Authors: Melanie Rae Thon
Jesse was hidingâbut not in the woods. He hid where we were forbidden to swim, where we didn't bother to look because we all obeyed, except Jesse that day in July. He didn't come out till he was good and ready, till his swim trunks had ripped in the place that they'd snagged, till the lake had stilled, its surface turned to glass, hard and imperturbable, God's great blind eye, a perfect mirror of a cloudless sky.
Only then did Jesse come out, his body bobbing to the surface at the end of the dock. Justin and Uncle Les pulled him from Moon Lake, and the boy hung in their arms. Mother tried to hold me back, but I saw everything: the ripped trunks that had held him fast beneath the rotting planks; the long, bloodless scratch down his back; the gaping mouth, his surprise: his eyes flung open, blue, blue, the water, the sky, Jesse's eyes, the wide, open eyes of the unexpected dead.
Nina fell on him, pounded his chest until the water spurted out of his violet mouth, breathed into him and yelled at his face:
Wake up, damn you, wake up
. But our Jesse was cruel and cold and did not answer. Still, he was not as cruel as Nina, not cruel enough to take even his body away and leave us to wonder, and imagine.
gone to Aunt Arlen looking for that advice she'd offered about men, she probably would have told me they were all as selfish as Jesse. She was still mad at him for leaving her the way he did, as if he'd done it just to punish her, with no thought at all for his own sacrifice.
That's what she thought of all her boys. Everything they did was just another way of getting back at her. “What did I ever do but love them?” she often said. “Well, that's how a mother's rewarded for giving too much of herself.”
Arlen was already pounding at our door by eight o'clock the next morning. “Will you come look at this?” she said. Mom and I followed her through the backyard. She pointed at the truck in the driveway. “Now, what do you suppose happened here?”
My cousin Marshall lay sprawled on the seat between two black-haired girls with smeared mouths. Marshall's pants were unzipped and his neck was covered with red blotches. Both girls had flung their lavender sweaters on the floor. They spilled out of their bras, and I swore I saw fingerprints on their breasts, pale purple bruises, the size of Marshall's thick fingers. One of the girls woke and rubbed her eyes. She laughed when she saw us, and made no effort to cover herself. Her teeth were small and sharp. Her turned-up nose looked like a plug on her fleshy face.
“Justin's upstairs,” Arlen said, “facedown on his bed with his boots on. I don't know what I'm gonna do with my boys. Some night one of them's gonna mess with the wrong woman and wake up with a knife in his butt.”
The girl with the pig nose unrolled her window. “Mornin',” she said. “I don't s'pose I could use your bathroom, could I?”
Mom was pulling on my sleeve.
“You s'pose right,” said Arlen.
“Mighty unfriendly of you to feel that way.”
“Come on, Lizzie,” Mom said.
The girl opened the door and jumped out of the cab. I was letting Mom tug me home, but I wasn't moving fast. “Last chance,” the girl said.
Arlen crossed her arms over her chest and shook her head.
“Have it your way.” The girl with no shirt wriggled out of her pants and squatted. Mom was behind me now, shoving me toward the house. I thought,
I've already seen it all. What good does it do to drag me away?
“You filthy scum,” Arlen screamed, flailing at the girl's head. The big-bottomed stranger rolled in the grass, laughing, her pants bunched down around her knees, her thighs quivering. Mom hustled me inside and slammed the door behind us.
A few days later I learned how my cousins' evening had begun. Mother gave me permission to go for a bike ride with Gwen Hollerâas long as I promised to beat Daddy home. She thought I'd been punished long enough but saw no sense in starting another argument.
I met Gwen at the corner, and we headed out to Ike's Truck-stop to visit her mom. When Ruby Holler was working, we got fries and Cokes for half price.
Ike's sat on a treeless lot north of town. Out here, the wind was always blowing; dust foamed from the eighteen-wheelers hauling up to the pumps, and diesel fumes hung in the air. Even the truckers coughed when they leaped out of their rigs.
Standing on this stretch of scrabby earth, I realized how close the mountains were. In July the snow still hadn't melted off the highest peaks. By late August a fresh dusting of powder appeared. Strangers said the mountains made them feel trapped, but the Rockies sheltered the people of Willis. Hidden in this valley, we were protected from the whimsical Chinook winds that whipped down the eastern slopes, raising the temperature by 40 degrees in a single hour. We knew that if you climbed in these mountains, you would find only more peaks and clear pools that reflected hard sky and bare rock, pools that held the fine glacial silt in perfect suspension, turning the water unbelievable shades of blue and green. An avalanche of snow could bury a man for a hundred years. A sharp thaw could flood the valley, rip houses from foundations and send cows and children swirling toward Moon Lake.
We accepted these dangers and learned not to walk on the ice fields in spring when the snow is heavy, sodden and dense, when a man's footsteps can shake a hillside loose. Tourists died in our mountains: boisterous skiers plunged to early deaths and hikers sank into blissful hypothermic sleep. But we survived. We knew the simple truth: a mountain is greater than a man.
I wasn't worrying about avalanches that day. I was thinking about a plate of salty fries dripping with ketchup. I was thinking how good it was to be free to ride my bike with Gwen Holler.
Gwen's mother seemed almost glad to see us. “Haven't had a customer for an hour,” she said. Ruby didn't need to wait for our order. “Drop a pair of fries,” she yelled to Ike as she pulled two Cokes from the cooler. When we had our food, Ruby Holler leaned over the counter and whispered, “Your cousins nearly lost their noses out here the other day.”
According to Ruby, the boys had stirred up some trouble with the Furey woman. They were Mary Louise's last customers and she was in no mood to chat. “I was here to take over,” Ruby said, “but I had ten minutes to spare, so I made myself an iced tea. I don't owe that woman any favors.
“I recognized Marshall Munter right off. He was grinning at Mary Louise and I knew he was looking for a little excitement.” My cousin Marshall had big hands and a flat belly. Grown men with firm stomachs were rare in Willis. He wore his jeans tight and liked his own smell after a day at work. I could just see him, running his fingers through his hair, trying to tame his cowlicks. “That cousin of yours has a way with women,” Ruby Holler said. “He talks nice and slow. Makes me think he might know how to take his time when it really mattered.” She winked at me and Gwen. There wasn't much about Marshall that appealed to me, but Gwen grinned as she stuffed three fat french fries in her mouth. She knew just what her mother meant.
“So your handsome cousin points to his pie and says, âHey, Mary Louise, this here's a nice piece. You cooked this pie up just right.'
“He may be pretty,” Ruby said, “but he ain't so smart.
“âIke does the pies,' Mary Louise told him, and he says, âDon't you like to cook?'
“I knew she was aggravated, so I told her I'd fix my face and be right out. I left the bathroom door open just a crack to keep one eye on the activities.
“I heard your other cousin, the short ugly oneâwhat's his name?”
“Yeah, I heard Justin say, âWhy, Mary Louise, I bet you're a
“Then Marshall pipes up again, âI hear you're a regular hot potato, Miz Furey.'” Ruby whistled through her teeth. “He's got a streakâI can see it.” She smiled as if this vein of nastiness was to his credit.
“Mary Louise ducked in the kitchen; I expect she hoped I'd be out before the boys needed refills. I couldn't stall any longer.”
I pictured Ruby Holler, teetering on heels that would make her spine ache by the end of the night. She'd have to walk barefoot through the parking lot after her shift, but she wouldn't mind. Her hair flamed under the fluorescent lights, a false red, teased half a foot above her scalp. Her nostrils looked pinched, as if something in this place always smelled bad to her. She was the kind of woman men liked and other women didn't. Truckers caressed their mugs of coffee while they told her about the loads of lettuce in their rigs and the wonders of refrigerated trucks. Sometimes they described the pocked skin of oranges, and sometimes they whispered to her about the smell of hogs. But no matter what they said, Ruby Holler always seemed amazed, as if she were hearing this story for the first time. Aunt Arlen said that was the sole source of her charm. “Men love a woman who listens,” Arlen told me.
I knew she'd leaned over the counter toward my cousins, letting the Munter boys get a good peek down her dress, letting them glimpse her pushed-up breasts, her leathery skin. I'd watched her do the same for other men. “Why, you boys are
,” she crooned. “Hasn't Mary Louise been taking care of you?” Ruby Holler couldn't stand the Furey woman. She had no sympathy for anyone who could do what she'd done. “If I had my way,” Ruby said to me, “I wouldn't even give an Indian a cup of coffee, never mind giving him what Mary Louise Furey did. But Ike says his girls have to serve anyone who walks through that door with money in his pocket. Yeah, I have to serve them, but I don't have to like it.” All my mother's warnings about keeping our affairs private seemed to pay off. I didn't think Ruby knew for sure which boy had taken Nina.
Gwen finished her fries and started on mine. Something about her mother's story had made her unusually hungry.
“Mary Louise brushed past me on her way out the door. âWhatever those boys leave is yours,' she hisses in my ear. I bet they wouldn't have left her two cents.”
Gwen shoved her empty bottle at her mother. “How about another Coke?” she said, just as if she were some regular customer who was paying for her drinks and might leave a nickel tip besides.
“In a minute,” said Ruby. “I'm talkin'.
“Of course the boys forgot about the tip altogether,” Ruby admitted. “They went after Mary Louise.” Her brow wrinkled. “Come to think of it, they never paid for the pie and coffee either.”
I understood my cousins. Marshall Munter wasn't accustomed to being resisted or refused, and Justin thought that an ugly woman had no right to rebuff anyoneâeven him.
“I have to say I started to get a little nervous when they followed her to the parking lot,” Ruby said, “so I headed outside too. Ike was in the back hacking up rib-eyes. If the situation called for a man with a cleaver to calm things down, I was ready to yell.
“Marshall shouts, âHey, Mary Louise, you sure you wouldn't enjoy a little home cookin'?'
“âMust get mighty lonely up there on the river,' says the other one.
“âAll by yourself in that shack.'
“Mary Louise turned to face the boys. They were right on her tail. âGo fry your asses,' she says, but they inched closer, thumbs in their pockets. Her car was only a foot behind her. They knew she couldn't get away without a fight.
“âMaybe you only do it with Indians,' Marshall says.
“âMaybe you got a taste for dark meat,' says Justin,
“âAny woman who'd do it with an Indian would do it with a dog.'
“Mary Louise spat on the ground. âYou're less than dogs.'
“That's when the short one lunged for her throat. But she was too quick for himâI saw the blade flash. âOne more inch,' she says, âone more inch and you'll be missing a nose as well as a chin.'”
Ruby said Marshall was having a hoot, slapping his thigh and snorting. “âLaugh it up, pretty boy,' Mary Louise tells him. âI could do some work on you too, and you wouldn't look so fine.'
“I could see the fun was over, but the Munter boys didn't know how to back off without sticking their tails between their legs.”
“Why didn't you yell for Ike?” I asked Ruby.
“I was thinking on it,” she said, “but just then a car rolled up behind them and Sheriff Wolfe leaned out the window.
“He says, âThese boys causing you any trouble, Mary Louise?'
“âJust a misunderstanding,' Mary Louise said.
“Justin and Marshall gave the sheriff a wave and hopped into their truck. That's the last I saw of them.”
Afterward, my cousins must have decided to go to the Blue Moon to cool down with a few beers. That was the only place near town where you could find girls like the ones they brought home. It was a good drive just for a drink, fifteen miles. I don't know what time they got lucky and met the two girls with the big bottoms and heavy thighs, the black-haired twins in their lavender sweaters. They must have had one apiece to start out, but somehow Marshall ended up with more than he could handle, and Justin ended up with nothing at all.
agreed to allow me a single night of freedom before school started. He didn't know Mother had helped me cheat on him for the past week. Gwen's parents kept an old silver camping trailer in their backyard. Daddy wouldn't trust me to sleep outside on the grass, but for some reason he believed we'd be safe in that tin box.
Gwen waited for me on her porch, rocking back and forth, using her thick ponytail to flick flies from her neck. She massaged her own thighs, singing to herself, high and off-key. The summer had changed her. I felt jittery, too glad to see her, like a kid come to pester some older girl. She wore a tight pink top and cutoffs with four inches of skin left bare in between. The dizzy girl had the slow eyes of a lazy woman now, and I caught a vision of her as a fat wife, sitting on the steps with her lemonade while a horde of dirty children squabbled in the yard, stamping the last life out of the yellow grass.