The Patron Saint of Archers
By Tina Egnoski
After his draft number was called, Dixon Matthews took all the money he had saved from his job at Long’s Hardware and bought a red Mustang convertible. He drove it home, parked it in the driveway and never drove it again. For several weeks in March of 1970, the weeks before he left for boot camp, he sat in the front seat, no shirt, his feet on the dash, a cigarette hanging between his lips. He was there every afternoon when we returned home from school—me, Carla and Dixon’s younger brother Flynn.
Stereo speakers had been propped against the kitchen window and usually a Rolling Stones song blasted through the screen. Flynn said his brother was acquiring habits he would need in Vietnam and then he wound a finger around his ear: craaazzy, man.
One afternoon Dixon actually started the car. We heard the engine come to life from the corner, but by the time we reached the house, he had shut it off. He waved to us. He had on fatigues and combat boots from the army surplus store. A gold cross hung down the middle of his chest, buried in the dark fuzz. His shoulder-length hair was tied with a bandanna. He looked as if he hadn’t shaved in days. A banner of whiskers dirtied his chin.
I was thirteen that year and I wanted Dixon’s attention, wanted him to notice me not as a neighborhood girl, but in that special girlfriend way. The way I had seen him act with Carla’s sister when they had dated, casually placing an arm around her shoulder, reaching over to pluck out a strand of hair caught in the corner of her mouth.
Dixon lit a cigarette. “Everyone smokes in Nam,” he said. “Keeps us from getting trigger happy.”
“Gimme Shelter” exploded from the speakers.
“What if you get shot?” Carla asked Dixon.
“Don’t plan on that,” he said.
“What do you plan on?”
“Getting laid,” he said.
I thought Laid might be a place, like Saigon.
“That’s just the war talking,” Flynn said.
Dixon had always been the fun brother, letting us younger kids tag along to baseball practice or a Saturday matinee. That was why his behavior in the weeks following the draft announcement was so puzzling: one day he was charming and eager to talk, the next he was silent, edgy.
By contrast, Flynn—my age and a good Catholic boy—was studious, good-natured. He readily expounded on the theory of relativity or the political themes in Richard III. In fact, he was the one who had explained the lottery system to me: numbers were assigned by birth date, and on December first of the previous year, capsules containing the dates were randomly drawn by the draft board from a kind of spinning game show barrel. Dixon’s number had been low: five. His birthday was October eighteenth, which I knew because it was the day after mine. He was in the first wave of men called to service.
Carla leaned against the car door and said, “I hope you’ll write to me.”
I envied the carefree way she moved in her body. Envied her body really, so much like her sister’s, high pointed breasts and curvy hips. I was tall and straight and flat. My parents named me after a fruit that wasn’t even sweet. If my name ended in an A, like Carla’s, I’d at least be Olivia. A pretty girl’s name.
Without answering, Dixon brought the cigarette to his lips and took a long pull. I watched the tip burn to ash, the smoke rise and swirl around his face.
Each school day morning, my younger sister Bonnie and I stood on the curb outside our house waiting for Flynn and Carla. Even though Flynn went to Saint Sebastian Catholic School, we all walked together.
Across the street, Flynn’s mother came out of her house dressed for work in a ruffled blouse, pleated skirt and heels. She was a typist for Bradford and Bradford. A working woman, my mother said with spit on her tongue, not one of the mothers who met for coffee after the rush of getting all the men and children out of the house.
“Morning, girls,” Mrs. Matthews said. “Any news yet?”
We shook our heads. Our mother was pregnant, two weeks overdue and under a neighborhood watch.
Mr. Matthews came out next and walked to his car without acknowledging us. He was known for his gruff manner and quick temper, the kind of man who used his belt for punishment. An architect, he worked for the largest firm in Florida. There were nights he didn’t come home until nine or ten. My father sold insurance, for what he said was the smallest firm in Orlando: a three-man company with an office in a strip mall. Proud of his family, of being able to spend time with us, he was home many afternoons before Bonnie or I returned from school.
A few minutes later Flynn came out of the house. Every morning he and Bonnie performed an absurd kind of vaudeville routine: Flynn shuffled down the driveway and said good morning to me, ignoring Bonnie. This made her so mad, she punched his arm. At age nine, she was afraid of being left out. Acting surprised, Flynn cuffed his forehead. “Hey, look, Little Miss Invisible, a.k.a. Bonnie Cooper. I didn’t even see you.”
Tall and long-legged, Flynn seemed to be made of pipe-cleaners—he was that wiry. He had a patch of pimples on his left cheek. His dark hair was kinky-curly. He tried to slick it back with some goo his brother used, but on humid days his oily curls sprung loose, like coils in a sofa.
“When does Dixon have to leave?” I asked.
Flynn launched into a sermon about Dixon’s plans, saying that he had to report to boot camp in two weeks, but that of course there were ways to get out of going. Not that Dixon would try. He wanted to serve his country. No sweat, he was ready. He spoke with the same cocky bravado I had noticed recently in Dixon.
“Some guys, though, pretend to be nuts,” he said. “Or they chop off a finger or shoot themselves in the foot.”
“Shut up,” Bonnie yelled, putting her hands over her ears. For a long time, she hadn’t understood the war. But finally my father sat her down at the kitchen table with a mug of hot chocolate for a talk.
Flynn folded his hand into a gun and got right into her face, mimicking the rat-tat-tat of a weapon. His breath made her hair flutter. It looked like she might start to cry any minute.
“Cut it out,” I said.
“Okay, okay,” he said.
He stuffed the front flap of his shirt back into his waistband. Unlike us, he wore a school uniform: short-sleeve white shirt, dark blue pants and tie. In his newly polished shoes, we could see our faces.
“Come on, let’s get going,” he said.
“What about Carla?” Bonnie asked.
“She’ll be along,” Flynn said and took off ahead of us. His book bag swung at his side, as if it were light as a stick. I knew it wasn’t. At his school they had at least two books for every subject. The religion manuals alone would have weighed him down. He often showed me pictures in them: Mary draped in a white gown, her arms crossed tenderly over her chest or Saint Andrew with soft eyes and a knowing smile.
Carla came running up the sidewalk. Her blonde hair was pulled back in a ponytail. She wore blue shadow and mascara on her right eye only.
“You look funny,” Bonnie said.
“Yeah, my mother was watching me like a hawk this morning. I didn’t have time to finish my makeup.”
She never waited to put on makeup after we got to school, like all the other girls. Instead, she tempted fate, trying to sneak out of the house before her mother caught her.
“You have on too much rouge,” I said.
“I’ll fix it later, okay? Look at this.” She unbuttoned her shirt, revealing a purple halter top. “Wait until Jim Kelleher sees me in this.”
“You’re wearing that to school?” I asked.
“Just in the halls, where Jim can see me.” She re-buttoned.
“Don’t you have a dress code or something?” Flynn asked. He couldn’t take his eyes off Carla’s breasts. “I mean, it looks good and all, but if a girl wore that to my school, she’d get expelled.”
We turned the corner across from Saint Sebastian, a serene building, two-story white stucco with blue trim. The fountain out front was a detailed marble carving of jumping fish. A cascade of water bubbled from the center, splashing the rim of the fountain, sending out a spray of holy water on anyone who passed by.
“What good are saints anyway?” Bonnie asked Flynn.
“You pray to them is all.”
“Do you have to be dead to be a saint?”
“It’s the only way I know.”
The bell rang for morning chapel and students began filing in. Everyone looked the same, boys dressed like Flynn, girls in plaid skirts, knee socks and Mary Janes. Flynn crossed the street. He stopped at the front steps, turned and stared back at us, his forehead puckered in worry, knowing we were headed to a place more atrocious than purgatory: public school. I thought of the chaos of Mrs. Tyding’s classroom. Kenny Small sticking pencils up his nose, Chad Wilcox burping his way through a test and Laura Bills crying softly in the corner because someone had stuck gum in her hair for the third time this month. It was true, public school kids lacked discipline. Our homework was routinely eaten by dogs. Our skirts were too short, our makeup too garish. We needed the backs of our hands slapped with rulers. We needed our filthy mouths washed out with a bar of soap.
Flynn lifted a hand to wave, and his book bag slipped off his shoulder, spilling pencils and notebooks onto the ground. He bent to rescue them, his starched uniform wrinkling and his hair popping into a lush halo of curls.
Five days later my baby sister Haley was born. When my mother brought her home, Bonnie’s room became the nursery and she moved in with me. She slept on the top bunk, and once she fell asleep, her mouth dropped open and each breath became a sharp wheeze bellowing from the cavern of her throat.
I got up and tiptoed across the hall to the bathroom, now the only private room in the house. I heard my mother pacing the living room with Haley, whispering, singing, begging her to fall asleep. Her body was tiny and fragile, squirmy. I refused to hold her, afraid that in a split second she would wriggle out of my arms, hit the terrazzo floor and break into a million pieces.
I sat on the vanity, my feet in the cool ceramic basin. In the mirror I saw a square, flat face, the skin tanned from strong Florida sun. I had my father’s rich black hair. It hung straight to my shoulders. Carla said my eyes were my best feature: dark brown and almond-shaped. My nose, I thought, was hooked and too large for my face. I wanted the delicate features of Saint Agnes, the creamy skin of Mary Magdalene and a body like Carla’s. These conflicting desires scared me. I didn’t want to be Sara Price, the girl in 11th grade who got pregnant and sent away to live with her aunt. At the same time, it was no fun to be Plain-Jane, Fair-Claire, Boring-Lori. Why didn’t I have the guts, like Carla, to disobey my mother?
Lifting my nightshirt over my head, I studied my chest for signs of growth. The skin around my nipples was tender and underneath I felt oats of flesh. Boys joked that when I turned sideways and stuck out my tongue, I looked like a zipper.
One day after school Carla and I stood in front of Saint Sebastian tossing pennies into the fountain. I had decided the best way to keep my thoughts pure was to trade my off-again, on-again attendance at the Methodist church for the strict regimen of Catholicism, for the pleasure of sitting on hard pews and memorizing catechism. Flynn would be my guide. He could teach me the Latin Mass and loan me a rosary.
“What’s the big deal?” Carla asked. “Go to his church on Sunday and take communion.” She was impatient with my plan to pump Flynn for information.
“You can’t just show up. You have to go to confession first.”
Two nuns walked by us, their habits flapping in the wind, the sound of seagull wings, the way they hover so close at the beach, inspect us and then swoop away.
“Good afternoon, Sisters,” Carla said, brave enough to use the word “Sisters.”
The nuns nodded and like shore birds were gone, not upward, toward heaven, but around the corner.
“They don’t look like women who would use yardsticks on innocent children, do they?” She took a tissue from her purse and wiped off the lipstick. “I’ve heard those are no ordinary yardsticks. They make them a foot longer, especially for the nuns.”
When Flynn came out of the school and saw us waiting, he said, “Hey, it’s my lucky day.”
I shouldered up next to him. “I’ve been thinking, Flynn, about the power of prayer.”
He turned to Carla. “What’s she talking about?”
“I’m just interested in Catholicism. I may convert.”
“You have to go to confession first.”
“Told you so,” I said to Carla.
In the tight, airless confessional booth I would admit, out loud for the first time, that I hated Haley’s ear-splitting cry and poopy-diaper smell. That I longed for Dixon to touch me in private places, the places I wasn’t even supposed to show when I changed in the locker room for PE.
At Flynn’s house, Dixon sat in the car, beating his hands on the steering wheel in time with “Street Fighting Man.”
“How come you never drive anywhere, Dix?” Carla asked.
“Drive? Who needs to drive when I have the whole world at my feet.” He pointed to the panoramic view of the Matthews’ lush green lawn and yellow split-level ranch. Nodding at the drainage ditch on the far side of the house, he said, “There, can’t you see it, the Grand Canyon? It’s quite a sight.”
“Of course we can,” I said. “Can’t we, Carla?” I elbowed her.
“Sure, whatever you say.”
“Get in, girls,” Dixon said, leaning over to open the door. “I’ll take you for a trip around the globe.”
I climbed in and slid next to Dixon. Carla, skeptical but willing, got in. Rolling his eyes, Flynn said he had homework and went into the house.
I thought Dixon might start the car, like he had a few weeks earlier, and surprise us by driving around town. Instead, he made a noise like the catch of an engine, put his arm around the spine of the seat and pretended to back out of the driveway.
“And we’re off,” he said.
He bounced up and down in the seat, imitating the rocking motion of a car with faulty shock absorbers. His arm rubbed against mine, created a spark of friction. Together, we reeled off the names of landmarks seen only in history books: the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben, Stonehenge, the Berlin Wall. The ruins of a rotten birdfeeder became the Great Sphinx, a cluster of rhododendron were the jagged Himalayas. The mix of smells in the car made me dizzy, tobacco with vinyl, damp skin with citrusy aftershave.
Carla, now ready to join the fun, clambered to her knees, hugging the top of the windshield. She pointed to the house and said, “Look, it’s the Taj Mahal.”
Dixon fell back against the seat, in awe of this wonder of the modern world.
“Wow, what a palace,” he said.
At dusk, two days later, I walked home from Carla’s. A smear of dark clouds hung low on the horizon and blocked the setting sun. It was the time when fathers returned home from an eight-hour work day and kids ran in from an afternoon of hard play and mothers stood at stoves ready to spoon out supper. Our neighbor, Mr. Platt, arrived in his carpool and waved to me.
From my front lawn I heard Haley’s irritating cry. I didn’t want to go inside. Across the street, through the open dining room curtains, I saw Mrs. Matthews sitting alone at the table, still in her work clothes, smoking a cigarette. I wondered if she counted the days until her son left, if she marked them off on a calendar in red ink, the way my mother had while she was pregnant.
A car came around the corner. It was Mr. Matthews and he pulled into the garage. When he got out, he noticed that his family’s garbage cans had been left at the end of the driveway, empty and haphazardly tossed. His stiff shoulders made me shudder. I heard the back door slam. Mrs. Matthews was up and heading toward the kitchen. There was the sound of more slamming doors, something not even allowed in our house. If I got mad, it was best to wait and make a face from the safety of my bedroom. If my parents got mad, they said things like We’re disappointed in you and that was enough of a punishment.
Shouts, both booming and shrill, both male and female, came from the Matthews house. Mrs. Matthews was not, in my experience, a screamer. It was possible she was at her breaking point. Or was she yelling at her husband for yelling at her sons? Then I heard the eternal parental complaint, one even used by my parents: How many times do I have to tell you?
Inside my house, the kitchen was warm. On the stove, a sauce of chopped tomato and garlic and spices simmered. Bonnie was doing homework at the table. In the middle of the room, my mother tested a bottle on her wrist. My father, posted by the refrigerator, holding Haley, checked the clock.
“Cutting it close,” he said.
I should have been home in time to help with dinner. But lately he was loosening the rules, allowing me set my own schedule to see if I was reliable. Sometimes I was, sometimes not.
Instead of scolding me, my father tickled the baby’s chin and said, “Little Haley, you’re one lucky kid to be born into this bright bunch of girls.”
On the last Friday in March, I stayed late at school for math club. Walking home, I saw Flynn sitting alone on the steps of Saint Sebastian, his overstuffed book bag at his feet.
“I stayed to help Sister Bernard clean chalkboards,” he said. His shirt was smudged with yellow dust. He nodded toward the school. “You want to come inside?”
Of course I did. “Can we go into the chapel?” I asked.
“Sure, but I’ll show you my locker first.”
The entrance hall was long and wide. As I expected, it was the cleanest school I had ever seen, no scraps of paper or lost notebooks littering the floor. I took cautious, quiet steps. Flynn led me to a bank of lockers just outside the main office. “Here it is. She’s a beauty,” he said.
“It’s a locker like any other locker.”
On the opposite wall was a life-size portrait of a man bound and tied to a pillar.
“That’s the big man himself,” Flynn said.
“Yup. Saint Sebastian.”
His ivory skin was pierced with a rash of arrows, one in his shoulder, one in his calf and another in his chest. One arrow went straight through his forehead and came out the side of his neck. Blood seeped from each wound.
“Don’t worry, those arrows didn’t kill him. That’s why he’s a saint.”
“How many days do you think he stayed like that?”
“I’d say six, seven days. It ain’t easy being a saint.”
Saint Sebastian’s eyes were fixed on heaven. He had a pained look on his face; pained but pleased. The grace of suffering.
I asked how he became become a saint. Hands in pockets, Flynn rocked back on his heels. He spoke in his show-off voice. Saint Sebastian had been a spy, a double agent, so to speak. He joined the Roman emperor Diocletian’s army, even though he was against killing. But what you have to know about Diocletian, Flynn said, was that he hated Christians. So while Sebastian was fighting, he was also curing soldiers of gout, converting and baptizing them. Right under the emperor’s nose.
“I take it he got caught,” I said.
A cloth was wrapped around Saint Sebastian’s middle, hiding that private area under his navel. But the cloth had slipped so low I could see the nub of each hip bone, the curve of skin that led down, down to the very place that held the dark secret of my temptation. I let my eyes lag on the tassel of fabric tied loosely there.
“Uh-hum,” Flynn cleared his throat. He took my shoulders, turned me, turned me again, and, the way you see in the movies, pressed me back against the wall. I was dizzy and my feet felt mixed-up, as if my right one was attached to my left leg. I steadied myself with palms against the cool, cool brick.
“I want you,” he said, looking like his brother, eyes hard and dark, and sounding like him too, raspy. If I close my eyes, I thought, he might be Dixon, he might want me. With his fingers sunk into the skin on my upper arms, Flynn brought his face to mine, mouth a sneer of hope. Saint Sebastian looked down on us, a disciple of God.
“Devil,” I said, not meaning Flynn, but the desire in me that had brought us here.
Flynn dropped his hands and backed away. His face softened, dissolved into a quivering mass. He ran down the hall, his hard-soled shoes chafing the tile, the sound bouncing off the walls, echoing through the hollow tunnel. At the end of the hall, he banked the corner and his footsteps stopped suddenly. I expected him to come back, to whirl around the corner and peer at me with that expression of surprise he wore every morning. He would walk up to me and say, “Hey, look, it’s Little Miss Tease.” Instead I heard the front door open and slam shut.
For the next week, we waited for Flynn each morning before school, but he never showed. Then I heard a rumor at school, girls in the bathroom talking about how the Matthews kid had gotten into an accident.
“Well, I don’t know about accident,” one girl said.
“That boy is nutzo,” said another.
I wasn’t sure if they were talking about Dixon or Flynn. For weeks, ever since Dixon bought the Mustang, he—the whole Matthews family really—had been the topic of gossip. I didn’t stay around to hear anymore, but walked home alone, not even waiting for Carla. I would go straight to the source: the Matthews’ house.
Dixon wasn’t in the car. His mother’s station wagon was parked next to it, which surprised me. It wasn’t even three o’clock. I knocked and Mrs. Matthews answered, greeting me with a distracted hello.
“How nice of you to come by, Olive,” she said. “I know he’ll be happy to see you.”
She sat down on the sofa, knitting the corner of a pillow between her fingers. She rambled, talking to me as if I were an adult, a life-long friend who had just heard the news and came to comfort her. “The thing I can’t figure out why he would do such a silly thing. He knows better than to get into his father’s things.”
I wondered, had Dixon sliced off a finger?
“He’s so young. And such a good boy,” she said.
Did that mean she was talking about Flynn? I stepped toward her, trying to figure out a way to both console her and coax her into telling me what had happened.
“Well, go on in. Talk to him,” she said. “Maybe you can get something out of him.”
Sweat slid down the inside of my thighs. I had only been in this house a few times, when I was younger and usually with my mother. The hallway was lined with family photographs, vacations and holidays and studio portraits. The two doors on the right were the boys’ bedrooms, Flynn’s first. I poked my head around the doorframe and there he was, in bed with piles of magazines scattered over the sheets. He held up his left hand, wrist swathed in a white bandage.
“See, I didn’t die,” he said. “Must be a saint.”
“Where’s your brother?” I asked.
“With my dad at the barber shop.”
I stepped closer, guilt rising with the question, was Flynn’s accident my fault? But what I asked him was, “Did you have to spend the night in the hospital?”
“Yeah. Some guy came and talked to me. Asked me all sorts of questions, like why I did it, how it felt.”
I couldn’t take my eyes off his wrists, the one ashy and exposed, the other securely wrapped. Finally he asked, “You want to see it?”
“Gross,” I said, but my curiosity got the better of me.
He unrolled the bandage, revealing fleshy, purple skin furrowed tight around a dark line of stitches. “Stupid old penknife,” he said.
I helped him re-wrap the gauze, so thin I didn’t see how it would prevent infection. My search for redemption, for discipline, for a savior—the things I thought Flynn might guide me to—was over. We were all afraid. Afraid of mothers who didn’t want us to grow up, of fathers who pushed us to grow. Of nuns with four-foot yardsticks. Of the heated need of our own bodies and the small needy bodies of others. But mostly we were afraid of our brothers going to war.
Flynn tossed the magazines onto the floor, said, “Dixon says over there they tie you to a tree and feed you to fire ants.”
The morning Dixon left for boot camp, all the families on our street came out to wish him well. The women and children gathered in the yard, the men formed a row along the sidewalk. Carla’s mother put her arm around Mrs. Matthews. My mother held Haley, who wiggled and cried softly into her shoulder. Flynn, still recovering, stayed inside.
I went and stood with my father. Dixon was dressed in a suit and tie, his head shaved. He looked older and somehow wiser. Maybe it was the suit or the short hair, or maybe it was the official draft notice sticking out of his front pocket. He went down the line of men, shaking each hand. “Nice of you to come,” he said. When he got to me, he took my hand and winked. I saw the return of his boyish features and the restless dance in his eyes.
His father tossed him the car keys and got into the passenger’s seat of the Mustang. The engine sputtered, then sprang to life. Dixon backed out of the driveway.
That evening, I locked the bathroom door and sat in front of the mirror. I felt the uncomfortable rumblings of my body. Tremors, like the earth shifting. Stirrings, hovering below the surface, that would leave their mark in the form of breasts and hair between my legs.
I studied the skin stretched taut over the inside of my wrist, prodding the thin blue veins. I made my hand into a fist and watched the tendons tighten, release. With my sharpest nail, the thumbnail on my right hand, I drew a straight line across this tender place. I thought of how the skin splits, shifts to make room for growth, for the damage of a wound, and how the day you are born can determine the day you will be sent to a foreign country, to fight and to die.