Not long ago, when his parents were alive and his sister didn’t have to live in a trailer or dress up as an Arab, Oliver painted himself into a corner. This was back when they had all lived out among the rolling hills outside Defiance, Missouri, in a big old farmhouse. All the place needed when they moved in was painting. It had everything else. If you sat on the huge, wraparound front porch and looked hard enough towards the south, you could see the Missouri River. Behind the house there were trees and behind the trees as if painted there were loping hills of rows upon rows of grape vines. It was Missouri wine country; a place with a history of German settlers who claimed this area reminded them of their homeland.
Oliver’s family had moved into the farmhouse after living in an upscale suburb of St. Louis. They moved because their father caught his mother with a man who lived next door. Their father decided his mother would have a more difficult time finding someone else to sleep with way out in the country.
Oliver’s mother was extraordinarily beautiful. She had raven hair and huge almond eyes and was tiny and petite except for her breasts. Her breasts were 36D’s. Her breasts and her beauty had always made Oliver uncomfortable. His friends would always want to be around his mother, and they would always make jokes about her breasts and her beauty. The same could be said for his sister when she reached puberty. She was almost a perfect replica of her mother and, as Oliver was two years older than her, her breasts and her beauty would also make him uncomfortable around his friends. But that all changed right before he turned seventeen.
It had been a beautiful fall day and the leaves were yellows and reds and purples out back when they decided to paint. The air was crisp and cool. Oliver and his dad drove to Home Depot and bought the paint and brushes. His sister was sitting on the front porch talking on a cellphone to her boyfriend when they got back. One of her boyfriends. His sister was a cheerleader who had her pick of the boys.
Their father had something else to do before he could help Oliver paint, so Oliver started painting the back porch on his own. That’s when he painted himself into a corner. It was a really dumb thing to do but there he was, paintbrush in hand in the corner, with the door on the other side of the porch. Goddamn it. Oliver stood there for a moment. That’s when his dad showed up.
‘Bummer,’ his dad said. Oliver asked him what he should do. His dad laughed.
‘Well,’ his dad said, ‘you can step through the paint.’ He nodded. ‘You can wait till it dries.’ Then his dad laughed again and said, ‘Or you can spontaneously combust!’ His dad left. Oliver walked through the paint. He had no idea how long it took for paint to dry but he wasn’t waiting.
That was almost two years ago. Now Oliver sat in a parking lot staring back into his past when he had a family and they were happy momentarily—and there he was on that porch, embarrassed. Here in the present, he started to have an anxiety attack but it went away. He was thankful. Because it was time to start his life of crime.
Oliver started his life of crime when he stole a hula hoop from Wal-Mart. It was a yellow one with gold stars the size of pennies running round it. Earlier, he had picked up some dish-washing liquid. Tosha was with him. ‘Wait a minute!’ Tosha was eight years old with big blue eyes and long blonde hair. She was so skinny you could see her bones at the joints.
‘I can do this,’ she said. She grabbed the hula hoop and with a serious expression, her tongue firmly planted in one side of her cheek, Tosha hiked the plastic circle up to her waist and began swiveling the hoop for a good three minutes. Her body swiveled ever so perfectly that Oliver was amazed at first before getting upset. He had to tell Tosha he didn’t have enough money to buy the hula hoop. It was only five dollars but he only had like thirty-five cents left. She said, “Hmm. Okay,’ and put the hula hoop back in place.
And he had a mound of dishes piled up in the trailer. He could see his veiled sister pacing around ringing her hands. She hated dirty dishes. She hated everything now. She needed an operation. Oliver had saved exactly 842 dollars towards that operation. He only had eleven thousand more to go. Fuck a duck. And all he could steal was a hula hoop. Fuck another duck.
Oliver had tried to start his life of crime by robbing a Convenience Mart the night before at midnight but that didn’t work out. He was over at Tosha’s trailer and Tosha was asleep and her mother and boyfriend were in the back bedroom making and shooting methamphetamine and there was a gun underneath the footstool. He took it. It was a handgun of some kind. It was a smaller type of gun with a pearl handle. It held six bullets. It was loaded. Oliver tucked the gun in the front of his jeans and left.
He knew what Convenience Mart he wanted to rob. It was out in Wentzville on Highway 40 and late at night, no one was ever there. There was a girl about his age there last night. She was reading a magazine, drinking a can of Mountain Dew, and smoking a menthol cigarette. She looked at Oliver but essentially just looked right through him until she saw him pointing a gun at her. She gasped and then held the magazine up and shouted:
‘Put that gun away, you dumbass!’
Oliver retracted just slightly. Her eyes were wide-open—but not with fear. She looked downright perturbed. She went on to tell him about how just two days ago they installed these cameras and if he raised that gun just four more inches he would be caught red-handed. She called him a dumbass again. Oliver looked around. He eased the gun back into his jeans. The girl put the magazine down. She pointed at his arm. She liked the little blue sword tattoo just above his left wrist. She said it was cool. Then she got up, turned completely around and bent over, pulling up her brown company-issue polyester button-up shirt. Oliver leaned over the counter so that he could see what she wanted to show him. In the small of her back, right above the silky blue of a slightly exposed thong, was this beautiful bold black oriental writing. She just had this done two days ago and it hadn’t completely healed yet.
‘What’s it mean?’
She turned around, shrugged. She took a long puff off a cigarette. ‘I don’t know.’ She leaned over the counter and smiled a wonderful smile and her uniform shirt was open just enough for Oliver to see a blue bra in there. It matched the blue thong he had gotten a peak at.
‘I had the guy put whatever he wanted there. I told him to write it down, the meaning, in English, and I’m not going to read it until right before I die.’
Oliver thought about this as he stared at a tray of Alka-Seltzer packets.
‘What if you die unexpectedly?’
The girl shrugged. ‘What if?’ She said, and then smiled. He loved the way her eyes sparkled. There was nothing special about her eyes but they sparkled nicely when she smiled. She had mischief written all over her. She smelled good too.
They talked some more and then Oliver came back at 2:00 A.M. when she got off work and they took a six-pack she paid for out to a park bench beside her subdivision lake. Her name was Nikki. It was a beautiful night. Out this far from St. Louis the stars could all be seen in the black sky. No smog to block anything. The moon was a beautiful bone-colored comma. The subdivision lake had a big water spout in the middle of it but the water was brown. It needed chemicals. Nikki sat close enough to Oliver that he could have kissed her if he wasn’t so shy. She took a sip of beer.
‘Why would you want to rob that place? I only had seventy bucks in the cash register.’
Oliver sighed. ‘It’s a long story.’
Nikki momentarily forgot this boy’s name and then suddenly remembered it again.
‘Oliver Twist,’ she said.
Oliver abruptly stood up. Very slightly his hips began to move. He put both fists out in front of his chest, began to, well, began to twist. A very small twist. Nikki let out a cackle.
Oliver sat back down. He was smiling. He had done this ever since he was in third grade—the same grade as Tosha. For some reason his first name triggered this response in people and they would say reflexively: ‘Oliver Twist.’ He had tried to be funny back in third grade. Now he did it every time someone said it. Funny or not.
Nikki asked him where he lived. Oliver froze. He couldn’t tell her where he lived. He now lived in a trailer park not two miles from here. It was the most rundown trailer park he knew of. The trailers were ancient and rusty and the concrete driveways all cracked and broken. More than a few windows were covered with aluminum foil so no one could see in them. On any given night the smell of anhydrous ammonia might be in the air, as several people in the trailer park made methamphetamine. Police sirens could be heard almost every night.
Oliver and his sister Sarah now lived in a 1973 12 x 60 Holly Park that still had its original blue shag carpeting, now reduced to a threadbare brown nappy-like material that stuck to your feet.
Their idyllic life had ended when their father caught their mother in bed with another man in their big old farmhouse. Their father put two deer slugs in his wife and two deer slugs in the man running out of the room. The fifth deer slug in his Remington pump-action twelve-gauge shotgun caught his beautiful fifteen year old daughter, who had mistakenly come home at the same time that afternoon. That deer slug completely blew off her chin and part of her neck. Perhaps he thought he had killed her. His sister said their father was half screaming, half-yelling as he stared at her there in the hallway. Then her father swiveled the gun around and fired the final deer slug up through his chin. The man her father caught with their mother got about three steps out of the house before he too fell dead. Oliver was smoking pot out on the Missouri River that day.
He had to quit his final semester of high school to work a job. And another job. He worked three jobs to pay the 300 hundred dollars they needed to rent the trailer plus he had to pay all the utilities and food and his sister’s medical bills. Because of massive debts, their parents had left them nothing.
Oliver also promised his sister he would save as fast as he could enough money to get her reconstructive surgery so she could have a chin again and feel good about herself, and not dress up like an Arab to hide her missing chin. But she still looked beautiful with the veil.
But he could tell this girl, Nikki, none of this. He was too embarrassed. Oliver instead told her he lived out in that big farmhouse. She obviously didn’t read the papers or was new to the area. Whatever. He said he loved it out there. All you had to do was go right down Highway DD to get there. He told Nikki what his life used to be. He told her that his dad worked at the Chrysler Plant and his mother was a secretary at a landscaping business. Oliver didn’t tell Nikki about his real sister. He told her about Tosha. Tosha became his sister now and Oliver read her books and took her to the zoo and before he could say anymore there were lips on his lips and the smell of cigarettes and Certs accompanied her tongue inside his mouth. Her hand found its way up into his shirt. They made out on the park bench for awhile and then she said she had to go home.
‘Come see me tomorrow,’ she said. She laughed. ‘I’ll try to have more money in the cash register!’
That was last night.
Now he sat staring at the steering wheel of his Dodge Shadow in the parking lot of Wal-Mart, about to have an anxiety attack. He started having anxiety attacks shortly after the double funeral. He thought he was dying sometimes, even though a doctor said it was all in his head. He couldn’t get his breath and his heart would pound rapidly to get out of his chest. His fingers and toes would go numb.
But it had been easy really to steal the hula hoop. Oliver went to the back of the store and waited for the cashier in the home and garden section to assist someone and then he waited for the lady watching the back exit through the metal gates to sniff chrysanthemums and then he walked out with the hula hoop. Oliver did something odd out on the concrete next to the lawnmowers. He tried to do the hula. It fell right down to his ankles. An old man stopped looking at a riding lawnmower and stared at him.
Oliver had to start stealing though. There was no way he would ever get eleven thousand dollars any other way. He delivered pizzas and worked at White Castle and collected aluminum cans out of the garbage. Eleven thousand dollars for Sarah’s new chin seemed very far away. So the anxiety attacks.
He had told Tosha to sit in the car with the doors locked while he went back for the hula hoop. She sat in the backseat and read a Tokyo Mew Mew Japanese anime comic book. Tosha loved Japanese anime comic books. Oliver had bought her the whole Card Captor series and now she was working on this new series. This one was about an eleven year old girl who shared her DNA with a tiger. Tosha stopped reading.
‘Are you having an antsy attack?’ Tosha had trouble with the right word. She couldn’t pronounce it but she knew what to do. She put the book down and climbed over the seat and straddled Oliver, who was now pretty hyper-ventilated and seeing stars and making a funny wheezing noise. Tosha bounced up and down on his lap three times and then pressed her forehead hard against his chest and said,
‘Blue-ga, blue-ga, blue-ga.’
Tosha kept saying blue-ga, blue-ga, blue-ga until finally she could no longer feel his heart pulsating against her forehead.
‘There.’ Tosha climbed off of Oliver and within seconds was back reading her comic book. It worked every time. Oliver started the car.
Tosha first did this several months ago when her bottom and legs were red and swollen from her mother beating her, and Oliver had felt horrible about this so he said he would take her anywhere she wanted to go. It was a cool, spring morning. Her mother was out stealing cold tablets to make meth with and his sister was napping.
‘The Arch,’ Tosha said, sniffing. Her legs stung badly.
They drove to the Arch and she was so excited to see it for the first time and very much wanted to go up in it but Oliver said he was afraid of heights. He watched Tosha’s chin drop. He said he would go up in it anyway. That’s when he had to sit down next to a large, stuffed Buffalo on display in the Arch museum. He was having an antsy attack.
Tosha didn’t know what to do at first. Then she hiked up her knee-length dress and straddled Oliver and was very determined to help him get rid of his antsy attack. He was immobilized and couldn’t say anything. Tosha bounced three times in Oliver’s lap and then slammed her forehead firmly against his chest and said her improvised litany.
‘Blue-ga, blue-ga, blue-ga.’
It worked. Oliver went up in the Arch with her. It worked every time since.
Tosha stopped reading her comic book about halfway home. She just remembered that she forgot to do something.
‘Thank you, Ollie,’ she said. She touched her hula hoop, and then went back to reading.
Oliver’s sister was a wreck. A new neighbor who drank large cans of beer and had a motorcycle cussed at her when he saw her taking out the garbage this morning. Her youth and her beautiful eyes did nothing for her as he spat at her and said he was proud to be a fucking American. She dipped her head and hurried inside, and those dirty dishes made her sick. Dirty dishes brought bugs. Sarah hated bugs. There were no bugs when she had a family. Sarah sat on the edge of the raggedy, smelly couch and wrung her hands. Oliver ran out of gas. He was always on the verge of running out of gas. It was almost time for All My Children. Thank God.
Oliver came home. He had dishwashing liquid and he immediately started the water in the sink running. It would take forever to get hot, as their hot-water heater was limed up and the heating element was nearly shot. Sarah said she would do the dishes. She spoke mainly through her nose. Her tongue had gotten partially removed and with her lower jaw missing she didn’t talk all that well. That’s why she wouldn’t go back to school.
‘Tosha asked if you wanted to play Pokemon.’
Sarah didn’t want to play that. She didn’t like cards of any kind. Oliver looked out the kitchen window. He didn’t want to play cards either. But he wanted to put the gun back. Tosha’s mother was a sad, emaciated drug addict and her boyfriend was a scary dude who might miss the gun. He didn’t think they were back from looking for iodine. They knew a woman with a thyroid problem and she had pure iodine. Iodine made the best meth they knew of. Oliver left.
Tosha’s family lived in a newer trailer that was bigger than Oliver’s and even had a side extension. In the days before Tosha’s dad left them they kept this trailer up pretty nice. Tosha’s mother put plants and flowers in the front hitch. Now the place was running-down fast. The back bedroom was a meth lab. The farther down Tosha’s mother went the less she cared about anything. They were doing liquid adrenaline, her boyfriend told Oliver one time. He was proud to make and take methamphetamine. He had a Harley and came from a long line of bikers who knew how to make meth. They made it quickly now. They used the Nazi method. They had propane tanks rigged to hold anhydrous ammonia that they stole from farmers in Illinois and by God if Oliver lit a cigarette back in their meth lab or struck a match this whole goddamn trailer would blow up. The guy said he would show Oliver how to make it if he wanted to make a good living and have the best high he could ever have. This just left Oliver upset. None of this was good for Tosha.
And then there was Tosha’s sister, Janine. She was fourteen and rarely seen but she scared Oliver. She was built like a refrigerator and dressed like something between a Goth chick and an opera singer. She wore black spider hose and black bras draped in see-through white silk. She died her hair blood red and always wore thick lipstick the color of dog poop. She had more piercings and tattoos than anyone that age Oliver knew. Her lips had six tiny rings on the bottom and three larger rings through her upper lip. She had two tongue rings and a bolt through her chin. Each ear had at least eight pieces of something in it. Her eyebrows had several rings and metal studs in them. She looked like she had been shot out a circus cannon and right through a True Value store. With her bedroom door shut all she listened to was Marilyn Manson and Rancid. She was home today and in her bedroom. She did ecstasy with increasing regularity. She was supposed to be in school today. Janine hadn’t been in school all week. Neither had Tosha for that matter.
Oliver didn’t like being here when Tosha’s sister was home. She once said he was cute. It was right after she had had her tongue pierced again and she sounded like his sister. It gave him the creeps.
Tosha skipped through the living room and went looking for her Pokemon cards. Oliver sat down gingerly. The odd smells in this place left him uncomfortable. And it was dark. The drapes were pulled tight. No light got in. A pale lamp lit the room. Kim Possible was on the Disney Channel. Tosha absently sang along to the theme song as she went into another room. She stopped and suddenly realized she had left her hula hoop out on the patio. That was okay for now. She went on her way.
Oliver tried to calm down. He was about to lose his best job-pizza delivery. His car was acting up. It made a noise when it started. Oliver just wanted the noise to go away. There was no money to fix it. He took a deep breath. He kept thinking about the girl, Nikki, he met last night. He tried to think of ways he could see her without telling her where he lived or how awful his life had become. Things would get better. He stared at the ashtrays on the foot stool in front of him. There was a gold one-hitter lying in the pile of bent cigarette butts in one of the ashtrays.
Nikki was pretty and Oliver felt very comfortable around her. It felt good to make out with her. The only other people he had held were his sister when she cried in her sleep and occasionally he held Tosha when she was sad. Oliver missed his mother sometimes. She sort of caused all this but then his father caused the most damage. Oliver closed his eyes. He would never be able to see Nikki again.
His eyes shot open. Oliver still had a key to the place. He kept that. He could wait until whoever lived there now went on vacation and then he could he bring her there. Just a half hour on the front porch. He started to lose his breath. His hand started shaking. This was one of those really bad ones coming on. Heat rose from the base of his spine all the way up his back and into his quickly hardening lungs. Oliver struggled for the little bottle of tiny white pills that dilated his lungs and allowed him to breathe better sometimes. This was his last bottle as he could no longer afford them. Oliver used them only when he got really bad. Like now.
Tosha bounced into the room, Pokemon cards in hand. She had a big smile on her face. It went away. Her shoulders slumped. Oliver was having another antsy attack. She found a spot on the couch to put her cards. She crawled on top of his lap.
It was really a bad one this time. He saw black and stars in his eyes. Oliver should have gotten up before it got this bad. The bottle of pills was in his lap. He felt Tosha bounce once in his lap and then the aluminum door of the trailer rang out as it slammed open. Her mother and her boyfriend were home.
They were angry and animated and yelling and then a moment of silence. The boyfriend grabbed Tosha by her hair with both hands and like he was swinging a baseball bat he swung her and released. Her little body slammed into the fake wood paneling of the living room wall and crumpled there. One side of her face got bloody. She didn’t cry or scream. She whimpered.
He called the little girl all kinds of names in such a loud voice. He said she was gonna be just like her mother. Her useless mother. Who said they could get iodine from some old lady. Right.
‘I got work to do!’ He headed towards the back bedroom. The music got louder in the bedroom where Tosha’s sister was. Oliver could see nothing quite yet. Just shadows.
Tosha’s mother was beside herself. She was so angry. That old lady took lots of iodine and goddamn there should have been some around. She stomped around in circles. She was high. All of a sudden, it seemed like she saw Oliver sitting there. She leaped upon the small plastic bottle between his legs. Shaking she yelled and grabbed at Oliver and said if he didn’t get her more of these she was calling the fucking child molester police and she was going to anyway. Goddamn there should have fucking been iodine there!
Oliver could focus now. Between his legs was a ghost of a person. She was trying to open the bottle. It had a child proof cap. Her hair was matted and looked like it hadn’t been washed in awhile. Her skin was blotchy and broken all up and down her neck and cheeks. This was what happened to meth addicts.
At one time Oliver thought she was a very beautiful woman. Now she wasn’t. He looked over to where Tosha lay moaning. He saw blood on her cheek. He would have swung at Tosha’s mother if she hadn’t got up and stormed out of the room. He would have swung at her if his arms hadn’t been too numb and burning. Instead he tried to breathe. He tried not to cry. He tried.
Tosha wiped her cheek, sniffed, and sat up. She crawled over and straightened up her Pokemon cards that had sprawled messily all around. Then she spotted Oliver.
Tosha pulled herself up and made her way over to him. She crawled into his lap. She eased her forehead hard upon his chest. He could barely hear her but Tosha said her litany anyway. It worked.
Oliver told her to wait outside for him.
‘Okay,’ she said. She climbed off his lap. ‘My hula hoop,’ she said. She went outside.
It was the most beautiful hula hoop she had ever seen. The gold stars really sparkled. She felt her cheek where the blood was. It stung and was wet. She wiped it on her dress.
If the muffled music coming out of the trailer windows wasn’t so loud Tosha might have been startled by the screaming and yelling and then the pop of the gun firing several times. Instead she picked up the hula hoop. She did hesitate when she heard the backdoor of the trailer swing open. She thought her sister yelled something but she wasn’t sure. Her sister left the trailer like that a lot.
Tosha put her tongue firmly in her cheek and started doing the hula. She was going to set a record.
Shortly, Oliver came outside. Tosha didn’t stop. She was going like she could go forever. He smiled. He just stood there. He casually glanced down at a charcoal grill on the broken concrete patio. There it was. It was what his father told him about. The third way. It was a charcoal igniter. Oliver picked it up and flicked it. The blue flame shot out about three inches. He flicked it again.
Finally Oliver told his first lie to Tosha. ‘I’ll be right back,’ he said. He headed back inside the trailer.
‘I’ll wait for you!’ Tosha yelled out, still keeping the hula moving.
Oliver froze. Wow. Yes. She would wait for him. He still wasn’t an adult.
Tosha’s life flashed before him.
Smiling, Oliver sat down in a rickety lawn chair and crossed his legs. He tossed the igniter into the grass and looked up and could see nothing but blue sky. There was suddenly not one ounce of anxiety in Oliver’s breast as he sat there. Not even when he could hear the sirens. She would wait for him.
Tosha kept swiveling.
© 2005 Jim Harris