“Wait for Me” by Katey Schultz

 

In “Wait for Me,” a finalist for the Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize in fiction, Katey Schultz gives us a sensitive narrator, hurt by a rupture in his family, and a bullying neighbor girl, whose own pain is harder to see.  The importance of family, and the ways in which people we think we know sometimes act in startling ways are at the center of the story.  Schultz writes about the inspiration for “Wait for Me” and its long genesis in her craft essay “When I Pulled Over on the Side of the Road.”

 

WAIT FOR ME

by Katey Schultz

 

Every day, I stepped off the school bus on Flat Run Road, and every day, on the other side of the fence, Judy Puckett sat astride a four-wheeler, gunning the engine. “Sarvis Morton, you’re dumber than a dummy!” she’d shout, then tear into the pasture, over the hill and through the coal chute. We lived in Pentress, seventeen miles from Morgantown, and even with the sock factory and a post office with Wi-Fi, Pentress was easy to miss. But Judy never missed the sad exhale of the school bus, or me, abandoned along the roadside after it wheeled away.

I had about fifteen seconds between insults while Judy took the four-wheeler through obstacles. I learned to walk fast. On a good day, I could be out of earshot after just four or five of her assaults. But sometimes the wind slowed me down. Or mud. The ditch along Flat Run Road was steep, and I’d fallen in once.

“Sarvis Morton, your brother’s a retard and so’re you!”

“Sarvis Morton, if you had another brain, it’d be lonely!”

I’d have settled for giving her a nasty look, but she already had one—pug nose that flared when she yelled, voice pitched like a pack of coyotes. Dirty brown hair like bitterroot vines slapping across her face, and a neon tube top paired with whatever jeans her older sisters had worn the year before. I couldn’t cross the road because Old Man Mooney’s pit bull lived on the other side. It doesn’t take being on honor roll to know a chain only puts the inevitable on hold. When a pit wants something, it’ll get it. If that means breaking a chain or breaking skin, that’s what it means.

“I didn’t ask for your opinion,” I’d shout back. “Earth is full. Go home!”

But rain, scalding sunshine, sideways wind—Judy came at me. She never could have gotten to me—not with that ten-foot pole fence between us, barbed wire rimming the top. Still, I felt more intimidated by her than by the punks at school. The way her biceps flexed when she steered, rounded and limber arms framing her rib-thin torso. The neon tube top unnerved me. Like she couldn’t be bothered to get dressed all the way, or like nobody she lived with cared. I guess that’s what it came down to. Nobody did care. Not as far as I could tell.

“Sarvis Morton. . . .”

“Sarvis Morton. . . .”

 

***

As the crow flies, my house wasn’t far from a wildlife management area. We just called it “the lake,” because that was the only reason anyone would ever go. The foothills boasted hundreds of acres of mixed hardwood, but all I’d ever seen of West Virginia was trees or the tops of mountains where trees used to live. More trees didn’t particularly excite me. A lake, however, was something special. Flush or poor—Morgantown or Pentress—everybody loved a good swim in summertime. Even Judy Puckett.

Judy had been giving me hell ever since I’d seen her at the lake, her older sisters ripping her tube top off and laughing. They had her outnumbered at the end of a dock that jutted into a deep, narrow finger of the water. I watched from the opposite shore just twenty feet away. The tube top came off fast—the tallest sister holding Judy in a full nelson while another pulled it down her waist and past her knees, throwing it into the water like a piece of trash. If that had been me, I’d have jumped into the water as soon as I got free. But when the tall one released her, Judy turned around and knuckle-punched her in the throat. The other sister got worked up then, and two more sisters came dashing down the dock, strutting in their bikinis and raising their fists, and it was only then—outnumbered by her own flesh and blood—that Judy finally got the idea to run.

Her tube top bobbed on the surface of the water, a bright pink stain against the dark green lake. Judy dove off the dock, her sisters punching the air and mocking her escape. Judy’s strokes triggered ripples across the lake, propelling her top to my side of the shore.

“I can throw it back to you,” I said, snatching it from my feet at the water’s edge.

“Get your hands off my clothes,” she shouted, a little breathless.

I set the top down on shore and backed away. I still hadn’t seen a real woman’s breasts up close, but Judy wasn’t grown, and besides, with her it was never like that. I’d watched my twin brother, Jimmy—autistic, whip-smart and sad-eyed—be misunderstood by everyone outside our immediate family for most of his life. I knew how hurt-turned-into-hatred could go.

I stepped back and let the woods swallow me. Judy reached for her tube top.

In the forest, the air turned syrupy, clinging. The last time Jimmy and I had been here, it took us forever to bushwhack over the rise, back to our property. But this time, Mom and Dad had ramped up their focus on Jimmy’s autism, and he was at some science sleepaway camp in DC. They had told me Jimmy was “special smart,” as if I hadn’t already figured that out. What they were really saying was that I—his twin brother, genetically the same yet somehow not—was only normal smart.

Shouldering my way through the bushes on the walk home, I missed Jimmy’s endless chatter—pointing out ginseng, meadow rue, cohosh. Reminding me that the bright red newts were technically called efts. That they’d already lost their gills in order to stay on land for up to four years in that form. He’d have talked about state law, too, quoting requirements for legal ginseng harvesting and explaining why regulation had been required in the first place. But if I’d asked him to play jungle with me, seeing how long we could wrangle through the rhodis without letting our feet touch the ground, or if I’d asked him to race me to the top of the rise—he would have given me that confused-kitten look. The one that meant he wasn’t sure whether to tuck in his claws or leave them out. For every emotion Jimmy couldn’t seem to express, he had twenty facts ranging from the circumference of the moon to the extraction process for pure quartz. Still, that he chose me to share with, more than anyone else in our lives, was a closeness I’d defended for years, distracting bullies in the hallways and shielding him from insults at the expense of my own social standing.

It was Jimmy, after all, who’d told me the meaning of my own name. A sarvisberry tree; mundane enough. But in these hills, everyone knew the blooming of the sarvis in early spring meant the ground had finally thawed enough to bury your winter’s dead. Horse, cattle, human. In the old days, nobody got laid six feet under during an Appalachian winter. You had to wait for me to do that. You had to wait till I bloomed.

 

***

Then one day, about two months into seventh grade, Judy wasn’t waiting for me. I stepped off the school bus, stealing myself for her litany, and after the bus’s diesel cough faded into the distance, the silence hit me hard. My family’s brick house sat a mile ahead at the end of Fry Pan Road. Behind me, the two-lane state highway ran a ribbon all the way to the interstate outside Morgantown, where Jimmy went to private school. That year was our first school year apart, and the change had come with a sense of grief I still couldn’t name. Judy’s threats had been a nuisance, no doubt. But without Jimmy next to me, and without Judy’s rage holding up the sky, the feeling of that much hillside, that much open space, reminded me of the first time Mom and Dad took Jimmy in for testing. We’d never been apart for that long, and even though it was only a few nights and we couldn’t have been much more than three years old, I felt unmoored without my twin, sleeping in a strange guest room at one of Dad’s colleagues’ houses, listening as they clanged around in the kitchen and made food I didn’t like.

There’d be many more tests for Jimmy, and even more time apart for the two of us, but that first time—the scary, silent, spaciousness of it—marked me. Mom, Dad, and Jimmy picked me up a few days later, and we drove home in our Volvo station wagon like normal. From my car seat, I saw Dad’s knuckles wrapped around the black, foamy steering wheel. I could smell Mom’s perfume—something like tulips and mulch that kept spring alive whenever she entered the room. Her hand rested on Dad’s leg, and she turned sideways to watch Jimmy as he slept beside me in the adjacent car seat.

“Momma,” I remember saying. “Tell.”

She must have thought I wanted to hear my favorite story at the time—Scuffy the Tugboat, which she’d nearly memorized—but I was trying to ask her what had happened, why they’d left me.

“I’m too tired, sweetie. We’ll read it when we get home. Can we just rest a bit?” Her voice sounded like cotton: warm and pilled. I missed it already, in a way I can only describe as nostalgia for something that hasn’t abandoned you completely yet. “Everything’s all right,” she said, then turned back in her seat and closed her eyes. But nothing felt all right to me. My parents and Jimmy had endured something, and when they picked me up, I immediately sensed that they’d been welded together anew. I spent the next ten years trying to find a way into that formation. Surely, if I stood up for Jimmy, they’d see I was doing my part—doing more, I believed, than any doctor could ever do.

I remembered doing that the last day of sixth grade, when Terry, the junior wrestling-team captain who’d been after Jimmy all year long had ambushed us after school before we got on the bus.

“Hey, knucklehead,” he’d said, pushing Jimmy from behind so that he tripped off the curb and ran into the side of the idling bus.

Tears came to Jimmy’s eyes immediately, and he began muttering to himself, pulling at his own hair. I’d fooled Terry before, getting him to shove me around instead of Jimmy—we truly looked identical—but he’d gotten wiser and knew our different hats and backpacks.

I approached from behind. “Back off, Terry,” I’d said, jerking his coat down his shoulders to tangle his arms. Terry flicked his coat off the rest of the way, faster than a fly lifts from a turd, and his punch came next. I dodged, stumbling up the knee-high steps onto the bus. The driver closed the doors.

“Late again, Sarvis,” he said. “Git in yer seat.”

The bus lurched forward, leaving Jimmy behind, and the driver turned his attention to a pair of eighth graders in the back row who were already making out. “Git a room!” he’d shouted. It would be years before I realized what that meant. But at the time, none of this registered because during those first fat seconds as the driver pulled down the straightaway and headed toward the highway, I couldn’t speak. I felt my limbs go numb. My heart squeezed into my throat. I could see Terry slugging Jimmy for a long time. First across the eye, then in the jaw. Jimmy slumped, turtle-shelled, clutching his backpack. Then Terry had struck the back of Jimmy’s ribs, the side of his head.

I don’t believe in melodrama. But believe me when I say I felt every blow, endured every cut. And though I’d shouted and begged the driver to turn around, my voice was only buried by those around me, jeering at my tears. After a few miles, I wasn’t crying for Jimmy anymore. I was crying for myself.

Walking along Flat Run Road that day, almost a full year later, Judy nowhere in sight, I tried to breathe into the quiet, calming my nerves. I longed to smell Mom’s perfume, hear the heavy rumble of our Volvo. But the hillsides were abandoned, the road an echo of failures.

To my right, the Pucketts’ property sat piled with trash and mounds of old tires, empty jugs, Styrofoam coolers, and yard debris. Across the street, Mooney’s pit bull lay chained at the base of a legacy oak, the kind we always talked about during West Virginia History Month in school. Mooney’s tree was one of the few left in the state, according to surveyors, and Pentress folks liked to joke that the fortune he’d made raising pit bulls wrong was buried so deep beneath that oak that even the state police could never get to it. I marveled at the pit’s thick, dirty-white shoulders. Its pink-rimmed eyes looked unnaturally tender, given the animal’s strength. A wide, dark brown patch of fur spread across one side of the dog’s ribcage and under its belly. Matching brown marked each paw, and there, as if the creature had an extra pair of feet, I saw Judy’s mud-coated sneakers poking from around the other side of the tree.

There are stories about perfectly well-behaved pit bulls who one day start attacking strangers. Jawing into a toddler’s guts. Popping finger joints like sticks. But what everyone remembers are the pits who turn against their owners. I couldn’t stop thinking about Judy’s sisters that way, how Judy had had to run from them. When I had asked Mom about the Pucketts not too many days after the tube-top incident, it occurred to me that the fence did more than keep people out. It kept the Puckett girls locked in.

“Maybe I should interview Bud for my research,” Dad had joked, referring to Judy’s father. Bud and Dad had worked together at the sock factory one summer during high school, and while Bud had faded into obscurity, Dad went on to chair the psychology department at West Virginia University, starting in 2001. He’d been researching what he called “the torture mindset” ever since.

“Judy?” I called. The space around me shrunk, vacuum sealed. “Hey, Judy, are you OK?” I pictured the worst—limbs akimbo, clothing torn—and even after I saw her unharmed, I couldn’t shake the gruesome image from my mind.

“He’s not all that bad,” she hollered.

I crossed the gravel road and stood at the edge of Mooney’s yard, fifteen feet from the tree, clear of the chain’s reach. “What’s his name?” I asked.

“Collar says Peanut Butter,” she said, then came around the tree and sat down in the dirt with her bare arm right next to the pit’s thick, flappy jaw.

“You sure?”

“Think I can’t read?”

“Not the name. The dog. Are you’re sure he’s not all that bad? He’s always chained. There’s probably a reason. Judy, what’re you doing over here?”

“I ran away from home, dummy. What does it look like?”

I looked around and saw a small suitcase—clunky, pastel blue, something from the ’60s my mom would have said was only good for storing old linens. Next to it lay a plastic bag that I assumed held some food.

“Does anyone know you’re gone yet?”

She rolled her eyes, which was enough of an answer. I wasn’t sure what to do next; at first I thought she might try to pick a fight. I didn’t want one, but I would hit a girl if I had to.

The quiet around us filled with tiny sounds: the wet, hollow tock of Peanut Butter opening and closing his jaw as he shifted his head from one paw to the other; the small flocks of chickadee and titmouse flitting through oak branches above our heads; every few minutes, a jet plane. Eventually, I realized how silly it was to think Judy was trying to hurt me. Or Peanut Butter, for that matter.

“You could come over,” I finally said.

“Huh?”

“I mean, you could hide at my house for a few hours. It’s boring, but if you just sit here, your sisters are going to find you.”

Judy squinted. She looked ready to punch me for talking about her sisters. Peanut Butter sighed and moved his head from one paw to the other again, and that seemed to bring her back. She picked up her suitcase and started walking down the road toward my house. It was the first time I’d seen her move with any sense of ease, and I couldn’t help but notice the determination. Her gray T-shirt was dirty, set crooked around her neck. Her jean cutoffs looked stained, too, one of the pockets flapping lightly at her backside with each step. But she walked like she was born in charge, not at all like someone who’d been bullied on the docks. I tugged on the straps of my backpack and kicked up a slow jog to catch up.

“You got any good food?” she asked.

“Goldfish,” I said. “Some other stuff, maybe.”

I stole a glance into the plastic bag she carried and saw a pair of cowgirl boots, several sizes too big. “Those yours?”

“What do you think?” she said, and in that moment, I knew I’d be on her side.

 

***

I unlocked our back door and walked into the house. My parents wouldn’t be home until after dark. I wondered what Judy might have heard about us. As far as I could tell, the prevailing rumor was that we were rich; Dad had tenure, after all. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Jimmy’s schooling was covered by scholarships. I’d figured out that much by watching the mail and snooping through awards paperwork on Mom’s desk. Most of our money went to Mom’s causes—she wasn’t from West Virginia but loved it, I sometimes thought even more than Dad. And if the money they earned wasn’t covering her passions, it went to Dad’s research during drought years when grants didn’t come through.

Judy asked if she was supposed to take off her shoes. I almost laughed. What was there to protect? Drab tiles in the kitchen. Dark hardwood floors beyond that, in the living room. A worn rope rug. The couch I’d known my entire life.

“No,” I said. “It’s no problem.”

She crossed the threshold and followed me into the kitchen. She set her suitcase and bag by the door.

“Here,” I said, angling for the cupboard of snacks.

She tore into a bag of Goldfish, and fake-cheese smell filled the space between us. I left her in the kitchen, which was mostly open to the rest of the house, and flopped onto the faded beige recliner. A row of cupboards hung between us, mounted to the ceiling, so that all I could see was Judy’s hand dipping in and out of the Goldfish bag at about waist-level. I grabbed the stereo remote and pressed a few buttons. Mom and Dad kept things pretty low-tech, but music was one area where they didn’t deprive themselves. Ad-free Pandora streamed Johnny Cash, my fave station. “I Walk the Line,” ballooned into the living room. I was supposed to be doing math homework, but Cash’s telltale voice hit me: a haunting comfort. It was an obsession I’d never thought I would share with the likes of Judy.

“Got a bathroom?” she asked. I nodded toward the hallway. “Light’s behind the door.”

She crossed the living room and disappeared into the dark hallway. I heard the door click. I wanted desperately to know what was inside her suitcase, but I didn’t dare peek. When Judy returned, her baggy cotton T-shirt was tucked into her cutoffs. She had splashed water on her face, I could tell, and it occurred to me then that the Pucketts might not have running water in their home. Their yard featured several outhouses, most of them toppling. Old. That was all I could see from the road. Their property extended much farther, a stretch of West Virginia hills I knew I’d never set foot on. Cash rambled on about watching his heart and keeping his eyes wide open.

Judy sat cross-legged on the couch. “Your daddy’s famous, right?”

“What do you mean?”

“I heard him once. On the radio. It was for a 9/11 anniversary. The ten-year, I think. Something about torture.”

“Oh. That.” I turned the music down a little. If Judy liked Cash, I couldn’t tell. Without Jimmy around, it hadn’t taken long for the stillness of our house to give me the creeps. Music helped. “No, not famous. I mean—maybe here, like, in our state. But famous isn’t the right word. He and Mom just do their thing, but they’re kind of intense about it. That’s probably why people remember them, to be honest.”

“But I heard him,” she said. “Got any more food?”

I scavenged a Dipps bar and an apple, which she took without thanks. What Judy had heard must have been the interview Dad had done on the low-fi station broadcast out of Morgantown—hardly anything that would make someone famous—but she was, in fact, referring to the little amount of PR he got the year his big grant came through. The one that would pay him and a small team to research the “ticking bomb” problem for five years. I remembered it because when the funding ran out, Dad didn’t have anything new to say. His hypothesis was that even the most virtuous people would eventually crack, endorsing torture if given a concrete set of contextual circumstances. Real life had already proven his thesis, though—no research or funding required—and whatever blip he might have made in the social sciences only came in the form of a joke. History, it turned out, had also already proven the thesis, rendering any of Dad’s pleas for future funding unsuccessful.

“What about your dad?” I asked.

She bit into the apple and shifted on the couch. “What about him?”

“I guess our dads used to work together. Back in high school.”

“I know that.”

“So is he why you’re here? I mean, is he why you packed that suitcase?”

Judy’s lips flattened into a hyphen. “I liked you a lot better about three seconds ago.”

For all the times she’d harassed me over the fence, I realized I’d never gotten a close look at her. Without the four-wheeler, her tough appearance became simple skin and bones beneath cheap, stained clothing. I might even have described her as vulnerable. I sensed I didn’t need to press any further about Bud Puckett.

“My parents’ll be home at like eight or something. They’ll bring dinner. They always do.”

“What’re you going to tell them?” She leaned into the armrest where I’d watched Mom lay newspaper clippings every weekend for as long as I could remember. While Dad studied obscure psychological theory, Mom spent hours tracking print-media coverage of her causes. Judy’s question was a good one. I had no idea how long she intended to stay, and even though we were in my house, it didn’t seem clear who was leading the way. Her presence charged the room with an energy I hadn’t felt in months. Very different than Jimmy’s vibe—which, until recently, felt like a parallel life I watched and sometimes coached or sheltered, as best I could.

“I don’t know,” I finally said. “What do you want me to tell them?”

Judy stared at her feet. Cash crooned, then blended into Pandora’s next track. Judy had taken her socks and shoes off, and I felt uncomfortable, but also curious. Somehow that simple gesture—the ease and ownership it suggested, her curved pinky toes and chipped purple toenail polish—won me over. “They don’t ask much. I’ll figure something out.”

But I didn’t have to figure anything out at all. As absent as I made my parents out to be, like Jimmy, they were also keenly observant. After a relatively normal dinner—Mom and Dad making small talk about the latest class-action mining lawsuit, me twitching my gaze from Judy’s face to the window to the pile of brussels sprouts on my plate—Judy and Mom disappeared into the den for almost an hour. When they emerged, it was clear that Judy would stay. In that efficient manner that only women, it seems, can call upon without effort, they made the sofa bed, closed the blinds, found some spare clothes, hung a wall calendar, put batteries in a small digital alarm clock found in our junk drawer, and that was that. Judy’s room was ready.

Only later, long past dark, did I hear my father speaking on the phone. The familiar B-flat hum of the refrigerator filled the house, its comfort seeming to hold the roof over our heads, as it did every night, while I tried to sleep. Dad’s voice pulled me from the bed to the edge of the darkness. A small stove light in the kitchen illuminated the threshold between the hallway and the rest of the house. I could see my father’s wide palm pressing the veneer countertop, his fingers effeminate-looking save for the hefty callus along his right middle finger, where his pencil always pressed.

“Yes, yes, I know that,” he said into the receiver. I heard him sigh, presumably listening to whoever spoke on the other end of the line. “But you see, Bud, if it’s all the same to you, and it’s all the same to us, then there’s no need to make any kind of phone call one way or the other. Laurie and I’ll get Judy set up at the school. They need anything more than a signature, they can call you. Otherwise, consider it handled. Consider it better for everyone this way.”

He spoke with a confidence I’d never associated with him before. It was different than the voice he used delivering lectures to graduate students at the university. Different, even, than the few times I’d heard him raise his voice at me or Jimmy. He spoke as though what he wanted was already so, as though the world would bend to him. Why he couldn’t ever stand up for me like that, I never knew. In that moment, all I knew was that my dad had lived entire lives before my brother and I were born, and whatever those experiences showed him then meant he had access to the tools of persuasion he needed now. He reasoned and lobbied for Bud’s blessing to house and care for Judy with a calmness and intelligence that made me long to be older, grown up. Though I assumed adulthood would be boring, that night, I could see it might have benefits. That night gave me hope.

Most people would find it hard to believe that’s how it started, but it really was that simple. Judy Puckett moved in, my parents too conscientious to turn away a girl who obviously needed help. I’m certain Dad and Bud came to peace about it; but what exactly they worked out, I never knew. Once, I heard Mom on the phone with the school district. In less than a week, she’d purchased Judy a few outfits from the co-op in Morgantown and set her up to attend school full time. The bus picked us up at the intersection of Fry Pan and the state highway. Judy always waited in Mooney’s yard, petting Peanut Butter. I waited across the road next to the ditch and the Puckett fence. For some reason, we held to an undiscussed agreement to pretend we were barely associated.

It’s hard to say what someone means to you when what you’re really missing is the wholeness you felt before everyone realized your twin was different. She’d never be my sibling. Never really be family—there was too much hardness in her for any of that. Over the years, she became a friend in a household where my parents were otherwise preoccupied, but even though we’d eventually graduate from high school in the same class, I still knew next to nothing about what her life had been like on the other side of that fence.

***

KATEY SCHULTZ is the author of Flashes of War, which the Daily Beast praised as an “ambitious and fearless” collection, and Still Come Home, a novel, both published by Loyola University Maryland. Honors for her work include the Linda Flowers Literary Award, Doris Betts Fiction Prize, Foreword INDIES Book of the Year for both titles, gold and silver medals from the Military Writers Society of America, five Pushcart nominations, a nomination to Best American Short Stories, National Indies Excellence Finalist recognition, and writing fellowships in eight states. She lives in Celo, North Carolina, and is the founder of Maximum Impact, a transformative mentoring service for creative writers that has been recognized by both CNBC and the What Works Network. Learn more at www.kateyschultz.com.