The year I turned eleven I carried groceries at the Shop Rite on Romaine Avenue, where I was spending the summer with my grandmother. I was saving to buy a tape recorder, which didn't make sense to grandma. Why would I waste an entire summer to purchase a tape recorder? I didn't even like music. And why not a radio? Why a tape recorder? One day she asked me about it, but I answered evasively. I didn't want to tell anyone why. But finally I relented. I figured my grandmother didn't like Alabama any more than I did.
"She curses," I said.
"Oh," my grandmother said, nodding. "And you think you'll catch her swearing on tape. Then play it for your parents."
"Right. Her as—her butt is mine."
"I don't know," my grandmother said. "You've gone up against your sister before and she's always won."
True. But I never had technology on my side before. Brains for brains, Alabama had me, but this tape recorder would be the great Alabama equalizer, my very own light-saber against the unarmed Darth Sister.
"Well, we'll see," my grandmother said.
By the end of August I had what I needed. I bought the tape recorder, said goodbye to grandma—a wink passing between us at the door—and went happily home.
I was looking forward to nailing Alabama. God knows she had nailed me plenty. I planned on having fun outside while my sister, grounded for life, watched from the window. I planned on playing ball and singing in the sun. I planned on enjoying my revenge. Eleven, I was sure, was going to be my year.
The recorder looked ominous. I liked that. It was big and clunky with buttons as large and black as banged-up toenails. A Darth Recorder to nail a Darth Sister.
I set my mind to finding a good hiding space. In back of the television? Under the couch? Inside the potted plant? No place seemed secure enough, safe enough. I settled on the potted plant, figuring I could find a better place later, then stationed the recorder there without turning it on and went into my bedroom to take a nap.
I woke to the sound of Alabama talking to a friend. Susan Smoltz. I'd had a crush on Susan, but Susan thought I was a bug. No matter. I was used to it. All the girls thought I was a bug. I ambled outside to the living room. There was a swagger in my walk. Three months of not seeing Alabama had made me cocky.
Alabama and Susan were cursing. Everything was F this, F that. They'd even added a few new ones over the summer. Darn it. Why hadn't I turned on the recorder? Well, because I only had so much tape, so many batteries...
I sat on the couch, not next to them, but not far away either. Susan had grown prettier over the summer. Her hair was curly blonde, her eyes were like blue dolphin skin, her lips were heart-shaped and painted pink. I loved being near her. Sex, as any eleven-year-old knows, is like horseshoes. All you have to do is get close.
For the first time in my life, Susan noticed me and didn't sneer. Her eyes seemed to flow over my body. She licked her gaudy lips and smiled. It gave me a funny feeling.
"Hello Peter," Susan said. Not Petey, like she'd always called me, but Peter. A man's name. "You certainly have grown over the summer."
"You bet," I said, puffing my chest. "I'm 4 feet 7."
"Is that right?" Susan inched closer. "And so mature..."
"Well, I'm a working man now." I thought about the things Mr. Hanley, the Shop Rite manager, had told me while he was outside smoking and I was waiting for new customers. "Time comes when you have to put aside kid things and just do the job. No room for little boys in a man's world."
"Don't listen to him," Alabama said. "He's no man."
"Is that true?" Susan asked, blinking those dolphin skin eyes.
"Of course not," I said, thinking again of Mr. Hanley and the things he told me. "Alabama's never worked a minute in her life. She doesn't know suffering. Suffering builds character. You gotta suffer to be a man."
"He's not a man," Alabama said. "He doesn't even swear."
I said, "I can swear with the best of them. All working men curse. You can't make it two days in the outside world without swearing. Maybe one day, but not two. The second day they get you."
"Oh yeah?" Alabama said. "Let's hear it then?"
I gave it to them. Loud and clear.
When I was done, they left, giggling.
I waited until they were out of sight and then checked the potted plant.
The tape recorder wasn't there.
A few minutes later Alabama returned and waved the cassette in my face.
"Okay," I said. "What do you want?"
"Your allowance. Plus, all my chores done until Christmas. Plus, your telescope. Plus—"
"Not my telescope!"
Plus, plus, plus, plus. It went on and on. I'd need the tape recorder just to remember them all, but my tape recorder had been Plus Number 15.
The rest of the summer I did Alabama's chores. From time to time, standing at the window, I'd watch her outside having fun. I called Mr. Hanley at the Shop Rite. I planned to tell him all that had happened and ask his advice, but he didn't remember me and told me to get lost. So I called my grandmother and told her everything. She laughed and laughed and laughed. She was still laughing when I hung up.
One day Alabama, Susan Smoltz, and I were alone in the apartment. I was busy cleaning the living room, usually Alabama's chore, but mine now. Alabama said, "Look at the bright side. The more you suffer the more manly you'll become."
Susan laughed. "That's fucking right," she said. Then she smiled at me, like at a bug, and added, "Petey."
BIO: James Valvis is the author of HOW TO SAY GOODBYE (Aortic Books, 2011). He has published hundreds of poems in places like Anderbo, Arts & Letters, Gargoyle, New York Quarterly, Poetry East, River Styx, and Verse Daily. His prose is also widely published in places like Bartleby Snopes, Los Angeles Review, Pedestal Magazine, Potomac Review, storySouth, and Superstition Review. He lives near Seattle.