Pay no attention to the soot on the buttercrunch, I told my new assistant.

You wash those, right? she asked.

We were looking at a row of lettuce in Mac’s Urban Garden. I didn’t tell her how often I’d caught my homeless harvesting team urinating near the zucchinis. Saint Charles with his cowboy hat and soiled cargo pants. Tiny Hanson with her high-heeled boots and cut-up snowsuit. The Neil Diamond lookalike in his black belted trench coat.

She didn’t know it, but I had plans for Sam. I wanted her to take over the garden. Truth be told, it didn’t even have to be her; it just had to be someone.

Produce to the people! she’d said in her phone interview, and I was sold.

Sam was now kneeling in front of the budding kale and Swiss chard. Her bangs hung in front of her eyes. She had on an expensive windbreaker and looked at the garden shears with awe. A half-hour into her tutorial and she was already clutching her back.

Two types of people came to Mac’s—those that were hungry, and those that wanted to feel good about themselves. But I’d learned feeling good about yourself could be hard work, backbreaking even.

And that’s tatsoi, I said to Sam. Good with mustard, so tell the boys and girls that free packets of mustard from McDonald’s work just fine if they need to stretch a meal.

I’m late for a therapy appointment, I said. Think you can do some weeding for an hour until I’m back?

My dog Biko sat next to me, protective but calm.

Sam shrugged her shoulders. She seemed unsure about the new job.

I was one month into the worst guilt of my life and, after I explained to Sam the danger of cabbage loopers and flea beetles, I sat down on an overturned bread crate and cried.


I didn’t deserve Biko. In fact, I’d thought about it, and I didn’t know anyone good enough for a dog like that. Loyal to the point of self-destruction.

Mac and I had a boat—the Excitecat 810—with a cabin. On weekends, we left the community garden in Raleigh to volunteers and drove to Beaufort, where we anchored and partied with friends. Biko always came along. A Lab mix, he loved the water. He’d pace the length of the boat, bark at passing crafts. His shaggy blond ears crimped in the humidity. His nails scratched the deck when he walked.

Mornings on the boat, I’d make instant coffee, Biko at my feet. We’d climb quietly onto the deck, careful not to wake Mac, and listen to the birds. Biko would sun himself with his chin on my legs until Mac was up. Then we’d motor over to Shackleford Banks to let Biko kick sand, chase gulls. Once we saw two deer swimming past the boat toward land; Biko had tremored with excitement, but stayed by my side, obedient.

Aside from a touch of separation anxiety, Biko was the perfect dog.

Then, one Saturday afternoon, our friends came by in an inflatable dinghy.

Let’s hit the Dockhouse for live music, they said. Climb in.

Room for Biko?  I asked.

I worry about his nails, someone said. We’re drunk, and if the boat sink . . .

The crowded boat burst into laughter. The sky was still blue, but we could see the moon. The water made a soft slapping sound against the side of the dinghy.

He’ll be fine on board our boat, Mac said, handing me a fresh beer. There’s nowhere he can go.

The cool aluminum can between my fingers, the reggae our friends played from a portable radio—these things made me believe in okay, in just fine, in letting go.

We’d never left him alone on the boat, and as the dinghy pulled away, Biko lifted his chin to the sky and whined. Some chord in my chest pulled tight. I looked away.

When we returned that night—singing, smelling of beer and sunburned skin—he was gone.


What do you want?  my therapist asked.

A baby, I said. I want a baby.

She folded her manicured hands and nodded. It struck me as a learned nod. I’d once heard that women nod their heads to build rapport—even when they don’t agree.

I’d started therapy after Biko’s accident. My guilt had consumed me. I needed direction. My therapist plumbed me like a well, pulling out fistfuls of trouble, messy tangles of fear and longing.

What prevents you from having a baby?  my therapist asked.

I’m getting old, I said. My partner is old. And if I can’t take care of my dog, I don’t deserve a baby.

Silence the inner critic, she said. How old are you?

Thirty-nine and a half, I said. But my partner is in his fifties. And I think he’s lukewarm on the idea. He’s not trying very hard.

I’d said to Mac a few months earlier, Wouldn’t it be fun if we had a full house?

You want another dog?  Mac had asked. More chickens?

Mac was a good person, a visionary. He was also fifteen years older than I was. We’d met at a bar in Duck, discussed our love of dogs, open water, and community agriculture. Our relationship was simple. We kept separate bank accounts. We didn’t fight.

Three years ago, Mac and I had driven into Raleigh towing a yellow ’74 Volkswagen Bug behind our pickup truck, Silkie bantam hens roosting in the backseat, two goats hanging their whiskered chins out the windows. Mac had taken a job as a professor of agriculture at the state college. We settled in a historic neighborhood one block from the prison. A year later, Mac got the government grant to build the community vegetable garden on a plot downtown. It was originally his dream, but someone had to manage things while he taught, and that person was me.

I like my simple life, Mac often said. I don’t need anything more than what I’ve got.

In vitro might be a possibility, my therapist said.

Yeah, I thought. A ten-thousand-dollar, pain-in-the-ass possibility.


When I returned from my appointment, I found Sam baffled by the tool sign-out sheet and food records.  She tossed her bangs aside as she scanned the clipboard.

Skinny Meatloaf?  she asked. One-Eyed Gloria Gaynor?

When the customers won’t give you a name, we name them after musicians they resemble, I said. There is One-Armed Snoop Dogg, Phil Collins with a Mustache, and so on.

Sam wrinkled her nose and brushed soil from her jeans.

It’s pretty obvious who’s who, I said, and wondered if it was really true.

I don’t know, Sam said, rubbing her lower back.

I felt like she was looking for a way out. Assistants never lasted long at Mac’s. From what I could tell, they liked talking about the job more than working it.

It isn’t meant as a sign of disrespect, I said. It’s just our way of tracking assets.

I signed out a hoe to Neil Diamond. The strawberry patch could use weeding, I told him.

I had to remind myself I was dealing with people, not characters. Our Neil Diamond really looked like Neil Diamond, wily eyebrows, thin lips and all—but there was no swagger in his comb-over. Tiny Hanson told me he had a daughter in town that wouldn’t see him, that he paced her neighborhood on weekends hoping to catch her on the way to her car.

Wife left him long time ago, Tiny said. Girl probably ain’t even his.

I turned to Sam.

By the way, I said, there are brown spiders that scare the bejeezus out of me in the strawberry patch. Jumpers. Wear gloves over there.

This isn’t . . . she said. She stared at her hands and began to clean beneath her nails. Ugh.

Waste of time, I said, hoping I wasn’t scaring her off.

The soil had burrowed into the lines of my hands months ago. When Mac and I went out to a nice dinner, I painted my nails harlot red to hide the black earth.

Sam’s hair was shiny and her skin was smooth. I found myself thinking about Sam’s ripe ovaries. You’d be easy to knock up, I thought. You have all this time.

I wanted to borrow her body for the weekend.

A handful of customers—or as the head of the neighboring condominium homeowner’s association called them, vay-grints—had gathered for work and scattered themselves across the four garden quadrants. Buildings that weren’t quite skyscrapers made shadows over the plants. The bus station spilled over with people on their way to work. Two blocks over, Not Grandmaster Flash played The Love Boat theme on his trumpet, which he often did until he took a break for lunch.

Saint Charles tugged at my sleeve.

I been vomicking again, he said.

I dug into my purse and fished out a roll of Tums. Sam stood next to me, eyes down on the compost.

Don’t eat out of the trash if you don’t have to, I told Charles.

He crushed the tablets with his teeth and sauntered off to tend the kale.

When we got the grant money, this place was covered in cigarette butts, I said to Sam. And now . . .

I made a sweeping gesture with my hand, as if advertising the beauty of the place. Old oaks, their roots knotted and bulging underneath the cement sidewalk, were budding. I had a feeling I would hate the gloved ladies who had planted them a hundred years ago, but that didn’t keep me from thanking them for the shade when the summer started to bear down.

This isn’t what I expected, Sam said.

And then I lied.

It will be if you give it time, I said. Hard work can turn any old dump into a fertile paradise.


They had found Biko in the last light, disoriented, paddling out to the horizon. At first the fishermen said they could not believe what they saw.

We thought it was a porpoise, one said.

Biko had been dehydrated and confused. He’d snapped when they lifted him into their boat.

Desperate and lonely, he had swum a mile into the open sea.


That evening, I returned home from the garden with a headache and a bag of early cucumbers.

I don’t think Sam is going to work out, I said. 

Mac slid his reading glasses down his nose and laid the paper on the kitchen table, a lab table he’d salvaged from an auction sponsored by the school system. I wondered how many earthworms had been butchered in the name of science on the surface where we now ate dinner.

It’s karmic, you know, I’d told Mac. We’ve done this really bad thing with Biko, and now . . .

You’re paranoid, he said, rising to rub my shoulders. And superstitious.

I sat crosslegged on the kitchen floor and scratched Biko’s stomach. His back legs twitched when my nails found a good spot.

Pregnancy test was negative this morning, I said.

I felt my bottom lip begin to quiver.

Don’t cry, Mac said.

He began washing cucumbers. I pressed my face into Biko’s coat.

I wondered who knew me better—my husband, or my dog, who sat up and shoved his nose into the crook of my neck, resting his chin on my collarbone, as if to say there, there, there.


At six a.m., Biko touched his cold nose to my shoulder, a leather lead in his mouth. I put overalls over my nightgown and grabbed a cup of feed from the garage.

I kept an urban coop in the backyard stocked with Silkie bantams. The hens were gentle and broody, good mothers who’d go so far as to raise eggs that weren’t their own. An ornamental breed, they produced tiny eggs and paraded around the coop like Solid Gold dancers, their legs ensconced in black feathered pantaloons, heads topped with Afro-shaped tufts.

Biko and I fed the Silkies each morning. We jogged out to their fenced-in coop, crouching down inches away from the gate. The ladies sprinted from their henhouse down the wooden ramp, lunging at the ground in fevered hunger.

The first time I saw a chicken run to food, I was inspired. A full-on sprint, a stride like a gymnast doing a split.

And that’s how you get what you want, I thought. Go all out or give up.

The morning was still cool. I could see the barbed wire atop the tall prison fence a block away. I stretched from side to side, trying to warm up my body. These days I woke feeling stiff, mechanical. Old.

As my hens clucked and the lone rooster postured, I imagined a baby’s lips tugging at my breast. Hot breath on my skin, innocent eyes.

I’m sorry I eat your children before they hatch, I said to the hens.


One of the perks, I told Sam later that morning, is that you can take home produce weekly.

I was going for the hard sell.

Tiny Hanson sat on the sidewalk with her feet spread out in front of her. The cuffs of her snowsuit pinched her swollen ankles. There was gum on the bottom of her scuffed leather pumps. Tiny took one off and rubbed her heel. She trailed Sam with suspicious eyes.

I don’t know if I like kale, Sam said.

You learn to love it, I said.

The truth was, every year I reached a point where I couldn’t look at another leaf of kale, another fanned-out collard the size of my face. Hot sauce, garlic, and brown sugar be damned—by the end of the summer I only had eyes for ice cream.

Last September, pounds of kale and chard wilting in the back of my sweltering truck, I sucked down a milkshake at the Dairy Barn, let Biko lick the cup when I was done. I lay down on a picnic table and looked up at the sky, one hand on Biko’s belly.

Waste not, want not, I had lied.

The sound of children laughing, the sight of their ice-creamed faces had made my body cramp with need. I wanted to lay my hands on their chapped faces, comb their soft hair with my fingers.

While Sam weeded, Tiny approached me, shoved her bad breath and broken teeth in my face.

What, she said. I’m not enough help?  You don’t love me no more?

I love you just fine, I said, stepping back. Sam’s just here to learn.

Ain’t no love gone fix me now anyway, Tiny said scratching her neck.

Let me see that, I said, peering at the scaly rash underneath her chin.

I’ll bring calamine lotion Monday, I said. Don’t scratch. You might spread it.

I cupped the back of Tiny’s head.

You’re going to be okay, I said.

Sam came up to us. She had dirt on her forehead and a million questions behind her eyes.

How do we feed everyone? Sam asked. You can’t eat an uncooked potato.

Tiny sauntered off, muttering, And who’s the prized whore now?

You don’t have to worry about potatoes until June, I said. But there’s a stack of black stockpots in the shed. Start a fire in the pit, put the grate down, and boil the potatoes. The boys and girls will bring their own ketchup packets, duck sauce, salt. Smashed peas aren’t bad for flavor.

A fire?  Sam said.

The tomatoes are what you have to worry about now—they go fast, I said. The boys and girls won’t riot, but they get grabby. No one but Tiny really likes turnips—you can leave those in a grocery bag for her.

I don’t think I can do this, Sam said.

Just stay on until Monday, I said. Please. Mac and I are out on the boat this weekend. Managing the garden’s not as hard as it sounds—just different.

Sam rubbed the back of her neck and raised her eyebrows.

I need this weekend, I pleaded.

She fiddled with the Velcro on the outside of her glove.

Maybe you could be a surrogate mother, I thought, looking at Sam’s healthy hair and strong legs.

I think I’d be better off doing advocacy work, Sam said.

When the sun is setting and you’ve got ten or so customers sitting crosslegged on the sidewalk, quiet as can be with their mouths full, you’ll see, I said. They’ll drift away, and you’ll find yourself alone in the garden, kale to your knees, feeling good. I always sit for a moment in the center, a handful of strawberries in my lap, and watch the sun disappear.

I don’t want to be here alone, Sam said.

Tiny will help you, I said. Tiny always helps.

Sam was quiet.

I’ll pay you under the table, I said. Whatever it takes.


I came home to pack for the boat trip. I groped for my travel toothbrush in a drawer full of ovulation indicators—plastic wands that could divine when I was most fertile. Also stuffed in the bathroom drawer: my digital basal thermometer and ovulation calendar.

Biko was on his back in our bed, rooting through the pillows, dirt from his nails falling into the sheets. I didn’t care. I’d let him do anything. Lick my cereal bowl, chase the chickens. I would atone forever.

I thumbed through old clothes, clothes I thought I should give to Tiny. Frayed sweatshirts, grass-stained shorts.

Mac and I promised we’d stay out of the customers’ personal lives, but I had made exceptions. Recently, I’d purchased bedroom slippers for Tiny so she could rest her feet at night. I slipped anti-inflammatories and Tums to Saint Charles to soothe his stomach.

Without realizing it, Mac’s Urban Garden had become more mine than his. These days, I might not know myself without it. My therapist said I had a garden full of orphans.

I spied my negative pregnancy test in the trash can.

Piss on it, I said.


Driving to Beaufort, Mac pointed out his family farm, the old farmhouse now a hay barn for someone’s heifers.

There are pieces of me everywhere Down East, he said. An uncle here, a cousin there. Most with no teeth to speak of.

All the reason to make more pieces, I said. Better pieces.

Sam called as Mac and I were settling in on the boat. Mac whisked two bags of groceries into the galley. I figured he was disappearing on purpose. Somehow, garden business had become my business.

Jesus Christ, Sam said, panting into the phone. Saint Charles took a disproportionate share of collards. Phil Collins with a Mustache is selling our zucchini flowers for a profit at the farmers’ market on Blount Street.

That’s okay, I said. I wish Phil had asked, but we don’t use the flowers.

Not Grandmaster Flash bit into an onion like an apple, Sam said. Tiny tied prayer flags into the pea fencing.

Not all bad, I said.

But that’s not the worst, Sam said. This morning, Our Neil Diamond pulled his penis out and danced around the cantaloupe patch screaming, Impotent melons! Impotent melons!

What’s important, I said, is that you keep the shears and the hoe close to you, and cultivate a sense of authority.

I quit, she said.


The day animal control returned Biko to us, Mac and I had driven home to Raleigh. Biko was limp with exhaustion and had just come off intravenous fluids. He thumped his tail once or twice upon seeing us.

Mac and I could hardly speak to each other. Our guilt was sickening.

I did not say it, but I blamed Mac. He was too easygoing. He did not play worst-case scenario. Next time, I would listen to my gut.

I had held Biko in the backseat of the car as we drove down the pine-lined highway. I had spooned his tired back, rubbed his ears. I massaged the muscles I felt would be tired after his big swim. My fingers ached from planting, but I did not stop stroking Biko. My heart was subterraneous, a root crop, damp, hiding from the sun in shame.


Sometimes, I attended Quaker Meetings with Mac at the local Quaker nursing home where his mother kept a room. The meeting house had a sign. It said: Practice Radical Honesty.

Once, his mother had leaned over to me and said, into the silence, My breast hurts.

It could be that simple, I thought to myself on the boat. I could tell Mac how much I want a baby. I could tell him that I don’t think he’s trying, that we can do more.

I hung up the phone from my conversation with Sam and went to find Mac on the deck. Biko trailed me.

Mac sat next to the motor with his feet in the water. He smoked a cigar and looked satisfied with life. It had taken me years to find comfort in his silence.

Sam quit, I said. And I want a baby. I’m willing to do anything. Things that cost money.

Mac nodded his head and blew smoke toward the clouds.

I peeled off my T-shirt and jumped into the water. Biko followed.

I closed my eyes and felt the water rush over my head. If Mac left me, I could take up agility training with Biko. We could walk the halls of hospitals. We could corral geese at airports. We could find a sperm donor.

But what if it was me that didn’t work? What if I was rusted inside, imperfect, past my prime?  Cursed?

Biko and I paddled around the boat in circles, sun on our noses. I let him swim to me, felt his claws on my arms and chest. I didn’t mind the welts, not now. I inhaled the smell of his wet fur. In a moment, we would both be tired enough for land.

Stay with me, I said to him, and I will make it up to you. Again and again.

Treading water, I turned to look at the fading sun. There was something appealing about an uninterrupted horizon.

One of the fisherman who had found Biko said to the newspaper: The poor dog had salt on his face from the sea water. He was so tired.

I imagined Biko swimming out into the open water. Sometimes, you didn’t know what you were after, I thought. Maybe there was a speck on the horizon, and you followed it, hoping for the best.

I pictured Sam leaving the garden, knocking off her boots before driving away in her luxury hybrid. Tiny would sleep there, watch out for things until I was back. She’d shoo Phil away from the early cucumbers, keep Saint Charles from eating too much fruit. I never asked, but I knew Tiny would do it anyway.

Tiny with her tired feet and cavernous mouth. Tiny with her varicose veins and dirty snowsuit. Tiny discarded by her family. Tiny with her whispered threats and kind actions.

Mac helped Biko and me back onto the boat. I kissed his forehead and went to shower. As I stood underneath the sliver of water, I panicked. I needed to know that Biko was safe. I ran out onto the boat deck, towel half-heartedly tucked between my breasts. Biko and Mac were napping on the bow, a bottle of beer in Mac’s hand.

Trust me, Mac said, both eyes closed, fingers tangled in Biko’s ears. Just trust me.

He removed my towel with one hand, led me to the cabin with the other.


Sex was always better on the boat. There were no neighbors to speak of, no gardens to weed, just time to kill.

After making love, Mac peeled himself off of me and offered me a towel.

I shook my head.

Biko put one paw on the side of the bed.

Do you ever get tired of begging?  I asked Biko, though I was happy to have what he wanted.

Mac left the room to make two drinks.

No rocks for me, I said.   

Ice on the boat was made from frozen sea water. To me, it filled bourbon with the taste of crustaceans, shells, salt, soft-bodied mollusks, air, water—the building blocks of living things.

Raise your hips, I’d read, to let gravity help the sperm make its way to your eggs. I gripped my hip bones and thrust my pelvis into the air.

Just days before, Tiny had lifted up her shirt and showed me her sagging breasts, the jagged white stretch marks surrounding her areolas.

My babies done sucked me dry and moved on, she’d said.

I put my legs up on the wall to hold all my chances inside. My greatly diminished, ugly chances. The boat rocked with Mac’s shifting weight. Biko paced the stairway, keeping one eye on me and one eye on Mac.

Use me all you want, I said to my unborn children. There is nothing I won’t give you.



The summer has been so lazy—one week bleeds into the next and congeals into a sticky pool of cigarettes, weed, Smirnoff Ice, boys, being fifteen and unable to drive. The arc of days begins filled with the possibility of what will happen at night: a movie, a party, smoking a joint down by the river, eating ice cream at Kimball’s, maybe swimming in Sarah’s pool. Life can’t be more full of vigor and youth. The girls are young and slim and smell like cheap perfume and their mothers’ body wash. They wear too-tight jeans that pinch the slight pudge of their lower backs; it spills over the tops of their pants but is reigned in by the spandex of their tank tops. They travel in packs of three or more, giggling loudly and shrieking when they meet other girls who are cooler than them. In a sad, obvious way, their heavily made-up eyes stare longingly at the models in Cosmo and Glamour and they wish to be tall and thin like that, have a mane of shiny hair like that, have lips glossed and pouty like that.

The summer becomes hotter and their skirts grow shorter. They convince their mothers to leave them at the town beach for the day where they lay out in Victoria’s Secret bathing suits and suck on Blow Pops and the married men try not to stare. They want to lose their virginity but are scared. Emma had a babysitter who told her that it hurt, that it wasn’t much fun but that it was better if you are drunk. The boys they would do it with are part of a crowd more popular than theirs. These boys golf at Greene Valley during the day and go to Bobby March’s house later to play video games and get stoned. Sometimes the popular girls join them. Emma thinks Bobby March has the most luscious brown eyes and she tells this to Allie and Sarah who laugh at her, but she takes some comfort from the fact that Bobby March’s birthday is the same day as her half birthday. She can always talk to him about this if she ever gets the chance. When they hang out with the Powder Mill boys, they sprawl on their backs on the couches and beds so that their stomachs look flat. They wonder if Mike thinks they’re as hot as the Playboy girls he has tacked to his walls. When the boys talk about sex, the girls pretend to have done more than they have—a silent pact between them not to reveal their ignorance. Later that night they get high on Allie’s trampoline. The air is warm and the girls are wearing T-shirts and boxers, the three of them: Sarah, long-limbed and golden; Allie, petite and curvy; Emma, average and freckled. They swish their hair and talk about boys and Sarah says she wishes she hadn’t eaten so much pizza for dinner. The fireflies spark and extinguish in the tall grass and each stoned girl wants to be better.



Emma sleeps over at Sarah’s house and they walk through Macdowell at three in the morning. The town is deserted, not even a dog barking. Empty parking spaces like missing teeth line the main street. It feels good to sneak out. It feels best to smoke the Marlboros stolen from Delay’s. Sarah is so beautiful and she doesn’t see it. They imagine tomorrow’s headlines reading Two Underage Girls Brutally Murdered, Found with Cigarettes. I wonder if our parents would be at all concerned that we were smoking, says Sarah. Mine would, says Emma. Ugh, this weather is awful for my hair, says Sarah, It’s frizzing everywhere. Mine too, says Emma. They think about what life is like outside this town, a small cage on the Eastern Seaboard. If their conversations are being duplicated by other girls in other places, would those girls have frizzy hair too? But the talking only brings them back to Sarah’s for sleep and pancakes the next morning. Emma always flips them too soon—she likes them gooey on the inside—and Sarah won’t let her near the pan.

They go to the mall and try on expensive dresses at Arden B. and Jessica McClintock. At CVS they buy Nair and waxing and highlighting kits and yellow nail polish. The dressing room mirrors depress them; nothing fits right and no one speaks on the drive home. Allie’s a double D, Emma only a B, and Sarah a C verging on D. I have the best grade, says Emma. That night they burn themselves from leaving the Nair on too long. Emma tries to dye Sarah’s hair but all she does is bleach a large circle in the middle of her head. Sarah doesn’t notice in the dim light of Allie’s room. Allie’s older brother is visiting for the weekend and is sleeping downstairs with his girlfriend. They drop pennies through the heating grate and giggle and don’t open the door when he comes upstairs to yell at them. Before they go to bed they tell each other what-if stories. What if I go to prom with Bobby March? says Emma. He would pick me up in a black Cadillac limo and my dress would be yellow. He would keep his hand on my lower back the whole night. Yeah, says Sarah, and then you would puke all over him at the after-party. What if, says Allie, I fall in love with the German exchange student next year and I end up moving to Berlin? We’d all go visit you, duh, says Emma. But that would never happen.

Sarah sees her hair and is upset and things are tense for a little while, but the next weekend Mike’s dad is out of town and everyone is drinking in his basement. Emma tells her parents she’s staying at Allie’s. No one knows how to play pool but the girls lean over the table and run their hands up and down the cues. Zeb, the pot dealer, is there. He tells Emma he burned his eyebrows in an accident in chemistry class. It’s bullshit, says Sarah to Emma. Everyone knows he plucks them. Allie sits on his lap and giggles for most of the night. The Powder Mill boys are on the porch talking about football and joining the Army. Travis wants to be a Navy SEAL. Emma’s shirt is small; she tugs it down every other minute. Jake has been looking at her all night but she ignores him because he can’t make it better. She drinks too much Twisted Tea and Mike teaches her what cum tastes like.



The girls are more assured. They walk with a pronounced swing in the hips and begin to order coffee from Twelve Pine. Their parents’ liquor is mostly water by now, but no one has gotten in trouble for this or for the conspicuous absence of cereal the mornings after they’ve been smoking at Emma’s. They go down to the river behind her house and watch headlights disappear into the covered bridge and then reappear a few seconds later. They buy weed with their small paychecks and allowance money. Allie convinces her stepbrother, Jake, to give them beer and cigarettes and to tell them about strip clubs and fake IDs. They get buzzed from red wine in plastic water bottles before barbequing with Allie’s parents. They smoke out of apples and bent aluminum cans. Emma cuts her hair short and it looks like a triangle of poodle curls around her face. She feels fat and dumpy most of the time and when Jake tries to hold her hand she pulls it away. Their parents are saddened and confused by their daughters’ behavior. The girls hear the murmured worry at night as their parents try to understand how smart, beautiful girls can act so rebellious and ungrateful. Allie’s parents are at work and Zeb comes by. It does hurt, Allie tells them. There wasn’t any blood, though. It would have been hard to get it out of the sheets. Emma writes a poem called “Virgin,” because that is what she is, but does not show it to Allie.

They get high in Emma’s attic and Alex is there. He tells Emma it’s her fault that Marley dumped him in the eighth grade and Emma cannot stop crying because when Marley died it made a hole somewhere in her that she can’t repair with drugs or alcohol or boys. It hurts so much that sometimes she plays Korn as loud as possible and sobs on her bedroom floor. The movie that week is Varsity Blues and the girls snap their gum standing in line outside the theater, tugging on their hair and eyeing the boys. Sarah flirts with Alex and Emma’s stomach drops out because she likes him. She watches him flirt back. Before the movie starts Sarah gets up and slowly slides her body against the seats in front of them. Her ass is in Alex’s face as she excuses herself to get a Coke. Bobby March and Tessa Johnson make out loudly in the front row and Emma is miserable. Pop quiz, says Sarah after the movie. Shoot, says Emma. Where’s my pink Cadillac parked? In your basement, yells Emma. Gold star, says Sarah and it’s a little better.

They go to a party that is busted by the cops. They run into the woods and the next day Sarah is covered in poison ivy. Allie and Emma bring her vanilla ice cream and ginger ale and watch reruns of Daria and Undressed for hours on her couch. Remember when we ran onto that lawn and the guy came out with a shotgun? I thought that only happened in movies, says Allie. We’re in the middle of bumfuck, mumbles Sarah. Her face is so swollen they can barely understand her. I need to start running for preseason, says Emma. It will be strange to play soccer without Marley. Emma remembers how she was getting on the bus when Marley went by and said she was riding home with Austin and Celia.  Love ya babe, Marley said.  The way Marley was, Emma could see the curlicued bubble letters written in pink glitter pen spelling out the word Luv over Marley’s head.  That night Emma’s mother woke her up and told her about the car accident.  Now her parents make her go to therapy but in the office she doesn’t have anything to say and when she finally speaks it is to tell the therapist that she has sleeping problems which is so far from the actual issue it’s as if Emma is saying nothing at all.  Before the funeral she put on eyeliner and mascara so everyone would know she’d cried because she loved Marley as much as they did but also because it was Marley who taught her how to wear makeup when they were nine, it was Marley who became popular freshman year but still talked to Emma about boys and secrets, it was Marley who was really everything Emma wants to be.

Allie goes to bed early and Emma stays up with Jake and they make out. Emma tells Sarah first—tells Sarah that he ground his mouth down on hers and Sarah tells Allie and Allie doesn’t speak to Emma for three days. When she does speak it is to say that she is kind of pissed because Jake is her stepbrother. They both know that Allie likes Jake but can’t do anything about it because if it was weird and icky in Clueless it would be even ickier in real life. They both like how Jake taps his thumbs on the steering wheel in time to the music. They both want the flannel shirts he wears that smell like Barbasol and chain-saw grease. I will give you this whole beer, he tells Emma, if you can sing all the words to “Ain’t Going Down (Til the Sun Comes Up).” And then he teaches her about country music and she is in love. “Fishin’ in the Dark” is her favorite song now so she stops playing Korn but still is sad. She smokes a joint out of her open window at night and a few times an owl hoots in the hundred acres across the dirt road. Why does your room smell? her mom asks the next morning. Incense, she tells her. And then later she tells her mom that she hates her and her mom says, I don’t have anything to say, but Emma keeps screaming at her because she just doesn’t get it because she’s so old and didn’t have sex until she was in college and doesn’t understand that this is already a big deal. Sometimes you’re a bitch! says Emma. There’s a long silence. I don’t want to see your face, says her mother. Emma doesn’t call Allie or Sarah. She calls Jake and he takes her to the railroad tracks and she balances on the thin rail and falls into him. The night is muggy and full of crickets and peeping frogs and he wraps his arms around her and she wants it to last and last and last.

The girls have French-braided hair. It escapes in wisps around their faces and their lips smell like strawberries. They wear denim skirts and foam sandals that make sucking noises when they walk. They keep close together through the crowds of people. Their skin is smooth and covered in glitter. They share fried dough drenched in powdered sugar and cinnamon sugar and eat soggy salty french fries from cardboard bowls. They buy glowstick bracelets and necklaces and when boys spray them with neon Silly String they scream loudly but love the attention. Boys with T-shirts stuffed into back pockets of baggy jean shorts walk in groups with sneakers unlaced and hats to one side. They spit next to where they stand and talk loudly, jeeringly, about girls. They boast about who or what they’ve done but when a girl stands too close to one of them the boy becomes silent and unnerved. They walk with legs spread, pants below asses, boxers around their hips. Emma stares at one of their stomachs where the muscles begin to v and when he catches her she blushes and looks away. The girls eat soft serve and hope they are licking the cones suggestively. Emma vaguely wishes she were young enough for the bouncy castle they passed further back in the fairgrounds. Mike comes over and says that they should sit with all the guys. They follow him up the grass hill and there are Travis Donnely, Joe, Dave, and Jake eating hotdogs dripping greasy and mustard-ketchup, drinking whiskey and Coke from soda bottles. Travis offers Emma a sip. She takes it but there’s too much whiskey and then she watches Jake tug Allie’s braid so she takes another. The air is saturated with propane and voices, shrieks, laughter, smells like fried food and beer. A little girl skins her knees and is crying. Lost children are announced over the loudspeaker and a man says the fireworks will begin in half an hour.

When dusk comes the sun falls quick this late in August. The sky blue as dark glass stretches vast over the crowd. The girls must sit awkwardly on the ground with their legs crossed because of the skirts they are wearing. Mike flicks pebbles at Sarah and they talk about going swimming in her pool later. The fireworks explode in bursts of bloodred peonies, electric blue dahlias, weeping gold willows that cascade so low Emma thinks the sparks will fall on her, crackling white crossettes and horse tails. She leans against Jake lightly and he tickles her right ear with his fingers. Her breath hitches completely and she can’t help looking at Allie to see if she is watching but she is staring up at the bursting chrysanthemums and humming to herself along with the music.



The girls wear their sweatpants low, and tight shirts expose a strip of pale skin just above their pubic hair. They paint their nails black or dark purple and never leave the house without mascara and eyeliner. Their key rings are noisy with charms and bottle openers. They snap gum with authority and walk with backs arched, flat bellies sticking out, their hands shoved into pockets, purses slung over their soft shoulders. When they go shopping it is for bumper stickers and for hemp to make anklets. The walls of their rooms are covered with song lyrics and movie quotes. They try to stay out of their houses as much as possible. They buy coffee and sit in the park downtown and talk about going to the city one of these weekends or about how awkward it would be to buy condoms from the pharmacy where they know the cashier. The girls are fuller in the face, more conscious of the attention to their bodies. They pierce their cartilage, navels, noses, lips, eyebrows. Allie buys a glass bowl from Zeb and they inaugurate it by smoking in her car with the windows rolled up while they listen to the Backstreet Boys, Greatest Hits: Chapter 1. Emma washes dishes for a catering company. Her boss sits her down and asks her why she is tired all the time. She doesn’t tell him it is because she stays up late on AIM talking to boys about the things she would do. She buses weddings in the sticky July heat and loathes the sweat that yellows the armpits of her white shirt. She loves-hates the beautiful older boys who work with her. She knows she is ugly because they flirt with Abby Birch, Lauren Stevens, and Ashley Dumont, but not her. Somehow those girls manage to look sexy in black pants and awkward shoes and button-up dress shirts while Emma eats the leftover desserts as she clears the plates. She spends her paycheck on cheap hoop earrings from Claire’s and a new bra but Travis rips the lace and she loses an earring on the same night.

The girls look down on the freshmen who come to parties wearing tight pants and oversized black sweatshirts with too-dark makeup and who get too drunk too fast and command the attention of the boys. The freshmen who think they’re better because they’re younger but who are actually just dumb bitches. The girls are possessive of each other and talk loudly in a diner about parties and boys and concerts. Allie comes over to watch Emma’s TV because Allie’s stepmother, who is the wicked kind, always says the volume is too loud. Sarah doesn’t like to talk about sex because she is afraid of having it but Allie’s already had anal and couldn’t go to Boston the day after because it hurt too much to walk. They remember when they went to Sarah’s to get ready for the first seventh-grade dance and how the teachers made them stop grinding with Mike and Travis. How Emma plucked her eyebrows too much and looked surprised all the time. How there’s nothing to do late at night but at least now they can drive to Wilbur’s for Pringles and cookie dough.

Sarah does things with boys because they are her friends and she thinks it would be rude to say no. Emma tells her this is fucked up. Sarah says, Yeah, but it’s never as simple as just saying no. Their mothers feel uneasy when the girls leave the house at night on the weekends. We wish you would say no, their mothers tell them. The girls avoid their fathers because it is weird to hug them now, knowing all that they shouldn’t. They go to Wal-Mart after the movies and push each other around the store in shopping carts and are yelled at by security. They steal stickers and lip gloss and twenty-cent Dots candy. Everyone is looking at them all the time and it’s exhausting. Allie says, Thank God we’re young, otherwise this would be terrifying. They drive the back roads with the windows down and the summer air rushing in with the cicadas and the sweet cloying smell of manure past the cow pastures and crumbling barns whose frames are filled with a blackness thicker than the night’s. Tree branches reach out, heavy with green, and the stone walls have disappeared beneath aggressive ferns. I could write the summer night, says Allie, and I would write it with cars and joints and beer and boys, write it with my eyeliner and my nail polish scratched on the page. I would write it with late night swims in my pool, says Sarah, and with snacks made in my dark kitchen and with stopping by the side of the road to pee. I would write it with us, says Emma. They all agree that this is best.

The summer has been lonely. They move apart in small ways but by the end it has added up. There is a time when Emma tries to throw herself out of the car her father is driving. He locks the doors. What do you think I’m going to do? he asks. She looks at him. I don’t know, she says. Allie vacuums the living room carpet and her stepmother is upset because she missed spots and so Allie doesn’t vacuum the next time and her stepmother tells her she is lazy and her perfume is too strong. Sarah is overlooked for the sister on either side of her. Allie and Sarah both think Emma is mean to her parents. Emma thinks Allie and Sarah can’t understand because they don’t live with her parents. Jake likes Emma but she can tell he doesn’t want to show it when he is around his friends and Emma does the same around Allie. Allie sleeps with Zeb more often and with another kid named Dan and with a girl named Lucy until Lucy gets sent back to California for drugs.

This is the summer Jake finds Brandon Valance by the side of the road with his truck on top of him. This is the summer that Allie’s house is so hot they sleep on the trampoline more often than ever, and tracing the stars with their fingers they show each other all the ways they are connected. Emma cuts pictures and poems from magazines and collages her walls, looking at them critically as if a boy she likes is in her room. She wonders if he would think this stuff is cool. She tells Allie and Sarah about doing shrooms with her half brother when she visited him at college last spring but she is lying just to be cool and this is obvious to all of them. The popular girls have become more popular, their waists tinier, skin clearer. Tonight Emma has straightened her hair but it’s already beginning to frizz in a halo around the crown of her head. It’s so hot her jeans are damp where her thighs rub together.

The girls drive through the center of Powder Mill. Eleven at night and the town looks abandoned. The orange caution light blinks despondently to the empty intersection. Beautiful dark. Mass of stars. Clear air. Allie’s backpack is full of things they never go to a party without: mirror, flashlight, Swiss Army knife, lighter, water, alcohol, weed, rolling papers, pipe, cigarettes, cell phone, Band-Aids, Blistex, tissues, Tampax, dry socks, extra batteries. They exit the car into the humid night and smoke cigarettes and wait for the boys to come get them.



If this is what falling in love feels like then none of them want it. It hurts too much for the price they are paying. Jake comes down with Travis in his truck and the girls pile in the bed. Emma sits in the middle of an old tire and they laugh and watch the sky blur through the branches above. Country music pours out of the cab as the truck bumps hard through the ruts in the abandoned logging track. Jake is driving fast to scare them and they almost tip sideways into a ditch but they make it up to the party where they see by the light of the bonfire that everyone is already there. Three kegs are in the back of Mike’s truck and Dave and Joe are playing Beirut against Bobby March and Dylan Stanton but they keep losing the ping-pong ball and someone bumps into the table, knocking over cups of beer. Boys lean against trucks with their arms around girls and the freshmen stand in clumps laughing too loudly. Even the dangerous boys are here, the boys who are written about in the local police logs for having coke in their cars at traffic stops and the guys who never graduated but stuck around to sell drugs to the younger kids. Chevy Bouchard has just finished his sentence for possession of a controlled substance but he is already wasted and standing on the porch. Fuck you! he is yelling to Tobey Hames. It’s intimidating to walk into this, as if they suddenly don’t recognize anyone, all these people they’ve known since kindergarten are drunk or high or both and talking about shit and shit and more shit.

Let’s get wasted, says Allie. Agreed, says Emma and Sarah passes the bottle of Parrot Bay and Diet Coke around their triangle. Whatcha drinkin? asks Jake leering at them. Have some of this, he says and he hands them straight tequila. Emma takes the biggest gulp so that it feels good when Jake slides up next to her and asks her how she’s been. Fine, she tells him. Hangin in there, ya know. Yup, he says, Sure do. He passes her the bottle again and she feels Allie looking this time so she swallows even more. Go easy, says Sarah, I’m gonna be the one taking care of you. That won’t happen, says Emma. 

In the small hunting cabin there is a generator and a flood lamp set up. The Tremont boys are on the couches rolling on MDMA. The girls sit down next to them and it’s entertaining for a while to listen to the boys tell them how wonderful and fantastic life is. Jessica comes in with some whippets and everyone does a few hits. Turning their heads takes five million hours and voices sound like molasses. It’s hysterical, everyone is hysterically laughing, the boys on molly especially and people are writhing on the dirty floor it’s so effing funny but then Austin has a mini freak-out and that brings people back down until they’re all hiccupping softly. Someone offers salvia and Sarah tries it. For five minutes she speaks nothing but gibberish and drools and yells loudly and falls down when she tries to stand up and then she starts crying a little. Emma can tell people are kind of feeling weird about it so she convinces Sarah to follow her outside where they find a quiet place at the edge of the field. They sit on the tailgate of Mike’s 4Runner and Emma rubs Sarah’s back while she talks through it.

It felt like . . . it felt like everything was being ripped away from me and this reality . . . this reality was just a bleeding chunk of meat and I was wrapped up in it and I completely forgot myself and that I even smoked salvia. I just thought this is how things are and I just thought that I would rather be dead. Oh it was so bad. Here, drink, says Emma.

By the time they go back they are both more than buzzed but not yet sloppy, which they agree is right where they want to stay so they don’t do anything else stupid, but now they can’t find Allie and after a while they become sidetracked by the Beirut game. They play against Jake and Mike who beat them, but it’s close and the girls feel the stares of the guys who are standing around watching. Jake and Mike start mooning the girls as a distraction so Emma and Sarah bend down low and their tits almost fall out but they still don’t win. They sit on the porch railing and Travis, Mike, and Joe ask them about Allie. She let Pat put it up the butt, didn’t she? Right in the pooper, says Travis. The girls laugh. I can’t say, says Emma. She didn’t tell me. That’s a lie, says Mike. You know. It’s yes, isn’t it? Allie let Pat fuck her in the ass. Emma wants to explain that it wasn’t so much of a let situation, but she giggles and pinches Sarah’s shoulder. Come on, says Joe. Just say yes. We know it happened. Sarah shakes her head, No, but Emma nods consent and then the boys begin to yell, I knew it! Holy shit! Oh Emma, says Sarah, really? I mean, says Emma, it’s not as if they didn’t know. This is bad, says Sarah. I know, says Emma watching Jake’s back as he walks out to his truck. Where is Allie anyway?

The stars whirl overhead and in the field the grass is cold and damp with dew. They are running, running through the grass and stumbling over the dips in the ground. They are high and drunk and yell loudly because no one can hear them. They crash into each other and move apart again and chase each other in circles. They lie down and the grass swallows them. The crickets jump over their heads, dark little blurs in the night, and the stars are shining fiercely above.



The girls find each other in Sage Park. They look hungover. Dark-circled eyes shaded behind sunglasses and hair greasy and matted from the night before. It is a gorgeous day—light breeze, blue sky, maybe eighty degrees. Emma feels guilty because of what she told the boys about Allie last night and because she ended up going home with Mike and doing things she wishes she hadn’t. The girls pull three chairs close together. What’s up? says Emma to Allie. We couldn’t find you.

I know, says Allie. I was in Pat’s van with him and Dan Miller.

Emma watches a bee moving sluggishly through the thick surrounding silence.

Doing what, exactly, in Pat’s van with him and Dan Miller? asks Sarah.

Allie sighs. Well, you two went off somewhere together and I stayed and drank more and the boys convinced me that taking molly would be a good idea . . . or, I mean Pat told me it would be, not that that’s a reason to do it. But I did.

Allie! says Emma.

I know. So when it started working I was still on the couch and Pat was rubbing my back and telling me how beautiful I am and I started to get into it a little. So then he tells me we should go out to his van and inside on the floor he has blankets and sleeping bags because he’s taken out the seats. And then . . . he starts making out with me, which isn’t so bad. I kind of wanted to do it anyway, even if I hadn’t been rolling. We did that for a while and it felt really nice but then he puts his hand down my pants and it kind of hurts and then the door opens . . . and it was just Dan, or that’s how I thought of it at the time because I was so fucked up. Like, oh, it’s okay. Just Dan coming to say hi, I guess.

Was he? asks Sarah.

Was he what?

Was he just saying hello?

Not exactly . . . I think he started watching me and Pat for a bit but you know how when you’re wicked drunk sometimes something starts happening but you have no idea when and you’re kind of suddenly just in the middle of it? So, okay. So the next thing is Dan’s dick is in my mouth and Pat’s still got his fingers inside me and then we’re all having sex and I just couldn’t really do anything to stop it . . . I mean, it wasn’t ever two at once or anything, but Pat would be doing it from behind while I’m blowing Dan and then they switch or I was on top of one and the other kisses me or whatever . . .

Emma and Sarah are both looking at the ground. For how long? asks Emma.

For a while, because on molly you’re up for like four hours.

Aren’t you sore?

Yeah, kind of.

How’d you get home?

Jake drove me and then took me to get my car this morning.

Damn, says Emma and she hesitates before asking, So . . . do you feel okay?

No. I mean . . . I just know that I didn’t want to do it and it’s awful because people definitely heard. Or if they didn’t hear it last night, then they’ll hear about it today and I feel like . . . just raw and dried out and exhausted. I don’t want to think about it anymore, but I wanted to tell you because it’s too much to keep quiet about.

This is Allie, the girl whose Christmas tree they hike miles into the woods—just the three of them—to chop down and who insists the strings go popcorn-cranberry-cranberry-popcorn, who calls down comforters puffs, who thought ketchup was made from potatoes until she was fourteen, who lies on her bed with them while they read their own poems, poems each can date for the other. Allie, the girl whose trampoline they sit on for hours, talking and connecting the bright white stars above. No, says Emma. We’re glad you told us. She glances at Sarah, who nods, but now Emma doesn’t know what else there is to say because this will be what they remember about the summer.


The mailman’s late again. The honey slides

must be catching up with him. Aurora

borealis, the icy skies at night.

He knows the Pocahontas he adores

these days will change, move, marry. She’ll go by

another name. He dreams from door to door,

thinks of lists and codes he couldn’t turn to lore,

the messenger myths strung across the sky.

Above the desk, my charts of yearly thoughts,

the zodiac turned to Bloom. I sit and smoke,

wonder if he’ll lose his hold on the route.

It rains, and rusts my bike and rail and lock.

How lazy I’ve become, now that I’ve got

neither neighbor’s knock nor letter’s luck.


Nicholle, my newly minted serious girlfriend, hails from southern Alabama. The first time I meet her family, her brother, Dub, takes me to his swimming hole. Just before we splash in the muddy river he slaps my back and says, “Watch fer moccasins and snappers.”  Sure enough, we’re neck deep under the hazy summer sky when I spot a black snake enter the water. I have no idea what kind it is, and I quickly lose sight of it. Dub, this crazy bastard, is unaffected by my update. I don’t want to be scared, but I’ve reached my breaking point, and hurdle myself toward the bank. There’s a ways to go and every water ripple grows a tail and fangs. Behind me I hear Dub laughing at my terror.

When it’s all done and I sit at the dinner table with Nicholle, Dub, and her parents, I wonder if there’s anything in my northern New Mexico upbringing that would scare Dub, and although I search hard, all I recall is a harmless bluegill fish attached to my pinky when I’m eight. I look across the table at Nicholle’s mother, a cheerful, plump lady who, if I unfocus my eyes enough, could be Nicholle in thirty years. Her father smiles approvingly at me, so at least I have that going. I’m nervous as hell, but I still feel for Nicholle’s thin legs underneath the table. She swats me away.

Dub scares me a little. His hair is cut at varied lengths and there appears to be a knife scar across his cheek. After dinner, he asks me if I’ve ever been waterboarded. I tell him no, and he says he hasn’t either.

“But,” he says, “I beat up a homeless guy. Dumbass didn’t even fight back, just laid there.”

“Thanks for that, Dub.”

“I’ve seen some shit,” he says. He’s out of high school, probably eighteen or so, but has an enthusiasm and weakness of intellect that makes eighteen hard to swallow. “Nicholle don’t know this, but I can count cards. I act broke, but there’s ten thou in my room. Swear.”

“Okay,” I say while fingering my chin, “cool.”

I have no idea why I say cool, can’t think of anything else, and even Dub looks at me curiously.

“You count cards?” he asks.

Actually, I do, but I’m not interested in where the conversation will go or what I’ll be invited to do. “You mean like gambling?” I say.

“Jesus,” he says laughing. He shakes his head. “Gambling.”

What Dub doesn’t know, and what I never plan on telling Nicholle, is that I do gamble. It’s not bad: local games with friends. I bring what I can lose and that’s it.

I do have the bad type of secrets. At the top of the list is a night in Los Alamos, New Mexico, just after dusk. I was late to a no-limit game across town, and I decided to cut through Woodmen Pointe subdivision.  I was up to forty miles per hour on a straightaway near the end of a row of tan stucco homes.   I never saw the girl scatter from the shadows, never heard her over the radio. I only felt the bump of her body, like running over a small dog.  And before I could think about anything, the Jeep stopped, my fingers strangled the wheel. I closed my eyes.  For a weightless moment only sound:  Tom Petty, the idling four-cylinder, a slight breeze whistling the aspen.  When I opened my eyes, no one was outside to scream and rush forward and finger me. No cars approached the other way. There was just a motionless child in my rearview mirror basking in the filtered red brake light.  She wore torn pink sweatpants, and the soles of her tiny shoes were brand-new white.  I saw my arm reach out and turn off the radio, then put the Jeep into first. My eyes swung back to the rearview mirror just in time to see her legs jolt once, then calm. Was she dead or just now dying? I drove away. I could still see her through the suffocating air, now quiet as a napping child.

Later that night I huddled in my shower replaying images of the jolting pink legs.  I tried to convince myself that she’d live, that a doctor would find her, that she’d suffer a little—a lifelong limp perhaps—and there would be a recovery, but her death was on the news and in the paper the next morning.  It was a hot story in Los Alamos for two weeks until the wildfires took over.  Even the big station in Albuquerque carried it.  On the telecast the anchors reported the event and begged people to call in with any information on the assailant.  They showed her family huddled on their front yard in front of microphones, their faces falling apart.

I don’t know where my belief in a just universe comes from, but it’s there, and one day, be it snake or other ailment, I know my time will come. I can’t get it out of my head. The worst part is that it’s a waiting game, and so I wait and feel the possibility of justice hover over me, pausing until the time is right.


The night I call Nicholle’s father to ask for his daughter’s hand in marriage he cries. Gravel dances in his throat. “I couldn’t be happier,” he says. “I’ll let you talk to Karen.”  There’s silence while he passes the phone, but his voice comes through again. “Two things, son.”  It’s the first time he’s called me son. “One. I’ll only loan you money if Nicholle asks. Two. If you don’t have a gun, get one.”  A pause. I smile. “Three. You’re a Tide fan when you visit. Four. I’ll give you a nickname which you probably won’t like. Just smile. Five. We’ve loved you for a while now. Good luck.”

After I ask Nicholle to marry me under a flowering dogwood, she makes me call Dub.

“Know where I been?” Dub says after telling me good job on the proposal. I tell him no, I don’t know where he’s been. “Riverboats man. Rivers are international waters. No rules, buddy. State, government, can’t touch ’em.”

“Okay,” I say.

“Should get married on a riverboat. There’s one called the Gypsy.”

“We’ll consider it, Dub.”

“Love you, man,” he says like he means it.

I pass the phone to Nicholle, who’s all smiles. “The Gypsy?” she says while I shake my head next to her. She gives me a look. It means that Dub is off-limits.


During our engagement Nicholle and I pick up books about marriage. We open our favorite one, The Questions You Should Ask Before “I Do, whenever we Sunday-drive from Knoxville, where we both work. I learn that Nicholle would never adopt, thinks sex three times a week is enough, hates cats, wants to visit Mongolia (“Just to say I’ve been”), doesn’t mind if I have to travel for work, dreams of performing on Broadway if she could sing, is scared of getting her mother’s cheeks, and doesn’t like it when I say, “Ya know what I’m saying?” when trying to prove a point.

She learns a lot about me as well, at least the stuff I want her to know, but her face goes to stone when I tell her my number one pet peeve is when people praise God only for the good things in life. “If God is so great,” I say, “what the hell is up with cancer and dropped touchdown passes?  No one points to the sky when a pass slips through their fingers.”  We go at it pretty good when I think: “If you’re smart, you’ll never say these things again,” but I know I will. All this learning about each other is fine, but the great stuff comes out when we sit in a tan stucco courtyard on our honeymoon in Savannah. We are waiting for our food, sipping on red wine when Nicholle asks me the worst thing I’ve ever considered doing to someone else, even if it was just for a split second. I consider taking my hit-and-run and forming a hypothetical, just to see the reaction, but all that comes to me is the girl’s spotless white shoes. I feel my stomach clench and push the image away. I search my mental catalogue for relief, and it doesn’t take me long to sift through the feeble mock threats and momentary revenge wishes to a wooded mountainside near my childhood town.

I was twelve, cutting down dead white pine with my father in the backcountry. I took a break, leaning against the old red Dodge truck, and in a bizarre mental pulse I thought of taking the chain saw and hacking my father. I imagined the roaring saw, the blood and limbs mixing with the sawdust, the dumbfounded look in his eyes before the spinning hot teeth bit. Even in that moment I remember being ashamed and frightened of my own psychological capacity.

Now in the Italian restaurant courtyard, I hold the salt shaker in my hand and avoid Nicholle’s brown eyes. I don’t know if the words have come out right. Can those words come out right?  “It’s crazy,” I say. I feel heavy and place my hands in my lap. “I don’t know what I’m saying. Ya know what I’m saying?” I steal a glance. She’s wearing my favorite sundress, a white number with small red and yellow flowers. She’s tan and has her hair pulled back. There’s a large party in the courtyard clinking wineglasses and talking over one another. We’re all visitors.

“Stealing a baby,” Nicholle says. “I don’t know where it comes from. But there it is. I’d planned names, escape routes from the hospital, everything. I didn’t care if it looked like me. I even thought it might be easier to take a year-old, not a newborn. They’d be eating solids.”

The food arrives. I cut the veal with my knife. I take another bite and watch Nicholle move her bare arms as she negotiates her utensils into her pasta, then grabs for her wineglass and gulps. We should laugh. I think of laughing.

“So,” I say. “I’m glad we’re the normal ones.”


We move into a nice rolling subdivision in West Knoxville called Hawks Landing. Lo and behold, about a month into our stay two hawks make their nest in a giant ponderosa in our front yard. The place is spacious and we have privacy on almost an acre. The neighbors are fine, but there’s a guy around the corner who lets his dog shit in our yard. One Sunday morning, as I trim the flowering bushes in the front, he comes around with the dog and waves friendly to me before the dog scampers ten feet onto the grass and does his business. I don’t have the balls to say anything. I’m out-of-shape thin and believe there’s a hovering fistfight in every confrontation. He’s a big guy, brick shoulders, looks like he wouldn’t mind a fight, win or lose. Sometimes I see both him and the dog rolling around on his front yard when I come home from work. I stay clear. Besides that, life is great. Nicholle and I join a co-ed softball league, help clean up the local park, and make church about a third of the time. I like the routine. We break it up just enough to keep everything interesting. Nicholle steals four hundred dollars’ worth of tile from a local hardware store. Just walks out. It’s in our bathroom on a diagonal. I lie to my boss most days about where I am, the hours I put in, but I work hard enough that he never questions me. I’m a Tennessee fan now, but Nicholle is Alabama all the way, so we have one of those stupid house-divided license plates, half orange, half crimson. We have lots of friends and a few enemies, but it’s a healthy proportion.

Dub calls one night and talks to Nicholle for an hour. This is not normal.

“He needs money,” Nicholle says. My head is already in my hands. “Five thousand.” We don’t have two thousand dollars. “He’ll pay us back. He says he’ll pay us back. I know what you’re going to say. He wouldn’t ask unless he needed it.” I’m not going to say a thing. “He’s desperate and we can cash bonds if we have to. Say something. We need to be together on this.”

She’s near tears. It’s breaking her heart. She knows we’ll never see a penny back, knows we can’t afford it, knows I despise her for asking, and yet, here she is. It’s her brother. I tell her I want him to drive up so I can see him face to face when I hand him the check. Everyone agrees, but two weeks later Nicholle puts the money in the mail and talks to me about the price of gasoline.   


Nicholle and I think we’ll get pregnant right away. We’re both healthy, but after six months she’s still not pregnant. We lie to the doctors, tell them it’s been a year, but they say nothing’s wrong. Nicholle and I fight and stress, and making love morphs into an exercise of hopelessness over the next two years. I change jobs and become a rep in a pharmaceutical company selling erectile dysfunction drugs. The money is good, but I’m on the road every other week. I’m outside a Taco Bell in Jacksonville when Nicholle calls me. I shift the greasy bag to my right hand and answer the phone.

“You’re going to be a father,” she says.

“Okay,” I say. “Really?”

She loses it and I want to, but I can’t cry. Of all things, I imagine the drive home from the hospital with our newborn child in the backseat. I think of all of the new drivers, the drunk drivers, the red-light racers.

“We need a car seat,” I say.

“I love you,” Nicholle says through the sniffles.

I love her too, but I say, “Does this mean we don’t have to steal a baby?”

Four weeks later I’m outside the VA hospital in Charlotte when she lets me know the pregnancy is ectopic. It’s July, and dust swirls in the empty sky. I think of our growing child in Nicholle’s right fallopian tube, budding bigger and bigger, slowly killing my wife, but she says the doctors are going to take care of everything the next day, and they do. I fly home and sit in our living room, Nicholle’s head in my lap as she rubs at her legs. There’s nothing I can say, so we’re mostly quiet.

She says, “We have to wait three months.”

The ceiling fan spins above us, and Nicholle’s hair brushes at my legs. I study her body from her head down to her hips and bent knees and tucked feet. Very slowly, she uncoils. She hasn’t told her parents yet, but as she heads upstairs and closes our bedroom door I know she’s going for the phone. I hear her muffled voice through the ceiling. She’s not crying yet. There’s nothing her mother can do from that distance, but there’s a safety in that bond that I’ll never be able to join. The fan does little to help with the thick humidity. I wonder, is all of this part of my penance?  A life for a life?  Am I even with the universe?  The pain of losing something sight unseen seems like an easy sentence. Is this just the beginning?  I see the Los Alamos girl curled up like an embryo. My heart was exploding and my hands pounded as they shifted the Jeep into first gear and released the clutch. I pressed the gas. I named the girl long ago, and tonight I hear it in my ears: Courtney. It’s not the name said in the television reports in the aftermath, but I don’t care. I haven’t met a Courtney since. She’s the only one.


In early September, just as we find our voices again, we watch television clips from New York City of people jumping from the buildings. I’ve never considered choosing between flame and gravity, and later, when the photos come out in magazines showing the bodies falling to their deaths, I am certain gravity would be the answer if given the choice.

After another miscarriage, Nicholle becomes pregnant. She’s seven months along, a big, beautiful belly with a dark line bisecting her bulge. We ride in a bus. I can’t stop touching her. Across from us sit four men that resemble the plane hijackers. I’m educated. Logically, I know these aren’t terrorists. They ride the public bus downtown. They’re happy and joking with one another. They speak a mix of English and something else. But one of them looks over at us, looks at Nicholle, at her belly, and stares. His brown face goes slack, his entire countenance trancelike. Am I due?  Will this be it?  The man will make a move toward us. His friends will hold me down while he struggles with Nicholle. I may survive this attack, alone. When that image passes I imagine him flying a plane, a little single-prop Cessna over our neighborhood. The hawks are up and circling high in the sky. He brings the plane into a dive, tears up the birds, heads straight for our shingled roof, but before I can complete the daydream, Nicholle reaches for my clenched hand, unfolds it, and intertwines hers. The man stares unflinchingly.

“Soon,” Nicholle says to the man, tilting her chin up. “Two months left.”  It takes a second for him to realize that she has spoken to him. The man breaks his stare. “Soon,” Nicholle repeats.

The four of them become quiet. The man taps his brown shirt above his heart, taps his forehead, and circles his hand toward us. “Girl,” he says.


The magnolias I planted bloom large white blossoms. I stare at them with a cup of coffee one Saturday morning when the neighborhood jackass brings his retriever by. Nicholle’s parents are in town, and her father stands next to me as the dog unloads one on our driveway. I’m near my limit with no plan. He gives me enough time to say something, and when I don’t he asks, “How often, Slim?”

“I only see them on the weekends,” I say.

“That’s not what I asked,” he says and looks at me as if I’m a whiny child.

Later in the week Nicholle’s dad tells me the jerk works the mid-shift, that he must walk the dog when he gets home. I don’t ask how he knows this. He steps into the den and calls someone on his cell phone. When he returns he says, “You’ll have to help.”  He asks me to wait in the parking lot of the store, and comes out with a plastic bottle of antifreeze. Sparks fly around me, and before he gets in the car, I assign the guilt to him: his idea, his purchase. I can’t take on this one as well. I’ve decided I won’t say no as long as he pours it into the dog bowl. Nicholle’s father sits with a heavy exhale.

“Dub’s done this a couple times,” he says. “Says to mix in a little vinegar, helps it go down.”


“That’s what he says. He sends his love. Wanted me to tell you.”


The doctor makes me grab a leg before he tells Nicholle to start pushing. Emma arrives early, only three pounds, two ounces. This is what family means. Three days later we come home. No man could endure Nicholle’s schedule of no-sleep, all-go patience. Emma has my blue eyes, and even though many children are born with blue eyes, hers are my blue. I see them under the oxygen mask she has to wear to keep her lungs full.

Eight weeks later Emma has some neck control. I’ve just returned from Lexington. She rests on my chest when I get a call.

“Kevin has died,” Uncle Norv says.

Kevin, my cousin, died while trying to escape Paddy’s Pub in Bali. After the call, I do a little research until I know the scene inside the pub: a small explosion flashed out of a backpack amidst the music and drinks and sweat. Kevin joined the frantic swarm into the warm night only to be greeted by a white Mitsubishi van loaded with explosives. It left a crater more than a meter deep. Later, as I consider the incident, I like to rewind to a minute before the backpack detonation; where, in his mid-twenties, Kevin swayed and bounced to the band in pure bliss; where, the dream-like Bali became real under a mix of alcohol and moonlight; where, for Kevin, time slowed just enough to pause.

I consider the end often. I always have after the hit-and-run. I tell Nicholle that if we played the percentages I’d go before her, most likely some kind of cancer. It’s probably already started somewhere deep inside my slippery body. Sometimes I worry Nicholle might go first. When she’s late getting home from a mom’s night out, my mind allows about a thirty-minute cushion, and then begins the murmurs of what-ifs. The whole scene flashes by: the dreaded call—auto accident, funeral, insurance money, my baby girl growing, me dating or not, the guilt of either, moving (would I have to move? yes, definitely), different career, Emma’s wedding—but then the garage door grumbles open and Nicholle saunters in because, in the end, there’s absolutely nothing wrong.


I’m back on the road now: a week away every other month. When I’m gone I call home at 6:30 their time every night. Emma has just finished her bath and Nicholle puts the phone up to her ear so she can hear my voice. Emma’s only eight months old and already she plays with her first steps.

Whenever I’m in Memphis I play cards a couple blocks off the strip in a brick basement where there’s a password. It’s a thrill. I know most of the participants. We aren’t thugs. When we lose money it hurts. We have polo shirts and mortgages. This time I have a flush and a story starts up around the table about a guy who had his dick put in a vise. He owed money to the wrong people, the regular story. There’s laughter. I stare at my spades, organized and lethal. I reach for chips.

“Named Dub,” says Nick, the organizer of the game.

“Dub?” someone says. “Deserved it.”

Jordan, a baker with nervous hands, asks if you could die from that—a dick in a vise.

A new guy, Alec, quiets everyone with his monotone. “Yes,” he says. “If you leave ’em there, eventually, they die of hunger.”

How many Dubs can there be?  I think of what I’ll say to Nicholle. What do I ask?  Water moccasin Dub, snapping turtle Dub. I see him laughing in the muddy water as I dry off on the bank, still unable to quiet my knees. I wait until the next day. It’s 7 p.m. I’ve whispered to Emma, and Nicholle explains how she’s considering going back to work, just part time, over the summer. She’s having trouble losing the last ten pounds of pregnancy weight.

“When’s Dub going to come visit his niece?” I ask.

“I don’t know,” she says. “He’s not coming with money.”


Dub rolls his truck eight times on a Monday morning at 3 a.m. He’s drunk and his face and chest are mashed up good. Nicholle’s parents call. Her mother asks for our prayers. We pray. It’s close for a few hours, but Dub pulls through. Nicholle’s mother praises God and His mercy and His comfort. It’s all she talks about. Dub drank a bottle of Jack and got behind the wheel. He forgot to put his seat belt on, was ejected from the rolling vehicle, and landed on his back, his eyes looking up at dizzying stars. I want to ask Nicholle’s mother if buckling in is the Devil’s work, but I never will.

Two months later, Dub shows up at the house one evening twenty pounds lighter, hands shaking. He smells like boiled cabbage and urine. He says he’s been in the same clothes for a week, sleeping during the day, driving at night. He’s out of money and in trouble. Says it’s the kind of trouble you don’t wake up from.

“Got to stay out of ’Bama,” he says.

Before I can wrap my head around the situation, Nicholle has invited him in, and shown him to the guest room. He showers upstairs while Nicholle and I cuss and stomp. Before the water turns off we’ve come to a compromise. He has two weeks. After that, he’s on his own. I know Nicholle won’t kick him out at the deadline, but it’s something.


A month later I make the morning hospital rounds in Little Rock. I’m not supposed to leave until the following day, but I think of changing my flight to get back to the girls and Dub that night. I hustle back to the hotel. I pick up the ringing hotel receiver just before I leave for the airport. It’s Nicholle’s voice, nervous and quick. She says there are two men, a tall one at the front door, the other standing at the side of the house. She’s ignored them, but the man at the front door had stopped knocking and peers into the long, narrow window to the left of the door. Emma sleeps.

“Am I crazy?” she asks.

“Just wait a minute,” I say. “Deep breaths. Are they in uniform?”

“No,” she says. “Why?  Did you schedule something?” But she doesn’t let me answer. “Because it’s been far too long, they’ve been here five minutes.” She tells me that she can see the one at the front door glancing around, not into the house, but around and at the other houses in the neighborhood. I hear Dub in the background.

“Put Dub on.” I wait for his voice and the pause stretches. I force myself to breathe.

“There’s some shit,” he says. “Damn. Damn. Nothin’s gunna happen, man. Trust me.”

“You son of a bitch. Handle this, Dub.” There’s no reply.

“Hello?” It’s Nicholle. “The one on the side moved into the backyard,” she says. I picture the spacious yard, the towering ponderosa and medium dogwoods. It is 3:15 my time, 4:15 there. “Dub left the damn truck in the driveway. Listen to me. Something’s not right here.”

I stand in the small hotel room, packed suitcase at my feet. “Go get Emma,” I say.

Nicholle breathes heavy into the phone and she says, “My God.” I trace her path in my head, down the long second-floor hallway, through the white door into the baby’s yellow bedroom with pink block letters above the crib: emma.

“I’m back in our room. Emma’s . . . They’re in—,” she says. “The other one is on the back porch and the man at the front door, he’s knocking again.”

“Lock the door and call 9-1-1,” I say. “Do it now.”

“Don’t hang up, damn you.”

“I don’t hear Emma.”

“She’s here.”

“Where’s Dub?”

“He’s down there. They’re screaming.”

It was twenty bucks a month for the alarm whose wires probably dangled disconnected. I picture its white box under the stairs. Then the blue safe under our bed.

“Get the gun,” I say.

“I’m putting the phone on the bed.”  Over the line I can hear Emma’s labored breathing. It sounds like she’s trying to put the receiver in her mouth. She was born at thirty weeks, the size of my forearm.

“I have it,” Nicholle says. “Okay, I have it.”  A pause. “They’re fighting. God, they’re fighting.”

“Like we practiced. Put the magazine in. It should have rounds in it.”

“Crashing downstairs.”

“Pull the hammer back,” I say.

“What?  What’s the hammer?”

“I mean the slide. Shit, the slide. We’ve practiced this. The top part, throw the slide back.”

“It’s sticking. On the stairs now.”  She whispers. “Up the stairs.”

“Yell out to them, ‘I have a gun.’” She does. “And again,” I say. She says it again. “And I will shoot you.”  I hear her say it, and she says, “Motherfuckers.”  Emma cries.

“It’s sticking,” is all she says to me.

“Do you remember?”

“Yes,” she says. “I know what to do but it’s sticking.”  Her pitch rises. No one is on their way to them.

“Got it,” Nicholle says. Then, “They’re talking on the stairs.” And her voice lowers even more. “They said, ‘Dub.’ My God, they know us.”

“Say it again.”


“The gun,” I say.

“I’ve got a gun,” she yells.

“If they open the door you shoot until the gun stops firing and then load the next magazine.”

She must hear the finality in my voice because she says, “No.”  I hear it right before I hang up and dial 9-1-1. I sling information as fast as I can to the operator, and picture the safety on the gun Nicholle holds, turned down, the red dot hidden. My sight goes wavy, the ceiling lowers on me as I think of the locked trigger. I hang up, call home and the metallic tone pulses off and on until the answering machine engages. It’s her slow morning voice: “You’ve reached Nicholle and Keith Bailey,” and my voice in the background, “and Emma,”—she’s laughing—“We’re not in right now, but please leave a message and we’ll get back with you. Thank you.”  I listen to the entire thing and hang up and call back. She won’t be able to hear me, no matter what I say into the phone. When I get the message again, I hang up immediately and call back. This time I let the whole message play and sit with the phone in my hand, a beam of light from the hotel window now in my eyes. I close them. The silence through the line is muffled. It’s recording me listening, and I think there’s a chance, if I’m loud enough, Nicholle might be able to pick up one word, through the drywall and beams and carpet, past Dub’s body, through the locked bedroom door, past the men with outstretched arms.

I breathe and scream, “Safety,” over and over and over, until there are no more words, just a machine recording my empty lungs.

The Robert Watson Literary Prize Story THIS CODY

My husband says the dam is strong. He says we have nothing to worry about. He gives me a look so that I will go back to knitting the world’s most unfortunate scarf, and he can finish reading his novel in peace. But I can’t help thinking how far we are from town, how all our searching for quiet, our desire for another kind of life, has left us alone out here in the shadow of the dam—exposed. I try not to think about it. I try to get lost in our days. We feed the chickens. We weed the garden. We carry our water from the creek, the one that used to be a river deep enough to sink a truck, the one the dam has choked to a trickle. If you stand in the creek bed, ankle-deep, you can see it in the distance, the concrete bowl of the dam, water sloshing over its lip.

I have dreams about it. They all start the same way. We wake to water two inches deep and the dogs whining, backed into their corners. All night we sweep the water out, but by morning, we’re wading waist-deep in the cold, fishless shallows, filling our buckets.

I stop telling Brian about the dreams after he throws down his novel and slams the bedroom door. “The dam is fine,” he yells from the other side of the wall. “You’re the one who’s cracking.”

Some days I don’t recognize him. He’s grown out his beard, and the paunch I so lovingly stroked is now all muscle, his abdominals like flat stones stacked atop one another. I’m different, too. Our dogs, two purebred Heelers Brian insisted we buy to go with our new life, won’t come when I call. The chickens peck my hand when I reach for the eggs. The garden dies all at once, overnight. Last night, I found a scorpion on my pillow, his dancer’s arms poised to strike. Sometimes I think this place is trying to get rid of me, and I wonder if Brian wouldn’t be better off. Sometimes I can’t remember why we came here, what we hoped it would fix. In the dream, the dam is splintering down the middle, a tiny fissure that widens into a crack and then a crevice and then a fault through which the river pours as if it is willful, as if it knows the way back to the beginning.

That’s not true. What I said before about not remembering why we came here. I remember, and so does he, but we pretend there wasn’t a place before here. We never lived in the city. We never ate at Spiro’s or took the red line to the aquarium on free day. We never had a son and then lost him.

When the weather is mild, like tonight, we sit on the porch while the stars blink on. Out here, they’re so bright they hardly seem real. Sometimes Brian plays his harmonica, and sometimes we just listen to the woods. It seems so much of marriage amounts to this—two people alone together in the dark. In the distance, the dogs are leaping to bite the air, and what I want is for someone else to tell Brian I’m sorry because I can’t do it. Sometimes I feel the words rising in my chest, but when I open my mouth, there is only my breath going out. So I say it in other ways. I say it when I’m weeding the garden that I hate and feeding the chickens that I hate. I say it just by waking in this place that is not my home.

Our nearest neighbor is an old man we sometimes see on the road driving his truck back up the hill as we are coming down. He lives a half-hour drive away through dense woods and across a narrow bridge. You have to get out and walk because the bridge is too rickety to drive on. Last week, from the driver’s seat, Brian said, “A man lives way out here, he probably wants to be left alone.” So he waited in the truck, and I walked across the bridge by myself, bearing a caved-in pie. The thing is, I knew he was in there. I could hear the floorboards creaking. I saw the curtain move. But he never answered the door. I knocked and knocked and then finally set the pie on the porch and walked back across the bridge to where my husband was waiting.

“How’d it go?” he asked.

“Good,” I lied. “His name is Cody, too.”

Brian stiffened in his seat. He turned slowly to look at me. I could see the thoughts coming off his face in waves. He wanted to say something, to accuse me of lying, but who would lie about something like that? He opened his mouth and then closed it again. Finally, he shook his head and turned back to the steering wheel. What I wanted, I know now, was just to say our son’s name out loud. The crisp “c” and the rolling “o” and the slight flick of the tongue for the “dy.”

Brian put the truck in gear and we drove back through the woods, silent as ever. But later, on the porch, the dogs kicked in their sleep. The stars, too close, were baring their teeth. Somewhere in the distance I knew the dam was there.

“You’re telling the truth,” Brian asked from his rocker, “about the man? His name?”

“Yes,” I said. “It’s strange, isn’t it?”

I have always been a good liar. Even when I was a child, my mother could never tell. You have to commit, is the thing. You have to believe it. On the day I lost our son, I told three lies. First, I said he had only been missing for fifteen minutes, when it was really more like an hour. Fifteen minutes still sounded hopeful, I thought. On the phone, Brian wasn’t yet concerned. Later is when he wouldn’t be able to look at me. After the detective and all the curious neighbors and both of our hysterical mothers had left for the night, is when he would cross the room without a word and raise his hand and bring it across my cheek. For a second, I didn’t know what had happened. No one had ever slapped me.

The next day, there was a bruise, and though I’d tried to cover it with makeup, you could still see it, a purple cloud with little red streaks of broken capillaries inside, like a way-off storm, one you can hear and smell long before the rain ever gets to where you are. I’d planned to tell everyone I’d risen in the middle of the night and fallen down the stairs, but when they saw me, they didn’t ask. Even the detective, when he came for his second round of questioning, didn’t say a word. It was as if they’d expected it, as if this were natural in the chain of events: first lost boy, then bruised mother. I knew then that they thought I deserved it, which is what I’d thought all along, but hadn’t said.   


The dam, when it cracks, won’t affect our neighbor, as far as I can tell. His house is on a hill, and the water will likely flow right under his rickety bridge. At one time, the river came through here, slow and steady, Brian tells me, before the dam, before people hundreds of miles away needed electricity for their light bulbs and televisions, for all their black boxes that do nothing without it. What I have learned is that when the river returns, it won’t be the same river. All that time pushing against a wall will make you desperate. All that time, and you won’t care about this tidy home or that. If you are the river, you will say, show me a thing I can’t destroy, and if you are the dam, and you are tired of pushing back, you will secretly want to let go.

Now, as I cross the bridge, I think of Brian. At home, he is probably digging up our dead garden. There was a freak frost and then a dry spell and then some kind of bug that made lace of all the leaves. The garden was sad-looking for a while, and then one morning we woke up and everything was shriveled and bent over. Somehow it is my fault. This is understood.

Once I’m across, I stand on our neighbor’s doorstep, a plate of muffins balanced on my palm. At my feet is my empty pie tin, which I take as a good sign. I knock and then knock again and call brightly, “Hellooo!” with my nose to the window. Birds startle from a nearby tree, but no one comes to the door. I imagine the old man asleep in his rocker, the radio spinning the static that has always reminded me of rain. Better to let him sleep.

But as I crouch to leave the plate of muffins and retrieve my pie tin, I hear footsteps, slow and deliberate. I freeze. My heart begins to pound. Suddenly, I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to meet whoever opens the door. I want to go home to Brian and forget about making friends, just live out the rest of our days talking only to the dogs. I calculate how far it is to the truck, how long it would take me to get there, slinking through the bushes, my shoes in my hand. But it’s too late for that.

The door swings open, and I am squatting eye to eye with a little blond girl.

“Mom!” she yells into my face. “That lady’s here again!”

From around the corner, footsteps and then tan, slender legs and manicured toes. I look up and there’s a dark-haired woman holding a baby in what looks like a very uncomfortable position for the baby. One leg folded up, the other dangling. One arm smashed into its side. The woman’s hair is cut into a fashionable bob and in her ears are tiny diamond studs like the ones I used to wear. In her hand is a tightly wrapped diaper the size of a softball. “Excuse me,” she says, and then hurls the diaper over my head and into the bushes behind me.

I stand and turn, and we all watch the diaper bounce once and disappear.

“Good throw,” I say.

“Sorry. If I put them in the trash, the whole house starts to smell rotten. I’m Lisa,” she says and thrusts out her hand, the one the diaper was in. I hesitate, but then shake it anyway.

“We told you,” the little girl says, not taking her eyes off me. “We told you it was a lady.”

“We told you!” comes another voice from somewhere inside the house.

“You were right, you were right, congratulations. Now take him, go play.” Lisa sets the baby teetering on the floor. The little girl tries to take his hand, but he wails and shakes it loose. “Fine!” the little girl shouts and runs off. The baby looks up at me and then over at his mother. Lisa hooks her thumb toward the living room and makes a clicking sound in the corner of her mouth like cowboys do to wrangle horses. The baby knows what this means. He takes off down the hall, his arms splayed for balance.

“No TV,” Lisa says to me, shaking her head. “They may all get murdered.”

“We don’t have it either,” I say. “I miss The Bachelor.”

“And Real Housewives.”

Project Runway.” We both nod and say “mmm” as if we are eating something delicious.

“Sorry about the other day,” she says. “I was dealing with a poop-meets-wall situation. The pie was good. We had it for dinner.”

I shoo her compliment away with my hand. There’s no way that pie was good. It was the first one I ever made, and it was lumpy and caved-in and the crust was burnt. But it was meant for an old man who probably ate beans out of a can all day and would have appreciated anything. “I thought a guy lived here,” I say. “An older guy? With gray hair?”

“Oh, he died. End of April, I think. A stroke, maybe? Now his son rents out the place. We’re here for June, calling it ‘family time.’ Which means right now my husband is stumbling around drunk in the woods with a loaded rifle, and me and the kids are here with no TV. Just having a ball.” Though she says this wryly, I can tell she’s a good mother, even in the wilderness. She loves her kids, who are all safely unlost in the living room.

“That’s terrible,” I say.

“Eh. We get by. ”

I meant the old man and his stroke, but I let it slide. I picture the last time we saw him, his old rusted truck chuffing up the hill, his thin frame slumped over the steering wheel. It seems like just the other day. But now I’m wondering how long ago it really was. The days, I think, might be slipping by me.

Lisa leans against the doorframe and raises her leg to scratch a mosquito bite on her ankle. She does it with her fingers in the shape of a V, scratching around the bite like her mother probably taught her. “How long are you here for?” she wants to know.

“For good,” I say. “We live down the hill.”

“Oh. Oh, I see.” I can tell she feels sorry for me, that she can’t imagine living in a place without restaurants and movie theatres and coffee shops, and I want to tell her that I can’t either, that all of this seems like it’s happening to someone else. The real me, I know, is back in the city eating at Spiro’s and cutting Cody’s spaghetti into little pieces. The real me is walking down a street and seeing herself in all the broad windows and thinking at least ten different easy things, none of which are garden or dam or stroke. But I know how she must see me: the cutoffs and work shirt, the tennis shoes caked with mud, and before I can tell her about living in the city, about my hair that was cut just like hers, and my own pair of diamond stud earrings buried somewhere in a drawer, before I can begin convincing her that she and I would have been friends, we hear from inside a loud thud and then a slap and then the baby begins to cry.

Lisa yells over her shoulder, “You better work it out before I work it out for you!”

We hear a chorus of shushes and some shuffling. Then a lone, muffled “sorry.”

“I better go,” Lisa tells me. “They’re probably feeding him poison.”

“Ha,” I say, “rat poison,” trying to be funny. And then immediately regret it. If Brian were here, he would be frowning now and looking down to toe the dirt. But Lisa snorts and I can tell she is laughing even though she’s covered her mouth with her hand. “Those little pellets!” she squeals between her fingers.

At home, Brian has taken down the front shutters and laid them across two sawhorses. He’s meticulously scraping away the flaking paint with a flat tool that looks like a sandbox toy. What I never knew about Brian before, but have learned since we’ve been here, is that he is never bored. He can always, always find something to do, even if that something is a terrible waste of time like scraping paint off shutters no one will ever see but us. “How did it go?” he asks.

I know I should come clean about the old man and his rented house filled with kids—I even want to tell him about Lisa and her diaper softball—but here is what I say instead: “I don’t think Cody’s feeling very well. He may have had a small stroke.”

“Oh,” he says, scraping. “You were gone a long time.”

“He had me get some high things off a shelf.”

Brian blows away the paint and runs his hand across the raw wood. This is his trick, to pretend he isn’t listening.

“He’s in a wheelchair. Did I tell you that?”

He stops and turns to me. The flakes of paint in his hair make him look ten years older. “But we just saw him driving.”

“I guess since then he’s had the chair. He said the pie was delicious.”

“Good for you,” he says, not unkindly. I think for a minute he is actually going to smile at me. The corners of his mouth are turning up, but instead of feeling relieved, I feel like I am watching a wounded animal try to run. I can’t help but grimace. Brian sees the look on my face and rearranges his mouth into a skeptical line. “What did you say his last name is? This Cody?”

“I didn’t.”

“But he has one?”

“Of course he has one. He’s a person, isn’t he?”

Brian squints and fingers his temple. He turns back to his scraping. “I think that’s what we’re saying.”

The second lie I told on the day I lost my son was about a hat. I told the detective he was wearing one—a blue baseball cap with an orange fish on the front. I said this because it was a hot day, nearly ninety degrees in the city, and when we arrived at the park, I saw all of the other kids were wearing hats and even tiny pairs of sunglasses. I felt guilty about Cody’s little cheeks, which immediately began to pink, and I felt even guiltier later, when the detective started with his questions. I didn’t want to seem like a bad mother, even though it would be established eventually that I was, so I made up the part about the hat and watched him write it down on his little notepad. After he left, I could hardly breathe because I knew what I had done. The police would be looking for a little boy in a blue hat and would never find Cody, who was terribly, terribly hatless. The room around me began to come unstitched at the edges, and a strange sound made its way to my throat. I wheeled around, trying to find Brian to tell him what I’d done. Maybe it wasn’t too late. Maybe we could find the detective and take back the part about the hat. But then Brian crossed the room without a word and took his palm to my cheek and everything slammed back into place like a carnival ride come to its end.

They never found Cody. At the end of the summer, Brian moved in with a friend because he said he needed some time, but I knew he just didn’t want to see my face. People used to say Cody looked just like me, which I’d always denied for Brian’s sake but took a secret pleasure in. Now I wished I could wipe away my features with one of those Magic Erasers used to clean chunks of food from kitchen baseboards. If I could, I’d trim down my nose and tuck away at my chin and leave myself only thin wisps for brows. Maybe then my husband wouldn’t wince every time he looked at me.

After Brian moved out, I stopped showering. And then I stopped eating. And a little while after that, I counted fifteen blue pills into my palm and took them slowly, with just enough water so that I didn’t throw them back up.

When I woke in the hospital, Brian was holding my hand. In the corner, a monitor showed my pulse in steady peaks. I knew I shouldn’t make a joke, but I couldn’t stand the blue vein of worry running down the middle of his forehead. “Drats,” I said, despite myself. “So much for subtlety.”

“Stop it,” Brian said, and then, “Listen.” He massaged his beard until the hairs stood on end. “I’ll come back,” he said, “but we have to get out of the city.”

And what could I say? Could I say no, Brian, let’s go back to our apartment where there is Cody’s empty bed and his dresser filled with too many multi-colored T-shirts, so many they are spilling from the drawers, so many you might mistake them for a string of handkerchiefs, the kind magicians slowly pull from their mouths, a trick to make you believe something small and bright can go on forever.

I couldn’t say that. I couldn’t say anything. So I just nodded and closed my eyes and let Brian sell our things and move us to this place where I have dreams that a wall of water is rushing towards us. Sometimes I can hear a humming that seems to come from two places at once: from far down the creek and also somewhere inside me, as if the dam is as much aware of me as I am of it. As if I need only to step onto the porch and open my arms.


When I emerge from the house having showered and wearing mascara, my hair pulled back into a knot at my neck, Brian raises his eyebrows. He’s on the porch teaching himself how to whittle. The dogs, who are sleeping at his feet, are covered in shavings. The piece of wood in his hand looks a little like a person and a little like a penis. “Again?” he asks. “You were just there yesterday.”

“Cody’s sick,” I say. “It’s sad.” I walk past him, but he gets up and follows me, the dogs at his heels. I climb inside the truck and roll down the window. Brian leans inside the cab, excavating the grime under his nails with his pocketknife. For a moment, I’m reminded of my husband as a younger man. Back then, if I ever canceled a date, he would show up anyway with a cheap bouquet and sit on my doorstep. My roommates would step over him on their way in or out and report back. “He’s just sitting there,” one would say. “It’s creepy.” But I didn’t think it was creepy. I thought it was proof he loved me.

“This Cody,” he says. “He’s how old?”

“I don’t know. Seventyish.”

He scans the inside of the truck. “And he’s fine with you showing up uninvited? He doesn’t have something better to do?”

“Believe it or not,” I say, “some people actually like talking to me. Because I’m nice. And funny. And if you stopped hating me long enough—”

“Come on,” Brian says. “You’re being ridiculous.”

“No. I’m not.” I start the truck, but he doesn’t move. He’s trying to get me to stop being ridiculous by convincing me how ridiculous I am. “You’re all dressed up!” he says. “You’re wearing perfume!”

“I have green eyes! I have two arms!” I flail them around in a variation of jazz hands. “Do you have a point? Or are you just making observations?”

“You’re different,” he says, his eyes like stones.

I remember the slap, the sting of his palm on my cheek. It was the last time he touched me on purpose. “Well, you were different first,” I say and put the truck in gear, but he stands his ground. He leans into the door and even crosses his arms over the window’s threshold. His lip is turning up at the corner and it could almost be a smile, but it isn’t.

I think of Lisa’s little girl trying to hold the hand of the baby brother who doesn’t want her. At the moment, though, I’m not sure which one of us she is. I gun it, and the truck lurches forward. Brian yelps and jumps back, and I can see him in the rearview mirror with his arms raised, and the dogs are barking and leaping straight up into the air as if he has signaled them, as if this is their cue to perform. But I am already halfway up the hill, and the sound of the engine is the only sound I hear.

Across the bridge, the front door is flung wide. In the kitchen, Lisa and the kids look up from their cereal and stare at me.

“It was open,” I say.

They all turn to look pointedly at the baby, who is swirling Cheerios around on his highchair tray. “It’s his new thing,” Lisa says. “He’s figured out about locks.”

Everyone looks a little glazed over, although it’s almost noon. Lisa wears thick eyeglasses and a spiky ponytail. The little girl and a little boy I haven’t seen yet are both naked but for their underwear. I lean awkwardly against the refrigerator for a few seconds, and then Lisa seems to rally. “Judith,” she says to the little girl. “Scootch.” Obediently, Judith slides into the next chair. “You hungry? We’ve got all kinds,” Lisa says, shaking a cereal box in my direction.

I tell her no thanks and that I’m heading to town, that I can bring her back something if she needs it.

“Actually,” she says and begins rummaging around in some cabinets. She’s wearing an oversized T-shirt that barely covers her rear. The backs of her legs are red and sweaty from the vinyl seat of her chair. “Do you think you could bring me a couple of cans of—”

“Lisaaaaa!” The sound that comes from the other end of the house is more like a growl than someone’s name. Though she has her back to me, I see Lisa’s shoulders tense, the stiffening of her arms, how her fingers clench into claws. At the table, the little boy has knocked over his bowl. Pink milk drips onto the floor.


“Shit,” Lisa says.

“Shit,” Judith says.

“Mom?” says the little boy.

Lisa turns to him. “It’s fine. He probably just wants to know who’s here.” She looks at me. “Can you watch them? Just for a minute?”

  I nod fervently. To show I’m qualified, I pull some paper towels from the roll on the table and begin sopping up the puddle on the floor. Lisa disappears around the corner, and the baby twists in his highchair to watch her go. We hear the bedroom door open and then the click of the lock.

Judith refills the boy’s bowl with Fruity Pebbles. “That’s our dad,” she says. “He’s sleeping it off.”

In his highchair, the baby begins to whimper. His chin quivers, and he smashes his palms into his eyes.

“No, no,” I say, “everything is fine. Look! Look at these yummy Cheerios!” I give them a little swirl, but the baby is having none of it. He wants his mother, and it’s clear to me even before the minutes begin to tick by that she’s going to be awhile. I unhitch him from his chair and set him on the ground, but this, it seems, is a terrible decision. He gives me a look that says, This? Now this? and collapses on the kitchen floor. He wails into the linoleum, his fingers flexing against the shiny squares. Judith and the little boy have come to stand by me, and we all watch the baby writhe on the floor.

“Well?” Judith says, looking up at me.

There is nothing to do but pick him up, which I realize I have been avoiding. And now I know why. He immediately finds the curve of my shoulder and buries his head there, his face shellacked to my neck by a thin layer of drool. The kids wander into the living room, and the baby and I do a lap around the kitchen. He clenches my shirt in his wet fist and makes a noise like a car alarm but very, very far away.

Somewhere, across a distance, I am sitting on a park bench. I look away for a moment, and my son is gone. This is what is written in the police report. This is what I told Brian and the detectives and anyone else who asked. I’ve never said that I leaned my head back and closed my eyes. I’ve never said that I’d forgotten my sunglasses, and that the sun threw dappled shadows on my eyelids. No one knows that for maybe half an hour before I faded into sleep, I listened to my son playing nearby with another child, the sound like birds chasing each other in the trees.

In the kitchen, the baby’s head lolls against my shoulder. Muffled voices funnel down the hall. The children in the living room march tiny horses along the windowsills. At home, Brian is probably dismantling some part of the house. I see his face, his paint-flecked beard, his expression as he crossed the room that day to strike me. It is the same look he would give me if he saw me holding this baby—the confusion and anger and fear—as if by holding him, I am forgetting about our son. I am losing Cody all over again. Inside me, something small but essential begins to break. Heat seeps and brims in the pit of my stomach. I think of Brian on my doorstep all those years ago. He wasn’t angry or jealous. He didn’t ever demand to know where I’d been. He only ever wanted to trust me. I feel a rising in my throat—bile or a scream, I don’t want to find out. What is clear is that I cannot hold this baby a second longer. I pry my shirt from his fist and lay him down on the kitchen rug. Then I slip quietly out the door.

When I reach the bottom of the hill, I turn right instead of left and park the truck alongside the creek. I leave my shoes in the cab and climb down the embankment to stand ankle-deep in the water. Even in summer, the creek is cold, but the ache in my toes is better than the heat in my stomach. I keep my back to the dam. I think of Lisa and what she will do when she emerges from the bedroom to find her son on the floor. I think of her husband and of my own husband and how it seems no matter where we are lost—whether in the woods or the city or the park—the hardest part is never finding our way back. The hardest part is explaining the moment when we strayed.

That day in the park, I could hear Cody’s voice moving away from me. I told myself he was fine, the park was safe. I told myself I deserved a few minutes alone with the sun and with the trees moving overhead. On the shore of sleep, I thought of stupid things—a blouse I’d seen in a store window, all the potential colors of my hair. I have always thought I would know if my son were in trouble, the way you can sometimes anticipate the ringing of the phone or what song will play next on the radio, that my scalp would tingle or the hairs on my arms would stand on end. But when I opened my eyes, I still didn’t know he was gone. I gathered my things. I looked in all his favorite places. What are we, I want to know, if we are not connected to each other? What keeps us here?

Behind me, the dam is holding back every drop it was built to contain. Its concrete walls are eight feet thick. It is designed to collapse in and not out. Brian told me this. He meant to comfort me with this information. He meant to help me sleep. But what can he do about the dreams? The wall of water rushing towards us? And what about the dream I haven’t told him yet, the one where I sit beside the woman who is sleeping on the bench? The one where I watch our son walk away. What can he do as our son looks up and takes a stranger’s hand? What can he do as Cody takes a step, and then another? This, I know, is how the years will reveal themselves. This is how the time will pass. Always, our son will look back over his shoulder as he moves away. Always, his mother will sleep beside me, on and on through the years, her head tilted back as if she is watching something very small and very high moving in the air above her.


The lawn chairs are still cold when we carry our stuff out at ten sharp. I carry a blanket, sunglasses, a hat, a towel for each of us, and an armload of homework on my first trip. Mama has her baby oil and iodine, a cup of coffee, and her cigarette case. She is wearing a white terry cloth strapless jumper she will peel off when she’s ready and flip-flops.

Mama aligns her chair with the sun and adjusts both ends the way she wants: feet down, back up so she can peer out over the subdivision while she sips her coffee and enjoys her first cigarette. Then she lays the chair flat, spreads a towel over it, and strips down. A thin white scar peaks out of her bikini, but her stomach is flat and her waist is tiny. I wear my track shorts until Mama makes me take them off, but I refuse to wear a two-piece. “Your belly is going to be white as a fish,” she says, and I think, More like a whale, you mean. She will finish her cigarette before I get everything in order to suit me, my blanket spread out in case I feel the urge to switch. I carry out a bag of chips and Little Debbie cakes, even though Mama cautions that girls can’t eat this way forever. I raise the window in the kitchen and find a station we like on the radio, turn the volume up, pour a glass of tea, and refill the ice trays. “Want a pop?” I ask. But she doesn’t. “Anything else?”

“Not right now, Tabby,” she says.

I see her through the kitchen window, rubbing down her legs and arms, the fiery red ember of a Winston as she takes a hard drag, and I remember suntan lotion, go back for it because I cannot stand oil of any kind. I don’t like getting my hair and suit greasy, or sticking to my chair. Mama says it’s a small sacrifice. She swears by baby oil and iodine, and she ought to know. Motor oil is good, too, she says. But mayonnaise, now that will burn you good. I stick to my Coppertone 8, which I put on inside the house where it’s warm, hoping it will soak in before I hit the cool air outside. Mama says I shouldn’t even bother if I’m going to wear sunscreen, but I worry about ultraviolet rays.

“Sun’s good for you,” she says. “Clear up that acne.”

I have this gross constellation of zits on my forehead, so I’m willing to listen even though I don’t act like it.

I bring the bottle with me, circle around Mama so she can do my back. I will have to do hers, too, so I grab a wet washrag to wipe Mama’s oil from my hands afterwards. I don’t want to get the pages of my library books greasy.

By 10:15, I am unfolding my chair. I always leave the newer one for Mama, take the one with the busted strap. One of the gears is broken, too, so I have to lie flat on my back. I get everything the way I want and then lie down. “What time is it?” I ask, and Mama checks her watch latched around the frame of her chair.

“10:20,” she says.

“Is that all? God, I’m dying.”

Mama crushes out her cigarette in the grass.

“Want an oatmeal cake?” I ask. She doesn’t, but I do and then I want milk, too, so I go inside for a glass and bring back the coffee pot to refill her cup while I’m at it. I have two cakes and pin the wrappers under a book so they won’t blow away. The sun feels good, but the wind breaks chill bumps all over me. I wonder why it is that we look so white out here, during the day. Even Mama. In the evening, in our shorts, we look dark already. Mama mostly, but I do, too. “Brown as biscuits,” Daddy used to say, “little Hot-Rize Southern biscuits. Nummy nummy nummy,” as he nuzzled his chin behind Mama’s ear and pressed his body up behind hers in a way that made me happy and grossed me out at the same time.

He’s probably at church looking all saintly right now, like everyone in our neighborhood. It is Sunday morning, but Mama and I don’t give a whit about going to church. “We’re pagans,” I tell her. “You know, like the Mayans.” She knows who the Mayans are because we saw an episode on That’s Incredible about human sacrifice. That’s where I got the idea for my paper. It’s my last assignment, and then school is out for two months.

The sun passes behind a cloud and stays there until every bit of heat escapes my skin. I hold my hand over my leg, check for my shadow. “Too cloudy,” I say, shivering. “Look.”

She doesn’t bother, but she knows what I’m talking about. “It’s there,” she says. “Just can’t see it.”

I look again but see nothing. “What’s the temperature supposed to be?”


“Wonder what it is now?”

“Mmmm’m mmmm,” she says, clearing her mind of every earthly affair.

“Feels cold.”


“Got to pee. Need anything?”

“Mm mmm.” She grunts this time.

I go inside, let the screen door slap and feel Mama cracking open an eye at me in frustration.

“Mesoamericans built pyramids,” I recite from my book, “such as the Pyramid of the Sun, located in San Juan, Mexico, the place where men became gods.”

I spot my Magic 8 Ball on the TV, turn the ball over in my hands, and consult it about Daddy.

Better not tell you now, it says. I hate that one.

On my return to Mama and the sun, I make a quick pass through the kitchen to scrounge around for something else to munch on. There’s leftover bacon and canned biscuits under a paper towel, so I make up two and carry them out. “Want one?” I ask and this time Mama takes one and sits up.

“You drinking that tea?” she asks.

I hand it over and we share sips between bites. Now the sun is out again and higher in the sky, inching its way through its orbital path.

“Ready to flip?” I ask.

“Sun just came out.”

“I’m dy-ing,” I groan, my vision still blooming into purple halos from staring into the sun and then walking into the dark cave of the house. I wonder if I can go another hour, flip anyway.

“What about this, Mama?” I ask. “Indian priests read the stars like we might read a tabloid predicting the end of time. No,” I say, striking the sentence. “Maybe this: People in the ancient world believed the sun had lived and died many times, always to be replaced by a new sun identical to the one before it.” I like the way I sound in papers, a different me.

I gaze out over the backyards adjacent to ours that are strewn with bicycles and blow-up kiddie pools and old croquet sets I’ve never seen anyone using. The other neighborhood tanners won’t be out for another hour. Mama and I are usually outside way before anyone else. Kimberly’s mom is the darkest person in the neighborhood, but she gets most of her sun at the country club, where she is learning to play tennis with her married supervisor from R.J. Reynolds.

Kimberly is my best friend. We play jacks on her cool kitchen floor to keep out of the heat. She plays better than anyone I know. She can do her sets without touching another jack, even when they’re stacked. She can do her elevens or nines, even when they’re spread halfway across the kitchen. She has a nice way of skimming her hand over the surface of the linoleum, too, very lightly. It’s all about timing. And practice.

“Did you know,” she told me once, studying one of the jacks as she held it up between her fingers, “that armies use these to maim their enemies?”

I shook my head.

“My uncle told me.”

“Which one?” I hoped it wasn’t Tim.

“Donnie,” she said. “Only instead of jack rocks, they’re called punji sticks and they’re dipped in poison or smeared with poop, so whoever steps on them will get gangrene and die.”

“Eww, that’s gross.”

“I know.”

If we’re not playing jacks, we’re choreographing dances like those we watch on Solid Gold. I am not a natural like Kimberly, but I do take after Mama and can usually get the steps down pretty fast. With the strobe lights going, we look like we’re being struck by lightning. We are brown as Indians. Our teeth are white as stars. The rhythm of the music pulses in our temples, our hearts, and we feel our blood gushing around inside us like a volcano.

On Sundays like today, not another soul is in the neighborhood until Kimberly’s uncles come to mow her yard. Mama is already tanned enough, but she likes to be appreciated, too, she says. And Kimberly’s uncles do seem to appreciate Mama.

Every week, they come with gas cans and a cooler filled with Sun Drops and Pabst Blue Ribbon. Donnie wears mirrored sunglasses and cut-offs without a shirt. His hair is slightly longish and strawberry blond like his mustache and sideburns, and undeniably, he is the more muscular of the two. He is Mama’s favorite. Aunt Jonie’s, too. I imagine him walking carefully over punji sticks in the only vision of Vietnam I can conjure, a rainy jungle tangled with kudzu, no sun, no sky in sight, signaling men behind him with hand gestures, talking without words. Hand up: stop! Hand down: careful.

I myself prefer the leaner, cleaner look of Tim whose hair is shorter but yellow as a peach like his brother’s. Mama thinks Tim is too saintly looking, but she likes the way he fills out a pair of Levi’s all the same, she says.

Aunt Jonie arrives with her lawn chair. She is wearing a string bikini under a little white wrap tied merely for ornamentation around her bony waist. “Girls, have I missed them?” she asks, opening her chair, sliding it next to Mama’s.

“No,” I say, and she grins with her tongue between her teeth and skips around all hot to trot, not like a grown woman should, I think. She considers herself the classiest, sassiest woman alive, and that’s about right, I guess. Her hair is a dark brown-red, only a shade or two darker than her skin is by the end of the summer. Her fingernails are heart-stopper crimson, she calls it, and stay looking wet like the commercials advertise.

I ask her again for the thousandth time how she got her nails so long and she says, “Tabby, I’ll tell you,” in that tone that signals a story is coming. “Your Aunt Jonie was born with fingernails this long.”

Mama lifts the wet rag on her eyes and says, “With three rings on every finger and an emery board in one hand.”

Aunt Jonie cackles and shoots me a clicking wink and says, “Damn straight, darling.” Then she adjusts each one of her rings and stretches out on the lawn chair next to Mama.

“What time is it?” I ask. “I am burning up.”

“You’ll live,” Mama says.

I move over to the blanket spread out in the grass. It is a soft, wooly thing with reversible images on either side: a panther on one and a wolf howling at the moon on the other. It will burn me up shortly, too, but it is better than a thin sheet that would let the hard, stalky grass poke up through and stab me. I open my book to a fantastic drawing of a pyramid, read the caption beneath it: Children were ritually sacrificed in the cave wells beneath the pyramids to appease the rain god Chaac. The real pyramid, shown in the inset, looks more like a pile of rocks.

Aunt Jonie opens her cigarette case and digs out a Virginia Slim with her long nails. She spends a lot of time at a bar called Coyote Jack’s, even though she is a married woman, and I suspect she dances and God knows what-all with men she meets there. Now that Mama and Daddy are in a “trial separation,” Mama goes to Coyote Jack’s with her.

That is where she met Tam, at Coyote Jack’s. “That’s his name? I don’t like calling a man Tam,” I told her.

And she said, “You don’t like a lot of things, Tabby.” Then she said, “His name is Talmadge, if that suits you better.”

He is the biggest drip that ever lived, I reminded her. “He has varicose veins on his face.”

“Don’t be ugly, Tabby,” she said. “And they’re not varicose veins.”

She is slightly embarrassed to be going out with him, though, and anybody who knows Mama knows it. Talmadge is not Mama’s kind of man. Donnie is Mama’s kind of man, muscled and tan and hunky. Daddy is Mama’s kind of man, dark-haired, dark-eyed, and deceitful. I see it all over her when he comes to pick me up on holidays. “You look good, Jesse,” she tells him, smiling that way she does, chin down, looking up at him. And he says, “You, too, sweet thing,” the heavens breaking open above him, and we both give into his charm, forget what a con he can be.

Across the way, Kimberly’s uncles finally arrive in Donnie’s battered Datsun pickup. Tim steps out of the passenger side, and my heart skips, like he is coming to pick me up for a date or something crazy like that. Mama and Aunt Jonie stop talking once they spot the men, and we all three sit there quiet in our own heads, dreaming the same dream. And what we dream is this: we dream that Donnie will woof at us and smile big and wave and say, “Hello, la-a-dies!” And Tim will laugh in spite of himself and shake his head in embarrassment and go on around to the bed of the truck and start unloading push mowers and weed eaters.

I’ll imagine standing before him, waiting for him to kiss me, dying from his slowness, tortured and loving it, dying and smiling to draw him out. And what Mama and Aunt Jonie will imagine is the same, I figure, only a little grosser and moanier, though I don’t worry a lot about the details I know I’m surely leaving out. It is all the same thing, one dream between us, and it paralyzes us like a poison, all three of us sleeping stubbornly to a beautiful dream we want to go on forever.

“Somebody put a note in my locker,” I tell Mama and Aunt Jonie after Donnie and Tim move out of sight to the other side of Kimberly’s house.

“Ooooh,” they say. “Who?”

“I don’t know,” I say. “A secret admirer.”

Mama raises up on her elbows, lets the washrag fall from her eyes to her greased-up breasts. The look on her face causes my heartbeat to quicken, and I don’t know whether to go on or to make up something juicy that’ll make her happy.

“Let me guess,” she says. She has studied my yearbooks, knows all the cute boys at school. “Jonathan Rivers?”

I shake my head, no.

“Ben Clonch?”


“Well, let’s see it,” she says, excitedly. “Hand it over, baby.”

I pull the note from my library book where I’ve been saving it for her. I don’t know if my heart is racing from the heat stroke I’m having or if it’s because of the glorious smile on Mama’s face. She unfolds the letter and squints against the white glare of the notebook paper. She squints harder and harder until her eyebrows stand down and her lips ease into a worrisome bunch.

“This is a girl’s handwriting,” she says.

“What?” I snatch the page to have another look. “No, it’s not!”

“Look at all them curlicues,” Mama says.

I study the writer’s handwriting for clues, and she’s right, the script is loopy and very well practiced. The letters are prim, and I wonder what that says about the writer’s personality. Could the letter actually be from a girl? I’m more baffled than before when I thought my suitor was a boy.

“Stay away from them lizzies,” Mama says sternly.

“Maybe it’s just a joke,” I offer, to make her feel better.

“A sick joke,” she says.

“Maybe it’s just a prissy boy who writes like a girl.”

“Prissy boys are worse than lizzies. You stay away from all of them. Your daddy would have a heart attack if you brought home some little fairy-tailed boyfriend.”

I am sorry I brought up the letter at all. I wipe sweat from my face with Mama’s washrag, consider saying, Well, what about a grown man named Tam? That’s pretty queer sounding. But she would just cock that sassy attitude, wink and smile, and say, Oh, I beg to differ about that man, little girl, not saying what she’s saying loud and clear. And besides, that’s different. You’re young. Your whole life is in front of you.

Then in Tam’s defense she would say, There’s just something about him, which is what she always says about men I’m “too young” to appreciate. Trust your mama, she is always saying. 

And I do. Most of the time. But I know that this “trial separation” is just code for something more permanent. I have seen her lying in bed for days too often lately, and at times like that, I am glad for Talmadge, glad as I can be. He is a nice man and gives Mama anything she wants, takes her out to eat. Invites me, too, often as not, though I never go. Tam is alright, I figure then.

I run my eyes over each character of my secret admirer’s curvy handwriting.

“Maybe the letter is from someone trying to cheer me up,” I offer again.

“Cheer you up about what?” Mama says.


It rains all week, so Kimberly and I are trapped inside playing jacks. I usually take all three throws before I toss a spread I can manage, but Kimberly has shown me how to work with whatever cluster of little metal stars comes my way. To practice, she makes me pick the jacks out of her hand. If she feels anything, even the slightest touch, I have to start over. We play in the kitchen where her mom has been trying all summer to root a houseplant in a glass of water. Mother, Kimberly calls her. She is the only kid I know who calls her mom Mother that way.

In her room we lie on her bed and look at magazines with foldout posters of Eric Estrada and John Schneider. We measure our chests with the measuring tape from her mother’s sewing kit. We prime the roller balls of our lip gloss with our fingers and then smear gobs of sweet-smelling, chemical-tasting gloss over our lips. We want desperately to kiss someone.

Outside it is gray. Steam rises from our sidewalks, our driveways, even from the grass. Mama’s tan is fading. “Rain is so depressing,” she says. But I like it; I like the air before it rains, swirly and damp. I never really tan anyway. I am still peeling long runs of skin off my shins. Kimberly scratches at the pieces I can’t reach on my back with her neat fingernails. I bite my nails, so I have to use the sharp point of a jack rock to bring up edges of dead skin that I can grab hold of.

“My uncle saw a man skinned alive in Vietnam,” Kimberly says.

“Which one?” I ask.

“Tim,” she says, and my heart hammers behind my training bra. “But they couldn’t brainwash him,” she says. “They never could.”


The next weekend, I am flicking a big black bug off my blanket and picking away grass and little gnats that have stuck to my sweaty legs when TJ Frazier strolls up to us in the yard. I grab my towel, standing, wrapping it around me, pretending I am about to go inside. TJ is a boy in the neighborhood, a couple years older than me, a dropout whose eyes are permanently glassy from smoking pot all the time. He is cute, though, and I have always had a crush on him, so I don’t know what to do when he stops and says, “Hello, foxy mamas.”

Mama and Aunt Jonie fawn all over him; they could just eat him up, you can tell, even if he is just a kid. Precisely because he is just a kid. He makes himself at home, flops down in my empty lawn chair beside Mama and says, “Want me to rub lotion on your beautiful body, Mrs. Lambert?”

I snatch the bottle of baby oil from him. “Grow up,” I say.

He laughs and Mama and Aunt Jonie grin in cahoots with him.

All of you,” I say.

TJ reaches for my oatmeal cakes, unwraps one.

“Tabby has a secret admirer,” Mama tells him.

“Mama! God!”

She looks at TJ with her spell-casting eyes and says, “Wasn’t you, was it?”

He shoves the whole cake in his mouth, smiling dreamily, and I throw a book in front of my face and curse the day I was born. I am standing there with a big Marvin the Martian towel wrapped around my body, my legs and arms prickling from the smoldering look I know TJ is giving me. And he says, “The world is supposed to end in 2012.”

I screw up my face behind the book, which is, I realize, what he’s referring to.

Then he stretches out on my chair and stares up into the wild blue yonder as if he can see the end coming.

Mama and Aunt Jonie leer like headhunters.

TJ rolls over on one side, pulls his legs up in the fetal position, hands under one cheek and says, “But yeah, Tab. It was me.”

He doesn’t even go to my school, but my heart pounds to the song on the radio, “Tragedy” by the Bee Gees.


                         Here I lie in a lost and lonely part of town

                         held in time in a world of tears I slowly drown


I look like a complete retard standing there, so I drop my hands and make an attempt to glare at TJ, muster my surliest pose, as if to say, In. Your. Dreams.

He sits up on one side of the foldout chair next to Mama with his hands hanging between his knees, looking at me with that stoned smile of his, those lazy eyes that bat in slow motion, and that distant-looking wry expression on his face.

Aunt Jonie starts gyrating in her chair to the Bee Gees and it is X-rated almost the way she writhes and thrusts her bony hips. TJ laughs, says, “Show me what you got, Hot Stuff,” and sings along to the song. Tragedy, when you lose control and you got no soul, it’s tragedy. His voice is too low to stay with the Bee Gees, but he doesn’t care. He stands up, struts, tears his T-shirt over his head, strikes a pose like something out of Saturday Night Fever. His chest is scrawny and white, and he looks more like Mick Jagger, I think. He prances and sings and it is Mick Jagger exactly, nowhere near Barry Gibb, who is, we all agree, the cutest of the Bee Gees.

“That’s horrible,” I say, wanting to laugh, but not wanting to more. Aunt Jonie stands and dances with him; she is doing her “Lay Down, Sally” bit that drives me crazy it’s so funny to watch, thrusting her pelvis and doing that thumbing-a-ride thing. Mama is going right along, singing and hooting at the two of them.

I am the only one wondering if Donnie and Tim are getting an eyeful across the way at Kimberly’s house, and there is Donnie, staring back with his mirrored sunglasses, reflecting a blinding ray of light that makes my eyes tear.

TJ and Aunt Jonie are boogeying around the yard, shaking their tail feathers, doing what they know of the hustle. Part of me wants to show them some moves that are out of this world. But another part holds back, clings to the earth. The sun is blistering hot now, and I feel like I might burst into flames. I read an article about a kid who spontaneously combusted when he had his first wet dream. TJ is stumbling and falling against Aunt Jonie, his hands like golden stars whizzing through the air.

Across the way, Tim is pushing the mower around the playhouse that Kimberly and I used to play schoolteacher in. He has taken off his shirt and turned his ball cap around backwards.

Mama tells me, “Come on, Tab. Live a little.” She is turning over, untying the strings of her bikini top so she won’t get tan lines.

I think of leaving, slipping back inside the house, letting the door slam as I go, sure that no one would even miss me. Then I think of what I’ll tell Mama later, when TJ is gone. I’ll tell her he is a total pothead, and Aunt Jonie will say, “Yeah. But a cute pothead.” As if that settles it.


When school is out and the sun is directly above the earth and scorching the Northern Hemisphere, Kimberly invites me to go swimming at a park that has water slides and go-karts. I take the money Daddy has given me for my birthday to buy a new striped beach towel, something mature and inconspicuous, and a bathing suit cover-up to hide my fat hips. I don’t know how to swim, but Kimberly says she can teach me. She doesn’t mention that her uncles are coming or that I will have to sit between them in the backseat of her mother’s Mazda, which barely has room for Kimberly and me. I think of asking if I can ride in the front seat, but I don’t want to seem ungrateful. Kimberly gets carsick riding in the back.

Mama would have a cow if she knew the uncles are coming, not because she’d object but because she would be jealous and think it a waste of a good opportunity for another woman, an older woman like herself. What can I do? I’m just a kid. I hope she doesn’t see us piling into Kimberly’s mother’s car.

Donnie is wearing a pair of short white trunks with a yellow and blue stripe around the middle and a belly shirt that shows the lower half of his hairy stomach. Tim is wearing plaid knee-length trunks and a baggy T-shirt with Mickey Mouse on it, silent Mickey from the old black-and-white cartoons.

I wait until given instructions about where to sit, but eventually I must climb between the men in the backseat who sprawl out with their legs thrown wide open like a couple of Venus flytraps, and I try my best not to touch them. They are hairy everywhere, and my bare thighs prickle with the feel of their legs touching mine. I wrap my towel over my lap and make myself as small as possible. I think of Mama’s spell-casting eyes and the hold they had on TJ Frazier, a boy not even half her age, and feel a surge of power inside me like a burning tornado, a volcano turned inside out. My arms and feet look brown inside the car. My white toenails gleam on the floorboard straddling the hump between Donnie’s sandaled feet and Tim’s sockless Converse sneakers.

Donnie throws his arm up over the seat behind me, clearly cramped himself, and asks if I’d be more comfortable sitting on his lap. The heat inside the car is a greenhouse trapping the sun. I smell the sweat of Donnie’s armpit and feel myself melting into the vinyl seat beneath me, the sweat of my own legs and the sweat of two grown men running together and pooling in the seat of my swimsuit.

“No thanks,” I shoot back too quickly, feeling the heat rise in my face.

“You guys okay back there?” Kimberly’s mother asks, glancing into the rearview.

Donnie pumps the window down and reaches across me to the other window on Tim’s side of the car.

“I got it,” Tim says. “Watch it!” Heavy beads of sweat have collected in the short hair follicles around his face, and when he leans forward to roll down the window, I see that the back of his T-shirt is beginning to soak through. His shirt is bunched up over his trunks, and I see a dark line of matted hair disappearing into the small of his back.

Kimberly’s mother fires up the Mazda and soon the wind rushes through the open windows, wicking away sweat from the surface of our skin.

“Goddamn if it’s not hot,” Donnie says.

Without a word, Tim cuts his eyes at his brother and frowns, and Donnie says, “What?

The melting lard of my fat thighs pressing against him is irritating Donnie, but I dare not lean closer to Tim or my skin will burn to a crisp. I perch as best I can on the hump between my legs and lean forward between the seats where I don’t have to look at the men.

Kimberly smiles and leans to whisper something in my ear. She turns my jaw toward Tim, pushes my hair behind my ear, and cups her hands to the side of my head. I blush from the nearness of Tim’s face to mine, notice the little whiskers of missed hairs under his lip, and he smiles without showing his teeth. I smile, too, feel a cyclone of bees in my heart, and think that I can almost taste the smell of Kimberly’s Bubblicious bubble gum. There is a dead wasp in the window behind us, a little rubber smiley face on the tip of the car’s antenna rising behind it. My bare back is exposed and I feel Kimberly’s hands cupping my ear, her pink breath forming one word after another.

“My uncle told me you were pretty.”

“Which one?” I ask, the words collapsing in my throat.

Tim’s green eyes soften when I glance at him sideways. And then there is another set of hands around my waist. I feel Donnie’s big thumbs in the small of my back, and then a hard tug up onto his hot lap. The wind from the window whips in my face, steals my breath, and I think I will smother. The pitch of his knee drives my head into the liner of the car’s ceiling and I wrestle as he tries to pull me into a more comfortable position against his stomach. I arch my back and crane my neck, and all I can see are Tim’s calloused hands, palms thrown up in urgency, signaling for Donnie to stop.

“What?” Donnie says. “She’s fourteen years old,” and the mention of my age in Tim’s presence sends hot gasses to my eyes. I don’t know how old he is, but it’s a lot older than fourteen and being with him in the car is a thousand times worse than boring into the center of the sun. I don’t have so much as a pair of sunglasses to protect myself, so when the tears come I bury my face in the stupid new towel I bought with my birthday money.

Over my shoulder, I hear Tim cluck his tongue at Donnie, and it is the saddest sound in the world.

I call Mama from a pay phone as soon as we arrive at the pool. Pretend to be sick. Wet kids with towels draped over their shoulders beg for Pop Rocks and banana popsicles.

“What is it, honey?” she asks. “George?” George is code for that time of the month. It is not George, but I lie and say that it is so she will come right away and get me. She would never want me to be trapped in a bathing suit in public with George.

I wait in the glassed-in arcade, the sounds of pinballs and asteroids circling me as I watch Kimberly’s uncles teaching her how to dive backwards from the spring board. Donnie does backflips and cannonballs, bounding down the length of the board in thunderous lunges. When he emerges, he crosses his hairy brown shoulders in front of himself on the edge of the pool and rests, flashing a smile at the young mothers dipping their babies in the kiddie pool across the way.

Tim walks to the end of the board, aligns his body with his arms extended above his head, standing perfectly still until he is ready to leap. He does graceful swan dives and snappy jack-knifes, his long body folding and unfolding in the sun, slicing through the water without a ripple, swimming the whole length of the pool underwater, his body a shimmering comet tearing through space and time.


It was my grandfather’s moist palm on my forehead that I felt when I woke in the dark. And, he was saying something, his breath on me, the scent of rot and saliva.

“Was nothing, boy. No worries.”

His calloused palm scraped my forehead as he ran his arthritic fingers through my hair. He grunted and moaned as he lowered himself to lay beside me on the quilt, squirmed as he took off his boots. In the air was the scent of liquor and sweat.

“No worries. No worries.”

He asked me what I’d seen in my sleep.

“I was dreaming about the cow I saw today,” I said. “Down in the boneyard. The mom cow and the baby.”

“Which one?”

“The one with the baby, where the baby is coming out.”

I heard him scratch his unshaven face.

He turned away. Breathed deeply and began to cough. He cleared his throat and wet his lips. Then, just the sound of the house, the wind brushing against the walls, stirring the grass in the yard, a nighttime sigh that rattled and soaked the window, rattled the door—I imagined what the boneyard looked like, out there in this dark. The bending blades of grass rippling under wind and rain that was now pouring into the hollow and filling it with the stuff that would make the animal bodies disappear with time.

In Waimea the rain is a mist that slants with the wind, and comes in sharp and stinging. That morning, when me and Mom arrived at my grandfather’s property, he told us that the weather was turning, pointed to the clouds coming from the east, and I could already feel bits of wet against my face making my nose itch. He had been sitting on the porch repairing a tarp when we greeted him, and when he stood to go inside, we followed.

January of 1959, I’d met my grandfather for the first time. I was thirteen. We’d made this trip so many times that year, me and Mom every other Saturday. The two-hour bus ride took us north, from Hilo, through every Hamakua sugar town—the Pacific to the east and sugar cane fields to the west. Passed over Honoka’a town as the road curved inland, taking us up into the Honoka’ia Forest, and when we came out the land and the sky opened up big and wide. Views of grassland and cattle replaced the stretch of cane and ocean. Men on horseback wearing flat-crowned hats with wide brims, in the old vaquero style, came alongside the bus, clicking their tongues and pulling on the reins of their horses, whose hooves clacked high, hollow sounds on the road as they trotted to and from town.

My grandfather lived a few miles south of Waimea town, out toward Mauna Kea, on the Pu’u Kapu Plain, on three hundred acres of land he’d gotten in a Department of Hawaiian Homelands lottery, back when it was run by the Federal Government: a ninety-nine-year lease with a 50 percent blood minimum requirement. He’d built a stilted, plantation-style house that sat on a hill near the center of the property. Red dirt in wind, rust-scarred roof, made the once white house tawny. Inside, quilts and blankets lay folded in the corner and a large chest containing clothes and keepsakes was set in another. The dining table was pushed against the wall, beneath the sill of the large picture window that looked out toward the western paddocks. Dusty brown, inside, and scents of lacquer, leather, and manure, the wood mustier when the rainy season came, mustiest that trip in December 1959, the last time I saw my grandfather alive. Me and Mom climbing the steps to the porch, following him through the doorway, smelling it—the lacquer first, the saddles and boots, the mildewed beams of the open ceiling—me and Mom put our bags down near the quilts. He folded the tarp he’d been repairing and placed it in the corner at the door.

Later, when we sat down to lunch, he asked, “Is he doing good in school?” and pointed at me with his chin from the other side of the dining table. At the center was a large pot of beef stew simmering on the portable gas burner. Mom filled my grandfather’s bowl, then mine, then hers, telling him, as she ladled, that I always did well in school.

“It’s that Ha’ole blood where he gets that from. The brains not from us,” he said.

Mom glared at him. She fidgeted with her napkin, wiping her palms over and over again. I imagine that she was searching for the perfect phrasing that would save her from an argument, as had happened during past visits. They were still unable to talk about my father, a marine from Idaho who had been stationed at Camp Tarawa during World War II.   

“That’s not true,” she said. “You’re a smart man.” She reminded him of all the work he’d done on his property, how he’d built it up from nothing.

“Not the same,” he said.

“But, you have Ha’ole blood, too,” I said. “Your last name is a Ha’ole name.”

My grandfather kept his eyes on his bowl. It was a different kind of thing, he said, blowing on a spoonful of stew, slurping at the broth until a single piece of beef remained. It was different, perhaps, because what little Ha’ole blood he did have he could trace back to nineteenth-century New England missionaries. Different, because his Ha’ole ancestors arrived here with a Bible in hand. My father arrived in military dress, carrying a rifle. It was a different kind of thing because, as my grandfather had once told me, my father had seduced my mother, who was too young and stupid to know any better. It was different because I did not meet the blood requirement for the lease, and could never take over the property.   

“We had to put one of the calves down yesterday. The leg broke when was going through the chute and couldn’t do nothing. Cost more money to fix,” my grandfather said.

I waited, but he said nothing more, nothing about the blood and all that, nothing about the noise, the huffing and bleating of the calves, only chewed and swallowed, saying it was a shame and a waste.

I had seen the cattle on branding days. I’d watched the ranchers gather the weaning paddock and drive them to the corral. They ran the calves down the chute and into the squeeze. Cut notches in the ears of the females and castrated the males. Tagged them. Pushed irons bearing my grandfather’s symbol into their hides that sent streams of smoke and a sulfurous stench into the air. The animals bellowed and fought and bled. It wasn’t often on a branding day that my grandfather needed his revolver. But, as he was saying now, through a mouthful of mushed beef, sometimes the calves fought too hard.

“It’s in the corral, still. Need take it down the boneyard today,” he said.

After lunch he cleared the table and took the dishes out to the catchment spigot to wash. I took off my shirt and lay down on the quilt in the corner. Later, my grandfather was back on the porch with the tarp in hand. He sat still, threading and pulling, threading and pulling, having a conversation with himself that took place at the edge of his lips. How his hands vibrated almost imperceptibly as he patched the hole in the canvas. How his elastic-like thumb bent back nearly ninety degrees, gripping the needle. He had the strangest fingers. Always when he spoke. When he’d say important things. How he’d put his hands out in front with the crooked fingers spread wide, kinking wildly at the joints. And curving the hands down toward each other, until the outside edges of the palms touched, he’d make a semicircle motion, as if shaping a bowl out of the air. A way to show what he was saying, perhaps, because he spoke so little.

When he’d finished repairing the tarp, he stood and snapped the dirt and dead grass from its folds, eyed the stitches. He said he was going out, wanted to take care of the dead calf before the weather worsened.

“Can I come, too?” I asked him.

“What for?”

“Help,” I said.

“You don’t know what to do.” He was at the door, slipping into an army green poncho. “Hey,” he called to Mom. “You want him out with the weather like this?”

Mom told me to stop bothering my grandfather. “He’s busy,” she said.

“I’m not bothering him,” I said.

She was at the dining table, her face made up, and she was dabbing plumeria oil on her neck. Her red mu’u mu’u lay across the back of the chair beside the umbrella.

“If he gets sick, not my fault,” my grandfather said. He pulled the hood of the poncho over his head and stepped out onto the porch. “Hurry up, then,” he said to me. “The weather is only getting worse.”

“Go,” Mom said.

Perdy would be waiting for her at the front gate. His property bordered my grandfather’s to the south. A squat and dusty old man, ugly even, Perdy had made it to midlife without marrying, and he intended for Mom to marry him. Mom and my grandfather hadn’t spoken since my birth, but it was at Perdy’s request, late in 1958, that Mom and me made that first trip to Waimea. It had been a little over a year since we received that first letter from my grandfather, asking her if she remembered Perdy, and would she like to meet with him.     


Mom always said that. When I was small I’d ask her to walk to the ocean at King’s Landing, a distance of several miles. “Go,” she’d say, never asking who I was going with, or what time I’d be back. Growing up, I’d known Mom to be a large woman, a slow woman, whose movements were slight, never more than needed. Once, just after the Andrade kid drowned in a cave upriver, I said I was going swimming up Wailuku.

“Go. Do what you like.”

Even as I heard my grandfather kickstart the Speed Twin outside, and the engine revved over the noise of the weather, the RPMs falling, idling, and then the return of the rattling window, the dripping from the awning, the rain striking the metal roof, Mom seemed no more, no less concerned. She sat at the dining table, holding the mirror out in front, so that when I waved from the doorway, she couldn’t see me. We’d meet her in the morning, as we always did, Sundays on the chapel steps.

On the back of the cycle the rain and wind hit us like hail. Fog was rolling in from the Saddle, limiting visibility to a few yards in every direction. We dipped and climbed over hills, through grass that was waist high in places and in others, where the cattle were grazing, mowed to the mud. We slowed for the puddles and paddock gates only. Then the speed again, and the pelting wind and rain. The engine beneath me numbing.

Near the corral my grandfather downshifted. Arms tight around his torso, I felt his body ease with the cut of the engine. We coasted, silently closing the distance between us and the carcass. It was a tiny thing, lying on its side. My grandfather unfolded the tarp and laid it over the mud, beside the calf. As I came closer I saw the wound at the center of its forehead, the brown-black blood coagulated around it. Like the other animals who didn’t live long enough to make it to the slaughterhouse, this calf was being taken to the boneyard, a hollow at the western edge of the property, to bloat and stink, to be infested with flies and worms.

I knew the boneyard well. Often I’d play there, alone, among the wasting animals. I wielded femurs against invisible armies and stomped on horned skulls half-buried in the soft soil. I’d be Eisenhower or Patton charging across the battlefield, stabbing the distended bellies until entrails spilled from the wound. Most often, I was William Holden, screaming, Kill the Japs! Kill ’em!, gunning down the enemy with a knotted guava branch. A shot taken to the chest and I’d fall face-first in the grass, grabbing and scratching at my shirt, gurgling, making what I thought were the sounds the dying make.

William Holden.

I remember the first time I saw him. It was in Sabrina. There he was, twenty feet tall on the Palace Theater screen, in Hilo. William Holden as David Larrabee, the playboy in sport jackets and straw hats. And, there was the exotic, redwood smell of the theater’s banisters and seats, a scent that, even in my old age, brings the scenes and music from that picture to mind. The smell also leaves me aching for a ghost.

See, I used to imagine my father to be just like David Larrabee, in looks and temperament. In the dark, on the upper deck of the Palace Theater, I saw my father to be a handsome man, clever-talking, a blond-haired, blue-eyed man with a warm face. I never knew much about him. Mom didn’t know much either. He shipped off and died on Iwo Jima without ever knowing about me.

If she talked about my father, Mom never said much. She always said she was telling everything she knew. That his name was William. That he had blond hair. I get the height and the olive eyes from him. But, the hands are my grandfather’s.

“Hold here,” my grandfather said, squatting beside the calf, the ends of the rope hanging limp from his hands.

I pushed against the knot with my palm and he finished tying it, looping and crossing the rope over the back of my hand, tightening the knot once I’d slipped my fingers out.

“Lift it.”

I lifted one side of the bundled calf as my grandfather further wrapped it with another piece of rope. He hitched it to the back of the cycle. We were going again, the engine rumbling low as we dragged the calf through the mud of the corral, down the hill, parting the tall grass of paddock five and six, down the side of the western hollow, into the boneyard. There, we unwrapped the calf and he folded up the tarp. A few yards away there was a freshly rotting animal lying on its side, whose outline I could barely make out through the fog.

“Where you going?” he said.

“To look.”

I approached the animal from the front. Its milky gray eyes watched me come closer. Tongue hung from the mouth. I tapped it with my shoe. The wet, distended belly and the stench. My body’s tiny convulsions. I lifted my shirt collar over my nose and still, the stench.

“Boy, we go already.”

As I circled the animal I saw something between its hind legs. A rust-colored thing, an organ maybe. But there were no wounds. I kicked at the grass around it, then pulled until I saw a pair of tiny hooves, hind legs that disappeared into the heifer. I had never seen anything like it.

“There’s a baby, too,” I yelled.

“It’s nothing, boy. No worries.”


Perhaps it was coincidence that my grandfather told me the story of Ikua Kaleohano that night, after waking me and asking what I’d seen in my sleep. Perhaps the telling of the story was a moment of grace. As we lay there in the dark, perhaps the story of the Kaleohano family represented the ideal, which, for the first time in his life, seemed possible.

His back still turned to me, he began to cough again, though it was much worse this time. I could feel his body convulsing beside me, clenching and releasing. He swallowed what had been loosened in his throat. I heard his lips part.

“The Kaleohano family . . .” he said.

“Who?” I said.

He had told me many stories, always in the dark, late, and only after drinking. He’d wake me to talk and slur through stories about all the beautiful women he’d been with, or a dead friend that he missed—most were dead—or a time when his father gave him lickens. If I fell asleep he’d nudge me so he could continue. He talked about the burial caves in Kawaihai. The haunted forest down Mud Lane. But mostly, he talked about families. Who was from which family. About so-and-so, who had married into another family. The tempers of families, the looks of others.

“The Kaleohano family, from Kona side. You know them, yeah? You Hilo, boy, so you don’t know. They the ones get one hundred acres up Hualalai. They get fifty or sixty head Hereford pipi.”

He paused. Wanted me to say something.

“You know, one of the boys plays ball for Konawaena. Real fast.”

He waited. Groaned.

“Get one story about the Kaleohanos. Long time ago had one guy named Ikua Kaleohano. He was the one first got that one hundred acres. How he got the money, who knows? Ikua had one wife and one baby on the way, but both the baby and the wife went make during the birth. Ikua, this guy, his heart was broken. That’s what the old-timers say. He came real religious after that, the kind where you pray every day, and every time you talk to the guy, all he like do is talk about God. He still worked the land. Started laying fence lines. Bought couple head cattle. The whole time he was praying. They said he was praying for his wife and his baby and he was praying for himself too, that could fix his heart.

“You try ask the old-timers about Ikua. They going tell you he was a little bit crazy. People stopped talking to him, they stopped seeing him. He never came down Waimea side anymore. For years and years nobody saw him. Then, he started coming town again. He was going around telling people he had one new son. Could describe the boy and all. From his ehu-color hair all the way down to the big toe, which was long and skinny. Ikua was telling everybody that the boy was one miracle from God, ’cause he was praying so long. The people said to him, Ikua, you get one baby but no wife, no woman, how can?

“He said he met one woman one night, up on his property. She had dark skin and gray hair, he said. She stayed with him. He said she went fix his heart. She had his baby, too. New baby. The next day she was gone, disappeared.”

My grandfather nudged me with his shoulder and asked if I was still awake, ’cause he didn’t want to be talking to no one.

“Is that real?” I asked.

“Plenty people think was one lie, but how can? Where the baby came from, then? Some people think was Pele. Me, I don’t know.”

“Where’s the boy? Is he still alive?”

“He grew up. Took over the land when Ikua went make, short time later. He too, went make in his thirties. Thrown from a mule on the trail down to Honokane’iki. All the Kaleohanos come from that line. Real talented family, the Kaleohanos. Good ranchers. I think people believe the story more now after they seen how special that family is.”

My grandfather ran his hand through my hair once more. Overhead, the roof rattled, the window, too. The rain had picked up and its patter against the house was like radio static. Then, all at once, the noise stopped, as if the weather were between breaths. I fell asleep to the sound of my grandfather snoring.


He died later that month.

He would not be there when we moved into Perdy’s house a few weeks later. He would not see the wedding. He would never know that after years of trying Mom and Perdy could not have children. He would not have to watch his property pieced and parceled to new ranchers.

When we found his body it was face-down near the corral, bloated and stiff, the purple skin blistering. Flies crowded around the open sores and crawled along the flaking skin of the lips, in and out of the mouth. The face was unrecognizable. I remember thinking this wasn’t anyone I knew. Wasn’t anyone. Just something my grandfather had left behind. When I saw the rigid, bent wrists and the curling fingers only then did I feel afraid. Mom wouldn’t look. She covered her face and started toward the house.

Later that day, I wrapped what was left of my grandfather in the tarp and dragged the bundle out of the corral and up the hill. I leaned back and pulled, pushed with my legs, squatted low to push off again. I was facing the western paddocks as I dragged his body along the ridge of a hill, toward the house, as I strained and sweated to pull it over rocks and dirt, through thick grass. The western paddocks lay stretched out before me, the boneyard in the shadow of the hollow.


During supper in the dining car the former Queen of the Lettuce Festival wanted to know if the world was ending.

“Now, listen,” she said. “You can tell us—we’re not the kind that panics. We just want to be ready, that’s all.” She nudged her husband beside her. “Isn’t that right?” she said, then said it again.

“Oh, yes,” said her husband. “We are calm, cool, and collected.” He had the red nose of a drinker and giggled to himself as he ate his salad.

She wasn’t talking to me. I was traveling alone and hadn’t shaved in four days. I’d learned that a young man traveling alone doesn’t get asked questions. He makes people nervous.

She was talking to the man sitting beside me, a middle-aged man in a clean blue polo shirt who had introduced himself as David. He was a geologist.

The Queen tapped a golden fingernail on the tabletop. Her nail polish was the same color as the rims of her glasses and the watch on her wrist. “Tell me,” she said, “I hear about these glaciers melting in Alaska and California. Is this true? We want to be ready, you know, when the water rises.”

The husband paused in his eating to bang down a fist on the table. “Always be prepared!” he cried. His wine glass shivered. He speared a cherry tomato on his fork and grinned at it.   

The Queen turned to him. “Howard,” she said. She gave him a stern look through her gold-rimmed glasses. “We’re talking.” She turned back to David the geologist:  “Excuse him,” she said. “He used to be a Boy Scout.”

“Eagle Scout,” said Howard. “Once a Scout, always a Scout.” He put down his fork and picked up the wrapper the Queen’s straw had been in. “Watch,” he said, and winked at me. “Hitch knot!” he said and twisted the wrapper into a pretzel before it tore in half. He looked disappointed. “Oh,” he said. And after a moment, “I seem to have forgotten.” I handed him mine and he thanked me.

David the geologist resettled the napkin in his lap. “Actually,” he said, “there’s a glacier on Mt. Rainier that’s growing. I was up there last month.”

“Oh, dear,” said the Queen. “What does that mean?”

“Hard to say,” he said, “but you never hear about the growing ones. They’re not sensational enough.”

“Oh, dear,” the Queen repeated. “I wonder if they’ll make us extinct someday.”   

“Oh, we’ll all be extinct someday,” David the geologist said. “We’ll die off, but the earth will go on. Something else will replace us. Maybe the insects, maybe the birds. But something will.”

“Awful,” the Queen said. “What an awful thing to think about.” She sat back and looked out the window. We were passing through the wide fields of eastern Montana. It was August and they were full of alfalfa and cutter bees and the hot evening sunlight.

A waiter came by and cleared away our dirty plates as the train swung into a long curve. He swayed with it perfectly and didn’t miss a step. When he returned, Howard said he was ready for some apple pie.

“I bet it’ll be the insects,” the Queen said at last. “There’s so many of them.”

“Could be,” said David the geologist. “Wouldn’t surprise me at all.”

“Me, neither,” said the Queen. She was quiet for a moment and touched her white hair lightly with a hand. “I just hope it’s not flies,” she said. “I don’t like flies.”

The waiter brought Howard’s apple pie and we fell into a silence as we concentrated on our food and the doom of the world. I didn’t think it would be the insects. I didn’t think it would be the birds, either. I had a feeling it would be something else entirely, something worse. But I didn’t say anything. It wasn’t worth fighting over and I’d already lost one fight that week.   

Two days before in Chicago, Lucy told me we weren’t working anymore. We were moving apart, she said.

“How are we doing that?” I asked. We were sitting under a black umbrella at an outdoor café. The Chicago River flowed beside us and two gulls clattered over it.

“I don’t know,” she said. She shrugged and sipped dark soda through a straw. It was hard to hear her. It was rush hour and the traffic was a loud wind that redoubled off all the buildings. I pulled my chair closer to the table.

“It’s like I’m going east,” she said, “and you’re going west.” I frowned and leaned toward her. The traffic light had changed and a horn sounded as she spoke. “We’re just going in different directions, you know?” There were cardboard coasters on the table and she pushed two of them apart with her fingertips.

“That’s not true,” I said.

“Vance,” she said. She tried to smile, but instead she tipped her head to the side and took another sip of soda. When she did, her hair slid over itself like grain. It was shorter and lighter. I’d seen this the moment I got off the train and it worried me somewhere deep.

I’d mentioned it that afternoon on the platform. After we’d kissed hello I said she’d done something to her hair. Yes, she said. She had looked at me steadily. She’d gotten it cut, she said, and lightened, too. She’d told me this on the phone, she said. Didn’t I remember?  Oh right, I said, she had. She hadn’t.

She wanted to know if I liked it. I didn’t. No, I wanted to say, are you kidding me? but I was thinking instead, thinking of how it was when we were both still in Shelby and we’d put food and beer in my truck on Friday afternoons after school and drive west through Cut Bank and on up to Glacier, where we’d hike until we found a good spot near water we could swim in before dinner. We’d sit against rocks and drink the beer while the stars came out above the lodgepoles and the spruce and the katydids began to tick and clatter in the brush; sometimes we’d hear the hoot of an owl and then Lucy’d make her eyes big and put her face close to mine and hoot at me until I’d kiss her to make her stop and she’d be laughing too hard to kiss me back. Later, in the tent I’d pull her down on top of me and her hair was so long and thick that when it covered my face I couldn’t see a thing or really even breathe, but I’d hold her there like that after we’d finished, the darkness beneath her hair so complete that nothing came in at all, not the starlight or the cricketsong or the damp smell of mud curving up from Rose Creek—even our breathing seemed to have gone someplace far away where it sat and waited quietly.    

It was that stillness, I decided one night after a year with her had passed, it was that stillness that people must mean when they called something love.

“I can go east,” I said, though I knew it wasn’t true. I already didn’t like the city. It made my stomach heavy. In my suitcase back at her apartment was my return ticket to Shelby, and that’s where I wanted to be.   

“Vance,” she said again. “No, you can’t.” She reached across the table and took my hand for a moment and squeezed it.

“Then you can come back west,” I said. I felt a little desperate, a little dizzy.

“I can’t do that, either,” she said. She didn’t take my hand this time. Instead I felt the firm pressure of the world pushing back at me. “I like this city,” she said. “I like my job and I like going out at night and dancing. I like all these people and all the noise. I’m happy here.”

I sat back in my chair and asked if there was someone else. She smiled sadly at me and said no, there wasn’t, and I believed her. I believed there was no one else, but there was still the city and that was still too much.

That night I lay in the dark on Lucy’s couch and tried to fall asleep. Yellow light came in through the blinds and I could smell her perfume in the seams of the cushions. Outside there were people calling to each other and laughing and airplanes rose and landed somewhere near. I covered my eyes with one hand and tried to think of one good thing. Then I tried to think of nothing at all. In the end I sat up and waited for dawn and wondered once or twice if I might get sick and if I could be quiet about it.

When it was light enough I took a taxi to the station while Lucy still slept. I took a seat in coach, then moved to the observation car and watched the flat land and the thin rivers slide past until evening came and I started to feel hungry again. I didn’t have much money, but I decided I deserved a good meal the way a soldier deserves a good meal after a battle, so I got a ticket for the dining car where they seated me with the Queen and her husband and David the geologist.

The Queen wanted to know if David the geologist was married. He wasn’t.

“Why not?” she said. She pointed at him with a shining fingernail. “Look how smart you are. How many men know about the end of the world?”

“Oh,” said David the geologist. He held up a hand, but he was smiling. “Please,” he said.

“Any girl would be lucky to have you,” the Queen said. She looked at the neat points of his collared shirt as she said this. I saw her glance at my hands. They were folded together.

“Well, it’s not for lack of trying,” said David the geologist. “I’ve met some nice women, but they never seem to stick around.”

Howard had finished his apple pie and took up my straw wrapper. He worked feverishly at it for a few moments, looping and relooping it. “Double surgeon!” he said at last and held up his work. He gave it one last tug and it tore in half. He smiled sadly as before. “Alas,” he said, “this trout has escaped.”

“Stop it,” said the Queen. She took the wrapper from his hands. “Now, listen,” she said to David the geologist. “Howard and I met thirty-two years ago at the Lettuce Festival in Santa Cruz. I was crowned queen and he was my king. It was a wonderful place to fall in love. You never know how it will happen.”

“That’s a beautiful story,” said the geologist. “Maybe I should go to a Lettuce Festival.” He laughed a little, then stopped.

“I would very much recommend it,” the Queen said. “Wouldn’t you, dear?” She nudged Howard and he grinned.

“Yes,” he said, “go. Go!” He giggled again and gave me his rosy grin. I could see where a touch of apple still clung to a tooth.

“Maybe I will, too,” I said, and the Queen and David the geologist looked at me. I went on:  “I think I might like that.”

There was a long moment and I was aware of someone in the car striking a dish too hard with a glass and then laughing. “Yes,” the Queen said finally. She looked at me through her gold-rimmed glasses and frowned a little. “It’s quite an experience.”

I felt the blood rush to my face. I picked up the pieces of Howard’s straw wrappers and rolled them into little pellets between my thumb and index finger. I arranged them like a stone circle around a crumb while the waiter brought the check.

Outside, the mountains pushed up on the horizon and the light grew long and late, making deep shadows in the dells. I held on to the edge of the table with one hand as the grade rose slowly.


We discovered the airplane the summer after the Polio had swept through town and left Skeeter Fitch with his paralyzed left leg strapped into a steel brace. On that June morning, Moe—who was called that because his mother cut his black hair in a bowl-cut like Moe Howard, one of the Three Stooges—led us down the dirt road behind our neighborhood, thick woods on one side and barbed-wire fence on the other.

Moe carried a whacking stick, which was just what it sounds like: a long heavy stick he used to whack against trees, fence posts, and other kids who got in his way.

His sidekick, Skeeter, gimped along behind. Skeeter was pale and already filthy, as usual, from rolling on the ground to get away from Moe’s whacking stick. Behind him walked Barry Raines—we called him Brains because he was already taking algebra in some sort of brainiac class at Central High School, even though he was only in eighth grade, like the rest of us.

Except my little brother, Robbie the Runt. Robbie the Runt was a puny little puke of a kid, my parents’ darling, who always got to tag along even though he was three years younger than me. Robbie wasn’t a bad kid—didn’t say much, did what he was told, never complained. He was just there—permanently, eternally there. Wherever I went, I would turn around and bump into the kid and he would give me his goofy grin and just stand there, getting in my way. Robbie the Runt was a smart kid, always reading biographies of George Washington and President Eisenhower and the Wright brothers and about how the Constitution was made. But try to show him how to patch a bicycle tire and he’d look at you like you just landed from Mars.

At the supper table, our dad would always get Robbie to show off what he was reading. Then he would shoot his cuffs—he always wore his office clothes to the supper table—and say to me, “And what are you reading, Marshall?” And he would look at me without blinking through his horn-rimmed glasses and steeple his clean fingers and I would feel about two inches tall. I didn’t read books. Books were hard for me. The letters danced out of reach and the sentences didn’t make a lot of sense unless I went really slow, and then I got bored and started to look out the window or whatever.

But give me a tool, something with weight that you could hold in your hand, a mechanical connection, something that bolted on or screwed in or turned a crank, and I could get lost for hours. I’d rebuilt our lawn mower twice and even tuned the engine in the Buick when Dad was out of town on business and he never noticed.

I had built a whole squadron of airplane models that hung on wires in the bedroom I shared with Robbie the Runt—not the easy plastic models but wooden models that came as blueprints and sheets of balsa wood and linen, and you had to cut the struts and frames and stretch the linen over the wings and fuselage and dope it to make it tight, attach little wires to the ailerons so they moved up and down and to the tail rudder so it cocked left or right. I bought them at the Western Auto with money I saved from my paper route. Mr. Rutledge, the manager, would order them for me special.

At night, lying in bed and listening to my parents argue downstairs, I’d stare up at the airplanes and watch them spin slowly in the breeze sifting in from the open window. The streetlight cast their shadows against the far wall, and I’d imagine flying—soaring and diving and looping all over the sky, my fist curled around the joystick, the wind flying past my face, my brother and all his stupid books far below in a miniature world that didn’t matter. I’d fall asleep watching the shadows dance across the wall. It was beautiful to see and lifted my heart on bad nights when I lay awake fearing that I would never amount to anything, which was a lot of nights. I miss them even now.

So at the supper table, I would just grin stupidly and say to my dad, “Well, the new Archie comic book is a real hoot.” And get sent my room—again—where I could work on my Sopwith Camel or Gypsy Moth.

Beyond the barbed-wire fence lay old man Saylor’s farm. He never raised anything but a few milk cows and horses, who had the run of the pastures and the creek. The pastures were all overgrown with burrs and blackberry bushes, and wherever an oak tree grew the space around it was an island of high, dense bramble thicket, ideal for a fort. Our fort in the woods had been bulldozed over during the winter to make room for more cheapo houses in a new subdivision. Now all the woods was surveyed and marked off with stakes, and by the end of the summer it would all be gone. So we were roaming farther afield, daring for the first time to venture across the barbed wire into unknown territory.

You could see out across the pasture to the creek, the sun already high enough to make us squint. Beyond the creek lay more pastures, more fences. On the rusty barbed wire hung a sign hand-painted in red letters on gray barnwood:

Trespassers wil be persecuted to the fool extend of the LAW

by 2 mongrel DOGS and a 12-gage SHOTGUN

what hain’t loded with sofer cushins

“That don’t mean nothing,” Moe said. “Them dogs been dead for fifty years.” Moe was a raw-boned kid with a head that was too big, his mop of black hair always flopping in his face so that he was constantly slicking it back with his left hand. He’d already done a stint in juvie for breaking into houses, and it was a sure bet he was going back someday soon. His father was a drinker and used to disappear for days on end and sometimes come home in a police car, and none of the grownups ever talked about it—except that Moe was one of the boys we were not allowed to play with.

But old man Saylor had a reputation for being eccentric and mean, and just maybe he had new mongrel dogs. Maybe he replaced the old mongrel dogs every couple of years, like some people replaced their old cars. Once when I was coming back from fishing the creek farther up the dirt road, I had caught a glimpse of one big yellow dog loping along the pasture near the house, and of old Mr. Saylor himself standing on the porch calling his yellow dog home. He was a tall, bony man dressed all in dungarees, with thick white hair and beard, like an Old Testament prophet. In those days the only men in our neighborhood who wore beards were the hobos who wandered in from the B&O railroad tracks. Old Mr. Saylor looked my way and shaded his eyes with a hand, like he was scouting, and I ran all the way home.

Skeeter unlaced the leather straps from his leg brace, stripped it off from his dungarees, and stuffed it behind a bush, the way he always did, so he wouldn’t get it all muddy—or else his old man would whip him with his army belt—then slipped between two strands of wire.

Careful to avoid the cow flop, we humped through the brown grass, already greening up, smelling the humid June air buzzing with flies and sweet with honeysuckle, scratched our way through brambles and crossed the creek on stepping-stones into the pasture farthest from old man Saylor’s house. Beyond this field there was one last fence and a long drop into an abandoned borrow pit, a big sandy-clay hole in the earth where dump trucks used to haul out gravel and sand when they built our subdivision. But they didn’t go there anymore, hadn’t for a long time.

The wind suddenly kicked up out of nowhere—sluicing through a kind of natural funnel between two forested hills over the borrow pit and right into our faces. The grass rustled and hissed, and suddenly the whole pasture seemed to be alive and cooler. The wind lifted my black and orange Orioles cap right off my head and I had to chase it down as it cartwheeled through the high grass.

We crawled on hands and knees through a thicket island into the middle of an open space and inside the shady cave made by a rotten pasture oak and all the brambles, and when we stood up and brushed the grass and leaves off our dungarees and T-shirts, we were staring at a dilapidated barn roofed in rusty tin. There it stood, totally invisible from outside the thicket. We pushed through the double front door and saw it had through-and-through double doors, so you could drive equipment in and out without backing up. The back double doors were closed and locked by a heavy wooden bar.

And smack in the center of the dirt floor stood an old airplane—or what was left of one. A fuselage and wings without an engine, a glider. Just a big box kite really, the wings faded yellow fabric over wooden frames, the ghost of a bright idea, lying there in a shed overgrown with sumac and nettles.

“Too cool!” said Moe, and we swarmed over the glider. On the lower wing was a cradle for a pilot to lie in while flying it. “Out of the clear blue Western sky comes Sky King!” Moe yelled and sprawled onto it and the struts in the wing crunched under his weight.

Brains said, “Get off—you’re too heavy! Jeez, what a fat load.”

Moe got to his feet. His eyes shone with that look a boy’s eyes get when his little brain is hatching a dangerous and stupid idea. He turned to Skeeter. “You thinking what I’m thinking?”

Skeeter grinned. He was always missing teeth. He began flapping his arms. “Wild blue yonder, man,” he said.

The glider was in bad shape, the canvas wings moldy, torn in patches. A couple of struts were warped and some of the braces were cracked. But the shape of the thing was there, a beautifully efficient machine for soaring through the air. I recognized it. I had one just like it hanging from the ceiling of my room: a 1912 Sparrowhawk glider. Two wings, a thin blade of a frame reaching back to a tail section with swallowtail winglets and a curved vertical stabilizer. The little history card that had come with the model kit claimed that the Sparrowhawk had once held the world glider record, soaring for more than an hour off some mountain peak out West. The curved skids on its undercarriage were propped on a kind of wheeled bogie on narrow rusty tracks that disappeared at the back door of the shed—what we now saw was really a hangar.

We had all heard tales of old man Saylor, how he had made his fortune inventing gadgets for the Army, how he used to fly a private plane right off his pasture. How his only son, Cal Junior, was killed in the Big War, when his B-17 was shot down over Germany, and the old man never went off the place again but holed up in the house with his dogs. He built a cabin on the property for his son’s pregnant wife, who died in childbirth, and one night he burned down the cabin on purpose. His twenty-year-old granddaughter, Penny, had just got married last year. It was in the paper. They had the wedding right on the farm and none of us knew anybody who was invited.

But I had never heard about any gliders.

The rusty track, like a miniature railroad, ran to the back doors. On an instinct, I removed the wooden bolt from the back doors and flung one of them open. The breeze rushed in and quivered the wings of the glider. From the open door, I could look down the sloping swale of pasture to a small rise, then a dip to the fence, the point where it dropped off into the borrow pit, and a few hundred yards beyond the pit, I could see green grass. I said, “Looks like he launched it from right back here, into the wind.”

We kicked around in the high grass and discovered the rest of the overgrown steel track that ran down the slope. I walked slowly down the slope and stood at the barbed-wire fence, where a double gate had been fixed at the end of the track and was locked by a rusty chain and padlock, looking out across the borrow pit to the other side. The pit had been carved right out of the pasture, and it lay before me like an open wound—sides scraped and scarred, a hundred feet below, the red clay glistening with pools of stagnant oily water, looking like everything that was missing from my life. The wind was steady on my face. That was why he had launched it from here: the wind. You need wind to generate airspeed over the wings and lift the glider.

The rails ran for maybe a hundred feet to the edge of the pit, about as far as I could throw a baseball.

Moe ran to the fence, jumping up and down with glee, Skeeter and Robbie the Runt close behind. “Jesus H. Christ!” he shouted. “This is going to be the best!”

“That crate ain’t in no shape to fly,” I reminded him. “It’s all rotten.”

Moe grabbed me by the collar of my polo shirt. “Don’t you want to do something great? I mean something really great? That they’d remember forever and tell stories about? Man, oh man! Jesus H. Christ, Marsh, it doesn’t get any cooler than this!”

I said, “It’s all busted up.”

Moe stood toe-to-toe with me, so close I could smell him, sour and rank. “You’re scared. That’s what it is.”

“I ain’t scared.”

“Look at us, Marsh. Take a good look.” He spun slowly around, flapping his arms at the woods, the pasture, the sky. “Where are we going? You think I’m going anywhere?”

“High school,” I said.

Moe snorted. “Yeah, Central High. Home of the losers. You, me, and the gimp here.”

“Brains will do OK.”

“Right. If his old man don’t get transferred again.” Brains had been to four schools in four years. My parents said his dad didn’t get transferred—he just couldn’t hold a job.

“Only one thing an airplane is good for,” Skeeter said.

Robbie the Runt tugged at my wrist. I turned and looked into his squinty eyes. He said quietly, “You can fix it.” His nose was running snot.

“Wipe your nose, Runt.”

He stared at me earnestly, swiped a bare hand across his nose, the little Orioles cap he wore in imitation of mine askew on his crew cut. “You can make it fly.”

I shook him off my arm. “You’re dreaming, Runt. It ain’t a model.” But I could already see it in my mind’s eye: the restored glider, wings bright yellow, holding the sunlight as it slipped down the slope on a greased track, then swept through the open gate and lifted into the sky. I watched it soar across the ugly chasm of the borrow pit, a quick shadow darkening the glassy clay pools far below, then skidding down gently into the high grass on the other side.

And that settled it. A bunch of restless boys with all summer on their hands who don’t mind stealing lumber and canvas and paint can fix up anything.


What we didn’t worry about:

It never occurred to us that the Sparrowhawk didn’t belong to us, that we would essentially be stealing it. All of us except Robbie the Runt were already experienced thieves—money from our moms’ pocketbooks, penknives from the Western Auto, Christmas ornaments off lawns.

We didn’t worry about old man Saylor catching us and turning us in to the cops. Nobody had been in that barn in years and years, and from the cover of that thicket surrounding the front of the hangar, we could spot anybody coming literally a mile away.

And we never really considered the possibility that the Sparrowhawk glider wouldn’t fly but instead pitch into the borrow pit and cartwheel into pieces at the bottom. Not out loud, anyways.

But that’s all I thought about.

Skeeter was a great scrounge, and he turned up with two old Boy Scout tents and his mother’s sewing box, to fix the damaged wings. My job was supervising the rebuild. Moe and I stole framing lumber from one of the house-building sites, a few sticks at a time so it wouldn’t be noticed, working at night and dragging the heavy pieces down to the pasture in the dark so we could retrieve them in the morning and haul them the rest of the way with the others helping. Moe stole a can of yellow highway marker paint from his father’s truck.

I cut apart the tents and stitched new patches over the frames. It wasn’t easy—the fabric was stiff and the needles kept breaking off. My hands were all cut and raw from the stitching. And before we could even do that, we had to shave down two-by-fours using handsaws and planes, shaping the pieces to match the ones we were replacing. Then we rabbetted joints and screwed them together, hoping they would hold. The new wings took three whole gallons of paint thinner, the closest we had to dope. Moe came up with a spool of baling wire so we could re-rig the wing and tail supports.

I took the model from our bedroom out to the hangar and kept it there so I could compare it to the full-sized glider and make sure we were doing it right.

One night Dad came into our room to say good night and noticed the empty wire. “Where’s the yellow one?”

“I traded it for a catcher’s mitt,” I lied, hoping he wouldn’t ask to see the mitt.

He said, “I just hope you’re not hanging out with that Moe Gargan character. I hear he’s been caught stealing again. I don’t want you winding up on the police blotter.”

I had no idea what the police blotter was, but that was my father’s favorite warning. I guessed it was some big book at the police station which listed which boys weren’t ever going to amount to anything. You’d go looking for a job ten years from now, and the guy would say, “Can’t hire you, son—your name’s on the police blotter.” Boys whose names were on the police blotter were doomed to sorry, broken lives. Like Moe and Skeeter. And probably me, too. Just a matter of time.

We worked every day, all day, taking time out to wolf down peanut butter sandwiches and cokes for lunch, then starting right back in.

Robbie the Runt and Skeeter acted as lookouts. Moe cleared the track and greased it with two cans of Crisco he stole from the A&P, then cut the chain off the fence gate using bolt cutters he borrowed from his father’s workshop.

Brains did the math: what our takeoff speed had to be, how far the Sparrowhawk would glide on a certain wind velocity, how far it would drop. He set up an anemometer, which he had stolen from the high-school physics lab, to measure the wind velocity. Skeeter contributed a windsock made from one of his mother’s nylon stockings and Moe hung it on an aluminum clothes pole liberated from somebody’s backyard, mounted against one of the fence posts at the edge of the borrow pit.

After a few days of calculating, Brains announced, “I don’t know if it will make it across.”

“What do you mean, you don’t know?” Moe asked him.

“What I said, butt-face.”

Moe smacked him on the head, the way he was always doing to Skeeter. He didn’t do it to me, because I was almost as big as Moe.

“Cut it out!” Brains said. “Look.” He held out a notebook full of equations. Moe and I studied it, like we knew what it said, but for all we knew it could have been a Chinese crossword puzzle. “You don’t get it, do you?”

We just stared at him.

“You’re too heavy.”

“Who is?” Moe demanded.

“You are. And you, too, Marshall. And Skeeter. And me, for that matter. The payload has got to be seventy pounds, max. Sixty would be better.”

Robbie the Runt, as usual, poked his nose in where it didn’t belong. “I’ll do it,” he said brightly. “I can fly. Marsh can show me how.” He was grinning like a moron. “Can’t you, Marsh?”

They all looked at me. For once he was right. For once, a runt was exactly what we needed. “Yeah,” I said. “Sure, Runt.”


There are moments in a boy’s life when time stalls and he stands exactly on the verge of who he was and who he is going to be. The light is perfect, a shaft beamed right down from heaven, and even if he is in a crowd, he stands alone. It’s as if a chasm has opened up before him, narrow enough to step across, if he chooses to, and if he is sure-footed. But the chasm is also deep enough to swallow him forever if he stumbles. And if he does not step, the chasm grows wider and wider, till he can no longer step across. All that matters from now on will happen on the other side of that chasm, and he will lose his chance to be part of it.

It is a moment when he must depend wholly on his instincts, his intuition, that little voice inside that will, with the right word, make him a saint or a criminal. He must step across to the rest of his life.

In such a moment I saw Penny Saylor stepping out of the shadows and into the waning sunlight of the summer pasture. I had stayed behind when the other boys went home. For once Robbie the Runt was nowhere around. He’d had to go to the dentist that afternoon to get braces put on his teeth.

She didn’t see me at first. She was wearing cutoff shorts and a white blouse and her head was bowed so that her red hair fell around her face, hiding her eyes. She walked slowly through the high grass straight toward the hangar and stopped when she saw me at the edge of the thicket.

“I thought I saw somebody out here the other day,” she said without looking up.

“We don’t mean no harm,” I said.

“You found the old hangar,” she said and kept walking past me through the new entrance we had hacked out of the thicket till she stood inside the hangar. The Sparrowhawk gleamed like a yellow jewel. She laid a hand on one wing, as if feeling for a pulse. “This thing’s been out here since before I was even born. My grandfather always meant to try to fly it someday.”

“I bet he flew it plenty.”

She turned. “No, his boy died. My father. In the war. He stopped coming out here then.” She walked to the far door and unlatched it, swung it open. “That awful pit wasn’t even here then. It was just sloping pastureland all the way across.” She swept her hand toward the pit and for a moment I saw what she was seeing.

I wondered whether she would tell the old man, spoil everything. From where we were standing, the rails were plain to see and the nylon windsock fluttered in a fitful breeze.

“Tell you the truth? I think he was glad to have an excuse not to fly it. I think it scared him. I think you’d have to be crazy to try to fly a kite like this.”

“I bet it would work,” I said, but all at once my heart didn’t believe it anymore. All this time, I’d been operating under the assumption that we would only be trying to do what had already been done. But he had never flown across any borrow pit. Never flown at all.

Silence hung in the air like mist. You could touch it and feel it clammy on your skin. Then she looked at me. “You know what I just found out?” she said, looking weirdly distracted and calm.


“My husband Bill. He’s dead. His car crashed up in Pennsylvania.”

I looked her full in the face and saw then that her green eyes were swollen red, that she must have been wandering around the pasture for hours. I had no idea what to say, so I took her hand in mine and kissed it. She hugged my arm to her breast and cried a little, and I was so close, her soft red hair brushed my face. I’d never been this close to any woman except my mother, and it felt so good I trembled.

“It’s this farm,” she said. “Everything dies here.”

The way she said it chilled me to the bone, but I had no idea what to say back.

She turned abruptly and touched the wing of the glider. “I’m glad you painted it,” she said. “It looks beautiful. It doesn’t look dead anymore.” Then she leaned my way and kissed me quickly on the cheek. “Be a good boy,” she said, “and walk me back to the creek.”


Two days later, on a cloudy Saturday, I watched a procession of cars rumble down the dirt lane to the Saylor farm. The funeral reception. The cars came and went in a pall of July dust and when they were gone I slipped into the pasture and made my way out to the hangar just to make sure everything was still there. Inside the hangar, in the dusty light, I listened to the first rain splatter against the tin roof. It was oddly comforting. I carefully climbed onto the pilot’s cradle and closed my eyes, swaying my body left and right to turn the rudder, hearing it swish behind me, tensioning the levers that controlled the wires and moved the ailerons, the way I had coached Robbie. I imagined Penny watching us fly, her red hair unfurled like a banner in the breeze, her face lighting up with wonder at what we were doing.

But I couldn’t hold the daydream. The rain drummed hard on the roof now, and my stomach was all knotted with a terrible conviction. Tomorrow afternoon, we were going to launch my little brother over the side of a cliff and watch him smash to pieces. And that would be the end of the world.

The next day was brilliant and breezy, with high cumulus clouds scudding in from the west. Robbie the Runt set himself in the cradle as he had practiced, grinning though his silver braces. Moe, Brains, and I took up our positions behind each wing and the tail and gently pushed the glider out of the barn into the light.

“You count us down, Robbie,” I said.

“Roger,” he said. I heard him take an exaggerated deep breath and start the countdown at ten. “Three, two, one—blastoff!” he squealed.

We shoved hard, walked, then ran, still pushing, Robbie prone across the wing. The glider slid down the greased rails, picking up speed. At the edge of the meadow we let go and staggered to a halt on the lip of the borrow pit and the plane kept going. We had done it, launched the beautiful Sparrowhawk into the sky, right off the rim of the borrow pit.

I watched the ground slip out from underneath Robbie and he was alone in the empty air, frozen, hands gripping the control wires.

Then the glider stalled and dipped toward the faraway bottom of the pit and the bottom dropped out of my heart. I caught a breathless glimpse of what it would be like to be free of childhood—the thrill of it, and the terror. I could not have said it in those words then, but that does not make it untrue. Most things that mattered then were far beyond my ability to put into sentences.

Robbie lost his hold, or maybe let go on purpose, and he tumbled out of the sky to the muddy-clay flank of the borrow pit and slid all the way to the bottom before he stopped. The yellow Sparrowhawk spun gracelessly in slow agonizing motion into the muddy pool at the bottom and splintered into junk. Robbie lay near it, slathered in mud. His high-top sneakers had come off. He wasn’t moving, and I saw death in his form, and I could not breathe—my whole chest had been sucked empty—then suddenly he twisted and scrabbled to his feet, dancing around in the mud, clapping his hands together and yelling at the sky like a crazy boy. He was all scratched up, filthy as a stray dog, but I never saw him so happy in his life.


Moe was right. It was the greatest thing we ever did. There was no keeping it a secret.

I spent the summer grounded, allowed out of the yard only to deliver my paper route. In a few months, my parents sent me to Catholic high school up in the city, to learn some discipline, they said. What I learned instead—at long last—was the mystery of books, how to spin thoughts into sentences and not feel so alone in this world. That turned out to be the happy accident of my life, the one thing I never expected. Moe and Skeeter went to Central High and we lost track of each other. Brains’s dad got transferred again and he left town forever.

The smashed-up Sparrowhawk rotted away at the bottom of the borrow pit, stabbed and broken in the oily water.

The day after the crash, a Wedgewood-blue Ford pickup truck pulled up in front of our house. We were all seated at the supper table, and I could see through the dining room window two figures coming slowly up the front walk. When the doorbell rang, I sprang up and ran to open it. Penny Saylor stood there in a bottle-green dress, her red hair pulled back in a ponytail, her face radiant with grief. Behind her stood a gaunt, bearded man. Her grandfather, old Mr. Saylor. He pointed to me and said abruptly, “This the one?”

Penny shook her head.

“Ah,” he said, pointing a stiff yellow finger at me. “Then you’re a little shit.”

“Yes, sir,” I said, the most honest admission of my life. “That would be me.”

He stared at me a moment longer and wrinkled his nose, as if I were some disgusting creature he had discovered by accident in his barn. “Just don’t grow up to be a bigger shit.”

Penny pointed behind me to Robbie the Runt, who as always was suddenly jostling at my elbow. My father stood in his suit and tie, a dinner napkin still pinned to his collar. “What’s this all about?” He was rattled, caught off-guard, and for an instant I wondered if old man Saylor was going to sock him for letting his wild boys destroy his beautiful 1912 Sparrowhawk glider airplane.

Mr. Saylor ignored him and reached out a hand to Robbie, drew him outside. “So you’re the one,” he said softly and bent down closer to him. “You’re the ace.” He shook his hand theatrically and placed something in it, then he turned without another word and walked back to his truck. Penny glanced back over her shoulder and smiled—at either Robbie or me, I couldn’t be sure.

Later that night, when we were tucked into our narrow beds on opposite sides of our room, with the lights out and the streetlight glancing off the ceiling in a little triangle, Dad came into our bedroom without knocking and threw all the airplane models out the window into the trash can. One by one, he snatched them off their wires and sailed them into the dark, and I think he enjoyed doing it. It was awful to watch. I lay on my bed and stared at nothing and didn’t say anything but just listened. You could hear each one splintering as it hit the steel rim of the trash can. He said not a word, but I could hear him choking on his anger, breathing in heavy chuffs.

And that splintering sound is the same sound I always hear whenever somebody’s dream gets busted.

After he was gone, Robbie called softly, “Marsh?”


“I can’t help it if I like reading books. I don’t mean to, you know. Show off.”

“It’s all right,” I told him. “You learn a lot. You know a lot.”

“I don’t know anything. Don’t know as much now as I knew yesterday.”

“Don’t talk stupid.”

It was a hot, humid night, and we lay on our beds uncovered, sweating on the sheets. Those sticky nights always seemed to last forever. Far off, a train rumbled by on the B&O track and let loose a horn blast at the crossing in town.

“Marsh? I’ve got to tell you something.”

“It’s OK, Robbie. Whatever it is.”

“Tonight? It wasn’t the first time I ever saw Penny Saylor.”

“What?” I was up on my elbow staring across the dim light filtered by the wavy curtains. Overhead, the empty wires swayed silently, released from the weight of the airplanes they had once held. The dancing wires made it seem like the ghosts of the airplanes were still dangling there in the breeze.

“I came looking for you that day. When she was crying. I heard you talking to her.”

So I told him my secret. “Old man Saylor never flew that glider. You were the first.”

“I know, Marsh.”

“You don’t get it.” 

“Just ’cause you think it was a certain way doesn’t make it so.”

What could I say to the kid? I had pushed him down that track, launched him toward a big hole in the ground. If I was really honest with myself, I knew that glider would never get off the ground. I knew what I was doing to him. Some part of me, the part that inspired such black anger in my father, wanted to watch it happen—the joyful calamity of it, the greatness of the awful thing. I was pretty low-down, all right.

Robbie said, “I was pretty sure, you know, if anybody could. I was pretty sure you could make it fly.”

“Pretty sure?”

“Well, if it didn’t, the joke would be on you. You’d be on the police blotter forever.”

That sent us both into fits of laughing. Jeez, what a dumb puke. What a stupid runt of a kid brother. We were all on the police blotter forever, now.

All the laughter ran out of us after a while, and I was remembering Penny and how I had walked her to the creek that awful day. What I was seeing on her face was more than plain sorrow. It was the loss of hope. The future taken from her. And for just a few minutes, as I held her hand and guided her along the little path and watched her feet stumble because she was crying too hard to see where she was stepping, I was bigger and stronger and better and older than I would be for many years to come, and at least I could hold onto that to balance out the other.

Then I remembered. “What did he give you? Mr. Saylor?” I looked across to his bed and he held something up. The streetlight glinted off a little pair of silver wings.

“The real deal,” Robbie said, and flipped them across the room. I caught them and was surprised at the solid weight of them in my hand. I tossed them back to Robbie and heard his hand slap around them.

Robbie was a doer after all. He read books not because he wanted to know about Washington and Teddy Roosevelt, but because he wanted to be Teddy Roosevelt, to charge up San Juan Hill. I was the one who watched and never did anything. What did I ever do? The biggest model I ever built nose-dived into the clay pit.

Wreckage, that was all I had ever made. Me. Just a little shit who was probably going to grow up to be a bigger shit. Old Mr. Saylor’s fierce blue eyes held the truth. I kept seeing him, hearing him say it over and over.

Then after a little while I was crying. Robbie said, “You OK, Marsh?”

“Shut up,” I said.

“He didn’t get one of them.”

“What are you talking about?”

Robbie giggled, whispered, “The Sparrowhawk. The model. It’s still out there in the hangar.”

The wires overhead fluttered with their phantom wings. “Go to sleep, Ace.”

The Robert Watson Literary Prize Story TINY LITTLE NOTHING

I stole the doctor’s stethoscope. I pocketed it on my way out of the ER. It was an awful, impulsive thing to do, but I did it anyway. Now the river is screaming across the rocks, maybe asking me something, maybe not.

The Roanoke River is spectacular and gross. My father used to bring us here to skip rocks. He said God made this river and people polluted it. We weren’t allowed to go in.

“It’s dirty,” he said and skipped another flat stone across.

I’d like to press the stethoscope against the water’s surface, find out if the old thing still has a heartbeat, but I know the answer already and settle instead onto a silt-covered rock, just beyond the reaches of the river. I don’t want its dirty fluid fingers touching me. I’m sure it would infect my own newly stitched finger, driving me back to the doctor and his endless questions. “Does it throb or just ache?” I don’t know.

There’s a 3 am show on church radio called Yoga-Jesus. Dennis the Christian Menace hosts the show from a little radio station in the back of a truck stop in Virginia Beach. He’s always saying, “Your body knows what it needs.” I listen to the show when I can’t sleep and want to hear someone else’s voice. “Ask your body,” says the radio man, “what do you need?”

I come to this spot at the river often, always wondering what it is about this place that draws me to it. I ask my body, but she is silent, only present enough these days to remind me that we are no longer on speaking terms.

Whatever brings me here, it isn’t the nasty leftovers forever littering the place, remnants of past strangers who stopped here too. There are beer cans, the occasional used condom, pieces of tires, biggie cups from drive-thrus, and always a stray sock, somehow a different one every time. Today the sock is gray, with yellow stitching at the toe, like some awful promise of brighter days ahead.


My mother says everyone has their mountain to climb. Some time ago she suggested that maybe I’ve climbed mine. It was another way of saying maybe I’ve suffered enough.

It’s an absurd notion. After she said it, we laughed.

Who has suffered enough? What does that even mean?

If it does mean something, it certainly doesn’t apply to me. Unless you’re willing to concede that privilege is a kind of suffering—in which case, yes, perhaps I’ve suffered enough.

I was nineteen when my life imploded and my mother started suggesting that maybe I was climbing my mountain and would reach the summit soon. It was her version of what our rabbi kept saying: “It will pass. It will pass.”

I kept thinking, “Like a kidney stone it will.”

My mother says things get better because they get over. Even life, she says, you live and then you die. Find comfort in that. It gets over.

My priest, like my Catholic grandmother—the one on my dad’s side—does not agree. My priest talks to me about life everlasting and suggests I return to the confessional a bit more regularly than I have, say, ever in the past.

I asked him his thoughts on hope. He called himself “a big fan.” He meant he’s a big fan in the way that someone might be a college football fan, but I can’t stop thinking of him as an actual fan. “I’m a big fan,” he said, and I imagined a fan so much bigger than a ceiling fan, something like the rotor blades of a helicopter—a giant fan facing the sun, big enough to lift off, to fly rescue missions through hurricane winds and save people clinging to trees or already neck deep in the floodwaters.

I’d like to be a fan like that, fly right over those mountains. But I am not. That said, my most recent haircut involved so much of the technique called “feathering” that I would not be surprised if I suddenly became airborne, not like a hope-fan but like a new strain of bird flu.

Of course, everyone’s nice about my haircut. Everyone says they love it.

I hate it. It’s almost exactly the haircut I didn’t ask for. It’s a Richard Gere-inspired voluptuous mullet.

I’ve had this haircut before.

How is that even possible? I guess it’s the go-to haircut for people like me—people with curly-wavy hair and no straightening iron, unassertive types with deer-in-the-headlights eyes, who enter places like Cheap Cuts and anxiously request “something simple, just a trim, really.”

This time I tried. I even took a picture, made eye contact, and said, “This is what I want.”

The hairdresser took one look at me, my frizzy, damaged, vitamin-deficient hair, and said, “You style your hair every day? You gonna straighten it, mousse it, curl it?”

I stared at my feet. “No.”

“Well then, you don’t want that haircut. I know what you want. Come on.”

I imagined she knew something I did not. And even if she didn’t, I told myself, it doesn’t really matter. Hair grows.

I let her do what she wanted.

My mother said I should have said no thanks when the hairdresser said she wouldn’t cut my hair like the picture I gave her, but my mother also said it’s the best haircut I’ve had in years. It’s hard to win sometimes, harder still to know when to trust your own instincts and when to trust someone else’s.

When she started tapering my hair, I could have said, “No. Stop.” But she’d already started and more to the point, what if I’d asked her to stop and she hadn’t? Better then to consent, to say, “I like what you’re doing with those side bangs. It’s like an avalanche of layers.” At least this way I can pretend that I got what I asked for.

People keep telling me to find a hairdresser I trust and stick with that person. But how do you find someone trustworthy, someone who listens? And how many more times will I have to try again?

Most people I know spend big dollars on haircuts. I’m a self-employed clown and a part-time intern. I can’t take their salon suggestions. So I bounce around, trying different haircut places, only ever finding people who give me their go-to, short-in-front pseudo-mullet for women with curly-wavy hair. After this latest adventure, reeling from the horror of my apparent incapacity to communicate with people holding scissors, I decided to cut my own hair.


The other day my aunt asked me about any possible love interests and then suggested I start volunteering at the fire station.

“Firemen,” she said. “Right?”

Right. Someone who specializes in putting out fires would be perfect for me. Most firemen are probably a real catch.

“They’re strong and brave. They risk their lives to help people. I’ve never met one I didn’t like,” she said.

She’s probably right. I don’t know. I’m better at picking hairstylists than I am at picking men.

Besides, after the last two bad listeners I loved, I haven’t the nerve to date anyone, so the whole conversation is moot. I’m exaggerating. I’ve dated maybe half a dozen men in the last four years, most of them very briefly. I’m not even sure it ought to be called dating.

And it isn’t true that I loved two of them and it isn’t true that two were bad listeners. I only really loved one, Jake—the one who was on-again-off-again during all those years. That he is also the one who didn’t know how to hear me, or didn’t even try to, is perhaps the part where my story falls apart, where it becomes clear that the violence perpetrated against me is violence I perpetrated against myself. I knew what he was about. And yet somehow I let myself spiral back to him again and again.

We were eighteen when we met. He was still a boy-man and I was so naïve. I managed to keep him at arm’s length for that first year, let intuition guide me in the other direction when he started serenading me with songs like “Steal My Kisses.” Or, I guess that isn’t intuition, I guess it’s common sense. In any event, the sick feeling in my stomach only worsened when he said things like, “I thought if we got drunk and had sex, then we’d be dating.” This after I very specifically did not get drunk and have sex with him.

But year nineteen brought with it a special variety of self loathing, and I sought out that son-of-a-bitch like he was the answer to my prayers.

Only recently have I been able to consider the whole mess with anything resembling honesty, and even now real and imagined memories merge and I can’t always decipher what is and isn’t true.


I’m twenty-two years old. I know what I want. It’s way past time to be bold and go for it. That’s what I told myself after this latest thirteen-dollar haircut and a lot too much whiskey. Pixie cut here we come. I heard sharp scissors were a must for cutting hair, so I tried to sharpen mine with a knife sharpener, sliced through my first finger, and ended up in the ER being stitched back together.

At least I have my Halloween costume all figured out. I’ll be Richard Gere for the third year in a row.

I’m kidding. I don’t celebrate Halloween. It’s too scary. I mean, it’s fine for kids, but I don’t understand the adult version. Parties are frightening enough without people in costume. Even a clown, in the wrong hands, can become perverse. And if I never see another drunk man in a priest costume hitting on a sexy kitten for as long as I live, it will be too soon.

I attended a university in a town I call Collegeville, where Halloween is a terror-fest of too many young men in masks tearing through tangled legs in festive fishnet stockings.

I majored in religion. It made a nice counterweight to Collegeville’s corporeal hellhole. My professors recommended outside reading.

“I think you might enjoy Elizabeth Bishop.”

Might I ever. And is that curly-wavy hair on Bishop in her photograph on the Library of America Series edition of her collected works?

I think it is.


But those days are over. I’ve graduated, moved on, am making my way in the world, no more school days for me. It’s a quieter pace—the life of a clown—or it would be if my mind would ever stop racing.

Whiskey slows me down, but the ER doctor told me no alcohol while I’m on these little painkillers for my finger. In that way scissoring myself this morning may prove the catalyst for some serious self-improvement.

I’ve been meaning to stop drinking for some time now.

Drunk Tiny is no good to anyone.

That’s my name, by the way, Tiny. It’s a nickname. I like nicknames. They’re friendly and intimate, but not too intimate. Everyone doesn’t need to know my name name. Nicknames offer protection. A desecrated body is one thing, a desecrated name is quite another.

Sober Tiny liked being around people and was good company. And when I wasn’t around people, I found refuge and companionship in books, but not anymore. I can’t calm down long enough to read the first chapter of anything.

These days codes are my company. They speak to me. We sit together, on the edge of my bed when I button the last oversized button on my sequined vest. We listen to the whir of the ceiling fan and invent other meanings for things.

It helps me understand my own history. Because “no” could mean “yes,” if you’re working from a code where opposites represent each other, like a language of contradiction. In that context “stop” could mean “more” and “you’re hurting me” could mean “I like it when you do that.” If you knew that this code was at work, then it would make sense when other people heard only everything you were not saying. Then language might not feel so impotent, so unreliable, so able to betray.


Here’s an actual fact: my last clown gig was at an ice skating rink. Davy was turning four. I was the entertainment.

I don’t have children. To overcompensate I sell my balloon-making services to the dull parents of children who will never be mine and who will, more than likely, not care for my one-woman clown act. It’s ironic, and tone driven, and the children don’t get it.

I don’t fault them for it. Most children are very serious. When I was a child my brother and I spent whole afternoons playing Leviathan on the jungle gym in our backyard. Our grandmother’d been reading to us from the Book of Job.

We were little and literal. “Hear the ocean monster roar!” my big brother shouted from the top of the slide. I was the monster. He was Job. The game was for him to try to catch me long enough to tie any one of our brightly colored jump ropes to the back of my corduroy overalls like a leash. We were eight and six. I roared.

“Your life will never be as fine as it is now,” said the bent voice of our neighbor from behind the vine-covered fence separating our yards. “When I was a child I was happy, too.”

It was Mrs. McGregor. I clung to the swing set and my brother dropped rocks down the slide. “You’ll put holes in the slide doing that,” she said. “Is that what you want?” My brother said nothing. He dropped another rock down the slide.

The screen door opened and our mother stood on the back porch calling our names. “Lunch!” she said.

My brother raced down the slide and into the house behind our mother. I ran after them, but the voice on the other side of the fence stopped me. “Someday your mother will die.”

I stood still in the grass, my bare feet unable to carry me farther toward the safety of crustless sandwiches and juice. “That’s right,” said the voice. “Your brother will die, too. I was the youngest once, just like you are. Everyone you love will die.”

“That isn’t true,” I whispered and ran inside.

Children let everything scare them.

In my car, in my clown suit, painting my face in the parking lot of the ice park prior to Davy’s birthday, a child on her way into the party saw me and burst into tears. I hoped the birthday boy’s father would pay me. The fathers give better tips. They ask, “Is this your only job? Have you always been a clown? Is it difficult to make balloon animals?” They say, “That teddy bear you made was impressive.” Then, embarrassed for me and all that talk of balloons, or anxious to demonstrate their own wealth, they overpay.

Inside the ice park, I regretted not having worn long underwear under my striped pants. It was cold. A little fellow—he looked about six—introduced himself to me at the door. “I’m Mark, Davy’s brother,” he said. “My mother’s over there.” He pointed toward a round, beautiful woman hanging streamers around the door between the party room and the ice rink. I started toward her, but the child stopped me.

He wanted a train. I’d never made a balloon train before. I gave a snake wheels and handed it to the child. He thanked me and gestured to my oversized, inflatable clown shoes. He said they were very pretty, but if my feet were really that big, they might not have skates to fit.

The mother wanted me stationed beside the presents. I knew that it would be a busy party, that most of the guests would themselves be three and four years old and, accordingly, would not be successful ice skaters. Instead they would spend the afternoon in the party room with the clown.

Toward the end of the event the ice park manager—a slender man who smelled of cigarette smoke and cologne—commented on my vest. He said he liked it. My clown vest is covered in silver sequins. The buttons are multicolor pompom balls of yarn. “It fits you so nicely,” he said.

A little girl in a dinosaur sweater ran over to me in her socks. Her mother, on a bench by the lockers, called after her to put her shoes on, but then gave up. The child asked for a red dog, big like Clifford. When she left, promising her new dog a piece of birthday cake, the manager asked me if I ever work at adult parties.

He said, “The balloon arts also appeal to an older, more sophisticated audience, yes?”

I told him I worked at a carnival some Girl Scouts sponsored at the senior citizens’ home once.

The manager laughed, said that wasn’t quite what he had in mind. Then he offered me a free fountain drink. He said anything you want, coming right up.

I said thanks anyway.

Then a pair of children came over to me—identical twins. They wanted hats that looked different. When they left, the manager, who seemed to be forever inching closer, said, “You’re good with children.”

I wanted to tell him off. I wanted that party to be over already. And when it was, I waited for Davy’s mother to pay what she owed. The manager kept talking, but I had no more kindness in me, and I stopped listening.


The river could lull a person to sleep. Water is sly and dangerous that way. I fell asleep in the bathtub once, years ago. It’s amazing I didn’t drown. When I woke up the water had all drained out of the tub and I was covered with bubbles.

I dreamt sharks were eating me.

My rabbi says dreams are like codes we must learn to decipher.

My mother says I should pay more attention to what I’m doing.

“What do you mean?”

“The coffee, darling, it’s all over you.” That was two days ago. I stopped by her house on my way home from Davy’s birthday party.

She was right. I was missing my own mouth—drinking too quickly, too clumsily, too distractedly, letting the dark liquid dribble onto my striped turtleneck, like a baby without a bib.

“Are you OK?” she said.

Would you believe me if I said I am? If I said it’s nothing? If I asked you to stop time and carry us all in the other direction, could you work that trick? I wondered, white paper napkin to my mouth and then my shirt, cleaning up the coffee.

“You must be tired,” she said.

I must be lost. I told her I needed to go home—change my shirt, take a nap, get some work done. She wrapped up half a pecan pie for me to take home.

When I got to my apartment, I turned on the ceiling fans. I washed the paint off my face. I changed into pajamas. I don’t know why I still put on pajamas. I don’t sleep. I haven’t for weeks. It’s like being strung out on nothing. The good news is I don’t dream anymore. I don’t dream anymore. Dreams are messages from God. We must learn to decipher them. But what about nightmares, I asked my rabbi.

“You must learn to decipher them, too,” said my rabbi. “Do not be afraid,” she said. But I am afraid. “It will pass,” she said.


Yesterday morning I went in for an emergency appointment with that psychiatrist my mother is always slipping into conversations. Most recently the conversation went this way:

“Remember Lottie?” said my mother.

“Crazy Lottie?”

My mother said she’s not crazy anymore. Lottie went to see that nice doctor and now she’s co-chair of the Potato Festival. She really got it together. Then my mother said, as though her main point was about the festival and not about the psychiatrist, “If you keep working on your clown routine, you might be able to work at the Potato Festival, too.”

All the clinics have at least one opening for emergency appointments, also known as walk-ins for impulsive types who wouldn’t be able to make and keep an appointment if their life actually did depend on it. There are public service announcements about it on the radio all the time. Thinking of killing yourself? Don’t. Help is here. Stop in at such-and-such clinic at such-and-such time, and someone will be there to listen to you. Then they say it all again in Spanish.

I hope the people at those clinics speak other languages, too. I’m sure a person can be mentally ill in more than two languages. Anyway, I wasn’t thinking of killing myself. I was just feeling a little fiery, a little sleep deprived, and maybe a little depressed.

I filled out the health insurance forms and flipped to the next page in the clipboard packet. I made it through the first few questions—name, weight, occupation. I was honest enough, and I even resisted adding margin notes, for the most part. But the next question I came to was less straightforward.

I went back to the front desk.

“You all done?” the nurse asked from behind the sliding glass window.

“No. I’ve only finished the first part. What’s this questionnaire?”

“It’s a self-assessment,” said the nurse. “It helps the doctor get a sense of where you are.”

“I’m right here.”

“Funny,” said the nurse. “Finish the form.” She closed the window. I tapped on the glass.

“Is it mandatory?”

“You don’t have to fill it out,” said the nurse. “That’s a choice you can make. Of course, it’s a choice we’ll make note of.”

I returned to my carpet-covered waiting room seat. The self-assessment was like a maze: Do you experience moderate to extreme anger sometimes, frequently, or all of the time? Do you intentionally bring up topics in conversation that you know will be hurtful, embarrassing, and/or offensive? Do you set things on fire for fun? Are you bored by everything? Is your defeatist attitude threatening to dismantle every last molecule of your integrity? Do you look like Richard Gere? Is your soul the picture of anarchy? Does your mind wander? Are you counting the minutes until the great apocalypse? Are you expecting hell and still imagining that it will be better than this? Do you think these questions are unfair or aren’t you concerned with fairness? If you had to define the word justice, could you? Would you? Will you now? What would you say if I said: you’re wrong, that isn’t what justice is at all? If you wanted to strike someone, would you? Have you ever? What if they were hurting you? Would you then? What if they were hurting someone else? But what about nonviolence? What about turning the other cheek? What about the laws of God? Why did you let that man hurt you? Is your soul working? Is that alcohol I smell on your breath? Who are your enemies and how do you love them? Are you listening? Additional space on back.

I thought for a moment and wrote, “No comment.” I turned the questionnaire over and drew. When I finished, I decided that even the pictures were too revealing, too much like telling someone your dreams. I took the questionnaire with me, left the clipboard with the nurse, and when they called my name to be evaluated, I was no longer there.


Inspiration disappears sometimes. Clocks stop or keep going. Lethargy creates more of  itself. I want mornings full of wakefulness, even if I rise up screaming. I want passion, hunger for something. And I don’t want the coffee stain just to go away. I want it never to have been there.

I want words to mean something. And even as I say this I recognize that it is people, not words, who can’t be trusted. People wield and forfeit power. A code of opposites could be manipulated and used to deceive as easily as any language. Code or no code, it is perfectly possible for me to say, for example, “I would rather breathe nails than make balloon animals at another child’s birthday party,” and only mean, “I wish I were somewhere else.”

I am only angry some of the time. My soul is not a picture of anything, or it is. My priest contends: an image of the benevolent everything. Perhaps. Let me dream about that tonight. Let the whole heartache of history fold into itself and away from me.


My grandmother is whispering, “Everything is connected to everything else.” I am seven.

“Is everyone going to die?” I ask her in a hushed voice, snuggling into her pink sweater, squeezed into her easy chair with her. “The neighbor says everyone will die before I do and then I’ll be all by myself, Grandmamma.” Her body rises and falls as she breathes.

“How old do you think I am?” she asks.

“I don’t know,” I say. “Old?”

She smiles. “Very old,” she says. Many people she has known, loved, are dead. I run my fingers along the arm of the chair. “Am I alone?” she asks, pulling me closer to her.

“No.” I am smiling now.

“And why is that?” she says.

“Because I’m here.”

“That’s right,” she says, tickling me. “You’re here!” I giggle, try to tickle her back. We laugh and laugh. “You will have children and they will have children and they will have children and on and on and on,” she says. “Don’t worry about death. It will come when it comes. Now, let’s make cookies.”


I’m twelve, in the stairwell of my grandparents’ home. My mother and grandmother are in the kitchen. “That child’s in a dark mood,” my grandmother says. “What’s gotten into her?”

I want my mother to say it’s nothing. I want her to be sure there’s nothing the matter with me, and I want her to be right.

The dog sees me, barks.

I step into the kitchen, head for the door. My grandmother’s stirring sugar into her coffee. I asked for a cup this morning and was sent outside to play. “You can drink coffee when you’re in college, when you’ll need the energy. No one needs to be caffeinated for middle school.”

My mother says, “What have I told you about eavesdropping?”

“I wasn’t eavesdropping. I’m going on a walk.” I slip past them and slam the door behind me.


I am nineteen. I tell Jake to stop, but he doesn’t. This happens over and over and over again, before I wake up wishing I was twelve again, out for an angry walk about something I was only angry about for a few moments or a few days, when I was full of an anger that so quickly passed, or six when it was still possible to roar with all the power of Leviathan, or seven when it still felt true that I would not be alone, just as my grandmother had not been.

That was last night, or I guess it was early this morning—the dream about being nineteen—before I woke up to the mad whirring of the ceiling fan moving stale air in circles above my bed, all ready to forget what I’d been dreaming. But it’s the third day of remembering that being awake is worse.

Awake is I’m a clown at children’s birthday parties, taking too long to unlace my oversized shoes, and the birthday boy is already gone, and the party is over, and then guess what happens.

Go ahead and guess.

I remember I was walking toward the door. And then I remember the ice park manager. I remember his hands on my neck. I remember my spine slamming against the wall of lockers in the party room.

Then I kicked him. I kicked him until he let go. Then I ran.

This morning, too awake to tolerate myself any longer, I got totally hammered on Maker’s Mark, that expensive stuff I’d been saving for a special occasion. Even more than the taste, I like the name—Maker’s Mark.

Did you know that the word for sin can be translated from the Greek as “missing the mark”?

Thoroughly cleansed and cross-eyed, I decided to cut my own hair. But I already told you about that—how I sliced through my first finger trying to sharpen my scissors. I didn’t even get a chance to cut my hair before the bleeding wouldn’t stop and I went to the ER where they wanted to know about the bruises on my neck.

I said, “I’m here about my finger.”

They sewed it up, but then they started asking about the bruises again. Then the doctor said he’d like me to speak with someone. Then he left the room for a moment, probably to get a social worker.

What’s a social worker going to do? Invite the police to slap the wrists of another sexual predator? They’re fucking everywhere.

I left with the stethoscope.


In Collegeville all they ever did was send the perpetrators to mandatory counseling. Want to know how much good that did? I’ll tell you.

When I was eighteen, I kept my distance—relatively speaking—from Jake. We had coffee and went for long starlit walks, and I was listening when his words became troubling. When his hands wandered, I sent him packing.

A year later we ran into each other. His rhetoric was sly and new. He apologized for having been “so aggressive” the year before. He said he’d been doing a lot of thinking. If I’d known then that his therapist was feeding him these new lines, I might not have been so easily swayed. On the other hand, I’d had a difficult year, and when I ran into him that time I was looking for trouble.

I found it.

I’d already said yes by the time I realized I wanted to say no. And then I was asleep, and that time he definitely wasn’t listening to me.

And then and then and then.


Anyone can say I’m wrong for not tattling on the ice park manager, but who knows what would happen next if I did?

No one knows the future.

I might still report him. I’m not dead yet. He might hurt someone else if I don’t. He might hurt someone else if I do.

I didn’t like being in that hospital. It made me claustrophobic. What if the social worker had been all hands like the ice park manager? I was too tired to kick anyone else off me.

I shouldn’t have stolen the stethoscope. I admit that. But I couldn’t resist the possibility of hearing my own heart beating. I couldn’t resist the ludicrous notion that my body might know what she needs, and that she might be able to tell me.