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Tumbleweed road :
b a novel
h [electronic resource] /
by Erin Trauth.
[Tampa, Fla] :
University of South Florida,
Title from PDF of title page.
Document formatted into pages; contains X pages.
Thesis (M.F.A.)--University of South Florida, 2010.
Includes bibliographical references.
Text (Electronic thesis) in PDF format.
Mode of access: World Wide Web.
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ABSTRACT: Tumbleweed Road is a novel that began as a short story in a fiction workshop many years ago. The novel is set in the contemporary American South and traces one tumultuous summer in the life of a 14-year-old girl named Carolina Wells. The plot of the story is as follows: Carolina, a 14-year-old girl from Crow, Florida, does not understand her mother and remembers little about her past. In the story, we meet Carolina, her mother, "Mama," and two brothers, Johnny and Austin. Carolina does not understand her mother and her wild nature. At home, Carolina is forced to care for her two younger brothers. Carolina's father is long gone out of the picture, and Carolina was always told by her mother that she has no father no one worth speaking of, anyway. Carolina can't remember why her father is gone, but remembers the fight that caused him to leave, and she blames her mother entirely for his leaving when she was just a toddler. Carolina questions her Mama about the disappearance of her father, but she refuses to even speak his name. Carolina desperately wants normalcy, family, and love through a series of life-changing events involving a range of characters, including a spiritual woman across Tumbleweed Road, a mysterious girl named West and an old friend named Cade, this novel is about Carolina's quest to find her place in this world.
Advisor: John Henry Fleming, Ph.D.
Young adult fiction
t USF Electronic Theses and Dissertations.
Tumbleweed Road: A Novel by Erin Trauth A thesis submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Fine Arts Department of English College of Arts and Sciences University of South Florida Major Professor: J ohn Henry Fleming, Ph.D. Ira Sukrungruang, M.F.A. Suzanne Strempek Shea B.A. Date of Approval: April 15, 2010 Keywords: fiction, southern fiction, adolescent fiction, family secrets, drama Copyright 2010, Erin Trauth
i Table of Contents Abstract ii Introduction 1 Chapter One 3 Chapter Two 7 Chapter Three 1 4 Chapter Four 26 Chapter Five 32 Chapter Six 44 Chapter Seven 69 Chapter Eight 82 Chapter Nine 87 Chapter Ten 93 Chapter Eleven 106 Chapter Twelve 116 Chapter Thirteen 121 Chapter Fourteen 141
ii Tumbleweed Road: A Novel Erin Trauth ABSTRACT Tumbleweed Road is a novel that began as a short story in a fiction workshop many years ago. The novel is set in the contemporary American South and traces one tumultuous summer in the life of a 14 year old girl named Carolina Wells. The plot of the story is as follows: Carolina, a 14 year old girl from Crow, Florida, does not understand her mother and remembers little about her past. In the story, w e me e t C a rolina h e r moth e r, M a a nd two b r oth e rs, J ohn n y a nd Austin. C a rolina do e s not und e r s ta n d h e r mother a nd h e r wild nature. At home, C a rolina is fo rce d to care for her two younger brothers fa th e r is long g o n e o ut of the p ictur e, and C a rolina w a s a l w a y s to l d b y h e r mother that s he h a s no f a the r n o one wo r t h sp ea ki n g o f a n y w a y C a rolina r e memb e r w h y her f a ther is gon e but r e memb e rs the f i g ht t h a t c a used him to le a v e a nd s h e blam e s h e r mother e nt i r e l y f o r his le a vi n g wh e n s h e w a s ju s t a todd l e r. C a rolina questions her M a ma a bout the disappearance of her father, but she refuses to even speak his name C a rolina d e sp e r a te l y w a nts norm a l c y fa m i l y and love through a series of life changing events involving a range of characters, including a spiritual woman across Tumblewee d Road, a mysterious girl named West quest to find her place in this world.
1 Introduction Tumbleweed Road is a partial novel manuscript in fulfillment of my M.F.A. d egree requirements at the University of South Florida. This novel manuscript began many years ago as a short story in an undergraduate creative writing elective course at the hapter One of Tumbleweed Road. Following the encouragement on my undergraduate revise the story through the many fiction workshops I took during my M.F.A. graduate s tudies at the University of South Florida. Through the constructive criticism of my many instructors and peers at USF, I have developed this story into a working draft of a novel that I hope to someday publish for mainstream readership. In writing the Tum bleweed Road manuscript, I hope to capture the essence of growing up as a poor female in the contemporary American South. In detailing the events budding sexuality, and w hat it means to be a friend and family member, I hope to reach out to young adults struggling with finding themselves in an ever increasingly confusing world especially the American South, where the role of the young female (in particular) is seemingly i n constant evolution. In learning the true past of her parents and of others in the small Florida town in which she resides, my narrator learns her place in the world. Tumbleweed Road, thus, is a
2 coming of age story about understanding the nature and mean ing of family and of love in this ever changing world. As a writer of fiction, I am also quite interested in examining the nature of the mother daughter relationship, and this novel serves as a consideration of the roles each respective family member plays In my time as an M.F.A. candidate at USF, I have learned the power of strict and feedback from my many professors has been instrumental in finding my voice as an author, and I am quite grateful for their assistance over the last three years. It should be noted that this is an incomplete draft and is only a reflection of about e, I plan to finish this novel manuscript and seek publication for a mainstream audience.
3 Chapter One loving ways. If you do show get on stage and then call you up there in a hot, Jesus loving minute, trying to get you to Sunday so that they can banish the devil cle ar from her soul, once and for all. ing to be the one girl in town without a real Daddy. The one girl with a Mama that stays out until all hours of the night howling at the moon when she should be home keeping to her children. I wo uld have planned it, had the big guy upstairs thought enough to ask me. I could have been one of the Adkins from Veranda, a family of dentists and future dentists, a perfect family of four with even more perfect veneered teeth. I could have been a Smith, w hich would of let me seep between the cracks of public school pestering, you know, let me endure the easy stuff just pokes in the ribs, snickers down the hallway instead of the all Instead, the God of Family
4 put me, Carolina Ann, in the belly of a Wells woman. the whole wild Mama running free through the night with everyone Daddy but my own thing it Crow without someone clear across town knowing it within a few minutes. Take crazy Miss Winnie had a real, live, hole in her throat, right in the center of her wrinkly neck, about the size of a sand dollar. Well, each and every time my brothers and me saw her at the store near the checkout counters, Miss Winnie liked to tell us on her voice box machine that she got the hole from something called emphysema that Mr. Louis had made her so crazy all the time when he was alive that But behind her back, we sometimes said that the hole in her throat was from all those single word of goss ip in her tiny withered body, no matter who it hurt to hear it. And though Miss Winnie lived at least three miles away from our house off Tumbleweed Road, she somehow could report on each and every guest that ran through our door, no matter how late in the Every time I went grocery shopping with Mama, Miss Winnie liked to tell me everything she knew, especially the store, acting like she was stocking the aisles, but really she was whispering things at
5 know just about everything I could about him. And even tho ugh she whispered mostly to me, I think she wanted my Mama to hear her. Soon as I was old enough to start asking questions, Miss Winnie started e, but your Mama was just asking for it. Your Daddy loved that was younger she my d because the way Mama wa s disappeared before I ever even got to know him. But I knew he was out there somewhere, just waiting for me to escape Crow for good and finally find him. ~~~ It was halfway through the summer right before I started high scho ol, the summer I turned 14, and we were sweating through one of the worst droughts Crow had ever seen. It seemed like everyone in town had been irritated with one another since the start of like there was no over town were so burnt up, and everyone seemed so cranky from the dry air and their dying plants and crops, the Lord even had me praying for th e rain to come falling down from the sky once and for all.
6 But before that rain finally came that summer, something happened, something about my life the summer that took all my truths, turned them upsid e down, and then sent them clanging down Tumbleweed Road every which way, right into the sticky Florida air.
7 Chapter Two It was mid July, the left over firecracke rs and bottle rockets from the F ourth long since go ne, all of them lit and shot into the dr y summer air for all to see, leaving me and my brothers with nothing to do again but swim the creek, hide from mosquitoes, and try not to sweat to death. Mama was about to have one of her friends come over for the night. e town and brought things home in a big, floppy brown box from somewhere she called box wedged tight between her arms. Sh bringing us presents before she had one of friends over for the night presence of that big old frayed and weathered box meant a little more than a helping hand. This time, the box had gross foods like canned green beans and candied yams and then some pencils for school in the fall, but it also had a few stuffed animals for Johnny and Austin, a couple Care Bears and hand me down Raggedy Ann dolls that Mama said much. Soon as she plopped the box down, Austin, the youngest of us three at five years old, scooped up as many of the to ys as he could and went running for his room. stupid a
8 I squinted my eyes at him, scrunched my lips so he knew I meant business. year olds are allowed to say a an a hole an a hole! an a h tailed it down the hallway. Mama hardly even noticed him, just sighed and shook her head. She reached into the box again and handed me a bottle of Pretty In Pink nail polish and a box of Junior Mints, but I could see right awa y that the polish was runny and the mints were melted. I smiled up at her, then went to the front porch to go paint my nails with the watery polish and suck the minty chocolate juice from the bottom of the Junior Mints box anyway. Mama went off to the kitchen to make me and Johnny and Austin cookies from a she always stopped by there, picked up cookie mix and some beeswax tea lights to fire up I said aloud to no one in particular looking in from the porch at our living room. A pink hibiscus print couch was decorated with two snowman pil whole life finally had it for good just a few weeks before. A tap ioca pudding yellow rug sat covered by a scrap purple mat, torn down the middle to reveal deep dirt stains, remnants of roach
9 poop and bits of white kitty litter that never seemed to get swept up all the way. Tiny tumbleweeds of thick black dog hair sat fo rmed in each corner of the room, at the foot of each couch and chair. A sole picture, some pink and blue sailboat scene under cracked TV screen stared blank at me, cak ed in a dust thicker than a fresh coat of pollen on tumbleweeds, dead for good from a cable bill long unpaid. The outside of the house, where I sat now, was even worse. The porch was rotting away, its wood moist and chomped away each day by bulging, hungr y termites. The vines might. Soft dirt splotched most of the front yard, and where grass did grow, it was long and dry, and really looked a whole lot more like wheat t han anything else. care more about what our house looked like or that every day we were being taken over more and more by fat, beady roaches. ays been amazed by them when I was really young, how they must have shacked up in the walls and cradled their half helmet bodies into the wood of the roof until night finally crept in. And then, as the giant moon appeared in the wide, clear, sky, the hundr eds, maybe thousands of them would come scuttling out for their nightly parade. They scurried up and down the dark walls in their blind little march, across the tiles of the kitchen floor, searching for the leftovers that sat sticking in the kitchen sink, stray crumbs in shelf corners, sticky remnants of beer and clumps of cigarette ashes left unclaimed.
10 The fact that Mama waited days on end to touch the dirty dishes or to put hes had a constant playground. Our kitchen and dining room was their fortress. I imagined sometimes that the king of the roach colony would send out messages to the other roach families in town And those little suckers multiplied like the world was about to end and came running through each night in search of something, anything, to get their tiny tentacles into. And with the heat and dryness of that summer swirling through the air, it seemed the roaches were only getting more frantic. After the cookies were out of the oven, Mama called a family meeting, calling for Johnny and Austin to follow her from the living room out to the porch with the wave of her rough, sundrenched hands, and we all sat on the porch with glasses of milk and crispy oatmeal raisin Dee Lites that usually made the whole night feel sweeter, and made us more comfortable in the sticky summer air. We sat and chewed them as quietly as we could Mama had this thing against chewing noises, mostly because of Great Grandma by choking on a cucumber slice a few years back. Since then, Even ice had to be whittled down; if she caught us start her yelling and screaming. Mama, with her wild parched hair swirling around her, sat and had her cookies Usually she had something w rong with her an aching back or a bout of violent skin rashes spread all over neck from the skeeters but on nights like these, nights before she
11 had a new friend over, Mama was nothing but a big old smile, staring out in to the distance like Crow was h er own little paradise, just waiting to be taken. full of food, smiling like he was sitting in the middle of Disney World and not stinky old Crow. The three of them seemed to like C row a whole lot. Mama had her men and her bars, and the boys had the woods, the creek, and each other. And for the tourists, Crow was a place they came from all over the world to put on their bathing suits, slather their bodies with fat globs of sunscreen, and soak up the rays of the sweltering Florida sun. On the far end of Crow was Veranda, land of stucco Florida mansions with red tops that made them look Spanish; people went there to golf and spend their gobs of vacation money on stuff like flamingo keyc hains and coconut coffee mugs Really, Veranda was just a nicer part of Crow, but it seemed like the people there liked to make sure we all knew they were in a separate place. Side gate Mobile Home Park was really nothing more than a big old dump with a few and police cruisers were constantly patrolling our streets, looking for the latest stolen bike by her man. In the front of Sidegate, the trailers were all right as far as trailers go fresh paint, cut yards. But the farther you went back, the worse they got
12 together, left only for the armadillos and squirrels to go scrounging. We lived right in the s actually more like a big old man made lake rather than a creek, but in Crow, they called that oceanfront property. But for me, Crow was the one place in the world I wanted to leave and never return to. N othing here in Crow for me but a crazy Mama and my two whiny little me there for just a while longer. thout me. "I met a real nice man at the Jiffy today, babies," Mama said, and suddenly, the cookie in my mouth turned sour. "Johnny, sugar, his name is Jasper. Kinda rhymes, doesn't it, baby?" No, Ma, not at all I nodded my head up and down anyway. it out. "He's gonna fix the air conditioning tomorrow is damn house all summer once I start school. He's gonna help us fix that right up." I stared at Mama, watching the way her long beige hair ran over her shoulders, be I k new then that hair is dead, but hers was much beyond that point, eight feet under, blanched, bleached and ripped at with a comb until it finally lost its natural shine. Her thick mane glowed with the eerie white tone of peroxide. Each strand ran in a ravag ed
13 ripple down her back and resembled a piece of ripped straw, the cuticle split and he ways to make us connect with this new man before we had to meet him. This, as usual, is when the urge to scream began. Bring home my own goddamn old underwear, my insides scr nothing, and it meant nothing to her that I was missing a Daddy in my life so much. It was this Jasper who she wanted now, I guess. "Carolina," Mama said, breaking my thought, her eyes meeting mine. "Jasper's got beautiful blue eyes just like you, baby. I expect you to treat him just as nice as you did Daryl Joe, okay?" She looked at me like she was reciting some rule from the Bible, as if to convey just how strongly she already felt about the man she met at the gas station that very day, that we should treat him just as well as we did the last one that had stayed around for a month or so, and then ran off just as quick as the sun sets. k a long, deep swing of her Bloody Mary, the glass sweating almost as much as we were. Without another word, she turned her gaze onto the darkening horizon, never looking back into my eyes again that night. I passed the rest of my cookies on to Johnny and Austin, who kept eating happily. My stomach churned, and I could feel the tingle of dread pull up and down, back and forth at my insides.
14 Chapter Three The next day, after swimming lessons, my strawberry hair feeling cleaner from the chlorine tha n it had in weeks, Mama picked the three of us up from the Y. she pulled our rusty Coupe Deville into the cracked drive that led to our house. From her purse, she handed me five crumpled dollars. I knew the drill. Nah, we out of her hair so she could get ready for Jasper, so we got to spend five whole dollars to Mama ran to her room to paint herself in reds and pinks, and I, five bucks in hand, loaded Johnny and Austin into a Radio Flyer that had just b Without looking back, I pulled them along the curvy red road that lead into town. that might get to see Cade for the first time this whole summer. Cade Collin s and I had met on the big stinky school bus that had rolled up on our first day of going to Peachtree Middle where the rich kids liv ed, but only three stops after mine at Tumbleweed Road since we lived right on the school district border line I was horrified.
15 A boy. Next to me. In jeans ripped at the knees and a faded Auburn Tigers hat, I thought he looked ready to play a game of ba seball, certainly not dressed for the first day of oh my Lord the little fish at this school now. I thought he looked a mess. or something He stuck his tiny pink tongue out at me and told me I looked like I was dress ed down dress (so what if I had only two to choose from). My chin length hair was pulled back with two plastic barrettes. Even at eleven years old then, I knew school behaving and getting good grades would be my way out of Crow forever, and I took it seriously, real seriously, thank you very much, I told him. Cade. From Alabama. Just mo marvelous friends. Truth is, yes, this was Crow I knew everyone, and everyone knew me. Except the only thing I was popular for was being that girl with the crazy Mama and being just as poor as a dog locked up in the shelter. Within days, Cade had made quick friends with the popular kids a t Peachtree, especially the girls, who all seemed to love the way his hair curled in tiny ringlets on his forehead, the way his big white smile could make you laugh, even in math class. So, I figured Cade would forget me, and quick, but even after he made friends with everyone else who would never even get caught talking to me at school, we got even closer. Every day on the 20 minute bus ride there and back, Cade and I talked and
16 laughed; though he was nice to them at school, he liked to tell me all about t he popular kids and their all out snootiness until his Daddy got a promotion to Florida, so he said he was like a secret spy for the Soon enough, Cade became my one true friend. Even when first day of the seventh grade with a big old chocolate stain down the front of my shirt had defended me when the girls said I had dirt stains all over me. Then, in eighth grade, when a roach from home went scuttling out from my backpack right in the middle of Pre Algebra, Cade was the one who crouched beneath my desk, slipped a piece of notebook paper around the roach, curled up the sides, and whispered class had even noticed. But Cade and I had only gotten so close these past few years. He was always trying to invite me out to parties or to come over to his house, but I could never go to the parties because I was watching my brothers eventually invite him to mine. And then there were summers. Every year, Cade went away on fancy summer vacations to the Florida Keys with his family, so I never got to see him unless I caught him when Austin broke my thoughts then; peered up at me from the little rusted wagon with a gaze that I ju year
17 I kicked the rocks in front of me and squinted my eyes tight from the beaming things like that, about the men that had passed through. Like me Johnny and Austin guys Mama had around sometimes. t we always did, three Screwballs and a pint of Cherry Madness to take home to Mama. His grandpa, Old Man Collins, sitting stooped over the front counter of his store, gave us a knowing wink like we were kids without a care in the world, just sitting, enjo ying some ice cream. The poor man, kind of falling apart in his 85 or so years of age, knew about as much as a blind skunk stuck in behind his eyes. My stomach twisted a bit. Cade had asked about me? To his own grandpa? I smiled at Old Man Collins, and then I scooted my brothers out of the front door. We sat on the rounded wooden fence and licked up our Screwballs, racing the heat before it could melt it all, getting my brothers giddy like it always did.
18 Austin pinched Johnny w cup, and I hollered that I was telling Mama when we got home. I always said it as if when I told her, she would actually do something about it. ~~~ We made it back home just before the sun went down, an d Jasper, the new friend, was already there. His rusty old Cadillac, a real piece of work, was backed up into the Mama were sitting on the front porch sharing a Marlboro Li ght, a cloud of smoke billowing between their bodies. milk carton or something. I notic ed she had the dress on, the one she bought from K Mart Austin had pointed out to her right in the middle of the store a few days before. She also had on the lipstick so mething she called Jupiter Storm Red. The lipstick looked kind of harsh against her reddened skin, but she always wore it when we had our guests, and it always seemed to do the trick. Jasper had blue eyes, all right big, watery blue eyes with ugly red c racks running like lightning bolts through them. One of his eyebrows was shorter than the other. His skin was a faded leather color that reminded me of a horse saddle, caked with watermelon sized gut poked out from between a blue checkered flannel and acid washed jeans, which
19 to clean up real well. in me over. He put his greasy hand on mine, leaned toward me close, too close. He smelled like truck tires and mosquito spray. I held my breath. back from our little embrace, and gave me a smile that revealed a mouthful of buttered teeth, a dingy yellow br own that reminded me of popcorn kernels. he just went and won the whole third grade spelling bee Johnny smiled, his mouth caked in dried ice cream the whiteness forming a halo around his tiny mouth Ja sper crouched down and tickled both my brothers, poking at their stomachs with a wrinkled index finger as they giggled. He looked satisfied as a stuffed swine, like he
20 had already won them over because he made them squeal, and I suddenly felt a tight ball forming in the pit of my stomach. Take deep breaths, I reminded myself, but then my breathing came quicker instead. I suddenly remembered the pint of ice cream for Mama that was melting in the container beside me on the ground. I walked inside to put Mama guest there. The first thing I noticed when I walked inside the house was how incredibly hot it still was. Actually, I swore that it was hotter th an it had ever been that whole summer. I walked into the kitchen and pulled a stool up under the air conditioning vent. I held my cold air blowing from the vent instea d of sitting still and dead like it had all summer. I waved my hand in front of its grates. Of course, there was not a single puff of cold air blowing from the vent. I looked out the kitchen window. Not even a sign of tools near the indoor unit we had bou ght last summer. So much for the air conditioner I thought. I went back outside to get my brothers, and brought them in my room for a game of Yahtzee. As Johnny and Austin wrestled for control of the dice over and over again, I looked past them, wondering why I was even still there at all. ~~~ At a little past nine, Mama came in to put Johnny and Austin to sleep in the futon they shared in their tiny little room at the corner of our house.
21 yes in a way that sat on the porch, working on their twelfth or so shared cigarette. I watched them through the screen window as hot water poured over our old, blue chipped plates. "Oh Jasss seen women m ake for men on TV w hen they were about to climb in to a bed together. "The last one, Daryl Joe, was just such a monster. He didn't do nothing right, just a bastards." Her eyes misted over and her voice got thicker, like the hot air swirling usually did, and I wondered then if she ever hurt for him deep down in the floor of her hear t, if she ever looked at these guys and missed her first love, if she felt a burn for him. The other half of me, the one that knows my Mama, said that it was just her always wanting something different; nobody was ever good enough or could keep her intere then, as she leaned into Jasper a little closer, letting little smoke rings she had made billow from the corners of her mouth on to his chest. "I'm so glad you're different, sugar. I watched the jerk nod like he thought so, too.
22 re all I care about, Jassss per, really. Aren't they just dolls?" I wanted to pop out for a minute, ask her when and where that raising thing was about to start on her end, but then Mama went in for the kill, the clincher she seemed to think really reeled 'em in. "I start classes at Jillian's House of Cosmetology tomorrow, and I'm just so excited, you know. I really wanna make somethin' of myself. And this could be a real good thing for me, Jasper...my babies here, my new career...me and you." Jasper swatte d at a mosquito just long enough to take his eyes away from my mother's cleavage, moist and beaded with sweat. He grinned at her, and I shuddered, dropping the dish sponge into the water beneath me. "Welp, your new life is startin' tonight, sweet thing." Jasper smiled back with a satisfied grin, knowing exactly what he'd be getting from this little speech of hers. And then I made the dishwater scalding hot, as hot as I could take it. I let it pour all over my fingers until I couldn't feel them anym ore. ~~~ An hour or so later, when she finally got to remembering I was still up, Mama made this huge production of putting me to sleep in front of Jasper. "Oh, my best girl and me, we always talk bunches before bedtime." I wondered when that had started happening and where I had been when it did, but didn't say a word. In my bed, I contemplated this idea of her and me actually talking more as I fell anything out of her, really, about my Daddy, where he went, her reasons, her regrets from her before, but every conversation ended with her swatting me away, like I was a mosquito trying to bite her cheeks. After
23 trying hard to ignore the sound of beer cans clinking open in the kitchen for an hour or tw o, I finally fell into dreams. ~~~ I was in the middle of an intense dream, something involving a tall and hot looking cowboy, when I heard it. It was first the whimper of the cowboy's horse, until I realized my eyes were wide open and I was no longer d reaming. The sound, that sound, only slightly muffled, was what I always heard on the nights when Mama brought home a new friend grunting from her bedroom, right next to mine. Every single time this happened, I thought the same thing. Does she not know I could hear everything through our paper thin wall? I prayed, as I did each time, that Johnny and Austin wouldn't wake up. They were starting to ask me everything, and I could be sure they'd ask me about those noises if they ever woke up and heard them l ike I did. I rolled over to cover my head with my pillow, and in the process, knocked over the glass of ice water sitting on my nightstand. Freezing water streamed on to my comforter, down through to my night shirt and sweating skin, and I cursed the wate r aloud. Then, I cursed my bed, I cursed the house, and I cursed my mother in the room next to mine. I crawled out of bed, wide awake now, and I shuffled down the dark, crooked hallway to our kitchen. I turned on the kitchen light, and the scene that unfo lded was all too familiar. The clock overhead read 4:28 a.m. What looked like hundreds of those beady cockroaches seemed to laugh at me as they scurried to the corners of the room from their previous posts on crud stuck pots, running over the tops of empti ed beer cans.
24 They loved summer nights like these, and they really seemed to love that I hated them living in our house. At least twenty Milwaukee's Best cans littered the kitchen table and two green ashtrays were almost hidden by mountains of white and g ray speckled ash. Mama's "Daddy Long Leg" dress was draped over a chair and Jasper's pit stained T shirt lay on the ugly linoleum floor. The pale moon's light from the kitchen window cast shadows I usually thought were beautiful, but not on nights like thi s. Nothing was beautiful about these nights. I reached for a towel in the pantry to clean up the spill in my room, when I heard the creek of my mother's bedroom door, and I heard her stumble down the hall toward me. "Baby, what are you doin' up, huh?" sh e asked innocently; as if it weren't her that woke me up in the first place. Her breath was sweet with liquor on my face, her eyes red, her twisted hair streaming wildly down a red man's flannel shirt that hardly covered her body. "Go on and go to him to fix up the air?" Her eyes glazed over and lost focus from mine, both of us knowing even t ouched the air conditioner once in his time here. "Go on now and get in bed, Carolina," Mama repeated, and her big eyes looked tiny all of a sudden. All I did was nod my head, it's all I ever could do. I turned dow n the hallway without a word, but I wanted so badly to turn around and kick her. I wanted to
25 shake her and ask her if it had ever occurred to her how very screwed up this all really had become. I wanted to question her, to ask her why she kept me up every other night and ask her why she couldn't be like every one else's mother. I wanted to scream. Jasper didn't fix a damn thing tonight, Mama. None of them ever have fixed this And they never will, either Instead, knowing there would be no point in tellin g her this once more, I went back to my bed, and listened to my mother softly cry herself to sleep in the room beside me, trying hard, as I always did, to remember why she got rid of my Daddy my kind, sweet Daddy in the first place if she missed having away in the first place like she did all these other men, if the truth was that she him? Over time her crying, like she never had had a chance in the world for love. just like when fallen baby Yellowhammers know to flock rig ht back to the nest where they belong to come flying straight back my direction before I even really started searching.
26 Chapter Four red potatoes and oatmeal. We ate a who le lot of foods like that Mama said that the money to go around for groceries. Sometimes, between her paychecks, like now, all we had left in the house was a jar of He engine and my skin sweating made me angry. dealing with it that day. er hair class, I think. She starts quit working here to take, and she had that greasy man over last night? And w hat time did I looked at that big old hole in her throat and imagined plugging it with one of the potatoes in my hand, shutting her up forever.
27 eal aisle. The sound of Miss Winnie mumbling about my Mama through her voice box machine sounded like crickets buzzing after me, and I imagined them crawling and poking at my legs as I walked through the store. As I left, I stomped on every single one of t ~~~ across the street down Tumbleweed Road. Miss Zell had lived across Tumbleweed Road for as long as I could remember. It was just a few long steps from our drive to hers less if When I was a little girl, I used to think she had once been a movie star in another country. She had a stream of white, flowing hair that once; most of the time, she kept it curled into a tiny puffed ball at the e heart st got good old Miss Zell was always dressed in bright colored pants suits like she had somewhere important t o be. Sometimes, I watched her from my window, out picking grapefruit from her tree in the backyard with heels on. But I never once saw her shiny red Cadillac leave the driveway to her tiny white house.
28 oss the ocean, maybe in Italy or Australia or somewhere exotic, far away from this town, and had been so beloved by her fans that she had had to run away, escape to the hole of a town Crow was. That was had anyone come to visit her in her home she wanted it that way, just had to keep a low profile and all being as world famous as she was. She had a strong, quiet way about her that seemed opposite from Mama, like er life, too, but had still come out warm and peaceful on the other end instead of so wild like Mama. I never saw Mama talk to Miss Zell much, they seemed to have always had this arrangement that I would go to help Miss Zell, just as soon as I was old enou gh. lukewarm Hi C fruit punch, and kept it coming the whole time I hung clothes on the rusty poles along her back porch, weeded her garden, or clipped at coupons for milk and toilet picked up and volunteered to help instead of her asking my mother to send us over. own quickly to love her. And besides, she paid me $5 a day. Now, with my angry feelings brimming up like storm water on the creek, just calm me down, like she was sp eaking words God had sent down just for me. Miss Zell was like my one connection to the good Lord himself, since she spent most every
29 morning at First Baptist Church of Coquina and all, praying and singing and all that church So, while pulling down clothes from her clothesline outside, I asked her about my feelings of rage. h go ahue always says that all of our lives, no matter how way someday. You gotta close your eyes and let the river take your life the right way. Just as soon as you start trying to
30 The thing is, the joy in my li watching over me. I wanted to tell her that if someone was really looking out for me, Carolina Ann, they would have put me i n the belly of another woman someone other than my mama They would have put me somewhere, anywhere but Crow, where I could actually survive. She was silent a while, and folded two shirts before she said anything else. e strike My eyes rolled back. More of this stuff from Pastor Donohue. More of this stuff patio table and walked into the house.
31 A few minutes later, she came back carrying a small wooden box. The box held a flat, turquoise rock in the center had scratches all over its dark mahogany grain. I could tell from the careful way Miss Zell held the box her two frail hands gripped firml y in the center that this box meant something real and something important to her. She sat back down and opened the box in her lap. I wanted so badly to peer inside, to see the secrets it held about Miss Zell and her lives, but I kept my neck straight an d waited. Miss Zell mumbled to herself as she rummaged, and every so often, a small smile formed at the corners of her lips. cupped the necklace in her hand tight, as if saying g oodbye, and placed it in to my lap. You take this home, honey. For your bi rthday. She handed it to me. I stared at the tiny detail etched in to the plated gold a could be a person. faced man would get me my Daddy back. If he was anything like this Lord guy, he wa s just gonna sit in my pocket and ignore me, even if I was downright screaming his name for help. But at this point, gasping for air in the middle of this parched old summer, just about anything was worth trying.
32 Chapter Five t to our house, the summer days started chugging along like they always did, the smell of sweat and cigarette smoke churning together in thick circles in our house, the sound of bullfrogs and crickets screaming us to sleep every night. Every day that summe r, me and Johnny and Austin swam at the same YMCA downtown, and I did the same weed picking and clothes hanging for old Miss Zell next door. And every night, Johnny and I sat on the porch and watched the same flock of screeching Yellowhammers fly over the ditch in our backyard at sunset. That summer, for some reason, I started dreaming the same dream every night. I dreamed those Yellowhammers just one day picked up and flew far, far away, never coming back to Florida, never coming back near our creaky house again. One of them cawed down to me as he flew that he knew where my Daddy was. He sang that he could take me away from this place and bring me to a better life, somewhere amazing, where my Daddy would take care of me and where I was always supposed to be But in my dream, my legs were thicker than oak tree trunks, wider than the creek, even thicker than the sea. My legs not just yet. So, n house and on my way to Jackson High School, one more step closer to getting out of here to go find my family.
33 It was by chance, a little splash of luck, that I was even able to go to Jackson. Our house, by the grace of God, was just on the border of the Crow and Veranda school districts. And when I say just on the border, I mean the faded red dirt line that separated the two school districts literally ran straight through our back yard. All the kids to the left some remorseful chances of survival, if you ask ed me. It seemed like if you were a boy and went to Meridian, then you took up auto shop in the ninth grade, and then you became a mechanic after three years or so. If you were a girl and went to Meridian, you ended up pregnant by your sophomore year. And then you married one of the mechanics. That's just the way it was. I had nothing against babies or mechanics, but something told me there was more to life that I had to see before settling down in Crow with a man with perpetually dirty fingernails. If yo u went to school at Jackson in Veranda, on the other hand, you had "a world of opportunity," as the pamphlets exclaimed in big, bubbly cursive letters. Jackson had a real football team, the kind that makes it to state every year and has real cheerleaders a nd fans in blue t shirts carrying signs at every game. The school was one huge, brick building, built in 1901 and tinted to a pale shade of brown by the harsh Florida summer sun. Flowy, gray Spanish moss trees lined the brimstone walkways. There were brigh t Magnolia bushes planted all along the sidewalks, and the school was one of those historical places that people on the History Channel always mentioned when they talked about Florida. And, best of all, Jackson High School was where Cade would be going to school in the fall.
34 I knew that it was the place for me, and I told Mama so starting the day I had started eighth grade. "Mama, next year, I have to go to Jackson," I said that day, after Howie Kingston, a 12 year old future Meridian mechanic, teased me on the bus ride home, said he was "And why's that, baby?" Mama asked, hardly looking up from her National Enquirer, her attention focused on a picture of Will Smith's l atest girlfriend. Mama "No, Mama, it is. But Howie Kingston pinched me for no reason on the bus and said I have fat on my belly like I go to Meridian or something. And I j ust don't want to have a baby next year, Mama." plate rich to drive your kid all the way up there to Jackson every day." She snorted, nostrils flaring. "And just because you go to Meridian doesn't mean you're going to get knocked up." I wasn't having this. There was no way I was changing diapers next year, and no way I was going to the school that made her in to the selfish old person she was. "Oh, yes it does Mama. Shannon Fitzpatrick, y ou know, down Tumbleweed road she was so nice last year. She never even hung around boys, Mama. And then she went to Meridian ." I leaned into the billowing cigarette smoke forming a halo around Mama's head for dramatic effect, trying to get her waverin with twins a year later. And Mama, I asked them
35 "Carolina, get out of my face, Mama said, shooing me away with yellowed nails. ow quit botherin' me." about it. She flipped her hair at me to say the conversation was over. I stared. Whenever she flipped her hair at me, like that, I wondered if that was part of what had when she was younger, I remembered from that picture, and I often imagined her s with her streaming, whitish blond strands, getting lost in their gleam, falling headfirst, eyes wide, nose hair, his life unfolding wide before him and before her. I imagine him lovi ng her so was mis sing a Daddy in my life. These things, it seemed, were long gone from her heart.
36 grades, stay out of trouble a lib ~~~ So, now, with school looming in the hot air just a few weeks away, I just had to s was out of this place forever. most favorite holidays of them all. Christmas and Thank was just an excuse for us kids to get filled with sugar and bounce off the walls all night So birthdays were her thing. She would announce mine every year in the Brevard County Newsletter, inviting each and every neighbor in an e ight mile radius, stretching from the rickety old shacks on the edge of Chutney's Creek by our house to the rolling hills of mansions full of rich folks near the high school in Veranda. This birthday, for my fourteenth, she told me to go ahead and invite m y friends to the party, too. "Carolina, baby, you invite all your little friends from school, and I promise I'll pledge for a full blown party sounding even less c onvincing than in past years. I told her
37 came from. By my birthday, Jasper was staying over with us a lot, practically living with us in our tiny, russet stained home just off the creek. I still hated him more than I hate seeing dead animals lying wide eyed on the side of the highway, but he didn't say too much, so he was tolerable f soon as we got used to him being around. I was getting really good at ignoring the dim witted, over exhaustive breathing throat. And apparently, on the side of his air conditioning business, Jasper had big dreams decorative toilet seat covers, so he spent a whole lot of time in our garage, gluing little white shells and seahorse cut outs to Plus, Jasper was getting good at silencing Mama when he did gross things to her multiple times every night in the room next door to min e, which was a better effort than any other male guest we'd had in the two years or so. Every night, instead of the previous reckless abandon and throat curdling your girl's gonna hear us again," echoing from her room to mine through the paper thin walls. I was so very impressed by his
38 courteousness. And so very grossed out he thought to mention me, consider my thoughts, as he pinned Mama to her bed once more. Mr Considerate had been better at winning over my brothers, too. He fixed up Austin's bike so he could ride it to kindergarten, even hooking it up with those colored clev er move on Jasper's part bait the baby and the others will soon follow. Johnny let Jasper take him fishing for bass near the creek, and Mama told Johnny when she started making some money from the hair salon, she'd get it stuffed up real nice for him so he could hang it on the living room wall. He was just as happy as a dog rolling around in a pile of dead meat. But then again, for as happy as he seemed to be making everyone but me, Jasper had some problems, too. Every so often, like when he lifted gro faced and panting, he would grip at his chest like he was at his shirt and twisting it into a circle between his fin him what the problem was, but Mama told me after one of his episodes one day that his little boy. And sometimes, as Jasper gripp into his eyes and secretly hope his heart would just stop then and there maybe not long enough to kill him, but heart specialist in Orlando and never come back our way again. Something told me God
39 would not be proud of this thinking, but no matter how hard I tried, it rose up more and more each time h It was hard not to want to bust out screaming, though, when Mama all of a sudden accelerated program at Jillia n's House of Cosmetology and was already! about to graduate with her degree in what she called "hair cut and curl the hair of little doll heads attached to a hair dressing chair, and now she my h Florida sunshine. I told her she could do it just as soon as she stopped going out every night, and make my hair pretty for my birthday in my own way, by my own doing, thankyouverymuch cut clear around it. I looked like a shaggy haired boy in all my pictures for years. Then, as it grew out, it only got worse as my hair grew longer and Mama stopped paying attention more and more, its mess of dark beige ish knots and ever early morning games of Man Hunt to afternoons splashing in the community pool to bed
40 at night and back again, weeks on end withou t myself, or anyone else, taking a comb to head, and feel the zoo of inch hung from my scalp, and when school at school. I wanted it to reach down below my bumps for bre asts so that if I were ever soon) I could let the hair stream down over my nipples and sway for him, all sexy and free, not caring if my hair covered my bare breasts or no t, like those women did in those Playboys Johnny and Austin hid beneath their mattresses sometimes. So, the day before my birthday, instead of letting Mama touch my hair, I snuck lit tree, hair until it was wet and sticky and smelled like a giant lemon meringue pie. I laid in the sun, right by the West Gate community pool, for hours and hours and hou rs on end. My dreams by the pool involved me, looking tanned and sun streaked and perfectly put together like the other girls at school, ready to win over any boy I wanted to, maybe even Cade. When I looked in the mirror a few hours later, though, my ha ir was a light shade of tangerine, the orange color of sunrise at the beach. And even worse than that, my skin was burnt to a bright shade of purplish red bruises, the kind I got on my knees when I fell from my bicycle or from a tree.
41 get my hair that whitish blonde color the girls at school bought at salons and did on each other from boxes, I had to take other measures. House bleach was the same as hair bleach, I figured, so I stole the jug from the laundry room and then dipped my hai r straight into it, watched it boil all the gold color from my hair right up. I looked in the mirror. My hair was now all crazy shades of orange and white, so nests all over. Not beautiful. Not sexy. Certainly not naked girl with swaying hair her know that. When Mama got home, she was angrier than all hell. ok like I noticed Jasper's beady eyes pounce on me from the TV room. My stomach churned, and I quickly cursed him under my breath, suddenly hating the new chemical addition to my hair, suddenly hating myself for having tried to do anything at all to it in the first place. work. She started ripping through the nests in my hair, snarling it every which way and pulling at my scalp.
42 So she said. I ran to the bathroom and locked the door behind me. After Mama quit banging on the door ten minutes later for me to open it and let her in, I spent an hour massaging runny gobs of lilac White Rain shampoo on to my scalp and scrubbed and scrubbed under each layer of my hair, gripping it all halfway down from the roots to keep it all from ripping and pulling at my scalp. I combed through each knot that had been left to knot and grow for God knows how long since my last haircut, and I soon felt the tug of sleep sitting on my eyelids, and I gave up on my hair for the time being to go lie down. Laying in bed, listening to the lull of the love bugs swarm outside my window, combing through my hair the smell of flowers, I thought of the times Mama had had me bru sit, cross legged, watching television before bed an old, wire bristled round brush with a bright pink plastic handle hand, and I could feel just how dewy her skin was. I became mesmerized b y the river of imagine that I could just borrow it all for one day, just pop off all her hair and place it on my own head like a wig. When I started to fall asleep, M
43 my hand sometimes falling on to the couch, and until she was just about asleep, too. But that was a million years ago, I thought, and I fel l to dreams on my last night as a thirteen year old.
44 Chapter S ix I woke up the morning of my birthday to my Mama's singing. the kitchen, working on my token birthday app le pie. Mama was funny like that with her singing; she had a real nice voice, almost like a canary's, but she only sang those days when she was cooking or when she seemed really happy, which seemed like hardly ever. "Laaa leeee da da da," she continued. I checked my boobs in my full length mirror to see if they had grown with my new age; checked my butt for any added curves. To my disappointment, though, I saw nothing spectacular, just the same old me with a whole lotta new colors streaked through my hair. I stuck my tongue out at my reflection and walked out to the kitchen. Mama pinched my butt, sending chills down my unusually achy spine. "Look at my oldest girl!" she proclaimed, her parched blonde hair flailing around her head in a wild halo as she danc ed about. "My only girl! Fourteen! I can't believe it!" Her eyes looked abnormally red for ten in the morning, and she seemed a bit too cheery for having just yelled at me about my hair the day before, but I shrugged it off and glanced past her to the litt le pink box perched on the kitchen table. I was relieved to see that Jasper was already gone for work. Mama followed my gaze to the box on the table. "Open it, honey," she said, her eyes glimmering with crystal blues. "It's the best one yet."
45 Johnny and Fruit Loops and Cocoa Puffs boxes, wanting me to open it, too. "Mama let me help pick it out, Carolina! Open!" Austin exclaimed, pointing at the box as if its contents included a real li ve African lion, just raring to rumble out on to the kitchen table. "Open it now!" he shrieked. I smiled and tore through the shiny crimson paper, tossing it aside. I opened the box, and found something I had discovered in various colored boxes every sing le year for thirteen years before that day: my birthday dress. My little tradition. This one was in fact a beauty, and I could tell from the tag that it was from Betty's Sweetheart Consignments, me and Mama's favorite store. The white cotton dress was sho rter tha n I had gotten in past years, and it scooped daringly in the front. A delicate lace layer covered the crocheted top and flowed in fragile swirls to the edge of the material. "Mama, it's beautiful," I gasped, really meaning it. I was astounded with my first grown up looking piece of clothing. It was so beautiful, so white, that I wanted to save it for my wedding day. Mama, however, had other, more immediate plans for it. "You're gonna have all the boys droolin' in that little number, sugar. Just you wait and see." ~~~ Just like every other recent birthday, it was me, Mama, Johnny, Austin, and whichever man was around at the time, this year the lucky one being Jasper, who, with the putrid smell of Freon announcing his entrance, rolled up in his air con ditioning truck just minutes before my birthday breakfast.
46 she saw me scowl openly at Jasper's entrance. "Thank you, sir. Thank you so much for making it." I smiled, wanting wi th every inch of my being to slap him straight into the next year. There was no mention made of the friends that never showed up (I never invited them) and no appearance of a birthday horse to ride (Mama never ordered one). Instead, the five of us sat aro Convenience and Mama's apple pie for breakfast. Johnny and Austin had gone in to buy unwrapped them At Mama's request, I tried on my new dress. It fit perfectly, the bright lace accentuating my summer tan and the stretchy cotton bringing into light rather grown up curves I was delighted to see. I felt sexy, and I wanted to wear it forever. I kept it on even when we went outside after breakfast, promising to be careful with it on. We spent the rest of the light hours in the yard, Jasper, Johnny, Austin and I playing numerous games of kickball, Florida's summer sun beaming down on the top of our heads Whenever I ran, I held the corners of the dress to my sides, and I made sure not to make any slides into bases. Jasper played pinch hitter, slipping and falling on his big stupid knees at least ing from his mouth into the cans for us to slide in to at home plate. Each time I slid into them, I imagined the cans flying up, hitting Jasper right between his big red eyes.
47 Mama sat with her bottomless Bloody Mary on the front porch, her feet soaking in a shallow blue kiddy pool she had bought with one of her first tips from fixing hair, screaming out at me all day not to rip my dress as I ran the makeshift bases over and o ver again. As I rounded the bases for the hundredth or so time, I wished for most of the day that I did have some friends I could invite over, that I could have a real birthday party like the girls at school each year. Then, I wished for my father, wonder ing if he was out there somewhere thinking of me on my special day, if he even remembered it was my birthday at all. Dusk crept in finally, the mosquitoes starting their battle against our skin, and we went inside to hide from them. Mama put the boys righ t in to bed, not bothering to peel them from their dusty clothes. Tiny red splotches that looked a lot like rounded ring shared. "You always gonna let them go to bed all nasty like that?" he grumbled, apparently a little drunk and maybe more than a little pissed off that I had beat him in home runs. I wondered since when he had the right to talk about parenting, but then again, it was about that time that Mama started let ting him take over. smoothness on my skin. I glanced out to the back yard from the window, deciding that this would be a good time to get on out of the house. I was going to cree p out for a little time alone. I needed a moment, a moment to just be alone, to just be free and to wear my
48 dress a few minutes longer. From around my neck, I swore I heard Saint Anthony So, I popped my head out onto the front porch where Ma ma was babbling off something to Jasper and told her I was going for a quick walk in the back by the creek. "Mhmmm, baby, whatever you want, birthday girl," she replied, her eyes intoxicatingly glued on Dipety Doo Jasper. I scurried off into the back, out of the screen door and into the woods before she could change her mind. I pulled my new white dress high, over my knees, as I ran from the house just as fast I could. ~~~ With Mama and Jasper out of my hair for one Godforsaken second, I felt free. I looke d like a woman in my dress, and I damn well was one now, as far as I was concerned. And so I went, pacing the woods behind our house, not sure if I was looking for anything at all in particular, but raring to get away from the house for a while. The bullf rogs usual screaming was dulled to a soft lull along the water, and I looked up at the moss hanging from the trees above me, trying to think of how many most of the tim e by myself, often pretending I owned it all, that I was the Queen of the way out of Sid egate, where the woods kept on going for miles and miles until you hit Veranda, where the construction companies were working to tear down more trees to make stucco houses that all looked like cookie cutter versions of each other.
49 I thought of Cade for a seen him our very last day at Peachtree Middle during the Last Day Celebration and I remembered the weird, but that last hug had sent something shooting through me like my insides were on fire. All the other friend, the one guy I could trust not to make fun of me from where I came from. But after very fifteen minutes afterward. Thinking about it now, even without Cade there, I suddenly felt the tingling again, and strong. Without even thinking, I crouched to my knees on t he soft dirt ground, forgetting momentarily about the white dress that cascaded around my legs to the ground. But then I thought about my Mama, probably doing awful things with Jasper at that very instant, and I suddenly didn't care about the stupid dress anymore. I lay then completely on the ground, and I closed my eyes tight. I crumbled the soft dirt in between my fingers, slowly, carefully, like I was introducing myself to it for the very first time. It felt so smooth in my palm, and I imagined for a mo ment that it was white sand from some exotic beach, somewhere far off the coast. Somewhere I could start my life brand new, where no one would know me but me. I closed my eyes tight, and in my mind, a boy appeared, his face a blur but still familiar. I sl id my right hand under my now dirty dress, and then I saw him very clearly.
50 his eyes, his skin, his hair, his voice. The closer I honed in on his facial features, the more I realized he looked a whole lot like Cade. In my mind, he wore a dark hat that he took off in my bloomed woman's presence that is. I imagined him there with me, lying on the soft earth's floor. He complimented my dress, and his sweet voice beckoned me like it always did. He asked me to leave with him, to leave Florida forever to live by I felt my hand become his beneath me, and he felt me slowly and deeply, over and over and over again until I f elt my toes curl and my lips purse tightly together. Then, I fell back into myself, feeling my back arch slightly as a familiar sensation tingled from my ears to my toes and back up again, shaking me. I stretched then on the ground, keeping my eyes closed tight, letting the bubbling realized a girl, my age, was walking toward me, just a few yards away. I shot up quick, feeling guilty suddenly, feeling as dirty as the d ress that was now covered with soil. I frantically tried to scrub away the mud, but I knew it was too late. I As she got closer, I could see that her wide brown eyes were looking out onto the searching, or maybe listening for something. Whatever it was, she had gone somewhere wiping the dirt from my dress.
51 As she walked closer, I looked the girl over. She wore an oversized, grass green legs. One arm of the shirt was rolled up to her elbo w; the other sleeve was unrolled and had white speckles all over that looked like bleach. Her feet were bare. A river of shiny beige hair flowed down into spiraling curls around her shoulders, and though I would later find out that her hair was hardly ever brushed, it appeared as though it had been worked for hours into a streaming crown of wavy, woven silk. The girl's skin, bronzed really alive. She looked like a littl e bit of every movie star, every model I had ever seen, pretty much everything I had always wanted to be like combined. She was a big difference to the mess I looked at in the mirror every day, with my eternally frizzing mop of dark strawberry blonde curls and dull, pale, often pimpled skin. The girl stopped walking, and she stood just before me, taking in my muddy white dress. She looked at my dress again, and I knew I needed to change the subject, and quick. "What's your name?" I asked. West ?"
52 "Like, West West? The Wild West? The direction?" finger in the direction of my tiny, brown, beat it behind the mass of trees surrounding us. like she had just gone right there on I watched silently as her broad chocolate eyes took me in. Somewhere close, suddenly, a bird called out, loud and long, like it was desperately looking for something. West glanced toward me, her meditation broken. "Did you hear that?" she asked, li ying to figure out where she is, urning asked. off
53 ma. And much more crazy around there. I changed the subj the sun. the slowest, hottest summer Crow had ever seen, the kind of summer that made me want to get back to school just as quick as I could, and it was either go home to play another round of Uno with my baby brothers in our sweltering sauna of a house and wait for Mama to come stumbling in at some point, or spend a while looking for a sad baby bird with the beautiful future bird keeper. The bird cawed again, this time longer and even more sad so unding. And for a moment, I swore I thought I heard her call my name somewhere in her sad, billowing OOOOcoo OH ooo OOOOOO had started to buzz in circles near my ears, but I w picked right up and followed West out to the woods.
54 the sad baby bird until the boiling tangerine sun began to dip deep down below the trees. The Did you know that mourning tailed Godwit can fly non stop for 6,300 miles! Red footed boobies lay blue eggs Really, I wanted to know where she had come from. How old she was. Why they had moved here. How long they were staying. Her favorite color. Her favorite s ong. Her and talked and talked, like she had been stuck in a cave for a million years with a book of bird facts and nothing else, and now here she was, just ready to unload it all on me. We walked what seemed like a hundred miles, just circling the woods and looking up at every little tree branch for the nest as she spilled out all her bird knowledge out to me. She told me that despite what people usually think, it nest as soon as they possibly can. Even though people think of as being a to get them know just where to find the m. I nodded, amazed at how much I had in common with the little birds. Finally, West asked me what I thought about birds, if I knew anything exciting or interesting about the birds in Crow. d been about her and how strange she was, really. So, I was honest
55 West turned and stared at me. I though t. But then, she threw her neck back like a crane might and howled hysterically. Maybe, just maybe, I thought, we could be real friends. ~~~ Just after the tangerine sunset beneath the edge of the farthest trees I could see, after no luck of finding the dove, West said something about Maybelline and having to eat dinner, which left me wondering why she needed to put on makeup just for suppertime, but then again, this girl was just not right, from what I could tell so far. She asked if I wanted to meet tom orrow, same time, same place, to look for the baby bird again, and I said I would. She flashed me the teeth and skipped away in the direction of the little white house, humming the beat of some disco song as she trotted off. I looked around me, and realiz ed I could hardly see a thing. It was almost pitch I thought I could sneak through the side door to avoid Mama and Jasper noticing like I always did. I slid the door open slowly, crept in as quietly as I could. Mama and Jasper sat right there as I burst in, both of them sipping on their evening beer. It was apparent from the castle of Milwaukee's Best cans on the counter d into their view, feeling my body tense all over. Mama took one hard look at me, her eyes fluttering over the dirt stains all over my dress. Her newly lit cigarette fell from her mouth to the floor as she opened her mouth wide.
56 But Jasper chimed in before I could utter a word. shakily from his chair. Mama stood, too, but he threw his arm in front of her as if to say, I'll take care of this The thing is, though, is that while I knew Mama was mad, she wasn't quite in the state Jasper seemed to be in. It was a dress, it could be fixed. I knew that. Mama knew that. But Jasper didn't, I guess. "Your Mama spent a whole week's tips on that damned ugly dress !" He veered toward me with pink eyes, his breath hot with the smell of the alcohol, and he stumbled to the side from the suddenness of the move. He charged forward, swinging a clenched fist toward my che st. I ducked, feeling only the whoosh of air in front of me, and I stumbled backward from the force of his own missed blow, and I ran straight down the hallway toward my roo m, the trailer walls shaking around me, not looking back. I slammed the door behind me, sobbing, my body shaking from his reaction, from his suddenness. I crawled underneath my covers, waiting for the worst. "Miranda, it's one thing to let your goddamn so ns to bed dirty, but dammit, they're boys!" Jasper screamed from the kitchen. "I won't have none of that in my house, none! His house? fixing that dress for her!" As I lay there in my room, sobbing to myself, I could see the drunken thoughts scurry through Mama's mind. Disagree, and that's another man out the door. I knew
57 what would come next before she even did, but for once I wished I could be wrong. I wasn't, though and my premonition was confirmed as I heard Mama pounce down the hall and bang her hand against my door. plan on me fixing that dress for you!" I could still hear Jasper muttering to himself in the kitchen, something about bitches and nonsense. My eyes welled up with more fat tears than I thought they could handle, and I began to swallow them as I gasped for air beneath my comforter. Stupid fake for... suddenly, my thoughts were cut short when I heard a soft creak o n my door. I first thought it was Johnny or Austin, sneaking in to cuddle with me, but when the figure that had caused the creak sighed, I knew it was Mama against my door. Her hand pressed against the door. I held my breath to keep from crying, and I sat for what seemed like hours, waiting for the voice, the voice that bruised me worse than barely heard her soft whisper, "I'm s good Lord kind of tried, buying me thin gold necklaces and taking us all for after Sunday dinners. But most were mean ones who never so much as grunted in our direction, or spent all their time taking out their old ghosts on us, spanking our bare butts
58 with hot hands or even with the cold buckle of their belt My mind flashed to one of his name was Claude, I think rew me over his knees like he was gonna flat hand had come down on me, though, and that was enough to send him running for good. I imagined going out there to the living room right then leave our house for good. Funny how Mama had those men running through our house all the time, day and night, all types of men wanted, the one man I needed just a second more of. Just to ask one more question of. To know his face. My Daddy. But not one of these daddies was mine Not one was the man I wanted, for once, to look in the eye and see myself back in the reflection. I imagined Daddy somewhere in Where w in the back of my Mam It was the first night I could remember Mama going out to visit those friends of hers I hated so much. The night I made my first ever bargain with God. It was the day
59 before my fourth grade class was supposed to go on a field trip to Pidley 's Peach Plant, the biggest peach farm in Central Florida. I was reading up on peach crops in my agriculture book when she came to me. The clock said it was after 11 p.m., and at first, I figured she was coming in to fuss at me for still being up reading or to yell at me for asking about Daddy. Instead, she was sweet. "Carolina, baby girl," she started, sitting on my bed, her smiled gently, as if this wa s normal, for her to be leaving us alone at 11 p.m. rather than until then like she usually did, like she was saying she was just going down to visit just fine, so you don't worry your little head." She smiled down at me, her blond hair, still damp from the shower and hanging flat from her head like yarn from a mop. "I'll be back in an hour or so." And before I could say anything back, she was up and gone. I heard the door slam and then lock behind her. I waited an hour, staring up at the ceiling, wondering who these friends were. I had never met them and never heard of them. Why did they have to meet at night, I won dered. And what was wrong with the daytime? Could they not play Bunco and go on play dates with the babies during school hours like the mothers of the kids at my school did? After the second hour, I got real worried, thinking of her dead in a ditch somewh ere. She hadn't even told me where she'd be meeting these friends, and I had no idea how to get a hold of her.
60 This is when I tried to speak to God. I told him I would do the dishes for an entire month, no complaints, if he returned Mama home safely that night. I even promised to dry the dishes all the way before putting them away, something I usually scrimped on when I was stuck with that chore. Even with my promise out there floating to the Lord, I still didn't feel so great with Mama not there. I neede d to get to sleep, and quick. I had my field trip in the morning. But each time I went to close my eyes, they popped right back open again, no I did, all I could thin k about was Mama. to do I rolled out of bed and walked across the hall, right to the door of Mama's room. Mama's room was what she liked to call the Great Big Mess. I gue ssed that's why we were hardly ever allowed in it she made us keep our own rooms so tidy, while hers was practically the town dump. I caught glances of it now and then when she came in and out in a hurry, but the door was otherwise always closed and we w ere told to not even ask to come in. She called it her private adult place, a place where she could get away from us brats for a while. I always thought of my friend Annie when Mama said that, because Annie's parents had the most beautiful bedroom in the w orld, with green and gold trimmed walls and a big brown oak bed. On a birthday sleepover a few years before, Annie's Mama had let us all, five girls hopped up on Pixie sticks and Coca Cola, jump right into the bed and make a tent below the covers. I could
61 tell there was a whole lot of stuff in there, like piles of clothe s on the floor and big whole life, but it seemed like Mama had never got to finish unpacking, or maybe like she was getting ready to up and leave at any time. There was usually a waft of thick, standing cigarette smog that filled the air in there if it was daytime, the sun's rays cut through the cloud that settled in her room like thousands of tiny knives, raring to cut through. If it were night, it just looked kind of scary in there with the smoke lingering in circles just above my head. I knew it would look that way that night, and I braced myself as I turned the door know slowly and peered in to the room. "Ma?" I said, my lungs quickly filling themselves with the knock out s mell of old tobacco. I knew she wasn't there, but I figured I ought to check before I got a butt whooping for coming in to the room. I inched my way through the door. The light switch, I knew instinctively from the rest of the house, was to my left, and I flipped it on quickly. The light danced across the room, revealing suddenly the mass of parts I had been seeing in bits and pieces for many years before. Her bed, a queen size mattress set on the floor, was covered hastily in a hunter green sheet that had one big, mysterious faded circle in the middle. Two pillows sat undressed at the foot of the mattress. Four plain, frayed cardboard boxes sat in the corner of the room, all of them unopened with shiny brown tape still hugging their seams. An old TV, the k ind with a little black knob for changing channels, was propped up on a wooden hutch directly across from Mama's bed. The various piles of clothing, all knotted into little laundry mountains, sat in three places in the room. A few Busch Light cans
62 sprinkle d the floor next to the mattress, and a tiny dresser boasted piles and piles of papers and receipts stacked on more little piles of clothes on its top. The tan walls were drab and barren, with the exception of one tiny crack, no bigger than a hair, that sp lintered down from the ceiling to a spot right behind the mattress. I stood there for a while, taking it all in. Why did she hide this? I mean, it was pretty messy, but what was so bad about it that we weren't allowed to see? I didn't exactly see this as was trying to get away from in the first place. I tip seen; no brief glimpses, no nothing. I was afra id to open the door, but something inside of me, something deep in the pit of my stomach said, Carolina, open it. Now The door creaked as I cracked it open. I I bats or a ghost of any kind, I opened the door wide in one swift movement. I could see its contents clearly now a large pile of clothes, some empty hangers, a few old t shirts hanging that I had never seen Mama wear, and more small plain cardboard boxes nothing overtly interesting. I was about to close the door when I saw, in the right hand corner, what looked like a tiny plastic ladybug. I reached for it. Poking out slightly behind a faded Grateful Dead t shirt was a tiny dress hanging neatly from a tiny plastic hanger. Hanging next to it was a tiny nightgown. The dress looked as though it could fit no bigger than a newborn baby. I held the fabric between my hands. It was red and white checkered, with a white frill slip
63 attached and two large red buttons that kept the overall style sleeves intact. The ladybug sat atop a red bow and attached to the middle of the dress. The tiny nightgown, also fit for a newborn, was lig ht and thin. It was striped with blue and white seersucker, and its frills running the edges meant it was also probably made for a baby girl. I tried hard to think, to remember my time as a baby. Were these my dresses? Had I worn these at one time? I pulled at the lady bug dress to release it from its hanger, and from the shelf above the dress, a Polaroid photo fell to my feet. It was a picture of her, my smiling young Mama, young and round. She was pr egnant. She wore a light green dress, and with her belly sticking out from her stick like body, she looked a whole lot like a giant pear. Down her right shoulder curved a single braid, the color of dried wheat, shining. It looked ferocious, snake like, an d rests at the very top of her belly. She stood in direct sunlight, and her eyes were squinted, her pink lips shiny with a wide smile, the kind from the gut, young, a child herself, and I realized this picture had to have been when she was pregnant with me. There was, in the very bottom left hand corner of the picture, the very edge of a he picture at the last minute. The face had dark stubble, big pores smiling. Pulling the picture closer, until my nose touched it, I noticed the tip of a dried thumb invading the bottom left hand corner of the picture, covering belly. Covering half of me.
64 I turned the photo over. On the back, in wide black letters, it said: I love you forever that picture, that blurred face and thumb, was my Daddy. ge of half my his own special cologne? Then, I tried to remember his eyes and what color they may have been. Were they mine, a deep ocean aquamarine, or were they a paler blue, almost purple, the color of periwinkle? I wanted to see his face, to know if we had the same nose, the same color eyes. I wanted to know if he loved me, if he thought of me ever, and if maybe, just maybe, he still loved my Mama and if he might take her back. Suddenly, the door bell clanged into my thoughts. Da ding ding ding. Da ding ding ding. The police. It had to be the police, there to tell me Mama was dead. There to give me the news that not only did I not have a Daddy or a real family, but my Mama was gone now, too. I stuffed the photo down the one of the pockets of my sleep shorts, and ran from her closet to the front door. It was Mama. I went to the sound of her clanging, her weight agai nst the door. Through the peephole at the front door, I watched her rummage through her purse, her
65 hid the house key right under a rock by the mailbox, but I opened the d oor anyway, and Mama barged in. strands formed around her face in various sizes. It was matted to her neck. Her blue eyes were dotted in reds and pinks, and her dress was wrinkled like it had never seen the likes of an iron. Her breath was sour. I had not a clue what s he was talking about. I just wanted to lie in my bed, trace my again that I had a big field trip in the morning, just a few short hours away. I told her so as I wiped Mama wanted a brawl that night, and her eyebrows plunged south with irritation. She stepped toward me. Mama me go. Instead, she dropped her purse and gave my chest a push with her freed hands, her weight pressing against my limbs, knocking herse lf unsteady, then backwards. She fell in slow motion, arms flailing. I lunged my sleepy body forward, arms open, and fell with
66 her, cushioning her fall. Her weight pressed on my arms, and I leaned us both against the couch, suddenly very awake. My eyes bu rned with tears as I noticed the silver glimmer wanted to wake me up for no damn good reason. Her hair, now loose and moist, surrounded me, stuck to my chest. O n the ground, Mama started a soft snore immediately, her hot breath tickling my bearing me down to the ground like I imagined a trillion tons of water might. My body ached, and I stayed awake for a few hours, wondering much of the night if there was possibly another nine year old girl out there, holding their drunk mother as she sleeps it all away. If they were out there, I wished them love and escape. I thought of my father that night, wanting him there, wondering where he was, what he was doing that very second. I imagined him there with us, taking Mama from my arms and tucking me back into bed. You know, the way it should have been. With her asleep in my arms, I took the photo out again. I looked at it and then back at her, the Mama that once was, and the Mama I had now. She looked a whole lot happier in that picture, smiling with the anticipation of her life to come. The next morning, I woke to find her staring at me, he r blue eyes clear again, her her arms, and she cradled me.
67 When Mama wanted to, she told the very best stories. Arms waving and wide eyed, s brushed her dress out, and walked out of the living room. I stared at her in disbelief, my head po unding and my mind racing. I reached for the picture in my night shirt, and ~~~ I could hardly even wake up for school the next morning, and no matter how hard ep my eyes open, just the opposite of the night before. While my class went off to the orange grove that day at school, I faked a stomachache and spent the about it, it would never happen again. But two nights later, it did. And a night after that, again. in the middle of the night. The nights were random, and it seemed the g rumpier she was during the day, the more likely she was to go out. I never knew, but I had quickly gotten used to waking up in the middle at the sound of the door. Every night she went out, she came home smelling of whiskeys and beers and cheap wines, s mells I knew from sniffing at the bottles Mama kept under the kitchen sink sometimes and then coated with a layer of cigarette smoke and different perfumes. And, like they had before Johnny was born, the men came. Mama brought all kinds of men to our fro nt door short ones,
68 fat ones, tall ones. Cowboys, businessmen, guys who looked like wannabee rock stars. It was never the same one, and they usually looked more jacked up than Mama. They usually never said a word to me if I scrambled out to the bathroom or to get some water. If they did speak to me, it was a mumbled something, and it was more like they were telling me to get out of the way than anything else. She would murmur Get on in bed, Carolina and retreat quickly down the hall with the man, giggli ng. He was always gone by the morning. Sometimes, though, it was just Mama, and those nights were usually the worst. Those were the nights she had it out with me, blaming me for locking the door, stealing her keys, burning supper that night, ruining her li fe. Whatever her tribulation was, she had it out with me right there from behind my bedroom door. It seemed the later it was her screaming until she made herself sick. forgotten by her, like nothing in the world had happened. I, on the other hand, remembered every word, took them with me, carried them through my days. That night, laying ther e remembering those first nights so many years before, I crescent moon through my bedroom window as I tried to fall asleep. I wondered where she could be, and just what she might be crying so unhappily for.
69 Chapter Seven The next morning I woke make sure Jasper and Mama we re gone for work, and sure enough, there were no cars in the driveway. I decided right then and there, over a bowl of thick apple cinnamon through the summer until sc hool began without making everyone so damn angry. I was making trouble everywhere I went, it seemed, and laying low and staying out of Mama and Jasper I found myself wanting West to come find me like she had said she would. Something about her both confused and excited me, and now I wanted to know more. Maybe it was the summer heat and dryness of the earth frying my brain, or maybe I just kind of liked her, but it seems that West had blown righ t into town, beautiful and bizarre, all rolled into one, and maybe she was just what I needed to get me through the rest of the days until school. Surely, though, as soon as we started school and just as soon as West met my Mama and knew who she was in to Mama left early for her hair fixing job that morning; Jasper was gone, too. Johnny and Austin went off fishing, leaving me with nothing to do but wait. The mourning dove her anymore, and I wondered as I finished up eating my grits alone at the kitchen table: Had West went off and found her? Was the bird still alive? Had she even been real? After all, we had looked where the noise was
70 coming from a million times, and still getting to me, zapping my brain like Mama said it would if I spent too much time outside finally gone insane. Death by h allucination, my obituary would read in the county newsletter. I spent the day on the porch doing crossword puzzles, sweating and bored, sulking at my God rotten luck that we lived a trillion miles away from anyone else my age, and that even if someone li wanted summer to just go ahead and end, so I could get back to doing something, anything already know about my Mam seemed so strange, but maybe in a good way. Either way, I realized that she was all I had to get me through these l ast few weeks. For most of the day, I wanted to scream. I wanted to go right out to the creek, cup my hands into a microphone, and just yell for her. Find me, I wanted to shriek. Teach me about the birds, I wanted to shout. If I did that, though, somebody ~~~ Mama got home from work around seven, in one of her better moods, meaning word, and w ent straight for the kitchen instead of yelling at me. I heard the clinking of glass, the crunch of celery sticks, and the strong mix of tomato juice, Tabasco and Worcestershire sauce wafted quickly from the kitchen to the rest of the house. She was
71 thirs ty again. For a moment, there on the porch listening to Mama, I closed my eyes and imagined myself as the baby mourning dove way out in the woods. I saw myself crying, high with jagged twigs and pine needles poking me every which way. Thick, cream colored down surrounds me, almost suffocates me as I squirm; the very thing meant to is we ak; I can see through the holes to the ground, the dark, frightening ground miles and much get her back, how to fly to her, call out to her, how to bring her back to me. So I keep At the beginning of supper that night, Mama shakily set a pot of spaghetti down for us. It was quiet; me, Johnny, Austin, Mama, and Jasper, sitting silent and ready to dig in to our noodles and meatballs, just the buzz of crickets and the bellow of the bullfrogs yapping in the creek behind us. b ut Miss Zell needs me to help her Jasper m umbled, but Mama just rolled her eyes and then swigged down the last few gulps of her Bloody Mary, head tilted back far in an attempt to suck down every last Carolina.
72 I gobbled a few bites down, listening to Mama continue to slurp at her drink and her spaghetti, Jasper making ugly, grunty breathing noises as he ate, and Johnny and ma king their different noises at the same time gave me a strange feeling, like I had caught a bunch of crickets and put them in a Coke bottle, the way Johnny and Austin and I did sometimes when we were bored in the summertime. All the words and sounds jumble d together, bouncing off one another, stewing and churning together, sounding just like the crickets thumping violently off the sides of the plastic as they tried to escape, just ready to explode out and hop far away. When I was done with my dinner, I fle w out the door without saying goodbye, bursting right out like one of the heated crickets escaping from the soda bottle. ~~~ When I met West out by the creek, she was propped up against the side of a dying, dried out old palm tree that stretched high abov e the earth, her back ar ched in a little half circle that the white house and my own broken down old shack. Her knees were locked and bent toward the sky with both of her elbows propped above them. Her hands were squeezed into tight balls beneath her chin, and her head rested heavy on her small hands. She sw irling around her, kind of like I thought an angel might look like. She was wearing a neon green overall dress over a tie dyed yellow and pink tank top, with bare feet again, and her wild golden hair was twisted into lots of tiny braids, all
73 tied up at th e ends with rainbow colored plastic rubber bands. She looked like a walking neon rainbow straw. own "Hey," I said, looking at her toenails, nude and unpolished, but still delicate at the same time. I looked at my own feet, a mess of bony toes stuck to feet with big blac k West asked. I usually use the same rule I did with Cade never been in, never seen up close my whole entire life of living across from it West was still talking to me as we walked, carrying on the conversation about her thoughts on eating meat, which she definitely did not approve of. that; never ever She kept this going until we right in front of her house, and the whole time I wondered if she knew how much ground beef I had ju st eaten in the spaghetti, wondered if she could smell the meat on my breath.
74 ~~~ ha or had been screaming all day long. West looked startled. She walked into the house in to the small front foyer, coming closer to the hollering. The inside of the house smelled strong of bleach, and a little bit like oranges. West l ead me to the living room and signaled for me to sit. I sat, listening to what sounded like something liquid squirting from a bottle and a repetitive thumping noise, like the person apologizing was cleaning her windows and tap dancing at the same time. I w I looked around the tiny living room. The dark, wood panel walls were covered with multi st actually say what activity the person placed i n. It could have been a knitting contest; could have been for a flag football championship. From what I could tell from West so
75 far, it really could have been either. One wall was tacked up with what had to be fifty of them, reds and blues and yellows of thin artificial silk placards that awarded various places in nameless contests. The opposite wall was a mix of more ribbons, and several different pictures of what looked like the same horse head, all drawn on white construction paper there was a drawing made with pencil, an oil based, a water painted, even a paint by numbers horse head. An ironing board stood in the center of the room, with a mammoth pile of wom e board. The room had only one couch a ratty green leather loveseat with what looked like rows of little cat scratches down the side. Smushy, bright yellow foam poked through the scratches. There was nothing else in the room but the rug, a furry, fluorescent green area rug that had been mat ted down from years of people walking on its fluffy hairs. Somewhere very close, the woman was still making a God awful commotion. After a few minutes, West led me into the kitchen, and there she was, the apologetic tap dancing cleaner cleaning at all. She was stomping, rather, on an army of sugar ants that were parading from the plastic tiled floor onto the corner of a dark wood kitchen cabinet. A can of Raid was clasped in her right hand, and a thick haze of the poison wafted in the a ir above us. The woman wore only a pink towel that had been streaked with bleach and frayed on corners that were matted to her skinny legs. She was beautiful, too, I quickly noticed, with dark hair cascading in thick curls for what seemed like miles down h er back. She was covered from head to toe with light freckles that kissed her milky skin in tiny constellations, and I could make out the Big Dipper from a
76 enough to be toenails were painted bright purple, and her feet were still smashing violently into the sugar ant brigade. stomp, they all went straight to ant heaven, and she would pray for their little ant bodies, but she just could not have little buggers all over the house. Crumpled br ownish red specks littered the floor around us. The woman did not look our way as she continued to drown the bugs. she was talking to us or to the ants. st yelped right back. Stomp, spray, went the woman. MAYYYYBELLLLLINE Maybelline stopped exterminating. She turned around fast to look at me, her damp hair spinning in a tornado from her back down on to her shoulders. Dark chocolate eyes, softening all of a sudden, a sun to the moon she had been just a second before. I stared back at her. Never in my life had I been called Did she really think
77 on the back playfully, and saw that she looked a little bit scared. But Maybelline had just called me pretty, and coming from her, I bel ieved it, even if it was just for a minute. All of a sudden, just like that, I loved this woman standing in a giant pool of stinky white poison in half of a bleach splattered towel. Maybelline smiled at me, and then brushed my head with a French manicured you shut your trap for one second of the do pink towel tighter to her body.
78 May would say sometimes about the people who would whisper about her in stores. y own more beautiful. e room. West walked to their tiny white refrigerator, shooing for me to sit at the kitchen table, an old wooden rectangle board tacked together with four thick pieces that looked like real tree trunks. I watched as West put together dinner, my second meal of the night. She pulled three plates, all a metallic orange color, from the cabinet next to the one Maybelline had just gone crazy spraying. Each orange plate had a different picture of ALF, that little orange alien I had seen on TV a few years before, o n its base. Mine was ALF on the telephone with the long phone cord tied around his alien fingertips, while the other hand gave a thumb up. West pulled different containers from the refrigerator, putting together a meal of potato salad, leftover French fri and sliced tomatoes. She looked really happy all of a sudden, started humming that disco song again as she worked. As she pulled the containers out, I noticed that there were
79 several glasses on the top shelf of the refrigerator, all with only about a sip of a drink left in each. A cake, chocolate with rainbow sprinkles, sat on a shelf unwrapped and half eaten, with at least five different holes all over the place in what looked like someone had just sat there eating in front of the refrigerator, fork in hand. I thought of Mama, knowing West put all of the different foods into small clear bowls with tarnished silver serving spoons. She poured apple cider into three glasses, and sat down next to me. Her ALF was dancing, with a blue tutu on and his arms arched in a half circle above his head. music notes dancing over his head. suddenly realizing I was in the coolest place possible I mean, West had no Mama around to yell at her and drive her crazy with her ways, to make her life miserable like mine did. I felt the pull of green pure jealousy run through my skin. Just then, Maybelline thundered back into the kitchen. Her long hair was smoothed back and tied up with two black chopsticks, and she wore a tight black jacket that was closed and covered he r like a dress, almost all the way to her knees. She wore tall, skinny black heels that made her thin legs stretch and her calf muscles tighten into little half circle shapes. Her face was painted with different shades of pinks and grays, and her eyelashes were swept and curled out like the wings of a dark, newborn butterfly. I thought she looked mysterious, foreign, and beautiful, like an actress from one of the black and white films from the old days Miss Zell liked to watch. I noticed that she did not sm ell like Raid anymore; instead, she smelled like orange blossoms. I counted
80 backward in time, guessing it took maybe 15 minutes for her to make herself look and smell like that. I figured it would take at least a few hours to even get me close, and I sat there, dumbfounded, chewing on the potato salad. door. She put her hand on the door to open it, but then spun around back towards us like she had forgotten something. She kissed the top of each of our heads. I felt a chill rush t said. Her eyebrows scrunched up, and she stopped chewing her French fry, the first time I had really heard her stop talking yet. l, and you come back over soon so we can get driveway until she hopped into the red Chevy and started its bellowing engine. took a long gulp. g to ask. Not yet, anyway. If I started asking questions, West might starting
81 with no friends in the first place. We continued our meal, the two of us silent, the only s ound in the air a jumble of our squashy chewing noises, the clinking of our forks against the ALF plates, and suddenly, something far off in the distance that sounded a lot like the baby bird we had been looking for just a day before, calling out loud and long again. I asked West if she her the whole day, and that I had wondered where the crying had gone until just then. I had even wondered if it had all been real, I told her, that maybe we were just imagining the noise. drying out like a corpse in this Somehow, suddenly, I und erstood exactly what West meant.
82 Chapter Eight Later that night, one of those violent storms brewed, one of those ones that scared me to all hell with their whipping, howling winds, crashing thunder, and torrid flashes of electricity all in matter of fiv e minutes. These storms came through Crow almost every day, but they were never enough to help moisten up the parched grass everywhere. We were still by the creek, and the bull frogs started their croaking and arghing, and the ivory clouds began to simmer into a pale orange gray. I knew it was just bursting to rain, and it made me mad, gloomy even, that my time with West would be cut short for the day. next to a pile of thrush an d tending to another baby bird that had fallen from its nest. response to a storm like that one that was coming was to hide in my closet, maybe even under my bed until it passed. For me, Crow was nothing more than a place where tornadoes and summer storms roared, where tornado warnings crossed the TV screen every summer afternoon and lightning strikes were as common as raindrops a place to run from, hide from. me if I come home all dripping wet.
83 believe m This girl, I thought, is really crazy. I stared up at the dark orange clouds that swarmed close, in what seemed like just a few feet above our heads. Goosebumps rose up and down my body, and the soft white hairs on my arms stood at attention. A bullfr og croaked somewhere close by, which meant he was getting closer, probably to hide out beneath the thick brush that surrounded West and me, obviously much smarter than the ned to stay parked right where she was, and she stuck her open palm out my direction, motioning me to sit down beside her. And then not in one of these storms can hi on crooning to the tiny bird she had cupped between her hands. I sat, imagining my
84 funeral, wondering who would actually show. Would my father be there? Would he even know I was gone from the world? Would Mama even be sad to see me go? And then, just as if on cue, the sky had erupted above us, and warm, fat rain drops ran down from the sky. West placed the baby bird beneath the pile of thrush and covered the gaps with a giant palmetto leaf, then smiled at me. I felt silly, just sitting there, letting the drops soak me, as my body was screaming for me to get up and run for cover. As the drops plunked against my head, and then rolled fast down my back to the top ridge of my sho rts, the goose bumps rose up all over my body once more. As the rain came faster, and the thunder cackled out into the sky, I cradled my arms into my lap and curled like an armadillo might, but before I could lock myself into the little self made cocoon, West grabbed at my hands again. Except this time, she was pulling me up, and I bird be and run for cover. I could hardly see her at that point; the rain was sprayi ng down with the fervor that mid afternoon Florida rainstorms usually do. I started in a sprint, but West yanked at both of my arms and jerked me back. hers, W est began spinning, leaning back with a force that caused me to steady myself and then spin along with her: otherwise, I was headed right for the clumpy pile of mud that had formed on the ground below us. West spun faster and faster, until I was hurled in to the motion, my feet running sideways through the thick mud, pulling outward as part of the spinning, lopsided circle
85 cyclical, like I was part of a tornado running wild in the woods, where no one could see the sky. Circling through the rain like that, the thunder and lightning roaring and exploding around us, suddenly, for the firs t time in a long, long time, I felt fearless, feral fury, with this girl I hardly knew at all but knew so well all the same. It was after we had stopped spinning, si laughing, hysterically my chest heaving in both excitement and exhaustion, that I realized that West had come to town that summer for a reason. I realized, then, that she was there to take everything I knew, tu rn it upside down, and shake it till it all fell out in front of me, in front of all of us, right out into the sticky Florida air. After the storm, when the grayness of the clouds cleare d out and the deep maroons of the night crept in, West and I laid ther e right in the mud, looking up at the wide sky. bad stuff all the sadness, all the bad things people say to each other turns to black each night, floats up, and fills t he sky with darkness every night to remind us that we
86 I smiled, hoping th at all this stuff West liked to tell me was true. I wanted to
87 Chapter Nine The summer days after I met West crept along like an old train, sliding slowly down its tracks, puffing all tired to some far off place that seemed mil es beyond sight, Creek. Summer wanted to just keep on riding forever it seemed like, just dawdling on down the path on the way to fall, and I hated it, I mean I really h ated it going on so slow had even taken to wearing my old cut off pair of Gitano short shorts, not even caring if anyone saw my beat up, mosquito bitten legs and a ll. Besides, with West walking around like her beauty queen looking self all the anyway. West was a living, breathing, explanation of what beauty could be; what she had, wi th her wild chestnut hair and those huge chocolate eyes, was the missing piece, the guide on your arm through the hallways during the school year. Me, I was that girl who just always might be beautiful if only and no one, not Cade, or any other boy I could think of for that matter, could ever possibly want me for their own. but after a few days that I kind of felt like she had been my best friend forever. Yeah, she talked a lot and all, usually about silly hippie stuff like birds and animals and the earth
88 and peace, but that just let me be quiet and listen, pretty much how I liked it I did have to tell her anything about my Mama, my missing family, nothing at all. her more. We lize I knew hardly anything at all about them. We spent the long first days of knowing each other walking around the woods, building forts, looking for baby birds, staying out of the sun and keeping cool under the huge, droopy trees laced with Spanish mo ss around the creek behind my house. We went swimming in our clothes almost every day, going out neck deep in the creek and splashing each other silly until we were cooled off again. Sometimes we just floated upside down in the water, trying to look up at the sun without burning our eyeballs out of our heads, usually drifting slowly with the current until it pulled us out too deep to still stand on tip toes. The sweltering sun sucked up all the wetness so quick afterward; I never once had to worry about Ma ma screaming at me for not bothering to wear a bathing sided grin. West told me stories, lots of them, mostly about animals and the earth and how it all came together, how we all worked toge ther to form this big, round, constantly never really cared about.
89 We talked about boys and how she was waiting for the right one to finally stumble in to her life been kissed, her looking like a movie star and all. I told her about Cade, and how I wanted to kiss him, and bad, I to ld West. And if I ever went further, I had to make damn way that I hoped showed West I knew what she meant. Too, I guess Mama had been so t there in the middle of my sixth grade class. With Annie and the other girls cackling over my stained jeans from the back of the room, Ms. Babs had to escort me personally to the school clinic. It was Aida, the school nurse who looked way too young to be explaining the facts of life to kids, who told me about periods and maxi pads and that I should feel very grown up and proud as can be to finally be becoming a woman I wanted to tell Aida to me, thank you very much. Becoming a woman meant I had to fall in love, and I knew falling in love meant I might end up like my Mama someday.
90 But when West told me about all of it, I listened. Sometimes I listened so close to all the stuff she told me that I thought, I had told her one day, that when she opened up her veterinary clinic when she was older, that I would just have to work as her assistant, Donnie Wahlberg from New Kids on the Block buy a big piece of land up high on some mountain range far from Florida, and build big white houses with backyards that ran right into ea talk my ear off as we sat sipping lemonade on our back porches for as long as we lived. T hings for West and I, though, were about to change. ~~~ One day, out by the creek, West showed up to meet me wearing a tiny, silver filigree laced locket around her neck. It looked about a hundred years old, with dirt caked in the tiny mirrored edges. Af ter swimming as we lay under one of the huge oak trees by the creek, I asked her what she had in there. She grasped at the locket, caressed it between her fingers. She hesitated for a Something about the way she said it made me feel important, like she was sharing some big secret world inside her tiny little locket. Then, she smiled softly and clicked it open. Inside, there were two picture holes, but no pictures.
91 West looked to the sky. The sun beamed so bright on us that her eyes reflected white, and she looked we ird and eerie. Her eyes miste d, but she turned away quick before I could see any tears. laughed at for my family before trapping it. I was terrified to tell her anything at all, for ike I had cooties just because my Mama was who she was like everyone else in town did.
92 br else to do but to follow.
93 Chapter Ten d Jasper was at work, too, so I knew sweating to all hell, I invited West in to o ur house to make some sweet tea. the creek while we swam and get on out before we had to run in to anyone. In the ing the tea when I realized that there Jasper was, pretending to watch re runs of Wheel of Fortune on the TV after he got back from work at the air work on his toilet bowl cover business, but on his butt in front of the TV. As he walked in toward the kitchen from the living room, I she was going to be his su did, which I guessed meant she was probably used to it. My stomach growled loud in protest. belly button which was poking out from under her orange spaghetti hair and surrounded in one giant, roll of grossness, poked out from under his tight fi tting
94 white undershirt, like a deformed, hairy marshmallow trying to explode out at us. Light yellow arm pit stains formed huge half circles under his arms, and he smelled like vinegar, or Freon, or maybe a little bit of both. said, half smiling, wanting with every ounce of me to dump the pitcher, lemon bits and all, right over his head. Instead, I poured more cane sugar into the pitcher and stirred the little wire whisk in circles, hard and fast. ned back at me, a row of jagged beige teeth sticking out over his lips in a way that made him look much like a wolf, raring to pounce. He West nodded. e counter, rested his pointy chin on his hands. I looked at his fingernails, caked in a black crud, and thought of those same hands that touched my mother night after night, doing things that kept me up through the night when all I wanted was to sleep, to get to the next day so that ohh ing and ahh ing through the walls. interested in picking at her cuticles. caked hand the dire ction of the refrigerator
95 Vanna White walking across the television screen in a sparkly, pool colored dress. She was starting to look uncomfortable for the first time since I had met her. She started chewing softly on the edge of her right thumbnail, which was half covered with chipped, fluorescent pink nail polish. said. My stomach churned. I had asked God on several occasions to do something about Jasper, to get him out of the house and far away from here. He had already taken im away from West, anyhow, any way I could. winking, in much more of a command than a question. ~~~ West and I went out on to sit on the front porch steps to wait for supper. The us, but my heart was beating so fast I thought it might burst right out from my chest there on to the porch. We sat on the crooked front steps, sipping on the sweet tea. I watched as a fat black roach stumbled kittered in my direction.
96 all those girls in my class had done up and run away from me just as fast as they could, like I was the roach that was gonna go and bite their t oes off. faraway look in her eyes as she stared out at the heat waves dancing in the distance of the dirt road that ran from the front of the house into town. Mama pull ed in to the drive, and we both watched as she tore up the drive. Mama got out of the car, her black apron still on, sprinkled with little stray hairs floating off da rk red wine in her hand and was taking big gulps, so big that I could hear her swallow from where we were. She did not look happy, and she walked through the side door of the house without even noticing us there on the front porch. A minute later, after s ome clanging on the kitchen, I heard her say from inside, a big pink mosquito bite on my knee. It began to bleed. From somewhere close, a tiny cricket chirped loud and long in the stale summer air around us. Each chirp seemed quiet and quick enough on its own, but them rubbing their limbs all together like that, I thought, it sounded like one constan t scream. West got that faraway look in her eyes as she stared out at the heat waves dancing in the distance of the dirt road that ran from the front of the house into town. West blinked once, ran her fingers through her hair, and kept on looking out in to
97 n took a big swig of the tea, leaving little grains of sugar stuck on her lips. Her wild hair streamed every cket dies, his family will eat All I could do is stare back at her, look right into those huge cocoa eyes, thinking of how eas passing by. One day folds in to night which folds in to the next, and before you know it, days become months and months become centuries, all stuck in to one long, sweaty day. understand what she meant when she told me the things she did, I still knew why West said them. When she looked at me, I think I saw myself, but in a different way. we were on opposite sides of a fire, staring at each other through the dancing blaze. We could look through, and see the other through the flames, a little blurry and a little crooked, fluttering in pieces behind bright orange flames to form one whole. I was her and she was me, as we both burned in ways neither of us understood. I wanted to tell her this, but instead, we sat silent there, with the crickets still carrying on around us, me thinking that, West thinking something probably very diffe rent, but somehow very much the same, until we were called in for dinner. really sure how. I know Miss Zell had said just to talk to him, but I knew there was some
98 certain the times Miss Zell tried to take me when I was a kid but it seemed like there was always someone talking about sins and trying to get me to bring Mama, so I stopped going. I th it. Sometimes, I imagined God himself would one day just reach out, without her even ould only do so much. ~~~ Like Jasper had promised, Mama worked to heat up extra roast, extra vegetables, extra baked potatoes for West. From the porch, I could hear Mama inside moaning like it was just outright painful, just plain killing her to be fi xing another plate of dinner for my friend, but Jasper kept yelping for her to knock it off, woman about 45 seconds and then come out and groan all over again. With each loud clang of a serving spoon against a dish, each crashing c link of a dish taken down from the cabinet, quite know why. After Jasper poked his watermelon sized head out to call us in, I went to grab the extra aluminum chair from the hallway closet for West, until, staring at the empty space occupying its usual spot, I realized Jasper already had. And when I got to the kitchen, I saw that he had plopped the chair for West down not next to me or my brothers, not by Mama, but right the table each night.
99 way, and instead, she walked right t oward the empty chair, oblivious to the big, sweaty buffoon just waiting for her to sit next to him. A heavy, swirling feeling in my stomach told me I had to save her, and quick. my anyt hing of it, and slid in the chair Jasper had meant for her before she could scrunch herself down into place. She smiled at me, and then sat to my right, in my usual spot, right next to Mama. In my head, I cheered a little victory song, even if it meant I h ad to a word and only grumbled something directed at his round, hairy belly as he shoved a fork overflowing with shreds of wet brown roast into his mouth. West pick ed at a plate of vinegar drenched collard greens, mushy peppered white cauliflower, and a tiny baked sweet potato as the rest of us Mama, Jasper, and my brothers ate all of that on our own plates, and big piles of the steaming pork roast, too. I tried really hard to not eat the meat in front of West, but I was just so damn hungry from being out in the heat all day long and so nervous about West being there, my first friend ht down. Johnny and Austin, home from a day of spear fishing and cast netting for mullet out on the creek and hyper as ever, took a few bites each of their pork roast and spent the rest of the time gawking and making big, matching blue googoly eyes at Wes t. She just smiled sweet and asked them about school, asked them what they knew about animals, that kind of small talk she seemed to be so good at.
100 Mama sat poking with her fork at her sweet potato and just stared into space, like West was doing something illegal just by talking to my brothers, and she was trying real matched the liquid in the glass th at sat what seemed like permanently close to empty by her dinner plate. Her long strawberry, blonde hair was pulled into a tiny bun, which Mama very much in the past few weeks, her being at work all day and then usually out right after dinner all the time, but I noticed then that she really just looked sleepy. Her looked like it was f alling, chicken meat off its bone; droopy, reddish, clammy, like it was melting right off her. Just when my stomach finally stopped vacuuming in all the food and started to get halfway full, Jasper started asking West stupid questions that he probably alr eady knew the answers to and then nodded over wowwwwws Oh, wowwwwwww me out Oh wowww The crickets outside were still screaming out into the air, and Mama still sat, chewing her food, sipping hard from her wine glass, and gave West that horribl e look like she was trying to throw poison at her straight through her eyeballs. So far, though, she
101 And sure enough, after West had told some joke about koala bears that had Jasper rollin g and clapping like a handicapped walrus and Johnny and Austin giggling like little sunburned baboons in their chairs, Mama spoke. weight back in her chair hard enough that there at the table. into tiny half cr escent hills that took over her face as she peered over to West, who sat began to chew hard at the edge of her thumbnail. Two things occurred to me then. One, by asking me that, Mama was doing that reunions. And when she did that, there was no turning back, no chance at all for that The second thing I realized simple question of where West was from. I stil favorite color. Her favorite song; her religion no clue whatsoever. And better yet, I what had happened with her parents, really, and why Maybelline took care very good care of herself. In fact, I think West had talked about every subject there is to talk about on this Godforsaken earth except herself. West had spent the last few weeks telling me so much about animals, the
102 world, other people; you name it, West yapping. unmoved air that still sat where the answer s Mama looked surprised West had spoken, jolted that she had spoken directly to her, like West has just shaken her and should definitely not have. My brothers squirmed a bit in their chairs, waiting. actually May. Our Mama name d her for her birthday month, but ever since Maybelline got in her head that she was going to become a famous make up artist, painting blush attention, kind of like this man I once knew, Dan, went and opened himself up a seafood restaurant and then as she stared at West for what seeme d like the first time and the longest time ever.
103 Mama set down her glass and folded her hands atop the table like a judge might, ready to deliver a verdict. your Mama, honey? Why are you just living with Maybelline Wait like, in her chair. sweetheart you. I asked about your sister. Not about where you What was she talking about? Maybelline? How did Jas per know Maybelline? in knots, felt like it flipped suddenly, tangling my insides in one big flop. My jaw wired itself shut, and my body locked, a concrete statue, a feeling I what was about to happen, and I silently cursed the angel that God was supposed to have time? d sweaty, ready, but so very unable to put out the fire that was about to explode before him. e
104 of poison run Jacksonville dinner, the I sat locked as Mama went on. sweet pie In Crow, in my hou in here with your stomach and your ass and your little baby tits hanging out of your clothes trying to steal a grown I half I wanted to scream out, to tell West I knew none of what my mother had just said about her was even close to true, that the wonderful, wild girl was just the me behind the fire, was the half that had just made me somewhat whole, was not the person my evil my Mama nor Jasper, not once. But all I could do all my body, all my forgotten angel would even allow me to do was to sit silently, body stiff, in the hard metal chair as the best friend I had ever made ran crying from the house into the sticky summe r night air. I
105 West. Mama shook her head hard and headed into the kitchen, mumbling under her bathroom. just witnessed the death of one of their beloved Power Rangers or something. Silence, then the sounds of doors slamming splashed through the house like an empty ravine faced with the weight of gazillions of gallons of water coming from every direction. I felt flooded, ravished, beaten down, my little victory robbed from me once more. And as everyone disappeared, I sat there alone, motionless on the hard met al chair, waiting for the crickets outside, still screaming and chirping aloud in the night, to finally come in and devour me whole.
106 Chapter Eleven After that night, I was sure West would never speak to me again. This, my Mama and her secrets, her anger, her stupid explosions, is why I had no friends, why I never chance, and God ha d laughed down at me again, it seemed. I was also sure I would never speak to Mama or Jasper for as long as I lived. sat out and smoked on the porch until long after I we nt to sleep. I had gone to bed, willed the summer away once more, and sat staring at my ceiling, listening to the wildlife make their night noises outside my window until I finally saw the blackness of my dreams take over. The next morning, I ruffled thr ough my nightstand and pulled out the Jackson High School bulletin that had been sent out at least a month before. In big, bubbly blue cursive letters, the parent newsletter said that school started on August 20; only two weeks left to suffer before I coul d forget this whole summer. Then, I get my chance to work my way to a college scholarship, get my chance to get the hell out of Crow, away from her. my hair was still matted and sticky on my neck from sweat and the tiny tears that had flowed from my eyes throughout the night. My arms itched and my legs felt heavy, like
107 another hour, with n othing to do, until Mama knocked on the door and told me through the door that she was sending me to help out old Miss Zell from across the street for the the air conditioning store. in the world for the little old lady who smiled at me every so often. about us ; I knew she could hear Mama hollering and could see the different guy s she had running in and out of our front screen door each morning and night. Mama had only invited Miss Zell over to our house once before, but even so, I knew Miss Zell could tell what was going on in our little house by the way she always stroked so sof tly at me and e wooden panel walls were almost bare, except for a few frayed cardboard pictures of a young Jesus and a signed snapshot of Elvis Presley right by her rocking chair. The whole inside of the house was decorated in mauves and purples, and not one speck of an once shared it with a man of her own. The one time I asked where she kept the pictures of afternoon storm coming, and sent me packing back acr oss the street before she could
108 a woman so sweet and beautiful like Miss Zell had to have had at least a man in her life at one time, at some point in her life. I told Mama through my bedroom door do her own stupid chores. She swung open the door. her work apron and yanked at her hair in my doorway, her eyes pinkish and small. need to keep those devilish hands of yours busy ed away from me down the hall. ~~~ Miss Zell hummed some slow oldies song as she handed me her white silk n ightgowns and random pieces of pantsuits to pin against the thin metal pole that ran along the perimeter of the rickety back porch. She was wearing an electric blue suit that looked heavy and itchy. It made me hot just looking at her, and I felt the soft o oze of sweat trickle down my back. I tried to keep thoughts of the night before out of my head, but with each bead of sweat that fell wild down my back, I did. No matter what I tried to se like I never thought she would, kept popping into my head. And then, what about Maybelline? What
109 time living in Crow. I stopped pinning the clothes and turned to Miss Zell. dream. at building along the edge of her forehead. She looked past the back yard with a faraway Zell d, all cause of Mama. She came over for dinner and Mama started yelling at her for no good reason at all now, I lost my best Miss Zell grabbed my hand and sat me down on the white wicker couch behind us. I stared at the tan hand on my own and began to cry, and hard. She cradled me into her shoulder, and fat tears that tasted like sweat streamed from my face onto the back of
110 her blue short sleeved suit jacket. She petted at my hair, and my trembl ing shoulders bobbed against her arm. When I cried out everything I could, every last ounce of what w bad of a person she thought Mama was. business, but your Mama Inside, leaning on her ma uve couch, Miss Zell took a brush to my hair, and slowly pruned at the gnarl s of my matted hair, I thought of when, a long time ago, Mama and I brush and brush and brush for so long, my movements became rhythmic and the downward flow of my arm to the brush to her hair hypnotized me. The soft lull of her own song, or hum benea th her breath as I brushed, and when my eyes began to close, to the ends of my hair. Then, as Miss Zell rubbed lilac lotion on my hands, I thought of the time Mama taught me to make my own perfume. It was back in the fifth grade, when all the girls at
111 ugh about the perfume getting all the boys to like them. The boys would actually just plug their noses and tell them they stunk and smelled like their grandmas, but I could tell they u home from school. real wide. of weeds growing near the woods. long I ran to the grass, stooping low to pick at the tiny yellow flowers, crumpling them in my hand tight so I could get as many crammed in there as possible. They smushed and left a grimy flower oi l all over my palm, but I was so excited to think that this might In the kitchen, Mama took all my flowers and put them in to her big light blue and dumped a fourth of it in.
112 When the blender finished mixing it all together, Mama pulled the glass top from wrists every day for a week until the mixture sitting in the blender had run out. As Miss until my eyelids became heavy, and I was long gone in to dreams, the bird like singing of my mother beside me just in the distance. ~~~ while later, maybe hours after. Miss Zell was standing in front of her stove, clanging a spoon e it was. Then, I noticed what Miss Zell had laid out across the bar before me. Pictures. Hundreds of them. Mostly black and white pictures, but quite a few colored ones of smiling blonde children holding shells on a stretching beach, a baby held over the holy water by a priest at her christening, a beautiful newlywed couple standing by a brick id, staring down at the pictures. She rubbed at something on though, and instead, she wordlessly began to softly finger at the corners of each picture as though she were han dling silk. After a few minutes, it seemed as though she forgot I was
113 even there, and I watched as she moved her fingers from photo to photo, from faces of blonde babies crying in the bathtub to an anxious looking young boy in bobby socks, clutching the ke y to the Camaro he stood beside, Miss Zell touching each photo with such filled with family I wanted so badly to ask her why she n ever looked at them, and where all these who never came to visit, the very reason Miss Zell was always alone. But why? Who break her sweet motion of piecing through her faded pictures one by one. But I had to. She sat silent, mesmerized, with the photos for a while longe r, myself sitting there equally as mesmerized by her. Finally, when she came to a photo of a pig tailed girl, around my age, wearing a light colored sundress, squinting and smiling wide with her hands open and outstretched, as if she were going to hug the person holding the camera, at me.
114 done, the hurt that had settled in me hard like cement? real har I mean, I woulda run a long time ago I suddenly wanted to hug Miss Zell, to tell her I believed her, even if I really reached into her pants suit pocket and pulled out a five dollar bill.
115 and done not much of anything else, but she crumpled the bill into my palm and then shooed me out the do or in a hurry, closing the door to her house fast and hard behind her.
116 Chapter Twelve both still at cream wi help me feel better with that smile of his. It was at least a two mile walk to the store, and like always, Austin rode in the Radio Flyer while Johnny and I took turns pulling him alo ng the quiet, dusty dirt road that led in to town. I wished I were small enough to fit inside the tiny red wagon, young enough to know less than I already did about life, about the angels of God that seemed to ignore me so much. I hoped for a moment a car would drive by and just take me wherever they were headed, maybe my father would whoosh by in some shiny new car, ready to come back into my life and save me from Mama. The silent, empty road, nothing but me and my giggling brothers walking, though, told m any time soon. Then, I wished I could fly away, just start flapping my arms and take off in to the sky like the birds I had grown to love so much that summer. Instead, I kicked rocks far into the heat waves that constantly danc ed in front of us as we walked, dragged my feet the whole way there while my baby brothers chattered on and on about school, superheroes, and fishing, unknowing, un understanding of all that had and would happen in their lives. I wanted someone to talk t o, or at least to be talked to. I wanted to ask West all
117 how much I knew her, how much she was me. I wanted to know Maybelline, know what she really did with her time. But now it was too late, it had been taken away, just like it was supposed to, just like it always was. West would never talk to me, and would making fun of me before I knew it about my house, about me missing my Daddy so bad splits, and Old Man Collins, like he constantly did, asked me how my Mama was. Of cour been trained to do so long ago. Breaking loyalty, Mama had always said, is someth ing that would never be forgiven, never be made right. I remembered a time when I was nine years old, at a mall with Mama shopping the after holiday sales, a stranger at a mall asked how my Christmas had been. I had told him it had been awful, that my Mam present to my baby brothers and I had actually been two bottles of Jack Daniels for her and then a game of whose but t can Mama beat with this belt me, because when we got home that night from shopping, my Mama used that same be lt on me in a whole new game, in a whole new crazy strength I had never seen and never, ever wanted to feel again. My body had burned for weeks and weeks. been there since Crow even became a town, letting the freezing ice cream soothe the burn of the blistering heat swirling around us. It was so hot, so dry outside, that the ice cream melted faster than we could even lick it up.
118 I was on my very last slurp of chocolate syru p from the bottom of cup when I saw her, just across the road in front of The Orange Pit Restaurant, talking to Mr. Franks, the owner of the run down old diner that served the best fried macaroni and cheese that side now what to do, where to go, what to say. We locked eyes. Should I run ? I thought. Should I take my brothers and go inside? What could I say to have her forgive me for my Mama? Was she going to yell at me, like so many had done in the past, blame me for wh friend? Before I could get my brain to tell my legs to start running, West locked her eyes to mine and started walking across the street in my direction. I tried to keep from staring back, but her ey thought maybe to turn around, but my legs locked, knees and all frozen straight as rulers; I t hought maybe to fake some sort of heat induced fainting episode, but knew from stomp her away across the dirt road until she was standing right but four inches from me. Something about a reputation, something about an apple not falling so far from its tree. I started to shoo Johnny and Austin back into the ice cream store, thinking maybe mine, though, there she was, waving goodbye to Mr. Franks and heading my direction.
119 As she crossed the street, I once again noticed her beauty. Her dark hair fell in thick curls down her shoulders, and even in the summer heat, flowed frizz less and river like. might want Then, she pointed to my brothers, then her ears, signaling me to get them out of been invited to a pits party? ~~~ zucchini at The Orange Pit, and had applied for a job there as a hostess. I let my brothers finish off their ice cream, then paid them off house $2 in all, $1 for each of them and told them to walk home, with the promise e a few times before. I threatened to feed them to the alligators if they so much as wavered from that story, and as I watched the two of them gallop off happy back home, both of them stuffed with ice cream and feeling gloried about their new fortunes in h and, I knew they were too excited to say a word.
120 Still in disbelief she was even talking to me, I followed West on the half mile walk back to her house, in the opposite direction that my brothers had gone, right aro und the creek.
121 Chapter Thirteen West and I walked down Tumbleweed Road for a long time, a whole three miles to her house, our sandals scuffing at the dusty clay and flat pebbles that lined the road. It was getting dark, and the mosquitoes started in on our elbows and cheeks. Car and truck tracks dipped the road in every so often, probably where someone had gotten stuck in the mud during one of the raging summer afternoon storms. I imagined them sitting there, elbow hanging from the truck, looking down a t their tires in frustration, just wondering when they were gonna get enough thrust to get them out of that muddy hole and out of Crow for good. I wished right then, walking with West, that we could just pick up and squeal out of there like they eventually had. street at The Orange Pit, just filling out a job application to be a hostess, when she heard a hostess there her name was Annie, West said, giggle something to another hostess and next thing she knew, Annie had invited her to join them. West right after West had found about my crazy Mama? I told West I agreed, though I knew this meant we were just one ste p closer to me losing West to the popular girls like
122 not, of course, get in vited to anymore. OhmyLord. My stomach twisted. Would he look at me, know missed me? er girl that she was gonna wear her hair down since he him after not seeing him for so long. And how could I compete with Annie McDaniels? But there were other things to talk about now. I still needed to apologize for my Mama. well, West stared at me, her eyes kind of droopier than I had seen them, like there were right then for even bringing it up, tell me to go back to my house and never to try and find her again, like I was th my Mama to go yelling at her. a For her, I guess, it was just that easy, and I wished just for a moment that things like that came easy for me, too.
123 And just like that, I knew it was okay to tell West. I spilled it all right there into the air my crazy, slutty mother and just like my Mama. ~~~ After we got to her house, West too k my hand and brought me straight through was home, but as we got to the door, I heard the dim hum of some sort of trance music exactly sure how she knew West and I were there, standing breathless from our walk in the hall, but Maybelline opened the door before West even knocked on the surface of the flimsy brown wood. From the soft glisten of sweat that sat on the edge of her fo rehead and her head to toe black outfit, I could tell Maybelline had just gotten hing past our shoulders, then fixing her tweeze a thon. second, like they were talking Help w ith
124 Maybelline smiled at her, looked back at that stray hair I was sure was just my hand, and pulled me into her room. smelled like one, too. The walls of the room were bare, but the floor was a mess of random droppings t shirts, black scarves, a blue plastic Gatorade bottle, empty Pall Mall cartons, random assortments of faded, ripped jeans. A glossy magazine was strew n across the floor like someone had opened it and shook it hard until all the pages went flying into a tiny tornado of celebrity gossip across the room. A stack of half empty drinking glasses sat on the dresser, just raring to tumble extensive, colorful, and somewhat frightening make up so bad, kind of like a mix between dirty dishes and some dollar store floral perfume, but the more I inhaled, the more I realized it definitely needed a bull do zer or three to come wrecking through the disaster to clear it all out and rid it of the stench, or at least a good, thick coating of some Lysol. I thought of my own room, where everything always had its place and usually stayed there, especially since it seemed like I was actually there less and less, and continued to stare. Maybelline guided me to the dresser, and she steered my shoulders downward until I was sitting on a pink checkered vanity chair. West picked up a few pieces of the gossip magazine from pink silk.
125 creek in my clothes, she waved her hand flip Before I knew it, Maybelline yanked my neck until it pointed downward, and then took a wire brush to my hair, although I wanted to tell her it would probably take something stronger than that to sort there for some time. realizing the stupid, enormous smile that had spread on my face until I caught it in the mirror, saw my jagged vampire grin glaring back at me. I wondered if Maybelline had a quick fix for crooked teeth, but she was still fighting the frizz ball atop my head, grunting a bit with each yank of the brush toward the floor. West and Maybelline laughed aloud at the same time, which sounded so much mouths open wide while they guffawed,
126 ride in his truck and then a ride in his backseat, if you know what I mean. Might get an West told Maybelline to shut up, but my stomach turned sour anyway, and I felt a soft hotness tingle at the edge of my cheeks. I coughed, and my head jerked so hard that I taking several wispy, broken strands of my hair with it. Maybelline yanked my chin back in her directio to squeezing at my face and sticking various pink and black colored pencils in my eyes and around the edges of my lips. I sat, silent, thinking hard about Cade and how he wouldn Maybelline knew. Right? Is that all Cade would want from me? Is that all any of them told was painting on my face n back there around either of them. Maybelline just kept on working, humming some disco opposite beat from the trance stuff still blaring from her radio, as she rubbed a creamy
127 up looking like her. Would she make me look fake? Too made up? Would I even look like myself? Would Cade like it? Would anyone? Would Mama not no tice, like West said? After what felt like hours, Maybelline stopped the poking and clipping in every I looked over at West to see if she agreed. She was still asleep. It was funny, sitting there in the silent house all dressed up, the crickets chirping their night songs away y pretty, a full face of concealer, mascara, even lipstick on in thick globs across my pale face. Even with it all, Maybelline, just naturally beautiful all the dam n time, so careless with the beauty they held so loosely in their perfect, feminine palms, without all this stuff clumped all over their face. I wondered, too, if Maybelline really cared so much about looking so pretty, so made up for the men she must have danced for every night. As she stood behind me, her face sweaty, her own makeup melting off in slow beads down her face, her soft hands resting on my shoulders as we both stared at my reflection, like a proud mother and daughter might after some crowning moment of beauty pageant glory, something inside not anymore, anyway. ~~~ West and I left for the pits around nine thirty. Half walking half running there, I was terrified Mama and Jasper would come rattling down one of the roads toward the
128 next bar and catch me out of the house, but I felt good that Johnny and Austin would for a few hours, at least, if they even came As we got to the edge of the pits and he ard the faint buzz of kids laughing, I knew maybe since Mama was in high school herself, but there was no way Mama or Jasper would find me hidden back there surround ed by all the woods and empty buildings. In the center of the pits, which was really just a quarry that was at one time supposed to be the falutin contractor from the all the construction stopped, sat three pick up trucks, each with its bed facing the center. The truck beds made a triangle, and about fifteen kids either sat on the beds or in the center of the three trucks. A fire raged in the center of it all, and I cou ld hear the girls chattering like little squawking birds. My stomach churned. West smiled at me, pulling my arm toward the party, walking faster. ~~~ recognized some of the m from school, along with their thinly veiled looks of disgust. green eyed when the girls at school always came up a little prettier, a little sweeter, a little more lik ed by the boys than me. But I never quite got why they deserved all this more than I did.
129 Everyone looked the same to me the girls in sandals, cropped jean skirts and white or pink tanktops, their hair tossed into a loose, casual ponytail or ironed stra ight down their backs, their French manicured hands gripping icy white bottles of grape Smirnoff Ice or the occasional bottle of Budweiser. flannel button ups or t shirts with jumping fish prints and jean shorts, their heads naked and shaved or topped with a faded gray baseball cap. I looked down at my own outfit a yellow sundress Maybelline had thrown over my head and a pair of bruised looking plastic white flip flops and overdressed a bit for the occasion. West wore short jean shorts and a green tank top, an flop. For that Axel, and he guided us over to his truck bed. I sat next to her as she chattered to him, and I sat, staring into the fire, wondering if Cade was really coming. No one talked to me, and West was apparently into this Axel guy, because she was giggling high like someone was tickling her, even though she was just sitting there talking to a brown haired boy from Crow. I wondered if I should just go and grab a drink from the giant red cooler that sat on the truck opposite me, or if I should wait until but my hands felt empty, and the other
130 supply. Axel, any of the other guys here would have already got West anything she wanted. Finally, though, a kid named Lee I knew from middle school Pre Algebra offered Start drinki it was something. I popped the can open and took a revolting sip, and the smell and feeling of it instantly reminded me of Mama. What had her first sip of the stuff been like? Did she always love it, or did she have to make herself drink it at first? I wondered then what Mama and Jasper were doing that very instant, and prayed that th come home early from their celebration. I sipped at the can again. r what could have very easily been a yes as much as it could have been a no; that way, I and laughing like hyenas until they were behind the truck and into the darkness.
131 Through the glow of the fire, I watched everyon e chatter and laugh. I stared at their straight, white teeth, and tugged at my pointed, crooked set. I took a deep gulp of the beer. I looked at their perfect tanned skin and then down at my own reddish, clammy outer layer. I glanced past them, noticed how dry everything looked. Patches of grass looked more like hay and many of the trees looked sparse and ready to uproot. I glanced at the unopened beer can in my hand and thought again how nice it would be to be able to water the earth with the liquid in my hand. But what good would it really do? Another s ip. I looked back to the kids and w ondered how they all got so lucky, how they were not only beautiful and carefree, but were also born to normal parents, normal families, and what I had done wrong along the conditioned new eer. me. The beer buzzed through my body as I stared at him, his beautiful hazel eyes, perfect, wide Chiclet teeth. The feeling was warm, and it made me feel an eagerness an d was smiling at me, and Mama and Jasper were nowhere to be found to ruin this for me. t he truck bed, to not jump up and hug him tight. beer can.
132 n my lips as it wafted toward Cade. I dropped the can down beneath my feet, and Cade scooted in next to me. He smiled at me, his thin lips curling like the edges of a ribbon wafting in the g at me. Cade was tough to read sometimes like that. was surprised at how badly I wanted to kiss him all of a sudden. I wanted to take him in my arms, right then and there, and touch my lips to his, see what it felt like to be that close. Just like they did in movies. something that made me feel like I was about to explode clear across that place. you a lot when I was Oh my God. He was holding my hand. His fingers felt softer than I thought they wings might. I wanted to squeeze his hand tig ht to see if I could feel his pulse through my own hand, but instead I relaxed and tried not to swallow my heart, as it seemed to be moving its way down from my chest to the pit of my stomach.
133 ed. tried to be still, see if I could match his to mine. His felt faster. We watched as the fire raged, sending sparks every which way into the night. The wood popping, shooting ember specks into the air, reminded me of fireflies crackling, and I felt for just a second that maybe everything was going to be just fine. I mean, Mama and Jasper seemed all right, or at least better than they had been the past few weeks. West w as off enjoying herself with Axel, and here I was, holding hands with Cade for the first time ever. finally came to, like it always seemed to. It was Cassidee May Smi th that had to go and ruin everything that night the one God sent to go and mess it all up for me. Cassidee was the type of girl who just found it natural to go and mess with girls like me. She was the one boys wanted, with her long, straight and p retty hair and her perfect ivory teeth. She was never without a bow in she was all skirts and frills, kitten heels and globs of Mary Kay makeup her Mama sold, all day, every day. Everything she said came out lo ng and over drawn, like she had all the time in this world to speak, and that everyone wanted a front row seat to listen. That was the case, all right, especially for the boys at school. Cassidee May Smith, with her perfect little life, had always had a cr ush on Cade, and now, along with Mrs. Perfect Teeth Annie McDaniels, was walking in me
134 she pulled away, and I could smell her White Rain and Vanilla body s pray tingle through my nostrils. painted toenails in one raven right then and the in my direction. My stomach sank. Where was West to help me with these girls? If they could just see the bea smiled. I suddenly hated my new hair, my makeup. They were right who was I fooling, trying to act like some sort of pretty, normal girl? I was remind me.
135 de said. He reached to put his arm around me, but I belong here. These kids hated me. They hated my Mama. They all knew exactly where I came from. Who was I kidding? Cassi dee and Annie snickered, and I felt their eyes sneer at my dress once again in disapproval before they turned away in simultaneous giggle, off to talk more about me her daughter. Him. Cade. have been. What c ould he ever want from me besides it it take it and then up and leave me before I even knew it if I let him. And West? It was only a matter of time before she was hanging out with Cassidee and once again, just biding my time til I could leave Crow forever. before he could hold me there, past the gro up of laughing kids, past the fire, right past West, and then walked as slowly as I could down Tumbleweed Road, right back home,
136 right to the place where I guess I was supposed to belong forever, or at least until it was time to escape. ~~~ manager of maintenance men a big jump in the air conditioning world, or so Jasper had hopping through my bedroom window. The door creaked long and loud as I opened it, and I hoped Johnny and Austin cleared, long and loud, sending me to jump straight clear into the air. my heart pounding hard, bumping right out of my chest. I could hardly make out his rounded silhouette, but I could see him propped up in the easy chair. Then, I noticed the orange glow of a lit cigarette cut through the darkness. I thought it pretty damn s trange, him just sitting there in the dark alone. Had he been up with some stocking. Where exhaling hard, pushing out wafts of smoke from that cigarette into the dark air.
137 e gotta worry about you, ed the light on, and I wanted to be away from Jasper. asking me questions. Why was he home without Mama? You just promise me Even through the dark, I could sense him smiling wide, pleasured by my from his lips, and I shuddered. I felt cold, suddenly, even though it was clear above 90 degrees outside. A cool sweat trick led from the ridge of my forehead to my eyebrows. Cade? those little boys, especially that littl before you even start high school, ruin those
138 I felt a thick vein in my forehead rise, right by the crown of my head, and it began to thump so hard I swore I could hear it. Ca de? How did Jasper know about Cade? How did he know I was with him? My stomach churned. And w here was Mama? For the first time in a long time, I wanted her there to hear Jasper talking to me talking about her like that, like she was some kind of stor y you found on a warning label him to get out of our house for good. His time here had run too long. front of me in the dark air as feelers for walls and random pilings of laundry on the floor. As I walked, Jasper stood from the chair he was sitting in and creeped forward toward me, grasped my shoulders and turned me around. His fingers felt huge and heavy, like e ach appendage was a sledgehammer on my body. I felt suddenly like a glass figurine, one of those delicate, glowing things that Miss Zell displayed from her windows at Christmastime each year. He was going to break me, and I felt it. whispered his lukewarm breath, sweet with the smell of flowery whiskey Even in the dark, I could see the shimmer of his eyes circles. His other arm wrapped behind my head, and his palm wedged flat against the back of my head. His palm was sweaty and moistened my neck. My body swayed with his as he steadied himself in the air. The taste of hot vomit swelled in my throat, and my
139 heart pounded so loud I could hear it over the bullfrogs screaming outside the front window. I took a long step backward, releasing his thumb from under my chin. I felt him reach for me again, but I bolted down the hallway to my room before he could grasp hold again. My b follow me through the door. I slid down against the door, praying my weight could keep face and back, it was with those big, dirty hands, those hands that had been touching my smell on me to linger for one last moment before it went and got tarnished by J weird words in my ears and hot, sticky breath on my neck. I sat quiet, my back against the door. My tank top stuck to the wood, plastered on tight with the stickiness that had spread while Jasper had touched me, lied to me. I knew what Jasper sai d about Cade was wrong. Cade was not another backseat boy, that type of just want that one thing from me the thing all the other boys wanted I was sure of it. Cade was different. I wanted him just as much as he wanted me. For the next little while, I heard nothing from Jasper, not even a scuffle down the be that night without him, for a second that she was out secretly meeting with my Daddy, planning a life together
140 once more, plannin and were going to get back together for good. I left one small lamp of my room on, and I sat cross legged on my bedroom floor for a long while, staring into the fogged and greasy body l ength mirror attached to the wall with rusted orange screws. I began to stare, half asleep, half listening for Jasper to try and come barging through my door. As I examined myself, I realized that Maybelline had painted, rouged, highlighted and plucked me into someone who might pass as a girl, nah, maybe even a woman. I stared at the calligraphical wave of my thin, arched eyebrows, where bushy caterpillar puffs of dark hair had once grown wild. Watched the way gold streaks now rivered through the murkiness direction. Realized how steely gray, how gunmetal cold my eyes really were. room, grip my shoulders like J my father, tried to remember his eyes and what color they may have been. I wondered if more, wishing he were there to tell me I was beautiful.
141 Chapter F ourteen I woke up the next morning, the morning after Jasper had held me close in the especially. suddenly there to see me. Johnny and Austin stopped poking at their grits and stared, wide eyed, like their aid through a giggle. go and i ~~~
142 around her, but I went anyway. What else did I have to do? And after we reached the creek side, I told her about what Jasper had done to me th touched me, talked at my neck with his hot, liquor vol beneath a tree on the creek and about you after you went running off last night. I even went by your house around ten and gonna come out and sc yet. No one was home. No lights on, t do
143 I thought about this for the rest of the day as West and I swam in the creek, this idea that Jasper may have actually followed me out to the pits the night before and had wa tched me with Cade. The thought of it made my hair raise, even those tiny ones you can hardly see stood clear straight up in the air, like I had permanent goosebumps. It ut then again, what other boy would I be around? None of them wanted to be around me. sun. The girls with straight, shining hair, the kind that blinded you in the s un. Boys wanted girls without pimples. Girls with smooth legs. Who else but Cade would ever want someone like me, an ugly old girl with a poor family, and a crazy Mama? Surely no one else would come sit around my house with the roaches and the grime and th e oranges. Add to that the yelling and screaming and the men coming in and out of the Mama had been with half the men in town at some point in her life, a girl whose Mam a was worn and weathered, and somehow looked a million years older than any other tel Road with dust tracks swirling behind him as he went off to find a church going, normal Jasper, just like I thought, was acting all creepy abo started winking his big red eyes at me and smiling wide in my direction when I left the
144 not. The thought of him watching me without my kn owing it made my skin crawl, like a cool face, were crawling all over me, trying hard to get inside and really bug me. ~~~ After heat lightning crackled through the sky and stopped West and I from swimming, I changed to dry clothes and crossed Tumbleweed Road to to help her fold her night dresses. As we worked, I told her about my anger man Miss Zell just listened nodded her head Later, w e sat on her screene d front porch hate Mama for it, how she was just plain selfish and how i know myself. Miss Zell was quiet for a whi least, and I watched her stare out past me to my house for a while. For a minute, I thought she might try to call my Ma ma over to talk it all through. I hoped
145 Instead, she prayed. Raised her palms to the sky and mumbled out to St. Anthony, said long chains of mutterings with words like forgiveness, redemption, love. I just watched, looking pas t her to Tumblweed Road, watching the ripple of heat waves dance on the horizon. The horizon, so close, seemed to call toward me from down the road, its smooth line within grasp. Yet I sat there, watching Miss Zell pray for me, for my thoughts, wondering h she wanted me to ever lift my heavy feet and make it down to road where I needed to go past Tumbleweed Road ever see past an Draft of novel manuscript ends here