Liza’s room was a triangle of toys – no pieces belonged together, and much of it was broken. Barbie’s legs and heads of dolls, old game pieces, cards and empty powder bottles, the neighbor lady’s Avon samples: lipstick and perfume. Crayons lined the babies’ beds and drawers unloaded stained shirts and race track sections.
Each odd thing was a treasure.
Liza and her neighbor-friend, Kara, played Avon Lady sometimes, and the coin toss winner got to be the Lady. The other was the housewife answering the buzzer, slapping the babies aside, clearing catalogs and old mugs and cheese wrappers from the chipped-up coffee table. Hanging up the phone, they made way for the Avon Lady’s beautiful blue cases. Sometimes they hosted invisible parties. Sometimes they played. In these plays they were just separate neighbors, lonely women with long faces craving lip colors and eye shadows, the cost of which they’d fight their pretend husbands over later.
Margaret, Liza’s mother, made relentless breakfast in the kitchen, wild frying foods, spatters of grease, juice puddles on the counter. When they got in the way, she smacked Liza, then Kara, with the flyswatter.
Liza and Kara were playing Avon Lady when Liza’s father’s green car pulled up the driveway after some months of not being there. The girls couldn’t see him from their places on the floor, but after this much leaving, Liza knew the sound of the gravel. The sound wasn’t a spur of flying stones nicking the window in surprise, but the cautious crawl of a cat over rock as his car moved up the driveway path.
He was back.
They didn’t dare come out to see what was what until late in the afternoon. Neither one of them had heard voices yet, hours later, just the scraping of chairs on the confetti-poly-poured floor. The kids found Liza’s parents in the backyard, Margaret sitting in a lawn chair smoking cigarettes really fast and Lloyd with two in his mouth, his hands around a fencepost, forcing it in shoves into the unforgiving ground. Metal chain-link fencing lay rolled like sleeping bags around the yard. Wheel barrows blocked their way, and her father didn’t look at them as he scooped pitchers of cement, pouring them down holes like an everyday dad.
Then the swing set came, and a tractor tire sandbox. Liza was too old for these things, but maybe they would be fun for Steven. She knew better than to ask. Liza stood on the porch holding hands with her friend Kara, eyes and mouths too full to speak. All summer, Liza held her breath, listening for the sound of the car in reverse. She waited like a tired dog no one came to walk. Her eyes stayed open all night, and she stood in the bathroom doorway watching over the house.
Sometimes there were lights on in the basement. Sometimes Liza heard glass break. One time, glass really did break. Margaret and Lloyd were sleeping, cresting evenly upon their waterbed one morning at 4 a.m. when one of Lloyd’s new hundred-fifty gallons of tropical fish –which he’d bought from his brother, Uncle Ernie – slapped like a thousand high-five palms across the living room floor and into the kitchen – when the seams of one of the tanks gave way. The fish flopped and was saved.
Liza knew the basement. All of her nightmares came from there, and when she heard something in the night, a dish breaking, or a window, or steps trudging toward the top of the stairs, it didn’t matter that the door locked at the top of the stairwell, and it didn’t matter that there was no way in from behind the door. There was evil in the basement. Her dreams were filled with it; her dreams, and really, all of her young life.
Liza had dreams at night about a closet in the basement. Beyond the shut door, downstairs. In the dream – in a bedroom – a sister inside with a father. The scraping sound of a drawer pulled out. Pleading… then quiet… and then the sound of a young girl crying.
It was easier to stand guard than to sleep. It was easier to listen with the edges of her senses to the noises beneath the house. She stood some nights for hours, attentive as a trail scout in the doorway of the bathroom beneath the fierce light. The naked bulb hung from a cable in the ceiling as bright upon Liza as God, except that God, she thought, wasn’t there at all.
But even standing guard through the night, Liza could not keep her father from sneaking away. He had come, and he would go again. And he did. Margaret and Liza cleaned one room each day when he left.
The priest from across the river came to talk to the children one Wednesday night at church school, and Kara was there too. He had them all sit down, the fourth, fifth, and sixth graders, around the front of the altar. The students were quiet, trying to behave. The priest waited. He told them how the beautiful stars in the sky were put there, one by one, by God, and wasn’t that amazing, and it was.
How sparkling, how far away, how old, very old, and very bright, older than the coal their granddaddies had mined from the ground. And then he talked about them, all the little school kids thinking they were big, the world theirs, no thought of dying, their young hands and faces sticky from somebody’s Halloween candy. Well-fed, bored children, farm children, regular kids in the middle of this small town church.
“Who’s more important to God, children,” he asked. “Those ancient shining stars, hanging there so perfectly since the beginning of time… or you?”
He pointed at Liza with her big, round eyes and without breathing, she answered;
Cindy Bosley is a poet, fiction-writer, quilter, and miniaturist who has publications in several literary journals including Midwest Quarterly, Prairie Schooner, The North American Review and others. Her chapbook of poems, The Siren Sonnets is due out any day from Finishing Line Press, and she has two essays in the college composition text, The Composition of Everyday Life. One of her quilts, Iowa Cows will appear in a quilt book forthcoming in the fall of 2017. Bosley lives and works in northwest Ohio, but was born and raised in Iowa and holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.