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"Jackie" by Stuart Phillips



Mid-August, my parents dragged me out to watch my sister, Jackie, lose the championship to Tackett’s Auto Supply. Even in early twilight the ridges of the aluminum bleachers held enough heat to burn the bottoms of my legs. Whirls of bugs clustered around gangs of 1500-watt lights. I worried that one would carom off and flutter, broken and chalky, into my Coke; I kept my hand over the top until I finished it. They told me she went 2 for 3.

Back in June, Dad “encouraged” me to skip a piano lesson with Mrs. Fant and try out for Jackie’s Dixie Youth team. One afternoon I followed her a short mile to Andrews Field. I could never keep up; even though Jackie outgrew her mountain bike two years ago she refused to pass it on, consigning me to her exhausted ten-speed with squealing brakes, handlebar tape that flaps in the wind, and a scuffed leather saddle that’s hard in all the wrong places.


I leaned my bike next to hers on the chain link fence and tightened the drawstring on my shorts. “Got any advice for me?”


Jackie took off her Braves cap, re-creased the red brim, then pulled it snug. Dad bought the hat on our family trip to Atlanta to see the home of Hank Aaron and Chipper Jones and Dale Murphy. Real wool and sized to fit. Momma asked why Jackie needed a $40 hat; Dad just said, “A real player needs a real cap” as sure and final as his other child-rearing apothegms, like “Boys don’t wear pink” and “Children are made to be seen and not heard.”


She looked across the freshly-cut grass, bright green before the Mississippi summer drained the life out of it.


“Don’t suck.”


Coach Ronnie smacked Jackie’s shoulder when she walked up. She’s the only girl on Johnson Bottling but he knew she had shortstop covered cold.


“Who’s this, Jack?”


“My little brother. Bobbie.” She waved her glove in my direction.


“Glad to have you,” Coach Ronnie said. A lump of chew clung to his left lower canine when he smiled. I nodded, even though I knew I was not the brother he hoped I was.

Jackie took the field with the starters while I milled around with the new kids, caps pulled down earnestly to show they’re ball players. I didn’t have a hat.


My glasses kept slipping down my nose when I tried to bat. I managed to hit a weak grounder straight at the mound; I did not manage to run it out. Jackie shrugged.

“Maybe fielding is your thing.”

Coach Ronnie put me in right field. Dad’s high school number 17 was painted in crisp, white letters on the fence boards. I stood around a while, appreciating the symmetry of the lines mowed into the grass. After a few to the infield, Coach called to me.

“Ready?”

I pushed my glasses up and nodded. I lost two fly balls in the blue—ran up too far then waved my glove as they thudded behind me. Finally, he cracked a blur just inside the baseline. I stepped to my left, then lost track of the ball until it slammed into my hip. I spent the rest of practice sipping cold water from a soggy paper cone and wincing whenever someone looked over. Over the next week, the circle on my bone turned purple, then blue, and eventually an unsettling shade of green. When I didn’t make the team, Dad said I had problems with depth perception, probably from Momma’s side of the family.


The season’s over, but Jackie’s got her Dixie All Stars game tomorrow, so our parents went to Safeway to get chips and root beer for the potluck.


“Jack, you’re in charge,” Dad said as they left. I want to watch cartoons, but Jackie wants to ride, so we pedal through the thick Delta morning, down Spruce to Cuyahoga, past the old high school and across the bridge to downtown.


By the time I bump over the cracked yellow curb on the corner of Yazoo and First, she is leaning against the bright blue wall of J.C. Penney. She pushes off, twists a narrow branch from the oak that clings to life in the packed dirt by the sidewalk and beats a staccato rhythm against her right leg. I lean my bike against the bricks.


“What’s that for?” I ask.


“To use on you if you don’t shut up.” She shakes the twig at me. A leaf detaches, glides to the concrete.


“No, really.”


“I’m gonna stick it in the escalator, see what happens.” Satisfied with her explanation, she heads in. I like the escalator. When Momma brings me here, I steal moments to watch the steps fold and unfold, hypnotized by the rhythmic meshing and parting. I can feel the calculations involved in making it work.


The air conditioning shocks my legs, still sheening from humidity and exertion. I shiver and stop.


“Move it, Bobbie!” She drags me down linoleum aisles bordered with carousels of bras and panties that make my neck itch. I know better than to fight. Jackie lives up to her name; a lanky thirteen, she can line a ball into center, sink a turnaround, and hop her mountain bike over a stump. I trail in her wake.


The cover is off one of the escalators and a repairman is rooting in the void. I was ready to go back out into the heat, maybe sneak a snow cone, but Jackie tucks the stick behind a pile of crisp yellow oxfords. walks over, leans against the black rubber handrail, and pops her gum until the man stops.


“Need something?”


She pops again and shakes her head. He looks at her, then goes back to wrestling with a piece of metal enrobed in thick grease. I come a few steps closer and look over the repairman’s shoulder at the mystery of chains and gears. He glances up.


“Chain’s slipping.” He points at something, and seems to expect me to understand, so I nod. I push my glasses up.


“We want to ride the escalator,” Jackie says, then resumes chewing. I don’t have her facility for knowing how to talk straight to the men who do mysterious things with their hands; I look at the grease in the cracks of their fingers and my tongue freezes.


“You can still ride the other one. Down.” He doesn’t look at her.


“No fun if we gotta take the stairs to get up there.”


“Then, you’ll have to wait until I’m done.” He pulls a dirty red rag from his back pocket and wipes something until it shines.


A crescent wrench lays off to the side. Jackie moves it a few inches with her blue Converse. She has drawn stars on the white rubber toes with Magic Marker. The man stops wiping and looks at her again. She absorbs his glare like a pond being warmed by the sun. He picks up the wrench and sets it in his toolbox. His walkie-talkie squawks from his belt, unintelligible and loud. He sighs, puts the rag back in his pocket and levers himself up with stiff knees. He glances at us, then turns away and starts talking.


I pull Jackie’s elbow. “Let’s go, Jackie.”


“Hold your horses.” She grins like she does when she leaves me behind, knees hitting her elbows as she hunches to pedal. Jackie braces on the end of the handrail and leans over. She straightens quickly as the mechanic looks back.


His eyes rest on her for a second, trying to weigh how much trouble she can be. He decides wrong. He turns away again and presses the speaker against his ear as he struggles to make out the important parts.


Jackie smiles, leans over, and opens her mouth. The wad of gum hangs on her teeth for a moment, then tumbles into the opening. She bends further to watch it land and her Braves hat slips off and falls into the maw of silently spinning gears.


Jackie moves smooth and sure like a middle-distance runner. She has the hat by the brim when the upper chain clunks into place and catches the teeth of the gears. The escalator bumps and jerks. The hat wraps into the tight space between the steps. Jackie’s hand follows the soiled blue-and-red wool into the darkness. Teeth of flat silver reach for her fingers.


“Jackie!” My leg muscles clench like I’m too close to the edge of a cliff. I almost feel the soundless tug on her arm as her hand is pulled along into the waiting teeth. There isn’t the slightest slowing of the mechanism as the stairs move as gently and smoothly as a procession of ocean swells. One step now carries three fingers and a dappling of blood up and away from us. Jackie stares at them as if she’s watching a second basemen take her feed to turn a double play. She backs up and sits down heavily next to the escalator.


Cold air surrounds new sweat as I watch the mechanic grab a shirt from the display and wrap the stumps of Jackie’s fingers. Jackie turns pale as she looks at her useless throwing hand. Even her hair is limp.


“Get Dad.” Her voice trembles the slightest. The man is holding Jackie’s swaddled stump. He has forgotten about his walkie-talkie, which has gotten splats of bright blood on its black plastic.


I nod as the emptiness swallows my stomach. I stare at the fingers as they reach the top; they tumble and gyre as the silver steps push them against the black bristles that keep trash out of the mechanism. I think they wave at me.


“Go get help!” he barks.

I turn and run through the aisles past the shirts, past the ties, past the panties. I dodge an old man and slam the front door open. Huffing outside, her mountain bike seems to glow in a spray of light bouncing from the bricks. I grab it and buck off the curb. My fingers flex on the knobby handgrips, warm from the sun. My feet nestle into the toe clips. The padded foam cradles all the spots that my familiar leather saddle doesn’t.


It’s a good five minutes to Safeway; I can see Dad’s face when I tell him I did it in three. I shift gears, stand on the pedals, and disappear under the arching oak trees as my tires hum.




Stuart is a recovering lawyer and expatriate Mississippian, now living in the Mohawk Valley of New York. He was previously EIC of Causeway Lit, and currently serve as Fiction Editor for the Veterans' Writing Project. He is published in Emerge Literary Journal, Reckon Review, and elsewhere.

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