Delia’s husband Michael had a repertoire of stories celebrating his triumphs in a hard cruel world and some of those stories made Delia want to take the pruning hook leaning against the back fence where Michael had left it two weekends ago and heft it thrillingly into his left eye. Tonight’s story began just after dinner on the patio, and it was aimed at small impeccable Martha, who had had a bad day in third grade.
“Well,” said Michael, “let me tell you,” and Delia had to let him, because she had made the disastrous phone call yesterday and she was the one in disgrace. “You can’t let them see you’re scared.”
“I’m not scared,” said Martha.
“That’s right,” said Michael. He folded his newspaper. “Now. Once I was on my way home from school. With my buddies, of course.”
“I don’t think I have those,” said Martha.
Delia covered the remains of the salad and began to stack paper plates. It was October but the flies were still making their presence known. “Don’t worry,” she said to Martha. “Your father’s experience will prove instructive anyway. I always find his experiences instructive, myself.”
“How about some coffee, Deeley?” said Michael.
Martha asked, “What happened, Dad?”
Michael leaned in close and lowered his voice. “All of a sudden…a bully appeared!”
“Ignore him and he’ll go away,” said Martha wearily. She didn’t believe in Santa Claus, either.
“Or report him to your brawny brother,” suggested Delia. “Waiting at home to defend the innocent.”
Martha thought. “I don’t have a – ”
“But you’d like to, wouldn’t you?” said Michael. “Did you hear that, Deeley?”
“Let’s just start with the coffee,” said Delia, and retreated to the house. Michael caught the screen door with one hand so it wouldn’t bang when it swung shut.
“A baby sister would have long blond hair and we could name her Tiffany Jewel,” said Martha.
“Exactly my point,” said Michael. “And she could defend you when your mother gets everyone at school all worked up.”
“Martha, did you tell your father about my lower back pain?” called Delia from the kitchen. “We might have to postpone his pet project indefinitely.”
“Anyway,” said Michael, “my brother wasn’t around.”
“Just your buddies,” said Martha.
“Right,” said Michael. Most of his stories involved witnesses. “Now this bully we ran into was a big, mean bruiser. He was calling me names.”
“What kind of names?”
“Blowhard,” called Delia, who was still listening at the window. “Guru and sage.”
“Nope,” said Michael. “More like harridan, harpy, and hag.”
“Fag?” said Martha. “I’ve heard that one.”
“Certainly not,” said Michael. “Anyway. I was a skinny little kid, but I had guts. I told the bully to stop or I’d fight him. But he just wouldn’t get out of my way. I think he was mentally defective, actually. His mother was terribly, terribly old when she gave birth.”
“A hundred?” said Martha.
“It was definitely the danger zone,” said Michael. “But I didn’t find all that out till later. At the time I just told him to shut up. ‘You better,’ I said, ‘because I can’t be hurt. Punches don’t bother me. I don’t even feel them.'”
“For real?” said Martha.
“How about pruning hooks?” called Delia.
“You do not have to listen, Deeley,” said Michael. “You are welcome to place your fingers in your ears and hum God Bless America.”
“I can do that,” said Martha, and demonstrated.
“That’s not humming,” said Michael. “If you sing the words, it’s not humming.”
“How does she even know the words?” said Delia, emerging with a tray. She let the screen door bang. “Why are they teaching them songs about God? Are suburbs exempt from the Constitution? I’m going to call the school.”
“No, Ma,” said Martha quickly.
“Don’t you think,” said Michael, “that you have called the school enough already? Now, I’ll tell you a secret, Martha. What I said to the bully was not true, but it was not a lie either. It was an untested experiment.”
“Your coffee, Madame Curie,” said Delia. She gave Martha a popsicle and sat down herself with a cup of tea.
“Thank you, Pierre,” said Michael. They glared at each other.
“What flavor is this?” said Martha.
“Red,” said Delia. “It’s flavored red.”
“I like orange better.”
“I’m sorry, honey,” said Delia.
“About calling your teacher last night,” annotated Michael helpfully. “You know, this coffee’s a little weak.”
“I asked the woman to keep an eye out,” said Delia, “not to conduct a public embarrassment. The teacher shouldn’t know what goes on? After a month and a half of the names and the hair-pulling and don’t-you-dare-come-to-my-birthday-party?”
“Let’s not exaggerate,” said Michael.
“Because you didn’t see it,” said Delia. “Had you picked her up in the schoolyard and seen these brats yelping even once.”
“Martha, sweetheart,” said Michael, “Daddy would love to pick you up right after school but Daddy has to work very hard at the office so that we can have such a nice place to live with a yard so we can eat outside.”
Martha dabbed at her popsicle with a dainty reddening tongue. “I like where we used to live too. And Jessica was my friend.”
“And Mommy had the lovely job downtown where you came and colored after school,” encouraged Delia.
Michael rolled his eyes. “Mommy hated her lovely job where the mean man bossed her around all day.”
“Which job do you mean?” said Delia. “Does anyone want more coffee?”
“I take mine black,” said Martha, which was what Jessica’s Urban Adventure Barbie used to say when they played sidewalk café.
“You certainly do not,” said Michael. “Eat your popsicle and enjoy the yard.”
Martha looked around at the yard. “What about the bully experiment?”
“Right,” said Michael. “The fact is that I had been reading a book about Harry Houdini.”
“But what about the bully?” said Martha. She swung her legs back and forth against the plastic legs of her chair.
“Just wait a minute. Harry Houdini was a magician who did things like go under water tied up in ropes and then escape. But my favorite was when he would let people punch him but he would never get hurt.”
“He was magic,” said Martha.
“No,” said Michael. “He was clever and strong. He would tense up his stomach muscles in a special way so that no one could hurt him. I figured that I could do the same thing. So I told the bully I was invincible. And my buddies backed me up.”
“For real?” said Martha again.
“Yep,” said Michael, and set down his coffee for gesturing purposes. “One of them said, ‘You better believe my main man Mike. Can’t nobody hurt him.'”
“That was a colorful way to put it,” said Delia.
“What was the buddy’s name?” asked Martha.
“Huckleberry Finn,” said Delia.
“You knew him too?”
“Know him!” said Delia. “I was lost in the cave with him!”
“That was Tom Sawyer,” said Michael. “Your mother gets confused between her wide circle of friends. Anyway, the bully didn’t believe us. What do you think he said?”
Martha thought for a moment. “Lezzies! Retarded! Blue light special! Where do you get your clothes, Wal-Mart?”
“Oh my God,” said Delia. She leaped up to hug her daughter, her beautiful daughter with shining black bobbed hair and chic plaid skirts.
“Would you calm down, Deeley,” said Michael.
“Yeah, Ma,” said Martha, who was enduring her mother’s embrace as she had endured the red popsicle: with a grace born of suffering, Gandhi with bangs.
“Your daughter is suffering,” said Delia to Michael, not letting go. “What do they want? I should dress her like a tramp? I don’t even know where Wal-Mart is.”
“You got popsicle on my skirt, Ma,” said Martha. “I can’t wear this skirt anymore.”
“We’ll wash it,” said Delia.
Martha picked at the stain. “I like jeans,” she noted.
“You have plenty of jeans,” said Delia.
“Not the right kind,” said Martha.
Michael cleared his throat loudly. “Good guess, Martha, but this was the olden days and we didn’t have Wal-Mart. So what the bully actually said was something like, ‘Invincible, huh? We’ll see about that!’ And at that very moment, my buddy turns around and socks me in the gut.”
Martha nodded. “That was like what Julie did because last week she said she was my friend but then today? when Miss Mortack made me come up to the front of the room and said everybody make the new girl feel welcome at Maple Shady or stay after school and then we got on line for art class? and Brandon saw Julie next to me and he said oh gross you love the crybaby? and Julie said no it’s just I can’t get rid of her, Martha stop breathing on me you are too fat and I want my rainbow sticker back? but I already put it on my notebook so she told Brandon to rip the cover of my notebook off and he did.”
“Mortack?” said Michael.
Delia looked at him. “You don’t even know her teacher’s name.”
“I don’t complain to authorities,” said Michael.
“Julie didn’t punch me, though,” said Martha.
“My buddy was no Julie,” said her father. “This was different.”
“How was it different?” inquired Delia, trying to hold Martha’s hand.
“Well, my buddy wanted to prove to the bully I was right. He socked me as hard as he could because he believed in me. He believed that I wouldn’t be hurt.”
“Wow,” said Martha. “Were you like Houdini?”
“No,” said Michael, “because I wasn’t ready for it. I didn’t have a chance to tense my muscles. I was in total, unbelievable pain.”
As soon as Delia imagined Michael crumpled up in pain she was overwhelmed with love for him.
“Did you cry?” asked Martha.
“No,” said Michael. “I grinned. My buddy believed in me. I couldn’t let him down. So I threw my arm around him and said, ‘Thanks, man.'”
“‘Thanks, man,'” quoted Martha. “What did the bully do?”
“He beat the crap out of him anyway,” said Delia hopefully. She had lost her love and in the darkening yard her husband was again a thirty-seven-year-old executive with a pompous scrabble of graying chest hair peeking above his polo shirt.
“He did not,” said Michael. “He was scared. He went away. He never bothered me again.”
“Great moral,” said Delia. “Maybe we could arrange for Martha to commit hara-kiri in the playground. Then that creep Brandon will never bother her again.”
“Deeley!” said Michael. “Hara-kiri means calisthenics,” he explained to his daughter, to prevent psychological damage.
“Well, I know that,” said Martha, offended. “What happened when the bully went away?”
“I got the rest of the way home,” said Michael, looking at Delia. “I collapsed and threw up as soon as I got in the front door. Luckily my mother was at home instead of out looking for a job, so she put me to bed, and an hour later I threw up again.”
“Oh,” said Martha. “I pushed Julie.” She leaned back her head and let the last of the red sludge drip into her mouth.
“You what?” said Michael.
“She fell down and I hit her with my notebook.”
“Martha,” said Delia. “Brandon pushed you down and got your knees dirty.”
“Yes,” said Martha. “That’s why I bit him.”
“Well, well, well,” said Michael.
Delia took the popsicle stick out of Martha’s sticky hand. “Michael, I think you’ve been outclassed.”
“Handshake!” said Michael to Martha. “How hard can you grip?”
“What happened to the boy who hit you?” said Martha, still concentrating on survival tactics.
“He was my best friend after that.”
“I don’t have a – ”
“Story’s over, time to go in,” said Michael, patting Martha on the back. “How’s that back pain, Deeley?”
“A girl’s best friend is her father,” said Delia to Martha.
Martha leaned over and socked Michael in the gut.
“Good one, honey,” said her mother. She held the screen door open for her family. Martha went in first, carrying the coffee tray. Michael squeezed Delia’s waist as he passed through. Then Delia let the door slam shut, because the flies were buzzing in.