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tana young

New Fiction


by Tana G. Young

                                          Heaven was pitiless … Earth was pitiless … War was everywhere
                                                                                                                                                  —Ts'ai Yen

      There wasn't a time when she didn't believe that the boys were quicker, their supple flesh more beautiful, and their cologne more tantalizing when mixed with sweat. In the damp spring forest, and later in Eugene's basement, holding at the periphery, her hair hanging in her eyes, she laughed her fool head off at their antics. Hell, she'd have drunk their aftershave. Eugene was the big black kid with uneven skin. Kevin was skinny and pale with a ghost of a mustache forming, a cigarette dangling from his thin lips. The scrawny blonde guy with crooked teeth and squinty eyes was Donny. He practically lived next door. He did awful things to cats with wire coat hangers. He and she danced at all the sock hops together. Donny would do anything she asked but it didn't matter to her because she loved Kevin.
      When she and Donny walked home that night, she declared to no one in particular, "My parents will never trust me again!" She meant to be dramatic, but it came out as a declaration of fact.
      Donny ambled along beside her, his hands in his pockets. "Why not?"
      She wasn't used to anyone paying attention to what she said. She felt stupid for saying it, had meant only to break the silence as they crunched through the snow. Donny wrecked it by saying something racial, something about spooks. He was jealous of Eugene, who was bigger, stronger and faster. Next to a guy like Eugene, Donny was white trash. The only reason she hadn't danced with Eugene was because he was black. It was against the rules, even if it wasn't posted on a sign or anything.
      Tony was a quiet Latino kid who got straight "A's" in school. He and Starla were going steady. Starla was supposed to be her best friend, but most of the time, she wasn't. They weren't the only two girls in Eugene's basement. Sylvia and Melody each leaned a hip against the wall. If Barb had been there, a cigarette between her painted fingernails, her huge boobs pressing against the front of her shirt, the boys would've sent the other girls packing and no one, especially not Kevin, would've noticed they were missing. Barb knew this. That's why she preyed on the weaker girls. At Nel's slumber party, she hovered over the top of her and screamed insults as she kicked straight into her ribs.
      "You'll never have Anything!"
      The anything Barb referred to were the blank places on her chest where breasts should've been, but weren't. She lay motionless on her sleeping bag, her face hidden in her arms, feigning sleep, or death, too humiliated and scared to fight back. Even if she hoped for help, it wouldn't come, same as always. What Barb said was true. She was flat chested and everybody knew it. Barb was popular and she wasn't.
      "You're flat as a pancake …"
      "So flat you look like a skateboard."
      "You're a pirate's dream, a sunken chest."
      "You're flat as a board."
      "Flat as a brick."
      "You're flat as the wall."
      She'd read in her father's Argosy magazine that it was best to play dead when a shark had you in its teeth. Eventually, the writers promised, the predator would loosen its grip and that's when you had a chance to swim to safety. She hadn't figured out how to get Barb to lose interest, how to hold her breath long enough, how to swim in deep water, to make it to shore, or even where the shore was. Mostly, she hadn't figured out how to grow breasts, though she bought all the creams advertised in the back of True Confession magazine. Nothing helped. Melody gave her a padded bra that she wore every day until it turned dingy and grey. At night, she washed it in the bathroom sink and dried it in her closet, in secret. Once it was discovered, the teasing didn't stop. Her father mentioned the tell-tale strap across her back and made jokes about it in front of everyone.
      In Nel's basement, she wondered if Barb would ever stop kicking her. Finally Nel ran upstairs to get her mother. Barb beat up girls practically every day. She trapped them by the railroad tracks right after school. Fights always drew a crowd. That day, Barb grabbed the waistband of the girl's underwear. The elastic band stretched farther and farther as the girl scrambled up the rock embankment to get away. This made everyone laugh. They hated that girl for crying.
      She made a wide arc around the edge of them, clung to the left hand side of the road, staying behind their backs. She slipped into the library and when the door closed behind her she began to breathe again. She headed toward the back, to a table hidden among the shelves. She pulled down a book, The Addams Family, and looked at the cartoons for awhile. It made her feel better. Her mind raced and then she couldn't understand words. She flipped quickly through the pictures and then pulled down another book from the shelves. This one was about Jacqueline Kennedy, whose face was on the cover of every magazine. She stared at a picture of the First Lady, in her black veil, coming down the steps of the Capital Building, holding her two small children by the hand. Mrs. Kennedy was the most beautiful woman she'd ever seen. She decided to be a Catholic. She asked Rhonda Stoutamire, the only Catholic she knew, about going to church. Then she asked her about Jean Dixon, who could tell the future.
      "Catholics don't believe in Jean Dixon," Rhonda said.
      "Why not? She's Catholic!"
      Rhonda shrugged. "I don't know, my mom says she's not a real one."
      "My dad says she is."
      "Well, she's not!"
      Rhonda's mother didn't like her parents very much. Just the same, she always invited her to eat dinner and sleep over. Mrs. Stoutamire washed four daughters' heads in the kitchen sink, and she also washed the girl's hair. She rolled everyone's hair in pink sponge rollers and sent them all to bed. She'd slipped out of the house with her mother's black lace mantilla, the one from Spain. Her mother hadn't even noticed she was gone, and hadn't heard her say she'd spend the night at Rhonda's, that they'd be at church in the morning. She and Rhonda walked to the base chapel for the Catholic service. They went directly up to the balcony. She wanted to see everything, but from a distance. Then she wanted to come down the steps, just like Jackie Kennedy. When Rhonda put the lace doily on her head, she draped the black mantilla over hers and pulled on her Easter gloves. The other girls peered sideways at her. She made the sign of the cross when they did, mumbled hail Mary's, kneeled and rose again. The priest talked for a long time.
       She was surprised to have been invited to Nel's party. The other girls hated her. She knew this because they told her, or they wrote it in the slam books that circulated the halls of Taylor Junior High. She read the pages with her name at the top, the anonymous comments scrawled below:
      #26 "Ugly!"
      #4 "Stoopid and she stinks."
      #16 "Who?"
      #18 "What a shit-ass!"
      At the party the other girls hated her because she wouldn't fight Barb. She hadn't cried or moved when Barb started kicking her. Usually, she traded on their pity. Friendship was completely out of the question. She understood this. When Barb thrashed her, she'd waited her out, though it made her seem like a coward. No one in their right mind would fight Barb. Who wanted to get killed?
      The basement went quiet again. The girls sprawled on their sleeping bags. They liked to play the tickle game, to trail their fingers over each other's bare backs. They played this game at slumber parties because no boys were around. Debbie offered to tickle her back. Maybe she felt sorry for her. She and Debbie were a lot alike. Debbie wore thick glasses and her two front teeth were huge, like Chicklets. Everyone hated Debbie too.
      Anyways, she was too self-conscious to take off her shirt in front of anyone because she still wore a cotton t-shirt with a pink bow at the neck, so she kept it pressed to her front as Debbie traced her fingers lightly along her back. She shuddered involuntarily when the stroking strayed too far. Barb, now satisfied, strutted around the basement with her chest bared. No one said anything. What could they say? They were in awe. She had the biggest boobs.
      All the boys were in love with Barb. She was the sexiest girl that they'd ever seen or ever would see. Kevin swore up and down that she was more beautiful than Theresa. All the 6th grade girls disagreed. Theresa was tall. Barb was short and kind of thick. Theresa had long brown hair. Barb's blonde hair was chopped at the chin. Theresa had one small scar next to her lip from a fall in 3rd grade. Barb's face was pretty. Her lips and cheeks were bright. Barb had clear blue eyes and freckles. Barb had giant boobs. Barb won.
      Barb's dad ran the motor pool. He liked his daughter, a lot. Mr. Nystrom, their history teacher, who read Playboy magazine behind his history book, called Barb up to his desk every single day. They talked for a long time. Sometimes they talked in the hall. In fourth grade Barb had been just like the other girls. In fact she and Barb had matching pink stretch pants and turtle neck shirts with pink snowflakes. They liked to wear them on the exact same day. They'd sit together in their matching outfits, eat their lunch together, and draw pictures of boys. Something happened after fourth grade. Well, Barb got giant boobs, for one. She'd have thought that having a dream bod would've made Barb lots nicer, but it didn't.

                                                                                           * * *

      Her hair hung in greasy clumps around her neck and face. She hid a broken front tooth behind thin lips, which she kept clamped shut. She'd stopped smiling altogether. She reminded herself constantly not to grin as if she had something to grin about. She hated her smile and her face. Ever since she'd tripped chasing a frisbee and had chipped her front tooth, she'd hated her smile. That was four years ago. She didn't remember what she looked like before that.
      She pressed frosted pink lipstick to her mouth carefully as she watched the mirror.
      Sandy said, "When you wear makeup you look pretty."
      Sandy had a weak chin but she had huge boobs too, so it didn't matter. Sandy's father touched her sometimes too. Sandy yelled at her worried mother who was beet red from working at the laundry in the hospital. She looked tired. Her neck hung in wrinkles beneath her heavy jowls. She was missing some of her back teeth. Sandy had four younger sisters and brothers. They were from the south somewhere.
      "I'm fixin' to call the police if he does it again!" Sandy said, matter-of-factly.
      "If you wear make-up, boys will like you." Sandy said to her, all friendly like.
      She just stared at her lips, frosted shut, and at her lashes clumped with mascara. She didn't have boobs, didn't wear a bra. She shrugged.
      At Melody's house, she tried out her new electric razor. Her mother wouldn't let her shave her legs yet because whenever she used the razor on the edge of the bathtub, she gouged her ankles and knees, and then she bled and bled.

                                                                                           * * *

      In winter, when the temperature was 60 degrees below zero, ice fog hung in the air obscuring their sight, crystalizing the snot in their noses and threatening to freeze their lungs, they hung out in the basketball games or at the Teen Club, putting quarters in the juke box. They listened to Stevie Wonder sing, "For once in my life, I won't let sorrow hurt me, not like it's hurt me before …."
      Alaska's music came with the melting snow and a sky marred by unearthly whips of light. Instinctively they turned their faces into the wind, sniffed the animal scents of spring thaw from hundreds of miles across Canadian tundra — earthen vapor, fresh spoors. Somewhere, land had reawakened, and its smell was carried over the frozen terrain, intoxicating them on arrival. They felt the rushing of water under ice, it's surface creaking beneath the soles of their boots. Long before the unstoppable Alaskan sun hung suspended in the summer sky, they smelled spring and were driven insane by the scent.
      The dark and light of the Arctic sky holds dramatic losses and gains from winter to summer. The advance of spring meant the advance of light. In astronomical twilight the center of the sun hung just below the horizon. The sky was dark enough to see stars with the naked eye, even in the absence of moonlight. In the early morning twilight, it was easy to slip in and out of the basement window. The middle of the night would not come in summer. It would be light for months.
      The most risky time was Nautical twilight. The air police heightened security during those hours but they never came down to the reservoir unless someone drowned. Usually, the APs stayed at the opposite side of the base, near the flight line. The military did not routinely care where its children were.
      They cared about the status of their equipment more than the whereabouts of dependents. She roamed freely. The wildness of spring drew them all outside again. They snuck out of bedroom windows, slipped out back doors, slid through screens, and made their way to the reservoir with their cigarettes in their pockets. They wandered along the edge of the water on that dirt road, lighting their cigarettes on each other's.
      That arctic spring came upon them, palpable and strong. Spring had galloped across the tundra.They were feverish and inconsolable with some new sickness. The boys slid farther out on the creaking ice than the girls thought possible. Laugh? They couldn't keep from crowing. Kevin yelled obscenities and they echoed his refrain, like coyotes or wolves, in unison, their call and response to each other: fuckin 'A' and shit clicked and tumbled from their mouths, like dice. Out there, she wasn't afraid of anything or anyone.
      At school she hid in sullenness. The more afraid she was, the more she pretended not to be. They were punished for lingering too long in the locker room. Out on the gym floor, she ran with the others, clapping in unison and singing at the top of her lungs. She ran the circumference of the gym several times as Miss Hyde's whistle trilled.
      "Stop singing!"
      She sang louder, "Crystal blue per-sua-sion."
      "Stop singing!"
      As punishment, Miss Hyde ordered her to climb the ropes. She climbed to the top, touched the beam and held there, refusing to come down. Miss Hyde called them ill-intentioned little snots, disobedient, liars and thieves, all. There was no use denying it, though they would have, their eyes open wide with insolence and mocking.
      "Prove it." they'd say. Then they'd laugh and shrug, and walk away, tittering to each other and glancing over their shoulders.
      After school, in the locker room of the Baker Field House, she stole whatever was left unguarded:
pocket change, watches, mascara, just as she stole money from the school store during basketball games, spare change that she promptly gave away. She stole Bonnie Bell cosmetics from the base exchange, where her mother worked, while she was waiting for her to come out of the back room. Her friends only stole from the merchants downtown. They were all in love with stuff, its animus their personal talisman, proof of their inordinate cleverness, not their powerlessness or misery. Like the sun, they were unstoppable.
      Her friends jacked her clothes, forcing her to hunt them down before her mother discovered they were gone. They lifted amplifier cords from the music store, days-of-the-week bikini underwear from JC Penny's, and jewelry from Newberry's. They slid everything into the ample pockets of their kuspuks. Her midnight blue epicluk was festooned with silver rick-rack. She hid everything in it. She was wretched and sniveling when caught, though she didn't get caught often.
      In fact, there was no stopping any of them. In fourth grade they'd held hands on the playground, had sung love, love me do. Now they were a law unto themselves. Now the adults were powerless. She stopped looking to them to tell her the truth, and she certainly never shared it with them.
      For most of her life, she'd been an unbroken expanse with no discernible borders.Somehow she'd lost the coordinates and wandered into strange territory. She wondered how to get back to the other side. She hadn't stopped riding her Huffy banana seat bicycle around and around the block. She hadn't stopped picking and eating wild blueberries by the handfuls. She hadn't stopped hoping to catch elves or sprites, hadn't stopped digging in the dirt. She lived in the stories she read at the back of the library, didn't know she was lonely and afraid. Inside her head words formed that belonged to someone else. Everything she now owned was stolen from someone else.
      She thought about how she and Starla had poured liquor down that kid's throat and how they'd swung him around by his fat ankles. They never talked about it, not once. She saw that kid's terrified face in her sleep. She never felt bad about stealing stuff, not exactly. She feared getting caught. Taking stuff was almost out of her control, like a confession written on endless pages of notebook paper, scribbled again and again, far into the night. That's when she was babysitting. Every damned day she babysat somebody's kid. She'd lifted $200 from a cardboard box on top of a refrigerator out at the trailer park. The woman was a prostitute. For days, she waited for the phone to ring, for the woman to demand her money back, to threaten to tell her father, but she never did. She never said a word. After that, the girl stole from everyone. Whatever was there for the taking, she took it.

                                                                                           * * *

      Her flesh refused to grow breasts. She knew how women looked. She had not seriously considered the possibility that she would ever become one. Until third grade, she'd simply accepted herself as she was. She saw magazine pictures. She understood what she was supposed to be. Now, warm blood soaked through the crotch of her cotton underwear, sticky on her thighs, darkening the inseam of her jeans. It had come unexpectedly, as she and Kevin walked along that dirt road, smoking. Everyone liked Kevin even though he'd shaved his head and looked kind of weird. She loved him. A pickup truck drove by. Someone shouted hoots from an open window. She pulled her jeans higher on her waist, a flip-off they would not get. Kevin grinned and took her hand.

                                                                                           * * *

      In Mr. Berry's 7th grade art class she drew the skeleton hanging on a metal stand. She focused on the small bones that made up the fingers and the thumb. She fingered the identical configuration of carpal bones, her own wrist and fingers under the skin of her left hand as she memorized the names of bones for the quiz: pisiform, triquetrum, lunate, and scaphoid, at the upper end of the wrist, connecting the ligaments and the lower arm bones. The hamate, capitate, trapezoid, and trapezium made up the lower side of the hand. She whispered to herself: "metacarpals are the first joint of the fingers. At the end is the distal phalange; the middle one is the middle phalange." Easy. Her body held an identical set of bones inside as the one hanging at the front of the classroom.
      Suddenly she knew she would die. The evidence was irrefutable, a hand-delivered letter addressed just to her. Her skin would rot off her bones, become bleached and pitted by prolonged exposure to the sun. Perhaps she would hang from a metal stand in front of some classroom. She tumbled from her heaven and nothing slowed the descent. Like the rest, she'd developed predatory impulses.They'd all become animals.
      Later, dangling from the swings on the frozen playground, she, Debbie and Margaret talked about slam books.
      "Everyone really hates you, Margaret, they don't write it down because your dad is the principal." Margaret ran home, crying.
      Debbie said, "We had to tell her the truth."
      They'd told her out of meanness. It wasn't even true. They got up from the swings slowly and followed her. They knocked at her back door and Margaret's older sister opened it. They trekked through the kitchen and living room, endured Ernest Line's narrowed, disapproving eyes from behind his newspaper as they trudged up the stairs to Margaret's bedroom.
      "I'm sorry, Margaret. Everyone hates me too," she said.

                                                                                           * * *

      A letter from Mr. Line had summoned them to the school gym in the middle of summer. They'd stood awkwardly in their bright tennis shoes, shorts and ruffled tops. One group, he said, would go to Taylor Junior High for sixth grade and the other group would remain at Penell for another year. Mr. Line had decided their fate. She could hardly believe it when her name was called. She was going to junior high!
      "Me, yes, me! I get to go!" She could not believe her luck.
      Mr. Line lectured them sternly not to think too highly of themselves. They nodded solemnly. None of them understood what he meant. They were only fifth graders. Most had never been chosen for anything. They leapt like lemmings.

                                                                                           * * *

      When her turn came, she plunged into the deep end, fascinated by the tick marks sliding past her slowly as she sank to the bottom. She didn't thrash about helplessly. She simply disappeared. Others hadn't drowned so effortlessly. Linda Lovelace climbed the ladder, became mesmerized by the height, and stood staring down at the water below. Then she shrank back from the edge.
      Someone yelled, "There's only one way down, Linda!"
      She fell and landed against the concrete edge, lay half in and out of the water, her blood lapped gently at the drain. A gash in the shape of a butterfly exposed a hollow interior at the side of her head.

                                                                                           * * *

      In that Alaskan spring, she spewed cuss words into the night. She wanted to twine her fingers with Kevin's, sit beside him in the darkened theater balcony, like he did with Starla, Melody, Sylvia and Barb, his other hand slipping inside her shirt, sliding to where her breasts should have been, but weren't. She wanted to breathe the High Karate of his neck.

Tana Young holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the Inland NW Center for Writers at EWU. Her previously published stories are companionate pieces to this particular work. They are as follows: "The Autism of Shame," in Southloop Review, and "These Familiar Carvings," in Waccamaw Literary Journal. Her poetry publications include: "Getting Out," in Hawai'i Review, and "Post Secret," in Rock & Sling, "I've Settled Somewhere," in Weyfarer 113, and "Changing Careers," in Shark Reef.

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