Joyland

PNW |

Last to Know

by Kristen Millares Young

edited by Kait Heacock

I

You were never the only one. The way I figured, the others were too young to count.

You see, it’s hot in the trailer. I never did fix the A/C. Besides, you said it made you sick to sleep cold. Your pa raised you country, hearing skeeters through the window and a breeze stirring somewhere down the line. But me, I can’t stand it, the heat, I’m in the sun all day, it’s got me pared down to the bone, so I liked to go down to the lake to cool off. It wasn’t too far a ride. Just so happens that’s where the field hands liked to play.

It’s easy to call them field hands. What they were was lost girls. Drifters, that’s what I called ’em, but they didn’t drift in the water, they cut it through clean, diving like birds, their farmer’s tans clear as a bell through the pines. No, they didn’t know I was there. Why spoil the fun?

But Donna. She was different. She permed her hair. She sprayed it with that Sun-In stuff you like. It takes a certain kind of woman to do that. She looked like a girl, but she was a woman before I got to her, I promise you that. You could tell just by looking at her.


II

Every day, I’d load ’em up in the truck with the cow dogs, you know, Daisy and Ranger and Joey, fore he got shot by the no account neighbor of ours. The girls rode in the back, climbing over each other like puppies, and I’d buy ’em sweet tea and sandwiches, cause they needed to eat, and they didn’t have a daddy as far as I could see. At least they never mentioned their folks when they got here, and I didn’t ask. Left that to you, didn’t I.

And yes, I did slow roll the Cabbage Patch. You never knew when those biker gals would be clawing each other in a pile of coleslaw, and I ain’t the type of man to miss something like that. Not if I can help it. The girls liked it. Their eyes would go wide and they’d rush over to that side of the truck. The bikers outside the bar would start hootin’ and hollerin’, and the girls would duck like they didn’t know what was comin’.


III

Something was going to change, I could feel it. Every blessed day, you would pack on another pound, and at first, with those pin curls put in at night, you looked like a little angel, just like the angels on Momma’s Christmas cards. But me, I’m a country man, and country men don’t set still, we always movin’, those soft rolls and pats of butter cain’t find a safe place to rest on me, so they sidled on over to you, and girl, for a while, you looked good. Then you got to talkin’ about it all the time, how I hadn’t asked your hand – and why would I, when I had already had the rest of you – and was it because you were getting fat, and me not saying a word, cause I was taught to be respectful, and round these parts, that means keeping silent till it’s too late to do nothing but cry.

And Donna, she weren’t no stick figure, hell, she was plump as you by fall. Maybe I had something to do with it, couldn’t figure it though cause that girl talked in circles. She got me spinnin’. Just like a woman, like I told you.


IV

I am still a man in my prime, and it won’t always be so. One morning, in front of the boss’s daughter, I killed a bunch of mice with my fist. One at a time. It was a mercy killing, cause they’d ate the poison, and you could see the sickness. They didn’t run. But she did, took off crying down the field, hopped on her pony like a wild one, and there I am, feeling sorry for myself in the saddle room. I hate to make a little girl cry.

So you see, I was in a state when Donna found me. I felt, you know, caved in, like someone had stepped on me, and then she put her hand right in the middle of my chest and opened my shirt, just like that – it was you who bought those pearl button snaps, you see, it was you who made it easy like that – and then there was her hand on my heart, and for the first time, I saw my chest hair had gone white. It curled around her small tan hand.


V

Linda looked at me funny in the pole barn today. That woman’s got antennae like an ant, I swear it, she just works and works, keeps her head down till somethin’s off. Usually, I like it. She knows when a horse is about to take sick. But this afternoon, I had gone down to help with the chores, the smell of that girl still on my fingers, and when I picked up the bucket and the roaches scattered, I couldn’t do nothing but stare. And there’s Linda, stompin’ and stompin’ and slapping my legs with a whip cause they swarmed me, and all I could do was stare at this one white roach skitterin’ around the other brown shiny backs, floatin’ like he was surfin’ their bodies. Linda’s boot took the last of them and she was looking at me like what the hell’s the matter with you?


VI

I’ve always been so proud of Janelle. My sister brought her up in the church, and she just got so pretty. Everybody always tellin’ her how pretty she is first thing, like, you’re so pretty! Even before they said hello. Naturally, she became a model when she learned to walk, and my sister sent us this photo when she won her first pageant. The frame is real silver, but you know how it is with the humidity out here, it got tarnished right away, and I don’t have time to be polishing silver, that’s for you to do, you hear? But anyway, her face is right there in the middle, her little milk teeth so white against the pink lipstick, which just matches that blush perfectly, her momma was always so good with makeup. And her bangs, why, they teased them sky high, and that would have been enough, by my reckoning, but my sister said the judges like blondes, so that’s what Janelle is now, a frosty blonde. They go to the salon together, she said Janelle’s the best friend she never had.


VII

I didn’t mean to hit her. Felt my fingers curl up into the open palm side swipe that good ole boys favor, least my Daddy did, when he wasn’t practicing his backhand. I don’t hit nothin’, I’m proud of that, not even the dogs. Hell, they’ll run if I kick a little dirt. But like I said, that girl had a mouth on her. I’m not someone to take lip from a drifter. But you know how it is, you get to talkin’ when you’re stupid with sex. I told her things I shouldn’t have, things I ain’t never gonna tell nobody else. And then she’s looking out for me, lookin’ out for me like she’s my momma, and I’m the man here. She can’t be having no opinions about the way I run this place, cause I’ve been runnin’ it long before she got here, and I’ll be runnin’ it long after she’s gone.


VIII

She’s gone. I’ll bet she hitched. Always was a looker. Bet she didn’t have to thumb for long. Trucks are always passin’. Them long dusty roads ain’t got nothing to look at.