We become part of the landscape that sputters down to the creek’s edge. There are little, muted gray mud towers made by crayfish, yes, and we are so close to the trailer that you can smell a layer of it. Rot and ashes from all of us kids who meet up some nights to start fires. Things like that.
So Karla tells me she smokes a little. I say, Big f’ing deal, and this makes her smile. I love anyone that can smile, that can really smile. She is one of those people you circle more than once in your yearbook. And if I did, I’d make sure I wouldn’t touch her face at all. Not for all the tea in China. That is one of my mother’s favorite sayings. Mostly when she is tickled.
Looking at Karla makes me want to laugh out loud.
So what happened to your brother’s lip? she has to say.
It isn’t dark outside yet, but it is getting dark. I immediately slip the dime bag back into my pants. It feels like a tiny penis against my crotch. Not too far away are branches being twisted. If it wasn’t so warm, I’d mention it sounded like ice breaking, snapping from long, spidery cracks. Glazed.
He’s not my brother, I say finally. Not really, you know.
Oh? She looks up, as if the sky is suddenly the most interesting thing in the world.
If he was, I say, he wouldn’t have that thing. I point to my mouth. It’s godawful, isn’t it?
You guys look a lot alike, no offense. Not the hair lip part, of course.
Thanks, I say.
If she wasn’t so pretty, I would have tried to kiss her then. I would have tried to do more. It was a stupid thing for her to say, yes, but I know a part of me makes her nervous. So I watch her mouth so she will watch mine.
I want to tell her we’re the ones who are a lot alike. She and I, like we’re part of the same flower. She is the colorful part, petaled. The part someone would sink their nose into and just smell and smell.
Anyone can see I am more like the stalk, barely bending. Little translucent hairs running down the length of me. I don’t shave my legs, which helps in the comparison.
He’s not really my brother, I say.
You said that already.
Well, I mean it.
Yes, I lie. We just live in the same house.
Oh, she says.
Tell me about it, I say. Can you even imagine having to look at that everyday?
No, she adds. I really can’t.
Just to piss Percival off, I tell him she has a pet name. We’re at the dinner table, and he’s upset because I’ve let the big spoon slip under the surface of macaroni and cheese. Mom pops his hand when he digs into the casserole dish for it. Well, I saw her first, he tries to say, but he does so too quickly.
That lip of his, I swear.
Mom shushes us both as she stares into the other room. Her hands are like little birds. Finches, maybe. I can hear the TV going on about something and Mom starts clapping. Like the program is talking to her, like it’s telling her to clap her hands at it, and, instead, she takes two little finches and slams them against each other. Percival waits, then sneaks again those dirty fingers of his. They disappear under a sheet of guts. Orange noodles, I mean. They disappear under the sheet of orange noodles.
He had helped Karla’s father carry in a hideaway couch. Then a six-piece dining room set. Even from a distance, with its flaking, you could tell the furniture had been painted over white more than once. Karla’s family was cleaning out the storage shed that held the last of the big items. They were going to stay after all.
Why didn’t you help us today? Percival says.
My mover’s uniform is dirty, I say.
Yeah, right, he says, but it doesn’t come out clear enough for the sarcasm to stick.
It’s true, I say.
You know we saw you two go into the woods.
Her dad was pissed. He tries to say pissed, but it comes out sounding like fist.
I shrug. I tell him while he was busy jerking off her dad, someone had to keep Venus happy.
Yeah, right, he says again.
I’m serious, I say. I grab handfuls of air in front of me and thrust my hips. The chair starts scooting back and forth. The thin, metal legs get a steady rink-rink-rink sound going.
Oh, yeah, he says, trying to smirk. Like you got a thick.
It is thick. It was, I mean.
Right, he says.
I lost it in the war.
The war, I say. I lost it in the war.
What are you talking about?
Between the sexes, I say.
Just then, Mom laughs. There’s no way she’s listening to us.
Fucking dyke, he whispers.
I grab my upper lip and lift it some.
He holds out two fingers to me and shakes them. They’re still coated with grease. I can see again the dark remnants under his shredded nails. We are staring down one another, and he makes a gesture I’ve seen our father make before. It means, You and me, we know what’s going on, don’t we? No one else does, but we know, and that’s all that matters.
The curtain spreads above Percival’s purpled gums. It is the closest thing he can muster to a smile. Between those two nubs that are his fingers, a tiny pink slug inches forward until it caresses one of the knuckles. It leaves a glistening trail.
I’m not a dyke, I say.
Yeah, yeah, he says, but it sounds more like blah, blah.
Mom turns around just in time and swats at him. Percival Pearl, she says, still swatting, as if annoyed this body actually answers to the godawful name she gave it. Then she stares at me.
Some people hate commercials, but I love them. I love what little time they give our mother back to us.
What’s wrong, my little girl? she says.
Everything. I want to say this, but I don’t. I just look at her and smile.
After a minute, though, she returns to her clapping, crushing together those birds again, and that’s it for her.
Maybe I hold their hands, I say, whispering now.
What? he says, looking up from the slop he’s made.
I want only to admit it to the pink slug. I lean close and search his mouth, staring. I want to say what I have to say to this tongue that is not a tongue. But it is a sneaky little peek-a-boo. It shifts its body.
It looks like my father does sometimes, when I find him in the garage tinkering, with the radio tuned to something stupid. He would tell me to close the door behind me. Trying to dance with wrenches in his hands, he would also be smiling. All gums, but nothing like Percival’s. My father’s eyes would be closed, his arms held out like he is romancing Mom again. Only, I know it isn’t Mom.
You know you don’t just hold their hands, Percival says.
Just hands, I say and nod. I blink slowly.
So you’ve already forgotten about Louise, yeah? His pronunciation is suddenly flawless. Louise Brock was the girl who used to live on the other side of us. She was two years older than me, and she had long legs.
So I kissed her feet, I say. Big deal. What was I supposed to do? They were in my face.
That wasn’t all you kissed, he says.
Whisker biscuit, he whispers.
Fuck you, and the horse you rode in on, I say.
Pink taco, he whispers again. A macaroni noodle slips out from between his teeth. He sucks it back in.
Yeah, just like your mouth, I say. This time, I’m the only one smiling. And, I should add, I’m doing it right, the way a real smile should look. He could say whatever he wanted, but Percival’s upper lip looked like a snatch if I’d ever seen one. I tell him that. A fucked-up snatch, I add.
We are quiet for the rest of the meal. Everything tastes dry, especially the pork chop, and I think about asking Percival for the Vaseline he’s forever putting on his lips.
The next day is Sunday, and my family is getting ready to leave. Percival insists that I’m faking it. He knows I don’t believe in Baby Jesus, and he blames our father for it. After Mom swats at him again, she comes closer to hug me. She asks if I’ve started. I whisper back, and she nods before nearly shoving Percival into the other room. Her timing is off, but I still love her.
She then hustles back in to where I’m laying and sits next to me on the bed and rubs my head with her damp, cushiony fingers. But the numerous rings she insists on wearing to church are hard as they roll across my cheek. Mom’s love has always been like that—even her best intentions leave you hurt.
You want me to go to the store and get you something? she says, looking up at the ceiling. It’s a wide screen gone blank. I’ve stared at it myself, imagining my life to flicker on suddenly.
I don’t care what kind you get, I say.
I just don’t want to look like I’m straddling anything.
Shoot, she says, laughing.
With this, she stands and straightens her yellow dress. She has a thick body, like a man’s body, and her hands do more work than simply smoothing downward in one curving motion. There are valleys and peaks to her. The print is of tiny orange flowers, thousands of them, it seems. The picture of some hillside you might find framed in a dentist’s waiting room.
This morning the air around the trailer smells like wet bread. It has rained, and the remnants of ashes have long since mixed with the weeds and the gray clay. Karla stands in the open doorway and motions at me with only a finger. I pull myself up through where the trailer’s steps had once been. I find her having taken only a few steps back. That’s when I swear we share a gaze.
She is wearing jeans and a tight T-shirt with a huge silver shooting star on the chest. I have on a pair of baggy camouflage pants and one of Percival’s Tony Stewart sweatshirts. I don’t why I start talking, but I do. I tell her about last night at dinner, about calling her Venus. How if she starts at our junior high this year, I won’t circle her picture. Just because. I also mention my brother really likes her. I’m not a complete ass.
She doesn’t smile at any of this.
So I tell her about fooling Mom so I can be here. I explain to her how my mother will go to a store after church and have to buy her little girl something after all. I tell her I don’t know when I will start, if I ever will. I tell her sometimes I feel broken for not having started by now.
You know something, she says.
You have a nice mouth.
I tell her what I called Percival’s mouth. She doesn’t laugh. When I say it again and she really doesn’t laugh, I tell her what I think are my mother’s favorite programs on the TV. I ask her if she has ever seen any of them.
I bet that mouth would feel nice, she says.
Yuck, I say.
Not his, she says and puts her hands on my shoulders.
Oh, I say.
It’s like I’ve started kneeling in front of a door, trying to guide a key into its lock. I eye it. There is the zipper sticking and then unsticking. I feel a little like Mom wanting to talk to the TV, wanting it to say something back. Except when I glance up, it’s Karla smiling and saying, Go on. I watch her jeans sliding slowly down.
Go on, she says again, but I don’t. I can’t.
Instead, I stare only at the beginning of the brace, its odd contraption of leather and metal strapped to her thigh. I follow to where her leg ends just below the knee, cupped in its holster. Like the fake part is a waffle cone and the part where her leg starts are perfectly-piled scoops of ice cream.
Me and my big mouth. I want to say this.
It’s okay, she says.
Yeah, I say. I glance at the leg and then up at her again.
It’s really okay, she says.
As she snaps her jeans, the tiny popping sound startles me. You’re so funny, she says, but I know she means I’m not funny at all. I feel like I’m at the other end of the trailer when she says this. When she takes steps toward me now, I still don’t see it hiding underneath the jeans. I just feel so stupid. With every step she takes, I feel stupid. How could I have not seen it? It’s plain as day.
Let’s start over, she says.
Yeah, she says, like it’s last week, and we’ve just met.
I don’t know, I say.
Sure, she says. You can tell me about the creek and this trailer you know that’s in the woods. And we can find it again. Only now we’re standing inside it for the first time.
I bend down and run my hand over the buckled flooring. I can smell the ash. Some of the light from outside has found its way inside, and I can even make out, in the far corner, a hornets’ nest the size of a basketball. It hangs above the sink, its gray, papery sides unraveling.
Okay, I say, let’s start over.
You really want to? That sounds so good to me.
I won’t tell you my brother likes you, okay?
Okay, she says, and I won’t ask about your father, even though I know you’d be dying to tell me, wouldn’t you?
Don’t you want to tell me what it’s like?
Tell you what? I say. It’s like she doesn’t hear me at all.
If you do, she says, laughing, then I’ll tell you about my leg. I’ll mention it from the get go. Isn’t that a fair trade?
I don’t say anything, but she’s right. I want to say something back to her. I want her to know. I want her to look at me for real and stare into me like I have every bit of her attention.
I want to tell her that sometimes I wish I had Percival’s mouth. That if I had Percival’s mouth, I wouldn’t be here, and she would know what I meant by that.
So we’re starting over? she says.
I still don’t say anything. I just press my lips together.
Little girl, she says. Little girl?