Published in Puerto del Sol – Spring 2019
Four things I’m glad my gramma taught me:
Darla lost her license again so she makes like she wants me there for the free ride. I shoulda said I picked up a shift at the diner or got a cold or whatever. Can’t think fast enough to lie and she knows it, gets me to do things I don’t want.
“My roommate used to wait tables at Outback,” I say. “She told me the prices are stupid high and they water down the beer.”
“Marina’s a dental hygienist,” Darla says, puckers her lips in the visor mirror. “They’re the ones who clean your teeth.”
“The diner’s better and I get a discount. We should go there instead.”
“Marina went to college. She’s driving all the way from L.A. just to meet me.”
Darla smacks the visor against the roof. “So I’m not gonna meet my daughter for the first time in some shitty roach coach, that’s so.”
“The diner don’t have–”
“She probably cleans movie stars’ teeth. Maybe that Kim Kardashian. My very own blood. Can you believe it?”
I don’t. I mean, maybe she knows movie stars or whatever. What I can’t believe is me and this Marina person with the perfect round eyes come from the same mom.
Lucky the coffee was cold, so Kele didn’t get fired or nothing. But the asshole was pissed and when assholes get pissed they always say the same thing: Get your manager. Kele looked at his feet and made himself small when he backed away from the asshole’s table. Straightened up and nodded at me on his way to the kitchen. That nod, quick and sharp. That’s how I knew he liked me. He bussed probably a thousand tables at the diner and never spilled nothing on no one.
Figures the asshole sat in my section. He had that same better-run stare from high school, the same crooked tooth that shot out from under his lip. But the muscles he went around flexing turned to jelly and moved to his gut. Still mean. I knew Kele heard him call me Trout. Everyone in the diner must of heard. I set the check next to his cold coffee and ignored the snorts from the two guys he was with. Kele never told me why he dumped coffee on him. Never even talked about it. I liked that.
I found a feather stuck on my windshield after the shift. I peeled it off the glass real careful. Ran a clean rag over the blue barbs till it coulda been on the prettiest jay ever flew over Kingman. I tucked it through the little vent thing on Kele’s locker next to the boxes of rotten lettuce. Next time I saw, the feather was hanging from a leather cord around his neck, a bead on each side.
I didn’t wanna do third grade again. Knew the other kids’d make fun ‘cause I’m bigger and stupider than them. I sat at the kitchen table on the first day and shoveled Fruity Pebbles in my mouth. Told Darla about the clown with four legs who chased me around the swing set. I hee-haw, hee-haw’d like one of them donkeys out on Apache Road ‘cause that’s how the clown laughed and I wanted her to hear, maybe she’d let me stay home. The morning sun always made her mad but I did the noises anyhow. She cut me off before I even got to the flying horse: Our people don’t dream. She said it like not-another-word. I did what she said and stopped. Didn’t dream again until that first night with Kele. In senior year I had to fill out my yearbook thing even though everyone knew I didn’t have the grades. When I got to the question about where I saw myself in five years, I finally got it: Darla didn’t mean dreams like scary clowns and flying horses. She meant hope.
The road does that thing where it rolls and melts in the hot sun. Like my stomach. I turn on a red and see the big restaurant sign.
“Make sure you park in back,” Darla says. “I don’t want Marina to see me get outta this old wreck.”
Not a wreck. Cost me twenty bucks for the good car wash across town. The one where the new car smell doesn’t reek like the high school gym after a basketball game.
“Know why they call it Outback?” I say.
“’Cause when you order a steak they kill a kangaroo out back.”
“What crawled up your ass?”
Squeeze the steering wheel till my knuckles turn white. “This is stupid. You don’t even know her.”
Darla grins at me all crooked, pinches my arm. “I get it. You’re not the only child anymore. Dr. Phil says the youngest is always jealous and insecure.”
Her fingernails dig into my skin. “God, I’m so nervous, I wanna puke.”
“Not in my car.”
My first big sister lived in the teen department at J.C. Penny. I was only ten, couldn’t wear the booty shorts and lacy MTV bras. Darla would tell me to get lost, and I did, in Penny’s world. She wore the cutest clothes, her eyes were round as marbles, and she never frowned. She had a faraway look that reminded me of the pretty lady in the Coke commercial. I used to practice that look in the mirror, couldn’t never get it right. I slipped little presents in Penny’s pockets: shiny purple stones, feathers I found in the bushes outside the Y. Watermelon Jolly Ranchers. All my favorite things. That whole summer, I sat next to Penny’s metal stand and told her about school and Darla and her mean boyfriend who pulled his eyes like a Chinaman when I come outta my room. One day I found a blue robin’s egg. I held it real soft in my palm, cupped the other hand over the top. I pushed and pushed on that glass door with my shoulder. Locked. No lights. I could read the signs that said Store Closing in big orange and yellow letters. I thought they meant every day when the old guy in the gray uniform told me Get now, this ain’t no hotel. I cried and kicked and threw the egg in the street. Watched it wobble in the dirty gutter. Ran out and said I’m so, so sorry. But the shell cracked and the baby bird didn’t wake up and I knew God saw.
I Googled Marina. Everyone says it’s like magic, Google, and they’re kinda right. Not even a second after I hit the button there was her picture. Long blond hair, super straight teeth. And the biggest, roundest eyes I ever seen. Like cartoon round. So pretty. I clicked on her Facebook and saw a bunch more pictures: her at the beach, her with her lips all puckered up, her with a bunch of people holding signs that said Me Too with that button on the phone I never use. I didn’t see Darla in her at all, figured I got the wrong girl. Then I found a picture of Marina looking past the camera, a little smile, round eyes so clear you can see the guy holding the camera. Like maybe she loves that guy. Like maybe he loves her right back. There’s Darla, I thought. The Darla I forgot all about. The mom who fixed me oatmeal in the morning and held my hand on the walk to school. The mom who stroked my hair when I curled against her leg during nighttime meetings at the Lutheran church. I didn’t forget ‘cause I’m stupid. I hardly knew her very long, is all. My roommate showed me how to right-click-save-as. Now I won’t forget again.
“I’ll take a whiskey sour,” Darla tells the waiter.
“Sorry, Mate. No liquor. Beer or wine?”
“Fine. A Bud Light, but put it in a mug.”
“I’ll have a white wine,” I say.
Darla smacks the table, near sends my stomach through my throat. “Since when do you drink wine?”
“You said a mug. I thought–”
“Bring us some of that coconut shrimp from the TV commercial,” Darla tells the waiter. “The big ones. We’re waiting for someone special.”
I traced my finger down the low, flat arc of Kele’s forehead. Over his nose, around the full lips that never smile, up and over his sharp cheekbone to the folds of skin that cover his eyes. His eyeballs twitched under the dark lids, sent little earthquakes down his eyelashes. He didn’t swat my hand away or roll over and pull on his pants and leave. He lay quiet, peaceful as stone. I rested my head on his warm shoulder, let my eyes close. The rise and fall of his chest told me he was still there. I floated off the bed, light as a feather. Saw the river below me, the big canyon, the birds opening their V to let me in. Felt warm, safe, loved. Like the time with the gray horse and crazy clown. A mourning dove cooed and I landed hard. Another coo, all sad and alone forever and ever. Not in the dream, outside my window. Wanted to run outside and wave my arms, scream You’re not God, you don’t know, he might stay. Kele would’ve woke up for sure, thought I was weird. I laid there and listened and wished the dove would please, please, please stop crying.
That short-haired woman smirks at you from every channel when you wanna put your feet up with a little Two and a Half Men. But when you try to find her she goes all shy and hides. Not CNN. Not Fox. Not local. There, the channel with all the letters. I turn the sound up. Geez that woman uses big words. Marina likes her on Facebook? Only last three minutes before I switch to Cheaters. Marina probably won’t talk to me, anyway. I’m not her mom, or her birth mother, or whatever they call it. I don’t even know for sure what I should call her. The sisters I know braid each other’s hair and walk to school together and don’t laugh when you put on makeup and try to look pretty for work. They don’t make you feel like some kinda loser ‘cause you didn’t graduate high school or get a fancy job or have round eyes or parents who hug you in pictures. Marina’s not a real sister. Screw her.
“Is that her?” Darla asks.
Blond, straight white teeth. But the eyes, they’re wrong. “No, not her.”
Darla slumps in the booth. “Marina’s prettier. I was a looker back in the day, and her daddy was handsome. I couldn’t hardly breathe when he drove me home after babysitting. Wrote our names in hearts on my desk.”
“What kinda name is Marina?” I say. “Is she a snob or something?”
Darla does that witch laugh that makes little prickles on my neck. “Ha! Green-eyed monster gotcha!”
Everyone looks. I go real quiet and still.
“Her name’s classy,” Darla says. “Like an expensive pier for yachts and stuff. Better than Nickle or Dime or whatever crazy thing.”
The courthouse clerk, she sat behind me in eighth grade home room. Knew how to raise the little hairs on the back of my neck better than anyone. Got so I didn’t need to fake my stomach aches to lay on the school nurse’s couch. I couldn’t look at her when I pushed the form through the little opening at the bottom of the courthouse window. She ran her pen down the paper, stopped at the last question. What’s this mean? she said. Scout’s not a real name, I said. I think my mom made it up. I want a real name. I remember you, she said. You like fish or something? Just put that Penny’s a family name, I said. That’s why I want to change it. Yeah, she said. You’re that fish girl. She didn’t come up with the name Trout. But her voice whispering it in my ear hurt way more than the shouts across the quad. Her fingers played with the stamp next to the form. Please, I said.
I didn’t complain, didn’t beg him to stay. The job his mom got him on the Rez sounded way better than scraping hard eggs off a plate and pretending the assholes are better than you. Maybe I should have. Maybe I shoulda run after Kele’s truck, told him I loved him, told him I needed him. Told him he’s my nightingale, my beautiful, perfect nightingale and I can’t dream without his song. He woulda hated that. I watched the red taillights flash through the dust at the end of my road and leave me forever. Not forever, he said. Only a couple hours away. I’ll visit, or you can come see me. I try to believe him. Like, really, really try. But the mourning dove.
Three things I wish my gramma told me before she died:
My wine tasted weird, like someone dipped sweat socks in a glass. Beer in a mug is classy, too. I know I should only drink two before we eat, and Darla won’t let me touch the shrimps. More than two on no food means I’ll say something stupid. Don’t wanna say nothing at all. Try to drink my beers slow, but I end up gulping and when I gulp I burp and when I burp Darla laughs at me and I feel stupid. Now my second beer’s gone and I burped in my mouth a million times and my stomach hurts.
Darla sucks the foam off her fourth beer. I counted.
“Do you think Marina’ll be mad at me,” she says. “For giving her away?”
I swallow a burp. “No. I don’t think she’ll be mad.”
The high school nurse told me. She pulled a pad of tear-off forms from a drawer, handed me one: Signs of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome in Adolescents. Small wide-set eyes, quick to anger, low intelligence. The last one made me mad, then sad, ‘cause getting mad is the second one.
That night I cried from my trout eyes and drank the rest of the mouthwash. A note got me outta computer class. Mr. Parnham was nice, let me talk about whatever I wanted for an hour every Tuesday and Thursday. When school ended, he said I’m not defined by my mother’s choices. I wrote that down: Not Defined By My Mother’s Choices. The words rolled around in my head for a long time. I decided he meant I get to make my own choices. So I changed my name. Pissed Darla off to no end. Nothing’s good enough for you, she screamed. Gave me the silent treatment for a whole week. Next I moved outta Darla’s place and got an apartment with a girl from the diner. That was my last choice. I didn’t even choose Kele, he chose me. Now everything I do is ‘cause I have to: Work to pay rent, drink to get through another night. Mr. Parnham didn’t tell me I only get two choices, make them good. I heard he got busted for sending dick pics to a cheerleader. Maybe he didn’t know, either.
The horse was gray. That’s how I knew gramma sent him to save me. I pulled myself on his back, careful not to smudge his feathers. Grabbed his mane with both hands. He galloped right past the clown’s spinning legs. Felt the muscles under his skin flex and stretch, strong and long. My legs melted into his back. His wings spread wide. We raised our noses and pushed hard against the blacktop. There we were, flying over the swing set. The air was quiet. No hee-haw, hee-haw. No slamming doors. No mean names. No one yelling at you to do something, yelling at you for doing something wrong. Nothing but the wind past my ears and the swoosh swoosh of his wings. We flew over the school to the trailer park. People stopped walking or driving or whatever and tilted their faces to the sky. We flew across town, swooped down low over the river, up up up above the big canyon. A flock of birds opened their V to let us in. The birds whispered to me. I don’t remember what they said but I remember the feeling. Warm, safe. Loved. I rested my cheek on his soft gray neck. A goose honked in my ear and my foot slipped.
I watch the lump in Darla’s neck rise and fall, rise and fall. Number seven. Can smell the hops on her breath when she talks. Been an hour since I tipped my mug for the last drops. The shrimps don’t even look good no more.
The waiter taps his pen against the table. “You Sheilas gonna order dinner?”
“Maybe she ain’t coming,” I say.
“You’d love that, wouldn’t you?”
I count ones from my wallet. “I’m going home.”
“Cold. No wonder your Indian left you.”
“You and her can choke on that shrimp for all I–”
Our heads swing toward a wedge of light around the restaurant door.
“There she is,” Darla says in a whisper.
She smiles at us, waves. A gray horse gallops across her t-shirt.
Darla squeezes my hand across the table. I squeeze back.