The New Lincoln
My mom always used to take me to the hitting range because it was something she had to do for her work and because I had nothing else to do in the summer. It was a green hill, like a normal golf range, except it began and ended inside a long black tent with a target that kids would hit the ball into. The hitting was with thick orange bats, curved like squash bats. The balls were shot from the nose of a machine that vibrated every time you touched it. The drive from our house to the hitting range was so short that I could walk there if I wanted to. You could leave the hitting range and go into Ebro, the only quarry of its kind in southern Illinois. A neon sign out front of Ebro claimed: Weve got...Cars! Rocks! Girls! Liquor! I used to look curiously for Ebro girls as we passed it on the way to the hitting range. I never saw a single girl, but I saw a small pink hut with the electric eyes, ears, and teeth of a bunny. It was the only pink thing in the site. It was half-hidden by a pile of sledge the first time I saw it.
The kids that went to the hitting range were a lot younger than me. The only boy who was my age was an Egyptian. I was studying geography in school when he first spoke to me, so I called him Cairo. I was on one of the back seats, the folding chairs where parents can watch their children at the hitting range. He had just finished hitting poorly. He got on a seat right next to me and leaned over the top. There were flakes of dandruff in his eyebrows.
He tried to speak to me, but I wouldnt listen to him. I noticed that his nose was annoyingly big, or at least his nostrils were. I remember thinking angrily that he didnt need a nose that big in the prairie. He needed a small, pointy nose that would protect him from the pollen. He asked me why I was at the hitting range.
My mom needs to come here for her job. My father cant come, so my mom brings me.
Why cant he come? said Egypt Cairo.
He cant really come. I tried to say it like I hadnt finished the last sentence.
Egypt Cairo slumped forward in his seat and faced the hitting range. Famous Blue Raincoat started playing, which made me want to leave. It was around the time I got used to Leonard Cohen songs, at least used to them so I wouldnt have to hate them. Theyd just enter my mind and then leave. My mom played So Long, Marianne and Hallelujah on two single LPs every day. I usually woke up to Hallelujah and went to sleep to So Long, Marianne. But I couldnt take Famous Blue Raincoat. His voice in the song sounded like it was splitting in half every ten seconds.
Egypt Cairo turned around and pointed to a tall woman in heels and a sun hat. Is that your mom?
I shook my head. My moms the one fooling around behind the range, putting the balls back in the machine. You cant see her.
Lets go see whos hitting.
We went up front, Cairos thick face pointing this way and that, to watch two girls and a boy hit. The girls were really little, maybe six and seven, but the boy was around the age of Cairo and me, twelve or maybe thirteen. They didnt all look the same, but they had one mother cheering for them. The first little girl got excited just because she hit the ball at all. The second one slouched up to the X and hit, but didnt hit very well for a girl her age. The ball went in the second ring of the target, and she didnt even bother to get it. Then the boy went up there and he stood still, waiting for the first little girl. He wore his hair in a black nest and seersucker shorts so long they reached his ankles. The little girl came up skipping in her dress that looked sort of like a wedding dress. The boy kneeled down and smiled at her like he was her father even though he was her brother. She took a lacy bandana from her head and tied it around his eyes. Then he stood up and hit every single ball that came at him (six), right into the bullseye. Dead on. I saw my mothers face come out from behind the target. She looked at me.
Egypt Cairo wanted me to be impressed. I wasnt. I had been to the hitting range so often by that time that I could do just what the boy was doing.
Thats Danny Frawley, Cairo said. His sisters are both named Susan.
How do you know?
Hes my neighbor.
I didnt have a bandana so I improvised. I was wearing a bandage around my calf that day not because I was hurt but because I enjoyed pretending I was in front of adults. I broke character and unwrapped the bandage. I refastened it around my eyes like I was a burn victim. Then I went up to the X and demanded the bat from Danny Frawley. Frawley put the bat in my hands and I hit seven balls. When I could see again, my mom was congratulating me in front of the other parents, but I didnt mind. Egypt Cairo was getting all excited. He introduced me to his mother, a homely woman who wore a shawl and lots of linen. Danny Frawley was smiling, but his family wasnt. The mother looked like she wanted me dead. The littlest girl, the one in the wedding dress, was jumping up and down on something that got redder and redder every time she came down. The middle girl was leaning against the moms legs, her fat chin balanced on the mound of her chest.
My mom took me out for a pizza. We split one between the two of us. She looked very tired. She had worn a skirt to the hitting range and now she seemed to be regretting it. Everything about her seemed itchier than usual. But she tried to be nice to me. She watched me drink a vanilla shake and when I offered her some she said no thank you, Im watching my weight. She weighed about 126 pounds then, and I could see the bone in her heels where the skin dipped and parted from as far away as the target of the hitting range.
* * *
I didnt usually like going in my fathers room, but I did on the night I beat Danny Frawley at the hitting range. My father was sitting in bed like he always sat, a tube up his nose feeding him morphine instead of oatmeal even though he didnt need the morphine anymore. I hated to watch the oatmeal move up that stupid tube and into his skull. He must have sensed that, because he abandoned his morphine pump weeks after he got the tube. I sat on the bed in front of him and he grinned. His beard moved weirdly with his grin. He called me sweetheart.
I hit seven balls in the target blindfolded, I told him.
Thats wonderful. Did Mom see?
Who were you challenging?
Danny Frawley. Ive never seen him before.
I stood up from his bed and went to the mirror. I knew very well that my father didnt find me pretty. He thought I looked kind of chunky, square-shaped, and that I dressed like a boy. You could see a lot of girls at the hitting range with features that were bound to turn beautiful when they became teenagers. Frawleys little sister in the wedding dress would be beautiful, I could tell, because she had a slender back and her shoulder blades formed a little peak just below her neck. The four things I looked for in most girls were a neat stomach, an arching back, angel shoulder blades, and long hair. If any girl had any combination of the three, but not the fourth, she didnt have a chance at being beautiful. The mirror was full-bodied and I struck a pose in it for my father. He closed his eyes and started making these obnoxious gurgling sounds. When he fell asleep, I could see his Adams apple dipping and rising above the bed frame.
I looked in the mirror again and hated making eye contact with myself so I pulled off my shirt. I was wearing a training bra that summer. It was thin, cotton with nylon straps, and looked more like a tank top than a bra. I became suddenly aware of the pain Id been in all day from my jeans. They buttoned just above my bellybutton and pressed deep into me whenever I tried to sit. I unbuttoned them so that I was wearing only my underwear. I stood like that for a while and started to get cold.
My father kept two small automatics in the drawer next to his bed. Sometimes I could hear him loading them at night, when my mother was asleep next to him. Those guns meant a lot to him. Every year during the neighborhood Independence Day parade, he would sit outside of our house and hold them both at once and fire them into the sky. He did it once before the parade came down our street and once after all the floats had passed. He described a flashback he had to me. In the dream he told me about, the tiger that had bitten off his legs was sitting right next to him while he ate. The tiger watched while he brought the fork to his mouth and watched as he lowered it back down. Only the eyes moved, never the head. Supposedly, the tiger had just polished my father's legs off and was waiting for him to finish eating his lunch. His flashbacks were never bloody. He had to reload the automatics all the time in case the tiger came back. He promised that the tiger would never get me. Sometimes he emptied fresh cartridges and reloaded new ones just to keep the old ones from getting dusty.
My mother came in when I was in my underwear and the first thing she did was close the door. She came back, breathing heavily, and told me that somebody was outside to see me. I sat on the floor and put my clothes on slowly, so she could see me from every side.
* * *
Egypt Cairo came back to the shooting range a lot more. He told me his name was Mohammed, but I still kept on calling him Egypt Cairo. One day he brought his little brother who had been shaken by his stepfather. The little brothers name was Lucius, and he was born in the States. He had to wear counter-myopia glasses and the whole left half of his body was in some huge leather brace. It was almost long enough to cover all of his leg and half of his arm. The top was just leather and then the rest had metal rods sewn into it. Egypt Cairo always made a point of saying that Lucius had been born by his second father and that the second father was a fuck-up. The first father had been a truly heroic man, a doctor who worked in India helping sick children until he was run over by a Jeep. The fuck-up was the one who smoked, slept around and had Lucius, so Lucius didnt deserve to live. Egypt Cairo told this to his little brother a lot, but Lucius didnt understand. He just nodded and his glasses bounced. His skin was lighter than Egypt Cairos and I thought he was cuter. He didnt have as severe of a nose. He wasnt any good at hitting, either.
When I went up to hit, I could feel Egypt Cairo watching me. When I came back to the chairs, he asked me if I was going to challenge Danny Frawley again. I said I didnt know. I told him Id already won.
You know, we dont have to stay on the hitting range all day, he said. We can go into the quarry.
I know that.
Is it your dad that has no legs?
He has some legs.
Egypt Cairo laughed a little. Lucius ran in front of us and picked up the bat. One of the balls almost hit him in the side of the face.
He has no legs. I saw him once, going out for a ride in a wheelchair.
How did he have sex with no legs?
This bothered me, since I had always thought Egypt Cairo was more innocent than me and Id be the one to introduce him to sex. But he was hardly innocent. He was thinking about how my parents had conceived me.
The man is on the bottom, I said.
Willa. He said it curtly, like my father sometimes does. I didnt know he knew my name.
Thats impossible. Hes not your father. You know you cant have sex without legs.
Lucius came back. Whenever he ran, it looked like he was going to fall over. He grabbed my knee and his metal squeaked. He was taught to be like that to girls at a very early age. Egypt Cairo ignored him and looked at me. His face looked very soft.
Why dont we go into the quarry? he asked.
I said nothing. I got up and walked away from the hitting range, down the side of the hill. I could hear them both following me. I wondered if my mother would stop me, but apparently she didnt see me going down the hill. I stopped when I got to a mound of rocks and started climbing on top of it. Egypt Cairo stood at the bottom, holding Luciuss hand for once.
We cant go up! he yelled at me.
I pretended not to hear him. There was scrambling on the rocks beneath me.
We really cant go up! he said again.
I climbed over the top of the hill and sat there. It felt like everything had been moving too fast and now it would finally slow down. I heard grunting and Egypt Cairo was climbing up next to me. Lucius was still at the bottom of the mound.
What about your brother? I asked him.
Egypt Cairo shook his head. He pointed at the electric pink bunny. My mother worked in one of those, he said. Back where I was born. Thats why theres so much wrong with Lucius.
Lucius let out a high, annoying scream. Egypt Cairo threw a rock at him and missed.
What is it? I asked.
It's a place for sex.
I decided I was angry at him, and that I was going to beat him down the mound. I ran past a huge pile of mulch and then a little one of sawdust. There were piles of everything in the quarry when there should have been just rocks. I got to the door of the electric bunny house and looked inside one of the windows. A fat woman in a robe was moving in what looked like a kitchen. She had on all sorts of clothes and jewelry to make her look pretty, but nothing was doing its job. She was bent forward like a hen over the countertop, making coffee.
Egypt Cairo came panting next to me. He had his shirt up, and it was showing his stomach with its folds of pudge. There was a little hill with a dent in it that should have been his bellybutton. His neck was sweaty and flesh hung connected to his chin like a turkeys. In my reflection in the window, I didnt look as bad as he did.
Why are you running so fast? he said.
I ignored him. I rang the doorbell and watched in the window for the womans reaction. She shifted and moved slowly toward me. She opened the door without smiling.
I smiled at her anyway. Can I come in?
You have no business here, she said. She looked at Egypt Cairo. What about you?
He just looked at her. Maybe he forgot how to speak English.
Well, whattabout it, cowboy?
Egypt Cairo shrugged, but she took him in and closed the door on me. I hated her for that. I stood outside and watched the electric bunny light up. There were eight seconds in the whole cycle. The first two, the eyes lit up. The second two, the ears lit up and so on. I waited through a couple cycles for Egypt Cairo to come out, but he didnt. I went around back to check in the different windows. There were shutters on all of them except for one. I could only see a girl in the room. She wore garters and panties and her hair in a pageboy. She was smoking a very thin cigarette. She looked like the kind of person who called a cigarette a cig. I counted the different elements of beauty she had. She didnt have them all. She was a little fat in the torso, and when she turned to one side, her nose was sort of big. I thought she was crying, but it could have been just noises from around the quarry. She was more beautiful than me.
I went around front and Egypt Cairo was standing on the stairs. His face was buried in his shirt. His crying sounds were louder than the girls. I didnt want to ask him what was wrong, but I knew Id have to.
What is it?
I got to the door, but she said I was too young.
Egypt Cairo shuddered. The shudder went all through his body. The girl. The one working there. She took one look at me and said I was too young.
* * *
I didnt see Danny Frawley for the rest of the week until the next weekend, when he rang the doorbell at my house. He looked like his mother dressed him. He had a vest on and shoes that I saw my reflection in. In his hand he was carrying a box of rocks.
This is my collection from when I was a kid, he said when I opened the door. He told me he thought my father would like to have it.
My dads been missing his legs since Vietnamization, I said.
Danny Frawley just nodded. His nod was soft enough that you could tell without knowing him that he had two sisters. He said he knew about my fathers injury, but he thought it might cheer him up anyway.
I didnt let Danny Frawley back into my fathers room. I decided hed need to pass some sort of test. He was acting like too much of a gentleman. When I went in the kitchen to get us sodas, he stayed in the living room and looked at books. The Sound and the Fury was open on the coffee table and he was holding it with two fingers and his thumb when I came back in. I didnt think he could read. Every so often, hed pull at his tie and make a low noise, smack his lips. I leaned over his shoulder and looked at what he was trying to read.
The bird whistled again, a sound meaningless and profound, inflexionless, ceasing as though cut off with the blow of a knife, and again, I said.
Danny Frawley looked up at me. It took him a while to smile. Youre the new Lincoln, he said.
Lincoln taught himself to read in a log cabin. Youre as good as he is.
No one really reads around here, I said.
Can I see your father?
As if I was watching a cartoon, I saw the big-jawed face of Egypt Cairo flash in my head. I never believed anything Egypt Cairo said, but I knew Danny Frawley would. Hes really not my father.
He didnt say anything.
Why do you want to see him? I asked.
I admire him.
For getting his legs bitten off?
Well, hes been that way since I was little, before I was born, and you cant very well have sex if youve got no legs.
I said it as quickly as possible. Danny wasnt paying attention to me. He had picked up his box of rocks and was looking beyond me, past where the kitchen ended, into my fathers bedroom.
Youre a very good target hitter, he said.
There was nothing else to say to him. I led him back into my fathers room. My father was asleep, and thats when I started wondering if Egypt Cairo was right. If my father had been born a woman, he would have been beautiful. As a man he had an oval-and-freckle face with long hair. His fingers were thin and his back, when he raised it from the bed, was shaped like the downward curve of an elephants trunk. He looked more like Danny than he did like me.
Danny set his box next to my fathers bedside and then looked at me. I had never seen a boy look at me the way Danny did then. One of his eyebrows was curled, I remember, and his hands were balled in fists.
Im going to get married someday, he said loudly.
I just watched him. I thought he was about to punch me.
Im going to get married and then Ill have my own wife and then we can do anything we want.
He shook his head so hard I thought he might start bleeding in an ear. He went over to my fathers bedside where the automatics were kept in a glass case and looked at them. The top of the case was fogged with dust, and he ran his hand over it.
Ive got a lot of respect for your father. My father is a psycho.
I thought this might be another term for fuck-up, but I was too focused on the nape of Dannys neck to answer.
My father is a psycho and a deadbeat. Yours is a war hero. Real war hero.
I nodded. Danny turned away from the box and brought one of his hands under my arm. He pulled me into him and started kissing me on the mouth. The kiss was very hard and my cheek was wet with his spit when he finished. I didnt try to stop him. He kissed me again and again until he thought he had it right and then he let go. I could hear him talking to my mother in the kitchen before he left, her voice going high like it always does when shes pleased with someone. I squatted next to his box of rocks and opened the lid, only to find there was nothing in there.
I saw more and more of Danny Frawley. One Sunday we were sitting in my backyard, and he grabbed my hand in his and said, Im your boyfriend, Willa. Im in love with you.
I didnt say anything back to him. We stood next to each other in a mirror and I was bothered by how much I looked like the boy in a girls body. Whenever I saw Danny in a mirror, he was beautiful. He was thin just enough so that any shirt fit over him neatly, and his eyes were green enough so that he looked good in anything he wore, even if he didnt like what he was wearing. I could never fit into any of his vests. I never even thought about trying them on.
He played in the backyard with me, mostly target practice. He used the fatherly voice on me that he used on his sisters. Whenever we had to hit any sort of a target, he insisted that I blindfold him with my hands. Id cover his eyes and hed throw the dart or the mud ball dead-on. Then hed dare me to do it. I was never as good as him, and I tried to tell him I could only do it at the hitting range.
Nonsense, hed say. Then hed kiss me on the cheek.
I dont think I started to love him, but I started to want him at my house more. My mother baked whole cakes just for Danny. She loaded his plates high with pineapple ridges and chicken wings and picked cloves off when he told her to and ran out to get gravy for him. My father never met Danny. He was hibernating until Independence Day.
I watched Danny on my bed in my room. He was tying his hair in knots on top of his head. When I looked at him, I sort of started to smile.
How did you get so good at targets? I asked him.
I mean, howd you get so good at hitting things you cant see?
Ah, Willa. He leaned forward and tickled me. Thats a long story, Willa.
I want to know. I wish I was good like you.
Im only good with the little things. I want to do target practice with something powerful. Really hit something.
You probably can.
Probably not, he said. He got up and went to my closet and pulled a scarf off a hanger.
Thats from when my father went to Mexico, I said.
For something to help him get better. He never told me what.
The scarf was black with a silver moon in the upper left corner. He blindfolded himself again and stood smiling a big smile.
Im going to hit a target now, he said.
Get down on the floor, Willa. Just get down on the floor somewhere.
I did what he told me to and waited. I could see him moving around above the bed. Danny didnt move like most blindfolded people, stumbling all over the place and grabbing onto things. He moved like he was trying to find something he couldnt touch but was sure was there. I could hear my heart getting louder and louder. A finch chirped outside my bedroom window and the sound made Danny turn, made his smile curl up a little bit. He sidestepped like a dancer until he was completely in front of me.
Im going to get married, Willa.
He laid down next to me and reached for my chest, where my breasts were just little mounds smaller than my moms. Seeing without his eyes, I thought. Thats how he does it. He took little whinnying breaths through his nose as he rubbed my whole torso. The second he touched me, a warmness spread from my chest to my stomach in waves.
See that? Im a perfect shot, he said.
I didnt know whether to laugh or not. I smiled, but I knew he couldnt see me.
I think Ive never felt so perfect in my life.
I dont think I have either.
He took his hand from on top of me very fast and turned on his back. I can tell you right now everything thats in your room. Ive memorized it all. Youve got a four-poster bed, youve got a lava lamp with unmelted wax, youve got a poster for Crazy Horse, youve got six books stacked on top of your bed, theres a stuffed frog in one corner.
Memory, I said.
Its what I do instead of reading.
It was quiet, and I felt like doing something to him.
Danny, Im wearing a bra. I couldnt think of anything else to say.
I could tell.
Did you think I was? Without knowing, without going under there? Did you think I was wearing one?
I mean, did it look like I needed a bra?
He turned over on his side and started picking the carpet. I never looked close enough, he said. I pulled the blindfold off his head. His eyes were naked behind it, and they blinked nervously when they met the light.
* * *
My father woke up on Independence Day and told me hed dreamt about his legs again. I was putting on sunscreen before the parade and I sat on his bed and waited while he talked about the tiger in some hot jungle with two bent human legs in his stomach, pants and shoes and all. I imagined his legs two long things, stretched out until they almost broke the tigers stomach. After twelve years, they still couldnt be digested. My mother came in the room for the first time in weeks with my fathers wheelchair, and she helped him sit up on the bed and polish his automatics. She wore a button-up blouse too big for her with a dress slipped on underneath and her mouth pooched out from her face. My father kept on looking at her the whole time they polished the guns. We stationed my father outside our house in his wheelchair with an American flag draped over what there was of his legs. Then my mother and I strung streamers across our front walkway and lit a POW candle. Around noon, our street started to get more and more crowded with neighbors. I could see Egypt Cairo and his family in lawn chairs down the street. It was the first time I had seen the stepfather. He had dark black hair shaped like a leavened loaf of bread and a mustache so big it must have hurt to breathe. He had his arm around Luciuss chair. Mrs. Cairo was sitting very still, her knees crossed and bunched together. She was holding a long string of beads in one hand and whispering to herself.
I sat next to my father and the high school marching band came down our street. Some of the kids who were marching broke away from the band just to get my fathers autograph or shake his hand. Two boys waited around for my father to fire his automatics. He fired two clear blasts right into the sky and the boys high-fived each other. One of them asked my father if he could see his legs. I thought hed say no, since even I hadnt seen his legs since I was three, but he was so doped up on morphine that he pulled the American flag right off and rolled up his pants. Me and the boy looked. There were two neat sausages, banded at the ends and whitened by hacked bone. I thought that maybe the teeth marks my father had told me about disappeared with time. My father said, Peep shows over, and the boy offered me one end of a high-five.
After a float shaped like an open book for the library, the Little League team marched by. I watched for Danny. It was hard to tell them apart, since they all had bats and their uniforms were all red stripes on a white background. When I really focused, though, it was easy to find him. He was the second to last in the last row, balancing his bat on his hand. When he got to our part of the street, he ran to me. He poked my father, who had fallen asleep in his chair.
Is he asleep for good?
I nodded. He told my mom to wake him up when the parades over.
Danny took both the automatics and locked them. The sound was one of the greatest things I had ever heard. Were going to the range, he said, relieved. He started running and I ran next to him. I grabbed onto one of his hands and kissed him in the ear, hoping he wouldnt stop looking ahead. We rolled down the side hill and climbed up a mound into Ebro. We stood in the middle of the quarry, looking up either side of the valley.
I love you! Danny screamed. The sound echoed at least four times. He unlocked his gun and fired it into the sky like my father had. The bullet casing landed with a soft plink off somewhere in the distance.
Ive never fired a gun.
Fire it anyway.
I fired and my arm jerked with the strength of the gun. He climbed up on top of a pile of rocks and helped me up. Maybe he was tallying up all the elements of beauty I had. I thought then that I had them. If Danny was looking at me, maybe I had them.
Fire your gun, Willa.
I love you! I screamed it so everything echoed with my voice and the shot and he screamed, too. Our voices started to bounce off the hills together until you couldnt tell them apart.
He took his uniform bandana off and wrapped it around my eyes. Then he spun me in circles on top of the rock pile. When we stopped, he brought his hands around my back and held the gun with me.
Hit something, he said.
He didnt answer, just pressed closer to me.
I fired and there was a rumbling, a darkening, as though something powerful was being extinguished.