over backward. Mr. Baker did not fall, though, nor did he lose his grip on her. He danced her round the back of the garage, cursing at her, but keeping her from inflicting any real damage on him. Eventually, Della found herself pressed flat between Mr. Baker and the back wall. She was not screaming. She could not find her voice to scream. Yet he clasped one hand over her mouth, and then used the other to unbuckle his belt. She heard the clink of the big western buckle, and the swooshing sound of leather sliding fast through denim loops. She heard whimpering, but did not recognize it as herself. It sounded far away.
Della would wonder, for years afterwards, what might have happened if, just then, her mother’s voice had not sung out, calling her home.
“Della? Honey, you over there?” Janice moved across their front yard, perhaps with a mother’s sixth sense that one of her children needed her; perhaps because she knew about Della’s infatuation with the boy next door. Della would never know what mysterious feelings, thoughts, or visions led her mother to seek her out at the Baker’s house that day.
The sound of Janice was enough to break whatever spell Mr. Baker was laboring under. He released Della suddenly, shoving her away from him and hustling her out the garage door, as if she were a tramp trespassing on his property.
With sweat pouring into his eyes and half blinding him, he spun round and stumbled into the old record player again, sending it skidding into the wall. He sought and laid hold of his basket of silver coins, and plastic eggs filled with cash, and then turned back to where he’d left Della, thrusting it at her.
But Della had moved far outside the garage, back into the sun, where she stooped to pick up the glass Coke bottle Mr. Baker had tossed onto the grass by the driveway. With one hard crack, she smashed it against the house bricks to make a rough but serviceable weapon.
Her breathing was quick and shallow. Sweat slickened her skin and burned her eyes, but she was prepared for battle. She switched the bottle to one hand, and then the other, as she wiped her palms on her jeans, but her gaze never left Mr. Baker. She would not be caught off guard again.
Mr. Baker rushed over to her, spilling some of the coins and eggs and, as he came near, Della raised the broken bottle neck in front of her. Although he made no sign of acknowledging this, he kept his distance.
Still, he shook the basket at her, creating a wild and jangling music, like gypsies playing tambourines. It occurred to Della that, under other circumstances, she would have enjoyed the sound of that silvery clatter.
“There now, you take that, you go on ahead! You go on home to your mamma! You take another Co-Cola, too, and some of them lemonades!”
He was panting like a hard-worked bird dog and everything he said emerged as a shout.
Della stared at him, but she did not move. She felt as if she were appraising this situation and this man from that calm place inside her where she’d earlier sought refuge, and where now, at last, she rested.
“Go on now, you take this, I said! It’s a present, an offering from your friend Bobby Baker! You take it now, like a good girl! You tell your mamma the Easter Bunny come twice this year!”
Della imagined herself slitting his throat, if only to stop his barking.
“Della?” Janice called again, closer now. Della glanced across the fence into her own front yard. Her mother was walking over now and was at least halfway across the lawn, bearing two paper bags of groceries.
Della did not want her to see this.
“I’ll be right there, Mamma, just getting some things over here at the Baker’s.” Her own voice, not a shout, swam up from the depths of her repose, just loud enough to traverse the distance between them.
“Okay, honey, see you in a minute!”
Mr. Baker stood stock still. Silent now, he dropped his basket, which landed hard on the cement. He walked back up the drive and lowered himself into the chair where he’d molested Della only minutes before. Once there, he seemed to collapse into himself with a ragged sigh, his energy sapped, his eyes hollowed out.
Perhaps something more than his energy was gone, but Della could not guess what. Yet, this was not the first time in her life she’d seen a man come undone by his own actions. He leaned down to gather up the shards of Hank Williams off the ground and then sat there holding them in his hands, like he’d forgotten she was there.
Della thought he looked like someone who’d stumbled upon a crime scene with a gutted corpse, surprised to discover his own knife jutting out of the wound. Seeing him like this, she realized that she was no longer afraid of Mr. Baker, but she would not turn her back to him again. She inched backward, toward the gate, tossing the broken bottle out onto the driveway.
He didn’t look up as it skittered past his boots.
Della glimpsed Cayce’s and her Easter gifts, still perched above the fence, their static pose and unseeing eyes reminding her of something she’d learned in History at school, about how warrior kings would skewer the heads of enemies on spikes, to mount them on their castle walls.
She recalled how little these things had meant to her last month, how she’d thought about telling her mom that she was getting too old for this kind of stuff, and how that was probably still true. But just now, the toys seemed as real as any living thing, and as vulnerable to suffering and degradation. Della gathered them to her, and moved toward home.
Lyrics from “Hey, Good Lookin” by Hank Williams, Sr.
Photos by Sandra Peterson Ramirez and Robin Whittle.
Text by td Whittle.