Maud Newton

Luke

On Sunday, April 19, 1981, Luke's story led the local section of The Miami Herald: "Naked Man Drove Away, Left Officer Holding the Pants." In the sidebar was a quote from the arresting officer ("He said he had conversations with God, that God told him to take his clothes off.") and a photo of Luke's beat-up shoes, abandoned near Peacock Park in Coconut Grove. The article traced Luke's path from the Grove to our door, and cleared up how he got his hands on the squad car. Seems Luke stole it when the officer walked down the street to pick up Luke's clothes without handcuffing him first.

But the Herald didn't tell the real story, not about the church or how Luke asked Mom to marry him the week before—none of the stuff I'm getting ready to tell you. They got it all wrong because Mom got there just after the cops and sent us inside, before we could talk to the reporters. So my little sister, Faith, and I just sat on the couch and peeked through the blinds while cameras filmed the guy from Channel 6, in front of our house, talking into his microphone.

* * *

When I'd opened the door that night, Luke hadn't mentioned God. He just smiled and took off his sunglasses. "Is your Mom home?" he asked. "I need to repent."

"Not yet," I said. Then I looked below his broad, tanned chest to his penis, limp in a patch of auburn hair.

I slammed the door in his face.

It's been about four years, now, but when I think about it my hands still get clammy and my stomach leaps up all over again. I'd never even seen a naked man before, except in a Playgirl I once found on the side of the road. My own father keeps himself so hidden from me that to this day I've never seen him without his shirt on.

We used to vacation in Ft. Myers, back when we were just a plain old unhappy family instead of a fucked-in-the-head one. Dad ran along the beach and dove into the waves like a little kid. "Come play, girls, come play," he yelled to Faith and me. But even then he wore a t-shirt, a white one just like the ones he wore to work under his suits.

* * *

But back to Luke. When he knocked on the door, the VCR clock said 8:00. The last rays of the sun stretched out over the screened-in porch and reflected in our pool, which sounds really peaceful and scenic, right? Except that Mom had bought a house in the middle of an industrial warehouse district, so behind the porch and the pool lay an access road, and beyond that was a construction site where workers slapped up new warehouses when they weren't gulping down Cuban coffee.

Faith and I were watching The Shining on HBO, something Mom hadn't forbidden us to do because she didn't know what kind of stuff HBO showed. She thought you had to pay for HBO to get the Trinity Broadcasting Network, and I wasn't about to explain the concept of basic cable to her.

I guess I should have told Faith not to watch the movie. She was only seven and I'm supposed to be responsible, what with being her big sister by five years and all. But, hell, I wanted to watch it too. So we were already scared out of our minds—and we both jumped—when we heard someone coming up the walk. Faith flicked off the TV, in case it was Mom.

At the sound of Luke's knock—three short loud knocks, then three more—Faith turned the movie back on because she knew Luke would never tell on us. She was at the part with the tricycle and the little girls, so she didn't turn around to see Luke standing there, naked except for his sunglasses.

But after I slammed the door shut, Faith whirled around and saw Luke running past the front windows, his penis bobbing slightly. She clutched the sofa cushion and screamed, like a girl on a ferris wheel.

"Don't worry, Faith, it's OK," I said, in my best big-sister voice. She stopped screaming, and I noticed all the sliding-glass doors between the pool and the living room and kitchen were open.

As I moved to close them, I heard a rat in the next room, scuffling across the kitchen floor.

* * *

Every night, rats darted around the kitchen. Pregnant rats and baby rats and older, graying rats, but never skinny rats. And there were palmetto bugs, huge flying roaches with glossy bodies. When we flicked on the light at night, the floor crawled black and brown over the dull, red linoleum. Generally, at least one bug took flight, and we covered our heads so it didn't get tangled in our hair.

The palmetto bugs grew so bold they walked over our shoes to get back to their holes after we turned on the light. To avoid this, we would run back to the hall until we thought everything was hidden. Then we'd tiptoe back in, step over the stragglers, stock up with food and water for the night, then retreat to our rooms.

Like I started to explain before, our house was the lone residence in an industrial warehouse district near the Palmetto Expressway in West Miami. Across from us an auto body shop took up the whole block. Next door, not far from my window, was a small feed processing plant that packaged birdseed and dog food and whatnot. The machinery started up early, before I left for school, and ground to a halt every day around five. Sometimes, maybe when they were making cat food, our whole block reeked of tuna fish.

Mom said it was the feed plant that attracted the rats and roaches, but she wouldn't call an exterminator. "I don't want that poison in my house," she once told me. "Besides, rats won't hurt you."

"Haven't you heard of the Bubonic Plague, Mom?" I asked her.

"That was hundreds of years ago, Ruth. And we don't have any fleas."

"Not yet, anyway," I said.

Mom closed in on me and yelled, right in my face, "I bind that up in Jesus' name." Then, more quietly, she said, "You'd better change your confession, young lady, and believe—like me—that we won't have any fleas, ever."

"Yes ma'am," I said, turning away.

Mom cherished this idea that by saying something negative might happen, you removed yourself from God's protection and gave Satan the power to do whatever it was that you said. So you had to ask Jesus to bind up your words so Satan couldn't act on them, and then you had to say something positive instead. I was the kind of kid who always expected the worst and said what I thought, so this positive confession thing was a constant flash point with Mom. I always pretended to agree with her, but in my heart I didn't, and when the next negative thought came into my mind I'd once again say it without thinking.

Anyhow, just a couple of blocks up the street from the feed plant were two gigantic warehouses transformed into Holy Ghost Ministries Fellowship, the homemade church where Mom was the pastor.

Inside, the entire church—including the bare concrete floor—was painted aqua. Mom's podium headed up the big room, front and center, on a platform covered with purple carpet.

On Sundays, Mom led the singing, keeping time with her tambourine. Luke played along on his guitar. Faith and I and the other kids sang along, but after the songs we sat in the back, in metal folding chairs, and drew pictures. Mom raised her hands and kept singing, but in tongues instead of English. "Unbah clingah caugh teeyay," she sang. Other adults joined in, each in a different tongue.

Some danced, some laughed, and some were slain in the Spirit even before Mom touched their foreheads. They crumpled to the floor and lay there, limp. Somebody had to make sure to toss brightly-colored blankets over ladies who exposed too much leg when they fell. Usually, Luke did it, but he wasn't very good at it because he always kept his eyes on Mom.

One Sunday, Joan Sprays, a thin woman with short, bristly gray hair, delivered an unusually brief prophetic message from God. "O my children," Joan sang out, "You must turn from your wickedness or I shall curse your children for generation upon generation." When Joan twitched and fell to the floor, I wondered if she'd had a heart attack. I'd seen a man have one on the street once, while visiting my grandparents in Mississippi. He put his hand to his heart and staggered and fell, right in front of the John Hancock Bank, and I screamed bloody murder. But of course Joan was just drunk with the Holy Ghost, like everybody else. Seconds later she hopped back up and started prophesying again.

Some people yelled, some whispered, but everyone said, "Amen."

* * *

One day I stood with the adults as they started speaking in tongues. I wanted to believe, and I tried putting my hands in the air, but I felt like an impostor. I was afraid to tell Mom it didn't feel right to me, that I preferred the Presbyterian church with its organ and 20-minute sermon, and—even worse—that if I had my choice I wouldn't go to church at all. Adults who didn't believe in church had to go to the exorcism group to have their Anti-Christ demons cast out.

Mom gloried in identifying people's demons and pointing them out. Like if I finished the last of a jumbo bag of Doritos—to her, my gluttony demon was behind it. This despite the fact that I was underweight. When I took too long choosing my meal in a restaurant, Mom said it was because of my doublemindedness demon. When I was molested by a church member, in my own bed, it was because the demons of a former prostitute, who'd shared my bed for a few months because Mom said she could, had jumped into the bed and then jumped on the man.

In Mom's view, the world was full of demons that could be transmitted like the flu and overtake your senses. Before you knew it you'd be committing adultery or shooting up heroin or be possessed by a dementia demon and locked up in a psych ward. I wasn't sure what to think. I got pretty paranoid when I thought about demons.

Mom's sermons varied in length, but you could count on at least an hour. The day I stayed with the adults for the tongues stuff, I felt too self-conscious sneaking to the back of the church to draw so I sat up front for the sermon. Just my luck, it was about not saying negative stuff. "Your confession of faith in God's Word," Mom began, "will bring healing or anything you need from God into your life."

The women sat forward in their seats. They nodded and shouted out "Hallelujah, Sister," "Amen," and "Glory." Come to think of it, I guess one reason Mom's sermons took so long was that people were always interrupting with stuff like that.

The men sat toward the front of their seats, too, but most of them didn't seem to be listening. They just stared at Mom.

* * *

Mom had a pretty face, a large chest, thick blonde hair and yellow cat eyes that she insisted were also blonde. She was short and a little plump, but she carried her weight like a woman who knew and liked herself. Sometimes cops pulled her over just to ask her on dates, and she always gave them the same tract about salvation. The booklet was blue, and it said "I got it!" on the cover. Mom was like a high school cheerleader for God, and like a cheerleader she had a large following.

But until I was four years old or so, Mom was hardly even a Christian. Neither was Dad. I mean, we said grace at the table, but I never really knew who we were saying it to. It was just something we did. But Dad left Mom at home too many nights while he did research at the law library, or so he said, and Mom got bored with being a plain old housewife. She'd never admit it, but that's exactly what happened.

In college, Mom was a sorority girl at Southern Methodist University, in Dallas, and she'd earned a Master's in English there. But even though her school had the word Methodist in the title, Mom didn't focus on God so much as on dating doctors and learning to drink martinis and reading Edith Wharton and Sartre. When she graduated, she was an office manager at Texas Instruments and she had 30 cats in a small apartment. She ditched the cats, married a lawyer, divorced him, and then married Dad. She tried being just a wife and homemaker and mother for few years, but, as I said, Dad left her at home, alone, too many nights while he worked late. Mom got bored and sad, and when a friend of hers got saved, Mom did too.

Basically, Mom doesn't do anything halfway, but she also doesn't do many things for very long. Except the church, I guess.

* * *

I could go on and on, but I was talking about Mom's sermon. I tuned most of it out, but I remember that she ended it by telling the congregation to be assertive with God. "You'll never get anything from God if you don't claim it," she said. "If you want more than you have in life, don't speak of natural circumstances you see, but speak from your spirit. You'll enjoy God's abundant life as you have what you say." Something like that.

She capped it off with a song perfectly suited to the subject. "I made a quality decision just now, I'm gonna live by my faith in God's Word," she sang.

As she sang, she stepped down from her pulpit platform and danced in front of it with her tambourine. Some of the other women danced with her, but the men just followed her with their eyes.

I guess women followed Mom because she spoke loudly and clearly, and seemed like she knew what she was doing. It took me a long time to figure out that men followed Mom for different reasons. Because they were in love with her or wanted to get in her pants.

Luke was in love with her.

* * *

Luke came into our lives slowly, like driftwood, moving toward us, pulling away, then drifting back again. He first came to church when it was held in the living room of our old house. His hair, a rich auburn, was long and curly. His eyes were green.

He looks like a really tall leprechaun, I thought. That or an Irish Jesus.

Luke drove a taxi and lived with five other guys in an abandoned house on a trashy street in Coconut Grove. They were all heroin addicts, including Luke, but it was Luke who ingratiated himself with Mom right off the bat by bringing his roommates and other friends to church. He also asked for photocopies of Mom's sermons and offered to play the church songs on his guitar. More than once I saw him staring at Mom's chest, watching her bend over. I saw his tanned jaw clench when she touched another man.

Mom knew about the heroin, but thought I didn't, and she let Luke pick me up from school. That was fine with me. I liked Luke. He had a soft manner of speaking, and a way of brushing my hair from my face, gently, the way a father should. When nobody else was around he talked to me like a friend instead of a kid.

He didn't like breaking into houses, he said, but he had to do it for money.

* * *

Just three months before Luke decided to become a flasher, Mom, Faith, and I still lived with Dad in a giant house with bahama shutters in Coral Gables. Mandarin orange trees and yellow hibiscus lined our driveway. A canal flowed through the backyard.

It was a nice house, but don't get me wrong, I didn't like living with Dad. He's a native of Meridian, Mississippi—grew up helping his granddaddy boss the hired help around on a small family farm. Graduated valedictorian from Washington & Lee Law School, and now he's an insurance defense attorney. Dad's strict as hell, even now that Faith and I only spend two nights a week at his house.

Dad spanked us if we didn't finish our food in the amount of time he gave us. "Spare the rod and spoil the child," he said, as though that explained why I had to eat macaroni and cheese even though it made me retch. I was never happier than the time he made me eat a hot dog when I was sick to my stomach and afterward I threw up all over the leather seats of his new Cadillac. I even threw up through my nose, and it hurt like hell, but I was just glad I could mess up his car, even a little bit.

He was, and is, a total racist. But not a backwoods Bubba kind of racist who runs around using the "n" word. In some ways it was worse than that. Like this one time his grandmother sent Faith and me a book of nursery rhymes that had pictures of white and black children playing together in it. Dad opened vials of Mom's nail polish and obscured the heads of the black children in our storybooks with colors like "Fuschia Explosion" and "Ballet Slipper."

"Birds of a feather flock together," he told us. He forgot to let the polish dry before closing the book, so the pages were stuck together forever.

* * *

Back then, Mom held church in our living room on Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights, with an exorcism group on Thursdays. She hot-rolled her hair and put on a flowered dress for every service. All by herself, she pushed the furniture out of the way, and set up a hundred folding chairs and a small sound system. She filled a basket with prayercloths, for the churchgoers to lay on their bad backs and tumors.

To expose us to his own version of Christianity, every other Sunday, Dad took Faith and me to Granada Presbyterian, the church up the street where Faith was baptized. Mom and Dad used to go there together, but then Mom discovered the Holy Ghost and she never set foot in that church again. When Dad took us up there, there was always a fight.

The worst fight was when Mom chased Dad across the front yard, yelling. "Get thee hence, Satan!" she said.

"You're nuts, Marjorie. You need professional help," Dad said.

"Oh just, go on to that dead church, with all those hypocrites."

But when we started to leave, she grabbed his Bible, tore a bunch pages from it, and threw them around the yard.

"Good heavens. Get a hold of yourself," Dad said.

"Come out of him, in Jesus' name," she screamed at him.

Dad shook his head. "Come on girls," he said, walking next to the street to shield Faith and me from traffic.

Even to church, Dad wore office clothes, navy suits and small clock cufflinks that actually kept time. "Your mother's beliefs just aren't normal," he said. "Speaking in tongues, this nonsense about demons, and all those undesirable people." He trailed off, mused to himself, quietly, "She's smart and well-educated. I thought she would be a good mother."

I know, he doesn't sound believable. He doesn't sound like a real person. Believe me, I know. But here's the thing: he just isn't at all like a real person. Like maybe he thinks he's stuck in an episode of Father Knows Best, and he tries to pretend life is like it was on a TV show from the 50's. It's hard to explain.

On the way to church that day, he told us how he saved this insurance company lots of money after a guy who worked for a big cruise company got crushed to death in Government Cut. The family sued because the guy wasn't given the right stuff to do his job, but the insurance company hired Dad and he got the case thrown out "I argued that his family's sole remedy at law lay in workers' compensation. So the family was barred from continuing its lawsuit," he said.

I pretended to pay attention, pressed Faith's hand, and counted the number of steps to the church. I remember thinking of other men I knew, like Luke, and wishing I had a different father.

* * *

Before the divorce, Luke took me with him to the Grove one time to buy pot. He parked the cab behind Krest 5 & 10, got himself a bottle of Miller and me an IBC Root Beer. We walked a few blocks back from the street to his drug dealer's house. The house was shrouded with trees, and the fence around it leaned if you pushed on it.

"Don't push that fence over, Ruth," Luke said. "Or they'll have my ass."

I knew Luke usually went in and hung out with Glicken, the dealer, but that time Luke said, "No, man, I got the kid with me."

"Why'd you bring your kid, Luke, you fuckup?" Glicken asked. His blonde ponytail stuck out the hole in his baseball cap.

Luke didn't tell Glicken that I wasn't his child. He just put his hand on my shoulder, handed over a fat wad of bills, and said, "Watch your language, Brother."

Luke never bought heroin around me, only weed. In the car, he rolled up a joint, fast and tight, but he made me roll down the windows when he lit it. "Don't want you getting high, Ruth. Don't want to kill your precious brain cells."

"I'm not a baby," I said.

But when I didn't do it, Luke reached over and rolled down the window for me. "Never said you was a baby, Ruthie," he said, "But you gonna grow up and make yourself a fine writer or lawyer or something. You leave this shit alone."

I was twelve then, the girl with the weird mother, an outcast even at the strict Christian school I went to. So I was loyal to Luke, who confided in me like a friend, and protected me like a father. I never told my parents about the Grove trip. If she stopped writing her sermon or praying for people long enough to notice I wasn't home yet, Mom probably thought we were at the arcade. And Dad, in his office downtown on Brickell, thought I was with Mom.

* * *

Dad first met Luke by accident, when Mom invited Luke to dinner one night since Dad was working late.

Luke ended up making the whole meal. He fried up some chicken and okra, and let Faith sit on his lap and shape the biscuits.

When we got to the apple pie, which Mom bought at Publix, he took one bite, looked at Mom, and said, "Margie, even my own mama couldn't bake an apple pie as sweet as this one."

Mom blushed. She didn't tell him the pie was store-bought, and neither did I.

Faith said, "Mommy, I thought—" I reached under the table and squeezed her knee, which almost always made Faith giggle. But this time she just said, "—thought you said I could have a big piece."

Luke smiled. "Now that's a girl after my own heart," he said. Then he told us about growing up in Mobile, Alabama, right on the water. One time there was this hurricane, and they didn't have electricity for days. But his mom just fired up the barbecue grill and cooked some waffles with her waffle iron. "We covered those waffles with molasses when we ran out of syrup," he said.

I couldn't help comparing having dinner with Luke to having dinner with Dad. Like just the week before, Dad came to dinner 15 minutes after Mom called everybody to eat. We were just waiting for him, sniffing and staring at the juicy pot roast, because God forbid we start without him. By the time he sat down, the roast wasn't even steaming anymore.

He said grace, then right away asked if I'd finished my homework.

"Yes."

He froze and looked up, holding a big chunk of roast on his fork. "Yes, what?"

"Yes, sir."

"And what did you learn in school today?" He was still holding his fork there.

"Nothing."

"You must have learned something."

"I guess so."

Then he slammed the fork on his plate and the piece of roast flew on the floor. Mom, Faith, and I focused on our plates. "What did you learn, Ruth?" he said.

So I said the first thing I thought of, the wrong thing, which was how southern slaveowners cut off the toes of their runaway slaves. The next day was Saturday, and Dad lectured all day, pulling out encyclopedias, retracing battlegrounds, telling me how good my ancestors were to their slaves. And the whole time, I sat there biting the insides of my cheeks and thinking, I hate you, shut up.

* * *

While Luke was at dinner that night, I told him about the slaves' toes getting cut off. He said, "That just don't seem right. It was a different time, but a person's a person."

I mean, I knew he wasn't saying anything profound, but at least he didn't defend the slaveowners. And then Mom said, "I couldn't agree more," even though she didn't say a damned thing the night I told Dad.

After dinner, Mom tried to send Faith and me to bed, but we stalled and looked for excuses to stay up.

Luke filled one side of the sink with hot water, and the other side with cold. I showed him the dishwasher, but he said he liked to wash by hand. And when Mom got up to help, he said, "Let me and the girls do it. Don't you chip your pretty red polish in this water."

Mom smiled. "Alright, girls. But get ready for bed first."

Faith brushed her teeth and then poked around in the wastebasket while I brushed mine. She's still a kid, but even kids should know better than rooting through the garbage, so I said, "Faith, gross."

She straightened up, held up a used syringe, and pulled the cap off in one motion. "Look, Ruth!"

It had to be Luke's. And what if she pricked herself and OD'ed on heroin or got a disease? "Hold still," I said.

She laughed and pointed the needle at me. "Let me give you a shot."

"Faith, drop it right now. It's dangerous as hell."

I guess something in my voice got through, maybe the cursing, which I try not to do in front of her. She dropped it, just as Mom called down the hall, "Girls, what's all the commotion? Luke is waiting."

"Coming," we yelled back.

I re-capped the syringe, wrapped it in toilet paper, and dropped it back in the garbage. "That's a used needle," I whispered. "You can get diseases from them." I paused for effect. "Plus, it's Luke's needle, and if Mom finds out he used it here, she might not let him hang around. And if Dad finds out I can't even imagine what kind of trouble we'll all get in."

"I won't tell," Faith whispered back.

We raced to the kitchen, like everything was normal. Faith climbed up on a stool to help Luke wash while I dried. She looked up at him, through her long, black eyelashes, so much like Dad's, and said, "I wish you could have dinner with us every night."

I wondered if Mom was thinking the same thing.

A few minutes later, a car pulled into the driveway, and then there were steps on the walk.

"Dad's home," I said, trying to hold my voice steady. I was pretty sure Dad wouldn't be happy to see Faith and me washing dishes with a long-haired guy from Mom's church.

Nobody else said anything.

When Dad walked into the kitchen, Mom gave him a hug, but he didn't smile or even hug her back. He just stood there, stiff, staring over his shoulder at Luke, Faith, and me, and the sink, which was getting ready to overflow. Mom turned around and looked at us, too. "This is Luke," she said.

Luke dried off his hand and held it out in front of him, but Dad didn't shake it. He turned around and walked out of the kitchen without saying a word.

Mom followed him. They were right outside the kitchen door when Dad said, "Do I have to put up big, blinking signs to keep these ne'er-do-wells out of my house?"

The whole house was silent for a second before Luke said, "Excuse me, girls." Then he walked right out to Mom and Dad. "I never been one wants to impose," he said. "Goodnight, sir. Margie."

I heard him let himself out and drive off in his taxi.

* * *

After Luke left, Mom opened the fridge and hurled the food and condiments all over the floor. Then she started on the wedding china. And then she disappeared for three days.

Soy sauce stained the kitchen wallpaper. Mustard, ketchup, mayonnaise, and relish formed a pinwheel on our marble Florida room floor. Tiny, 14-carat china shards floated in a pool of orange juice. The house smelled like the dumpster behind a Chinese restaurant.

I considered cleaning it up for Faith's sake, if nothing else, but it was their goddamned mess. In the end, I decided they should be the ones out there with a garbage bag and bleach, and maybe a shovel.

Dad just stepped over it. He more or less pretended it wasn't there, that Mom wasn't gone, that it was normal for him to cancel client meetings and drive us to and from school himself. Mom came back in time to drive us to school on Wednesday morning and had the place ready for church that night.

When Mom and Dad fought, I always sided with Mom. She was weird, for sure, but at least she was passionate. At least she talked about something other than taxes and politics and birds of a feather. At least she wasn't mean.

I tried to convince Mom to divorce him. I went up to her when she was applying mascara in her makeup mirror. "He's just so mean. I hate him," I told her.

"He's your father; he loves you," she said. "And besides, divorce is wrong, Ruth."

"But you were divorced before."

"I wasn't filled with the Holy Ghost then," she said.

* * *

We didn't see Luke for at least a month after he took off in his cab that night. When he showed up at church again, he looked skinny and pale, except for the black circles under his eyes. He pulled out his guitar and played "Rejoice in the Lord Always" like he'd never played it before. And when everybody spoke in tongues, Luke stood next to the stage, tears streaming down his face. And then fell to the floor in a heap. His sobs filled the sanctuary.

"Praise you Jesus," Mom said, standing over him and speaking in tongues.

I thought maybe Luke's sobbing had less to do with Jesus and more to do with Mom.

Luke started spending more time at our house, helping Mom with the cleaning while she worked on her sermons. The next time Dad came home to find Luke in the kitchen, he said, "You again?"

And Luke said, "Looks that way, don't it?"

That night it was Dad who left the house in a huff. He didn't come home that night, and the next day Mom got served with divorce papers.

Then, in like two days, Mom agreed to move out of the house. Dad paid her half the money for it, and Mom used it to buy the rat house and the church warehouses.

"Shouldn't we put something in savings?" I asked.

Mom sighed and shook her head. "Trust in Jesus to provide."

When Faith and I first saw the new house, we thought it sucked. There weren't even any other houses around. But Mom won us over with the pool, until we moved in and found out about the rats.

* * *

The Grove guys painted the church. They built the platform for Mom's podium and covered it with carpet. All of them except Luke asked Mom out on dates, and she was too polite to just come out and say no way. "I'm flattered, but I don't want to ruin a good friendship," she told them. Or "I'm not ready to date yet, so soon after my divorce."

Mom liked being around Luke. He was a big help, she said, and he reminded her of her father. He was at our house all the time, hanging light fixtures, trimming the shrubs. Once he even convinced Mom to let him spray the kitchen with Raid.

He ate with us almost every night, and afterward he pushed his plate away and said, "Margie, you're a miracle worker in more ways than one," even though he cooked most of the food. Then Faith and I helped with the dishes. Sometimes he sucked on my neck or Faith's and left hickeys, but it was always in front of Mom and it never seemed as screwed up as it sounds.

* * *

Dad picked us up twice a week, and it was just like always except that Mom wasn't there and we got to eat out. He ordered for us, of course, and I wondered if he took pains to pick the foods we hated, but I guess he just thought he was picking out something healthy. Then we went to his house and he sat in his study and worked on stuff for his clients while Faith and I looked at the same Richie Rich comics we'd had for years.

Before every visit, we cried and begged Mom not to send us to his house. But she just gave us the "he's your father" line and packed us up and sent us on.

We lived for the times he went away on business.

* * *

One of those times, on a Friday night, he was in San Francisco and Faith and I got to stay home. We sat with Mom and Luke and watched the news. Dan Rather started talking about the first ever space shuttle lift-off, from Cape Canaveral, set for early Sunday morning. "An event that will be remembered for generations," he said.

Luke said we should all go.

I never thought Mom would let us. And at first she said, "I don't know, Luke. There's church Sunday, and the girls would be worn out for school on Monday."

"But the girls would remember it forever." Luke said, winking at Faith and me. "And you could use a break." He smiled at Mom, cocked his head to the side and raised his eyebrows. "When was the last time you took a vacation, Margie?"

"I guess I could ask Joan to preach this week," Mom said.

Faith squeezed my knee under the table.

The drive was great, like those photos of a 50's family on a road trip, except we drove in a taxi instead of a shiny, new sedan, and we drove at night.

We got as close as we could to Cape Canaveral, then sat on the hood of the car, smacking the mosquitoes on our legs, drinking Cokes from the cooler. Just after sunrise, we felt the shuttle thunder into the sky, watched it flare and leave a trail of smoke behind it. The air was wet and smelled bitter, but we didn't care.

Luke had his hand on the back of Mom's neck, and they were both smiling. For the first time I thought maybe they would get married, maybe Luke would get off heroin and stop stealing. Maybe we could have dinner with him every night.

On the drive back home, Faith fell asleep, and I pretended to. Mom and Luke sang church songs, like, "You Gotta Keep on Casting Your Bread Upon the Water." I stayed awake, but kept my eyes shut. They didn't know I was listening when Luke popped the question.

"Before your divorce, I tried to stay away because I knew it wasn't right to desire a married woman," he said. "But I knew when he divorced you it was a sign from God that you and I are meant to be together."

Squinting a tiny bit, I saw Mom put her hand on his shoulder. "Luke, please—"

"It's God's will, Margie," he said. "Will you marry me?"

Mom sighed and took her hand away. It seemed like a long time before she said, really quietly, "I can't."

"I'll go into rehab," Luke said. "I'll change."

"It's just not possible," Mom said. She rolled down her window. Then she put her hand out, swirling it around like an airplane.

* * *

We didn't see Luke for almost a week, not until that awful night. At the sound of his knock, I flung open the door, and there he stood, smiling and bare-chested. It took me a while—seconds, minutes, I don't know—to realize he was naked. But I already said all of that.

So I moved to close the back sliding-glass doors. I slid the first one closed and locked it just as Luke appeared in the backyard holding a bottle that he smashed against the house.

Faith screamed.

When Luke used the sharp edge of the bottle to slice the porch screen open, I gave up on the doors. Grabbing Faith's hand, I pulled her up off the couch. "We have to run, Faith. Run as fast as you can. Don't let go of my hand."

So we ran out the front door and then froze for a second in the driveway, where a police car sat with its lights flashing. The front left side was smashed in, and the car smoked and hissed. But there were no cops around. Maybe Luke stole the car, I thought. Or killed a cop.

I picked Faith up and started running again. My stomach was churny and sour, and my mouth tasted like metal. Out of nowhere, I yelled, "I hate Luke." It felt good to say it, to yell. So then I yelled, "And Mom too. I hate Mom more."

Poor Faith started crying. She covered her ears—because I was so loud, or because of what I said, I don't know which. I held her to me and kept running.

Men were working late at the auto body shop, and they whistled as I ran by, barefoot, in my tight red tank top and shorts. An 18-wheeler lumbered around the corner, grazing the curb a couple feet from us. I swerved away from the street, nearly dropping Faith.

And suddenly I thought of Dad, shielding Faith and me from traffic. Glancing at his clock cufflinks when we walked to church. The undershirts he wore at all times. I ran another block before I realized I was crying. The lights of the police cars were blurry coming toward me; the wailing of the sirens was muted.

I held Faith in one arm and tried to flag the cops down with the other, but they raced by, toward my house, and pulled into our driveway.

I guess they called in backup because soon there were five cop cars in front of our house, not counting the mysterious, banged-up one. If we'd had neighbors, they would have been in their yards, staring, but there was nobody except for me and Faith and the auto repair men, subdued now that the cops were here. And of course Luke.

I don't know where they found him, but from where we stood I saw one cop, with a big, round stomach, wrap a blanket around Luke. "C'mon, Casanova," the officer yelled, loud enough for all the cops and everybody for several blocks to hear. He cuffed Luke and shoved him in a car.

That was when Faith and I started walking back toward the house. Faith's hand gripped mine, hard, and both of us were sweating. Faith was quiet.

"They got him. It's gonna be OK now." I said, even though I didn't believe it.

"I guess," she said. But I knew it was messed up for a little kid to go through all of this, and I was pretty worried about her. Plus, I didn't know what I was going to say to the cops. But Mom showed up before the cops even noticed us, right at the same time as the WCIX news van. She marched right up to the officer with the big belly. "What's happening here?" she said.

"Move along, lady," he said, his voice flat, but then he eyed her breasts and smiled at her.

"I beg your pardon," she said, "but this is my house, and I have a right to know what exactly is going on."

I ran over and Faith followed. "Luke showed up naked and then he cut through the porch screen when he found out you weren't home," I said.

The cop looked at Faith and me for the first time. Mom looked over at the WCIX van, and at the cop car where Luke was sitting, staring down at his hands. "Shut up and go inside, Ruth," she said. Then she looked back at the cop.

Faith walked toward the house, but I just stood there.

"Do you know this Luke?" the cop asked Mom. "We'll need a statement from you and your kids to press charges."

"Ruth, go inside before I blister your butt here in front of God and everybody," Mom said.

So I just went in and sat with Faith on the sofa, listening to the rats bustle around the kitchen. Peeking through the blinds. Watching Mom and the cops, and the news guy talking into this microphone.

When Mom came in, Faith asked, "Mommy, what happened?"

Mom looked at us like we were part of the furniture, like she didn't hear Faith. Finally, she said, "You girls get away from that window—and don't even think of going outside, Ruth."

Faith started crying again. "I'm hungry," she said. "I'm so hungry."

Mom sat down across from us in a chair and rubbed her temples with her index fingers. She sighed, and I thought maybe she was going to talk to us about Luke, about how she felt and what was going on. But she said, "Ruth, fix your sister a sandwich. I've got a sermon to deliver in the morning." Standing, she slid the last two sliding glass door shut, locked them, went back to her room, and closed the door.

Faith cried so hard she didn't even make any noise. She fell over on the sofa and cried, no matter what I said, and it scared me. So I didn't worry about the rats. I went right in the kitchen and made her a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with extra strawberry jelly, smushed together the way she likes it. The rats scattered back behind the fridge, but a palmetto bug flew toward the sandwich while I was making chocolate milk and I caught the bug in my bare hand and crushed it and threw it on the floor.

But Faith wouldn't eat, wouldn't go to our room, wouldn't even talk to me. She just kept crying. Once she fell asleep, I carried her to her bed and covered her up.

I couldn't sleep all night. Kept tossing around and putting my pillow in front of the air conditioning vent when the fabric got too hot. Kept trying to block it all out of my mind—Mom, Luke, even Faith, because sometimes Faith is just too much responsibility. I thought of Luke's hair, redder down there than on his head. Mom with her tambourines and her big plans and her sermons. Faith, her eyelashes matted together from the tears.

And I thought again of Dad and his undershirts, felt my eyes get hot and my mouth dry out. I couldn't figure out why I kept thinking about him all of a sudden.

At about 5 a.m., I heard the Herald thump down on the sidewalk, and decided to read the funnies, get all this stuff off my mind. But I flipped to the Local section and there was the quote from the officer, the directions to our house, some stuff about Luke. Apparently Mom didn't volunteer any information, except that Luke was a "troubled young man she's tried to counsel at church." I read the article again and again, amazed at how something so messed up can just be transformed into a strange and amusing little story.

* * *

Then I heard Mom in the bathroom, singing, "He is Jehovah, God of creation. He is Jehovah the God that healeth thee." Like nothing ever happened.

I wanted to stomp in there and yell at her. Tear down her stupid little vanity mirror and throw her sermon in the pool. Say, "I am not going to church, not today, and not ever." But I knew I wouldn't.

I went in Faith's room and lay down next to her. In her sleep, she turned away, but I moved closer and put my arm over her.

I wondered if I should call my dad.

* * * 

Maud Newton was born in Dallas, Texas. At two, she moved to Miami, Florida, where her southern parents tried, but failed, to raise her as a lady. These days she lives and writes in Brooklyn, New York, but often returns to South Florida to pick hibiscus flowers and drink good café con leche. Her work has appeared in Eyeshot, Ducts, and elsewhere. Drop Maud a line at maud@miamistories.com.