I’m twelve at the neighborhood block party. The band jams. Bales of hay are scattered around a little platform stage. Kids sway around the edges. Grown ups laugh and drink. Little kids run and race their bikes, jacked up on cotton candy. I’m lost in the middle; too old for the little kids, too young for the older kids. A runt.
I straddle a hay bale tipped on its side. It thrums with music. The singer of the band, Dean Walters, moans the mike. Smoke on the water. Fire in the sky. His eyes dark, his hair a mane shagged around his face, his lean, boney form, his voice a threat. He’s all Jesus. I’m all worship.
My legs dangle down either side of the bale. I’m buzzed, churned up by the beer I stole earlier out of my old man’s fridge in the den. I chugged that bolt of gold down. It lit up my ribs and wired my gut. My head crackles like a little dream. But I’m still thirsty. I could swallow the whole thirsty world.
Barely a girl, already I want boys, boys like men, like lions, especially Dean as he tongues the mike. Late at night, I kiss my pillow. I slip my fingers between my legs and slide them into my little pink house. Downstairs, my parents pass each other insults, one after another, like Christmas presents. In his bedroom my brother Ellis probably touches himself too, handsome Ellis who pretends I don’t breathe. Like all the neighborhood boys, he hunts the taffy girls, girls who lick at snow cones and wear shorts that petal around their crotches. Sometimes those taffy girls talk to me to try and get close to Ellis because Ellis is handsome. I try and copy them but all wilted, my petals.
I am the neighborhood runt. I could howl with loneliness.
But on that ragged bale of hay, nothing matters except the band—Dean and his three other lions, their manes of hair, and golden, dark faces, ready to tear open taffy flesh. Maybe I can get one drunk enough to touch me.
A small group dances in front of the stage. In the center, the lead taffy girl, Tammy Benson, spins like a slow-downed record. Dean stares hard at her. Tammy all candy, tank top tight but just right, short petal shorts, eyelids shadowed blue like the summer sky, hair soft in the heat. She’s a lion too. A lick-able lion.
Dean licks his chops as he eyes her. After the song, he will jump her from behind, and she will not be frightened. To the side of Dean is his brother Brian on bass. Also Kenny on guitar. Kenny plays and swerves, a little drunk, and probably high too. Kenny is friends with Ellis. Kenny is friendly. Earlier he chatted me up by the potato salad, snuck a glance at the board of my chest. Wade, the drummer, is no lion. He is pure sewer rat. He’s had stints in juvie and the girls know not to get alone with him.
But really, there is only Dean, no Brian no Kenny and definitely no Wade.
I want Dean to destroy me. My loneliness is dangerous.
As the band jams I can feel the rough prickle of hay between my legs. It tickles and feels good so I bear down and pray no one notices and thinks: what a freak. My friend Amelia tells me I’m not a freak, but she’s lonely. Hanging out with her doesn’t help my lowly status but she’s loyal. Together our loneliness is dangerous.
My father sits in a lawn chair and smokes a cigarette, his eyes blank as a baby’s. He’s been drunk for hours. Over by a grill, Mr. Constantine flirts with my mother like all men in the neighborhood do. My mother is poised like a movie star with a long, thin cigarette tucked between two fingers. She’s a good actor so only I know she’s lonely. Men young and old circle around her, their lion queen.
Suddenly, the song is over. The band only knows this song and one other, “Bell Bottom Blues,” one Ellis likes. Ellis is nowhere to be found; he’s being handsome somewhere else. And where is Amelia? She said she would be here. Maybe it’s time to go back home and sneak another beer. Probably no one will notice.
The band breaks away from the stage and mills about like rock stars. Taffy Girls flock. Tammy draws Dean in. Brian, who’s sexy but not enough like Dean, gets a bit of attention, as does drunk Kenny. Sewer Rat Wade lights a cigarette and stands apart but grins like he knows some secret. Boys shove each other. Maybe everyone’s a little drunk.
Someone puts on a record. Clapton. Layla, the pretty song. I decide to get up. As I stand, my legs buckle but I tell them I mean business and stumble over to go dance. I roll back onto the ride of the beer and everywhere Clapton glows. I turn and Kenny is right there, his eyes circus red and glassy. I smile and he smiles and takes my hand. His fingers send currents through my little pink house. He says something I can’t quite hear so I shake my head. He starts to drift away but I yank on his hand and he moves in closer and says he doesn’t bite and tells me to meet him under the Dewars’ tree, the spot everyone goes to party because the Dewars vanished one day like criminals. Their creepy house just sits there in the dark. Kids joke there are bodies buried in the backyard. I’ve never been there before.
Kenny roars off. Layla. You’ve got me on my knees. Dizzy, I turn and there’s freaky Amelia waving her chubby, sweaty face. She giggles and says something but I cut away. She calls after me but I ignore her. She will be hurt but I don’t care. I run, I am running, away from the party and into the heat of the almost dark. Just as I hit a stride—the beer buzz sputters and burns out and no more ride. I need to get back to the basement, chug down another beer but there is no time maybe Kenny is already gone there is no time so I keep charging ahead. I am the runt but I run anyway.
I’m panting by the time I reach the tree. No magic, no Dean. It’s Kenny inside the nest of branches in the almost dark. He rips a beer off the plastic ring of a six-pack and says, “Hey.”
“Hey.” I wince at my voice. Runt’s voice.
“You doing all right, Jessica? Feel good?”
I just nod, afraid I might blurt something out like I’m so fucking lonely and worse, tears will leak out of my stupid eyes. So I stand there and say nothing. When he hands me a beer I catch his scent, a little spoiled but sweet; Kenny’s a bruise on a peach. Currents buzz again through my little pink house—but worry snags on the moment: What do I smell like? Maybe my house is dirty, like the walls taste funny like my fingers taste when I touch myself. My hands tremble as I crack open the beer. The first sip’s a little warm but there it is, the golden bolt and whoosh—chest, ribs, belly and back up, smack to the head.
I ride the bolt. No more alone, no more stupid tears.
“Whoa, slow down there, killer,” Kenny says.
I stop chugging. He pulls up his t-shirt and wipes at my chin. His shirt falls like a curtain before I can see anything good.
“Jessica, Jessica. You’re not a bad girl, are you?”
This is kind of dumb, this question. Dean would not ask this question. Dean would just tear in but it’s Kenny who pushes me up against the tree trunk and finds my mouth; he’s all teeth and bone. When the trunk knocks my head, I realize I am a little scared. I think: run. Run home, little runt.
He rears back. “You’ve never kissed anyone before, have you?”
Again, it is a little dumb. Where is Dean anyway? Dean would not say something a little stupid, a little mean. Kenny’s caught my bad smell. Bad smell, bad taste. Little runt house gone bad, pink walls gray.
Kenny grabs a joint from his pocket and lights it. He holds in the hit before blowing on it, its tail lit for a moment.
My beer’s pour thins to a trickle. Emboldened now, lion queen now, I tear another beer off its plastic ring. Kenny chuckles. The bolt breaks me into sparks and I ride gold some more.
My knees mean business and I collapse on the ground and laugh. The beer in my hand sloshes a bit but I manage not to drop it. Kenny plops down, snickering like a dirty, old man. He hands me the joint. I hold my breath and hope I’m doing it right but I crumple right into a cough and Kenny laughs some more. I could claw him, hurt him, but I’m unable to breathe. Runts don’t win anyway.
And then all the noise stops, and it’s quiet, like death quiet. Kenny takes back the joint.
“Geez, you sure know how to party, little Jessica. I had a feeling. Brian said no, don’t go there, all because big brother Ellis but Ellis isn’t here, is he?”
The question dangles between us. Kenny is not Dean or even Brian but at least he’s not Wade.
“How old are you anyway, little Jessica? I can’t remember.”
His question, my answer, curdles in my throat. “Fourteen,” I say.
“Mmm. Fourteen?” He chuckles. “Not too sure about that.”
When I grab the joint back, my fingers flicker against his and then for a weird moment, I want Tammy here, taffy Tammy, her breasts promises she can keep. Kenny is dumb, gross. He’s the gross one, not me. I take a hit on the joint, careful not to cough again, and close my eyes. Maybe Kenny can be Tammy or Dean or even Brian. Tammy Brian Dean, Tammy Brian Dean.
Kenny shoves me back. My head hits something hard, like a tree root. The beer falls out of my hand and he’s on top of me. He slithers his tongue along my neck and yanks my shorts down and gets his hand under my panties. It’s wrong all wrong. He grunts and grinds and breaks his fingers through my little pink door. I buck and try to throw him off, but he means it. I try to picture Tammy Brian Dean, try to hop back on and ride the beer’s bolt. No more alone, no more stupid tears.
And it works; I soften, all soft and wet and Kenny moans out a sick little dream. Runt’s house gone melty. It’s OK, it’ll be something. I try and kiss him. But then he shifts, speeds up, all business; he rips his fingers out of me, gets his jeans off moaning still moaning and I panic, my little door draws shut—before he plunges himself all the way in. He’s a swirling face like a carnival in the dark, and I black out for a second while he pummels me and it’s terrible. It goes on and on until he heaves a final time. He spills out all fire.
It’s quiet again, that death quiet. Maybe there are bodies buried nearby. The Dewars’ graveyard. I lie there with my shorts and underwear around my knees and stare up into the branches which veil the sky like an insult. It takes a minute to sit up.
Vulture Kenny perches on a limb close by and smokes a cigarette. He smirks. I wonder now if he is my boyfriend. Maybe he is everything.
He offers me a cigarette, but I shake my head and fumble for the beer. It’s on its side, almost empty, nestled in pine needles that smell sharp green. I take a last, flat sip and turn but the Vulture is gone. I pull up my underwear and shorts. Little broken runt house. If Kenny was my boyfriend he’d stick around, kiss me. But no one is here. No vulture, no Clapton, no Dean. Only a dark nest of branches. The buzz drains out of me. Runt with no ride. Stumble home, little runt, back to the basement to the little fridge, to its walls cold and white, your own baby church. Steal another beer. Ride gold some more.