. . . O my Lord, since it seems Thou art determined on my salvation—and may it please Thy Majesty to save me!—and on granting me all the graces Thou hast bestowed on me already, why has it not seemed well to Thee . . . that this habitation wherein Thou hast had continually to dwell should not have become so greatly defiled?
—St. Theresa of Avila (Life, Chapter 1)
At seven, Maggie’s head seems to soften outward in a nimbus of pastels. A color-tinted photograph—pink, white, rose, green eyes with dusty edges and soft black at the center. In a store-bought tutu, child hands cross over a skinny chest. She kneels for the watcher, a plastic headband of paper flowers sunken in soft brown curls. A sweet smile floats on rose lips. She is happy. Fathers are warm and big, and mothers are very pretty and smell good, she seems to say. Her eyes hold the watcher in an expectant gaze. Something eternal and permanent wishes its way out of her soul.
But things always change in their own particular ways. So by sixteen, Maggie’s head had drawn to its center, now. Her lips held out in a clamp of hard refusal. She looked like she spoke German. Or French, in the way they thin their lips to talk. Such lip arrangement never looked appealing to her, even years later as she confronted her image in a mirror. And, in other facial paradoxes, the cartilage of her nose retreated to thin her nostrils from its long narrow prominence. Shadowed eyes pulled right as her other features pulled left. She wound her long hair tightly, stretching taut her resisting skin. Her entire skull said, “Do not enter.”
Maggie had become like this while perched in a squat alone on the earthy slope of a creek’s edge, day after day, long afternoons moving into years. She would fling a stringed minnow out over the water, watch its carcass sink in muddy stillness. Then after letting it rest submerged, she would lightly twitch the line. She felt like she was tantalizing a great fish with big eyes, doing a mincing dance for him, that marine creature who desired her minnow. She wanted to lure him in, hook him in the lips in desire, and so she dandled and danced the line, but as she tugged it closer, only her minnow came back into view, billowed to momentary life in its own watery element, but clearly sagged and dead as she dragged it up the muddy slope. She would fling it again, jiggle it a little to imitate the life she wanted, and reel it back dead-baited—again and again, left with dead bait. Time and time again, she walked a heavy walk back to the house alone.
Before the move, the Air Force captain, his wife, and five children had lived in a larger house, a single level “ranch style” flattened along an ordered street in a suburban Ohio neighborhood, scattered amongst other flattened single level houses. Maggie was thirteen going on fourteen, the second oldest child. Her father had been there for a while but had eventually moved to an apartment of his own in the officers’ quarters at a nearby airbase. She was relieved when he left because he and her mother would fight with each other at night when they thought the kids had gone to sleep. Maggie heard her father strike her mother one late night as Maggie and Rika—a year younger than Maggie—huddled in strangeness hidden at the top of the stairs. They heard their mother plead with him to stop again and again.
“I bet you’re glad I’m leaving.” Her father glared in at her from the doorway a few days later as Maggie lay on her bed. She was glad but she held still before his gaze. His face went all arched and angry. She didn’t see him for a long time after that. Then Mama was gone too, a lot, looking for work maybe. During the times she was at home, she had a cool, mysterious pain about her. So there was a lot of time when Maggie wasn’t watched. No eyes approved or disapproved of what she did, or gazed long and loving.
The house was big, open, often empty. Bill lived across the street. He wore tight jeans, his shirt unbuttoned low, revealing a hairless, finely muscled fourteen-year-old chest, soft auburn waves of hair loose around full eyes. He smiled at Maggie with full open lips and she felt warm around him. This feeling was new and good—a relief from the slow pressure that tightened her head at home.
They spent hours together, days together, after school and on weekends, almost completely uninterrupted by mothers—hers or his; Bill’s mother was little threat to their freedom in her drugged sleep in a slept-in sweat suit on their living room sofa. In a rare conscious moment, her haggard face would appear around the door of the den where Bill and Maggie watched television and ate Popsicles. She would shriek that “You better not eat all those Popsicles!” and “What did that damn dog do with my slipper? Bill! Did you do the dishes?”
Bill’s eyes would deaden and his warm presence would shrink to something neutral and pathetic and he would retreat with Maggie to the concrete garage. They played the Mamas and Papas’ “California Dreaming” loudly over and over on the record player.
“Bill, did you take out that garbage yet? I told you to take out that garbage! How many times do I have to tell you to get that crap outa here? You don’t listen to me! I swear you don’t listen to me! What? No? Don’t you lie to me! Get those goddamn cans outa here!”
Maggie would leave down the driveway, the shrieked demands of Bill’s mother fading like the volume slowly turned down on a radio. Yelling got louder as she approached her own house, like the volume turned slowly up on a radio, a different station now. “Give it back! Give it back or I’ll kill you!” Her stomach wound in a crunch that shortened her and slowed her steps. She couldn’t hear what Rika said back to Benjamin’s threat as four-year-old Jaime howled in panic in the background. Jaime continued to cry as Maggie opened the screen door. “I’ll kill you!” Benjamin, big-bodied, was puffing and red-faced. His arms were ready to do as he said, his legs spread wide and feet planted. Rika made a soft, taunting high-pitched laugh. “Hey, Benjie . . . ” Her mocking voice mimed the shaking of the roller skate in her hand.
The long hall out of the living room was behind her. Rika could escape if Benjie made a move and she knew it. He swung a leg out, his sneakered foot crashing to the middle of a Monopoly game spread on the floor. Rika drew back the arm with the skate, then catapulted it toward Benjie’s big angry body. Steel wheels crushed into a plaster wall. Rika was nimbly down the hall, well into the bathroom, when the skate dropped heavily to the floor. The bathroom door slammed closed, the lock clicked. Benjie loped after her, his large body slowing as futility set in. His last two steps of pursuit towards the door were walked. One big hand curled to rub his wet eyes. He began his retreat to the living room when he saw Maggie looking at him from the door. Benjie made a sharp turn into his bedroom and shut the door.
Jaime’s crying stopped. The old familiar rocket-take-off sound gurgled out of his throat. His eyes closed. He pointed an index finger to the ceiling and took off in a rocket ship of his own design, escaping the unendurable living room below. The house was quiet now except for the sound of a four-year-old’s diminishing presence.
Fortunately for both of them, Bill and Maggie could go into her bedroom for privacy. Soft stuffed animals—a bear, a puppy, a rabbit, a parrot, surrounded them. All of them were presents from Bill. Maggie was very satisfied to kiss and hug and kiss and kiss on her bed. Bill was too. He was. He was very satisfied. And they kept kissing and hugging each time they came into her room. But there was something he wanted to do. Would she let him? Just for a minute. Just let him. Please, Maggie? His hand reached tentatively to slide through the opening in her white blouse. Suddenly she was afraid. “No!” she cried and started to sob as he quickly retracted his hand. “Oh, Maggie, I’m so sorry, I’m sorry! I couldn’t help it! I couldn’t help it!” She rolled to the side away from him. Facing the window, she saw Rika’s rapt face watching their scene.
Thereafter, Maggie and Bill climbed the wooden pull-down ladder to the storage space above the garage. Pulling a bare mattress to the center of the wooden boards, they returned to their kissing. It got easier to let Bill hold her breast. She let him kiss her neck now too. She let him unbutton her blouse. He taught himself how to unhook the hook-and-eye of her bra until it became one simple move of his fingers. Bill was warm. It was ok when he lifted her skirt and pulled down her undies. They were wet, like she had peed a little. It was ok when he wanted to lie down on top of her. He felt good and warm and she liked the weight of him on her. She felt safe. He would start to move his hips.
And she didn’t know what he was doing—but she wasn’t scared—when he unzipped his tight jeans, pulled them down a little and wanted her to part her legs. Maggie felt his wiener all puffed up and stiff and sliding around all that wetness her undies had covered. It felt good.
But then he pushed, trying to stuff it inside her!
And then he does!
She’s surprised. She’s not scared. Just surprised that he can do that and she can feel his wiener going deeper inside her like a long balloon but thicker and all wet in this place she didn’t even know was open in her! Then a pin-prick stung inside her, like the way it feels when you tear the skin on your cuticle and it bleeds. For a quick minute, she is scared. But then it goes away. And Bill is moving his hips more and he’s breathing noisily in her ear. His wiener is really feeling thick and it’s all stuffed in as far as he can get it with the way he’s pushing. Then he lifts his hips up and it comes halfway out of her. She thinks he’s getting off her but then he sort of falls back down and he’s stuffing it in again. He keeps doing this again and again. It feels good.
Bill and Maggie were going to get married as soon as they were sixteen. Maggie had only 765 days left—then they could be together all the time. They could sleep in the same bed together and wake up to each other in the morning and drowse in each other’s arms. They could stay in bed all the time if they wanted, and no one would tell them they couldn’t, and no one would peek in on them and then whisper stories to kids at school. They counted down the days till she was legal. They only had to wait. Day after day, counting off the time. A long time. A torturous long hoping. Maggie tried to keep waiting. They went to the attic a lot.
Her mother said they all had to move to a smaller house; the divorce was complete. Standing on the driveway with other neighborhood kids playing on the grass, Maggie told Bill. She was moving away and she’d never see him again. For some reason, she wanted to hurt him, lash out at him as her mother and father had lashed at each other. She wanted to make someone hurt. So she told him if she was pregnant, it would be his fault. Maggie watched in cool amusement as confused pain spread over the boy, his full lips and warm eyes darkening, his chest shuddering visibly through his tight yellow shirt. It seemed curious to her that she enjoyed telling him this, but she liked watching him in pain walking down the concrete driveway. Now there would be no more waiting. Now she was free as a helium balloon snipped from the earth by its string; the mixed up scene on the driveway grew smaller and smaller, dimmer and dimmer, until Bill meant nothing other than past encumbrance.
That house had been too big and flat anyway. Too much bitter air molded its walls. Too many slammed doors, chunks of broken plaster from blasts of anger. And too many windows to peer into. Mama had no money of her own and had trouble getting child support out of Maggie’s father, so the broken chunk of the family moved to an older and smaller white board house on the outer edge of a poorer neighborhood. To a two-storied house next to cornfields and then woods. A mama, four kids and a cat. Maggie’s mother found a job as a cocktail waitress in the Nowhere Lounge where the Roy Goodweather Trio played jazz for off-duty airmen at nearby Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.
Maggie was the oldest now because Jeanie (his favorite girl) went with Daddy. Maggie chose to stay with Mama, “I’m on your side!” repeating itself in her head. Rika, less than a year younger than Maggie, didn’t have the choice, by law, to choose between parents. Rika fell into the heap of baggage Mama would have to carry, a child dragged like the useless afterbirth of Mama’s marriage to Daddy.
Her younger sister Rika seemed brilliant and tough to Maggie. Though she hated Rika’s brutal intrusions in her life, Maggie admired her secretly for her skill of evasion. Rika had a tighter head than Maggie. She wouldn’t let anybody in. Already at thirteen she maintained tight control of what happened to her, what came her way, what stayed with her and what she chose to reject. No one would leave her anymore. She always left them in active battling.
The white board house set back from the road by a long dirt driveway which ended at an aluminum garage looked as if blocks had been stuck together one by one at different times by different ideas of what a shelter should be. Garage, tool shed, front bedroom, attic space were the garbled ideas of a bunch of people who were strangers to each other, successively stacking here and there, unbeknownst to each other, their random leavings on a long grassy plot. Somebody who’d lived there before had wanted an awning over the back porch. Somebody else wanted aluminum siding on the garage. The second story was painted yellow, the lower level white. The front bedroom had been added just before Maggie arrived with Mama and her brood, and jutted out like a stuck-out stomach from the rest of the house—now Mama’s bedroom.
Sweeney, our silent cat, was pregnant. Her litter came, a squirmy mass of four individual cries, silenced only by sucking. The black-gray calico, not trusting this woman and her four children who shared her shelter, found privacy beneath the far end of the paint-chipped bathtub, and there endured alone. She was only discovered in her distrust when Maggie heard muffled wiry cries coming from the bathroom. Perched and staring from the threshold of the bathroom, Maggie still had only cries to follow, nothing to see. She opened the cabinet at the foot of the tub and mews tinseled out of the dark. Down on her hands and knees, she saw no movement. Returning with a flashlight, she crouched, her head completely in the cabinet now, whose missing enclosure brought her face up close to the corroded underside of the tub.
The beam of light found the guilty mother and her slew. Sweeney blinked into the blazing hole of light with widened fearful eyes. A long arm reached through the hole towards the frightened mother. She was out of Maggie’s reach. Eyes of bare necessity looked back at her. Sweeney seemed not to remember her domesticity. Maggie backed out of the cabinet crawl space on her knees and yelled to the others.
Rika glanced in a few moments later with slight curiosity, then left without saying anything. Maggie got a clothes hanger to extend her reach. Not seeing the black bits of life, she felt along the back edge of the tub with a shoulder of the hanger. The wire grated vibrations, then slid over something the softness of raw chicken. Maggie began to scoop and drag gently as Sweeney stumbled back a little at this surprise, staring, then suddenly resigning.
A mucous-covered creature became visible to Maggie, a dirty mouse-like baby. There were four in all and she gently plundered the dirty birth nest to bring to light each one. The fourth was the tiniest and dragged the still-attached placenta from its belly, picking up dirt chunks in its wetness. Sweeney moved out easily now with her nest’s displacement, and dutifully began to lick away the mess of birth.
On silent evenings, Maggie would open the top drawer of her dresser, dig under the undies and pull out a green vinyl diary and slap the latch open with a small brass key. Then she would sit at the tiny desk and write herself into a world that never rejected her. Entries in her diary were as close as she could get to something really real—gushings about cute boys and dancing—everything that lushed her yearning, hungry soul. When she wrote, she sensed someone, a being out of a lovely accepting world, leaning over her shoulder, big and male, like a teacher, watching carefully her choice of words as they came out of her pen. A teacher who listened and read what she wrote.
She got so she couldn’t really write without thinking of him there, so she wrote what she thought he would want to read—of Sweeney being hit by a car, leaving her babies unweaned, how they would not or could not eat, would not be consoled, how they cried unceasingly for two days and died one by one in her hands as Maggie forced a dropper filled with milk into each tiny mouth. How she sobbed in horror as one stiffened to atrophy in her palm, hardened like a cheap stuffed animal a girl gets from a teenage boyfriend. How she picked up the next gently in her fingers and tried to feed it, only to have it too quiver from jaw to paw as death jabbered in. She wrote how Maggie’s mother washed the dishes in the kitchen. How Maggie put the black piles in a shoebox and buried them among the roots of her willow tree in the side yard. She wrote it all to her teacher—all of it—and then she locked her diary, returned the key to the bottom corner of her ballerina jewelry box. She felt better.
Mama lets Maggie wear mascara now. And eye shadow. Pastel green dust glinting on her lids, she thinks she’s pretty and she likes her long straight hair. Opening the lid of her jewelry box, she admires a solitary eye in the tiny mirror. A plastic ballerina lightly jerks in spiral, one pink leg en passé (akin to akimbo, only with legs) as the “Moonlight Sonata” tinkles out, metallic and plucked. She lifts the rosy velvet tray out of the box to contemplate her key for a long moment, as if that key could unlock her own bliss.
She gets so much attention at the new high school! Maggie likes to wear white shirts, tight see-through ones that hug her chest and show that she, yes indeed, she should be wearing a bra at her age. She can feel boys’ eyes on her as she walks from her locker to the classroom. Once, at lunch, a paper napkin is passed her way with “I think you’re pretty” scratched in red ink. Cory asks her out. And soon after that, Kenny comes over when she babysits, and they neck and feel each other on the parents’ bed as the children sleep. Soon, Joey gets Maggie to agree to give him sex whenever he wants it, no matter where they are, even a parking garage. He unzips and flings himself out in a stairwell, pushing her to her knees in front of him . . . she had better not say no. Maggie likes all the attention.
And Joey takes her to the drive-in on a double date with Kenny and another girl. She’s never had beer, but she tries it eagerly. Joey keeps handing Maggie cans, and since it makes her feel good right away, she deliberately drinks three, even finishing Kenny’s for him. She feels lovely. All this attention! She starts singing in her happiness. The movie sprays silver gray light on Joey and Maggie in the front seat of his car.
Joey unzips his pants, pulling his wiener out, then latches his hand at the back of her neck, pulling her head down to bang on the steering wheel. Did he want her to kiss his wiener? She is confused, but not scared. She kisses it for him. He shoves her head even more then so her face is engulfed in rubbery flesh. He shoves again.
Maggie isn’t understanding something. Maybe he wants her to kiss him some more. But then he lets go his hand and seems angry or frustrated or something. He lets her sit up.
Joey won’t stop the car on the way home when Maggie asks him, so she throws up out the window, mostly splashing the side of his car. When he drops her off on the dirt driveway of her house well past midnight, she hears him say to Kenny and the other girl in the back seat, “I wouldn’t take her to a dog fight. . . .”
Maggie thinks Mama will still be up when she opens the back door, but she is asleep.
Mama’s bedroom was the large one in the front on the first floor. She still used the bed and mirrored bureau that had been hers and Daddy’s. Late one evening, Mama and Maggie stood in front of the bureau glass, wearing nightgowns, getting ready for bed, pinning one another’s hair. Mama examined Maggie in the mirror and told her of ways to fix her hair, of what colors were good to wear with her complexion. Mama was a beautiful woman. An older me, Maggie hoped. Mama posed with her hips thrust left, arm akimbo as she spoke. Her shoulders draped back, her chin lifted to expose a length of neck. One eyebrow arched as her head twisted slightly away from the direction of her gaze. To Maggie, all the planes of her body tilted as if her spine were unsteady and in danger of collapse. Mama propped herself up with one arm and knuckles to the top of the bureau. The extreme backward bend of her elbow seemed easily snapped.
Her mother had given Maggie the smaller bedroom next to hers since the girl was the oldest child in the household now. Maggie’s window opened out to a view of a willow tree—her willow tree—where she sat daily, huddled up high in the branches, hidden well away by draping green skirts that moved in the wind.
Benjie and Jaime slept in the open space to the left of the attic stairs, while Rika claimed the tiny but private room at the top of the stairs directly above Maggie’s bedroom. Rika’s room had no door. She hung a sheet over the entrance. Its thinness cast her in silhouette as she moved across the room. Her single window gaped over the long rectangle of grass bordered by rows of cornstalks in the side yard with Maggie’s lone and ancient weeping willow tree.
Larry has black hair and rides a motorcycle. His dark mooded air is mysterious and attractive to Maggie when he cruises slowly by in the school parking lot, seeming to see no one and nothing but the few feet of black asphalt in front of him. Maggie wants to ride behind him, hugging her legs to the sides, wrapping her arms around his waist, pressing her chest to his rounded back. So she doesn’t have to ride the bus very often after meeting him. Larry drives her home on his motorcycle.
His parents had bought him this very motorcycle they rode upon because he had gotten into trouble at school. He hated them. Larry told Maggie he was almost sent to a juvenile home. In his low monotone voice, he told her how he had vandalized a house under construction, had spilled boxes of nails, broken windows with catapulted wood scraps, scattered piles of lumber, and then tried to set fire to a pile of sawdust—so now he had to report to a probation officer and had a curfew of seven o’clock each night.
Whenever Larry drove up with Maggie from the bottom of the driveway, the stacked blocks of her house still seemed to be headed in several directions at once—out over the cornfields, into a neighbor’s backyard, down the grass and across the street to the woods and the creek. Larry would wheel around to the back door. Maggie would climb off and watch him go, still feeling the shape of his back against her breasts. When he was completely out of sight, she’d open the screen door and go in. Going through the kitchen, she’d settle in a collapsed daze on the worn orange sofa in the living room to bask in the feeling of such complete physical presence with Larry.
Rika leaps two stairs at a time and Maggie follows, just out of reach of the heels of her loafers. They peel away from Maggie like rising fence slats, Rika’s long legs pulling them to the attic floor. In one lurch, Rika yanks the sheet from her bedroom opening. Maggie is so close she is able to slip in before it billows down. Rika turns, mouth in a wrench of anger, hair scattered, eyes narrowing, snarling like a dog whose territory has been entered. Maggie is startled but jolts forward again into action, heading into the wall of her. Maggie’s left hand grips Rika’s wrist, while her right hand plies at the curled fingers, one at a time. Rika’s other hand gnarls itself into Maggie’s long hair, close to the skull, and drags her head from the work of her hand, her elbow bumping the lamp. Now light in the room moves like flame across walls. Maggie’s tree is watching from the yard.
Maggie digs her fingernails into the skin on Rika’s wrist to get her to open her hand and drop the key. She pulls at Maggie’s white shirt. Maggie shoves. Rika drags them to the bed, narrow against a wall that slants to the roof. They are fully wrestling now, grabbing hanks of hair, loose skin, pinning arms down whenever possible. Angry growls are full of pain too now. Maggie wraps her dancer’s legs around Rika’s ribs and hips and locks them, squeezing.
Rika goes wild. She can’t get out. She is losing. Maggie is winning so easily. (She never realized how strong her legs were!) Rika flails like a drowning girl, for air, for life. She is hysterical. Maggie watches. It is so easy to hold Rika down with her strong dancer thighs!
But Maggie should calm her. She will hurt herself. Maggie punches her in the stomach so she will faint and stop hurting herself, so Rika will get control of herself. Maggie does it for Rika’s own good. Maggie punches her again. And once more. With the side of her fist. She squeezes harder with her legs. A high cry crescendoes out—of fear.
“Stop, Maggie, stop. I can’t breathe, Maggie!”
“I’m trying to make you pass out. You’re too wild.”
“I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!”
Maggie stops punching her after a few moments and lets go her legs, scared at the desperation in Rika’s voice. Rika pulls upright, coughing, tossing the key to Maggie’s lap in a quick surrender, and looks wide-eyed and breathing hard, at Maggie. Maggie knew the plundering of her diary was over. Maggie hated her for taking it to school and showing it to her friends.
Maggie’s bed is under a low window. Placed here, she could be washed with moonlight as she lay awake at night. Craggy branches of her tree stiffly shook in the occasional wind. She couldn’t take her eyes off them. She burrowed into their design and never tired of the shifting view. Random thoughts came and went coupled with a kind of paralysis of head and body. She was disappearing into sleep.
Alone at night like this, some small thought, way, way back tells her she is asleep, in her bedroom, beneath her window, with the moon wash and her craggy branches. She is experiencing being asleep—conscious of her unconsciousness. She watches herself ascend to wakefulness, the slow rise from a soft deep black world to the textured world of her bedroom. Her legs are parted, slightly bent, as she lies on her side facing the window, lifted wide and screenless, offering her room to the summer night, as Larry’s head rises like a black moon out of the dark. The appearance of that black spear-like hair sends a charge of joy from her chest to her pelvis.
“Maggie?” he whispers.
“Hi.” She is smiling. She is in bed. She wants him to come in.
“Wanna come out?”
“Sure.” She dresses quickly. She knows he is watching. He steps back as she swings her blue-jeaned legs over the sill and drops to the grass. He looks cool and still, sadly apathetic. Maggie fumbles for his hand. It is nearly limp but he moves slightly to hook a couple of her fingers.
They walk together across the night-wet grass and into the shoulder-high cornfield, stalks of silver-green blades in the hollow light. Deep back among them, they find a bare patch of dirt and sit down side by side, cross-legged. She shifts so she faced him, not letting go of his fingers. A long moment of silence dispels any urgency. Nothing happens and he seems not about to make anything happen.
Larry falls back against the dirt patch, putting his hands behind his head. His hair drops in straight lines from his pale white forehead. She aches for him. He looks at the moon. She wants to kiss him on the forehead. And then the lips. She wants to pull back that cool stillness around him and enter. Maggie puts her hand out to touch his ribs.
His eyes shift to her without a movement of his head. She slides her hand down to the button of his jeans. She would teach him. She unsnaps the button and the zipper slides open. He stares at the moon. His abdomen hollows as she unzips the full distance. She reaches in to stroke the soft black hairs coming out of the tight jeans. His penis is packed between his legs. She can only touch the cool flesh root of it as it curves inaccessibly down. This she strokes, trying to work the length of his penis out into the freedom of the air.
“Don’t,” he says.
He sits up abruptly, pushing her hand away, looking directly at Maggie while fixing his pants. She pulls her hand back instinctively, quickly. It hangs suspended in the air of the cornfield and the moon in a gesture of meek surprise. No one talks. They sit in the bare patch, still and apart for a long time.
“Wanna go back?” he says.
Maggie climbs over the windowsill, heavy-limbed now, deeply tired. She watches Larry’s head move out of the frame of the window as she begins to undress. Then, burrowing under her covers, she tries to disappear into sleep again, drift back into her black soft world.
She dreams of a black snake coiled between her parted legs, a malevolent breathing weight. She watches herself dream the dream. Her body stiffens to a breathless shape that no longer belongs to her.
“Mama,” she whispers. The sound comes out dry and thoroughly unheard.
“Mama.” she tries again.
Mama is asleep. Mama doesn’t know what Maggie is going through. Her muscles ache from the lock of her legs. She is so tired. The coiled black snake could fling its jaws open and bite her thigh if she moves. It could whiplash to stranglehold around her ribs and hips, squeeze the air out of her.
“Mama . . . ?” she calls out again.
The late afternoon air is orange and still, its wet heat hanging eye level and descending. Someone knocks on the screen door at the back of the house. The sound pulls Maggie from an idle gaze out her window. The house is empty except for her. She walks through the living room to the kitchen and pulls open the inner door. Larry looks at her through the screen. He’s wearing the same clothes he had on the other night. His arms are flattened to his sides, his neck pulled down into his shoulders. Long lashes weigh his lids down and give him a drowsy, disinterested look. The wooden frame of the door throws him isolated to the center of the screen, lost in a backdrop of pale grey aluminum siding.
“Can ya hide me Maggie? I ran away . . .”
She knew what this meant. He was breaking probation. Not only would his parents be after him but so would the police. She was scared of both of them. But she wanted to take care of him.
She leads him through the kitchen and living room to Mama’s bedroom. Dividing the hangers to either side of the closet, Maggie watches Larry drop to his knees. She watches him crawl between the rose satin nightgown Gramma made for Mama’s wedding night, and a tissue-thin robe of Mama’s, its beige drape catching on his head and pressing his black hair to his skull. He turns and pushes to the back of the closet, hugging his knees to his chest, his eyes now wide and full of fear as he looks up to Maggie through the hanging nightclothes. She closes the doors and goes back to her room.
They come an hour later—mother, father and probation officer—knocking in the dark at the back door. Maggie opens it and tries to look annoyed at being disrupted.
“Is Larry here, Maggie?”
“Are you sure?”
“Sure I’m sure.”
“Do you mind if we look?”
“No, go ahead,” she says too casually.
She gestures them in with her hand. They search the house, every room, every closet. Maggie sees them pull back Rika’s door sheet, and watches it settle gently back into place. Larry’s mother bends to look right and left under Benjamin’s, then Jaime’s bed. Their heavy steps descend the stairs sounding funereal and legal. Filing into Maggie’s bedroom, they are a dark group, an engulfing black cloud. She waits in the living room thinking of her diary, her jewelry box, her plastic ballerina and her bed being misted in black to the drowning tinkle of “Moonlight Sonata.” Her window would be shrouded black, craggy branches lost forever.
Out they file, passing Maggie to enter Mama’s bedroom. Larry’s mother drops her eyes as she passes the mirrored bureau, avoiding her own reflection.
The father walks directly to the closet and slides open the doors, jerking aside the nightclothes. Metal hangers screech.
“Here he is.”
Maggie sees Larry’s pile of straight black hair shrouded by the rose gown, strands of ribbon hanging on his pale forehead. Maggie thinks of Sweeney the cat under the bathtub.
No one seems to breathe for a long frozen moment. Then suddenly they move in a smooth flow out the bedroom door, silently. One by one they pass through the back door. Larry’s mother gives Maggie an iron smile as she leaves. Maggie closes the door quietly. Deep in her, she watches Larry disappear over a precipice.
Three weeks later, Larry returns, walking, with his head bent forward. Maggie sees him through the living room window, coming up the drive. She comes out of her haze. He moves as if his bones are tired, his arms held flat to his torso by pocketed hands. The black hair is longer, straighter, oilier.
They sit on the orange sofa edging the picture window. Her ache is there. She turns it into nothing. It is easier this time.
“I don’t love you, Larry. I don’t want to be your girlfriend anymore.”
His oily black hair swings like an awning to shield his eyes. His lips droop open, wet and dumb. She watches the downward shift of his body leaning into retreat, and feels something triumphant in herself. She feels a familiar burst of power, that delicious freedom coming, there, watching him sag, watching him age beyond his seventeen years. Staying upright and still, she waits for his response.
He leaves without speaking, walks down the driveway without looking back at her in the picture window, framed by the chunked white and yellow of the house. He walks down the driveway to cross the street, a hunched and diminishing black oval against an unbroken backdrop of cornstalks clacking their dry sheaves high above his head. Maggie watches him go down the road, watches the hunched figure grow smaller. He disappears into the cornfield. And then the scene softens till her vision is murky and loose and she is alone again.
[Copyright for “Litter” held by mickey morgan 2012]
[Copyright and thanks to Nicholas Baz, artist of cover painting “The Judas Kiss”]