Page 10


Mom shot out of their room then, dragging a big black trash bag full of stuff. Her favorite purse—the one with fringe on the bottom and a peace sign of purple rhinestones glued to the front—was slung over her shoulder. I knew the red mark on her cheek would be dark by morning, and she’d tap makeup from a bottle and smooth it over and over until it looked like a harmless shadow.
The man took the trash bag from her hands.
“Mom,” Brent said, his voice a harsh whisper, his hands balled at his sides. “Mom, take Boyce with you.”
She glanced at the man in the doorway.
“Ain’t takin’ no kid,” he said, turning his head and spitting a wad of chew into the yard.
She turned back to my brother. “Boyce has you,” she said. “Y’all’ll be fine. Your daddy only hates me.” Her voice quaked as she stared across the room. “You know how to make him calm. I just get him more riled.”
“Mom, please. He’s just a little kid—”
The man hefted the bag and strode out the door. “Ruthanne,” he said. A command.
Mom started after him before swinging back and lifting a hand to Brent’s face. At fifteen, he was a head taller than her. “Y’all’ll be fine, baby.” Her voice was so low I could barely hear her. The rhinestones caught the beam of the floodlight outside and glinted like broken bits of purple glass. “Carl will probably change his mind, okay? Just give me some time to soften him up. I’ll let you know where I am.”
We never heard from her again.
• • • • • • • • • •
Pearl’s parents’ house was on the bay side of town—a neighborhood of houses that looked more like a row of resorts than homes containing only one family apiece. There were docks out back of each one where yachts and fishing boats and Jet Skis were conveniently moored. The more monstrous ones with corner lots and backyards—like the Frank place—had swimming pools, each one just feet from the bay. There was an airstrip nearby too, for the rich fucks who wanted personal access to the ocean and the sky.
Until high school, though, Pearl and her mom lived in my part of town, just on the other side of the long block where all three schools huddled together—elementary, middle, and high school. Her mom worked for a doctor’s office, scraping by like most working class folks did. I’d see them sometimes at the IGA, leafing through coupons in the cereal aisle while Brent just bought the cheap store brand, or on the public beach, splashing through the surf.
Once, Brent and I were fishing off the main pier when I caught sight of them. Ms. Torres was propped in a folding chair, reading, while her daughter constructed the world’s most pitiful lump of a sand castle. A humid breeze carried the sound of their laughter when Pearl stood up and stomped it flat like she was Godzilla putting a butt-ugly building out of its misery. She collapsed on a beach towel covered in Disney princesses and spread her arms and legs like a starfish, and her mom handed her a wet wipe and a baggie of orange slices. Watching them made me ache with happiness and jealousy until I couldn’t look anymore.
Brent had managed to convince Dad that we’d both been asleep when Mom left. That we had no idea how she’d run off or with whom. She hadn’t left any clues for him to follow, either. Thundering through the trailer, he’d trashed their room and anything of hers she’d left behind—as if that black bag hadn’t been full of everything she cared about. As if she hadn’t walked out on everything she didn’t give two shits to take with her.
My first time through third grade began a couple of weeks after her escape. Needless to say, given that I had to repeat it the next year, that school year didn’t go well. They say the brain can block painful memories, leaving gaps and voids in place of them, but it didn’t work like that for me. I remembered everything.
My brother always tried to protect me, but I was a burden he never got clear of. I couldn’t ever tell him I’d overheard that last brief, whispered conversation between him and our mom. His plea. Her lie. I’ll let you know where I am.
I knew by his expression he didn’t believe her.
But I had.
• • • • • • • • • •
Everywhere there’s a group of people, there’s a pecking order, even in elementary school. Once you’re promoted to fourth grade, you’re no longer one of the little kids, and only the fifth graders can lord it over you then.
Unless forty of your classmates get promoted and you’re the only dipshit left behind.
Like my brother, I’d always been big for my age. But being held back a year told the world I was dimwitted, too, so I stood out like a mutant idiot next to my new, younger classmates. I stooped low when we walked single file down the hallway to the lunchroom or the library. I folded my body like crumpled paper, hoping to be overlooked when we sat in a circle to read out loud—the most fucked-up thing any teacher ever invented. Invisibility was the superpower I wanted most, but I’d never been more visible.
Guys learn to talk shit to each other as soon as we can speak. It’s what we do. Even with our friends—sometimes especially with our friends. But with friends, there are subjects that are off-limits. Like your mom running away from home with some random dude and leaving you behind like trash. Like your dad being thrown in jail overnight on the regular for being drunk and disorderly out in public. Like how dumb you must be to get held back in third grade.
Those are the subjects friends don’t touch, but other guys pick up and throw like stones, because that stupid nursery rhyme—words will never hurt me—that’s a goddamned lie. When it’s bad and it’s true, those words slip beneath your armor and slice deep. And if you fight back with the only weapon you’ve got—fists, in my case—you’re the bad guy. Because their weapons were “just words.”
I’d heard the word alcoholic before. My mom had said it to my dad plenty of times, when she wasn’t calling him other things. Brent explained that alcoholic was a different way to say somebody was a drunk—a nicer way, because it made it sound like they were sick instead of making bad choices.
“Is Daddy sick or making bad choices?” I asked. When I was sick, I threw up and I had a fever. I stayed in bed and drank 7UP.
“Both, I reckon,” Brent said. “But if you’re sick and you never try to get better, at some point it just looks like bad choice after bad choice, and nobody cares if you’re sick anymore.”