The tire swing hung in our back yard for three years before Daddy cut it down.
He hacked it down with a hand saw, limb and all, the year my sister died.
The tire came off Daddy’s 66 Chevelle. (The car’s old now, sitting in the barn behind my house, but it was almost brand new then). The tread was worn down to almost nothing, but Daddy said that was okay. Made it more aerodynamic, he said. We’d swing higher and faster, he told us. And we sure did swing fast and high. It was a good tire, and I couldn’t figure out why Daddy didn’t want to keep it on his car.
Mama hated the tire swing almost as much as she hated the Chevelle. She’d watch us from the kitchen window, and if we went too high, she’d come to get us and make us go inside. I fell off once and almost broke my arm, so Mama told Daddy that the swing had to go or she was. But me and Jacki loved that swing, and Daddy loved us, so he told Mama to pack her bags. She didn’t say much after that.
She’d watch us from the window less and less, and we got braver and braver.
The limb was a little high, but it was the strongest one, Daddy said, and the rope was a little short, but it was the only one Daddy could find at the time. Me and Jacki were too excited to wait, so Daddy said he’d find a longer piece eventually, but he never did. We had to climb on a milk crate to get on the swing.
When Mama wasn’t looking (and she rarely did at the end), Jacki’d go as high as she could and squeeze through the hole in the tire to jump out.
I was always too afraid to jump, and Jacki always called me a chicken.
I was sick the day Jacki died. She wanted me to come swing with her, but there were blisters on my throat and the back of my tongue, and I just wanted to sleep all day. Jacki called me a baby, and I was okay with that.
I never saw Jacki under that tree. I slept, with fevered dreams, through Mama’s screaming, the ambulance, the crying. (Mama told me many years later, when her hair and her mind had gone gray, that when she found Jacki, her head was twisted almost all the way around.)
The day after the funeral is when Daddy cut the swing down. He threw the tire, limb, and rope all in a pile down by the creek and set them on fire. I cried the whole time, but I think Daddy cried harder. For a week after, every time I stepped out into the back yard, I could smell burning rubber.
Mama and Daddy fought a lot after that. I’d lay in bed at might listening to Mama blame Daddy for putting up the swing and Daddy blame Mama for not watching Jacki better. (I mostly just blamed Jacki for ruining everything.)
After a while, the yelling stopped, but the sound of fists hitting flesh and glass breaking in the kitchen was worse.
Then, Mama came and woke me up in the middle of the night. Her lip was bloody, and her knuckles were even more bruised than they had been at dinner. (We’d been eating off paper plates for a month because dishes were getting expensive. We took two suitcases and the car and went to the only motel in town.
The room smelled like mold and cigarettes, and I couldn’t sleep under the scratchy blanket. On the third morning, Mama said we were just gonna go home instead of running away. (She told me, right before she died, that she’d been hoping Daddy would come find us.)
But instead of coming to find us, Daddy had tied one end of a rope to the left-over stump where the tire-swing limb used to be and the other end around his neck. The night we came home from his funeral, Mama set the whole tree on fire.
I sat on our neighbor’s back porch in the same black dress I’d worn to Jacki’s funeral, watching the tree, then the yard, then the house burn. (The first time Mama accidentally called me Jacki, she told me that she hadn’t meant to burn the house down too, but that night on Mrs. Hudson’s porch, she’d been holding Jacki’s favorite purple seater.) I graduated high school two towns over where Mama had used Daddy’s life insurance money to buy a little two-bedroom house.
After school, I got a job at the gas station and saved enough money to buy my own little house way back down a dirt road. The front porch is sagging and the gaps in the boarded-up windows don’t do much to keep out the weather. (The tire was brand new when Old Henry flipped the tractor and his wife let me have it for ten dollars.)
It’s not quite as aerodynamic as the old Chevelle tire, but it still goes fast and high if I kick off from the tree trunk and put my back into it.
Sometimes, when I’m swinging high enough to see over the roof of the house, I let go and slide out of the tire. My hands and knees are scarred, and both of my ankles hurt whenever it’s cold or rainy, but for a few seconds while I’m flying through the air, I wonder if this great, weightless feeling is what Jacki felt right before she hit the ground for the last time.
(Mama told me once, before she forgot that I wasn’t my sister, that life is kind of like gravity; you can try your best to get off the ground, but it’s just going to knock you back down, over and over again, until you’re eventually just too sick or too tired or too old to get back up. That tire swing, she said, was the worst thing that ever happened to her, but it was the best thing that could have happened to Jacki.)