By Kelly Ruth Winter
His mom pays my mom to watch him after school. I watch him from the kitchen as he sits Indian-style on the brown shag carpet in front of our T.V.
Later, in the entryway of our house, Tommy and I tap our feet on the linoleum, imitating the patterns of speech.
Tap, ta—p, tap, says the dirty sole of his white tennis shoe.
“I love you?” I guess.
The next day, I draw a picture of us getting married, crisscrossing the pencil over my face for the veil. I include a baby. My mom says I shouldn’t have my baby at my wedding. Her eyebrows say I shouldn’t marry Tommy.
A year later, I sit in the middle of the school bus while Tommy sits in back with the older kids. I lean into the aisle, pretend to look out the back window, but really look at him.
He’s a bad boy now. I can tell from his ripped jeans and the number of times the bus driver makes him sit up front. His eyes meet mine, and he hands me a half-dollar-sized piece of leather covered in turquoise beads.
“Want it?” he asks.
“Sure. Thanks.” I face the front and bite my smile. At home, I tuck the trinket in my pink plastic jewelry box, next to the beaded Indian figurine from my family’s South Dakota vacation.
The summer after second grade, my family moves seven miles, from one tiny Iowa town to another, so I don’t have to ride the bus anymore. My dad gives Tommy’s dad our old record player – a big wooden box with a heavy hinged lid.
I miss listening to the Oakridge Boys and hopping until the record skips and I am told to settle down.
My dad and Tommy’s dad used to ride motorcycles out to Wyoming and Washington, sleeping in a tent a long the way. I imagine our fathers each rolling a t-shirt to fit in the pouches on the backrests of their bikes.
If our fathers rolled their t-shirts, kept them in the leather pouches of motorcycles, if they listen to the same music on the very same record player, what made me good and Tommy bad?
When Tommy is in sixth grade and I am in third, he lights his house on fire and tries to kill himself with a pair of scissors.
During art class, I stare at a blue vein that snakes from my palm, then run the edge my scissors over it. A faint white line appears, then vanishes.
My mom says Tommy’s in a mental institution.
Tommy’s freckled mug smiles from his first-grade picture as my dad and I page through my photo book.
“You should probably rip that up and throw it away,” he tells me. I am ten, struggling through multiplication tables, but taking straight A’s in everything else. My dad wants me to stay away from the bad kids.
I tear up the picture, but feel guilty as I stare at the pieces of Tommy’s face in my pink garbage can.
Later, I am relieved to find his second-grade picture farther back in the book.
When I’m in high school and Tommy has long since dropped out, he comes in the town hardware store where I work, dusting shelves and helping customers find pop rivets and three-eighths-sized bolts.
He’s been in and out of boys’ homes and jail, has long, frayed rust-colored hair, and is missing his front right tooth—but I still recognize him.
“Shotgun shells,” he says, voice low.
I bite my lip and try not to look at him as I stride to the case. I want him to recognize me, to tell me that I grew up pretty. But he just follows me, stares at the floor.
Fumbling with the keys, I wonder if I should sell him shotgun shells at all – but there’s no background check for ammunition. When I count back the change, my fingertips graze his palm. He just grabs his shells and saunters out the door.
After I graduate, I go to college with my scholarships and hand-me-down T.V.
Tommy dies alone
at his parents’ house in the country. Suicide, but I’ll never know how.
Sitting alone in my apartment, I find his obituary online, only five
Kelly Ruth Winter recently graduated from the University of Iowa with a bachelor's degree in English and Journalism and Mass Communication. She was the 2006 recipient of the University of Iowa's Anderson Prize for Undergraduate Expository Writing for her honors thesis, a memoir titled "Small Worlds." She recently published an essay in upstreet and is pursuing an M.A.T. in English education at the University of Iowa
photo by Dinty W. Moore