When I was fourteen, I was spared the threats other girls received from their parents for associating with Liddie, so I had no need to befriend and then abandon her. For the others, punishment for being caught around Liddie ranged from physical beatings to being grounded, which meant forbidden to visit the dollar movie theater that had just been reopened, its price chosen carefully, costing just the money one would find in the ashtray of cars, in between the sofa cushions, or in a jar on top of the refrigerator. So, instead of on food, the dollar was spent seeing people get their heads blown off or on men chasing women with knives while other men tried to be heroes.
In a town where there was nothing legal for a teenager to do besides homework, attend church events, participate in high school sports, or stay at home where either parents were fighting or you would surely be picked for a chore, Liddie couldn’t compete with the movies, no matter how beautiful she was, what stories she told, or how she could fix up your hair. Because my parents allowed me to be, I was probably her only friend.
When Liddie did come to my house, my father always treated her with respect and asked her about school; she was a straight A student and never missed the honor roll. Her brother had a scholarship and came home just for the summer reunion. She was the only other girl my age who read the paper and followed politics, so we’d sit at the kitchen table, my parents, Liddie, Skeeter, and I, and talk about what was being done, what wasn’t, and what we could do, which was usually nothing. By then, Skeeter had been living with us for six years. After what happened with his father, Skeeter’s sisters had been sent off to live with an aunt in Virginia, and he moved in with us.
“What d’ja think of that front page article in the Wall Street Journal, pushing deregulation of the airline industry?” Liddie would ask my dad, and they’d be off, most often leaving Skeeter, my mom, and me behind.
Little in Liddie’s background sufficiently explained her other behavior to the town’s satisfaction. Her parents were not the poorest of the poor; neither were they gutter-bound alcoholics or child abusers. Such an unfortunate beginning would have gotten her sympathy from folks who had known her all her life.
No, Liddie was forbidden us by the time we got to high school because she loved sex and had it with anyone she wanted, at any time she wanted, as long as he wasn’t mean or married. I once asked how she made her choices as we sat one afternoon among ferns by the side of a stream, and she had listed random situational characteristics: the boy had seemed lonely, he had a good sense of humor, she liked his eyes, he told a good story, he played the guitar, or he looked like what she called a “good person.”
“What their faces are like doesn’t really matter,” she said; “Neither is how much money they have or who their parents are.” She stopped tearing a leaf along its arteries and stared at me seriously then. “The most important thing is that they be decent.”
“What about Webb Callahan?” I’d asked then. He was in jail.
“Not for hurting anybody,” she’d said. “He just smashed that sign at the Exxon station is all.”
Still, I wasn’t convinced. “What about Marty Shoburn then?” I asked. “What’s decent about him?” Marty had a funny eye, and on a bad day he dragged his left side when he walked.
“I told you, it’s not beauty,” she insisted, and I could see she was frustrated because I just didn’t get it. Her brow creased in the dappled light coming through the trees. “Did you ever know Marty to hurt anyone? He’s just scared, so he hunches.”
“His dad’s a drunk,” I offered, knowing that having a drunk for a dad was something you couldn’t hold against anyone in Reunion. I was just scared of Marty because his body was deformed.
“So what?” Liddie snorted. “The only dad that doesn’t drink in this town is yours. And Babe Ruth’s, the preacher.” She snorted when she said preacher. “Even Mr. O’Grady has a beer now and then.” She dug in the stream bank with a stick. “I’m not sorry I slept with Marty. I might even do it again some day.” She winked at me like a professional and then hooted. “I might even sleep with his older brother some day. He’s decent too!” She began to laugh, rolling on the bank so hysterically I had to join in.
Otherwise, she stayed out of any trouble. In fact, she was the first many of us secretly sought for help with our hypotenuse triangles or our biographical reports; she usually knew both the facts and how to apply them. Even Babe Ruth secretly studied her accounting with Liddie once a week, and Liddie never once held it against Babe for ignoring her on the street or in the market when Babe was with her mother.
“Babe’s not so bad,” she’d muse. “It’s her phony aspirations that do her in.”
Reunion by 1980 was even more abandoned than the Reunion that had endured the mine closures, the tire dump fire, and the four-month rain and flooding five years before. Reagan had been elected, promising to cut welfare, and our governor, a Democrat, gave speeches warning that darker days were coming: we had to be prepared. We were going to pull together as a state, hunker down, wait out the eclipse. Both my parents cried the day Reagan was inaugurated.
With poverty often comes meanness, and for amounts of meanness I saw little difference between men and women, though its form often depended on gender. There were all kinds of ways to vent your frustration; the most obvious and most available were yelling, hitting, drinking, and eating, or any combination of the four.
When you walked the residential streets down in the town, you could often hear the radio or TV blasting, people screaming at each other from inside ramshackle, peeling white houses whose foundations were barely clinging to the hills. Some days mothers and fathers took any excuse at all to slap their children. “You little son of a bitch, get your ass over here right now!”
“You can hit them if you want, Memaw,” I heard our neighbor down at the bottom of the hollow, Mrs. Bruce, say to her mother as she turned from their front porch, cigarettes and lighter in hand, to walk up to the closest bar, leaving her kids with her mother in the twilight. Memaw had immediately begun to whack the Bruce child who was closest to her, and Mrs. Bruce had ignored his cries, her broad back propelled on sausage legs to the corner. When I’d told my own mother about it, she’d said, “Mrs. Bruce just doesn’t know any better.”
Kids who had grown up in Skeeter’s situation were happier at the first of the month when there was money for the parent to drink than they were when the money was gone and the lack of beer, wine, or whiskey became more important than food, than anything, its unavailability a reason to lash out at anyone who got in the way, no matter how young or otherwise unobtrusive.
For these parents there was glue, or prescription pills for their ‘nerves’ if they had a medical card, which turned them meaner and harder to stop than the booze, and made the likelihood that they would remember anything they had done in a rage more remote. On days like those it was terrible to have to walk past the Bruce house, and many of the other houses in town, because of what I might hear when I went by. But my mother was right: no one knew better. So what could we do?
For the wives or the children of these families, and sometimes for a few of the men, there was the release of food. There is no kind of fat like the sort that grows from cheap junk food full of chemicals, cellulite ripples clearly visible underneath stretch pants. After a certain amount of time not necessarily related to bearing children or raising them, the women’s bodies would take on the shape and consistency of marshmallows knotted together with string, and their heads were like little knobs arbitrarily matched to squat round necks.
The overweight children became the objects of everyone’s cruelty, even the fat parents’, and this torture fulfilled what the kids already believed in their hearts about themselves and about the world, like my friend Chip, when was he was younger, always being told by his dad that he was a Twinkie.
Then there were those folks who starved themselves and lived on cigarettes, soda pop, and television.
If the basic tools of meanness were yelling, hitting, drinking, and eating, for those who had more time, money, and imagination, there was gossip. When adults got together, they exposed whole sordid histories in front of their children, leaving out none of the details.
Like the time the whole of Reunion was buzzing about D– and R–, who had simply left the bar they were drinking in, climbed up a hillside where a house had been torn down, and dropped into the weeds. Fifteen minutes later they both came staggering down the drive, D– zipping up his pants and R– trying to redo her blouse and getting the buttons wrong. Nine months later there was a baby, and everyone knew the story, old and young, by the time she gave birth, too drunk to need an epidural.
This gossip also included, for the most part, not only a distorted view of the world, but also the listening children’s first and only introduction to sex until they would have it themselves. In our part of the state there is no sex education in the classroom. No one explains to you about sperm and egg, menstrual cycles, wet dreams, or any of the various gonorrheal strains. There’s no one to relate what humans do together to what the horses are doing in the paddock, the pigs in their pens, the dogs in the street, mating and sticking together and dragging each other around afterwards. My father used to joke that he wished people stuck together like dogs because perhaps then they would be more faithful or at least think twice about joining.
But sex for few took on mystical connotations. Even the officially spiritual, the regular church goers, appeared to bumble through it because they had the added responsibility of duty to it. Babe Ruth’s daddy had told his congregation that if a wife didn’t have sex with her husband, he had the right to divorce her.
For most, sex was something you stole unless you were married, and even then. Kids were a matter of course, as was how you raised them. Teenagers had only heard of birth control, and if a girl wanted to avoid getting pregnant, she gave blow jobs. Mothers raised their grandchildren, and everyone slapped and yelled at everyone else.
Of course, these same children were also the family treasures when the times were right. The parents called them that. When there was enough money or when someone wasn’t on a bender. There were times as innocent as any childhood’s, laughing on the porch, round knees to hug, kickball games in the dirt streets with your pants falling down,
wonder at a monarch butterfly in the fall. There was good food sometimes, and banjo music on the radio on Sundays.
In the midst of all the poverty and meanness, children still played, there was still excitement, even in an old coffee can or in a stick that looked like a pistol. There was still candy and the dollar movies. There was still fun, especially on a day when someone remembered that you were a treasure.
Even that poor baby who was born of the union of D– and R– on a garbage-strewn hillside was watched over by people after a fashion. Mothers kept him from wandering in the street, baby-sat him when R– was in the bar. Some days you could even drive by R–‘s house and that baby would be sitting in her lap, leaning back against her plush bosoms, happy as could be while she told him he was the best boy in the world.
But except for a few parents like mine, no one paid attention, no one really listened, everyone was distracted by something else, the weather, the TV, a bad husband, a bad wife, the bills that couldn’t be paid. Distracted by nail polish, beer, and strange pussy. By what so and so said about such and such at church.
For this reason, too, though we could never admit it to our parents, Liddie was necessary to me and my other girl friends, her vast repertoire of sexual knowledge equally valuable as the facts I possessed. My parents had spent time talking with me, had given me texts as vastly different as Our Bodies, Ourselves, What’s Happening in my Body? and Everything You Wanted to Know about Sex. I was so educated that there was barely a thing happening to me or anyone I knew, male or female, that wasn’t classifiable or definable.
When Mary B. had itching, I went to the book and discovered that she merely had the crabs. When Becky R. was about to be talked into sex by a boyfriend who said he would break up with her if she didn’t do it with him, I read to her from the chapters on sexually transmitted diseases and showed her pictures of vaginal warts and herpes. I explained to her about ovulation, drawing a chart and marking out the stages of her fertility cycle while she sat there mesmerized by my knowledge and her own self-discovery.
“You mean I don’t pee and have a baby out of the same place?” she asked me, looking up in wonder, amazed at her own intricate construction, her own cleanliness, as if before she had thought all those functions happened together, in the same dark place that she was trying to protect, as ashamed of it as if she possessed a region of sin.
“No,” I said, and I handed her the book, the page opened to a full color illustration, pinks and mauves, arrows pointing out the names of things. “You have three holes.”
Liddie’s knowledge, on the other hand, had merit because it was first hand experience. While we could only read in my copy of The Harrad Experiment what fellatio was, she could relate how the boy had moaned and trembled, how he had stroked her hair and whispered hoarsely for her not to stop. How he had told her that he loved her afterwards, and was hurt to find that she didn’t really want him, that sex with him had been a thing only of the moment, the look he had given her making her do it just once, making her want him just until it was over.
Every man, she said, was different. That was for sure. And there was a certain way they were supposed to look at you.
Liddie knew all the looks, and she didn’t have sex with anyone unless he had the right one. She told us how to spot all kinds of fakes, and she had names for them all: the Breathers, the Romeos, the Talkers, the Whiners. For her there were only a few rules. The boy was never to pressure you. And he had to look you right in the eye when he was letting you know he liked you, not at your breasts or your ass.
Sex was great, she let us know, only if you weren’t being used; and for that, you had to know The Look.
Try as I might, I could never read a thing on any boy or man’s face. None of us could find it but Liddie, who had never been hurt. Her knowledge was vital because in her own life she had never been wrong. In our partnership I may have had the books, but she had the wisdom.
Unfortunately, most of the girls we knew were attracted only to the types of boys who used them, and to watch the wheedling, hear reports of the promises, was like observing a slow decompression. The girls were attracted to the drama, the pain, to relationships in which they were always insecure. They were forever trying to be good enough for boys who weren’t worth a dime.
“But it’s my fault; I made him jealous so he squeezed my arm,” one would say, explaining finger marks on her bicep.
“He only does it when he’s drunk,” another would insist about her boyfriend’s cheating. “And she’s from Wolf Creek. You know how they are.”
“But I love him!” someone would whine at the suggestion she break up with a boy who made her unhappy.
Love meant suffering, a lack on control over your life, and never being satisfied.
Except for Liddie and me. Liddie had her own story. As far as I was concerned, with all the horror stories about coerced blow jobs in the backs of cars, boys who felt you up and then never talked to you again, I wouldn’t have admitted to anyone dead or alive that I even thought about sex. I just had the books, that was all; I was a clinician, a resource, a consultant in the practical matters. I had the facts, I could tell you about the consequences and define the terms, but one thing for sure was that of all the boys I knew, there wasn’t one at the time that I would have described as solid and decent; they were all out to get something. Of course I was like my friends more than I thought. Decent boys were every where. I just never noticed them.
The spring after Reagan was elected, of all the girls I knew who had experienced sex, not one of them had done it in a bed. Lots of their phones were on party lines, so we had to meet outside our homes to read the books, ask advice, and share experiences; no place else was safe. Word would pass between us during the school day, a secret symbol. Whoever wanted to talk would draw it on the locker doors of the others: the percentage sign: % : Babe’s idea.
Seeing % on our locker meant that we were supposed to meet up in the cemetery after school. If the weather was nice, we’d meet at Skeeter’s mother’s grave because it was off in a grove by itself. If there were rain, we’d go inside the tomb of General Solomon Lowe and his son, Elijah.
Years before, during one of the lightning storms that would sometimes turn into mini-twisters in the mountains, the solid iron door to the General’s tomb had been wrenched from its hinges, exposing the remains of the two men’s coffins. The coffins had been placed on stone slabs at the time of internment but with time had deteriorated into two piles of dry-rotted boards mixed with human bones. All that was left of the bodies were leather boots, scraps of uniform, blackened metal buttons, their tarnished swords, and a few wisps of hair still clinging to the skulls.
Skeeter had woken me and taken me up there the dawn after the storm, before anyone even knew the tomb had blown open. I had stared in mute fascination, holding a flickering candle in my hand as he showed me what was left of the General and his son, the remains of the gilt on the decayed shoulders of their uniforms, their crusty brass coffin handles. The most prized items, of course, were the two tarnished swords which lay stiffly among their bones.
We stayed only a moment and told no one, but little by little the General and his son disappeared, first the swords, then the coffin handles, the brass buttons, then their boots with the long femurs inside, and finally the rest of the bones. After they were gone, there had been some talk about bricking up the entrance since there was no money to replace the twisted door. No one knew who the general and his son were related to; the tomb had just always been there, built before the town began to keep records, a brass plaque above the door which said that the General and his son had fought in the Revolutionary War.
So we went to the tomb when it rained, or we lay out on the fresh spring grass beside Skeeter’s mother’s head stone and spread the books out as if they contained reference points for our future. Not one of the girls got pregnant until she wanted to: my mother gave me the books in the first place because she knew I would share them.
Beyond protecting us, the books also helped the girls with their love making skills. While Liddie never responded to coercion, the rest of them, even Babe Ruth, gave in right and left. The books may have taught them to protect themselves from pregnancy, but they didn’t give them enough confidence to say no. Since none of us knew anyone personally who had gone to college except for Liddie’s brother, who like Liddie was so brilliant as to seem an obvious exception, and since unemployment stood at five to one and there was no prospect that we or anybody we knew would find jobs in Reunion, we saw little in our futures. Dallas was a big hit, and girls wanted to be Charlene. Even Babe Ruth bleached her long red hair, burning it so badly she had to have it bobbed and was grounded for three months.
All of the grown-up women we knew had married between fifteen and twenty. Girls talked only about getting pre-engaged and, after they were married, buying a used trailer that they’d stick out the back steps of their parents’ home, expanding the dysfunction to two roofs. Mothers of unmarried teens raised their grandchildren, baby girls whose destiny was mapped out for them the moment they were conceived in someone’s back seat, their childhood gripped by entropy.
Girls like my friend Sandy were fooled by simple things. All she wanted in the world was a husband, a baby, a TV, and a VCR. For her, that was high living. “And then we’d just watch movies at night,” she’d sigh contentedly, having mapped out her future, “because there’s nothing to do around here.”
If you left Reunion in the 1980’s, you went into the military or to a factory in some city at least six hours away. If you stayed, you had less than your parents or grandparents did because by then the house you’d inherit was shot, needed a new roof, the siding had rotted away, or the foundation had slipped.
No one knew how to fix anything anymore. The scraps of metal hoarded by grandfathers during the Depression went unrecognized in barns and garages as potential hinges, latches, and doorknobs. Screen-less doors flapped in the wind, porches sagged, and things that broke stayed broken. The men we saw did tinker with their vehicles out in the yards every once in awhile, but the engines had gotten too complicated for them to fix on their own, and little by little, every house grew its own automotive junkyard.
“He says he’s got 3000 dollars worth of cars out in the yard,” I’d overhear some wife say bitterly in the grocery. “But there aint been one of them running for years.”
So along with reading the books up in the graveyard up at the top of Reunion Mountain, we lay in the grass and dreamed of escape, if not from the mountain, at least from the life it offered. Most of us, however, knew we would go nowhere.
Except Babe Ruth and Liddie. Babe Ruth’s drive toward freedom had been calculated for as long as any of us could remember. What money she got, she saved, and she had an aunt somewhere who had promised to help pay for her college. By the time we were juniors, Babe had her school picked out: the state university in C–. She began to correct the qualities she believed would hold her back. She began correcting others as well.
“It’s not ‘hisself,'” she’d say. “It’s himself.” Or “Don’t say you don’t feel good; say you don’t feel well.” I wouldn’t have been surprised if she had corrected her own daddy on the pulpit.
Liddie, on the other hand, was the smartest person in the school. Her father was a trucker and had the money to pay for her perfect SATs and the cost of her college applications. She received fliers from around the country, each school promising a ‘unique educational experience.’
“Look at how many choices I have,” she’d marvel quietly when no one else but me was around. She’d bring envelopes from the guidance office over to my house, and it was in my bedroom that she began her long distance affair with New York City.
At first it was just a catalogue relationship as she flipped through the pages sent by various colleges in the city. Then she went to the library and got a book on the history of Manhattan Island. After the history lesson, she wrote to the Chamber of Commerce and lined her walls with maps of Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Queens, memorizing bus stops and subway lines. She perused theater and museum guides, learned how to pronounce the names of operas. By the spring of our junior year, she had decided: New York University, Manhattan Island.
“I’ve never slept with a man in a suit,” she’d wink, flipping through a copy of the New York Times. “And now I’ll be able to recognize an Armani.”
“Do you suppose,” she’d say, unconcerned, “that Babe Ruth’s daddy is right, and the Devil is in the city? I hope so.” She didn’t know that fifteen years later she would die there, one of the ones who jumped.
At the time, I poured over the maps, newspapers, and magazines with her, wondering what would become of me, but saying nothing to no one, not even my parents. I was incapable of talking dreamily of a husband in a beat-up pickup truck, of dirty-faced babies, of falling in love with someone who treated me badly, or loving someone who was good to me but who was out of work nine months of the year.
The day I turned seventeen, Skeeter woke me up to catch the sun rise. We didn’t see each other a lot except at home those days, and every once in a while he’d rap on my door when the moon was full or when there was something strange about the night. We’d walk the paths in the dark, go to one of his spots, where he’d build a fire. Sometimes we’d talk, but most times we’d say nothing.
Skeeter was considered handsome by then by everyone except me because for me he was just Skeeter, better than a brother because we’d never had to compete. The phone was always ringing at my house, and when someone answered, the callers hung up. I knew it was girls, wanting to talk to Skeeter but too afraid to ask for him.
As for Skeeter, he was oblivious. He had a few friends, Chip and some others, but he was pretty much a loner. Soon after he’d moved in with us, my parents and I had gone over to his house, and my mother and I had cleaned while my father and Skeeter made repairs. There had been little of the house’s contents to save, not even the furniture that Skeeter’s mother had brought with her to the marriage, and we ended up burning most of it that night, a bonfire with flames as tall as the house.
But we’d had to leave most of the bigger yard junk there– a washing machine, the frame for a pick up, the big things because my parents couldn’t afford to haul them away. The weeds grew up around them most of the year anyway; the yard appeared trashy only in the winter. Otherwise, the house just looked poor.
But after his father died and his sisters left, Skeeter didn’t go back there to live. He’d clean out the gutters once in a while and bang something back together that was inching apart, but he never stayed.
He became quite a tracker too, though he never hunted. Sometimes I’d go with him, following signs I couldn’t see unless he pointed them out to me, a broken branch, the slash on a tree trunk. He read a lot of books and could fix anything, but he had never had a girlfriend, and as far as I knew, he had never kissed. As for me, I had done my share of kissing, but by the time I was a senior in high school, no one had touched me below the neck, and that was the way I liked it.
The morning Skeeter woke me up to see the sunrise, however, I had been dreaming about M–. No one knew I liked him. I wouldn’t have dreamed of telling anyone and exposing the fact that I was just like them–full of desires I didn’t understand, kissing my own hand and stroking my rib cage sometimes at night out of innocent desperation.
My head was full of M– that morning as I pulled on my clothes, even though I had hardly ever talked to him. We’d known each other all our lives, but I had always been too in awe of him to speak much, while for him I was about as interesting as the gravel he raked to fill in his family’s driveway a couple of times a year. If he ever noticed me and thought I served any purpose at all, it was a utilitarian one.
I suppose one might have said that Skeeter and M– were friends because they spoke to one another at school, but I could tell Skeeter didn’t like him. When M– asked Skeeter to track for him, Skeeter always had an excuse not to go.
The sun that morning was quick in coming, and Skeeter and I had to hurry up the mountain to catch it. The birds were waking; the trees still bare, just beginning to flower. We arrived panting at the cemetery and climbed old General Solomon Lowe’s tomb because the top was the highest place. From its curved stone roof we could see over most of the trees down into the valley, where a mist was coming off the river. Sitting up there silently, still out of breath, my heart pounding, I had nothing to prepare me when Skeeter asked me if he could borrow the books.
“What books?” I asked. He blushed then, and I understood.
“The ones you’re always sneaking out of the house,” he said and smiled even though he was embarrassed.
“What do you want the books for?” I asked, feeling stunned though I didn’t know why. Why should Skeeter have been any different than the rest of us?
“The same as you,” he’d said. He stuck a twig in his mouth and looked out over the valley.
“Why don’t you just ask another guy?” I wondered, but I knew why not. The other boys were full of misinformation, they would have been disgusting, and Skeeter would have been mortified. He said nothing, and I regretted my question.
“Do you know what I first learned about sex?” I asked him, trying to make him feel better. “It was explained to me at a slumber party.” Without waiting for his answer, I went on. “A girl told me, ‘There are four bases.'” I ticked them off on my fingers as she had done. “‘First,’ he kisses you. Then, he feels you up.'” When I got to the base that had given me the most anxiety at the time I’d heard it, I winced. “‘Then he fingers you.'” I held up four fingers. “‘Then, he goes all the way.'”
There was a sickening silence while the image sunk in.
“What’s the girl supposed to be doing?” asked Skeeter finally.
“At the time, she didn’t say,” I answered, suddenly saddened, thinking about all I had learned about it since then. “I guess she thought the woman was just supposed to lie there.”
There was an even longer silence while the sun slid up behind the tops of the greening mountains before us, turning the wisps of clouds into swirls of pink and gold.
“I think I’d rather read the books,” Skeeter said at last.
“Fine,” I sighed. “They’re under my bed.”
I became a cliché the day M– invited me to the dollar movie. School had let out; I stood outside the big front doors after the clangor was over and everyone had left, waiting on Babe to dig something out of her locker, and he just came right up and asked me to the show, right there on the steps. No one else was around.
“I got a couple of bucks for the show,” he said.
Afraid to tell anyone about the date because I was embarrassed about my excitement, I lied to my parents that I was going to the movies with Babe. To my friends I said I was seeing the show with my parents. I was such a cliché that after the movie, when M– opened his mouth and actually talked, I was able to deny to myself for a while that he was but a dull cliché himself, the same type of boy I had heard my girlfriends bemoan over and over, the kind who would talk you into something you didn’t really want to do and then tell people about it. Instead, I stared at him in mute fascination, nodded my head where appropriate, and laughed in the right places.
“Wasn’t it cool when he shot that guy?” he asked. And I agreed.
Graduation was two months away by then. Liddie and Babe Ruth were going to college, the only two kids in the school. Babe was going to the state capitol, and Liddie was headed to NYU, having fulfilled not only her application requirements, but also a demographic one. Admissions had accepted her and promised her money, sight unseen.
M– had no idea what he was going to do after graduation; I don’t think he had yet recovered from playing his last high school football game; he and his friends clung to the past before they really had one. “Do you remember that night against Wolf Creek?” one would ask, and no matter where they were, they’d be off.
Chip was one of them, and high school had been successful for him. He played ball, had friends, and was by then bigger than his old man. He’d been jealous around any girlfriend he ever had, though, so he kept losing them, not having the mystique a jealous man needs.
In fact, Chip’s life probably peaked his junior year in high school when he dated G–, who was on the Homecoming court that year. But Chip was always afraid he was going to lose his happiness, so he continually dug up the flower to see if the roots had taken. He tried to forbid G– to meet us up at the graveyard, and if she talked to another boy, he’d ignore her, punish her for a week. Eventually, she tired of his blunt love and outgrew him. After G–, he just got drunk at parties, and by the time he was a senior, bitterness had sunk in.
After the movie, M– and I just walked for a while. The streets were quiet, and we strolled toward the old industrial end of town where the freight station used to be, empty brick buildings that had been built to store what they didn’t ship through Reunion anymore. Most of the street lights were broken, but there was enough moon for us to see our shadows in the dark. M– went on and on, about hunting, about so and so, about what kind of car he wanted to buy, about how he was thinking of joining the Army.
During a lull in the conversation, I was gripped by the urge to lie. “I’m going to New York City with Liddie,” I said.
What he gave me wasn’t The Look, but it was certainly A Look, like who did I think I was kidding? He even stopped walking and turned toward me. We had left the warehouses and were standing under a streetlight.
“Really,” I said, trying to convince myself as much as him. “I am.” And then he looked at my breasts. If it wasn’t The Look, it was a look I hadn’t ever seen before, one that both excited and frightened me. I decided I didn’t want to be a virgin any longer.
I planned it all out with Liddie. The next day I stuck a note into the vents of her locker, asking her to meet me at the tomb: % . I even underlined it. Spring had sprung by then. The crocuses were spent, the daffodils up but too new to bloom. The peepers were out in the lowlands, the leaf buds on the trees were just beginning to unfurl. The air smelled fresh and sweet, the streams full of the melted snow that had gone trickling underground, percolating through the rich earth to the creeks, down the mountain to the river.
Below in the town the streets were dirty with old cinders, trash that had blown from toppled garbage cans during the winter and come to rest permanently in the yards of people who rented or otherwise didn’t care. The houses were dingy in the spring compared to the fresh green grass and the heads of the flowers that danced madly in the twist of wind coming up off the mountain.
In a couple of yards people had tilled their soil and planted early vegetables, lettuce, spinach, peas, and green onions. My mother had starts out on the back porch, under a window frame, and they were about ready to set in the ground. We had frost sometimes until late April or early May up there in the mountains.
Liddie and I met at four o’clock that afternoon. I’d changed my clothes since my house was on the way to the graveyard, but she still wore a dress and climbed that tomb in it like a monkey. She sat there expectantly, with her fresh face and bright eyes, waiting for me to begin.
I must say she was disappointed by my choice. M– was not the sort who would have interested her at all. She even tried to talk me out of it.
“For God’s sake,” she wailed. “Not M–! Couldn’t you pick someone with a little soul?” And then she looked at me and laughed, so hard I had to grab her flailing leg because I was afraid she’d roll off the roof of the tomb. “Jesus,” she said and broke again into hysterical giggles.
But I had been weighing the fact that I was smarter than M– and could control him. He would behave predictably, just like my friends had talked about, touching me in ways that pleased him, removed, totally engrossed in himself so I could just observe, watch, experience it and have no emotional ties to cloud me. I didn’t want the first to be with someone who could hurt me, splay me like a dissected frog.
“For cripes sake,” said Liddie. “M–?! Can’t you do better than that?”
“Not around here,” I said, and when she thought about it, she nodded
M– had a friend named Ripple who had been ‘intimate’ with Liddie, and it was through Ripple, but unbeknownst to him, that Liddie arranged the deal. The plan went something like this: M– and Ripple were going to get some beer and meet us out in the woods, under one of the overhangs up the mountain, where kids our age went to drink. We’d make a fire, guzzle a little, and then Liddie would make herself and Ripple disappear, leaving me and M–.
“All you have to do is act willing,” Liddie schemed one afternoon a week later on the tomb. “But don’t be too obvious, lean into him a little or something. You know.”
But I had never ‘leaned into’ anyone in my life. I’d gotten furtive kisses on the front porch and at the football games under the bleachers, but I’d never sent anyone a signal.
“Touch him on the leg a few times,” she said. “But lightly, or he might think he has to perform, and you’ll scare him away.”
“Hey, I know what I’m doing!” I insisted, up there on the tomb overlooking the valley and the river far below, some of the granite gravestones reflecting yellow in the late afternoon light. I was thinking of the books I’d read, of the four bases. I knew how things got started and progressed.
“No, you don’t,” said Liddie. “For one thing, it’s going to hurt.”
Liddie was quiet then, and I wondered if she was thinking about what all the parents said about her. “I’m not sure this is the way it’s supposed to be,” she sighed after a while.
Two weeks later I stood in my closet doorway after my shower, the evening of my ‘date.’ Liddie was meeting me at the end of my driveway. My parents thought we were going to the show. As I was pulling a long-sleeved T shirt over my head, someone knocked on my door. Skeeter came in and sat on my bed, watching me put on my makeup.
“Where’re you going tonight?” he asked as I darkened my lashes with mascara.
“Out with Liddie to the movies,” I said. I sucked in my cheeks to smooth on blush.
“Why do you need to put all that crap on your face if you’re just going to sit in the dark?” he asked. When our eyes met in the mirror, I looked away.
“I’m insecure,” I said, appearing to shrug.
“Really?” he asked. “Since when?” I glanced at him again, and his gaze was fierce.
“Since today,” I answered, and I spun on my seat so that we were looking at each other face to face, a tube of lipstick poised in my hand.
“What’s with you?” I asked.
“Nothing,” he said, his eyes bright. “What’s with you?”
I couldn’t hold his gaze. Instead, I turned around and played with my face in the mirror, stroking on cheek color again and then wiping it off, over and over, until he finally stood to go.
“What are you doing tonight?” I asked him then, as casual as could be.
“Me?” he asked. “I’m going to the movies too,”
“Good,” I said. “I guess I’ll see you there then.
“I doubt it,” he said, and closed the door softly behind him when he left.
By the time Liddie and Ripple had wandered off, I had drunk three beers, the most I’d ever had in my life. My lips felt fuzzy, and I just stared at the flames while M– popped open what seemed like beer after beer and threw the empties into the fire. He was smoking cigarettes too, and as I reached for my fourth beer, I leaned into him, like Liddie had said, and asked him for a cigarette.
“But you don’t smoke,” he’d said before he handed it to me.
“I do tonight,” I said, snickering naughtily when I said it, thinking of how I would tell Liddie the next morning. He scooted closer to me then, moving across the dirt toward me like a giant insect. When he put his arm around me, I lit the cigarette, using it to keep his face away from mine a little longer. He squeezed my upper arm, testing the meat I thought, and I almost giggled with nerves. Instead, I dragged on the cigarette, not sure whether I was inhaling correctly or not.
“You’re going to make yourself sick,” M– said, “swallowing that smoke.”
“Not me,” I said, and tossed the butt into the fire.
He was on me then like a big, hairy wolf spider, his mouth searching for my lips and licking my face instead. I imagined my makeup on his tongue, but he didn’t stop. Instead, he rolled on top of me, the cool trampled ground beneath me, a hand groping for one of my breasts, his pelvis grinding into mine. The fire crackled, and I didn’t know my eyes were closed until I heard a loud -snap!- and there was Skeeter, standing on the other side of the fire, staring down at me. M– must have heard him too because he looked over this shoulder, sat up suddenly, and adjusted his pants.
“For Christ’s sake, Skeeter!” he barked. “What the hell are you doing?”
“Nothing,” said Skeeter and he sat down on a log across from us. “I didn’t like the movie.”
I brushed my hair back and adjusted my shirt.
“Mind if I have a beer?” Skeeter asked, reaching for one. But M– stopped his arm with the heel of his boot.
“Why don’t you get the hell out of here?” he said.
Skeeter looked at me then, grabbed a beer anyway, and drank almost the whole can with determination, in one continuous swallow. After that, he just sat there and stared at the fire, like a dog with nowhere to go.
We sat there silently for a while, and then M– began to stir.
“Don’t you get it?” he finally asked, exasperated.
But Skeeter just followed the flames; he wasn’t going anywhere, and M– knew then that if he wanted Skeeter to leave, he’d have to fight him. Furious, I picked up an empty can and threw it at Skeeter.
“Get out of here,” I said.
But Skeeter just sat there refusing to either go or look at me, the can bouncing off his shoulder and rolling away. M– sighed, and I knew whatever fight he’d felt had petered out of him.
Skeeter threw a log on the fire then, and the three of us watched the sparks rise and fall, swirling every time he silently stirred the coals. Finally, Liddie and Ripple returned, their faces shocked to see Skeeter with us by the fire, and M– rose to walk me home. As we were leaving the overhang, I looked back over my shoulder at Skeeter, but he was gone.
Skeeter never again slept in our home. He went to live in his dead father’s house. My parents assumed it was because he had become a man, but I knew better. I knew terrible things had happened to him and his sisters in that house, yet he chose to go back there alone because he loved me. I also knew after night that, wherever I was, Skeeter could find me.