That summer began with Samuel Clay leading me to the alley behind Fran’s Hamburger’s. It was the last day of sixth grade and Sam had been smiling at me since February. We used a pocket knife to scratch our names into Fran’s dumpster, then he gave me my first real kiss. Sam’s kiss was weird and wet and nothing special, but it lit up a patch of nerves deep in my gut, lit me up so strongly that a week later, when Mom packed up the Toyota with all her clothes and the houseplants and said, “Get in, we’re driving to Dallas to stay with your Aunt Sarah,” I froze.
“Really?” She stared at me, her face grey with anger.
I kept my gaze on the jasmine plant sticking out of the Toyota’s rolled-down back window. Its tiny, fragrant flowers had always reminded me of a faraway land, a place I’d travel to when I was older and ready for the world.
Mom shrugged, “Fine,” she said.
I shut my eyes. When I opened them, white petals littered our driveway and the Toyota was gone. I collected the driveway petals, sealed them inside a pink envelope with a love poem for Sam, and decided I’d wait until the right moment.
Two months later, I would find out that Mom and Dad had been talking divorce all summer. They’d agreed on selling the house and moving far away from one another: Mom and I to Tucson with her new boyfriend Jimmy, and Dad across town. But I didn’t know any of that when Mom left. I simply accepted that it would just be Dad and me for a little bit.
We spent every day of that summer together. We’d get up at six to sit out on the front porch—me with a Capri Sun and a book, Dad with coffee and cigarettes—to watch Sam’s mother jog around the neighborhood.
Dad liked her because she wore tight black leggings and a sports bra, and pumped her legs so sharply that she looked like Workout Barbie. I liked her because she was the glamorous mother of the first boy who kissed me. They lived with Sam’s father in a three-story white house over on Alameda. It was the sort of house that gave out king-sized candy bars on Halloween and, sometimes, when they forgot to close their blinds in the evening, you might walk by and see the whole family sitting around their dining room table. Ever since Sam had kissed me, I’d spent a lot of time imagining how I might fit in at that table. And, even though it made me feel guilty, I sometimes flirted with the idea of sprinting up to Sam’s mom and introducing myself. I hadn’t heard from him since our kiss and I figured meeting his mom might be the best way into their lovely home.
“That woman,” Dad liked to whisper in the morning when we saw her, “sure has a firm little ass. Just like two marbles.”
When she got close, Dad would sometimes raise his arm and wave real big, “Hi, howdy,” he’d call.
Sometimes she didn’t hear him, but sometimes she’d nod with a cautious grin, her eyes narrowed like she’d been listening in on his commentary the whole time. He always continued waving until she turned unto the next street. Then he’d put his cigarette out and shake his head sadly at me.
“She sure looks like a bitch though,” he’d often say.
I always felt a bit defensive whenever Dad said this—for Sam’s mom and for me, too—even though Dad wasn’t even talking about me.
After our mornings on the front porch, Dad and I liked to ride the bus. We’d get on at South Congress and Live Oak, ride to our destination, stay on that side of town for the day, and return home for the evening.
The city back then was still full of street folks, day drunks, and gamblers like him. Everywhere we went, Dad made friends. He smiled at the museum docents, the maids, the 7-11 clerks who sold us Slurpees and scratch-offs. Dad said smiling was easy. He bragged that he’d never met a stranger in his life.
“I just don’t know any,” he said. “I only know friends. It’s part of my Life Philosophy.” Capital L. Capital P.
On the bus, he greeted any person who made eye contact with us. Most folks smiled back. If they didn’t, Dad shook his head and looked out the window like the world was a place he didn’t know anymore.
“That’s the problem with people these days,” he’d say. “Everyone’s in a hurry. Everyone’s suspicious.”
When Mom called to check on me at night, I would lie and tell her how much I hated hanging out with him.
“All we do is watch football and Star Trek,” I complained one night. “And he’s smoking inside the house.”
“Of course he is,” said Mom. In the background, I heard the television on and someone playing a guitar. “What’s he feeding you?” Mom asked.
“Pop Tarts and Night Hawks,” I said. That part, at least, was true.
“Christ. Promise me you’ll make the man microwave you some vegetables.”
I didn’t feel bad about lying because the truth would have hurt her. Summer with Dad was more fun.
My favorite place we took the bus to was the big library downtown. It had six different front doors that all opened into a marble and gold entrance with a flight of stairs that led up to a desk full of librarians who could guide you to any of the five floors and help you find any book you wanted. Our first trip there, Dad set me up with a library card. The woman who helped us was unlike any librarian I’d seen before. She was young, with a silver stud in her nose. Her dark hair was looped into buns on either side of her head and rows of silver chains fell down her chest, the last one disappearing into a line of cleavage.
“My daughter is here for her own library card.” Dad slapped his hand against the desk and nodded to me proudly, “she reads every day.”
The librarian smiled and asked me my name.
I opened my mouth to answer, but Dad was quicker.
“What’s your name?” He asked.
He closed his eyes and breathed in loudly, “Thalia,” he whispered, “reminds me of a flower.”
“It means to bloom in Greek,” she said, looking over her shoulder.
He leaned closer to her. “Listen, Thalia, I’ve got something to ask you but I don’t want you to take it the wrong way.” He waved his hand in front of his nose. “How did a beautiful woman like you come to put all that metal in your face?”
“Excuse me,” Thalia said and walked away. A couple seconds later a new librarian approached us.
“Hello?” she looked only at me. “Thalia tells me you’re ready to check out a book. I can help you with that.”
After that Dad preferred to stay outside when we went to the library. He said he liked trading stories for smokes with the homeless men who lived in cardboard boxes along the street. I quickly learned it was more fun to explore the shelves on my own anyway. I discovered the world of paperback romances. I preferred the kind with violet-eyed women on the cover, straddling stallions and pulling denim-clad men to their bosoms like grand, Southwestern Madonnas.
I’d check my book out and go meet Dad outside, where the homeless men liked to review my selections. Most of them would read out the synopsis and laugh. A few of them would scowl at the raunchy covers and look at Dad with disapproval.
One day, there was a new man in the group. His long, gray hair hung like spider’s silk over his shoulders. He grabbed my book and stared at the woman on the cover for so long it seemed like he was waiting for her to talk to him.
“You let her read this shit?” he said at last.
Dad shrugged. “Sure, why not? She’s not going to learn how to be a woman from me, and her mother just left us for some wannabe cowboy prick in Dallas.”
The men all chuckled or spit like they had their own tough memories with cowboy pricks. When the gray-haired man gave me back the book, he winked.
There was another man—he had no left arm—who reached for the book and flipped through it, one-handed, while his cigarette dangled from his lips like a cartoon sketch.
“It’s good you read,” he said to me. “Curiosity is the Lord’s greatest gift.”
The one-armed man told me his name was Frank and that he had come into some hard times recently. “But your Dad has been real nice to me,” he said.
“I’m not into Jesus-talk like Frank,” Dad announced solemnly. “But I believe in helping people.”
Every so often Frank or some of the other guys would ride the bus back to our place with us. Dad said hard times meant folks didn’t always have safety for the night. Also, he was eager for some poker buddies.
They’d play Texas Hold ‘Em and Mexican Spit and plain old Five Card Draw. Sometimes they bet with money and other times they bet with stickers and plastic rings. While they played, Frank always kept his poker beer locked-n-loaded: one open on the table and a second clenched between his stump and his side. Once they told me Frank lost his arm after a bet turned sour in Reno. Once they told me Frank’s arm just fell off one day from not eating the crusts of his sandwiches.
One night Frank finally told me he lost his arm to a power line while skydiving.
“What does it feel like to have one arm?” I asked him.
“Different from before,” he said. He closed his eyes and smiled. “But when I close my eyes, the arm is still there.”
Dad held up his drink for a toast. “To Frank’s arm,” he said.
“To Frank’s arm,” we repeated.
On the phone with Mom, I said nothing about Frank or the others. I just complained about Dad’s cursing or his lousy cooking because I knew it pleased her when I cut him down.
“How’s Aunt Sarah?” I asked her one night.
Frank was over again. He’d brought some of his friends and the lot of them were rowdier than usual. Mom couldn’t hear me at first, so I told her the TV must have been on too loud and walked upstairs to my room. “How’s Aunt Sarah?” I repeated.
She was quiet. “I’m staying with an old friend now,” she said finally.
I thought about that wannabe cowboy prick Dad had mentioned. If she was going to keep a part of her life closed off to me, I figured, then I could do the same to her.
“Am I going to meet this friend?” I asked.
“You know what,” Mom’s voice was warm and calm, “you will meet him.”
After we hung up I laid down on my bedroom floor and stared at the ceiling for a long time, thinking about the women in my romance novels. Maybe Mom loved the wannabe cowboy because he’d look good on the cover of a paperback.
The man with long, gray hair was standing in my doorway. He had a book in his hands.
“Do you remember me from the library?”
“I brought you something,” he said. “Can I come in?”
I shrugged and he came to sit on the floor in front of me.
“How old are you?” He asked.
“I’m twelve,” I said. “But I read at a high-school level.”
“Good,” the man chuckled, and handed me the book. “Then this is for you.”
I took it from him. It was a children’s book, with a blue plastic cover and oversized text. I flipped it open. There was a little cartoon girl on the first page, drawn younger than me, in a frilly old-fashioned dress.
“Thank you,” I said. I wanted to be polite. “But I don’t think this one is for me.”
When I looked back up, the grey-haired man was slouched back against the side of my bed, staring at me and breathing heavily. He’d taken his penis out of his pants. I watched him stroke it for a few seconds.
My first thought was, “how strange that this old man has such a pink penis.” My second thought was, “I can scream or I can walk away.”
Not for the last time in my life, I did the quiet thing: I stood up very slowly, turned my back, and left the room.
Outside Frank and Dad and the other men were smoking on the porch. I stood with them. They felt like strangers. A few minutes later, the grey-haired man came outside, too. As he passed by me, he wrapped his arm around my shoulders and gave me a hug that said, “You’re a good kid, Caroline”, or maybe, “Thanks for not saying anything”, or maybe just, “See you next time.”
I’m sure I must have seen Sam more than once that summer, but I can’t remember exactly when, so it’s possible I left for Tucson without ever talking to him again. I did walk to his house one evening, not long after the gray-haired man came into my bedroom. I’d been thinking a lot about romance—about my mom and the cowboy prick, who were probably together now—and I was realizing my future in Austin was less certain. I wanted to give Sam my pink envelope with the poem and jasmine petals inside.
The front blinds of the three-story house were pulled open as I walked down Alameda. Sam’s beautiful mother was standing in the dining room. I stopped, pretending to tie my shoe on the sidewalk in front of their house, so I could admire her. She wore a long silk robe, her hair was down, and she looked as elegant as the women who lounged on couches advertised in fancy furniture catalogues. I walked closer and stood in the middle of the lawn just a few feet in front of her. Then I watched as a man walked into the room. At first, I thought Sam must have an older brother because this man looked too young to be anyone’s father. If he were in a romance novel, the author would say he had tawny skin and broad, rippling arms. Oblivious to me, the man took his shirt off and spun it into a rope with his hands. He looped the robe high around Sam’s mother’s waist and pulled her closer to him. She kept her eyes closed. I saw it all, equally aware of my transgression and incapable of leaving. I wanted to witness this, to watch a scene I had until then only read about in fiction. Sam’s mother and this stranger were different from the blurry snapshots that had been flashing through my imagination all summer. There were no slow caresses, no teeth against the neck, no bedsheets twisted around sweaty limbs. I knew they had finished when he slumped his shoulders and pulled away from her. She picked up his shirt and used it to wipe her thighs, then her lashes fluttered open and she looked right at me.
Her face contorted into a series of expressions: surprise, embarrassment, anger. I covered my face with my hands to show her it’d been an accident and backed away as quickly as I could.
The next morning, she appeared right on time, jogging with the same tight intensity.
“Hi, howdy,” Dad called when she reached our house. He kept his arm raised, waiting for her to wave back.
She stopped and squinted up at me as if I were just too far away for her to place. Then she turned around and ran back towards her original direction.
“Huh.” Dad dropped his arm. “What was that about?”
I said, “I don’t know.”
Mom returned for me in early August. She’d traded in the Toyota for a big pick-up truck. Jimmy, wannabe cowboy prick, was behind the wheel and a U-Haul was hitched up behind the bed. When I saw her, I betrayed myself by running straight into her arms and letting her lift me up like I was still a little girl—because I really had missed her and I really was tired of Night Hawk dinners, taking the bus all day, and watching Dad play poker with the homeless men from downtown.
I never told her or anyone about Sam’s mother or the grey-haired man, although both of them have stayed significantly linked in my memory.
Not long after, I learned my father moved across town to crash on a friend’s yellow-carpeted floor, but I didn’t see him for years, not until he surprised me for my sixteenth birthday by showing up at our door in the Foothills with BO and a puffy black eye. I almost didn’t recognize him aside from the style of hat he was wearing and his wedding ring.
He took me to a Japanese steakhouse and tried to give me a pair of pearl earrings and a Barnes and Nobles gift card.
“Don’t say I never gave you nothing,” he said in a weird accent, trying to joke around.
I stared at him with a flat face and blank eyes like my teenage years had taught me until he dropped the accent and threw up his hands.
“What the fuck Caroline? Tell me how to make it better.”
I told him to keep the pearls and give me five hundred dollars instead.
“And you look terrible,” I added.
He spat a rind of steak fat into his napkin and pointed to his black eye. “I look fucking awful,” he said. “Life does that to you. Kicks you when you’re down. See this?” Life kicked me here.”
He said he didn’t have five-hundred dollars. All he had was a BMW M1 and a wad of twenties left over from a detour in Vegas.
“Give me that.” I said, “It’s the least you can do.”
The twenties he handed over. The MI, he promised, would be mine on my twenty-first birthday.
“I’ll drive back up here and give it you myself,” Dad said as he dropped me back off at the house I lived in with Mom and Jimmy.
I sat in the Tucson driveway for hours afterwards, trying my hardest to figure out why I didn’t tell him about the creepy gray-haired man or Sam’s mother and her lover displayed against glass more real than any heated couple from my paperbacks.
A few weeks after my twenty-first birthday, a letter arrived from Austin with nothing but a picture of the BMW in it. I followed the return address back to a little bungalow on the east side of town, where I found Dad living with Frank. The house had a large cross on the front door and a metal sign next to it that read “Liquor in the front. Poker in the rear”.
We played a few hands of poker, during which we complained about all the changes to the city: rent, Starbucks, hipsters. Frank asked me about Samuel Clay, who I’d heard was now married to a dentist in Pensacola. I asked him about the library.
“They remodeled it,” he said. “All chrome and copper now.” Everyone shook their heads sadly.
When I stood to hug and say my goodbyes, Dad finally held out the BMW’s keys.
“Hey kid,” he said, “did we ever tell you how Frank really lost his arm?”
“No, he was just born with it.”
As if on cue, Frank shut his eyes and smiled. “But when I close my eyes,” he sighed, “I can think up a hundred other reasons why I’m like this.”
I said I knew exactly what he meant and got in my new car to drive the hell out of Texas.
It wasn’t until I was crossing into New Mexico that I remembered my name carved into metal on South Congress and began to wonder whether it might still be there next to Samuel Clay’s. For a second, I considered driving back to check. And, just as quickly, I realized there was no dumpster. There wasn’t even a Fran’s Hamburger’s. There was probably a coffee shop or artisan taco restaurant. And inside, everyone would look glamorous, impermeable, changeless.
Rumpus original art by Trisha Previte.