I jerk awake and squint at the clock across the room. It’s 4.18am, still black outside, but Pops is up, having his first Coors Lite of the day.
‘What?’ Memaw shouts from their bedroom.
Pops is in the kitchen at the other end of the trailer. Drawers are banging open and shut.
‘Where’s the can opener?’ he hollers back. There’s the sound of glass breaking.
Memaw grumbles before stomping down the narrow corridor. I imagine her long, cotton nightgown billowing around her legs like a Fury. The thin walls and window frames rattle with the movement.
‘Shut up!’ Nichelle shouts.
I’m dozing off again when Memaw comes pounding back. She stops outside our bedroom door. ‘Hush up, Fergus,’ she hisses. ‘You’re gonna wake up the girls.’
‘Holy Mary, mother of God! You just woke us up!’ Nichelle shouts.
I turn my face into the pillow and laugh. Through the open door, Nichelle gives a snort of laughter too.
‘Lord have mercy,’ she says, as we roll over and try to get back to sleep.
Outside, in the black, the crickets sing.
Hours later, I wake up groggy, heavy-headed and soaked in sweat.
There’s no comforting hum, no breath of coolness. Nichelle has gotten up and turned off the window unit in her room. I’m sleeping in the room next to hers, the door left open at night, so I get the cool air too.
A bar of sunlight falls through a gap in the curtains, across my legs. Twitching the crack shut shifts the beam to my face. I hiss and retreat like a vampire. The curtains are thin, frilly things Memaw made from some leftover fabric. They don’t really fit the windows and they don’t keep out the light. They’re just there to look pretty.
Story of my life.
I sit up, pulling my sticky top away from my back. God, I hate being sweaty. There’s a tender pink stripe across my thighs where the sunlight had landed.
Great. I look like I’ve been whipped.
Pulling bra, underwear, and a change of clothes out of my suitcase, I pray Pops isn’t in the bathroom. He leaves the door open and he thinks it’s hilarious.
I peek into the corridor. The TV is blaring in the living room. The bathroom’s empty, thank God, so I jump in and lock the door, piling my clothes on top of the chest freezer next to the washing machine.
The water is nice and cool, and I start to feel better. I wash my hair, shave my legs, and consider standing there, under the water, all day, humming our song.
…And do you feel scared, well I do, but I won’t stop and falter…
There’s a little mesh bag hanging off the faucet, full of scraps and slivers from old bars of soap. Cream and blue and pink. Memaw collects them from her cleaning job, so they aren’t wasted, then puts them in the bag to scrub herself in the shower. Free soap. How many dirty hands touched those pieces of soap before they ended up here? My body tingles at the thought.
Maybe I’ll have a quick fiddle.
But there’s no privacy here, even with the door locked. Memaw just unlocks it with a quarter if she wants in while someone’s in the shower. She comes barrelling in with a load of laundry or leftovers for the freezer. ‘Just puttin’ on a load!’ she shouts. ‘Just gettin’ some ice cream! I’m not looking!’
Dad makes Mom guard the bathroom door when he showers here.
I turn off the water and get out, sweating before I’ve even dried off.
In the living room, Memaw’s in her chair shelling peas into the big metal bowl, watching Donahue interview Bette Davis. The peas land with a plink, plink, plink. Their green, earthy scent mixes with the fading smell of bacon from Pops’s breakfast. I can’t remember the last time I saw him eat, but Memaw keeps cooking, putting the plate in front of him, then throwing it out. Usually untouched. The window unit hums its sweet, frosty tune.
‘She’s got Bette Davis eyes,’ I say, pointing at the screen.
‘Yeah,’ Memaw says, barely listening, her own eyes never leaving the TV, hands never pausing in their work.
Well, Nichelle would’ve laughed.
In the kitchen, Pops is sitting in the chair by the window at the end of the trailer. He’s rocking back and forth, mumbling and crooning to himself. Tears and snot flow down the deep lines of his face, pooling in the hollows of his collarbone, wetting his shirt. He doesn’t even notice when I walk in, too deep in Coors country.
Outside, across the way, Hoochie’s trying to look casual on the steps of his trailer, doing something awkward with a knife and a piece of wood. I step back from the window before he spots me.
Hoochie is a pain in the ass. A couple of years older than me and Nichelle, he just graduated, but still follows us around like a puppy. He works at Ray’s and gives us free fries, which is cool, but he lives with his mom in a tiny trailer and probably always will. She’s real sweet, takes Memaw to the grocery store once a week and stuff like that.
Lori? Glory? I can never remember her name.
His mom’s OK, but Hoochie’s brown. He says his dad is Cajun. I think that means he’s from Louisiana, but when Mom or Memaw say it, it sounds like a bad thing. Whatever he is, he’s too dark for Pops, so Hoochie isn’t allowed in the trailer or on the porch. He just hangs around outside, waiting for me or Nichelle to come out.
I turn my back on Pops to look for my favourite cup, the tall blue one, on the drying rack. I pick it up and open the fridge.
‘I got that fancy cheese you wanted,’ Memaw shouts from the other room. She’s only a few feet away, there’s no need to shout, but she does it anyway.
In the refrigerator, next to the five-pound block of government cheese, is a pack of Kraft Cheese Slices. I fill my cup with iced tea (Memaw makes the best iced tea) and neck it, standing in front of the open Frigidaire. It’s cold and sweet and perfect.
Nectar of the gods.
I dump a whole tray of ice into the cup, then refill it with tea. The second cup is for sipping, not chugging. I grab three slices of the Kraft, then put one back so I don’t use it up too fast. That government cheese is gross.
An old woman on TV is asking ‘Where’s the beef?’ when I sit on the couch and unwrap the first slice. If I was at home, I’d be watching MTV with Alecia and making plans for the summer. We’d be singing along to Depeche Mode, laying out in the backyard, shopping at the mall.
‘Where’s Nichelle?’ I ask.
Memaw makes a growly sound of disapproval deep in her throat before answering. ‘She went off with that boy.’
‘That boy’ is Nichelle’s boyfriend, Eric. He’s kind of the reason I’m here.
I realise she’ll probably be gone all day, then start to get pissed off, but I’d probably run off too if Todd was around.
God, I miss him.
I want to call him, but it’s long distance and Mom would freak out when she found out. Too expensive. I’ve been here almost two weeks. Does he even know where I am? He’s probably going nuts.
I decide that next time Memaw uses the bathroom I’ll dial his number, let it ring two times, then hang up. That’s the code we use when we can’t call each other. At least he’ll know I’m thinking about him.
That’ll use up two minutes of the day, maybe five with Memaw’s old rotary phone.
What the hell am I going to do all day without Nichelle? I tear the flappy slice of cheese into thin strips, eating them one by one, as I ponder.
I’ve already read both books in the trailer: a Nancy Drew I left here years ago, and one called The Moving Finger. That one was pretty good, but I don’t want to read it again.
I have my driver’s licence, but Pops’s car is an old jalopy that literally stinks. Like, it makes me gag, it smells so bad. It’s a stick shift too, which I can drive, but it isn’t as good as an automatic. No bikes here, and everything is too far away to walk. Besides, it’s a thousand degrees outside. I’d drop dead and shrivel up into a little charcoal briquette before I got anywhere.
When I was little, staying at Memaw’s was awesome. Nichelle and I would make waterbeds for our Barbies out of sandwich bags and old diaper boxes. Or we’d walk to her Aunt Bertha’s house through the woods, barking at each other on the way so any kidnappers would think we had a big dog with us and leave us alone. Aunt Bertha would make us glasses of Tang and tell us about the little people who lived under her house, watching her all the time.
That was when Memaw and Pops lived in the trailer park, before Mom and her brothers and sister bought this bit of land in the woods for them and moved the whole mobile home here. It’s supposed to be better.
Sighing again, I unwrap the second slice of cheese. Maybe I’ll give Hoochie a thrill and let him talk to me. I consider fixing my hair and makeup first, but it’s just Hoochie. I look fine.
‘I’ll check the mailbox,’ I say, shoving the whole slice of cheese in my mouth and peeling my legs off the vinyl couch.
‘Meatloaf,’ Memaw says.
I stop beside the door. One huarache on, the other in my hand. ‘What?’
Memaw drags her eyes away from Donahue and looks at me for the first time. ‘I’m making meatloaf for dinner.’ She turns back to the TV, hands shelling peas the whole time. Plink, plink, plink.
‘OK,’ I say.
Opening the front door is like opening an oven. I stand there, indecisive. The couch and crappy TV are calling me back.
‘You’re letting the cold out!’ Memaw shouts, so I step outside onto the wooden deck and shut the door with a bang.
The locusts are playing the soundtrack to a Texas summer, rattling and buzzing in the trees around the trailer. The air sways and shimmers, prickling my skin.
Hoochie is nowhere to be seen. Jackass.
Maybe I’ll go back inside.
But I’m here now, might as well check the mailbox for real. It’s something to do.
The ice shifts in my cup, already melting. I take a sip and set off.
The previous trailer park had paved roads with the mobile homes all in neat rows. There were rules that made sure the grounds were always clean. Sure, it was across from the paper mill, so it stank to high heaven when they were pulping wood, but that wasn’t all the time.
In the woods, it’s pot-holed dirt tracks, trailers all higgledy-piggledy, crap everywhere. I guess the bonus is that my uncles could build two more rooms on the side of the trailer. That wouldn’t be allowed at the other place.
When we were little, the back door had some rickety metal steps to the ground, which seemed like a long way down. My cousins and I invented a game where we’d take turns riding the door out over the drop, thighs painfully balanced on a doorknob on each side. The kids not riding would swing the door back and forth with a rope. You lost if you fell off. We’d time it for eight seconds, like bull riders in the rodeo.
Nichelle always won.
Here in the woods, the back door opens on carpeted steps to a second living room and a bedroom. That’s where Nichelle and I sleep. Technically, she got here first, so she got the bedroom. I’m on a single bed that’s usually used as a couch in the other room. It’s fine.
I pass the Mexican trailer. God, how many of them live there? Mom says they’re like flies on a turd, too many to count. The yard around their trailer is full of broken toys and old cars on bricks. A fat old man in a straw cowboy hat sits under a pecan tree, reading a newspaper. He looks up, but I’m careful to not make eye contact. He raises a hand and shouts something I don’t understand. I hurry past, keeping him in my peripheral vision to make sure he doesn’t follow me. He shakes his head and looks back down at his paper.
Mom always warns us about kidnappers and bad men. She says being scared will keep us safe. When I was little, Dad was a rookie cop and had to work the graveyard shift. On those nights Mom would get my brother and we’d all sleep together in my bed. She’d check the closet and look under the bed, then push the dresser in front of the bedroom door, so no one could get in.
You can never be too careful.
Where’s Nichelle right now? Probably not avoiding potential rapists. Maybe she’s at Sonic drinking a cherry lime slushie. Or doing it with Eric.
It’s only about a hundred yards to the mailboxes on the main road, but I’m sweating like a whore in church. Right now, I’d rather have the slushie than the sex.
That’s really why I’m here.
So, here’s what happened.
A couple months ago, Todd and I went to see Lethal Weapon. Todd loves Mel Gibson. Afterwards, we drove out to the lake. Todd’s a good Christian and a real gentleman. He always said we should wait until we’re married, even though I wasn’t sure I could hold out that long. He smells so good, and I love being close to him.
There’s a scene in Lethal Weapon where Mel Gibson is totally naked. Like, butt naked. So, I was feeling horny even before we got to the lake. Once there, instead of just fooling around like usual, Todd wanted to go all the way. I’d never seen him that turned on. I was so surprised, I said we could do it without protection.
God, it felt really good for a few seconds, like someone finally scratching an itch you couldn’t quite reach. Then he pulled out and came on my leg. The whole thing lasted maybe three seconds. I didn’t even have an orgasm. And it was my first time. I was so pissed off and was fixing to say something, when I noticed the look on Todd’s face and looked down.
He was covered in blood. My blood.
I was so embarrassed. I wanted to die.
Todd pushed me off his lap and stumbled out of the truck. I cleaned myself up as best I could, then he drove me straight home in silence. I thought he was going to cry. It was like God was punishing us for doing it.
He still picked me up for church the next morning and acted like everything was normal, but we’ve barely touched each other since. He won’t even talk about it.
A few days later, Nichelle’s family came to see us in Dallas. I told her the whole horrible story. Once she stopped laughing, she said I was lucky I wasn’t pregnant.
I was so focused on the other stuff I hadn’t even thought about it.
When my period finally came, I was so relieved. I love Todd, but I’m just sixteen. I’m not ready for kids. I wrote to Nichelle to tell her everything was OK, no baby Todds on the way. I thought that was the end of it.
A couple weeks later, Nichelle stayed out all night with Eric. Her parents didn’t know where she was, so they started going through her room and reading her letters to see if there was a clue.
They read my letter.
They told Memaw.
Memaw called Mom.
It was a whole thing.
Mom cried, but said it was my choice. It sucked having the whole freaking family know my business. I know Aunt Trudie was on the phone telling everybody. But Todd and I love each other. We haven’t done anything wrong.
I tried to call him to let him know, but his mom said he was out. Our phone’s on the kitchen wall with a long cord. I stretch it into the laundry room and shut the door for some privacy. I really wanted to call Alecia to tell her about it, but it was almost time for Dad to get home from work. I couldn’t face him.
I ate dinner in my room.
The next morning, Mom woke me up. She was going through my drawers and closets, shoving clothes into a suitcase. She told me to get up. That I was going to Memaw’s for a while, and we’d get breakfast on the way.
I tried to argue. It was the first week of summer. I had plans.
The look on her face shut me up pretty damn quick.
The three-hour drive was agony. We didn’t stop for breakfast. As soon as we got to Memaw’s, Mom basically chucked me out of the car, then turned around and left.
I guess she’s more pissed off than I thought.
When Nichelle got back from her night with Eric, Uncle Garnet and Aunt Trudie were so furious about her not coming home that they kicked her out. She rocked up to Memaw’s a few hours before I got here.
So, here we are. Stuck in Lufkin for God knows how long.
We’re calling it our Summer of Shame.