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Hunk, a big guy—six-six at sixteen and as wide as my mother’s Kenmore refrigerator—
sang a raucous backup and lead on Steppenwolf’s “Magic Carpet Ride” and “Born to Be Wild,”
and he played a Fender bass through a black-padded Kustom stack, ate two or three Whataburgers
a day, then popped at least many Black Mollies he’d stolen from his anesthesiologist stepfather’s
medicine cabinet—just trying to lose weight, he said, grinning—like the SweeT
s he was always
sucking and crunching like cocktail ice. Mostly, though, he just stayed wide-eyed wired and fast
with a thumping, fat sound like the Whô’s John Entwhistle.
A few months before, Hunk had dragged us all to a Restland Funeral Home auction,
tripping on a four-way hit of Purple Microdot, and he’d bought a black ‘59 Cadillac hearse with
his rich step-father’s money—the Hunkmobile, he called it—like a humpbacked Batmobile with
chromed fins and a tiny steering wheel the size of a cereal bowl he’d installed himself, so we’d all
have something other than my piece-of-crap truck to haul equipment around in, if we ever actually
got ourselves a paying gig.
Kenny, my next door neighbor, had sold me his older brother Ray’s white-pearl
Slingerland kit for a measly $150, the same price I’d paid for my truck when Ray, a rooster-tail
radioman, got shot in the head by a VC sniper near the Mekong Delta. Kenny played a polished
black Gibson, rhythm mostly, a clean, jazzy sound like Wes Montgomery’s keening through his
blonde Fender Tremolux amp while Danny harangued him to crank up, damnit, and rock it, will
In the short space of silence after the band’s screaming jam, my father’s gray-muzzled,
three-legged Sheltie Reveille was doing his puppy routine again—a nervous tic that had inspired
the band’s name—barking and circling us like a herd of sheep while the music blasted, then
stopping when the music had stopped, chasing his tail in quick, tightening circles, till he’d caught it
and just stood there, dizzy, unable to decide what to do next, his one back leg shivering to balance
himself. He’d chased snakes, too, as a pup, biting their tails and not letting go, even though they
could whip around and snap at his nose, until he lost a back leg jumping from the back of my
father’s speeding pickup to pounce on a fat water moccasin sunning itself on the hot asphalt on
Snake-chasing dog swallows tail.
“Hey, guys, guess who finally popped his cherry?” Danny said a little too loud during a
short break later that afternoon, pinging a ringing harmonic note, then tuning up his A string,
glancing over at me and grinning.
Hunk and Kenny both glanced at me, the only remaining candidate for the honor in the
“Jesus, Danny, I told you not to say anything,” I said, clattering my sticks on my snare’s
chrome rim. “And keep it down, will you? My mother’ll hear you.” I nodded downstairs from
the balcony to the kitchen and frowned.
“I can hear you now,” my mother shouted up the stairs over the pops of the deep fat fryer.
“You think I can’t hear you?”
“Great,” I whispered. “Thanks loads, Danny-o.”
“Man, what’s your problem?” he whispered. “You’d think you’d just lost your best friend
instead of your—”
“I will if you say another word.”
“Whoa,” Danny said, his voice trembling low like Johnny Cash’s. “I’m so scared.”
Just then, Allyn and Maddie walked in through the front door and slammed it hard,
rattling the window panes, laughing and singing The Isley Brother’s “It’s Your Thing,” a big hit on
KLIF, the local AM station.
“You seen Marilyn and Sherilyn?” Maddie asked me, she and Allyn dancing around in the
front foyer like a couple of pixies. “They’re supposed to meet up with us here.”
“Nope,” I said. “Go up to your room, will you? We’re trying to practice.”
Maddie and Allyn had hooked up like Siamese twins ever since Allyn had come back, like
they’d only missed seeing each other by two days instead of two years, starting over right where
they’d left off, singing along to my old scratched Yellow Submarine and Monkees Greatest Hits albums in
Maddie’s room, whispering to each other and giggling and acting stupid like they were twelve
again, hitching rides with Marilyn to Pier 1 to buy incense and scented candles for their new
apartment, Allyn staying over two nights the week before just to keep from having to sleep on the
apartment floor, ignoring me like our whole family ignored Reveille sleep-kicking day and night
under our coffee table.
“Travis, let me sing,” Maddie said, falling and sprawling on the couch along the wall
behind my drums, her coarse red hair windblown and blowsy as a mimosa blossom.
“No,” I said, swinging around to face her on my drum stool. “How many times’ve I got
to tell you? You’re just fourteen.”
“So?” Allyn said, her hands on her hips, refusing to look at me straight on, snooty as a
Highland Park debutante. “I’m fourteen, too. We both can sing. Come on, Maddie.”
She tried to pull Maddie up from the couch but gave up, then danced over to Danny’s
mike anyway, her blonde hair swinging out from her hips like willow leaves in a high wind, and she
pulled his mike off its stand, knocking it over and almost tripping over the cord, the Shure mike
feeding back a high-pitched howl like a gut-shot dog, as Allyn cat-scratched her crotch and sang,
off key, “Itch your thing! Do what you want to do.”
Danny and Hunk and Kenny all clamped their hands over their ears and gaped at her and
then they all started laughing.
“It’s it’s, Allyn,” I said, shaking my head, still flinching from the feedback. “‘It’s your
She stopped dead and stared down at her clogs, as Danny snatched the mike from her—
she’d been a tone-deaf, mishearing mangler of song lyrics ever since I could remember—and she
looked at me straight on for the first time since I’d helped her and her sisters move in a week
before. “Oh.” She glanced at Danny, then at Kenny, then at Hunk, and blood rose up into her
face like mercury into a thermometer. “I knew that.”
“Right.” Swiveling back around on my drum stool, I cued the band members for number
four on our song list, then started in on the clanking cowbell intro to “Honky Tonk Woman,” but
before Danny could come in on the guitar, Maddie’d hopped up from couch and snatched Hunk’s
mike from his stand, her voice booming over the PA, “I know that one, Travis. Come on. Let me
sing backup,” feedback screeching all around us.
“Bug off, will you, little girl?” I said and threw down my sticks. “Don’t you and Miss
Priss have somewhere else to go? Jesus, we’re trying to practice.”
Just then, the doorbell rang, Allyn running to get it, and in walked Sherilyn and Marilyn.
“Jesus,” I said again, until I saw who it was. “Hey, now, here’s somebody who can sing.
Danny, this’s that girl I was telling you about. Sing something for these guys, will you, Marilyn?”
“Sure thing,” Marilyn said, taking one look at Danny and smiling, Danny handing her the
mike and smiling back, and she reeled out a long, winding note like she’d been practicing the song
for months, a perfect imitation of Janis Joplin’s “‘Well, I’m gonna try, yeah, just a little bit
“Whoa,” Danny said, grinning like a proboscis monkey.
“Damn,” said Kenny.
“Mama,” Hunk said and thumb-thumped a low E string.
“See?” I said. “Did I tell you guys or what? She’s a regular Billie Holliday.”
“She the one who popped your—?” Danny asked me.
“Shut up, will you?” I whispered and blushed, staring down at my Speed King kick pedal.
Marilyn frowned at me and turned to Allyn asking her, “You ready to go home?”
“Back to Nac?” Allyn said.
Marilyn folded her arms, the fringes of her suede coat swinging at her elbows. “No.”
“I’m not going back to that apartment. It’s cold in there and it stinks. And I don’t have a
bed to sleep on.”
“Well, we got you an air mattress.”
Allyn crossed her arms and shook her head, her long straight hair a wave of white.
Pouting on the couch—no one had asked her to sing—Maddie said, “It’s all right,
Marilyn. My mom said Allyn can stay again tonight.”
Downstairs, my mother stood in the kitchen doorway, her face still dolled up from the
office. She sold Mary Kay cosmetics on the side now, trying to win herself a pink Cadillac, saving
up for a discounted facelift and breast job, too, taking at least an hour every morning before work,
she said, to put on her face. A white smudge of peppery flour dotted the tip of her nose, her hands
gloved in flour like the pork chops she’d plopped into the deep fryer, her fingers still trembling a
little from an hour of blaring music sandblasting her from the living room like a desert storm.
“You girls want to stay over for supper?” she called up the stairs to the front door. “I
always make too much. I’d invite you boys, too, but . . .” She glanced up at Danny at the balcony
rail and tried to smile, then frowned at me, her standard cue to start breaking down our equipment.
“. . . your father’ll be home soon.”
But then, just then—wouldn’t you know it?—the old man walked in.
His Piet Mondrian tie swung loose around his stooped neck, his mouth skewed and tilted
sideways after three or four happy-hour martinis at the Playboy Club in the Dallas Cowboys
Building where he worked, and he shrugged off his gray sports coat and walked past Beck’s girls
like they weren’t even there, hanging his coat up in the foyer closet and sighing hard. Then he
side-glanced all the music equipment on the balcony over the living room and spotted Danny with
his battered Strat slung low from his shoulder, and he slammed the closet door and turned to me,
his eyes bloodshot and glowing a molten blue.
“What the hell’s he doing here?”
“I told you already, Dad,” I said. “He’s in the band, and we don’t have anywheres else to
“I see,” he said. Then, looking like someone had spent an hour heating him to a glowing
red in a blast furnace, then beating him sparking-flat on an steel anvil, he turned into the master
bedroom and slammed the door behind him till the floor-to-ceiling glass rattled in the window
panes all around us.
Supper was quiet, too quiet—my father coming downstairs after everyone had started
eating, fixing himself a J & B on the rocks in a tall water glass, refusing to speak or even look at me
or my mother or Maddie or Beck’s girls all sitting quiet around the table, clinking and scraping
their knives and forks, eating like they hadn’t had eaten in months, my mother’s thick peppery
pork chops with rinds of crunchy fat and cream gravy and lumpy mashed potatoes and fried okra
and green beans—until the phone rang.
It rang three or four times, no one getting up to answer it, everyone looking at everyone
else to do the job, my father glaring at me, his flattop like the deck of an aircraft carrier, until my
mother threw down her napkin and jumped up from the kitchen table and ran to the phone before
I could, my father’s face growing redder with each ring, inflating like a water balloon filled to
“Yes, this is the Truitt residence,” my mother said. “Yes, well, we moved, you know, a
couple years back. Mrs. Dobson? I’m afraid I don’t . . . . oh, Mrs. Vanderbeck. Of course, I
remember you.” My mother glanced at Marilyn and smiled, and all three girls stared at her, then
back at each other, their mouths open, leaning forward into their chairs like they were getting ready
to run, Marilyn’s eyes wide and pleading as she looked at me for help.
“Mom?” I said. “Don’t tell her—”
My mother held out her hand like a traffic cop. “Yes, would you believe it? They’re all
sitting right here, eating my famous pork chops.” My mother laughed, then grew serious. “No,
no, they’re fine, just fine.”
“Mom,” I said again and stood from my chair.
“My god, I had no idea,” my mother said, waving me away, turning her back to me at the
supper table, then palming her other ear to listen. “If I’d known they’d . . . run away, I’d’ve . . . .
No, I just thought they’d moved back to Dallas with you. No . . . no, I don’t know where they’re
staying. No one’s told me anything. I’m always the last to know.” My mother turned to frown at
me. “Yes, of course,” she said, then palmed the mouthpiece and held the phone out to Marilyn.
“It’s your mother. Calling from Nacogdoches.”
Marilyn squeezed her eyes shut, shaking her head, pressing out tears between her lashes
like the hard seeds of lemon she’d just squeezed into her sweet tea.
“Mom,” I said the last time, then walked up to her, snatched the blue princess phone from
her hand and hung it up with a ringing clang.
My mother gasped. “Travis!”
“What?” I said, shaking my head, pissed at myself for not having answered the phone in
the first place, for not having done something sooner.
“Why in god’s name did you—?”
But before I could say anything, my father had stood, inflating like a boxing clown,
cracking his knee against the kitchen table as everyone reached for their tilting tea glasses, hurling
himself in my direction, then grabbing my shirt into his fists and lifting my feet an inch off the
floor, slamming my back hard into the refrigerator and shouting into my face, “What? What?”
“Deuce!” mother shouted at him, and Reveille clamped his teeth onto my father’s pants
leg, shaking his head hard like he’d just been hosed down, till my father kicked him away, whining
and skittering his claws across the Mexican tiles and under the kitchen table.
“You don’t understand, Dad,” I said, stunned, my neck and the back of my head
throbbing like I’d just been rear-ended, the shadow of a dent in my mother’s new refrigerator
where my skull had struck it, the Kenmore nameplate loose and swiveling on one screw.
“No, I think I do,” my father told me, spitting in my eye, a mirage of smoky scotch
shimmering in his breath. “You think you can say or do any goddamn thing you want to around
here. You think you can be rude and hang up on people and backtalk your mother like she’s a
goddamn maid. Think you can disregard every goddamn thing I say and bring trash into my house
any time you want.” I glanced over at Beck’s girls, all red-faced and staring down at their plates
still piled high with food. “Well, I don’t give a good goddamn if you disrespect me, but you won’t
disrespect your mother, get it?” He shook me hard by the shirt, a button popping off and striking
him in the eye.
“Got it,” I said. “But—”
“But . . . what?” he said, blinking his eye, his lips quivering white. “What?”
After supper—Marilyn and Sherilyn and Allyn all three standing from their unfinished
meals, their hair streaming out behind them like mermaids’ tails up the stairs as they got their
coats, then rushed out the front door—my mother slipped into my dark room upstairs and sat
next to me on my low mattress on the floor as I stared off at an M. C. Escher poster on my wall.
“You want to tell me what’s going on around here?” she said, flinching at the splash and
clatter downstairs of my father knocking dishes around in the sink. “Is that girl in trouble? Did
you get her into trouble?”
“No! She’s got plenty enough trouble of her own.”
“Don’t lie to me, Travis,” she said. “Please.” She rubbed the knot at the back of my head
till I pushed her hand away.
“You can’t tell anybody, Mom. You’ve got to promise me you won’t.”
“All right,” she said. “I promise.”
I stared at my mother a long time, at the line of makeup along her jaws, her platinum-
bleached hair, ratted and stiff with Breck hairspray, her eyelashes thick with mascara, blurred and
smeared in shadows under her eyes, only her brown eyes dark and clear and unflinching, still her
own under her pretty-woman mask. Then I told her everything, just spilled it all out, about Bob
Dobson, about Marilyn’s being pregnant, about her taking Beck’s van and escaping with her sisters
My mother pressed her fingers into her eyes and dragged them down her face, shaking her
head. “And, after all that, you . . . take advantage of that girl? What in god’s name’s wrong with
“I didn’t know, Mom. It just . . . sort of happened, and then she told me.”
“And you just had to go out and brag about it to your friends.”
“I just told Danny. And I wasn’t bragging. I was just—”
“No, of course not,” she said. “Boys. Got your cherry popped, huh? Make you feel like a
big man now?”
“All right, Mom, I fucked up, okay? I fucked up.”
My mother turned her face away, her eyes fluttering like I’d just slapped her.
“Where’re they staying now?” she said finally. “Do you know?”
I nodded. “I helped them move in. But if I tell you, what are you going to do? Tell Dad?
Call their mother? Bob? The cops? It’ll just make things a lot worse.”
“Take me to them,” she said. “Now.”
Under a humming mercury-vapor light, a mattress lay upright against a parking lot
dumpster outside Marilyn’s apartment, Beck’s van parked in the space on the other side.
My mother got out of my vapor-locking truck and followed me up the enclosed stairwell.
I hesitated, hearing Marilyn’s muffled shouts inside, then knocked on the peeling hollow-core
door. My mother, bundled up in her faux fox coat, pulled her collar up like a dead cat around her
neck and shivered in the cold next to me, blowing white steam.
The door opened, thumped up against the door chain, and Marilyn shouted from inside,
“Don’t let the cat out!” and then I saw one of Allyn’s blue-green irises glowing through the gap in
“It’s me,” I said, glancing down the dark apartment breezeway, half-expecting to see the
cops or Bob Dobson. “My mother’s here, too.”
Sherilyn held Ophelia back by her collar as Allyn closed the door, unchained it and then
opened it again, and then my mother and I stepped inside a room that looked like a West Texas
dust devil had twisted through it, wadded clothes and fast food wrappers and empty coke cans and
little hard spirals of cat shit scattered everywhere on the carpet all around the living room, boxes
still unpacked, the whole room heavy with the stink of patchouli and pot smoke and cat piss.
“I’m sorry about what happened back at the house,” my mother said. “My husband’s—”
“—got an iron rod up his ass,” I said through my teeth.
“I told her everything,” I told Marilyn, my breath seething steam in the freezing
apartment. “I had to tell somebody. I’m sorry.”
Marilyn sat wrapped in a frayed blanket on the makeshift couch—my brother Nate’s old
box springs—blushing, unable to look at me or my mother.
My mother stepped around the cat shit and clothes and sat next to Marilyn on the
creaking low bunk springs and took her hand. “Look, I’m not going to tell your mother where
you are, all right? I’m not going to tell anyone. Not unless you want me to.”
“You can’t tell Bob,” Marilyn said. “You can’t tell her about Bob.”
“It’s not my place tell her or anybody. But maybe you should, honey. One way or other,
you got to call her, at least let her know you girls are all right. She called again after you left, you
know? She’s got the police out looking for you.”
“I don’t care,” Marilyn said, her face splotchy red, her eyes swollen. “I won’t go back. I
“Maybe the police should be looking for someone else,” my mother said, dark lines
crossing at the corners of eyes, her face powder flaking. “Maybe you’re protecting the wrong
person here. Have you thought about that?”
Marilyn laughed, her bleeding mascara masking her eyes like tarantulas. “You don’t know
my mother. You don’t know Bob. He’d deny it all.” She glanced at her sisters, who looked away,
too, and blushed.
My mother touched Marilyn’s long brown hair, smoothing and straightening it. “What
we talk about is between you and me. Is there some place we could go, just the two of us?”
Marilyn looked into my mother’s eyes for the first time, wiping at her wet face, smearing
her mascara and lipstick with the sleeve of her suede jacket. Then she nodded to the bedroom.
My mother stood with Marilyn, held her hand and pulled her up, led her through the
bedroom door, then turned to Sherilyn and Allyn for a moment in the doorway. “Girls, could you
clean up a bit in here while your sister and I talk? That’d really help.” She glanced at me with a
plucked and tilted eyebrow that told me I might as well make myself useful, too. Then she shut
the door with the faintest click behind her.
Sherilyn and Allyn and I all three stood around in our coats staring at each other, not
knowing what to say or do, listening to the muffled talk coming from the bedroom. Then I
reached down for a handful of wadded clothes on the floor and handed them to Allyn, who
shivered a little. Then I walked into the hallway to turn the thermostat up to 68
I turned into the kitchen, which reeked of green burger meat in a shrink-wrapped
Styrofoam scattered in bits along the floor around a cat-clawed garbage bag, shredded and half-
chewed wax-paper wrappers scattered all across the linoleum, the sink filled with dishes covered in
furzy mold, and I stuffed the torn trash back into the bag and put it into another and then came
back with a crumpled handful of garbage bags still wadded from the girls’ unpacking. I reached
down with a paper towel and wiped up a still-warm cat turd, ripe and wet and smearing the shag
rug, and I tried not to gag as I dropped it into an open bag. Already Allyn was moving around me
in the cold, picking up wadded paper and clothes, and Sherilyn was in the kitchen, turning on the
faucet and filling up the sink with steaming suds.
Outside the apartment, I stood next to the green dumpster in the parking lot and hurled a
Hefty bag lumpy with rotting burger meat and cat shit over the top. Then I upended the mattress
leaning against the dumpster and looked it over, front and back. It was torn in one corner, the
bedsprings exposed and rain-rusty, but otherwise it looked all right. I hesitated a moment, then
sniffed the mattress—just a trace of must, the canvas yellow-stained and dusty.
“Who knows who’s slept on that thing?” a voice said behind me. “What things they’ve
done to each other.”
Allyn stood in the shadow of the apartment stairs. She stepped under the humming
parking lot light and tossed another trash bag over the dumpster top.
“Looks all right to me,” I said, “but I’m not the one who has to sleep on it.” I looked at
her a long time, blinking, then kicked a Schlitz can clanking and spinning out across the parking
lot. “Look, I’m sorry, Allyn. If I’d known Marilyn was in all this trouble, I wouldn’t’ve . . . I
Allyn reached up and touched her fingertips to my lips, nothing more. Then she took one
end of the mattress and I took the other end, and she helped me carry it upstairs into the
That night, my mother talked to Marilyn till midnight. Then she and I stood shivering
outside a phone booth at the abandoned Shell station catty-corner from Marilyn’s apartment
complex while Marilyn fed nickels, dimes and quarters from my mother’s heavy coin purse into a
“Call off the police or I’ll call them on you, I swear to god,” Marilyn told Bob, still half-
asleep and lying in bed next to her mother in Nacogdoches. “No, I don’t want to talk to her. I’ll
call her later, when you get lost. You tell her we’re just peachy, all right? No need to worry. Or
I’ll tell her everything.” Then she cracked the receiver’s earpiece against the side of the payphone
twice, change jangling inside the coin box, and hung up with a loud clack like she was striking a
hammer into the man’s skull. She took in a few breaths, her back to us, almost hyperventilating,
then wiped at her eyes and stepped out of the phone booth, holding my mother hard like she was
her own mother, like she belonged to her now.
The only person other than me I know of who my mother ever talked to about Marilyn
was Dr. Snitkin, the plastic surgeon she worked for. Next day, he told her he knew of a doctor in
Carrollton—my mother never said his name—who’d just been subpoenaed, along with a plaintiff
named Jane Roe, for a felony count of abortion by Judge Henry Wade, the same man who’d
convicted Jack Ruby of shooting Lee Harvey Oswald.
“Your father’ll divorce me if he finds out what I’m doing,” she whispered to me in the
kitchen that afternoon after school, shoving a fat roast into the oven.
“Maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad thing, Mom, you know?”
She glared at me. “You can’t tell him.”
“All right,” I said. “I won’t. Why would I tell him?”
Next morning, my father rushed out the front door, late for work, red-faced and huffing,
wobbly and a little logy from a hangover, and the moment his blue ‘70 Maverick had bumped over
the front curb and down the street, my mother took off in our ’66 Chevelle station wagon, dressed
for work but taking half a day off, picking up Marilyn at her apartment near McCree Creek, then
driving her fifteen miles north to Carrollton through rush-hour traffic on L. B. J. Freeway.
A few hours later, she dropped Marilyn off at her apartment and put her to bed, pale and a
little shaken, with an ice pack and a hot water bottle for her stomach, a 7-Up and a slow-heated
bowl of Campbell’s Chicken Noodle soup. That night, when I asked my mother what had
happened, she told me Marilyn would be all right, nothing more, and she never said another word
to me about what had happened again.
Two weeks later, the band had a new place to practice and a new lead singer, Marilyn
She’d just gotten a night job waitressing at the Pizza Hut on Audelia Road, just enough in
tips to pay for groceries and most of the rent, she said, enough now to enroll Allyn and Sherilyn at
Lake Highlands Junior High, though Marilyn had dropped out herself after the first couple of
weeks, unable to study much with full-time work and the all-night partying she’d started just days
after my mother drove her to the doctor in Carrollton. All Marilyn asked from the band was a
paying gig soon and $50 a month to set up our equipment cramped together in her tiny kitchen
nook so she’d have enough to pay for her sisters’ lunch money.
Before long she was pressing her lips to mikes and singing in her smoke-husky voice
“Dazed and Confused” and “Ask Alice” and “Stormy Monday” until suppertime, when she had to
dress in her Pizza Hut uniform to go to work, her downstairs neighbors thumping their ceilings
with broom handles and threatening to call the police if we didn’t turn down all that racket.
It’d been Danny’s idea to ask Marilyn to sing. She could hit the raw, high notes he could
never reach when he tried to sing Robert Plant’s “You Shook Me” and “Good Times, Bad
Times,” and having her sing gave us a better shot at the audition he’d set up in two months for the
Cellar Club downtown.
For a while Marilyn seemed all right mocking other singers, as she called it, singing like
the mad, tortured mockingbird that used to sing in the mimosa just outside her bedroom window
the summer before in Nacogdoches, keeping her up nights with a thousand confused birdsongs
from midnight till dawn.
“Mockingbird singing in my bed at night,” Allyn sang off-key the afternoon of our first
practice, her voice flat as a blowout, as she sat next to Maddie and Sherilyn on the sagging
dumpster mattress in her apartment living room, mooning over Danny and his fast-fingered
fretwork in “Purple Haze” like a wide-eyed groupie.
“It’s blackbird, Allyn,” I said, rolling my eyes, laying my sticks across my snare and wiping
my face with a hand towel. “In the dead of night.”
“Oh,” she said.
“I don’t know what you guys want me to sing for,” Marilyn said, gaunt and testy as a
mockingbird strutting across a new-mown lawn, skinnier than I’d ever seen her before, down to 90
pounds. “I’m no damn good. Just a pretender. A parrot.” She squawked and laughed.
“Sherilyn’s the one with the voice.” A sweet, serene voice, she said, like the meadowlarks and
scissortails that sang from telephone wires across their grandfather’s cow pastures along Appleby
Sand Road. “Come on, Sherilyn, sing these guys a little Joni.”
Shy Sherilyn frowned at Marilyn, blushing, then glanced down at her bruised shins and
clogs and shook her head.
“I can sing,” Maddie said next to her. “Come on, you guys. Let me sing.”
“Bug off, little sis,” I said, kicking my bass pedal with a low thump.
“Don’t be mean, Travis,” Sherilyn said. Then, surprising everyone, she sang a high
soprano note in a voice only her own, a cappella, a Joni Mitchell tune, nudging Maddie’s elbow until
my sister joined in, in two-part harmony:
Songs to aging children come,
Aging children, I am one.
“Damn,” Hunk said.
“Sing it, girl,” said Kenny.
“We don’t play that kind of music,” I said, kicking my bass pedal again and popping a rim
shot like a gunshot. “All right, can we quit screwing around and get back to Jimi?”
I started to count out “Purple Haze” again, but Danny held up a hand to stop me and
pulled a fat four-paper joint like a white Cuban cigar, wedged between a high string and the truss
rod of his Strat head, and he took a deep-sucking hit, flipping his straight blond hair over his
shoulders, smoke curling up from the corner of his mouth into a watery, winking eye, Marilyn
seeming to swoon at his cool and his smile and the lilting croon of his voice.
She reached for the joint and Danny handed it over to her and she took a long, deep hit
like his and held it in, then, smiling, stuck the joint’s glowing ash backwards into her mouth and
moved her lips close to his, blowing an explosion of smoke into his mouth. Danny held back a
cough, his eyes flooding, then clamped his front teeth around of the brown wet end of the joint
still in her mouth, their lips just touching, and she opened her mouth and let the joint go, grinning.
“Hey, let me try that,” Allyn said.
“You’re too young to be smoking dope, little miss teenybopper,” Marilyn said.
“Yeah? Well, you’re not my mother.”
Allyn jumped up from her mattress and ran to Marilyn’s mike stand, laughing, shoving
Marilyn out of the way and singing, “’Scuse me while I kiss this guy”—a high, flat note that fed
back a needling screech that could shatter glass till we all covered our ears and Hunk jumped to
turn the PA down. Then Allyn snatched the joint from Danny and took a hit, grabbing Danny’s
“Are You Experienced?” t-shirt into her fists and pulling him to her, prying his mouth open with
her tongue and blowing hard till smoke dribbled out his nose and his cheeks ballooned like Dizzy
His eyes teary red, Danny coughed once and started to push her away, then smiled at her
and shrugged and pulled her to him with a free arm and they both kissed a long time, blowing
smoke back and forth into each other’s lungs, her small breasts pressing against his Strat’s shiny
fretboard, until Marilyn pulled them apart, yelling at Danny to stay the hell away from her jailbait
sister or she’d call the fucking pigs.
Allyn wiped her flushed and fleshy mouth with a tanned forearm and stared at me behind
the drums with that strange crooked smile I’d seen when she’d said, “Step on a crack and break
your father’s back.”
“Excuse me, Allyn,” I said, “but it’s ‘kiss the sky.’”
Word got around fast at Lake Highlands Junior High about Marilyn’s apartment, the best
place to party down and get laid. The live music after school was free and the drugs were plentiful
and cheap. You could score a joint or a matchbox or a lid or a pound of resiny homegrown from
Danny Archer or hits of Orange Barrel, Windowpane or Purple Microdot without too much
strychnine, even East Texas ‘shrooms and West Texas peyote from Hunk Dawkins, who stashed
most of his dope in a hidden compartment he’d found in his Hunkmobile, under the Astroturf
where coffins used to slide in back.
When Marilyn got off work from the Pizza Hut at midnight, most people’d just be
showing up, and they’d stay till three or four a.m. sometimes, even on school nights, especially
hangers-on and losers like Roger Rogerson and Jack Doppler—who passed out once in Marilyn’s
bathroom with a needle broken off in his arm and his face all mooshed into the kitty litter box—
most of them tripping or speeding on good pharmaceutical Black Mollies Hunk had lifted from
the endless supply in his stepfather’s medicine cabinet or drinking Shiner longnecks Hunk had
stolen by the case from his stepfather’s poolside fridge, smoking bubbling bongs and lounging
around on ripped beanbag chairs Marilyn had lifted in the rain from a dumpster behind the Pier 1
at the Medallion Shopping Center, guys and girls pairing up for an hour or two and going into
Marilyn’s communal bedroom, knocking my old bedsprings against the wall for thirty minutes,
then stumbling out, laughing, their long hair frazzle-ratted, their shirts and blouses buttoned
lopsided or on backwards, their mouths and chins raw from making out for hours, fat purple
hickeys spread across their necks like thumb prints on police ink blotters.
No one seemed to mind that Marilyn’s place always reeked of cat shit and smoky jasmine,
pot smoke and stale, flat beer in longneck bottles filled with floating cigarette butts lined up along
the windowsills, the cat litter box almost never emptied, tar-yellow spider webs in the ceiling
corners, dust bunnies and coughed-up hair balls coiled in the corners like freeze-dried mice, cat
hair webbed with static everywhere to the claw-shredded furniture, mostly cast-offs from the
Salvation Army or nearby apartment dumpsters, something as close to a bed for each of Beck’s girls
to sleep on as they’d ever have for the short two months they’d be there, even when sleep on school
nights was pretty much impossible.
Sometimes, I worried the cops’d show up at any time to crash the non-stop party going on
at Marilyn’s day and night, but I tried not to think about it too much, and finally I just decided I
could never keep up with Danny and Hunk and Doppler and Marilyn and stayed away, going to
bed at ten or eleven, especially on nights when Allyn started sleeping over week nights in Maddie’s
room down the hall.
In less than two months, the short time we’d had to work up four forty-five minute sets
for our audition at the Cellar Club downtown, Marilyn had pretty much bedded every guy in the
Danny was the first. At the end of practice one afternoon, Danny wiped down his Strat
neck and strings with a smooth chamois cloth and lay it into his guitar case like a dead lover into a
satin-lined casket and said, “Later,” then started out the apartment door just as Marilyn stopped
him and took his hand, shooting Allyn a look and smirking, leading Danny into her bedroom
without a word.
For three or four practices over the next two weeks, Marilyn kept asking me if Danny ever
talked about her when he and I were at school—Did he like her? Did he think she was pretty?
Did he think she was too fat?—clinging to him like she wanted someone, anyone, to hold her safe
in her bed. Then, one afternoon, Danny brought Rhonda Rossi along to practice, smoking a fat
joint between them and making out with her on a beanbag chair between sets while Marilyn looked
on, turning away and swiping at her eyes, then stamping out through the sliding glass door to her
balcony overlooking McCree Creek, leaning over to far like she just might jump.
“That wasn’t cool, bringing that girl to practice,” I told Danny a day later as we played
Dodge Ball in the Lake Highlands Junior High gym.
“Man, ain’t she beautiful? Rhonda. Rhonda Rossi,” he said, closing his eyes, all dreamy
like he was singing the Moody Blues’ “Ohm, Ohm, Heaven.” He hefted the heavy ball from hand to
hand, ready to lob it at Kenny on the other team across the basketball courts. “Look, man, don’t
get me wrong, okay? Marilyn’s all right”—he grinned—“if you don’t mind screwing a scarecrow.”
I snatched the big leather ball out of his hands like an outsize pumpkin and hurled it as
hard as I could at his winter-tanned face and missed, hitting the wooden bleachers behind him
instead, Coach Boggs tossing me out of the game and saying, “Truitt, you idiot, don’t you know
you’re supposed to throw at the other team?”
Kenny was next, poor Kenny. About the time his mother’d been diagnosed with bone
cancer in ‘67, he’d gotten himself and Debra Darly matching going-steady bracelets at the
Northpark Zales’ Jewelers with his name and hers etched forever in gold, money he’d earn stacking
grain and dog food sacks for over a year at his stepfather Bill Sherrod’s feed and seed. Debra and
he’d been going together ever since Lake Highlands Elementary, swearing they’d get married when
they graduated from Lake Highlands High, sleeping with each other some nights since they were
fifteen like a regular married couple—until Kenny found her fucking his brother B. J., the star
quarterback of the Lake Highlands Wildcats, in the bed of their sniper-dead brother, Ray.
Next time Danny brought Rhonda Rossi along with him to practice, Marilyn waited till
Danny’d lit up another joint during break and started making out with Rhonda again on one of
her beanbag chairs. Then she walked up to Kenny and surprised him with a long, breathless kiss in
full view of Danny and Rhonda, grabbing Kenny by a belt loop at the back of his Levi’s and
pulling him stumbling backwards into her bedroom for a quickie, then coming back out in ten
minutes, just in time to practice the second set, and Kenny slipped his guitar strap over his
shoulder and stared down at his feet, splayed like Charlie Chaplin’s, smiling a goofy penguin grin.
“Don’t you think you should, like, kind of take it easy?” I asked Marilyn after everyone
had left practice that afternoon.
“My voice’s a little sore, yeah,” she said and laughed, her voice thin and reedy as Janis’s.
She lit a Marlboro from the one she’d been smoking and wheezed, skinnier by the day, her skin a
pale yellow tinge, like cigarette tar.
“No, I mean with the guys, Marilyn. I mean, Jesus, it’s only been a month since my
mother took you to the—”
“Shut up!” she said, smoke exploding from her mouth in a cough. “You shut your
“Hey, I just don’t want you getting—”
“Knocked up? Who says it’s any of your goddamn business what I do, huh?” she said, a
slurry of muddy words spilling out her mouth. “What? You think I’m a slut? Like you got any
room to judge me? I’m on the pill, okay? Your mother got me on the pill.”
“Hurt,” I said, finishing what I’d meant to say. Then I left her apartment, rattling my bag
Marilyn hooked up with Hunk not long after that and stayed with him for a month, Hunk
sleeping over at her apartment most nights, his Hunkmobile stash stuffed into Glad sandwich bags
under my old bedsprings in Marilyn’s bedroom, but I could never understand why she chose him,
Hunk with a face and voice like Fred Flintstone’s and a body like Frankenstein’s—maybe, I
thought, because of all the free speed and acid Hunk gave her, maybe because Hunk made her feel
safe in his giant’s shadow, big enough to beat up Bob Dobson if he ever showed up at her door
unannounced, like all the times Hunk had beat me up on the practice fields until I asked him to
join the band and he became my fiercest protector. But I couldn’t understand anything Marilyn
did by then. Or what I did. What any of us did.
Those were crazy days. On a whim, after smoking and drinking and popping a few
Mollies, all of us loopy and hazed and wired as a high-power line after practice, Danny and Hunk
and Kenny and Jack Doppler and I’d jump a high chain-link fence at Flag Pole Hill long after dark
and climb the 800-foot WRR FM tower, microwaves buzzing our teeth and warming our blood
in the icy wind as we sat huddled in our coats smoking joints and looking out at the Conoco
Building’s red Pegasus on the Dallas skyline, or we’d do Danny’s mad version of a Chinese Fire
Drill in my truck going seventy or eighty miles an hour down L. B. J. Freeway: I’d let go of my
steering wheel just long enough for the guy in the front seat next to me to take it and jam a foot
down on the gas. Then he’d move over into my place as I climbed out the driver’s side window
and crawled out on my belly across my truck cab, holding on tight as the wind hit me like I was an
X-15 test pilot, and then I’d crawl across the top of the cab and slip down, my feet and my legs
wobbly as I slid back inside through the passenger-side window, and the next guy in the cab seat
moved left and did the same drill.
We stole, I couldn’t count many times, stacks of new LPs or eight-tracks or cassettes or
stereo equipment, cassette recorders and turntables and FM tuners tucked under our big coats at
the Preston Center Sanger Harris, or musical equipment—an Echoplex and fuzz box and a Shure
mike for Marilyn; cowbells, cymbal stands, high hat cymbals and a new Ludwig Speed King bass
drum pedal for me; dozens of packages of coiled Ernie Ball Super Slinky Guitar Strings for Kenny
and Danny and Fender Super Bass Strings for Hunk from Arnold Morgan Music or the
Northpark Mall Melody Shop—one of us always on the lookout, all of us walking out in a group
like mob freaks when we were done, our long heavy coats bulging at our bellies and backs, our
hearts kicking in our chests like Ginger Baker’s double-bass drum solo in “Toad.”
One time on our way back from one of our raids on Arnold Morgan Music, I complained
about my truck with its bald, slick tires, and Hunk said, “No problem. Turn here.” I pulled up
behind the big Firestone Tire Center at the corner of Garland Road and Northwest Highway.
When the tire installer had turned his back to go to the office, his air-drill spinning out a
deafening whir like a 100-pound cicada, Hunk and Danny and Kenny and I all walked into the
garage, checked the tire racks for the right size and hefted four heavy new tires with blue-tinted
white walls, then dropped them into my truck bed as Hunk ran back into the garage one more
time for a spare.
And sometimes, after my father and I’d gone at it over some petty, stupid thing like my
not carrying out the trash or doing the dishes or cleaning up my room or fixing something at just
the moment he decided I should do it, I did my chores and played Mr. Fixit—the chair leg that
he’d broked at the kitchen table when he leaned back too far, his third J & B shattering on the
Mexican tiles; the hole he’d kicked in my bedroom wall when I snuck out one night to Marilyn’s
with Danny and Hunk and came back blitzed at four a.m.; the dog-chewed lamp cord that
exploded when Reveille bit down on it, kicking the dog, halfway across the living room, half-dead;
the Dispose-All always stopped up with my father’s chicken bones; my mother’s fifteen-year-old
Kenmore washing machine always backing up sudsy water into the utility room—and I kept my
head down like a leashed, kicked and tongue-lashed dog.
And when I was done, finally, finished with my stupid chores, I played my drums for
hours, loud and hard, till I was sore all over and half-deaf and covered in sweat, my sisters shouting
the whole time for me to stop. Then I jumped into my truck alone and drove to the local 7-11 to
steal packs of Marlboro Menthols and SweeT
s like Hunk, then sped off to Pecan Park down
the block from my father’s house, smoking one joint or cigarette after another, popping and
crunching sour sugar pills till my teeth hurt, ramming my F-100 like a tank into trees as pecans
clanked and clattered against the truck cab and windshield like the machinegun fire that mowed
down Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde.
And, after all the stupid things I did, I never once got busted.
Allyn had been staying over with Maddie two or three nights a week and most weekends
for a over month, saying she could never sleep or get her any homework done with all the partying
going on at her sister’s apartment, and she warmed up to my family, especially my old man, like a
At the supper table, she ate my mother’s gristly chicken fried steak and lima beans and
mashed potatoes with thick peppery gravy and laughed at my father’s Aggie jokes and all the
stories he told about his glory days in the mid-fifties as a Cadet in the Texas A & M Corps of
Cadets, all the times he’d hazed the Fish or his superior officers, putting their feet in buckets of
warm water while they slept till they’d pissed their beds, then caught him hours later, feigning sleep
in his bunk with a wet bucket or damp towel under his pillow, then giving him hard-flung licks
with hole-punched boards for every letter of his name—William Barret Travis Truitt, Junior—an extra
lick for each space, an extra lick to dot each i and cross each t.
One night, as I turned kicking in my bed, unable to sleep, my little brother Nate snoring
and grinding his teeth on the twin mattress next to mine, I heard my bedroom door open in the
dark and stiffened in my bed, thinking it was my old man walking through the house barefoot
again in the middle of the night with an ice-clinking glass of J & B, until I felt the cold air of the
blankets and sheets being turned back, then a small warm body sidling in next to me like my sister
Maddie had done the long year after my brother Jesse’d died, saying, “Travis, can I sleep with
you?” and then I touched a soft hip under a cotton nightgown, then long, straight hair slippery as
“Allyn?” I said.
“Sssh,” she whispered and said nothing else, and she held me hard till we’d both fallen
During the band’s audition at The Cellar Club, we didn’t even make it through the first
set, barely thirty minutes, not even getting started till two-thirty a. m. after the house band, dressed
like David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust, had played four sets to a packed house, and everyone had pretty
much cleared out.
At three a.m. on a rainy Thursday morning during a school week in early March, only two
black-jacketed bikers still in the dark club sitting in the shadows like cave-dwellers behind beer-
sticky tables, I had to play on the club’s house kit, an old Sonar set with duct tape everywhere on
the heads and cymbals thumping and plinking like I was playing on cardboard boxes and trash can
lids, and Marilyn was stoned and wired and woozy drunk on Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill, hoarse
as a crow from smoking day and night, running to the bathroom right before we started to throw
up one of Hunk’s late-night Whataburgers—“Got to fatten up my little mockingbird,” he’d
said—Marilyn refusing to talk to or even look at Hunk or Danny on stage when she came back,
pale as a thin-skinned gecko.
Then Danny and Hunk played too loud and Kenny didn’t play loud enough, and Hunk
and Marilyn had been shouting at each other ever since they’d come into the club twenty minutes
late, and now here they were going at it again between songs, something about being late again,
something about meth and needles and that loser Jack Doppler. We’d only gotten about halfway
through the third song, Janet Joplin’s “Down on Me,” Marilyn’s voice cracking and shattering all
the high notes, when the club owner ran out of his office at the back of the club, waving his arms
and shouting, “All right, Jesus, that’s enough,” and he walked up to the tiny stage, squinting at us
in the bright lights, and said, “How old’d you kids say you are? Christ, you couldn’t be over
sixteen, any of you. Ain’t it past your bedtime?”
Outside the Cellar at four a.m., Marilyn threw a tire-crushed malt liquor can at the
Hunkmobile in the rain as Hunk drove off spinning his tires out in the slick, blind alley behind the
club, her hair limp and wet and stuck to her forehead, her bangs dripping into her eyes.
“There goes my ride,” she said, her eyes swollen as dog ticks.
“Come on,” I said. “I’ll take you home.”
She sat quiet, hunkered over in my truck most of the way to her apartment, sick to her
stomach, warning me once to pull over downtown when she needed throw up at curbside, then
pressing her cheek against the cold glass of the passenger window, unable to look at me, her face
pale and gaunt, skull-shadowed under her heavy makeup as she smoked one Marlboro after
another, blowing smoke out, then gulping cold air in through the dripping window crack, until
she’d started to sniffle and swipe at her eyes again.
“God,” she said, “I fucked up.”
“Hey, you did fine, just fine,” I said over the scritch and slap of the windshield wipers,
reaching over to rub her bony back while she cried, flinching away, then leaning forward to squint
out at Central Expressway in the wobbling yellow headlights ahead of us, big semi-tractor trailers
shooping past and blinding me in their rainy wake. “Jesus, did you hear me play?” I said and
laughed, trying to cheer her up. “I sounded worse than this piece-of-shit truck.” I drummed on
the steering wheel along with the syncopated beat of the windshield wipers and the engine’s ticking
valve rockers, reaching across the seat to touch her arm as she flinched away. “Look, it’s no big
deal, okay? We’ll get us another gig. We just need more practice, is all. Besides, who’d want to
play in that dump anyway?”
“I’m fucked, Travis,” she said, staring out the rain-streaming windshield. “I’m knocked up
I shot her a look. “What?”
“Don’t look at me like that.” She raised one shoulder of her leather coat, then the other,
wiping at each eye and leaving little streaked epaulets of mascara on each shoulder, swallowing hard
to keep from crying again. “That fucking Hunk, I knew I shouldn’t’ve told him I was—”
“What? I don’t get it. I thought you said my mother got you on the pill.”
“She did. I just couldn’t buy more when I ran out. And I didn’t like the way they made
me feel, kept forgetting to take them.”
“Jesus, Marilyn, what the hell were you thinking—?”
“Don’t yell at me, Travis, please.” She pressed her thin fingers into her eyes and shook her
head again, wiping her nose and weeping into a leather-tasseled sleeve, saying she didn’t have any
idea who the father was, Danny, Kenny, Hunk, maybe even my cousin Bobby Truitt.
“Bobby?” I said. “You were with Bobby?”
“Just once. Remember that night you brought him over from Richardson? He’s a sweet
one, your cousin.” She was crying a good jag now. “God, I really thought I could make a go of it
“Hey, it’s okay. I’ll talk to my mom tomorrow, and she can take you back to the—”
“No. The doc said he wouldn’t see me again, all right? Not ever. ‘Don’t you ever come
back, little girl,’ he said. You can’t tell your mom, Travis. Please. You got to promise me you
won’t. She was so good to me and—”
“Don’t worry about it,” I said and tried to touch her shoulder again across the truck cab.
“I won’t tell anybody if you don’t want me to, and I’ll help you figure out something.
Everything’ll be fine, just fine, you’ll see.”
“God, easy for you to say,” she said and flinched away again. “I hate being a girl.
Nothing worse than being a girl. Anyway, it’s not your problem.”
“No? Well, fuck you,” I said. “You’re my friend.”
A little after 4:30 a.m., I drove into Marilyn’s apartment complex to drop her off but
stopped my truck short of her building and shut off my headlights and windshield wipers, backing
up fast behind a dumpster and cutting off the engine.
“Shit,” I whispered and thumped the steering wheel with the heel of my palm.
Marilyn, asleep across the cab seat with her head in my lap, jolted up, bumping her
forehead on the steering wheel. “What is it?” said too loud, rubbing between her eyes.
I pointed out at the blue and red lights flashing in her apartment lot cul-de-sac, two Dallas
police cars parked behind Beck’s VW bus, their doors cocked open in the rain, their radios
crackling and hissing at the bottom of the stairs to her apartment.
“My sisters,” she said, then reached for passenger door as I grabbed her wrist.
A uniformed cop walked off the last step out of the enclosed stairwell carrying a heavy
black garbage bag, lumpy at the bottom, so that he had to hold it with both hands swinging into
“There goes Hunk’s stash,” I said. “Oh, man.”
Another cop behind the first opened a black umbrella over Allyn and Sherilyn, both
dressed but still half asleep, and he walked them down the stairs just in front of him, their long
hair tangled, their eyes wild. Sherilyn shouted up the stairs, and then I saw another man stepping
down behind the second cop from the top of the stairwell, a big man with thick black hair and a
dark shine of beard and a pressed white dress shirt tight against his muscled chest and arms, a
triangle of hair tufting out his open collar like the back of a hackling cat.
“Bob,” Marilyn said. “I knew that son of a bitch’d find us.” And she tried to wriggle free
from my grip. “Let me go, will you? I got to stop him.”
“Yeah?” I said in a hissing whisper. “And how’re you going to do that, huh?”
“I told him I’d tell the pigs and that’s just what I’m going to do.”
“And you think they’d believe you now?” I pulled her to me in the cab and held her wrists
with both hands. “Listen to me. You’re busted, okay? Busted. You go back to that apartment
now, and they’ll just take you to juvy. And then what’re you going to do for your sisters?” She
pulled one wrist free and cuffed my chest hard with the heel of her palm, knocking the wind out of
me, then wailed like a cat, and I put my hand over her mouth and pulled her to me and held her
until she’d quieted down.
One of the cops glanced in our direction at the sound of Marilyn’s sobbing. I waited till
he’d turned away to talk to other cop, pointing in our direction, then started my truck behind the
dumpster and backed it up into an open parking space, turning around and driving fast out the
apartment complex entrance, running a red light at the intersection and driving behind the
abandoned Shell station where Marilyn had called Bob two months before.
Marilyn opened the passenger door and dry-heaved a long time, long bubbling tusks of
spit drooling out her mouth to the pavement.
I handed her my handkerchief and she wiped at her mouth and nose. I reached across the
cab to rub her back.
She palmed her mouth with my handkerchief and took in a breath, retching, trying to keep
from throwing up again.
“Give me the keys to your apartment,” I said.
“What?” She coughed, retched again.
“Just give them to me. I need to go over there. Find out what the hell happened. Maybe
they didn’t find Hunk’s stash, and you’re okay.”
“But they’ll catch you.”
“No they won’t. They don’t have shit on me.”
She pulled out a key ring from her small blue-beaded purse, a pink plastic mermaid and a
faded blue rabbit’s foot dangling from the keychain, and she fumbled for her apartment key.
“Stay here,” I said, her keys jangling in my hand. “Lie down in the seat till you feel better.
And don’t leave this truck till I come back.”
“You got to find ‘Phelia,” she said as I kicked open the driver’s side door. “She’s in heat
“I’ll find her,” I said.
I ran across Plano Road in the downpour, then down a muddy embankment, tripping and
sliding down to the creek on my ass in the dark rain, sinking into mud-sucking steps and almost
losing a Hush Puppy along the slippery creek bank where Allyn and I’d hunted crawfish as kids
with kite strings and strips of raw bacon. Then I crossed the creek and climbed up another
embankment, my muddy shoes slipping under me as I grabbed at looping dead vines to pull myself
up. Under Marilyn’s apartment balcony, I climbed up her downstairs neighbors’ patio fence and
stood on the top fence rail, my legs wobbly under me, then reached up for the balcony edge, my
muddy shoes slipping into a fall just as I caught the bottom balcony rail and pulled myself up,
straining, my abs jittering in spasms.
I moved Marilyn’s sliding glass door, already open a crack, slow and quiet across its tracks
in the steady hiss of rain, pulling back the dusty curtains an inch to peer into the dark apartment.
Not a sound, no one inside.
I stepped across the living room carpet with heavy, mud-bulky shoes and looked down
through the window facing the empty parking lot, the police cars and Sherilyn and Allyn and Bob
all gone now, Marilyn’s van sitting low to the asphalt on four flat tires. Allyn’s dumpster mattress
lay overturned on the living room floor and, next to it, her cotton nightgown, wadded like a white
cat curled into itself asleep. I thought it was Ophelia at first in the dark, then picked it up and
held it to my face, hoping for the clean scent of Allyn’s hair I remembered from the nights she’d
slept with me like a frightened child, but there was just the faint smell of laundry detergent and dry
cotton, and I pressed the cloth against my wet face and eyes.
“’Phelia?” I whispered, calling for Marilyn’s cat, feeling my way into her bedroom in the
dark, afraid to turn on the lights, my old box springs overturned against the wall with mattress
stuffing scattered across the carpet in the blue shadows of the bedroom window.
Hunk’s stash was gone. All of it.
At the sound of my whisper, the cat hissed a low, growing mewl and growl from inside the
dark closet, and I flipped on the closet light and saw her hiding behind a liquor box full of Beck’s
old LPs and shut the door fast behind me inside so the light and cat couldn’t escape.
Back at my truck behind the Shell station, shivering, my wet coat and shirt clinging to my
back, I knocked on the passenger window, spitting rain, and Marilyn just lay there, dead asleep,
sprawled across the truck cab’s long seat.
I panicked a moment and knocked again—“Marilyn!”—and she jolted up from my truck
seat and rolled the window down.
“Scared the hell out of me,” she said, glancing around, her eyes wild. “My god, you’re
bleeding. What happened to your face?”
“It’s just a few scratches,” I said, then, “Here. The cat’s in the bag.” And through the
open truck window I handed her Ophelia, wrapped in Allyn’s dripping cotton nightgown, the cat’s
head poking out of the tight-buttoned collar, her eyes wide, her ears back flat against her head, the
nightgown’s sleeves tied together around her like a straightjacket, knotted under her feet like a
sack, the cat squirming and hissing and growling inside, frantic to get out, her claws poking
through and ripping little tears in the wet cloth.
“Here’s a change of clothes,” I said and handed Marilyn a garbage bag through the cab
window, clothes I’d unhooked at random from closet hangars. “Just hope they’re yours.”
“We all wear each other’s clothes,” she said and smiled, then palmed her eyes and hid her
face from me as she cried.
In my truck, I laid my head on my arms across the steering wheel, my long hair dripping
into my lap, trickling down my back like melting sleet, and I tried to catch my breath from
running, shivering and exhausted from no sleep.
Marilyn unbuttoned the nightgown wrapped around Ophelia and tried to untangle her
claws from the cloth. “What’d you have to go and tie her up for?”
I held up my bleeding wrists, covered in scratches, like the crisscrossed Xs of razor blades.
“Took me a while to catch her.”
“Sorry,” she said.
“No, I’m sorry. Sorry I ever brought my stupid friends over to your place. I should’ve
known the pigs’d be looking for you. What the hell was I thinking?” I punched the metal
dashboard and waved out my hand, sucking on a bruised knuckle. The cops had taken everything,
I told her, Hunk’s stash, the hand-blown blue-glass bong Danny’d stolen from a Preston Center
head shop, everything, and the cops had left everything else, even Allyn and Sherilyn’s clothes and
shoes. “None of this would’ve ever happened if I hadn’t—”
“It’s not your fault, okay?” Marilyn said, staring out at the rain, her voice flat, her face
slack. The cat, free from the nightgown, clawed at Marilyn and clung, then lurched toward the
open passenger window until Marilyn grabbed her by the loose skin at the back of her neck and
rolled the window back up, rubbing and whispering into the cat’s cocked ear to calm her down.
“Take me to my dad’s van,” she told me. “I’m going back to get them. Back to Nacogdoches.”
I leaked out a sigh. “Your tires are all flat. Somebody cut them.”
“Bob,” Marilyn said, and she pressed her face into the ratted wet fur hackling at Ophelia’s
neck. “God, Travis, what’m I going to do now?”
I looked at her straight on. “I’ve got a big test in four hours and I’m dog tired, but fuck
the test, fuck school, fuck sleep. I’ll drive you there now. Just cross your fingers my piece-of-crap
truck makes it that far. Think you could help me out with gas money? I think I got maybe two
bucks in dimes and quarters.”
“Sure,” she said, hopeful for a moment, like she still had her whole life ahead of her.
In five minutes, we were rising up the entry ramp to L. B. J. Freeway. In another five,
she’d be dead. It wasn’t anything I could’ve ever imagined happening and it happened so fast I
couldn’t do anything to stop it. To stop her.
I merged onto the freeway in the heavy downpour, tired as hell but as wired like I’d just
swallowed a handful of Hunk’s Mollies, and I took one of Marilyn’s Marlboros from her
crumpled pack on the dash and lit it up, then handed it over to her, lighting up another for myself
and smoking my cigarette fast, hot-boxing it till I was coughing, the red coal as long and pointed
as the glowing tip of a soldering iron, as we planned what to do next.
Marilyn stared out the passenger window, her cheeks sunken into shadow, and I said,
“We’ll get them back, okay? It’s no big deal. Cheer up, for chrissake, will you? It’ll be all right.”
But she wouldn’t look at me. She just shook her head and closed her eyes, then pressed
her face against the cool glass of the passenger window, her face dripping in the rain shadows of
“Just imagine it,” I told her, trying to convince myself.
In just a couple of hours, I said, we’d be parking my truck a block away from her old
house on Pearl Street. Then she and I’d be walking down the block and around to the screened-in
porch in back, using her old house key to get into the back door, sneaking upstairs to Allyn and
Sherilyn’s rooms and waking them up—“Shhh, quiet now”—then sneaking them both out the
back door, all of us running up the block, then piling, cramped together and laughing—one guy,
three girls and a cat—into my truck cab, then stopping off at the Mabank Dairy Queen drive-thru
after an hour on the road for a round of coffee and Dilly Bars to celebrate. Back at their old
apartment by noon, I’d sneak inside again for their clothes and anything else they needed and toss
it to them off the balcony, and then Marilyn could look for a new place where they could all stay, a
safe place where no one would ever find them again.
“You think?” she said, her eyes filled with a light I’d hadn’t seen for years, the same lovely
light in her eyes whenever I’d kissed her in her father’s dark tool closet.
“Sure,” I said and grinned. “Simple and easy.”
Simple and easy, say, as driving my truck a safe sixty miles an hour east on L. B. J.
Freeway, feeling tired but happy now, grinning at how easy it’d all be to make things right, then
rolling down the driver’s side window all down the way without thinking to flick my sparking
cigarette butt out into the rain.
A simple mistake.
At just the moment I rolled my window, turning my face into the cold rain, to shock
myself awake a moment for the long drive ahead, Marilyn glanced at me and said, “Don’t, Travis!”
but when I’d turn to ask her, “What?” the cat had already leapt from her lap and shot across mine,
a streak of smoky fur, out through my open window and tumbling onto the freeway in the dark
I slammed my brakes into a long skirling skid, a speeding car whooshing past, its horn
blaring as it hydroplaned in the next lane, Marilyn’s face and the sparks of the cigarette in her
mouth flying into the dashboard. I grabbed her shirt and pulled her back into the seat and then
turned one-handed into the skid, turning back with both hands gripping the steering wheel, then
straightened the truck, pumping my brakes, hanging on as the truck fishtailed, until it had slowed
enough for me to pull over to the gravel shoulder.
“Jesus,” I whispered, my going like a hummingbird’s.
My hands, my whole body shook as Marilyn shouted, “Phelia!” and I stuck my head out
my window a moment, squinting behind us to look for a cat mashed onto the freeway or trying to
dodge speeding cars, blinded by white rain slashing down into the oncoming headlights.
Marilyn tried to open her door and I grabbed her wrists and shouted at her, “You hurt?”
and she shook her head, her shout lolling into a long wailing, and I turned on the cab light
overhead to look her over, nothing wrong with her, not even a scratch from her cat.
“Stay here,” I said. “You hear me? Don’t leave this truck. I’m going after her.” Then,
without thinking or looking before I stepped out, I opened the driver’s side door just as another
car blared its horn past, splashing a low, flooded spot in the freeway and soaking me, almost
knocking me to the pavement in its wake.
I ran as fast as I could around my truck, then along the flooding shoulder, splashing and
tripping through pooled water in the dark, hard fat drops of rain like ice cubes battering my face
and back, and when I’d gotten to the place I guessed the cat had jumped tumbling out, I looked
along the shoulder and into the flooded muddy ditch flowing fast below it, not seeing the cat
anywhere, then waited for an opening in the dawn traffic and sprinted across the highway in the
dark, jumping the concrete median like a hurdle, then dodging traffic coming from the opposite
direction, cars honking at me like I was a madman, and I ran fast to the other side of the freeway.
The cat sat there in the grass just on the other side of the gravel shoulder, unharmed
somehow, her wet hackles sticking out like porcupine quills, hissing at me as I approached her, her
paw in the air, her claws extended.
“Come here,” I said and crouched down with my hands out. “Come on. It’s okay.” And
she streaked away from me, across a flooding muddy ditch, then shot halfway up a sloping grass
berm, turning her head back to glare at me with the slit pupils of her yellow eyes glowing in the
passing headlights. “Come here, you crazy goddamn cat.” And I leapt after her, across the ditch,
then up the berm, and pounced on her like a cat on a hamster. “Got you!” I grabbed her by the
scruff as she slashed at my hands and arms and face. “Ouch! Son of a bitch!”
I held her squirming to my chest, clenching her front claws in one hand and her back paws
in the other, and she bit at my wrists with her sharp teeth just as I jumped the flooding ditch to
start back to my truck, shouting in the dark, “I got her, Marilyn! She’s okay!”
I couldn’t see Marilyn in my truck a few hundred yards ahead across both lanes of traffic,
and I took my time waiting for a gap in the cars flashing past me on my side of the freeway, then
walked fast across, squeezing the clawing cat to my chest.
But when I reached the concrete median I stopped dead.
Marilyn stood there in a middle lane of the freeway, her head back, her face up to the sky,
rain pouring across her cheeks, her grackle-black hair dripping down her back, her eyes closed in
“What are you doing, Marilyn?” I shouted, blinking and spitting a spray of rain. “I’ve got
your cat right here!”
Marilyn ignored me or couldn’t hear me over the horn-blaring roar of the Peterbilt
swerving away from her in the middle lane, giant concrete sewer pipes stacked into a pyramid
strapped to the long flatbed behind it, its headlights growing like the circle of stage lights in the
Cellar Club closing around her.
Then, staring at her like a lightning-struck tree, too far away to run to her in time, I
guessed at what she’d decided to do, her cat and her sisters lost to her now, she must’ve thought, if
only for a moment, one life inside her that she’d never wanted and another—her own—she didn’t
“What the hell are you doing?” I shouted at her from the median. “Are you nutso? Get
out of the fucking road!”
But as her wet cat clawed my eyes, she flew.
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