Starting today, and every Wednesday for the next nine Wednesdays, I’ll be posting here a short, 1000-word prequel to one of the eleven stories in If You Need Me I’ll Be Over There, which comes out June 1. This one’s a prequel to the first story in the collection, “Pamela”, originally published in Indiana Review.
I lived in Laguna Beach, and I lived with my dad, and once when I was ten he had me throw a dart on a map of California and said that he would take me there. I had baby hands, and the dart had real feathers on it, and when I threw it landed on Laguna Beach.
?Easy enough,? he said, and we drove in his Lincoln Continental down the Street of the Violet Lantern to what I liked to call the seashore. We sat on the sand and shared a bucket of fried chicken and two bottles of Fresca until the sun set and my dad made me listen for the click of ?the light of the earth? going out, he called it. I only heard the whoosh of the waves and the cawings of the gulls angling for some chicken skin, and the whole drive home, all fifteen minutes of it, I thought about birds eating birds.
Street of the Violent Lantern, I used to call it.
That night took place the day after Mom took off, and the next morning I was in school learning cursive. We kids sat in quiet rows with wide-ruled dittos of sketchy, dashed letters we were meant to trace over. I did the capital-Q in Queen three times, just to let my fingers have their fun. Mrs. Greenspan paced in front of the classroom, her hawky eyes all over us, and she was wearing her marmish white cardigan despite it being so sunny out. The sun was pouring in through the windows on the side of the room. I could feel it on the skin above my frilly bobbysocks. Bridget, my best friend and a blonde, was even fanning herself with a sheet of paper she?d folded over a dozen times. I was flying through the worksheet, and then at the top of the second page I was presented with ?Mommy? and then ?My mommy and me,? and I balled up the ditto and threw it across the room.
It got me a recess dictionary word. I had to march my lunch tray across the school to our hot classroom and eat the fish sticks and orange slices under Teacher?s gaze, sipping up my Five Alive more noisily than I had to. Greenspan had a big butt that hefted her up from her chair like a cushion and brought for her lunch what looked from across the room like a bologna sandwich. What kind of woman would I grow up to be now? I didn?t know how other girls learned it. Greenspan?s punishments were meant to be instructive, and so I like all the troublemakers before me had to sit and write out, word-for-word, a definition from our student dictionary. That day I got play. ?In cursive,? she reminded me when I flipped to the right page. Play wasn?t so much relevant to my crimes as it was long. It spread across two columns like a rot.
I was, I thought, a funny girl. I liked to play with the girls and the boys. I wasn?t afraid to get dirty or skin my knees on the blacktop, but I didn?t play Smear the Queer and I didn?t like patty-cake games or clapping hands. I wore more shorts than skirts, but that day I had a dress on, something lineny and white with orange trim, and my hair was up in crooked pigtails I?d had to tie myself that morning, with fat orange yarn. Flat hard shiny Mary Janes. It was like I knew I wouldn?t be running around outside that day, and so inside I wanted to make some fun of my own, and without thinking much about it I started turning every lowercase w into a saggy set of tits by crosshatching little nipples at the w?s troughs. Or sometimes I?d draw a little circle or two just underneath and turn it into a butt that shat. Tiny. Very tiny and light and hard to notice if you were just reading. What did it cost me? I couldn?t wait to get done and tell Bridget about it, but then I looked up out the window and there she was, right outside the room and standing at such an angle that I could see her but Greenspan could not. She was grinning at me in my incarceration, and then she was pointing behind her, to where we both knew the girls? bathroom was.
I was the only child in the room, but I raised my hand.
?What is it?? Greenspan said. She had a pencil stuck in her hair like a chimney.
?Can I use the bathroom please?? I said.
I tried not to roll my eyes.
?May I, please??
?No you may not,? she said. ?Not until you?re finished.?
The injustice of it. I wanted to piss all over the floor, but I couldn?t let loose with anything even at gunpoint. Bridget was out there shrugging and I didn?t want her to run off and have fun without me, so I hatched a plan. I tapped my foot and squirmed in my chair. I said ?I really really have to go? without even raising my hand, but Greenspan kept her old head focused at whatever useless garbage she was writing at her desk. Outside her line of sight, I was able slip out of my desk and stash the Five Alive under my dress, squeezing it with my thighs while I did the proper dance. I couldn?t, I squealed, hold it in any longer, and began squatting next to the desk.
Greenspan ran over and saw the little puddle I?d squeezed out. ?Go!? she said. ?Go and be quick about it.?
I waddled to the door, freed, and in the bathroom I chucked the Five Alive into the trashcan and assessed the damage to my dress. Bridget ran in and I gave her the lowdown, and it bent her over so far in convulsions I felt again like the classroom hero I knew myself to be. ?What?s going on outside?? I asked.
?People are laughing at you,? she said. ?Nobody knows why you?re wearing that dress.?
The girls? bathroom had three sinks, three mirrors, three metal shelves underneath. A light in the corner was flickering, as though marking some target. I?d never been laughed at, as far as I knew, because I?d never done or said anything stupid. That was for other people. What did those people care if I dressed up for school? What did they know about being good? I was an orphan now, or almost.
?I like it,? was what I said.
?What are you going to do about the stain?? she said, pointing to the back of me. ?It?s mostly orange.?
I was going to sit on it, and I was going to ignore the looks of every single kid in school, and I was going to go home and throw the dress in the outside trash. California would always be my home, and my dad would never take me anywhere new. To this day, I couldn?t define play to save my life.
You can pre-order If You Need Me I’ll Be Over There here.