ABSTRACT VILLERS, JODI LYNN. Morley, Morla, M and Other Small Wonders. (Under the direction of Wilton Barnhardt.) This thesis consists of sixty-nine short-shorts and one novella written during my time in the MFA program at North Carolina State University. MORLEY, MORLA, M AND OTHER SMALL WONDERS by JODI LYNN VILLERS A thesis submitted to the Graduate Faculty of North Carolina State University in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the Degree of Master of Fine Arts CREATIVE WRITING Raleigh, North Carolina 2007 APPROVED BY: _________________________ _________________________ John Kessel Jill McCorkle ________________________________ Wilton Barnhardt Chair of Advisory Committee ii DEDICATION Dedicated to my mother. iii BIOGRAPHY Jodi Lynn Villers was born in Ft. Myers Beach, Florida, but she has lived in Raleigh, North Carolina since she was nine. She received her high school diploma from Saint Mary’s School and her B.A. in English from Meredith College. Her work has been published in several literary magazines, including Staccato and Quick Fiction. She currently resides in downtown Raleigh with a beagle named Turtle. To pay the bills, she works in real estate as an Office Administrator. iv ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS Thanks to all of my writing teachers. v TABLE OF CONTENTS Burial at Sea.............................................................................................................................. 1 Resuscitation ............................................................................................................................. 2 One of Those Dreams................................................................................................................ 5 Ambulance Siren..................................................................................................................... 11 How to Wear Your Hair.......................................................................................................... 12 A Habit, A Give Away............................................................................................................ 14 The Trigger ............................................................................................................................. 16 Brand New .............................................................................................................................. 17 Soft Pants ................................................................................................................................ 19 ABC ........................................................................................................................................ 21 Underwater, Where It’s Safe................................................................................................... 28 Beyond Words ........................................................................................................................ 31 The Lonely Nights Pillow....................................................................................................... 34 A Sexy Death .......................................................................................................................... 36 Blood for Babies ..................................................................................................................... 38 Gassed, In a Dentist Chair ...................................................................................................... 41 Luky Caller ............................................................................................................................. 43 Countdown to the Implosion................................................................................................... 46 An Insomniac’s Guide to Falling Asleep................................................................................ 50 Better Worlds .......................................................................................................................... 52 Missing Person........................................................................................................................ 57 Plastic Surgery Disasters......................................................................................................... 58 Nursery Rhymes...................................................................................................................... 60 After Hours ............................................................................................................................. 62 How to Win a Game of Pool................................................................................................... 64 Fish Eat Each Other ................................................................................................................ 68 It’s My Gun Now .................................................................................................................... 71 They Say I Have Alzheimer’s................................................................................................. 73 Ill Advice ................................................................................................................................ 74 Church Bells............................................................................................................................ 77 Momo and Sline...................................................................................................................... 79 Green Ball Playing Children From the Past............................................................................ 81 Favorite Things ....................................................................................................................... 85 Imitation.................................................................................................................................. 86 In the Name of the Mother...................................................................................................... 88 The Baby Shower Episodes, or Plastic Shark Fin................................................................... 90 One Good Arm........................................................................................................................ 96 Glacier and Volcano ............................................................................................................... 98 Bodies ..................................................................................................................................... 99 Hookers ................................................................................................................................. 100 Playing Dolls......................................................................................................................... 104 The Honeymoon Suite .......................................................................................................... 105 Gargoyle................................................................................................................................ 107 vi Dig It Up ............................................................................................................................... 112 The Smell of Hair.................................................................................................................. 121 Limp...................................................................................................................................... 123 I Don’t Have the Birds.......................................................................................................... 125 Three Women Left................................................................................................................ 130 Art Thief................................................................................................................................ 132 Cargo Cult............................................................................................................................. 133 The Death of Men ................................................................................................................. 137 Young Friends and................................................................................................................ 138 The Wrong Bar ..................................................................................................................... 139 Blue and Red......................................................................................................................... 141 Flea Market Mall................................................................................................................... 143 Up In the Air ......................................................................................................................... 145 The Effects of Gravity .......................................................................................................... 148 To Forget............................................................................................................................... 152 The Homeless Should Wear Black ....................................................................................... 154 That Space............................................................................................................................. 156 Your Once Literate Dog........................................................................................................ 158 Meat ...................................................................................................................................... 160 One Year Annersary ............................................................................................................. 162 Birthday Suit ......................................................................................................................... 164 Sleeping Man ........................................................................................................................ 165 Small Victory ........................................................................................................................ 167 Some Loss............................................................................................................................. 168 Strength That Builds ............................................................................................................. 171 The Scar on a Dolphin’s Back .............................................................................................. 173 Morley, Morla, M ................................................................................................................. 177 1 Burial at Sea I keep a fish to fulfill a deep need, something about water and fake seaweed and flake food. I have to buy a new one every week or so, but it’s not much of an expense, less than a dollar for the ugly ones. I name them---Skin Deep, Friday, Fuck Wit---but the names really have more to do with me than them. When I see the latest fish floating at the top, I remind myself to never have children and scoop it out and make my way to the bathroom. Plunk goes the fish and then the flush, the swirl. And watching it disappear so easy, water down a drain, sends me on a mad search for my birth control. The rotating dial on the pink pack says I’ve missed five days, so I take five pills which isn’t really recommended. 2 Resuscitation When dad was away at work, my mother taught me to swim, hold my breath. After vacuuming or scrubbing or cooking, she would change me into a bathing suit I was growing out of, one that cut at my shoulders, pinched my sides, and lead me out back to our above ground pool. The water lapped around her waist; there was no deep end for her, but for me, it was all deep, like a yawning mouth, almost bottomless. This is about survival, she would say. You never know when a man is going to pick you up and throw you in the water. He may only want to see you wet, but you could drown. That’s the worst way to die, she would say and start the stop watch. Seventy seconds this time. I would take a deep breath and plug my nostrils shut before the plunge. I’d focus on something at the bottom---a brown leaf, a twig---and try not to struggle while she held my head under. I could hear her count like she hated each number. Sometimes she’d push the back of my head down and down as a distraction. You have to focus, she would say, there will always be distractions. When she let me up, allowed me air that I swallowed to keep, I would cling to her middle, never wanting to let go of my life giver. I could hold my breath for ninety seconds, a hundred seconds, one hundred and twenty seconds. She was so proud of me. When my dad came home for dinner, my mom would brag about how well I could swim, call me her little mermaid. But after he left for work the next morning, she would say it wasn’t enough. If you can only hold your breath for 3 two minutes, you could drown. These men, she’d say, they’ll wait longer than two minutes for you to die. They only want to see you sputter and spit. Three minutes this time, she said. One hundred and eighty seconds should keep you safe. The stop watch beeped, and my head was under before I had a full breath, lungs like balloons. I kicked as she counted. I shook my head under her palm and thrashed my arms. I was so afraid of drowning, and water was everywhere. Mom, I yelled, spewing bubbles. I watched the air I needed float to the surface in round, gleaming spheres. I wondered if she was now breathing my air. And then I closed my eyes and made my body limp. My sudden stillness was instinct; my mother never taught me that. She stopped counting and lifted me out of the water, but I still played dead. I let her lug me out of the pool, lay me flat on the grass. I listened to her panic---what have I done, what have I done---and then her fingers pushed my nose closed, her lips covered mine, and bursts of air filled my lungs straight from hers. It was too much; her breaths made me full and light like I could just float away and watch the pool, my house, the whole city shrink as I lifted toward the clouds, so I coughed and opened my eyes. I sputtered for awhile, spitting, because I knew what was expected of a girl like me. My dad came home that night when dinner was still hot and steaming so it clouded his glasses. I saved her, my mom said. She almost drowned, but I did mouth to mouth. She was bragging, so proud of herself. I don’t want to swim anymore, I said, hoping my dad could see me clearly over the mist of hot mashed potatoes and country fried steak, his favorite. It’s not that important, sweetie, he said between forkfuls of meat. You can quit, take up something else, maybe ballet. And then I knew my mom was right because I could see my whole future spread out and obvious. Men like my father pushed me into deeper pools, threw 4 me over cliffs and bridges and piers to see if I could stay afloat. Three minutes, I told myself. Tomorrow I’ll make three minutes and that will keep me safe. 5 One of Those Dreams You awake in a hot state of wanting; dream phantoms---a costume party, a shared Singapore sling, the discovery of a closet---haunt your morning coffee (vanilla flavored) and paper (headlined “Four More Years”). In the shower, you use your waterproof vibrator (blue dolphin), but instead of fulfillment, you get a warm ache inside. You dot aftershave on your wrists and sniff the clean man-smell while you get dressed (business stripes). At work (court reporting), you sip apple cider and grind the ice---chew it into manageable pieces, roll them to the front of you mouth with your tongue, suck out the water until the pieces are stuck together in an icy snowball, and chew again---between transcribing lines from your latest case (petty theft) at the office. Another court reporter (married) notices the crunching sound coming from your mouth and, positioning his body dangerously close, whispers “sexually frustrated?” in your ear. You move the glass of juice out of reach and decide you’re going out tonight. Once home (downtown condominium), you try on outfits and wait for the night. You are old fashioned trashy (flowery dress with blue fishnets), sadistic business-like (tweed suit with leather wrist bands), eclectic sailor (patterned, blue anchor dress with horn rimmed glasses), and techno cleavage smart (bright orange tube top with black computer circuit skirt). Between outfits, you pucker your lips and perform a strip tease in front of the mirror; clothing drips to the bathroom floor. As the sun sets, you pour a heavy drink (vodka and tonic with two lime wedges) and choose dark-side sleuth (sleeveless leather body suit with 6 five black watches on each arm). Once dressed, you lean into the mirror and apply red mascara, brown eye shadow, and more blush than usual. The skyline outside your kitchen windows begins to glow as you drain your drink. You would count the square windows of pale light that ran up the buildings, if such a thing were possible. Instead, you count the buildings (15 that really tower) and rinse your glass. You check the mirror once more (daring and dangerously sophisticated) and head out the front door, across the bright hallway, and down the elevator to the street. # Your heels are so high (six inches) you have to take short steps; long strides, especially uphill, create aching air pockets in your ankles. The closest bar (two blocks away) is inside an art gallery, but you want something more rugged, less creative and clean, tonight. So you hold your keys like a weapon (car key poking out between the knuckles of your clenched right fist) and take a left under the railroad bridge. # With either a speeding mechanic or a social sciences professor in mind, you pick a stool at the end of the black granite bar. The blue lighting underneath it accents your leather- covered knees and you order a Singapore Sling. The first man to approach you looks like a rule-follower (serious brown suit and glasses with round frames), but he does wear an interesting hat, like he should be duck hunting. He leans in on your right side, and orders “whatever she’s having.” When the light cherry colored drink arrives (gin, cherry brandy, soda water, lemon, powdered sugar), he says “cheers,” and taps his highball glass against yours before taking a swig. You watch the bulge in his throat drop and rise as he swallows. When he sets the drink 7 back on the bar, he says it tastes like medicine. You tell him to have a cherry, and he fishes one out of the glass by trapping it against the side with his index finger and sidling it up to the mouth. You smile, uncross and re-cross your legs. “Better?” you ask. His name is Samuel (not Sam) and he works in one of the towering buildings (35 stories); he tells you he is an insurance adjustor. “Just got out of there, and I needed a drink. I’m working a fire, suspected arson. Long hours involved.” He turns his drink in his hand so the ice cubes swirl and tink against the glass. “You probably pre-heat the oven,” you say. “Excuse me?” He pulls at an eyebrow, stretching the lid below it. “You probably use measuring cups to make sure the ingredients are exact. You set your alarm (6 a.m.) and drive the speed limit (55 m.p.h.) and pre-heat the oven (350°). I know your type.” You let some of your hair block your vision, and look him in the eyes (green with gold flecks). “Look, lady, I spent this morning sifting through ash in a burnt building. I pulled silverware, children’s toys, baby rattles for Christ’s sake, out of a family home. I’ve seen what could have been death. And you don’t know my type.” You wonder if he is exaggerating; that’s what you would do. But when you imagine him behind his desk, in a brown suit, sifting through pictures of the house instead of the actual ash, you are somehow more attracted to him. # After four Slings, you let him drive you home instead of walking. It’s drizzling outside and you didn’t bring an umbrella because you hate raingear and coats and protection of any kind. You watch how he handles his car (rusted Roadrunner). He actually places his 8 right arm on the back of your seat and looks over his shoulder when he reverses out of the parking space. And he drives the speed limit (35 m.p.h.). But he’s good with directions (four blocks away, first left, second right, the building across from the park) and he zips around the turns, barely slowing, which is nice. You close your eyes, run your hands against the cool leather seat, and listen to the accordion music playing on the radio (NPR), the wipers sweeping across the windshield, and the wind whirling through his cracked window. # Once you have him inside, you show him the view of the skyline from your kitchen. This is always the first thing you show people; you bought the condo for the view, the rest of it is standard (one bedroom, one bath, white walls, family room with decorative fireplace). You leave the lights off so there won’t be a glare. “Which window is yours?” you ask, as you hook your arm into his. “I don’t have an office with a window.” He doesn’t sound like he is making a confession. “But even if I did, you wouldn’t be able to see it. I’m on the other side.” “I’m sorry.” You step in front of him, so the skyline glows behind you and serves as backlighting, and lean in. At first, his lips are stiff (closed and chapped) and you wonder if you can do this. You move down his neck, tasting aftershave, and back to his lips which are warmer now. Then you back him toward your bedroom (five steps). He pulls his head away and ends the kiss in the hallway. “Didn’t I see a bookshelf in that front room?” he asks, gesturing away from the bedroom. You sigh and answer, “Yes, yes, lots of books.” “So, do you read a lot?’ “All the time. Every chance I get,” you say. “But not when I have company. So, let’s 9 go in the bedroom now.” “You said you were a psychologist, right? A specialist, a forensic psychologist. So you probably just have textbooks and case studies. No time to read for pleasure.” He walks past you and toward the books. You grab his hand as he passes you, regretting all that talk about identifying burned bodies through residual DNA and testifying at murder trials. You should have kept it simple. He runs his fingers along the spines and calls out titles: “The Yellow Wallpaper, Foxfire, The Edible Woman.” You explain that you keep your work books at work, and those are just the books you read for fun. But he is more interested in the fact that all of your books were written by women. “Your collection is hugely incomplete,” he says, turning away from the shelves. Relieved his eyes are on you now, you say, “Yes, hugely.” You stopped reading books by men in college, after three other students (men) in a Contemporary Lit class (ENG 333) had said they couldn’t read books that were written by women because it made them feel girlie and gross. After that class, you sorted through your books and dropped the men’s work off at Goodwill. When you got back to your apartment, the bookshelf was scarce and you considered turning around, getting them all back. But instead, you began building a collection of women’s work the very next day. You fell behind in your classes and barely graduated from college after that. And you never had another crush or went on another date or even looked at a man and imagined a future (marriage) again. “Look, it’s getting late.” You look at the third watch on your right arm (the only one that works). “Really late (1:45 a.m.). And I didn’t invite you in to talk about books.” You smile at him and deliver an ultimatum: “If you don’t want to go in the bedroom with me, 10 you’re going to have to leave.” “I want to get to know you first,” he says, pushing his glasses up at the bridge of his nose. You restrain a laugh; he looks so serious, like he imagines a future of dinners and good night kisses and diamonds. “Oh, I figured it out,” you say. “You’re going to have a family some day, grandchildren even, and I’m going to be alone. And it’ll be too late because I’ll be old and shriveled.” You guide him to the front door. He tilts the brim of his duck- hunting hat and leaves. # You pull a vibrator (pink with rubber spikes) out of your underwear drawer and crawl into bed. You tell yourself, it’s good he left; it would have been boring anyhow. He’d want to leave the light on and it would be missionary style and he’d be so quiet, you wouldn’t even disturb the people above, below, or next to you. And afterwards, he would ask if you need a glass of water and then he’d curl his body around yours and call it “spooning.” You listen to the buzz of the vibrator from under the covers and imagine him in old age, spoiling his grandchildren with suckers and trips to the zoo. Then you climax. 11 Ambulance Siren Blaring from the street, ri-ya, ri-ya, but none of the other kids look back to the windows to watch the ambulance cruise past. I’m the only one; I turn fully around in my seat. I’m not interested in the lecture anyways. It’s fifth period, history class which only means war. The siren gets louder and louder, and then I see it---the death van, white with red stripes and lights turning everything bright. And it lures me out of the classroom; I follow it down the street. I’m the driver, and everyone yields to me. Watch out! Here I come. Dead man on my hands. Out of my way. I blare the horn, and cars pull off the road. I’m the technician, and all of those shiny tools are at my disposal. Scalpel! Gauze. Don’t you dare die on me. I yank a bullet out of a chest with tweezers. I’m the dying man. Ouch! That really stings. Someone shot me. I don’t want to die, but here it is. I take my last breath, and nothing. Then I can’t hear the siren anymore, so I have to turn around and listen to my teacher. He says a date, and everyone writes it down. I don’t bother. I’ve already been dead once today. 12 How to Wear Your Hair Sport a head of hair at birth, a bush of black around your rosy crown. Relatives will run their fingers over the soft fluff when they meet you. Your mother will wash it in the sink with tear-free baby shampoo. # Sneak scissors from a junk drawer, reaching up, feeling for the cold blades. Sit in your mother’s dark room and give yourself a haircut. Hide the locks in a cereal box after you have picked out all of the marshmallows. # Your mother cuts your bangs before the first day of school. Sit still. She tries to make them even, straightening again and again with the scissors until a very level line of almost nothing barely covers your forehead. # Curl your hair for a school dance. Roll strands of it around pink curlers and pin it into place for bed time. Have trouble sleeping. You let it loose in the morning and brush until the tight ringlets are subtle waves, barely even there. # Get it cut short at the mall without telling your mother. Make the hairdresser turn what’s left into spikes. Spend the rest of your allowance money on gel and hair dye. When your mother picks you up, she says you look like a boy. 13 # Let your hair grow out. Have layers put in. Buy the shampoo at the hair salon because it smells like melon. Tousle it for men. Run your fingers up your scalp, through your hairline, and flip it for emphasis. Your mother is thrilled. # Keep it tied back in a bun or ponytail. The baby likes to pull at loose strands. Only take it down at bedtime for your husband. Shake your head, hoping he’ll notice the smell of mango and remember an earlier time. # Pluck the grays when you spot them. Then you pass the hair dyes in the grocery store and surprise yourself by grabbing a box of black. Wait in your bathroom for the dye to set. You could stain something in the house. # Decide gray is distinguished and let the dye fade out. Use cream conditioners to keep your hair silky. You take long baths and watch the silver strands fan out around your sunken body, still brilliant. 14 A Habit, A Give Away And before I know it, I have another habit. With me, they don’t take long to develop, and just one night to start, and wham, there I am performing another ritual. This time, the habit is unpacking, purging, giving away all of my possessions and losing my past, watching it walk right out the door. I got sick of looking at all the blue storage bins in my condo. They took up so much space, it was like they owned me. So it started. Past three in the morning, and the music was loud, and I barely knew the people smoking on my sofa, and I felt claustrophobic and too drunk in my still new family room. So I got up and opened a bin, trying to look backward. I peeled a corner of the blue plastic lid, and I could smell my life inside, and it was heavy, so I coughed. The bin was full of useless and forgotten things---three snow globes, rain stick, coffee beans, board games, records, sea shell, art kits, expired calendars. Practically everything was a present, some gift I didn’t need or want. So I began to unload. I dug items out of the box and held them up, passed them around, told their histories if I knew---a wizard, I think he’s part of a board game, judging the corroded batteries, I’d say he’s old. I offered stuff up until six, when everyone left with garbage bags full. Alone, I felt lighter, like there was less of me. Very next night, it was the same. I was tired, but I hit the bar, stayed until close, and invited new people over to my place. Opening a fresh bin and giving away, like a reverse treasure chest, a free rummage sale, energized me, and again, I lasted until six. After a week of this routine, the blue bins are getting empty. I’m in the bathtub, 15 wondering who’s left to take. I remember a friend, my best friend, I have to say, one of those you grow up with and lose touch with but never really lose. I dry my hands with a towel and turn down the music and grab my cell phone, thinking there might be something left that she’d like, I have to offer before I have nothing, and it’s too late. How’s it been? I say. The same, she says. What’re you doing tonight? I say. Art gallery closing, she says. I’ve been getting rid of stuff, I say. That’s good, she says. I’ve been giving it away, I say. All of it, I say. Even things I like, I say. Like what? she says. My bubble bath, I say. My books, I say. Don’t give them away, she says. Even that shot glass set, I say. The one that glows, I say. The one you gave me, I say. I would’ve taken it back, she says. It was still in the box, I say. That was a party piece, she says. Do you still have Garma’s candy dish? she says. Of course, I say. That’s family, she says. You can’t give that away, she says. I wouldn’t, I say. There are still some things left, I say. If you want anything, I say. That’s a warning sign, she says. A sign of what? I say. You know, she says. When you give away the things you love, she says. Suicide, she says. Suicide? I say again. I guess it’s because you can look in those boxes and see the past, and it’s tacky and pathetic and useless, and you feel no connection with these things that are the sum of your life, and you figure it’s all a waste, a gigantic waste of space and time and effort, and what’s the point, there’s nowhere to go from here, and it’s so easy to give away, to give up, to open that pink razor you’re supposed to use for shaving your legs and expose the silver blades and look in their reflection and see a stranger, no one you want to know. 16 The Trigger I found the life and death trigger next to an old calendar under my bed. It was lost, and everyone in the whole world was searching because people had stopped being born and dying. Women got pregnant, but they just got fat and never delivered, and old people filled the hospitals but never left. First thing, I pressed the green button for life, and the world buzzed with birth, and everyone figured the trigger must have been found. This is it, women around the globe said, and they were driven to hospitals where all of the babies came out at the same moment, screamed for the first time in unison. I thought about the future birthday parties for these children; no one would come because they would be busy throwing their own, and cake would be left over everywhere. Then I pressed the red button for death, and the elderly people, the sick people, took their last breath together in a giant sigh. Their relatives called for ambulances, and nursing homes cleared, and no one could get through to the funeral homes because of the busy signals. I thought about all of the memorial services that would happen in a couple of days, the ground filling with so many caskets all at once. And I thought about the future anniversaries of grandma or grandpa’s death, the same day as little Suzy’s birthday so at least there will be plenty of leftover cake. 17 Brand New She had no idea where she was, and I thought it was spectacular at the time that someone could be so misplaced---there are signs everywhere---but now I know that every day was new for Trina. In support group, we deal with the grief of losing her by rationalizing: I am surrounded by people who also had Trina for a day. My experience with her wasn’t special, we are told to think. She wasn’t technically lost because there was no place for her to find. I skipped work and drove her to the beach because she said she’d never been, and I couldn’t imagine. The passing scenery made her eyes hurt; I had to explain, man made this, rubbing my steering wheel, honking my horn for her to hear the beast. I told her how plants grow skyward, birds fly, water evaporates into clouds, and explaining everything to her made life seem amazing. When we got to the ocean, she fell to the sand; the waves and the blue stretched to the distant edge of earth was too much for Trina, and then it was too much for me, and I was crying because the world was so big and new. I told her the moon makes the waves, it’s gravity, and feeling the pull, also fell. I’m dating a man from support group; it’s recommended. He was with Trina the day before I was, so he can piece a little of the puzzle together for me. He says the skinned knee was from her first fall, and he had to rock her in his arms; she had never felt pain before. He also says he showed her the ocean, but I don’t believe him. I think he just slept with her; most of the men did, and their attachment is based on that culminating moment, her very first 18 orgasm. Instead of going out on dates, we take turns pretending to be new together: I show him how to make the bed, how to cook rice. He shows me how to cut paper with scissors, how to shave my legs. But it doesn’t feel the same. I was with Trina for her first ice cream cone, her first breeze, her first hiccup, the first time she saw the sky lit up with stars. In support group, we are told our moments with her were never really firsts, but the feeling of being brand new with her never goes away. When I’m at my desk, doing the same old things, I think about leaving my job, my boyfriend, the city, and faking like I’m new. I could find a stranger, a new stranger everyday, and let him introduce me to this life. In support group, we are warned against wandering, imitating Trina. They tell us our eyes are too old, everything in the world is the same for us now that she’s gone. 19 Soft Pants Every step through the open air market feels like the break between your legs is opening; you ask each vendor, Soft pants? and move on when they shake their heads, no. When you don’t think you can take the burn and ache, you imagine wearing the pants. They’re soft cotton white, the same ones you saw her wearing. But while she danced in them, you just want to sit in them. Soft pants? you ask a basket weaver, and keep walking. Stepping out of the airport yesterday, she was the first person you saw; she came in a welcome gust like the island heat. Her soft pants hung loose, cut just below the knee. A soft top hooked around her neck, cupping her breasts. But you just need the pants. She was dancing to a steel drum, and you pulled your new husband at the elbow, wanting to give her some dollars, but he kept walking. You watched her dance over his shoulder. Soft pants? you ask a group of men, pointing to your legs. You thought it was going to be like a warm pressing, two bodies coming together. But last night, he broke you. It was wrong, you think, stopping to squeeze your legs together, to hold your insides in. Soft pants? you ask a weathered woman squatted in front of blankets. Your suitcase is full of new wardrobe your mom helped pick out. It’s your honeymoon, she said, you have to look nice for him every minute. You don’t even have pajama pants at the hotel, only silk slips, lace. Soft pants? you ask a man with a bundle of seashell bracelets. He knew how much it hurt. There was blood and you cried, but it must have sounded 20 too breathy and made things worse---faster, harder, deeper. He turned your body, flipping you to each side, all the way over, so he could enter you, tear you, from every angle. When he fell asleep, you pushed his body off of yours and went to the bathroom to look at the pain. You sat by the sink and spread your legs for the mirror. Soft pants? you ask a little boy. On the plane, you pointed out the spots that were boats in the ocean. Look, you said. But his knee was shaking, he couldn’t wait to get there. Soft pants? you ask a crowd. The steel drum was covered in dimples. You didn’t notice the man who pounded it; you only saw her. She had no shoes, but her feet hit the concrete the same. Her face danced to the music, too. Her soft white pants swung with her body, but didn’t wrinkle. They were too soft to wrinkle. Soft pants? you ask a grocer. When you find the pants, you will take off your nightie and change in the street. Your underwear will be left in the gutter for rats or a dog to chew at the red spot. Then you’ll go back to the hotel and just sit, maybe on the balcony. Soft pants? you ask a butcher. Beyond the butcher’s hung shanks of meat, you see a human struggle bordered by the pink, so small. A man has a woman by the arm; he’s reaching under her shirt and she’s struggling a little but not crying out. She must be used to it. Soft pants? you ask no one in particular, walking away. I only need one pair, you say, looking deep into the people’s eyes. I won’t ask you again because this won’t happen again. 21 ABC Louise, or Lou as she wished to be called, started the club when we were juniors in high school. I’m not sure if it was a national thing or just her idea, but she laminated pictures she had taken of us to red membership cards, so it seemed pretty official. She made personal invitations out of construction paper and magazine clippings inviting each of us to her house for an initiation ceremony and a sleepover. My invitation had a dog peeing on a man’s headless body on the cover, and pictures of women with extraordinary cleavage decorated the inside. It said my presence was requested. And Lou included a list of things to bring. I probably still have it somewhere in a box. Only three girls got an invitation---Maggie, Robin, and me. I’m still not sure what she saw in us, why she picked us out of everyone at our all-girl school. But each of us went over to her house that night to join up. Lou’s parents were out of town for the weekend, off at the coast somewhere. She greeted us at the door in a wrinkled, red slip. Her hair was loose and unbrushed. She kissed our cheeks and welcomed us in and offered wine from a chest in the parlor. I drank mine fast from the loveseat and kept the green bottle close. There was already a fire burning in the fireplace, popping sparks. The ABC, Lou explained when we were all settled, stands for Anti-Boys Club. She uncrossed her legs and tucked some red fabric between her thighs. Then she talked for a long time about the difference between men and women, and we just listened. She said men 22 were responsible for wars. And men were perverts; they liked to look up young girl’s skirts. She told us about genital mutilation in Africa, making us cry and squeeze our insides together at the thought. Lou said that men would only bring us pain. It wasn’t that hard of a premise for me to accept; my father left my mom when I was just a toddler. He sends me birthday cards from South America, sometimes missing a year or sending two a year, but always getting the age wrong. Maggie and Robin also believed what Lou said about men, for their own reasons. Lou made us confess our past experiences, so we could move forward with a clean slate. Maggie had slept with a couple of boys, and she said she never liked it but just gave in because she knew what they really wanted. One time, she had sex without a condom and bought a pack of birth control pills off another girl at school, and she took the whole month in a sitting to keep from getting pregnant. The pills made Maggie hospital sick. Robin slept in curlers for almost a whole semester while she dated a boy because his last girlfriend had curly hair. I had never been on a date with a boy before, so I told them about a man who used to come over to see my mother; he walked into the bathroom when I was sitting in the tub once, and he didn’t leave right away. He looked at me for several seconds before turning around, and that extra glance made me feel prettier, like more of a woman. That story seemed to be enough for them. I don’t remember Lou confessing anything. Then we burned the things we had brought in the fireplace. The glitter in our eye shadows and lip glosses shone silver in the flames. The white stuffing from Maggie’s padded bra erupted into brown smoke. Love letters curled at the edges and singed. A thong that Robin called the devil sizzled. Lou passed around a joint when we had nothing left to burn, and I took deep puffs when it was my turn, trying to get as much smoke as possible. I 23 drank more wine because my mouth became dry. Lou took us out to the hot tub on the back porch. We helped her unhook the cover and slide it off. She turned on the lights and bubbles. Before we could ask to borrow bathing suits, Lou had her red slip off and was getting in, naked. We hesitated, folding our arms across our chests. No one can see, she said. This house has a lot of privacy. She said the water felt better without a bathing suit, and she was right. I sat so a jet shot at my lower back, and I kicked my legs out toward the center of the tub, brushing against the other girls’ knees and toes. There were stars up in the sky. Lou said we would be friends forever, and that all we needed was each other. Then she hugged us, and the hug was much more intimate because that night, the whole world was dark, but we were illuminated with her in the water. # Last week, I went to another baby shower for Maggie. She’s expecting her third, another boy. My present to her was a photo album. Most of the ladies brought plush things--- stuffed animals and outfits and blankets. I sat next to Robin while the presents were opened. She was busy recording who gave what in a little notebook so Maggie could send the appropriate thank you notes later. When mine was opened, Robin said it was nice, something that could keep memories for a lifetime, memories of a lifetime. Speaking of memories, she said, have you heard from Louise. No, I said, remembering. It’s easy to lose touch, she said, and then something soft was taken out of a box. # Lou invited me to stay with her at the beach house the summer after our junior year. Her parents were gone, off in Europe somewhere, so we had the place to ourselves for a 24 whole week. We fell into a comfortable routine together. For breakfast, we ate orange slices until we were sticky up to our elbows with juice. Then we walked down the beach to the pier, collecting sea shells on the way. We begged fishermen to reel in their lines and just stop. We took afternoon naps in a dark bedroom with the fan oscillating air over our bodies. We swam in the ocean or just floated over the waves in identical inner tubes. We showered the saltwater off of our bodies, sharing a bar of soap. For dinner, we brought a plate of cheese and crackers out to the screened porch and listened to the ocean. After eating, we raided her parents’ liquor cabinet, taking turns swigging on different bottles. Then we played music and danced in our pajamas. I learned how to tango with Lou. She always took the lead. I came back from the beach glowing. My mom thought I had met someone, a boy, a lifeguard, a surfer. It’s just the sun, I told her. We got a lot of sun, I said. My skin feels hot all over. I’m probably going to peel. # My mother calls me every Sunday morning. She asks how my week’s been and tells me about her failing health and basically begs me to get married and give her some grandchildren. A couple of Sundays ago, I made the mistake of telling her I was seeing someone. I said his name was Allan. I said he was an accountant. I thought it was a harmless lie, something that would make her happy, but now she’s trying to arrange a meeting, offering to buy plane tickets for both of us to fly back home and see her. I’m planning a break up, nothing that will upset her like I caught him cheating, but nothing innocuous like he suggested time apart either. I don’t want her to hope we will get back together again. I think I’m going to discover that Allan is gay. # 25 Lou, Maggie, Robin, and I all signed up for a class ski trip our senior year. We sat at the back of the bus eating popcorn balls Robin’s mother made. We fell asleep during the movie, a teenage love story the other girls could relate to. I woke up in the mountains with my head on Lou’s shoulder; she was stroking my hair and calling me names like darling and baby doll and sweetness. Lou and I got to share a hotel room together. After we unpacked, Lou leapt onto my bed and patted a spot next to her. I pushed Blue and Green Dog, a stuffed animal I’d had since early childhood, out of the way and plopped down next to her. She unwrapped a piece of foil, showing me two pieces of candy inside. Lou said there was liquid acid on the candy, a drug I’d never tried before. She told me not to tell Maggie or Robin who were together in a room just down the hall. She said she only had the two, and they’d be jealous. I took my piece and sucked on it. Lou said this acid gives a great body buzz, and she ran her fingers over my arms and legs, demonstrating how great I was going to feel. We rode up the ski slope, bundled in heavy jackets, and watched the skis on our feet dangle farther and farther above the ground. I felt something rising inside of me with our little open-air cart. When we got to the top, I clung to Lou and told her I couldn’t let go. She waved the attendant off, and our cart turned and began the descent with the rest of the empties. I kissed her face, thanking her for saving me from the mountain. The skis on our feet were getting closer to the ground, and before we got back down, I had to tell her how much I loved her, how much she meant. Lou, I said. She looked at me, and her pupils were so wide, they looked like they could swallow me, and I forgot what I wanted to say. The universe, was all I said, looking down those black holes. And then there was ground beneath me, and touching it, I felt better about the slopes of snow. I thought it was just like a frozen 26 ocean. We snuck back to our room, avoiding the hotel staff, chaperones, and other girls. The pattern of the hallway carpet turned a swirl on me, and I had to stop looking. Once safe inside, we peeled out of our waterproof clothes and found sweat on our bodies. We spread out on our beds in our underwear and watched the ceiling fan spin like a cyclone above us. Lou got up first. On her way to the bathroom, she blew a puff of steam out her mouth that clouded a circle on the window. Inside the circle, she traced a heart with her finger. She walked off, and I watched the heart fade away, like it was escaping, moving out into the world. Then I heard running water. I found Lou in the bath tub, waiting for it to fill around her. I watched her with the water. She turned around in it, and splashed it, and used one of the hotel glasses to pour it over her head. In the tub, she sang a song about singing. Singing in the rain, she sang. Later, a knock on the door made us barricade the room. We pushed all of the furniture up against the door and sat across from it on the floor, watching the subtle vibrations the wood gave off with the rapping and listening to the words it came with. We held hands there and shook with the drug and fear. They eventually got in, but we were hiding in the closet by then. When that closet door opened and brought back the light, they had to tear us apart. Word got around school, and some girls called us lezzies and made obscene gestures when we were present. Maggie and Robin found boyfriends pretty fast, so no one ever called them dykes. They went to prom with boys to parade around at their arms. Lou stayed home. I went but never danced. And I hated my dress. # 27 I frequent the three gay bars in town, but they’re just full of men. And on the rare occasion that a woman does come in and ask me for a cigarette or buy me a drink, I feel cheap, like something they want to sleep with; I feel like I might as well be getting picked up in some straight bar. Most of the time, I just play pool with the men. I’m sure Lou would agree that they don’t count against my ABC oath. I’m getting more accurate with my shots with all of the practice, only lately, I’ve been hitting the balls too hard. Last night, I made the two fly off the table, and it struck one of my friends in the head and made him bleed. I ran to the bathroom to wet a towel to mop up the blood, but hesitated at the sink, the running water, wondering how many miles of pipe separate me from Lou now. I let the water run over my fingers and closed my eyes and pictured her under another faucet. 28 Underwater Where It’s Safe It’s more than having my legs sewn shut, I tell the doctor. I want my new gills to sparkle. I want to have trouble breathing without water. He says I came to the right place, opening a binder of testimonials. Before: he was a zookeeper. After: he is a lion in Africa. His pride is now in the twenties, the doctor says. The envy of the savannah. Before: she was an aspiring singer. After: she is a record player. See how I molded her arm, he says, pointing. I’ve seen enough. I book an appointment for next week. I should have been born a mermaid. I shower every morning. I wear a bathing suit under my clothes to work, so I can sneak outside if it rains and sit in the puddles. After work, I do laps in the community pool with the swim team. I take a whirlpool at home, late; sometimes I stay in the tub all night, fall asleep with my head just above drowning. When it’s time to do laundry, I stick my arms in the sudsing, turning water. I don’t water my plants because they just sit there. They don’t deserve it. Once the surgery’s done, there will be a significant recovery time, I tell the boy who used to be my boyfriend, who still wants to be my boyfriend, who I chose water over. You can stay in my tub, he offers. I’ll take off work. I’ll give you a little bell, and you can just ring for shrimp or magazines or shoulder rubs, whatever. I tell him I want to be released into the wild once healed. I press my legs together and fling them around, imagining miles of safe blue, being underwater. The doctor cuffs my ears with headphones and I am filled with the whoosh of waves 29 as the drip in my arm turns my body to thoughtless water. When I wake up, my lower half is bandaged into a tight flipper. A nurse sits at my bedside with a bowl and sponge, wetting my arms, face. I can feel the water work into my skin, feed me, and I forget the throbbing of my former legs. When I’m dismissed from the hospital, the old boyfriend carries me to his car and sets me in the passenger seat on top of wet rags. He drives fast, saying he’ll get me to water soon. The tub is already full at his house. When I feel my new body submerged, I sing, low and free. The old boyfriend thinks my song is for him. He sits by the tub, forgetting it has always been all about the water, only the water. Just days, and the bandages are off; my new flipper heals into a sea green. I don’t sing as much, because there’s not enough water for me inside the old boyfriend’s house. I tell him I need the ocean. I’m ready to be free. He says a pool is being built for me in the back yard and pours more salt into the tub. Whenever I complain, he tells me about the pool. He says it will have tropical fish and underwater caves and an extensive filtration system. My pool sounds better everyday, but it is always almost finished but never finished. When I sleep, I dream I have been caught in a fisherman’s net. When I wake up, I lift myself out of the tub and slither out of the bathroom, try to escape. He always finds me before I dry out and returns me to that rectangle of water. I don’t believe a pool is being built in his back yard. I don’t sing anymore. I don’t think about swimming. I wish I had legs again, because legs let you run away. I remember when I was a child, running from a boy with a dead snake, my little legs falling after another faster so I could be safe. 30 When he forgets my plankton the second night in a row, I tell him I feel trapped. I’m sick of captivity. I ask about the pool, if it’s really being built, and he shakes his head. Am I being punished? I ask. What did I do wrong? He leans and reaches a hand into my water. He touches the top of my flipper, where my legs used to separate, and says the doctor closed me up too high. If only he left this part open, he says, pulling a few of my translucent gills away, I’d build you a pool with my own hands and swim with you all day long. But he ruined you, he says, standing. I’ve got no use for you. He turns off the bathroom light and shuts the door behind him. I love the doctor for closing me, I shout in the dark. I love my flipper, too. This bath water is plenty. Keep me here forever. I don’t need the whole ocean. I don’t need legs. I’m safe here, underwater. Underwater, I yell, turning the water on, waiting for the tub to overflow and fill the bathroom, the house, his lungs. 31 Beyond Words I’m feeling a bit too comfortable with you. You’ve loosened me, gotten a hold somehow, and I’m forgetting about all of the other, earlier boyfriends. I split my hairline down to the base of my neck and tie my hair into high pigtails. We ’re watching television from my couch because you’re spending the night at my place tonight. We should probably move in together one of these days---every night we’re together, at mine or yours---but neither of us mentions the idea. I cross my legs and flip through channels. You don’t say schoolgirl or suggest I wear a plaid skirt to complete some fantasy. You say nothing about my hair; you don’t say anything at all, so I figure I’m safe. I stop making the channels ascend when a history program flashes black and white gore on the screen. I know what you watch from nights at your apartment, when you control the remote. I sip my drink and twirl the ends of my pigtails around my fingers, trying to pay attention. Yesterday, I decided I love you. It was the first warm day after winter, and we read books from my roof top, sunning our arms and drinking canned beer. Cars chugged along the downtown streets, and people called out, greeting each other from opposite street corners, but we were suspended above it all. After cracking a fresh beer, you lifted the can in a toast at the banking building next door, quietly saluting those still at work. We turned pink together in the sun. We didn’t have to talk. 32 I decide I’ll leave you on the couch and take a bath, forgetting there are things men will always want. I pull at my pigtails, tighten them, and drink in hand, retreat toward the bedroom, my whirlpool tub. Four squirts of bubble solution under running water, and the jets will take care of the rest. I prop my computer at the bathroom door and start the play list I’ve titled WET, mostly crackly jazz. I light blueberry scented candles at the foot of the tub and undress. I look at my body in the mirror, listening to the tub fill. All of my other boyfriends had a favorite part. One said I had a classical back, a back that should have been painted. Another said my bellybutton was perfect, and joked that doctors down in Florida must be bellybutton experts because they know all the little babies will grow up to populate the beaches in scanty bathing suits. The thought scared me; doctors shouldn’t look at baby girls and see bikinis. You come into the bathroom already naked. You wrap your arms around me from behind, and rest your head on my shoulder to look at us together in the mirror. We look into the reflection of each other’s eyes, seeing something there. I watch you turn away from the mirror and kiss my neck, my ear, so revealed because of the pigtails. My ears might be your favorite part, but you would never say that. You turn off the water and get in, spreading your legs to occupy the perimeter of the tub and leave me the middle. I turn the jet dial back ten minutes. I turn the volume up on my computer. I turn toward the door, shaking a little in the hands, remembering the others and worrying about my hair. But, I remind myself, it’s just you here, and even if you really like the pigtails and bubbles, you’d never let me know. So I step into the water and curl into the place you’ve left 33 for me. I rest my face on your chest, and you rub my shoulder with a soapy hand, and the bubbles multiply around us in the swirling water. The small gestures seem to be enough for us. I imagine one day you’ll clear out a drawer for me, and on another you’ll have a box with a ring inside, and on another I’ll touch my belly, and all this will be understood without words. I pull my hair out of pigtails and finger it straight. I cover your chin with bubbles, sculpting the beard of an old man, and you cover my hair with bubbles, turning it white, and we can see that this is forever; bubbles are spilling over the side of tub in waves, but neither of us cares to mention it. 34 The Lonely Nights Pillow “I have an idea for an invention,” I say when we’re inside the car wash, during the preliminary spray. “It’s a pillow with a recording of a snore, preferably yours, so when I’m sleeping alone, I can cuddle up and think you’re there. And I can sleep easier.” “A snoring pillow,” you say, laughing. A coat of white foam sprays out, covering the car. “It wouldn’t just snore,” I say. “The pillow would fall asleep. It would be gradual, real. First, some heavy breathing. Then light snores. I want to record you tonight.” The whirling, green washer drops to the hood. “And it would give off warmth. And have a heart beat.” The green plastic slaps against the windshield. “I think you’re the only one who would want a pillow like that,” you say, staring at your hands. “I’m calling it ‘The Lonely Nights Pillow.’ Everyone’s going to want one.” I look up and out your sunroof, to the passing washer. “I’ve had a lot of work lately,” you say. “I want it to be cordless, but I’m thinking rechargeable. An AC adaptor instead of batteries.” The rolling washer stops, and high pressure spray pounds the car from every angle. “You know this is my busiest season.” “This isn’t about you,” I say, closing my eyes. This is for women everywhere. 35 Because the pillow can take an infinite number of upgrades---kind phrases, fertilization mechanics, an encouragement factor, an attached vibrator---and replace man. You pull out of the car wash, into the sunlight, and I figure I’ll give you one more night, so I can record you falling asleep, and then I’ll move on. A pillow doesn’t wander. 36 A Sexy Death For years, you came home and watched television while I busied myself with paperwork. If we ended the night with sex, it was typical like our days. Then one morning we woke up and everything was different. The house had been burned---your trophy case, my craft table, the photographs, furniture, walls. The pets were all black; when they barked or meowed, it was only smoke. Even our bodies were burned. When I sat up in bed, some skin flaked off of my legs and turned to dust. Your hair was gone and you smelled like barbecue. We didn’t even recognize each other, we were that charred. And somehow, it was easier. “Show me your panties,” you said. “How they poke out of the top of your pajama pants.” I rolled over and showed you, though my clothes were gone, burned along with everything else. When you rubbed my back and down, your fingers felt far away and safe. So I crawled on top of you. “I own you,” I said. “You’re mine.” And I was fast and free with my blackened body. You were loud, louder than ever. “I want to tape this,” you said. “And I want to be on top.” I pretended I wasn’t going to get off of you for awhile. “What makes you think I’m going to let you?” I said, smiling, showing all of my teeth just because my lips were gone. Then I slid off and you set up the video camera. I didn’t care if someone was going to 37 see this in the future. Once you came back, I played for the camera set up on a tripod, blinking red. I told you what to do to me loud enough for it to be recorded. “Kiss me,” I said, before I realized we had no tongues. “Bite my nipples,” I said, leaning forward. “Harder,” I said. And then you spit them across the room. “Get me from behind,” I said, turning over to face the camera, to make sure it was captured. You told me every indiscretion you had committed as you plowed into me, pushing me closer to the eye in the room. I heard about summer flings, strip clubs, hot tubs, lubricant. I breathed in the ash our bodies flung into the air, the dust of our former life, and moaned. I fell in love with the freedom death brought us. Nothing was sacred. Nothing was wrong. All was sexy. 38 Blood for Babies They say they are moving, can’t take the dog. Or they have developed an allergy this year. They hand me the leash or the box full of squirming fur. The cages are always stacked and full. Some shelters use gas chambers; it’s supposed to be easier. # They call me Scout, because I’m just like them, but not quite a boy. I think I am their favorite troop leader. I make trail mix with more chocolate than raisins and can identify animal tracks in dried mud. When they joke about diarrhea or watermelon-sized boobs, I laugh so hard that snot sometimes oozes out of my nose. # Most adult blood carries a disease that is lethal to babies. They tested me for it once, and said I don’t have it. So my blood is always donated to babies. I think they said that my pint of blood can save the lives of ten, twenty, or even thirty babies since their bodies are so small. Or smaller than adults. # My house is listed in the historical registry. It was built in 1903 or 1904. The ceilings are over fourteen feet high and peeling. There are skinny, coal-burning fireplaces in the family room, master bedroom, and dining room. It is perfect for me; everything it doesn’t have---dishwasher, laundry room, ceiling fans, garage---I don’t need. But it is a good six blocks within the terrible area of downtown. 39 # Most of the dogs that come into the shelter are snarling city dogs. Once they are restrained, I don’t really mind injecting them and stopping their hearts and zipping them up in blue bags and stacking them in the walk-in freezer. It’s the same with the cats, only they’re scrawny and fit into smaller blue bags. But I don’t like killing the puppies. # The other troop leader has a son named Zachary in our troop. He also has a wife and daughter. His name is Brenner, and he calls me Sedwick instead of Scout. Brenner leads the Den and Pack meetings because he is better at tying knots and keeping track of the popcorn forms and money. He frowns when I laugh with the boys. I’m their favorite. # I want to give blood every sixty or so days when I am eligible. I mark the calendar on my refrigerator and if they don’t call me to donate, I call them and say I have some blood that is ready for babies. At the clinic, there is a banner over the front door that says, Heroes Walk Through These Doors. # I call the cops every time I see a drug deal in the streets through my wavy, old windows. The dispatcher ladies know who I am. You’re supposed to protect me, I say and hang up. It might make things worse. The window over my kitchen sink is covered in cardboard because someone threw a rock through it. And I have lost all of my hubcaps. # Everyone who works in animal control knows the story about the shelter out west. Until they were caught and forced to gas or inject, they killed their animals by dropping the 40 cages into a large box full of water. Sure, there would be some thrashing and splashing, and you’d feel bad about the panic and the pain, but at least they didn’t have to stroke warm puppy fur to make the last moments memorable like I do. # Brenner’s wife makes sandwiches and cheese trays for the Den and Pack meetings. She treats me like one of the boys; she rubs my shoulder and smiles at me with slight, motherly reproach. But I’m not quite a boy so her floral perfume, manicured fingernails, and exposed knees make me hot in the pants. # When I stumble out of the clinic, dizzy, light-headed, and feeling like a hero, I think about my blood pumping through a baby’s heart the size of a quarter. Babies live and grow with my blood; they get puppies for their birthdays and join boy scout troops with sexy, sandwich toting, Den mothers. # Gunshots and nighttime shrieks are common in my neighborhood. I know one thing for certain: either the area is getting better, cleaner, decent, or it is getting worse. Somewhere outside my bedroom window, chained dogs in heat bark for partners and babies’ hearts pump my blood through little arms, fingers, toes. 41 Gassed, In a Dentist Chair Her hands stand by, ready with swabs and metal, while the dentist chisels away. It sounds like he’s building a city inside of your mouth. A city he can escape to with his assistant. Their hands tell the whole story. Her two hands: waiting, quick when he needs them. His two hands: deliberate, mean with tools. All four work together. With her assistance, he builds a motel on the shore of your left cheek, where a molar should sit. He gives it vibrating beds, mini-bars, whirlpools. And when he’s done, he pulls his assistant into your mouth and sleeps with her. Their pleasure pounds a nerve in your jaw; it tastes wrong, like candy cigarettes or flavored condoms. It’s not enough. With her assistance, he builds a mountain lodge at the base of your palette, where your tonsils should land. He gives it fur rugs, wine bottles, fireplaces. And when he’s done, he pulls his assistant into your mouth, skis with her, and sleeps with her. Their pleasure tickles the back of your throat; it tastes wrong, like rose stems or massage oils. It’s not enough. With her assistance, he builds a house under your tongue, where a spit lake should stand. He gives it white fences, high ceilings, barbecue decks. And when he’s done, he pulls his assistant into your mouth, cooks with her, watches television with her, and sleeps with her. Their pleasure dulls your gum line; it tastes wrong like laundry lint or baby powder. It’s not enough. When they’re all moaned out, finished, the dentist tells you what a good patient you 42 were. And his assistant hands you a toothbrush wrapped in plastic. But you know it will never be enough. 43 Lucky Caller I won a date with a rock star from a radio station contest, a national broadcast; you had to be caller number 355, and I had two phones redialing, and I just climbed right up the ladder: Sorry, you’re caller number 57, keep trying. You’re 101. 213. And then I couldn’t get through for awhile, and I panicked, thinking the contest was over, almost an hour wasted with a phone at each ear, but I connected again, and the man on the line said 355, lucky caller. I cursed in disbelief, and he collected my information and made me pretend to win again, so he could record the bit for broadcast. Just squeal this time, he said. And then there was a beep, and he said 355 again, and I tried to scream a scream that would make the rock star proud, but I think I sounded like a raccoon in distress, tipped trashcan or something. I had a week until Friday, the date that would start with dinner and champagne and dancing and end with a trip to his hotel room, breakfast in bed, a proposal. I prepared. I bought the rock star’s eight CDs and listened to them in the shower, in my car, while I slept, trying to memorize his words so I could quote him if the right moment came up, show him what a fan I was. I bought my first fashion magazine. I stopped eating and started walking after work until dark which is dangerous; I don’t live in the best part of downtown. I opened a department store credit card and bought a sequined dress, heeled shoes, control-top pantyhose, eyeliner, rouge, thinking once we were married, money would no longer be an issue. I took off work on Friday. I spent the day trimming my nails, shaving my legs, 44 exfoliating, lotioning, and tweezing my eyebrows into thin, arching lines like I had seen in the magazine. I shampooed my hair five times and curled it into wisps off the shoulder. I practiced with the makeup, painting my face and washing away---green eyelids, pink eyelids, brown lips, red cheeks, gray eyelids, long lashes---until it looked just right. I put the dress on at the last possible moment, so it wouldn’t wrinkle, and I looked in the mirror, and I thought I could be someone else from now on. The shoes were hard to walk in, I never practiced with them, so I slid them off after catching myself about to fall down one of the flights of stairs to the street. Outside, there was a breeze and a homeless man who wanted money or food. I checked my watch, figured I could be fashionably late, and raced back up the stairs to fix him a couple of sandwiches. When I gave him the brown lunch bag, he still wanted money, so I dumped the pennies out of my change purse, explained the silver was already given away. You just washed your hair, he said. Smells real nice. And I turned and walked toward my parking deck as fast as I could back in the black heels. Before I could get there, a man in business clothes was beside me, matching my stride, asking me a question: I’m just re-entering the singles scene, and you look like a dancer, and I’m looking for a place, do you know of a place where they have Latin dancing lessons? I took the elevator to the top, the tenth floor of the deck which is uncovered and much cheaper. I spun down and around the levels, listening to the rock star’s music, trying to enjoy it, as I descended. I followed directions to the set restaurant; I’d never heard of it, but I knew it must be something because the buildings got taller and shinier, and my car started to look out of place. When I got there, it was all valet parking, and I said I could park myself, I don’t have the money, but the man in the red coat knew who I was and wanted my keys. Just give 45 me a second, I said, flipping down the mirror so I could check my makeup, smeared, and my dress, stained with mustard. He drove my car away, and I put my shoes back on, and my ankles wobbled toward the restaurant entrance and the reporters with microphones and little notebooks and flashing cameras. They all knew my name, and they shouted questions at me and crowded. I wasn’t hungry anymore. The restaurant was so bright, and there were too many men around, and I didn’t want to date a rock star. They think big of themselves. I just wanted to steer back home to my little condo---old timey movies, pajamas, bubble baths, and a string of multi-colored lights circling the bedroom ceiling like a fluorescent spider web. Caller 354, I told a camera. 354 gets the date; I’m backing out. And then a man with a bald head and leather and chains jumped out of the swarm of people, claimed the number, the dinner. I’ve seen him twelve times; I’m his biggest fan, he told the reporters and paraded inside. I collected my car and wiped away the makeup and drove toward home, leaving both shoes in the parking lot like a backwards fairytale. But I didn’t feel like an ugly stepsister; I felt like a cowboy, just riding off. 46 Countdown to the Implosion They say a building will be imploded downtown early Sunday morning, and there will be warning sirens, blocked streets, a possible dust cloud. I plan on witnessing the building collapse, being there. # They say I could stand to lose weight and try to sell me a bottle of diet pills. They show me a woman who can talk about her old, heavier self as though she is detached and somehow new. The woman wears a bikini now. She says she was embarrassed to leave the house at a size twelve, but now she’s a four. I wear a twelve like her past. I always like to think myself as well proportioned. # They say it will only take fifty-five pounds of explosives and five seconds for the building to fall. It doesn’t sound like much; if my body was made of explosives, I could destroy a much bigger building, so many more stories and tons of steel and glass. The thought makes me powerful. I count to five under my breath when someone makes me impatient or angry or tired. Bang! I think, imagining obliterating them, leaving smoke and rubble in their place. # They say I should earn my degree online, it isn’t too late. They show me a picture of a man in a business suit. He’s smiling behind a computer, his desk. He is quoted as saying 47 that he used to work in a restaurant. He had a dead end job, but now every door of opportunity is open, the sky is the limit. I wait tables. But, I make good tips, and everyone’s nice, and it’s cash money. I walk out with a wad of bills in my pocket every night, and I get a small check every two weeks. I don’t need a degree, some piece of paper, to tell me I’m smart. I think I’m already pretty smart. Or smart enough. # They say the building has to be imploded, not just destroyed, because of its proximity to other buildings, its neighbors. The explosives have to be placed by experts called blasters, so it will crumple neatly into its own footprint. I think about all of the people I could affect if I fell outward in every direction. They look like dominoes in my mind. Some are close enough to have an affect on each other---my mother’s domino drops against her husband’s. Other dominoes just fall flat on their backs without a common trigger---my new boyfriend no one knows yet, my regular customers, a couple of scattered friends. # They say I should send money to a foundation to help starving children in third world countries. They show me video of naked boys and girls digging through trash heaps, make me watch flies circle a child’s wide, red eyes. They entice me with examples of cute letters the children send their sponsor parents overseas. They accuse me of being selfish by graphing the cost of saving a child comparatively---it’s more expensive to go out to a movie once a week and eat popcorn, or buy a cup of coffee every day. I don’t live extravagantly. I get the same groceries every week; the only meals I make at home are sandwiches, spaghetti, macaroni, and frozen pizza. I’ve heard those foundations are crooked, and most of the money doesn’t really go to the children. And, even if it did, those children have grown up that way, 48 and they don’t know anything better even exists. I can’t be expected to take care of the whole world. I’m just trying to take care of me. I’m barely taking care of me. # They say the implosion of the building will create valuable real estate, and a better building will go up in its place. They say once it has been imploded, a crew will come in to dismantle the wreckage and make way for the new. But on a different channel, on a different night, they’ve also told me that metals are precious, and if all of civilization was destroyed in an instant, there would be nothing left to rebuild. I think about starting fresh, getting rid of what was and careening toward the better, the new. I am imploded---no more missed shifts or late bills or drunk nights where I can’t stand without swaying---and then I’m taken away in truckloads. A new me is built. It takes years because they want me to be just right, and there are a lot of unexpected setbacks, like my legs not fitting and my heart not beating, but eventually I’m finished, and I gleam. I sponsor a girl named Tetu from India, and she sends me pictures of rainbows she’s drawn with her new crayons, and I have my degree, a new office job, and I just slide into slinky dresses and black pants because now I’m a four. # More people show up for the implosion than I expected. It’s twenty degrees outside, and I don’t have a hat and gloves like everyone else, and I just wanted to experience this alone. I don’t like people. I don’t like myself. I find a spot just behind the yellow Caution tape and look at my watch, and it tells me that I still have five minutes left with my old self. We had good times, I tell myself, eyes closed, trying to drone out the sound of the crowd. Remember that time we ate a whole box of chocolate chip cookies in bed, or the time the power was cut off and we read fairytales by candlelight to feel nostalgic, or the time we spent 49 fifty dollars in one bar and felt so drunk everything spun in warm pastels? But there were a lot of bad times, too, I tell myself, rubbing my naked, pink fingers together to bring back sensation. With you, dust bunnies lined the hallway, and friends got sick of my antics, and I puked in strange toilets, and men left me for better prospects. A policeman holds up a finger; one minute, he says. There’s not much time, I tell myself. You’ve got to go. I have more potential without you; they say so all the time on television and in magazines and the newspaper. This was never my idea. I open my eyes and stare at the building, ready. First, the interior structure is blown to bits with six blasts and bright flashes through the windows. Is that it? I hear an onlooker say. Failure, another says. But just as their words hit the air, louder explosions blaze the edges, and the building folds inside itself and drops to the ground in a giant, violent sigh. Someone screams, and it sounds primal, essential, so I scream, too. The dust moves toward me in a cloud of hazy brown, as I push myself away and out. I drop down to sitting on the curb, and try to feel different, new. I try to stop screaming because my old throat still hurts. The crowd has stopped looking through the hole of space the building left behind; they’re watching me like I’m on television. 50 An Insomniac’s Guide to Falling Asleep Slip into pajama pants and get to bed early. Try to keep your eyes closed. Think about something slow and quiet like a caterpillar on a tennis court after rain; it’s inching around still puddles. You pull the comforter over your head and breathe a warm circle into your pillow. The air conditioner turns on and off with hums and clicks. Flip over onto your side and check the clock. Take off your socks. Turn on the light and find something to read, a novel or a phonebook or a pamphlet. Hold the pages far from your face and make your eyes tired with the distant print. Focus on a word---apple, manicure, sleeve---and repeat it in your mind until it holds no meaning and sounds foreign. You reach over to the nightstand and switch off the lamp. Close your eyes again for sleep. Let your thoughts run their course. You saw triplets at the grocery store today; they were skinny in pink and holding hands in the bread aisle. They looked like identical best friends. Wonder if triplets can really be identical. Wish you had two sisters in bed with you, flopping around, trying to sleep. They would give you backrubs and tuck loose strands of hair behind your ears. Or you can think about something you saw on the television, a blind date or a weather report. Wrap your brain around the small details until the ideas behind them are exhausted. Hate your bed, your bedding, your bedroom. Throw a pillow at the door. Your comforter is losing feathers. Your bed is too springy; it rocks around like it wants to be a 51 waterbed. You’re sure you could sleep on something firmer. Or in someone else’s bedroom. Feel the empty place next to you with your palm. It’s colder over there. Get out of bed and boil water in the kitchen for caffeine free tea. Drink from a big mug at the breakfast table. You can feel the hot liquid roll all the way down your throat to your stomach. Look out your window and down to the street. No cars pass, but the traffic light still changes at the corner, brightening the asphalt green and red with yellow in between. Sip more tea. Breathe in the steam it spills. Look at the dark world through your faint reflection in the window pane. Take two sleeping pills from a blue bottle above the sink with the last lukewarm swallow. Slip into your gray blazer. Lock the door behind you. It’s quieter out on the sidewalk, quieter than your condo somehow. In several hours, these downtown streets will buzz with workers, but right now, they belong to you. Stride past closed bars and banks, swinging your arms with the quick pace. Burn off energy. Turn new corners. You are braver when outside at this hour. Bigger and buoyant. Start to feel tired in your legs and neck and arms and head. Slow down. Look to the sky; daylight is preparing an approach behind it. Look to intersecting street signs. You get lost in the grids of the map you build in your mind. You’re so little on that map, just a star or a red spot, and home seems far away. And you’re sleepy now, almost ready to fall over. Find a nice place to lie down, just for awhile. Explore covered entrances and the space behind hedges. Settle down in the stairwell of a parking garage on the concrete stoop between the third and fourth floors. This parking deck has an elevator, so you can dream that you are never found. 52 Better Worlds “You look like lemon tastes,” my boyfriend says, touching my hair. His fingers are always in my hair; he curls it around his fingers, detangles it, takes strands of it into his mouth. “You’re so dumb, the stork that brought you should have been arrested for smuggling dope.” He smells my hair for shampoo, asks if I’ll be shampooing again tonight. “Why don’t you make like the wind and blow?” # I buy two rolls of sticky paper that looks like clouds in the sky---Windowscaping, they call it---to change my view. I’m living up in the air now, I think, staring out the new blue squares. # I baby sit for my neighbor because she has a date. I watch an old Dutch version of The Little Mermaid with her daughter. None of the mermaids wear sea shell bras, and their hair doesn’t fall right, so they are all exposed up front. Marina, the main mermaid, falls in love with a prince and bargains with the Sea Witch for legs. Her tongue is cut out. And the prince marries another, so Marina is turned into sea foam, foam she hopes will somehow make the prince’s life better. # “I sold a boat,” my father says, calling out of nowhere, sounding like he’s been drinking. “Your boat. The Elizabeth Sue. The first to sell since she’s such a looker.” My 53 father owns a seafood company that is going under. “She’s going to Trinidad,” he says. “Time for a rest. She’s twenty-five years old. Of course, she won’t really be resting. She’ll be catching shrimp.” # One of my co-workers is getting married, and she wants all of the women in the office to attend her bachelorette party. I barely know her, but the office talk is that the groom’s old enough to be her father, and they’ve already been living together for twelve years, so it’s all just a joke. I’ve never been to such a party. And no one told me we were going to a male strip club after dinner. I didn’t know we’d have to drink out of straws shaped like little penises and talk about sexual positions. # “Hair is like history,” my boyfriend says, separating a brown lock so he can look at each thread. “It lasts longer than eyelashes. And your hair is so long, one strand of it could tell the story of your life if it was taken to a lab and analyzed.” He pulls a piece out and tucks it into his pocket for safe-keeping. “I’ve seen better legs on pianos. I’ve seen better thighs on chicken. I’ve seen better ears on corn.” # My mom calls, says my stepfather caught a naked girl in my little brother’s bedroom. “He said she had a great body. Stewart hadn’t seen a young thing like that in a long time. I think he almost had a heart attack watching her dart to the bathroom.” # I buy a shovel shaped like long tweezers---a plugger, they call it---to dig ruts in the ground. I look at the plugs of dirt the shovel releases, studying cross sections of life 54 underground. # I sleep with two strands of multi-colored Christmas lights strung around the ceiling of my bedroom, so my nights are pink. But there’s always a man in my dreams who tells me to unplug them, turn off the lights. And I wake up in a dark room every morning, cursing because he won again. If I weren’t sleeping, I tell myself, everything would still be pink. # The makeup aisle in the grocery store is longer than the magazine aisle; I’ve checked. I try to weigh pretty faces against sports, body building, politics, but I can’t. It isn’t even fair to try, so I just pay for my noodles and lettuce and get out of there. # “I want to have daughters,” my boyfriend says in bed. He toys with one of my nipples, covers me with his big hands. “And they’ll have the longest hair. Hair like yours.” He strokes my head, tucks my hair behind my ears even though it’s already there. “The last time I saw something like you, I cut it in half and both ends wriggled.” # I buy a kite, but it has to be assembled before it will fly. I’ve never been good with kits; I break one of the wooden sticks and glue a couple of my fingers together, and then I wear the green diamond like a hat and stand by one of my windows, the faked sky. Up, I tell myself, lifting my arms. Up and away. # I give a homeless man two quarters, and he shows me some of his art work. He has a notebook full of portraits, sloppy portraits of black women. Over some of his drawings, he 55 has taped a cut-out of a blonde actress. “This is what I’m going to do to her,” he says, pointing to the white hat and gloves. # My best friend says she sleeps with her boyfriend every other night like clockwork, and it’s sexy even though it’s so predictable. I’ve never liked her boyfriend; he leaves stupid messages on their answering machine---“we’re busy getting a burger,” “we’re out making the evening news,” “have a blessed day.” I get an orgasm every time, she says, but I know she’s lying just like the time she lifted her ring finger and said she didn’t mind waiting to get married as long as she got a big diamond. # I go to an art show alone. The artist has combined photographs with his computer; women are in the middle of battle scenes---lions, floods, shooting ranges---and they all look so scared and out of place like they just need to be taken home. # I tie my hair up into a bun. There’s no reason to show it all of the time. # I buy a miner’s light so I will be able to see where I’m going underground. It changes colors---red, blue, and yellow at the turn of a dial on my forehead. Down, I tell myself, digging my toes into the soil. Down and away. # Without even trying, I pick up private conversations between women whenever I’m in public: “I want to feel like I’m doing more than just sleeping with him,” a woman in the 56 restroom of a bar says. “Cook him dinner,” her friend says. “Clean his place. Is the sex good?” she asks. “I guess,” she answers. “Do what you can. You don’t want to lose him.” “He thinks my friends would think he is hotter than his friends would think I am,” I hear a woman say in the grocery store. “You’re hot,” her friend says, reassuring. “I’m looking for something I don’t have,” a woman at the art museum whispers to her friend. “Besides a dick.” And they laugh about that organ, stopping in front of a statue that’s missing arms. # “You ought to be a geologist---you have so many faults,” my boyfriend says, letting my hair down. “The only time you have appeal is when you’re eating a banana.” # “Sideways,” I say, watching the hair dresser and the scissors in the mirror. “I’m sick of moving sideways on the surface.” I feel the same way about the sky as I do about the miles beneath topsoil. There are worlds there, better worlds. “Shorter,” I say. “Cut it shorter.” Professional swimmers shave their whole bodies so it won’t slow them down underwater. 57 Missing Person I tell my new boyfriend a story I think he might find amusing; I’m always telling him stories, showcasing bits of my life to fill those silent moments---the anxious quiet times when I picture us old with nothing to say to each other: “When I left the bar last night, my friends noticed a flyer stapled to an electricity pole. ‘A missing person,’ one said. ‘And a student. She lived in my building,’ the other said. “But when I looked, a different flyer caught my eye. It was printed on bright yellow paper. And the words were so bold, I had to announce them: ‘Free pizza,’ I said. And they laughed at me, made me fold over with my own laughter, because I didn’t even ask about the girl or study her picture.” “What was the deal with the pizza?” my boyfriend asks. “Oh, I didn’t read the fine print,” I say. # Weeks later, my boyfriend and I walk past the same electricity pole with the flyers and read the fine print. A new pizza shop really was giving away free pizza, no gimmicks, only the offer was only good for one weekend already passed. 58 Plastic Surgery Disasters We fall asleep during the football game; it’s just men playing a game, the same game they’ve been playing for years, on a television screen. I dream about dancing and the moves make me sweat, so my body sticks to the furniture. My sister over on the loveseat probably dreams about her latest boyfriend, but I don’t think about her in the moment because I’m waltzing, and then a fish swims past, and I’m banging the aquarium glass. I don’t want to be watched, I say in the dream, but only bubbles come out. My sister isn’t like me. She keeps makeup and mints in her purse, and she meets men at the gym, and once, when she was dating a pilot, she faked a pregnancy. She has trouble holding a job for more than a couple of months and a closet full of shoes and a tabloid subscription and a sunroof in her car. When we go out to eat she just orders a salad, dressing on the side. I wake up when the game is over; the men are off the screen, so someone must have won, and someone must have lost. Now there’s a woman in their place with a husband sitting at her side, holding her hand. I close my eyes to dance, but I can’t stop hearing her words. She hit her thirties, and her breasts were sagging from feeding two babies, and she wanted surgery, and her husband thought she was still beautiful but supported her decision, because he only wanted her to be happy. I throw a pillow at my sister so she’ll wake up, watch with me, and we see pictures of the woman’s chest after each of her five botched surgeries. Then, tears leaking, she says her left nipple rotted and fell off. 59 I laugh like I haven’t laughed in years picturing black, dead skin, a zombie nipple for her vanity, but all my sister says is that the scumbag doctor needs to be sued. Serves her right, I say. But they were sagging, she says. She shouldn’t have had children then, I say and nothing more. I watch the commercials---cleaning products and simple meal ideas from a can of soup---giggling occasionally. The next woman on the television looks a lot like the last, only she doesn’t have a husband by her side or kids to speak of. She also hit her thirties and wasn’t feeling quite young enough, so she lined up surgery, an eyelift. Only the doctor took too much skin from her lids and even after she healed, she couldn’t close her eyes. They were so open, gigantic white orbs that scared children in the grocery store. She couldn’t sleep, and in the shower, she got soap and water in her eyes. It hurts to laugh at the pictures of her, her huge, exposed eyeballs, but I can’t stop. It looks like she’s killed someone with a knife, been killed herself, made a trip to hell and back. She looks okay now, my sister says, and it’s true, a better doctor has fixed her. But where’d he get the extra skin? I ask. Treated cadaver skin? Probably taken from her ass, my sister says, and we laugh together, crying, howling, imagining scars the size of her new eyelids winking inside her tight pants at any man who steals a glance. 60 Nursery Rhymes “I can’t remember any,” I say. “The itsy bitsy spider?” my mom says. “Nope.” “Mary had a little---” “Nothing.” “Row row row---” “Not familiar. Just stop.” “I’ll buy you a book.” “I’m not singing to the baby.” “Oh, but you have to.” “You can sing to the baby.” “I sang to you.” “I don’t remember.” “Only way you would stop crying.” “It doesn’t matter.” “It does.” “I’ll write my own then.” “Couldn’t beat the classics.” “Now we’re stuck together,” I sing. 61 “That’s pleasant.” “Baby I didn’t want.” “Stop that.” “Better stop your crying,” I sing. “Stop this instant.” “Baby I didn’t want.” “Grow up.” 62 After Hours I’m drinking alone at the far end of the bar. “Last call,” the bartender says, and I panic, draining the last bit of Screwdriver---on special, $1.75---from the cubes in my glass. I ask for two more while there’s still time, and please keep one in the cooler, frosty. I thank the bartender and tell him to cash me out whenever. I haven’t had the best day. Worse than yesterday. I woke up shaking off a dream about bleeding polar bears. My shower was cold. On my way to work, I almost ran over a jogger. My boss noticed a missed deadline. Someone stole my lunch from the fridge. I thought I saw a ghost, but it was only my own reflection on a blank computer screen. Back at home, I had no messages, and the produce I bought in an attempt to live better was already sweating, browning, so I ate soft strawberries and sour green beans for dinner. At the end of the day, I needed to drink. And I still need to drink. I’m not ready to give this up, I think, spinning my glass around my palm, remembering those white bears and the snow and the blood, just as red as mine. “You’ve got fifteen minutes,” the bartender says. “Fifteen minutes to drink them up.” And then there’s ten, and then there’s five, and I’m clutching my last drink against my chest so he won’t be able to take it away from me. Some people leave the bar, but others stay like me, hesitating with their drinks until the last minute. The bar clock reads 2:30, but no one throws me out. I watch the red, digital lines rearrange to 2:31, and know I’ve made it; I’m drinking after hours. And the moment the time 63 is struck, the bar transforms. The jukebox turns back on, glowing a new orange, and it plays a song with the slickest beat, one I’ve never heard. And people start to pour into the bar; they groove in, sliding across the floor like they’re floating, wearing an incredible amount of neon. And they talk to me like they know me already; they tell me about their own bad dreams---races, hunts, a lot of drowning---and daytime mistakes---unwanted kisses, parking tickets---and theories---Buddhism, cannibalism as population control. They line drugs up on the bar top and share. Gender blends; I meet someone called Toolah, truly Tony, and forget I am a woman. The bartender invites me behind the bar to make my own concoctions, and everything I mix is delicious and colorful and intoxicating in a new way. I play a game of pool, and the balls curve around other balls toward the pockets, defying straight lines, geometry. When I leave, I can’t believe it is light outside, daytime already with a new sun. I stumble around for awhile, peering down street corners, forgetting where I parked my car last night because it feels so long ago. When I find it, I drive to a gas station for cigarettes. Something---my jitters, my eyes---makes the attendant ask me, “Are you okay?” And I gesture out the window. “It’s the sky,” I say. “The sky. It’s like I’ve never seen it. It’s amazing. I’m never up this early. It’s just amazing.” I tremble because everything is beautiful, perfect, brand new. And the attendant hands me two hard packs, and I stuff them in my purse, and he says, “It’s always like this is the morning,” shrugging it all off. And I realize there is this whole world I’ve been missing, and it’s so easy to call in sick, fake a cough, and just enjoy it while I still can. “Midnight,” the attendant says, winking. “We close at midnight.” 64 How to Win a Game of Pool Pick your opponent from a crop of men at a bar; look for height, callused hands, worry lines, a collared shirt, but really, just about any man will do. Once you find him, take it slow, make small talk. Don’t challenge him to a game right away. Tell him where you work, your favorite band, your dog’s name. Learn the same from him. Let him buy you a drink and then another. When the conversation slows, take his number on a coaster that bulges square in your coat pocket. That first night, don’t even let him know you play pool. Date him first (your relationship has to be meaningful for the win to qualify. Consider gang wars---primary colors, graffiti tags, hand symbols. Random shootings get no fanfare.) You watch him study a sarcophagus in the art museum. Stand close behind so you can smell his cologne. You eat spicy food with him. Share a snow cone. When he offers, take his coat in the rain; let him get wet. Rent two movies, his and yours. He sits behind the wheel of your car and blares the stereo and zips around turns, likening the handling to a golf cart. Take dance lessons to learn how to hold him. Talk about childhood phobias. Pack a picnic. You kiss him on a stoop, and taste his mouth, and feel still inside. You tell him you love him outside, walking the streets one crisp night, holding his hand. He says it back. Next, ask him if he plays pool. He will say he played a lot in college, or he used to play for money, or he hasn’t played in awhile, or he grew up with a table in his parents’ basement. Ask if he wants to play now. Smile. Don’t take no for an answer. Turn left at the next street, take the crosswalk, and let him follow you into a bar you 65 know has tables in the back. Have a drink first. Maybe two. Then ask him for the quarters. He will win the first game. He will win the second game. He will win the third game and the fourth. He may gloat. Stay calm. Humor him. Act like it’s just a game, and you’re having fun. Tell him you’re trying to get better, but don’t let him teach you anything. Scold him if he tries. Play pool without him. You tell him you’re just going home to walk the dog, you’ll be back in a little while, and go to a pool hall instead. Wash the chalk off your hands. He asks where you’ve been; it’s been three hours. Say the dog didn’t want you to leave; he made that sad face. Learn trick shots from bartenders. Get more accurate. You start a fight so you can leave him for a quick game, and then come back and apologize, saying you had some time to think things over (and you’re sorry for accusing him of cheating, or criticizing his mother, or calling him a pathetic, old man). Challenge him often. Tease him about your competitive nature. Tell him that for some reason, it’s a turn on to get beaten; the frustration builds and you just burn inside, burn for him. Tell him if he ever lost, you would lose complete respect for him as a man and drop him on the spot. You wear a low cut top and lean deep into your shots, stretching across the green fabric, so you can see the balls on their plane and line everything up just right. Dream about losing. Let the mounting pile of losses get under your skin. See him as mythical, a giant, a ribbon holder, the eternal winner. Wash his dishes, extra careful to wedge the sponge between the fork prongs. Change his sheets. Touch the palms of his hands. Resist pouting in his presence. Tell yourself there is always tomorrow, another table in the back of another smoky bar, a chance to win out there somewhere in the waiting night. You spend half an hour selecting a cue stick from the rack at the sporting goods store, feeling their weight, 66 touching their tips. Imagine sinking the eight with one of them. Decide on a red, eighteen ounce stick with silvery joints. He doesn’t like playing pool with you anymore. He sighs when you suggest it. He’d rather go to a game with a friend, or stay home with a new video game, or get a tub of soup from the organic grocery store and read a magazine in bed. You think he’s sick of winning, he wants more competition, and the thought makes you feel small, unequal, and less. Show him the new cue stick while you still can. Smile. Tell him you need to give it a test run. Say please. Convince him with drink specials within walking distance. Buy him a beer. Don’t push him to play right away. Ask about his day. While he talks, chalk the new brown tip of your stick blue. Don’t ask if he knows that cue tips are made of leather (or that they’re perfectly the size of a dime and only curved for the spin). Feed your own quarters into the side of the table. Rack them up. Let him break. He makes nothing on the initial shot. Decide he’s weakening, tonight is the night. Size up the table. Settle on stripes and take aim. You sink a few and then scratch. He uses too much force and misses an easy side pocket shot. Put some more balls away. Don’t talk to him between shots. Focus. Try a bank to the corner and miss. Chalk your stick and hands while he cleans up the table. Close your eyes. Wish him mistake and failure. Open your eyes only after hearing nothing drop. Plan your next move. Leave an easy shot, a given stripe, for later and line up a long shot. Make it. Drop the easy one. Aim for the eight, calling the far side. Miss. He puts away his last solid and calls a corner for the eight. You expect him to win just like always, but he also misses, leaving you set up. Finish the game. Order victory shots. Call him a loser. He says that winning one game out of fifty isn’t really a victory, it’s just odds, but he can’t deflate you. Let the bartender know about the 67 outcome of the game. Order another round of shots. Marvel about your stick, the winning cue, undefeated, before breaking it down. Imagine yourself climbing a mountain, using the cue as a walking stick. Imagine it is your scepter. Imagine yourself really beating him with the cue, physically beating him, drawing blood with the red stick. Order another round of shots. Pour more drinks at his place. Get drunk and full on the win. Get him drunk on the loss. You crawl on top of his lap. You ask him why he never let you win. He tells you he would never lose on purpose, or the idea never crossed his mind, or he’d be selling you short if he did that. But it doesn’t matter what he says. Stand up. Stand over him. Cross your arms and repeat the question. Act offended. Tell him you’d do anything for him. You say it would be so easy for him to let up on a shot or two, give you a head start. Question his motives in the relationship. Doubt his love. Pull your keys out of your purse, put on your jacket, collect your cue stick, and leave. Struggle to keep the car between the lines. Play a loud song louder. Talk to your stick inside the carrying case on the passenger seat. Squeeze the steering wheel and flex your arm muscles. Whatever you do, don’t let yourself cry or doubt or regret. Answer your phone when it rings. He sounds like a wreck. Don’t leave me, he says over and over. Please don’t leave me. Look around you---your sofa and seashell ashtray and dog---and tell him you’ve already left. I’m gone, you say, hanging up. You imagine him back at his place; he’s draining the vodka bottle and maybe even throwing things off of shelves. He’s thinking about you and regretting his shots and wishing he had won. 68 Fish Eat Each Other? I stare into every aquarium the store has, following the flittering fins with my eyes. I point to the neon fish, making you bend at the knees with me and put some real effort into this. “I want five of those,” I say, “and a goldfish with a big head, a thinking fish.” I point to another tank, a sluggish orange mass drifting through the fake seaweed. “A dreamer fish.” “I think that’s just fatty tissue,” you say, pulling up the sleeve of your jacket to look at the time. “Not a brain.” I’m taking my time with the details because I haven’t been as stimulated as I’d like to be up here in New England---snow makes everything look the same. “Do fish sleep?” I ask, not waiting for your answer. “Do they pair up? Do they stay together?” I pull a miniature sunken treasure chest off the shelf, thinking it will be a perfect decoration for the aquarium I want because it makes bubbles, round and clear. “---a lesser creature,” I hear you say, realizing I haven’t been listening to you. The sales attendant has my attention now; he’s telling a young girl what fish won’t eat her current ones, or be eaten. He’s giving her options. Your parents have been nice enough---I think they might actually like me---but meeting them here, on their turf, and staying under their roof, is hard. I’ve practically quit smoking so they won’t know, and I’ve only cursed at night, deep into the guest room pillow so the dirty words muffle. I feel lost in this new environment, but closer to you in a childish way because you’re familiar. 69 “I might need a couple of tanks,” I say. “So I can have all kinds, and they won’t kill each other.” “They’re expensive,” you say, too fast. The girl shows the salesman the exact fish she wants, and he goes to work trying to corner them, scoop them out. “And aquariums have to be cleaned regularly. Sure, they look like simple pets, the easiest, but fish actually take a lot of work and money to maintain. Just think on it, and we can look when we get back home.” You smile at me---the too-wide, crooked smile that means you think I’m pleased and you’re the cause. “I want these,” I say, running a finger along the cool glass walls of the tanks for the fish to follow. “Impossible,” you say. “We’ve got three more days here. Where would you keep a fish?” “Not just one.” I laugh at the thought, the smallness of a single fish. “Schools.” “Where would you keep schools, then?” “Your parents have a large kitchen. Lots of pots and pans and cups. Plenty of room.” I imagine every surface of their house crowded with contained water along with colorful, swimming creatures inside. “Silly girl,” you say, kissing me on my forehead, dismissing me as a cute, entertaining antic. “I need help when you’re done with her,” I say to the salesman, pulling away from you. He’s busy trying to catch the last, stubborn fish for the girl. “No,” you say, your smile fading. “No way. You just can’t.” 70 I fold my arms. “She gets fish,” I say, pointing my jaw in the girl’s direction without taking my eyes off of yours. “My parents will have dinner ready soon,” you say, turning away. “I’ll walk home,” I say. It’s a common threat of mine, powerful in its mix of seriousness and the absurd; I’ll say it anywhere. “With bags of fish under my arms.” “I’ll wait for you in the car,” you say, stuffing your hands back into a pair of your dad’s gloves. I don’t know why you brought me here, I think, opening the lid of the treasure chest and counting the plastic jewels inside. They sparkle from the blue light of the aquarium room; they look like more than they really are. “Sorry to keep you waiting,” the salesman says behind me. “Fish eat each other?” I ask, picturing us inside one of the little tanks, swimming in the same circles. 71 It’s My Gun Now He left it behind in a bottom drawer, along with an emptied flask and parking ticket, when his truck peeled out, spitting dust. He was easy to dispose of---trash bags, vodka, long bath---but this gun, this gun is substantial. It calls me from bed, begs to be held. Then it wants to be drawn, pointed, looked down its sight, so I’m in front of the bathroom mirror in my flannel pajamas, pretend-shooting at my reflection. But it’s not enough. The handgun wants to be emptied of bullets; it wants me to know how many shots I have. Three shiny, short rockets roll in my hand: I can kill three, or miss once and kill two, or miss twice and kill one, or I can just miss, and everyone gets to live, and I’m left unsatisfied. I imagine the best victims. They are unsuspecting and young or old. They are all scared, and they should be. Things are different now, I say, popping the bullets back into their slots, their little cave-like homes. I’m in charge now. I grip the gun with both hands straight in front of me, aiming at the reflection of my forehead in the mirror. Bang, I say. Bang. Bang. I drop the gun to my side, see how fast I can pop it up and aim again. I wonder if the boyfriend, gone and done today, ever used it. I smell the tip for powder, thinking he might’ve wanted to protect me. I listen for suspicious sounds at the windows, opportunities to fire, prove myself. Just try to break in, I think. I’m loaded and waiting. I imagine how loud it will be going off in my hand, hearing jets and car wrecks. The pretend noise shocks me, and I try to return the gun to its drawer, but it won’t let me; it’s not tired yet. Back in the bathroom, the handgun 72 tells me that all three bullets are for one person. Sometimes an act deserves multiple shots, guts pumped full of lead, as the movies say. I can’t remember what the boyfriend did to me, why he should get all three, so I ask the gun. He left you alone, it says. That’s not so bad, I say. I can take care of myself. Why did he leave? The gun hesitates. Tell me. The gun sighs and spits a swirly bit of black smoke. Tell me, I insist. Your fault, the gun says. You only gave sex as a favor, and you never cleaned house or called, and you slept in, ate out, and your heart wandered to co-workers and interesting strangers. But don’t pull my trigger, the gun says, trying to back off of my fingers. You’re still young and allowed. Put me down, back in the drawer. I’ll let you sleep. Sweet dreams, it promises, already blowing me smoke. I lean in and look closer at my reflection. My skin is pale, mottled, and my eyes look dead like green swamp. I remember the other lovers, unzipping, embracing, that feeling of danger, just like a gun in the hand. I can’t blame anyone but her, I think, looking in the mirror, aiming again. I want to hear the blast so bad that I clench my index finger. My ears fill with the echoing detonation, and the breaking glass fractures my image into the many I’ve created; personalities, all sexy, collect in a shimmery pile around the sink. Then I put the gun away and dream about real death, the kind that spills and never forgives. 73 They Say I Have Alzheimer’s I see in blips. It’s like the cartoons. I might as well be young. They feed me pink juice. Graham cracker squares. Yellow macaroni. I can’t walk. I’m propelled in a chair. Sometimes I sleep sitting up. My body is strange puppetry. Touch my knee and it moves. Bite lower lip to blink. I’m not understood. Everyone just smiles and nods. Sometimes I’m in jail. Or at war. I try to explain. I try to escape. And then I get sleepy. Some days there are visitors. They all look tall. And ask questions. I smile. I point out the window. To their car. I watch daytime television. I can’t read anymore. My veins buckle from daily injections. My legs throb. Take them off. I was once in the newspaper. I was younger. My picture in print. My gas station being honored. I remember when. I know my voice isn’t right. I can hear it. It’s muffled. My throat gurgles and clicks. I sound like a broken car. And my station is closed. 74 Ill Advice “There’s a stain on my kitchen floor. I can’t get it out.” “How big?” “Like a grapefruit.” “What color?” “Gray. Desperation has taken me from rags to brushes to wired sponges. I think I’m wearing a hole in the linoleum.” “Linoleum is porous; it’s bound to stain. You should come back home. There’s tile in our kitchen.” “Mom, I’m not coming home.” “Bleach then.” # The phlegm is building. My nose is clogged, and snot is dripping down my throat. I sneeze. I cough. # “I’ve got bugs.” “Bugs?” “There are ants pouring out of an outlet in the kitchen and they’re traveling in a line to my sink where there must be food particles or something.” “Clean the sink then.” 75 “It is clean. Or as clean as I can get it.” “Call an exterminator, but wear a surgical mask when he comes over. They move from house to house, carry all sorts of germs. I gave you a box of blue masks right?” “Yeah. I’ve got them.” # A rash is developing. Little red spots are spreading on my chest and down my arms. I scratch. It grows. # “There’s dust everywhere.” “Well, dust.” “I can clean it off surfaces, but it’s in the air.” “How do you know?” “I can see it when sunlight pours through the windows. The air’s dirty, and it makes me afraid to breathe. How can you clean air?” “You don’t. I really think you should come home. Your brother is bed ridden, and I’m not much better. It took all the energy I have just to answer the phone. We need your help.” “I’m trying to make it on my own.” “Vacuum the air then. Use the hose attachment.” # A headache is intensifying. My temples pound and hammer whenever I move. I stay as still as possible. I cry. # “My apartment stinks.” 76 “Get an air freshener.” “It’s the smell of filth. I don’t think it can be freshened.” “You have to be a better housekeeper. Find a routine.” “I’m a mess, Mom.” “You have to buy the right cleaning products.” “I’m sick.” “But you’re the healthy one. You always have been.” “Not anymore.” “You should come home.” “Is it still a triage system?” “Yes. But your brother has to be the sickest. He can’t even eat solids anymore.” “I’m worse. And I need to be taken care of.” “What are your symptoms?” “Every single one.” 77 Church Bells The church bells rang early Sunday morning, just like always, but they didn’t stop there. We’re not sure if the minister worked them into his sermon---a message from God? just a glitch?---because none of us attend church anymore. But we do know they chimed through pancake breakfasts and picnic lunches and close-lipped dinners, because we all heard them while trying not to. We know the bells are automated now, just a part of the big machine, but it’s hard to imagine equipment going berserk in this way. It’s easier to picture a madwoman up in the tower; she’s lost a husband or a baby or both, and she’s refusing to let go of the ropes. It’s all a giant stand off. Eventually, she will be taken away, and the bells will be silenced. At night, we wear earplugs so we won’t have to hear the bells when we fuck our lovers. The gongs and tings shouldn’t blend with bedroom moans, and we don’t want to accidentally match the rhythm of our thrusts to that tune. Some of our children and coworkers begin to hum along with the bells; they say the music is catchy, and they hope it never ends. We look at them like we don’t know them. Who are these people? we ask ourselves. Where did they come from? We wonder if next Sunday they will attend church, because that’s really all the bells are---a call for the congregation to assemble. We are awaiting the church bell repairman. Some say he will come in a ball of fire, others say a descending cloud, or up from the ground following a giant earthquake. Most 78 agree he will have facial hair, a mustache if not a beard. We find ourselves filling odd moments of the day with wishes he will come and free us from the bells. This silent pleading could be called prayer, but we don’t like to think of it that way. 79 Momo and Sline When Momouba and Skyline still had different last names, they connected, discovering a new likeness each day. But they met at the same point so many times it became necessary to abandon the idea. Momo said it was like a pogo stick, time to explore space, bounce on separate stars, right? Sline didn’t want Momo to spring in a different direction, but she agreed. Outer space and diamond rings are enticing when you’ve only pogoed the sidewalk. And Momo promised they wouldn’t go to extremes. Extremes are uninteresting, especially in relationships. So Momo and Sline got married and added to their character some little traits the other could despise. The changes were subtle. Momo wore an eye patch and chained a snarling dog to a tree in their new front yard. Sline bought a coozie made of orange lingerie fuzz for beer drinking and spent weekends betting on dogs, and the weeks prior looking at the dog’s racing histories in books of fine print. They both began to feel better about things. Hate is an easy emotion, and it builds so nicely. I hate your dog, Sline would say. I hate your dogs; they lose us money, Momo would say. They had a child---a chubby baby boy with his eyes and her nose---because that was the next step. Momo wanted to name him Pirate, and Sline wanted to name him Gold, but their differences ended there. They both wanted him to be healthy and happy; they both wanted him to make good grades and behave. Things got boring again and their lives progressed like liquid rolling around a cistern, so predictable. They died before their son did, 80 and were placed in coffins next to each other where they could argue about maggots, rot, and skeletons. They were so happy again. 81 Green Ball Playing Children From the Past Charles has one of those faces that just spreads with age; if you look at the photograph in his back pocket, you will see Charles’ features exactly, only squished and crowded on his five year old face. I’m the kid next to him, with the water hose. You didn’t recognize me, I know. This is why we need the photograph. # There are tons of little kids in the park today. Every swing is in action and sand is flying and the air smells like baby powder. I told Charles it was a holiday, but he doesn’t keep dates. Look at the way he sulks when I’m right and he’s wrong. Like when we were kids and I explained that his fireflies were dying every night because he didn’t poke air holes at the top of the jar for them. Of course, you can’t remember. # No, we can’t settle for the monkey bar kid. He may look a little like me now, with the widow’s peak and curls around his ears, but I was different when I was younger. Look at the photograph again. I had a buzz cut. When we first got into this, I told you it had to be perfect. Charles and I have always been patient. # You’re quite observant; I didn’t even notice the pair at the whirling metal platform. Is it called a merry-go-round? The kid doing the spinning is a dead ringer for Charles. He even has that stupid cowlick above his left ear. I can’t see the kid lying down on the platform. 82 # The Charles look-a-like sure can spin. And I think the spun kid is going to be sick. He can’t even stand up to get off, and oh, it’s purple! What could he have eaten? You’re right, it could have been any number of things. Kids sure do like fruit snacks and popsicles. Charles and I used to eat drippy, purple snow cones out of paper triangles on sunny days. # The purple puking kid is coming this way, probably looking for a water fountain. Wait. Are you sure? The bushy eyebrows, the round ears, the nose freckles. It’s all there. Every feature accounted for. He’s me, the kid with the water hose. Call him and his friend over here. # Just let me do the talking. I know that merry-go-round can be brutal; you feeling okay now? It happens. I know it seems like a fun contraption, your friend here does the work and you get all dizzy, but you can’t go on it anymore. In fact, you should both stay out of the park. You see, my friend and I are yourselves, just all grown up. We’ve come from the future. And you can’t grow up to be us. # Sure, it’s all fun now. But too much fun is dangerous. Look at us; we played our hearts out. And when we grew up and couldn’t have our toys anymore, we started making toys in our heads. Swirling toys that smelled like strawberries and then disappeared. There are commercials on T.V. about us if you watch enough of it. # You two go on home now and rake leaves, wash dishes, read manuals, organize, plan, 83 wait. Get used to being miserable early on, that way it won’t come as so much of a shock later on. And then you can get jobs and houses and wives and children. It will all be so easy for you. # They were so quiet and respectful. Have Charles and I really grown that much? But inevitability scares me, so why do you mention it? You’re wrong. Any minute now, the world will transform around Charles and I. And we will transform with it into worker bees, snug as a bug boyfriends, happy clams. # So the kids are following us, just ignore them. Their legs are shorter than mine and Charles,’ they’ll get tired and go home any minute now. Yeah, they’re scuffling along. We’re almost home now, and yes, it is starting to creep me out. But what could their parents say even if they did find us? We didn’t take them or anything. # They’re out back, rifling through the storage shed. Let them take whatever they want. I don’t even know what’s out there; Charles and I haven’t looked in there for years. Just forget about them. As long as they’re outside, they’re not our responsibility. I’ll make some tomato sandwiches for lunch with lots of pepper. # Go check the bouncing up on the roof. So, they have a giant, grocery store, green ball, do they? And they’re throwing it up there on the roof? Kicking it up there? You stay here and mind these tomatoes. Remember, Charles likes thick slices. I’ll send the kids packing. # 84 Got it. As close to the top of the roof as I can get it, without sending it over. Ten points if it rolls down the gully, five points if it bounces down it. And how are we scoring on height? Gotcha. That one was a solid eight points. Charles has got to try this. Five points, almost a ten-er. And there went a window screen. Over the roof, I’ll get it. Two points, five points. Ten whole points! 85 Favorite Things “Tell me some of your favorite things,” she says. “Red lights,” he says, pointing to the changing light ahead and slowing the car. “Traffic. Minivans with Baby On Board signs.” “Something else,” she says. “Flesh eating viruses. A school of piranha.” “Something real,” she says. “Running late,” he says. “Running late to marriage counseling.” “Something you actually like.” “Bridges aren’t so bad,” he says, pointing up to the overpass. “You can throw yourself off a bridge.” 86 Imitation When you don’t have enough money to live the television life, you imitate. You bend the rabbit ears for better reception, less snow, and live that human drama. “Wind chill at fifteen,” the television says. And you shiver from the gusts in your windowless condo. “Rap, rap, rap,” the door says. And you change the channel. “We don’t know if he’ll ever walk again,” the television says. And you twist your face to simulate grief. You pretend you are paralyzed in a hospital room, limbs heavy and dead. “Knock, knock, knock,” the door says. And you change the channel. “He’ll have to sink this hole to stay on the leader’s board,” the television says. And you use a broken broomstick as a club, burnt-out light bulb as a ball, rat hole as a hole. “Bang, bang, bang,” the door says. And you change the channel. “Smooth, refreshing taste,” the television says. And you cup your hand around an imaginary mug, toast your friends, wink at a beauty down the bar. “I know you’re in there,” the door says. And you change the channel. “Outer space and beyond,” the television says. And you circle and beep through the universe like a flying saucer. “Open up,” the door says. And you change the channel. “The taste kids love, the nutrition your family needs,” the television says. And you 87 pass out empty cigarette packs instead of juice packs to stains on the carpet instead of children, sly smile on your face. “I’m calling the police,” the door says. And you change the channel. “We’ll observe a moment of silence,” the television says. And you have nothing left to imitate but the earth. You spin, arms outstretched. “I am the earth,” you say. “I am the earth.” 88 In the Name of the Mother My daughter fell in love with religion---Noah’s animal sets, disciples, Jesus who died for our sins---because of a radio show. I was only listening as a joke; we were stuck in traffic, and it was hilarious. Suzy, a little girl about Mabel’s age, found God and converted her whole family through good deeds. Suzy mowed the lawn without being asked. She skipped a volleyball game to help her sister study multiplication tables. Then her sister asked for a Bible, and mom and dad agreed to go to church. The radio show ended by offering a free Bible to all the little kiddies out there and jingled out into harp music, redemption. Now, I try to tempt Mabel, bring her into the world of sin with me. At her eleventh birthday party, I pass soda and candy out to her guests and set up a game of spin the bottle. You kiss in the closet, I tell them. You touch in the closet because it is dark. When Mabel redirects the party, leads them in a prayer for me, I unwrap my present to her, the Ouija board, and summon evil spirits that throw me into convulsions, move the party upstairs where it’s safe. When Mabel needs new sneakers, her first bra, I tell her she should shoplift. It’s so easy to take the things you need. But it’s a commandment, she says. Thou shalt not steal. Wear Jesus rags, then, I say. When she doesn’t buy a ticket for prom, I make fun of her for being a virgin, saving herself, as she says. I tell her how good sex feels, she couldn’t even imagine, and then I buy a vibrator and place it on her bed, ready with batteries, while she’s in the shower. All night, I lie awake, waiting to hear the buzz. Whore, I shout, when her name is 89 called at graduation. I bake a drugged cake that says Welcome to the Real World in icing, but she won’t eat because of the green color. And when Mabel forgives her father, makes peace with the bastard, I kick her out of the house, and she becomes a nun. There are still nuns? I ask, amazed when she calls with the news. I thought you’d become a hooker when I threw you out. I thought you’d finally have sex, for the money. And then start using. I imagined visiting you in prison, sneaking contraband in, mothering you again. I’m married to God, she says. I have a new family. That’s what being a nun means, and the phone clicks dead. I want to understand, so I take some pills and drive to a church; they’re everywhere. It’s quiet inside. Light filters through windows colored with angels. I sit down and sing old- fashioned words I find in the hymnal: thou, thee, deliverance, sanctity. Then I see a painting of Jesus behind a podium. His arms are stretched out and he’s not wearing a shirt. His muscles bulge in all the right places even though he is skinny. His hair is long like he fronts a band, and his eyes are so open, looking up, like he needs a mother. 90 The Baby Shower Episodes, or Plastic Shark Fin Episode #1 Abduction. You’re pregnant with quintuplets---five little miracles everyone says. There is a populated ocean inside of you; you can feel the waves roll real deep as you manage your way to the kitchen for a squirt of whipped cream. You pass your husband in the hallway, and he ducks into the den. He’s afraid of your stomach---the size, the movement, the outie that used to be an innie. You’re shaking the can to make sure the whipped cream is fluffed when the front door flies open and four hugely pregnant women charge into the kitchen. You only recognize two of them---your sister and a neighbor---but the others seem just as happy to see you. A woman you don’t know, with an enormous belly, almost as big as yours, says surprise, we’re taking you to a baby shower. We all have bellies so you will fit right in, she says, lifting her sweatshirt to show the stuffing. They will not take no for an answer; your husband is nowhere in sight. So you are led, on both sides, to a running car and crowded in the backseat with two other women who want to touch your tummy, hear baby names, know if you’ve been throwing up. Your sister, the driver, says she worked it out so the shower will be in a mansion. Her husband’s boss’s wife will be the hostess. Immersion. The mansion has lions and fountains out front. You are directed down long hallways 91 to the hearth room and propped in a leather recliner. Co-workers and old friends, all stuffed in the middle, come to visit. They show you their children if they have them, and ask about your health and husband. You tell them you haven’t been sleeping and he’s having trouble feeling connected. They say that after the birth he’ll love them, too. The hostess is glad to meet you and see your stomach. She says it took a personal trainer to get her figure back after her little one. He’s sleeping right now, she says, and then leaves you in your seat to play bartender and make mimosas for everyone but you. You have to drink plain orange juice, she says, pointing to your stomach. You watch the hostess’s leather skirt and boots as she walks away. She’s the only one who isn’t stuffed like she’s pregnant with multiples. You wonder where her son is sleeping. Then you feel a kick. More than a kick. It’s like a flop, a shipwreck inside your ocean. The First Baby Speaks from Death. Oh, the light of life. It’s blinding. That woman in the chair must be the host. I can see her both inside and out now. She’s huge. She’s a monster. But oh, my little body in her pink ocean is much stiller now. It’s being devoured by the giant baby---the one who sleeps by the placenta and wears the plastic shark fin. I wonder where he got that thing. But it doesn’t matter now. My life is over before it began. If you can hear me, you have to warn her. He’s hungry, and the three other babies are scared my body won’t be enough. Please tell her about the baby who wears the plastic shark fin. He has to be stopped. Episode #2 Refreshment. 92 You eat plate after plate of finger foods you can’t name. Any woman will bring you more because you are the guest of honor. And you’re eating for six. Six, they say, and fill your plate. Diversion. You are the only one who is allowed to say the word baby. Everyone else has to put fifty cents in a jar if they’re caught. After the shower, you will get to take the jar home so some day your children can go to college. But you have no problem not saying the word; baby feels like the last thing you need to express because you’re already full of it. Then you try to match baby pictures with the faces before you, but you can’t remember the names. Every baby has curls and blue eyes and something smeared on its face. The women all look different now. Some of the pictures are yellowed. The winner gets a pink change purse. Then you are teamed with three other women and the baby rule is suspended. You have two minutes to list songs with the word baby in the title. There are so many. But most of them are love songs not about babies. The winning team, with twenty-five song titles, gets perfume, the hostess’s favorite. Then the hostess reads a single line from a nursery rhyme and everyone has to guess the title. They all seem obscure; on your sheet of paper you write the same title over and over, knowing it will have to eventually be right. The winner gets stationery. A woman you don’t know says you need to work on this baby stuff, you’re having five and look, no prizes. Then you feel a kick. More than a kick. It’s like an upsurge, a tsunami inside your ocean. The Second Baby Speaks from Death. 93 I knew I’d be the second; the baby with the plastic shark fin has been lurking around my spot, near the bladder. I can see him eating me inside that hideous woman. My poor little gray body. And he’s feeding, growing. Soon he’ll be the only one left; he’ll have the whole ocean to himself. Unless the host is warned. She needs to know about the murdering baby. She has to stop him, save the other two. I could have grown up to be president. But oh, it’s all over before I even got the chance. If you can hear me, you have to do something. Break into her world. Tell her to call the doctor. Episode #3 Removal. A little girl with braids and a toy vacuum runs into a wall, falls, cries. So the hostess pushes a button on the wall and calls for the nanny to come and take the children. The nanny couldn’t be older than twenty, but the hostess says she loves children. The mothers all relinquish their burdens, who are led to the theatre room. Reward. You are given everything in fives---five bibs, five rattles, five blankies, five teething rings. The pink and blue clothes all look so small and unreal. The hostess asks you to hold up each unwrapped gift and confirm the giver. She is making a list so you can send appropriate thank you notes. You hope she has all of these women’s addresses. You wish you would have won the stationery. Some of the women are excited to claim their gifts; they jump up and show you how to use the swaddling blankets or breast pump. They are happy and full on mimosas. With all adults in the room, they tell you about leaky breasts and loss of sexual 94 desire. And they tell you about children, how they grow up so fast, you have to cherish every moment. You survey the piles of baby monitors, bottles, and breast pads; you feel clinical and far from joy. Then you feel a kick. More than a kick. It’s like a swell, a tempest inside your ocean. The Third Baby Speaks from Death. It is agonizing to watch. The giant baby with the plastic shark fin is feeding on what used to be me, just as he fed on my siblings before me. This is serious; there’s only one little baby left. You have to call an ambulance and take her to the emergency room. Get her away from that house, those women. There isn’t much time left; he is ravenous. But I fear for more than the last baby, I fear for the world. You have to tell the host what she has created before it is unleashed. Don’t just sit there. Do something. Save the universe. Episode #4 Entrapment. After being locked in a bathroom for fifteen minutes, fumbling with the metal lock, you slip off to see the children. You slide open the heavy doors to the theatre room to find them wild. They have stripped the sectional sofa of its cushions and are building forts, tearing them down, whacking each other. The nanny is in the corner of the room, in front of a bird cage. When she notices you, she starts back toward the children. But you smile, say they’re not yours, and ask about the bird. She’s teaching the bird to laugh by laughing. That’s the only way, she says, they have to hear and imitate. You ask what she’s thinking about to make herself laugh. She says it’s that moment after a child gets hurt when he looks around 95 for an audience to cry to. They’re performers, she says. Little performing bastards, she says, and laughs at the cage. Delivery. Back in the hearth room, the stuffed women dance over your gifts and drink. You’re ready to go home. The woman with the largest stomach notices you are sour and tells you to have a good time while you still can. Pretty soon, she says, it’s going to be the miracle of birth. You’re going to look like this, she says, imitating pain with severe facial contortions. You’re going to be screaming, she says, screaming. And the other women join in, yelling at imaginary doctors and husbands. The roundest woman falls to the ground, she spreads her legs wide open and starts shaking. Get them out of me, she says, breathing like she is possessed. Get them out of me. And then she reaches under her sweater and unstuffs herself. She flings red streamers and red confetti, and the other women cheer and cry, they think it’s so beautiful. The woman in labor pulls out a naked baby doll and hands it to you. She shows you a clicker in the back; the baby’s eyes turn from blue to red. Then you feel a kick. More than a kick. It’s like a chomp, a shark attack inside your ocean. The Fourth Baby Speaks from Death I can look on the world outside the woman without feeling loss. I can look inside the woman, at the predator in her sea, and not feel regret. There is only rage when all is gone. Only, I can’t blame the baby who wears the plastic shark fin. Nature works with him. I don’t know who to blame, you or nature or the baby shower women. So you tell me who is at fault, who I should haunt. 96 One Good Arm There are so many ways to lose an arm, many glamorous. Shark attack, I’ve said. Caught me on the pipeline and would’ve eaten me whole if I hadn’t stuck my thumbs in its eyes. War wound, I’ve said. Faulty grenade and I would’ve bled to death if I hadn’t tied the rest of my arm off with a boot lace. It is hard to pick up women when nothing hangs from your left sleeve. Sometimes I can catch them from my right, set my beer down on their table with my one good arm. Women sitting alone are the best. Women who have been stood up can sit through a whole drink before they notice. Once I got a woman all the way to the beach, and she was feeling the first wave of ecstasy before she realized something was missing. Then she screamed, pulled her own arms in as if I was looking for a replacement, so I had to leave her. I drove home fast; I swerved for a deer but missed. I wanted another one, another shot at killing something, but they must have all known I was out there. When they see I only have one arm, the best ones feel sorry for me. I’ll finger the cross I wear around my neck, talk about my struggles. But there’s always something in their eyes that says it won’t work because I am incomplete. They imagine me on top of them with only one arm to brace the act. I tell them I work in a gym; my arm is as strong as two. Sometimes I’ll flex, but there are still only five fingers to count. I did work at a gym once, but only because I knew discrimination laws meant they had to hire me, and I quit once I had worked just long enough to claim disability. I don’t 97 work anymore. I cruise bars for women until I run out of money, then I stay at home, drink canned beer, wait for the next check. I don’t eat very well. I buy pills, tranqs and sleepers, and drop them into a woman’s drink with my one good arm if she isn’t looking. Then I scold her for drinking too much loud enough for the bartender to hear, and I walk her out just before she drops off. By the time I get to my place, she’s like dead weight I have to lug and position. But she’s still warm. I wouldn’t do it---I have a little sister---but it is so hard to get a woman when you only have one arm. And women are so enticing. They wear those skirts and perfume like a field of flowers. If only their skin and voices weren’t so soft. If only they didn’t paint their fingernails and tease their hair. If only they didn’t go to bars. I’d really like a house and a wife and children to play in the big backyard with. I’d like a woman to see past the missing arm and imagine a future of togetherness. But when I’m naked, looking in a mirror after a shower at my stump---lumpy muscle bulges, veins that protrude in an awkward circle, scars where the stitches closed me---I know I will have to settle for a limp, loose, unconscious woman on my dirty sheets. 98 Glacier and Volcano We meet in a bar; you are a glacier, and I am a volcano. But we both try to make each other cross over. You tell me about the freeze, how you can make time stand still by stopping life. I tell you about the explosion, how I can speed time up by making life immediate. “Creak,” you say, “and crunch. I swallow clear blue.” You drink up the air, the condiments, the ashtray, and settle it all into stillness with your fingers. “Rumble,” I say, “and bang. I erupt a liquid gold.” I send black smoke signals into the air and rush people across the table with my fingers. “But those last minutes,” you say. “Blood freezing in the veins, madness settling, it can be pretty speedy.” “And my fire has frozen people,” I say, speaking of Pompeii. Neither of us are possible. So we buy each other a drink and then settle our differences in bed with a sensation condom---warm and cool, warm and cool, warm and cool. 99 Bodies Our bodies used to contort according to the emotional situation; when we lost, we shrunk and were stepped on. We spent a lot of time in sidewalk cracks, but we also walked in the clouds like giants. When we grew, it was usually together. You were the one who decided we needed to take control of the situation, stabilize our bodies. “Only one of us can be big. I’m tails,” you said, and flipped a coin. You won and I became microscopic. I cuddled with carpet strands while you jumped rooftops, night on your heels. I was easy to forget. “I want to be big with you,” I screamed at the sky, hoping you’d hear and come back and transform me. But you wouldn’t return to little with me because the whole world was yours. You were taking it all in so fast; I saw you in a blur I couldn’t touch. Tired of my tiny, slow motion world, I vowed to make it as big as possible. I swung from electrical cords and befriended dust mites. I claimed my life; I was proud of every centimeter. And I began to grow, slow at first, inching my way back to reality. On my way up, I caught you on the way down. “It’s lonely up there,” you said, diminishing toward the earth. “It’s lonely everywhere,” I said, expanding up and out. 100 Hookers There was a convention we didn’t know about. The hotel swarmed with vintage Barbie dealers and Barbie look-alikes in mini-skirts, and we were embarrassed like every person in this new city thought we still played with dolls. Someone should have warned us about the other guests when we booked for the weekend. We bought a bottle of liquor for the room. We watched the evening news---fire, wreck, armed robbery, dog for adoption---and took shots of whisky to prove we were past dollhouses; we were grown girls. Then we went to Chinatown to drink more, but all we could find were hung ducks and orange octopus in restaurant windows. I asked a man where the bars were and gestured bringing a glass to my lips, tilting it again and again, like the drink was essential, like I needed it to stay alive. He laughed too long and told us where to walk next. We found two strip clubs at the block he recommended, with names like Oriental Doll and Tiger Lily. I wanted to go in and see naked women dance above the rim of my glass. But you were unwilling, embarrassed for me because the bars were so seedy, and we didn’t belong. We went back to the room and took more shots. We talked about those two strip clubs, the prostitution that was probably going down inside, and decided we really were Barbie enthusiasts---my name was Micki, and yours was Darla, and we dropped out of high school together and opened a beauty shop. We walked the hotel halls with our new identities, hitting the Barbie parties we had read about on the pink flyers posted in the lobby. 101 In 605, I bought you a piece of Barbie toast for twenty-five cents from a woman fashioning little pearl earrings. You picked the most well done piece. She said the manufacturer’s pearl earrings turn Barbie’s ears green. The oxidation, I said. We hate that. In 1212, a man styling Barbie’s hair asked if we were looking for anything in particular. Toast, you said. Well done, I said. He looked bewildered for a second, setting down the miniature comb, then he said, Oh, for Barbie’s toaster. Exactly, we said, but he didn’t have any. He tried to sell us a pineapple from the Luau Barbie set, but it wouldn’t fit, we told him, not flat enough. In 1301, a display case turned decapitated Barbie heads from different eras and a box teemed with headless bodies. Mix and match, you said. Every man’s dream. But they’re all the same, I said. I rooted through a box of defunct Barbies for a brunette, a doll that looked like me, but couldn’t find one. I settled on a blonde with double braids and a jacket with no shirt underneath. In 1530, I outfitted my Barbie with a leotard and brown boots because I felt responsible for her. I wanted her to look hot. Then I tried to find her a Ken. Barbie needs to get laid, I yelled down the quiet halls. I lifted her skirt and made her hump the air to show how serious the matter was. I knocked on closed doors marked with dangling Do Not Disturb signs. When we got off the elevator on the sixteenth floor, we could smell the smoke. The halls reeked of the smoke we wanted but were too afraid to make a reality ourselves because of the airplane and the rules and jail. We were on the whirly drug trail like seasoned bloodhounds. There was male laughter behind the door we found. I knocked, holding my Barbie’s darling face up to the peephole like collateral. There was a hotel towel stuffed under the door crack that wasn’t working. Five men filled the room; they drove into town for the baseball game. They passed a joint around and 102 laughed and told us how they snuck up, only two allowed per room, so they had to throw the keys out the window, down to the street. I asked if they had a Ken and held my Barbie up, called her horny. Her skirt is the same color as my underwear, I said, pulling an edge up to show the fluorescent yellow beneath my pants. The one who laughed the loudest asked if I was a hooker. A hooker, we said, astonished. That’s absurd, you said. They asked if we had any single friends, forgetting we were also staying in the hotel, knew no one in this place. Then the big laugher asked if we were hookers again. You stood up. We are college graduates, you said. How dare you? You pulled my elbow, trying to lift me from the bed, but I didn’t want to leave just yet. How much? I asked, bending Barbie’s plastic arm, readying her hand for a shake, a deal. He’s out of line, one said, stubbing the joint, standing up. He pressed the warm, leftover bit into my hand and led us to the door. How much? I asked again, over a shoulder. Ten bucks, I heard him say. At the door, I aimed Barbie like a missile and pitched her at the bed where he sat. Have her, I yelled. She’s all yours. In the hall, shut out, I remembered the ten dollars. I banged the door, demanded my money, but you pulled me away. It’s over, you said, leading me back to the elevator. They still owe us, I said. You pushed the button to go down, the arrow to take us below. They owe Barbie. I worried about her as we descended in the square, carpeted elevator car. The things they could do to her, I said. I can’t believe I left her with those terrible men. Back in the room, you turned on the television and pulled the sheets back for bedtime, but I wasn’t ready. The night isn’t done, I said. I want to go back to Chinatown, the strip clubs. It’s not too late. I want another drink. I want those women to dance around shiny poles and spread their legs for my crinkled dollars. I want a hooker, I said. Ten dollar special. I read the room service menu for breakfast they placed on our pillow. Ten dollars for 103 cereal and a muffin. Twelve dollars for cereal, muffin, and fruit. Barbie is worth less than breakfast. I am worth less than breakfast, I said. A meal. A woman’s body. Less than breakfast, I said. A woman’s body. Ten dollars, I said. Less than a proper breakfast. A ten dollar bill, I said, and then fell asleep to a talk show: women showed their old crushes their new, improved bodies; the men who threw rocks at them in middle school kissed their feet, begged for a second chance, longed for that perfect molded plastic. 104 Playing Dolls When it’s time to play, you choose a baby doll with blue eyes that shut when it’s lying down and a cord out it’s back to pull for a wail. But I want the dog for a doll. He’s white and fluffy so your mother has to brush him every day, and his name is Benny, and I have never been allowed a dog of my own. You say you can’t play dolls with the dog. He’s not a baby. And he’s mine. I say at least the dog is alive. Your baby is made of plastic. It doesn’t even breathe. You say Benny walks on four legs. He can’t be your baby. I say I thought I could choose. Your mom said I could pick my doll. You say the dog’s not a doll, but let’s just play. You have the freak baby, and I have this precious angel. You cradle your doll in your arms and hum so it will sleep. I take a little rattle and shake it for my doll and toss it across the room. We play fetch, and the dog gets excited, and I get excited, too. You open the back of your doll’s outfit and the pull the cord to make it cry. You say you’re disturbing the baby. She’s trying to sleep. Benny abandons me and attacks, sinking his teeth into your doll’s foot. He pulls and growls at the howling plastic. You say get off, get off. Let go. You’re hurting my baby. I listen to your mother’s footsteps approaching in the hall and say nothing. 105 The Honeymoon Suite I’m just here with my mother, but the guest book scares me off the bed so I have to sleep on the floor next to her: Seventy two hours of you know what, one page says. Recipe for romance, another says, light the fire, steam shower, music, and then make love under the skylights (PS---we left a copy of our wedding CD for everyone to enjoy). These are fresh sheets, my mother says above me. No one has had sex on these; they’re clean. I’m more afraid of the other pages in the book, but I don’t want her to know. The religious guest entries are what scare me to the floor: God had a plan, and He brought us together. This inn is blessed. Jesus humbled me and now I will spend the rest of my life lifting Him higher. I can’t imagine having dedication to faith, the kind that consumes and never lets go. Don’t be stubborn, my mother says. Get up here. I went to a private high school where we had to go to chapel everyday. That was where I was first told to eat the wafer, the body of Christ, drink the wine, the blood of Christ. I wasn’t hungry or thirsty, so I wanted to sit back down, but the thin cracker was placed on my tongue, the cup was brought to my lips. After chapel that first day of school, I chewed gum in history class to get the flesh taste out of my mouth and looked around at the other students; they all had blood dripping from the corners of their lips, right onto the notes they took. Do you pray? I ask my mother in the dark. Sometimes, she says. When things get real tough. I step out onto the balcony to look at the stars and have a cigarette. The smoke I 106 blow out whirls above where heaven is supposed to be, always above. I wonder how bad things will have to get before I drop to my knees and place my palms together. I’d have to lose my car, I think. Or a limb. I rub my arm down to the elbow and stop, imagining a stump there. There are reasons to pray, I think, blowing smoke down through the balcony slats only to see it float back. 107 Gargoyle “Do you ever get high?” she asks, looking away from the in-bar video machine, her racing horse poker game, lifting her eyebrows at me like I’m an insect at a picnic. “Yes,” I lie. We’re all neighbors down here. “On what?” She taps the screen, chooses cards. A set. Her purple horse inches past the computer’s blue one. “Weed.” I sip my drink. “And mushrooms sometimes. Oh, and coke, but I don’t buy much.” I have a reputation to withhold in this place---eight condos over a bar, all inhabited by addicts and dealers as far as I can tell. She ashes her cigarette, misses the ashtray. “What about you?” I ask, trying to be casual. “Coke,” she says, tapping the screen for spades. “I love to get tweaked and play this game.” She snorts, misses a flush, drags on her cigarette. “Cool,” I say, and drink, humiliated with myself, the only straight in the whole building. She looks at me sideways. “If you wanted to buy some, would you know where to go?” “I’d guess next door,” I say, thinking of my neighbor, the man with at least ten visitors a day, no job, and every television channel known to man. “Right,” she says. Her purple horse crosses the finish line ahead of the blue one. “I 108 love to beat this machine,” she says, gloating. “It’s on par with a mathematician,” I say, laughing inside about computers. “I have to settle a debt. Watch my twenty.” She points to a folded bill in front of the paused video game. “Don’t let anyone take off with it.” She points to the door. “I won’t. I won’t.” She walks down the bar to my next door neighbor, and they talk for awhile, and I stare at the twenty even though no one’s around. If I look away, it could disappear. “Still there,” I say when she comes back. “I didn’t let anyone touch it.” “I’m going to the bathroom,” she says. “Want to come?” She looks at me like I should, like my status depends upon a trip to the ladies room. “Let me get my stuff.” I sling my purse over my shoulder, tuck my jacket under an arm, even grab my drink. “I’m coming back,” I tell the bartender, turning toward the restrooms. “I know where you live,” he jokes over my shoulder. In the bathroom, I start for a stall, but she just hits the sinks, so I stop myself. She pulls things out of her bag---a hand-sized mirror, a short straw, a little sack of white powder---and starts dividing lines like they do in the movies. “Someone could come in,” I say, trying not to sound terrified. “I locked the door.” “Cool,” I say again, looking at the deadbolt, wondering why it was installed. “Just chill,” she says. I watch her with the straw. I make mental notes so I can look like I do this often. When she offers me the mirror, I lean down into my reflection and take my line in a steady 109 swipe. Then I tilt my head back, and my right nostril burns like I’m on a ski lift, high altitudes. “Friends,” she says, collecting her things. “Friends,” I say, knowing this woman is way older than me and just a waitress at a cheap chain. Back at the bar, she wants me to play racing horse video poker with her. “I’ve gotten too good for the machine,” she says. I sniffle and decline. “I’d lose,” I say, looking for someone to talk to; I need to converse; I need to have a conversation right now. I spot another neighbor---the gay man from the back of the building who keeps the rooftop flowers alive and makes sure we all recycle. “Good luck,” I say, digging my fingers into her shoulder, leaving her to the game. He’s alone, like me, and we hug when we meet, draw each other’s names out long. “Happy Halloween,” he says. “It’s two weeks away.” I look at my watch even though it only tells the hour. “What are you going as?” he asks. My brain tunes to the holiday---I’m a stretched spider web, a strobe light, a pumpkin being carved. “I don’t dress up,” I say, sniffling. My right nostril is completely worthless. “I always dress up,” he says. “I won five hundred dollars in a contest last year, and I was just the Mad Hatter, and I got my costume that very day at a thrift shop, so cheap. On Halloween, well, it’s just one day of the year, but you can be anything. And no one looks at you like you’re a freak. Who doesn’t love chocolate?” “What are you going to be this year?” I finish my drink in three long swallows because my nose is connected to my throat, and something has to soothe soon. 110 “I’m thinking a gargoyle,” he says, whispering like it’s a secret. “That’s no fun.” I pinch my nostrils, trying to fix my nose. “Why?” “Damn gargoyles have to sit by the door motionless. They’re always gray. Some collect rain, I think. Either way, you’re not going to be the life of the party. Not by any means.” “You don’t understand,” he says. “I am going to be a gargoyle.” “No.” I shake my head and close my eyes. I grind my teeth like I’m working out a formula. “No. You’ll just be human. A human dressed like a gargoyle.” “A gargoyle,” he says, smiling like he sees a joke on me. I catch the bartender’s eyes, signal I need my check by drawing a finger across my throat. “Lots of makeup involved,” I say. I dig through my purse for my wallet, and it feels endless. “I can do makeup. Trust me. It’s the hands I’m worried about.” He spreads his fingers out. “Big, hulky gargoyle fingers. And the ears.” He pulls at one of his lobes. “You can’t be a gargoyle,” I say. “You just can’t.” No one can be anything but themselves. “I will,” he says. “I can be anything.” I leave the bar. There is a brief turn outside to the gated entry for the dwellers above, and I don’t even notice the moon before I’ve entered the code and pulled open the gate at the beep. I watch my two jeaned knees rise for each stair step, and I imagine the bending skeleton within. I fumble with my keys at the door, frantic for entry. But when I get inside, I can’t move anymore. I’m frozen. I squat to the left of the door like a dead, church gargoyle, 111 and the gray swallows me, becomes my body, and I spend the night watching history unfold in the way only an old statue can. 112 Dig It Up It was fifteen minutes past midnight and her mother wasn’t home, so June waited up. In her social studies book, she traced the Trail of Tears routes with her finger. They all led to Oklahoma, which was designated as Indian Territory. Tomorrow would be Columbus Day at school and the fifth graders had to report on Native Americans. June missed the first grade Pilgrim and Indian paper hats that scratched her scalp at the staple lines above her ears, but were colorful at least. Her finger was following the blue water route when she heard her mother fumble with the knob and drop her keys outside the apartment door. Her mother yelled, “June-baby, let me in” from outside. So she shut her book and unlocked the latch. June’s mother wore a shimmery red dress with sequins for her date out on the town. Car lights from the street danced red on June’s mother as she plunged inside, off-balance. “I need another drink. Whatever you do June, never date a pilot. You see, they’ve seen the sky. And every major city. And they have these sweet flight attendants to bring them cocktails. I just can’t compete with all of that.” “We’re out of cranberry,” June called from the kitchenette. “Just use orange or something. Open up a couple of your juice packs if you have to. This pilot, June, you should have seen him. All night, he talked about voodoo. Seems he had this babysitter who practiced Santeria.” “Hey mom, you want a big glass or a little glass?” June asked, as she poked the straw 113 holes of three juice packs. “Whatever’s clean. But I didn’t want to hear about sacrificing baby animals. I wanted to dance. Everyone else was dancing.” June’s mother moved toward the kitchen. # You take the ordinary things around you and give them meaning. If the palm of your right hand itches, you will get money soon. If your left palm itches, you will lose money soon. # When I finally get the courage to introduce myself to the girl next door, I tell her my mother is a dancer. And she’s away because of a competition in Canada. And that’s why I have to spend the summer at my grandmother’s house in Oklahoma. She doesn’t seem suspicious. She tells me that her name is Margeaux; she even spells it out for me because she is proud of the X. And then she invites me to her house, so I can see her room. She says she has been painting it four different shades of green for good luck. Four is complete, just like a square. And green is the color of the earth; it is negative fire. Margeaux’s house has gray carpet and smells like potpourri. Her mother is wearing a pink sweatshirt with palm trees and Kissimme, Fl branded across her chest. She says that June is a very pretty name, and hugs me tight. I don’t want to let her go; her arms are soft and warm. She says that Margeaux needs a good friend and goes back to the orange couch and the colorful game show blaring on the television. Everything in Margeaux’s room is pushed to the center and covered with plastic. But the walls are growing brilliant with curly swatches of green. She opens four paint cans and names the shades for me: Hunter, Olive, Emerald, Lime. Then she hands me a paint brush. I 114 feel delirious as I submerge my brush into the thick Emerald. # June placed a glass on the kitchen floor and braced the vodka bottle. She rested it on her knees and tilted forward, only spilling two drops of the clear liquid. Once the glass was half full, she put it back on the counter to squeeze juice from her lunch packs inside. There was Berry Blast, Mango, and Gushing Grape. “Don’t forget the ice,” her mother was closer than June expected. She was leaning into the kitchen, twirling the spice rack, watching her. Freezer ice stuck to June’s hands where the juice had dripped. She peeled cubes from her fingers and dropped them into the glass. They were blurry with June’s skin prints. June stirred the drink with a butter knife and the juices mixed into a thick black-orange that smelled like rotten fruit. # You use objects to exert control because it seems like the only way. You turn your wristwatch around to change your luck. # When the paint cans are all empty, we stretch out on the floor and admire the green walls. Margeaux finds things, like we are looking at clouds, and asks me what I see. I point to a dark blotch near the door and tell her it is a rabbit hole. Margeaux sits up and says, no, it’s a burial mound. Margeaux’s mother leaves the couch to make sandwiches for lunch. She calls out amounts to the contestant on the television---five-fifty, six hundred, higher, higher!---as she slaps peanut butter on white bread. 115 I open the black and white magazine on the table and flip pages between sticky bites. There is an article about a seventy pound baby, a psychic cat, and a man who wears human bones around his neck. Margeaux laughs about the big baby and the cat, but she puts down her sandwich when she sees the bone necklace. “Does it say whose bones he’s wearing?” she whispers and glances back at her mother on the couch. “Another tribe’s chief,” I tell her. “He killed him.” When we part after lunch, Margeaux tells me that the man in the magazine wore the bones to steal the dead man’s power. And that once people are through decaying, only bones are left. For the first time, I imagine my skeleton freed from its skin; it is waving goodbye, rattling back to grandmother’s house. My pale yellow bones hold no organs. # June’s mother finished her drink in four long gulps. She kicked her high heels off and began to sway to the pizza delivery jingle on television. “Tomorrow’s Columbus Day,” June told her. “We have to do reports on Native Americans in class. Mine is on the Trail of Tears. You want to see the map?” June’s mother began to sing, “trail my tears, baby, why don’t you trail my tears.” And she danced with an imaginary partner as she sang; her hands clasped the fake man around his neck, then they moved to encircle his waist. She rested her head on his shoulder. # You look for bad omens lurking in the ordinary. A bird flying in the house means that death will soon follow. You don’t dare kill it---that would only mean more death---so you try to shoo it outside with a bed sheet. You can see its wings flap against the moving cotton 116 curtain. # The next afternoon, my mother calls. She can only use the phone for ten minutes, but she says she misses me. And that it should only be two more months, right in time for the new school year. She tells me to thank my grandma and that our trail of tears is almost over. I want to yell at her, tell her she never understood the Trail of Tears. I’m the one in Oklahoma. But she makes a cutesy kiss sound and hangs up. My grandmother makes chicken noodle soup for lunch. With my spoon, I pick the slippery noodles out and leave the carrots and chicken chunks to float in the broth. “She’s doing this for you, you know,” my grandmother says. “It was voluntary admittance. Nobody made her. She just took their suggestion. She’s making her life better so that yours can be better.” I try to believe my grandmother, but her glasses are so thick that I’m not sure if she sees the world right. After lunch, I ask my grandmother if she has two shovels I can borrow. She tells me that she may have one---there’s no need for any person to have two---and if she does, it’s down in the crawl space, so take a flashlight. The crawlspace is only knee-high, so I have to creep on my belly under the house with a flashlight tucked beneath my arm. The dirt is damp and sour down here; it stains my jeans green at the knees. When I am halfway to the front of the house, I reach up to touch the yellow insulation pillowed between wood slats above me. Then I turn off the flashlight and rest my head in the cool dirt. I listen to my grandmother’s footsteps as she picks up the kitchen. The pipes gurgle when she rinses the dishes. I feel a wash over my body, like I am in 117 the ocean. I just want to stay in the cool, dark underbelly of the house for awhile and imagine my mother in the rehab center. She is halfway across the country right now, eating lunch in a cafeteria with long tables, or pacing the fenced grounds, or talking about herself in a group counseling session. Moving forward again, I find a dead cat in a corner. His fur is black and soft, and it comes out in clumps when I stroke him. He smells terrible and his eyes are rotting. I can feel his bones poking through his skin, like they want to escape. And I tell myself, this is death. Years from now, he will only be a skeleton. In another corner, I find a shovel with a broken handle. # June grabbed her mother’s hands and tried to part them so she could dance with her mother in place of the invisible man. But her mother brushed her aside. “You can’t Juney-baby.” Her mother danced toward the door. “You can’t,” she mocked. And then she resumed singing, “trail my tears, baby, you can’t trail my tears.” “It’s not a song,” June mocked back. “It was a movement.” “No, baby, this is movement,” her mother said as the fake man twirled her and her hips spun brilliant red. Then she dropped her arms and the pretense of the man. “Don’t be so sour. Here, I’ll teach you how to dance.” June stretched her arms to her mother. Her mother grabbed her hands and placed them on her hips. She said, “now, you do what I do.” June used her knees to make her body slide and dip the way her mother’s did. An infomercial resounded on the television: it’s so easy, even you can do it, so start today. June looked up and her mother was beaming at her. They danced that way for awhile, June’s body echoing her mother’s, only smaller. 118 Then June’s mother stopped the dance and called her a natural. She told her daughter that if she would only make her another drink, she would teach her the moves that drive men wild. # You look for signs in order to make life more predictable. A dropped fork during dinner tells you that you will have an unexpected visitor. # When I meet Margeaux in the field with the broken shovel, I tell her about the dead cat. “It probably won’t take long to decay, since you say it’s so wet down there. I think the worms will clean those bones faster than we can dig.” “I didn’t see any worms,” I say. “Listen, this is Oklahoma. The Trail of Tears stopped here. You told me yourself that bones keep the power of the person they belonged to. And I’m not settling for cat bones if I can get a chief’s. They’re worthless to me.” We pick a mound near the center of the field that just feels right, and begin to dig. I let Margeaux use the shovel first, and I pull away the grass with my fingers, breaking roots. Then I scoop the dark, wet dirt away with my hands. # There was no more juice in the house, so June just poured the vodka over ice. The smell of it made her nostrils burn. When she entered the family room, her mother looked at the drink and said, “what are you trying to do to me?” They sat down on the couch together and June handed her the clear drink, shrugged, and explained, “no juice left.” Her mother tilted the glass to her mouth, but shrunk away after only a small sip. “Drink up. You said you would teach me more dance moves.” June was impatient to 119 be holding her mother’s hands again and mimicking her body. When her mother lifted the glass to her lips, June reached out to tilt it farther and allow the liquid to stream down her throat. But her mother started to choke as the vodka ran down the sides of her mouth to the front of her red dress. She coughed and dropped the glass on the carpet, where a puddle darkened as it was absorbed. Then she stood up, but tripped over a high heel and hit the ground with a dull thud. June went to get a towel to dry her mother’s dress with from the linen closet. When she came back with a towel folded under her arm, she saw her mother roll over onto her back. And then she sat up halfway and dark liquid streamed out of her mouth in blood-like gushes. # You try to find something to believe in. A mirror can reverse space and open doors to the invisible. # After four days of digging, the hole is taller than we are. I feel safe at the bottom of it because I can’t see out and no one but Margeaux can see in. I hand each full shovel to her; I am too deep to fling the dirt out myself. And above the hole, Margeaux sifts the dirt for more treasure, as she calls it. She has already shined the glass jar and bent wire we found, and assigned them superstitions. She fills the jar with flowers, and sleeps with it by her side every night for sweet dreams. And she wears the wire in her hair to ward off evil spirits, mainly the men her mother dates. When my shovel strikes something hard beneath my feet, I hand it to Margeaux and kneel down. I use my fingers to push away the dirt. 120 “What is it?” Margeaux calls down in the hole. “What did you find?” Frantic to get to the chief’s body, I tear through the dirt. My fingernails are caked with soil and sore. I uncover a long bone first, his leg, and then I work my way up his body, revealing him after so many years. “He came from North Georgia after gold was found in the mountains. They made his people move. He led his tribe through Tennessee and Arkansas to get here.” I use my thumbs to hollow the dirt out of his cheek bones and eye sockets. “He’s a Cherokee chief. Isn’t he perfect?” I look up, but Margeaux has left me at the bottom of the hole. I realize that he is my chief, he’s always been mine. I press my right hand against his, and then I break a thumb bone off and tuck it in my pocket. I dig ruts in the side of the hole to climb out, and walk toward my grandmother’s house, feeling stronger already. With my hand in my pocket, I stroke the smooth finger bone. And I know that I am the luckiest girl in the world. 121 The Smell of Hair We realized that we were different than the other girls. Their hair always smelled like shampoo, even at the end of the day, while ours smelled like cigarette smoke or just plain nothing. We were jealous. We wanted to smell good, but something---the fact that we skipped chapel and cut classes and loved the school lunches---kept us from emanating cleanliness. You thought it was a status issue, forgetting that everyone at our private, all-girl school was pretty well off. They have better shampoos, better conditioners, you whispered to me in French class, after a particularly pretty girl shook her head and filled the room with distracting whiffs of coconut. It’s all about the brand, you said, writing the word over and over in your notebook, filling the page with big, bold BRANDs that didn’t fit between the faint blue lines. I suspected something worse. We are marked here, I thought but never said, as something less woman than them. Because we were the cynical bullies with short hair and big ideas and an already rolled joint for free period. We had a fan club of girls who wanted to hang with us, who’d try to impress us. We were the men, so of course our hair would stink. # I know those girls’ secret now. I tie my long hair up in braids or a makeshift bun at the base of my neck when it’s still wet, right after I get out of the shower. Then, when it is dry and my husband is near, I let it loose, and every strand of my hair emits the cleanest 122 smell, the smell of a perfect Catholic school girl, a complete woman. You still keep your hair short and smoke cigarettes. You have muscular arms and late nights, and you wear the biggest belt buckle I’ve ever seen. Sometimes you invite me over to your apartment for drinks and sit too close and complain about my husband. And you don’t shower everyday, so there really is no hope for you. We keep pictures of each other in dark, hidden places. There’s a series of you lounging in a black slip, there’s a couple of my cleavage and others with my upper thighs poking out of red lace. We flick through the pictures on lonely nights, making the other’s body move with the quick rush, making her real, and we think about calling each other, going back, back before we noticed the smell of hair. 123 Limp You were so embarrassed the first time. I said I wanted to ride you, and there it hung, limp against your thigh. You made excuses---“I didn’t sleep well last night,” “My underwear might be too tight,” “You’re so intelligent, I have conversations with you like you’re a guy”-- -and then dismissed them. You thought I would never want to see you again. But there was something in your inability that turned me on. I took your failure into my mouth and let it roll around, pleased with the soft lack of improvement, my irrelevance. Now, you listen to a hypnotic CD every time before we try. I wait outside the room and listen to the recorded female voice tell you that your erection is growing in waves, twice as hard as ever before, pleasure now, pleasure now. When the script is finished you squeeze your eyes tight, tremble, push, but it doesn’t work; we lie in bed together, naked, useless, and sometimes you don’t even let me touch the soft result. You say you’re an impotent virgin destined to a life of misery. Too bad humans live so long. Better to be a bug. I memorize the hypnotic script, try to replace the recorded woman. Harder than a brick, I say. Pleasure now. I kiss you, but you never open your lips, let me taste your tongue; I think of this as another symptom, another failure. You say you prefer the woman on CD. I can’t put you in the trance like she can. The recording is on repeat; you say you’ll let me in when you’re ready, last shot. I sit in the hall, leaning against the bedroom door in a black slip, and think about biology. It’s just blood. Blood that’s supposed to flow down there. The woman says as much: your fingers send blood; your arms send blood; your shoulders send blood; your whole body agrees that 124 you deserve the pleasure. I imagine a dam inside you, but I don’t know what it is made of, and I don’t want to throw guesses around. When the script ends, pleasure now for the third time, I hear the doorknob turn, unlocking in a loud click, above my head. I scoot away on the carpet, expecting to fall because of the opening door, but nothing. I get up and enter the bedroom where I find you standing. Quick, you say. Lie down. I spread open on the bed. By the time you crawl on top, there’s only softness. You thrust anyway, angry. When you slide off, eyes tearing from frustration, I say it’s appropriate. It’s what I want. What about babies? you ask. Babies, I say, pulling away. Babies. I laugh so hard I hurt in the sides. I picture babies crawling unattended, sticking their fingers in outlets, eating potting soil from dead plants. Babies. Offspring, you say. Our genes making a family. Something everlasting. A family, I say, laughing again, imagining report cards, reunions. Isn’t that what everyone wants? No, I say. Then I slink down on the bed to take what’s left of your dreams---limp, lifeless---into my mouth. I’m not disappointed, I say. You can’t trick death. 125 I Don’t Have the Birds There used to be more ROMEO (Retired Old Men Eat Out) members, but their numbers have dwindled from nursing homes, as most things do. Now only three gentlemen--- Gerald, Bob, Mack---gather around a table for breakfast buffet and light conversation the first Monday of each month. “Lydia, that little nail salon tramp I’ve been seeing,” Gerald says, and the other men nod. “She wants me, well, after we had sex, she asked me to go cross-country with her.” Bob and Mack know that Gerald always opens with lies, but it’s his week, he sits in the designated seat, and they can’t interrupt. Not until Gerald asks a question, seeking their advice. Or, only if he forgets a word or drops his spoon. Bob and Mack also know that Gerald tells such stories to see them drool and flush. Bob worries sometimes; Gerald could be a pervert, but he pulls his collar to please him just the same. Mack whistles. He’s seen Lydia around town and she wears textured and patterned and colored stockings. A man can’t help but look at her legs. But, Lydia’s only in town because she’s down on her luck, escaping a mean, hairy-chested boyfriend, and she’s only sleeping with her vibrator. “She says we could take an RV, sleep in the back and everything. Toilet on board. But, to tell you the truth, I don’t have the birds for that sort of thing anymore.” “I had a colonoscopy last Tuesday,” Bob says, standing, trying to push Gerald out of his seat. “I’m in the seat,” Gerald says, holding firm. “It’s my turn still.” “You forgot a word.” Bob shoves Gerald’s shoulder. 126 “I did not.” “Birds. You said birds when you meant something else.” “I meant birds,” Gerald says, and Bob sits back down. “I said ‘I don’t have the birds.’ It’s my own little expression.” “They took out a polop,” Bob says, standing again. “Hey, you ended a sentence with an abstraction, so I can break in.” He points to Gerald. “You said ‘expression.’” “I used it as a noun. Sit down you fool. Like I was saying, I use the word ‘birds’ to mean guts. Because as I grew into an old man, I lost a lot of things like strength and even sex appeal. I’ll admit it. Lydia’s an exception.” Gerald smiles when Bob whistles; he likes to feel envied. “You can pin that sort of thing down to an instant. And every time I lost a characteristic, a part of my youth, I saw a flutter in the corner of my eye. I think I lost my sex appeal the day I started to comb over. It was a blue bird that day.” Gerald pulls the thin layer of hair from the top of his head down. It hangs slick, in a wave, over his left ear. “A blue bird that flew into the mirror, over to the other secret side, where things are still fresh. Where my wit and sense of adventure laugh at my reflection.” Gerald gets up, signaling he’s finished, and the men all refill their plates with sausage links and white gravy. Back at the table, Bob takes the seat. “I won’t get any results for another week or two,” he says. “That’s not a bouncer,” Mack says. “I don’t have to bounce off his conversation. It’s not a holiday. And no one’s been in a car wreck this month.” “When a man’s in distress, we bounce. Look at Gerald’s hair.” “I am quite upset. Man down,” Gerald says, dropping a biscuit into the pool of gravy 127 on his plate. “Alright, alright. Let me think for a minute. I’m not talking about Lydia,” Bob says, flushing despite himself. “Maybe the birds. I was thinking that I don’t have the birds anymore either. See, when I was just a tyke, my mother gave me two birds. Parrots? Parakeets?” “Tucans,” Mack says, jumping at the question. “Blue birds.” Gerald tucks a chunk of hair behind his ear. “They were definitely P-birds. It doesn’t matter. One was blue and white, and the other was green and yellow. She gave them to me for being a good boy at the beauty shop when she got a permanent. She didn’t know that I listened to the women while I colored. And I only showed them my pictures so they would bend over, so I could peek inside the scooped necks of their dresses. But, I only had the birds one day. They gagged to death that night. It took hours. I tried to make them drink water. But you can’t make a bird drink, not even with a straw. I gave up. I covered my head with pillows and blankets, so I wouldn’t hear, and in the morning, they were at the bottom of the cage, wings all spread open. I don’t know why I didn’t get my mother. Or take the cage out of my bedroom, so I wouldn’t have to listen to them dying. I can’t remember that part too well.” “You enjoyed it,” Gerald says. “Their death absolved you from the sexy thoughts you entertained in the beauty shop.” “I think I was scared,” Bob says. “No. You’re both wrong,” Mack says. “Bob stayed in bed, leaving the gagging birds to gag, because his legs were numb. He had an allergic reaction that night. One of the ladies in the beauty shop gave him a toy soldier, he swallowed it, and the green plastic hardened in 128 his knee joints.” “I think I’m still scared. Growing more scared. I’ll fall off my perch, too.” Bob stands up, and the men refill their plates with toast and scrambled eggs. Back at the table, Mack takes the seat. “I’ve lost my birds as well, but I think of them as middle fingers. I used to be so crass. I had no respect for anyone because I thought I was a god. Not the God. Just a god. Don’t get me wrong. I’m a church-going man.” Mack fingers for the cross he wears around his neck, forgetting he stopped wearing it years ago. “But, I used to think I would never die and nothing mattered. Now I’m in old age, getting to the finish line, and everything matters. Coupons, medicine, and daytime television matter. I’m clinging to what’s left.” “Left!” Bob yells, and the men all jump up and make a counter-clockwise circle around the table, retake their seats. “The loss of my birds was gradual. I can’t pinpoint a moment, but I think it has to do with having children. I didn’t want anyone to be bastards to them, so I rethought my stance. But, now I want the strings back, to be puppeteer.” Mack picks up his plate, thinks about chucking it across the room, and sets it back down. “I’m not a god anymore.” “You never were,” Gerald says. “It’s called egomania.” “I hate you,” Mack says, picking up his plate, setting it back down again. “True.” “If I were still a god, lightning would be bolting down on you, frying that shiny spot on your head.” “True. “But, I’m not.” 129 “Chances are there will only be two of us next month. So, who’s dying?” Bob asks. “Mack,” Gerald says. “Heart attack.” “Gerald,” Mack says. “Murder.” “You’re both wrong. It’s going to be me,” Bob says. “My probably cancerous colon will have eaten me from the inside out.” “Colons don’t eat,” Gerald says. “Everything eats when you’re old,” Mack says. And on the way out of the restaurant, he drops his plate into a fake plant’s pot and imagines the plant’s plastic eternity: from the restaurant, it travels to a beach house corner, livens a nursing home, loses leaves, and is eventually discarded to a landfill where all the good things rot. 130 Three Women Left Word on the street is they all live together in the top of a tower. There’s a blonde, a brunette, and a red head up there, everyone says. Long flowing hair, every one of them. They’re waiting to be rescued. And they’re bored up there. They spend most of the time brushing their hair. They brush each other’s hair. That’s it. That’s right1. But no one can get to them. There’s a lot of towers in town, most surrounded by chain-link fences and moats. And any man who’s gotten past the alligators and barbed wire hasn’t been able to make contact, not even with a paper airplane. Most of the towers have windows---well, not glass windows but skinny rectangles cut out of the stone---but the women never come to them and peer out. Some say they’re afraid of heights. They’ve really got to get out of that tower. The blonde is said to be the dumb one, but bubbly/chesty and sweet. She’d like to go to the mall when rescued. Buy her a halter top. There isn’t anything interesting about the brunette except that she wears glasses; nobody really talks about her. The red head is a dancer, a contortionist. She can twist her legs behind her neck and fit in a box. There are freckles on her chest. They’re thought about the most at funerals. Another man down, underground, and the three women left are stuck up in a tower somewhere, brushing their hair. How dare they? 1 They’re right about the numbers---there are only three women left. But they all have short black hair that they don’t bother brushing, and they don’t live in a tower. Towers remind them of something unpleasant. They live together in a basement, which is like a cave, windowless, only with electricity and plumbing. They watch a lot of television which only reinforces their belief that the world doesn’t need to suffer any more population. It smells damp down there. They are waiting to die, but they’re not melancholy about it; they don’t mind a game of chess or a crossword puzzle to pass the time. 131 But, to be real, they’re also thought about late at night, especially summer nights, when everyone’s panting hot in bed. Panting like animals2. No one understands why the women have been given this power. It doesn’t seem fair. If there were only three men left in the world, bet your bottom dollar, they wouldn’t be hiding. All those women would be boned already and swollen at the middle with the anticipation of life. And all their babies would be delivered with those terrifying first screams; they’d spit and drool and dirty diapers. But, then they’d grow up and play baseball in manicured green backyards. Three women in a tower, they say in the barber shop, the mechanic’s, the loading dock. Three damned women with their hips and their lips. They think they own the world. And maybe they do. Mothers are remembered; what, after all the bandaged knees and bedtime stories, they’re impossible to forget. The fathers were always busy3. 2 The animals also only have three women left---three ladybug ladies, three female skunks, three lionesses etc. hiding out in dens---but they seem to be taking it worse. They howl and chirp and croak at night; they fill the dark with so many layers of sound, it’s practically deafening. The men have taken to killing the animals with arrows and BB guns; it lets off the steam. 3 Cheating. Forgetting. Living. 132 Art Thief I’m walking through the art museum, leaning close to each painting, taking notes on a bank envelope curled into my left fist. The most important elements are in the background, I write, looking beyond a meat market at the human drama, so small. One of you start to follow me through the Modern rooms; I can tell by your uniform. You stop behind me when I stop in front of a painting of canaries settled on notebook paper. Nature reduced, I write, and look over my shoulder. Two of you now, inspecting me. Once there are three of you watching me record my observations, following behind, I decide it’s the note taking. You think I’m an art thief. In front of a painting of a volcano, I want to write about natural extremes. But instead, my hand notes the mounting method, distance to a door, size. Four of you walk in a line behind me to the Ancient rooms. I count the mummy cases standing in plastic boxes, draw a map. I walk faster just to see you speed up. I measure the statues’ height in arm lengths and add up the black market value of cracked, early pottery and masks. I become what you expect of me. It’s not art anymore. I’m your woman, so come and get me. 133 Cargo Cult Cargo cult is a term for a 20th c. religious movement in Melanesia. Western armed forces brought an abundance of cargo during World War II, and eventually abandoned the area. The indigenous population believed the spirits of their dead would bring wealth, and thought they could make more cargo boxes drop by repeating the daily routines of the airmen and soldiers who were positioned on their island during the war. They carved headphones from wood, manned control towers, and waved landing signals from the runways. My new house was supposed to be empty, but already I have four boxes of china, twenty-four place settings worth, in my garage, thanks to the activities director who keeps taking all of the dilapidated old folks, my mother included, to the mall to piddle away their lifetime savings. Plus, the previous owner left the house not quite vacant. He wasn’t present at closing, his agent said he had moved out of the country, but I saw his name on the paperwork, Russell Thomas Ferring. Russell’s mattress is propped against the closet door in the front bedroom, his shot glasses are in a kitchen cabinet, his cordless phone is banked in its charger by the front door, and the storage shed out back is full of cleaning supplies and his recycling, mostly empty beer cans. His fingerprints darken the walls around the light switches, his feet have stained the carpet, his ring is in the tub. My first instinct is to get rid of Russell’s stuff, donate it somewhere. But my second, stronger instinct is to keep some things; the phone and shot glasses are in fine condition, and I can use the mop and broom. Before the third instinct creeps into my consciousness, I know I am going to keep all of it; I have already flipped the mattress to the floor and am inspecting it for spots, hair, broken springs. He had some substance to him; the center of the mattress is 134 sunken at an angle. I curl my body to fit the indention his made and imagine Russell across the world, sipping wine, riding a train, touching a pyramid in dusty Egypt. Russell is in every inch of my house. The inside of the fridge smells like buffalo wings, cotton candy, won ton soup. The front porch has a swing with a broken arm. The microwave has greasy orange splatters inside. The bathroom sink is full of little black specks, like the whole cosmos has been razored off of Russell’s face. In the closet, I can smell his laundry detergent, like a forest. It is obvious that Russell was a heavy-drinking bachelor. But it is also obvious that he was a brilliant man, the kind you don’t meet everyday. There is a clean spot on the carpet where his reading chair must have sat and no cable hookup. The house is so close to the tracks, he must have crawled out of bed with his camera at night to photograph the trains passing in a loud, metal blur. He loved animals, fog, word games. His mail---diplomatic correspondence, itineraries, book offers---fell through a slot in the front door. He was a graphic designer, a politician, an architect, an anthropologist. He left the country for much better things overseas. # Once I have integrated my things with Russell’s, I open the boxes of china and pick my favorite pattern---a foreign cityscape outlined in bold blue. Then I set the dining room table for a romantic dinner for two. I fix the plates with his favorites, light a candle, and set the stereo to repeat Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, the one that reminded him of weather, especially thunder. Then I wait for Russell to join me. It’s quiet in the house; I miss his pleasant conversation, but most of all, his laugh. A rapping at the door, he must be here. He must be hungry. He must be starving from 135 all of that travel. I check my makeup and hair in the hall mirror, steady my breathing, and swing open the front door. I smile my brightest, but it doesn’t work. Only my mother is on the front porch, her hands wringing the straps of her pocketbook. She looks worse, so I wave the activities director on and take her inside. I add a place setting, hoping my mother will notice I’m finally using the china she gave me. With each new set, she always told me that I would thank her one day; if it wasn’t for her, my family would have no plates, no dinner. “All this food, no children,” she says. “No tip-tapping on the floor.” “Russell and I are working on it, Ma. Every night.” I pour her some dark beer and slide some wings onto her plate. “Shame,” she says. She’s looking at her plate when she says this, possibly criticizing the bright orange chicken that clashes with the delicate blue china. But, I know I’m the real shame. I kick Russell from under the table to spring him to action, to my defense. I silently plead with him to help me. And then he appears. He is twice my size, with thick fingers and long lines in his forehead. He looks at me with true adoration and I know I will never be alone again. Russell turns my mother’s face toward him and demands her full attention. She looks at me, fearful of what I have created, confused by my new power. I sit back and enjoy the thunderous symphony and flickering candlelight. “Your daughter will have a family on her own schedule,” Russell tells her. “You will probably be dead before there is any tip-tapping. And that’s okay because it is her life. You’ve already had yours.” Russell reaches for my hand and engulfs it with his own. “And 136 we don’t need your china.” He holds a bread plate under my mother’s nose and then sends it sailing against a wall, crashing into a broken blue city. 137 The Death of Men Two men die at the same time. One man dies alone. He could’ve croaked in a gutter, hungry and cold, invisible---that kind of alone. But instead he dies alone in prison, lethal injection. The next day, people read about him in the paper. He chose a McRib sandwich for his last meal, and they frown at the print; he could have had steak, cheesecake. Then they throw the paper away. No one knows where he is buried because the article doesn’t say. The other man dies in a hospital room with nurses and pain killers and yellow flowers from his family. His wife chooses a satin-lined casket and the release of a dove at his funeral. She announces the event in the paper. A lot of people attend when the day comes, mainly co- workers and old lovers. Some cry. Once the bird has flown, they gather to eat and drink. They share stories so he’ll always be remembered, stories he wouldn’t want told. But everyone who attends the funeral dies. Some of the deaths are diagnosed, others are surprises, but everyone goes to the dirt soon enough. And there’s no remembering underground; it’s all rot and nourishment down there. MORAL: We’re all plant food in the end. 138 Young Friends and Crossword puzzles and diving under ocean waves and hot chocolate and lingerie pose pictures and videogames in the van and Impressionist postcards you found in the attic and glitzy makeup and talking on a flat rock in the creek and piano music and thrift store boots and mid-day naps and drama class and skinny dipping in the pool and # You worked in pencil and you wouldn’t swim where your feet didn’t touch the bottom and you drank it with three large marshmallows and red lace made you devastating and you always moved slower than me so you couldn’t make the long jumps and you gushed and you wore it in style and you tried to catch a frog and you listened with your eyes closed and you said we could share them and you wore blinders and it was small time for you and you said your body felt so good and # I was foolish with capital ink letters and I floated where it was deep and I never liked it but choked it down for you and I felt like the luckiest girl alive and I always ran so my game ended quick and I wanted to love art and I had to learn how to wear it and I tried to move closer without moving and I wished I could make music and they fit my feet perfectly and I watched you sleep and I ran the spotlight and I wanted the moment to last forever and 139 The Wrong Bar I take a barstool alone because I am the only woman in this place. No one talks to me except the bartender to see what I want to drink, if I need another and another. I stare at the television behind the bar so I don’t have to meet any curious eyes. On the screen, pictures of naked men, privates covered by well positioned buoys or a lifted leg, flash between the weekly drink specials: Cape Cod Wednesdays. Two men holding hands on a woodsy trail, white behinds exposed. Drag Show Every Saturday. I listen to a conversation down the bar about a newspaper article, a picture of a fireman, saved cat in his arms. I pick through my bowl of popcorn for the yellowest pieces. The music is familiar, but amped up---the same old songs, songs I never liked, set to new, faster beats. It reminds me of a gym, like I should be doing step aerobics, arms pumping in the air. I wouldn’t be here, but it is Tuesday and the special, one dollar well drinks, is too hard to pass up. There’s nothing like it in town. I drink fast, faster than I should, to stay occupied, feel like I belong. I can’t imagine anyone more misplaced than I am right now---a young woman drinking whisky in the gay bar that attracts an older crowd. The more I drink, the more evocative the situation becomes; my discomfort is replaced by a sexual feeling. The naked men on the television screen behind the bar are all so attractive, but not in the way I’m used to. I don’t want them to pick me up for a date and buy my dinner. I want to want them because I am one of them, just one of the guys. 140 I look down the bar, find the youngest man here. He is wearing a pink shirt with an upturned collar, and his black hair is gelled up and pushed to one side. I wink when he notices me noticing him, and I ask the bartender to send him another drink on me. When some red concoction is set in front of him, and the bartender points at me, I smile big and tousle my hair. But he takes the drink and walks it to another room where men are playing pool. I don’t know what they have that I don’t, and I feel miffed that I wasted a dollar. I get hiccups, violent like I could puke. I ask the bartender for a glass of water and sip from the wrong side of the glass, so I have to stand up and bend over. When they’re gone and I can breathe again, I order another drink, just one more, I promise, and then I follow the rest into the billiards room. I grab a stick from the wall and a square of chalk and grind the nub blue. Who’s going to take me? I ask. You, I say, pointing to the man in the pink shirt. He says he already has a game going and bends over a table, ignores me. I’m ready to play, I say. I have a stick, and I know how to use it. 141 Blue and Red The swirling lights behind the car make us true Americans; we have taken everything there ever was to get and our faces are alternating blue and red. “What’s the worst thing you ever did?” I ask as you hop a curb. “I want to know something so bad, something so awful, you don’t think you can admit to it aloud.” Three cars behind us now. You tear around turns and peal through neighborhoods, but they’re on us. I wonder how this is going to end. The car could roll on its own, the cops could box us in, there could be guardrails, spike strips, barricades. “Once I made a girl…,” you say. Tires squeal and the sirens only let me hear: “Basement,” “Zipper,” and “I couldn’t stop.” The car could drive over the side of a bridge and then float down a river. Or run into a propane truck and explode. “Not that,” I say. “There was this neighborhood cat everyone hated,” you say. “Not that,” I say. You slow, turn, and cross the interstate median. We’re sending dust into the air and speeding up in the wrong direction, against the flow. The car could be hit head on and plowed over. “Whenever I used to go in public bathrooms,” you say, swerving around a semi, “I would piss in the corner. Over by the sinks.” As the metal rush of traffic grows closer, I know exactly how this is going to end. 142 And I just don’t care. 143 Flea Market Mall The Flea Market Mall is in an old warehouse on the side of an overused highway with broken pavement and potholes. Its parking lot is littered with flattened beer cans and chewed corndog sticks. The cars that park between its faded lines have cracked windshields, shiny tires, and murals in the back windows with Confederate flags or the eyes of Jesus pointed skyward. Inside, there are booths squared off. One has racks of leather wallets and a table with mountains of blue jeans that are missing pockets. Another has old computer parts and laptops with stickers that say “5- BROKEN” or “SCRAP.” There’s a hair salon. A psychic. A couple of taco stands. Fudge for sale. Japanese throwing stars and knives with jeweled handles rest on red velvet inside a scuffed display case. There’s a pet store with tiny turtles swimming around plastic lagoons and birds in cages, quiet and looking sick. There’s even a wedding booth with stiff dresses hung too close together and low---the lacy bottoms are already dirty touching the concrete---and hundreds of little paired husbands and wives waiting to be stuck in the icing of some cheap cake. 144 Up in the Air I have a four hour layover in Miami; it’s just wrong. The airport is cold, and I’m not wearing sleeves, and I’m writing a breakup note braced on a magazine in my lap. I’ve been thinking about women, I write. I’ve been dreaming about them, not you. I take a couple of painkillers; they’re from an old knee injury; I keep them in my backpack in case of emergencies. You deserve better, I write, grimacing because I know he doesn’t. I could never be a wife. An airport employee drags a row of seats I thought were grounded and sits down next to me and uses one of the moved seats as a table for his breakfast burrito. I smile at him and use the new seat in front of me as a table for my composition. I want you to be happy, I write, even though I don’t. I want you to have lots of babies, I write, imagining millions of miniature jerk boyfriends fishing around in women’s panties. When the man’s finished with his breakfast, he apologizes before dragging the row of chairs back into position. I tell him I’m just fine and return the note and magazine full of fashion and sex tips back to my lap. Then he points to the pencil in my hand. The way you hold it, he says, it’s all wrong. He imitates the way one should be held---fingers like a soft claw, bracing toward the tip---and then he looks at the way I’m holding mine and shakes his head. My hand is balled into a fist; the pencil sticks out of my angry tight hand. He asks if I wasn’t taught the correct way in the American schools, and I say I don’t remember. I rub the bump of skin that years of writing this way has pushed down my ring finger. He says he’s 145 from Cuba, and all the children are taught how, same with silverware---fork, knife, spoon. I probably hold them wrong too, I say, waving goodbye. I read my note over once he’s gone. It’s also wrong, so I fold it into a square and slide it into my back pocket and sit on it. I collect my things and follow the signs to Terminal A, my next flight, only three more hours until boarding. I walk down empty corridors, hallways that grow louder and then quiet as I pass ceiling speakers that remind me to not accept packages from strangers, keep my carry-on with my person. The signs tell me how much farther I have to go---19 Minutes, 15 Minutes, 9 Minutes, 5 Minutes. Then I hit the moving walkways and keep moving unless someone blocks my path with their standing. A family passes, moving in the other direction, with a little girl out of her stroller, scared. She cries and her father tells her to hold on, and she just says she can’t, she can’t, and cries some more. I think about the boyfriend I’m ready to dump. He wasn’t so bad. Once I had a hangover, and I sent him to the store for aspirin, apple juice, and black licorice. He couldn’t find the licorice, so he brought five different kinds of candy back, trying to appease me, spreading the boxes out on the bed to show me. After he was gone, I put it all away in a cupboard and never ate it. When I get to my gate, no one is there; my flight is still too far off, not even registered on the board yet, so I get back on the moving sidewalk and move in the other direction. I swing my arms like I’m jogging and watch myself flying by in the walled mirrors. I run when no one is clogging my path. I turn around when I reach the end, and I’m moving back again. I’m warm now, and I can feel my heart beating in my stomach, my shoulder blades, my forehead. I wish the moving sidewalk stretched all the way home so I could get there fast, all on my own. 146 Someone, maybe my mother, once told me that women who hate men end up becoming men. I’m not sure if that’s true, but when I get back to my gate, exhausted, I sit down and flip through my girlie magazine for another reason. I look at the beautiful women in the ads and try to imagine them making art, inventing good things, and curing diseases. But all I can see are their legs wanting to be spread. I go to the bathroom and lock myself in a stall and open the magazine on the floor. I pull down my pants and sit on the toilet and flip through the pages until I find the woman I want---freckles, green eyes, cleavage like an endless vertical smile---and rub myself into a frenzy. When I’m finished, loud and breathless like a man, not at all ashamed, I decide I’ll send the uneaten candy with the breakup note. It’s probably rotting now, turning green, and that’ll make my point even if my penciled words don’t. I board the plane earlier than the rest since I’m sitting in first class. My parents are rich; they give me everything I don’t need, spoil me for the real world because they can. Alcoholic drinks are free in first, and I’m sipping a vodka cranberry while the rest of the passengers shuffle past my wide leather seat. When we’re all aboard, a flight attendant announces that spirits, like the one I’m downing, are five dollars, and headphones, like the pair tucked in the pocket in front of me, are two dollars, and sorry, I know the aircraft is cold, but blankets, like the one at my seat and the empty seat next to me, are in short supply, but the aircraft will warm up once we’re in the air. I’m lightheaded before the plane is moving; I listen to the warnings about emergency exits and seat cushions as floatation devices and just laugh, imagining myself floundering in the ocean, trying to stay above water. When we take off, the plane lifting our bulk, angling it into the sky, I watch the world below grow smaller, less important. Cars turn into joke cars, 147 and freeways turn into ant tunnels, and forest turns into squares of flat green. Then it’s all sky---blue expanse and fluffs of cloud that could be anything if you just look at them through the right eyes. 148 The Effects of Gravity I’m out chasing the moon, running through fields with a wooden spoon stained red, when I find a girl my age at a bridge. She is right beneath the moon---the overhead light makes her look dead---and she’s fingering a power drill. Buzz goes the drill. I smack my spoon against the railing, whack, sick of strawberries, stirring jam, whack. We lean over the ledge and drop our items over; hers hits the rocks below first. # Mornings at my grandmother’s start with the news, then game shows, then court shows, then talk shows, and it’s afternoon already. The days waste away with the blue light of the television screen. I write in my diary: I hate her. She’s so old. I wish she’d just die, so I could go back home. Then I cross out the line about her dying, because I know I’ll also die one day. # Claudia C. calls me Gypsy because I don’t belong in this town; her mother knows my grandmother, why I’m here. She also calls me Floater and Rover and Nomad. # My grandmother’s tabloids flutter away from the bridge, almost like birds, before they land in the creek bed. Her heating pad, still warm, thumps at the bottom. A jam jar breaks open and oozes; the moonlight makes the red slime look black. When I throw her arthritis medicine, I think about my brother’s backpack, how you could hear him coming 149 because of the jingle of pills stuffed in bottles on his back. I imagine that Billy meets me on the bridge, throws his backpack over, and we take off in his car without his girlfriend for once. # Claudia C. and I don’t talk like girls our age. When we meet on the bridge, it’s as if boys and makeup and movies don’t exist. It’s all about hate: her drunk mother, my brother’s giggly girlfriend, my boring grandmother, the men her mother brings home late nights. Sometimes I feel my face in the dark for the wrinkles that must be settling around my eyes. Growing old this way makes me wish I could go back to growing old the other way: before I was sent off, my best friend’s mother gave her a fat book about women’s bodies, and we’d spend hours on her bed staring at the sexual positions, imagining fulfilling them with our latest crushes. # Billy and his girlfriend always took medicine; it fixed them even when they weren’t sick. He used to work in a white coat at a pharmacy. She loved him in that coat, called him a professional. # Claudia C. tosses heavy junk over the bridge. A hairdryer falls fast. So does her mother’s boyfriend’s lure box. She thinks it is a speed competition. Her liquor bottle hits bottom before my remote control, so she calls me Stray. # I spend the days thinking about the night, deciding what my grandmother will lose next. She keeps things, so there are a lot of choices. 150 # My parents call, say Billy has gone missing again. I’m not surprised; my brother is an escape artist, a genius. Once my grandmother is in bed, I cut the phone line with her sewing scissors and run out the door, to the bridge. My heaviest item yet, I say to Claudia C., but she has a television that hits bottom so fast and loud, we scatter. I imagine I am running away until I reach my grandmother’s screen door. # I was Billy’s little sis; he called me a cute kid, a doll. But his girlfriend wanted privacy all the time. She’d lock me out of his bedroom so they could bend their bodies into all of those positions I was learning about. She was so pretty and dumb. # I tell my grandmother I have no idea where the telephone is. Last I saw it, mom was talking about a new treatment center for Billy, sending him across the country the minute they find him. She grounds me to the guest room, says I can come out once I give her back the phone. I trace the floral pattern of the bedspread with a finger and wonder if Claudia C. is also stuck in a closed room, waiting for the night, the bridge, the liberating disposal. # My mother’s new boyfriend brought this terrible thing to stay with us, Claudia C. says, pointing to a toddler. I forget about my grandmother’s toaster, let it fall to the ground. He looks like Billy, I say and drop to my knees, pull the child to me. Look at these curls. I run my fingers through his dark hair. The toaster is perfect for tonight, Claudia C. says. I’m thinking he’ll hit first with a thump while the toaster just crashes second. Nothing alive, I say. It’s like a rule. There are no rules, she says, lifting the child away from me, setting him 151 on the railing. I can’t, I say. I back off the bridge as she places my toaster next to the boy, and then I run. I can feel my pulse and breath so strong as I dash away from the bridge; I am still so alive. I run fast because I don’t want to hear anything hit bottom tonight. # I took some pills after Billy and his girlfriend deserted me for the last time. I felt great, and I finally understood their world, and I wished Billy would come home alone, so we could tingle together. But my parents could tell something was off, and they took me to the hospital where I had to drink liquid charcoal. It turned me inside out. Then I was sent away. # My parents pick me up because Billy was caught. He’ll come back a completely different person, they say. In the car, I tell them I’ve been a bad girl. Grandma needs a new electric blanket, and sewing machine, and magazine subscription, and telephone, and toaster. You can take it out of my college savings. Or Billy’s. 152 To Forget My teacher has missed a lot of class because she’s caring for her mother who has Alzheimer’s. We all understand it is hard to lose a parent, and we post our thoughts on the latest novel over the internet. I’ve stopped reading them, but I don’t think anyone notices. I know several old people with Alzheimer’s. My grandfather is in a nursing home, but he thinks he’s in jail or at war. He’s always trying to escape. He positions his wheelchair at the door, right under the posted code, but he can’t figure it out. It’s more funny than sad; the code is right there, but I guess numbers mean nothing to him. He doesn’t even know who I am. During visits, he mumbles and I nod and smile like what he’s said is so nice. My best friend’s grandmother also has Alzheimer’s. She gives jewelry and money away to strangers because the disease lets her be so sweet. When my teacher comes back to school, I start reading the old, boring novels again. Sometimes she cries in class, right in front of the students, and we all feel uncomfortable. After class, we smoke cigarettes together outside. She says her mother is in a nursing home now which is easier, but also harder because they won’t even let her wheel the woman outside for fresh air. One day, I tell her I think it’s better to fade out that way, and she looks at me like I’m and idiot. I defend my opinion: It’s a return to childhood. In ignorance, there is no fear of death. Before I die, I hope I forget my life. It will be so much easier. I tell her I had a grandmother who was sane until the bitter end. She was terrified because she knew it was 153 coming. The ambulance would roar up our driveway for her at least once a week, and my father would have to carry her down the stairs, and she would grip the handrail on the way down, yell put me down, put me down. My teacher says Alzheimer’s is easier for the dying, but so much harder on the living, and she wells up again, thinking about her mother the way she was. Who cares about the living? I want to say. You’re being selfish, I want to say. But instead, I say my experience must be different and light another cigarette and stop coming to class. I hated the novels anyway. Over the summer, I go visit my grandfather in the nursing home. He smiles at me, stares at me, and my father says he must remember who I am. But I’m not fooled. When his hand slips down to his crotch and moves back and forth and down and around that triangle of his pants, I think about my teacher, wonder how much of an animal her mother became. 154 The Homeless Should Wear Black Tina Dugger brought a chick in a shoebox to school after Easter break. She told the science teacher that it was a tradition in her family; every Easter, her mother gave her and her two brothers chicks. Tina said they were cute and everything, but they usually died by the end of the day, so it was hard to care about them. This one’s a fighter, she said, peeling back the lid for the teacher to see the tiny ball of yellow feathers. I think he might make it a week, she said and closed the box. But she was wrong; by lunchtime, it was dead, and Tina was passing the shoebox around for everyone to touch the bird and feel the baby claws on its feet. In our families, we had different Easter traditions. Our mothers left jelly bean trails to follow to our baskets. They set up cups of dye for us to decorate eggs. They cooked ham dinners and cut cherry pie for dessert. But we were different than Tina because we lived in actual houses while she just lived in a trailer. We weren’t supposed to know---she never brought anyone over---but there were too many signs to ignore. And nothing says you’re poor like a dead Easter chick in a shoebox. # Tina got loans for college. She took early classes so she could work a job delivering pizzas. Her car was a hand-me-down; it was covered in stickers that didn’t make sense together on the bumper, like “Chick Magnet” and “Taxi Mom.” # Tina didn’t have cable, so sometimes we would invite her over to our dorm room to 155 watch. She introduced us to new television shows. She liked to watch dramas about big families with lawyer and doctor and minister fathers. We’d watch from the top bunk so we could make faces at each other that Tina couldn’t see. The families were ridiculous; brothers and sisters snooped on each other, the parents never fought, and they lived in communities where they knew everyone’s name---the grocer, the pharmacist, the pizza boy. # We lost touch with Tina after graduating from college. But we still think about her sometimes when we’re drinking too much wine and solving all of the world’s problems. One night, we decided to buy a whole block of historic houses from a bad, downtown neighborhood and surround it with electric fencing, barbed wire, booby traps. And we’d plant ivy under the fences and weave its vines through the links until it grew thick and green. That way, we wouldn’t even have to look at them. Another night, we decided that the real problem with the homeless is that they’re so obvious; they don’t even try to hide the fact. They push around shopping carts, and they sit too long on benches, and they’re always covered in stains. It would be so much better if they would just wear black. 156 That Space I can’t keep my fingers out of that space. I dig between my two bottom front teeth with my thumbnail. I push and irritate that skinny triangle of pink. Your parents are in town for a week. They’re staying at your condo, which means I can’t, and it irritates me; there are tons of hotels in this town with white sheets and complimentary continental breakfasts. Your parents busy themselves improving your place. They install spice racks and towel racks and curtains, and they paint everything. For your bedroom, they decide on the exact same color of their bedroom back home. Your mother calls it a moss green; like the floor of a forest, she says, as your dad slides the color on with a fat roller. I pick at that space when we slip away from your parents for drinks and a hockey game on television at a bar. When you’re not looking, I jab my fingers between my two front lower teeth---I rub just to hear a squeak; I push more skin between the teeth than belongs--- and when you face me after a penalty or goal in the game, I run my tongue over that place, jutting out my jaw like I’m a cavewoman. That triangle in my mouth throbs like a heartbeat. Our hockey team wins, and rounds of victory shots follow. Then there’s another bar, and another, and then it’s last call somewhere dark and loud. My head is heavy, and everything at the bar looks moss green, like it hasn’t moved for years. There’s a green beer bottle in your hand and a cigarette with green ash growing at its tip. I pinch that little space between my teeth. I break the skin with my fingernails until I 157 taste blood running around and away. Blood tastes like progress, like counted silver change or the metal bones of a building. “We’re going to be just like your parents,” I say, smiling so blood will run down my bottom lip and my chin and stain my shirt. “We’re going to be so happy.” I press that place in my mouth with an index finger, making my print red. To me, the crimson swirls on my finger represent the future, some life to be shared. But they just remind you of the past---some time we had sex on my period; you wore a condom even though I’m on birth control, and a towel was shoved underneath me, and you just thrusted to get it over with. 158 Your Once Literate Dog I know you don’t remember, but your dog used to know how to read. It was back when I still loved you. He was just a puppy then, full of wiggly energy and pointy teeth. The whining---audible yips of loneliness every time you left the house---made you do it. You didn’t know where to start, so first it was parts of speech, the alphabet, punctuation. He learned faster than you expected, but abstract nouns were tough. No, he couldn’t talk; that is ridiculous. You gave him short stories, and his whole little face would swing with his eyes across, across, and across the page. He quit chewing on socks and furniture. I thought his eyes were growing deeper, more capable of emotion, or maybe just saggy. You built a bookcase for him when he learned how to manage the spines. And I began to imagine a life for the three of us. But it was all too easy, and you began to forget that he was just a puppy. I had to remind you to freshen his water bowl and take him outside. You sure are forgetful. You would drop him, step on him, accidentally leave him outside overnight. He was resilient, though. He didn’t really get hurt until you stopped carrying him in your arms down the apartment steps. He rolled down right past you one day, grunting, with his eyes closed tight. At the bottom of the stairs, both of his front paws were limp, unusable. He tried to run away from you, but, with only his back legs working, his face just hit the concrete again and again. I’m the one who drove you to the vet’s office. On the way, you placed his favorite 159 novel in front of him for comfort, but he only chewed at a corner of the text, dismissive. And I moved out that very night. I wish you could remember. But maybe it is better to forget. Maybe I should start trying to forget. 160 Meat I’m all about the food chain, so I must’ve been born in the wrong time. Grocery stores---meats fresh in pink packages---have taken the pleasure of being top predator away from man. When I think about cows being herded onto conveyor belts, hooked, hung, slit down the middle, processed, I feel sick. I only need a gun to eat. There are plenty of live things running around here. I kill them, clean their little carcasses, and my wife cooks the meat up; it’s the way things should be. But sometimes she doesn’t cook the meat right. I tell her squirrel is gristly, cat can be tough, dog is like pork, but it’s like she isn’t listening. When the meal doesn’t taste right, I smack her for being so stupid and haul her out of the kitchen by the hair. I keep the animal skins for my wife to wear; I only want her covered where it’s necessary for decency. Truthfully, I wish I were a caveman. I would make the kill, she would cook, and then I could club her over the head and drag her into my cave; nothing about this would be unusual. I throw all of the bones into bins and stack them up on my property line in back like a fence. This shows the neighbors how much I have killed and tells them that I am top caveman. It stinks out there, but it should. I don’t see my son anymore because he is not of the caveman mentality. When he was seventeen, he tried to stop me from hitting his mother. He should have been out of the house already with his own cavefamily, and I didn’t need anymore trouble with the neighbors 161 already inquiring about their pets, so I shot him in the leg. I would’ve eaten him, too---I’ve always wanted to taste the ultimate, human flesh---but he ran away at a faster speed than his old man could manage. I don’t know if cavemen were around at the same time as dinosaurs, but I think they must have been. They lived in fear for awhile, hid from the gigantic green beasts in caves, but then they traded in their clubs for guns and shot the monsters down. The furry creatures I shoot in my backyard are just practice; when something big needs to be killed, I’ll be ready. I’m at the top of the food chain. I am man. 162 One Year Anniversary I should have known the date was coming up, lurking behind some corner. I was feeling drained, so drained I could even hear it at times, like all of the water inside of me was being sucked down a hair clogged drain. He was wearing on me. He called too many nights after 2:30, after being shut out of some bar, needing a ride, and I had to roll out of bed, still in jams, and pick him up at a curb. Gurgle, gurgle, was all I heard over his slur. The first sign: At work, I leave the reception desk to retrieve a fax. While I’m gone, the front door chimes, and I hear a scuttle, and then the exit chime. I think the office is being robbed, so I race back up front. Outside, on the sidewalk, I see a man running away. “You. Stop,” I say too quiet, and he keeps running. I find roses stuffed in a vase on the front desk; there’s twelve of them, and they’re red, and all of the office ladies gush over them when they see, but I can’t. My heart is still pounding, and I feel certain something has been taken. The second sign: At home, three shiny red balloons wait for me in my family room. One is shaped like a heart, and one is covered in hearts, and one is just plain red. Their strings are tied around a teddy bear’s neck to keep them floating at eye level, but not tight enough. They get loose later that evening, and caught in the ceiling fan where they bang around but don’t pop. Their ribbons shred into glittery confetti I have to vacuum. I collect the balloons and close them into the bedroom where they slowly sink and die. At night, stray light catches their metallic surfaces and wakes me; I bolt upright to find the three balloons bobbing over my head as if they were conspiring. As if they were thieves. 163 A whole year is gone now. I let it slip through my fingers without really noticing, and now I miss it, want it back. I don’t buy him a gift in return to mark the date. I’ve already given him a year; I don’t think anything else should be expected of me. I pretend the flowers and balloons were just his effort to apologize after a big fight. I call him in the morning and tell him I forgive him, but really, no more late night calls, no more rides home from bars. He can drive home drunk for all I care. And he doesn’t correct my mistake, mention the anniversary date, so the water in my ears can slow to a trickle. 164 Birthday Suit There’s a woman across the street. She lives in a condo like mine, only she has no blinds. When she comes home from work, quarter after five, a little later if she needs groceries, she changes clothes. High heels stepped out of at the door. Dress unzipped, falling to her ankles. Bra straps down, bra turned backwards, unsnapped, dropped. And then the flesh-colored hose peeled away. I wait for her. I watch her. I call her my Nude, my Girlfriend, my Suit. At first, when I just used my eyes, I could see all of her. I thought she had a nice figure. Everything was in place. Her legs looked great when they stalked to the dresser. With binoculars, I could see parts of her up close. I’d catch a nipple through the lens, big like it was in the room with me. She’d move, and then it would be gone, and I’d scan the room, chase her with my enhanced eyes, until I caught a piece of her again. With my new telescope, I can look right into her. We pulse together in hazy shades of pink and brown like my face is buried in her body. And I draw it out, I want the moment to last, so sometimes she’s already gone and dressed when I pull my eye away from its distanced embrace. 165 Sleeping Man Two pink feet bottoms hang off the edge of the bed. He’s snoring again. His lips are squished against the pillow, looking like a puckered fish mouth struggling with air. Touch his feet. They’re the oldest part of his body---callused and wrinkled around the ankles. You’ve told him as much. Your face looks thirty and your feet are fifty, you said. Did you rob a poor old man at the nursing home? you asked him, poking at a hairy toe knuckle and trying to smile. Your fingers on his feet make him jump, snort. Whisper in his ear. Tell him everything is okay. Drape an arm over his shoulder or smooth his hair. You imagine your affection alters his dreams, shrouding mountain tops in steam, changing the asphalt to peach skin---your only power over him. It’s hard to date a sleeping man. You can make a romantic dinner---chicken stir fry or macaroni; you’re not a great cook---and open a bottle of wine, and light a candle on the nightstand, but in the end, there’s only one plate, one fork, and you’re eating in bed. You tell him about your day at work, and sometimes he curls his toes or grunts responses. Once, you thought you heard him telling you to leave. Go, he seemed to say into the pillow. You thought about the word for a minute before responding. Go. Two simple letters. A vacation would be wonderful, you said. Most beach houses have hammocks strung between trees or patio furniture you could dump him off in. And a pattern would look nice on his skin. Think of him as a fairytale, some masculine sleeping beauty. Kiss his fish lips, 166 forcing him to turn over and roll away from you. Walk over to the other side of the bed and kiss him again. He flops around like he’s been taken out of water. Part of you wants him to wake up. He’s looking pale these days and could use some sun. Your sex life has suffered. And your mother would like to meet him; she calls him a mystery and is starting to act suspicious, like maybe you’ve just made him up. But, despite all that, it’s kind of nice. You don’t have to shave your legs anymore. And when it’s time for you to sleep, he’s always there in bed. His body is forever warm, incubated under the blankets, and yours fits with his, like you were made for cuddling with each other. You’ve told him as much. And he listened. 167 Small Victory Stumbling home from five drinks and ten stupid pick-up lines at a bar, I meet a homeless man who wants money for food. I’ll buy you dinner, I say. Follow me. I take him to another bar and order him a chicken sandwich and a beer. I watch him devour while I drink some more liquor. When his plate is clean, I ask the bartender for change to play pool. I let him break; I’m stripes, and he’s solids. The man can play, but not like me; I sink ball after ball and win the game when he still has four low balls left on the table. I won, I say, lifting my arms into the air. Beaten by a girl. Ha! Boy, you suck, I say. You sure are lousy. I cash out after telling everyone in the bar I won, and we exit into the night. It sure is windy, he says. I beat you, I say. It’s cold out, he says. I won, and don’t you forget it, I say. You couldn’t put me up for the night? he asks. Could you? My house is the winner’s circle, I say, no losers allowed. And we part ways. I turn up the air conditioning so I can sleep under all of the blankets. I dream about victory: I beat men in footraces, crossword puzzles, arm wrestling, and hot dog eating contests. I win and win and win. I wake up with a smile on my face, I’m a champion, but then I remember the homeless man. He had a knapsack and dirty shoes. He smelled like he hadn’t bathed. He asked about my jewelry, thinking the string of red plastic beads on my wrist was pearls. All he wanted was a roof over his head for the cold night. But, he was a man, just a goddamn man, and I sure showed him. 168 Some Loss After our first night together, I couldn’t remember where my car was parked. Once I found it, I couldn’t remember the fastest way home, the interstate, so I retraced our steps, drove back to the bar where we had met. I was only thinking about you, your waterbed, your green boxer briefs, the fish you only fed table scraps and called Scrappy. Once I got home, I fumbled with the keys, forgetting which one would let me inside, so I just tried them all until the doorknob turned. I slept late because I didn’t set the alarm; I forgot I had a job, a place to be for many hours of the day. Once it was dark outside my windows, I called you because your number was in my pocket, impossible to forget. I want to see you, I said. After our second night together, I couldn’t remember what type of car I drove, so I tried my key all over the lot until one driver door opened for me. I sat in front of the steering wheel realizing I didn’t know how to drive, which pedal to push, which gear to shift into. I went back upstairs, knocked on your door, told you I was lost without you, and you let me back inside where I wanted to be. While you were away at work, I watched Scrappy swim around and around her little bowl, past the treasure chest and pretend seaweed. You brought dinner home with you. You wanted to know if I was hungry, if I liked broccoli, ate meat. I nodded because that was easy, and the words were hard. I watched you eat first, so I knew how to chew and swallow from your example. After dinner, you started the stereo, asked me what kind of music I like. I wasn’t sure, so I said loud. Then you 169 took me into the bedroom, and that was easy; I remembered all the right times to move and moan and smile under you. After our third night together, you wanted to take me to a party, introduce me to all of your friends. I wore a dress you had in your closet from some other woman; it barely fit. At the party, everyone wanted to know about me---where I worked, what I read, how I felt about the war. Luckily, you were at my side to answer. I smiled, dumb on every subject, and you whispered in my ear, said relax, you’re beautiful, you’re perfect. I couldn’t wait to get back to your place, your bed, where I knew exactly how to behave. On the way home, you said that your friends loved me, they’re all jealous. I nodded, thinking jealousy had to do with jelly, soft and sweet. Once there, you showered and I sat in front of Scrappy’s bowl in some other woman’s frilly dress. I listened to your running water and watched the fish lap around. All she seemed to know was the circle of water, the drive to move. When I heard you turn the shower off, I reached a hand into the bowl to feel that world, so cold. Scrappy swam into my palm and stopped, so I scooped her out. I carried the fish, slimy and wet, to your balcony. Then I threw her out into the world like a baseball, and my memory came back like some kind of disease. When you came out of the bathroom dripping wet, a towel wrapped around your waist, I told you I wasn’t going into the bedroom because I remembered. I can’t be kept in a bowl, I said. I can’t be kept under water with the fake treasure chest. After I was gone, back to the car I knew was mine---the air freshener that smelled of berries, the funk CD, the cigarette burn from that night I traveled to the desert just to feel dry---I thought about Scrappy. I imagined the sprinklers turning on just as she hit the grass; they squirted liquid prisms, soaking her little orange body, giving her the strength to find a 170 life outside the glass bowl. 171 Strength That Builds “I will only grow stronger, and you will forever grow weak, and I will defeat you,” I said the first time I arm wrestled my boyfriend and lost. I hate losing. It shouldn’t happen to me. Now that we have moved in together, taken that plunge, I try to make sure he is always inferior. I get a job with the higher salary. I lease a fancy car. I wear clothes that flatter my figure and make friends everywhere I go. I throw away the things he loves most when he isn’t looking. I cut his hair crooked when he’s sleeping and feed him fatty foods. I show him phone numbers I have collected while out at bars so he knows I have options, and he is lucky. But he gets a hobby, starts painting scenes in our little office. In his paintings, colors flourish into being, anything is possible. I tell him the waves are crooked, obtrusive, terrible to look at, and he paints the canvas white, starts over because it’s that easy. I tell him the church is beastly, and it is all white and fresh again. I make him destroy the images his mind produces even though, deep down, I think they are beautiful. I buy my own canvas so I can top him. I stare at the blankness and it seems there is nothing to make, so I hide my failure in the closet where he’ll never see. When he comes home from work, I watch him dip the brush, mix colors, and create, while I pretend to fill out important forms. He paints a coliseum in rusty reds and browns. Inside the bowl, with thousands of cheering spectators looking on, a gigantic man steps on a woman’s throat. She’s 172 pinned to the ground, frantic to escape but unable; his foot is so large. When he’s finished with the painting, just adding orange clouds to the red sky, I stand up, armed with dismissive complaints, ready for him to wipe the picture away with white paint. But when I look at it close up, I see that the woman made him step on her. His foot fits there, and that’s why the crowd is cheering. 173 The Scar on a Dolphin’s Back The crowds are growing, strollers everywhere, lines for everything, and my father and brothers are smoking in one of the designated huts, puffing away, scowling the way they do, vowing to cause trouble on the way out and at least get their admission money back. It’s a racket, they say, jabbing each other and cursing. Dolphin Cove is close, I’ll be right back, I say, holding up the colorful map I’ve been carrying all day, pointing, pleading. Then we have lunch and get the hell out, dad says, and I nod, because seeing the dolphins has to be enough. I squeeze past people, saying excuse me in my sweetest little girl voice, excuse me, excuse me, until I can see the blue water, and I’m at the edge. It’s feeding time, and the kid next to me has a paper tray of skinny fish his mother bought him. He holds one out by its tail, and the dolphins know, they swim right up and open their mouths, squeak like a dog toy I’ve never squeezed because I’ve never been allowed a pet. I reach and reach until my hand’s in the water, and the slippery gray of a dolphin is beneath it. But his back is rough and scarred with parallel lines of black. Poor dolphin, I think, stretching a finger out, tracing a mark; he must have been hit by a boat. But then there are more dolphins under my palms, and all of them are scarred in this way, so I think the whole bunch was rescued from the teeming ocean, the nets and engines and anchors. Poor dolphins, I think, leaning forward, wetting my short sleeves to touch them, closing my eyes and concentrating in an effort to take away the pain, or at least the scars. They never had a chance out there. 174 I open my eyes when I hear dad and my brothers shouting my name all together: On the count of three. One, two, three---Betty. Betty. Betty! I almost fall into the dolphin’s blue water, and a man wearing a wetsuit yells at me from his kayak because he’s an adult, he can. He points his paddle at me, flicking water in my direction. I want to live with the dolphins, I say under my breath, turning away from his glare. I want to share their toothbrushes. Working my way out of the crowd around the Cove, I sense a stickiness between my legs, in my underwear, so I find a bathroom on the map; it is represented by two figures, a man and a woman, standing next to each other inside a blue circle. You can only tell the difference because she’s wearing a skirt. I never wear skirts. None of the girls at school do. My brothers and father scoff when I say I have to go. They’ve been counting, and I’ve been to the bathroom three times since we hit the park. Number four then, my father says. The last. They pull cigarette packs from their pockets, light up again. In the bathroom stall, I find blood in my underwear. My first period. It means I can have a baby now. I wipe and wipe the red away, and it seems endless, and I don’t know what to do. I look for a mother at the sinks, a woman with a big purse, a smile. I finally started, I say to anyone who will listen. I only have a dad, two brothers. What am I supposed to do? A teenager in black and chains digs through her lunch box. Plug the hole, she says, laughing, handing me a tampon. In the bathroom, I unwrap it, but the device looks like a rocket, it looks like it could shoot me into outer space, so I drop it in the toilet, watch the spin. Buy something, my father says, handing me a five dollar bill when I tell him. I look at the money like I don’t know how to use it. And meet us at the barbecue place. You’ve got the 175 map. Can’t you just use a wad of toilet paper? one of my brothers says, flicking a finished cigarette toward the flamingos. And I want to flip him off, give him my middle finger like boys do, but I just can’t, not even when his back is turned, and they’re walking away. I unfold the map, searching for answers between the little roller coasters and souvenir shops. I look down at my pants, and there’s a red spot between my legs spreading. I don’t want anyone to see. I want to hide, I decide, covering that part of my jeans with the map, turning back toward Dolphin Cove, the Underwater Observatory. I slip between people, step over stroller wheels, hurrying because I can feel I’m getting bloodier; walking is only making things worse. There are too many families here walking slow in clumps because they’re having fun. The entrance to the Observatory is made to look like a cave; boulders form the mouth around a wet ramp that rolls down like a tongue. It’s dark inside. Only the dolphins have light, and it’s blue, and even I can’t see anything on my jeans. It isn’t as crowded underground, I guess because you can’t touch or feed anything; you can only look at the dolphins. They don’t swim by all that much. I read the signs about dolphin communication and diet and lifespan, waiting for some. Family is very important to dolphins, one sign says. They raise their young almost as long as humans! Notice the scars? another says. Dolphins are very playful! They like to bite each other. I step closer to the glass, and my vision warps so the fake coral reef grows and shrinks in waves. They’re all scarred, I think, peering through the blue for thrashing gray, a 176 fight. They did this to themselves, I think, looking for some dolphin blood trailing from the surface, angry and wet between the legs. 177 Morley, Morla, M MORLEY 1. Berdigger says we are here because Motivation met Impulse, so we can all explain our horrendous acts to the new girl, Morley. The Poison Girls start with their stories because they are sitting on the log next to him, all bunched together for warmth. They always sit next to the counselors. “Mine was a combo,” Phoney, the leader of the Poison Girls says. “There was this skater boy and he was having a party with kegs and everything. Like, you had to buy a cup.” I look at Morley, try to judge if her story is going to be any different. “And then you were set for the night. Just refill. But my parents wouldn’t let me go,” Phoney says, almost still whining. Still agonizing over the missed party. Morley is cleaner than us. She’s wearing white, her hair is straight, her lips are shiny, and she still smells like bubbles. I wonder if she came right from court. “But the second part of the combo was my dad,” Phoney says, looking up at Morley, suddenly genuine, vulnerable, spread open. “He did the bad touching.” I can’t listen to this. What is she talking about? The bad touching, the bad touching. Almost half of the girls talk about it. They tack it onto their party and boyfriend and housework complaints and pass it off as Motivation. I’m smarter than all of them. My father owned practically half of the continent. And now I do. Or I will, when I get out of here. And 178 what did they get? Or what will they get? I play a song in my head, so I don’t have to hear, one with trumpets, and watch Morley respond to Phoney’s story. Just like me, she thinks it’s all baloney. They’re whiners. They make excuses that didn’t work in court, clearly, and they won’t work with me. I smile at Morley, but then I see something in her eyes, some fleck of understanding. And I think, maybe she thinks differently. “So, the night of the party, I slipped some arsenic in the stew when mom wasn’t looking,” Phoney says. Her name is Phoney because not only did she use poison, but she was also adopted. It’s funny that she calls that lady mom, like she rocked her as a baby. Her real mom is probably somewhere with her real kids right now, thinking about making a meatloaf for dinner. And she’s lucky she gave Phoney up. She did herself a favor. She’s still alive. 2. I don’t like telling my story when someone new comes. They should know who I am already. My father owned just about everything. His businesses provided them with electricity, fuel, automobiles, clothing, food; he was probably all of their parents’ employer before they offed them. So I say that my Motivation was money and the impulse came somewhere in the Caribbean Sea, when we were yachting. Keep it simple. Because it was simple. Then Blaze starts. Her story is a lot like mine, only she killed for less money and used fire. And her brother was caught up in the whole thing, burned along with her parents, which she regrets. 179 Tulip, the youngest at eight, just says that she wanted to get to Nebraska. And walk with the man behind the rows. When Berdigger asks about her Impulse, she says it was harvest time. Iris says a man told her to kill them. Then she grins, laughs, and I wonder what the man is telling her to do now. Jump into the fire, he says. Take off your clothes, he says. Kill them all, he says. We are full circle now, back to Morley, who sits to the other side of Berdigger. But she doesn’t say anything. She just sits there, refusing to speak to his prompts. She looks at her lap, so her yellow hair hangs in her eyes. She doesn’t even shake her head, no. Berdigger isn’t irritated; he looks like he wants to break her. He wants to punish her because his mama died and there’s no way to get her back. But then he thinks better of smashing her, crushing her, and decides he will let us put the pressure on. He tells us that no one can leave the circle until Morley has told her story. No peeing, no sleeping, no adding wood to the fire. It doesn’t take long, and the new-girl thrill has worn off in the group. Phoney needs to brush her teeth, they’re all grimy, and another Poison Girl needs a sweater. They think that Morley thinks she is better than all of us; we don’t deserve to hear her story. But I think she’s just a private person; my father was like that. He always took phone calls in his office and never talked about money. So I can respect her silence, even if I am cold. 3. Hours of nothing and the fire is gone to ash. I try to sleep sitting up, but every time I drift off my neck drops to one side and wakes me. So I lean forward, brace my elbows on my 180 knees, and tuck my face between my hands. I think about where I should be. In a warm bath with mint leaves skimming the bubbled surface. In a board meeting at the head of the table. In a jewelry store, the display case open. In a piano lesson. In a jet plane, off to a place I’ve never been. I can’t sleep. So I turn a bit on the log and raise my eyebrows at Blaze, to let her know there’s something I want. She looks at Berdigger, but he’s just staring at Morley, waiting still. Blaze digs around in her pocket and pulls out three pills for me to see, then she covers them in a fist. They’re all Iris’s, she’s given the most meds. The long blue one is a tranquilizer; I’ve taken it before. The round red one, with the shiny coating, looks like her painkiller. And the little yellow one is new. Maybe it has something to do with the things she sees and hears. “Blue,” I mouth. “Blue.” I show Blaze a quarter, her eyes widen with shiny metal anticipation, and we make the exchange. By now, I’m used to taking pills without water. I’ve been here the longest. Over six years. Since I was nine. 4. Even in the dark, I can tell Morley has Dairyland Eyes. They aren’t milk-white or spotted black like a cow. They are grazing pasture green. And so clear I think they could tell me the future. 5. I think Morley is like me. Not a Poison Girl. But she hasn’t even spoken yet. I can’t know for sure until I hear her voice. It could be high-pitched or dry or loud or breathy. She 181 could even sound like a man, like my father. I can’t tell. There’s the green eyes. There’s the hair, short and blonde like she’s a Daycare Favorite. There’s the white skirt, the thick calves, the light makeup, the pointed shoes. Hairless arms, almost no eyelashes, big teeth. She could be anything. She could have come from anywhere. I close my eyes and imagine her dead parents. Father: stock broker. Mother: professional gambler. Father: television producer. Mother: florist. Father: grocery store manager. Mother: dog groomer. Father: hot dog vendor. Mother: hairstylist. Then I imagine Morley killing them. Morley looks like a shooter, like she should have her hand curled around a pointed gun. So the stock broker father is shot in the chest, right through his breast pocket so the blood mixes with black ink on his pressed white shirt. He says, “But I gave you everything,” as he dies. And the gambling mother gets it in the head. She drops her chips. The television producer is pushed off a building, off the fire escape on the 42nd floor in some big city. He screams as he falls, but the wind and the speed make it sound like a fading horn, like nothing to worry about. The florist is pushed into a pit where no flowers grow. The grocery store manager is knifed to death in the produce aisle. The dog groomer is chopped and fed to her clients. The hot dog vendor is strung up so it looks like he did it, like the financial problems became too much. The hairstylist is strangled. 6. It’s early morning and Morley’s ready. The other girls tunneled into her all night. I could hear it from my warm place. They called her dirty names and threatened to destroy her beauty, to burn her hair, rip off her fingers. “My mom killed herself when I was little,” Morley says in a loud, scratchy voice. 182 And all of my fantasies are blown. Her mom didn’t need any help. She’s a dad killer, like me. My father was the real target, my mother was circumstantial. Morley was the one who found her in bed with slit wrists. And she still remembers the bloody blanket because it was that orange and green you see in old sitcoms. So her Motivation was revenge. “My older brothers might have given me the Impulse,” she says. “They taught me how to fight.” A bare-handed killer. A true murderer. She used her body, nothing external, to take him down. She had complete control of the moment when his life expired. I imagine her overpowering him, forcing him to the ground, bashing his face into the floor. She’s kicking, hitting, biting. And I am so impressed. 7. “During Torture Weeks, you belong to me,” Berdigger says, cracking his knuckles. “Nurture Weeks are a different story, but we don’t talk about those out here. In fact, you don’t talk down here at all unless I tell you. You do what you’re told. You work.” He outlines the schedule for the day---too late for breakfast, but bathroom break, hole digging, twigs, lunch, bathroom break, hole digging, twigs, dinner, bathroom break, bed--- and assigns Morley to me. Me. She has to stay within five feet of me at all times; she’s new, a run risk. “You sicken me,” he says, glaring. “You all do. If you could have seen my mother in that hospital bed, hooked to tubes.” “I have to go,” Tulip says, wiggling. “Bathroom break then. And Tulip is last in line for her impatience,” Berdigger says. 183 And Morley’s first day starts. Together, we run down the trail to the privy, shoving, pulling, trying to make it first. We throw shovels into our hole and jump in. We dig. We scoop out ruts in the sides of our hole to crawl out. We collect twigs. We count them. We have soup for lunch. We boil water and wash dishes in three tubs: soapy water, bleach water, and plain water. We pee again. We’re back in the holes with our shovels when I notice how much farther she can fling dirt out than me. How strong her arms are. How her muscles twitch when she works them. How sweat collects in a line on her forehead. How she breathes. From another hole, I can hear Iris mumbling, something about a white rabbit. She saw one. By the time I creep up the side of my hole and poke my head just over the edge, Iris is out of her hole and running. She’s headed for the woods like she is chasing something, like she doesn’t know that Berdigger will overtake her. Morley surfaces just in time to see Berdigger catch up, in only four long strides, and jump on Iris. He takes her down and they roll for awhile, and she screams. I look at Morley and say “bad form.” She looks at me and says “bad timing.” And I scurry out of the hole, head for the Berdigger and Iris pile, and she follows. Berdigger is on top of Iris who is still screaming. It’s called a Therapeutic Hold. I cover my ears and sit down with the rest of the girls, in a circle around them. Then I notice the red spots, lines, and stars on her face. Popped blood vessels from the screaming. I haven’t seen that in at least two years. Then I notice the smell and Iris’s pants. I haven’t seen that in at least four years. We’re going to be here for awhile. When you get that far, it takes some time to come back. With Berdigger using his whole focus to restrain, it’s easy to get a pill off of Blaze. I 184 just tap her on the shoulder, tell her I need something, I can get her some silver later, I’m good for it. And she gives me two sweaty white pills. They’re oval, like little eggs. I don’t know what they are, but with Iris’s screaming, I figure anything will do. So I swallow them and wait for things to improve. 8. “It must be a record,” I say, reaching for Morley’s hand. “She’s still screaming. Some lungs.” I get a hold on one of Morley’s fingers. “Some fingers,” I say, before she jerks her hand away. “You’re tough. I like that. I could leave you in charge of a business. What do you want?” Morley asks Blaze what she gave me. Blaze says a long word. One with many letters. “What’s your specialty?” I ask, too loud. “If you talk again, you’ll work all night,” Berdigger shouts. I cover my mouth now. I pull it all inside and stuff it away because I don’t want to be the person who makes everyone suffer. I keep talking to Morley, only I don’t use words anymore. I tell her I’m sorry about her mother. Must’ve been tough. Then I tell her about my mother, how I don’t remember much because it never seemed like she did much. I tell her that she reminds me of my father. And I ask her to teach me all of the things her brothers taught her. Eventually, Iris falls asleep with her face in the dirt and Berdigger gets up and tells us to go to our tents. I ask if Morley will be with me and Blaze, and he tells me, yes, get her set up. I help Morley fit her clothes into the trunk at the foot of her bed. I touch her 185 underwear too long, once I realize those strings are underwear. I don’t think she notices. I make her bed with hospital corners and show her how we all sleep in our sleeping bags on top of the sheets, so we don’t have to make them up everyday. I tell her to zip the bag all the way to the top like a cocoon, you won’t suffocate. Keep the clothes you want to wear in the morning at the bottom of your bag, by your feet, so they will be warm. They usually don’t stink. And I tell her it’s okay to use a flashlight at night, only keep it in your sleeping bag so Berdigger can’t see. She thanks me before I crawl into my own sleeping bag, and I notice her Dairyland Eyes again. The green. I tell her tomorrow will be easier. Tomorrow starts a Nurture Week. Blaze tells Morley that she better not snore. Or move, the beds squeak. And she better not come near her when she’s sleeping. She always gets like this with new girls. Paranoid, like she’s going to be killed in her sleep. But once Blaze makes some money off of Morley, she’ll be okay. From inside my cocoon, with my flashlight resting on my shoulder, I flip through the notebook I’ve kept ever since I could write. The one I use to master the world of adults. It was supposed to be my guide after I killed my parents, and it did get me pretty far, but not far enough. All of the really important stuff---how to drive, use a credit card, fire someone---is in that big scribble I had when I was younger. My embarrassing kiddy script. And now that I can write like an adult, with tiny perfect letters, there’s nothing to write. There’s nothing left to master out here. Unless Morley has something. I flip to a blank page and make the tiniest header: Morley. 9. 186 The hike to main camp is a good three or four miles uphill. We move in a straight line, and I stare at Morley’s feet marching in front of me and try to match our footsteps. Our feet, sinking into the gravel trail together, make a beat, like music. I match words to our feet song in my head: own it all, own it all, own it all. There is a counselor switch at the top of the hill. Langbar takes over, and Berdigger heads for the parking lot for his week off. The Poison Girls say they’ll miss him, wave, and wish him a good time. But they hug Langbar; they almost knock her down with affection, and she says, “I know my sweets, I’ve missed you, too.” My stomach turns. We have sugary breakfast---pancakes, fruity cereal, juice---in the cafeteria. Tulip pours syrup in her cereal instead of milk and eats it with her fingers and everyone laughs. Langbar tells the Poison Girls about her time off, about an outdoor concert she went to. She says that you could feel the love of mankind in the audience, it was like real connection. But she says it was nothing like her connection to us. She loves us all. Then Langbar notices Morley. “But I’m forgetting the new sweet,” Langbar says, approaching Morley, then hugging her. “I’m so glad to have you here,” she says. And then she pulls her aside so they can talk. In between bites, I look over my shoulder at them. I can’t hear what they’re saying, everyone is so loud, especially Phoney who thinks Langbar is the greatest thing ever, but I can see Morley’s eyes and they look receptive. I try to send messages to her. I think, she’s just as bad as Berdigger. It’s a ploy. It’s fine to play back at it, but don’t buy into it. I force my doubt upon her, my distance. Don’t let her get close, I think, I push. Then I ask Blaze what she thinks of the new girl. “Dangerous,” is all she says. “Where’s my money?” she asks. 187 I pull a quarter out of my shoe and slide it down the table to her. Before she can ask for more, I tell her that’s all she’s going to get. The pills only lasted a couple of hours. 10. Cindy Brady has lost her dolly. She loses her dolly every other week, when I’m cramped in this primary color hell, fidgeting, crinkling my bean bag chair, and watching Langbar braid the Poison Girls’ hair. The whole Brady family is on the dolly case like they’re detectives. Again. They brush hair, sympathize, nod, and agree. All of them. Again and again. The brown carpet and smiles make my eyes narrow and wobble. The Brady family is supposed to be a model for us, but only during Nurture Weeks. When the episode is over, the little lost dolly found, Langbar rewinds the video. She tells us we’ll watch it again, this time noticing how much the Brady kids love the Brady parents. Noticing how they treat each other with respect. Noticing how none of the Brady kids would ever even consider killing their parents, let alone actually do it. I take the actors out of their roles so I can stand it. Cindy’s actor thinks, I can’t believe they still have Cindy carrying around this stupid doll, losing it, crying over it. I’m ten now. Bobby’s actor notices that Cindy’s shirt is getting tighter when he bends down to dig through his spy kit for the fingerprint dust. Alice’s actor thinks Alice is a slave. I catch Morley looking at me when Bobby Brady says, for the second time today, that Cindy can count on him to find dolly. She pulls an eyelash out of the corner of her right eye and shows it to me, smiling. Then she slides the little hair into my palm and says I can make the wish. It takes me awhile, there are a lot of things I want, but when I’m done, she puts her mouth right up to my hand and blows the lash away. And the tenderness of the thing sends shivers all over my body. And I think I want to change my wish. 188 The Poison Girls pick dirt out of their fingernails and eat popcorn. We’re watching more of the Brady family, a new episode, or at least new to us. Jan has allergies because the writers had to give her something. Carol and Alice bring up trays of small paper cups filled with all sorts of things for Jan to sniff at. I know she should really be stretched out flat on a metal table while a machine stabs needles into her back; my father was allergy tested, and I still remember the holes in his back, how some of them got puffy. But she sniffs at cups. Turns out Jan is allergic to the dog. Wait, the dog’s shampoo. 11. I look at the periodic table in the chemistry book for awhile, the corresponding atomic diagrams. And then I realize what it all means---everything is made out of the same stuff. Switch me around and I could be anything. Anything. Like a dead tree or bit of gravel or pancake or brown carpet fabric on a television screen. There’s nothing different for me, nothing different for anyone. And I wish we had an actual teacher for school because I know if I mention it to Langbar, she’ll relate it to the concert thing she felt. The connection between humankind. I don’t want any part of it. I’m not the same as the Poison Girls and the counselors. We are opposite as can be. But maybe I’m a better combination, that’s all. They have fake, weakly-strung atoms. Morley has strong atoms, the kind that kick, fight back, and break free. The kind that take control. The kind of atoms I don’t mind being connected to. 12. Pictures of our parents are projected on the wall, giant, bigger than life. This is Regret 189 Therapy. We’re learning how to cry. “Just think about how dead they are, how alive you are, and scrunch up your eyes at the corners,” Langbar says. “Squeeze.” And Blaze’s parents are on the wall. Red hair. Tulip’s parents are on the wall. Farmers. Iris’s parents are on the wall. Tattoos. The people who adopted Phoney are one the wall. Glasses. The now dead people flash so fast, I almost miss the photograph of my own parents. Formal black. “They gave you life. And you took theirs. Just think. You’re so selfish. Now squint,” Langbar says. Morley’s dad is on the wall, and the flashing stops. “What a nice man,” Langbar says. “Bite the inside of your lips or cheeks if you have to.” And the photographs rush again. I think about water, maybe that will help like it does with peeing. The island’s clear green-blue. A waterfall. River rapids. I think about swimming in underground caves. Snorkeling. Floating. My parents are on the wall, and the flashing stops. “They gave you every luxury,” Langbar says. They are standing at the foot of the circular staircase in our house. Their arms are linked, but there are no smiles. “Think about what you lost,” she says, and the pictures hurry and change again. I think, despite my orders, the house may be sold now. I imagine another girl in my bedroom, another girl in the theatre, the library, the sauna; I squeeze my eyes. And I feel a tear working its way to corner of my right eye. I blink, tilt my head, and it starts to roll. 190 “I got one,” I say, standing up. “Look.” I point to the little drop. Langbar tells me to get a popsicle out of the freezer, any flavor I want, and go sit in the corner. She says to wait for the other girls to follow my good example. I don’t have to watch the people on the wall anymore. But I watch them anyway while I suck on my purple popsicle and wait for the rest of the girls to make tears. I think about the way they look now. Like cold, gray dead people all dressed like my parents, in black, underground. Stuffed in boxes. Boxes covered with dirt and marked with graves. 13. There is no more red paint. The tube is empty. No more black or beige. My happy family looks like everyone else’s. The dad has yellow skin and blue lips. The mom wears a dress of pea green. The kids are orange circles resting on the parents’ shoes. This is Tulip’s fault. Her gory fingerpainting has wasted all of the good colors. Tulip drove a tractor over her parents when she was seven, after watching Children of the Corn for the tenth time. Her parents were farmers, but they raised cotton and she wanted to get to the corn. I’ve never seen the movie, but Blaze told me that there’s a creepy little girl who colors things that come true. So I try to spot myself in Tulip’s painting. I try to spot Morley. Her happy family looks bloody even without red paint. The figures are oozing yellow and orange. It’s messy. I can’t distinguish features, or even body parts, so I don’t worry. 191 14. At dinner, Langbar tells us we can do anything when we grow up. She asks us what we want to be and records it in a notebook. Once she writes it down, she says, it will have to come true. “A famous fashion designer,” Phoney says. “A poker player,” Blaze says. “A priest,” Tulip says, and we all laugh. “A billionaire,” I say, knowing I already am one. “An assassin,” Morley says. I want to take mine back. I ask Langbar if I can be a spy instead, but she says it is too late. It’s already written down and everything. 15. During Nurture Weeks, we all sleep in the same room, our beds lined up in rows. I try to dream that I am alone, in my old bed, in a silk slip. When I wake up, the maid, I think her name was Maria, will bring me grapefruit slices and dress me. She’ll open all of the windows so a breeze blows through, until I get chilly and yell at her to close them. Then I’ll tell her to get me more sugar for the fruit, it’s too bitter. And when she comes back with it, I’ll tell her I’m sick of grapefruit. Make me something else. But instead, I dream about Morley. I am opening safes, giving her wads of money, but it’s not enough. She wants more. She wants something else. So I take her through my house and show her the paintings that should be in museums. In the wine cellar, I tell her that all of these bottles are worth thousands of dollars since they’re so old, and to feel the floor, 192 it’s temperature controlled. I show her the pool, the diving boards, the lanes, the jacuzzis hidden in rock caves. But she’s not impressed. Then I take her into my dancing studio. I show her the mirrors on all of the walls and explain that the numbered footsteps on the floor correspond to actual dances. When I stand on top of the orange footsteps and show her a tango, she joins me. And music plays as we dance all of the footsteps---the waltz, the samba, the swing, the calypso. 16. Morley argues with Langbar about the Safety Policies on the way to the showers. She always shaved her arms at home. She shaved her whole body, but we aren’t allowed to have razors. During Nurture Weeks, we can’t have anything that we could use to harm ourselves or others. “I wouldn’t kill myself. That’s a joke,” she says. “I need to shave.” Morley’s eyelids look like pink shutters. Every time a lash begins to grow, she pulls it, and her eye gets puffy. “A razor is a sharpie,” Langbar says. “I was swinging a shovel out there.” Morley points, not knowing the direction of camp. “Just pretend the hair is fur or feathers. Like you’re a baby bird bundling up for winter. It’s nature, sweets.” Morley gets angry. It’s a beautiful thing. She tells Langbar she better just hope a razor never comes her way. She’ll use it for more than shaving. Yeah, she’ll slit some throats around here. Better watch out. Then she storms into the bathroom, rips off her shirt and rubs 193 her arms, her stomach, trying to buff the hair off. I stand back. I watch her body turn red. I drink up her fury. I become full. And I burn, too. 17. In the shower, I imagine Morley is slitting throats with a razor. Langbar gets the blade first, a clean line across her neck that gushes purpled blood down her flowery sundress and up into her thick, brown braids. Her eyes get larger, like her whole body could open---a skin suit to slip out of from the sockets---and then they shrink as the blood flow slows to a trickle. Langbar collapses into her own red puddle, and Morley moves on to the Posion Girls. I watch her make body piles, a true massacre in the showers; I want to cheer but am afraid. The razor could sink into my skin and make me spit blood with the rest of them, so I stand back. But when all is wet and quiet, Morley lets me live. She uses the razor to shave her legs. I help shave her back. “Singing in the rain,” I sing, imagining the falling water is red and warm for another reason. “What a glorious feeling. I’m happy again.” 18. I use my phone call home to try and reach my accountant. I have little patience with his secretary. “Get him on the phone, doll face,” I say. “We have matters to discuss.” “He’s on vacation again. I told you,” she says. “The number then,” I say. “And snappy.” “Don’t use that tone with me,” she says, mother-like. “He doesn’t give out that 194 number.” And I just hang up because I know that even if I tell her how important I am, she’ll still try to come out on top. Her job makes her feel superior. Lots of people are like that. I try to feel Morley’s rage, the frenzy. I try to work myself up so I could kill the secretary if she was here. If she were sitting in this office, next to me and the phone, I wouldn’t need a razor. I could use my hands to do her in. That would show her how important I really am. That would get my accountant on the line. “I’m done,” I shout at the door. And I tip over a potted plant on my way out of the office, just to feel the power. Like I’m changing things. Morley’s next; she uses her call to speak with her brothers. I can hear her from my spot on the floor in the hallway. “Things must be better now,” she says. “It was worth it. Four years and they’ll have to let me go. Can’t keep me past eighteen.” Then she’s quiet for awhile. I look at the floor. “If anyone comes looking for me, just tell them I’m out of town. Now, put George on,” she says. “Not so bad. Take care of things.” The phone rattles when she hangs it up. When she comes out of the office and sits next to me, I think about the world of men we came from. And how well we have adapted. We could make it anywhere. Langbar walks down the hallway and passes out more popsicles. She calls them happy icicles for happy girls. Morley and I both get red. “It’s me, grandma. No, I’m Betsy,” I hear a Poison Girl say inside the office. “The one with curls. The one who wanted a unicorn,” she says. 195 I pull my popsicle out of my mouth and look at Morley. “A unicorn,” I say, and we both laugh. “Curls,” I say, doubling over. “Grandma,” Morley says, in her best little girl voice. “Grandma,” I mimic. It’s us versus them. And it’s all so easy. She leans toward me and places her arm on my elbow, as our laughter sputters out, quits. “Your tongue is red,” I say. “Yours, too,” she says. And we suck on our popsicles some more. 19. In a circle Langbar calls a train, we give back rubs as we receive them and sing nursery rhymes. Tulip’s behind me, poking at my back, scratching my neck. Morley’s in front of me; I dig my thumbs into the muscle around her shoulders. “Ba, ba, black sheep,” we sing. I spin my palms around in the small of her back. “Yes sir, yes sir,” we sing. I scratch down her arms, to her wrists. “Three bags full,” we sing. I lean forward so I can smell her hair, like raspberries. “Row, row, row your boat,” we sing. I think about reaching underneath her shirt, feeling her skin all the way around to her belly. “Gently down the stream,” we sing. 196 I think about working my hands up to her bra and sliding them underneath, up, and over. “Life is but a dream,” we sing. 20. Before dinner, I buy two pills from Blaze. One for Morley and one for me. When the food is placed in front of us, we realize we can’t eat. Our stomachs have gone to mush, our lips are numb. “Get to work,” I tell my green beans. I wave a spaghetti noodle around like a whip, crack it against my plate. Morley makes a knotted wig out of her spaghetti and places it on her garlic bread’s head. She stabs a strawberry with her fork, green on top, and starts a puppet show. “Mrs. Garlic Bread wants nothing to do with the Fork Thing,” she says. And I can see why. “But, the children,” I say, standing some of my green beans up. “Them neither,” Morley says, turning Mrs. Garlic Bread away from the crowd of whining kids. “What’s left then? Is there nothing left in the world for her?” I ask, knocking the green beans out of formation. “She wants something more like herself,” Morley says. She reaches across the table for my garlic bread and stands it up next to hers. “Where will they go?” I ask, spooning some spaghetti sauce on my garlic bread’s head like hair. 197 “Anywhere they want,” she says. “Anywhere but here.” 21. When we change into our pajamas for bed, I notice my nipples in the bathroom mirror. They look different in so many ways. Round, full, less pink. Able to shrivel and surrender. I think, just show Morley the notebook. Then ask about her brothers. It should be easy because everything between us has been easy. I try not to think about my body. I don’t look at the other girls and compare. I don’t look at Morley’s underwear when she sticks her legs into flannel pants. 22. “Broken panels and windows and high beam headlights are dead giveaways,” Morley says from her bed. “You need the right machinery so the cops can’t tell.” Under the tiny heading Steal a Car, I transcribe her words. I tell her to slow down, and she tells me to write faster, the letters don’t have to be that little. Or that perfect. I start to ask about the correct machinery. I want specifics, but Morley’s on to something else already. She says it’s really easy to get anything you want for free. “Call this section Scams,” she says. I flip to another page. I do what she says. Morley tells me about shoplifting. Taking things out of their packages so the alarms won’t sound. Wearing a large coat. Working with a partner who distracts the staff. I imagine us taking on a bank. Morley’s stuffing money into bags and no one even notices; all of the tellers are transfixed on me because I’m dancing. 198 “I could do that,” I say. “You’re not ready to go partner,” she says. “You can’t even fight.” “I can dance.” “Show me.” I try to remember the dance studio, those numbered footsteps from so long ago. I stand up. I pace between our beds. She tells me to hurry up, so I try to explain the way I learned, with an instructor and instructions on the floor. “You have to be able to do it anywhere,” she says. “On your own.” “Show me how to fight.” I look into her Dairyland Eyes and don’t blink. And Morley lunges at me. She knocks me backward, down on my bed. “Fight me,” she says, her face so close. “I don’t want to,” is all I can say. “Fight me,” she says, pushing me down. “But I like you,” is all I can say. “Fight me,” she says, smacking me now. It’s the only way, so I push back. I try to force my way up but she weighs me down. She has me pinned and I feel my body warming, reddening “That all you got?” Morley says, smiling down at me. “Come on. Give it to me.” She stands up, waits for my attack. It’s the only way, so I imagine a firework going off inside of me, shooting sparks. Every interior dark place brightens, and I ball my fists. I lunge back, only she doesn’t fall. So I punch her in the stomach with everything I’ve got. She folds a little in the middle, and I knock her down on her bed. And it feels so good to be on top. To be looking down. 199 “Beautiful,” she says. “Fireworks,” I say. Then Langbar opens the door, sticks her head inside the bedroom. “Play nice, sweets,” she says, and turns off the light and leaves. “We will,” Morley whispers in the dark. And I jump off of her. Something is wrong. I get in my own bed and pull the covers over my face. This shouldn’t be happening to me. I flip to my side, with my back to her. I’m losing control. “Come back,” I hear her say, through the blankets. I think about killing my parents so I don’t have to hear or think about Morley, but it gets all jumbled inside. Morley’s on the yacht with me. She talks with my father about navigation, asks him where the boat is headed, how long, how far. I can tell she likes him, most people did. So when she sees the pointed gun in my hand, she knocks him down, covers him, protects him. And I shoot them both. They die together in a bloody pile on top deck. Before I can dump the bodies overboard, I see my mother. She drops her drink when she sees them. And for a moment I think she doesn’t deserve a bullet. Just a moment, then I pull the trigger and unload all of the bodies, splash, splash, splash, into the Caribbean Sea. 23. In a line, we file into the nurse’s office to have our pink pill boxes filled. When it’s my turn, she gives me a week’s worth of the yellow anxiety ovals and depression squares. Then she tells me about a new prescription she’s going to put me on. Hot off the market. Supposed to increase emotional response. She puts two spotted capsules into each slot of my 200 pill box, Sunday to Monday. Start it today, she says. Then I am let out of the office with none of the tranquilizers I keep requesting. She always says I don’t need them. Don’t tell me what I need, I think. Back in the hallway, I take one of the new pills and hope for the best. It slides down my throat real smooth. “New pill,” I say, and grin at Morley. Things are easy between us again. I don’t think she wants to fight anymore. “I hope it numbs me out. Tomorrow starts another Torture Week, and I don’t want to feel a thing.” “Numb fingers can’t do much,” she says. “What’s to do?” I ask, shrugging my shoulders real deep and looking away. “Lots of things.” 24. I cry when we watch the Brady family. I cry for the actors because they’re so much like me. They thought they had everything when this episode was taped; now they have nothing. Marcia’s actor had enough beauty and hair to be a dancer. And money to buy records, nail polish, puppies. Thinking about puppies---spots, tails, paws---makes my eyes well up and spill because they only get old and then no one wants them. Like Marcia’s actor. They’re all old now. Something happened to them. But I’ll never get old. I’ll live forever. And my body feels like it’s soaring, but only to the ceiling. Up where you can see the tops of everyone’s heads. Up where you have to notice them. I am light and pink like cotton candy, only full of electricity. I am charged. I reach over and touch Morley’s wrist, try to shock her. “Buzz,” I say. “Why were you crying?” she asks. 201 “Zap,” I say, and poke her again, this time at the elbow. “Must be the pill.” Her attention returns to the Bradys. She’s watching Marcia now. She must be through with me. My eyes get wet and blurry again. I’ll be better, I promise myself, because I can’t let her drop me this fast. I swallow the tears back and watch Marcia study, get annoyed with Jan and Cindy, go tell her dad. She’s wearing a skirt. Her hair bounces and shakes when she walks down the hall. I wish I could hide inside of those yellow strands. Take me with you, I think. I’m so small, you won’t even know I’m there. 25. I realize what Morley knew all along right before dinner, and I demand to see the nurse. “She’s off duty now, sweets,” Langbar says. “I won’t take that pill anymore,” I say. “It’s healthy to cry,” she says. “You don’t have to be embarrassed.” “No,” I say. And I feel like I am going to cry again, so I take out my pill box and pluck every spotted capsule out of the week. I throw them on the floor and jump on the scattered pills. I keep my eyes closed, so I don’t have to see all of the girls watching me. So I won’t cry. Langbar bends down and picks the pills up. She hands them back to me and says I should wait and see how I feel in the morning. Let’s go have dinner now. I look at the capsules in my hand. They aren’t broken; I didn’t even dent them. 26. 202 I watch Morley eat dinner---her lips close around fork prongs, open against the side of a glass. 27. Berdigger’s mama died when he was in college, some sickness he had to watch grow for years before it finished her, so he takes it out on us. It’s usually worse when he first gets back from a week off---he’ll make us dig at night, tell us we’re digging graves, our parents’, no, our own---but tonight he seems sad. Down the gravel trail to camp, he doesn’t even tell us to straighten our line or quicken our marching. And once we get there, he lets us go to our tents, does the same. In bed, I flip through my notebook. I reread the entries Morley gave me---Fake Identity, Lock Picking, Pick-Pocketing. I look over at her; her shirt is up, flashlight pointed, and she’s pulling little blonde hairs from her stomach. I can’t wait to scam with her. Then I hear a sob, a sniffle, heaves of grief somewhere outside the tent. It’s Berdigger thinking about his mama and feeling so lonely. I wonder if he has a picture of her in his private tent, a candle, a whole shrine for the woman who birthed him. “Shut up, Berdigger,” Blaze shouts from her bed. “Dead mama,” I hear Tulip yell from another tent, and we all laugh. “Need a hug?” a Poison Girl calls from their tent. And the crying sounds stop. “Lights off,” he shouts back, his voice cracking out. 28. He’s crying some more, but no one seems to mind. Berdigger’s sobs play off nature’s 203 cheeps and croaks; it’s music for sleeping. A man crying. The outdoors talking. But I can’t sleep, so I think about my father. His trips, catered parties, black suits. I want to be just like him when I get out of here, when I can. 29. I dream about my mother. She is teaching me about charm, showing me how it is done: Walk slowly, with a twitch. Tummy in. Show your teeth when you smile. This perfume drives men wild. And then she unleashes me; go get them, she says, pushing me out the door. The only man I find is hooked up to a machine in front of a grocery store. I feed him two quarters, and he starts to jerk around, but I can’t bring myself to take that ride. I regret my purchase. 30. I wake up when I feel a real pressing on my body. I shake scared, thinking, get this mechanical man off of me. He’s cold. He’s metal. But it’s only Morley in my bed; the fear drifts away. “You were making noises,” she says, tucking loose hair behind my ears with her soft hands. “Bad dream,” I say, closing my eyes again, falling back into the man and metal trap. “Didn’t sound like it,” she says. “Sounded sexy. Like you wanted me to do this.” She kisses my neck where the throat is, where I swallow, and then works around, warming my jaw line. She bites so soft, I quiver in currents of happy. I am fully awake now. I feel a spread of energy, like magic caterpillars inching down my body, chanting, it’s okay, 204 it’s okay, it’s okay, as they slip. MORLA 1. I pick my head up and make it an actual kiss, with lips on lips, like the Brady parents. Once I’m used to the feeling, the closeness and wetness, I throw myself into it; I circle her tongue with mine, pull her lower lip, smile when our mouths close. “Morla,” I say, wrapping her into a tight hug. “Morla, Morla,” I say, kissing her cheeks, her forehead, trying to take it all in at once. Then Blaze rolls over. “Wow,” is all she says. Morla slides away from me and returns to her bed. I stare after her; the dark she occupies seems to pulse with my heart. It tells me to do something new. Quiet, so no one will hear, I tuck a hand between my legs, where I need a hand, a touch. Then I rock back and forth, feel my fingers shift and glide against my pajama pants, underwear, and what’s inside of my underwear. I imagine that Morla is still on top of me, kissing me, and my hand is hers. I unzip my sleeping bag for her. We wiggle out of our clothes. Our kisses go farther, take more in. The pulse in my heart moves lower, pounds where I’m empty, and my pleasure builds into a loud burst. “I’m sorry,” I say, gasping for air. 2. 205 In the morning, Berdigger says we are going to walk down the road to church, time we all do some praying. “It’s a good seven miles, but everyone gets a fan and sometimes they have food afterwards,” I tell Morla, as we fix the corners of our sheets. “I’m not going,” she says. “But they have an organ and we sing.” “Doesn’t matter. I don’t do church.” “You might have to,” I say, looking down. “Listen,” she says, approaching me, cupping a hand beneath my chin, lifting my face to hers. “I don’t have to do anything. I don’t even have to stay here. I could take you away,” she says and gives me a quick kiss. I look into her green eyes and think about escaping, something I usually keep myself from thinking about. Only one girl ever tried over the years, and she was back within hours. Then they made things worse for her and sent her off, probably to an asylum. But with Morla, everything seems possible. She makes the world feel small and controllable, like something you can name and tuck inside your pocket. When it’s time to start hiking, I tell Berdigger that we won’t be going. “We’re sticking to our guns. You can’t make us worship.” “If you two won’t go, the group will have to stay here and work,” he says. “Fine by us,” Morla says. And the other girls groan; they’re wearing clothes without holes and thinking about chocolate chip cookies and big ladies who give hugs. 3. Instead of church, we pickaxe stumps. I don’t think about the wooden pews, colored 206 windows, and potato salad. I don’t think about how angry the other girls are at us. I think about Morla when I swing my axe down, tear up a root. I imagine that we’ve taken residence up in the trees; she built me a tree house and a bridge, so I dance for her, take baths with her. Between swings, I watch hers. She attacks our stump like it matters, or she enjoys it. “Hit this root,” Morla says, pointing and pulling away dirt. She slips out of her jacket, then her sweater, and I look at her arms, swing, miss. Morla crouches down with the stump, pulls a root up with her left hand, and axes at it with her right. Muscles in her back twitch at the edges of her tank top. I want to feel the tightening under her skin; I step down into the stump’s moat and press my palm against one of her shoulder blades. She shrinks at the unexpected touch, and her body pulses under my hand as the axe comes down, hits one of her fingers, makes a squish instead of thud. Then her left thumb is in her mouth, she’s walking away with blood leaking out the corners of her lips, saying it’s fine, just fine. “Show me,” I say, giving chase, trying to stop her. When she slows by Berdigger’s tent, I wrap my arms around her middle from behind. I only see the flap of skin for a second, then it’s pooled with blood. It’s like her thumbprint is going to fall off. “I’m sorry,” I say. Then I get Berdigger. And he uses his radio to beep the nurse, tell her to come collect Morla. 4. I pickaxe alone. I swing hard like Morla. I send silent messages up to her at main camp: Don’t hurt, Get lots of pain pills, Remember me, I’m sorry, I’m feeling sorrow for you. My intensity sends metal thuds and wood chips flying through the air. She could 207 think it’s my fault; I broke a code, you don’t sneak up on someone while they’re using a weapon. I should have known better. I should be the one bleeding right now. I lay my left hand on the jagged face of the stump. I look at my thumb, so healthy and whole against the broken rings---life years for trees. I hoist the pickaxe up in the air and bring it down, missing my hand. My fingers bend, relieved to work. No, I tell them. It’s your turn. I lay my hand down again. For Morla, I think, and swing softer. I stay strong when the axe slices beneath the second knuckle of my left thumb, sends waves of hurt up my arm, and bleaches my vision. I stick it in my mouth; the blood tastes like industry. “Dropping like flies today,” Berdigger says. “Punishment for not going to church.” 5. I find her in the nurse’s office talking to a tall boy with crutches. Before the nurse starts disinfecting and wrapping, I show Morla my hand, my offering, but she doesn’t seem interested. “There’s a boy part, too,” she says. “Their weeks are on the opposite schedule and they have their own camp.” “Now don’t tell anybody and go and get me in trouble,” the nurse says. “We won’t,” they promise. “So, three shooters, two fires, a stabbing, and three Poison Boys,” Morla says, pulling her good fingers back as she lists. “What about you?” she asks. “Suffocation,” he says, leaning forward to rest his chin on the armpit of a crutch. “Interesting,” Morla says, smiling, probably picturing him stretch plastic bags over his parents’ faces. I only picture a pillow. A pathetic soft one with feather insides. 208 “Pain pills,” I say to the nurse, trying to shift the focus of the room. “I’m in terrible pain, and will be for days.” She acts like she’s doing us a favor when she slips fat pills into our pink boxes. “Ouch,” I say. “My finger,” I say. And then she leaves the room to get us popsicles. “Ow, ow, purple,” I call after her. “Anyone ever escape?” Morla asks the boy. “No,” he says. I unscrew the cap of the bottle the nurse left behind. I swallow two and dump a handful into my pocket. 6. I feel so bubbly, my legs buckle at the knees. I drop my popsicle in the gravel. I frown. “It’s so far away now,” I say. “You girls,” the nurse says. She retrieves my popsicle and picks the rock bits off of the purple before handing it back to me. “I won’t be able to work,” I say, falling forward to my knees, prayer-style. “Lord, we’ve got these dead parents.” I pull Morla down next to me. “Broken fingers,” I say, lifting my bandaged hand to the sky. “Medicine in our blood.” I point with the popsicle to my bluest veins, the inside of my elbow. “And Berdigger down the hill.” “I could use a rest anyways,” the nurse says, plopping down in the middle of the trail. “Now?” Morley whispers in my ear. “No, no, no,” I say. “Won’t do. Can’t move.” I fall the rest of the way forward and don’t even mind the gravel digging into my forehead. I’m still. And close to God, I think. 209 Morla rubs my back. I hear her tell the nurse to just give me a few minutes. 7. Morla collects twigs for both of us. I lean against a tree. When I open my eyes and see the growing bundles, I say “So good to me.” I hold on, digging my fingers into the bark, so I won’t slip to the ground. The rice we eat for dinner soaks up the heavy feeling; my thumb begins to throb when Morla pours hot water into three tubs. I am stationed in front of the plain water dunking the bleachy dishes Blaze hands me. Morla does the scrubbing at the soap water tub. My bandage is all wet, and I don’t know when I’ll be able to get a new one, but the hot water feels so good on my hurt hand. “You’re turning the water pink,” Phoney, the dish dryer, says. She’s right; the water is a pretty peach that belongs in a rainbow. I splash a hand-sized wave in her direction. “Yuck,” she says, pulling the front of her jacket, trying to shake it dry. I pretend my hand is a water bird; it swoops down, grazes the surface, and then spots a fish, ducks under, swims through the pink in pursuit. When I accidentally hit the side of the tub, I pull a fat pill out of my pocket. “No,” Morla says before I can put it in my mouth. I don’t know what to say, so I pretend she is the nurse. “Ouch,” I say, lifting my hand out of the water. “I’m in major pain here. Ow, ow, ow.” “You screwed up today by taking two of those. We missed an opportunity because of you,” she says. “You could have left me,” I say, and swallow the pill. 210 “I wouldn’t do that,” she says. And I splash more water on Phoney. I give Blaze a couple pain pills for nothing. I blow Morla a kiss. 8. When I can hear Blaze’s breathing steady into sleep, I ready myself for Morla. She’ll crawl into my bed any minute now, I think. She’ll kiss me and maybe even reach under my shirt. And I’ll hold her so close. But she doesn’t come. Blaze starts snoring, and she still doesn’t come. “Morla,” I whisper. And nothing. She must be asleep. I consider waking her up, getting out of my bed and into hers. Making the first move. But what if she’s dreaming about the tall boy, suffocating with him and under him, and I just interrupt? 9. After Iris gets a minor Therapeutic Hold---just standing, Berdigger’s arms wrapping her into calm---we are all punished. We march up and down the gravel trail with four too heavy water jugs. The exchanges must be silent, any mistake and we have to start over at the bottom of the hill. I try not to hate Iris because I know that’s what Berdigger wants. “We’re going to a funeral,” Berdigger says. Tulip drops a water jug. “It could take us all afternoon to get there,” he says, turning. “Back to the base.” I take over Tulip’s jug, determined not to pass it until we are ascending again. The 211 jugs are so weighty, it’s not a matter of strength, but shoulder socket fortitude. “You are my pallbearers,” he says when we reach the bottom of the hill and turn back again. I pass my jug forward, to one of the Poison Girls, and shake my arms out. They feel light, like they could float away. When she passes it forward, after only a couple of steps lugging the thing, I want to kick her. And when the girl in front of her gives the jug to Tulip, who drops it again, I do, right in the soft spot where her knee bends. Berdigger turns us around and begins reciting a eulogy for his mama: A fine woman. A wife and mother. I’m sure you all remember her in her prime. Her houseplants and crossword puzzles. And her lottery tickets. Bought them every week, never won. But most of you can’t remember the lows because you weren’t there to see the tubes and tanks. You didn’t have to bathe her and clip her toenails. So when someone turns to you after the memorial service and says, he deserted his mother, you tell them it’s not true. I don’t regret my trip out west. She was in a coma, so I traveled, experimented with drugs, met a woman, met a man, found myself. 10. Tulip gives up after dropping a jug for the fifth time. She sits down and folds her little arms across her chest. “No more,” she says. Berdigger leans over her and starts screaming about respect, but Tulip just plugs fingers into her ears and hums. When Berdigger yanks Tulip’s hands away from her face, Blaze comes from behind and slams a jug over his head. Another slam and Berdigger is doubled over, still. We scatter---the Poison Girls together, giggling, Blaze and Iris tearing in opposite directions, and Morla and I racing downhill. 212 Tulip’s the only one who doesn’t run; over my shoulder, I see her kicking Berdigger in the face. We dart between tree trunks, jump over fallen ones, dash through the woods toward freedom. It’s like running in dreams; every thought is based on movement. I tell my legs to fall after another faster. I remember to breathe. I push myself to high speed. Branches slap me in the face but don’t slow me. Nothing could make me decelerate. I break gravity leaping, winged. 11. I can’t keep up. My face is on fire, my mouth is sticking, choking me, and I feel as though blood could burst from my veins. I call after Morla, tell her to slow down, but she continues. I lose sight of her. I’ll never make it alone. When I’m ready to fall over from exhaustion, give up, I see her resting by a creek. “Water,” Morla says. And I drop to my stomach, dunk my face in the cool drink. “I don’t have my notebook,” I say, once I catch my breath. “But if we can make it to my house, I think I can manage a car. Definitely a boat. But not a plane.” “We have to leave the country,” she says. “Start over.” I imagine wearing disguises with Morla. We’re wrinkled ladies, redheads, men with mustaches. No one recognizes us, so we are free to kiss, steal, and pick flowers from front yards. “We’ll have so much money. We’ll take all of our meals in restaurants and wear new outfits every day,” I say, longing to provide. “You’re never going to leave me. You couldn’t.” I reach for her hand. 213 12. Morla draws me, and I crawl her way. When we meet, she puts a hand on the back of my neck and her lips to mine. Away from camp, I feel lucky, like she could have anyone but chose me. “Real quick,” she says. “Then we’ll run.” Morla pulls my shirt over my head, then takes off her own. The wind covers my body in bumps. She takes one of my nipples into her mouth; I feel it soften, accept. I lean to the side and stare at her pink chest. I want to touch her, but she has me down on my back already, unbuttoning my pants. I don’t know what to expect. I start to pull away from her, thinking, it’s wrong to get too naked, to give too much. But she brings me back with kisses that inch from my lips to my neck to my chest to my stomach to a place I never imagined covered with a mouth. I look down at the top of her head. She fills me with a finger. I squirm, delighted, until the pressure builds and is about to discharge. Then I scream; a man has us by the arms. “I caught two little pretties,” he says. His necktie waves over our bodies, so I grab for it with my free arm, miss. “Feisty one.” He turns Morla over and holds her with a knee planted in her back. Then he pulls me closer. He touches me where Morla should. I yank my arm, try to twist free, but he is so much stronger. I spit and kick, but he keeps grabbing. I tell Morla to save me, but her arms are curled under, she’s pinned by his weight. When he hurts me, I get a good kick in but don’t break free. He lays me next to Morla, who he flips on her back, and then sits on us, a boot wedged under each of our necks. He unzips his pants. “This is what you’re supposed to be getting off on,” he says, pulling something out. I don’t watch him rub it. I don’t feel him slap it across my face. I’m far away, back in 214 the past. I’m in dance lessons. No, in the cradle. No, in the womb. I’m so far removed, my life hasn’t even begun. 13. “Get dressed,” he says. Out of his grip, I don’t think about running. I wipe the stickiness from my face and let him drag us back to camp. 14. They gave Berdigger a new gun to keep us in line with. He says it is the most wonderful invention ever because he can shoot without killing us. The gun fires out wire with an electric probe that sticks to your skin and sends pain. Pain like you could die. Berdigger shoots us every time the bump on the back of his head hurts. He doesn’t know who to blame---the Poison Girls say I hit him, Tulip says Phoney, Morla says Iris, Iris says Blaze, I say Blaze, but she’s the only one still missing, so he doesn’t believe me---so he shoots all of us, except Tulip, the only girl who didn’t run, who was still there when he gained consciousness. The hate has surfaced, and there is nothing to temper it. Morla and I are kept separate. We work all the time and barely eat, sleep even less. I get the gun the most for telling Berdigger what I think of him and his sex: Filthy pig, Sick hound. But mostly, I talk about his mama: Dead mama, I killed her, She’s dead, Underground mama, Wormy mama. When the probe attaches to my clothes and shocks me, I leave myself, enter fire, burn with the voltage. 215 I try to make eye contact with Morla. I send her thoughts when my body isn’t high- wired. Plan an escape, my eyes say. It’s time for us to start a new life. There’s nothing left for us here, but maybe somewhere. Get the gun so I can turn it on Berdigger. I want to shoot him between the legs. I miss you. I’m hungry. 15. Berdigger uses the gun on me one last time, at the top of the hill, before he leaves for his week off. Once the death feeling wears off, I creep toward Morla. “Things have been tough, I know,” Langbar says. “But we’ll work them out.” She pulls Morla out of line, next to her and away from me. “You’ll be my new buddy,” she says to her. At breakfast, Morla eats with Langbar and the Poison Girls down at the other end of the table. Blaze is still missing, so I sit with Tulip. I tell her I’m jealous that she got to kick Berdigger so many times. I wish I would’ve stuck around for a minute and gotten some punches in, but I was just too anxious to get away. I ask her how it felt to kick him in the face. “Syrup,” Tulip says, pouring a glob on her plate, slapping her hands into the sticky puddle, pulling them away stringed, like web-makers. Syrup, I think. Like the gooey burst I felt that night with my hand, thinking about Morla. Syrup, I think. Like the gush I was building to with her, down by the creek. Syrup, I think. Like the man spurt on my face. “Never,” I say. Then I push Tulip’s messy plate Morla’s way. 16. 216 Morla shares a beanbag with Langbar. She laughs at the butcher’s jokes, his desperate attempt at winning Alice’s affection. My hand throbs under the bandage when I hear them giggle together. I take a pain pill. Then another. I hold my left hand in my right and squeeze the hurt, try to push it away. I feel a wet pop on my skin. Unwrapping, I have to tug the bandage away; the last three layers are yellowed and stuck. The gash beneath my thumb is just as wide, maybe wider, the edges are white, and it is oozing. I look up to Langbar, thinking, all I have to do is lift my hand, let the wound drip on Phoney, and I’ll be sent to the nurse. She’ll fix me; I’ll get some juice and time alone on a cot, and I’ll get to keep my left hand. But Morla’s sitting in front of her now, and Langbar is braiding strands of her hair. Shaking, I re-wrap my hand. This will show them. When it rots all the way up to my elbow and my whole arm falls off, I’ll shake the dead limb in their faces. You did this to me, I’ll say, swinging the appendage. When Langbar starts massaging Morla’s shoulders, Morla looks over at me and winks. I smile back. The act is just a ploy. She’s behaving, getting close to Langbar, only to exploit her when it’s least expected. She has a plan and me in mind. I don’t have to slap anyone with a dead arm. I get up and go show my hand to Langbar. “It’s rotting. Hers probably is, too,” I say, and point to Morla. “We should both go see the nurse.” “One at a time,” Langbar says, smirking a little, like I devised the whole festering thing for Morla, to be close to her. The nurse has me soak my hand in a bowl of fizzy water before she will even touch it. She says the bandage was just filthy and pulls a roll of white gauze off a shelf. “We work in the dirt,” I say. “Can’t keep clean down there. No running water.” She 217 unrolls the fresh gauze and snips it into strips. She doesn’t look at me or acknowledge the things I say, so I invent. I tell the nurse we eat bugs and dig holes with our fingers, but she is pulling cotton swabs out of a jar. “We don’t even wear clothes, just leaves. Berdigger treats us like animals. I’m the raccoon.” “Morla” / Villers 217 “Should have done stitches when it was still bleeding,” the nurse says, lifting my hand out of the bowl. “Too late now.” She rubs some pink jelly down the gash, in the center, and wraps my hand tighter this time. I talk when the pain pills kick; a litany of half-truths escapes me as my head grows heavy with medicine: Men and women are natural opposites. Pain is freedom. The sky shouldn’t be so big. Skin is for protection. When the nurse tells me it’s time to go back to the group, I grapple for a way to stay: The bandage is too tight. You have to loosen it. My hand’s numb. Give me some juice and a cot. I can’t watch the Brady family anymore; they’re making things worse. I need your company. You’re perfect. I love women. Keep me. 17. We play kickball. Langbar is the pitcher. When she rolls the ball my way, I try to send it back so it slams in her face. I run as the ball flies; my feet touch first, then curve toward second. Iris, the second baseman, is waiting with the red ball in her hands. She shoves my shoulder with it when I reach her, but I just keep running because Morla is waiting for me at third. I stretch out my arms and we collide, topple together. “Just us,” I say, waiting for Langbar to pull me away. “Just us.” I look around; 218 everyone is walking away from the field. “I can control the future. Look. They’re leaving.” “Wait,” Morla says, sitting up. “Blaze is back.” Across the field, small as can be, I see her. A security guard is returning Blaze to Langbar. He’s wearing a necktie. “It’s him,” I say. “I’m going to kill him. Watch.” I try to get up, but Morla pulls me back down with her. “Stay a moment,” she says, trying to kiss me. “That’s not going to work.” I pull away. “He’s right there.” I want to do all of the things I couldn’t do then. Forms of torture---chains, anthills, scissors---race through my mind as he relinquishes Blaze, turns back toward the main building. “Control it,” Morla says. As he grows smaller and Langbar and the girls get closer, the painful instruments blur and leave. They retreat into a quiet corner of my skull, but I know I could pull them out again when Morla says the time’s right. Blaze was found at a truck stop. She’s wearing a suit, like one of my father’s only striped and unfitted, her hair is slicked so wet the red looks brown, and she has a black eye. Langbar tells Blaze she’s up, and when we’re all back in position, Blaze sends the red ball soaring and walks the bases. 18. “New merchandise,” Blaze says, pulling trinkets out of her trouser pockets. She gives me the first look at her goods from the outside after kickball, on our way to school. A ring catches my eye. It’s a circle of cheap, bendable metal, but the little green stone it holds is the same color as Morla’s Dairyland Eyes. 219 “How much?” I take it, holding the ring close to my face, pretending to appraise its value. “That’s Poison Girl stuff,” Blaze says. Then she pulls open her suit coat to show me a slingshot she has tucked in an inside pocket. “Just for you,” she says. When I shake my head no, she pulls squares of firecrackers out of her breast pocket. “Only this,” I say, holding the ring out. “Fifty.” “You only paid twenty-five. This is vending machine quality.” Blaze holds out her hand to take it back, so I give her two quarters and drop the ring in my pocket. I keep my hand over the square patch in my pants, just to know it’s there and safe, as we walk. I listen to Langbar and Morla’s conversation up at the front of the group--- “Close to spring now,” “Sun feels great,” “The world’s like an oven,” “I love nature”--- but don’t worry. I’ve got the ring. And I know what it means. Once she puts it on her finger, she’ll be mine forever. She won’t even look at anyone else because the metal circle on her hand will magnetize her to me. We will be steeled together. In school, I read an old play and then write an essay about kings: Kings rule lands and fight other ones. They live in stone castles with drawbridges. They sit in thrones and at long tables to eat meat off of bones. They have queens sit next to them. Kings wear heavy crowns. 19. Morla is brilliant at acting like a Poison Girl. At dinner, she dribbles some juice down her shirt front and fakes like she is really upset about it. “Grape juice stains,” Morla says, scolding Betsy, the girl who made her laugh with a knock knock joke. Then in the showers, 220 she squeals over a spider and blow-dries her hair with a curling brush. When Phoney stuffs her bra with toilet paper, Morla packs her chest even bigger and struts around, posing. Before bed, she hugs Langbar and tells her to sleep sweet. And she doesn’t even talk to me once Langbar’s gone; Morla is that good. Under the covers, I slide the ring onto my fingers, testing where it fits, wondering where it will fit on Morla. I think about living it up and then settling down with her. We will be world travelers, daily lovers, dance champions. No one will be able to stop us. If a man gets in our way, touches us, we’ll kill him. I slip the ring into my mouth to taste the metal, so much like blood. I make it scratch against the back of my teeth and listen to the whine; spare me, it seems to say. 20. Langbar passes out reminders of our parents in Regret Therapy. Blaze gets one of her mother’s potholders with an orange stain on the thumb. Tulip gets a bible with a pressed flower inside. Phoney gets an argyle doggy sweater. Morla gets her father’s bedroom ashtray. And I get a silver pair of my father’s cufflinks, monogrammed DFD. “These mementos are supposed to trigger painful memories,” Langbar says, and points to Blaze. “Lasagna,” Blaze says, sniffing the potholder’s thumb stain. “Made with love. Lots of layers, I know.” Langbar points to Phoney’s four-legged sweater. “Mom’s poodle,” Phoney says. “She always kept Tickles dressed.” “For your happiness,” Langbar says. 221 “I don’t think so.” Phoney bites her lower lip and shakes her head. “She wouldn’t let me touch Tickles. And if we went to the store, the dog sat up front.” Langbar turns to Tulip. “Your parents wanted you to go to heaven. How does that make you feel?” Tulip rubs the gold edges of the paper. “Pretty,” she says, finding the flattened flower inside the book. “Pretty sorry. You better be.” Langbar focuses on my cufflinks. “He dressed well,” I say, looking down, unsure. “Not enough.” “He was handsome.” “It hurts to remember, doesn’t it?” Langbar touches my shoulder and looks into my eyes. She interprets my shaking body and blinking eyelids as grief and moves on to Morla, satisfied with me. “Wish we had a better item, sweets. But what feel is the ashtray giving you?” “He had so much on his plate with mom dead and us to raise. It’s no wonder he smoked and drank and brought home lots of women. I should’ve helped more. I should’ve cooked and done laundry, been the mom.” Morla cries like it’s as easy as flipping a switch. She wails into Langbar’s chest, wetting the front of her sweater. “I’m sorry, dad,” she says over and over while Langbar strokes her hair. I stand up and clap. “Bravo, bravo,” I say, unable to control myself. “Genius. Sheer genius.” I tip an imaginary top hat Morla’s way. Langbar says I am a spiteful person. “Your treatment isn’t working so you take it out on dear Morley. You should be ashamed of yourself.” 222 Morla looks up, sniffles, wipes her face with a sleeve. “It’s okay. I’ve been where she is before. I’m not angry. I just pity her.” Her eyes deaden when she looks at me. The ring doesn’t feel real anymore so I reach in my pocket to make sure it’s still there, and it is, waiting. 21. In the art room, we fold pink paper. Langbar is showing us how to make a chain of paper dolls. “Snip out the little legs,” she says, demonstrating with a pair of plastic scissors. “Work around to the arms. Cut the hands to the edges. You’ll see why.” I decide my doll isn’t going to be so star like, with four limbs stretching out like points. My doll will be rounder, messier. “Give her some hair. See how I’m giving mine a cute flip,” Langbar leans down to show her paper to Morla, the only girl who’s following the steps. “The rest is just symmetry. Two halves.” Langbar cuts down the other side of the doll’s body, careful to make everything match. I cut my second half square. “And unfold,” Langbar says. She pulls open her paper, stretching her arms all the way to the sides, and walks her pink dolls around the room. “They’re holding hands because they’re friends.” Morla’s dolls look like Langbar’s, only with shorter hair. She wraps them around her waist like a belt. When I unfold, pink shapes fall to the ground, disconnected. 223 22. At lunch, Morla suggests a dance party. I think it’s a wonderful idea until Langbar says as much. “I’ll get some music from my car,” she says. “But you have to stay right here at the table. Promise?” “We will,” Morla says. When she’s gone, I grab a butter knife and jump up to the window. I watch Langbar cross the parking lot, waiting for her to pull her keys out and indicate which car is hers. “We’ll take her hostage,” I say to Morla. “Wait for it. Wait for it. Now.” I sprint for the backdoor. I know I am alone because I only hear my own footsteps. “What are you doing?” Out the window, I see Langbar leaning into her car. “It’s the time,” I yell at Morla, but she doesn’t move. “I couldn’t do that to Crystal,” Morla says. “Crystal?” I shriek. Langbar slams her car door and turns back toward the cafeteria, CD in hand. I return to the table and stab the knife into the wooden tabletop, right in front of Morla. “So she’s got you. I see.” I sit back down at the other end. “Wait for Berdigger, a Torture Week,” she says, pulling the knife up. “Right. Whatever you say.” I glare at her. When Langbar opens the door, I drop my head. “I got some girl rock, sweets.” Langbar holds the CD up and it catches the sun streaming through the windows, blinds me for a moment. 224 23. Langbar and Morla slow dance to the acoustic guitar. They’re so close together, it’s sick. Morla’s head is resting on Langbar’s shoulder, Langbar has an arm around Morla’s back, and their legs touch when they shift. I watch them while I dance with Blaze. She moves in choppy, robotic movements in front of me. I don’t move much; I only punch my right fist into the palm of my hurt hand. I imagine my hand is Langbar’s face and my pain is her pain. I punish her for taking Morla away from me. “I would’ve gone,” Blaze says, working her arms like levers from still elbows. I imagine that she followed me when I ran for the door. We stuffed Langbar in the trunk and right now, I’m driving, and we’re listening to the music loud only to drown out Langbar’s screams. But Blaze makes me stop at every dog track we pass and lies about the map, directs me toward Vegas. “No,” I say. “Would you look at them?” Langbar dips Morla and then lifts her arm so she can twirl under and around. I punch my hand harder until the bandage is soaked red. Then I leave Blaze to try and cut in. “Ladies,” I say, touching both of their shoulders, one after the other, with my red hand. Leaving my mark. “I believe it is time for a partner switch.” I take Morla’s hand into mine and squeeze until I can feel a puddle of blood between us. “It’s only proper.” I pull her to me, but before I can whisk her away, drop to my knees, show her the ring, Morla ruins the moment by acting frightened. “You’re bleeding. You’re hurting me. Let go.” I have to do what she says. Once released, she clings to Langbar and lets her wipe my 225 red marks away. 24. Morla’s showers take much longer now. After mine, I don’t even brush my hair; I dress and pace past the drawn curtains, work my eyes down the space between Morla’s curtain and the wall. Water slides down my neck, wets the back of my shirts. Morla whistles like a bird. I can’t stand only glimpsing, not knowing what bird she sounds like, wondering every day. Before we head back to camp and filth, the last shower of the week, I pace slower. I stop by her curtain and listen, look. I see an ankle. I see some knee. I hear a tropical bird because of the hot steam. “We can go to the jungle,” I say, and Morla’s whistle changes. “Or the plains. Anywhere you want.” I lean and rest my forehead against the tiled entrance to her shower, feel the cool. Morla’s birdcall grows shrill. “Not the desert,” I say. “It’s so dry there.” I think about cactuses, road kill, dust tornados. A thirst grows inside me. I’ve been wandering through the desert for days, no water. I’m so thirsty, so I rip back the curtain. Morla is shaving, running a pink razor down a soapy shoulder. The showerhead is pointed, water streaming down the white tile instead of her body. My mind splits, and I can’t focus. There’s the razor. It wants to be broken. I imagine pulling the pink away, revealing the two silver strips, wielding them in the bathroom, escaping. And there’s Morla’s body. It wants to be felt. I imagine touching the shaved places, examining the smoothness, getting wet with her, escaping. Langbar pulls me away before I can say “please.” 226 25. We watch a special Brady episode before heading back to camp. It’s a holiday on the television screen and everyone falls in love. Langbar looks at me when the boys ask the girls to a school dance, then she returns to scratching Morla’s back. “Can I write?” I hear Morla ask. “It’ll only be a week, sweets,” Langbar says, resting her chin on Morla’s shoulder, saying something soft into her ear. In pain, I turn to face Blaze. “You didn’t offer me the razor,” I say. “Morla’s shaving with it when I could be slitting throats.” “Not from me.” I look at them. Morla is wrapped in Langbar’s arms, smiling like it’s the most pleasant place to be. I look at the television. One first real kiss follows another; once alone, the girls squeal and sink into their beds, dreamy eyed, and the boys puff out their chests and amble away, impressed with themselves. I know that Langbar is supplying Morla with razors. She wants to make her happy. She is in a much better position to provide than me. I try to send Morla a silent message: I know I can’t give you the things she can right now. But haven’t I made promises of a future full of stuff? Think about my net worth, what you stand to lose. Look at me. Then you’ll know. I’ve got it bad. There’s a ring in my pocket with a green stone the exact color of your eyes, and if you’ll only wear it, we’ll be together until we die. I pull the ring out and hold it above my head, willing the blue television light to catch its gleam, bounce at the corner of Morla’s eye, and shift her attention to me, if only for a 227 moment. This is real, I think, turning the ring in my fingers, staring at the side of her face. This is forever. The ring grows heavy, making my arms shake with the weight. I’m stronger than this, I think. I lift the burdensome ring a little higher, almost past the ceiling, the sky, outer space. I watch a heart get broken on the screen. Langbar kisses Morla on the cheek, and I return the metal promise to my pocket where it’s always dark. 26. Down the gravel trail, Berdigger asks us how we would like to die, what’s our preference, and then tells us how we will die. “In my sleep, all tucked in bed,” Phoney says. “Derailed train,” Berdigger corrects. “Lightning,” Blaze says. “Trapped under a frozen lake. Can’t find the hole. You’ll drown as you freeze,” he says, chuckling, fond of his prediction. “Sacrificed,” Tulip says. “Random shooting. A loose bullet will get you.” “Drug overdose,” I say imagining filling my body with pills---red, round, brown, flat, yellow---creating a circus in my body. My nerves are straightened out, tight roped. A sheepdog jumps through my eye hoops, ear hoops, whoosh. My head can rest on a paper cone like a mound of cotton candy, so I dissolve, pink and filmy, in a child’s mouth and stain its face. Elephant outfits sparkle on my skin, and a woman stands on my back as I parade, but I can’t feel her feet; they rest gentle on my toughened skin. My heart lassos in another 228 direction. Everyone cheers, pleased. “Sleep deprivation,” he says. 27. Once I’m zipped in my sleeping bag, alone, I swallow more pills than I should. With each one I put away, I make a Morla wish. “Forget about her,” I say, feeling a pain pill work down the tubes. “Escape with me,” I say, letting one of Iris’s tranquilizers dissolve under my tongue, turn gritty, before forcing it down. “Love me,” I say. Another pain pill settles in my stomach, but I keep swallowing. I swallow saliva. I swallow air. I choke it all down. I would eat the whole camp if I could. The whole world. My biology would control it all. The clouds would fluff and water when I said. The sun would melt, spread light to my fingertips. I imagine Morla lives in my stomach. She escapes the wash using a pain pill as a floatation device, puffed rice as paddles. Then she crawls the lining, working toward the mouth she entered. One wrong turn and she ends up in my lungs. Morla is bounced around by the outside air she remembers. Her shirt is lifted by a gust, and I try to look, but everything is much smaller now. I breathe deeper and she is lifted to my throat. I cough and she’s back down. Something distracts me---a bee I forgot to swallow, ten streets gridded with stoplights between, the rest of the universe---and she is in my heart. I pound my chest. Get out of there. You’re messing up my blood flow. But that is her plan. My legs tingle all the way up. My arm dies. I fall over, and Morla wedges my lips open with a piece of rib she broke off, crawls out of my mouth, matures into uncontrollable largeness. She looks down, towering over me, as everything I worked so hard to possess spews out of my mouth. Trees, 229 long stretch of beach, condominiums, and traffic cones emerge, grow, and pile on top of me. I lose sight of Morla, but I can still hear her from my spot beneath the lost clutter. “She doesn’t own you,” she says, beckoning my charge. “She doesn’t own anything.” I spit a galaxy. I taste my greed. Blaze pulls the bag off of me, helps me change into something dry, wipes my face with one of her shirts. “Morla,” I say. “Sleeping,” she says. “Morla.” “Sleeping.” “Morla.” “Sleeping.” Then she goes back to her bed. “I love you,” I say, shivering on my sheets, uncovered. “I can’t help it. I’m so thirsty,” I say, turning my mouth, tasting bitter vomit. “Bring me to water.” 28. I stand in a tub of cold water and wash myself with a dish sponge while the other girls collect twigs for breakfast fire. The cold makes my body shake. There was a circus last night, but I didn’t ride it out until the end. I left the tent before any grand finale. Once dressed, I open the trunk at the foot of Morla’s bed. I press her shirts to my face to smell her. The fabric feels like hairless flesh; it smells like creek water and nail polish. I run my fingers along the strings of her underwear and remember. At the bottom of the trunk, beneath the rolls of socks and towels, I find a picture: a woman on a brown couch with a blonde baby in her lap, two boys at her knees. Morla’s mother. She looks like Langbar with her hair in braids and too pink cheeks and vapid eyes. The baby Morla looks so happy to be in those arms, so I take the picture, close the trunk. Time to find new arms, I think, folding it in half. I put Morla’s mother away in my pocket with the ring. I wonder which is more powerful. I move her to my other pocket, separate them. 230 We eat oatmeal for breakfast, thick as paste. Morla jokes that the brown glue is really my vomit. I smile because she mentioned me, but she doesn’t smile back. She fake pukes the oatmeal and the Poison Girls all laugh. I take a pain pill. And I throw the picture of Morla’s mother in the fire when everyone’s busy washing dishes. When Berdigger pours dishwater into the pit, and the fire dies into a puff of black smoke, I imagine Morla’s feelings for Langbar, her mother, and all other women has died, too. I’m her last shot. Her only choice. After breakfast, there is a ceremony for Morla. She’s advanced. She’s not considered a run risk anymore so we all stand in a circle, share fond memories. The time Morla threatened to slit everyone’s throats. The time she refused to go to church. The time she escaped into the woods with me. Berdigger says Morla doesn’t have to stay close to me or the counselors anymore. She’s her own person now. 29. “Morla still wants to run,” I say, and Berdigger pulls his gun out of the leather holster he wears now. “She wants to escape with me.” He shoots, and the wire catches my shoulder, sends me to the ground. I try to yell over the voltage, make my body work, but nothing comes out but groans and thin drool. I’m the one, I say, in unintelligible grunts. She chose me. We’re going to make a life together. He releases the trigger. I slow into a still cool. “This is a sacred ceremony,” he says, brandishing his decorated walking stick, shaking the stringed jewels and medicine bag at my face. “The elders are displeased.” He lifts his stick, pointing at the growing, swirling clouds. I flip over in the dirt, so I can look up to Morla. Rain begins to fall. Berdigger detaches the wire from my skin; it stings as it exits. “Don’t you want what I have to give?” I 231 ask her. The dirt around me wets to mud, and I wait. I watch the war paint smudge under Morla’s Dairyland Eyes. I see her frame lift an inch and drop into a slight shrug. Berdigger tells us to get into our holes; it’s digging weather. I watch Morla start a new hole from the bottom of our old hole. She pitches the dirt away like there is somewhere for her to go from here. I sit down in the pond at my feet. I will the walls of my hole to collapse. I want to be buried, I say, rubbing the wet sides. 30. I have to give Morla the ring, I think, pulling the burning item out of my pocket, unzipping my sleeping bag. I have to do it now. I don’t care if Blaze is still awake. I leap into Morla’s bed, and she surfaces from her cocoon. “Morla, darling, I have something for you. I’ve been holding it back, waiting for the right moment, but you need to see it now. You have to see my level of commitment.” I open my fist. I show her the ring I’ve been hiding, imagining sparkle on her finger for so long. “Where is your flashlight? You have to see the green stone. It’s the green of your eyes.” She doesn’t squeal or faint, but it is dark in the tent. “Of course, it’s no diamond like Langbar could give you.” I try to read her face, but can hardly make out features in the night. “But this ring is special. I got it from Blaze, and she got it from that time we escaped. There’s a story behind it. She bought it at a truck stop with pill money.” I lean into what I guess is her lips. “It’s full of love,” I say, trying to kiss her. “Crystal and I kissed,” she says, and I back up. “I know. I saw it. Langbar kissed you on the cheek. We were watching the Bradys. I forgive you. Take the ring. Wear it.” 232 “No. Later there was a real kiss. I’m in love with her.” M 1. I want to step on her with my shoe, embed my dirty boot tracks in her face. I want to tell her how weak, how stupid, how disgusting her attraction to Langbar is. I want to shout and punch and cry. “M,” I say. “You’re wrong.” “Give my picture back. I know it was you.” “M,” I say. “She’s gone.” I imagine that woman on the brown, Brady couch burning like her picture. It’s not enough, so I imagine everything crisping with orange flames, blackening, turning into dust. In my mind, everything is alight: digging shovels, churches, crutches, acoustic guitars, and popsicles. Langbar burns the slowest and turns into the most pleasurable ash to blow away from M’s palm. “Langbar can’t replace your mother,” I say. “But I can.” I sit up and pat my lap, offer it to M, but she doesn’t move. “Come sit, baby. We’ll talk about the future. I can read it better than the counselors. We will escape. We will get married. Then, once we’ve accomplished everything on earth, we’ll die at the exact same moment because anything else would be too painful.” I get up and find my flashlight. I shine the yellow beam on the palm of my good hand, the ring, and bring it to M, careful, like it could break. “Just wear it, M.” The light catches her face so I can see the things I loved---her puffy eyelids, Daycare 233 Favorite hair, Dairyland Eyes---all turn away from me. “It’s over,” she says. I can’t see her lips move, but I believe the words are real and meant for me, so I go back to my own bed and punch the pillow. It’s soft, but it knows my strength is growing. I’m learning how to fight, and my pillow doesn’t resist; it thinks the lesson is long overdue. 2. Inside my sleeping bag, I flip through my notebook, find a blank page. Love, I write with big and evil letters. Love is a thief. You give a part of yourself up for another person, and then you’re crushed when it’s over. You’re little, a bug that can’t fly. Love always ends in hate, sometimes death. Don’t do it, I write. Never ever again. I look over at the lump in M’s bed, her covered body. I wonder if I could kill her with my bare hands. She’s stronger, but I have anger on my side. I could stuff a sock in her mouth so her screaming wouldn’t wake Berdigger, and I could just punch and punch until M was still. I know Blaze would allow the struggle to ensue. She might even help me if I was losing. I wonder if I should try. Not tonight, I tell myself and close my notebook. I take a couple of blue tranquilizers for sleep and turn off my flashlight. I dream I have forgotten how to speak and move. Everything’s numb, and I can hear M’s laughter. 3. I misbehave: I knock over one of our water jugs so it spills in long gurgles, soaks the dirt. I curse with every naughty word I know---fuck, hell, damn, bitch. I wish a bloody death upon the whole camp. Shoot me with your taser, I tell Berdigger after oatmeal breakfast. Make me burn; I won’t work a lick today, no digging for me, so I must be punished. 234 He pulls his gun out of his holster, unsure. Give it to me, I say. He wants to assign me pain, except that’s what I want, so he’s just confused. You and your dead stinking mother, I say, and he shoots. The wire catches my shirt at the stomach and sends me shaking to the ground. I roll in the dirt, relish the electric shock because that hurt is so much easier. I think about my skin on fire instead of M. When the pain wears off, and he detaches the wire, I tell Berdigger to give me some more. I look up at M. She’s grinning, loving the situation she has placed me in, basking in the pain she’s made me enjoy. I’ll show her, I think. I turn my mouth and spit in Berdigger’s face, and he jumps on me, and we roll together. I scream like an animal, thinking I can turn myself inside out with a howl. The rest of the girls sit in a circle around me, cover their ears, try to shut me off. I fling dirt at them with a free arm, and my shrieks turn to snorting giggles. “You’re all dirty now,” I say. “You’ll never be clean again.” Berdigger plants a knee on the back of my head, forces my face into the hard ground. I taste the soil on my tongue. “Solitary confinement,” he says, and I settle, so afraid of being locked alone. They’d never come back for me. I know. I’d rot away in a windowless cell. I’d lose my mind and then die, and life would be over, and life is all I have left now. 4. Really, it’s freedom, I think; M was just holding me back. I shake dead trees and limbs fall like tears, then I snap them in half, double my numbers. I remember the missed opportunities---the creek where she made me stop, the security guard, Langbar leaning into her car. Time to refocus, I tell myself and count my little bundle of twigs. 235 I’ve got money waiting for me on the outside, more money than I can ever spend no matter how much luxury I allow myself. And anything is possible if you have money; it’s like a ticket to every happiness imaginable. Once I’m out, I’ll spend with wild abandon. I’ll buy striking suits only to throw away after I’ve worn them once---no laundry for me. And I’ll always have a puppy; once they grow into dogs, I’ll pay someone to take them away and then buy a new one, a cuter puppy every time. I’ll have a bodyguard so no one can ever hurt me again, so I’ll never bleed. I’ll throw ritzy balls for royalty and movie stars, and the women sparkling in evening gowns will line up to dance with me. I’ll have a house on every continent, in every country and state, and a pilot’s license so I can just jump around the globe, endless exploration. I scan the woods for M; she’s stripping a fallen tree behind Berdigger’s tent. She’s straddling the trunk, ripping away limbs, tossing them into a huge pile. I gather my bundle of short sticks and walk her way. “Big stack,” I say, pointing to her collection. “Big deal,” I say. “You have nothing. Nothing.” “Let it go,” M says. “Get over it.” “You’re poor,” I say, “and you always will be.” I imagine M returning home to her smelly brothers, her pathetic trailer. She has to steal steaks for dinner and cook them herself. “Money’s not everything,” she says, hopping off the tree. “I’ve heard that one before.” “Freedom’s where it’s at.” “Money is freedom.” “Not if you’re stuck out here.” She arranges her sticks. “I’m getting out first,” I say. “I’m older.” 236 “Don’t be so sure,” she says, walking away with dead wood under both arms. 5. I tell Blaze she looks great today, like my father. Those freckles, I say, louder, so M can hear over the clicking forks and Poison Girl banter. And your hair, I say, you’ve just got it all pulled together. So handsome, I say, pushing my bandaged hand against her face so her head turns, and I can see the pulsing veins in her neck. I make sure M is watching, and then I kiss Blaze right beneath the ear. She shivers a bit, but nothing moves me. I feed Blaze forkfuls of my rice, and I tell her what she tastes: Chocolate covered cherries. Salmon. Garlic mashed potatoes. Bruschetta. Grilled shrimp smothered with a basil dipping sauce. “How’s dinner down there?” I ask M and her crowd of Poison Girls. “Just rice. I know. Always just rice.” I lift my fork to Blaze’s mouth and say, “Pork tenderloin.” I tilt my head to the left, put on a confident leer, and I say it’s all delicious down here even though I’m hungry and I taste nothing. Blaze nods, swallowing my share of dinner. M ignores me. I shove some more rice in Blaze’s mouth, tell her to taste whatever she wants. I don’t care. 6. I have to negotiate with Blaze for some pills while we get ready for bed. I’m running out of quarters, and it makes me so angry. Quarters. Kid’s stuff. I write up a legal contract promising her a quarter percent of my money if she’ll only give me all the pills I want for the remainder of my time here. But she wants silver. “That’s just paper,” Blaze says, pointing to the contract. “Can’t spend paper.” 237 “But it has my signature on it,” I say. “I’ll get it notarized the minute I’m out.” “Seventy-five cents.” “But a quarter percent! That’s like millions. That’s money for a lifetime.” Blaze folds her palm around the tranquilizers I want, so I rip up the contract and give her my three last quarters. “You’re quite a businesswoman,” M says to Blaze. She’s smiling, been smiling all day. “You’re fools. Small time. Both of you,” I say and slam my trunk shut. Then I break the pills in half so they’ll last longer. But I end up taking four halves because I just need to calm down. 7. Berdigger’s mother died today many years ago. He calls it an anniversary. He wants us to dig rectangular holes like graves, eight feet deep, before we even have breakfast. M finishes with her hole first, and Berdigger makes her lie down at the bottom, her arms crossing her chest like she’s dead. He gathers us around to see her there at the bottom. Then he takes M’s shovel and drops some dirt on her. “You can’t bury me alive,” she says, sitting up. Berdigger pulls his taser out, and M lays herself back down in the dirt, allows him to cover her body some more. “Bury her,” I say. “Get back to digging,” he says, pointing to the other graves. Then he roots around in the soil for a worm or a grub, something to eat M’s eyes out. 238 I dig slow, fling mere handfuls of dirt out of my square hole. I don’t want to lie down there. I don’t want to pretend I am dead. It’s a terrible exercise for girls like us. We kill; we don’t die. I hear M spitting dirt from her grave. I imagine her suffocating under a mound of soil, a filled grave. Serves her right, I think, unable to smirk. I wonder if I should stop Berdigger and save M. He’s not paying much attention to us; he’s focused on M, telling her that dirt is the death of the earth, it’s all decomposition. I could sneak up behind him and rip his gun out of the holster and make him lie down in a grave. Then we could all bury him together and escape. I’d be the hero, and M could take me or leave me, but I think she’d finally realize she needs me to survive in this world. “Out of your graves,” Berdigger says. “Come see this.” M’s whole body is covered except for the lower stretch of her face, her nose and lips. I can’t see her hair or eyes. She doesn’t look like anyone I want to know. “Any last words?” Berdigger asks. “Unfortunate,” I say. Cremation would be better. “Chocolate pudding,” Phoney says, hungry. “Resurrection,” Tulip says. “Zombie,” M says, shooting out of the dirt, grabbing Berdigger’s ankles, trying to pull him into the grave with her. I race to his side for the gun, but Iris pushes him over the edge before I can get there. From the bottom, he wraps a tight arm around M’s neck and takes turns threatening to shoot each of us. “Grave time has been extended. I think tonight you’ll sleep with a death blanket. In your graves,” he says. 239 I run to my square hole and leap inside, amazed at the way the situation turned. I thought we had him buried for sure. And I had a better plan to escape this time. Before burying him, I was going to get Berdigger’s wallet, car keys, and a store of food and water. Then I would lead a small team of girls willing to fight for freedom up the hill, and we’d find his car. If anyone tried to stop us, we’d seize the whole camp and take our time killing the boys, counselors, and security guards off. Either way, I’d drive to the dock where I left my parents’ yacht and sail into miles of safe blue. Any of the girls could come with---I would need deckhands---as long as they did what I said and kept out of my way. In other graves, I hear Berdigger’s taser turn flesh to fire through screams and groans. I try to identify who owns the pain; it’s always an individual experience. I wait to hear Tulip. I don’t think she’s ever gotten the big shock before. 8. Berdigger sits the night out on the deck of his tent throwing rocks into our graves. He turns it into a game: the farther the grave, the more points he earns for making us shout out from the blow. I’m worth fifteen points which is high, a hard shot for sure, one he attempts often enough. Sometimes, before he shoots, he dedicates a rock to his mom or a memory of his mom, like “this is for the sweaters she knitted me” or “this is for cinnamon toast breakfasts” or “this is for breast feeding me.” It’s damp underground, and the anticipation, the worry I’ll get struck in the forehead again and feel warm blood run between my eyes, keeps me from sleep. I’m jittery, unsettling the dirt on top of me. I can’t pretend I’m free down here; I know I’m going to die; we all will. So I pretend I’m something that is really supposed to be extinct, like a T-Rex or a 240 Wooly Mammoth. I spend the night in prehistory. 9. In the morning, we fill all of the graves but Phoney’s---just in case one of us hasn’t had enough, Berdigger says. There doesn’t seem to be enough dirt around for our shovels to plug up the rectangles. It’s like soil cannot erase the history I saw unfold last night: ice ages, crocodiles, magma, the evolution of man. I collect rocks for my hole; they’re everywhere and older than me and solid. Our graves are still so visible once full. I can’t stop looking at mine. It doesn’t matter if we’re cooking rice or sawing down trees for twigs or waiting in line at the privy. I’m distracted by my rectangular mark in the ground, my space for eternity, all day. The sight of it makes me anxious, makes me realize how much time I’m wasting. My life is bottled up, like money in a piggy bank, absolutely worthless unless it’s gaining interest. 10. I wake up when I hit the floor; Berdigger says he had a dream and yanks us all off our beds. We gather around the fire pit outside, our flashlights shining circles of light on the ground. “Can’t we get shoes?” Phoney says, pointing to her socked feet in the dirt. “She came to me,” Berdigger says, shining his light under his chin so his face darkens at every indention. “I was a kid, just a kid in a field with a stolen kite, and it was battered with torn corners, but the wind caught it for a moment. But then my mother found me, and everything was so green, and she looked already dead with the sag in her face and the oxygen 241 tank rolling by her side. She was angry about the kite, and I realized I had stolen it from her.” He turns his light off, and I swallow a pill from my pocket, unsure what I’m taking in the dark. He starts sniffling. It could be a long night, and I hope it was an upper. “Women don’t fly kites,” a Poison Girl says, speaking into her flashlight like it’s a microphone. “They can’t.” “They could,” Tulip says. “No one taught them.” “Sounds like you killed your mother,” I say to Berdigger. “You’re no different than us.” I think about my own mother. I remember a jewelry box, a silk robe, a fur around her neck with the head still attached, plastic eyeballs. I laugh in the dark. Dead things shouldn’t be allowed eyes. “We need to be punished. All of us.” Berdigger points his light in each of our faces. “But I can’t prescribe the punishment or you’ll just hate me; I see that now. You need to hate yourselves. Give me some light,” he says, setting his own down. We shine our lights on him; mine hits his right hand and reflects off a knife he’s holding. I follow Berdigger’s movements like I’m running a spotlight: He puts the knife in his mouth, gripping the handle with his teeth. And he pulls his left sleeve up past the elbow. And he grasps the knife again with his right and places the blade against the inside of his arm. “Don’t do it,” I say, surprised at my own voice. I want to see him bleed more than anything, but there’s something wrong about hurting yourself. I feel like I should be holding the knife, and he should be protecting his body from the slice, covering his stomach, his essential organs. Berdigger closes his eyes, readies himself for the pain. Then he screams, drawing the 242 knife across his arm in a bloody line illuminated only by circles of our yellow light. He drops to the ground, says he feels so much better, absolved, and the pill I took kicks in. It’s definitely an upper; my scalp itches, and twinges of anticipation inch along my skin. Tulip says she wants to hang herself on a cross. Blaze says she wants to catch her clothes on fire. Phoney says she wants someone to punch her in the stomach, and I volunteer. “Collect your weapons,” Berdigger says, holding his arm to his lips, tasting his own warm life. He passes me his ring of keys. I feel a surge of energy; I’m propelled to the storage shed for tools. I can’t stop giggling. This is absurd. This is perfect. Run, girls, it’s dark and you need some weapons. I grab a handsaw, a pickaxe, a shovel. I load my arms and stumble around in the dark, crowded by girls doing the same. Listen to me, I say, trying to lead. We have to get the knife first. In our absence, Berdigger has carved his hands, his face. The dark makes the blood look black, and he seems weak with oozing lines of shadow. “Self punishment,” he says under our yellow lights again. “It’s your turn.” He gestures at our tools from his spot on the ground. “Make it really hurt.” I take the saw in one hand and hoist the shovel high over my head. I don’t care if anyone is following my lead. I bring my shovel down, whack Berdigger over the head with the clank of metal and skull. He slumps forward, and I drop the saw; I didn’t even need it. “To the grave,” I shout, grabbing his arms. M lifts his legs off the ground, and some Poison Girls take his body, not really helping, and we lug his weight to the only empty rectangle of ground left and heave him to the bottom. I hop into the grave with him. I steal his gun and empty his pockets---more keys, 243 some mint gum, and a leather wallet. And then we bury him; some have shovels, but most of the girls just toss dirt and rocks and sticks with their fingers. When the grave is full, we sit on top of it, willing Berdigger to just stay underground with his mother where he belongs. 11. “He’s really finished,” I say. “Quiet,” Phoney says. “I think I hear him breathing.” “He’s done. Six feet underneath,” I say, packing the dirt around me tighter. “Give me the gun,” M says, pointing Berdigger’s knife at me. “And the wallet. And the keys.” “I have a plan,” I say, holding the taser tight to my chest. “Please,” I say, looking into her eyes. “Don’t run.” M reaches for the gun, and there’s nothing I can do but let go. I can’t shoot her. I wish I could. “We’re waiting,” M says, holding the gun in one hand, the knife in the other. “The day after tomorrow, we’re marching up that gravel trail right on time for Nurture Week just like he’s still here.” She points at the dirt beneath us. “Stick around if you want. I’m not trying to hold you.” M lowers her weapons, but nobody moves from Berdigger’s fresh grave. 12. We raid Berdigger’s private tent once it’s light outside. I tie the flaps back to air out the scent of him. “His bed is much softer,” Phoney says, flopping down. “I’m sleeping here tonight.” 244 She runs her fingers along the comforter, and no one challenges her because he’s dead now and still so close. M pulls every drawer out of his dresser, and we all hit the floor, digging through his possessions like it’s Christmas. “She’s hideous,” one of the Poison Girls says, holding up a framed photograph of an old woman, Berdigger’s mother. She’s wearing some cheap smock and holding a wooden spoon, and she doesn’t look like him. “Candy,” Tulip says, ripping open a chocolate wrapper with her teeth. M gets Phoney off of Berdigger’s bed and tips the whole mattress over, uncovering a couple magazines with men on the covers. I grab one, and M gets the other. Then I shake off some hounding girls, sit in a corner to look it over. Inside the magazine, there are more men, men without clothing. I push Betsy off my shoulder, flip a page. A cowboy in black and white tilts his hat at me, but I can’t look at his smile or his boots; my eyes are drawn to that dark place between his legs. I look at M. She has already shut her magazine, so I do the same. 13. “They’re touching each other,” Phoney says, holding a magazine up. “Two men. I just can’t believe it.” “Might as well be two women,” Betsy says, making kiss faces at Phoney. “So what?” I steal a glance at M. “It’s wrong,” Phoney says. “It takes a man and a woman to make a baby. My mom told me about it once.” 245 “She wasn’t really your mom,” I say. “Little tadpoles from the man,” she says, waving her fingers in the air. “And a woman egg.” She draws her index finger around to her thumb to form a circle. “And bam.” She slaps her hands together, scares me for a minute. “Life.” “Have you ever seen a baby?” M asks. “Precious darling,” Phoney says, cradling her arms around an imaginary bundle of joy, humming so it will sleep. “Wrong,” M says. “I’ve seen a baby. Nothing but howls and drool and shitty diapers. And who needs that?” “God,” Tulip says, and I am reminded of the invisible creator, the one I always forget. Someone must be holding the switch. The life and death trigger can’t be left alone in a closet. My parents never took me to church, and I know that much. “We don’t need men,” M says, scoffing, pointing outside Berdigger’s tent to his grave. 14. I can’t stop looking at the dirt that holds Berdigger, not since M pointed to it. I wonder if he’s rotting yet, if he smells down there, if anyone will miss him while he’s underground. M calls him Bug Food now. Bug Food Bastard, she says, stomping on his grave, wearing one of his shirts. 15. 246 M asks me about the layout of main camp; I’ve been in rooms she never knew existed. I draw up some blueprints, labeling windows and doors, trying to keep everything to scale for her. “We shouldn’t need this,” she says when I hand her my drawings. “Give me a head count. Worst case scenario, how many bodies could we be dealing with?” I count with my fingers. “Low teens,” I say. “A number.” “I can’t. It varies. Four or five security guards. Langbar. The nurse. And a little or a lot of administration. They have meetings. It would be better to go tonight.” There will be boys sleeping in that room full of beds, waiting for us to finish them off. “You can.” She folds my maps without really looking at them. “I starred the infirmary,” I say before she can walk away. I imagine kicking in the door, killing the nurse, stealing every pill bottle I can find. There’s so much for the taking. I’ll have a pharmacy of my own. “This is a last resort,” she says, crinkling my folded drawings. “We’re not going inside unless we have to. Besides, you have enough money to buy all the pills you want once we’re free. Right?” “Right,” I say, remembering. 16. M goes to bed in Berdigger’s tent with Phoney. I think about the magazines we found under that bed, Phoney’s fingers miming creation, diapers. Phoney’s the prettiest girl here--- her hair always smells fresh, and she has a knockout smile, legs that never quit---and I think 247 M noticed. Yes, she must have. I can hear them now. M’s bringing Phoney to that breathless burst to prove her point, we don’t need men. It doesn’t mean anything to her. It’s sick, really. Some things can’t be sport. But it sounds so nice, and I catch myself wanting to be in that bed making those sounds. I’m out of quarters, so I try to beg a tranquilizer off of Blaze. I need something for sleep, I say. Tomorrow is a big day. I’ll be rich again tomorrow. You could be rich tomorrow. Just be nice now. We’re friends. I’m a loyal customer. And my head, it’s just swimming. I need something. I need something so bad. I’ll give you anything. Blaze will only accept money. There are more important things, I say loud because Phoney’s moans are echoing the way everything does in the woods. I tighten my fists, show them to Blaze, and she pulls a lighter out of her pocket. She flicks her thumb and makes a flame, and I step back. I sit down on my bed and stare at her fire, my hands still ready to fight. We spend the night in a show down. I swing punches from my bed, and Blaze adjusts the lighter for taller flames in hers, but mostly we just stare at each other. I try reasoning with her about every hour---“you don’t even like pills,” “a quarter isn’t that much money,” “we’re out of here in the morning, remember?”---but she’s quiet, stubborn. When I hear M and Phoney get started again, I’m ready to explode out into the world, but I can’t yet. So I just say, I’m rich, quiet at first. I’m rich, I’m rich, I chant. I’m rich, I shout. Rich, rich, rich, I say over and over until the word could mean anything or nothing. 17. M lines us up, passes out weapons. Tulip gets the taser. I get a shovel. Phoney gets a saw. M keeps the knife. This is it, she keeps saying, looking at Berdigger’s watch on her 248 wrist. This is really it. She charges me with marching the food, her bag, and mine up the hill, but I’m okay with the weight of it all. Watch for security guards, M tells us. Let me get to Langbar first. Time to march. “Last time I’ll see this trail,” Phoney says. “Last time I’ll see that tree. Last time I’ll walk in a straight line.” “Last time I’ll follow orders,” M says. “Last time I’ll eat oatmeal,” I say, feeling good marching behind M. 18. “Sweets,” Langbar says at the top of the hill like always. “Crystal,” M says, moving in like she wants a hug before Langbar can notice the numbers, the tools, the knife in her hand. Langbar screams when she feels the blade threatening her back, and the scream sends a frenzy through the girls. They don’t wait for orders; they lift their weapons and charge toward the main building. I stay with M. She says we’re going for a car ride, and I have her bag. We rush to the parking lot. I didn’t want to rush, M says. Such bad karma, Langbar says. Do you need the shovel? I ask, struggling with it. In the car, M and Langbar yell at each other. Just drive, M says, pointing the knife in her face. I turn around so I can look out the back window, watch the camp on our way out. Smoke curls off the back of the building, and I imagine Blaze moving from room to room with that lighter. I hear electrified screams and imagine Tulip with the taser. I wish I could see through walls because all of the real action is inside, and I’m stuck in the 249 backseat of Langbar’s car, and she’s crying now. 19. The highway dazzles me. I press my face to the window, read every billboard, look inside every passing car. I wonder what people have been doing while I was away, if the world changed. It couldn’t, I tell myself. Not without me. M is using the knife to control Langbar. Faster, she says, holding the knife up to her neck. Pull up your skirt, she says. Roll down your window. I want to see your hair blow. But I don’t really listen to them. I see a truck drive by with a dog hanging out the window, eyes wide from the wind. I see a hitchhiker walking with his thumb out. I see trash on the side of the road, a dead animal. I stop focusing my eyes so everything blurs with speed. 20. “If you have anything, it’s ours,” M says to me. They’ve made up; the knife is on the dash now, and we’re out of the mountains. I look at the floorboard, a penny at my feet. The long car ride is upsetting my stomach. I need a pill. “We want it all,” Langbar says, giggling. “I don’t remember my address,” I say because I have to say something. I haven’t spoken in a long time, and my voice sounds small. “Look in your notebook,” M says. “I never wrote it down.” I don’t reach inside my bag. I’ve written down a lot of 250 things, but never addresses. Langbar pulls the car over to the side of the road, and my stomach jolts at the stillness. “Get out then,” she says when the car’s in park, not even looking at me in the rearview mirror. I open the car door and turn my feet, but my head just falls between my knees, and I’m sick on the pavement. “M,” I say. “We’re close.” I wipe my mouth on the car upholstery, the back of Langbar’s seat. I shut the door, lie down with my head on M’s bag. “Take the next exit,” M says. “We’re buying a map.” She gets the knife off the dash and turns it in her right hand, watching her own reflection alter in the steel. When we’re moving again, M looks back at me. “She needs some water. Peanut butter crackers,” she says, smiling, reminding me we’re out. 21. I have to sit up and stay inside the car at the gas station. I listen to the filling tank like water, a stream, a creek, and I unwrap my hand so I can look at the wound, give it some air from outside the camp. I watch M and Langbar in the gas station; they’re browsing each aisle. M gets in the car first and tosses a map over her shoulder for me to look at. I unfold it, shocked by the size, the number of places it represents. “Where are we now?” I ask. “Let’s just go home,” Langbar says, nuzzling her head against M’s shoulder. Langbar’s been talking about home a lot---scented candles, a hammock, fresh vegetables from her garden, two cats named Dilly and Daisy. M takes the map from me and folds it into a manageable square. She follows a line 251 with her finger, tracking our movement through space on the paper. Then she gives it back to me, tapping a spot. I find the closest star. “There,” I say, showing M the city on the map. “I told you we were close.” “East,” M says. “Can I at least listen to music?” Langbar asks, steering the car back to the highway. “Music,” M says. She uses the knife to carve her initials in the dash. “Music she wants.” She reaches back, touches my knee, and I sing the birthday song. I belt out the chorus and then extend it---“happy birthday to me, happy birthday to me, to me, to me.” Today might be my sixteenth birthday. 22. “Bigger,” I say, looking at a brick house out the window. “Those trees look familiar, though. Turn here.” Langbar turns sharp, but the houses just get smaller. She keeps asking questions: What street? Do you recognize anything? Exactly how much did you say you’re worth again? “Get us out of here,” I say, looking out my window at a girl in a front yard jumping on a trampoline, not getting much air beneath her feet and the worn black. “This isn’t the right neighborhood.” I try to remember riding down these streets in a limousine, but there are a lot of distractions in the back of them---television, a phone, a mini-fridge, and leather seats your legs stick to. I don’t remember any road names. It was never necessary. 252 “I have the best weapon of all,” Langbar says, “the car.” And she swerves over the center line a little to show her power. I wonder how long she’s been planning the display. “If you don’t want to drive,” M says, “we have a shovel. Don’t we?” “In the trunk,” I say. “Take the next left.” Langbar turns, and the houses get farther apart with curving black driveways lined with bushes cut into perfect squares. “This is it,” I say. “I used to live here.” I look out both windows, scanning the neighborhood for the biggest house, one with gated entry. 23. I press the button on the console by the gate. “Jeffrey? Benson? Alfred?” I can’t remember who it was. “Who’s calling?” the box asks. I say my last name. “I used to live here.” I wait for the gate to swing open, but it doesn’t. I say my last name again. I take a couple of bars in my hands and shake, willing it to open. “The cops are probably on their way,” Langbar says, pointing to a camera and turning toward the car. “No,” I say, looking at the sprawling house through the iron gate between my hands. I try to remember living inside those walls. I try to remember home. “Let’s go,” M says, opening the passenger door, joining Langbar inside. I wait for the gate to open, but it doesn’t, so I get in the back seat. I’m still waiting for it to admit me as we back out of the driveway. 253 “Who’s poor now?” M asks when we’re on the highway again. “Where are you sleeping tonight?” I notice it’s getting close to dark; everything looks pink. I worry that the world is still the same, but now I’m different, and I won’t be able to survive out here. I just want a dance studio and an airplane and a healthy bank account. 24. I tell Langbar to get off on an exit, take me to a bank, the first bank she sees, hurry, before they all close. I have trust funds, retirement funds, stocks, bonds. I’m worth billions, I say, afraid they’ll drop me off, and I’ll have to spend another night in the woods. I’ll give you anything, I promise, rubbing the exposed slice on my hand because it itches. “This is your last shot,” M says, not looking back. “I want you to understand.” “We’re wasting our time,” Langbar says, craning her neck so she can make eyes at me in the rearview. “She doesn’t have anything.” “Sure, she killed her parents; she might be out of the inheritance line,” M says. “But there’s got to be a rich uncle or cousin or something.” “She tricked you,” Langbar says. “You really have to pay better attention in the future. You’re not the best judge of character. I’ve seen her file.” She can’t do this to me; I won’t let her. I pull a lace from my shoe before Langbar can say anything else. I reach around the head rest and rope her neck with the black string, and I pull back on it, thinking I can lop off her head, watch it roll. In the rearview, I see her face brightening, her eyes widening, so I brace my feet on the back of the seat and lean back, pulling with both hands. Langbar’s clawing at her neck, not even holding the steering wheel anymore, so M has to try to control the careening car. “You have to cover her mouth,” M says, shifting her foot over Langbar’s legs to the 254 brake. I do what she says and wait until Langbar’s still and then wait some more. The car grinds to a halt in a field far off the shoulder. She throws the car in park She reaches over and opens the driver’s side door, then she kicks Langbar out. “That was my driver,” she says. I look out my window at Langbar. I watch her chest for any movement, trying to determine if she’s really done. “I can drive,” I say. 25. I sit in Langbar’s seat with my notebook open in my lap. I study my old diagrams, but they don’t look like the dials and pedals before me. One page is dedicated to a stoplight with all lights on, arrows indicating the colors mean go, slow, stop. My handwriting on the subject tells me to drive on the right side of the road, go through a drive thru, honk my horn. M rips a chunk of pages out of my notebook. She tells me to get the car moving; we have to get out of here. I try to drive. I turn the key and the car makes a thrashing sound. I scoot the seat up and put a foot on each pedal. I press down on them, but the car doesn’t move. I turn the steering wheel to the right. I turn it to the left. I press a button and the stereo comes on, advertising a shoe store sale, hot deals. “You can’t drive either,” M says, exasperated. “Right now, you’re dead to me.” She leans over me and opens my door and lifts a foot to kick me out. 26. “You’ll just have to run me over then,” I say, sitting down in front of the car. “You can’t leave me without killing me.” “Fine,” she says, shifting over. “Die then,” she shouts, leaning out the open window. 255 “Give me another chance. I want to be your driver.” M honks the horn, and the noise shakes me up to standing. “Even I can drive better than you,” she says, making the car vroom. “Can’t you see?” I say, looking at M through the windshield. “A car, and me, and you. And the open road,” I point across the field to the highway. “This was meant to be. We made it.” “Get out of my way. You don’t have anything I need.” She makes the headlights flash at me and honks again. “I will. Take me to a bank.” I lift my arms, surrender. “You can have it all, but you can’t leave me.” I can’t remember what it’s like to be alone. The car growls under M’s control, jolts a bit so the tires squeal, and I step back. I jump out of the way when it lunges at me because I know she’ll run me over, and I don’t want to die. I turn over in the grass and watch M peel across the field to the highway until she’s just two red lights dashing off toward night in another place. “Your fault,” I say, getting up. I turn Langbar over so I can see her face, look into her glazed eyes. “You should have died before you were born,” I say, standing over her body. I think about M, and I punch Langbar a couple of times, and her head flips from side to side. Then I step on her chest, but it’s slippery, hard to balance on her sliding skin, so I just kick her until my foot hurts. I sit down and rub my ankle; she’s dead now, and you can’t stay angry with someone dead for too long. I look through all of her pockets for money. I find grape gum, a glass bead, a grocery store receipt. “Stupid girl,” I say, kicking her hard in the ribs one last time, so pain shoots up my leg. “Stupid purse-carrying girl.” I imagine M barreling down the highway with the 256 interior light on, digging through the purse Langbar always had slung over her shoulder, finding her wallet. 27. All roads lead to somewhere, I tell myself, walking down the side of the highway in the same direction Langbar’s car went, chewing some of her gum because I’m thirsty. M might still be driving on this road. I imagine the line between us, wonder how many miles of string I’d need to tie us together now. I lengthen my strides, reasoning that if I just walk fast enough, and she makes enough stops, I could catch up to her. I could even pass her. If she spends the night in a hotel, she might see me walking on the side of the road in the morning and change her mind and stop the car and let me in. I imagine we are now points on that gigantic map, and we’re tiny, sure, and we’ve lost each other, but it’s all just geography and movement and time. We’ll find each other one day, maybe even tomorrow. 28. My legs are sore; I need to get some money and buy a car of my own to move through the world, so I walk off the next exit ramp. There’s not a car dealership at the bottom, but there is a bank and a gas station with an attached diner. The bank is dark, closed, but I circle it, looking in the windows to see if anyone’s inside working late. On one side of the building, I find a bright banking machine. The screen tells me to insert my card. I don’t have one, so I try pressing my thumbprints on the screen for identification. I look the camera in the eye and then show it my profile. I state my name. I pull out a strand of my hair and try to feed it in the card reader, but it isn’t accepted. 257 29. “Is water free, Alice?” I ask the waitress behind the diner bar. “It’s Deb. And you’re not getting any ice,” she says, filling a plastic cup. I sit on a stool, and I drink the water until it’s gone. Then I take the cup to the bathroom for a refill so I won’t have to ask for more. I fill my cup and drink until I’m full, and then I fill it again. Back on my stool at the bar, I hear an exciting clang, beeps, something bouncing around. The noises are coming from two boys hunched over a machine in the corner. I leave my water to see what they’re doing. It’s a game; the one who looks like Greg Brady is playing, his hands slapping two red buttons on the sides, and Peter is watching. I step up to watch the action under the glass unfold, too. There’s a metal ball inside the machine, and Greg’s controlling two flappers with the buttons, sending the ball flying up ramps and into bumpers. “What is it?” I ask, smiling because of the bright, flashing lights and the harsh sounds. “Pinball,” Peter says, smiling back at me like he knows I’ve been watching him all of these years. “Jackpot,” Greg yells, and the machine rattles electronic music. He points to his score, and I see the numbers climbing so fast they blur: 891,700, 930,000, 974,250. The score stops at over a million, and then the ball shoots out again, and he’s busy with the buttons, keeping it up in the air. “A million dollars,” I say, eyes on the bouncing, scoring ball, imagining the possibilities. And then, in an instant, the ball drops wrong, falls between the flappers and 258 quiets the machine. The high score is replaced with the words Game Over. “I want to play,” I say, stepping between Greg and the game. “Fifty cents,” Peter says, pointing to a coin slot. Always quarters. Two of them this time. “I don’t have any money,” I say. I dig through my pockets, offer the boys the last stick of gum, the bead, and then I find the ring. “This is worth fifty cents.” I hand it to Greg, and he looks at the green stone with gray eyes. “I paid fifty for it. It’s worth a game. Please. Can I play?” 30. The red buttons are indented and smooth, so my fingers just fit. I have to ask where the ball is, and Peter shows me the lever for launch. I pull it back as far as it can go and release, and the ball rockets up and away. It hits a bumper with a ting, and I look at my score---five hundred dollars already, enough for dinner and a hotel room and some new clothes and a ride in a taxi. I tap the buttons and send the ball up a metal ramp for two thousand. On its way out of the ramp, it gets stuck in a gap, and the boys shout, say I hit a Trap Door, and I watch my score climb past one hundred thousand. I’m watching the numbers and spending the dollars already in my mind when the ball shoots out, and I miss it, have to launch my second. Greg says I’m good, but I have to pay attention to the ball. He stands close behind me and covers my hands with his. He pushes my right hand down on the button, and the machine lights up with a high score. He slams my hands into the buttons when the ball drops, and the machine shakes. Tilt, Peter says. Watch out. I look at my score because I don’t have to pay attention in order to play anymore; 259 Greg has my hands covered. I cheer for every thousand or so points, ecstatic, feeling like I’m pulling my life back together, making up for everything I’ve lost. The better Greg does, the harder he hits my hands. They’re sore, throbbing under his, but I don’t say anything because I want to win. He’s so close behind me, I can feel his breath on the top of my head, his ribs in my back, his whole body encircling mine. I think I’m almost invisible this way. When he loses my second ball down the gullet, he doesn’t take his hands off mine; he rubs them, touching my fingertips, my wrists. He asks me if I need money, and I say I do. And pills, I say. And a place to sleep tonight. He says he can help me with all of that, and then he launches my last ball into the machine.