Specifics of Hell

Kayla Rae Whitaker

This was the year we all had to take DARE in class. We learned about druggery in DARE. That’s what Officer Anderson called it. Druggery.

None of us knew what crack or angel dust were. Those of us who’d been able to sneak around our parents and watch Scarface knew about cocaine, at least a little bit. Officer Anderson brought a suitcase full of drugs to class one day, labeled like a bug collection. He pointed out each one, lingering weirdly over the morning glory seeds, discussing the contours of the mushrooms, skating pretty fast over marijuana. A lot of us had already seen that at Brian Tolson’s house. His dad left buds lying on the coffee table next to the channel changer. Mr. Tolson called them buds, like they were old friends of his.

That day at lunch, Aron tried to snort salt like it was cocaine. “Say hello to my little friend!” he yelled. After, he cried and pawed at his nose. When he puked, he got to go home.

Dad did Officer Anderson’s taxes. “How are you liking DARE?” he asked at dinner that night.

At Brian Tolson’s house, his mother brought her Pabst Blue Ribbon to the table. They ate while watching television. My parents kept no liquor in their house. They did not smoke. They spoke quietly to each other. Most foods on our plates were muted shades of green, brown, and white. We always had a bread product. Dad adjusted his glasses over his gravy, looked at me.

“It’s okay.”

“Learning some good stuff?”

“I guess so, yeah.”

“What did you learn about today?”

“Angel dust.”

“I don’t know what that is,” my mother said.

Dad shrugged and picked up his fork. “Some drug people use to get high.”

“Well,” Mom said, “I think it’s a great idea, this DARE program. Especially for you boys. It’s the boys you have to watch against the dangerous things.” She coughed softly. No one gave a signal they had heard her.

Bryce was across the table from me chewing bread with his front teeth. “You’re gonna be a junkie when you grow up,” he said, sticking his tongue out. A damp lump of bread fell gray on the table.

“Shut up,” I said.

“He said a bad word,” Bryce cried, pointing.

“You spit food on the table.”

Dad put his fork down. “You eat that bread,” he told Bryce, then turned to me. “Don’t ever tell anyone to shut up.”

“That’s right,” Mom said. “It’s so rude.” We looked at our plates.

I was a clean child. My hair and nails were trimmed. The house was two stories with a staircase and a polished banister. Floors were swept, surfaces rubbed, furniture settled at right angles. I was provided for, but I could not help but take anxiety into myself. Dinosaurs, for instance. When every other boy in the first grade loved dinosaurs, wore clothing with dinosaurs, ripped into T-Rex sheet cakes at birthday parties, I was terrified of them—creatures I imagined as big or bigger than my town’s perimeters, too huge to live for long. We were told in science class that fuel came from the remains of prehistoric dinosaurs, the rich, ancient void threaded with coal. I dreamt of the dinosaurs waking up, angry that people were building on top of them, driving up and down their spines. I imagined them unfurling tails longer than the interstate and uprooting schools and Walmarts, mashing their feet, sending little kid blood running into the creek.

My father was an accountant, a man to whom everything lay in columns of right and wrong, lesser and more, ordinal and subsequent. He shook his head and looked weirdly disappointed when I asked him about the dinosaur bones in the mountains, much as he’d looked when I confessed to him that I was afraid of the zombies on the railroad tracks. “That’s ridiculous,” he said. “There’s nothing there. What you see is what is there. And that’s it.”

Our mother kept the house. Like most other mothers we knew, she seemed to talk more than Dad and say less. “Stop being silly,” she echoed him on the dinosaur issue. “Good gracious, honey. Dinosaurs aren’t even real. You should know that.”

God was the only thing our father insisted was there without the benefit of solid proof. Dinner always began with a short, stern prayer, a request that the Lord keep us safe. We started all our dinners this way: with a plea to something we couldn’t see for salvation from things we couldn’t imagine while my mind flashed unwittingly on the lady in the slip, the arch of her back, the noise she made.

Sometimes I sat at the table with my parents and brother and I watched their heads tilted forward over their plates. I could see their hairlines, the smooth peak in their foreheads wrinkle when they chewed, and the blood in me would cry out, wanting to believe the lie, force the admission: yes, I belonged here.

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