Just Us, by Barbara Harroun

It was 1987. My parents were divorcing, so my older brother pierced his ear, and I wore my hair in a bleached Flock of Seagulls swoop, my shorts too short and tight. We secretly celebrated that it meant we’d spend the whole summer in South Boston with my grandparents. In our absence, our parents would come together only to fight in a way that no longer frightened me.

Because it was cheaper, and because my mother had a thing about planes, we took an Amtrak. My mother recited instructions for transferring trains. She waved solemnly as we pulled away. Dad had left for work before it was light out. “It’s just us now,” my brother said.

My grandparents met us on arrival. My grandfather stood Navy straight, his white hair cropped close enough to show the age spots on his skull. He dressed sharply—literally: creases dividing his pants, and denoting the equator of his shirtsleeves. He stood at attention, panning the crowd. When he saw us he waved, and once we were upon them, he shook our hands vigorously. My grandmother was still glamorous and pinned the sides of her hair like some forties movie star, but the white roots of her bright red hair were apparent. Her lipstick was smeared, finding the small fissures age had wrought. She cupped my scrawny face in her palms. “My darling Kat, you look like a fourth grade boy.” I loved her more than any person, ever. “And you, Patrick,” she said, smiling at my brother widely, “are a proper thug. Come and hug me, toughie.” They took us to Kelly’s and we ate our lobster rolls on Revere Beach. I tossed most of my meal to the seagulls, who squawked violently before swooping down. That summer, I had a hard time eating, and I harbored a secret fear of choking. My grandfather would make me eat over-easy eggs on toasted Scali bread, raspberries from his backyard drenched in heavy cream. When I gagged, he’d rub my back, and tell me to soldier on. He attributed this difficulty to my parents’ failure.

Around the corner from my grandparents on G Street were the Fitzgeralds on 4th Street. There were eight kids, all in quick succession, some not even a full year apart. Mrs. Fitzgerald was a white-haired woman with satiny blue eyes. Her hair had gone white when she was sixteen, but her husband, Paul, an obese salesman, was always slapping her ass and pulling her down to kiss him. My brother and I tried not to watch them, but such blatant affection was foreign to us and a little appalling. They embraced us whenever we arrived, pulling us by the hand, into their noisy, chaotic home.

One night, hanging out on the stoop, my brother hawked a loogie. It landed loudly on the hot cement just as a skinny redhead passed. “What the fuck,” the boy yelled to my brother. He stepped to Patrick. My brother stood, hands up in surrender.

“I’m sorry, man. I honestly didn’t see you, ” Pat said.

The kid hauled off and punched my brother in the face, his fist landing, and then bouncing off Pat’s cheekbone. My brother’s head slammed back. Pat punched him, a strike of seamless brutality. Spit, blood and a tooth blasted out of the kid’s mouth. He went flat back on his ass. My brother reached down for the tooth and offered it to the boy with a cupped hand. “I’m sorry,” Patrick said. As his sister, I could tell he meant it.

Later that same night, my grandparents took us to Castle Island for ice cream. We walked to the Sugar Bowl. I held my grandmother’s hand. I had no way of knowing she’d be dead in nine months, or that my parents would reconcile over the summer. Their divorce was a decade in the making, and Pat and I would be out of college when it was finalized.

Pat asked if we could walk back, just us, and they agreed. We didn’t talk, silence a room we were accustomed to sharing. At L Street, we took our shoes off and walked along the beach fence until we came to a hole big enough to climb through. From a long way off we saw the bare backs of men, all in a circle, huddling as if around a fight. Pat started jogging, and I chased after. Closer, we saw the circle was comprised of the tanned, leathery backs of aged men. They all took off their shorts, and then turned en masse, naked as I felt that summer, toward the water. Patrick looked at me, entirely shocked, and something came loose in him like that boy’s tooth. He had expected violence, but was forced to confront something worse. How old and vulnerable they looked. One man assisted the frailest over the sand, and shored him up as their legs were swallowed by dark water. I ignored Pat’s tears, and I slowed my gait so he could compose himself. I felt a deep and profound urge to protect him. I felt, just as strongly, that we had been abandoned by our parents.

At the same time, we’d learn the next day, Mrs. Fitzgerald’s doorbell was rung, and she was opening her door to a gang of teenagers who were threatening the life of a son she didn’t have. She was reaching for a baseball bat she kept by the door. She was telling the kids to get off her front stoop before she cracked their melons. Then she pushed the screen door open and commenced to swinging. She gave chase past Gate of Heaven Church, swearing. “If Mum loves you,” the oldest Fitzgerald boy said proudly, “she’ll fight the very devil to keep you safe.” Pat looked away from me, down the same street Mrs. Fitzgerald had sprinted, made fierce by motherly love, and it occurred to me that perhaps our parents sought only to protect us.

Barbara Harroun is a runner, a teacher, a mother, and a writer obsessed with baking bread. Her most recent work is forthcoming or published in i70 Review, Sugared Water, Per Contra, The Riveter Review, Pea River Journal, Hermeneutic Chaos Literary Journal, Mud Season Review, bioStory, The Lake, Emerge Literary Journal, Sediments Literary-Arts Journal, San Gabriel Valley Poetry Quarterly, Lunch Ticket, The Rusty Toque, Black Sun Lit, and the Kudzu Quarterly Review. Her favorite creative endeavors are her awesome kids, Annaleigh and Jack.

<– And Maybe A Fire Later, by Jeremy Minton

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