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Ugly Girls: A Novel

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Year:
2014
Publisher:
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Language:
english
ISBN 13:
9780374710125
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Ugly Love

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english
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Ugly Girls: A Novel

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2014
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english
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For you





Contents

Title Page

Copyright Notice

Dedication

Ugly Girls

Acknowledgments

Also by Lindsay Hunter

A Note About the Author

Copyright





UGLY GIRLS



PERRY AND BABY GIRL were in the car they’d stolen not half an hour before. A red Mazda. Looked fancier than it was, had to use hand cranks to put the windows down. Perry gathered it probably belonged to someone who wanted to look fancy but couldn’t squeeze enough out her sad rag of a paycheck. Like how for years Myra, her mother, kept a dinged-up Corvette because it was red and a two-door. Couldn’t even get the tiny trunk open without a crowbar. Then Jim came along with his logic and calm and sense and had it scrapped. Myra drove a mint-green Tercel now. Four doors. No dings.

Perry knew the Mazda was a woman’s car ’cause of all the butts in the ashtray, all tipped with lipstick. Baby Girl had lit one up first thing, held it between her teeth, squinting through the smoke, cranked down the window so she could rest an elbow. Baby Girl with her half-shaved head, her blond eyelashes, her freckled arm resting on the steering wheel. Fake-ass thug. Sometimes it seemed mean thoughts were all Perry had for Baby Girl, but when she caught sight of herself in the side mirror she saw she was doing all the same shit.

They’d turned onto the busted-up highway, Baby Girl swerving like they were in a go-kart so the Mazda wouldn’t get a flat. The rising sun the color of a pineapple candy, no more than a fingernail at the horizon. Not a single other car to be seen.

Baby Girl was muttering along with the music meandering out of the speakers. You want some / you gonna have to take some / and I’ma get mine. This was her;  favorite line. Her motto. She tried to make it Perry’s also but Perry was not into that shit.

Perry was annoyed. Tired. Felt like her skin was turning to dough. Her legs and arms and heart, all starting to give in. The clock said 6:25 a.m. Eight hours and twenty-five minutes past when Perry said she was going to bed. She’d have to explain herself to Jim and Myra when she got home. She hated explaining herself, ’cause most of it was stuff she’d have to make up.

She’d meant to do right. She’d meant to stay in bed and fall asleep like Jim wanted, ’cause she liked Jim. But she made the mistake of opening her window, hoping it would cool her room down. All it did was let more hot air in, let her hear the quiet outside her window, the stillness she could not stand. The windows in the nearby trailers were mostly dark but for the flicker of a television, and it was like she had to do something, something other than turning out the light and closing her eyes and letting the night pass on by, like Myra. She had to make something happen.

And plus she’d got that text from Baby Girl. Lets do this. They had no plan. Just a general desire, like always.

It was easy to creep out of the trailer. Perry didn’t even ease her window shut like she usually did. She knew Myra wouldn’t be able to hear over her program, and Jim had gone to work his night shift at the prison. Even if Myra did hear, it was unlikely she would do anything about it. Just keep sipping her beer and snuggle down tighter under the covers.

Baby Girl had been standing by the pay phone at the Circle K. Her arms moving in that fluid way, heavy and slow, like she was thrashing underwater. She had her music on. When she saw Perry she yelled, “Wadup wadup?”

Baby Girl didn’t care how people saw her. In fact, she wanted them to be afraid. Like how people used to act around Charles, only worse. Once, the greeter at Walmart told them they had to leave if they were just going to stand by the doors acting a fool and not buying nothing. “Suck my dick,” Baby Girl told her.

The greeter lady went red, she held her hand to her mouth and started crying. And Perry wished it was her who’d said it.

Baby Girl pulled her headphones down. Perry could hear a man yelling waka waka waka waka. “I think we should go get us a ride,” Baby Girl said, turned so Perry could see the slim jim sticking out of her back pocket. Her brother, Charles, had made it out of a metal coat hanger before his accident. They’d stolen it from him after. Everything was before and after for Baby Girl now, Perry knew. Before the accident she’d talk about boys, and once Perry had walked in on her doing sit-ups next to her bed. After Charles’s accident it was like Baby Girl did all she could to look hideous. Untouchable.

“Let’s get a SUV this time,” Perry said. She couldn’t drive, knew it was up to Baby Girl to choose what kind of car to get, but she’d been wanting to sit up high like that.

“You are the show-offiest motherfucker I ever met,” Baby Girl said, but Perry knew it was a challenge she wouldn’t say no to.

They went into the Circle K to get the usual. Hot fries and a sweet tea for Baby Girl, Mountain Dew and Twizzlers for Perry. She liked her heart to go go go all night long.

“Where you girls headed tonight?” the man behind the counter asked. He was an Indian-looking man but he had an accent like theirs. Dark and syrupy, twang twang twang. His name tag said Patel.

“Why would we ever tell you that, Patel?” Baby Girl flicked her change, a nickel, across the counter. It hit the man in the zipper. “Oh shit!” Baby Girl exploded with laughter, holding her gut and pointing, like some of the boys did in the hallways at school. “That’ll keep your ass honest!”

He shook his head, wiped at his pants like the nickel had left a stain. “You are a pretty girl,” he said, chopping his hand at Perry. “You should be at home asleep in your bed with curlers in your hair.”

Baby Girl laughed, a grinding dry kind of sound like she was pushing something out her throat. Something else she got from the boys at school. They were almost outside when he yelled, “Ain’t nothing open past one a.m. but legs!”

Baby Girl laughed hard at that, too, but once they were outside her laughter got all swallowed up by the quiet of the night and then what was the point. Baby Girl put her headphones back on. They walked along the road, Baby Girl’s arms moving fast, pointing, punching, hands forming signs only she knew the meaning to. Perry stepped on every crack she could see in the dark yellow of the streetlamps, something that felt like her own way of saying fuck you to no one.

The night was warm as a mouth. “I think we should hit up the Estates again,” Baby Girl shouted. Her voice quieted the cicadas, but only for a second. Perry gave her the A-OK sign. Wanted to say, Keep it down, dumb-ass, but didn’t.

The Estates was a ritzy-ass neighborhood with a gate at the front and open sidewalks on either side. Perry and Baby Girl had hit the neighborhood before, strolled right in. Those sidewalks were an invitation: Come on in, and steal some stuff while you’re at it. Perry had started to think if rich people weren’t afraid of their stuff being taken, they wouldn’t feel so rich.

The last time they were at the Estates, they’d tried doors until they found one unlocked. It was a brick house with a duck wearing a dress next to the mailbox. The first floor was a maze, every room connected to the next. They’d walked around and around, losing and finding each other. There was a picture of an old man and woman holding hands at the beach. Another picture of the same couple in front of the house. Baby Girl took the gold napkin rings she found in a drawer. Perry almost took an old pair of baby shoes frozen in bronze, but then she saw the iron poker next to the fireplace and took that instead, kept it in a dresser drawer, under some T-shirts. Perry took it out once, aimed, brought it through the air like it was a sword. Tried not to feel stupid. Lately it was like Perry could feel stupid faster than she could feel afraid.

When they got to the gate, Baby Girl pulled her headphones down, turned off her music. Took a deep breath, like she was about to say something, but the chimes in Perry’s phone sounded. “Turn that shit off!” Baby Girl hissed.

It was a text message from Jamey. Perry, girlie, where are u? Im online. Perry turned the ringer off, stuffed the phone back in her pocket.

“Okay,” Baby Girl said. “Let’s make a left at the stop sign instead of a right this time. And let’s take the first SUV we see. These motherfuckers all have two-car garages but someone’s bound to have a third car stuck out in the driveway that we can gank.”

She was right. In front of a yellow house with a rock garden instead of grass, there was a huge black Suburban. Baby Girl pointed up. Blue light gently flickered behind the white curtains in an upstairs window. Someone was awake watching TV, or had fallen asleep while watching it.

“It’s on,” Baby Girl whispered. She pulled the slim jim out, worked it into the door. The lock went with a soft pop. For Perry, that pop was an exploding cosmos of possibility. White tails of glitter shooting out. It felt like she and Baby Girl were mirrors reflecting the light from the streetlamps back and forth a million times. They were light. They could do anything, go anywhere. They were light. Tomorrow Perry would be tired, wrung out like Jim would say, but this was why it was worth it. Who else was out at this hour, doing what they were doing, marking every moment, trying to live? No one else. Wake up! she wanted to shout at the white curtains, at all the windows in this neighborhood. Wake the fuck up.

Baby Girl hot-wired the car, backed out of the driveway. And it was just like Perry thought being that high up would be. She felt as tall as a tree.



THE SUV WAS A STUPID IDEA. Too obvious. Baby Girl had read in one of her brother’s old books how you had to build up your tolerance for fear until it became part of you, as natural and unassuming as your own hand. And how often did you think about your own hand? Not often. That’s where you had to get with fear. But even so, building up a tolerance didn’t have to mean doing dumb shit over and over.

“We should ditch soon,” she said to Perry. “Don’t you think any cop could drive by and wonder, ‘Hey, why is this baldheaded bitch driving a truck that clearly don’t belong to her?’”

“Whatever,” Perry said. In the beginning she’d say stuff like You ain’t ugly when Baby Girl said mean shit about herself. Now it was mostly Whatever.

“They’ll probably accuse me of kidnapping you, too, since no pretty girl in her right mind would be associated with—”

“Fine, we can ditch. Okay? Let’s ditch.”

Baby Girl knew she’d ruined it for Perry. She was over there feeling like a queen high up in her seat and Baby Girl had broken the spell. She almost laughed, it felt like such a triumph. She wasn’t as pretty as Perry, but she was meaner.

After Charles came out of his coma he was different. Sweeter. Not interested in going out once it got dark. His edges were dulled. It was sad to see. So Baby Girl took up where he left off. Went from Dayna to Baby Girl, Charles’s nickname for her before his accident. Shaved half her head. Took his CDs, even some of his clothes, not that he seemed to care. After the accident he just wanted to wear basketball shorts, probably because of the elastic waistband. Lately Baby Girl had been considering carving a scar into the bald part of her head like the one her brother had from his stitches, jagged and mean-looking, like a child had practiced writing an S there. Baby Girl wanted her outside to look like how she felt on the inside. Which was Fuck you.

Tonight she was wearing a pair of Charles’s jeans, so huge on her that she had to cuff the bottoms three times, and what used to be his favorite black T-shirt. Sports bra to tamp those fuckers down. Work boots she’d stolen from Payless. Kicked them, box and all, out the door while the saleslady was in the kids’ aisle. Pretended to consider the shoelaces for a while, then went on her way.

She always tried to feel a glimmer of regret. It was so easy to take advantage. Why did she have to be the type to take advantage? Well, she wanted those boots. That was the main thing when you got right down to it.

Plus lip liner and gloss. That completed her look.

Baby Girl’s prettiest feature was her lips: plump and pink. She had watched tons of YouTubes featuring women who knew about makeup demonstrating what to do with lips like hers and had settled on the liner-and-gloss method. It called them into focus while maintaining their natural color. And it made her look like a tough bitch.

Perry looked like some kind of garden fairy, only tall. Bright green eyes, black eyelashes, blond hair. Tanned legs. Smallish boobs. Baby Girl was grateful that Perry wasn’t entirely perfect: she had a widish nose, a fang on one side of her mouth, and way back, a gray molar. Fixable problems but only if you had the money for it. And Perry didn’t. But neither did Baby Girl. Which was an important level to share.

Tonight Perry wore her usual ponytail, the same shorts from yesterday, a yellow T-shirt. Sandals. Each toe with a chipped remnant of polish. Perry came off like she didn’t give a fuck about stuff like that. Baby Girl had learned that that was usually the way with pretty girls.

They drove, windows down. Somehow this Suburban didn’t have a CD player, or if it did, Baby Girl didn’t know where.

“Let’s get something to drink,” Perry said, which meant she wasn’t so pissed about ditching anymore. Baby Girl knew she meant something they could get shitty on. That meant going to the other Circle K, the one with the guy who sold to anyone.

“Okay,” Baby Girl said, “but after that we got to dump this thing.”

“Oh hell yeah,” Perry said, attempting one of Baby Girl’s signs.

“You can be a real fuckin’ hillbilly sometimes,” Baby Girl told her.

“Oh well,” Perry said. Her other favorite comeback lately.

Baby Girl made a U-turn. Up ahead, she could see flashing lights. She gripped the steering wheel. Her heart thudded like bass turned way up.

But it was just a tow truck. In her headlights she saw a man with his hands to his head, a jagged spill down his shirt. The tow truck driver seemed to be ignoring him. “Yo, that guy is wasted,” Baby Girl said as they passed.

Perry leaned up, pulled her phone out of her back pocket, studied it. She made a quiet noise, something like a snort, then put her phone back in her pocket. “Who keeps blowing your shit up?” Baby Girl asked.

“Just this guy,” Perry said. “I don’t even know him.”

Perry’s stepdad, Jim, was a prison guard. A quiet guy who seemed as big as a standing bear. Perry loved him, Baby Girl knew, but she also seemed dead set on making sure he had a heart attack. Once he saw Perry’s phone bill he’d want to know who this guy was. Happened every time. It seemed like a luxury to Baby Girl, toying with that kind of love and concern. But she knew better than to say shit about it to Perry.

She waited until Perry was looking out her window again, then pressed the button on her phone to check for texts. Nothing. She had gotten used to something waiting there for her nearly every time she checked, but in the past couple of days, nothing. She had gone too far, of course she had. Quickly, she texted, Hey, sorry if I acted like a stupid bitch. Miss talking to u. The u was her way of speaking his language, reaching out. Corny-ass text speak that no one she knew used, except for him. Jamey. Thinking his name made her feel like she had to pee. That always happened when she felt excited. Or scared. She pressed SEND, pushed the phone way down into her pocket, so she couldn’t easily get it out to check again in the next thirty seconds.

There was a small woman behind the counter at Circle K, not the usual stoner who’d sell to them, so Perry and Baby Girl wiped down the Suburban and left it there and walked into the neighborhood next to it. This time, Baby Girl wanted a car with a CD player. These nights weren’t hardly worth it without a way to listen to her music. The few times Charles had taken her out at night, he’d turned up the music so loud she could feel it in her teeth. Windows rolled all the way down, which meant lots of nasty looks from old ladies, but they had it wrong. Charles wasn’t trying to annoy no one. He was trying to share it with them. Share that feeling. Windows down, the hot night breezing in and out of the car carrying the scent of gasoline, orange blossoms, garlic, exhaust. Music saying exactly what was in his heart, and what was in Baby Girl’s heart, too, which went beyond anything you could say with words, but if she had to try it’d be Yes. And that’s why you could have it loud. No one needed to say a thing. So she’d be damn sure the next car she and Perry got had that CD player. Perry would probably pout since Baby Girl’s music wasn’t her kind of music. But she wouldn’t say nothing, because she knew it wasn’t up for discussion, and because Baby Girl wouldn’t be able to hear her anyway.



MYRA WAS ALONE AGAIN. Jim off to work and Perry out her window hours before. Perry might think Myra didn’t know she snuck out, but Myra always knew. The whole trailer rocked if you stepped through the threshold, so she could always feel it rock and bounce as her daughter pushed herself out the window. It was what girls her age did. She did it too, and her momma tried many times to stop her. Well, she had decided long ago she wouldn’t be two-faced with her own daughter like her momma had been.

Tonight she had the itch. Nothing but reruns on the television, and a news program about a war in a country Myra had never heard of. She had allowed herself one slowly sipped beer. Tried to watch for a while, get some culture, but twice they showed a dead child limp in his momma’s arms. Myra was just not up for that shit, not tonight.

With the TV turned off she could hear her neighbor two trailers down cooking dinner, the sizzle in the pan, him humming some kind of nonsense, the farting squirt of the ketchup. She supposed she could make some dinner, too, but what? The fridge held eggs, juice, relish, beer.

Beer. She had a shift at 5:00 the next morning, and more than that she wanted to show Jim that she could get through a night without that kind of help. So no. No more beer.

The thing of it was, much as she tried to deny it, ignore it, she hated Jim working nights. She’d always had trouble getting through a night alone; even as a child one stray thought could keep her up for hours, staring at the ceiling, her heart like a mallet and her limbs so stiff, like they were cast in stone. The whole rest of the house at peace. The loneliness of that kind of exclusion. The only thing that helped was climbing into bed with her sister, or lying on the hard floor next to her momma’s bed, which she could only do if her momma wasn’t entertaining.

So sleeping in a bed without Jim, that rarely happened. Unless beer.

Myra tried to fill these nights with little tasks. Clean the kitchen, dust the furniture, look up recipes on the Internet. In the mornings she’d list what she’d done for Jim, like, See? I can do this. But reaching the end of her list always made her feel worse. What did it matter that the tablecloth got ironed, that the washers on the faucet got tightened? Jim would be gone the following night, and the night after, and the night after.

So, beer.

Before she could think twice Myra was outside, the door clicking behind her. When she sat on the steps she felt the trailer sag. The air greasy with the smell of onions and meat, the neighbor making burgers, or maybe meat loaf. Humming his ABCs. Did Myra recall that he had a grandchild staying with him?

A man in a sleeveless shirt walked out from between two trailers across the way, stopped when he saw Myra. “Evening,” he called. In the light from her neighbors’ windows Myra could see that his shirt had a graphic of a swordfish bursting out of the water. Ain’t skeered, the shirt said.

“Evening,” Myra called back.

“Thought I heard raccoons,” the man said. “I hate ’em.”

Only now could Myra see that he had a BB gun by his side. If she had a dime for every time she ran into someone carrying a gun in this clump of trailers, she’d be one rich woman.

“No luck, huh?” Myra called.

“No luck,” he answered.

“Well, they’re harmless, really. Sometimes I appreciate how they eat trash, what with how many litterbugs we got around here.”

“Harmless till you get bit,” the man said, walking closer. He had a baby face, if babies could get stubble. And something wrong with his lip. When he was right in front of her Myra saw he had one of them cleft palates, the scar a white trail through the stubble, made him look even more like a baby. He leaned the gun up against Myra’s trailer.

“I’m Pete,” he said.

“Myra Tipton,” she said, held out her hand for him to take. His was warm and a little moist, but not unpleasant. It was clear he wasn’t no hard laborer.

“I only been living here the past couple months,” he said. “I live with my momma, been helping her out while she’s sick.”

“Ain’t that nice,” Myra said. He put his thumbs through his belt loops, cocked a hip. It occurred to her that he might be wanting to sit, but the steps were only wide enough to seat one. Besides, what would she look like, scooting over to let this baby-faced man sit next to her, for all the world to see?

“Why you out here all alone?” the man asked.

Myra couldn’t put her finger on why—something about the way he asked it—but she decided to lie. “Oh, I’m not all alone,” she said. “My husband’s inside, taking a shower.”

“But you still out here alone,” he said, cocking to the other hip.

Myra stood up. “You’re right,” she said. “I better get inside where I won’t be all alone no more. Nice meeting you.” She turned quick, tried to jog up the steps like everything was no big deal. She was reaching out for the screen door handle when her foot got twisted up in her housedress. Grunted as she fell on her knees.

The man was on her in a flash, pulling her up by her elbows, opening up her screen door and helping her to her own couch. Her knees throbbed, the steps were ribbed metal, she could feel the pain pounding in the palms of her hands, too.

The man stood before her, hands out like he might need to catch her again. She had to peer up at him, the ceiling fan light making a halo around his head, his face darkened by it. It hurt her eyes. “Miss Tipton,” he said. “You all right? I was just joking with you, I ain’t really asking why you were out there on those steps all alone. I sit on my momma’s steps alone every night, for no reason at all.”

There wasn’t no shower running, no husband coming out to see what all the commotion was about. This man, this Pete, surely knew Myra had been lying. He’d left his gun outside, didn’t even seem all that concerned about some trailer kid coming along and taking it away. This boy could be just what the doctor ordered in terms of making the clock go go go.

“Pete,” she said. She lowered her eyes finally, addressing her question to his gut. “You want a beer?”

He sat down next to her with such force that the cushion she sat on jumped. She could see his face clearly now, and felt surprised all over again at the scar on his lip. “Well, heck yes!” he said. “I ain’t skeered!”

Myra used her fists to push herself up from the couch. His momma hadn’t cared for that scar right. It bubbled up like a grub worm. She felt half sorry for him and half disgusted. She grabbed two beers, making sure the bottles bumped against each other, because it was her favorite sound. She pushed the disgust away. She had to. Drinking the night away was no biggie if it was a social occasion. And this surely counted.



JIM GOT TO WORK feeling like he’d been wrung out. Before he left, Myra had seemed fidgety. Never a good sign. And Perry’s TV was still on, which meant she was still awake, hadn’t turned it off and rolled over to sleep. She’d be out the window quiet as a cat not an hour after he left, he knew.

He wanted to leave the house with his family tucked in and safe, doors and windows locked snug, leaving a warm presence that never cooled. Wanted to return to a home filled with the yellow light of morning, have his coffee, crawl in next to his wife, fall to sleep without a care.

That hadn’t happened in a long while. Instead, he knew he’d come home to Myra’s bottle still in her hand, the foamy bits dried to a film at the bottom, Perry’s door closed, her bed empty. The trailer dank and dark, the sky overcast, no yellow light. The neighbor playing her polka music loud enough for her to hear despite her broken hearing aid.

And before that, a long shift at the prison, which always left him feeling like he hadn’t showered in days, like behind every piece of good news there was a shiv-sharp piece of bad news.

Jim had a walker’s shift that night. Already, seated comfortably in his truck, he could feel his bones ache like he was driving home after a shift, not driving toward one. Kadoom, kadoom, he’d have to walk the lengths of the cell block over and over, the hard rubber soles in his shoes never giving, not ever; he’d asked to be allowed to wear black tennis shoes instead but had been denied. And in a way he felt reassured by that. In prison, order was key. Allow one crack—moving to less formal, more giving shoes—and the whole thing would fold in on itself.

He pulled up to the small guard shack. The new guard leaned out, a young black man named Davie. He smiled and Jim saw he was missing the top right incisor. A child’s smile, and a child’s innocence in his eyes, too. Hadn’t seen shit yet. Jim handed over his own ID, attempted a smile in return, though he was sure it looked like he was simply brandishing his teeth.

Or was it Davis? This was new—these blips in his mind where he wasn’t sure what was what. The stresses of a teenaged stepdaughter, of a wife giving in to the urges she’d been able to convince herself didn’t exist for a time. Not much room to store things like the gate man’s name. Did it even matter? Would he fold in on himself because he couldn’t remember Davie or Davis? The brim of the man’s hat was stiff, unworn. Jim waved, drove through.

Every shift began the same: Sign in at one door, show your badge, ask after the man’s family, pretend to listen. Say Morning if it was Phil. Next door, same thing, only open up your lunch pail and let the man paw through it. How’s Sharon? And the kids? Good, good. Yep, cheese and mustard today, all out of cold cuts. Next door, hold out your arms for a pat down, ignore this man as he ain’t really the chatty type. Store your lunch pail and wallet and cell phone and keys and pen, if you were dumb enough to bring one in, in your locker. Badge up, gun up, nightstick loose in your hand. Walk through the final door. You’re in.

He had about five minutes before the next shift began, so Jim joined Clapp, the other walker, where he stood just inside the final set of doors. They couldn’t go early; everything had to be timed just so, no cutting corners or schedule changes, or else why bother? From here they could see all the way to the other side; this part of the prison wasn’t nothing but one long rectangle with forty rooms on each side—twenty on top and twenty on bottom. Metal staircases on both walls, metal because it was sturdy and because, Jim had come to believe, nothing in this place could be quiet or peaceful. Footsteps rang off the stairs day in and day out, and the metal amplified all the other noise, too.

The yard was a sorry place where the men could get some quiet, the yard like a clay baseball diamond pocked with weeds and cigarette butts. When it rained, the yard became a swamp; when it was hot the dirt felt like it had been cooked in the oven. The infirmary was off the cafeteria, and the hole was underneath the cafeteria, in the basement of the basement, or so the warden called it. When he first started, Jim wondered if the men in the hole could smell things cooking in the cafeteria above. He’d soon found out that all you could smell down there was what the men brought with them: sweat, breath, fear. Working the hole was just as much a punishment as having to live down there. You patrolled it in mostly dark; you listened to the men crying or yelling or, worse, not making any sound at all.

Jim nodded at Clapp. He was a scrawny man, jumpy. Myra would say he looked rode hard and put up wet. He loved inmate gossip, and it seemed like every time Jim worked with the man he had a story.

“Hey,” Clapp said. He was fiddling with a button on his cuff, couldn’t quite get it to go through the eyehole. He stopped suddenly, put his hands on his hips, and Jim knew he was in for another story. “You hear Carver pulled a balloon of coke out an inmate’s anus?” He peered at Jim, like Jim was the warden and could do something about it.

“You don’t say,” Jim said.

“Mm-hmm. Says he heard some talk so he did a strip search. Said it was bright green. The balloon was, I mean.”

Jim waited. More and more, these kinds of exchanges felt like torture. He just wanted them to be over so he could get started on his shift, one second closer to it ending.

“Well, what do you have to say about that?” Clapp asked.

“I guess I’m not all that surprised,” Jim said. Every day it was something. Stories abounded. O’Toole ate a prisoner’s dinner every night for a month, right there in front of him, because the prisoner called his wife a whore.

“Right out the man’s asshole,” Clapp said, smacking his hands together, as if to wake Jim up. Now Jim wondered if the meaningful part to Clapp wasn’t the smuggling of cocaine, but the fact that Carver had fiddled with another man’s area.

“Good for Carver,” Jim said. “I hope he wore gloves.”

“Haw,” Clapp howled, and some of the inmates in their cells mimicked him. Clapp wheeled, yelled, “Shut the FUCK UP.” He put a hand to his ribs, shook his head. Six months ago Clapp had slipped on a tooth and fell down the stairs, right onto his nightstick. Broke two ribs. Whose tooth? Jim had asked when O’Toole told him the story. Does it matter? came the answer. Clapp went back to fiddling with his button, nodded at Jim, and walked toward the metal staircase on the right. They’d switch sides halfway through, take their breaks separately. This was all the human interaction there’d be, aside from whatever the inmates had in store.

O’Toole was known as a hardass. Clapp had a hair trigger. Jim wasn’t sure what the other guards, or the inmates for that matter, said about him. Maybe, Jim Tipton once broke up a fight by throwing a hot pot of gravy onto the prisoners. Or, Tipton brought in his guitar and sang on Easter. Or, Tipton’s wife used to call the front desk drunk and ask to talk to Jim, which wasn’t possible during a shift, or asked when was Jim coming home.

Jim clanged up the steps. Men pretended to busy themselves, watching him from the sides of their eyes. Walk from one end to the other, turn, walk back toward the other end. Go down the stairs, walk that end to end, too. He knew whatever floor he wasn’t on, the men in their cells were up to something. Making dice out of soap, sharpening toothbrushes, coughing or howling in one cell so the guard would be distracted from what was happening in another cell, whispering plans so low it was a miracle anyone heard. Even if they were just lying there thinking, they were up to something.

“Hey,” he heard a man say. “Hey, Tipton?”

It was a newer prisoner, only been inside eight months or so, a child-toucher named Herman. Some guards made it a point to ignore any names, to refer to the prisoners only by their numbers, but Jim wasn’t like that.

Jim walked over to his cell. Herman had one blind eye that tended to roll around, making it hard to take him serious. Child-touchers had it rough in prison. Jim expected him to ask for more protection, or to see the warden, or even just to shoot the shit a little, make himself feel human for a while. “Speak,” Jim told him.

“Oh, hey, Tipton.” He aimed his good eye at Jim. “You got a daughter?”

Jim knew that prisoners were the most bored human beings on earth. Aside from forming gangs and working out and smuggling drugs and carving paraphernalia out of soap and having sex with each other and themselves, they loved to find ways to fuck with a person. It’s about control, triumph. This was something Jim understood. A man wearing a jumpsuit and shuffling around in plastic shoes and getting bent over if he ain’t watching close needs to find a way to stay a man. It was a truth that rang clear as a bell across the countryside.

Still, Jim stabbed his nightstick through the little slot in the door, right into Herman’s good eye. The prisoner lurched back, fell to the floor with his hands cupped over his face, sobbing like he was a boy after his first punch.

“Don’t you fucking ask me that again,” Jim said. He’d make sure the man saw a doctor, it’s what separated him from some of the other guards, and he didn’t often hit the prisoners. It’s just that from time to time that bell rung true for him, too.



WHEN SHE WAS YOUNGER, about Perry’s age, drinking with her friends made the nights feel plump with possibility. The way the streetlights could blur, the way music was never loud enough, the highway going east forever in one way and west forever in another. Even sitting in someone’s garage waiting around for something to happen—there was always the guarantee that something would happen. What could the future hold? It didn’t matter, as long as there was that feeling.

Myra felt that way now. Her body warm and relaxed, the pleasant yellow light of the living room, the whole world outside the trailer for her to join or ignore. A new friend two cushions over, the sting in her hands and knees just a dull throb. What could be wrong with trying to preserve that feeling?

“You should put up some twinkle lights,” Pete said.

“You think?” Myra was tickled. Such a young-person thing to say, and he was saying it to her like nothing. “Where, up around the television?”

“Maybe,” he said. “Or lining your windows. White ones, though, not them multicolored ones. Those are tacky.”

“You’re right.” Myra held her beer to her knee. It’d be swollen but the beer was cold enough to help that a little. If Jim didn’t want her to drink, why didn’t he pour it out, get rid of it, yell at her some? Jim just wanted her to be happy, that’s why. The thought made her feel safe. Loved. Maybe she’d do a little something for him. Make him a pot roast. A sandwich, at least.

Pete took a swig from his bottle. Myra loved that sound, that clean sound of the beer coming down the neck. He held his fist to his mouth, belched. But a quiet belch. Polite.

“You know,” he said, “I’ve seen you before.”

“Oh?” Myra didn’t like this. When had he seen her? When she was dressed for work? That’d be okay. Or when she was passing by her windows in her robe, red-eyed, hair all messed up, hungover? That would not be okay.

“Yep. I seen you and your daughter one day. Coming home from somewhere. You both looked pissed off.” At this he laughed a little, into his fist again.

“Yeah, that’s us all right,” Myra said. She took a drink, held the bottle to her other knee. “She’s a handful. You remember being a teenager?”

“Course I do. Wasn’t that long ago for me.”

He finished off his beer, his throat moving with each pull. Myra had said something wrong, had passed him an oar in the “Ain’t we old?” boat.

“No, no, that ain’t what I meant,” she said. “I know you’re still a young man. I just meant there’s a difference between your teenage years and your adulthood.”

“I get you,” he said.

Myra pushed herself up, limped into the kitchen to get more beer. “Of course,” she said, “it’s important to maintain some stuff from your teenage years.” She spoke to him across the tiny bar in between the kitchen and the living room. He didn’t turn his head toward her. What was she doing, talking to this strange person about being a teenager? “That excitement,” she added, “you know what I mean?”

He grunted, grunted again when she handed him a fresh beer. Myra lowered herself back onto the couch. After a while he said, “I didn’t have the most fun teenage years.”

Myra waited for him to go on, but he just took a swig and sat there. “Well,” Myra said, “I’m sorry to hear that.”

“Nice of you to say.”

“Me, I had a great time in high school. Back then everybody hung out with everybody. There wasn’t no cliques. Football players wouldn’t just go for the cheerleaders, if you get me. And I wasn’t no cheerleader.”

The beer was making her chatty. She could feel her mouth getting away from her, wanted to stop, but it felt too good, saying these things. Remembering.

“One time I—”

“Your daughter ain’t no cheerleader, either, am I right?”

She had been about to tell him about the time she had drag raced from one stoplight to another, one of those spur-of-the-moment events she treasured. She had won, had kissed the boy she’d raced full on the mouth right there in front of his girlfriend, that’s how filled with triumph she’d been. He had tasted like eggs and she had come to know that most mouths tasted like eggs when they were caught off guard like that. She was overcome with the memory of that night, that moment, her heart pounding, her mouth still open like she was going to keep right on talking, but Pete’s question had caught up with her, frozen her.

“No, she doesn’t cheerlead,” Myra said. “How you know that?”

“Well, like I said, I seen you before. And I ain’t never seen her in no cheerleader’s uniform.”

Was he making small talk? Why interrupt her story like that? Was she being a glory days bore?

“Uh-huh,” Myra said. “Nope, she’s not the peppy type.”

“Me neither,” he said. “Or I mean, I wasn’t the peppy type, back when I was in school. Do y’all get along? Fight a lot?”

“We get along fine,” Myra said. “We fight sometimes, but that’s normal.”

Myra knew what was going on. She’d overplayed her hand, taken this young man for a confidant, this man closer to her daughter’s age than her own. Now he was making polite conversation, was about two questions away from saying, Well, I better get going.

“She seems like a real spitfire,” he said.

“You could say that,” Myra said. Took in two gulps of her beer. That’d be a burp, one she’d be hard-pressed to hold in, guaranteed.

“Where’s she at?” he asked.

“Oh,” Myra said, “I don’t know. Out for an evening stroll, is what she told me.”

“You don’t seem too worried about her. What if she ain’t out for a walk? What if she’s out doing wrong? Or tied up in some maniac’s closet?”

Already Myra was thinking of the bath she’d take, how she’d pour a beer into a glass and take it with her, light a candle, maybe even fall to sleep in the tub for a while. Who was this Pete, asking her about her parenting?

“That’s on her,” Myra said. “She knows right from wrong.”

They looked at each other. Myra saw how his cleft lip made it difficult to keep his lips shut all the way, how his eyes moved quick, taking everything in, green but for a big brown spot in the right one. Finally he looked away.

“Well,” he said. “I better get going.”

Myra almost shouted Aha!, she was so pleased with herself for calling it.

“Thanks for the beers.” He got up, smoothed down his jeans, straightened his shirt. Such pride, Myra thought, in his rags. It felt good to think it.

“Stop by anytime,” she told him, tipped her beer. She felt surprised to realize that she meant it.

At the door he turned and said, “You think about those twinkle lights.”

“I will,” Myra said, the screen door snapping to.

She listened to see if he remembered to take his gun. Only now did she realize she’d been aware of it out there the whole time, keeping her mind tuned to it like she would if it was a feral cat that could speak her name. Like it might grow legs and walk in, right up to her, and spit in her face.



THEY ROLLED THE RED MAZDA out of the gravel driveway. The owner had left the keys balanced nice and sweet on the back left tire. A gift. Baby Girl listened to the same GBE song again and again, like she was trying to convince herself she was as bold as the hard thumping beats rattling the windows, like her tank was empty and she was filling it right back up. The bass was so loud it made the car feel like a vise, squeezing tighter with each beat. What Perry wouldn’t give for a song featuring an actual instrument.

They stopped for French fries at Denny’s. Baby Girl went to the bathroom, came back with her lip liner refreshed, looking to Perry like a batty old lady who forgot to fill her lips in. It had started a few months ago, this outlining, and Perry never got the nerve to tell her. Baby Girl had pale red hair, orange really, the same color freckles, no eyelashes to speak of, and blue eyes set against a lightningscape of red. A body best described as solid. Baby Girl showing evidence of any kind of vanity was a miracle and so Perry left it be.

“Yo, can we get some menus?” Baby Girl called out.

A waitress in a short brown wig wheeled around from where she was taking a man’s order. Two penciled brows looking like wobbly cartoon frowns above her eyes. “In a minute,” she snapped. The man had a mesh hat balanced atop his head, dark tinted glasses. Thin frowning mouth like his was penciled in too.

Baby Girl had her mouth open like she was about to say something back, but Perry didn’t feel like starting. “Shoot, try me?” Baby Girl muttered. She had decided it wasn’t worth it, was letting it go, and Perry felt her body sag a little in relief. Her eyes felt dry as rocks. She was starting to long for her bed earlier and earlier lately.

A boy with a mop and bucket appeared, pushing through the doors from the kitchen. Perry recognized him from her math class. Short blond hair, strong arms, brown eyes. A boy her momma would call real clean-cut the same way someone else would say This steak is nice and juicy. Perry had once dreamed about him. She was chasing him through a forest, holding a spear. Myra would have liked that. She put a lot of faith in what dreams could tell a person about her life, but Perry had always felt that dreams were just random collections of stuff that bored you plus stuff that quaked your soul with desire or shame.

“Travis,” she called to him, before she even realized she knew his name.

Baby Girl turned around to see who she was talking to. “Oh shit,” she said under her breath. “You think he saw the Mazda?”

Perry ignored her. She had to peel her thighs off the vinyl booth seat, and as she walked over to talk to him she wondered if they were red, if they looked like she had sat on the toilet for too long. She wished she hadn’t had the thought, knew she must look bright red as well as sweaty to him. Did she care? That was the question.

“Oh, hey,” Travis said. He looked at her like it took all he had to allow his eyes a glance.

“I didn’t know you worked here,” she said.

“Oh yeah,” he said, looking around, like he’d just remembered where he was. “Trying to make some money.” He stared at his shoes, black plastic clogs.

“Nice shoes,” Perry told him.

“I have to wear these,” he said quietly, like she had accused him of something. But Perry had just wanted to make him laugh. “No,” she said, “they really are nice.” It came out sounding even meaner. She had that thing where the sweeter she tried to sound, the more it came off like bullshit.

“Nice seeing you,” he said, and pushed his mop into a roped-off part of the dining room. He had a bleach stain on the back of his shirt the shape of a splattered kidney.

Perry walked back to the table. Baby Girl had been watching the whole thing, her face split in two, dead eyes, wide grin.

“Damn,” Baby Girl said, “that guy thinks you’re a bitch.”

Perry watched Travis push the mop, back and forth, truly cleaning. He was a hard worker, it was clear. She knew if it was her with the mop she’d push it back and forth a couple times and call it a day. But if he was watching her she’d try harder, if only to make him think she could work hard like him. She cared what he’d think of her, suddenly there it was, put in front of her like a plate of pancakes. She could feel the spear in her hand, the warmth heading south. She wondered did her lips look dry, did she have sleep crusted in her eyes, did she look ugly to him?

He never once turned to look at her, just pushed the mop right through the swinging doors to the kitchen.

The waitress came over, staring at her pad instead of at them. They ordered without menus because all they wanted was French fries, and because the waitress wasn’t offering menus anyway. Baby Girl made a point to use her name. “And some ranch for dipping, Pam.” She always went the extra mile to give someone shit. Which, Perry realized, made her the Travis of assholes, only instead of a mop she had her mouth.

Denny’s was always where it all caught up with her. She could feel exhaustion closing over her like a heavy drape. It was the sitting still, the eating, the bright lights. Travis still hadn’t come back out from the kitchen. Perry wondered if he was the one doing the cooking. Did he spit in the fryer, like she would have done? She found herself hoping he had.

They left the waitress two quarters for a tip. Baby Girl fixed them to the table with a wad of gum that had been chewed colorless. In the parking lot she was chewing again, always obsessed with the smell of her breath. Perry didn’t know how she could be so concerned with her breath and so unconcerned with the goblin she kept drawing on her face.

The Denny’s was just a short coast off the highway, and they had to talk loud to hear each other over the roaring inhale and exhale of traffic. “One more?” Baby Girl asked. Already her lip was beaded with sweat, and it made her look like a child who’d just taken a sloppy drink of something. Perry shook her head so she wouldn’t have to yell. She wanted to go home but knew Baby Girl wasn’t ready, knew they’d need to drive the Mazda up the highway, back down it, like two dummies trying to get a screeching baby to sleep. A screeching Baby Girl.

They drove over to the Walmart to do doughnuts in the employee parking lot. Baby Girl had once filled out an application to work there. They’d gone in to check on the status later that week and Baby Girl told the greeter to suck her dick. Now her applying for the job had become a joke, something she laughed at when telling the story, like she never really meant it. But Perry knew she had meant it, had worn nice black pants and a white blouse to apply. With Baby Girl it was two steps forward and a day’s worth of walking backward.

Baby Girl parked but left the keys in the ignition. Always ready to take off again. She walked slow with her hands in her pockets, shoulders hunched, staring at the ground, drifting in and out of the headlights’ glare. Every now and then she bent to pick up a bit of newspaper, crumpled receipts, a palm frond gone brown. Kindling for the small fire Perry knew she was fixing to make. Dumped it all in one of the carts left outside, held her lighter to the palm frond, which took to the fire like that was all it was waiting for to look alive again. Bright orange rib cage of a thing, quickly turning black. “Shit!” Baby Girl hissed, and ran back to the car.

Perry watched the tiny curls of flame for as long as she could as they drove off. Myra was always talking about itches, how people were either scratchers or ignorers. The scratchers poke and poke at it, even though it makes it itch more. The scratchers love the itch and they love the poking. It could go on forever but for the blood, and even then, it’s a small price to pay. That’s how nights with Baby Girl had gotten. None of it seemed to matter. The sun always came up.

They ditched the Mazda on the side of the highway, near the exit headed back to where they’d left Baby Girl’s car on a quiet street. Cars rushed by them as they walked along the shoulder, some honked, people on their way to work or home from work, probably none of them on the way back from an all-night bender like they had been on. Baby Girl made a visor of her hands to protect her face. She was so pale that even ten minutes in the sun could do her in. Even a weak sun like this one, set back behind a screen of gray. Even this sun would turn her red as a fire ant. “See you at school,” she said.

Perry nodded, turned down the road leading to her house. She was too tired to say anything back. She had to walk while Baby Girl got to drive home because she couldn’t risk Myra hearing the car, or worse, Jim seeing it on his way back from work.

Baby Girl honked as she rode past. Trying to get a rise. Perry ignored her, concentrating on how hard the asphalt felt under her feet. Every step a pounding. She walked through a few neighborhoods on her way to the trailer park, each dingier than the last, until she got to one of the nicer ones, brick homes with actual grass in the yards, no cars parked on the street, a man in a suit taking a mug of coffee to his car. Next would come the cul de sac of duplexes and apartments, pretty yellow siding and flower boxes, though the parking lot out front had cracks and potholes, and there weren’t any BMWs or Lexuses, just Nissans and Hyundais and maybe a Buick or two. Then there was the neighborhood of short, squat houses, skinny driveways, no sidewalks, shrubs and grass looking like they’d gone months without seeing to. Mostly old trucks parked out front, sometimes rickety-looking motorcycles. And finally her own neighborhood, if it could be called that, short rows of trailers leading up a small hill. Hers was three rows back. Perry knew what people thought when they heard the words trailer park. Dirty kids in dirty diapers, car parts, people drinking or hollering. But that wasn’t so true for where she lived. They had all those things, but never all at once, it seemed. And if you had a double-wide, like Myra and Jim did, it almost felt like a normal-size house. Perry didn’t love it, but it was home.

It was nearly seven thirty when she got there. Myra was still in bed, either because she had a day off or because she didn’t wake up when her alarm went off. Perry knew it was probably the second option, what with her having a beer last night. No telling how many came after.

The trailer was quiet and still; it felt to Perry like the preserved remains of a family long gone. Myra collected things, little colonies of shit, and displayed them all over the trailer. Along the windowsill behind the couch she had her group of vintage glass jars; dust had coated them long ago, so instead of reflecting light they just distilled it, held it like a glaze. The couch had its own grouping of pillows, embroidered with dog heads or sayings like COFFEE MADE ME DO IT and IT’S 5 O’CLOCK SOMEWHERE. Mostly pillows Myra picked up from the truck stop. They helped hide how worn the couch was, all its rips and tears, same went for the doilies Myra collected. The walls of the trailer were faux wood paneled, so cheap you couldn’t drive a nail through to hang up a school photo without the whole wall splitting and your picture frame falling to the floor in a shatter. Myra had grouped photos on top of the TV, on the floor in front of the TV, and on the bar leading into the kitchen. None of Perry past the age of eight, like time had stopped once Perry went into the fourth grade. Jim and Myra’s wedding photo in a huge scalloped frame, Myra in a pink pantsuit and Jim in a stiff white shirt, perched on the back of the easy chair against the wall. If you sat too hard it’d topple, and they had all learned how to sit just so, all learned to lean their heads back to hold it in place, all learned you sat in that chair as a last resort. It wasn’t like they all sat together much anyway, so there was usually plenty of room on the couch. Between the couch, the chair, the TV on its stand, and all the shit Myra arranged everywhere, there was about a two-foot path from the front door to the hallway off the bedrooms. Just enough to get by.

When Myra started bringing stuff home, Perry knew she was trying her hardest not to drink. And it worked, but it also held her feet to the fire. A constant reminder of the distraction she craved.

Jim would be pulling up soon to take Perry to school. She showered, mussed up her bed to make it look like she’d been in it. Maybe he wouldn’t know, though he probably would, but even so, Perry knew it was important to at least pretend for him. She got on the computer while she waited, listening for his truck.

There was a message from Jamey.

NO SUBJECT.

Perry girlie,

It has been a lonley nite without you. I got to turn in soon becos I have school in the morning. I guess so do you. Maybe your asleep???

Anyways, hope to talk to you tonite.

Jamey

It was a thrill having a friend like this, a friend Perry could pretend with when there came a need, but it was also a lot of work. Jamey had added her on Facebook months back, and she’d finally accepted his request on a night when Baby Girl couldn’t go out. His profile said he went to high school a few towns over. He played baseball and was all right looking from what Perry could tell.

Now he wanted to talk every single night. She had given him her phone number but he never called, just texted, because he had free texting but limited minutes. Part of Perry was waiting for the other shoe to drop, to find out it was Baby Girl or some jerk from school playing a joke.

In the meantime, it was fun to read what he had to say, especially when it got sexual, and it usually did. Ooooh baby. He loved to write that line. Ooooh. It almost got her to feel sorry for him.

Perry had been hoping the message was from Travis. Seeing Jamey’s message instead, seeing his need to talk to her, it was a need, bared naked and misspelled in a dumb Facebook message, it turned her stomach. Even worse was the fact that she had her own need, a need for Travis to like her, and she wasn’t no better than Jamey.

She looked away from the computer, away from Jamey’s message. The lumpy couch, the worn quilt covering the threadbare patch in the arm, the crocheted rug beaten nearly white over the years, the endless, endless army of glass figurines posing across every flat surface. The house felt empty despite the three people living in it. Myra filled it with stuff and more stuff.

Every time she got to thinking like this it was like time stopped and froze her right where she sat. She’d never leave this shabby, unloved room. The Perry that she was right then, that girl was trapped forever. Before she knew it she had a glass figurine of a rearing horse under her shoe, using her full weight to mash it into the linoleum. Why had she said that thing about Travis’s shoes?

Then again, why had he acted like such a bitch about it?

She swept up the shattered horse, buried it under some paper towels in the trash can. At least six bottles in there, probably more around Myra’s bed. That answered that. She went back to the computer.

Jamey had left a comment on her newest profile picture. Haha your beatifull even with that hat on!! She had read one of Travis’s papers once during a group activity in English. He was a good speller.

Outside, Jim pulled up, honked once. Ever since he found out Perry had skipped a few times, Jim didn’t allow her to take the bus. “Jim, let her find her own way,” Myra had said, “trust me.” Perry could hear them through the wall. “Not when it comes to this,” Jim said. The next day, he’d driven her to school. And all the days after that.

Which didn’t mean Perry wasn’t still skipping. But at least Jim felt better.



PERRY’S HAIR WAS WET, she was neatly dressed, she had her book bag. Jim knew if he checked she’d have made it look like her bed was slept in, had probably even punched a dent into her pillow, but the deep purplish lines under her eyes told a different story. He knew she hadn’t slept at all.

She got into the car riding a wave of gray morning light. When the door shut, the light was gone. He felt sad about that, which meant he was just as exhausted as she must have been. “How was work?” she asked, but immediately turned her head to watch herself in the side mirror.

He wanted to tell her how he’d watched an inmate swallow mouthfuls of his own bright blood after he got in a fight with his roommate over toilet rights. Just gulp, and then his mouth would fill again, and then gulp. How Jim had held a roll of toilet paper up to the man’s mouth and it got half soaked. But he knew he’d never say things like that to her, and he knew it wouldn’t matter if he did.

Instead, in his usual quiet way, he said, “It was fine. Glad it’s over. How was your night?” He said it in an I know you weren’t in bed not one single second kind of way.

“Fine, glad it’s over,” Perry answered.

Now what did that mean, Jim wondered. Was she being cute? Or was she in trouble? But of course she was.

“You see your momma this morning?” Jim asked.

“Sure didn’t,” Perry said. “She was still in the bedroom with the door closed when I came—when I got up.”

Jim let the slip go. “I’ll check on her when I get back,” he said. “I probably forgot to set her alarm.”

They sat in silence the rest of the way there, and Jim was grateful for it. The prison was an ocean of sound. If you worked one of its cinder blocks out of the wall and held it up to your ear you’d hear waves and waves of men—men shouting, crying, moaning. After that, even silence was a roar.

“Hey,” he said. “You want McDonald’s?” This was something they did on special occasions. Fridays. Or when Perry got a good grade. This morning was the opposite of a special occasion, but that seemed to Jim even more of a reason than a B+.

“Hell yes,” Perry said. She finally turned and looked at him. He could see what she’d look like as a grown woman: still pretty, but worn. Like a lily left on a tabletop for too long. Her green eyes were red in the corners. Then she smiled a little, her funny tooth resting on her lower lip, and she looked like a kid again. He filled with love for that kid.

“I could eat a whole hog,” she said.

“Don’t say hell,” Jim said.



WHEN MYRA FIRST STARTED bringing Jim around, Perry thought he was some kind of scary giant who’d crush her like a soda can under his fist. This was after Myra’s other boyfriend, Donald, had finally gone on his way. Donald was a scary toothpick type who’d crushed her with his mean mouth and his needle teeth and his beer breath.

But Jim was different. Looked Perry in the eyes the whole time she’d be talking. Cooked dinner, brought Myra flowers. Cheesy red roses, not a lot of creativity there, but it’s the thought like they say. And he never drank. Perry was eleven when he came around, twelve when they got married. They moved into his trailer because it was a double and in a nicer park than the one they’d lived in before, an old Airstream with a single cot Perry slept on while Myra lolled on the two-cushion loveseat. He had a little garden out front, mostly strawberries and forget-me-nots, and he and Myra hung a wheel of chimes outside their window to christen the occasion.

Those chimes didn’t last. It was like Myra didn’t realize they’d make music every time a breeze blew by. They were gone after a week. And Jim’s calm didn’t fix her shit. She’d still miss a shift about once a week at Byron’s Truck Stop—where she made doughnuts and sold truckers and teenagers their gas—because she’d be doing her drinking.

Perry tried to feel lucky that Myra didn’t drink all the time, just some of the time, tried to feel lucky that even when she did drink she kept it tidy. No public scenes, no weeping calls from a bar like Donald used to do. Myra just goes to her and Jim’s room and drinks in bed till she don’t know what’s what.

Perry knew it was because of a sadness of some kind, or a noise she didn’t want to hear. She had tried to get to the bottom of it, pin down the reasons why, but the truth was there was no list of reasons, unless that list included everything and everybody.

Myra had taught Perry about makeup and clothes and hair. Took care of her when she was sick. Smelled like Oil of Olay (her night cream) and limes (her Coronas). Once Baby Girl had called her a drunk-ass drunk and Perry socked her dead in her arm. Had meant to get her on the chin. It was the last thing Baby Girl ever said about Myra, and in return Perry stopped doing her impression of Charles in front of the TV.

Perry loved Myra the way any child loves their mother, only she could see her mom more clearly than just any daughter could. Myra wasn’t some smeary presence who lived only for her kid. Perry was just a midpoint on her timeline. It was similar to how Perry saw Baby Girl. Both of them had their flaws, but Perry had her own, too.

She and Jim didn’t have that same understanding, but that was a good thing. Jim wanted Perry to hold on tight to her innocence until she arrived safely into adulthood. It was nice to be seen that way, like she was unsmudged and unwrinkled and flapping dry in a clean spring air. Until someone pulls the pins and what, it’s time to lay flat on a bed? Was that what adulthood was? If so, she’d been an adult since she was fourteen.

Jim pulled into the Walmart parking lot so they could turn around and go back toward the McDonald’s. It was strange seeing it in the light of day, knowing she and Baby Girl had just been thugging there not hours before. Perry almost wanted to ask Jim could he drive around back, just real quick. She wanted to see the tire marks from the doughnuts. The embers from the fire. Had it actually all happened? It seemed like a dream she’d feel dumb for having.



WHEN BABY GIRL GOT HOME Charles was eating Cheerios out of a mixing bowl. “This is good,” he told her. She could see the open bag of sugar on the table in front of him, a ladle sticking out of it. No wonder it was good.

“Hey, Charles,” she said, “you make some for me?”

“Oh my Lord,” he said. This was his new thing. Oh my Lord. He had gotten it from their uncle Dave, who they lived with, and who had found God after Charles got hit by a car while on his motorcycle a little over a year ago. Dave had been out all night that night, which used to be common, had come home to a police officer waiting in his driveway. Ran right to church after that. Baby Girl could understand. Church answers a lot of questions for you, so you don’t have to yourself. Back in the day she used to go to church and it wasn’t all that bad, she played bells in the kids’ choir, ganked Danishes to eat with her little friends before Sunday school, bowed her head to pray to a God she imagined looked like Santa Claus in his pajamas.

Church just didn’t intersect all that cleanly with her interests these days, was the thing.

“Dayna,” Charles said, “I forgot to make you some. This is all that’s left. The box is empty!” He handed it over, which was exactly what Baby Girl wanted him to do. When Charles ate too much sugar he crashed hard.

“Go get in the shower,” she told Charles. “Hurry up, ’cause I got to get in there after you.” She pointed at her hair with the cereal spoon. “My shit’s all kind of nappy.”

“You look beautiful,” Charles said. He worked his finger into a nostril. “You’re my sister!” He wiped his finger on the tablecloth.

“That’s fuckin’ gross, Charles,” Baby Girl said, but she was laughing. This new Charles had no shame. Walked out of his room naked, ate tubs and tubs of ice cream, loved giving high fives, told Baby Girl he loved her, she was beautiful. The old Charles wouldn’t be caught dead digging in his nose, wouldn’t be caught dead in basketball shorts, ate healthy, had tons of girls blowing his cell up day and night.

The old Charles also used to steal cars and deliver them to someplace or other to be stripped for parts, used to carry a gun. Baby Girl took the gun from him after he came home from the hospital, after he held it up asking, Is this real? It was in an old shoebox under her bed, wrapped in paper towels and duct taped.

Charles stood up, pulled off his shirt. “Do I have time for a bubble bath?” he asked.

“Hell no you don’t,” Baby Girl said. “You got time for a shower like I said.”

Charles kicked his chair over. This was another part of the new Charles. Whatever he was feeling, he made sure it was obvious. He had come at Baby Girl a few times, charging, but if you waited him out he usually calmed down or got distracted.

Baby Girl stared at the upturned chair, her eyebrows raised. Charles was breathing hard.

“Remember how you like the shower, ’cause it’s like that time you ran around in the rain?” Baby Girl asked.

“Oh,” Charles said. “Oh yeah!” He pulled his shorts down, ran to the bathroom, kicking them off as he went.

Baby Girl exhaled. She was gripping the spoon still, there was the bass in her heart again. Charles, if he wanted to, could do some damage.

But so the fuck could she. She took a bite of the Cheerios. Gagged. The only crunch left was from the sugar. She checked her phone again, and her heart thudded quick and heavy, because this time there was a text. How she’d missed it she didn’t know.

U online?

She ran to the desk, where Dave’s PC sat like an old car waiting to be scrapped. Took forever to boot up, took forever to get online. Baby Girl imagined Jamey waiting, drumming his fingers, jiggling his knee just like she did when she felt impatient, then giving up right as Baby Girl finally made it online.

But he hadn’t given up. She saw his name right there in her buddies list. Available.

Hey, she wrote.

Well hey urself

Baby Girl smiled, because it seemed like she’d been forgiven, and because it was such a strange thing to say. No boy she knew talked like that. Cheerful, playful. Flirty, maybe, if she let herself think that far.

Where u ben u usualy always online wen I wana talk

Baby Girl felt indignant, even though it was true, she was usually online these days, waiting for him. But he was acting like it was her fault they’d stopped talking.

She didn’t used to go online all that much, it felt vain and desperate. She’d even chosen the worst photo she had of herself: head so freshly shaved it gleamed, bottle in a brown bag, red-rimmed eyes. Mean eyes, as mean as she could make them. She remembered taking the photo. She’d just dropped Perry off and was ditching a car. From the front seat, snap, the photo was born. The green-and-blue blur behind her shoulder: a kid’s car seat. Abandoned stuffed elephant, stiff with drool. It was because of that elephant she ditched the car only a block from where they’d taken it, and it was because of that elephant that she felt such meanness.

So she looked ugly and mean in the picture, but it had worked. Perry and some cousins were her only “friends” on the site. Until a couple weeks ago, when Baby Girl felt bored enough to go online and see that Jamey had friended her.

Hey there

Im new in town, lookin for freinds. U seem cool

Baby Girl felt embarrassed for him. The “Hey there,” like he was some kind of grandpa. The typos. The “U.” It all felt like he was trying to come off too casual, like her friendship meant more to him than he was willing to let on. His picture was of the back of his head—probably meant he was all fucked up in the face. She saw that Perry was friends with him, but Perry would let anyone be her friend on that site. Baby Girl wrote back:

You don’t know shit bout shit, how you know if I’m cool?

Figured that would be that, better for him to find out that not everyone would just blindly accept him into their world. But within an hour he’d written back:

I like your hair

Did he really like her hair? Or was that his way of coming back at her? If he did like her hair, he might be someone worth knowing, someone who couldn’t be fooled all that easily. And if it was his way of being sarcastic, Baby Girl almost liked him better for it. She wrote:

You’re fuckin weird

Yeah I am, he’d responded. Hope thats okay by u

There’d be a message from him every time Baby Girl checked. It got to where she looked forward to going online and seeing what he’d say next. He asked for her number, something that no other boy had ever done, and Baby Girl gave it to him. He never called, just texted, always wanted to know where she was at, who she was with, what her and Perry were up to. Online one night he asked:

U ever ben with anyone?

Never mind, aint none of my bizness

But Baby Girl wanted to tell him. Wanted to say no, she’d never been with anyone, not all the way, didn’t even let herself think about it too hard. She’d watched the way boys looked at Perry, had even sat on the other side of doors and, once, outside her own car, waiting for Perry to get done with a few of them. Had glanced over and seen Perry’s leg, her toes flexing like she was trying to crack one of them, and that was a private horror to Baby Girl, worse, she felt strongly, than if she’d looked over and seen Perry naked, or moaning, or even stabbed. Wanted to say, I don’t even know if I’m attracted to you, you seem kind of simple and I haven’t seen your face, but if you’re asking me if I been with anyone so you can then ask me do I want to meet up and find out what it’s all about, I will tell you yes, I’m begging you to let me say yes.

But what she actually wrote was:

Haha, perv

What bout that freind your always with? he wrote. U think shes slutty rite?

Baby Girl’s heart had been pounding, she was halfway at the computer and halfway already in the car, driving toward him, feeling terrified and disgusted and ready for whatever. Was he fat, was he missing teeth, would he see her in person and shut the door? But him asking after Perry had put Baby Girl back, all the way, in her chair.

Why you askin about her? she wrote.

LOL, just makin small talk, he responded.

She’s no slut, watch what you say

I just thot I saw her around with a buncha differen guys, thats all

SO??? You a stalker? she wrote.

Then: LOL

Lately he’d been asking more about Perry, U with your freind? Shit, he probably had that pretyped and ready to send every time he didn’t see Baby Girl online. At first she felt kind of flattered, like he was checking in on her to make sure she wasn’t with no other boys, but now it felt like he wanted to know was she with Perry. They were having a conversation about music when he wrote,

Your freind like the same kinda music??

He knew her name, she’d written it and texted it to him a lot, but he always called Perry “your freind.”

I know you’re friends with her, why don’t you just ask her yourself? she wrote.

Don’t be like that Dayna. Baby Girl knew he’d say that, had almost wanted to type it herself so he could see how well she knew him. She’d told him her real name one night when they’d been chatting for hours, and her legs ached from sitting so long, and her wrists felt bruised from all the typing, and it seemed like they’d been talking about everything. He used her name only when he wanted her to know he was being serious. Don’t be like that Dayna. But then:

Hey what r u wearing

LOL

He’d used her name, and then he’d laughed. She decided to give him what he was asking for.

I’m not wearing shit

I’m naked

It’s cold in here so my nipples are hard

I have perfect nipples

I shave my pussy, you like that?

What are U wearing, motherfucker?

The word pussy blared from the screen. She had wanted to scare him. Baby Girl felt as cold and exposed as if she really was naked. Jamey is typing.

Whoa whoa

That aint what Im after

Your my freind

Im your freind rite?

Baby Girl didn’t answer, just watched the cursor blink. Finally he said,

Talk to u later I guess

Jamey has signed off.

That was two nights ago. Nothing since. No texts, no online chatting. Baby Girl’s yearning had felt as bright as a car alarm, a shrieking that filled her ears and flooded her body and scared the shit out of her. And for some reason, even though she wanted to talk about it with someone, it felt like something she should guard closely around Perry. Like if Perry knew she’d take it away and Baby Girl might walk up to the car one day to see the back of Jamey’s head moving slow between Perry’s legs, Perry’s face bland as a tortilla, the ping ping of her toes cracking the only evidence that there was any life to her at all. So Baby Girl kept it to herself. She’d tell Perry when the time came, if the time came.

I have been online, she said now. And didn’t you get my text?

Im just teasin, he said. Ben thinkin bout u

Baby Girl smiled again. Been thinking about you too

U out last nite?? he wrote.

Yeah … couldn’t sleep so we went out thuggin, she wrote back.

With ur freind?

Baby Girl decided to let that one go, not get on his case about it, she was so glad to hear from him again.

Yeah she was there

I thot so

Im glad u aint disapeered

Me too, Baby Girl wrote, and she wanted to shout, to run in and tell … who? There wasn’t no one.

I stil wana meetup u kno?

Me too, Baby Girl wrote again. So fucking tongue-tied by this no-faced stranger.

Alrite wel l lets talk l8r u got school

Okay I’ll text you l8r, you fuckin dork. Something Baby Girl would never have typed normally. But it was cute, he was cute, he wanted to meet up with her. With her.

Lookin fwd

Jamey has signed off.

Baby Girl scrolled back up, reread their brief chat. I stil wana meetup u know? She felt like she could jump high as the roof. She felt … wanted. Attractive, even. Got up and threw her cereal bowl against the wall without even thinking why, just had to do something. Watched the sludge drip down in gory streams, puddle on the linoleum, her heart racing her lungs. She waited till she heard Charles turn the water off, then went over to clean up her mess. ’Cause one thing about Baby Girl she cherished was the thing that separated her from Charles, even before his accident: she could clean up her mess.



MYRA WOKE UP with a yolky taste in her mouth. She tried licking her lips but that only spread the yolk around, and the yolk dried fast. She was holding her glass from last night up against her heart and now she tipped it at her lips, but it was also dry. And then that carpet of regret started creeping up her body, moving rough and fast up her feet legs hips breasts neck head. Coating her in a raw rushing heat she did not welcome. Add to that how her stomach had nothing in it. That was going to be a problem.

She hadn’t even needed the beer last night. Only drinking when a drink was needed was one of her rules. She had said this to Perry, and then Jim, many times over the years. Don’t worry. It’s only when I need it. She had just been bored, and a little disappointed. Most of the time the disappointment wasn’t an issue. But then other times, like last night, with that boy, Pete, this young man interested in what she had to say, she’d find herself thinking of Jim and the flat plane of her life. How it was mostly defined now, no more surprises on the way, how Jim felt just fine with that, and her throat would close in like she’d swallowed a cherry pit and her throat didn’t know was it better to swallow it down or cough it up.

Last night, before her first beer, she had come up behind Jim. Put her hands around his chest and rubbed his shirtfront. But he had already been dressed for work, and he didn’t want to get undressed, then redressed. He’d turned and kissed her, as fast as a hummingbird’s wing, on the lips. Didn’t he know what that did to a woman? Maybe that was why she’d let Pete sit awhile. It hadn’t helped, though.

Had Perry come home? She hadn’t heard her come home or leave for school. Which meant Jim hadn’t come in to wake her when he got home, before driving Perry. Which meant Jim was annoyed with her, because she’d asked him to pour her a glass before he left. Well, it served him right.

She wished, sometimes, that Jim would get mad. But all he ever got worked up to was a mild kind of annoyance. She had once been pushed out of a moving car by a man angry with her, so most of the time Jim’s mild, dulled reactions were just fine by her.

But they also added to the disappointment. They were small things that added up, like toothpicks in a Dixie cup, but still, they could stick you.

Shit. She had to get something in her stomach. She braced herself with her hand on the nightstand, knocking some bottles to the floor, but, a mercy, none broke. Still, the clattering sound ripped through her and instead of heading toward the kitchen, she headed for the bathroom. Knelt before the toilet. Heaved and spat.

When the heaving stopped, her knees singing with the pain, Myra got up, went into the kitchen to make some toast and coffee. Called Bill at the truck stop to apologize for not making her shift, explain that she was ill and couldn’t come in.

“Mm-hmm,” Bill said. “Well, we’ll see you tomorrow, anyway.” Myra knew he didn’t believe her, but she was grateful for him playing along all the same.

She sat in the chair at the computer, dipped her toast into her coffee. Her neighbor had her music on, a constant cheerful braying that hammered Myra’s skull. She must have bumped the mouse somehow because the computer screen suddenly flashed on. Perry’s Facebook page was open. A boy named Jamey had called her beautiful. The picture he said it about was of Perry in a hat Jim had bought at the truck stop one day when he and Perry stopped by after school. The hat was as green as a leaf and there was a real golf tee balancing a real golf ball on the bill. Perry was smiling calmly, like it wasn’t nothing more than a hair barrette. She could see why Perry had uploaded it. The green in the hat, the green in her eyes. She was beautiful. Too much eyeliner but that was a teenager’s way. Myra swelled with pride.

She clicked on the boy’s name. His page was empty, not much activity. A few days back he had liked a page about bass fishing. There was only a single photo of him and it was of the back of his head. He was facing a wide green field. His shoulders looked strong. He had seventeen Facebook friends. To Myra’s knowledge, kids usually had “friends” in the thousands. Perry had more than two thousand herself. But then again, Perry was a girl. It seemed natural that a boy, a boy who liked bass fishing, wouldn’t be as involved in some website. Myra guessed he joined just so he could get in touch with Perry. And that was sweet.

She closed the window, pushed herself away from the computer. Jim would be back from dropping Perry off soon. She’d have to look better than she did now. She didn’t want him to think she was some kind of drunk, all her luster lost. She didn’t want to be no toothpick in his Dixie cup.



DURING HOMEROOM the vice principal came on the intercom and announced that someone had set a fire out back of the Walmart, had melted a cart to uselessness, and there was tire track evidence so if anyone knew anything they’d better come forward. Perry wanted to laugh but everyone was listening real serious, even Ronny, who was the loudmouth in class and who did the kind of shit she and Baby Girl did nearly every weekend. Once, at a house party hosted by one of the junior girls, he called and ordered all the porn channels, just so he could watch them in the two hours he’d be there. Even he was listening politely, eyes cast down at his desk, acting like a serious crime had occurred.

Perry texted Baby Girl. You hear that?? Fuckin classic. It was like taking a temperature, holding the phone still, waiting for the vibration of her reply, waiting to see how bad the fever was.

Tire track evidence. That was the beauty of stealing cars. It wasn’t their car, so even if they found the Mazda, it’d never be connected to them. They always wiped everything down. Last night they’d used wet wipes they’d found in the glove compartment.

Still no reply from Baby Girl. She could get like that, Perry knew. Real careful. She’d just take it up with her later. They needed to be on the same page. They needed to iron it all out.

“Students,” Mrs. Gutherton said, “get out your homework. Or read a book. Do something so I don’t have to get on you about doing something. Spend your time wisely.”

Mrs. Gutherton had short curls that were always flattened in the back, and she wore turtlenecks every day, and her bra made her boobs look like two lumpy scoops of mashed potatoes, and she was never not up to here with her students. Being a teacher seemed like such an oh well kind of life.

Perry wanted her life to be purposeful. When she was a kid she thought becoming an adult meant you just found the right door and walked through it into a burst of light. Everything was easier through that door, because you’d found the answer.

Now that she was older, she knew it wasn’t like that. She knew people sometimes came up to the door and kept walking right on past it. People like Baby Girl. Perry had narrowed it down to three doors. And Teacher sure as hell wasn’t the name on any one of them.

“What, Ronny?” Mrs. Gutherton asked. He’d raised his hand, and now gripped the sides of his desk, bore down, released a long machine-gunning fart. A few boys laughed. The girl behind him threw a pencil at his head, ran for a seat three rows over. Sometimes school felt like a scene in a terrible sitcom, one that had a catchphrase and at least two fart jokes per episode.

Mrs. Gutherton looked like she might be considering what Ronny did, like he’d asked a question or said something worth pondering. “Okay, Ronny,” she said. “You may be dismissed. Give the principal my regards.” More sitcom talk. She patted at the back of her head. Just making it worse and worse. Perry had a pick comb in her purse, truly wanted to offer it up, but figured it would get her an invitation to the principal’s office, too, or make the teacher think they could be friends.

“Man, it was just a joke,” Ronny said. He was ignored. He shuffled out like his ankles were shackled.

That was another lesson Perry and Baby Girl had learned: Don’t be caught off guard when the shit comes back on you. Expect that it will.

Baby Girl still hadn’t replied. Perry passed the note she’d written over to Shanna, a girl with hair that looked pasted over her right eye, her left eye thickly lined in blue eyeliner. She was wearing a tight sparkly shirt like the kind Myra bought in bulk, back in the day. A momma-trying-to-be-sexy shirt. Shanna’s tits looking more like pecs than anything. So many things to feel sorry over. In her note, Perry had written:

Hey—I saw on fbook that u know Jamey. What’s his deal? He’s clingy right??

After a minute, Shanna passed it back.

I mean, I know him from fbook. He friended me a while back but I haven’t talked to him really all that much. He seemed nice tho. I like your top today!

Little hearts over every i. Smiley face at the end. Shanna was a real kiss-ass type, that one eye always wide and begging. Best not to stoke the flames by writing back and thanking her, especially since she didn’t know anything anyway.

Later, in math class, the window a/c unit rattled on and off in five-minute intervals. Off just long enough so everyone started smelling, on long enough to dry the sweat. Perry liked the way her sweat smelled. Her own specific scent. Like sugar, and like butter left out for too long. Kind of sweet and kind of nasty. Baby Girl smelled like a sliced onion if she got too sweaty, but Perry had seen her caking her pits with Secret, had seen her spritzing that perfume you could get for $1.29 at the drugstore under her shirt, so it wasn’t like Baby Girl wasn’t trying. They had to sit alphabetically according to last names, so Baby Girl was behind Perry and at a diagonal, seated in the row all the way against the wall. She was still in the same clothes from the night before, but her hair fell in wet lines down her forehead, and Perry couldn’t smell the onion yet, so it was clear she’d showered. Her lips outlined in brown and gleaming, like always. Perry looked at her, mouthed, Why didn’t you text me back?

Why the fuck would I? she mouthed back, real slow and deliberate, like she was tough, like she had no idea how dumb she looked with a mouth drawn around her mouth. Still, if Baby Girl was really disturbed by something she’d have ignored Perry outright. So they were cool.

Bitch, Perry mouthed, turned around before Baby Girl could say anything back.

Travis usually sat in the row on the other side of Perry, but today his desk was empty.

It was nearly one o’clock. Perry felt cored, and the shell that was left ached. The classroom was as warm as a kitchen, Mr. Clark talking about tangents and cotangents in a nasally drone. Perry felt her lids pulling down, her eyes nearly closed when he’d say tangent or cotangent again, getting too rough with his t’s. Bringing her right back to the ache.

Travis walked in ten minutes before class was over. Perry checked his shoes. Silvery sneakers, like they were spun from webs. Mr. Clark watched Travis take his seat, holding his chalk in front of him, like it was important, leaving a ghost of dust across his middle. “All right,” he said.

“Yeah,” Travis said. “I apologize, Mr. Clark.”

“All right,” Mr. Clark said again.

Travis didn’t have anything to write with, didn’t even have his book or his green book bag. She had noticed this happening to him before, and now that Perry knew he worked all night long it made sense. It was hard for her to remember to bring everything after a night out with Baby Girl. She’d had to borrow pens and paper countless times from the boy in front of her, Matt, who she usually tried to copy off during quizzes. She nudged him now, pushing her fingertips into the flesh at his back. His T-shirt was hot and moist, stuck to him. He turned, smiling, ready to help, and Perry tried not to gawk at the gap between his front teeth. “Give Travis your other pen,” she whispered. “And a piece of paper.”

Matt looked from her to Travis. “Sure,” he whispered, and quickly handed them over like Travis was mugging him. “But I need that pen back.” He had never said that to Perry before. She probably had a dozen of his pens in her locker, on the floor of Baby Girl’s car.

“Thanks,” Travis whispered. “I’ll make sure to give it back.” He bowed his head, started writing down the scraps of equations Mr. Clark had written on the board throughout the class. Going through the motions was what he seemed to be doing.

He must have felt Perry watching him. Looked up at her with his big cow’s eyes.

“You’re welcome,” she whispered. He nodded, and Perry was disappointed that he didn’t smile at her. In her mind he had smiled, and she had smiled, and after class they’d walked together in the hall, out the front doors, into the woods … but there she stopped herself. She wouldn’t be like that with him. And besides, he hadn’t even smiled at her.

But he was probably as tired as Perry was, more even, since he’d been working all night. Mopping and cooking and whatever else. Helping that old witch waitress adjust her wig just so. Pam. Again Perry found herself thinking how nice it’d be to go back to the trailer and have Myra and Jim be gone, lay down on her bed with Travis. Take a nap, nothing else.

Perry’s phone vibrated. A text from Baby Girl. Pay attention bitch! need 2 copy ur homework l8r!!

She clicked her pen, ready to take notes. It occurred to her that she wanted, very badly, for Travis to think she was smart.



IT WAS A THIRTY-MINUTE DRIVE to and back from the high school, so when Jim got home Myra had managed to shower and get into a clean dress; the white one with the tiny blue flowers dotted everywhere. Made Myra feel younger. Cleaner. The beery sheets she’d thrown into the small closet washing machine were frothed and rinsed, ready for the dryer, though Myra knew they’d have a better chance hung from a line, old as the dryer was. But that seemed like a lot today. Too much.

“Hey,” Jim said to her, standing at the front of the hallway, hands on his hips. “You eat?”

“Surely did,” she answered. They were out of fabric softener; they were always out of something. “Can I make you a bite?”

“Might make myself some eggs,” Jim said. Myra was no cook. Still, she wanted Jim to see that she’d offered. She followed him into the kitchen, sat at the tiny nook table to watch him. He cracked some eggs into Perry’s old plastic bowl. A chipped cartoon fish with a mouth full of teeth grinned from the bowl’s center.

“Myra,” Jim started to say, whipping the eggs with a fork. She loved the sound of her name when he said it. So serious. Like she was someone worth knowing.

“Mmm?” she asked. She felt lulled by the sound of the fork, tiny pings and the liquid swish of the eggs. “What is it?”

“I am pretty sure Perry was out all night last night,” Jim said, turning his back to her to pour the eggs into the pan. He was testing the waters, seeing how Myra would react. Because she knew she had done wrong last night, she gave him a taste of what he wanted.

“You’re kidding,” she said, working a thread of shock into her voice. “Again? And after all the talks you’ve had with her.”

It wasn’t that Myra didn’t worry for her child. She did. Only not for stuff like staying out all night. Instead, Myra worried Perry wouldn’t appreciate her youth, her beauty, all the chances she was being given to create moments she could hold on to. To make her life a jewelry box full of shiny things rather than a cabinet that rarely got dusted.

But Myra had gone too far. Or maybe she hadn’t gone far enough. Her words, instead of coming out sincere, had landed flat and unfeeling. She sat up straighter. She needed to pay better attention.

“Anyway,” Jim said, his back still turned. “She was in one piece and she went to school. So maybe I’m wrong and she was home after all.”

“I’m glad we have you to worry after us,” she said. “Jim,” she said, when he still hadn’t turned. When he did a moment later she shook some pepper into her hand, held it out to him.

“No thanks,” he said. His eyes held her face a beat too long; he was watching her, waiting to see if she knew Perry had been out. She couldn’t let on that she knew, couldn’t let him know a strange boy had been in the trailer drinking with her while her daughter was out in the night with that half-bald girl. Myra hated that she felt like she had to pretend in front of her husband.

Finally he turned back, raked a spatula through his eggs. “You sleep okay?” His way of dropping the subject. Myra felt tired. She knew Jim was tired. Perry was tired. They were on a carousel that wouldn’t stop.

“I might go over there and knock on her door,” Jim was saying. He meant the neighbor, the polka music. “I know she’s old and she enjoys it but we all need our sleep.” He was already halfway out the screen door; he closed it gently behind him.

Myra went to the bathroom, wet her hands, flicked water onto her face with her fingertips. The carpet of regret had returned, her face was as hot as a stone in the sun. She heard Jim knocking on the neighbor’s door, calling Mrs. Kozlowski? Mrs. Kozlowski? The music stopped. Jim and the neighbor murmured to each other. Myra looked into her own face in the mirror. Where Perry’s looks had come from, she didn’t know. She herself was blond and blue-eyed, and Perry’s father was Italian. Myra was pretty sure about that, anyway. It hadn’t been a long courtship.

But sometimes she saw Perry catching her own reflection in a window, that quick appraisal, and Myra could see how Perry was pleased with what she saw. That was what she had given to Perry.

She heard Jim come back in, remove the pan from the stove. The neighbor’s music started up again, turned down a smidge.

“Jim,” Myra called. “Come here for a sec.” She appraised herself in the mirror, straightened her neck and shoulders, allowed that flood of knowing vanity to fill her face. She had held the attention of a young man for quite some time the night before. When Jim appeared in the doorway, she took him by his belt and led him into the bedroom.



IF YOU LET YOUR EYES LOSE FOCUS everything becomes a smear. That’s how Baby Girl liked to get through class. The teacher a moving smear of brown and gray, his voice like someone was rubbing an eraser over it: the words were there but you had to work hard to find them.

She used to be good at this shit. Math, English. School. Back when it felt like it mattered, paying attention and doing homework and playing the clarinet and never missing class, not even when she was sick, not even when Charles called collect from jail at five in the morning.

She checked her phone. No new texts. That was all right, she told herself. That was fine, they’d talk l8r.

“Dayna,” the teacher said. “What’d I say about the next time you bring your phone to class?”

She let her eyes focus. Even still, Mr. Clark looked like a smear. She hadn’t had the time to fully convince herself that no new texts was actually just fine, and maybe that’s why she answered, “That you’ll set it to vibrate and put it up your butt?”

A boy in the back of the room exploded with laughter. Some other kids giggled behind their hands. Baby Girl hated them for it. They should think she was an asshole. What she said wasn’t even all that clever, had come out before she had time to stop it. Perry hadn’t laughed, either. That was happening more and more these days.

She began packing up her things. She knew she’d be sent to the principal’s office, and she wanted to make it as easy on Mr. Clark as possible, the least she could do. She also knew she’d walk right past the office, push out the doors, run to her car to wait for Perry. She could feel the hard slaps her feet would make, could feel the heat of the treeless parking lot. Was already composing a new text to him: What u doin? or even just Hey.

“Nope,” Mr. Clark said. “You’re staying right here in this classroom. And you’re coming up here to finish the equation we’ve started as a class.”

He held out the chalk. Baby Girl felt excited, she couldn’t help it. Back in the day she loved to write on the board, loved erasing what she’d written and writing it all over again, only neater. Loved to have the class watch her get an answer right, please the teacher, be the best.

But now she felt embarrassed by her excitement. She dropped her bag as hard as she could on the floor, walked up and snatched the chalk from the teacher’s hand. The equation had three different letters in it, or was one of the letters a multiplication sign? She felt ashamed that she didn’t know, angry that Mr. Clark knew she didn’t know and was making an example of her.

Sometimes when it felt like there was no way out Baby Girl could feel her body getting cold, like it was shutting down so she could think. Like the time a man in his boxers had held up a bat and swung it at her and Perry, yelling how he was going to call the cops. At first it was like Baby Girl was hearing and seeing everything all at once, the man yelling, Perry laughing, a car going by two streets over. And then she had gone cold, could see the way out as if it had been blasted with a flashlight: scream, charge at the man, yank down his boxers, run.

And now here she was again, cold as a lizard. The equation ordered itself, she knew the answer was 26x. Wrote it on the board, wrote suck and dicks around it, so the answer read, “Suck 26x dicks.”

Mr. Clark looked like his boxers had landed around his ankles. The boy in the back exploded again. Baby Girl threw the chalk at him on her way out. She hated him, she felt sorry for Mr. Clark and that made her hate him, hate herself.

Heat, footslaps, the wham of her car door. She hunched low, breathing the thick hot air in the car. The bell rang; the bell rang again. Perry would be in biology now. She sent two texts: P, I’m in the car and Hey what u doin? Added a smiley face, because it seemed more girly, less desperate for a response, but at the last second Baby Girl decided it made her seem high or dense. She fucked up the deletion, though, so her text read:

Hey what u doin?:

No smile, just eyes, like Baby Girl wanted him to know she wasn’t playing, she was looking for him, she wasn’t even blinking, she was looking so hard.

He probably wouldn’t even notice the eyes. She hoped he wouldn’t, she hoped he would.



THEY WERE WATCHING A VIDEO about predatory animals when she got Baby Girl’s text. She could have stayed and watched that video, it was pretty interesting, especially since she was the only girl who didn’t hide her eyes when the animals would catch something, bite deep into flesh, the zebra or whatever thrashing and then woops, there’s its ribs. Perry wasn’t coldhearted. She just wasn’t scared like the other girls.

She could have stayed and felt just fine with that, but she didn’t want to miss out on a ride from Baby Girl, didn’t want to miss out on the feeling of driving out of the parking lot while everyone else was still stuck inside the school. She asked to go to the bathroom, threw the hall pass in the garbage on her way out, waited for the parking lot guard to chug around the bend, out of sight. The school was a flat brown building with a parking lot in front and a bunch of trailers parked in what used to be the football field out back. The school had expanded enough to need trailer classrooms, and it didn’t have enough money to keep up with a football team, so problem solved. The parking lot guard patrolled the parking lot and the trailers, so kids always waited for the golf cart to make its way over toward the old football field before they made a run for it. Perry never ran, though. Running made you look guilty.

Baby Girl was hunched low in the driver’s seat, staring at her phone. Perry got in and Baby Girl backed out of the parking spot, drove them through the gates, sped through the yellow light at the corner, still hunched. Perry felt it, she felt that freedom she’d been expecting, the sun suddenly brighter and the air quieter and the grass so green it hurt her eyes, everything seeming to say that what she’d done was right.

They were on the other side, they were out, and the possibilities lay before them like dashes on a highway. Some days they never found a reason to be out, and maybe today was like that. And it wasn’t like they were trying all that hard. Baby Girl drove lazily, full stops at corners even when there wasn’t a stop sign, checking her phone again and again like she was waiting on something to come through.

Perry’s own phone vibrated. A text from Jamey. U with your freind? U gonna get online? I wanna talk 2 u.

Later, she wrote back. She didn’t want to talk to him, maybe ever again. Oooh baby. Thinking of Travis typing those words, now that was something to consider.

They drove around, parked at the McDonald’s. Perry wondered if it was the same shift as when she and Jim had gone through that morning, if the girl with the lazy eye and long green nails would hand them their burgers if they hit the drive-through. Baby Girl looked at her phone again. “Who you waiting on?” Perry asked.

“Charles,” she said. “He’s supposed to text me when he’s ready to get picked up.”

Perry knew that was a lie. Charles didn’t text and Baby Girl picked him up every day at the same time. “Mm-hmm,” Perry said. A fat man walked into the McDonald’s, antlers of sweat on his shirt, spreading out from his spine. Perry liked to ask herself would she go for different kinds of men: fat, ugly, old. But no, not today. Today all she could think of was Travis, how he hadn’t smiled back at her, how when he’d handed the pen back at the end of class, he’d smiled at Matt.

Baby Girl’s phone tittered. Perry snatched it out of her hand, scraping Baby Girl’s wrist with her nails, holding her off with her other hand so she could read.

U with your freind?

Jamey’s number. Baby Girl mashed Perry’s face with her hand until Perry could taste the salt on her fingers. She dropped the phone and it clattered over the gearshift, fell between the seats.

Perry’s face felt hot, branded where Baby Girl’s hand had been. “Don’t,” Baby Girl said. The heat traveled, covered Perry’s whole body. “Fuck you,” Perry said.

Sometimes Perry wondered how they were friends, or even if friends was the word for what they were. They never talked about boys, Perry had never asked Baby Girl if she’d even touched a wiener before. They didn’t talk, really, they just did. Perry’d had a crush on Charles a long time ago, before his accident, before she filled out the training bra Myra had gotten on sale at Walmart. Perry wrote him a note saying how she felt. The next day Baby Girl brought it back to her. “I read this,” she said. “I took it before Charles could see it. You don’t want him seeing it.” Perry thought she was saving her from embarrassment, that Baby Girl knew Charles would laugh and keep ignoring her, but then she said, “You don’t want him liking you.” Perry never asked her why, too embarrassed that she didn’t already know.

And that’s probably why she didn’t tell Baby Girl what she knew. That Jamey was also texting her. The text just before the one Perry saw on Baby Girl’s phone said, I wanna meet up with u and your freind. He was only texting her to get to Perry.

Baby Girl got out of the car, went into the McDonald’s. She knew she wasn’t supposed to follow. Perry could see her inside, typing into her phone. She should have stayed to see what happened to that zebra.

When Baby Girl dropped Perry home, Myra’s and Jim’s cars were there, but their bedroom door was closed. Myra probably with a pillow over her head to block the light and Jim probably still in his work pants. He had another shift that night.

Perry got online. Her chat was already blinking, just like she knew it would be.

Hey girlie, missed u

She typed fast, couldn’t wait to bust him. Why you messin with my friend? I saw your text to her

He didn’t answer right away. Jamey is typing. Perry got up for a ginger ale, came back to see that he’d finally spit it out.

U jealous??:p

You checkin up on me?

Aw girlie I’m just innerested in your life, he wr