A Short Story by Mark Willis
“Listen!” my big brother Donald said.
He opened a trap-door and put his ear close. There were little trapdoors in all the bedrooms in Aunt Billie’s house. She said they were for the laundry chute that didn’t work anymore.
“They’re playing strip poker.”
“Ghosts. In the basement.”
“You’re making this up,” I said.
“Listen.” Then he grabbed me and tried to shove my head through the trap-door. I yelled and our big sister Daphne came in and saved me.
“Donald, knock it off.” She tried to sound like my dad but couldn’t do it.
“Just kidding. He can’t take a joke.”
“Maybe we should go do something,” Daphne said. “Let Aunt Billie watch her TV in peace.”
“Play poker?” Donald looked at me with a weird grin.
“Let’s go for a walk. See the Harding Memorial,” Daphne said.
“What’s that?” I didn’t know. I was six years old, and we were just staying in Marion for a week while my mom and dad did something else.
“Warren G. Harding was the 29th President of the United States,” Donald said. “The richest man in Marion. The richest man in Ohio. Harding Memorial is his castle.”
“Once upon a time,” Daphne whispered, “Warren G. Harding was Aunt Billie’s boyfriend.”
Aunt Billie was my grandmother’s oldest sister. She was the oldest person I knew. And she had the reddest hair. Her real name was Nora. She had another sister named Lora who changed her name to Aunt Mike just to keep things straight.
Warren G. Harding was news to me. I looked at Daphne like I knew what was really going on. “Is Harold going to be there?”
“Don’t know,” she said. “You never know who’s going to show up at the Harding Memorial.”
Harold was her beatnik boyfriend. They went on their first date in Aunt Billie’s backyard. I think that’s why she came to Marion with us instead of staying at college in New York.
Harold was cool. He wanted to play drums for Maynard Ferguson. He could squeeze his whole drum set in the back of a Volkswagen, and he taught me how to snap my fingers and say stuff like “bebop” and “Brubeck.”
I was thinking about him when we turned down a shady street next to the gas station. “How much money did you get for Harold, anyway?”
“You know, from Aunt Billie. She always asks me if I have a girlfriend. Then she gets this look in her eye like she just robbed a bank, and she sneaks a dollar bill in my hand.”
“She never asked me that,” my brother said.
“Donald, the only way you’re going to get a girlfriend is mail order from Mad magazine!” My sister looked at me and added, “For Harold, I got a five-spot.”
“A five dollar bill.” Daphne thought for a minute. “The Five-Spot is a night club in New York. Did you ever wonder why Aunt Billie changed her name?”
“She wanted to be wild like Billy the Kid?”
“Maybe wild like Billie Holiday. She sang at the Five-Spot.”
Donald had heard this story before. “Mom says Aunt Billie was first. She changed her name ten years before anyone in Marion ever heard about jazz.”
“Well, something changed the day Lady died.” Daphne said this like she was reciting a poem. “Aunt Billie bought that ’49 Buick and learned how to derive it. Then she started the Powder Puffe Beauty Parlor so she didn’t have to pay to get her hair dyed anymore.”
I knew that part was true. Aunt Billie’s hair was redder than candy apple spray paint. Redder than the pitchforks made of fire in all those “Li’l Devil” car decals.
The Powder Puffe was in a dingy old building downtown. The hair dryers looked like space helmets and that stuff for perms smelled weird like the air on other planets. When I got bored with the space helmets I went fishing for old whiskey bottles on the back stairs. I liked to pretend they were big fat walleyes.
We must have walked a long time and the lightning bugs were starting to come out when we got to the edge of a graveyard.
“I want to go back,” I said.
“Why? You scared?” Donald asked.
“No. You’re not supposed to go in graveyards at night.”
“You won’t wake anyone up,” Daphne said.
“Where’s Warren G. Harding? Is he dead, too?”
“Yep. Him and his wife,” Donald said.
“Or maybe it’s his other girlfriend,” Daphne said. They snickered, but I didn’t get the joke.
“I don’t want to do this.”
“You’re a wuss,” my brother said.
“No I’m not. We’ll get in trouble.”
“No we won’t. We’re just paying our respects to Warren G.”
If I’d known the way back to Aunt Billie’s house all by myself, I would have turned around then and there. It gave me the creeps. Donald and Daphne held my hands and pulled me across that graveyard. Every now and then they’d stop to read the name on a tombstone.
“Eleanor Roosevelt!” my brother said. “Isn’t she a cousin? Hey, Eleanor, how you doing down there?”
“Eleanor Roosevelt isn’t dead yet,” Daphne said.
Then we stopped in front of a big ball carved out of rock. It was perched on a tombstone that looked like one of those pyramids in Egypt.
“Is this the Harding Memorial?” I asked.
“No,” Donald said. “This is the Eye of the Dead. There’s a picture of it on the back of a dollar bill. It stays shut when you look at it, but when you walk away it turns behind your back and watches you.”
“Donald, quit teasing him,” Daphne said.
“Let’s go,” I said. I didn’t look back to see if it moved.
The Harding Memorial looked like a round fort made out of marble with iron bars on the front. The roof was cut off so you could look up and see the sky. We held on the bars and stuck our heads between them like guys leaning out of jail. Inside the fort there were two long boxes made out of polished black stone.
“That’s Warren G.,” Donald said, pointing to one of the boxes. “And that’s his girlfriend.”
“You mean they’re not even buried under the ground?”
“Don’t worry, they can’t get out,” Donald said. “They poured the marble over them when it was still wet like cement. Now they’re stuck there forever.”
“No, let’s go inside.”
“You’re scared. You’re a wuss.”
“No I’m not,” I said. “I have to pee.”
“Ah, scared the piss right out of you?”
“Donald, knock it off,” my sister said. She looked around to see if anyone else was there. “Just slip between the bars. Go in the back behind the tombs, and be quick about it.”
My brother shoved me through the bars. It was weird in there. Just Warren G. Harding and his girlfriend. And me. I heard my heart pound when I walked past the tombs. I knew something bad might happen but I touched one anyway. With my fingers. It felt smooth and cold like black ice. Tiny lights flickered on and off in the marble. It was just some lightning bugs hovering over my head. I peed as fast as I could and got some on my leg. Then I ran back to the bars. My brother blocked the way out. I tried to kick him and hit the toe of my sneaker on the iron bar.
“Donald, let him go.” Daphne used her big sister voice but it didn’t work.
“Not yet. He has to pass the test.” Donald turned to me and explained, “This is your initiation. Prove you love America. Prove you’re not a wuss.”
“How do I do that?”
“Stand on top of Warren G. Harding’s tomb and make a speech.”
“Donald, let him go,” my sister said again.
“That’s what the FBI guys do in Washington when they get initiated. They stand on top of J. Edgar Hoover’s tomb and make a speech.”
“J. Edgar Hoover isn’t dead, either,” Daphne said.
“Okay, okay. They sneak into the Lincoln Memorial late at night. Look on the back of a penny. They climb up in old Abe’s lap like he’s some kind of big bronze Grandpa and they make a speech. They don’t get a gun and a badge until they pass the test.”
I tried to wiggle around him but he stepped sideways and blocked me.
“Just get it over with, then he’ll let you out,” Daphne said. She was trying to help me.
“What do I say?”
“How about Brigitte?”
“Oh, yeah.” “There was a way out. Brigitte Bardot. I loved to say her name out loud, just to hear the sound of it. When I was three years old I talked about Brigitte Bardot so much it drove people nuts.
“That one,” Donald said, pointing to one of the tombs. “That’s Warren G. It won’t work if you stand on his girlfriend.”
I stepped back to the tomb. It was higher than my waist so I put one knee up first then climbed on top. I felt a little wobbly, then I got used to it. I started slow and scared, like the next to last kid who loses the spelling bee.
“Brigitte — Bardot — and her — bikini.”
Echoes bounced off the marble walls around me. It sounded clean, like a creek inside a cave.
I tried it again, this time with a fake French accent like that old guy in Gigi.
“Ah, yes — Brigitte Bardot — I remember it well.”
The echoes sounded muffled like whispers, or the brushes sweeping across Harold’s snare drum. I kind of liked this. I looked out over my brother’s and sister’s heads, out through the graveyard, all the way to the Eye of the Dead. Then I spread my arms wide like a TV preacher giving a sermon. I tried to make my voice sound like a preacher.
“Hear me, sinners! All we want is her bikini. Let us go with Brigitte Bardot. Let us gather at the river — the beautiful, the beautiful river! — and we’ll all get naked — and bap-tized.”
After the echoes faded Daphne said, “Amen, brother.”
Donald said, “That’s good. That’s a start. But Brigitte Bardot is French. You have to prove you love America.”
“How do I do that?”
“Donald, let him go. He’s done enough.”
“This is the final test. Every FBI guy does this. Every Marine Corps grunt. All you have to do is bend over, pull down your pants, and shoot the moon. Then recite the Pledge of Allegiance.”
“You’re making this up. You’re going to trick me.”
“No. Semper fi-.” Donald held up his hand like he was saying the Pledge.
“Semper fi-? What’s that?”
“It’s the Marine Corps motto. Latin. It means… well… it means we’re all in this together, no matter what. So prove you love America. Prove you’re not a wuss.”
Maybe it was the lightning bugs. Maybe it was the echoes. I felt like a preacher, and I felt like a little devil about to pitch a fork full of fire.
“I’ll show you,” I said, stretching the elastic band on my pants. Then I turned around and mooned him.
“Now repeat after me,” Donald said. “I pledge allegiance to the flag…”
“I pledge allegiance to the flag…”
“Of the United States of America…”
“Of the United States of America…”
“And to the republican…”
“And to the repub-.”
As I said this I heard something. Someone running. Suddenly I felt all alone in that graveyard.
“What the hell is going on here?” a big man’s voice boomed as a spotlight came on me. I could see my shadow pulling up its pants on the marble wall. Then I turned around and faced the light.
“Why’d you pull your pants down, kid?”
“I — had to pee.”
“In the Harding Memorial? Why were you saying the Pledge of Allegiance?”
“I don’t know.”
I couldn’t see the guy behind the spotlight but I heard a walkie-talkie crackle on his belt. I knew he was a cop. Donald and Daphne were gone. If he’s a cop, I thought, he’s too fat to get through the bars. He could shoot me, though.
“Don’t shoot me, mister.” I started to cry.
“No.” His voice softened a little. “But I oughta tan your hide. I’ll let your daddy do that.”
I tried to stop crying. My dad never ever hit me. I didn’t move off the tomb. It was a stand-off.
“Where do you live?” the cop asked.
“How’d you get here from Dayton?”
“Walked from Aunt Billie’s house.”
“I don’t know. I’m just visiting.”
“What’s her name?”
“Her last name.”
“I don’t know.”
“What’s she look like? What’s her house look like?”
“She has red hair. She works at the Powder Puffe Beauty Parlor. The place with the old whiskey bottles at the bottom of the stairs.”
“Nora MacCrae? On Prospect Street? Is that Aunt Billie?”
“I think so.”
“Old lady, funny red hair? Drives a big black Buick? Drives too damn fast for an old lady?”
“I guess.” I wondered if Aunt Billie was going to get arrested, too.
“Come out of there,” he said, switching off the light. “I’ll take you home to Aunt Billie.”
The cop didn’t frisk me or handcuff me like on TV, but he made me ride in the back of the police car. There was a metal screen between us and a shotgun standing up in the middle of the front seat. I really wanted to touch it but I didn’t try. The cop didn’t turn on the red flashing lights until he parked in front of Aunt Billie’s house. Everybody came out on their porches to see what was going on. So did Aunt Billie.
“Nora MacCrae,” the cop was using his big voice again and all the neighbors could hear him, “I caught this boy reciting the Pledge of Allegiance on top of Harding’s tomb.”
“That sounds patriotic,” Aunt Billie said.
“Not when he was buck naked!”
“Buck naked?” she gasped. “I know Warren Harding took his clothes off on special occasions, but he wasn’t buried that way.”
“Not Harding!” The cop was spitting now. “This kid. Your
nephew. He was standing on Harding’s tomb with his pants pulled down and shaking his skinny little butt at the stars!”
I heard the neighbors murmur. Aunt Billie looked me in the eye and I thought I saw that look she got when she talked about flying saucers. Then she looked the cop in the eye and said firmly, “That’s un-American. Don’t worry, officer, I’ll take care of this young man.” Then she marched me inside the house and closed the door.
She looked at me a long time and I couldn’t tell what her look was. I heard the back door open and close softly and I knew it was Donald and Daphne sneaking in.
“Get a little carried away, did you?” Aunt Billie said finally.
“I guess. Aunt Billie, it was weird in there.”
“Where were your brother and sister?”
“They left me and ran away.”
“Well, that’s un-American, too.” She said it loud enough for them to hear in the kitchen.
Aunt Billie definitely had that look in her eye. The same look she got when she drove her Buick down the highway, when she put her foot on the gas and we rolled down all the windows and she let us lean out like cowboys yodeling in the wind.