Queen of England

 

Dewy and I were not good sons. At home, we sliced the drapes to make togas and blasted birds with pellet guns we weren’t supposed to have. To make our mother nervous, we pressed our skulls to the microwave door and licked the sticky bottoms of our sneakers. At the grocery store, we fondled bananas and played catch with bags of rice that often, to her horror, broke open in a grand display of her poor parenting. Sometimes, if we were especially bored, we slipped notes into strangers’ palms that read: Help us, we’ve been kidnapped! Everywhere we went, people looked at our mother as if she were trapped in a cage with a pair of rabid hyenas. In return, she treated us like princes. She had nobody else to love.

 She was a small woman, topping out at five feet, and often complained that she did not have more hands than children. Our father fled when I was just a bun in the oven—to do what, we were never told. I guessed piracy, but Dewy told me his absence probably involved another woman or vodka or maybe both. I preferred my version, picturing him with a peg leg and an eye patch. My greatest hope was that he’d return to Wichita with a colossal black beard and a treasure chest full of gold, and put us up in one of the mansions out by the Racquet Club. We’d have heat in the winter and AC in the summer; name-brand turkey would appear in our lunch boxes. Dewy said I might as well sit around and wait for Jesus.

Dewy was two years older, but by the time I was eleven and he thirteen, I was already a head taller and working on a mustache. However, this didn’t matter because Dewy was light-years sharper, and everyone understood that my growing older would do nothing to close the gap. He wasn’t a genius—he was smart, though nothing to alert the news about—but had a politician’s combination of grit and cunning. He was constantly sharpening his senses to prepare for the more generous world he was certain awaited him outside of our mother’s house. He studied chess and electrical engineering and said things like indubitably just to be an asshole. In his free time, he taught himself Portuguese and Morse code, memorized the name of every capital city in the Western Hemisphere. Meanwhile, I was a pain in the public school system’s thigh, or so a janitor once told me.

Whatever hope my mother had for her progeny resided wholly and completely in Dewy. And so, when our mother began bringing home men, Dewy took their arrival worse than I did—he had more to lose. He understood that our mother was a limited commodity, and that any time and energy spent on a man was less time and energy spent on him.

The men were all the same—short, lecherous creatures with halos of hair and greasy skin. Most were from Kansas City and had at least one fat wife under their belts—and Dewy hated each one more than the last. He put thumbtacks in their loafers and accused them, without any rationale, of being Nazis. “Heil Hitler?” he would say to them in passing.

Most didn’t last more than two dates.

_____

Despite Dewy’s efforts, our mother eventually attached herself to one of these men, and it was like watching a swan eat a cigarette butt. (I’d seen this once, during a field trip to the botanical gardens, when my teacher Miss Kozlinski flicked her cigarette into the bird pond.) This was at the beginning of summer break, when Dewy and I had no time for new enemies. There were rocket ships to build and neighbor girls to terrify. And yet there he was—in our house, at our dinner table, his massive hands slithering all over our mother’s body.

His name was Walter McDonald, but we took to calling him the Weenie. His skin was the color and texture of a cooked hot dog and, on most nights, he came to dinner smelling of Canadian bacon. He owned a chain of pizza parlors, and it was with this money—this pizza money—that he purchased our mother’s affection. Within weeks, objects began to materialize around the house: a set of aerating wine glasses, a shiny red KitchenAid, a colossal Persian rug that smelled of tobacco and earth. Last was a DVD player that seemed a direct affront to Dewy’s tastefully curated collection of VHS tapes. Because new technology generally baffled our mother, the DVD player went untouched. Instead, she took pleasure in simply staring at the machine, a look of wistful gratitude on her face. Her wardrobe also transformed; she retired her uniform of canvas Keds and cotton sweaters and took to wearing patent leather pumps and silk blouses with low necklines. On her slender neck appeared a string of pearls the size of baby teeth. “Isn’t your mom a looker?” the Weenie would say before covering her with a barrage of kisses. What he meant was, “See how I’ve made her beautiful?”

He gave Dewy and me our own offerings—boyish trinkets like Pokémon cards and Pogs—but they did not negate the fact that at night we could hear him groaning away like a lawnmower in our mother’s bedroom.

One night, Dewy and I were in the kitchen microwaving a troll doll when we heard our mother cry out, “Just do it already, cowboy king!” And then, a wave of laughter.

“I’ll kill him,” Dewy said, clenching his fists. “I’ll sneak into their room while he’s sleeping and I’ll cut off his hands.”

“His feet, too,” I said, although my heart wasn’t in it. I had, at some point, grown fond of the Weenie. I didn’t understand why, since I too cringed each time he put an eye on our mother. But there was something comforting about his salmon-colored polo shirts and the smell of his Polo aftershave. Even the sight of his leather shoes in the hallway produced an aura of safety. I knew all of this would have to remain my secret—my own little bundle of pleasures. Dewy could never know that I borrowed the Weenie’s Old Spice deodorant, or that I liked to watch him tie his tie in the mornings, his thick fingers working the silky material. Or that I found a peculiar gratification in the sounds coming from our mother’s bedroom, that on some nights I would lie motionless in bed, listening for them. Summoning them.

_____

One afternoon, after our mother had already fallen in love, the Weenie decided that Dewy and I needed a tree fort. “Every boy should have a tree fort,” he said, and rushed off to the hardware store to gather the necessities.

Dewy saw the fort as a mixed blessing. The Weenie was giving us something we could use—a place to call our own—but this privacy would come at a cost. For as long as the weather was good, we would be expected to occupy our station outside, away from our mother. Away from the Weenie. We could hear her already: Walter builds you a great big fort and all you want to do is sit inside and watch TV? A minor victory for the Weenie, but Dewy was still going to let him have it.

In terms of actually building the fort, Dewy and I assumed the Weenie would do all the hands-on work while we participated in some peripheral way, perhaps by bringing him water or offering verbal encouragements. But the Weenie soon had us sawing wood and hammering nails. I caught on relatively quickly, but Dewy immediately spilled a case of nails and managed to pick up a splinter the size of a toothpick. A rash on his forearms suggested an allergy to wood.

“What kind of boy’s allergic to wood?” the Weenie asked, winking at me.

Suddenly, Dewy was screaming. When we looked over, he was clutching his hand to his chest. Dark blood pooled on his shirt.

“Christ,” the Weenie said, rushing over. “What’d you do now?”

“The saw slipped. Maybe if you’d taught me how to use it right.”

Soon Mom was outside, chanting, “What’s happened? What’s happened?”

“Quiet,” the Weenie told her. He wrapped the wound in a towel and led Dewy to his truck. Throughout the process, he kept calling Dewy a moron. A goddamned moron with mush for brains. Dewy, who at the age of eleven had rewired the lights so that when our mother turned on the oven, the radio would tune to her favorite oldies station, was now a moron. A goddamned moron. And I was glad to hear him say so.

After the hospital, we sat down for dinner as if nothing had happened. Mom was too frazzled to cook, so she put a frozen lasagna in the microwave and gave us each a cup of fruit cocktail—the good kind, with grape halves and maraschino cherries. We were silent except for the Weenie, who figured this was an appropriate time to regale us with stories of his father’s heroics. His father had gotten his ear blown off in the trenches of Normandy. His father had pulled a little girl out of a house fire by the ponytail. His father had once sailed from Florida to Cuba on a boat made from old apple crates. This, he seemed to be saying, was the kind of manhood boys like us would never acquire.

Meanwhile, Dewy refused to eat. The tip of his right thumb was gone, lost somewhere in the yard. On the way back from the hospital, the Weenie had explained that if we didn’t want to continue helping with the fort then we didn’t deserve to have one in the first place. He’d use the extra wood to build our mother a garden bed, and that would be that.

Our mother had nothing to say about any of it. She ate her dinner and then carried our dirty dishes to the sink. All the while, the Weenie watched her movements, a predator tracking his prey. When the dishes were done, he led her into her bedroom. The sun was still out when Dewy and I heard his growls, our mother’s whimpers. Like something being eaten alive.

_____

The Fourth of July came and went, leaving a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. There was an incident involving a Roman candle and a catapult that Dewy and I fashioned from the fort scraps. I wanted to forget the whole thing and move on, but the Weenie now had a scar above his lip, and every night we had to watch as our mother rubbed tea tree oil onto the wound.

By now the Weenie understood that Dewy and I were not normal children, and that ours was not a normal household. “You do know you’re the parent, right?” he’d tell our mother. “You own them. You made them.”

Our mother could only shrug and tell him that she’d tried. Raising us alone had not been easy. She had done her best.

“That’s fine, but I’m here now,” he told her. “Let me do my best.”

Not a day later, Dewy took the Weenie’s wallet, inside of which he discovered a picture of a woman—a pink-faced, double-chinned creature with a crown of orange hair. Who the woman was, we didn’t know, but Dewy cut out her face, which he proceeded to paste onto a picture of a piggy bank. He then taped his project to the refrigerator and waited.

“They were in my things,” the Weenie told our mother when he saw it. “They were in my things and they violated my private property. I can’t prove it, but I’m sure they took some money, too.”

Dewy and I listened from the living room.

“I’m sorry,” our mother said. “But they’re boys. They just do these things sometimes.”

“That’s the whole point—they’re just boys. And they need a good straightening out so they don’t grow up to be bad men. This is how criminals are born.”

Our mother appeared in the living room, where Dewy and I had been etching our gangster names into her favorite coffee table. We called it the coffin table, because it was so ugly it belonged underground. Our mother had made the table the summer before, during a brief but intolerable crafting phase in which the house smelled continuously of paint and we all went to bed each night with a headache. She’d painted the table a sunset orange, but the paint was now peeling, and chips of it would turn up in our bedsheets and snow boots and, once, in the center of a roast beef sandwich she’d packed me for lunch. She claimed to love the table more than anything else in the house, although perhaps deep down she too knew it was a failure. She had not made anything since.

“Which one of you did it?” she asked.

Dewy and I looked at each other.

“If one of you doesn’t fess up, I’ll have to assume you’re both guilty.”

Dewy looked at me. He knew I wouldn’t betray him.

“Fine,” she said. “Then you’re both grounded.”

“Grounded?” Dewy asked. “What are we, a fifties sitcom?”

“Don’t start with me,” she said, and then left to report back to the Weenie.

I glared at Dewy. “You could have told her I didn’t do it.”

“We can’t have them pitting us against one another. We’re stronger together.”

I said nothing and continued to carve my name into the table. I wanted to tell the Weenie that I had nothing to do with the piggy bank or the theft of his wallet. That this time I was the good kid, and that I might, with the proper forces, grow up to be a good man, just like his father and his father’s father and all the other men who came before him.

And then suddenly he was there, in the living room, charging toward us. He grabbed Dewy by the underarms and, with one fluid motion, threw him onto the couch, facedown. Before Dewy could struggle, the Weenie yanked down his pants and administered exactly five sharp slaps to the pale flesh of Dewy’s behind.

“Walter, be gentle,” was all our mother could say, and this in barely a whisper. She was standing in the corner, her fingernails in her mouth.

Dewy’s mouth unhinged into a silent scream. He was determined not to yell, but where his mouth could obey, his body could not. The moment the Weenie finished, Dewy let out a fart—high and long and clear as a birdsong. From the corner, our mother began to laugh. She clapped a hand over her mouth. Dewy looked at her and narrowed his eyes.

The Weenie then turned to me. “Are you scared?” he asked.

I shook my head.

“That’s because you didn’t do it. Dewy did it. Is that right?”

I didn’t dare move. Dewy sat on the couch, watching, his face pale and mottled.

“All right, then. If you’re not willing to talk.” He did not grab me as he had Dewy, but instead led me to the couch and let me position myself on the cushions. The sharp crack of his hand meeting my skin belied the fact that the spanking did not hurt—he was not trying.

_____

The next day, Dewy began making threats. “The next time the Weenie stays the night, I’m ripping up my homework,” he told our mother.

“Don’t be dramatic,” she said. “It’s summer.” We were in the car, on the way to a restaurant where the Weenie had reservations. Dewy had gel in his hair and she’d made us wear stiff button-down shirts with horses on the breast pockets—presents from the Weenie.

“Then I’ll take his wallet again. And this time I’ll burn it. Or send his credit card number to thieves.”

“Why can’t you just let me be happy for once?” she asked.

“Don’t we make you happy?”

“You make me happy in a different way. And I deserve to be completely happy. Don’t you think I deserve that?”

“Your logic is skewed,” Dewy explained, putting on his scholarly voice. “As a mother, you’re obligated to pursue a happiness that makes your children happy, too. But you want the Weenie around for yourself. For the company and the fun and—let’s not kid ourselves—his money. You want his money, and that’s selfish. And mothers should never be selfish. It’s not in their nature.”

“Dewy,” she said, her knuckles white on the steering wheel. “Have you ever thought that if you talked like a normal boy for once you might have a few more friends besides your brother?” She turned to look at him. “Nobody likes a smart-ass.”

Dewy turned to the road and stared.

At the restaurant, he refused to speak. When the waiter came around, he simply pointed to the menu.

“We had a little tiff in the car,” our mother explained to the Weenie.

The Weenie chuckled. “I once gave my parents the silent treatment for a whole week. It’ll pass. Isn’t that right Dewy? Eventually you’ll need something and you’ll have to speak?”

Dewy did not seem to register this question, or any other stimuli. I knew his new minimum of silence was a week. If Dewy knew one thing, it was discipline. He’d once eaten nothing but foods with blue dye for a whole month, to see if this diet would change the color of his stools. He’d marked his data in a spiral notebook, which he kept on top of the toilet. In the end, he’d developed stomach cramps and his tongue grew a white film that he had to scrape off into the sink each night. Our mother nearly died of worry—she took to dissolving vitamins in his blueberry Kool-Aid, so he wouldn’t get scurvy.

The Weenie became Dewy’s greatest antagonist. “Hey, Dewy,” he’d say, giving Dewy a soft punch on the shoulder. “How about a sing-along? She’ll be coming around the mountain when she comes. . . .”

Our mother would laugh at this, a reaction that only solidified Dewy’s determination.

In the meantime, I was the one who suffered most. Mom and the Weenie had each other, and Dewy had his own imagination, but I had nobody and nothing. Because of Dewy, I’d made little effort with the boys in my own grade. As a result, they thought I was a jerk. Maybe they assumed I thought I was better than them, but they would have been wrong. It was Dewy who was better than them. What kid my age could build a rocket out of pop cans, or properly dissect a dead pigeon so as to remove the tiny heart unscathed? While they were playing basketball and dreaming of sports cars, Dewy was intercepting police radio waves and fine-tuning his hotwiring skills. We had a dream to steal Mom’s station wagon and drive until we reached an ocean. We’d never been outside of Kansas and liked to muse about what awaited us past the state line: mountains and deserts and cities with skyscrapers. Dewy had a plan to work for the FBI in Washington, DC, while I made big money fishing salmon in Alaska. Now, even a tiny adventure seemed unlikely. Dewy would barely look at me.

_____

He broke his silence only once, a few days into his protest. Mom had given us half of a watermelon to share, and so we sat together on the back porch, hauling out the pink meat with an ice cream scoop. She and the Weenie had gone inside, to take showers.

“Why didn’t you go silent with me?” Dewy asked.

I put down the scoop and stared at him. “You’re talking.”

“I want to know why you didn’t go silent with me. I thought we were in this together—like with the wallet. Didn’t you hear what Mom said? About us not having friends?”

“She said you didn’t have any friends.”

“She meant the both of us,” he said. “It’s always the both of us.”

I looked at him, at his chapped lips and the dark pimples that had begun to appear on his jaw line. I wondered, for the first time, if he might not grow up to be good-looking. “Maybe I don’t want to,” I said. “Maybe I don’t want everyone to hate me.” I waited for a speech—something eloquent and mean and convincing—but there was only the sound of a distant lawn mower.

“Give me this,” he finally said, and wrenched the ice cream scoop from my hand. He ate the rest of the melon on his own.

_____

Everyone was nervous for Dewy’s birthday, which fell on a Sunday. This meant Mom and the Weenie were already out of the house when Dewy and I woke up. The Weenie had somehow convinced our mother to go to church with him, a ritual Dewy and I considered blasphemous. Dewy had long ago converted me to atheism, and so it was painful to think of our mother dressed in some ridiculous outfit, kneeling and singing among lunatics. And yet, we’d come to enjoy having the house to ourselves on Sunday mornings. We’d eat whatever we could find for breakfast—cookies, whipped cream, string cheese—and then position ourselves in front of the new television like monks before an altar. Occasionally we’d go through Mom’s room, searching for things to steal or destroy. Otherwise, we took it easy, pretending we’d landed in some alternate universe where children were masters over the adults.

I figured Dewy would be especially excited because of his birthday, that maybe he would talk to me again. I found him sitting at the kitchen table, reading the newspaper.

“Happy birthday,” I told him.

For a moment, he forgot himself and smiled. I realized, suddenly, how much I missed him: missed talking to him, listening to him, learning from him. I wondered, for the first time, if the distance between us might remain even if he did start talking again.

Before I could say anything else, Mom and the Weenie came through the door. The Weenie was holding a large white cake, which he brought to the table and set before Dewy.

“Happy birthday, sweetie,” Mom said, and kissed him on the crown of his head.

Dewy stared at the cake, as if he expected it to speak for him. Mom went ahead and lit the candles, and on her command, we started to sing. Dewy’s face puckered and paled. At the end of the song, we all held our breath, waiting to see if he would blow out the candles. He inhaled, as if preparing to make a wish, and then, without fanfare, hocked a gigantic loogie onto the center of the cake. Suspended in the mucus was something green, maybe a fleck of lettuce. More than ever before, I was in awe of him. My brother.

“You little shit,” the Weenie said, and slapped the kitchen table so that the cake rattled and the loogie shook back and forth on the frosting. “You’re going to eat this cake. You hear me?”

None of this fazed Dewy, who did not move.

The Weenie then grabbed Dewy’s hand—the dirty bandage still on the thumb—and plunged his fingers into the cake, whose candles were still flickering. He then brought the cakey hand to Dewy’s mouth. All the while, Mom politely requested that he stop. “Stop it, Walter,” she kept saying, as if he were simply tickling the back of her neck. The Weenie continued, bringing Dewy’s hand from the cake to his mouth. Cake to mouth. Cake to mouth. “Eat it,” he said. “God damn it, you’ll eat this cake.” Dewy’s eyes soon disappeared behind a mask of white frosting. A whimper escaped his mouth.

I was not yet a large boy, but the force of my fists on the Weenie’s belly was enough to break his spell. He let go of Dewy and took me by the wrists, his thumbs digging into my skin. “Who do you think you are?” he asked, his face inches from my own. Frosting dotted his chin. “You two worthless shits don’t deserve the half of your mother. Do you know that? The poor angel. Stuck here with you little creeps. And what do you do? Tell me. What do you do to deserve this roof over your head?”

He expected an answer, but he was hurting my wrists and all I could do was look at my mother, to gauge her reaction to see who she loved more: me or the Weenie. But she was not looking at either of us; she was busy cleaning the cake from Dewy’s face with a paper napkin. “It’s all right,” she whispered to him. “It’ll be all right.” Ever so slightly, Dewy nodded. Snot was running down his nose, carving through the frosting above his lip.

I turned back to the Weenie. “I’m sorry, sir,” I told him. I had never called him Sir before, but I couldn’t help it. I wanted, more than anything, to be somebody’s favorite.

And then, Dewy’s voice. “Don’t apologize,” he said. “Not to him.”

The Weenie let go of my wrists. “And there it is. There’s the big man with the big voice. How about you use that big boy voice to say thank you? Can you say it? Say, Thank you for the birthday cake, Mom.”

Dewy glared at him through his mask of frosting. “I’ll say thank you once you stop fucking my mother.”

Everyone went silent. Mom stood above Dewy, the napkin still in hand. I could hear the Weenie breathing—the quiet tick of his wristwatch. And then he was gathering his things: keys, Thermos, the leather briefcase he was never without. He went to stand near my mother, whose chest was moving up and down, up and down. She closed her eyes and we all prepared for him to kiss her goodbye. Instead, he lifted his arms and, without even touching her skin, unclasped the pearl necklace, which he slipped easily into his breast pocket.

He cleared his throat and leaned toward Dewy. “Buddy, I wouldn’t fuck the Queen of England if it meant I had to put up with you for even one more day.”

And then he left.

_____

Our mother took to her bedroom and stayed there through the night—there was no further mention of Dewy’s birthday. When she came out in the morning, she floated down the hallway and into the kitchen, her eyes swollen and pink. She did not say anything but simply placed food onto the table and then removed our plates when we were finished. She took out the trash and brought in the mail and otherwise performed all of her motherly duties, but she did not look us in the eyes and she did not speak to us. She was like a robot version of herself—Dewy dubbed her AutoMom.

I wanted to do something—hug her or tell her she looked pretty—but I worried my efforts would have no effect. It was one thing to know I could make her miserable; it was another to know I could not make her happy. And so I simply watched as she moved through hallway after hallway of the sadness we had built for her, finding not a single door out.

During those days, the Queen of England appeared in my mind often. I was surprised to find her there, an image of white hair and gold jewelry. I began to repeat the Weenie’s words, testing out different inflections: Fuck the Queen of England. Fuck the Queen of England. I could not determine why he’d chosen her, this emblem of royalty. Did he mean her as she was in her present state, nearly fifty years into her reign—old and wrinkled and surely at the end of her power? Or as she was in her youth—a princess on the brink of authority? Did people even consider her beautiful? Among the pool of celebrities and supermodels, she seemed a bizarre choice. I’d learned about other queens in my history classes, and from what I could tell, most were not standards of beauty. They stared out from the textbook with sharp, brooding eyes and pinched little mouths. They had petite, heart-shaped heads that poked up from ridiculous outfits. Each appeared more constipated than the last. So what exactly had the Weenie been saying to us, to our mother? How exactly did he think she compared to the Queen?

Perhaps the question was also tormenting our mother, because an entire week passed before she spoke to us again. We were sitting in the living room. Dewy was reading volume two of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. I was striking and then blowing out matches, trying to get the house to smell like a campfire. Mom was cross-legged on the floor, writing a letter—to whom, we’ll never know. She didn’t often write letters, but it was something she took up on occasion, like baking bread or rearranging the furniture. There’d been times like this before, days when she retreated into the privacy of her mind and we’d have to say Mom four or five times in a row to get a response. But this time was different. This time, she’d gone somewhere deeper, somewhere we couldn’t reach. She put down her pen and ran a finger across the coffin table, where Dewy and I had sketched our names. She looked up at us, as if struck by an idea.

“Have I been a good mother to you?” she asked.

Dewy and I stopped what we were doing. I could tell that Dewy was preparing an analysis of exactly how, according to Western science, history, and philosophy, she had failed us, and so I said, “Yes. You’ve been the best.” I knew it was not completely true—she had, after all, brought the Weenie into our lives, and for this, Dewy would never forgive her, which meant that I too could never forgive her. At least not fully. But who was I to kick her when she was already down? Who was I to be greedy with my love? I’d learned at least this much.

 

Becky Mandelbaum is the winner of the 2016 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction and the 2013 Lawrence Art Center’s Langston Hughes Award for Fiction. Her work has appeared in Salt Hill, Great Jones Street, Hobart, Juked, South Dakota Review, Midwestern Gothic, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and Kansas City Voices. Her winning collection, Bad Kansas, is forthcoming from University of Georgia Press in the fall of 2017.