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Authors: Jennifer Pashley

The Scamp

BOOK: The Scamp
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For GK—with all the madness in my soul.

A woman
is
her mother.

That's the main thing.

—
ANNE SEXTON,
“Housewife”

one

RAYELLE

One of the twins has his mouth sewn shut. He drinks gin from a rocks glass through a skinny cocktail straw. His brother, beer from the tap. There are only four people at the bar and three of them are related. That's everyone, except me and the bartender.

Behind the bar, a string of Christmas lights, multicolored and blinking, still hanging in June, above the top shelf of bottles. I watch the pattern, waiting for the regularity of a heartbeat, an even space between on and off, but it's erratic. The door is open to the parking lot and a low evening sun, leaving a hot stripe on the black floor. I had driven out of the trailer park in a huff, windows down, radio blasting, fifty, sixty miles, almost to West Virginia. I stopped when I saw the rural Quonset hut bar,
two cars and a dust devil in the parking lot. Dead on a Monday night.

A big woman at the opposite end of the bar who looks under thirty tells me about the twins' accident. How they slid in the rain and the car launched into a field. Out here, the roads are slick with pebbles that rain down from the mountain in a storm. It's like driving on marbles.

One twin had to kick out the windshield to save the other. He'd written their names in blood on the inside of the driver's side window, in case they couldn't get out. Brady and Jamie Wilkes. Like a premature headstone.

They might have been identical, but they weren't anymore. Brady's jaw was wired. Jamie's wrist was broken.

You ever heard of such a thing? she asks me.

I have and I haven't. Freak accidents happen all the time. A car off the road, a rockslide, a drowning. I ask the bartender for a whiskey sour. Two cherries. No orange.

He's over fifty, looks ex-military with his haircut, his straight spine and precise movements; his arms are sleeved with dense, colored tattoos. He makes the drink in a highball glass and sets it on a black napkin, then goes back to buffing beer glasses.

I sip and hand it back to him. Stronger, I say.

I guess you do what you have to, the woman says, for your siblings. She's wearing a tank top, her shoulders padded and fleshy, her skin loose above the elbow.

I don't have any siblings, I say.

Or your kids, she adds.

Or kids, I say.

I left because it was my birthday, and my mother asked me if I wanted a pool party. I think she thought it was funny, thought maybe now was the time to laugh about it and get over it. But I was turning twenty-three by myself, without a husband or a baby when I'd been well on the way to having both. I wanted her to shut up.

When I show my license to the bartender, he says, Well, happy birthday to you, sweetheart.

I nearly put my head down to cry.

The one twin waves to the bartender for another gin. The TV plays a black-and-white movie with a lot of scenes with a man and a woman driving a car. The man, in a hat. The woman, blond, and polished. The scenery behind them, trees, a long road in the country.

Earlier, I'd thought about careening off the road. About my Escort, with its rotting floorboards and bald tires. I wouldn't have kicked my way out of a car that went flying. I wouldn't have kicked my way out of anything. Instead, I imagine lying there still, broken. The breathing of a cornfield around me.

The woman at the other end says, Don't drink till you puke, Brady, and laughs. That won't be fun.

He shakes his head, slow. I wonder how much it hurts.

She hoists herself off the stool and rubs each of the twins' shoulders as she goes past. I gotta get my kids, she says. Good night, Gil, she says to the bartender, and leans forward, pushing her boobs together, to kiss his
cheek. On her legs, light capris that are tight around the knee, her calves blossoming out below.

You had dinner? Gil asks me.

I ask him to hold the sour and just give me a double bourbon. Two cherries.

No, I say. You got anything?

Not tonight, he says. He leans back on the register; a mirror behind shows his crew cut, thick all the way through, wiry and gray. Above the mirror, a pair of deer antlers with bright turquoise panties hanging on them. Where you from? he asks.

The twins play a miniature-sized game of checkers, the mute one stacking up his black king.

South Lake, I say.

That's quite a ways, he says. He takes a glass out of a steaming tub under the bar and works at it with two towels, one in, one out. You got family out here? he asks.

I think about my mother, in South Lake, sitting at the end of a bar called the Coop, waving on another gin and tonic. No one would be there either. Just the bartender and my mother, baseball on TV, but muted.

And Chuck, stomping through the trailer, picking up the mail, a newspaper, the empties we left behind.

No, I say.

At one, the twins leave. I ask for another drink, even though my head feels tight, like someone stuffed it with electricity and it's expanding. When I turn my head quickly, everything around me blurs, gold, red, green.

How you getting home? the bartender asks.

I'm not going home, I say.

I watch him wipe up, count out money, empty bottles into a bin in the back. He clicks the TV remote, and the screen goes off with a snap and a sparkle of color.

Well you know what they say, he offers.

I can't stay here? It comes out way more bitchy than I intend.

What's eating you? he says, his hands on my bare shoulders.

You are, I say.

Not a chance.

But he puts me in his car. I leave the Escort there, in the gravel lot, and he drives me about a mile away to a basement apartment where I fall asleep under a multicolored afghan on a brown velour couch. The room, low and spinning. My feet, sticking out from under the blanket.

I throw up in the kitchen sink. A clean, white enamel sink with no dirty dishes, no coffee stains, no slices of lime dumped out of a drink. It was gleaming. And now, filled with acidy bourbon laced with cherry juice. It looks like I'm dying. I imagine it to be guts, blood, bone, coming out.

Oh Jesus, I say, and lean my head on the tile counter.

You got someone I should call? Gil says.

No. I'd left my phone in my car. Couldn't find my way back to my car if I wanted to.

Sit down, he says, and hands me a glass of water he poured from the fridge. I'll make you breakfast.

He puts on music, some old-sounding soul, and fries up potatoes and eggs and makes a full pot of strong coffee. I eat it all. After, we lie on the living room floor, underneath the fan, which thank God is off. I couldn't take the spinning right now.

I look around the room. I'm sure he's got someone else. Some good woman his own age. The kind who grazes his shoulder as she walks past, and doesn't puke in his sink. One who kisses his neck, and hangs up his shirts. Who loves him, and doesn't take any bullshit from anyone.

What are you going to do? he asks me, his head propped up on his hand, his elbow in the carpet.

I think about the car, deep in a field with nothing but cornstalks around me. About the sound of the motor dying down, of everything settling. A crow. I don't answer him. Instead, I touch his wrist. There's a tattoo of a snake, coiled and hissing, and above it an American flag. On the underside, a sailor girl, dark-haired and pouting, her lips red, her tits busting out of her uniform.

You're going to die like this, he says.

I shrug. I don't believe it. I wrap my fingers around his wrist bone.

I could have killed you, he says.
You could have killed yourself. People die from drinking, he says.

I pat my used-up, stretched-out belly. I'm too big to die from drinking, I say.

You could have killed someone else, he says.

Already have, I say.

That's when he kisses me. Even when you think a guy is the kind to take care of you, let you sleep off a hangover and make you breakfast, he still wants to fuck you. He mumbles, Oh sugar, and leans over, his mouth on mine, and then all of him on me, right there on the carpet.

My mother always says she could write her life story on one side of a piece of paper because nothing interesting has ever happened to her, but it's not true. It's not true for anyone, it's just the bullshit humility she puts out in the world. Poor me. Like she's never had her heart broken or fallen so far she can't stand up and walk again without help. Maybe it's just that she assumes that after all no one really cares what happens to you.

When Summer died, I fell into a well of sadness that no one could pull me out of. I got up in the night, sleepless and restless, because I thought I heard Summer crying, would shuffle to a dark empty room and stand in the doorway, stunned. I slept the rest of August, facedown in my old room in my mother's trailer. I couldn't stay in my own house anymore. My old room, hot and stale, the fan blowing dust around. I kept waiting for someone to come in, to sit with me, to stroke my hair. My mother, my stepdad, anyone. I was twenty-two, unwed, already the mother of a dead baby. I'd been investigated for nothing.
Not particularly guilty
is not a sentence anyone ever gets. I wanted someone to come pick me up.

Right before my birthday, my mother told me I'd better perk up.

I don't know what in the hell you're waiting for, she said.

But I felt leaden. Anchored to the bed. Weighed down, and sinking.

She stood in my bedroom doorway, her hair a flat and curly mess, up in a banana clip that was half falling out. Her shoulders looked small, her chest sallow and sunken. She's not a big person. Nothing like me. It's like I didn't even come from her.

She smoked a cigarette from a reservation pack, a long menthol light 100 not worth a damn thing, they burn up so quickly. Her eyes squinted when she looked in at me, on my back, half covered.

Nobody wants a girl as sad as you, she said.

You can't escape anything in a small town. The town knows everything, and not enough. All the guys you slept with, but not which ones you loved. People just make you up from pieces, glimpses of you seen around, at the firemen's field days, the bar, the drive-thru. They know I'm Rayelle Reed. That I had a baby out of wedlock with the Baptist pastor's son, and that the baby died. That my mother is Carleen Reed, and that they should stay off the roads when she's driving her Grand Prix home from the Coop at 3:00
AM
, crooked, up the middle of Route 12.

If you've been in South Lake long enough, you know that my mother and her sister each married a Reed boy
and so the cousins between those two families are extra-related, like siblings.

Chuck is a Reed boy too. He gives me money almost every day. Sometimes a crisp twenty from the
ATM
, or whatever he has in his pocket, a wrinkled ten and five. Go do something, he'll say, knowing my mother will be gone too. Most nights, guys buy my drinks for me. I keep a roll of unspent twenties saved up from all those nights of drinking for free, tucked in the top drawer of my dresser, underneath an old sweater from high school. I like to touch it sometimes, a soft roll of cash. To make sure it's still there, but also because it feels like possibility to me. It feels like a way out.

On a night like this, the sun hangs low and orange over the lake like a burning disc. The smell of the lake reaches all the way to town, hot, swampy, fishy. It's a good night for trout, the water still and the fish restless, and if you have the patience to sit at the shore at dusk, they'll jump right at you.

But I'm not looking to catch a fish.

I'm waiting for Chuck: my stepdad. My uncle. My dead dad's brother. My mother's live-in boyfriend. The man who raised me as his own when my real dad, Ray, dropped dead. Harsh, but he actually dropped into a recliner and died. I was just a baby, crawling around at a dead man's feet.

He smells like the day. Like a last cigarette in the car, a little like the french fries he had with lunch. His boots
are dirty from the plant floor. He gives me forty dollars without asking, and I go.

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