The following is an excerpt from
by Neal Eric Yeomans
Copyright © Neal Eric Yeomans
The voices seem to be coming from a great distance. She hears those voices, but doesn’t really hear them. Floating. She is in space. You can’t hear anything in space. Jodie drifts on the inflatable raft in the chlorinated water. She is here. She is not here. She is seen and yet she is invisible all at the same time. The sun is a hazy silver dollar in the blue sky. It is July and very hot.
A voice is calling from far away. It is Mom’s voice. Jodie turns her head and sees her through water weary eyes. Mom is only a blurred figure waving to her to come in.
Jodie begins to paddle, pink feet kicking in the clear water. She reaches the other side of the long pool and looks up at all of them – Mrs. Yates, Mrs. Cahill, Mrs. Ellis, and Mrs. Devereaux – sitting around the table in the blue afternoon. This is Mom’s bridge group. They are the regulars at Kathy’s Nail Salon. They are the fellow members of the P.T.A. and town council, gossipers at the checkout lines, rare attendees at Saint Matthew’s Episcopal Church, subscribers to Better Homes and Garden Magazine and The New York Times. They are the Supermoms who are capable of making meatloaf and legumes for dinner, who bring their kids to soccer practice, who take dance lessons at the community center with their husbands on Friday nights, who host cocktail parties all year long, who wear lots of expensive jewelry and have fake suntans. They enjoy their homes and their nice things and when each woman smiles their teeth are white and straight and perfect. They are like living Barbie dolls.
Mom lights a cigarette. “Billy wants you to go over and play. His mother just called. I told her you would be right over.”
Jodie rolls off the raft and swims to the ladder. She gets out of the pool. She stands there and water runs down her fat legs and fat arms and her bathing suit sticks to her fat body. Jodie’s hair is plastered to her acne scarred face. She stands there and Mrs. Cahill, the one with the Percocet addiction, can’t believe how fast she has grown in the last year.
Mom pours some wine into a tall glass and says, “She will always be my little whale.”
The other ladies laugh.
Jodie walks across the flagstones to the sliding glass doors. Her wet footprints dry quickly in the humidity. Mom and her friends go back to talking about Donna Anderson’s double mastectomy. Jodie has never seen them play an actual card game. Never. All they do is just sit out here in the summer sun for hours and talk and drink and laugh and drink and cry and drink some more and make fun of the spouses and offspring of other people in town. Sometimes – when they are really wasted – they all go skinny dipping in the pool. Even Mom has done it! Jodie has known these strange women all her life. They are friends of the family. They are the neighbors.
In the living room Jennifer, eight years old, is sprawled on the floor wearing only a long T-shirt and white underpants. She lies there like a dog trying to keep cool and flips through the channels on the TV with the remote control. The images appear in rapid succession. Grainy footage of an apartment fire. The wholesome ending on some stupid family sitcom. A commercial for Viagra. An interview with a woman who put her baby in the oven. More commercials advertising laxatives and fresh-mint toothpaste. Muslims with AK47’s burning an American flag somewhere in the Middle East. A documentary on Ted Bundy. Jennifer settles for an episode of SpongeBob Squarepants.
Jodie retrieves her purple flip-flops from under the couch. Her sister watches with a detached expression.
“Where are you going?” asks Jennifer. She is eating M&Ms out of the candy dish. A can of Pepsi is next to her.
“To Billy’s,” says Jodie.
“Can I come?”
“Billy doesn’t like you. Nobody likes you.”
“Oh.” She goes back to watching the television.
He lives next door. Always has. She rings the bell and waits. Jodie wears a light fall jacket over her lime green bathing suit. The sun is at its highest point now so that even the flowers droop sadly. The paved roads crack, sizzle, and the trees along this block do not give a lot of shade. The summer has been ruthless with the heat.
The front door opens. The sad lady stands there, smiling a little. Jodie has always liked her. She notices the discolored mark on the left side of Miss. Crick’s cheek. Billy says he has seen his stepfather hit her more than once. The mark that Miss. Crick has now looks like an older one, a pale yellow bruise. She calls to her son.
He appears almost at once, just like a magic trick. At twelve years old Billy Crick is short. His hair hangs in front of his caramel eyes and there is a warm, bronzed color to his skin. He wears a blue collared Oxford shirt, ripped shorts, converse shoes and white athletic socks that he has pulled up to his scabby knees. He and Jodie have been friends since kindergarten.
“I got something I need to show you,” he says, quietly. “It’s in the woods.”
Billy’s mother watches them go down the small walkway and cross the street. They walk down West Avenue. Miss. Crick’s eyes are glossy, like she might cry at any moment. She remembers being a kid and having secrets.
Jodie loves to walk side by side with Billy in the summer heat. She likes to be close to him and smell his boy smell, a mix of healthy perspiration and sea salt and Juicy Fruit gum. As they amble down the street, Jodie remembers nights that she would watch Billy from her bedroom window. Sometimes he would be doing his homework at the desk or shooting evil dictators on his computer or smoking from his bong that he had christened Charles. During one of these casual surveillances she saw him walk into the room wearing only a white towel around his waist. He had just showered. She was too far away to really make out anything, but after that was when the floating-through-space-feelings had started. From that night on she was in her own world and she thought of Billy Crick all the time.
Two boys come down the street on their bikes. Older kids. They whistle at Billy and Jodie and make pig noises as they ride past. Jodie stops walking. She knows those sounds – the pig sounds – were really directed at her. She hears them all the time at school. She wants to crawl inside her small jacket and hide forever.
“Shitheads,” says Billy. The boys round the corner and are gone. “Come on.”
Passing the small abandon movie theater, Jodie is aware of how warm Billy’s hand is in her own. A firm grip. They cross another street and enter the woods. Broken beer bottles are scattered around along with the other trash – yellowed newspapers, plastic bags, used needles, Styrofoam containers from some fast-food place, condoms filled with a milky substance. They go deeper into the woods. The pages from torn magazines dance in a light breeze. Soon they stop.
Jodie sees the cat hanging from the tree.
A rope is looped around the pathetic creature’s neck. The eyes bulge.
“That is the third one I’ve found this week,” says Billy. “I wonder who’s been doing it.”
The cat’s stomach is sliced open. The red, meaty intestines dangle and drip. They watch for a long time in silence. They know they have left the familiar world of parents and school bus stops behind. This new world is uglier. Jagged. This new world seems more real than the old one.
“Do you think animals go to heaven?”
“I don’t believe in heaven.”
“Me either.” A long pause. “Hey, Jodie?”
“Do you want to see my thing?”
Jodie nods. Billy undoes his belt with shaky hands and pulls down his shorts and BVD underwear to his ankles. He is smooth and white and the little bit of hair he has down there is auburn. He pulls off his shirt, exposing pale nipples and damp chest.
Billy stares at her. Jodie stares at him. The cat hangs from its rope and drips its crimson blood.
“Can you show me yours?” he asks her in a cracked, nervous baritone.
She nods again. They have played this game before.
She unzips the jacket, slides the thin straps of the bathing suit off her pimply shoulders. Her breasts are just starting to come in. Small. Tender. Budding. The bathing suit peels away from damp flesh and very quickly she stands there in her pink roundness.
The children look at each other. Neither one wants to blink first. It’s part of the game.
Billy notices the birth mark, the inky blot, above her bare vagina. “Do you want to do it?”
She knows what he is talking about…a little bit anyway. When she and Billy were downtown at the arcade playing with the pinball machine or eating ice cream she would hear the older high school kids talk about doing It all the time, but she could never really see It in her mind. The whole thing sounded so weird. “Okay. What do you do?”
“I’ve seen my mom and stepfather do it before. One of us just lies on top of the other and we just move around, you know, like fish out of water.”
“And that’s it?”
“I think so.”
So she lies down in this place where the grownups never enter, surrounded by the weeds and trash. Pale sunlight shines off shards of broken glass. Trees reach into the summer sky, twisted and old, the spooky trees from fairy tales. Billy comes to her. She feels him stiffening on her stomach. Birds fly in the gray sky overhead. A storm is coming.
“I think you put it in now,” she says. “Down there.”
“Oh. Yeah,” he says.
They laugh. Nervous, unsure.
He guides his penis over her opening. A shiver goes through her, an electrical surge. He looks down at her wetness, her parted legs. “Are you okay?” he asks with some concern.
“Yeah. It happens sometimes.” She remembers being in bed and having this same thing happen. Her nimble hands explored her body often at night.
Reassured, Billy enters her again, but carefully this time. She gasps. Sharpness. Pain. Jodie feels like she is being split in two, ripped open like the cat that hangs above them. She bites her lip to keep from crying out. The fairy tale woods are silent.
It hasn’t taken long.
Billy cleans himself off with a sock. He stretches and looks at his penis as if it were not an actual part of him. Jodie slowly puts her bathing suit back on. Tears stain her face.
“You’re bleeding,” says Billy. “Did I hurt you?”
“No,” she says.
Her legs are like Jell-O. She feels like he is still inside her.
Eventually the children leave the woods and the cat that hangs like some grotesque piñata, a ritual sacrifice. They go to the playground behind the elementary school. Jodie asks Billy if he wants to ride on the swings. Their laughter echoes in the still afternoon air. Later on there is something different to the walk home. It is not in the sudden coolness of the atmosphere or in the sun setting behind the houses. This town, this street, this world – this now real world – seems smaller than ever before. They stop outside her lighted house in the orange dusk. It smells of rain out here. A dog is barking somewhere.
Billy asks her, like he always does, if she wants to hang out tomorrow. He says they could go down to Philly’s for pizza and a soda. They could go to the beach. They could sit up in the tree house in his backyard and pass Charles the Bong around and spy on the Hamilton’s across the street. They could try to find the person who is killing all the cats. They could go on another walk. They could walk forever if they want to. They could do anything. Together.
She tells him that she will see him later. Billy watches her go inside.
Then this lone boy starts for home.
Jennifer has not left the living room all day. She is now wrapped up in a lightweight blanket on the couch watching Animal Planet and sucking her thumb like she’s five years old again. She doesn’t look up when her sister slams the front door. Jodie sees the destruction. Soda cans, candy wrappers, a melting carton of ice cream, a plate with the remains of a chocolate pie cover the surface of the coffee table. On TV a python eats a rat. From the kitchen come the sounds of Mom washing the dishes. Her friends left a long time ago.
Jodie sits down on the couch.
“You missed it,” says Jennifer, not averting her eyes from the flickering tube. “They showed one python swallow a whole deer. He didn’t have to eat anything else for a couple months after that.”
Mom comes in from the kitchen looking tired and a little drunk. She collapses into her armchair. She begins to fan herself with a copy of People Magazine. “This heat is just awful.” She looks over at Jodie, puzzled. “Where were you?”
“I was at Billy’s. Remember?”
Mom thinks for a minute, trying to recall the events of the long afternoon. “Oh. Yes.” A titter of laughter escapes her. “You know,” she says. “I sometimes forget you girls even exist.”
Jodie and Jennifer don’t say anything. Mom eventually falls asleep in the armchair. On the TV the python slithers through tall grass in search of another meal, a new victim. The sisters watch in silence.
Rain begins to tap on the windows.