Don’t Get Down on Me

Janelle Bassett


My sister and I decide to meet up in the hundred-year-old barn where we had once risked our necks and our limbs. Thirty years before, we’d lived in the house that came with the barn, mostly in the two upstairs rooms where we slept and called each other hatemongers and traded bops to the nose, where I always wanted to sleep in her bed because mine was under the windows and if someone wanted to climb up the tree and take the branches all the way to my window, they could have full access to my head. So I’d sleep with my sister and thank her for saving me from people like John Wilkes Booth, who really frightened me, the way he’d had a plan.

We had only lived in the house near the barn for two years, but those two years loomed large because we were both in that sweet spot of childhood—old enough to see clearly and understand what we saw, but not yet old enough to begin doubting our understanding of what we were seeing. We had let our memories of living in the house deteriorate—a boring cycle of eating, sleeping and writhing on the carpet—but the barn really stuck with us. The silo helped, no doubt. (When we start forgetting silos, it’s time to fold us up, goodnight, then unfold us on a sun porch with cushioned seating.) But the danger of the barn helped our memories the most. The nails and wood were all done being a barn, and this made the structure pretty treacherous, especially the second story with its floor of holes, which is where my sister and I are to meet and possibly hold hands.

Of course we loved the treachery of the second floor, went up as often as we could to spook the birds and creak the boards and teeter along the edges. We kept moving, hopping mostly, because if we were still we could feel the barn’s worst energy—the animals that had cried out during death or called out for death, or called out for a mother who had recently been put to death or maybe, possibly, only moved to a further pasture.

When I get to the barn I can hear that she’s already upstairs and she must hear me too because she calls out, hey come prowl around with me, I used a stick to push all the dead birds into the corners. (We’re meeting, my sister and I, to see about each other, to check in, to touch base face-to-face. We’ve had a long separation, but I have my first question ready to go and it’s what’s a hatemonger like you doing in a spotty barn like this and then hopefully we’ll laugh and forgive everything, then lie down in the least amount of bird shit possible.)

I climb the stairs and my sister’s hair is darker every time I see her and yet I think of her as my light-haired sister. I try to say something about how family is hard because they insist on seeing you in forms you’ve outgrown but I’m not eloquent enough to make it come out right so I end up insulting her hair and her choices because I was right about family being hard.

My sister lies down and pulls her long dark hair out to the side for my pillow because she knows I’m picky about where I put my head. When I put my hair on her hair I remember the litter of puppies we had back when we lived here, how we kept them in the outhouse until the locked door and lack of space and air became too cruel, even for people like us. But when we let them out, they wandered along the highway and got run over, one by one, thump by thump, so perhaps we weren’t really the ones in control of doling out life’s cruelty.

My sister and I put our legs together and remember things like that—the brief puppies, the branches that led right to me, the party line incidents, the ants in the sugar bowl, the storm shelter we used as a clubhouse for our round pebble club—until we become a single unit, one treasure trove, and forget which one of us had children and which one of us wore a back brace and who tried harder at the wrong things and who tried least at the right things and, most importantly, who said what.

After we reach a consensus, we untangle our legs and put them up straight which does surprise the barn birds, and she says you got Mom’s ankles and I say well you got Mom’s backyard rebellion. And she asks what else, tell me, I want to know what I am, so I say you got Dad’s icy warfare and it’s become increasingly clear that you got Great-granddad’s hung jury and she tells me I got Grandma’s stock phrases and I kick her foot and say, you know we both got those, in addition to the baby blues. I mean our eye color, but she thinks I mean her longing for a child and then right away we remember who had children and who didn’t, spell broken, truce rescinded, so we move further apart and when we do, we see that our combined weight had made a new hole, and we wonder, holy shit, why hadn’t we fallen through it. My sister and I trade theories about what kept us up (Grandpa’s passive voice, Mom’s stopgap spending, Aunt Yoohoo’s general retribution) but when one of us says that what kept us up was not some patchwork deal, not some hand-me-down attribute, but something new, something that had never existed until we were born, me and her, she and I, we vigorously agree and spit into the hole and talk about how we’re back on.


Janelle Bassett’s writing appears in The Offing, American Literary Review, The Rumpus, Smokelong Quarterly, VIDA Review, and Slice Magazine. She lives in St. Louis and is an Assistant Fiction Editor for Split Lip Magazine.