Mom said Meth Mouth would get me if I made noise, if I screamed when Dale crawled in my sheets.
“Meth Mouth’ll get you when you’re alone, like he gets all girls who go bad and give their parents grief.” Mom sat at the kitchen table smoking under a single light that hung from the tin roof of the first trailer she had after Dad went to live alone by the river. She worked all day at an office answering phones; she wore suit coats with shoulder pads and she did up her face and her hair was a perm in tight knots. When she was home she smoked and ate ice cream from the box and told Dale he was dog-shit for leaving all the dishes undone.
When Dale went to my sister’s room and shut the door she told me to make no sounds because Meth Mouth was listening with his ears to the walls and waiting for some stupid girl to slip up so he could get her and maker her quiet for good. “He hears even the smallest whispers,” she said. “Because he’s waiting for you to say them so he can come in in the dark and smile his terrible teeth.” She smoked these slender cigarettes and sucked the ice cream from the lip of the box and she told me to stop chewing my fingers, to stop being such a little slut. Mom told me all about Meth Mouth when I was seven.
My sister Sheila saw Dale the most; Dale thought her sheets were the smoothest against his bare legs and belly and so he saw her most nights, snuck in after Mom shut off the lights and slipped her night shirt on over her swinging jugs which Dale once loved to hold and suck but at some point got sick of. Mom smoked in bed with the lights off and Dale shut the door to Sheila’s room. Most days Sheila never spoke but stared at white walls at school, sucked her thumb well into sixth grade and pulled her hair out in knots. We rode the bus together in the same seat and I stroked her fingers which were raw and chewed and she stared at the brown seat and sometimes she said the bus smelled funny.
When Sheila was sixteen she cut her wrists in warm bath water. We buried her on a Saturday and on Sunday Mom burned her things in the backyard. Dale sat in a lawn chair in sandals, no shirt. He watched the flames and sometimes Mom went over and sat on his lap and played with his hair.
Dale mentioned Meth Mouth also, said he’d come and nab us when we wouldn’t sit in the same room and watch him watch porn while he pulled on his penis. We tried to go to our own rooms and he grabbed us by the backs of our shirts and slammed us into the tin walls until we were on the floor with him right above us. He pointed at us and told us to stay still while he watched porn, while women on the TV sucked dick and dived down into each other’s crotches and Dale did what he did in Mom’s only reclining chair.
When he was done (and the carpet was always rough around that recliner) he’d pull up his pants and tell us all about Meth Mouth, who walked from house to house all along the IronRange, looking into windows to see if he could see girls gone bad, girls who gave their grownups all kinds of grief.
“He looks in the windows atcha cuz he knows you don’t know he’s lookin’. He looks in the windows and waits for you to slip up and do some silly bull-shit. As soon as you do, he’s coming inside. And do you know what he does?”
Sheila and me just sat because we never said anything to Dale anyway.
“He slips off your shirts and he slits you from yer groin up to yer gullet and he plays with yer guts and he gives them to the grownups you gave so much goddamn grief to.” Dale belched his beer and rubbed his stomach. “And then he takes yer shell and he puts it in the back of a truck bed and goes on down to the next house.”
Dale would sleep after he shot his load and he shared what he knew of old Meth Mouth, and Sheila would suck her thumb and yank her hair and I’d sit and wait for Mom to come home so she could know how much I hated her, and whenever she saw me she knew. She stood inside the doorway with her big old bag of shit (she had like two hundred purses) and she set it on the piles and stacks: shoes, old mail, magazines, bags of cat food—and she stood there with her hands on her hips and her eyes on me and she stood there for a few minutes before she went into the kitchen to suck ice cream and smoke. Sometimes she screamed at me for not folding my clothes from the dryer, screamed that I was dog-shit for leaving the dishes.
On the nights Dale didn’t slip into Sheila’s sheets, he slipped into mine. Strange how the dark hides a face but not the shape.
When Sheila died I saw Dale much more often, and Mom said I was dog-shit for doing or not doing so many other things.
One summer evening Dale sat on the lawn chair by the fire pit in the back yard and watched me mow. I took the mower around in circles until the patch of grass was smaller and smaller and then suddenly gone. After the backyard he sent me off to the side yard on the east end of the trailer and I saw the pickup pass along the road, through the birches and tall grass and poison sumac.
It passed at quite a clip, so the first time it was a nothing, but when I saw it again, after I’d made a small circle of the grass in the side yard, it passed at a creep, so slow I saw the shape in the driver’s seat. It passed at a creep but it passed all the same and so I took the mower back into the front yard, by the driveway.
Before I’d even made a full loop I saw the pickup approach along the road. Rusted wheel-wells, windshield cracked in a web along the driver’s side. In the truck-bed, a twine bundle bearing hands and feet tied at the wrists and ankles; when the tires bounced off of the curb the limbs jiggled like branches.
I let go of the clutch and the mower wound down and was quiet. The pickup parked but the motor made noise down at the edge of the yard. I watched the webbed glass to see if I could see a face but I saw no face and so I turned back around the corner of the trailer, back toward where Dale sat drinking by the fire pit in what was left of the evening light. I sat at the edge of the rocks and he watched me without speaking for many minutes. He moved a hand along the base of my back, lifted my shirt. On the horizon, sun crashed light against dense pillars of cloud.
When Mom came home the pickup was gone, and she screamed to see that the yard was not yet finished. Dale slapped the back of my head and shook me by the neck and sent me inside to get to the dishes.
“Can’t do one goddamn thing right, can you?”
Mom and Dale sat by the fire pit while night came on completely. I switched on the yard light and watched the road from an open window, waited. I folded my clothes and put them in my drawers. I scooped cat shit up off the carpet while Mom and Dale drank and laughed and yelled when they were angry. Mom told Dale he was dog shit.
I was stacking the dishes when I heard the pickup pull into the driveway, when I heard the rusty slam of the driver-side door. I stood still and waited, listening from the open windows all around me. In a minute there were screams and the sound of the lawn chairs upturned and fists against meat and a wet choking sound that didn’t sound like Dale or Mom ever sounded even when they screamed. After another minute the screaming stopped and I shut off the light and sat at the kitchen table with the stacks of dishes I arranged and rearranged to look so neat, to look like Mom liked them to look when she came home from work and was exhausted and so yelled before she smoked because they were not like she liked them. I sat very still and upright in the kitchen chair, back resting against the tin wall of mother’s third trailer in ten years, and I kept myself very quiet. I did not scream or cry or fuss. I did not even whisper because I knew he was looking and listening.
And when I heard his feet on the splintered steps Dale didn’t fix, when I heard the screen door and saw his shape in the light let in through the windows, when I saw the shards of teeth, teeth like an infant fed on soda or juice instead of formula, I did not make a sound. When I saw the hands all muddy gripping the edge of the screen door, I was quiet. When I watched Meth Mouth track his heavy boots on Mom’s floor I did not give him any grief. He set the wet blade on top of the pile of old mail, by the magazines Mom insisted on subscribing to but never really read, and he smiled his shards with split lips.
And I asked him to have a seat.
Joel Kopplin’s fictions have appeared in places like Sleepingfish, Literary Orphans, apt, and Housefire. His novella, Spaces, is available from Outpost 19. He’s from Minnesota.
–Art by Dia Takácsová