This morning the neighbor’s gardeners come earlier than usual and drive the homeless girl off her corner with a leaf blower. Once there was a bus stop there, and though the route has been redirected, the sunshade built to protect waiting commuters was left behind.
Normally the girl stays on the corner, dozing upright like a horse, until late morning when the restaurants and shops on the little downtown strip open. She puts in a day of panhandling, staying until the bars close and the university kids stagger away, then returns to sleep under the sunshade.
Now, rest interrupted, and too early to make her way downtown, she walks the curb on her tiptoes, arms out, testing her balance. I see the neighbor’s blinds twitch, someone inside following her progress. When the girl is at the point furthest from his door, the neighbor emerges in gold-rim aviators and a sport coat, silver hair brushed back from his forehead.
After he leaves, nodding to the gardeners—who pause, pulling down their bandanas to smile at him—the police come. This is nothing new. Routine. We live, the neighbor and I, in one of the oldest neighborhoods at the edge of the sprawl of the city. Half the houses here have been remodeled into modest haciendas with tiled drives and themed mosaics on the thick walls that block their backyards from view, but the other half are rental properties, small sagging brick ranches with deep scorched yards, slowly succumbing to time.
The neighbor owns, I rent, and the police are called to our little melting pot often enough that the officer responding doesn’t bother to leave his cruiser. The car pulls alongside the girl in the street, the window crawls down, and a disembodied voice demands, “What’s going on here?”
“Nothing,” is always the girl’s opener.
The officer says it back as a question. “Nothing?”
“I’m waiting for a friend.” She raises a hand to shield her eyes and looks up and down the quiet street.
“Been waiting long?”
“Doesn’t seem like much of a friend.”
Also living in the house next door is a girl, lunar pale, who’s come out onto the perfect lawn to watch the exchange. In the hollow between her collar bones is a barbell piercing and, below it in an arch stretching shoulder to shoulder, the word Dolly tattooed in black Edwardian script.
For the month before I realized she was something else to him, I was certain the girl was the neighbor’s daughter, living at home again, busted up by life. I got a kick out of the idea of them, father and daughter under one roof. I liked to imagine his frustration when her spiked shirts tore his khaki slacks in the wash.
When the neighbor left his house, I used to say, “Goodbye, Dad,” waving through the window at his stiff back, until the morning I caught the proprietary slide of his fingers up the girl’s inner arm all the way to the piercing in her throat. Since then I say, “Goodbye, Daddy .”
The policeman leaves. The gardeners gather up the grass clippings and leaf litter, muscle their push mower into the bed of a white truck, and go. The homeless girl returns to the sunshade on the corner, the neighbor girl abandons the lawn for the house, and I do not move from my place at the window, watching the small world outside, waiting for the phone to ring.
I won’t lie—when I answered the classified ad that had only phone work and a number, I expected a sex line in need of operators but hoped for telemarketing or a bill-collection service with standards low enough to hire me.
The man who answered began with a question: “Have you ever dreamed of being an actress and seeing the world?”
Fresh off a bus, I’d spent my first week in Houston with a couple of transients from Oregon, who’d come to Texas chasing warmer weather. I drifted with them between hostels and motels living off their good will until they wanted a three-way. When we parted company, I had no money, no guarantee of a place to sleep. Dreams were not a factor when I told the man on the phone, “Yes.”
We arranged a place to meet. I set terms: public and well-lit.
He introduced himself as Don, “but call me Donaldo.” His small, busy hands fanned glossy tri-fold pamphlets across the tabletop, then pushed them into a stack again.
Through flyers and seminars, he sold kits: Start a Small Business from Home , Secrets for Small Business Success . He’d set up in a city, stay until things turned, then get while the getting was good. “Look,” he said. “I’ll give it to you straight: It’s not what anybody’d call honest work.” What he needed—what I would do—were false testimonials, to push would-be buyers into purchase.
“People,” Donaldo said, “want connection.”
I’d gone in ready to accept whatever work might be offered, but before I could say so, he held a hand up: Wait . He cocked his head toward the coffee shop’s front window. Outside, rain was falling, heavy and slow. Through the glass, we watched a barista in a clean black apron shooing a bum from the protected space at the top of the stairs. “You might think this is bad,” Donaldo said, touching the tri-folds, “but trust me, girl, there are worse things.”
At the bottom of the stairs, the bum thrust a hand out at passersby rushing through the rain.
Set on a sturdy cardboard box in my new living room are three phones in a neat line. On a strip of masking tape across each there is a name and a dollar amount. Women call and I confirm that, yes, I made ten, fifteen, twenty-five thousand dollars selling handmade candles with my Start a Home Business kit.
I’m Mary, or Shelia, or Crystal, a voice that authenticates the existence of an invented woman quoted in one of Donaldo’s glossy brochures.
Along the far wall of the front room, kits are stacked, ready to be addressed and sent. At first I only did fake testimonials, but then asked to take over shipping for a pay raise.
“What you do on the phone is fraud,” Donaldo warned, “but putting shit through the mail makes it serious.”
“You could get thirty years. Like, in prison. Real shit.”
“There are worse things.”
“Christ,” he said. “Are you pulling my leg?”
“I want to rent a house. I want some privacy.”
We were sitting on the stairs outside the apartment Donaldo had set me up with. Below us, a group of teenagers were wrestling in the small, bean-shaped pool. A girl was shrieking, hands crossed over her chest, a boy jerking at her bikini top.
“What do you need privacy for?”
“I’m sick of living where all the doors all face one another.”
“What do you care?”
From the pool there was a “Whoop!” and the boy swung the girl’s top above his head.
“I want space away from other people.”
Donaldo shook his head. “Jesus Christ.”
“It’s a win for you.”
“I don’t know why,” Donaldo said, “but I thought you were smarter.”
Inside each Start a Home Business kit is a five-pound bag of bleached beeswax chips, five bottles of scented oil, plastic pipettes, string wicks—just add heat. Voila.
I’m white, I’m black, I’m a freckled mutt, young, old, life-beat beyond age but getting by. I’m a success.
Mary is the one without any fucks left to give. She’s older, worked herself paper thin for two kids who both turned out degenerate. Addicts. “They sure as shit didn’t get that from me,” she says. “They went out looking for it all on their own.” The last time her son came around for money, she wouldn’t give, so he kicked out the headlights on her car, screaming, “Bitch,” until the people across the way called the police, and that was that. “If he was burning,” she says, “I wouldn’t waste the piss.”
Initially, her coldness puts some women off, but if they stay on the line, they’ll come to admire her. Mary proudly makes do with very little. “You only need what you need,” she says, “to be an independent woman.”
At first, there were scripts, guidelines for taking calls, but now I improvise.
Readying for the East Coast’s eight o’clock, I’m up in early-morning darkness. I navigate my way into the living room using the bleed of the streetlights through the blinds. I pull their string. The kinked panels clump lopsided halfway up the window. Outside the sky is still blue-black and heavy, Orion’s belt bright.
Drie Konings , I learned in school: Three Kings.
“Fuck kings,” my sister had said when she learned about the stars’ less common name. Drie Sustres : Three Sisters. She was at the mirror, torturing her bangs with a curling iron. “Girl power,” she raised a fist.
“Yeah,” I said.
“ Fuck yeah,” she said.
I mean to shower, comb my wet hair, and dress from top to bottom. Shoes. Bobby pins. The works. It’s a trick I half believe in—preparing as if there’s somewhere I have to be. But this morning I allow the routine to slip. Rather than wash and dress before the phones start ringing, I stand at the window, looking at the city through the line of chewed-up palms, watching the stars’ rare shine pushing through the light pollution of a million-plus lives until it’s canceled by the new day.
I check for the homeless girl under the sunshade. She isn’t there, but the neighbor girl, white as a candle, is standing at the edge of her perfect lawn.
It’s serious business to maintain a lawn like that here. The heat and the pollution work against a velvet blanket of green. The city’s worst wards are being razed and rebuilt and abandoned and rediscovered, razed and rebuilt again. Here, in our nice neighborhood, we share the same air as there. Air that is made visible by dust and debris.
The neighbor’s sprinklers run every night, not just feeding their lawn but washing it clean. For the first week after I moved, I was sleepless from all the strange sounds in the dark. The hiss of the sprinkler heads kicking on would jackknife me out of shallow dreams, heart alive, then I would wander through the little house, peeking out the blinds, afraid I’d find a demented eye staring in.
The first time I saw the neighbor girl, waxy pale, standing on the clipped grass in the middle of the night, she scared a short scream right out of me.
This morning I can see where she’s stepped. The water is displaced, leaving dark green tracks. On the concrete too there are prints—hers—the wet curves left by bare feet, leading into the sunshade then back to the lawn.
I go to the front door and unlock the deadbolt. Underfoot, my grass is brittle, sharp, and the air has texture, wet and almost pulpy, humidity rising with the sun. Sweat prickles under my breasts and in the small of my back. “Hey,” I call. The neighbor girl turns in her doorway. She’s in something small and black with a dozen skinny straps. “Have you seen her?” I point to the sunshade.
She shakes her head and slips inside.
Near the park outside of City Hall, signs prohibit “urban camping” and the consumption of alcohol. Posted too are hours for the use of public spaces, which also go ignored. Mornings, the wide shadowed walkways leading to the park are full of homeless people. Nearby their dogs pant against the swelling heat, eyes half closed but still on guard, lazily alert.
I skirt a fat-headed terrier lying on the sidewalk where the water overflowing from a planter has made a thin puddle on the concrete. It raises its head when I get close, then yawns tremendously, rolling to present its belly.
It’s not even seven o’clock, but there is a snarl of men and women at the pick-up counter of the coffee shop. Two teenage girls in pop-bead bracelets with half-shaved heads and greasy backpacks are stealing drinks.
The older of the two is bolder. In the midst of the pre-work rush, she saunters up to where the barista has just set a sweating, clear plastic cup full of coffee over ice. She passes it to the younger girl, who takes a hard pull, her mouth puckering at the bitter taste.
Pushing, the older girl directs the younger to the island of cream and sugar and napkins, then goes back to the counter. “Hey.” She raps dirty knuckles on the polished wood. “I’m still waiting on an iced coffee.”
Behind her a woman adds, “Me too. The same thing.”
I watch the younger girl’s eyes go huge. Grimacing through it, she gulps the coffee down; then, red-faced, shoves the cup deep into the trash.
The older girl moves back, slings an arm around the younger one’s neck, and pulls her close. “Chill,” I hear her whisper. “Just follow my lead.”
There is another person who does what I do. A man, named Lix. Volume is one half of the reason for two of us; gender is the other. The home business kits are candle-making: women’s work. But who do women trust to make their business a success?
“Not women,” Donaldo said, “that’s for fucking sure.”
Lix gives financial advice for Small Business Success .
“Lix?” I asked Donaldo.
Donaldo lowered his voice. “Former medicine man.”
“He was a medicine man?”
“Christ, are you serious? He was a drug dealer. Elixir. Get it? He’s got the cure for what ails you. Jesus.”
When I met Lix, the first thing he said to me was, “You’ve got a nice voice.” He nodded and pumped my hand up and down hard. “Now, can you talk like a black girl?”
We were living in month-to-month rentals across a narrow concrete landing from each other, studio apartments Donaldo paid the deposit on. Sometimes we walked to a Mexican grocery store up the street that had candies flavored with chili and lime and small tabs of hard-shelled violet gum. The register was behind a wall of bulletproof glass with tiny holes bored in a circle for the clerk to put his mouth to and ask for money. I fed dollars through a narrow slot. Passing back change, not even the clerk’s fingertips crossed to my side of the partition.
Lix and I would sit side by side on the landing, each on a call, a plug of tough purple gum in our cheeks, speaking softly, telling happy-ish stories about made-up lives.
The concrete held the day’s heat. Traffic was a steady whir. Somewhere nearby, fireworks were lighting off. Pop. Pop. Pop. But there wasn’t any smoke in the wind, no scraps of thin, singed paper tumbling around, no pleased whoops as the report faded, and I realized it was gunshots.
Lix flashed an imitation of a gang sign. “Gettin’ down in Hustle Town.”
He would half-listen to me on my calls, shaking his head when I didn’t sell.
“Do you know what shameless means?” He shook me by the shoulder. “Baby, it means you got no shame .” Hooking an arm around my neck, he pulled me against his side. I laid my head on his shoulder. “You watch me. Just follow my lead.”
Now when I have a single mother on the hook, admitting she can’t make rent and buy the kit both, I’m not above saying, “What about a payment plan?”
Lix taught me that.
I’ve seen the older of the two girls before, but not in the coffee shop. She panhandles with a sign that says smile , and once I saw her standing in the mouth of a walkway late at night, watching sullenly while two men, shirtless, in cargo pants and beanies, negotiated her value. One man handed the leash of his dog, a squat brindle terrier, to the other, then he turned and said to her, “Let’s get something straight between us,” grabbing at his crotch. I watched the girl follow him into the park.
The tangle of people at the coffee counter begins to thin, and now I watch the girl snag two more drinks, then sling her arm around her younger friend and get while the getting is good.
After they’re gone, a woman still waiting for her order realizes that it’s been taken. “I can’t believe this,” she says. “I can’t believe this. Those girls were stealing. ”
Behind the counter, a boy in a clean black apron pours cold coffee from a pitcher into a shaker of ice. He will not meet the woman’s eyes. “Stealing,” she says again, turning in a tight circle, inviting anyone to share in her feeling of violation. “What I’d like to know is where are the parents? Who lets them run wild?”
I’m looking away, but because I’m close she takes a step toward me. “Can you believe this?”
What I could say is, Yes. But what I say is nothing at all.
It isn’t hard to end up adrift. Take a small-town girl, teenaged and bitter, cursing the small-town stars overhead, believing elsewhere they must be brighter. Make her certain those better stars will guide her more truly. If her roots aren’t deep, a strong night breeze will lift her, carry her up-up-and-away, star-ward, then drop her back to earth.
I grew up knowing my mother loved my sister and me, but would always love us a little less than any man who passed her on the street and whistled.
“Don’t be jealous,” she would say.
The first time my sister was sent to juvenile detention, it was for a boy. After a football game, in the full parking lot, he pointed to a car and told her to break its windshield. She did. The boy helped her dismount the hood. “See how good I’ve got her trained?” He held her by the back of the neck. “This is my bitch,” and she glowed.
My sister became part of the sinewy collection that filled a bestiary run by the state. Released, she found herself caught again, and again, and again.
Our mother would say, “She made her bed. She can lie in it.”
We moved to a smaller apartment. I slept on the couch. In the bedroom, my mother and her boyfriends fucked and fought. They staggered out sweaty, wrapped in sheets. I learned the smell of semen, and to differentiate between sounds of an orgasm and sounds of pain.
I found other couches to sleep on.
One year, I did not get a call on my birthday. At Christmas, I did not call. That makes a year without speaking. How easily does a year become two? Two become three? For the Puritans, seven years without contact was good enough to call a person dead.
I’m Shelia, soft-spoken, still tender with shame, admitting into the phone, “There were some real bad times—you know?” The woman on the line is hooked, but when the police cruiser rolls slowly down the street I drop the phone to chase it.
I flip the deadbolt and throw open the door. The heat bugs are thrumming and the air is stupid hot. Underfoot, the grass is dead, hard and needle sharp. I wave my hands above my head to catch the officer’s attention. Braless, my breasts are everywhere. Early afternoon and I’m still wearing the T-shirt I slept in.
The cruiser bumps to a stop, one wheel on the curb.
I cross the lawn fast, like every step doesn’t hurt.
The window lowers. “Ma’am?”
I recognize the voice. Been waiting long? “There’s a girl,” I say, “who sleeps here,” pointing to the empty sunshade on the corner.
“She hasn’t been here for three days.”
“If she comes back—”
“I’m not complaining—”
The officer fishes a washcloth from his pocket. He uses it to dab sweat from the clean edge his crewcut makes across his forehead. “Ma’am.”
I don’t doubt that my T-shirt is see-through. Sweat is gathering in the small of my back, running down my ass. I wrap an arm across my breasts and drop the other to cover my crotch with a splayed hand. “Please don’t ma’am me.”
“Ma’am,” the officer says, “Don’t you figure she’s just got somewhere else to go?”
I look at him.
He looks back.
“Never mind,” I say, turning toward the house. Every step hurts, and I move slow.
I’ve left my door wide open. The neighbor girl’s is open too. She stands half-in, half-out, watching, still in a black slip, a black sleep mask stitched with little cat ears pushed up on her forehead. She lifts her hand in a half-wave.
Closing the door turns the heat bugs’ volume down to a background sizzle, like eggs cracked into a pan of boiling grease. Under it I can hear a tiny voice calling out, “Hello? Hello?” The woman is still on the line. “Is anyone there? Hello?”
There’s a knock at the door. I set the phone back in its cradle.
The neighbor girl is on the other side holding a carafe of coffee. She’s pulled on a pair of loose black pants but is wearing her slip as a shirt. “I just made this,” she says. “I just got up too.”
In the living room I watch her take in the boxes stacked high against the wall, the row of phones, the absence of furniture. She asks, “You live alone?”
My mind jumps to Donaldo that night on the apartment steps. After he said, “but I thought you were smarter,” he grabbed my hands. He brought them to his chest. “I think you’re smart.” Through his shirt, I could feel his heartbeat kicking up and his skin getting hotter. “Girl,” he said, and his nervous little hands were clenching and unclenching around mine, “I think you’re a real kick in the pants.” There was no space to retreat on the narrow stairs. “This is how it is?” I grabbed at his crotch. “You should have said from the start.”
“Jesus Christ.” He shoved my hands back. “I’ve never been anything but a friend to you.”
The neighbor girl accepts two plastic cups, pouring coffee without comment. She lowers herself to the floor. “That’s lucky. Just you. I’m married.”
“Do you want to ask?”
“Why I’m married to who I’m married to.”
“Do you want to tell me?”
She sips, eyes closing. “It was love.” Her mouth pulls down. “He was so nice to me that I fell in love with him.”
I sit across from her, brushing dead grass from the sore soles of my feet. “Why’re you sad then?”
“I bought it hook, line, and sinker.” She shrugs. “I’m got. He doesn’t have to be that nice anymore.”
“It isn’t your fault.”
“I can still be sorry.”
Lix had a sad-sack-of-shit story too.
When he was seventeen he got busted with weed and pills on school property. He mouthed off to the officer, and later he mouthed off to the judge. Juvenile detention, it was decided, until he turned eighteen.
On a school bus with wire over the windows he rode north, past pine forests and dark blue lakes. Crossing a river on a one-lane bridge, he looked down and saw a bull moose as big as a truck licking lichen from the rocks. “Its tongue,” he said, “was about as wide as my face.”
Juvenile detention was a massive old brick building in the shape of a bird. Only the central tower, the body, was still open. The wings—with windows boarded over and plastic draping all the interior doors—were in the process of being gutted by asbestos removal experts. The township was fighting the historical society for the right to tear the whole thing down.
During the day Lix took classes on woodworking. He built a napkin holder, a birdhouse, a serving tray with beveled handles, then a coffee table, then a writing desk with delicate bowed legs.
At night, fireflies glowed yellow-green in the grass. The boys caught them in the industrial-sized peanut butter jars the cook saved for them. There were no fences. Cold air rolled down from the mountains. Wild lupine grew shoulder high with stalks so thick the boys would use them as play swords. Frogs lived in the defunct fountain. After lights out, Lix shimmied into his blankets and fell instantly asleep.
“I never slept so good,” he said. We were sitting together on the narrow stairs to our shared landing, knees touching.
“It sounds like summer camp.”
“Except there wasn’t any swimming there or, like, canoes. But the woodworking, and—” he looked up, a plane droning overhead, “the outdoors part. Nature.”
“Yeah.” He grinned. “Bunkbeds.”
It was four months and then they sent him home. He wasn’t eighteen yet, but he’d been good.
For his first dinner back, his mother made lobster, and mashed potatoes, and corn-on-the-cob.
“I could’ve ground her throat in,” Lix told me. “I could’ve killed her.” The sunset was melting in sherbet colors and his shadow threw itself long. “I could’ve killed them all.” Lix moved to the landing, circling an invisible table, slitting invisible throats with big cross-body jerks of his arm.
All his life he had a sensitive stomach. His father was a dockhand who brought home lobsters that couldn’t be sold, and the smell of them made Lix queasy. He would retch and his father would smack him. “Not at the table.”
It was summer, and the whole family was crowded into the hot kitchen. His mother turned to him and said, “You’re at least gonna try it.” She took a lobster from the platter in the middle of the table. With a twist and a crack, she separated the tail from the body. Fluid sluiced out the tomalley and roe.
Lix vomited on his plate.
“Fucking lobster.” He spat on an invisible body. “That’s what you get for trying to feed me fucking lobster.” Bent, hands on his knees, he was breathing slow and shallow. The pose made him look as if he’d just come out of a fight, but it was impossible to tell if he’d won or lost.
Lix scrubbed a hand over his head. He was smiling, and it was awful. “Some welcome home, right?”
“What’s your favorite?” I asked. “If you could have anything?”
Lix straightened up. “Really?”
“You know what I like?”
Neither of us had a pan, but at the convenience mart we bought Kraft slices, and a long loaf of soft white bread, and heavy aluminum foil. It was behind the counter with the cigarettes and batteries. To buy, I had to show I.D. and sign a form.
“Drugs,” Lix said.
Where a car window had been broken out, the street glittered.
Lix squatted down. “Want a piggyback?”
“It won’t cut. It’s safety glass.”
He carried me to our apartment complex and up the stairs. My arms were around his neck, my legs around his waist.
When I cut myself on the serrated edge of the foil box, I thought it was funny. “Is this ironic?”
“Bad luck and cheap packaging.” Lix put my bleeding finger in his mouth and sucked. He licked the pad. “All better.” He grinned, all bright teeth. “Healed with a kiss.”
“You have me,” I said.
“You have me.” I caught one of his hands. “To be your family.”
He pulled back. “Are you nuts?”
“We’re like a family now.”
“Jesus,” he said. “You’re nuts.”
I followed him across the room. “I don’t mean like boyfriend-girlfriend.”
He held up both hands. “Stop.”
I used his real name. “Matthew,” reaching out.
He crossed his arms, his body going tight. “You need to go.”
“You do.” He jerked his head toward the door. “Go.”
“You gotta go.”
He moved fast, grabbing me by the arm and pulling me to the door. “I won’t ruin what you’ve got going, working with Donaldo, but you better stay away from me.”
“No.” I was crying. “I can’t believe this.”
He pushed me out. “Believe it.”
The sunshade is empty.
From the window, I can see the neighbor girl in her SUV with her little terrier. I watched her carry out two bags and put them in the back, but they’ve been there, idling, for an hour.
I’m Crystal, promising, “My life has never been better,” but I’m thinking of Donaldo and the hurt in his voice. “I’ve never been anything but a friend to you,” he said.
Crystal believes we can all change. “You have to trust that good things can happen.”
The woman on the line says, “I want to.”
Crystal is the encouraging one. “You can change your life,” but I’m thinking of Lix and the anger in his voice. “You’re nuts,” he said, because I offered him love.
Mail falls through the slot to the floor. I collect it, phone pinched between my chin and shoulder. It’s all for former tenants. Nothing comes in my name.
“We all have to live in this world,” Crystal says, “but you get to decide how you want to do it.”
I flip through a magazine for someone who doesn’t live here anymore. A space-filler column called “It’s Not All Bad,” about a parakeet rescued from a storm drain, is set alongside the feature article. In it, army translators are accused of raping villagers with fluorescent light tubes.
There is video, the article says.