Untitled, Tess Vinnedge
My sister stands in the backyard and looks at the bleach-blonde sky of the morning with her head dropped back far as it will go. Her freckled thighs touch because she is fat. And in the patches of yellow grass, dead in ovals from dog piss, her ugly stump-toes blend right in like you wouldn’t notice even if somebody pointed them out and told you they was there.
Momma said aint no point in telling her she’s fat no more cause she already knows and it’s the business of fools to be telling somebody something they already know. So I just lean back real comfortable and watch Carla—that’s my sister, named after Gram which I aint jealous bout cause Gram’s fat too—run round the clearing of dirt where Samson lives and shout bout the dog not being able to catch her on the count of its leash. I tell her she’s a fool cause I already know that and the dog can’t even hear. He just runs round in circles and makes this squeaky moan like the teeters at the playground cause he can’t hear what he sounds like and don’t know he sounds dumb. And when Momma comes back, she be like, Marguerite why you letting that sister a yours get all dirty like she gone clean herself up, you stupid? And then I look at Carla who’s laughing like a sprinkler and yell back to Momma, maybe you should run round that dirt then maybe you wouldn’t be so damn mad all the time like you never had no fun before.
And then I get one of those real good glares from Momma, so I stick out my tongue sort of playful and go back to pulling at my hangnails. I seen her make that face lots of times when it’s real early in the morning and she’s having cigarettes on the back porch after her boyfriends leave, which they all seem to do real early or real late. Momma just sits there under the awning that hangs dead over the porch, giving her shade from the moonlight, and she smokes, smokes, smokes till she shakes her head and huffs like she’s made a decision bout something. Just the other night, one of them guys I seen come over a few times, real handsome one, even handsomer than Cleave Sheridan, he left in a mean hurry, said it was the last time. So Momma yelled at Samson a word I can’t be caught dead saying. She yelled so loud and put on that killer glare till that dog hid itself away in its smelly dog hut. Then she walked inside and I pulled my shade closed tight and wondered what she did so wrong. I wondered bout that man, bout his big stiff shoulders and square head. I tried to imagine any of those boys from recess ever getting shoulders so wide. But it don’t seem likely to me, so I just folded my arms up over my chest and breathed real heavy and slow.
I quit picking at the nail on my pinky when it starts to bleed and go stand next to Carla, neck-bent and looking up just in case there’s something to see, which there aint, just that yellow-grey of the noon sky. I tell Carla she’s stupid for looking at nothing there and she says she aint looking at nothing. She says she’s looking at the day ghosts, like I’m supposed to know what that means. I ask her if you gotta be fat to see them and she says she aint fat and I’m ugly. What’d you mean then, I say, and she says, day ghosts aint like tricker treat ghosts cause they aint scary. They dance for me, she says. They dance in the sky with God cause he likes them to. What they look like, I ask her, but she just keeps staring with her head dropped all the way back, smiling and once in a while peeping out a little laugh. And just cause I don’t feel much like doing nothing else I look up at the sky and wait for something to happen but nothing ever does, so I just lay down on the grass and think bout how my toes’re prettier than Carla’s.
When the yellow sky turns dark I pop open a can of ravioli with one of them knives Momma took from the church one night at spaghetti supper but said she didn’t even though I saw her do it. I put it over the stove till the red juice starts to bubble and splatter on the handle of the spoon. Then I fill up a bowl for me and Carla and give her the one with more in it cause she’s fat and likes to eat more than me. I don’t need to eat so much cause I’m skinny like them women on the underwear flyers we get in the mailbox. I even got that same gold hair, except mine looks prettier than theirs when it’s all done up right. Even Carla says so. When we finish licking the bowls clean cause neither of us wants to wash them in the sink, Carla puts the dirty pot outside for Samson to lick clean cause she don’t wanna wash it neither and I don’t yell at her seeing how even if the dog aint hungry—which he always is anyhow—it’ll maybe rain tonight and wash itself clean.
Sometimes after supper me and Carla sit real close in front the TV which don’t work no more. We look at our reflections and pretend we telling the news. I’ll say, today forty people burned up in an apartment building when the firefighters were all sleeping and Carla will say something funny like nobody could hear the alarms cause everybody in the town was deaf and then we just roll back and laugh and laugh. And on the black glass of the TV the bottoms of our feet’ll kick round in circles like we’re riding invisible bicycles. But we don’t do that on a trash night, like this one.
After we drag the can to where our dusty driveway spills out into the gravel street, we head out down our road to see what the neighbors threw away. Some people don’t know what’s still good, I tell Carla. Some people throw away real pretty things just cause they can’t see them so no more, like they’d gone and rotted just cause they were round a while. She giggles and heads galloping past the other houses, kicking up a mean trail of dust that tastes like salt and cardboard. And when she gets so far I can’t see her no more and the dark behind the houses starts to creep up on me, I shout Carla get back here. I don’t hear nothing back so I start running into the dark feeling my heart beat real fast, thinking bout all the creepers in the dark, worrying maybe they got Carla. I shout, Carla where’d you go. I shout, come on now, where the heck’d you go. I quit running and stop dead in the middle of the road. The dark swirls round me and I feel my belly churning and my eyes wince a little. Then Carla shouts, Boo! from behind one of the trash cans and I wanna hit her for making me worry, but since I’m glad to know she aint dead I don’t hit her hard and just yell, you fat idiot.
She smiles and pulls from behind her something black and shiny and soft looking. What is it, I ask. I reach my hand out and touch it. It’s a dress isn’t it? She shakes the dust free and holds it like it’s hanging in a store window. The dress is as long as Momma and as dark and sparkly as the night sky when it aint cloudy. She whips up the sequin sleeves and ties them round her neck like a cape. It’s my dress, she says. And even though she says it’s hers and not mine, we both get so excited that we run back to the house and I don’t think once bout the creepers in the darkness.
Put it on, put it on, I say. Carla shimmies out of her pants and pulls her t-shirt over her head. Now step into it, I say. She lays it on the floor and pushes the material to the outsides to open up the hole. Here, let me do it. She steps in and I pull up the dress and she slips her arms through the sleeves, wiggling her fingers to work their way out. I reach down below her butt and pull the zipper all way up to her neck and she takes a step forward and turns round. She smiles so big I see her gums all the way round the top of her mouth, all the way round both sides. She says, this is the prettiest dress ever made. And even though I think it is too, I say, it don’t fit, it’s too big. She spins round with her arms stretched out and the sequins that fall down in streamers from the waist catch the light from the kitchen and sparkle on and off. It’s perfect, she says. I squat down low and say, no it’s too big. She frowns for a second, then bunches it in her hands and pulls it up so it ends at her feet. That’s better, I say. It looks better like that. We got to cut it, she asks, and I nod.
I run to the kitchen and wipe the red sauce from the ravioli off the knife with a towel and look at my reflection on its shiny face and smile with excitement. I know what to do, I say. Carla plops down on the floor and says, here cut it right along here. So I poke the tip of the knife through and start sawing all the way round and even though it tears here and there, Carla claps her hands when I get almost done. Stop moving, I say, I aint finished. And then I pull the knife through to the end and she jumps up and spins round, this time faster. This time the dress spins with her and I think she looks prettier than ever, like her being fat don’t matter. Or maybe like sometimes if you just don’t let yourself see it, it aint really there. Now the sleeves, I say. What’s wrong with the sleeves, she asks. I hold up her arm and tug at the material. Dresses aint supposed to have sleeves like these, I say. She looks at them hard and says, we gonna cut them off, and I nod. She stretches one arm out and I say don’t move as I poke the knife through the top of her sleeve and start slicing my way round her armpit. Don’t move now, I say. I give it a big hard tug when I’m almost done and it tears right off. One more to go, she says. She claps her hands again and stretches out the other arm. I push the tip of the knife up against the other sleeve, but it don’t go through. What’s the matter, she asks. Hang on a second, don’t move, I say. Then I push harder and it slips. Carla lets out a terrible sound and I pull the knife back and look at the blade, covered with red again. Shit, I say.
Momma’s car pulls up to the driveway maybe a half hour later and we’re sitting on the couch and I’m pulling another ring of tape over the newspaper wrapped round Carla’s arm. I say, alright now, you just hold this blanket up to your neck and she won’t know anything’s up. She sucks in a shaky breath and nods. I’m real sorry Carla, I say. She don’t say nothing, just looks straight at the door. Another car pulls into the drive and we hear talking, but we can’t hear bout what.
Momma opens the front door with a grunt and Carla, like she’d been smacked a flat-hand slap real hard against her ear, wails a cry so sharp I tuck my head into my shoulders and close my eyes tight. Between gasps she says, I’m sorry Marguerite and then I lift my lids onto Momma and see all the anger in the world inside those eyes. What in hell’s going on here, she says, all hushed like she don’t want no one to hear. Carla lets the blanket slide down to her lap and looks at the newspaper, which is all but completely dark red. Momma comes stomping over and pulls Carla’s arm up hard and says, how’d this happen. Carla yelps and pulls her arm back in. Marguerite, Momma says, how in the hell did this happen. We were just playing, I say. But she won’t listen, just keeps yelling. And where’d you get this dress? Goddamnit, Marguerite! You go on straight to your room. Both of you!
A man walks soft into the room and Momma takes a step back from us real quick, like we aint hers. He pulls his hands in close to his chest and sort of gasps, not like he’s scared, but like he’s in trouble. Momma says, look why don’t you just go wait in the bedroom. He walks slow toward Carla and me, like we might jump up and bite him. He’s a tall skinny man, dressed up in fancy slacks that don’t shine no more, with weird little eyes that look like a couple them black marbles I got in my drawer. Hey, Momma says, just go on into the bedroom, I’ll be right there. He looks hard at us and then at her. Under his buttoned-up shirt, his shoulders slump round and he says, this little girl needs to go to the hospital. His black hair’s slicked over and, even though it aint raining, it still looks wet. Carla lifts her arm out for him and he slides the wet newspaper down round her hand and looks at the cut. I watch Carla’s lip shudder when he runs his finger on her skin. He says, little girl needs stitches.
Momma glares at me and shakes her head and I feel the weight of my belly as it sinks into the couch. Like hell she does, Momma says. She leans over Carla’s arm and looks at it with a scowl. Shit, she says. I reach under the blanket and grab Carla’s hand and she squeezes it tight. Momma walks over to the kitchen and lifts her hand up to her forehead and shakes her head real slow. She presses her thumb against her temple and rubs her fingers across her eyebrows and they smear a little when she looks up and turns around. Marguerite, get over here, she says. I follow her into the kitchen and she looks at me with her mouth half open. I swear to God, Marguerite, I swear to God, look what I have to deal with. She says, alright I’m gonna take your sister to the hospital, but you listen here. You don’t let him leave, okay? You do whatever it takes to make him stay here, alright. You don’t let him leave. Her eyelids shake as she squints down at me. I nod and follow her back.
She places her hand on the man’s thin neck and whispers something in his ear, all the while looking at me like I’m supposed to know what she’s saying. I dig my fingers under the lip of my shorts and press my nails into my skin. He purses his thin lips and fidgets his fingers, looking at Momma as if he’s the one who cut Carla. And then Momma real sharp tells Carla to come with her. They walk out the door and Carla looks back at me and I try to tell her I’m sorry, but nothing comes out so she just lowers her head and closes the door behind her.
The room gets quiet. It feels like somewhere I aint never been. The man sits on the chair next to the couch and rubs his hands down his long thighs to his knees. He says, what’s your name. I tell him. Oh yeah, he says, so how old are you. I say eleven, and then I shift round on the couch and try to find a place my legs want to be. He looks back and forth across the room and then at the blinds, which are closed all the way down to the sill. I’ve never done this before, he says. I don’t know what he means so I just sit there some more and ask him if he wants some water.
Never before, he says. I live alone, see. I work alone. Never had a wife. That can happen you know, he says. His words come out quick and quiet, like he’s sorry for talking even if he’s got to. Sometimes, he says, things just turn out some ways. Things wear on you without your knowing it. Sometimes you just wake up one morning with this sense like it’s all over, you aint young anymore. This is the way it is going to be. Bet you aint had that.
Why don’t you just get married, I say, what’s so wrong with you. He stiffens his body against the chair and looks at me hard. You’re very pretty, he says. You could be fourteen, no sixteen, he says. I tell him I know and then sort of smile, but not all the way. I feel him looking at me out the corner of my eye, but when I look back, he turns his head to the TV and asks can he turn something on. It’s broke, I say. Do the boys at school tell you you’re pretty, he asks. I think bout the boys at school for a while. I imagine them telling me how pretty I am. I think bout what it would sound like coming from their squeaky voices. Yes, I say. Good, he says, that’s good. A little grin slides onto his face. And that hair, he says, beautiful hair.
The wind picks up outside and howls from behind the house. The dog barks and I think bout Carla running round in circles and laughing. That’s a nice smile, he says. How do you know Momma, I ask. Well, I guess I just met her tonight, he says, but I’ve heard about her. His voice starts to sink, deeper and darker, but still quiet. He rubs his hands on his lap, slow and hard, both hands, in long strides. He keeps looking at me and I think for some reason bout the shriveled little thumb penises the boys on the school bus showed me and Carla last year. I think how funny looking they were and how proud the boys were to show them.
He starts to say something, do you mind if I, but stops. He slides the zipper down on his pants and reaches his hand through the hole. Do you mind if I, he says again. Without thinking much I say, I don’t mind, even though I don’t exactly know what I’m minding or not. A long, skinny version of what I saw on the bus shoots out his pants and I almost laugh but don’t. I imagine it coming out the pants of one of them boys on the bus. I imagine Carla saying something funny like she always does, maybe something bout one of those dog bones in the backyard. I try not to look at him, but something bout it makes me keep staring. It’s like one of them people with the splotches of purple skin that Gram said I shouldn’t stare at, even though I aint trying to be mean or nothing. Will you watch, he says like he’s whispering a secret. I look round the room for a second and try to keep from laughing when I think bout Carla making a joke bout hotdogs or those bananas at the grocery. I watch his hand go up and down. Even though the rest of his body aint moving, I get the feeling every part wants to get out of those clothes just as bad.
So, you just gonna keep doing this till Momma gets back, I ask. He starts breathing real heavy and asks, will you touch it? Ew, I say, I aint touching that. He pants a little harder, Touch it, he says, touch it, Marguerite. My hands get sweatier and the light from the kitchen starts to dim and the dark from the hallway, from under the couch, from the corners starts to move in. I clench my hand under the blanket and pretend Carla’s squeezing back. I don’t wanna, I say. His eyes shrink down more, looking now like little black dots on a bright, empty moon-face. His mouth hangs open and I see his tongue moving against the back of his teeth. Just tell me you want to, he says. I think bout Momma’s sad eyes, that heavy new sad I aint seen before tonight. Fine, I say, I want to. I lift my legs under the blanket and curl my toes in tight. You want to what, he asks. I don’t look at him anymore. My throat tightens up and I feel my skin shivering and sweating under my clothes. I want to touch it, I say. Out the corner of my eye I see him smiling, all his teeth showing, even the bottom ones. He licks his lips and says, again. I look across at the TV and try to imagine me and Carla’s feet kicking round on the screen. I want to touch it, I say. I stare hard at the black glass and say it again, I want to touch it. I hold my breath and close my eyes till he makes this long, winding squeal like a kitten spilling stray from its momma’s belly and he starts breathing slow and loud. Then I somehow know it’s over.
I’m sorry, he says. I open my eyes and look over at him, but he won’t look back. He shuffles round with his pants, zipping up and fixing his belt. I’m sorry, he says again, Tell your mother I’ll see her another time. He stands quickly and starts toward the door. Wait, I say, you can’t leave. He stops and turns to me, I’m sorry, he says. No, please don’t go, I say, you don’t understand, you can’t leave. His eyes are wider now and I see inside them that same look Gram tries hiding whenever she’s bout to leave me and Carla again. He puts his hand on the knob and I yell, no, please don’t, you can’t! I crawl off the couch toward the door, my knees burning red against the carpet as they slide. You don’t understand! You can’t go! I’ll, I’ll—no! But he’s already gone. The slam of the door echoes in the room, gets quieter, then fades away.
It’s an hour before Momma and Carla get home. All the while I sit on the same couch wrapped up in the same blanket looking at the light from the kitchen falling onto the ugly carpet in front of the door. Every so often I wonder if it might be warmer in that light. For some reason my mind keeps turning me back to a night just last spring when Momma and me and Carla were getting ready for a church supper, an important one I guess cause we spent all day doing it. Momma with her hair all done up, sprayed tight on top and falling in a million wavy strands down the back of her neck, looking perfectly skinny in a brown dress held up by little shoulder straps. All three of us in new dresses sneaking smiles at each other. I tried ignoring the grimy patch on the back of mine that I couldn’t scratch out, but I didn’t much care cause it fit just right. And even Carla’s fit pretty well, all swirling pastels, bunching round the waist like she was spring itself. Ah, and that light blue of my dress you wouldn’t believe, like the sky on the brightest day in winter, snug round my chest and draping all down the way them waterfalls do on that billboard cross town. I could hardly yank myself from the mirror when Carla wanted a look. The three of us, all trading places in the bathroom curling our hair hot with the iron, picking at threads and dabbing on blush till every one of us was as pretty as we could ever be and maybe more. And I keep hearing Momma tell me, you got the hair of an angel herself, darling, an angel herself.
I feel my toes curl back in when the knob spins and clicks open the door. Well, where is he, Momma says. Is he in the bedroom? She lets the door close on Carla who even though she gets knocked back, don’t stop staring wide-eyed, peeking underneath the lip of the bandage she’s holding up with two little fingers, smiling a bit. Oh no Marguerite, oh no. You have got to be kidding me. Don’t you tell me he aint here. Don’t you dare tell me you let that man leave. Carla turns her head to me, her fingers still poking under the white bandage, and looks at me like she’s waiting for some kind a answer, her mouth open wide as her eyes.
I’m sorry, Momma, I squeak. He said he’ll see you again sometime, I say, even though I know it don’t make no difference now. I sit up straight and grip my body tight with my hands holding up my weight on both sides. I brace myself. What am I supposed to do now, Momma says. She takes one big step toward me, like she tripped, but her back leg lags behind like it had different plans. Her shoulders go limp and her face sags till she’s staring down at the floor. The light from the kitchen ripples in the tiny waves that fill her eyes. What am I supposed to do now, she says. Her voice feels hollow, like the words don’t mean nothing at all. Look what you did, she says. And before I can think bout it I say, I didn’t do nothing. It comes out louder than I expect. I tried to keep him stay, I yell, but he just left and how was I suppose to do something? My breathing gets real quick and I can just about feel Momma slapping me right cross the face. But she don’t. She don’t even look at me. She just bends in half and leans on the back of the chair with her hands in her hair, her fingers winding their way round different strands, pulling and tangling. Me and Carla we look at each other, just waiting to see what Momma’s gonna do.
I can’t do it, she says into the couch, I can’t do it alone like this. She rolls her head back and forth in her hands. I can’t. I aint got no money, she says. She lifts her head and rests it on top of the chair, squatting behind it. Momma’s eyes are full of tears, but none of them fall, not even one. You girls look at me, she says standing up. She yells, I said look at me! But I don’t do it. I can’t do it, and for some reason I know Carla aint looking either. Momma walks into the kitchen and runs the water for second. I take a big long breath before she comes back in, slouching a little and staring out at the window. I look round at Carla, at Momma, and think bout us all being the same height some day. I see Carla looking round like maybe she’s thinking the same thing. Goddamnit, Momma says. She stands and walks up to the little mirror that hangs in the hallway. Oh, Christ, she says. She wipes her hands under her eyes and fixes her hair till it looks real good. Once she turns round, she takes a big breath and says, go to bed, girls. Then she walks out the door.
When we in bed looking at the inside of our eyelids, Carla rolls over and says, what happened with that man tonight. I keep my eyes closed and say, what makes you think something happened. I don’t know, she says, I was just wondering. I think bout Momma smoking cigarettes on the back porch all those times, just sitting there shaking her head, and I say, nothing happened, he just left. She rolls back over and says, oh. For a while I think bout girls turning into women and boys growing on up into men. Do they just see the change real clear one day? I think bout all the different versions of Momma I never knew. Like the one in this picture that used to sit on a shelf in the hallway but don’t now and when I asked why, Momma said cause that aint her no more. She was nine or maybe my age and just standing there smiling, holding her doll by her hair. The last time Gram came round she said that’s when your Momma was a little girl and I remember looking over at Momma and trying to figure out if Gram was lying cause they didn’t look nothing alike. And then Gram said, that was before all this, but I didn’t say nothing cause I knew she wasn’t talking to me.
In the howling wind I think I hear Momma swinging her doll round, whispering to me in the dark. Carla, I say. Carla, you wake? She rolls over real quick like there’s some kinda surprise waiting, all happy and wide-eyed. Do them day ghosts come out at night, I ask her. She thinks bout it a while and I say, well do they, just in case she fell asleep. She says, no but there’s these night ghosts that aint scary like the tricker treat ghosts neither and they dance up there at night to help God sleep. God don’t sleep I tell her but she says, yes he do, and so we get out of bed and I tell her to put on a coat cause even in the summer it gets kinda cold at night.
How you supposed to know where to see them I ask her, and she says she can feel them coming and then she points up over the trees at the back of the lawn and says, Look. And then I see them dancing with their long grey tails swaying round real slow. I catch their rhythm and start swaying back and forth, all the way from the backs of my heels to the tips of my toes. I ask her if that’s them. Is that them, I say again. But before she answers the first drops of rain plop on my forehead. That was them, she says, but they aint gonna dance no more on the count of the rain. Don’t God need them to help him sleep, I say, and she whips her face round to me, all smiles, and nods. So we start spinning round in circles all over the backyard, flailing like streamers in the wind, like we aint never danced before in our whole lives.
About the Artist
Tess Vinnedge, Bennington College
Tess Vinnedge graduated from Bennington College in 2009 and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.