Monday, July 19, 2010
A Short Story For Hank (and All This Trouble)
Everyone agreed that she had beautiful legs. They were long and muscular with tight, defined knees and ankles, and calves like ripe fruit. The backs of her thighs had a curve to them that begged to be palmed. Her feet, if you happened to notice, were a little on the wide side, her toes spread like a gap-toothed grin, but even that was tempered by the delicate boning of them, the length, and her high arches.
Her upper body, taken out of context might have been beautiful. Her arms translucent fins, her large eyes so perfectly round, the flesh of her spotted and rainbowed and every color of mother of pearl, but as lovely as that might be, a fish was a fish was a fish. High school was difficult.
She lived in a small house in a small town in the middle of a state in the middle of the Bible Belt. Her father Graham, tried. Graham planted roses around the house and jasmine along the fence. There was a sand pear she could not climb and camellias she could not pick and tomatoes and cantaloupe she could not stomach, but in the afternoons the backyard had a quiet, watery quality beneath the great hands of the banana trees and there she would lay and daydream and watch the dragonflies whiz by overhead and occasionally eat one.
Graham was an alcoholic in recovery and had been as long as the Girl could remember. There was a mystery to his wayward youth that hinted at her birth and that she had no desire to uncover. The serenity prayer was the lullaby of her childhood and they both took great comfort in the words. The Girl knew her mother had died in childbirth, but when the notion of death by shock of giving birth to a halfbreed crossed her mind she slang it away, along with all the other dark wonderings of her past that made her feel unfaithful to Graham. She did her best to smile with all her tiny teeth, and eat what was given to her.
Her best friend at Folsom High was a black girl with a harelip named Cherrie. "Oh what I wouldn't give for your legs!" Cherrie would say, boneless in the heat on the bed. "Don't even." the Girl would say, flashing her lidless orbs at her friend. "What good are legs when no boy would ever want to get between 'em? I mean, really. If I ever asked a boy to eat me he probably would. With lemon butter sauce."
"Eat me!" Cherrie embraced herself and rolled around on the bed. "Eat me Troy Duchamp! Pick me clean!" The Girl laughed hard with her friend, trying to dislodge the stone in her throat. Troy Duchamp was the boy every girl in school baited her hook for. He painted his '86 Mercury flat black, growled his way through Algebra, and had green green eyes.
Really, the Girl knew from reading everything she could get her fins on that boys like Troy Duchamp were as common as river rocks, and often just as smart. If he had grown up in the small town like the rest of her class he wouldn't seem so special, but he had arrived sometime in the summer before their junior year and showed up to school on the first day with a chip on his shoulder that put a hitch in his step and he walked like he'd seen the world and it wasn't that impressive.
The Girl dreaded new kids, almost as much as she dreaded the college applications that mysteriously arrived on her bed in fat glossy piles. Thankfully, there wasn't much reason for people to move to her small town. It was a town built more on what had been rather than what was, and gave the impression that it was just hanging on out of sheer apathy. The incredible humidity, the boarded up windows on Main Street, the river that swelled to bursting every time it rained, the black mold in the foundations of all the houses, the inclination of some of the town leaders to occasionally don sheets and hold bonfires- all of this dissuaded newcomers from thinking this might be a good place to raise their kids. It was a town where dreams choked in the heat, wilted, and died. Which is exactly what had happened to the principal of the high school at the end of sophmore year, and is what brought Troy Duchamp's mother, and therefore Troy and all the other Duchamps, to town that summer.
It turned out to be a lucky turn that this windfall of new students (though most of them were in the elementary/middle school as Troy was the eldest) came with a matriarch who was the high school principal because they had all apparently been apprised of the Girl's appearance before the onset of the school year. Although she tucked her head and averted her eyes the first time she passed Troy in the hall, she couldn't help but notice that his eyes barely widened as he flipped them over her form and them himself looked away. It was that look away that sealed it, and as often happens in women far more experienced, she instantly mistook gratitude for love and was smitten. The obvious cliche of falling for the hot new guy did not escape her, and it caused her great embarrassment.
No more embarrassment however than she experienced when the theme was revealed that year for her senior prom. The year before it had been "The Roaring Twenties", and the year before that it had been "Springtime In Paris". Both of which, though laughable, would have been fine for the Girl, though she probably would not have shown up anyway. This year however, the theme was "Under The Sea" and if she could've blushed she would have every time she passed a poster taped to a wall. She wanted to tear them down, but to do so would have brought even more attention to herself.
Cherrie was disappointed as well. She had been gunning this year and every year for the theme of "Arabian Nights" so that she could wear an attractive semi-transparent veil over the bottom half of her face (the population of the school was so small that all the students were invited to prom each year, not just the upperclassmen), but even still she was determined to go and she held out the hope that she might be asked, if not for a date, at least for a dance.
The wealthier families in town sent their daughters to a city 45 minutes away that was big enough to boast a mall for their prom finery, but most of the girls had to make do with the one dress shop in town that survived primarily through prom and the occasional wedding, both of which were held at the VFW. If you shopped early you might be lucky enough to score one of the actual prom dresses that were ordered that year, but if you waited too long you would get stuck buying the dregs of last year's stock or worse, end up wearing something that was obviously meant for a bridesmaid, with dyed to match shoes. This is why many of the less popular girls showed up in exactly the same dress, and why Cherrie was so gangbusters to get to the shop on the day the new dresses arrived, her best friend in tow.
If misery was a color, it would be aquamarine. This is how the Girl felt when the lock was turned and she and Cherrie were swept inside the over air conditioned shop by the frenzied tide of their classmates, the bells on the door jangling accompaniment to the chatter of girls. The shop was packed front to back with "Under The Sea" appropriate garments in slippery artificial silks and satins, glittery nets, and lace trimmed crinolines that scratched the legs but made the dresses poof out just so. Cherrie and the Girl were pushed to the wall as the dresses were snatched from the racks, and the lines for the two fitting rooms (made from clothespins and shower curtains) were formed. The Girl felt like she was in a cage made entirely of elbows and hormones. In what seemed like no time at all the place cleared out, practically licked clean by the slavering teenagers, and Cherrie was left clutching an iridescent bit of something in shades of lavender and lime green.
The two girls looked at the crumpled dress. "Well." Cherrie said, "Might as well try it on." She ducked into the left-hand dressing room, now littered with the scatter of empty hangers. She was in there a long time, until the Girl called in, "Do you need any help?" She was getting the stink-eye from the proprietress sitting behind the counter. "Does it fit at least?"
Cherrie emerged and the Girl's last selfish hope that they would spend prom night together as they always had, playing cards cross-legged on her bed in her room with Graham making popcorn balls in the kitchen, fell away with an almost audible swishery sound, like the sound of satin on satin. What had seemed like an impossible combination of colors on the hanger did everything absolutely right against the darkness of Cherrie's skin. The lavender took on a blue tint and the lime green was made soft and not at all garish as it had at first glance. The top of the dress was strapless and shirred and held her breasts high and round, as if putting them on display. It was low in the back and tight from the bottom of her breasts to the tops of her thighs, where it flared out in an abundance of ruffles like a flamenco dancer's skirt, brushing the tops of her knees in front and falling to mid-calf behind. It made her waist look tiny and gave a ripe swell to her hips.
"You look..." the words caught and spit from the Girl's mouth, "You look like a mermaid."
That night, after the dress had been bought and hung encased in thin plastic in Cherrie's cardboard closet, an appropriate amount of time had passed and the Girl was able to make homework excuses. She felt suddenly distant and oddly polite for the first time around her friend, and she made her way blindly home, stupid saltwater tears fresh and hot on her face. She was glad that Graham was working late at the shop, she was glad for once she had no mother or brothers or sisters to be concerned and probably heartbreakingly normal crowding around the supper table or watching TV in the living room. The Girl dropped her purse on the couch and went out the back door to the quiet place under the banana trees in the backyard.
She laid there on the still warm ground, and let her tears get quiet, and let her body grow still, and let the night come into her, until she was aware of the flat paper flap of the banana leaves and the scrie-scrie of cicadas and the dive bomb buzz of mosquitoes and the tick of her heart, like a car cooling down. She felt ashamed that so much of her own self worth had been wrapped up in her friend's one ugliness, that she had been so self absorbed that it had taken a prom dress to make her realize that Cherrie had grown beyond the awkwardness of childhood and become an actually lovely woman. She saw through the spaces of the leaves to the stars and in them the inevitable future that the school year would end and that Cherrie would leave her behind to go to college, to fall in love, to lead a full and happy life. The Girl could not see her own future at all, it seemed to stop at the space directly in front of her wide open eyes, and eventually even that stopped making sense and then her father was shaking her awake, and leading her inside to go to bed.
The rest of the school year passed by in a stream of box milk, cold french fries, and final exams. Although prom was usually held a month prior to graduation, this year there had been a small fire in the VFW started by a minor altercation involving Vietnam, Afghanistan, a cigar, and a spilled fifth of Jim Beam, so this year they decided to combine the last two major events of high school into one grand weekend with the prom held on a Friday and graduation held the very next day. Following that, most people would go to church.
Guided by the heightened awareness she gained the night she spent beneath the banana trees, the Girl threw herself into prom preparation with an enthusiasm that surprised and pleased both Cherrie and Graham. She decided to make her prom dress (she had been making her own clothes since she was seven using an old Singer her father had retrofitted to be more friendly to a girl with fins for arms) out of some pink dotted Swiss she had been holding onto since she was of the age to like such fabric. The pink brought out the rainbows in her complexion and at Cherrie's urging, she made the skirt short enough to show off her fabulous legs. Neither girl had a date (Cherrie was asked by Donald Sneeds, but as he was her second cousin on her mother's side and didn't have a car so they'd have to be driven by her father, she demurred) and so they made a night of it, getting dressed at the Girl's house, taking pictures in the garden, and walking wobbly ankled in their new high-heeled shoes together. Graham even bought them both corsages of white gardenias, which Cherrie wore in her hair and the Girl tied around her ankle, not wanting to draw attention to her chest, or lack thereof.
The prom committee had done a good job this year, making the freshly repaired VFW look as much like an undersea paradise as it could, draping the plaques and framed pictures and medals with blue and green crepe paper and hiding the flags tacked to the walls behind murals painted by the sixth period advanced art class. There were white twinkly Christmas lights, a shell and coral bedecked bower for photographs, and a buffet heavy with punch and catered by Mable, of Mable's Kitchen. All the tables had been cleaned of ashes and the sticky circles of poker night cocktails and were covered first with white tablecloths and then with green cellophane that did double duty protecting the cloths from stain and giving the room a greenish glowy underwater effect.
There were few surprises at the prom this year. Troy Duchamp arrived in a sharkskin-gray suit wearing Sue-Ann Charmonte on his left arm. Sue-Ann herself was dressed in a gown of cerulean silk, but as lovely as the dress was the Girl allowed herself the wicked pleasure of noticing how the slinky fabric did nothing to hide the flatness of Sue-Ann's ass. "She should've worn a bustle" she whispered to Cherrie, who snorted her punch into her hand, and then wiped it on a fake plant.
Cherrie's dress did its job and the Girl was gratified to see that she was not the only one who noticed the transformation. She may not have been the prettiest girl in the room, but she was obviously the most beautiful, and she held herself like a queen. The Girl held her friend's purse as she was asked to dance one dance, and then two, and then three, and she resigned herself to fading into the background, tucking her legs beneath an empty table and sipping ginger ale that was greasy with melted sherbet.
She entertained the thought that if this had been a story, the Girl would have been voted Prom Queen in some sort of sick Under The Sea type joke, and would have had to parade around with a ridiculous tiara slipping off her hairless head while her classmates pelted her with oysters. Fortunately, this was real life, and as far as things went in her small town, this was the most important night in so many of their lives so far and they were not creative enough or cruel enough to ruin it on something so trivial. Or perhaps, the Girl thought hopefully, these people she'd grown up with had become so accustomed to her as to render her almost invisible, and the reason no one else saw the theme as inappropriate for that of a school prom attended by a girl with the top half of a fish, was because no one even acknowledged her at all.
Troy and Sue-Ann were voted King and Queen, and if her ass was flat, it was not that noticeable as they danced alone, the lights of the disco ball throwing diamonds of light across their faces and clothes. The food was eaten. The punch bowl emptied. Some boys got in trouble for drinking beers in the parking lot. One girl broke her shoe. Tammy Driscol caught Billy "Bad Boy" Lee kissing Jenny Taylor behind the Neptune mural, and cried.
The post prom plan was to have a sleepover at the Girl's house, so they could discuss the events of the evening far into the night and then wake up and help each other decide what to wear under their graduation gowns, not to mention figuring out how to get the girl's cap to stay on her head (Cherrie swore double stick tape would do the trick). Somehow though, the Girl found herself wedged into the backseat of a car with Cherrie pressed against her side, (lured by James Night, a boy whose sleepy eyes hadn't left Cherrie's bosom the whole prom) heading toward someone's river house where there was supposedly a bonfire. The Girl looked out the window and took tiny sips of something peach flavored and thick that was being passed around the car. She felt an odd detachment as though what was happening was inevitable, and though logically she knew she could stop it she didn't really see the point. "Thank you" Cherrie whispered to her as the boy driving parked the car on a dirt road in a line of other cars leading up to a house, lit from within. What little light there was reflected off Cherrie's eyes, and for a moment the Girl couldn't see the harelip that was in shadow on her face, and for a moment she looked like any other lovely girl lit up with excitement for a party on any night in America, and for that moment the Girl was happy that she could do this for her friend, be there so she didn't feel guilty leaving her behind.
As they got out of the car they were joined by the kids who had pulled up directly behind them and they walked as a group toward the house. James had his arm around Cherrie's waist and the Girl brought up the rear, watching their hips come together and separate, the glint of the bonfire ahead winking in and out between them as they navigated tree roots and limbs. The path around the house was narrow, but widened as they came to the back yard. It was a good bonfire, big but not so big to be frightening, with pine trunks cut into seats all around, some coolers, and beyond the dock that stretched out into darkness over the river that the Girl could hear but not see. Most of their classmates were already there, and somehow their prom gowns and suits looked better and seemed to make more sense out here in the firelight than they did among the decorations of the prom itself. "River House" would make a good prom theme, the Girl thought.
For a while she perched herself on a pine seat and drank a cold beer that Cherrie handed to her out of one of the coolers. The beer was skunky and sharp, and she was grateful for it's cool sweaty comfort in her grasp. The seat that she had chosen was slightly outside of and away from the main crush of people. She sat there to be as far from the fire as possible as much as to be outside the throng. She watched the kids she grew up with laugh together, kiss each other, and stare into the fire. Sometimes the fire would pop and a burst of firefly ashes would get sucked into the sky like tiny fireworks. When her beer was finished she stood up, shook out her skirt, and went alone to get another. No one seemed to care or notice that she was there and it was an easy enough thing thing to fish around in a cooler for a beer, and then wander away to the dock, dropping the cap on the ground behind her.
It was cooler and quieter at the end of the dock. She sat between the last pilings and let her feet dangle over the edge, the rough boards biting into the backs of her thighs. For a time she could almost pretend that she was alone, and that the party behind her was happening far away and to people that she did not know. The stars were out in crazy number, and she watched the bats zigzag above the water, themselves so dark that it wasn't so much she could see them but that she couldn't see what they blocked. When she felt footsteps on the dock behind her she sat very still and willed them to go away. She hoped that they belonged to someone who, like her, had wanted solitude, and upon seeing her there would decide to go someplace else. The footsteps came up close, and in her peripheral vision the Girl saw the person sit down next to her on the edge of the dock. She looked at his feet next to hers, both of them bare, and at the hairy legs they were atached to, his gray trouser legs rolled up. She turned her head and looked at Troy Duchamp, closer than he'd ever been, sitting there looking out over the water just as she had a moment before.
He was beautiful, close up. His profile so perfect, so perfectly human. She felt her heartbeat too fast and her skin grow clammy. She could smell herself and thought of all the cruel jokes in middle school about the girls on their periods who smelled like tuna and she hoped that he could not smell her slightly fishy smell, and if he did that he would pass it off as coming from the river. She felt angry all of a sudden, that this boy, this stupid boy that she had spent her nights dreaming about for the past two years had taken it upon himself to invade her solitude, to plunk himself real and hairy and flesh and blood and smelling of Sue-Ann's drugstore perfume, beer and sweat right beside her. She could've done without it. She could've spent this entire night, no, her entire highschool lifetime dreaming dreams and keeping him sweet and perfect in her mind.
The Girl looked at him a long time, and he looked out over the water. She looked at him so long that the challenge left her eyes and she felt ridiculous looking at him, without him looking back. Maybe I am invisible, she thought. She took another sip of her beer and let her gaze go back to the river. Really it was uncomfortable to turn her neck like that for so long.
"So." he said, his voice rough after the silence. "What are you going to do after graduation?"
The Girl laughed. It was all too ridiculous. She laughed again, finally feeling the effects of the alcohol soft and buzzy inside her. "What!" she laughed, she howled, she sputtered, she could barely get the words out and he began to laugh with her, "What! am I! Going to do! after graduation?!" They lost it, bumping into each other in their hilarity, leaning on the pilings and almost falling into the river. "What the hell are you going to do after graduation?" she asked, as their laughter died down. "Oh, I don't know." he said, "Fuck Sue-Ann?" Off they went again, shrieking and hooting and holding onto the dock. They were laughing so hard they had to set their beers down. "Oh God" the girl said, "oh God" wiping tears from her face, "Oh God ohGodOhGod. You are going to Hell, Troy Duchamp." He stopped laughing, but smiled as he picked up his beer again. The Girl followed his lead. They looked out over the water. A fish jumped.
The Girl felt something rising within her. She looked behind them at the party. The people seemed so small. She turned to him. "Troy," she said, "why don't you ever look at me? I mean, I know how things are, I know what I look like. Most people want to look at me, at least at first. At least until they're used to me. A girl with a fish head, it's something to see, right?" He sat for a while not saying anything, and then, "Well, I figured you were tired of that. People looking at you." She didn't have a response and so she sat quiet, wishing she could go back to the laughing part, wishing she could go back to before the prom, before he ever came to their school, before she knew she was all alone, back when she could dream that there were others like her out there, looking for her as she lay in the dirt beneath the banana trees. She set her beer down and stood up. He turned and angled his face to look in her eyes. She looked once again behind her to make sure that the party was going on with out them, that no one was on their way out to find out where Troy went. She slipped off her dress with one easy movement. With one easy movement her feet were covered in pink, and then that was kicked away. She bent, and keeping eyes on him she slipped off her panties, straightened, and kicked those away too. She stood as tall as she could and flicked her eyes above his head so that she could not see the expression on his face, so that she could not see his eyes as they crawled along the legnth of her. The Girl stood until she couldn't stand there anymore and the pressure that had been building, the pressure that she thought had been let off by the tears the day they found Cherrie's prom dress and again by the laughter out here on the dock, the pressure that had not been released, not by half, not at all, grew to be too much and she bent her knees and she jumped, using all the stregnth of those beautiful long legs, over Troy Duchamp whose eyes never left her, and into the cold and shock of the water.
The Girl felt the current pull at her as she sank to the bottom. The river floor was surpsingly sandy over smooth hard rock. She opened her eyes and let herself breathe, the first intake a choke and then choking more water she got it down. It was a slower breathing than air, it was a softer breathing, a smooth in and out, "Like water" she thought, and laughed. The laughter came out as her last pocket of air, her laughter came out as bubbles and rose quickly to the surface, where she imagined them popping into laughter above and surprising Troy, if he could still be surprised after all that happened. She turned and faced into the current, pulling her long legs all the way up until her knees framed her shoulders and then quick and out, a better than jump jump, her toes pointed, her muscles long, and then again the tuck and pull and again the shot stretch and all around her the quiet and forgiveness of the water and in her body the beating of her heart and she slowed and twisted and looked at the sky through the lens of the water and all the stars and the bats flying there. She could see Troy, alone on the dock, clutching a beer with one hand, a piling with the other, and leaned over peering at her. Peering, if he could see her at all.
She turned again and this time let the current take her. She did the tuck and pull, she did the shot stretch, she felt her heart expand and with the current she found that she could move faster than any man could ever run, that she was feeling something that no man ever would and it was so great, it was so fast, it was so great. In no time at all she was beyond the township limits. In no time at all she was far far away. She'd never paid much attention in geography, she didn't know where this river went. She wondered if she could breathe salt water. She felt that she could swim forever. She hoped that it would take her a very long time to find the end. She hoped that it never ended, that it just emptied out into the sea.