Fiction · 12/05/2012

Tom-tom

The adults ate then fed the teens, and when through, they fed the children from the pans. Whatever infants were there suckled, mainly from a breast, a bottle, but sometimes the ruby lips found their way to a lock of greasy hair dipped in honey. If there wasn’t a glass, a deep bowl was filled and passed around. The necks of the ceramic jugs tilted, the hand-formed rims wet with saliva and spillage. That was good, the kids said, boring, some said, who said boring, the adults said, and no one said boring again.

They arranged themselves amongst the mattresses, gathered blankets, a lamp was turned on and to dull its light, a sheet was thrown over the shade. Most wore the clothes they wore during the day when they were sitting in the sunlight and sometimes chasing behind the dogs that did the work of finding food, food — the raw carcasses of squirrels and coons and shrews, roughly torn by the time it was retrieved from the jaws of the dogs — was packed in sand and dried with the salt that was running out and already the adults, the older kids, were working with smoke on the wet meat found by the dogs.

Castoffs bent in the sun on the low hill a hundred yards from the tall padlocked fences and before the moon their settlements were seen and they fed on roughage and came begging at the big camp but they were turned away; rocks were thrown and long flails cut from the oak trees lashed through the air.

In the meantime they cut furrows in the dirt and put in seed and sat by or argued and the tables were strewn with games and playing cards and stained glasses of evaporated juice and water, dinner plates with mashed food hardened and gone yellow.

For a time they sold geodes harvested from a shallow cave on the neighboring property, arranged them on foldout tables at the farmers market, arranged pell-mell, cracked jaggedly on the concrete and left raw and unpolished, the crystals dull and broken, and who bought them but young kids with money given to them by their parents, and soon they were found crawling in the cave and booted with threats of litigation or a spray of shotgun pellets, so the geodes gathered dust in the mop buckets, their glittery hollows filled with the soft cotton of spider eggs.

They were known in the government buildings, became skilled in filling out the forms, insurance, WIC, food stamps, waivers on the utilities and vouchers for the land lease. With them they brought their children, feral hybrids, who rent the DWD posters from the walls and chewed the paper to a thick gray paste which they modeled as loose clay, strange leaning effigies they’d mount on the toilet stalls and over the spouts of hallway water fountains. Often they smelled both bodily and, so the office workers said, spiritually. Meals waned and they were the central source of the odors that radiated from their skin, rough porridges of chopped onion and garlic, and when store bought veg was beyond their reach, weeds and chives and wild sorrel found their way into the sticky barley and oats.

There wasn’t money to speak of and sometimes the kids were hustled into town to beg or to check the vending machine coin slots or to clamor lost while the adults took down a parking meter or reclined on the vinyl cots of the plasma clinics, whirring oscillating fans, college kids and the down and out in worn jeans and crinkly shirts.

Sometimes the DCFS came to the porch, accompanied by officers, and peered in the mouths of the children, teeth like shards of chewed Tic-tacs suspended in gums already graying and laced with scarlet where infection had settled in, and now and then they left with one of them in the backseat, the child happy, chewing on whatever candy the officer had brought with, and later the parents would leave and they’d be seen at the bus terminal, garbage bags filled with clothes.

Just yesterday a girl was led by the hand to the front seat of the blue and red cruiser. She sat in the deep bucket seat surrounded by electronic gewgaws and the mounted shotgun whose stock she fingered, the etched wood and steel shaft, and the officer gave her toothpicks wrapped in plastic, peppermint flavored, taken from the side of the register at the Carl’s Jr., the burger cleaving the officer’s gut, and he belched and she laughed, wetted the toothpicks with spit and sucked at the minty flavor that came from the sharpened wood as they bumped down the rutted driveway that led to and from the compound.

After such days, the departures, they gathered in the great room and cleared the tables and sat on stools and started the songs they’d practiced in the past. They drummed the flimsy tables and it was off-sounding, like unpracticed hands on a tom-tom, and as the thrumming rose it washed over the walls like a living thing suddenly conjured from which they retrieved a strength lost, and they kept on with the beating, and in this way they sustained.

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Edmund Sandoval’s short stories have appeared in elimae, Fractured West, Waccamaw Journal and others. He resides in Madison, Wisconsin.