She tells me she is a carny through and through and makes us stop at the Giant Diner somewhere on the Pan Handle. I beg her to let me stay in the car. I sit, windows all the way up in the Florida heat, staring at the statue of “the giant’s” old boot. It’s big, not too big you can’t imagine a real man standing in the boot, just big enough to marvel at the thought. Her new boyfriend Jed convinced her to do the road trip south. I don’t think he had me in mind when he mapped out Lewiston, Maine to the Florida Keys. She and Jed return. “What happened? Were there giants?” I stretch my seat belts and wedge my head between the two front seats. “You’ll never know because you didn’t come in.” She grins all gums. I hate and love it when she does this. She flops back and props her bare feet on the dashboard. Her toenails are always painted blue, always leaving smudges on the windshield of every car she climbs into.
Jed takes us to Happy Wheels on my ninth birthday. She has never been more beautiful. Her red hair lifts off her back as she glides. The disco lights seem to follow her. I spend the night trying to catch her as she twirls before me. I cry after because I know I will never be as good as her.
“Oh babe. Cut that out. I have had decades of practice. Spent all high school working at Val’s Pie N’ Burgers rolling around a parking lot with trays of floats. That’ll get you good.”
I am ten in the passenger’s seat of the Buick in the parking lot of the California Paint Pot. She makes me wait in the car till Janis Joplin’s “Piece of my Heart” finishes on the radio. Her whole body thrashing with joy in the driver’s seat. I laugh hard after looking around the parking lot to make sure no one is watching.
I graduate from fifth grade wearing French braids. She plows through her row of chairs, stepping on peep toes and crushing bouquets of lilies. She now stands bowlegged in the aisle flailing her arms in the air, howling. I try not to look her way.
She makes a scene at the check out at Shop N’ Save, swearing at her purse and dumping it out on the conveyer belt, arms quaking. I gather the sprawl of scribbled-on tissues, blue nail polish, car keys, several cherry Chapsticks, a pack of Camels, and a change purse filled with another mess. I hand her the change purse and don’t ask for the pack of Bubblicious.
I am twelve. Jed sleeps on the couch for a night. Then leaves with the TV.
The floral couch has formed to her body. She is there even when she is not. Like the porch, unfamiliar without her, her jar of wine, and her cigarette. A pile of butts builds under the steps.
She buys two kilts at a yard sale down on Bartlett Street. She begs me to wear one with her. I refuse with disgust. She wears hers for the next week paired with her pink satin robe. I am relieved she doesn’t leave the house.
I hear her dancing down stairs as I press my little breasts together in the full-length mirror in her room. I wonder if my nipples are too big. “Piece of my heart” plays over again. I imagine her closed eyes and fists shooting into the air as she sways.
I don’t know where she met Dave, but I find him cooking pancakes in our kitchen one April morning. My mother seems to think spring is here, even though slush still lines the streets. She sits on the counter in cut off shorts and her pink satin robe. Her red hair barrels down her front. It is the first time she has worn her hair down since Jed. Dave burns the first round of pancakes as he fondles her waist, loosening her robe. I lean against the doorframe, hip jutting out to a new degree of sass.
“Morning Angel.” My mother sounds like spring.
Dave turns, “Oh hey there Kiddo, looks like someone needs some pancakes.”
I turn and walk out of the house.
I steal a flat iron from Rite Aid because Ricky Richards went out with Bethany Hamilton. Bethany has long pin straight hair that she flips from shoulder to shoulder throughout the day.
My mother dies her hair blonde in the kitchen sink. The smell lingers for a week. I tell her I hate it. She tells me Dave loves it. I hate it more.
I find my mother in the tub. She thinks a tiny washcloth covers her two huge boobs and the fourth corner her bush. None of which works. I sit on the toilet and ask her how her day was.
She looks me in the eye. “So you want to go all the way with Ricky Richards? You left your diary out. Really Louise, under the mattress is so cliché.”
I leave half-heartedly denying knowing a Ricky Richards or having a diary. She laughs through the closed door.
I hate Dave with the boundless hate a fourteen year old has. I hate that his hand seems to be glued to her ass. I hate that he wears white sneakers with jeans. I hate that he refers to himself in the third person. And I hate the power he has on her.
The McClellan’s host a BBQ for the Fourth of July. She dreads going because Dave can’t make it, but I beg her to be a normal mom. She flops down in an Adirondack. The bottle she came baring sits at her side. Ricky Richards is there because he plays baseball with the McClellan Boys. It takes me two hours of practicing the line in my head before I challenge him to a game of bad mitten.
“Louise, are you wearing a bra?” She yells across the yard. Our bouncing rally stops as I cross my arms over my chest.
I get a cashier job at Shop N’ Save where I meet Tommy the bag boy with bad acne. Tommy is sixteen and saving for a motorcycle. He comes from a nice home with a family dog, from a family that loves their dog, perhaps more than Tommy. I tell him they love him enough to refuse to buy him a motorcycle.
August comes and goes. The heat stays.
It’s the first day of sophomore year. Ricky Richards is a junior now. He strolls up behind me and snaps the back of my bra through my tank top.
“Good thing you’re wearing a bra.” He winks a slow wink. His Boys cackle behind him and pound their fists on lockers. My blood flows like fire in me. I flee to the bathroom and sit in the stall replaying the moment over an over. I hear my mother’s words on the fourth of July and the laughter of Ricky’s Boys still echoing through the hallways. I cry. Then I remember his touch at the latch of my bra and my underpants are left wet.
Dave isn’t around as much. I hear her ask why.
“Work baby, I’m sorry. I have been putting in extra hours to get you a surprise.”
My mother props herself up on the counter and latches her legs around him.
“Really?” She beams.
Tommy takes my virginity and I his in the bathroom at Shop N’ Save. He says it is best we get it over with so we can be experienced for when the real thing comes. I agree. After, he says he likes my red hair and kisses me on the four head.
I tell her I lost my virginity a month after the fact. I am not sure why I am compelled to tell her even as the words leave my mouth. She is sitting on the porch. My nose is pressed against the screen door as I talk to her back.
“No, a kid named Tommy.”
“Are you okay?”
“Did you use a condom?”
She turns to look at me, “Is there anything else I’m suppose to ask?”
“I don’t think so.”
Buses of old people come down the turnpike this time of year for the changing of the leaves.
Tommy invites me to his parent’s lake house in Rangeley. He says he wants to show me the bike he is planning to buy up there. He says it’s the color of my hair. I say yes. Tommy drives us in his dad’s old dodge. We stop at Seven Eleven to gas up. I prop my bare feet up on the dashboard while Tommy pays inside. My toes leave smudges on the windshield. I make a point to wipe them off. As I braid my hair in the review mirror, I see Dave’s car pull into the lot. I shrink down into my seat. He gets out of his car with a blonde woman, blonder then my mother’s new hair. His hand is glued to this woman’s ass, only detached when he opens the door for her. Tommy returns to the truck and I tell him, “I’ll be right back.” I feel taller then I have ever felt before, like the truck is still a part of me. The ding of the door chimes behind me.
“Hey Dave,” I yell from the door.
The blonde woman stands at his side with a bag of Lays. They look at me. Dave turns back to sign his receipt.
“Hey honey, this girl seems to know you.”
Dave looks through my forehead.
“Hmm well I don’t know her. Funny,” He says quietly to the blonde.
I stand there bowlegged barricading the door, eyeing that son of a bitch hard enough to make him crumble. Then I see that the blonde’s hand rests tenderly over a swollen tummy. I am no longer tall.
I walk out of the Seven Eleven and into Tommy’s car. I tell him to take me home.
“I know,” she says.
“Are you fucking kidding me Mom? Why do you do this to yourself?”
Dave never comes back.
Kids start hanging out at the ninth hole of the Apple Valley Golf Course. Several cars form a circle with their headlights. Boys empty forties then smash them with a shared golf club. Girls prance shirtless through sprinklers.
“Hey there Girlie, you want a shot?” Ricky Richards passes me a handle of Captain Morgan’s. I throw my head back as it touches my lips and hold it there for as long as I can muster up the courage to look him in the eye.
“Thanks.” I direct all my energy towards hiding my squeamish face.
“Oh this girl is a champ. She doesn’t even need a chase.”
He lets his stare linger, walk me up and down.
“Look at you. All grown up.”
I smile a rehearsed smile.
“What do you say to me showing you a good night, Girlie?”
I nodded without a thought.
Ricky Richards leads me to the shadows of the trim grass. In the beginning, I think this could be the real thing Tommy prepared me for.
I never tell her what Ricky Richards took from me that night. I don’t need to. She knows. She may recognize the absence of something she had taken from her many times before. Perhaps all that was lost in her life came flooding back only to be taken from her all over again.
Ricky Richards leans Bethany Hamilton against the lockers. She laughs tossing her hair to the other shoulder so he can kiss her neck. He looks past me in the halls. My hate is more boundless then at fourteen. I hate myself hard for not knowing better.
My mother isn’t kidding herself anymore; it’s winter now. Her hollow in the couch deepens. Her sweat suit and robe stay the same. She only leaves the house for wine. It’s noon on a Tuesday. I stay home from school but she doesn’t seem to notice what day it is. She makes her bowlegged march into the house. She has always told me that I get my bowlegged gate from my father. But I know I have nothing from him.