I tell Hairy Mary’s mom that I get $466.00 a month in social security and she can have the whole thing for food and lights and stuff, if she’ll let me stay. Hairy Mary is a year ahead of me at Holy Family K–8, and I’ve been hanging out at her house all spring, enjoying the freedom of an after-dinner cigarette and the teen phone line used for threatening phone calls and radio-station requests. I’ve been secretly moving in anyway: a forgotten hair brush, gym shoes stashed under the bed, the MC Hammer tape stuck in the tape deck, etc., so dragging a few ratty gym bags over to stay for good seems reasonable. “Dad says it’s okay,” I tell her. Hairy Mary’s mom, Grace, narrows her eyes at Mary and then draws me in to her arms, saying, “That’s fine, kiddo, everything will be fine.”
I call her Hairy Mary because she’s more beast than girl, but I never say this to her face, or even out loud. She wears black trench coats when it’s a hundred degrees outside, smokes Marlboros, and will threaten to beat an ass no matter who it belongs to. She’s Italian, like me, and spends a good portion of her day ironing the dago out of her hair, which, at the moment, is Bozo red. At least she tries; I’ve given my hair over to God. In the two years I’ve known Mary at school, I’ve managed to kiss her ass just enough to be considered her friend, the kind that walks behind her and off to one side a little.
Mary could pass for about eight months pregnant, that enormous belly encased like sausage; but if you ask her, she weighs 110 pounds, and if you look at her funny, she’ll belt you hard on the cheek. Two distinct expressions dominate her face when she’s awake: snarling and smirking. A few days into our arrangement, I sit on the stained carpet in her room and try not to look so impressed at her natural and abundant gift for swearing.
“Fucking wake up you short-bus bitch! Wake the frickity fuck up!” Mary shouts into the receiver to some unknown short-bus bitch, presumably a dear friend. She curls her lip at me, holding her cigarette between her index and middle fingers while managing to point at the Big Gulp in my hand. I slide it over and continue staring as she consoles her friend. “You knew the fuckin’ turd was sluttin’ it up when we caught him down at Skate South last week and he’s all ‘I was just showing her where to return her skates! I swear!’” She shakes her head and mouths “duuuuumb” at me. This is my cue to giggle, which elicits a smirk from Mary, the expression closest to smiling. “Look, if you want to catch the fucker, me and the sis can go skating tonight and call you if we see anything…Alrighty, keep yer tits high and dry, bitch. We’ll catch the bas-turd. Peace!” and she slams the receiver down. “She’s fucking brain dead,” Mary says, and I giggle again, nodding. But I’m not really agreeing with Mary’s assessment of her friend; it’s the word “sis” that sends me into giggles, because “sis” is me. This summer I will have a sister.
In June, we fall asleep on mattresses placed side by side on the floor of Mary’s room. We fight over the cigarettes and the front seat of her stepdad’s Ford Escort. For the first time in my life, I’m comfortable, maybe even wanted by Mary, Grace, and Grace’s third husband, Bob, who is exactly half his wife’s weight, and usually takes my side when an argument breaks out between Mary and me—which happens more often as the summer grinds on. “I’ve got other plans,” Mary tells me around the middle of July when I ask what we’re doing that day. And by August, when I find the girl in the grass, and Mary’s fist finds me, the whole charade will be finite. An entire lifetime of sisterhood played out in three pitiful months.
Grace is rotund. I don’t know how else to put it. But while Mary’s weight is a weapon, Grace’s soft bulk makes you want to climb on her lap and ask for a cookie. To me, she’s been nothing but kind. But she has moments of “crudeness,” she calls it, when dealing with everyone else. She’s a counselor at a shelter for battered women—which she was herself in another life; she likes to remind everyone of this on the rare occasion when the four of us squeeze around the card table for dinner. It’s always part of the conversation, like in response to, “So what did you do today?” Grace points her fork at whomever asked and says, “I’ll tell you what I didn’t do—I didn’t get the shit beaten out of me, no sirree!” Then she hoots and stabs a dinner roll.
Whenever she says things like this, Mary lights a cigarette, right there at the table, but Bob is the only who looks annoyed about it. He’s bearded and quiet, and works somewhere with coveralls and nametags. He’s not bad, but I avoid being alone with him whenever possible. It’s his Charlie Manson eyes—black and beady, they jump around in their sockets like pinballs. Once, when I first met Grace and Bob, I told Mary they didn’t seem like they should be together. “Just be glad they don’t drink anymore,” Mary told me in response.
So while Bob is wearing his coveralls and nametag and Grace is administering tough love to the battered women, Mary and I have days to ourselves. The most important thing is getting out of the house as soon as possible. “I’m not about to spend my hard-earned money on central air just so you two can enjoy it,” Grace says when Mary complains about the heat. I remain quiet, inwardly beaming at the inclusion. “You two,” she says, like I’m really her daughter who doesn’t deserve central air any more than the one she gave birth to. The trick is getting Mary up in the mornings before I pass out from heat exhaustion. I wake up hours before her, and I find little things to do while I wait, like smiling at myself in the mirror, or subtracting inches from my cutoffs and then bending over in front of the mirror. I stare at my ass through the inverted V in my legs, wiggling and shaking it.
But around ten, when the temperature in the house hedges around 200, I begin the process of waking my sister. At first, I gently nudge her, and then dart away. Mary rolls over, issuing a “Leave me the fuck alone” to her pillow. I wait five minutes, poke her in the calf with a pencil, and get out of range. Her arm shoots out, searching, as she clenches her fist, but I’m already on the other side of the room. I throw a wadded up sock at her head, and she bats it away like a cat. We play this game for nearly an hour; every few minutes, I walk back into the bathroom, splash cold water on my face, smile, bend over, then find something else to throw at her. But when I’m out of other options, I turn the stereo on so loud even the flies buzzing around yesterday’s bowl of cereal begin to vibrate in mid-air. Mary, greasy-faced, hair like a lit torch, jumps, and finally sits up. She bellows over the music, “Where the fuck are the cigarettes, bitch?”
After I’ve found the cigarettes and made her a new bowl of cereal, she stuffs herself into her trench coat and leads me around her neighborhood so well I feel like I’m wearing a leash, but I don’t mind. “Quit twisting your neck like that,” she tells me, and I blush. Surely someone’s looking at me, though, I think, but keep my trap shut. We head to the Quick Trip for a soda, then slump over to the music store in the mall to look at tapes we can’t afford. Eventually, we end up at the Sun Vista apartment complex to visit Mary’s friends.
This is my favorite part of the day, but it scares the shit out of me. Sun Vista is the America they pitch to us in history class, a melting pot simmering with diversity and invention. “It doesn’t matter if you’re black, white, brown, or red,” Sister Joanne often promises from the front of the classroom. “In America, anyone can make it!” We look around at each other’s white, Catholic faces in confusion. Who is she talking about? But after spending three solid weeks hanging out at Sun Vista, Sister Joanne’s America comes into focus. The tenants here really are black, white, brown, and red. They wear dashikis, kimonos, hijabs—words I will learn only later in life when “weird robe and scarf things” becomes embarrassing. They wear backward pants safety-pinned to the elastic of their underwear, wife beaters, tool belts, and, sometimes, nothing at all—the kids we hang out with like to de-pants their friends and throw them into the pool for fun.
They’re also Crips, which is a gang, Mary informs me on one of our first visits when I ask about the hand gestures. Even though she doesn’t say it out loud, I know she’s calling me a short-bus bitch in her head. And I try to make up for my ignorance by conforming to the Crips’ strict blue-and-white uniform, replete with beads in my hair. Bloods and Latin Kings wear red, yellow, and black, respectively, so those colors are dead to me now.
And holy Christ on the cross, are these kids inventive. They string cigarette butts together to make new cigarettes. They hang their parents’ nearly empty booze bottles upside down from deck railings, creating a slow drip and throughout the day they will check to see how much has pooled in the cups they position beneath the bottles. “One shot of Boone’s!” rings through the complex, and everyone stops what they’re doing to watch the lucky one tip the cup back. They even cut and redistribute their neighbors’ cable lines so everyone gets HBO.
There are never any adults around either, only kids—some little enough to need help on the slide, and some old enough to be working on cars in the parking lots, but no one who looks old enough to be someone’s parent. This, combined with the constant frenzy of running, swimming, swinging, and fighting gives the whole place a Lord-of-the-Flies-during-Diversity-Week feel. After a few days of quietly sitting by the edge of the pool, fingering my beads with the hand not holding a cigarette, I fall in love. His name is Shaoa, and even though there are a few older boys in the group that has commandeered the pool, he seems to be their leader, my basis for this conclusion being that no one pulls his pants down and throws him in the deep end. He’s fifteen, black, skinny, and does an exceptional Boyz II Men impression.
He slings an arm over my shoulder while we sit on the edge of the pool and points up to the window of his family’s apartment on the third floor. “Wanna go up and watch TV?” he asks.
I look across the sprawling complex, past all of the buildings, courtyards, and parking lots, to the playground where Mary banished all of the other white girls. She chased them off in the first few days we started coming here, so we have all the boys to ourselves—the black ones, anyway. The white boys hang with the white girls at the playground. “Who cares? White boys suck donkey dick,” Mary tells me when I mention this strange development. I hesitate before agreeing, and she says, “Don’t be racist.” I don’t really care about the white boys, though. It’s the white girls I keep an eye on. One in particular, a girl named Brandy, looks too much like me and stares at Shaoa in a way that makes me want to put a cigarette out on her face as I let him pull me away from Mary and the boys and the pool, up to the third floor. As we walk away, the other boys hoot and yell things at me that would offend someone else, but I’m thrilled.
After spending so many days at Sun Vista, I’ve come to expect certain things. I expect Mary to peel her trench coat off the moment we arrive. At the same time, I will pull my t-shirt over my head, proudly revealing my bikini-covered B-cups to the boys, who, I expect, will say, “Damn!” which makes Mary smirk. She will keep her T-shirt on and tell anyone who asks her to take it off to go fuck themselves. I also fully expect that later, in Shaoa’s apartment, he will casually rest his hand under the elastic on my underwear. I will allow this for exactly one second before I jump up and run out of the room in terror, even though I promised him I wouldn’t do this anymore. “You better watch that shit,” Mary will say over her shoulder as we walk home. And I’ll keep my head down and consider walking into traffic. He couldn’t break up with me then. “You could at least let him finger bang you.” Would that help? I think. But I know I never will. He’ll think I’m a slut. And I’ve seen Beverly Hills 90210. He wants me to be a slut until he doesn’t want me anymore; but then I’m still a slut, and he’s singing Boyz II Men at some other girl. Finally, I expect to fight. Because everyone at Sun Vista does; the girls, the boys, black, white, brown, and red.
Since I can’t go slutty, I decide to be tough. Boys like tough girls, too. So I do what Mary does, just yell a lot and repeat things I hear on TV. I roll my eyes, and “shut it” becomes my go-to response. But it happens too fast: just a few hours of me mouthing off to the Playground Skanks, and they storm our side of the complex with about fifty people behind them, all carrying torches and pitchforks. I thought I’d have more time to pretend at being a badass. Mary rises slowly from her chair, her lips moving. “Come on, I’m not fighting any dumb bitches for you tonight.” She yanks on my arm and tells me to move my ass.
The boys, who never leave the pool, sense what’s coming, and start in. “Bitch fight!” They pound their fists in the water, shouting, “Ooooh,” and “Beat her ass!” before breaking up with laughter, which only eggs me on, though I’m not even sure they’re talking to me. I pretend to struggle as Mary drags me away. “Get back here, slut!” one of the girls shouts as she moves ahead of the rest, and I realize it’s Brandy. We run across the four-lane highway, and after we get to the other side, I turn around and give Brandy the finger. For some reason, I decide the Sun Vistans can’t leave their complex, that a force field traps them there and as long as I’m on the other side of the highway, I’m safe. But then Brandy crosses the street and the rest follow behind her like it’s nothing. Mary turns to me. “Hang on,” she says, her big hand slightly squeezing my shoulder in what I can only assume is a mother thing. “It’s gonna happen. If you run away, we can’t come back here.”
Brandy is ten feet from me now, and the snarling mob behind her forms a circle around us. “Hey, where you goin’, slut?” This question is for me, but she actually addresses the crowd, her skinny arms spread wide. “Where’s your boyfriend?”
That’s a good question. Where is my boyfriend?
“Punch her hard on the nose,” Mary whispers. “Right on the nostril. And block your face.” She releases my shoulder, then edges away into the crowd.
Cars are tearing down the street next to us, headlights flipping on, drivers zoning out. The temperature has dropped. That’s why I’m shaking. But, we’re standing on a patch of grass in front of the Quick Trip. Families with kids in strollers are walking by, people are pumping gas and slurping Icees, for Christ’s sake. Nothing bad can happen to me, I think, not really. I start to ask Brandy what her problem is but she doesn’t let me get it out. “You’re my problem, bitch.” She grinds her fist into her palm. “You wanna keep rolling your eyes now?” Brandy really does look like me: she’s short and skinny, and her brown hair hangs in waves just like mine, but her eyes are icy blue. She’s serious.
And it finally registers: I don’t know how to fight.
So it comes as no surprise that I ignore all of Mary’s advice. I don’t throw a punch or block the one Brandy delivers. I just stand there while she squeezes my throat and side steps behind me; I let her bend me over and put me in a headlock. She grunts the whole time, and my nose smashes against a hole in her sweater running along the seam under her armpit. I can smell her, and it reminds me of the Salvation Army store where Dad bought my bed. I scream, but it comes out gurgly, and with one hand I reach toward Mary, who blurs as my eyes fill. I can’t move. In seconds, she has me on the ground. The whole time she has her hands around my throat, I can hear the cars, the whoops of her friends as they cheer her on, and the cashier at Quick Trip saying, “Pump 3 is ready to fill, please pay inside.”
I keep waiting for someone to break it up, but no one does. In the end, Brandy gets bored. I’m spread eagle, my back ground into the grass and she leans over me. Her face is splotchy, but she still looks like me. “Watch your back, cunt,” she hisses between crater teeth, then grabs my braid with the blue and white beads and yanks the whole thing out, throwing it into the street. When they’ve all gone back across the highway to Sun Vista, Mary picks me up, uses the sleeve of her trench coat to wipe me off, and takes me home. She tells Grace and Bob that I walked into a light pole when they see my face. “A light pole didn’t do that to her neck,” Bob says, gesturing in my direction. “Looks like fingers.”
“Oh,” Grace says, her black eyes carefully scanning me from neck to knees. “Light poles can do all kinds of damage. Doors, too.”
“Doors,” Bob says, and shakes his head before leaving the room.
The next day, Shaoa dumps me for Brandy. I cry, standing under the flickering fluorescent light in the hallway outside his apartment while he blocks my view of his living room. “Brandy has really pretty eyes,” he says as an explanation, shutting the door on me. This is the end of our tenure at Sun Vista, because now Brandy and all of her friends take over the pool and claim our boys. Mary snarls and spits as we trudge home on the Fourth of July. “Shaoa doesn’t care if you got your ass beat,” she says without even turning around. “Brandy likes to fuck. I told you so.” She pulls the box of sparklers she got from the Tobacco Outlet out of her pocket and throws it in the ditch. When we get home, I lock myself in the bathroom, and study my eyes in the mirror. Big and brown, they’re my mother’s eyes, but they’re not pretty enough, and even bending over and smiling doesn’t make me smile.
The first time I was inpatient at Spectrum Adolescent Psychiatric Care, I confessed to my doctors that I was a crack dealer and that sometimes I snorted cocaine—it took about five minutes to realize that a sick mom and a functioning dad on meth do not stand out against sodomy, rat poison, and abandonment, so I upped my ante. The doctors might not have believed me, but they at least had the decency to validate my stories with questions during group therapy. “How many times a day, dear? Did you ever perform sexual favors in exchange for drugs? What about needles?” And I would suck up a good forty-five minutes before they started paying attention to someone else.
It’s a solid bit, and even though I’ve been out of treatment for a full year, I have a hard time letting it go—especially when Grace and Bob tell me all about their druggie days. One person who doesn’t believe me is Mary’s older brother, Dominic. He was driving Mary and me somewhere, and Mary explained to him all about my drug dealing when he mentioned he needed to score. He kept his eyes on the road, but smirked. “Really? What does crack look like?”
I looked to Mary for help.
She whispered in my ear, “Say eight-ball.” I did.
“What’s it made of?” he pressed.
“Crack, dummy,” she said, rolling her eyes.
“Whatever,” he muttered, and we haven’t talked to him since because he’s not allowed in Grace’s house.
But Grace believes me. And when I tell her and Bob that I’ve “relapsed,” they suggest I start attending NA meetings with them. Grace swivels around in the front seat as we pull out of the driveway. “Bob and I fell in love at a meeting,” she says, smiling, “Maybe you’ll find someone nice!”
Meetings are at the White House. It’s an old Victorian tucked back into the timber on the east side of Des Moines, a few miles from the fairgrounds and the other reeking, industrial buildings that make the whole area seem like one big turd cloud. On certain nights, there can be more than fifty cars parked in the little gravel parking lot behind the White House, but no one sees that unless they’re supposed to. At the beginning of the summer, Grace and Bob brought Mary and me to a dance at the White House that we thought would be fun until we saw firsthand what addicts do in social settings. The dance floor remained empty as a hundred people milled around outside like petulant cats, smoking cigarettes and saying, “We’re all right as rain.” Mary and I spent the night leaning against Bob’s Escort trying to get this kid who claimed to be on methadone to buy us beer.
But I’ve never been to an actual meeting. Before we leave, I take the cigarettes while Mary is in the bath. We always share a pack. I should take one or two and leave the rest for her, but I don’t. Later, I will claim this was an accident, but that’s a lie. No one on TV carries a few cigarettes in a plastic baggie when they go to meetings. The actors use the box as a prop. They hold it tight between their hands while recounting the vivid details of their abuse; they turn the box over and over in a stand-up, knock-down routine, like the trajectory of a repeat offender. So I need the whole pack, and when I get there, I’m glad I have it. I never talk, not in the first meeting or any of the others I attend this summer. Listening is hard enough, but Grace keeps her arm around the back of my chair, and sometimes I feel her soft hand on my shoulder. I’m always relieved when the meeting leader says a prayer because that means it’s over.
When we get home, Mary is waiting on the sagging porch in a T-shirt so loud and large it might as well be a carnival tent. She runs over to the car and sticks her head in the backseat window. “What the fuck did you think I was gonna do when I got outta the tub?”
She’s screaming. Like horror movie screaming.
Mary’s newly minted penny-colored hair is whipping around her thick face; her nostrils are so big a nickel would fit inside each of them. I’m suddenly terrified she’s going to jerk me clean through the car window. I start to crank it up but she yanks the door open before I know what’s happened. She sees the pack lying next to me on the seat and grabs it. “Where the fuck is the lighter?” she screams again. I unzip my purse and dig around until I find it. I hold it out to her like a scrap of food to a wild animal, and flinch as she purposely drags her long fingernails across my palm.
“Mary, calm down,” Bob says as he springs his long body from the Escort. His Manson eyes are really going as he looks from his stepdaughter to his wife.
“Goddammit, girl.” Bob pulls at his beard and turns to his wife. Grace heaves herself out of the car, and comes around to the driver’s side. “Mary,” she says, slinging her purse over her shoulder. “Do. Not. Talk to him like that, or you can go to your room.”
“Oh, of course you take his side.” Mary drags deeply on the cigarette as she turns on her mother. I can breathe again.
“He’s my husband,” Grace spits at her.
Mary laughs. “So get a new one like you always do. This one’s a pussy anyway.”
“That’s it, you’re grounded. You are the most disrespectful—crude!—girl I’ve ever met,” Bob barks, shaking his skinny finger at Mary, who has a solid sixty-pound advantage on him. Again, he turns from Mary toward Grace and so do I.
Holy shit, Grace is expanding like the Hulk, right here in the driveway. She throws down her purse and the muscles in her arms and legs tense. She’s heaving and snorting, and I fully expect her to go green at any moment. Whenever I talk about how nice Grace is, Mary just hmphs, and says something like, “Nice like the motherfuckin’ devil.” But I never believed it until now. Bob backs away, and turns toward the house.
“Sure, Bob. I’m grounded,” Mary says, smirking, and flicks her cigarette toward his retreating back. She’s not looking at Grace.
He slams the porch door behind him and in this moment I wish I were smart enough to know what Bob does: Get out of the way. Mary finally glances at her mother—who isn’t green, exactly, more like pus, and raging, her arms stretched wide like she’s going to snatch Mary up and devour her. Mary mouths the words Oh shit.
“This one might be a pussy,” Grace says, as she moves in closer to Mary, “but at least he never put me in the hospital, and he married me in spite of what a little bitch you are.”
Mary ignores all of this and bites her lip. “Well, you’ve got a new daughter now!” She backs away from Grace and turns on me. I’m a much smaller target. “Why did you come here? Why don’t you go hang out with your own mom? Oh yeah, she’s a fucking vegetable.”
“Don’t talk to her like that,” Grace says, and she’s an inch from Mary when I turn and run. “Angie, come back,” she calls. The last sound I hear is a long cracking, like the voice of God just showed up, but I don’t turn around for Him either. I keep running.
I do the only thing that makes sense. I call Dad. He doesn’t want to come pick me up. He sounds like he’s falling asleep on the phone, though its only 8:45. I have to beg, saying, “Please daddy” into the dirty receiver. I’m crouched inside a phone booth at the Quick Trip, sweating through my tank top. It’s getting darker. I turn my back on the two skinhead boys sitting on the curb a few feet away who look like they’re at least eighteen. “Please daddy, please.”
“Jesus Christ,” he says, “fine,” and hangs up.
It’s a twenty-five-minute drive but it takes him two hours, during which I never leave that phone booth. He shows up skinnier, with more holes in his jeans than usual, his Harley shirt intentionally frayed. He’s got a new tattoo peeking out from the deep neckline: a dragon spewing flames, the name “Elena” spelled out in cursive letters underneath. The women in his tattoos are always monsters. I’m the devil on his triceps. If my mother had allowed him to get tattoos when they were still together, “Mary” would have been, what, the screaming eagle on his forearm? The clown shaped like a dagger on his shoulder?
As he puts his old truck in park, I run over to the driver’s side and start talking fast, incoherent, half-sentences. He gets out and the two boys sitting on the curb finally leave their resting place when they see Dad. He leans on the hood and crosses his arms over his shrunken chest. “What happened?” he asks but it doesn’t really sound like a question. He’s not looking at me. I tell him I want to come home.
Why the hell not? I think, but speaking now is out of the question. If I open my mouth, the last two months will come flying out.
“Leavin’ in a couple days for Texas. To get help.”
The light is completely gone now, and I can barely see his face, only his silhouette as he leans against the truck, like he can’t stand on his own. Customers come and go, some looking at us, some not. I should be embarrassed. “I’m sorry, hon, you can’t come. I’m goin’, but if you don’t want to go back to what’s her name’s, maybe you can go to Jimmy’s.”
I call him an asshole, and he shrugs. I want to rush him, to beat him in the chest and scratch at his stupid tattoos. I think I hate him.
“Yeah, well…” he says, like he can read my mind.
And I’m just staring into the black hole where his face should be, waiting. He wasn’t around when my mother was diagnosed with MS, or when she started using a cane, a walker, or a hospital bed, but when I asked him for something, I got it. Tonight, though, no matter how I plead, or what I call him, his shadow only hiccups against the hood of his truck. He won’t take me.
I walk around to the passenger side and grip the door handle. I work it all out in my head in the few seconds I stare at my nose and mouth in the partially rolled down window. I’ll go back to his house and just hang out ’til he gets back. There’s a grocery store down the street, and what else do I need? If the lights go out, I can light candles, and I don’t know exactly how to use the handgun he keeps in a cabinet over the refrigerator but I can point it, at least, in case something bad happens. He doesn’t even need to be there.
“I’m sorry, no,” he says again and I release the door handle.
“What I am supposed to do?”
“You can’t do anything,” he says.
But then I’m saved. The Escort swings into the parking lot and pulls up right next to me. Grace, deflated now and back to her normal color, gets out of the car. She assesses the situation and mentally adjusts her counselor hat. She puts her arm around Dad, leads him back to the driver’s seat of his truck, and they talk for a few minutes as Dad leans his head against the steering wheel. I don’t know what else to do; I slide into the backseat of the Escort. Then we’re pulling away and I don’t know where Dad is—or where he’ll be—until September. In the backseat, Mary puts her arm around my shoulders, and says, “Here.” I take the lit cigarette she offers, and wonder what’s so great about Texas. Mary’s benevolence lasts until we pull into the driveway, and then it’s business as usual. “I’m hungry,” she says. “Maybe you could make some mac ’n’ cheese?” And I do, even adding an extra packet of powder because I know she likes it.
Around this time, though, Mary stops referring to me as her sister. In mixed company, I become her “best friend,” but I pretend not to notice the new distinction. As August rears up, the whole state becomes a giant toaster oven, and we have nowhere to go with air conditioning besides the mall, and what’s more depressing than that? A million window displays with clothes and gadgets, while my social security is tied up in utilities and milk. And Mary doesn’t want to go anyway. In fact, her tolerance for me seems to diminish as the temperature explodes. She even suggests I move my stuff into the spare bedroom—a closet, essentially, where Grace has trained her cat to mess. “Oh, it’s not that bad,” she tells me when I raise my eyebrows at the suggestion. “Just keep the door shut and he’ll find somewhere else to shit.”
In a desperate move, I take a silver ring my dad gave me—he wouldn’t admit it was stolen at the time, just said, “Don’t show it around too much”—to a pawn shop a few blocks away from Mary’s house. The guy at the counter asks if it’s stolen and I start to cry, mumbling something about my grandmother and needing new pants. He gives me $30. I race home with the money and throw it down on Mary’s bed, where she sits chatting on the phone to the short-bus bitch and rubbing a wet washcloth over her legs and arms. “What’s that?” she asks.
It’s enough to get us into the state fair, where the Varied Industries and Agriculture buildings are air-conditioned and provide free samples of local sour cream. “Whatever,” Mary says. “I call first shower.” But when it’s time to leave for the fair, Mary announces she’s going with some of her other friends and they’re outside waiting and there’s not enough room for me in the car. “We’ll meet up in the midway, though,” she promises the wall behind me. She sort of waves and then she’s out the door, her trench coat moving in tandem with her puff of chin-length hair, dyed emergency red for the occasion.
I stomp into the bathroom and throw Mary’s nail polish in the toilet. “I have other friends,” I tell the girl in the mirror. She blinks a few times, but says nothing, so I scoop the nail polish out and set it in the exact same spot on the sink. “There, happy?” I ask her and she nods. I start dialing. After an hour of begging and bribing, I convince Jimmy, my dad’s best friend, who’s a cleaner version of Dad and has bought me clothes in the past, to pick me up. I also call Becca, a girl in Mary’s class at school who has always been nice to me even though she’s pretty and blond and popular to come along and, together, we can meet Mary in the midway. To my great relief, she agrees. We ride to the fair in Jimmy’s little Ford Ranger truck, Jimmy driving, me and Becca squeezed into the back row. For a few hours, everything is right.
The Iowa State Fair receives a million visitors every year. It’s not your typical Ferris wheel horseshit lemonade shake-up. The buildings are made of brick, the barns of steel, and the midway is a parade of amusement park quality rides. It’s ten days of talent shows, art exhibits, and the newest has-been bands. Any food that can be deep fried and stuck on a stick, is: Oreos, pork chops, even butter. You could spend days at the fair and not see the whole thing; you really have to be choosy. Jimmy, his golden hair pulled back in a ponytail, his jeans holeless, his Harley shirt, wrinkle-free, opts for the Budweiser tent, and we don’t see him again until close. Becca and I do laps through the midway, Becca on the lookout for Mary, and me, I’m just looking for people who might be looking at me. Unlike Mary, Becca doesn’t tell me to stop twisting my neck. She only smiles and asks how my summer has been. Most people come to the fair for the food, sure, but others, like the farm kids, come to compete for blue ribbons for their pig parenting. Families come for the rides and shows; teenagers come to fight and wink sex at each other.
Maybe that’s his intention, too—to insinuate, to merely suggest—but considering what he does to her face, it’s more likely he comes to the fair to rape someone.
We find Mary just as the bartender shouts last call into the crowd at the Budweiser tent and the Ferris wheel slows to drop its final passengers. Of course she doesn’t want to go home. She’s standing at the gates, chatting with her friends, who are a mix of trench-coat-wearing tough girls, and, I notice, some of the Sun Vista boys—Shaoa, too, his arm slung around a half-naked Brandy. Traitor, I think, turning away from Mary to leave. But Becca is nice, doesn’t want to leave until we know how Mary is getting home—the friends with the car have already left. There a few heated words between Becca and Mary: “I’ll be fine,” Mary says, her eyes on a black boy I don’t know. “Like hell,” Becca says back. To my great surprise, Mary relents. She tells us to go get Jimmy’s truck and pick her up at the gates while she says goodbye to her friends.
Nobody actually parks at the fairgrounds; it’s too expensive. The people who live in the surrounding area open their driveways and yards to fairgoers for a few bucks. It’s easy, safe. The trick is remembering what street you’re on, what the house looks like. After twenty minutes of hiking through different alleys, we find Jimmy’s truck and pile in. The air has cooled, and as Jimmy wipes the condensation away from the windshield, we see it.
At first, it’s just a dark shape against a car, trying to stand up, and falling. Once, twice, and we laugh. “That guy had a few too many,” Jimmy says, and flips the headlights on. As the beam drifts away from the truck and across the yard, though, Becca asks, “What is that?” But Jimmy is already backing up, yawning into his hand, ready to leave. So am I. Becca puts her hand on the gearshift. “What is that?”
And then I squint through the windshield, trying to make it out through the condensation already filming over again.
“It looks like the elephant man,” Jimmy says.
“It’s…is she naked?” Becca asks.
“It’s a girl,” I say.
Jimmy wants to leave. He’s not cruel—just the opposite in fact—but he’s responsible for two teenage girls, and this, whatever it is flailing in the yard in front of us, is dangerous, he thinks, even if Becca and I don’t. I forgive him immediately forever. Becca, who is pretty and blond and popular, is already out of the truck anyway. We slam the doors and follow her across the yard, wading into the beam of the headlights.
The girl is lying in the grass, dumped between some neon crotch rockets, naked from the waist down. Her white t-shirt is ripped and blood soaked. She does look like the elephant man. Her face is a smudge: no angles, no nose, no eyelids. Gone, obliterated. Becca is kneeling over her. “Don’t,” Jimmy says when Becca reaches down and places her hand over the girl’s, but Becca isn’t listening to him.
I am told to find a phone. I don’t want to leave them or the yard or the lights from Jimmy’s truck—but then, all I want to do is leave them, the yard, the girl. I run away from the light and start banging on doors. No one answers, not for a long time. No one believes me. They tell me to get the hell off their property. But finally, an old man hands me a cordless phone and I dial 911.
I’m disoriented and I make a wrong turn on my way back. I’m in a different yard surrounded by cars webbed with dew, and I remember Mary. I imagine her standing alone at the gate, checking a watch I know she doesn’t even own, bouncing on the balls of her feet, her trench coat swinging behind her. She keeps scanning the busy intersection for Jimmy’s truck, but no one comes.
And then I realize I’m a child and I’m alone in the dark. I start yelling for Jimmy, who, thank Christ, yells back, only a few yards away. I follow his voice, and find them between the crotch rockets, still kneeling. Becca holds one hand, Jimmy the other. He looks up when he realizes I’m standing there. “Get in the truck, both of you,” he says. But the girl won’t let go of Becca—when she tries to free her bloody hand, the girl starts screaming—so Becca stays and I do what I’m told.
Two weeks later, a policewoman in normal clothes will come to my school and talk to me in the empty cafeteria. She’ll tell me the girl’s car wouldn’t start, and he told her he had jumper cables. The police think he used a beer bottle. “The girl is okay,” she says, “sort of.”
The only thought I walk away with is Used a beer bottle, how, exactly?
Mary is not at the gates. I have no idea how long it’s been since we left her. We drive around, circling through the empty blocks, calling her name into the dark. Jimmy says she probably got a ride home, but I want to keep looking. Finally, after what seems hours, I relent, and he turns the truck toward Mary’s house. Jimmy talks to himself on the way home.
Becca is silent in the backseat, rubbing the disinfectant the police gave us over her hands, her legs, her face. I’m electric as we pull into the driveway. The lights are on in the house, and I’m imagining Grace and Bob pacing around, one of them on hold with the police and the other making a pot of coffee. I leap from the truck before Jimmy puts it in park.
Grace and Mary are lying on the couch watching something on TV. Bob is in a recliner, reading a newspaper.
“Where the fuck did you go?” I scream at Mary, and stand directly in front of the TV.
Mary scratches her head. She’s wearing a Kermit the Frog t-shirt.
‘“Where the fuck did you go?”’ she says back and motions for me to quit blocking the TV.
“What’s wrong?” Grace asks, rising from the couch.
I realize that Jimmy and Becca are standing in the doorway. I look at the clock on the wall. It’s after two. I’m incoherent. Screaming noises fill the small house. Grace looks from me to Jimmy and Becca. “What the hell happened?”
“Where the fuck did you go?” I scream again. “We found this girl…and then you were gone…why did you leave?” I reach out, and push her, hard.
And then Mary is on her feet, and she’s got her big, meaty hand on my arm, pushing me back, but I could lift a fucking truck right now. I start pushing too. Jimmy, Grace, and Bob all start yelling for us to get away from each other, but I grab a chunk of Mary’s hair and pull her forward. I’ve got my hand on her throat and I’m squeezing and I’m saying something but I can’t hear it. For an instant Mary is so shocked that I get a knee into her belly and she goes down. But then she’s a beast and I weigh ninety pounds. She puts her forearm over my chest, pinning me to the floor and reaches back with her other arm; she closes her fist before swinging it forward and crushing my leg. It takes all three adults to pull her off.
They put us on separate ends of the couch while it all gets sorted out. Grace keeps her hand over her mouth as Jimmy and Becca recount the events of the evening. Bob stands behind his wife, rubbing her shoulders while Grace alternates between “That poor girl, that poor girl” and “Oh my God, her parents.” I don’t look at Mary, so I don’t know what she thinks.
Before Jimmy leaves, he leans down and hugs me. “You got a couple good swings in there,” he whispers. “Call if you need me.” And I will. Becca hugs me too, and I know she and I are going to be friends now. But then they’re both gone.
I shut the bathroom door behind me, and keep the light off. I stare at the spot in the mirror where my face should be. “I have to go now,” I say to no one.
Rumpus original art by Liam Golden.