Hal sits at the back of the classroom, still and quiet. He watches a girl lift a jar full of twinkling lights. She has blonde hair and blue eyes like he does, though his eyes are green sometimes. She is the prettiest and the cleverest and the loudest. Her name is Alice.
FP, whom the teachers call “little rascal,” lets the twinkles out. The other boys laugh and open their hands to catch them. The other girls scream and climb on their desks, and a porcelain doll falls onto the carpet.
Hal stays still and quiet. The red-haired twins are still and quiet next to him. He wants to smooth Alice’s pink cotton dress, then wrinkle it again, then smooth it out. He picks up the doll that looks like her.
His father says, “Don’t talk to those red-haired twins.” His mother says, “That doll is not for you.”
The boy catches twinkles of his own. He pulls the lightbulbs off their bodies and watches until they flicker out. He doesn’t see his father with the camera.
His father tells him, “Your name is Harold ‘Hal’ Cooper, but a Cooper was a Blossom, and the Blossoms are our enemy to vanquish.” He teaches his son about Eden, where the trees spill sugar when stuck with a knife. He says, “If you are Cain, you must look like Abel.” He says, “We make our own name, and we pen our own stories.”
They do not read the Bible. They make their own.
Hal follows his parents’ orders. He learns to beg pardon, he learns which fork to use, and he learns to pen cursive. He watches Alice hold court, reverent. He watches her take apart the other girls. She makes them cry. He goes to the garage to take apart an engine, wishing the oil on his hands was red. He washes his hands and softens them with lotion.
Boys in letterman jackets are trouble, but nobody minds, so he puts on a letterman jacket. He sits in the school newspaper office and makes stories.
His doll saunters into the newspaper office. They call her Acid Queen Alice now; she wears a leather jacket. He eyes the line of her leg from her red sneakers to the fringe hem of her blue denim shorts. He asks, “Any journalism experience?” She answers, “I’m clever, and I’ve got sharp eyes.” He smiles. She may see, but she won’t know.
Hal takes off her leather jacket, and presses his palm over the snake tattoo on her shoulder. He takes his hand away, then covers the ink again.
Alice scratches his back with her red painted nails when she kisses him. (Hal has never kissed a girl before.) He smiles, and digs his nails into her back. When she flinches, he says, “You’re the one who likes it rough. I worship you.”
He buys her a pink silk dress with a lace hem. When she wears it, he rewards her with his letterman jacket. He wants to tighten the sleeves around her neck. He buttons it instead.
His mother says, “She is the serpent in the garden, for all that she looks like a pink flower.” His father says, “She will lead you to the devil.”
But Hal is the serpent in the sugary forest, he is the devil, she is what he wants to be. He wraps his arms around her and says, “I’ll teach you how to make your own story. I’ll talk them around, you’ll see.”
There is a son inside Alice that does not belong to him. No matter; she will prove that she belongs to him. Hal says, “I worship you. Do this one thing for me.” She leaves to lock herself in a stone cell.
She comes back, and her belly is flat, so Hal makes her a Cooper. They build a house. Their white carpet is pristine, their mahogany bedknobs gleam, and their bedspread is pink with a lace hem. He fills their drawers with lotions. He buys a baby blue convertible to sit in the garage, still and quiet as he is. Alice is still the loudest, too loud to ride in his baby blue convertible with him.
His wife bears him two blonde, blue-eyed daughters. She moves them from here to there like dolls so he does not have to move them.
Hal watches his daughters blow bubbles in the breeze. He watches them jump rope. He watches them sit cross-legged in the grass, turning the crisp pages of their favorite books. They do not see him with the camera. They never take apart fireflies, but the youngest one’s eyes are green sometimes. She is the one Hal named Elizabeth, for his mother, though they call her Betty. He leads her to the garage and teaches her how to take apart an engine.
His eldest daughter’s face is round, and her belly is round. Hal locks her in a stone cell, and she jumps from the window. She is a Blossom, not a Cooper, after all; she belongs to his vanquished enemy, the red-haired boy who washed up on the banks of the Sweetwater River. He wants to stick her to see if she spills sugar, but she leaves before he can.
Betty invites a black-haired boy into her bedroom full of pink flowers. He is the son of the rascal, the third Forsythe Pendleton Jones; soon enough, he will put on a leather jacket and ride a motorcycle down the highway.
Is Betty a serpent in the garden, for all that she looks like a pink flower, making a serpent belong to her? Will she ride on the back of the boy’s motorcycle? Will they toss limp bodies on the side of the highway? Does she belong to her father?
In his dreams, Hal speeds down the highway in his baby blue convertible, and she is next to him. The oil on their hands is red. They toss limp bodies on the side of the highway, and they marvel at each other’s green eyes.
Hal will prove that Betty belongs to him. He takes the people apart, sticks them so they spill red on his soft hands. They marvel at his green eyes. He speeds down the highway in his baby blue convertible.
He writes her letters of devotion in code from the crisp pages of her favorite book. Instead of penning them in cursive, he clips the words from his newspaper. No matter; she will see, and she will know. Elizabeth Cooper is the cleverest.
She follows his orders, and bloodies her hands. When his wife’s son invades their house, she offers him up to her father in tribute. Hal smiles.
Betty says, “My eyes are not so green.” Alice says, “My moans echoed in an empty trailer.” They do not belong to him, after all.
Everyone in town watches as Hal is locked in a stone cell. There is nothing there, not even a firefly, not even a cockroach, not even a bedbug. There are no pens. There are no newspapers.
No matter; they will move him to a stone cell where there are people to take apart. They will marvel at his green eyes. His daughter will return to him or his grandtwins will return to him. One of them is a Cooper.