by Dinah Cox
My next-door neighbor—Charlotte was her name—had four kids, five Labrador retrievers of various colors, and a small income she earned exclusively by delivering the morning newspaper in our neighborhood. She must have collected child support, too, though she never said anything about an ex-husband. In the afternoons, she listened to the police scanner on her front porch—a creaking, dilapidated structure that sagged in the middle—and seemed, if you looked at it long enough, to shift on its foundation.
She said her oldest son was the chief of police, but the chief of police in our odd Oklahoma town was a woman, so I couldn’t figure out what she was talking about. We also had two women running for governor that year. The Democrat was sort of a doughy “nice lady” type, also the current lieutenant governor, the kind of person who, thirty years ago, would have been doomed to a life as a librarian or junior high school guidance counselor. In spite of the objections of my parents, I was working part-time stuffing envelopes for her campaign.
Charlotte didn’t talk about politics much, though she had a sign in her yard during the last election cycle that said “Repeal House Bill 1017.” I Googled it, and found House Bill 1017 was old, like maybe fifteen or twenty years old, a success by all standards, but also fairly controversial because it dared to raise teacher pay and bring Oklahoma’s educational funding somewhere within range of the national average. Why she wanted it repealed at that late date seemed mysterious at best, but I didn’t ask. Hers was the only sign like it in town.
That summer, I’d been taking carpentry classes at the vo-tech, building sets for the summer theater, killing time before deciding whether or not I’d bother to start my first year of college in the fall. I lived alone in the bad part of town, though my parents and younger sister still lived in Pecan Grove, an aging housing development built in the 1960s where I still spent every weekend living it up in their swimming pool and stealing household goods from the basement. I liked my independence, though, and when Dad complained a young woman wasn’t safe living alone without a dog in the house, I told him not to worry, my next-door neighbor’s son was the chief of police.
“But the chief of police is a woman,” he said.
“Maybe her son is the deputy chief.”
That seemed to satisfy him, so he paid my rent all summer and even gave me a little extra spending money on the side. I’d told him I was going to major in accounting at the state university in the fall, but I had secret plans to drop out and become a carpenter full time. Already I was able to pay my electric and water and buy groceries with the money I earned at the summer theater, a nice arrangement, all in all, though I didn’t appreciate my good luck at the time. I was the only woman in my carpentry class, and though my classmates tried to treat me like “one of the guys,” I wouldn’t let them, and instead kept to myself, building my 5×5 platform alone and taking my lunch at a table in the corner. For this, they called me a bitch, but I didn’t let it bother me. I’d grown up in that town, and I knew I could swing a hammer with the best of them. Besides, I’d dyed my hair a white-blonde reminiscent of Annie Lennox, the early years. No one would mess with me, not with that haircut.
Charlotte—or rather, one of Charlotte’s sons—asked me for help fixing their front porch. His name was Stevie. He was the ugly one. That’s how I described him to my friends—Stevie, the ugly one. Also the youngest, Stevie had a thick neck and ill-fitting clothes, oversized football jerseys and soccer shorts that sagged in the back. One had the sense he would grow into them, since he clearly had a good appetite. Once, he knocked on my front door and asked for a hamburger. I told him he’d be better off hitting up McDonald’s, a piece of advice he seemed to appreciate, but did not heed. So Stevie rang my doorbell, a fairly regular occurrence, only this time he seemed desperate, breathless, scared.
“Karen,” he said. “Our porch.”
“What about it?”
“My mom says a sinkhole will swallow us up.”
Stevie tended toward the overdramatic (once, in winter, he showed up at my back door and said they had a glacier in their basement) but I sort of liked him, or, at least, I preferred him to his brothers, both of whom let their noses run without wiping them and stole things—hubcaps, and once, a bicycle—from our neighbors down the road. If he really believed in the power of the sinkhole, I thought I owed it to him at least to hear him out.
“Use the back door,” I said. “Keep the pressure off the porch.”
“My mom says she’ll bake you a pie.”
“I don’t like pie.”
“Should I tell her that?”
I didn’t have to be at work until tech rehearsal that evening, so I grabbed my toolbox from the corner and followed him down my front steps, beyond our twin mailboxes, and into the tin can, broken box springs, rusty wheelbarrow quagmire that was their front yard. The police scanner was strangely silent, but the dogs—all five of them—barked from the back yard as I stepped onto their property. Charlotte was waiting for me there, not on their front porch, but beside it, where she stood ankle-deep in two inches of dirty water at the bottom of a plastic swimming pool meant for children. She said she was just cooling off, waiting for the sidewalk to heat up so she could start frying some eggs. To be fair, it was really hot that summer, so hot an old man who wandered away from a local nursing home died of dehydration when he crossed the railroad tracks and ended up walking for miles along a trickle of water running through the bottom of a ravine. So I felt sorry for Charlotte, felt sorry for Stevie. They were hot, and their porch was barely standing. I thought I’d be able to help.
“Karen,” Charlotte said. “I thought you’d never get here.” She stepped out of the kiddie pool and pilfered a cigarette from a pack on the edge of the porch. I thought myself the type of person to offer a light, but I had quit smoking the month before, already a health nut at the ripe old age of nineteen.
“What’s the trouble?” I said, though I already knew.
“The porch,” Stevie said. “We’re sinking down to hell.”
“Stevie,” Charlotte said. “Don’t say hell.”
The sound of the barking dogs grew to a deafening roar as I crouched down to take a look at the supports under the stairs—the risers were rotted and the hardware corroded beyond recognition. When Stevie put his weight on the top step, the whole thing nearly gave way. Normally I would request an hourly rate for such an overhaul, but I knew asking for pay, in this case, would be like shouting into the bottom of a well. I rifled through my toolbox to make sure I had enough joint compound—my standby for quick jobs, though I planned to take photos of the finished porch and bring them to my carpentry class. I was measuring the length of the handrail when my father’s business sense took over: how would I pay to go to the movies that weekend? Would I have enough money for popcorn?
“Charlotte,” I said. “A professional would charge you big bucks for this job.”
“You think I’m some kind of freeloader?” she said. “Wait here.”
Right then would have been a good time for her to put out her cigarette with some kind of dramatic flair, but she didn’t—she took it with her. She opened the passenger side door to the car in their driveway, a maroon minivan with rusty fenders and a crack in the windshield. She held the cigarette between her lips and used both hands to keep the front seat’s contents—a sleeping bag, some long poles that looked like they belonged to a tent, a couple of black plastic trash bags, stuffed full—from spilling out onto the driveway. I watched as she used her body to hold the items at bay. She wedged herself in between the trash bags and the sleeping bags, sweeping a mound of fast food wrappers off the dashboard before finally opening the glove box and retrieving a brown envelope, the kind that, in movies, usually contains cash. I had my hopes up until she scooted over to the driver’s side and honked the horn. I walked over, and she rolled down the window, handed me the envelope, and said, “I’m no charity case, little miss.”
Inside the envelope I found two coupons for five dollars off any hundred-dollar purchase at Natural You, a beauty supply store in Oklahoma City. I didn’t wear makeup, but I could imagine myself one day buying a hundred dollars worth of hair care products, so I was genuinely grateful. Charlotte seemed pleased as she made a quick getaway from the car; better not to disturb its contents.
I took some additional measurements, but before making the final calculations—and finally, a shopping list—I asked Stevie to bring me a piece of paper and a pencil. He was gone for about ten minutes before he brought out a green Magic Marker—very low on ink—and a glossy three-fold pamphlet from the Republican candidate for governor.
“I’m not voting this year,” Charlotte said when she saw the pamphlet. “I don’t trust other women.”
That she was getting extremely cheap labor—not to mention free materials—from another woman was not lost on me, nor was it lost on Stevie, who removed the cap from the Magic Marker, sniffed it, and said, “Karen’s a girl. Sort of.”
I grabbed the marker from his hand and wrote down the porch’s dimensions before they went out of my head. “Thanks, Steve,” I said.
Charlotte said Stevie had no sense, and, looking down at his Kool-Aid mustache and running shoes clearly on the wrong feet, I couldn’t disagree. I thought myself altruistic as I said numbers aloud and asked Stevie to write them down—his math teacher would thank me later. Charlotte busied herself taking stacks of magazines from a heap on the porch and tossing them in the back of the minivan. I could tell she was keeping an eye on me. By the time I’d been to Lowe’s and back, she had the porch cleared of its contents and the kiddie pool empty save a single lawn chair in which she sat, feet propped on the edge of the pool, reading the newspaper she’d just delivered to herself on her daily route.
“Good news today,” she said. “Honey barbecue at the patriot’s parade.”
Stevie said, “I want some honey barbecue.”
“Shut your mouth,” Charlotte said.
“Shut your own,” he said under his breath, meaning, I think, for me to hear.
I began to work in a slow, methodical way, remembering to mark everything with a pencil first, and clean up the sawdust as I went along. Even the rough, un-sanded boards felt smooth beneath my hands as I stacked and searched the materials in the yard. I remembered, for a while, the reasons I’d taken up carpentry in the first place: the sharp angles, the symmetry, the small but noticeable difference between a metal file and a wood file. At one point, I sent Stevie inside for an extension cord, but otherwise he stuck with me, his constant fidgeting and relentless chatter enough to send the Dalai Lama to a session with Dr. Phil. Charlotte paced the length of the porch, muttered her approval, and smoked.
We went on this way for a half hour or so until Stevie lay prostrate at Charlotte’s feet and begged her to take him some place called Game Emporium. He used all the usual lines: I have my birthday money to spend, Daniel’s parents take him all the time, and, of course, the time-honored, you promised to take me to Game Emporium. Charlotte finally gave in, telling him he first had to round up his brothers from the playground down the block. He tore off on his bike, shouting something unintelligible but celebratory as he disappeared in the distance.
“Kids,” Charlotte said.
“He’s a nice boy,” I said, I guess because I thought I ought to.
“He’s all right,” she said. “But if I had to do it over…”
Then she walked over to where I was ratcheting down a lag bolt, watched me over my shoulder until I stopped, and motioned for me to take a cigarette from her open pack. Even though I had quit, even though I’ve started back and quit again at least four times since that long-ago summer, I’d always been of the opinion smokers are generally good people. Think of all those great conversations lasting exactly six and a half minutes. Think of the way they brave the cold, the social isolation, and the wrath of the morally-superior. Needless to say, I gave in. All the other times I started back were because I was upset—I stopped for gas somewhere on the way to, say, a court hearing, or my ex-husband’s house, and the convenience store clerk behind the counter seemed to beg me to ask for a pack of cigarettes—but that time with Charlotte was different. I took one because I was happy.
“Don’t do it, Karen,” she said, as we leaned against her minivan and watched the traffic go by. “Don’t get pregnant.”
“I won’t,” I said, and I still remember that statement as one of the more notable promises I’ve ever kept. We talked for a while—about the neighborhood, the patriot parade coming up in town, about her oldest son, the chief of police. I was just about to give her my pitch for the Democratic gubernatorial candidate when Stevie came back. He was walking his bike this time. His back tire, he said, was flat. The two older brothers—one riding a girl’s bicycle and the other on foot with a bag of baseball bats slung over his shoulder—dashed on ahead of him, dropped their gear in the garage, and called dibs on the back seat of the minivan. Charlotte patted me on the shoulder—the first and last time she ever touched me—found her way to the driver’s seat, and started the engine for the sake of some untold fun at Game Emporium.
“Thank you,” she said, through the van’s open window when I went back to work on the porch. “Means a lot.”
While they were gone, I pried open a metal grate on the side of the house, loaded my tool belt with my cordless screw gun, some wood scraps, and a handful of screws, and crawled around in the dark underbelly of the house until I was directly underneath the rotting front porch. I could see plenty of light coming through the broken wooden slats. Still, I found myself breathing heavily when my elbows dug into the dirt and my untied shoelaces caught against a metal pipe. At the theater, they counted on me to climb to the highest rung on the A-frame ladder and scramble like a monkey to hang lighting instruments on the grid, so I thought myself more or less fearless. But I was afraid of snakes, even more afraid of spiders. My eyes finally adjusted to the darkness, and I began the work of installing new supports.
The dogs in the back yard had been silent for a while, but as soon as the minivan left the driveway, they started up again, this time louder than before. A Labrador barking at a stranger sounds pretty much the same as a Lab barking at, say, a wheelbarrow overturned in the yard—they’re not the brightest dogs, sorry if you have one—and I didn’t think too much of it when they launched into a full-throated, relentless alarm. Besides, something strange was happening to me down there: I liked having a hiding place. I’d satisfied myself that the spiders and snakes were more afraid of me than I was of them, and the cool air and soft dirt seemed comforting, like an owl’s dented cavern inside the trunk of an old tree. The work was slow, but gratifying, and one new support was nearly finished when the dogs went suddenly silent.
“The dogs are gone,” Stevie said, panicked, when they came home from Game Emporium. I was still under the porch, and I decided to remain there, maybe for a while, until the dust cleared. The whole family wondered aloud as to my whereabouts, but no one suspected I had anything to do with the disappearance of the dogs. Charlotte told the boys I had probably gone home to get some kind of tool—or take a break—and the dogs, you know: the dogs. They’re always doing something.
“The wire,” Stevie said. “The cinder block.”
At first I couldn’t figure out what he was talking about, but I finally discerned they usually kept a wire wrapped around the back gate to keep it closed, and a cinder block leaned against the bottom edge, too, as a kind of extra insurance policy. The wire had been unwrapped and the cinder block had been moved.
I hadn’t heard a car pull up, and I certainly hadn’t heard any footsteps or the sound of the gate opening or closing. I realized then I had become a witness to a crime, and, involved as I was in the close work of installing the wooden support structures—hadn’t the thief heard the screech of my cordless drill?—I’d missed out on the opportunity to catch someone red-handed.
“They’ll come back,” Charlotte said, unfazed. “Leave the gate open.”
“Call Gordon,” one of the older brothers said, and I realized then that Gordon must have been their much older brother, the legendary chief of police.
“He’s busy,” Charlotte said. “We can’t bother him. He won’t be back in town until the patriot’s parade, anyway.”
“Get Karen,” Stevie said, my hero. “She’ll know what to do.”
I suddenly felt guilty for keeping my presence a secret, so I shouted, like the dead, from below.
“I’m here,” I said.
I looked up through the wooden slats and saw the four of them scrambling, as in embarrassing game shows and slapstick comedies, to discover the origins of my voice. I continued to speak, but the space under the porch was like an echo chamber, and my calls seemed to bounce from the stairs to the front door to the driveway beyond. They searched in much the same way people always look for their car keys or the TV remote in places they couldn’t possibly be—the refrigerator, inside the microwave, in the bottom of the dishwasher—just in case. Stevie opened the mailbox not once but twice and declared it empty. Finally, I took my cordless drill and pounded against the floor of the porch; this did the trick, and Stevie, his Kool-Aid mustache now scrubbed clean, crouched down to look at me.
“What happened to the dogs?” he said.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I was working.”
“Let the girl work,” Charlotte said. “Dogs’ll be back.”
Stevie whined about the black Lab’s bum leg—Blackie was his name, of course. He reminded Charlotte Blackie was old and slow, an old grandpa, he said. His older brothers shuffled and spat, tackled one another in the lawn. I had a vision of myself standing curbside with Stevie, my hand on his shoulder as he cried over the flies swarming around Blackie’s dead body in the street. I gathered my tools in a pile, marked the place where I was working with a pencil, and started the slow and treacherous crawl back toward the metal grate on the side of the house. I had resigned myself to spending the rest of the day out in the neighborhood looking for the dogs when I heard an unfamiliar woman’s voice approaching from behind.
“I have your dogs,” she said. “They’re at my house.”
“Well bring ‘em back,” Charlotte said. “Missy.”
I looked through the porch’s wooden slats and indeed, the young woman speaking seemed to be a kind of “Missy”—teenaged and smirking, more gums than teeth, hands on hips. She wore a denim miniskirt, an elaborate belt made out of paper clips hooked together in a chain, and a T-shirt that said, Celebrate Life. She seemed to know Charlotte and Stevie and the rest of them, too, since she went on to describe a series of events they all seemed familiar with: a fistfight between someone named Jaden and someone else named Uncle Robbie. Charlotte and Stevie spoke up on behalf of Jaden and the young woman seemed to favor Uncle Robbie. The fistfight in question transpired sometime after Stevie’s birthday party, on Uncle Robbie’s property, after the bonfire but before Jaden’s horse cut his legs on some barbed wire and had to be put down. I realized, after a while, the young woman both acted like a “missy-miss” and was, in fact, named Missy, though Stevie called her girl. Missy sneered and shook her fists, and, watching this local drama unfold, I felt oddly sorry for her—the pathetic and shameless show of bravado in front of these boys, all of them destined to grow into angry, underpaid men who habitually took out their rage on women of her kind—women paid in food and shelter if they’re paid at all.
“Come to my house,” she said. “You’ll get your dogs back. Blackie’s inside, resting on the sofa.”
Charlotte, sensing this was a trap, refused.
“Blackie,” Stevie said. “You be nice to him. Girl.”
Missy assured him Blackie was receiving only the finest treatment: chew toys within reach and a box fan pointed generously in his direction. She insisted her brother and Uncle Robbie would not allow her to bring the dogs out of their house; Charlotte and Stevie would have to give her a ride back home where the dogs would be available for them to retrieve—and here was the catch—right after her brother and Uncle Robbie collected their cash reward.
“Robbie knows we don’t have any money,” Charlotte said. “Tell him to suck it.”
“I want Blackie,” Stevie said.
“He’ll come home,” Charlotte said. “Hush.”
“I want him now.”
By then I had decided to crawl out from underneath the porch and knock off for the day. My presence went more or less unnoticed as I replaced the metal grate, brushed myself free of dirt, and waved a quick goodbye at Stevie. He waved back, but I could tell his heart wasn’t in it as he stepped closer to Missy and kicked a cloud of gravel at her feet. Back in my own yard now, I watched as Charlotte dug through her purse until she found a compact and a crusty tube of lipstick. She wiped her cheeks with the powder and dotted her lips with the lipstick, leaned over, and kissed—kissed!—Missy on the cheek. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but the heat in the conversation seemed to have cooled to something like lukewarm. Stevie had his hands in his pockets and his eyes downcast, and just as I stepped onto my own front porch the two older boys shrugged and went inside the house.
That night at the theater, during a technical rehearsal for Pump Boys and Dinettes, I took a break from adjusting lighting instruments and watched TV for a while in the green room. I have an uncanny ability to look very intently at the moving pictures at the screen while at the same time thinking about something else entirely—my grocery list, for example, or some imagined version of my own future. That night, the green room TV showed something called America’s Greatest Suburbs, one of those competition-based reality shows in which the neighborhood’s residents try to one-up each other with their ability to wash windows and clean leaves from the gutters. I couldn’t help but think of Charlotte. Strange how you know a lot about your neighbors at the same time they remain enigmatic, like those photos of faraway galaxies—strange suns burning holes in some other soil.
Growing up in the neighborhood called Pecan Grove, I lived next door to the Sindersons. Here’s everything I ever knew about the Sindersons: Jay and Marcia eventually divorced. Jay worked for the feed mill. I’m not sure what Marcia did, except everyone in the neighborhood said she was crazy. They had one daughter—Christina—who was two years older than me and a tomboy, fond of skateboards and playing the drums. Their house was always clean. They had a one-stall shower in the bathroom of their guestroom, a spotless fiberglass cubicle in which Christina once talked me into standing, fully-clothed, for several hours with the idea aliens would recognize my plight and launch me into space. But no one ever told me why Jay and Marcia divorced. Jay remarried—his second wife was my third-grade teacher at the elementary school across the street—but I never knew what happened to Marcia. I caught up with Christina later on, but had to ditch her when she started posting Facebook updates about Bible verses shortly after moving to Nashville, where at least she was able to make a fairly decent living playing the drums. All this I thought about during tech rehearsal, even after the technical director called me back into the theater to hang lights. And what about Charlotte? Maybe I didn’t really know her at all.
The next day, when I went back to finish my work on the porch, all the dogs were back in the yard—all of them, that is, except for Blackie.
Stevie, silent and brooding in the yard, poked at something that looked like it once was a basketball and grunted as I walked by—unusual, since most of the time he acted happy to see me.
“Blackie’s dead,” he said. “I know it.”
“Don’t listen to him,” Charlotte said, appearing in the doorway. “Boy’s got no more sense than a box of Frosted Mini-Wheats.”
Stevie pumped air in the basketball, and Charlotte pulled up a lawn chair and offered me a cigarette. We smoked for a while. She caught me up on the other dogs’ recapture and Blackie’s continued absence. He wasn’t dead, she said, only lounging like a lazy thing at Little Miss Missy’s house, guarded by one of those expensive-ass home security systems and under the thumb of the notorious Uncle Robbie. As soon as she could come up with two hundred fifty dollars—and maybe a knuckle sandwich—they’d have him safely back home where he belonged.
I tried to cheer her up by telling a story about a dog I had growing up—also named Blackie, though mine was a standard poodle—who saved a baby bird from a bad-ass cat and could catch flying popcorn in his mouth. She laughed, but I could tell by the way she leaned against the side of the house she’d rather I resumed my work on the porch. I found my way back to the metal grate and crouched down like a jewel thief might, elbows close to my body, the curve in my spine becoming suddenly stealthy, suddenly slender. Underneath, I found the same dark cave I had so enjoyed before. Separate from the world, separate from the town, separate from the whole goddamned state of Oklahoma, I felt considerable ease as I patched the holes in the corners and reinforced the floor. I could hear the noise of the neighborhood outside—Stevie’s basketball bouncing in the driveway, cars going by, the lawn mower’s buzz on the next block—but I could not hear dogs barking. Three of Charlotte’s dogs were back home in the yard, but they didn’t feel like themselves without Blackie.
A groaning engine grew louder and then stopped. A car door slammed. Stevie’s basketball stopped bouncing, and then he hiccupped—nerves, I suspected, though he ate a lot of popsicles, too. He didn’t know I was down there.
“What do you want, girl?” he said. “You got my dog in that car?”
“Come on, Stevie,” she said. Her voice sounded different this time, more child-like and choked. “We used to be friends.”
“Nah,” he said. “We ain’t never been friends.”
I watched through the wooden slats as she bounced the basketball in the driveway. Her dribble was more controlled, more skillful than Stevie’s, and from underneath the porch she seemed graceful and tall, like a gazelle. He said shit, and then parked himself on the curb, his crusty fingernails picking at a Band-Aid on his elbow. After a while, she ditched the ball in the yard and joined him on the curb, her knees so close to his they could almost touch. I could see the backs of their heads moving and their hands gesturing with meaning, but I could not hear their voices clearly—only the sound of plaintive whines and defensive murmurs. Above the sound of traffic from the next block, I heard the rising sound of halting sobs, a rhythmic gasp for air as the girl’s shoulders began to shake. I watched with some amazement as Stevie’s palm reached out to touch her. He approached her with simultaneous hesitation and tenderness. She put her head between her knees and shook, harder now, as if the force of her own energy might lift her from the ground. Before I was finished installing the riser supports, she had returned to her car and driven away.
“I’ve got a plan,” Charlotte said, later, after the porch was completely finished, solid enough we could put lawn chairs on it and sit there with our cigarettes. I was proud of my work.
“What’s wrong with Missy?” I said. I hesitated before prying into their business, but my completed handiwork had us all in a good mood.
“Her mom’s in jail,” she said. “And her dad’s dead.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Yeah,” she said, an echo. “Good thing, too. About her dad, I mean.”
Stevie brought out popsicles, the double-decker kind, and Charlotte and I split one between us. We sat there for a while in the silence of the neighborhood and watched the cars go by, not many of them now, since most people were at work. Across the street, the mailman—Randy was his name, a pony-tailed, friendly sort who smiled at my Ms. Magazines and wore sandals and shorts year-round—walked his route in that speedy, short-stepped way of his, one mailbox to the next, always bringing bills, never good news. We waved as he went by. The sun grew hotter and melted the popsicles in our hands. I bragged on the success of the porch, jumped up and down on its newly-fortified planks. Charlotte, too, jumped up and down, whistled, and told me I’d be Phi Beta Kappa in my carpentry class for sure.
The next day was a Saturday. Pump Boys and Dinettes would open that night at 7:00—I had bought a new dress and treated myself to my first-ever manicure for the occasion—but I had the whole day to kill beforehand. I figured I’d buy a few scratch-off lottery tickets to give as opening night presents for the cast and crew, so I walked around the block to the gas station where the parking lot was empty—a slow day, the attendant said, everyone was at the patriot’s parade downtown. I had just pulled out my wallet to pay for the scratch-offs when Charlotte, breathless, pushed open the glass door and slammed her cell phone down on the counter.
“Damn thing’s got no batteries,” she said. She looked at me standing there with my open wallet, but she did not seem surprised to see me there. I saw accusation in her eyes as she demanded to use the gas station’s phone. She pulled out a slip of paper and read the phone number aloud to the attendant, who dialed behind the counter and handed her the receiver.
“Robbie,” she said into the phone. “I know you did it. Don’t you lie to me.”
I looked at the attendant and shrugged—a malicious act, and I knew it.
“You won’t get away with it,” she said. “I’ll see you in court.”
She handed the phone back to the attendant, turned to me, and said, “This is your fault.”
I asked her what happened, and she told me to follow her back to her house, which I did—though reluctantly—two steps behind her, since the sidewalk was narrow and the trees untrimmed. A low branch scraped Charlotte’s thigh, and for a brief moment I thought she would bend it back to keep its woody points from hitting me, too, but this was not to be: the branch scraped both of us to shit. My calf appeared bitten and raw, as if woodland creatures had skittered there, but Charlotte was bleeding, a small river of red running down the length of her leg until it formed a pencil-point dot on the top edge of her sock. She was not the kind to wipe it away.
We turned the corner to our street, and immediately I saw what she was talking about. On her porch—on my porch, my wonderful, sturdy porch!—a can of spray paint lay discarded next to a wadded-up bunch of wet paper towels, and, in large, red, block letters, someone had spray-painted the word CUNT. Whoever had done it had made sure to ruin the newer planks of wood, since the C was bigger than the rest of the letters and, as I realized upon further inspection, there was another word there as well, this one in a bold cursive blue, and a blue letter S was affixed to the end of CUNT, only it was in parentheses, so her front porch said WELCOME CUNT(S) for all the neighborhood to see.
“You try to get nice things,” she said. “And look what happens.”
“We’ll paint over it,” I said.
“Not you, Missy,” she said. “I’ll paint it my damned self.”
I turned to her and said, “I’m sorry.”
“Karen,” she said, softening. “I know your name isn’t Missy.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I know.”
I think she must have felt bad for saying the spray-paint job was my fault because later, after bringing me half a cheese sandwich, she invited me to go along with her and Stevie to the patriot’s parade downtown. The older boys were at the park, she said, giving lessons. I asked her what kind of lessons and she said bicycle riding lessons, and I nodded, like this was a legitimate means of making a little extra money. For the first time in my life I understood why people stole, and why later I came to steal a few things, myself.
Stevie and I jammed into the middle section of Charlotte’s minivan, and, thumbing through a comic book he’d brought along, we tried to forget the work of the vandals as Charlotte drove the three of us downtown. In the front seat she had placed a leather dog leash and collar, along with an empty metal bowl. I figured she was just being optimistic, like maybe we’d see Blackie running along the road somewhere, but I didn’t want to set off Stevie crying, so I didn’t say anything.
By the time we arrived, the parade had already started. We found a place to park near the end of the route and dragged a couple of lawn chairs to an empty spot in front of an old burned-out building I remembered from childhood as Remarkable Lamps. Charlotte said never to buy a lamp there, Stevie asked for money for a Coke, and I fished in my purse for a pack of cigarettes—my own—since I’d used the money I had set aside for the scratch-offs to buy a carton of Camels instead. I offered Charlotte one, and though she shrugged at my choice of brands, she took one and then another.
The patriots in the parade were in full swing—big, barrel-chested George Washington impersonators, horses with red, white and blue ribbons braided into their tails, trumpet-playing Thomas Jeffersons, the whole thing. I looked beyond the parade itself until I could see the spectators on the other side—old people carrying umbrellas to shield themselves from the sun, parents pushing strollers, children scrambling for candy in the street. All of it seemed fairly standard-issue wholesome small town until I looked up the hill past the fire station. Standing there next to a telephone pole were Mom and Dad and my younger sister, all of them wearing matching purple T-shirts I had never seen before. Dad wore his shirt untucked—something he never did—and all three of them were talking and laughing in a genuine way I didn’t recognize. Dad was taking rapid-fire photographs with his Polaroid, and Mom, clowning for the camera with the two-fingered bunny ears behind my sister’s bobbing head, chewed a big wad of fluorescent green gum. These were not the people I had grown up with—those solemn, middle-class tennis players, those pot roast eaters, those Republican lovers of the Reader’s Digest series of condensed books. I looked closer and realized their purple T-shirts were advertising the Democratic candidate for governor, something I couldn’t imagine, since Dad was a regular listener of Rush Limbaugh and Mom drove an SUV, on purpose, she said, to keep the government from taking away our rights. Finally, I looked closer and dared to wave at them, but, involved as they were in the goings-on of their picture-taking and then watching the firemen raise and lower a ladder, they didn’t notice me at all.
“This is fun,” Charlotte said.
I decided right then I would move into the dorms and start college in the fall. The next day I would tell Dad I was going to do carpentry work on nights and weekends to pay my own way.
“Yeah,” I said. “Everyone loves a parade.”
Charlotte said she had always heard that expression, but in her experience it wasn’t really true. She said it was like that expression about how you never forget a familiar face. She’d forgotten plenty of times, she said. And she didn’t want to remember. She was right, too, about familiar faces. As much time as I spent with Charlotte that summer, I cannot today remember exactly what she looked like. I could pick Stevie out of a lineup—and I fear someday I might end up doing just that—but memory has faded my vision of Charlotte so much so that in my mind’s eye she looks a little like my mother, a little like my ex-husband’s mother, a little like a few nameless country and western singers that seem famous, but not altogether credible or beautiful. Back then, I might have been too weak to look her in the eye.
What I’ll never forget, though, is the way her shoulders straightened and her chin lifted when she stood up to watch the parade’s show-stopping grand finale. Together, the two of us held a lawn chair steady so Stevie could stand on it and see. And though I’ve since done carpentry work for some professional baseball players and ridden in an elevator with Susan Sarandon, that moment was the closest I’d theretofore been to an actual celebrity.
I held my hand against the sun’s glare, and there he was, tall and tanned, looking relaxed and fit in a pink Polo T-shirt and a pair of dark sunglasses, sitting cross-legged in the backseat of a convertible and waving at the crowd. Sting. The chief of The Police.
“He’s not really my son,” Charlotte said.
“I figured,” I said.
“I’m just a fan,” she said. “He sent me an autographed photo.”
Next to him in the backseat of the convertible was the Democratic candidate for governor, and though she was a large woman, there was room enough between them for Blackie, alive and well and extremely patriotic with a red, white, and blue bandanna tied around his neck. Stevie recognized him immediately.
“This really is a great country,” Charlotte said, and the sad thing is I know she meant it. I swear Sting looked at her, though, as the convertible rolled by. He patted Blackie’s head and gave Stevie a thumbs-up. And as the parade concluded with the usual deflated balloons and horse droppings left to clean up in the street, I smoked one last cigarette with Charlotte and told her I was glad Blackie was back, but I knew, as they say, I would have to leave that town and never return.
Dinah Cox has written two books of short stories, Remarkable, from BOA Editions, and The Canary Keeper from [PANK] Books. Her individual stories have appeared in a number of literary magazines, including StoryQuarterly, Prairie Schooner, and New Orleans Review. Her third story collection, The Paper Anniversary, is forthcoming from Elixir Press next year. She lives in Stillwater, Oklahoma.