|UFDC Home||myUFDC Home | Help|
This item has the following downloads:
1 HALOS FOR DAYS By FELICE LOPEZ A THESIS PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE SCHOOL OF THE UNIVERSITY OF FLOR IDA IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE DEGREE OF MASTER OF FINE ARTS UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA 2008
2 2008 Felice Lopez
3 To my parents and my sister
4 TABLE OF CONTENTS page ABSTRACT.....................................................................................................................................5 CHAP TER 1 JUDY LOVED TO GET NAKED........................................................................................... 62 PULLING SHARKS.............................................................................................................. 193 THE COLOR OF VALIUM................................................................................................... 264 SUGAR...................................................................................................................................395 PIT BULL....................................................................................................................... ........506 THE ONE THOUSAND MILES TO OW LS HEAD, MAINE............................................ 637 FATTENING..........................................................................................................................848 SO YOU HAVE INTRACTABLE HICCUPS....................................................................... 919 MOTHERLAND..................................................................................................................102BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH.......................................................................................................118
5 Abstract of Thesis Presen ted to the Graduate School of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of Master of Fine Arts HALOS FOR DAYS By Felice Lopez May 2008 Chair: Mary. Robison Major: Creative Writing A collection of fictional stories which take pl ace in settings that ar e often surreal, dealing with situations that are sometimes heartbreaking and strangely familiar, starring characters that are mostly either very fat or very thin, young, broken, and tattooed.
6 CHAPTER 1 JUDY LOVED TO GET NAKED Judy pronounced it neck-id. Sh e heard her uncle say it like that when she was eleven. He was sitting on the porch swing telling a story, ashing a Marlboro into an em pty beer bottle when he said, He was neck-id as a jay bird, peck er flying in the wind for all the world to see. Then his eyes filled with his smile and he cackled with his head thrown back. Her parents had raised her to speak correctly and to generally ig nore her uncle, but she liked the way it sounded. And ever since then she said it the same way. *** Judy loved to get naked. She loved to skinny di p. She had, in fact, been skinny dipping in three different bodies of salt water: the Atlantic (the last time was during a swell off the shore of the Outer Banks), the Pacific (on a road trip to Big Sur with her sister), and the Mediterranean (during a study abroad program in Athens). Sh e loved to streak and had done so once in high school and once in college. In the eleventh grad e she streaked through th e prom, a flesh-colored flash through a ball room of girl s in pastel silk and taffeta. During her freshman year in Asheville she streaked through the first snowstorm of the season with a crowd of crazy co-eds at her heels, and a trio of policemen puffing clouds behind them She liked to hear the cheers when she ran past her surprised classmates. Sh e liked to feel their eyes upon her. Judy felt comfortable changing clothes with friends standing within arms reach, she didnt mind peeing in public, and she actually pref erred showering in locker rooms with no doors on the stalls. She was more than comfortable with her body; she was proud of it. She ran six or seven miles a day, which kept her body slim and made the l ittle muscles in her arms and legs stand out
7 when she flexed them in the mirror. She was five foot eight and weighed only one hundred and fifteen pounds. She loved the way her skin brow ned in the sun and dete sted tan lines. When she was twenty years old, her boyfriend, Rick, was a little embarrassed by her lack of embarrassment. I mean, come on, Judy. You make people uncomfortable, he complained to her at night after an argument. He had come over and caught her changing clothe s in front of her study group of, thankfully, four girls. No, they werent uncomfortable. They were fine. Its only you thats uncomfortable. Or should I say jealous ? she replied while they lay entangled between Egyptian cotton sheets in her dorm room. They were in the post-fighting, post-makeup-sex stages of the argument, all soft voices and playful whining. Im not jealous. Im just considerate. You shouldve seen the faces of your friends from your Latin group. They were all blushing and staring at the walls and ceiling. How long was that blonde girl gazing into the fish tank ? he asked as his fingers got tangled in Judys russet tresses. Oh hush, Rick. She quieted him, and they fe ll asleep listening to the filter of the tank spit bubbles up at the surface. *Judy lost her job at The Ark, a pet store, shor tly before rent was due She preferred the term let go to fired, as it pertained both to how she was re leased from her employment and also why she was released. Miss Goodman, we will have to be letting you go, as it is against policy for us to employ people who insist on freeing the finches. Her boss looked at her exasperatedly over a desk
8 crammed into the rear room of the store. Brown cardboard boxes of pet supplies tottered above his bald head. But, they were miserable, she said. All day, they just stared out the window. They obviously wanted to be outside! Their wings were clipped, Miss Goodman, he reminded her in the tone of voice similar to that of her high school principal. They hoppe d around in the parking lot until the owner of Lots of Locks collected them and brought them back inside. Besides, is that any way to behave? Judy scowled at him hard, tore off her polo work shirt, and left it on his desk. She marched out in her bra and opened four bird cages and a guinea pig cage on the way to the swinging glass door with its little bell. From th e parking lot she flipped off the owner of the wig and hair extension stor e next door through tall sh eet glass windows. *** Jesus, now what am I going to do? she thought as she pawed through the help wanted ads. I cant ask Mom and Dad for rent. Theyll diso wn me for losing another job. I couldnt stand to be called irresponsible one more time. Her eyes paused on an ad: WANTED: NUDE MODELS FOR LIFE ART CLAS SES. MUST BE ABLE TO SIT STILL $18 AN HOUR. *** Judy signed a contract in an office on the coll ege campus. She located it easily because she had taken an astronomy lab on the roof of the building next door. From up there, the mountains spread broad behind the city. Af ter she filled out paperwork pinned down to a
9 cracked plastic clipboard, she was told to be in the Greene Street painting studio at six oclock the next evening with a ba throbe and flip-flops. Now, these students are very professional, a secr etary told her. Dont be nervous. You will be given breaks every forty-five minut es, and you will be allowed to stretch between poses. Oh, Judy replied. Im not nervous at all. Judy smiled at her from behind sunglasses decorated with rhinestones. Sunlight crept into the room in stripes through the blinds. *** Judy. Ricks tiny phone-voice was scat tered by the wind that came through Judys open car window as she drove towards her first m odeling job. Where are you? I want to make you enchiladas tonight. A guilty warmth spread through her heart. He was trying to cheer her up. He knew she felt dismal: unemployed and broke Mexican was her favorite. He liked to cook for her in her high-ceilinged kitchen, dresse d in her frilly apron, crab-claw-shaped oven mitts covering his hands. Rick. Hello, there! Hi She stalled fo r a moment. I am actually on my way to a new job, so Ill be busy for a few hours. Then Ill give you a call and we can eat some dinner if you want. Good for you, sweetheart. Judy hated to hear him so happy for her. She knew the next question. Where are you working? At the art school. Judy stopped for a red light. She lifted her sunglasses and checked her mascara in a little recta ngular mirror on the sun shade. Doing what? Ricks voice was hesitant. Oh, modeling for a painting class.
10 What type of modeling? Not naked? Gotta go, Rick. Ill call you later. By e-bye. She hung up on his objections. She put her cell phone in the glove box of her Jeep Cher okee after turning both of them off completely. *** She was there before the students, getting not changed but just undressed behind a plywood partition in the corner of the room. She left her clothes on a folding chair. She heard students arriving and arranging them selves. She stepped out into the big open studio in purple terrycloth and flip-flops that made thwapping noise s against the bare floor. She watched the ten students. She glanced over the circle of them as they scrape d their easels back and forth and pulled crinkled tubes of paint and stiff brushes from plastic tackle boxes, lunch boxes, smeared messenger bags. Class, the instructor announce d. His name was Mr. Eisenheimer, and he was skinny in torn jeans and boat shoes. This is Judy. Shell be our model today. The students seemed to be avoiding her gaze for some reason. She smiled out at nobody. She thought about how unnecessary the introduction was, as she mustve been easy to identify in a bathrobe. He made her sit on a raised platform in the middle of the circle of students. She was lit from above by spotlights. Shadows sprawled across her body. *** A series of short poses first. Five mi nutes each. When the timer sounds, change positions, Dr. Eisenheimer said as he set an egg timer. Judy wrapped her arms around her shoulders, then ding, then she rolled into a ball, and ding, she folded herself Indian style, ding, sh e stretched herself upward, ding. She got on her
11 hands and knees, ding, legs crosse d daintily, ding, arms akimbo, di ng, reclining, ding. Different sections of muscles tensed up and fluttered a little. She glanced down to see her smooth legs, little tits, and the gentle slopes of her hips on display. She felt tingly, electric a nd perfect. She smiled out at the eyes that glided over her body as she shifted positions. She wondered where she ranked among the models theyd had and speculated at their appreciative thoughts, imagined their conversations at home that night. The boy in the bulldog ball cap might go home and say to his roommates, We had the finest model today. God, she was gorgeous. Judy wondered if the people in the parking ga rage across the street could see her body illuminated and the students about her feet like worshippers. But in the last pose, for just a second, she felt like she was being examined by a doctor, practically probed. *** During the break, Judy wandered around the circle of canvases. They were using black acrylic paint on huge pads of thick paper. In spots it glopped like icing. Some students used cream-colored paper, some used real white. Judy abhorred what she saw on the pages. Her legs looked too short and her butt looked tremendous. None of them had attempted her face at all. Some of them made her breasts look cartoonish, unrealistic and weighty or else they drew her chest concave. She cringed at renditions of he r crotch, a line or two slashed hastily. This couldnt be how she actually appear ed to them, she reassured herself. And theyd only had five minutes for each pose. The leaves of paper were strewn about the room in various stages of drying, still shiny or smeared. It looked like a battlefield litter ed with bad renditions of her corpse.
12 She went to the restroom and locked hersel f in. She stared in the mirror. The robe looked lilac against her skin which seemed sallow. She hadnt used the robe in ages because she liked to walk naked around the apartment while th e steam made the mirrors and the insides of the windows opaque. Her eyes shined pink in the polished meta l mirror. Her fingers, tipped with PeptoBismol-colored polish, combed through her tangling hair. *** And now a long pose. Youll sit for an hour an d a half total, with a short break in the middle, Dr. Rollins said. He directed her. Sit down. Now stretch your feet towards me. Place your elbows on your knees. Lean forward a little. Thats it. You can arrange your hands as you like. Is that comfortable, Judy? Judy smiled in response. Class, well be working with our oils for th is pose. Id like you to take particular notice of the lines here and here. He motioned to her neck and the small of her back. He moved his hand around her as if she was surrounded by a force field. Look at the way the shadows divide her thighs in half. Look at the individual shapes. Paint her hands as you see her hands, not as you think hands are supposed to be painted. And most importantly, dont draw with the paint. Paint with it. She closed her eyes and took deep breaths full of pine-scented paint fumes. She was very aware of her facial expression. She tried to settle into a smile, but it felt forced and tight. As she tried to relax her face, it seemed as if shed forgotten how. ***
13 Her thoughts turned to Rick quickly. Theyd b een dating for two and a half years, so she didnt imagine hed dump her for this. She could ta lk her way out of it just like shed talked her way out of speeding tickets and any grade below a C back in high school. After all, he knew how she was before they started dating. Hed been there for her bare-skinned swim in the Outer Banks. Their shoes floated away with the tide. Everything was blue-black, and the air and the water were the exact same temperature. But what if he does? The doubt slipped into her streaming thoughts. What if he breaks up with me because of this? What if this is the last straw? What if he tells my parents? What if hes gone when I get home and hes taken the Play Station and the lion fish? The fish were technically his, as the fish stor e would not sell her any more due to her inability to bring in a decent tank-water sample, but all of those little bottles of chemicals drove her insane. Rick was the one who kept the fish alive. *** Her ass hurt as her butt bones pressed into the plywood. Her shoulders began to ache from leaning forward. She tried to shift her weight without moving and found it impossible. A piece of her hair tickled her left ear. *** She imagined extricating his compact discs from her collection. She thought about how quiet it would be at night without him to talk to. If Rick told her father about this job, Daddy would be angry enough to explode. Judy reasoned that she was an adult, pa cified herself with the question: what could they do? But she knew they could stop paying her tuition. They c ould stop letting her use the Visa for groceries and gas money.
14 *** A sneeze tickled the inside of her nose. She fought it. She closed her eyes tight. It burst and left a tingling sensation spreading through her body. She hoped she didnt have any snot on her face. She wished she could see a clock. She tried counting the seconds in Italian. She ran out of numbers at ninety-nine, couldnt remember the word for one hundred. She started over in Spanish. When was the last time shed sat for this long? As a child shed been squirmy. Her mother was always telling her to be still. Her father used to tell her that she made him nervous. Her lower back ached. If felt as if a bag of sand was balancing there, crushing her spine. She couldnt think for the pain. God, she could im agine herself breaking in half. She could see her back hunched for years to come, thanks to th is stupid job. The kid si tting closest to her left side was breathing like a walrus. The sound drowne d out the rhythmic brus hing of the paint onto the paper. Cento, she remembered. *** Break time. The professors voice shatte red her thoughts. He wa s standing behind her, and spoke over her shoulders. Judy, hold on a second while I mark the positions of your feet on the stage. He outlined her hands and feet with white chalk. She started shaking with the anticipation of stretching. She spent five minutes gulping cool water fr om a smudged fountain and doing stretches in a corner of the room while she stared out of a tremendous window at the navy and amber city. She could hear cars rushing and somewhere a radio was playing something that made the windows shiver. She examined one of her portraits: pig nose, skin the color of her painted nails,
15 eyes close together, her breasts off center. Her legs looked like they were pine tree trunks; her arms were bent strangely. She steered her gaze around the rest, nauseous; shed expected masterpieces, photorealism. She slid back into her place hastily and matche d herself to the chalk marks. Ugly veins stood out on her feet. Her arm hair darkly glim mered. She searched the faces of the students around her while they settled into th eir seats. She felt a strange sort of invisibility as they sat down around her and looked through her. The dimly lit group wore jeans, t-shirts, and hoodies, the girls hair up haphazardly. Something a bout one boys eyebrows reminded her of God, and she realized that he was her past ors son. She had learned about Ch ristianity from his father in a giant gleaming white Methodist church in Hic kory, North Carolina, and shed stopped believing in any of it when she and the son were both st ill in youth group making necklaces out of tiny army figurines because they were supposed to be soldiers for God. She couldnt remember his name, but she knew that his father woul d disapprove of his gazing upon a naked woman like this. Pastor Willford had thought her a sinner. Ben. Ben was his son. After Judy streaked through the prom, her mother made her write an apology letter to Bens father. *** The lights burned into her skull. Chalk dust gathered at the tips of her toes. She felt sweat drip down her back, collecting at her tail bone and running down her crack. She tasted sweat as it slipped into her mouth. It trickled down her chin. *** Judy would not be able to handle it if Rick called her names, though. She was unforgiving when it came to name-calling. She hated the word slut. Her lips could not form the
16 word cunt. She knew that if he wanted to hit he r hard in the heart, he knew to use that word. And she would never see him again if he did that. Shed never been called a cunt before, at least not to her face. She suspected Rick checked her cell phone at the end of the day, while she was in the bathroom. He didnt like to dance, but would acc ompany her to clubs. Hed watch her while he wall-leaned, and hed only approach her if some other boy tried to dance against her. He would cut in and bob his head a little, then back out again and sip bo ttled beer. Her nudity made him nervous. However, he showed how much he appreciat ed her with carnations and daisies on her kitchen table, Post-it notes stuck to her mirror in the morning: Youre beautiful, I love you. Sometimes he made her brown paper bag lunche s of egg salad sandwic hes with green onions, Little Debbie cakes, carrot sticks and ranch dressing. When she was late, he interrogated her. She got the idea that he want ed to write his name on her in block letters, stickered to her lik e in book jackets, THIS GIRL BELONGS TO _______. *** There was a ringing in her ear suddenly. It crept into the patterned humming of the rattling windows and a buzzing fan in the corner. Her knees felt lock ed into position. Her right foot fell asleep and felt as if ants were swarming upon it. *** If her father was to find out about Judys ne w job, then she was screwed. She could kiss the Visa card goodbye. Shed be yanked out of school by her unholy arms.
17 And life without Rick would be just as bad. She did love him. Shed recently begun to imagine marrying him someday in the distant future Shed been with him too long to sacrifice it for eighteen dollars an hour. She planned to call him from the car when this was all over. Shed beg forgiveness over her cell phone. Shed cry in the parking lot. Her heart fluttered beneath her jutting rib cage. *** Judys stomach growled and the noise in her head got louder. She real ized that it was an alarm clock. It sounded like it was coming from one of the offices along the wall to her left. The volume of the buzzing intensif ied. Her eyes began to leak a little. She wondered how long she could take to blink w ithout disturbing the people pa inting her eyes. Nobody else acknowledged the alarm. *** Rick had loved skinny dipping in the Atlant ic. Theyd walked home shoeless holding hands, but hed been so disappointed to find out that it wasnt her first time in the water naked. It was his first, and his exhilaration faltered when he realized she had made a game of it. Hed been so sad to find out she did it every summer. *** The alarm filled her ears. It leaked into her brain. The throbbing receded and began again with each new beep. How could they pain t with the noise? How could they concentrate on anything at all? *** BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP
18 *** Jesus, cant any of you hear it? What the fuck is wrong with you people? The circle of students bounced in their seats and looked up at her with wide eyes. Eisenheimers mouth opened and closed like a fishs. Judy needed air. She grabbed her robe from the concrete floor beside her. Never mind her flip-flops, she ran down to the Jeep. Barefoot in the darkness, she gulped air while Ricks cell phone rang in her ear. She sat in her passenger seat and prayed he would answer so she could make it all right. If he would only answer she would be fine. Her fingers pulled the purple terrycloth tight around her, tight as it would go, cutting off her own ci rculation so that no one could see the way she was.
19 CHAPTER 2 PULLING SHARKS I can hear th em talking to each other about my loss. I heard them while the fire still burned inside my home and I had a safety blanket wrapped around my shoulders, provided by firemen who later stomped through the piec es of blackened nonsense that ha d once been my possessions. I can hear women leaning in close to each other a nd talking softly while they stand in line with me at the grocery store when I am buying bread and cold cuts and cheese to eat in my hotel room. I can hear syrupy sympathy in the voices of the hotel clerk, the cashier, even the pizza delivery boy. She lost everything, they are saying in a way that is simultaneously a whisper and a scream. And they think that I will not be able to overcome it all. They think that life has got me beat, and they are waiting impatiently for me to leave Sullivans Island because poor people do not hang out around here. They expect me to give it all up and to start a new life burdening relatives in some other city. But they have no idea what I have lost alr eady. They are unaware of how it has touched my life like childrens slow finge rs glancing against bowled goldfi sh. And that fire may have taken my house on the beach; it may have taken my favorite blue jeans, my diplomas, and postcards from when my brother traveled to Ecua dor, to Tunisia, to Havana. And its taken my glossy grade-school valentines, but it has not taken what it could have. *** I first learned about loss by pulling baby sharks out of the marshes of Folly Beach, South Carolina. It was like watching them being born. They would climb out of the brackish liquid with that top layer of shiny water skin sucki ng down on them. They were white and beautiful, glowing pale miniaturized versions of the sh arks we saw in picture books, the models that
20 loomed over our heads in science museums. In Myrtle Beach they were sold suspended in formaldehyde in filmy mason jars. Their little de ad eyes stared out between sand-castle-shaped paperweights and hermit crab cages made me think of dissecting fetal pigs in middle school and the smell of pickled pork, rubbery and docile. The first shark we ever caught, we scrambled to yank the hook out of its minuscule lip as it twisted ferociously. I did not know then that they always fought with that same blind aggression, opening and closing thei r mouths to reveal teeth in rows like theater seats. We pulled the same shark out again and again, and its mouth was puckered with punctures. My skin tightened and broke out in goose bumps as I was looking at those little red wounds in skin so white it shined blue. When I pulled that first shark out of the wa ter, I was twelve. At the beginning of the expedition I tipped my brothers ba it bucket to release the little minnows while he was gathering together our rods and reels. I couldve sworn we had more bait than this a second ago, said my brother, Mike, who took the net and dipped it into the marsh agai n, scooping up fluffy pluff mud and more skinny fish, tiny and stupid. The fire took the spice rack that my brothe r made me before he moved overseas. He only sends me postcards, never with a return addres s or telephone number. They are like television news updates. I dont know anyone he travels wit h, but he writes as if I do, things like, You shouldve seen old Herbert on th at elephant, or Luckily, Melanie skis like a champ. He did it because our mother always bothered our father to make he r a spice rack, and he never did. I didnt have any spices until I had a sp ice rack. Then I began to collect. The fire
21 took my saffron, my cumin. It t ook my cinnamon, my allspice, sage, savory, and lavender. It took my star anise and my melegueta peppe r, also called grains of paradise. *** Once there was an old Gullah church. It squatted, white-planked, between swaying strands of Spanish moss that bearded the oaks out on Sullivans Island. The door was unlocked and we wandered in. There were Gullah wails wh itewashed onto those cinder block walls. The pews were raised above the ground as if for fear of flood. They sat in sec tions of cool darkness; a little light trickled in through high square windows. The hymns must have hummed and reverberated in that little rectangular room, in the space between t hose cinder blocks and straight-backed hard pine pew benches. In the church Mike and I kicked up dust th at floated in the air around us, suspended in sunbeams. There was a round-bellied silence in ther e that tasted of mothba lls. It hung in the air like white sheets in black-and-white movies. It rained down from the cracking ceiling. We whistled, and it clanged against th e silence. It reminded me of a dream: I was swimming in an ocean that was rippled with light making fleck s of salt flicker in the water around me. I visited the ghost church when I was fi fteen: gangly, sweaty and goofy; Mike was one year older. I tripped on the lip of the concrete floor at the threshold, and tripped again at the same place when we left, glancing over my shoulder as hypodermic needle rain stung against the skin of my bare arms and legs. We ate the humid ity with each breath. It tasted as would the air held captive in a lake house over the winter, the breath that escap es the beach ball when you pull out the little plastic tab to fill it up some more. H itting the mottled sunlight as we left the church made me think of the end of the dream, when Id been pulled out of shadowy wetness. I thought about the little sharks eyes adju sting to the sunlight and the way that they swallowed the air and
22 looked like they wished it was water. I woke up from that dream to find the bed around me sticky and slick with sweat and urine. *** My brothers baby pictures burned. The fire stole tiny pi nk knitted booties that had once adorned my feet. It ate a garbage bag of our old toys, the good ones that I was saving for whichever of us had children first. If our mother had still been alive, she w ouldve had two dozen garbage bags of toys up there. But she drove her car off of an overpa ss when I was seventeen, with my father asleep beside her. There were no skid marks. Th e police believed that she dozed off. Ten days after their funeral, Mike and I went through the attic and divided almost everything into two piles: for charity and for the dump. So, I did not lose many things to the fire that could have been lost. The house might have burned much faster had my mother still lived there. The fire took my sketch books, my paintings, my drawings, my por tfolio. It took two hundred of my slides. *** When I visited Venice, I had only twenty slid es. They were ones I had used to win a Guggenheim Scholarship to study art in Italy. It was the summer afte r my junior year of college. Everyone kept saying I was so lucky when I didnt feel very lucky at all. Id had to write an essay, and I did, about my parents, but I felt a litt le guilty. As if Id betrayed them somehow, though I knew they wouldve wanted me to go. San Marco Cathedral was flooded with dirty water, and there were platforms reflecting down into drowning, cracked marble. There was a team of stone horses attached to a stone
23 carriage in the cathedral. The platform they st ood on was almost completely covered in water that smelled like sewage. The horses eyes were flame-filled, hysterical and very, very still. I stared down at the water from the plat forms and missed my parents, my brother, familiarity. My footsteps clunked atop wood matted with carpet fragments. The carpet was crimson and damp from the wet shoes of Germans and Americans and Russians and the Japanese, the Chinese, the Spanish, the soles of their shoes still holy from kissing the floors of the Vatican, still fringed in ash from Vesuvius, st ill gritty from the gum stuck to the floor at the edge of Juliettes above-ground grave. The floor of her sepulcher had been littered with wilted flowers and little pieces of paper with graphite declarations from one lover to another, fluttering like fake petals, flammable and nearing translucenc y, stuck to the stone walls and floor with little mounds of darkening gum. When my eyes adjusted to the shadows of the cathedral I watche d tadpoles swim about the stocky platform legs. They swam in figure ei ghts, cut through the water as if it were thick, as if they were swimming in margarine. The tadpol es pretended to be sharks, reflecting speckled silver, and not the radiant white that I had expected to see. I dont know why I thought that sharks belonged in that church. I pictured their virgin fins cleaving the holy marble magnified by the escaped tricklings of the San Marco Canal. I saw Venice at twenty-one, but I bawled like a baby at night. We spent three weeks there and three in Rome, where I was robbed. So me gypsy children stole my purse on the bulging subway. The boys were clumped together behi nd me and wrapped in layers: store-bought sweatshirts and homemade woolen sweaters, olive green leg warmers, mittens. Their hair was dreaded and braided. They traile d tails of headbands and scarves. I was distracted by a mans elbow jutting into my rib cage through my sweatshirt. His br eath smelled like anchovies and
24 mustard. My arms were pinned against my si des by a crushing crowd of mass-transit rushers sweating stains against each others shirt sleeves. I could see one boys eyes out of the corner of my own. The iris seemed to consist of a mixture of biology and agate, lusterless and wonderful, lashes spiking. He reminded me of my father, of my brother, of sharks and ghost-churches. He reminded me of eye contact and holding hands. At the stop I spilled out onto the platform to realize that my purse was gone, my train pass, my hostel room key, my stude nt identification card, my postcards, my address book, my deodorant scented baby powder fresh, my forbidde n cigarettes, my trav elers checks, appleflavored Chap Stick, a book of useful phrases translated, my broken watch. Stop! I screamed after th e backs of the boys shoulders as they dragged my purse against the ground and melted into a tide of deni m and khaki, panty hose and floral skirts. I lurched forward to stumble after them and met a wall of Romans walking at the pace of people late to be somewhere they shouldve been hours ago. I felt helpless with burning panic, dangli ng there somewhere in the dirt beneath the crumbling coliseum. I pleaded in a language nobody understood, or that they pretended not to understand. Tears moistened and then dried upon my cheeks, stained the collar of my t-shirt a darker shade of blue. Snot caked my nostrils, dr ibbled into the hollow be low my nose. I leaned back against a tiled wall stained amber with ni cotine. A man beside me watched me over his saxophone. His cheeks ballooned and his instrument em itted a shiny golden shriek. It filled the platform, caressed my eardrums, made me pause in my hysterics. He stopped playing to reach into his wax paper cup and pull out a few coins. He pressed beautiful and unfamiliar currency into my palm and nudged me toward the hiss of a slowing subway car with a gloved hand. I
25 didnt know where it was headed, but I squeezed past the shutteri ng doors. As the car slid down the tunnel, the muffled saxophone bayed like a seagull. *** The fire started in my bedroom where a cigare tte smoldered on the edge of an ashtray. It tumbled off into a small stack of mail. The fire took my water bill, a letter from my cousin, and an envelope which stated that Id won a million dollars. The fire stole my king-sized bed, my real leather moccasins, and my silk bathrobe. But I did not drown in the fluttering flames because I was walking on the beach barefoot, ki cking up sand with the tops of my toes. *** The last time we caught a shark I cried at my brother to stop playi ng with it and let it go, even though I was already too old to cry, and even though Id never had anything happen worth crying about. It dangled from my brothers K-Mart bought rod-n-reel. It swam off into the reeds so fast after we finally cajoled the hook out of his lip, its tail kicking a bit of sunlight back at us as it disappeared into the mint julep grass. We headed back then, because we didnt want to get caught in the low tide, but I was glad to see the shark slip back into the water. It was easier to sleep that night knowing that we had sent it on its way, back into the marsh that w ould take it to the swel ling Atlantic, shifting and marvelous in the dipping sun.
26 CHAPTER 3 THE COLOR OF VALIUM When m y brother, George, came out of the ba throom he looked like someone had poured Berry Blast Gatorade all over his white-b lond head. And his grin was thick. What the hell did you do? was the first thing that I asked. I was barefoot and sliding a Hilton Head High School hoodie over my h ead. It got stuck on my ponytail. I dyed my hair blue, he told me and then walked down the hallway past me towards the living room. He towered over me now, although wed been the same height until I was in the seventh grade and he was in the tenth. Then he shot up skinny lik e a tendril. By the time I was in the ninth grade and he was a senior, Id give n up hope of a growth spurt. I couldnt see his eyes anymore; I looked straight up his nostrils. It was probably the longest conve rsation wed had in two week s. When he came home, if he came home, he would head straight to hi s room and play games on his computer with headphones on. I came to the conclusion that our pa rents had never tried pot before, because he smelled like it all of the time, and th ey never said anything about it. Mom said, Jesus, George. I mean really, when she saw his blue hair at dinner. But that was it, and she served herself some spaghetti casse role and passed it to h im carefully so that she wouldnt spill orange sauce onto the linen tablecloth. Dad ignored the blue hair thi ng. He only looked at it once, and then avoided looking at my brother for the rest of the meal. I dont know if he was trying to be the cool liberal dad or if he thought it would be better to i gnore it than to get into an argument. When Dad and George fought it was like listening to two guys with drums playing at the same time. Georges voice was starting to sound just like Dads, a nd they kind of melted together.
27 *** When I went into the bathroom to brush my teeth the next morning, there was a huge indigo smudge across one of the ivory bath towels. It looked like a thumbpri nt. I hoped that the dye might all have come off, washed out with the Pert Plus, but when we got into Georges Volvo to ride over to school his hair looked onl y a little lighter. His face was scrunched up like it hurt to be awake. The car was quiet enough th at I could hear the heating vents whooshing out at me. Will you look out for cops? he asked me when wed pulled out of the driveway and hed lit a joint. Im going to reek in homeroom, I responded and leaned my forehead against the cool glass of my window. Palmetto trees swung in the November wind along the road. Georges window was rolled about halfway down and a mois t breeze shuffled my hair around my head. I stared into the side mirror to check and make sure that my eyes werent all red. Georges morning joints had never affected me beforenot since hed inexplicably started smoking before school about six months earlier. Id heard that second-hand smoke is pretty potent. Id never actually smoked weed mostly because my best friend Miranda once told me that weed makes you fat because you cant control your food intake when youre stoned. But Id recently come to realize that George was clothespin-skinny, so that couldnt rea lly be the whole truth. The car smelled like skunk and burning paper. I held my breath and shifted my eyes back and forth looking for police cars. *** I hear your hair turns blue when you give a Smurf a blowjob, some girl sniggered when we walked into the front hallway where all of th e senior lockers were located. Then her friends
28 in their Hollister skinny-jeans cackled. I watched Georges face drop before he walked towards his locker without saying goodbye to me. Jackie, I heard your brother dyed his hair, Miranda whispered in my ear while our homeroom teacher called roll. Who told you that? I whispered back to her behind a cupped hand. I noticed that my fingernail polish was so chipped th at only half-moons of magenta cl ung to my cuticles. I looked down at Mirandas nails and they were perf ect and shiny with French-manicure tips. I just got a text from my sister. Yeah, I think he did it to be cool. But people are just gonn a make fun of it. Miranda? Jackie? Do you know something that youd like the rest of us to know as well? our homeroom teacher asked as if we ha d to actually learn in homeroom. She thought she was relating to us by wearing a Gamecocks jersey every other Friday. We just watched the school news on television and got counted and then moved on to the next room. *** At lunch I walked past the corner of the c ourtyard where George and his friends ate. There was food stuck all over the wall across from th e one that they leaned against. A cupcake was glued to the brick by its frosting. So mething that resembled mashed potatoes hung suspended in clumps. Once Id watched them throw French fries dipped in electric-orange cheese at the wall. They thought that no one c ould see them because nobody had yelled at them yet. The kids he hung out with were skinny, and they all had the post ure of old men with canes. The girls had stringy hair and blurry eyes. I watched one of the girls run her fingers through Georges bangs, and I wondered if that wa s why he dyed his hair: to make that one girl
29 touch him for a second. I tried to imagine some one running his fingers through my hair. Then I almost ran into a trashcan so I stopped staring and thinking. I concentr ated on finding Miranda so that we could walk to the band ro om together to eat our sandwiches. *** I couldnt ride home with George because of band practiceI was second chair saxophone. I had to catch a ride home with the firs t chair flute, my next door neighbor, and his mother. When I got home, around five, no one wa s around. I went to the bathroom, looked in the trash underneath the sink and found a canister of Manic Panic hair cream in Shocking Blue. I opened it and squished my finger into the remnants It reminded me of finger paint. I put my finger against the mirror on the medicine cabinet and drew a cloud and so me pointy mountains. When I looked into the mirror stra ight-on, the paint blocked out the pimples on my forehead, so I didnt clean it up. I left the la ndscape on the mirror and the hair dye underneath the porcelain sink, behind a box of tampons. You know, George, its one th ing to dye your hair withou t asking permission. Its another to completely trash your ba throom and leave it for me to clean up, my mother told my brother as she stirred macaroni and cheese on the st ove and I set the table with paper towels and forks and glasses of ice water. I dont know what youre talking about. And I cant imagine why I would need your permission to dye my hair, he replied as the hallway swallowed him. Maybe because its my money that you used to purchase your hair dye. She followed him with a spoon drenched in sticky cheese sauce in her right hand and an oven mitt on her left. When she gesticulated little orange-yellow ci rcles speckled the hardwood floor. His bedroom door slammed and it shook me.
30 I took away one of the table settings. *** I think it looks cool, Mira nda told me on the phone that night. I was already in bed, and the light from the screen of my cell phone wa s the only bright thing in my room. It was 10:30 and I kept thinking about how if I fell asleep before elev en I could get seven hours of sleep, which is three hours less than is r ecommended by doctors for people my age. I think that it looks stupid. And I think that hes trying to be someone that hes not. I twirled the end of one of my braided pigtails. Youre being close-minded about this, Miranda replied, and then hung up abruptly, which usually meant that one of her parents ha d walked into the room and caught her on the phone after ten oclock. *** The next day Georges hair was a little lighter still. It was the color of Dads Valium which he only took when my moms parents were in town from Florida. They owned a camper and fished. My fathers father, on the other ha nd, was a retired sheriff who insisted that my friends refer to him as Sheriff Donaldson. I took a Valium once when they were out at dinner just to see what it felt like, but it just made me fall asleep in the middle of an MTV music video marathon, which is a rare occurrence, so I was disappointed to have slept through it. Ill only watch for cops if you let me smoke some of your joint, I announced after we pulled out of the driveway. No way. He blew smoke out of his half-open window. Why not?
31 There was a pause while he held in a deep m outhful of smoke. He kept it in his lungs while he said, This shits expensive. Then he exhaled a stream. Ill tell Mom and Dad, I threatened calmly. He stared straight ahead over the steering wheel of his Volvo and passed me the little twirl of paper. I put it between my lips and sucked. The embers at the end of it grew bright. *** I struggled to get through a mo sh pit of a hallway. There we re three people between me and George when I watched a boy with a Mohawk shove my brother to the ground and call him a poser. A girl tripped over him as he sat there tangled in legs and sn eakers, and people pooled around him. After I made it to my locker, Miranda introduced me to a short girl in jeans a couple of sizes too big. This is Jackie. Shes the sister of the kid with blue hair. I roll ed my eyes at Miranda as we leaned against my locker and the ones be side it. This is Mart a. I wondered if my brother was the most noteworthy aspect of my life. I like your brothers hair, Marta said and her eyes flickered up from the floor. Her Chuck Taylors were covered in spider we bs drawn in blue ball point pen. Its nice to meet you, I said. The bell ra ng, and as we parted for first period, Miranda mouthed to me over her shoul der the words: are you high? *** Teddy had spiky brown hair that stood up aroun d his head like crystal formations. He wore jeans that showed off boxers printed with Scottish terriers, the In credible Hulk or the Rolling Stones logo-lips. He ate lunch with my brother but had been assigned to be my lab
32 partner in chemistry class. It was weird to talk to my brothers friends It was like Teddy was some extension of my brother or something, like I was measuring chemicals into graded cylinders with this unfamiliar cousin. He smelled like cigarettes and pizza. He delivered for Dominos and didnt do his laundry enough. Hed failed the class twice already, and this was his last chance. So, I said. We were doing calculations. The teacher was doing a crossword puzzle at his desk in a square of sunlight. Who drew all over your arm? He had black pen ink all over his left forearm. It was swirled and there were eyes with full lashes and Batman symbols and pentagrams and words in bubbles floating around on his skin. You know. He wasnt looking at me. He was examining his arm and talking quietly. The people I eat lunch with. Oh, I said and did long di vision on a piece of scratch pape r because neither of us had remembered our calculator, and I tried to pictur e the group of kids that threw food at walls. I imagined torn jeans and split ends, nails painted in dark colors: navy blue, purple, black. The outlines of ribcages through petal-thin t-shirts. Sarcastic laughter and clove smoke. Why? No reason. Nothing else to do, I guess, he said and twisted around to examine a Bandaid drawn onto his elbow, right over a nickel-s ized scab in shades of pine-bark brown. Do you want to do the odd numbers and Ill do the even ones? I asked. Nah. I suck at this. If I do any of them, well just get those ones wrong. You dont want me to do anything, he rep lied. I wondered if my brother slacked off in his classes. I wondered if he cheated on tests, leaning forward in his desk and peeking out from behind his bangs at the paper lying on the desk of the person in front of him. I wondered if hed fail this
33 year and be stuck in high school again next year. I wondered wh at would change if that did happen, what our parents would do. *** I hope that youre not planning on getting a job anytime soon. No grocery store wants a bagger with freaky hair, my dads mother said ov er a forkful of steaming pot roast. I cringed when her lips formed the word freaky. We were hunched around the big oval-shaped dining room table on Sunday. George had his head tilted so that his face was pointed directly at his pile of pot roast. I could only s ee his scalp which was no longer tinged. It was a creek of pale running down his blue head. The blue didnt appear to be fading anymore. I mean, really, she said to my mother, How could you allow him to do this to himself? Hell be going to look at colleges soon. What are they goi ng to think? Hell dye it back before we start lo oking at colleges, my mother said. Theres no way George started. That is not an appropriate tone to take with your moth er, young man. You may leave the table, my grandmother told him. Her eyeb rows were tweezed to nothingness. Her glasses made her pupils enormous in the dimmed light a nd rimmed them with beads of brightness. That night I went to Georges bedroom door and knocked lightl y. He didnt answer so I opened the door a little. He was sitting at his de sk with his back to me. He was staring at his computer, and the light from the screen silhouetted his frame. I set two king-sized Snickers ba rs on the corner of the dresser beside his door. They were the last of my half of the leftover Halloween can dy that our mother had purchased for trick-ortreaters. I knew that missing dinner would make his stomach growl all night long. I wasnt sure whether to believe that he didnt care.
34 One Halloween I left my candy in the sun on accident and everything melted: a trove of chocolate bars, Twizzlers, candy corn, and gummy worms in little cellophane packages. I was nine and he was twelve, the last year he trickor-treated. He split his candy with me when he saw me crying over the mess, and nobody even made him do it. From his doorway, I could see the backs of his big bulbous earphones. His music was so loud I could hear the muffled gu itar riffs from across the room I wondered what was going on in his head that made it necessary to listen to anything that loud. *** The next day I made him share his joint with me in the car again. We left the windows rolled up and the interior filled with sm oke. The air was swirly with it. So is it worth it? Having your hair blue? Is it worth all the shit youre getting? I broke the silence about midway between our house and sc hool. My throat felt like it was on fire and I coughed until my ribcage ached. Im not, like, the only person in the world that dyes his hair, he said and rolled down his window. The smoke rushed away from him. I tilted my head back and squeezed Visine into my eyes and it leaked down my cheeks to pool in my ears. Between third and fourth periods I was walk ing about six feet behind my brother when we passed a couple whose names I didnt know. The girls short bobbed hair was magenta and she was wearing leg warmers and a skirt. The bo y had hair that was black with a green sheen like the outside of an avocado. They smiled a nd nodded at my brother, and he nodded back. I wondered if he knew them, or if they just wave d at him the way that the cheerleaders waved at
35 each other in the hallways, or the way that th e guys on the basketball team would slap hands when they sidled past each other, but not talk and sometimes not even look in each others eyes. *** You will not walk into my parents house on Thanksgiving with blue hair, my father told my brother that night after George came ho me sulking and stinking. He bee-lined for his bedroom, but Dad caught him in the hallway. My bedroom door was open enough to let a stripe of light fall across the foot of my bed. It was like they were continuing a conversation, but I couldnt figure out when theyd had the first part. Then I guess Im not going, George told him. Youre wrong about that, my father said. You cant make me dye my hair back, George said. His shadow slid through my stripe of hallway light. Then how does this sound: no car, no allo wance, no television, no computer, no cell phone? I could imagine him ticking them off on his fingers. Fine. Ill deal with it. Ill get a job. I wondered if Georges eyes were red. I wondered if he had the hood of his sweat shirt pulled up to co ver his head. Fine. There will be no more staying out You will limit your activities to school, studying in your room, eating with your family and sleeping. Im not changing my fucking hair. *** I learned to cuss from my brother. He would bring home new words from his YMCA basketball league every Wednesday night when he was eight and I was five years old.
36 Fuck, he told me in the living room as I colored and we watched Aladdin. He wasnt tall yet. He hadnt scored a bask et all season. This would be his last attempt at organized sports. Fuck, I repeated. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. What does it mean? I cant tell you. But dont ever say it in fron t of grownups or youll get in big trouble. Cameron said it today and coach made him run sprints, George told me. I nodded and didnt use the word myself until afte r I overheard him say it while he was playing video games. *** I woke up to screeching. It sounded like my mom at first. I sat up so quick that my head clouded with speckles. You bitch! my brother screamed, and I rea lized that it was him who woke me up. His voice shot up and down octaves. I ra n barefoot on my toes towards it. He stood in the hallway in fr ont of his room. There were pictures of us as smiling toddlers in oval-shaped frames hanging behind h im. In the photos we were round-cheeked, polished, in jumpers decorated with farm animals. George stood before them with his chest inflating and deflating rapidly, hi s face red and streaky, and he had a stripe of shaved skin down the middle of his head like a reverse Mohawk. My mother stood closer to the living room in jeans and a sweater holding my fathers electric shaver. My brother had sleep and tears in his eyes. He was blubbering. What is wrong with you, Mom? he asked. It was inappropriate, George. My mother wa lked into the bathroom that I shared with George and put the razor on the coun tertop. Ill leave this in here. Im sure that youll want to finish shaving your head before school. Hurry up or were going to be late. She walked away from us, and George sniffled and snorted into the sleeves of his l ong-sleeved t-shirt.
37 The girls wouldnt want to run their fingers through his hair anymore. The other kids with dyed hair wouldnt nod to him. Hed be stuc k with the same haircut as the J.R.O.T.C. kids and the rednecks. Nobody would talk about hi m anymore in the echoing, locker-door-slamming hallways. He would no longer be a point of reference. When he came out of the bathroom his head was covered all over in colorless baby-chick fuzz thin enough to see his scalp through. There were traces of blue, the faint tracks of the electric razor, like trails the lawnmower left on the grass. His eyes looked tremendous, lashes weighing down eyelids. I put my arm around his wa ist as we passed in the hallway. He touched the top of my head with his palm. I could bare ly feel the weight of his hand. My arm met his lowest ribs and his prickly vertebrae. They were like hollow bird bones. You look good like with your head shaved, I said upwards, my neck tilted all of the way back. He made a noise like a sarcastic sneeze. *** I brushed my teeth ferociously. My mouth was lathered like a rabid dogs. I spat into the sink, and turned on the faucet to rinse away toot hpaste froth and broken st rands of my brothers hair. They clung to the porcelain and then floated on the sludgy skin of the tap water before they spun around and sunk gurgling down out of sight. The bathroom smelled like Georges laundry in the wicker hamper in the corner. I kept mine in my room in a bag because I didn t want it to smell like his, even if it was already dirty. The next year Id be able to use the hamper because George would be away at college. I thought about my clothes and their sme ll (stale deodorant, raspberry body spray) in a hamper of their own.
38 I opened the cabinet beneath th e sink and removed the remaining hair dye. I dipped the fingers of my right hand into the blue goo. The wall behind me in the mirror was blinding white and blank. I touched my fingers to the painted pl aster. The wall sucked up the color like it was thirsty. I drew faces and fishes and hearts, stars, and horses. I drew a dragon and a castle. I traced the outline of my hand. When the gunk was running out I wa tered it down a little. I drew raindrops and smoke swirling. I drew flames and clouds and the Volvo. I signed my initials at the bottom. I used the last of it to color a thin strand of my hair blue, in the middle of the mass, where I could hide it whether I wore my hair up or down. While I waited for it to set, I wondered how you knew whether you were the type of person who dyes her hair or not. Because the first time that you dye your hair you become someone who dyes her hair. And before that you re not someone who dyes her hair.
39 CHAPTER 4 SUGAR When Sugar looks in the m irror almost fifty years after joining the circus, the early morning light illuminates the reflection of a woman who is fat and flabby. She is sixty-four years old and covered in faded and stretched tattoos. She reac hes into her dresser drawer for pants to pull on, but the only clean pair she has left are a size sixteen, four sizes too small now. She finds a broomstick skirt made of crinkly fa bric that falls to the floor, a nd pulls it up to her waist, feels the elastic pinch at her pudge, and thinks about the squiggly lines that the band will leave on her stomach and lower back. She joined Preston P. Cavanaughs Traveling Circus when she was nineteen to be the tattooed woman. She had eleven tattoos when sh e joined up, five which shed paid for with money from waiting tables and hidden from her parents while she was still living with them, even though her father had one on his arm that read U.S.M.C. The other six she acquired after she ran away to live in an apartment above a bar. She tried to be the fat lady, in hopes of creati ng room for more tattoos, but also to acquire more fame, to make more of a name for hers elf. There were many tattooed women on the circuit, there were many fat ladies, but there w ould be only one fat lady /tattooed woman combo. She could not gain enough weight to be anyt hing but extremely chubby. No matter how many potatoes she ate, no matter how many sticks of bu tter she slid into her so up, how many raw eggs she cracked into her open mouth in the morn ing, she could not break two hundred pounds, and Preston said she would have to be at leas t three hundred to be a true fat lady. *** She does not admire her own tattoos anymore. She does not turn to examine the ones on her back in the full-length mirror. They seem to belong to somebody else. Sometimes her eyes
40 land on them lazily and get her memory chargi ng out of nowhere like a runaway animal. Her eyes stop on her tattooed ring finger when she watches her hand pull at the string that ignites the overhead light, and she remembers getting initials tattooed there the day after her wedding, while she still had the taste of cheap champagne in her mouth. *** When she was young, men loved Sugar. She had Shirley Temple curls, and dimples appeared whenever she moved. As she gorged herself, she realized that although she didnt need the approval of those around her, she hadnt predicted the loneliness that might come with being obese. She envied girls th eir boyfriends; she slept alone all of the time. One of the clowns made costumes for all of Prestons performers. She made Sugars bikinis larger than necessary under the optimistic assumption that Sugar would gain some more weight. And one day Sugars botto ms fell down in front of her a udience. A gaggle of men with mustaches and cigarettes packed into her trailer and gawked at the ink that spanned her legs and chest and belly and arms and neck and hands and f eet. She felt the expanse of red fabric slipping and stopped posing to reach for it, but she could no t seem to get over the hill of her belly quick enough. Would you take a look at that giant clam? One of the men squawked, pointing at her exposed crotch, right before she flopped to the ground and clasped her legs together. They left the trailer as her eyes leaked onto her rouge-stained cheeks. *** When she began seeing him, Jeb was a trap eze artist. Preston had created the Flying Wallhildos, a family made up of individual swinge rs, and Jeb was supposed to be the father. Mother had feathered dark hair and the children were big-eyed with skin that looked almost
41 green under the lights in the tent. They wore matching flashing unita rds, the magenta material of which fit so tight that Jebs penis was highlighted from above under those bright lights; it practically glowed. Sugar remembers the first time she saw him perform, after she gave him a cigarette at a picnic table between the tent and their massive lot of trailers: trai lers for sleeping and trailers for the freak show. The table was gouged with names of other people whod smoked other cigarettes resting their butts on it s top. Sugar trailed Je b into the tent and stood to the side of the illuminated ring. In the shadows she towered over a midget and a clown wearing a purple sequined eye patch. Jeb propelled from swinging trapeze to swi nging trapeze, flinging his family members by their legs, their arms. He linked legs with his faux-wife and she extended her arms to grab their fake son by the knees. The boy caught the girl out of a double somersault through the air. Sugar could see the little girls painted fingernails drag along the net as the boys arms strained and Jebs fingers lost their colo r holding onto a wooden dowel. *** Sugars tattoos have lost their color. Black has faded to blue. Her red roses have faded to light pink. The yellow of her canaries has di sappeared so that the birds fly flesh-colored across her tits. And everything blue has become li ght violet. She covers her tattoos up with big, long clothes. Sugar reaches into her laundry hamper to sc oop wrinkled clothing into a net bag. She heads to the Laundromat down the street. If Jeb were still around, hed have fixed that damn washer by now. Her eyes flit to his initials fading on her finger.
42 Sugar mutters to herself as she locks her fr ont door behind her, her laundry growing dusty as it rests against the steps leadi ng up to her small cinderblock house. Petals of loose pink paint cling to the bag when she lifts it up by the knot ted drawstring. She gets into her Honda and heads for the Laundromat. As she enters the building she is relieved to find herself alone. None of the washers are swirling; none of the dryers are twitching. She remembers that there is a new place, Suds Your Duds, nearby and realizes that she probably should have gone there, to check it out, to see what it is like. She changes a five into quarters and tries to count the tinklings as each coin lands against the bottom of the metal dish in the center of the machine. A bell rings on the door and she looks up to see a boy stroll in. He looks around and takes a seat in a chair made of orange plastic. He leans forward with his elbows resting on his knees. He laces his fingers toge ther and unlaces them. He looks up and his eyes meet Sugars. You got change for a fifty? he asks her. No, she says. How bout a twenty? Well, I dont think so, she says but he is walking toward her. As he gets closer, she notices his brown eyes His mouth is frozen in a sneer and he smells like menthol cigarettes. I want your money, he says. His voice cracks a little on the word your reverting to a childs falsetto for a second before returning to a mans voice, gruff and low. He holds a knife at his side, something sharp and serrated, but with gaps in the metal. Sugar knows that it is intended for slicing cheese.
43 Now, just a second Sugar reaches for her purse on the washer beside her, but the boy rushes her, knocking her over and grabbing her fake leather purse. Sugar is shocked that the slight young man is able to move her hulking heft. The remaining quarters spill onto the dirty linoleum around her and her back strikes a wheeled laundry basket. It overt urns beside her as she stares up at flickering tubes of light and feels the vibrations of the boys retreating footsteps. Sugar calls the police from a pay phone in the parking lot using quarters off the floor. She contemplates not making the cal l in order to have enough change to dry her clothes entirely. Two officers arrive to take a report. What did he look like? the younger cop asks, his pen poised above a small narrow notebook with a black leather cover. He was a boy. He was wearing an aquamari ne shirt with a dolphin on it. He looked young, maybe high-school-aged, blue jeans, brown hair and eyes and big white tennis shoes. The police tell her to cancel her credit cards. *** When she is safely inside her living room with her blinds drawn, she imagines what Jeb would have done to that boy if he was alive. She can picture Jeb blacking that boys eye, knocking him out. She can imagine that boys h ead bouncing a little as it hits the floor. She used to call Jeb Popeye, jokingly, b ecause he was so strong. And he called her Olive Oyl, ironically, but her feelin gs were not injured. She never wa nted to be thin or pretty to anyone except when she fell in love with Jeb, and he liked her big and covere d in patterns of ink. Her mother used to think that there was something wrong with Sugar, because she cared so little what others thought. Jeb thought that was what made her special. She got a picture of Popeye etched into her bicep and surprised Jeb with it, and he said
44 that now she was stuck with him forever, and how did she like that? This was a month after their first date. She never regrette d getting the little cartoon sailo rshe didnt regret any of her tattoos specifically, though it exhaus ted her to think about them. *** There are daisies climbing up and out of her shirt. Sometimes when it is cold, she touches her fingers to her neck, a nd the lines are raised. The daisie s are the most visible of all of her tattoos, the ones that she cat ches people staring at in the checkout line at Winn-Dixie, or standing in the post office while her knees ache. The daisies are the reason that she owns four turtlenecks and a half dozen scar ves. They dont even mean anyt hing. She chose them off of a wall of tattoo designs. They were the first tattoo she had done with one of the fancy new electronic guns. It whirred like a mani ac under a swaying light in Coos Bay, Oregon. *** Jeb died in a car accident when he was fi fty-eight and Sugar was forty-nine. He kissed her goodbye in the morning of her day off as she stared at the soap operas. On Tuesdays she did not conduct phone surveys, a job she chose for the c onvenience of sitting in a recliner. After she retired from Preston P. Cavanaughs, she struggled to find employers who didnt care that seventy percent of her body was decorated. She liked the phone job because she was just a voice to the customers. She was just a voice that could belong to anyone. Jeb had been gone all of an hour and a half when two policemen knocked at her door to tell her that her husbands Chevy had been accord ion-ed between the back of one tractor trailer and the nose of another on the highway. Sugar to ld the cops repeatedly that they had made a mistake, that her husband had just left, just a moment ago, and he hadnt been gone long enough to die. In that hour and a half Sugar flipped between channels of soap operas. Nothing happened
45 at all to anyone in any of them. *** Sugar never looks at the tattoo on the back of her right calf, a memori al for her husband. She avoids trying on shoes because she doesnt want to see the small distorted portrait and the date beneath it in the angled mirrors of the Payl ess. It is the last tattoo she ever got. For a while she got touch-ups at Macs Tattoos and Piercings once a year or so, but then she stopped because it cost too much, and she doesnt care what they look like anymore. She still knew some of the men working there around the time that Jeb died. Mac tattooed Sugar himself when she came in for the memorial tatto o. She cried through the whole thing, but not from the pain; she didnt even feel the needles anymore. Mac had cried, tooso much that he had to take a break while one of the new ki ds took over and he composed himself. *** Nightmares trouble Sugars sleep after the robbery at the Laundromat. She awakes in a sweat with the sound of quarters jingling and the chug of a washi ng machine echoing in her ears. She struggles to recall what th e boy looked like, the shape of his nose, the shade of his lips, the curve of his eyes, the angle at which his ears st uck out from the sides of his head. She is thinking about the dolphin on his shirt. Twin dolphins swim across her right thigh am ongst floating pink hearts that used to be maroon. She got the dolphins done in Orlando, Florida by a man who sm oked cigarettes the whole time. He just balanced them on his lower lip, exhaled out of the co rner of his mouth, and Sugar later found his ashes in between he r toes, in the leather of her sandals. *** When she and Jeb got married, they went to Sea World for their honeymoon. They
46 stayed in a hotel decorated in sh ades of melon and pistachio. Huge palm trees dipped their heads in the wind on the lawn of the hotel. Jeb and Sugar watched dolphins balance basketballs on their noses. They jumped through yellow and white -striped plastic hula hoops which had beads in them so they rattled a little. The dolphins chirped and it sounded like the high-pitched laughter of demons. *** The day after her robbery, Sugar gets a dog to help her feel safe. A neighbor gives her a Dalmatian. It is a wiggly dog; the creature acts more nervous than S ugar feels. Worst of all, the dog refuses to pee on concrete. She will only piss when all four of her paws are standing on grassy ground, which means that Sugar has to walk f our blocks to a park cluttered with a slightly rusting swing set. She thinks that she will lose so me weight if she walks the dog there every day. She renames the dog Miss Boney after a school teacher she knew. Miss Boney is as skinny as her friend, the teacher, and the dog s spots remind her of Miss Boneys freckled cheeks. Miss Boney chases acorns, crunching th em occasionally between her teeth. One length of the square-shaped park is chain link fence, about eight feet high, and through it Sugar can see the back of a Winn-Dixie. Huge tractor trailers are backed up to the docks in the mornings, and in the evenings the bag boys ri de their skateboards loudly acro ss the concrete expanse. The street is lined with small evergreens, and the dead orange spines stick to Miss Boneys back as she walks along that side. One side is a cinderblo ck wall which is the side wall of a convenience store with two stories of apartments above it. Th e last length faces an empty lot, yellow grass tufts out of dusty dirt; beer can tabs glitter in the sunlight. They are the only ones in the park, and Mi ss Boneys snuffling and the traffic are the only noises Sugar can hear.
47 Sugar plops down onto a wooden bench with curled wrought-iron feet which the dog sniffs. Sugar thinks that she c ould get used to this, to having a dog, to walking it, to feeding it. They both turn to look as a clanging interrupt s their quiet moment. Four young boys climb over the chain link fence, fitting the toes of their sn eakers into the diamond-shaped openings in its surface. Two of them are shirtless with their t-shirts tucked into the backs of their jeans, white capes flowing from their pants. Sugar leans into the back of the bench. She tilts her face downward and then looks up quickly to recognize the boy from the Laundromat. He looks younger now, with his shirt off. He is pigeon-chested and she can count his ribs. She pulls the hood of her sweatshirt over her head and tighten s her grip on the dog leash so that Miss Boney rises up on her haunches. Sugars heartbeat sp eeds up; the bass of her body pounds in her ears loudly. The boys take no notice of her. Two of them light up cigarettes. Two of them get onto the swings and begin leaning forwards and back wards, pumping their legs. Sugar watches them swing higher and higher. The set thumps back and forth. It looks as if it will collapse. When their swings stretch up past the horizontal bar, the boys float, free falling for a moment. The tshirts tucked into the backs of their pants ba lloon up behind them when they swing forward, and when they move backward the shirts were sucked beneath the black rubber seats. The chains from which the swings hang screech and clang in a rusty rhythm. Mi ss Boney watches them move back and forth and follows them with her eyes, her black nose carving arcs in the air. Sugars heart aches as they swing; it reminds her of the trapeze. She pulls down her sleeve to cover up a rose tattoo. It was Jebs first anniversary present to her. It wilts on her skin. When he reaches the highest point of his sw ing, one boy flips backwards out of his seat. His body twists, his feet curve over his head and land in a cloud of dirt on the ground, the swing
48 twitches to a stop behind him. The second boy, the Laundromat boy, imitates the first. His skinny arms let go of the chains and he pulls them into his stomach as he lands on his feet and ducks to miss the swing as it hurrie s back toward him. It knocks him in the seat of his pants a moment later, but he doesnt seem to notice. He rubs the palms of his ha nds together and twists his face into a sneeze. But for just a moment the boy from the Laundr omat looks just like Jeb. His muscles look like Jebs muscles when they mettaut with unspent energy. His eyes have that look of pride at twisting himself out of gravitys grip. Sugar watches him hungrily. Her eyes follow him, eager for one more moment of Jebs grin, one more glance at his muscular calves. And the next minute he looks alien to her. The boys continue on out of the park and dow n the sidewalk, their hair collecting pine needles as they duck below the branches to s queeze between the trees. Sugar has been holding the leash tight and unconsciously collecting it in her hands. The dog sits beside her on the bench, and her deer eyes shine right besi de Sugars face. She loosens he r fists, the leash loosens, and the dog hops off of the bench to lay its head atop Sugars flip-flopped f eet. Miss Boney licks Sugars right ankle, and her t ongue tickles as it slops across a tattoo of a Betty Boop who is chubby, beautiful, stretched and faded to look cumbersome in her polka dot dress. *** Miss Boney and Sugar walk home slowly. S ugar drags her feet ac ross the concrete, and Miss Boney slides her shining nos e along the cracks of the side walk. Sugar is ashamed of having seen Jeb in the boy. Her tear ducts feel empty. Her body feels heavy. Her mind is soiled, and her skin is marred. When she gets home she strips and climbs into the tub. She turns the tap as hot as it will
49 go and lets the temperature increase against her sk in as the water rises. Miss Boney laps up the water that puddles against the ti les around her. Sugar closes he r eyes and leans back in the steam. She tries to imagine herself sixteen and vi rgin-skinned. She feels as if shed been born like this, a forlorn freak show. She grips the wash cloth in her clenched fist, and she scrubs her skin until her hands ache. She lies there naked, counting th e memories etched on her body, wishing they werent there, and wa shing herself with terrycloth so r ough it feels like st eel wool.
50 CHAPTER 5 PIT BULL Tank wore his jeans so low on his hips that if you lifted his shirt you could see two inches of his boxers. He had a tattoo on his back which was done in black ink: a pair of intricately feathered wings that spanned from the tops of his shoulders to just below hi s waist. Jade didnt like tattoos in general, though she had a butterfly on her ankl e that shed gotten when she was sixteen, using her sisters drivers license. She cried the nigh t she got it because it didnt look the way that shed hoped it would. T hat was nine years ago, a nd the colors had faded; the black lines were blurry. She thought Tanks muscled arms were sexy. Sh e liked the way he ta lked, all laid-back and calm, eyes half-closed. He was five years younge r than her, still couldn t get into most bars. Tank liked skinny girls, and Jade was thin. He could count her ribs. Her elbow was the thickest part of her arm. He suspected that she had been a stri pper at some point in time based mainly on her choices of underwear. She wore strappy things with gli tter, rhinestones, feathers. She wore leather. He didnt think she stripped an ymore, though. She had to be at the Jiffy Lube, where they both worked, at nine sharp to open up, answer phones, start the coffee, and sit at the desk. She never looked t oo tired or hung-over. Plus, she was married. Shed gotten marri ed before she turned twenty. And Tank liked that about her. She didnt cal l him all the time, didnt try to make plans or talk about the future. It was the best sex that Tank had ever had. And Jade would occasionally provide him with beer and liquor from the Piggly Wiggly near their work, though he noticed that she acted a little annoyed when he asked her to do so. Jade was leaning back against the dresser in the bedroom that she shared with her husband, Chad. Chads briefs mingled with Jade s stringy thongs in the top drawer. Tank pulled
51 off his shirt and she shook her head at his tattoo and his skinny boxer-d raped hips. He was beside the bed, partially facing the wall behind it. He pulled off hi s jeans. His toe got caught in a hole in the knee. He tumbled over and she coul d hear fabric ripping. She was still completely dressed. He crawled into bed and grinned big at her. He leaned b ack with his hands behind his head and his elbows out in the air. She pulled her green cotton sundress off over her head. She strutted over to him in maroon lace, straddled hi m. She had fifteen sets of matching bras and panties, and Tank had only seen five of them. Maroon lace was her third fa vorite, right after the ones that were black-light-purpl e with glow-in-the-dark pipi ng and the pleather ones. Tank liked it that Jade put effort into what she looked like beneath her clothes. He liked that he knew what was going on underneath the dre sses she wore to work. It made him feel like he was in on a secret. All the guys at Jiffy Lube would have liked to fuck Jade, but only he was doing it. Well, him and her husband. There was a bang from one of the rooms to their right, and it made Tank jump up and hit the top of his head on Jades chin. She fe ll backwards and sat hard atop his shins. Ow, Tank, she whined. What was that? What the fuck was that? He clutched a pillow in front of him and stared down the door. Were dog-sitting for some frie nd of Chads. Its in the garage. It must have knocked something over. Stop worrying. Chad wont be ho me for a while. Now take my clothes off. You already took them off. Tank felt the bottom of his chin for a bruise. Well, take off whats left. She pushed him back against the wall of pillows. She mashed her mouth against his, making strata of th eir teeth and lips. Then there was a sound in the
52 hallway like a bowling ball roll ing the length of the runner. Something slammed into the bedroom door and made it bulge. It strained at the lock and hinges. Tank shielded himself with the pillow again. Goddamn dog mustve gotten out of the garage somehow. Jade was pulling her dress on. She walked barefoot loudly towards the door, unlocked it. Wait, wait. Now, what type of a dog is th is? Tank was up and at the door, his boxers and t-shirt back on, his hair a mess from the pillo w. His fingers went unc onsciously to his belly, a mess of thin scars from a German shepherd attack when he was seven. The dog had darted onto the baseball diamond when Tank was in the middle of running bases during a little league game. It had chewed on him while everyone stared silently for a second. Then the coaches had beaten the dog with bats until the umpire finally pulled the thing off him. Now he avoided dogs altogether. He woul d cross the street if he saw one coming towards him. Even puppies made him queasy. He couldnt help but stare at their teeth. Hed make up excuses not to go to his friends houses if they had dogs, but he tried to keep his phobia a secret because he thought it made him look weak. Pit bull mix. Or something like that. I have nt actually seen it. I dont like dogs. It took Chad plus another guy just to get it in the garage. She started to turn the knob. Tank hated pit bulls almost as much as he did German shepherds. They were covere d in visible layers of muscle. Plus you never knew which ones were trained to be mean. Well, then, what do you think youre gonna do to it? Are you gonna corral it back into the garage? How big is it? Tank searched for his jeans underneath the bed. The dog made noises that reminded Tank of his garbage disposal. He watched the tip of a black nose creep through the crack beneath th e door. It slid back and forth, back and forth.
53 I dont know how big it is, she said. Youre being silly. Its a fucking dog. She turned and pulled the knob, but th e dog was standing on its hind legs with its front paws on the door. Its paws came down from above Jade, and its head shot in thr ough the crack: a head the size of a Thanksgiving turkey, but with a million sma ll teeth in rows like a sharks. It was black with brown splotches and thin patchy fur. Its eyes stuck out at odd angl es. It dribbled frothy slobber. It caught the corner of Tanks sleeve in its m outh and tore it off of his t-shirt while the back half of its body lingered in the hallway. Its feet were too big for its legs. Its ears were clipped in triangles like a Dobermans. Holy fucking shit, Tank yelled and he pushe d the door closed on the dog so that it stumbled back into the hallway. They heard it la nd with a thump and snarl. Tank turned to Jade. Thats not a dog, Jade. Thats a hound of hell. I dont think Ive ever seen a dog that big. She lean ed back against the door. Her shoulders shuddered beneath spaghetti straps. Whatre we gonna do, Tank? Its no problem. Well just jump out th e window. He pointed towards the window above the bed. The Venetian blinds were closed tight behind tied-back sunflower curtains. It wont work. The last owners nailed a ll of the first floor windows shut and painted over the nails. Thats a fire hazard, Jade. Yall should have fixed that as soon as you moved in. Tank found his jeans and started to pull them on. His toe got caught in the hole in the knee again and he landed splayed out on his back on the floor The dog barked behind them, throughout their conversation. It whined and snarled and threw itself against the door at random intervals.
54 I know. I know, she said and watched him pu ll his jeans just below his hips and fasten the belt. He hadnt even had to undo the button to put them on. She wondered why he didnt just buy smaller jeans. Were th ese on sale? Did someone who di dnt know him at all purchase his clothes? Did he refuse to try things on at the store? All right. I have a plan, Tank started. Ill call my brother. Hell come over and hell bring asteak or something. And hell lure the dog back into the garage and close him in. He picked his cell phone up off of the floor and punch ed buttons furiously. He still owed Bruce for bailing him out of jail six months before. He still owed him seve nty-five dollars. He owed him for lying to their mother about why Tank hadnt called on her birthday. Good idea. Brilliant. Jade smiled and started to straighten up the bedroom around Tank. She made the bed. She watched Tanks face fall, heard a tiny voice and a beep. Hey, man. Look, I need a favor seriously. Im on Baker Street near the SteaknShake. Youll see a Toyota out front Number twenty, interrupted Jade. Number twenty. Im trapped in the bedr oom and theres a big dog in the house. You need to come over and bring some hotdogs or a burger or stop and get some meat at SteaknShake, and you have to get this dog back in the garage somehow. And I mean, the sooner the better, man. Call me back ASAP The keys under the ceramic bunny near the back door, Jade interrupted again, her voice quick and quiet. Theres a key under a bunny next to the back door. Hurry! Tank flipped his phone shut. Do you think hell do it? Jade asked.
55 I mean, he will if he gets the voicemail. I dont know where he could be. What time is it? Quarter to one? He doesnt have to go into work at Red Lobster until four. He normally picks up. Ill try again in a minute. Oh God. Im dead. Chad is gonna kill me. And you. Hell probably kill you worse. Jade cried into a t-shirt she was folding as she leaned against a half-ope n dresser drawer. Tank laid his hand on her shoulder, but when she turn ed her head she could only see his fingernails bitten down to their nubs. They were ringed red along their ridges. Dont cry. Itll be all right. Lets start thinking about a ba ck-up plan while we wait for Bruce to call. Do you keep a gun or a baseball ba t in here? He rubbed his hand back and forth across her shoulder as she sniffled and snorted. Her eyes were as pi nk as the insides of seashells. Tank was struck by how pretty her face was with th e little bit of color that came with crying. Her eyes were dewy, her lashes da rkened. She looked like an angel. We cant kill it! she screamed at him. Jeez. Okay, okay. We wont Oh, God. How would I explain that to Chad? Howre you going to explain THIS to Chad? Tank asked and gestured towards himself with both hands. One of the things that he liked least about being with Jade was that he had to see Chads photographs on her desk at the office and here at her place. It was like the guy was taunting him by smiling at the camera. We dont have a gun, anyway. And the baseball bats in the front closet. She started crying again, this time into a bath towel shed picked up off of the floor. She thought, I cheated on my husband with a man named Tank. What type of people would name their baby boy Tank? Shed seen it printed on his drivers license.
56 Well, I mean, Jade, what good is that ba t gonna do you when someone breaks into the house in the middle of the night? Hell probably check the front closet for valuables, find the bat, and use it to beat you tw o to death in your sleep. Dont you think a burglar would bring his own weapon? Lets stop fighting and focus on getting out of this mess. Tank turned to look at the door. The dogs nose was still snuf fling back and forth along the crack at the threshold. It sniffed and sneezed dust back into the room. Jade wiped the dust off of the television screen with a dirty sock while she stared into the air before her. She wished for a vacuum, for a dust buster, for a plan. The spaces beneath her fingern ails filled with grime. She wished for some 409 Glass Cleaner. She wished for a Corona. Maybe I have some sleeping pills in the bathroom. We could drug him and sneak out when hes asleep, she said. Tank could hear her dropping jin gly bottles of pills into the bathroom sink. His cell phone erupted. The dog whined behind him, and he jumped at the sound. Shit, Jade. Its Jiffy Lube, he called over the bleating. God, were late back from lunch. Whatll I tell them? Just let it ring. Jade was still going through orange prescription bot tles. She tossed the expired ones into the bathroom trash. She thought, Well, if anyone at work didnt yet have suspicions that me and Tank were hooking up, they do now. His phone stopped and hers started ringing. Jade
57 Well, theyre not going to kill us like th e dog or Chad will, so lets worry about one situation at a time. Jade poured the pills into a little pink puddle in the palm of her hand. She hated to feel like his mother ordering him around. At their lunches she was forced to hurry hi m along, to remind him to tip. On the other hand it was a nice change from Chad, who shed met in high school when he was a senior and she a freshman. Chad chose what movies they saw. He always drove, even when they took her car. In the bottom of her stomach, it made her feel small. I have a Twinkie in my purse. Itll be perf ect. Jades hair swung back and forth while she ran to rifle through her corduroy pocketbook. She pushed four pills into the sticky baked flesh of the snack cake. She often kept snack cakes in her purse. Ja de and Tank both loved Star Crunches. Tank told her out of nowhere that he was craving a St ar Crunch at work once (before they began their affair) and she happened to have one on her. After that they went to Burger King on th eir lunch break twice and to Ruby Tuesdays three times. Theyd gotten a room at the Super 8 Motel once a week for the past three weeks and theyd spent lunch break at his place a couple of times, though it was a fifteen minute drive to his apartment, and only five minutes to her house. Shed had to convince him that it was a good idea, that they would be safe at her place. She d wanted to have sex with him in a clean bed, not the beer-bottle-strewn bachelor pa d he shared with his brother, not on sheets that had been slept on by hundreds of Super 8 patrons, sheets that made her think of bedbugs flattening themselves beneath her bare back.
58 He wanted to have sex with her wherever she would let him. He had fantasies about doing it at work, in the employee bathroom maybe or in the office against the filing cabinets, on top of the desk. He hadnt brought it up yet, but he had plans to do so in the near future. Now, open the door a little. Ill to ss this out there. Then slam the door shut really fast. In the crack of the door, Tank saw the dog with one leg stretched up above its head. It was cleaning itself with a ton gue that looked like taffy. It blinke d at him and rushed toward the door when they slammed it shut. They lay on their stomachs to watch through the crack as the dog used its tremendous tongue to scoop up the Twinkie. They high-fived. The dogs barks sounded like a coughing fit. Still on their stomachs, they watched it lie down and set its chin on its crosse d paws. It scratched behind its ear with its hind leg, made a groaning s ound, licked its toenails. It raised its head and barked half-heartedly. How long do you think theyll take to work? he asked her. She was matching socks out of a plastic mock-woven basket on the floor, tying them together, sitting small and Indian-style. He leaned into the backboard. A wall clock ra sped in the background. Tank wondered what the dog would be saying if it was speaking English. His spine tingled every time the thing made a noise. She wondered if Tank could tell that her stom ach was twisted in knots at the thought of her husband coming home and finding her with this guy, this guy shed only known for a couple of months. She tried to think of what shed say. Im sorry. I didnt mean to. I wish that I hadnt. You made me do it by never noticing my new lingerie, by falling asleep when I wanted to fuck, by letting me catch you wa tching other women with big tits and big asses when we went out drinking. You made me do it whenever you forgot to meet me for coffee or lunch.
59 She hated the way that Tank tucked the front of his t-shirt into his jeans and left the back half of it flapping. She hated the way he bought the cheapest meal available, no matter where they went to eat lunch. She hated the way that she couldnt help but keep watching him through the door to the garage at work. She hated the way she needed him to nod at her when he came inside the office for coffee or to use the restroom. Tank wondered if there was any way he could get her back into the bed. So, Tank said after clearing his throat. The dog was quiet for a moment. Did you used to strip? What? She made a noise similar to a pi ne tree snapping in a snow-covered forest. I meanI got the impression, he stammered. Never mind. Tank was starting to hate the way that Jade was folding laundry. He scanned the room for anything that might be used by Chad as a wea pon against him later. He noted the curtain rod. Metal coat hangers. He checked his watch, looked at the door. The dog let out a string of growls and snarls. Your husband? Tank started when the dog had quieted down. Is he really gonna kill you? Has he hit you before? Or is he just gonna be mad? Hell probably just be mad at me, might even want a divorce. I do imagine that hell hit you, though. Great. Tank thought about how he would ha ve to get home to clean himself up after this somehow, since theyd driven Jades car. And how hed have to call work and make up some excuse for missing a half day. Maybe he d be fired. Maybe hed need stitches or something. Wasnt Chad a fireman or somethi ng? Tank didnt have health insurance. What does Chad do again, Jade?
60 Oh, hes a firefighter! She drew her se ntence out in sobs. The dog responded with a high-pitched whining. They heard it trotting ba ck and forth down the hallway. Its footsteps sounded around the circumference of the house. Oh, dont blame yourself. I totally seduced you. You didnt stand a chance, Tank said, smiling slyly. Aw. Thats sweet that you think that, Ja de said. I dont think the sleeping pills are working. For a couple of minutes Tank sat in silence as Jade moved around him, tidying. There was an enormous thump in the hallway. They crept to the door and peered through the crack. The dog lay on the floor with his ton gue lolling onto a rug the color of golf course grass. Jade pulled the door open and Tank tried not to shrink away from the unconscious beast. Jesus, I hope we didnt kill him, Jade whispered beside Tanks ear, her breath moving around the sensitive hairs within it. A man walked down her hallway towards them, grinning and holding forth a Happy Meal. A Happy Meal? Couldnt you have spent a li ttle more? Maybe gotten something of better quality to save my life with? I thought you might bring a steak, for Gods sake. Tank tore the little box away from his brother and ate angry fistfuls of greasy French fries. Theyd skipped lunch to have sex, and now Tank had gotten neither. I only had two dollars and eleven cents in my wallet. Bruce pulle d the bag away from Tank and ate the last few fries. Well, we drugged the dog, Tank explained, ge sturing vaguely. He turned towards the hallway, where Jade was kneeling beside the fallen pile of fur and muscle. Even unconscious the
61 dog gave him the creeps. Tank expected it to lif t its head like a zombie and look at him with glowing red eyes. He imagined it growling his name. I bet you were shitting your pants the whole time that dog had you trapped in there. Scared of dogs as you are. Bruce leaned in close to his brother and chuckled. Shut up, man, Tank said quietly through clenched teeth. Youre lucky as hell I didnt have to work the lunch shift today. Jade had smudges of dust across her nose and right cheek. Her dress was rumpled. The room behind her glittered. She wanted to tell th em to get out quick, she wanted to shove them out the back door as her pulse rose, panicki ng. Then she remembered the mountain of dog beside her. Help me move him back to the garage, you guys Then you have to get out of here. I need to clean up this mess before Chad gets hom e. The dogs face and feet twitched while it slept. Its mouth contorted in to a smile and slackened again. They lifted and hauled the massive dog: Br uce grasping its shoulders, Tank holding its big legs and shaking with fear, and Jade cradling its middle. Th eir fingers came away greasy and musky-smelling. Tank looked as if he might throw up. Tank and Jade stood in the mudroom for a mome nt after Bruce had walked out into the sunlight. So, Ill see you at work tomorrow? Tank asked. He tried to stand as tall as possible, braced himself with his arm against the doorframe and tried to flex a little. Yeah, sure. Jade looked out the door around him. He could tell she was searching the street for neighbors who might see her talking to him, who might see hi s brothers car. Maybe well get some Chik-Fil-A or something, Tank continued.
62 I dont know. Maybe. Get going, Tank. I mean it. She pushed him lightly backwards and closed the door. She leaned back against it, looked up at the light fi xture, and closed her eyes. On the other side, Tank stared at the door knocker for a mo ment. The gold paint around the peephole was chipping. So, what was that all about? asked Bruce after theyd pulled away from Jades house and the radio was tuned to 104.3 The Big Pig classi c rock station. Led Zeppelin filled the air around them. Just some girl I work with. Tank was monotone, staring out the window. She looks like a stripper. Did sh e used to strip? Bruce asked. I wondered that, too. Tank lowered the pa ssenger window and lit a Marlboro. It had something to do with her eyes or her eye make up. Maybe it was her hair hanging long and straight down to her butt. She a good fuck? Bruce inquired. Sure is. So, does she like you? Bruce asked and Tank glanced over, surprised by the question. They looked alike. Bruce was a little shorter, a little huskier. Hi s hair was darker. I have no idea. I kind of think that she doe snt, Tank said. He tugged at the jeans he was wearing, his brothers jeans, trying to pull th em up. But he was sitting down, so they stayed where they were, pinned below his bony ass, and he stopped trying.
63 CHAPTER 6 THE ONE THOUSAND MILES TO OW LS HEAD, MAINE It happened on one of those sticky summer night s where your sweat drie s into fine salt on your skin. Jim and Mackenzie went to a party wi thout Brick, who had to go work the grill in the kitchen of a T.G.I. Fridays attached to the Magno lia Mall. He left Mac (his girlfriend) and Jim (his best friend) sprawled acro ss her living room where something bright-colored shined out of the television onto their bodies. Jim asked Mac if she wanted to go to a party. When she returned to the living room she smelled like rubbing alcohol and raspberries. They walked to the party and the sun was gone already. Sweat glued th eir t-shirts to their backs and armpits and rib cages. Their flip-flopped feet grew h eavy with cake flour dirt. They were pretty quiet as they smoked cigarettes and walked in step, like Citadel cadets. Jim knew a Cadet, and thats what he thought about while they were walking like that, how that kid couldnt help but walk in step with whomever he was wa lking beside. Jim prete nded to tie his shoe in order to drop out of the sequence. They drank glowing green margaritas and sa nk into a red corduroy couch. The people around them on the couch left or moved or offered their seats to other people or shifted around. They sank deeper and deeper into the maroon cushions which enveloped them as they whispered jokes and made up stories about the strangers around them. Shes a nymphomaniac. Shes slept with all three of the boys that shes talking to, but they dont know that yet. That kid is actually only four teen. Hes somebodys younger brother, and this is the first time hes ever even had alcohol. Those kids in the corner never hooked up before, but he plans on seducing her tonight. Watch him refill her cup every time her back is turned.
64 They dragged themselves out from in betw een couch cushions and stumbled into an anonymous bedroom to smoke a joint. The air wa s thick with black light. Their skin glowed violet and their teeth were lime-colored. They sa t on the bed and passed back and forth the little paper-and-pot cocoon. Smoke clouded around them and Macs eyelids drooped. They could hear the party beyond the closed door like waves lapping, a mild roaring. Their fingers touched whenever they passed the joint, and Jims chest grew warm and his heart started beating so fast th at it was not a pulsing anymore, but a vibration behind the logo on his t-shirt. He was the type of boy who fell in love with peoples shoes in the library. He would see a pair of sneakers or clogs or sandals or dress shoes in the cubicle adjacent to his own. He would make up a story to go along with the girl in the shoes. He would stare down at his notes and hold imaginary conversations in his head. He would get so deep into daydream that he wouldnt notice when she rose to leave. Suddenly her shoes would be gone. He was not in love with Mac, but the way her legs looked long and tan, the way her eyes seemed drawn to his, and the way she looked ho pelessly sad despite not ever saying anything about what was wrong created a cold knot in hi s stomach. They had known each other for the year that shed been dating Brick, and he liked the way she talked, like he could dance to her words. Jim couldnt remember the last time that Brick had left them alone. Macs bare knee pressed agains t Jims thigh. The roach was tiny and when she tried to pass it to him she dropped it, and it burned a hole in the crocheted blanket their legs were stretched across. Jim felt dizzy. He fell over and his pores spilled te quila. She flopped down next to him, and his breath filled her ear canal He took her earlobe in his teeth, rubbed his tongue along its soft, warm edge. He tried to not think at all as he slipped hi s hands under her thin shir t. He tried not to
65 think of her as Bricks girlfriend, he tried to concentrate on somethi ng small, her litt le red plastic elephant earrings. Their sweat mixed together, and they left their shorts in little blossoms on the end of the bed, with their underwear visible inside. Jim heard their flip flops hit the floor in four consecutive thumps, close together like the second hand on the wall clock. His stomach began to hurt, and all of a sudden he couldn t finish fucking. A tartness rose to the back of his tongue. He pulled himself out of her (sticky, slimy) and off of her (warm and cl utching) and the rest of the night was an under-developed photograph. When Jim awoke the next morning, he sat up to glance into a toilet full of neon green vomit. A small segmented worm looked out at him from the cloud of puke. He flushed the toilet, and threw up again before the bowl could fill up with water. When he glanced in the mirror, the left side of his face was covered with an impression from the bath mat. He drank out of the polished metal spout of the white porcelain sink, and then he took a long, hot walk home. *** Brick didnt know. About a week later, when Brick suggested th at they go on a road trip to Owls Head, Maine, Jim said yes before he knew that he was replying. He said it eager ly, and later he thought that this would allow him to get the truth off of his caving-in chest. It was almost up to his throat, choking him with long, skinny fingers. Bricks mother wanted them to bring her a trailer full of furniture that she had i nherited: a couple of an tique rocking chairs, a vase, a chest, a box full of bone china. She gave them a list with li ttle check boxes drawn out next to each item. They could take a week off, and then Jim was scheduled to start his la st year at community college. It was the hottest August ever for Char leston, South Carolina, and they planned to drive to where the weather was pleasant an d then back into the inferno.
66 Jim wondered if there were any right words to tell your best friend th at youd slept with his girlfriend. He hoped that Br ick would punch him once quick and fa st in the face. A situation similar to this had occurred when they were fifteen, eight years before. There was a girl with short hair dyed hot pink. Brick had been ecstatic about dating he r for an entire week before Jim made out with her between the drivers ed. cars parked behind the high school. Jim got a broken nose, that hot feeling that comes with a blow to the face, sharp shards of pain and spreading wet warmth. They were friends again in a week. Jim apologized once, over Ma rlboro Lights in the parking lot on top of the mall. They sat atop of their skateboards, and the sun shined down at them and was reflected in dozens of car windshields pointing at the two boys. *** They planned to leave at noon, and ended up pul ling out of the driveway at four. Jims Honda Civic hatchback was a pearly white, with a dried up pine-tree shaped air freshener and tinted rear windows. They had plans to eat at ev ery T.G.I. Fridays Rest aurant that they came across. Brick found a Fridays Rewards card at work with seven thousand points on it. You got points for each entree you ordered. Brick talked one of his co-w orkers into scanning the card whenever he had a large party. Brick was fifty points away from a flat screen television. Isnt there a clause on those things? Ar ent you exempt as an employee of T.G.I. Fridays? Jim asked when he first heard of the plan. Oh, Ill just get someone else to claim the prize for me. You could do it. I dont know, man. What if they find out and ban me from all of the restaurants? That would be a sad, sad day. ***
67 They drove into a daytime thunderstorm, black clouds swirling around in the sky, shocks of bright lightning shooting down towards the ho rizon in jagged jolts. The top of the car drummed with drilling rain. Ri vulets coated the windows, greasy with fingerprints. The car smelled like ripe banana and stagnant cigarette smoke Brick fell asleep right away. Jim drove and listened to a radio station until it disappeared into static. He stopped at a T.G.I. Fridays off of I-95 for a late dinner as the interior of the Honda pooled with butter-colored sunlight. Ji m got a steak cooked with Jack Daniels liquor, sticky with a molasses sauce. Brick ordered chicken fingers and two white plastic side dishes of thick yellow honey mustard salad dressing. When he finished the chicken, he used his French fries to mop up the last of the dressing. I, um, enlisted, Brick said with a mouth half full of French fries. Jims ears rang. For the first moment, he thought it was a joke. After searching Bricks face, the second moment was spent in anger. It was like watching an animal get run over in the street. What the fuck did you do that for? Jim aske d as he watched Brick hand their waitress a red and white striped plastic card along with his check card. Its what Im supposed to do. Youre supposed to die? Because thats what will happen. Youll get killed. Im supposed to participate. What about your flat screen T.V.? What ar e we eating this shit fo r if youre going to go to boot camp and then get deploy ed? Whats the point? You can use it while Im gone. This is bullshit. Jim was quiet after that, brooding. Brick drove the rest of the way to Kitty Ha wk. They listened to CDs that skipped and
68 stopped at scratches. This is like you telling me that you are going to go home and slit your wrists, Jim said after turning down the radio a litt le. Thats the equivalent. If I was a good friend I wouldnt let you do that. Do you understand what Im saying? Thats not what its like at all. *** You know what theyre going to do to you at boot camp? Jims face was illuminated by the green glare of the dashboard lights. He could see his ghoulish reflection in the dark windshield. When I was a freshman in high school my cousin joined the marines, he continued. And he had to take off a gas mask in a room full of poisonous gas. He had to breathe it in for two minutes. He said it made him want to tear the skin off of his face and turn his nostrils inside out. They starved them at first until they lost all their body fat, just gave them a little rice and a little chicken for dinner. He said that one guy go t brownies from his mother in the mail and they shoved them up his ass. Man, he just told you that shit beca use you were a kid. You were fourteen. How do you know thats not how it is? *** To get to Kitty Hawk they drove over a series of small rose-colored concrete bridges. The houses sat in the midst of these huge mountainous mounds of sand. They saw a light spinning in the distance, and Brick drove towards it. Lets go camp at the bo ttom of that lighthouse. The rain clouds had cleared and Jim could see stars on top of stars. He cursed himself for
69 not telling Brick the truth about Mac. It seemed so much more complicated now that he knew that Brick had enliste d. It felt less important or more important to keep secret. They trudged through cool white sand and tall papery grass with th eir arms full of sleeping bags in stuff sacks. The huge beam from the light house swung over them as they approached the darkened silo. They reclined in their sleeping bags against the co ol concrete base of the cylinder. A wind raked down the beach causing sand to slam against the light house and make a trickling sound. When Jim looked up he could see the stra nds of stars for a moment, and then his view was full of that light. Then it shifted away, and he could see st ars again. His opinion shifted back and forth as he drifted off to sleep and his legs cr amped from sitting in the car all day. I should tell him tomorrow I should wait til the end of the trip I shouldnt tell him at all. *** They ate at a T.G.I. Fridays for lunch. Ji m had a bacon cheeseburger, and Brick ate a chicken quesadilla with a mound of sour cream. They sat beside each other at the bar. What do your parents think about you joining up? I think that my dad thinks its about time. Did he say that? No. He said, Congratulations. *** They pulled out of Kitty Hawk at a quarter af ter four. The car seats were hot against the backs of their legs. Their hair was stiff with salt, and their faces felt tight and hot and pink. They headed towards Washington D.C. to visit a friend of Bricks named Veronica. Why dont you want to work at the restaurant anymore? Jim asked as he rolled his window down all the way and leaned his left arm out into a breeze that s tirred his sun-bleached
70 little arm-hairs. I just dont. Im not doing anything right now Jim. Im not in school like you. Im not playing baseball anymore. I feel like a coward around my cousins that have already been over there. You could go to Trident with me. We could play baseball on that rec. league team again. Brick had found it lacking luster without the fans and th e tall lights of the high school diamond. You know thats no good. Why not? Its a pretty good game We play with a lot of the same guys we played with in high school. We play against a lot of the guys we played against in high school. Whats the difference? The difference is that in high school it fe lt like it mattered. Th ere were people who cared if we won or lost. I played hard for my school, and for the town, and to get on the cover of the sports page. I dont care as much about representing Bills Bail Bonds or whoever our sponsor was. I want to do something that means something. But, Brick, Jim said earnestly. It neve r meant anything. It was just high school baseball. Brick countered, It made me feel important. You could do anything. I want to do this. The car was quiet except for a mixed CD th at jumped from song to song with no segue between them. A strange noise started suddenly, the music hissed from the speakers, and then they went silent. Brick turned the knobs, presse d the buttons on the dashbo ard. It slept. Brick
71 and Jim cursed simultaneously under their breaths, Shit. *** They let themselves into Bricks friend, Ver onicas house late that night, settled onto the matching corduroy couches. They watched the History Channel a nd learned about the pyramids. The house was littered with cats and smelled of Febreze. Brick wondered how riding in a car could make you so tired. Jim told him that it was the sun that drained them that morning, at the beach. They fell asleep with the tele vision on and slept through a special on Jack the Ripper, the second episode of a series on the Sp anish Civil War, and an hour long documentary on Eva Peron before Veronica got home, turned o ff the television, and turned off the lamps to leave the sleeping boys in total darkness. The next morning, Veronica went back to the re staurant to work a lunch shift. Jim and Brick accompanied her with a plan to eat lunch with her and ride the subway to see the sights of the Capitol. Brick and Veronica wo rked together for about a year and a half at a diner. They spoke with a rabid familiarity, like separated sibl ings, grinning and talking quickly as if they wouldnt have enough time to say everything. Did Brick tell you he enlisted? Jim aske d, clutching a Killians. Brick reddened. No. Why? Are you crazy? She asked from across a polished wooden bar. There were rows of liquor bottles behind her, and she was co nstantly in the way of the bartender working around her to serve three regulars and a couple fro m Georgia who were arguing about whether or not they should move to a table to eat lunch. Yeah, Brick mumbled, looking down at his hands. Ill be at Parris Island in the fall. Wait, you can come work here. Its good money. You can wait tables. Did you sign anything yet?
72 You know, this shouldnt be such a surprise to yall. Both my grandfathers are veterans. My father was in the Air Force. I was in J.R.O.T.C. all through high school. Jim remembered watching Brick spinning a woode n rifle and throwing it in the air with another boy, simultaneously. They were facing each other and it was like seeing one person and a reflection. Jim thought Brick looked so alien in that uniform, camouflage green and polished and standing tall with painful posture. He ha dnt seen a connection betw een juggling rifles and actual combat. He wondered how it would be applicable to a wa rfare situation. Veronica turned to Jim and joked, Well just have to wait until hes asleep and tie him up on the day hes supposed to show up at boot camp. *** The meteor shower started slowly; they ha rdly realized what was going on as they stretched out over towels on the angled shingled roof of Vero nicas house. The sky surrounded them, black and speckled with pinpricks of light. They held jelly jars full of cheap, sweet red wine. Their teeth turned pur ple in the light of a lantern leaning crooked and squatting precariously. While they waited for the meteor shower to begin, Jim and Brick described climbing up to the Lincoln Memorial earlier that afternoon; they had both only seen it in movies until then. They took pictures with a disposable camera. Th ey trailed their fingers along the texture of the names on the Vietnam memorial, and Jim thought that the jagged black wall would look like a festering scar in the earth from above. People rubbed charcoal and crayons over paper pressed against the wall, and pulled away the names of their fathers and grandfathers and brothers and uncles and sons and friends. They stared at the White House across a sprawling lawn At first they would interject Theres one! midsentence at the sighting of a meteor.
73 Then there were plenty of them, more and more, dripping across the sky, burning out as they sank downward. They saw them out of the corner s of their eyes and wh ipped their heads back and forth as if they were watching a game of tennis or badminton or ping pong and sitting very close. Jim couldnt decide whether to make a wish that Brick would ne ver find out about him and Mac or to wish that he knew the right way to tell him. Then he thought that he should wish for Brick to not join the military. He kept put ting off making the wish so as to not have to decide. The meteors decreased and the three of them were silent on the roof. Jim began to panic, and thought, Ill wish on the next one. No, the next one until there hadnt been one for about thirty minutes and they elected to climb back through the dusty-silled attic window and go to bed. *** They woke up with headaches from the wine around nine. The sunlight streamed in through the window slats that stripe d the boys horizontally as they stretched and folded up their blankets, laying the fabric on top of the pillows. They thanked Veronica and started up the car. The only time they stopped driving all day was to pee. That night Jim drowned his worri es by downing mudslides at a T.G.I. Fridays bar. Brick ate a plate piled high with golden deep fried shrim p. He dipped them in cocktail sauce. Jim had chicken in parmesan sauce with specks of tastele ss broccoli. They had ab out six hours of driving to go til Maine. Bricks grandmothers home wa s in Owls Head, Maine, and Brick had never been there. After their second post-dinner muds lide and three shots each, both boys felt full and drunk. They felt heavy. They slept in their ca r in the emptying parking lot, both of the front seats reclined.
74 They awoke to a knocking sound. There was a man shining a flashlight down into the Honda. He had the beginning of a mustache, but it wa s at a stage that resembled chocolate milk. You cant sleep here. I gotta clean this parking lot. The mans voice was muffled against the car windows and drowned out a little by the hulking cleaning machine behind him. It roared boxy and dark. Ill call the cops if you dont get out of here. Go away. Leave us alone, Brick grumbled at the man. His brain hurt from liquor and sugar. The man sat down on the hood of the Honda, and began to lecture. Thats whats wrong here. You dont want to work, dont got a place to sleep. He slurred his words and brushed graying hair back from his arched forehead. You dont want to do for yourself or for anyone else around you. If you think youve got a right to sleep here, youre wrong. If you think youve earned that ri ght, youre lying to yourself. His voice had the in flections of a televangelist. The boys sat up and stared at the man on the hood of the Honda as he lit a cigarette and his voice drifted in through the cracked drivers side window. He was lit by lights far above the three of them. Your whole generation is lazy. You think Im scared of you? Im not scared of you. I fought in Nam. Thats Vietnam to you. I killed twelve men. They were scary mother fuckers. Jim turned the key in the ignition. Now hold on there. The parking lot-cleaner put his cigarette out on the hood of their car. Im not done talking to you. I had to do it. And you know what? I earned the bed that I sleep in, I earned the house I own
75 Jim reversed so quickly that the man tumb led backwards right off of the Honda. He landed on his back in the parking space. He cursed at them as Jim made the tires scream against the blacktop. Brick turned back to look at the man in a pile on the ground. He watched him stand. They turned a corner and couldnt see him anymore, but Jim felt a sudden sorrow in the pit of his stomach for that man, and wonde red what he wouldve said next. *** As soon as they entered Maine, they were surrounded on both sides of the highway by paper-mill-green pines. When they stopped to fi ll up the hungry Honda, they spotted a carnival off in the parking lot of a grocery store. It looked a little like a mira ge; the Merry-Go-Round was rotating and spewing recorded organ music. Ther e was a small roller coaster with a steep drop that looked like it would leave you r stomach in your throat. They paid to sit in the first little white plastic car with flames sticker-ed onto the sides, holograms and sparkles. The cars lurched forward, and Jim thought that he should tell Bric k the truth on the roller coaster. Their elbows were pressing together as they clutched the bar in front of them. Jim could tell him at the top, and then for a second they would be dropping down and Brick would be free to yell as loud as he wanted. It felt as if they were floating above th e tracks at points; the tu rns were jarring and the ascent was slow and clicked mechanically. Jims heartbeat sped up as he considered telling the truth at the top, after they straightened out and before they shot down. The scariest part of riding th ese things is the fact that th eyre so dangerous. As he talked, Bricks head bobbed back and forth with the jerky moti on of the ride. Jim panicked silently while Brick finished his thought. It was probably put together in a day, probably not even double-checked. I slept Jim turned toward Brick to conf ess, but Brick screamed loud and hard and it
76 drowned out the rest of the sentence. Jim kept talking all the way through but after he got it out he hadnt heard it, and thought that Brick must not have, either. What? Brick asked at the bottom, in the ca rport as the bar over their laps lifted and they stepped over the flames and out of the plastic car. What? Jim repeated. What did you say? When? Just a second ago. Wh at were you saying? Nothing. I dont know. Jim changed his mind again. They bought deep fried Snickers bars out of cu riosity. It was a puffball of fried golden batter around a melted chocolate candy bar core. They wolfed down all that gooey fluff and smoked a cigarette at a wooden picnic table. Theyd found the cigarette s under the seat of the Honda, and they tasted dry and stale. Brick threw up into a tall metal garbage can, a di rty rusting cylinder with out a bag in it. One hell of a roller coaster. Brick wipe d his face against the back of his arm. *** The furniture was waiting for them. It was in a small U-Haul trailer sitting in front of a house that matched the address Brick had, a house hed never seen before. They opened the trailer and checked off each of the items on the lis t, sliced the boxes open with the largest blade on a small Swiss army knife. Jim understood why Bricks mother had wanted the furniture. The rocking chairs were cherry-colored and shined to a waxy luster. The UHaul was full of the smell of the cedar chest. The vase and bone china were in marked cardboard boxes. He was curious about bone china.
77 He wondered if it felt like it was made of bone. He wondered if it was as fragile as it sounded. The United States mail system would have destr oyed these old treasures. They attached the trailer to the hitch on the back of the Civic, and it made a clinking sound as it fell into place. Jim wondered who loaded it, where it came from, where they were supposed to return it. He wondered how long it sat with a belly full of anti ques here in the yard. He tried to imagine visiting this big house in the summers when he was a kid. *** They celebrated their success with dinner at T. G.I. Fridays. Jim had blackened chicken Caesar and Brick had baby back ribs. They gorge d themselves on free bread sticks. When Brick handed the waitress his rewards card and some cas h, he asked her if she could check the number of points he had accumulated. She disappeared fo r a few minutes to some hidden computer. When she returned she said, M r. Quackenbush, you have 7,843 points. Jim burst out laughing and asked, What did you call him? Mr. Quackenbush. Its the name the card is registered to. The waitress looked surprised. Thats you, right? Mr. Quackenbush? You know these are non-transferable. Brick gave her a tip and a sick sm ile, his grin sour on his face. *** They sat full of cheap fatty food in the car a nd smoked a joint at the ocean as it got dark. They found the joint in the pack of stale cigarettes, stuffed in the corner. The moon hung full and heavy in the deep gray sky. It was cloudless. Wind whipped the waves frothy. I guess that wasnt my cigarette pack. Jim examined the mysterious joint. I guess not. Brick knocked ash out of the cracked window. The boys heard singing from the ocean. It was crackled with drunkenness, off key and straining. A face appeared up out
78 of the muddled shoreline, lips parted in song. He tossed an empty glass bottle off into a clump of beach grass as he approached the car. He carried two lobsters, their cl aws duct-taped together, and their shells shined wetly underneath the moon. He asked them had they seen his daughter. They answered him no, and he asked them could he have a puff of their joint. Help yourself. Brick handed it through the window. The old man had a beard down to the belly button indentation in his tight wife-beater The lobsters twisted their black eyes to look at his face as he sucked on the blackening joint, a nd his features glowed w ith the orange light of the cherry. He let the smoke flow out of his nostrils. When he handed the joint back it tasted like rum. You boys look like good boys. The lobsterman talked and examined his catch. Jim wondered if he was talking to him and Brick or the lobsters. He thought it funny that a man who caught them smoking pot on a deserted beach on a week night might make the assumption that they were good boys. We try. Brick took the joint back from them and took a drag, passed it back. Where you from? he asked them. South Carolina. We came out here to do a favor for my mother. Brick said, took the joint back. It burned fiercely. What do you do in South Carolina? The strang er reeled on his heel s, swayed with the wind. Im in school. Brick here is about to join the service. Good boys, good boys. The old man muttered loudly, his voice rough. Car headlights snuck into the rear view mirror, and the sound of tires groaned against the sand behind them. Thats my daughter now. You boys wait ju st a second. The man scurried off.
79 Jim worried that the lobster man was going to come back with a gun, a baseball bat, a bigger meaner hairier lobster guy, an actua l part-lobster/part-man creature. He opened his mouth to express his fears when the bearded man returned dragging a girl by the hand. The girl was skinny, with long wavy hair ha nging to her waist and short ba ngs above her pale face. She wore too-tight, too-short jean s and a heather gray hoodie, an d she looked embarrassed. She turned her face to the side so that they coul dnt see it, like she was fr ightened by them. She couldnt have been more than about fifteen years old. This is my daughter, Katie Lynn. You s hould take her with you. The man coughed phlegm and spit it behind him. There isnt noth ing for her here. I never made it out of this place, but this is her chanceto see the wo rldto see South Carolina! He ended his proclamation with a triumphant tone. Jim and Brick turned to sear ch each others faces. I was just thinking, just a second ago the bearded man coughed again mid-sentence, that his is her opportunity. You seem like nice boys. She can cook, and she really doesnt eat more than a bird. She tried to shake his arm o ff, attempted to twist out of her fathers grip. We couldnt possibly starte d Brick, but Jim interjected. Thats very thoughtful of you sir, but, you see, we dont have very much room. He gestured to the back seat strewn with the conten ts of their duffel bags and back pack, the sleeping bags in soft lumps. Jim could count five Nalgene bottles at odd angles. I see. The man stroked his forehead, pu lled his fingers through his tangled beard. How about a lobster, then? *** They put the lobster in their empty cooler. Ji m could hear it in the back seat, its clamped
80 claws rubbing against the heavy plastic. It made the car smell like seaweed. When are we going to eat this thing? Jim asked. I dont know. It wouldve been rude to turn down his daughter and his lobster. Brick drove with his face pulled close to the windshield, as if he was searching through fog for the road, even though it was a clear night. Lets liberate it, Jim suggested. They pulled off of the road. Brick used his Swiss army knife to tear the duct tape off of one claw. The lobster automatically closed on th e soft web of skin attached to Bricks right thumb. He cursed, but didnt pause, and cut the othe r claw free of reflecting silver tape. He bled onto his white t-shirt. Jim held the lobster while Brick struggled with the little red knife. They put the lobster on the ground, but it scuttled circul ar before heading toward the black ocean. Its not our responsibility anymore, Brick muttered, annoyed, as he took off his shirt and wrapped it around his hand so that it looked like a club. *** There was a bonfire down the beach. They c ould hear drums, a beating of bongos. It reverberated through the sa lty air. They walked towards th e sound and the sight and the heat. When they neared the fire they found a group of th ree boys and a girl in stained clothes. Their hair was long, and the boys had thick beards with curly hair that crept down their throats. The girl had tufts of curls stuffed into her armpits which peeked out when she raised her hands to beat a miniature bongo clenched between her knees. They looked like they were about the same age as Brick and Jim with smooth skin, sinewy arms and legs. A smell surrounded them like salty chicken soup, the smell of a sweat that has dried over another la yer of dried sweat and another before that. The four smiled at the appr oaching figures, waved them over, introduced
81 themselves. They introduced themselves as Boston, Rat, Bathtub, and Barn Monkey. Those are some interesting names. Jim t hought that it would be hard to take them seriously. Well, we just hiked the A.T ., the Appalachian Trail. Just finished two days ago at Katahdin. We all give each other nicknames. Nobodys called me by my real name in four months, not since I left my br other behind in Georgia and star ted walking, Bathtub said. Brick whistled low beneath his breath. Four months. Shit. Thats a lot of walking. Barn Monkey smiled and pulled the bottoms of her gym shorts down so that they touched the tops of her knees. Oh, you know. We didnt have anyt hing better to do. Yeah, its an accomplishment. I mean, you wake up every morning and the only thing to worry about is getting to Maine. Gotta walk to Maine. Gotta eat enough to keep yourself going, gotta sleep enough to keep yourself hea lthy. Bathtub handed them a couple of warm beers out of a backpack curled at his side like a dog. God. Well, congratulations! That actually does sound kind of nice. I cant imagine not having to worry about all of the bullshit that fills up my days. Jim smiled and pulled up the tab so that the beer fizzed and overflowed onto his feet. Now what are you going to do? We decided to come out to see the Maine shore. Just hitchhiked out here, we wanted to see the ocean again, have a last hurrah before we head off on our separate ways. Rat grinned and his two front teeth bucked out between his lips. Me and Bathtub are going to Virginia, said Barn Monkey. We start graduate school in the fall. My wife is picking me up in a c ouple of days, said Rat.
82 I dont know, man. Boston looked thoughtful. After having four mo nths with a real purpose, I dont know if I can go back to school or to work in an office. Ive got an internship lined up for next semester with a graphic design company, but I dont know if I can do it. I like just walking. I like the simplicity of it. I m thinking about going back to Katahdin and just doing it over again, hiking back down to Georgia. I mean, where do we fit into this place? Barn Monkey gestured to the chilly Maine night around them. What are we su pposed to do? Why are we here? I think I know how you feel. Brick slurped at the beer that pooled in the top of his can. After you spend four months just hiking, I bet its real hard to get back into the daily monotony of work or school. I bet it s like putting on shoes after wearing flip-f lops all summer. The hikers nodded and smiled drunkenly. The only purpose they understood now was moving north or south in a twisted line, sleeping in the dirt, beating a little bongo in front of a fire. *** Lets drive straight through the rest of the way back. Brick said after they started back out. What? Why? Thats, like, a twenty -four hour drive. Jim asked, thinking, He knows. He knows. He heard me on the roller coaster. He can read lips. He figured it out. I told him in my sleep. I called out her name when I dreamt a dream about her that I dont even remember. I talked to Mac last night. She has to go out of town and wont be able to feed my dog. She says she cant find anyone else who can, either. Oh. Yeah. Jim thought for a moment about what else there might be for him to say. He wondered at the proper reaction.
83 What does she think about you joining up? Jim asked. I dont think she cares too much. I told her a while ago. When did you tell her? Jim tried to make the question sound nonchalant. Oh, a week and a half ago. I was going to tell you then, too, but I didnt want to go into it again in front of her. I had to go to work. You remember. We were all hanging out at her house. I told her that afternoon before you came over. I dont think it matters. Its not like shes in love with me. Jims stomach rose and fell. What are you talking about? Are you joking? You seem happy. Shes a great girl. Why would you say shes not in love with you? Jim tried to sa y the things that a good friend would say. He tried to say what he would say if hed never met Mac. Sometimes you just know things. Some times you know the truth regardless. He looked Jim straight in the face, and his gaze was steady, his lids unblinking. Shes not any more in love with me than she is with you, Brick said. He had an old unlit cigarette between the fingers on his right han d. He put the cigarette between his lips, and his sentence was punctuated with the sound of the car cigarette lig hter popping in the dash board to signal that it was heated up, that the little metal coil was warm and orange and ready.
84 CHAPTER 7 FATTENING In elem entary school, the other children called him Fat Sam to differentiate between Sam Levine and the other boy in the class named Sam. He grew up in the apartment over his grandparents bakery, raised on puffy pastries and cream filling, black-and-white cookies, cherry-strewn cheesecakes, sticky baklava. The su mmer before his first year of high school, he underwent a growth spurt. He grew four inches in as many months. He tried out for the football team. He ran until he puked into the garbage cans that edged the field. As he got older, he dated girls rife with eating disord ers--they carried around purses jingling with diet pills and breath-mints. *** At thirty, Sam was thin but beginning to lose the tone in his arms and legs. Hed injured his right knee routinely j ogging: a weird misstep, a crack he hear d before he could feel it. He started spending a lot of time sitting down inside. That was around the time he began to watch, through his window, the woman who lived next door to him get fat. Her kitchen window lined up with the one over the desk in his office; they were less than two feet apart, their houses separated by a creek of dirt and patchy grass. While he sat there with his laptop glowing in front of him in the evenings, she was illuminated in curtain-less and blind-less clarit y. He watched her over the tops of his tax forms and halffinished high school lesson plans on Kafka and Jules Verne, semi-colons and compound sentences, lay-laid-hav e laid-will lay. When he first moved into the place, he mistook her for a child: thin and hipless with short hair. Hed only seen her peripherally, moving back and forth between a red Chrysler and the house, and had assumed she was a twelve-year-old boy living with his father. Only when she
85 spoke to him for the first time did he realize th at she was a woman. It was about a week after hed moved in while he was flipping thr ough envelopes when her voice hit him. Can you help me? she called out as he stood in front of his door, holding a handful of bills and ads. She was straining upward on her front stoop, barely five feet tall, hair so blonde it was close to white, somewhere in her early-thirties, proba bly, he thought. Ive locked myself out, and the spare key is in that hanging pl ant, but I cant reach it. He stood beside her and she took up so little room that it was al most like he was alone on the porch in the middle of the spring air, flowering plants hanging at nose level. Their contents buzzed. He felt wings brush his hand as his fi ngers closed around the keys cool metal. By the way, my names Clara. After he handed Clara the key, when she looked up at him, her eyes were glazed with sparkly remnants of tears. It was Saturday. She was the only person that had spoken to him since he left work the day before. That night he watched her eat two bowls of Fettuccini Alfredo and a single-serve flan alone in her kitchen. The lights in his office we re out. She ate the pa sta standing, leaning her elbows against the kitchen counter watching a little television pr opped against tile. She slurped the fettuccini at first; then she gobbled mouthfuls. She twirled her fork till it was a club of pasta and cream sauce, and she stuffed it between her lips Little tails trailed down her chin and back into the bowl. He could see her from the side: a perfect prof ile view. When Sam saw the man whod been living with Clara again, he was packing things into the trunk of a Subaru like a worker ant, tremendo us white garbage bags full of clothing held over his head.
86 Hours later, Sam watched Clara eat two mi crowavable French bread pizzas with pepperonis and wash them down wi th chocolate milk. While she was waiting the six minutes or so for her pizza to warm up and cool off, she ate slices of brie off of a knife. The lighting in Claras kitchen was phenomenal. It was bright, and Sams window was so close to hers that he could see what she wa tched on that little tele vision: the food network, reality shows. He could see what was attached to her refrigerator with magnets: Post-it notes, coupons, loose photographs with curling corners. She left her dishes dirty in the sink and sa t on her counter to eat a blueberry muffin for dessert. She ate the bottom of it first and then the top; she licked her fingers. She picked crumbs off of the limp ridged wax paper it came in. *** He imagined what it would be like to talk to her over breakfastscrambled eggs, fluffy with American cheese in them. He imagined te lling her about his day, played the conversation over and over in his head, mixing up the order of their dialogue like a CD set to shuffle. He tried to remember the last time hed been asked how his day was, and he couldnt remember. He hadnt dated anyone since he was a student-teacher. *** Sam was, at least a little bit, aware of the things that he did to comfort himself when he was depressed. He slept later to accumulate ex tra time unconscious. But while Clara ate as if she was trying to chew loud enough to drown out her thoughts, Sam was usually unable to eat well during the weeks directly following a breakup or other mishap. When his grandparents died within a month of one another, he lost enough we ight to drop two holes on his belt, leaving a visible furrow worn into the leathe r where the buckle used to pre ss when his waist was bigger.
87 *** When Clara gobbled Chinese food, he develope d an intense craving for vegetable lo mein. One night she ate a half dozen glazed don uts, and when she was done and had left her kitchen dark behind her, he drove to the tw enty-four-hour Krispy Krem e. Pizza delivery boys would have to double back with identical orde rs. Sam often had strange dreams or wild nightmares which he blamed on eating bizarre foods late in the evenings. And sometimes he would have the dreams not because of what hed eaten, but because of what Clara had. When she had corndogs drenched in ketchup a nd mustard, he dreamt of being stuck on an eternally spinning Ferris wheel. When she ate coconut ice cream topped with Hersheys chocolate syrup, he dreamt of being buried up to his head in sand at the beach with crabs clacking away at his nose and eyelashes. When Clara ate boiled peanuts out of a half-soaked brown-paper bag he dreamt of riding in the back of a station wagon with his brother as a toddler and a man in a Mickey Mouse costume with teeth like razor blades. Clara looked beautiful as she expanded. Her hair had a luster under that powerful lighting. Her face filled out. Her lips glittered beneath shiny layers of grease from fried chicken or sugary icing or duck glaze. He noticed he r breasts bulging beneath her sweaters. Sam considered going to her house and knoc king on the door. He t hought about bringing coffee cake or chocolate chip cookies or a green bean casserole. He even made cinnamon buns once and stood there in his office, the baked goods encased in Tupperware beside him. He opened it and ate them one by one as he watched her doing dishes. He finished the last one while she consumed a Little Debbie cake, trying to match her bite for bite; he tried to synchronize.
88 Sam only saw his reflection once a day, in the mornings when he shaved in front of a medicine-cabinet. When he walked alone past full-length mirrors, he often didnt recognize himself. *** One night he watched her eat chocolate fros ting out of a cardboard tub. At first she dipped strawberries into it, then pretzels. Sh e resorted to licking it off of her fingers. Clara stopped, and rinsed off her hands. She put the frosting in the fridge and started to turn off the kitchen lights. Then she stopped and focused on something in the air, some speck of dust or maybe a moth fluttering near the kitchen fi xture before she turned the lights back on. She opened her refrigerator, and cold wh ite light coated her face, her ch est, the insides of her arms. She took out the frosting and set it on the counter. Then she began to remove her shirt. Sam sat up straight in his chair and craned his neck and then thought better and slouched down behind his computer screen and peered aro und it at his window. She took off her bra. Her breasts were little pendulous honeydews. She pain ted herself with chocolate using her fingers and it reminded Sam of slides of Klein in art history, blue girls and orchestras. She looked at him. Sam dropped to the floor and climbed beneath hi s desk like students used to do to protect themselves from nuclear warheads in elementa ry school. Her silhouette was burned onto the insides of his eyelids. He thought, Oh Jesus. She saw me. She knows. Oh God. Shell call the cops. Or shell come over here and yell at me. Shell mo ve. Shell hate me. Its over.
89 But when he finally peeked over the top of his desk, past the computer and through the window, she was smearing the chocolate all over her chest while she looked right out her window, right at him again. Like it was war paint. He tentatively climbed back in his chair, closed the computer, folded his hands and placed his chin onto the cushion of his fingers. She sat on the counter and pointed herself toward him. She unzipped her pants and slipped her chocolaty fingers in under a striped wa istband and beneath a triangle of white cloth. She leaned her head back and smiled maniacally. He could practically smell frosting. She knew, and she liked it. Sam smiled back. Her belly bulged out of her half-open jeans. Chocolate smudged denim. It was all over the counter. Her fingers left trails over the curve of her pelvis. He could hear her for once. She was sm iling at him and writhing and stroking and saying, Come. Come. Come. She wants me he thought and his heart lurched in his chest because he hadnt been touched in weeks except to shake hands with th e other teachers, and sometimes cashiers touched his hand when they were giving him change. If he went to the restroom between classes and joined the flux of students, then their shoulde rs sometimes bumped his; they might knock into him a little, by accident. This was his chance. This was perfect; it only happened this way in letters to Penthouse She had taken off her jeans and had chocolate runn ing down her thighs. He leaned back in his chair, and folded his hands behind his head. He held his breath for a moment as he smiled out at her.
90 He was hypnotized. She danced; she squirmed. He simply smiled. She shuddered while her gaze slipped through two sets of double-paned windows. She closed her eyes and her face tightened. She sat there frozen for a second, then turned to leave the kitchen and didnt even glance over at him. She flipped off the lights as she carried her jeans in her arms, her panties and bra rolled into balls in her hands, her shirt over her shoulder. Her ass wiggled as she walked away. She turned off her light as she crossed the threshold. Sam sat still. He stared after her. A smile still distorted his lips. He stood up and turned on the desk lamp. When he glanced back up he realized that with his lights on and hers off, when he looked out at her house he only saw himself as if hi s window was a mirror. He could only see his reflection against blackness. He turned the lamp off and looked into her kitchen. It was bathed in aquamarine light and decorated with cubist sh adows. He switched his light back on. He saw his office behind him, his filing cabinets, a full b ookshelf, an armchair hed had since freshman year of college. According to the mirrored glass, it was just him standing there. The air around him smelled like sweat and chocolate, salty-sweet. Hi s eyes went to his stomach, and he switched off the light one more time. In Claras kitchen gi rls cut from magazines on the fridge ruffled like glossy paper dolls, skinny in bikinis.
91 CHAPTER 8 SO YOU HAVE INTRACTABLE HICCUPS (Pamphlet to be used in conjunction with trea tment provided by health care professionals.) I. The comment that people made the most often upon learning that Ive hiccupped uncontrollably every day for five years was definitely, I would just kill myself. But suicide is not the answer. Even when th ings got tough, I never considered suicide an option. And neither should you. Many people believe that hiccups are bad, embarrassing, or annoying. If you can just find your own unique perspective, they are much easier to deal with. Try renaming them. My young nephew calls them love-burps. When I was little, my mother told me that hi ccups were Satan trying to get at my soul. The first time that I had them was in 1980, I was six years old, and the family was gathered around the dinner table: my mother and father at either end, my three older brothers, and me. We were eating fried chicken out of a cardboard buc ket. I felt a strange sensation, a tugging at my little larynx, and I hiccupped through a mouthf ul of drumstick. The quiet conversation halted. My brothers all turned to look at me; th eir jaws froze mid-chew. My heart nearly ceased to beat when I saw my mothers face. She tore me out of my chair and carried me into the downstairs bathroom. As I sat on the tile floor with tears running down my face and fits of air bubbling up out of my throat over and over again, she filled the bathtub, turned me ups ide-down, and dunked me under, so that I flailed and my pigtails whipped around, flinging water acro ss my mothers clean flowered blouse. Her greasy fingers were tight around my ankles, and my overturned dress made a tent around my head, the hem dipping into the bathwater.
92 She explained to me later, when I was in bed with my hair dampening the pillow, that it was for my own good; hiccups were a sign of the devils presence. If any one of my brothers got them in front of my parents, he would walk into the bathroom, and dunk his own head while my mother stood over him with a look as if she was trying to wrench demons free of his throat with her eyes. I never saw my mother hiccup in her life. Not once. I hid my hiccupping in school, clamping my hand over my mouth and running to the restroom. When my friends succu mbed to them in front of me, I looked away. I was suspicious in middle school when my teacher hiccupped in fr ont of the class and there were no nervous giggles or notes scrawled on jaggedly torn pape r like when she farted or when she sweated visibly into her button-up silk shirts. It wasnt un til high school health class that I realized that it was a perfectly natural reflex, nothi ng to fear and nothing to hide. I didnt develop intractable hiccups until after I was finished with college and working in a diner while I contemplated teaching. I was in the middle of taking an order at a big table of rocket scientists in town for a convention at th e University of South Ca rolina, where Id gotten my bachelors degree in elementary ed. In th e middle of my specials sp iel I began to hiccup and couldnt stop. It was my first real affliction. My names Grace, and Ill be your server th is evening. Our special today and every Wednesday is a ten ounce prime rib cooked to yo ur like(hic)ing I enc ountered a feeling like seeing a snake out of the corner of my eye, an unnamable panic, served with variety steamed vegetables and your (hic) choice of a baked potato, French fries, or Caro(h ic)lina red rice (hic). I could feel the water flooding my nose, my mout h, my ears while big hands held my ankles tight and rough. It comes with a garden salad (hic), all for just $10.99. I wrote down their orders
93 while my pen shook in my hand as I tried to supp ress the lurching in my chest. That night I could hardly sleep I was so racked with them. II. Intractable hiccups can be frus trating and expensive. There is no proven cure, and everyone insists that they have the solution for you. I pe rsonally found that I wa s happier after I gave up the exhausting search, and accepted them as part of my life. However, if you are determined to try to rid y ourself of intractable hiccups, then there is a plethora of information available to you on th e internet, much of wh ich is well organized. Some sites even include diagrams. Over the next two weeks, I spent the last of my graduation money on physicians. They were unworried, called my afflictio n persistent, but not yet chr onic. Eventually they would offer me sedatives and anti-spasmodics which left me feeling heavy like I was wading through honey. I sent away a self-addressed stamped envel ope and received a pamphlet printed on glossy paper. It featured a smiling mi ddle-aged woman with puffy bangs and eyes the color of Cocacola. She looked like she was full of sedatives and anti-spasmodics. While I waited for them to subside, I trie d cures suggested by my friends and family. I drank milk while I stood on my head with my back braced against one of the walls in my apartment. The heels of my Sambas left black smudges just above ey e level. I spent an entire day trying to hold my breath for longer and longer periods of time. My lungs burned. I hiccupped through my clamped-shut mouth. I put a clothespin over my nose. My head throbbed and fuzzed. The first time I tried, I could only hold my breath for twenty-seven seconds. By the end of the day, I had a headache that started at my crown and flowed down through my temples, and I could hold my breath for thirty-five.
94 I went to an acupuncturist, who left me on a table with pins stic king out of my skin, needle heads nodding with each passing spasm. I we nt to a masseuse, who left me sore the next day, deep in my tissue, so that every hiccup ache d. I tried hyperbaric oxygen therapy, in which I reclined in a giant clear tube like the pneumatic tubes that you put your deposits in at the bank drive-up windows. I poured tablespoons of sugar down my throat. They left me emitting sweet gasps of air while grainy syrup coated my tongue. I also s pooned peanut butter, cas tor oil, vinegar, and brine. I ate packets of herbs prepared by a friends grandmother who lives in a little trailer in the shadow of a silo. They made me see halos for days. I made myself vomit in the movie theater restroom after I waited for all of the shoes to disappear from my sight beneath the stall door because I desperat ely wanted to see the end of House of Flying Daggers I fell asleep to a CD of a hypnotists voice te lling me that I was going to wake up and they were going to be gone. I pulled on my tongue. I shoved my fingers in my ears. I cried. III. Youll find that some of the people who are cl ose to you may distance themselves after you develop intractable hiccups. I ha ve discovered that the people who cant accept my hiccupping are unworthy of my friendship anyway. A true friend will hold back your hair while you try to drink milk out of the wrong side of a glass.
95 The boy that I was dating at the time, Travis, was helpful at first. He spent two weeks trying to scare the hiccups out of me. They ke pt him awake at night, wh ich was especially tough because he had to be up at five to deliver boxes of potato chips for Lays. Once when I began to hiccup while he was driv ing, he pretended that the brakes to his Mazda had stopped working. He screamed and mashed his foot against the floor in front of him. At the last minute he snapped to a sudden st op on the shoulder of a busy highway and looked over quick with a grin. My forehead bumped the windshield and left me with a goose egg. And one time he hid in the back seat of my car after my shift at the restaurant. It was dark and I was alone, hiccupping into an empty parking lot so that the echoes bounced back down at me in waves. He clamped his fingers around my neck. I elbowed him in the nose and broke it. It made a sound like a wooden bat hitting a baseball. We were bruised together. We looked like vi ctims when we were at the mall or at the movie theater. People stared. Even when our swellings had gone down and our bruises had paled to the color of squash, we were both tired and grumpy from waking up all night. He slept a sleep shallow like a mothers. One hiccup and he was up and grumbling. He eventually moved to my plaid couch. He complained about his back aching, and then I moved onto the shifting couch cushions. He stopped staying over, stopp ed calling, came over while I was working to get his toothbrush, his zombie movies, and the gian t box of Lucky Charms that hed purchased. He came back for his things on my last day at the diner. Sometime s I could get through a short shift without hiccupping, and sometimes I ha d to sit in the office for an hour until they subsided. The other servers did what they coul d, took tables for me when I needed, ran my drinks for me so that I wouldnt slosh them all across the dining room.
96 It was during the dinner rush the last time I got the hicc ups and had to stop taking customers. But Becky had called in sick so we already each had a twelve-table section. Trying to pick up my booths was so hard on the other wa itresses that the manager had to comp. eleven desserts and seventeen appetizers. He said that it was the bigges t loss in one evening that the restaurant had faced all year. And I was just thinking about how good those Lucky Charms marshmallows were going to be dry out of a coffee cup. And they were gon e when I got home. I not iced their ab sence first and then realized that Travis was gone, too. Our last conversation was over the phone when I was drunk at four in the morning. Id been alone and watching loud cab le. Unfortunately, by the time he answered I was crying and hiccupping so hard that I couldn t get out any words. It was like one of those dreams where you cant even scream. He just sat there, not sa ying anything, listening to me. He eventually hung up but he knew it was me, Im sure. IV. You may also find your workplace unforgiving of your hiccupping habit. Consider coming to work with a box of earplugs to distribute if you work in an office. Or, if youve ever had a hankering to be self-employed, this is the perf ect opportunity to take out a loan, clean out the home office, and open up that catering company. F ill out online surveys, or join the exciting world of data entry. Or turn your garage in to a studio and paint rocks to look like sleeping animals! You can even sell them online. I tried working in places that were loud: a warehouse where everyone wore those bulbous plastic earmuffs. I had to count pallets in subzero temperatures, but I quit the second day even though nobody around me seemed to notice my hiccupping for the first time in forever. I
97 couldnt even hear them myself, with the earmuffs on. I couldn t hear my own breathing or the trucks beeping or the pallets bei ng lifted up or slammed down. It was kind of beautiful counti ng pallets in silence with fros t gathering on my clothing and steam escaping my mouth. I could still feel the hiccups, I knew they were there the way that you know what the water feels like ev en though youre wear ing a wetsuit. No matter how nice it was to be able to hi ccup freely, it was too goddamn cold to deal with daily. V. Oftentimes, intractable hiccups occur among c ancer victims and people who have recently undergone surgery. So those of us who were healthy until we started hiccupping and couldnt stop should consider ourselves blessed. However, there are some dangers that come with intractable hiccups. One must be careful while eating and drinking to avoid effects ranging from mild discomfort to possible death. Consider taking a first aid course and encouraging your loved ones to do the same. Changing your diet to include softer foods and smoothies may lead to a slimmer and more attractive new you! And who knows where that might get you? Sometimes I would hiccup in the middle of a fountain drink and it w ould just shoot right down the wrong pipe and fizz there. So I would cough until my lungs and throat were aflame. My stomach was sore from hiccuppi ng so that it felt as if I was doing crunches before bed like back in high school when I wanted to look good in a bikini for senior week at Myrtle Beach. That was the first good thing that happened: my belly started to streamline. The soft flesh there began to taper away.
98 I took a first aid class in order to learn to give myself the Heimlich maneuver. What you do is make a fist with your right hand, and put the thumb-side of it below your ribs. Then you clasp your left hand around that fist and push upward repeatedly. I wanted to practice this somehow, so that I would be ready, but theres no way to do that. When it did finally happen I was at the diner, as a customer and also trying to get back my job. Really, Martin, I pleaded. Theres got to be something for me to do here. I can do prep work. I can expo. Put me somewhere away from the customers. Anywhere. Nobody will hire me because of this goddamn affliction. And youll cut yourself up on prep, trying to use those sharp knives while you hiccup all over the place. I cant take the risk. He wa s a big man in a button-up shirt with the sleeves rolled up practically into his armpits. How about expo? Please, Martin, I said a nd took a bite of a ro ast beef sandwich. I dont know, he replied and looked at his watch. It was about time to change the menus from lunch to dinner. Id just started to swallow and my throat tensed up, I hiccupp ed and it hurt. I could feel that chunk of rye and roast beef stop on its way down and shoot back up for a second. Then it was wedged and I couldnt breathe, couldnt talk couldnt make any sounds. I could feel my pulse in my temples, could hear it in my ears. I gripped my neck with both hands. My mouth was open like a hissing lizards. Martin looked back up from his watch and stared at me for a moment before yelling, Jesus Christ! Shes choking!
99 I tried to form a fist, tried to press it in the crevice of my rib cage, but in my terror my arms were uncooperative. Does anyonedoes anyone know CPR? Martin as ked the nearly empty dining room. Black starbursts spilled across my vision. I fell to my knees and grabbed the edge of the table. I felt huge arms around my waist pulling me up. I wilted in his grasp. He squeezed me towards him, and my hands found his arms, and they were covered in hair. His fist wrenched into my ribcage from below three times, enough to leave me bruised where my skin met the face of his watch. I coughed up the mangled bite and it landed on th e floor in front of me while I sucked air noisily. The man behind me let me go, and I stumbled forward a couple of steps. Pulling air into my lungs was heaven and he ll; it hurt but felt wonderful simultaneously. My eyes watered down my face, and I looked at th e world through a waterfall. I snorted to clear my nose. I felt as if someone had cleaned out my throat with a brush. People were gathered around me, asking me if I was all right, if I was hurt, could they call anyone for me. I tried to smile, wiped my face off with a tissue someone had pushed into my palm. I hiccupped again and the crow d chuckled and dispersed. I rubbed my eyes with the backs of my hands. I tried to recompose. I turned around; the man whod saved me wa s in an EMT uniform, waiting patiently for my attention. He smiled at me, and I immediat ely thought about how my face must be tomatored, and I bet my hair must be st anding up like a roosters crown.
100 Are you all right? he asked and smiled this big-toothed cowboy smile, real sure of himself. Fine. Thank you so much, I said and stoppe d speaking to hiccup again, twice in a row, real quick. He looked at me expectantly. I owe you my life? I brushed my right hand over my head. Im Keith, he said and reached out to shak e my hand. The dining room filled with the sounds of forks and knives, chai rs scraping, and chatter. Grace, I replied. A hostess came over to sw eep the bit of sandwich on the floor into a dustpan. She smiled at me. There is just no way I can hire you back, Grace. Youre just too much of a liability, Martin interrupted. I mean, Im glad youre okay, but I dont think this is the right place for you right now. Dont worry about the sandwich. Its on the house. And he strolled back towards the kitchen. What the hell, Martin? I fumed at him as he di sappeared. I was tired of feeling broke. What an asshole, Keith said. You dont want to work for a jerk like that anyway. There was another pause and I hiccuppe d three times in the silence. In my head it sounded different every time I hiccupped. It sounded like frogs croaking, like water dropping into water, and like the noise s people make when theyre surprised. I would hiccup loudly when I was alone in my house. Id try to see what volumes I could reach. I could hiccup with each breath for minutes at a time sometimes, and now it only felt like breathing. It was almost a relief like cr acking my knuckles. I couldnt think of anything witty to say.
101 Look, Im sorry to be so forward. I couldnt help but notice that you ve got great abs. I mean, I used to be a personal trai ner, and its hard for women to acquire definition like that. I smiled at him and ran my fingers through my hair again. It was the first time since Travis left that Id felt remotely attractive. I wanted to see what his stomach looked like. I placed the palm of my hand against my belly a nd removed it self-consciously. Thanks, I said through a smile. Thats a bi zarre side effect of the intractable hiccups Ive had for a couple of months now. He laughed but I didnt. Serious? he asked. I nodded hopefully. I would kill myself, he sa id just the way they all did, blinking and big-eyed. Then there was a pause while he laughed a litt le again, to himself, and my skin crawled where hed touched me. His cowboy smile seemed farcical, wilted lettuce clinging to the crevice between his two front teeth. I ste pped back away from him a little and my eyelids glided slightly downwards. He belonged to the masses who didnt understand me. They thought it would be worse to be me than to be dead. Those people would rather be in heaven or hell, or purgatory, or stuck in a coffin underground. Theyd rather be ghosts. Theyd rather just be dissipated atoms tumbling.
102 CHAPTER 9 MOTHERLAND There were stickers positioned below the po lish ed metal mirrors and above the sinks in the New Mexico rest areas. Block print sprawled across peeling plas tic informing me that regardless of how much it rained in the region, in the high desert there is an eternal drought. I looked at my tired reflection in the washed-out bright white light and wondered how the drought would affect my life. My face was studded with tiny pink pimples. I hoped that the air would dry out my skin. Or that the pregnancy would. I reminded myself that ever ything is temporary. Santa Fe filled the windshield slowly. It glowed pale orange in the dark shadows of surrounding mountains. I couldnt se e any cars behind me or before me on the strip of gray highway winding through the sandy nothingness littered with dry cacti and stale shrubbery. It made me lonely, and the horny litt le bushes looked like they were straight out of a Dr. Seuss book. The car echoed with stagnant talk radio and my brothers snores as they erupted from his nose and mouth back and forth, snarling like a wild an imal. He farted in his sleep and it scared the dog awake behind him. Franklin erupted in a barking fit. The radio rushed into static suddenly. I clicked it off. Are we there yet? Gravy asked, eyes st ill closed, and yawned simultaneously. He reached back to pat Franklin in the back seat He missed and petted a duffel bag, a suit case, then finally his palm landed on Franklins wiry fur. Look. Santa Fe. I pointed at the buildings snuggling into the de sert. The stars faded as they approached the aura around the city. Ive gotta piss. He stretched his arms upwa rd until they met the roof of the Civic. He was big for seventeen or any age, six and a half feet. While he stayed with me in Clemson for two days, he got up from the couch and broke a li ght fixture with his head. Hed slept through
103 the rest stop, slept through the drive west from Amarillo, Texas wh ere wed stayed in a Days Inn, hiding the dog from the desk staff and cleaning crew I pulled the car over onto the shoulder. He and the dog peed together in the dark. I kneeled and let a handful of lavender sand sift through my fingers as I listened to my br others and my dogs trickles. Jesus. I have never seen so many stars before. I talked up towards the sky. It was so black and there were layers of little points of light. My hear t was going fast, a sensation that reminded me of the moments before jumping off the high dive. Well, youve never been this far west or this high up, altitudinally. Were at about seven thousand feet. Gravy got in on the drivers side. Altitudinally is not a word. I made myse lf a pillow out of a t-shirt against the closed window. The glass was cool through the cotton. You dont know everything. Gr avy started the car, and Franklin sighed and walked in small circles on the back seat, over the lumpy luggage. His white and orange fur looked bright as hell to me in the rear view mirror. He l ooked like the ghost of a J ack Russel terrier. I know more than you, I said childishly. I reminded myself that it was my choice to revert to this state. Id asked Gr avy to come get me. Id asked Mom if I could move in with her. Youre so smart because youre, like, fi ve years older than me and you have a bachelors degree? Guess what. The bachelors degree is the new high school diploma, I read in Time magazine. Youre not that special. That means youre where? Still in mi ddle school? Hows your GED coming? And when did you start reading Time ? I smirked at him and closed my eyes. Altitudinally. Well look it up when we get to Moms. Im sure its a word. Sure, I said and I shut my eyes ag ainst blurring darkened billboards.
104 *** You know, Margaret, Gravy said when he woke me up as if we were in the middle of a conversation. We were pulling into our mothe rs driveway. The lights were on inside; the windows were yellow squares in the morning dar kness. I was stuck in the limbo between awake and asleep. Its not going to be that bad. I mean, I like living with Mom. Shes really nice. I dont get why you didnt like living with her. It wasnt that. I talked quickly while we parked. He popped the trunk and it made a thumping noise. Its just that I wanted to feel like an adult. I couldn t do that while I was living with her. I needed to be independent. I mean, shes not abusive, Gravy continued as if I hadnt responded to him. She really loves you. Shes really hurt that you never visited. She just likes to give advice and help and stuff. I just cant take all that sometimes. I tried again, and he ignored me a second time. Its just that I think you hurt her feelings, never coming out to visit us while you were in college. I mean, I dont give a damn, but Mom was disappointed when you chose to stay in South Carolina instead of coming here for your br eaks. Mom rented a cabin that one Christmas so we could see you. You could ve come and visited once. Fo r Thanksgiving or something. Just to prove you cared. Id celebrate Thanksgivi ng and Christmas with my father just north of Charleston, where Id grown up befo re he divorced my mother my senior year of high school, and she and Gravy moved west. Home reminded me of being a lifeguard and pictures where I am blond and tan and when I felt like a completely different person. I was a ngry at my father for suggesting I move across the count ry to live with my mother in stead of offering up his spare bedroom when I told him I was pregnant.
105 I was broke and busy. Thanksgiving was neve r a big deal when we were kids. It was just easier to go to Dads. I thought you liked the cabin Christmas I st opped. I didnt say that I didnt want to ask for money for tickets. I di dnt mention that I didn t want to feel young and helpless. I pretended that I wasnt sc ared of wanting to stay with them. Our mother rushed out to us, smiling big bene ath crazy fluffy hair. Her eyes were puffy from sleeping, and I wondered if mine looked exactly the same way. *** And heres your room. My mother offere d an exhausted smile. She wore a bathrobe and slipper-socks and put her arm around my shoul ders while holding open the door into a tiny room at the corner of her house. I stiffened under her arm though I didnt mean to. The dog set off the motion sensor light in the back yard. Th e walls were creamy textured clay. I would have to crawl across the bed to get to the closet. A crib slumped in the corner. Where did you get the crib, Mom? One of the girls at the ho spital was getting rid of it. We can buy a new one if youd rather have a new one. I think this one is perfectly good, though. She knocked on a wooden rail to show how sturdy it was. Now I had a crib. I was hardly showing; I wasnt telling people. But having a crib in my bedroom meant that I was having a baby. Gravy stumbled into the room holding a big leather-bound dicti onary like a shield. Altitudinal. Pertaining to altitude. See? I told you, he looked around the room. Damn, this room is small. I bet you wish youd stayed in South Carolina now, huh? But you used the word altitudinally. Is that in there? I wished I was back at USC. I wished I was back at USC. I wished I was back at USC.
106 He placed the dictionary on the dresser and disappeared. Im sure the crib is fine. Thanks, I hugged my mother. She kissed my forehead, and it reminded me of scraping my knee after my tr aining wheels came off wh en I was six: a tiny puddle of blood and gravel floating on my skin. Good night, Sweetheart. Ill be at the hos pital tomorrow from eight until five, but you just get settled in. If you feel up to it, you shoul d try to fix the gate. It blows open with every little wind, and the dog could get out. No problem. My eyes were already closed. That night Franklin slept curled at my knees His paws moved in his sleep and he yipped a little. I could hear coyotes screaming like wo men out in the dark beyond my window. They made me think of harpies. *** I told my mother over the phone that I was goi ng to have it after Id made the decision, and she never asked me why. She just said, Uh huh. She had me when she was twenty-two, right after she graduate d from nursing school. I was too scared to have an abortion. I had recurring nightmares about them in which my babies looked like lima beans. But that wooden crib with its blue gingham mattress and the sun and moon carved into the headboard was the first purchase made for the baby. It was the first time someone had considered the fact that it would need things. *** I woke up late the next morning and the house was empty except for the dog running laps around the living room. There was a box of Capt ain Crunch on the table with a bowl and spoon,
107 half a grapefruit, milk and orange juice in the fridge. It looked like the perf ect advertisement for a complete breakfast, but I ignored the food and went outside into the May morning. I craved coffee and had been told not to drink it. The wind carried sand right into my eyes. I stood blinking and the dog ran in big looping ci rcles around me like a jack rabbit. The houses were oranges and beiges spread out with yards surrounded by fences or adobe walls studded with wagon wheels and little wooden window frames. Juniper shivered in the breeze. Cactus surrounded me, and it made me nervous to think of the dog running into the prickles. The pavement on the road was cracked. I walked onto it with bare feet. My toes pressed into something squishy that they used to fill the spaces. One of the neighbors worked in his yard ex tracting rocks from the packed earth. He nodded at me over his fence, his eyes hi dden in the shadow of a cowboy hat. I wondered if my mother had told him about me. I wondered if she told him about how I got pregnant and broke up with my boyfriend. I wondered if he thought I was crazy like my friends back east thoughtthrowi ng away a perfectly good man. My friends from high school and college were organizing themselves into neat little pairs, shoes on the floor of a walk-in closet. *** So, what did you two do today? Mom grilled us over a casserole-laden table. We sipped from fizzing cans of Coca-Cola. I hauled plastic tubs of dirty dishes and glassware around a restaurant for almost ten hours. Gravy spoke with cheese and vegetables grinding between his teet h. I made about fifty bucks in tips. I dropped a bowl of soup and it splattered some ladys skirt and the manager
108 comp-ed her whole meal, but, I mean, it was brothbased soup, so I dont really see what the big deal was. It wouldve come out in the wash. How about you, Margaret? I explored with Franklin. I sounded lik e I was twelve. The mountains here are different. Margaret, you should come wo rk at the restaurant. There was a pregnant girl there in the fall, and she made bank every shift. Peopl e give you big tips when youre big-bellied. Gravy gestured with a fork full of food and sl ung tomatoes through the air. I could hear Franklins tongue licking the floor clean. Ill think about it, I said. Honey, dont you want to do something with your degree? My mother implored and her voice rose an octave. Her eyebrows arched at the end of her question. I mean, its fine for Gravyhes only seventeen. But, I mean, you s houldnt be on your feet all of the time. Well, I dont know what good a BA in hist ory is going to do me. I couldnt imagine a restaurant would hire a pr egnant girl with no tabl e-waiting experience. Ill ask the managers if we need more servers, Gravy offered as he knocked over a bottle of hot sauce. Franklin lick ed up the little puddle of green liquid off of terra cotta tile and spent the rest of the meal in front of his ceramic water bowl. *** Serve, I read in the darkness, even though I knew what the word me ant; the dictionary was illuminated by a light bulb flickering through moth shadows. My eyes slipped down the stack of definitions, to act as a servant. The only books in the room were the dictionary that
109 Gravy had deserted on my dresser and an old phonebook which was shoved underneath the bed. The pages of the phonebook were crispy. *** In the morning I leashed Franklin and we wa lked a mile into town. I wore a skirt and blouse, and the wind kicked up dust that stung my eyes and made Franklin whine. He chased flyers cart-wheeling down the street. His ta il was a thumb-sized nub that shook crazily. At the restaurant I tied him to a wrought-ir on gate outside. He whimpered as I walked away, and I felt a little guilty. I turned back to look at him and he was lying down with his chin resting on his crossed paws. I filled out the employment application w ith my lucky pen, a gift from my mom for graduation. It was made of purpleheart w ood, which I found out later was endangered, so I always felt a little guilty using it. My previous work experien ce included two bouts as a summer camp counselor, a couple of years working as a vide o store cashier, and a stint at a Target. Two women interviewed me. I forgot their na mes as soon as they said them. One wore flowing black flannel and big wooden beads around her wrists and neck. The other was in blue jeans and a fringed cowboy button-up shirt. They didnt seem bothered by the fact that I didnt have experience. We talked about my work history, my ability to mu lti-task, dealing with annoyed customers and annoying children. So, when are you due? the cowgirl asked. Oh. I was startled by the sudden shift in conversation and relieved that they already knew. Mid-November. We both waited tables here while we were pr egnant. And it was hard work, but its not impossible, the cowgirl reassured me. They shared a smile across the tiled table.
110 Your mom works at St. Vincents, right? one of them asked while she played with the painted beads on her wrist. Youll hear people call that place St. Victims. But dont pay them any attention. Mostly its underfunded. But a lo t of the people around here dont trust hospitals. Its all superstition. The women smiled at me, a nd I squirmed in a wicker chair. Oh, one more question, the one in beads star ted. The cowgirl rolled her eyes. Whats your astrological sign? Um. I had to think about it. Sagittarius. The b eaded one relaxed visibly. I knew it. She grinned. You are going to love working here. Outside the restaurant, a woman in laye rs of colored silk approached me. You shouldnt leave your dog tied up out he re. It isnt safe. Anyone could scoop him up. Or he could get loose and be lost forever, she chided me as I untied Franklin. I apologized, but when I looked back she was still staring me down, her arms akimbo. *** When I got back to my mothers, I sat amidst noon sunbeams in my new room. I flipped through the Websters dictionary. I needed to buy real books. I n eeded to read something other than definitions. I hadnt found a bookstore in my daytime explorations, and I kept forgetting to ask. Victim. Sunlight covered the page like bu tter on bread. A person who is deceived or cheated, as by his or her own em otions or ignorance, by the dishonesty of others, or by some impersonal agency. ***
111 Honey, my mother yelled into my room. Could you rinse the dishes and put them in the washer, please? And soak the pots? Id appreciate it. Shed left me a computer printout entit led A Hundred Things to do with Your Bachelors Degree in History. It was pinned ag ainst the refrigerator by a magnet shaped like a little plastic frying pan. If you pressed on the magnet it made a sizzling sound. I read through the list of suggestions: secondary school teacher, museum curato r, research positions, archive work My stomach felt like curdling cottage cheese. I crumpled up the list and tossed it into the kitchen trash to land on top of cer eal dregs and grapefruit rind. The smell that rose from the trash made acid rise in the back of my throat. *** My first trainer was a girl named Mindy. Sh e was tall and thin with tattoos creeping out of the collar of her white button-down shirt. When she was told that she had to train me she rolled her eyes up toward the ceiling and emitted an almost silent groan. She smiled tightly and said in a low rumbling voice something that s ounded like I guess were in this together. So, youre Gravys sister, huh? She talked while she show ed me how to brew tea. They did not sweeten the tea here. Customers c ould sweeten it themselves with spoons that were too short and sugar from little paper packets. It was not the same. We love Gravy around here. Hes a good kid. Her thin fingers rolled silverware into cocoons of linen napkins. So, tell me why you moved out west. She led me to the walk-in cooler. We carried giant plastic tubs of sloshing salsa.
112 Well, you know, Im pregnant. She nodded a nd it was clear that everyone knew, that they whispered to each other in the break room or beside the bar while they waited on frozen margaritas from whirling blenders. My mom works at St. Vincents. Shes a pediatric nurse. Itll just be easier. I tried to keep little re d drops from landing on my starched sleeves. This is a good restaurant to work at when you have a family. They take care of you here. There are Christmas bonuses. The owners buy us all turkeys for Thanksgiving. A lot of the servers watch each others kids. So, is this your first time in Santa Fe? Mm-hmm. I started college directly after my mom moved out here. She always bugged me to visit. I never made it, though, til now. We sliced limes into wedges on plastic cutting boards. The knives were so sharp that it hurt to look at them. You will make mad money when you star t showing. How far along are you? She didnt even glance at the limes or the knife. Two months. Girl, you are too skinny. You need to eat mo re. I followed her into the alley beside the restaurant. She lit a Marlboro Light and blew the smoke over her shoulder away from me. Weve got about ten minutes. If you want a quesadilla or something Juan will get it for you. Be nice to the guys on the line, they can make you r life miserable. Her hair was long and shiny and black. Tendrils ran down her temples. The smoke swirled around her between the brick walls regardless of where she directed the exhala tions from between her gloss-slathered lips. *** Miserable. I read the dictionary while I was still wearing my work clothes. The front right pocket of my black pant s was thick with a clump of one s and fives that Mindy had handed
113 me at the end of our shift. She wasnt supposed to tip me out, but Id waited on half of her tables, and I guess she felt guilty. Wretc hedly unhappy, uneasy, or uncomfortable. My skin was clearing up. I was getting plump on Hamburger Helper and organic vegetables from the farmers market. We ate casseroles and lasagnas. I couldnt remember my mother cooking when I was in high school. I had heard that I was supposed to start glow ing. I fell asleep im agining myself yellowgreen like the plastic head of a worm doll Id ha d as a kid. There was a battery pack hidden in the belly of its soft plush body. I could hear the gate outside clanging open and shut rhythmically. *** Phone call for you, Margaret. Mindy held the phone to her chest in the break room, adjacent to the kitchen. The curly cord hung lim p, black, and shiny. The lunch rush was going hard, I was carrying two dishes of enchiladas with green chile sauce, and I had eight silverware rolls shoved into my apron pocket. I dropped off the enchiladas, distribu ted the silverware, took a drink order, gave it to a busser to fill, and went to answer the phone. I made a note to tell my mother that she was not to call me during my shifts. Margaret? My heart stopped at Peters voice. It flip-flopped. How did you get this number? I just got off of the phone with your mom. He sounded like hed started smoking cigarettes again. Or hed gone to a concert th e night before in someplace smoky. He continued. I wanted to touch base. I know I reacted ba dly when you, uh, told me about everything. I suppressed a laugh at the thought th at he couldnt say the words pregnant or baby I wore a
114 pager on my apron string that buzzed when my food was ready to run in the kitchen. It vibrated frantically as I held the phone to my ear. You can say that again. I stood beside a wall of clothi ng exceeding the limits of a closet. The break room smelled like Mexican food and stale tequila. My stomach tossed beneath my ironed work shirt. One of the teenaged hostesses stuck her head into the room to tell me that shed just seated another table in my section, a two top. Look, Peter. This really isnt a good time I was saying when he interrupted. I know its mine. Im sorry I insinuated otherwise. Im sorry that I suggested you get rid of it. Im just sorry in general. You know you left your cell phone here, your clothes, your stuffed pig. Peters words jumbled into each other. I held the phone to rest against my throat as I strained the phone cord to its limits to put an order for queso sauce into the computer right outside of the door. Fuck. Id meant to bring Oinkers. Id had hi m since I was six. Its not that I left South Carolina in a hurry. I just hadnt gone back to his place to pack up what Id left there after the fight. I couldnt bring myself to. My buzzer stilled and then started again. It sounded like dragonfly wings. I ran table sevens food out for you, Mi ndy said and stood in the doorway. Table eight needs an extra side of ranch. And table five is ready for their check. Are you listening to me? Pe ter asked, and I wasnt. No. Ive got to get back to my shift. Dont call me here ag ain. Ill call you. I promise. One of the managers looked in on me and raised both of her eyebrows. I hung up without waiting for a reply. I threw up cornflakes into the waste basket. Then I pulled the bag into the alleyway. I searched the faces of my customers as I approached my section with a
115 monkey dish full of ranch in one hand and a curling ch eck on a plastic tray in the other. I tried to remember the drink order for my new two top, but my mind turned the p hone conversation over and over like pulling taffy. My chest ached a little and a mass strained in my throat. I smiled as wide as I could to compensate, but I cried in the bath room and wished a little for my mother to be there, or Gravy at least, who had the day off. My distractions had earned me tips that to taled ten per cent of my sales. I hadnt wanted my mother in a long ti me, maybe because it was an impossible wish while we were separated by a twenty-four-hour drive. I met Peter in a class called History of the Ho locaust. He sat in front of me, and we both cried a little during a film that was black-and-white and jittery with age: skeletal men with painful-looking cheekbones. We studied together for the intense exams, flipping up index cards for one another in a Starbucks. Once, when it wa s raining after class, I let him drive me home and we fucked while the rain beat against th e apartment roof like machine gun bullets. Two weeks later my toothbrush took up residence in his bathroom, beside slivers of soap that resembled ivory slugs. I brought Franklin ove r, and he chased Peters roommates cat, Fluffernuts, around until she resided exclusivel y on countertops out of Franklins reach. That was two semesters of dating and sleeping together before I was late and later and too late to ignore it. I peed over a plastic stick in the bathroom at my own apartment, where I hadnt spent a single night in the four and a half months since I gr aduated at the lesser December ceremony. He still had two years to go. Who was that? Mindy asked later. Nobody. I retied my apron. It reached be low my knees. I rubbed at an orange spot with a terry cloth rag. It started to disappear.
116 *** I drove home from work with him on my mind, with the memory of his arms around me as we slept. Sweetheart. My mother greeted me when I walked into the k itchen through the back door. I have some bad news. Joseph next door found Franklin in the ar royo this afternoon. It looks like coyotes got him. Hes at the vet w ith some serious wounds. He might not make it. Shit. My eyes filled with tears. Id had Franklin sin ce he was small enough to fit into my cupped palms. I mean, I thought I let him in side this morning. I never fixed that fucking gate. I was too busy; I kept forgetting. Coyotes ? Thats insane. Whose dog gets attacked by coyotes? I sobbed against my mothers pale gr een scrubs, her day-off scrubs, the torn-up ones she wore around the house. They used to emba rrass me in front of my friends when I was a teenager. She wouldnt comb her hair or wear makeup, just scrubs and a scarf around her head. She smelled like disinfectant a nd the powder inside rubber gloves. Her hand created a rhythm against my right shoulder. Im sorry, Margaret. I cant I spoke in spurts, the words di vided by sobs, take care of a dog How am I going To take care of a child? Youll be fine, my mother said in a voice I had heard her use with patients, crying nephews, plants that hadnt been watered often enough. No, Im screwed I cant keep a relationshi p together I dont even have a real job Im only twenty-two Im not ready. Yes you are. Yes you are. Youre ready b ecause you have to be. Thats how we know were ready. I mean, welcome to motherland, ho ney. She pulled away from me and looked me
117 in the eyes. And for a second, the way her voice sounded when she said it made me think that maybe it would be all right. It was such an in tense feeling of reassurance that tears stopped flowing from my eyes as if someone tu rned the faucet counterclockwise. *** We buried Franklins ashes in orange packed di rt, in a tin Id used to store his treats. I cried the whole time and tried to blame it on hormones, though my mother stood beside me and told me it was okay to be upset over the death of a dog. Gravy insisted we hold a service. He patted down dirt with a sharp shovel. Tumbleweed drifted past us on the street, and I cried at the thought that Frank lin had recently discovered that he liked to chase tumbleweed. He was far from his home, but he was happy wherever he went. He will be sorely missed. He was a cute little son of a bitch, Gravy said, and I knew he wanted me to smile at his dog joke, but I couldnt. His s ilhouette blocked out the sun. His shadow smothered the mound beside my mothers house. Thanks, Gravy. I wiped my eyes. My brothe rs fingers were stained blue with pen ink. He patted my shoulder, and it stained my shirt with navy smudges. *** I had failed Franklin. I coul d not protect him from what was lurking in the string of moments between sundown and sunrise. I lay on my back in my mothers home on a bed shed bought beside a crib that had held someone elses baby once, and I stroked my belly. Motherland, I read, but it didnt matter what was printed daintily there on onionskin-thin pages, because I already knew what it meant. I had trudged into its definition when Id walked across the desert.
118 BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH I grew up in Hopkins, South Carolina with m y younger sister, Mariana. I attended the College of Charleston from 1999 to 2003 and gr aduated from the honors college with a bachelors degree in studio ar t and a minor in English. Afte r college I backpacked through Europe. Shortly after I returned to America I moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico where I waited tables and painted portraits. I moved to Gaines ville, Florida in August of 2006 after having been admitted to the MFA program at the University of Florida.