Fiction

Rhonda Discovers Art

Katherine Dunn

Tweezer Painton was a burly ten-year-old with a glower built into his square mug. His name came from his hobby of grabbing individual hairs on his victims’ heads and yanking them out for fun. Mostly he did it with his thick, grubby fingers but sometimes he used tweezers stolen from his mother’s bathroom cabinet.

Whoever sat in front of him in class developed a reflexive shudder around the nape of the neck. On the playground he would throw another kid down, straddle their arms so they couldn’t fight back, and hold their screeching faces with one hand while he tweezed away at their eyebrows or head hair.

Looking back on it later, Rhonda assumed there was something strange going on in Tweezer’s house, but she never developed any sympathy for the thug. He meant nothing but pain to her and every other kid at Ribbon Ridge Elementary.

And then there was her baby brother, Todd. She was almost five years old when he was born and she had a lot of different feelings about him, all strong. He was cuter than she was, dark and dramatically adorable. She liked looking at him but she resented the attention he got.

Before he was a year old, her mother decided he was so beautiful that adults would be tempted to kidnap him, to keep him for their own. The ensuing watchfulness disgusted Rhonda. Nobody was ever scared she’d be kidnapped. And she got yelled at for every worm or bottle cap Toddy ate when she was supposed to be taking care of him. But he adored her and that sparked her interest.

As he grew she began to teach him things. They started the alphabet when he was three. She played teacher with far more rigor than she ever displayed as a student.

That crucial summer, when he’d just turned five, they’d been playing a game with the old, battered globe in her room. One of them would write down a name printed on the globe—anything from a range of mountains to a city or river, an island or a nation. The namer would go on twirling the globe and pretending to be undecided long after picking the spot so the searcher couldn’t tell on which hemisphere or continent or ocean it lay. Then the other one had to find it. If the searcher couldn’t find the place, the namer would crow and sneer and get another turn at dictating the search.

Toddy specialized in names in the smallest print. Rhonda discovered that big, obvious items could bamboozle someone who expected you to deal in the hidden. But he was smart, and she was proud of his quickness, as if she’d invented him herself.

Still, she often resented having to tend to him while her mother painted romantic pictures of other people’s gardens. He tagged along everywhere, calling her name constantly, which shamed her in front of the big kids.

On the worst Sunday of that awful July, some of the kids were going to the end of Elm Lane to fish off the rocks where Ribbon Creek boiled into the river. It was a soft day the temperature of blood. Her mother would have thrown a conniption if she’d known Rhonda was taking Todd to the river. Neither of them could swim and the current there was known to suck down strong men and powerboats. But Rhonda had a ball of twine and one of the old fishhooks from her dead grandfather’s tackle box. She wasn’t going to be stopped by her cretinous little brother. She had a life.

Jenny and Lou were already settled with real fiberglass poles and reels by the time Rhonda got there. Toddy promised not to tell and was happy scrabbling over the rocks above the rapids while she arranged her fishing gear.

Soon Rhonda was half drowsing on her back on the big rock with her heels just over the edge so an occasional spray from the rapids cooled them. The line looped around her wrist and angled down to the invisible, baitless hook buried in the fast, heavy water. Off across the river a tugboat was chasing a barge when Tweezer came blundering down from the road.

He stood above them on the grass and shouted, “Catch anything?” over the roar of the water. Jenny snarled at him to go away. This prompted Tweezer to jump down onto the rock, grab Jenny’s fishing pole, and run off into the woods. Jenny and Lou charged after him, howling threats.

Rhonda rolled an eye and saw Toddy crouched nearby teasing an ant with a grass stem. She closed her eyes and felt the heat soak into her skull again.

The pain was sharp and her eyes snapped open. She yelled “Hey!” as she lurched upward. Tweezer’s mumpy face cracked, grinning at her upside down, his hand waving the single pale hair he had just plucked from the top of her forehead. He had snuck back from the woods and come at her from above. “Asshole!” she screamed. “Y’asshole!” he bellowed back, his pink grin collapsing into fury as she kicked up at his dark denim legs.

Toddy was shrieking “Let her alone!” and his small hands reached around Tweezer’s thick leg from behind, clutching at the cloth as she kicked again and Tweezer yowed and swung away from her, his baggy-jeaned butt a sudden target for her kicking feet. He said, “Little fucker!” and his leg whipped toward the river, his voice snapping, “Don’t bite!”

Toddy flew out slowly, with his eyes and mouth open as though he were shouting. He fell languidly down and out of sight beyond the ledge. The splash of his landing was lost in the rushing of the black-and-white water as it came down off the rocks and bore deep into the twisting pool before uncoiling into the thick, fast flow of the river.

“Shit!” yelled Tweezer, bending forward to look over the edge. “He bit me!” The boy’s thick body pitched forward on knees and hands to peer over the rock and into the water as Rhonda tore at the loose stones and lifted one as big as her head and swung hard, smashing it down on the buzz-short hair above Tweezer’s neck. She felt the crunch as he fell onto his face and she brought the stone down again and blood came but she quickly pushed at his hips and rolled him, flopping, over the sharp ledge, and watched just long enough to see him sink flatly, unresisting, into the water before she threw the rock after him and went running along the ledge screaming, “Toddy! Toddy!” to the air.

Tweezer surfaced in the dragnet of a search boat that night. Rhonda was nine that day, four months away from her tenth birthday. Toddy was five when he died. They found his body the next morning floating in the dark between the creosote pilings of an abandoned pier half a mile downstream.

Rhonda told them all exactly what had happened right up to the point when Toddy flew away, and that’s where she changed it slightly, saying that he and Tweezer had fallen into the water together. The sheriff and the coroner agreed that the wounds on Tweezer’s head were from the water battering him against the rocks. Nobody hit Rhonda or yelled at her. Her mother only screamed once and then collapsed in terrible gasping tears as the sheriff’s deputies poled their metal boat around the dark pool and out into the current.

When Rhonda replayed that day in her mind, the only thing she felt good about was bashing Tim “Tweezer” Painton on the head and rolling him into the river. It was the right thing to do.

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