This Is Home
The year I turned ten, my father shot the aboveground pool in our backyard with his police-issued pistol.
I don’t remember it, but I hear about it all the time. My father likes to tell the story at the bowling alley bar, when all eyes are on him. There’s usually Wild Turkey over ice in the glass in front of him, or maybe a bottle of beer. Sometimes both. The story gaining speed with every sip. The guys egging him on, all of them off-duty cops, remembering the fall cookout in my backyard.
My mother in the kitchen with the other girlfriends and wives and the men outside in rusty lawn chairs watching my father scowl at the eyesore of a pool taking up space on his newly purchased property. Stagnant water the color of tree bark sat high against the rim, and the entire structure leaned off center, and someone called out: Jesus Christ, that thing’s a damn cesspool Tower of Pisa.
The scum-filled pool had come with the house, and my father hated it. None of the guys remember who first joked about pumping it full of bullets to empty the water, but they all remember my father standing up, taking two steps forward, and drawing his weapon.
They say he shot that gun as if he were a cowboy in an old Western film, quick draw and from the hip, firing until he ran out
of bullets and the pool was a wheel of Swiss cheese, dirty water spurting from every hole.
The story always ended the same.
The telling of it might veer in different directions, but the ending always looped back to my father saying: Who was going to stop me? I’m in the biggest gang in town.
The year my father shot the pool, I got out of bed most nights at midnight to sit with him when he got off work. That was six years ago, and my mother always said I was too young to be up that late.
But my father never sent me back to bed. He’d drink a beer, eat a turkey sandwich. Lettuce, tomato, mayo. Potato chips smashed between the bread. His gun belt on the table between us.
My night owl, he’d say as I slid into the chair across from him. Just like me.
Back then, you could slice our family crosswise like a sandwich. My mother on one side: Olive skinned. Quiet and distant. My father and I: Fair skinned. Restless and temperamental.
Then half of that sandwich disappeared. Cancer took my mother away pound by pound and then breath by breath.
Then the medical bills piled up, and our house went up for sale.
We moved into the middle apartment in Aunt Lucy’s triple-decker after that. When we had no place to live.
Now it’s just me and Rooster Cogburn and my father, Bentley, who everyone calls Bent, even me, which suits him.
We got Rooster Cogburn from the shelter. He ended up there after the police were called to his house for a domestic dispute. Bent was the one who showed up and dealt with the mess and then brought him to the shelter. When months went by and no one wanted Rooster, Bent took him home because he was a guard dog if he had ever seen one.
The vet said she’d never seen a lazier dog, but Bent ignored her, and now we have a ninety-seven-pound mutt who never gets off the couch. He sleeps on his back, with his legs in the air, like he’s been shot.
He’s no guard dog either. I’ve heard him bark a handful of times, and even then it sounds like a bored half-yawn type of thing.
Rooster and I go for a walk a couple of times a day, and we make it half a block before he sits down and stares at me. Looks at the bag in my hand, full of his stinking poop, and eyes me again. Like, What? Deal’s done. Let’s go home.
Me and Bent and Rooster don’t live far away from anything.
If I lean out my bedroom window far enough, the tips of my fingers touch the dirty siding on the house next door.
Paradise is like that, though: everything stuffed in tight.
On the other side of town there’s a four-lane highway that runs straight through to the city. There are stores and houses and restaurants up and down both sides. Like the folks who first came here couldn’t decide if Paradise was a town or a city or an interstate, so they threw up their hands and made it all three.
Bent calls Paradise the groin of Boston. He used to call it the armpit, but then everyone argued with him and said, No, no, no, the armpit is Allston, which made sense because it’s tucked in close to Boston, and Paradise is farther out. Bent changed it to groin, and whenever he says it, folks get riled up, especially at the bowling alley with all the locals standing around. They’ll whip their heads around and mutter things like Whoa! or What did you just say? even though they heard exactly what he just said.
Me and Desiree just look at each other and shake our heads because it goes the same every time, and Desiree swears Bent says it just for the reaction.
Plus, it doesn’t make any sense because Paradise is north of
Boston and out by the ocean, so technically if this town is a body part, and Boston’s the heart, then we’re something like the left eyebrow.
Maybe an earlobe.
Aunt Desiree lives in the apartment above us with Aunt Lucy, and even though they’re sisters, they look nothing alike. Mostly because Desiree is several shades darker than Lucy even in the dead of winter because she’s in the tanning booth twice a week. Desiree’s a former fitness model who bartends at the bowling alley.
She moved in last month after she broke up with her boyfriend. It was only temporary, she told me while I helped her carry boxes into the back bedroom. I didn’t mention that me and Bent living here was only supposed to be temporary too.
You have to be careful with Desiree—she has a way of taking things the wrong way. Not with me, because I keep my mouth shut about most things.
Bent and Lucy never do, though.
Just yesterday, Desiree said she was so hungry she could eat a horse and Bent said, “Well, what’s new?,” and Desiree put her hands on her hips and snapped, “Is that some sort of fat joke?”
I knew all he meant was that she’s always hungry because she never eats. Bent just shook his head and walked away. Which is pretty much his standard response when Desiree gives him her attitude.
I don’t blame him. Desiree has fingernails that could gouge your eyes out—bright red and long and sharp—and an edge to her that rubs people the wrong way. Nobody messes with her. Like ever.
Bent’s a policeman in Paradise, and even though he’s the worst bowler in the police league, he always gets a spot on the team.
Desiree thinks it’s because he always buys the first round of beers, but I think it’s because he came up with the name Ball Breakers and had all the shirts made with last names printed on the back, and now they can’t kick him off without feeling bad about it.
Lucy’s the only woman on the team, and she always gives Bent a look when I tag along. The first night I showed up with him, she walked right up to us and pointed to the clock on the wall.
“Nine o’clock, Bent. She has school tomorrow. She should be home doing homework or taking a shower. Doing teenager things. Not sitting in a crappy bowling alley.”
“It’s not crappy in here,” Bent answered, sounding offended from the tone of his voice. “And stop overreacting. You know Lib’s not your typical teenager.”
“Well, maybe she wants to be,” Lucy snapped. “Did you ever think of that?”
“Well, maybe I want to be Cinderella,” Bent said, and went to the bar to order drinks for the team.
Lucy narrowed her eyes but let it drop. Probably because how do you argue with that kind of logic?
Bent Logic, me and Desiree call it.
The kind that makes no sense.
Lucy just put her arm around my shoulders and brought me over to the team, fussing over me and bringing me more snacks and water than I could consume in a week’s time.
For the most part, Lucy, Bent, and Desiree all get along, but living in a house together isn’t always easy, and even though they’re all adults in their thirties, they play their parts perfectly.
Lucy’s the bossy oldest, Bent’s the free-spirited middle child, and Desiree, the baby, doesn’t listen to a word either of them says.
In this case, though, with me showing up at the bowling alley on a school night, Bent wasn’t altogether wrong telling Lucy she
was overreacting. I’m at the pediatrician every single time Lucy gets involved.
A small splinter is relayed to Bent as a tree limb wedged in my hand.
A low-grade fever means I’m on the verge of a seizure.
And forget about the time I tumbled in the waves at the beach and couldn’t figure out which way was up or down, so by the time I surfaced, I was gasping and blue lipped. We went straight to the emergency room for that because Lucy was convinced I was drowning from the leftover water in my lungs. She kept shaking my shoulders on the ride to the hospital, while Bent gritted his teeth and stared straight ahead, telling her to calm down every time she shouted Libby, stop closing your eyes! Don’t fall asleep because you WON’T WAKE UP.
That was the last straw for Bent. They got in a big fight over that when we got home, and Lucy said if Bent thought he could raise me better all by himself, then he should go ahead and do just that and she’d mind her own business.
Which really meant she took her extra toothbrush out of our bathroom, stomped upstairs, and then texted me: supper here when ur ready unless u want chef boy-r-d at ur place.
When Bent says I’m not your typical teenager, what he means is we’re not your typical family.
Bent keeps the craziest hours because he’s a cop and a workaholic. If he’s not working the night shift, he’s picking up a detail. Most nights, Lucy or Desiree sleep in the spare bedroom.
And now some creepy lady lives downstairs. She moved in a couple of days ago, but she hasn’t left the apartment yet.
Like at all. Well, that’s not true. I saw her leave in the middle of the night dressed all in black. Pants and a huge sweatshirt with the hood up, even though it’s a million degrees outside.
I’ve decided she’s a serial killer.
Which is what I’ve been explaining to Bent for the last ten minutes.
It’s Wednesday. The first one in August.
The heat is making Rooster Cogburn hang his tongue out and pant, even though he hasn’t moved since I took him out for a walk an hour ago.
Bent is still in his uniform, and there’s a crease in his forehead. He keeps looking over at his bedroom, and I know he’d rather be sleeping than listening to me. He’s just coming off a double, and he’s working a detail in six hours, so I have to talk to him before he goes to bed. He knows this, so he’s doing his best to stay awake and listen to me.
“You said we were going to move to a real house,” I tell him. “Just us. No people upstairs or downstairs.”
“Those people are your aunts. And they help me with you. I can’t be at work and home, Libby.”
“I don’t need anyone to stay with me. I’m almost seventeen. Besides, Lucy snores and Desiree turns on the blender for her protein shake before the sun’s even up.”
Bent clears this throat again and ignores me.
Rooster Cogburn rolls over onto his back, and suddenly there’s a dead smell in the air. On top of being the laziest dog in the universe, he’s also the smelliest.
“Now there’s a serial killer downstairs. She’s going to chop me up and take a bath in my blood.”
“What?” He gives me a look and eyes Rooster. “Get up, bud. Come on.” Bent nudges him with his toe and waves at the stench in the air between us.
Rooster sleeps straight through the nudging and the smell.
“It was on TV the other night. Some crazy Hungarian lady killed a hundred girls.”
“I told Desiree I don’t want you watching horror movies.”
“It was the History channel.”
I don’t mention that it was after midnight when I watched it on my laptop with headphones because Desiree was in the bedroom next door arguing with her ex-boyfriend.
Rooster’s sitting up now and rubbing his head against Bent’s leg, leaving a strip of gray fur on his uniform. I can tell by the way Bent’s jaw is jutting out that he’s had enough of this conversation, and when he snaps his fingers at Rooster to get him to stop getting hair all over the same pants he has to put back on in six hours, I know enough to shut up already.
Bent goes into his bedroom, and I hear him change out of his clothes, and then the bed squeaks.
Rooster Cogburn walks over to me and puts his head in my lap.
When we got Rooster from the shelter, he was a day away from dying. He was on the euthanize list until Bent heard about it and decided he could stay with us. It was supposed to be only until we found him a good home. That was more than a year ago.
“You hate it here too, don’t you?” I whisper to Rooster, but he only wags his tail so hard it bounces off the back door, thumping against the wood and making so much noise that Bent calls out that me and Rooster need to hush or leave if he’s ever going to get any sleep.
I want to call back to Bent that we should leave. And go back home.
But I don’t.
I just sit in the heat with Rooster’s big head in my lap, his stench filling the air around us, and don’t say a word because I know what Bent’s answer will be.
This is home.