Plain China

Like Prayer

by Reegan Breedan · Susquehanna University
Fairy Land, Leah Corbett · Northeastern University

We’re sitting with our backs pressed against the hard wood of the church’s white-picket fence, sucking Slurpees through thick straws and comparing tongue colors in between sips. Mr. Tenant paid for our ices with change he dug out of his coat pockets. He made us each get a different color. The ice machine’s new, a next-generation machine, Mr. Tenant says, with a metallic shine that glows against the cracked wooden shelves of the penny candy wall in the back corner of the Shop ‘N’ Go. Mr. Tenant says he doesn’t like the taste, too much Robitussin bite for him, but he likes to watch the way the frost slides to the circle bottoms of our cups. He tells us these kinds of machines will be running rampant by the 1980s, one hidden in every home like laundry boards that fold out of walls.

“Busy blue,” Sally says, eyeing Bobby’s tongue and licking her way down the sleeve of the yellow school dress her momma made, slurping at the Cherry she’s spilled.

“Sounds like a girl’s color,” Bobby says. “I want something for a man.”

“Suck in harder,” I say. “Sucking slow ain’t gonna make that tongue of yours dark.”

“You know nothing,” he says. His cheeks hollow on the next sip in, pulling as much as he can of the cold into his mouth. Bobby’s in sixth grade, one year above Sally and me, but we all live on the same street and sometimes share a carpet square with him on Sunday School days when the room gets crowded and the older kids sit in the chairs.

The Volvo hasn’t turned down Maple yet, so Bobby and I pour the last of my Coke syrup down one of the anthill holes in the churchyard, watching the bugs scurry, their bodies pushing together to erupt like Vesuvius out the top. Bobby tips my cup and dribbles some of the sugar down the back body of one of the straggling ants, so its legs stick to the ground.

“You’re wasting all Maxine’s good stuff,” Sally says, glaring in our direction.

“My throat was tasting too sweet,” I say.

“It’s to give them color,” Bobby tells her, poking at the ant’s wiggling front with the flat head of a stick. “My momma said we all have to start liking darker things now that those niggers are starting to get their say.”

Bobby’s momma is the head of the church board and knows things about town that my momma and daddy don’t. Bobby told me once that she reckons within ten years half of the blacks are going to be coming up from down south, bloating the aisles of the grocery store until we’re going to have to cut back some of the forest land to make room for a second Pantry Pride. Once a month Bobby’s momma spits out sermons with a wet tongue that rolls over her lips between every third or fourth word. She’s tailored the sleeves of her stiff dresses too tight, so Sally and I listen to her talk, watching the way the stitches pull into the cave of her armpit.

“No sign yet?” Bobby asks Sally, drawing his initials in the dirt with his wet finger.

“Not today.” Sally leans into the street, trying to spot the curve of the Bakers’ bumper. “Maybe Mr. Tenant made us late?”

“I reckon,” I say.

We walk to our bikes, shuffling our feet to drag out the last minutes. None of us hears an engine purr, even as we press our thighs into our bike seats and listen to the sounds of the afternoon. Bobby says, “Getting late, ladies,” and leads us down Main Street, swerving around branches that would rip at our treads.

As Sally veers into her driveway at the corner of Franklin and Durr, Bobby and I turn our heads to watch her bump over the curb, front wheel then back—my handlebars trembling a little at the ends of the grips. I turn away from Bobby a couple houses down when my momma’s garden patch comes into view. Bobby’s front door closes with a rattle of glass as I lay my bike against our muddy white siding. I stop in my doorway to spit on the soles of my school shoes and polish off the dirt. Dinner’s meatloaf and onions with a sugar-ketchup top. I walk into the kitchen and poke my finger into the crust to watch the juices squeeze over my knuckles. “Sit, Maxine,” my momma says, walking in.

I sit, licking my finger all the way around to suck the sweet off.

“Still staying late watching the Bakers?” she asks.

“Yes ma’am.”

“They’re people, just like you and me. We all got our quirks.”

She calls up the banister for my daddy, untying her apron strings.

“I want to know why she wears that headscarf,” I say.

“I want to know what it will take to fill that speaking machine with prayers.” She cleans off my fork tongs with her skirt ruffles and gives me a look. “See? We all got things we’re jumpy about.”

 

The Bakers’ son, Jeremiah, was in my third-grade class before they split us between Kent Elementary and Sycamore Junior after the war ended and all the people started riding trains home. That year on weekdays, I got to look at the braids twisted in front of Jeremiah’s ears and wonder if I thought they were pretty. Sally and I used to rest against the oak trunk in the playground and watch the way they swung into his cheeks. Sally always said she thought they were attractive, but I mainly wondered what that little rope of brown swaying so close to his ear sounded like, as he bounced a rubber ball across the blacktop, away from the other kids. He would lean against the building to rest, watching the fourth-graders play four square and yelling, “Get it! There!” the way the girls did.

Sometimes we’d get into staring contests, Jeremiah and me. He’d turn his head so I could see one pupil, only one, and look straight at my forehead. My eyes would itch and I’d always close them before he did. When I opened them, I’d see Jeremiah and his one pupil, hugging his ball around his chest and squinting.

 

The next day’s a Saturday, so I leave Sally and Bobby to their chores and ride down to the Shop ‘N’ Go. I prop my bike against the pole of the stop sign at the intersection and shimmy my way across the parking lot bench until Mr. Tenant’s hips are clammy against mine. Sometimes, if I smile really wide with my teeth showing and sit so close that I can smell cigarette musk and the sweat of his armpits, Mr. Tenant will start to talk. His breath smells like peppermint spheres and he breathes through his nose, so when he talks there’s a whistling in the air that feels like the buzzing of a bee. His fingers are long and brown from the top knuckle up. When I ask him about it, he tells me how he smoked too much while he was fighting the Nazis. “That was the big one,” he says. “When you’re in one of those European countries with a trigger under your finger and boredom climbing up on your chest like a billy goat, your body itching to blow the head off a German motherfucker, all there is to really do is light up.”

“Is fuck a good word?” I say.

“Nah, Maxine,” he says, leaning close until I can see the pores of his chin where the stubble’s shaved short. “These the kinds of words you can’t say on His land. Jesus,” he sniffles. “Those smokes reminded me of home. Breathe in that tobacco and you can picture yourself in bed with an American lady, wearing nothing but the flag. That’s patriotism, I reckon. You miss that shit when you’re up where the Germans live.”

“What shit?”

“Shh,” he says, pulling back and setting his elbows on his knees, eyes in slits, almost closed. “She’s coming. Watch those hips, girl.”

I look towards the stop sign and see Mrs. Baker. She’s cradling a brown paper bag against her waist, the bottom sagging. She’s done her hair up in a headscarf made of rich chocolate curtain fabric. It’s twisted high on her head. When she walks down the street she slides her thick, black soles against the asphalt without lifting her feet. There’s something about the way she has to roll on her toes to keep from tripping on stones that makes her look like a ballerina rocking to point. She’s wearing black tights that climb up her legs and disappear under her long skirt, with folds that swish and make her ankles look pencil-thin. She’s got on the kind of shirt Daddy wears downstairs on office mornings with the buttons undone, the middle coming open to show the freckles on his chest. Mrs. Baker’s shirt is prettier though, with a collar that curves at the ends to frame her neck like the petals of a flower, hitting her collarbone on a bend.

“How do you think she keeps her headscarf on?” I ask Mr. Tenant, trying to catch a peek of her hair where the scarf’s riding up.

“Elmer’s washable,” he says. “What color do you reckon her hair is?”

He covers my knee with his fingers and starts to work slow circles into the bone, pressing deeper as I slide my body a little away.

“It’s light brown,” I say, telling him how Jeremiah’s hair is the color of chestnut shells. “I’ve seen Mr. Baker. He’s got hair that’s ash—light brown’s the only thing that would have given Jeremiah that color.”

“She shuffles her feet like a child,” he says, smoothing the pad of his thumb over a mole on my thigh. “I want to swing that woman’s hips for her, Maxine. If that girl would just let me swing her hips, magic would happen. God made them perfect, those hips.”

He rotates his hips slowly on the bench seat to show me how it’s done.

“What are you saying?” I ask, jiggling my knee until he pulls his hand away.

“I’m saying that girl’s hair is red. There are flames smothered under that scarf. Red’s the only color that makes sense for a woman like that.”

 

The day gets dark, so I leave Mr. Tenant and take a detour down the Bakers’ street before I ride home. They live two turns down from the church in a blue one-story with a flat roof and a little window at the top. Daddy’s the one who sells the houses in town, all the way from the outskirts of Avondale to Wendal, the next town over. Back when I was in first grade Daddy spent a month over a map he’d spread across our kitchen table. Mr. Baker had gotten a job as the new manager at the hardware store where my momma was a part-time secretary. Daddy told me the Bakers wanted to live outside the town limits. He’d spent afternoons with a yellow marker between his teeth, looking down at the lines and words of our town, murmuring under his breath. I’d push my body closer so I could hear, watching as he pressed thumbtacks with bright red tops into the cardboard of an old pizza box he’d smoothed out under the maps.

I stop next to the Bakers’ mailbox and stand near the edge of their lawn. Rosebushes grow into the fence posts. The petals are blush pink. I pick one of the buds, and it feels silky and smooth, wet in the places where my thumb is pressing deep enough that rose oils get onto my skin.

The house has a white-painted porch that wraps around the front. I can imagine them sitting on the concrete steps when the world’s dark and the moon’s high, Mrs. Baker braiding Jeremiah’s curls over his ears like the way my momma touches my head with a fine-toothed comb.

One day Daddy drove me down to this place, the house where the Huxons used to live before their son “went to one of the expensive schools up north and they started feeling like they were too cultured for the calm life.” He asked what I thought about him selling this house to a family with a boy about my age. It was the porch that made me say it was perfect. They took it a week later, and the whole town threw a potluck at the end of the street, where the church was. My momma sat next to Daddy and me and said, “Look at how progressive we’ve gotten.” She gathered my body close against her hip. “People hardly care about differences anymore.”

 

Daddy drives us to the early service on Sundays, and Momma has me read Bible verses in the car. “It’s preparing you for later,” she says. “All this practicing will make you a better person.”

Daddy grumbles under his breath and taps his fingers on the steering wheel, holding her hand and squeezing her thumb every time our front tires hit a pothole.

She sits with Grandma’s Bible in her lap, the one I’m not allowed to touch because its pages are browning at the edges and the spine’s coming unglued. She runs her thumb over the words of Scripture and stops on a line at random, sitting still, like she’s trying to soak in the message with her skin.

“I’m on Corinthians,” she says today. “Flip to a page and find some words you like, Maxine.”

I turn to that part of the book and flip to Corinthians 1. “Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the Kingdom of God?” I say, getting tripped up on theunrighteous.

“Unrighteous,” Momma says.

“Unrighteous. Be not de…”

“Deceived.”

“Neither forn…”

“Fornicators,” Momma whispers into her shirtsleeve.

“Let’s try a different one, Maxine,” Daddy says.

Momma sneezes, and Daddy leans across the seat to kiss her on the cheek as she puts Grandma’s Bible down and searches for a tissue.

 

We get a lesson on Psalms. It’s one of the days when the kids sit on their knees in front of the altar and listen to Bobby’s mother translate the words of our pastor. We all lean into each other to hear, and my chest is warm against Bobby’s cotton shirt. Sally misses a word and blows spit into my ear to whisper, “What?” But Bobby’s mom talks so fast that by the time I say “Shh!” I’ve missed the next sentence.

“God’s got a bottle in his head that he shakes to keep the anger inside,” Bobby whispers. His lips are crusted with baking soda paste from brushing.

“That right?” I say.

“I guess?” He shrugs, moving his neck back to straight.

“Forgiveness, that’s what I heard,” Sally says, almost licking my ear.

Bobby’s momma turns and says “Shush, ladies!” as Pastor Jacobs turns a page with a rustle.

After the service, my momma brings us warm lemonade in paper cups and has us sit to the side of the church. “Don’t get grass stains,” she says before leaving, eyeing me from neck to ankle.

“Want to sit on the concrete instead?” Bobby says. “It’s more comfortable. And it’s almost time.”

I follow Sally and Bobby to the curb, smoothing my skirt under myself before I sit on the cool stone. Bobby takes the grass by the fence posts.

Mr. Tenant comes over to tower above Bobby’s body, leaning against the fence with his cane. “Almost Pickerel season,” he says.

We look across the road to the line of the woods. There’s a stream hidden behind those first couple trunks. We catch frogs there in summer, rubbing our fingers over their backs while our parents drink coffee in the churchyard. Mr. Tenant comes, too, most times. He gets dirt on his pressed khakis as he uses his cane to steady himself on the bank, picking up water bugs from the top foam of the stream. Sometimes he presses them between his index and thumb and we’ll watch his face slide into a grimace as their legs twitch.

“They coming today?” Mr. Tenant asks.

Bobby says, “I’m thinking so.”

I lean my head against Sally’s shoulder and pinch at the seam of my dress.

“Good timing,” I hear her say.

I see the Bakers rounding the bend of Oak in their Volvo. The paint’s got the same metal glimmer as the new Slushee machine in the Shop ‘N’ Go. It’s got a purr that hits the ears right, rumbling deep in the drum. The Bakers have their windows rolled up, but I can see Jeremiah sitting in the rear with fabric covering the back of his scalp. Mrs. Baker has her scarf wrapped so far back on her head that it rests against the top edge of her seat.

Mr. Tenant says, “There they go,” a little too loud, and the noise of the churchyard quiets, so that the humming of the car feels loud. I hear him whisper, “The little shits,” under his breath.

The Volvo passes close and I stretch my legs out. Not too far, but close enough that the tires would hit my soles if the car wasn’t so far to the other side of the road. Jeremiah looks at me through his window and Sally lifts her hand but lets it drop before it becomes a full wave. Mr. Baker keeps his eyes straight, but he licks his top lip as he passes by the shadow of the steeple. I watch the way Mrs. Baker’s headscarf stays sturdy in the air until the car gets to the Stop sign and turns down Maple.

“Those Jews,” John Hanson from the Pantry Pride checkout counter says. “Can’t even do their own religion right. Ain’t no Modern Orthodox, that’s for sure.”

“Shush,” Mrs. Jackson says, her lips close to his ear. “Gossip isn’t good food for the Lord.”

My momma walks over. She wraps her arms around my neck and slides one hand down my back, clicking her tongue at some dirt she’s found. “It’s a shame,” my momma says, “that they feel like they can’t stop. This day the Lord gave, when he wants all of his children to be together, no matter who.” She kisses me on the cheek and I get her perfume in my nose, something that smells like crushed petals. “Bakers are good people, real good people.”

“God would love to know them,” Mr. Tenant says, running his fingers over the fence, making a face as some splinters catch. “I bet God would like people like that.”

 

My momma takes me to the store with her the next Monday and lets me pick out one kind of candy. I choose a Cow Tale, and work up some spit in my mouth. By the time we get to the register, I’m waiting for the cream to dissolve slow. John Hanson’s working the checkout.

“That Baker still work in the same store as you?” Mr. Hanson says. My momma nods, reaching for some canned beans. “You know they don’t shop here?”

The whole town knows that the Bakers had wanted to live in one of those authentic Jewish communities, one with a synagogue and a rabbi and a kosher store where they never sell any part of the pig. Not even the good bacon that’s made fresh at a farm. The kind that makes my tongue sweat from the salt it’s so good.

“I know, John.” Momma says.

“Our stuff ain’t good enough for them?” he says. “That it?”

“I don’t think so, John,” she says.

“It’s offensive. Goddamn offensive,” he says, raising his voice. I suck harder on the chocolate nub, rolling it against my teeth.

“It’s a tradition thing,” my momma tells him, laying some bills on the counter. She shoos me to the front of the register. “It’s like prayer to them, as sacred as prayer.”

Mr. Johnson nods and I watch as he pulls his cap down low, until all I can see is the end of his nose. Momma walks towards me and I lose sight of him for a moment. But then she turns to the side and I see the way his lips are moving up and down as he whispers, “Like prayer” under his breath, over and over.

 

After class on Wednesday, Sally and I ride past the Shop ‘N’ Go, waving to Mr. Tenant on his bench, and make our way to the back of Hammond’s Hardware. My momma’d left her purse on the kitchen table this morning, and I’m bringing it to her. She doesn’t like me to bug her at work, so it’s the only time besides snow days that I’ve gotten to see where she spends her days.

Her office in the back is split into two parts —  her own little corner with a desk and a picture of me in a frame. The other side of the room is Mr. Baker’s. Momma said he’d moved his desk chairs to the storefront when he first saw the widows who sit in the first church pew come in to talk about paint chips and their kids. Now he uses empty boxes filled with heavy books instead of chairs. The books don’t fill them, so when I sit down I feel a puff of air against my leg and a moment of sinking before I settle.

Sally stands next to me, and Momma says, “Take a seat, honey.”

Sally says, “I’m wearing a new dress; Mom told me to take care.”

There’s mud on Sally’s hem from splashing through puddles, but my momma just says, “You should take notes, Maxine.”

I hear boot heels click in the hallway and my momma says, “Isaac, that you? I’ve got some paperwork for you.”

“Coming,” a deep voice says. A second later Mr. Baker is standing in the doorway in a sky-blue shirt with sleeves rolled up to his elbows. I’ve hardly ever passed by him close. Now I see the way his yarmulke sits lopsided on top of hair the deep brown of Hershey’s chocolate sauce. Curls longer than Jeremiah’s brush his cheeks, threatening to catch on his lips.

Sally reaches back with her fingers to pinch my knee, pushing down hard.

“Order form.” Momma hands him a sheet of yellow paper.

“This your Maxine?” Mr. Baker asks, looking in my direction as he reaches over Sally’s head to take the form.

“This is my baby,” Momma says, smiling. “And Sally, her good friend.”

“Good to meet you ladies,” Mr. Baker says. He finds a spot on top of one of the cardboards. I watch as it sinks under him. He licks his thumb and rubs at a spot on his knee and says, “You know why these boxes are so flat, girls?”

Sally and I shake our heads. “Books are hard to keep stacked high in one place. It’s too easy to pluck one out and take it home,” he says. “I’m sure your momma wouldn’t mind if one day you ever wanted to borrow a couple.”

“Surely not.” My momma says, smiling his way.

Mr. Baker slaps his knees and says, “Good!” His left curl catches a little on his earlobe as he stands. “I hope to meet you ladies again.”

He lifts a hand to Momma. “Thanks for the form, Mary,” he says, as he steps out into the hallway.

 

Sally and I ride straight from Momma’s office to the Shop ‘N’ Go. Momma gave me five dollars and a grocery list, and I’m trying to keep them in my pocket even as my bike wheels swerve. We ride down the center line, and Sally whistles and says, “His voice was so deep, Maxine,” and, “Did you see the thing on his head?”

Mr. Tenant is sitting at his place on the bench with his cane leaning against his knee. Sally and I pull close and let our bikes fall against the pavement. She squeals as the handlebars catch at her skirt, and I help pull the hem free. Mr. Tenant pats the wood by his thigh and I sit Indian style so I’m looking dead at the pimple-marked skin of his cheek while the skin of my knees brushes his thigh. Sally presses into me, her chest against my back, and breathes into my ear.

“I’ve seen Mr. Baker’s hair close up,” I tell Mr. Tenant. Sally whispers into my ear and I add, “So has Sally.”

“Did you?”

“It’s dark. Almost black.”

“Doesn’t mean anything, Maxine,” he says. His breath smells like smoky peppermint crèmes.

“That’s why Mrs. Baker’s hair has got to be light brown,” I push against his thigh to make him pay attention. He watches my tongue as I run it across my lips. “It’s the only thing that would make Jeremiah’s hair that chestnut color.”

“Don’t mean a thing!” Mr. Tenant says. “Women like that,” he whistles deep through his nose and coughs. “They know secrets. Red-hot ones. I have a theory about these kinds of things, Maxine. These kinds of things you can only see through the hair.”

 

“Mr. Tenant says Mrs. Baker has fiery hair,” I tell my momma as she braids my hair before bed. She tells me to sit straight and I raise myself tall enough that my spine aches. “He says so, but I think it would be more of a brown.”

“That right?” she says, hair ribbon pinched between her lips.

“You think it’s true?”

“Listen to me, Miss Maxine,” Momma combs my hair smooth at the top of my head. “Mr. Tenant doesn’t know what he says sometimes. He’s a nice man, Maxine. But this happens at war.” She licks her thumb and wets some baby strands by my ear.

“You mean when he was going against the Nazis?”

“It wasn’t just the Nazis he was fighting.” She sighs into the back of my neck. “Men like that, they leave crazy and come back worse.”

She starts to pull the tails into a plait, so I lean back into her chest. “Don’t be listening to him,” she says. “If you think it’s brown, it’s brown.”

 

Two Thursdays later, Sally calls to say she’s got the flu. I knock on Bobby’s door, but his momma says he’s at the dentist.

I say, “Thank you, ma’am.”

She puts her hands on her hips. “Have you looked over those Bible verses yet, Maxine?”

“Not yet.”

“It would be a good use of your time.”

I thank her and drag my feet down the driveway, waiting for the door to click shut. Once I hear the sound, I sprint to the side of my house and glance at Bobby’s kitchen window to make sure she’s not looking through the curtains before throwing my leg over my bike seat. I ride past the Shop ‘N’ Go, but Mr. Tenant’s bench is empty, so I head straight to the backdoor of Hammond’s Hardware.

Momma’s off today and getting her hair done two towns over, so I enter the back door and slip into her office without knocking. The lights are off in her room, so I find the chain of her desk lamp and pull hard.

I cross my legs on the floor and feel grit rub my ankles. I look under Mr. Baker’s desk, but all I see is another box, pushed against the table legs. I stand and open a desk drawer. A couple paperclips are stuck to the bottom, and there’s nothing else but a rusty hammer with a head the length of my palm.

I sit on the box behind his desk and feel the way the lid settles under me into a familiar curve the size of a butt bigger than mine. I see another cardboard box against the wall, and I try to slide it across the floor. It’s so full that the cardboard eats into my elbow creases and won’t move an inch. I sit on the floor and open the top flaps. The paper smells like mothballs. It makes the inside of my nose itch.

The first book is about six inches from the top of the box. It’s a hardcover with a sketch of cherry pie on the front: Henrietta’s Complete Pie Guide. I flip through. The drawings are mostly of baking dishes with wet crusts thumbed into curved edges.

Underneath Henrietta’s is a Sear’s Christmas Catalog from 1960. Waxy red candles light the cover. There are inside pages dog-eared, the name “Judith” written next to the picture of a dress with long capped sleeves and buttons going up the high collar.

The rest of the box is drugstore coloring books, most stacked flat and some standing on their sides in the space between book spines and cardboard. Underneath these is an issue of Man and Space with a picture of a rocket on the front. If I look close to the gloss, I can see the fire’s blowing from behind the metal, burning the lower parts a bright orange. The sky’s turning black from all the smoke, but I can still see blue.

Inside, stuffed between the pages, is a second issue. Its cover is striped green, yellow, red. A man’s leaning against that wall of color with the shadow of his ear turning the stripes dark around the curve of his head. The title, Ramrod 2, is covering part of his forehead, so I can mostly see the way his eyelids look lazy, like they’re waiting to fall. He’s sitting with legs spread and pants off, and I follow the trail of hair spreading from between his legs to the top of his chest. It’s in a little line that’s darker in the space where his legs are spread. I’ve never seen a penis, but Bobby talks about the way his hangs between his legs, so he has to adjust it sometimes when he bumps too hard over street curbs on his bike. I raise the magazine high into the air to get a better view from Momma’s desk lamp, but there’s not much else to see except the way that the man’s staring at my chin with a neck that’s loose.

I put Ramrod 2 across my lap with the cover down. Man and Space goes back into the box first and then I’m stacking coloring pamphlets and covering them with Henrietta’s pie book. I close the lids tight and take Ramrod 2 with me as I turn the desk light off.

 

The next day I tell Sally I’m going to my grandma’s and ride down the back streets to Main. My backpack slides over my sweaty shoulders and the straps stick to my armpits. The only thing in there is the copy of the magazineand the lightness of it makes the pack bounce against my butt on each pothole.

I look both ways at the corner of the Shop ‘N’ Go before I cross the white lines, walk my tires up the curb, and stand next to Mr. Tenant. He’s wearing a flannel in the wet weather, stains stretching halfway down the sleeves.

“How you doing, Maxine?” he says, squinting my way.

“Fine, sir,” I say.

“Sit, girl.” I lean my bike against his bench and sit a little away from his leg. One wrinkled arm snakes around my back and hooks my hip, pulling me closer to his cigarette breath. “I can barely hear you when you sit over there,” he says.

“Why do men keep magazines?” I ask, setting my backpack in my lap, my fingers clutching the straps.

“What kind of magazines?”

“Ones with other men.”

“What have you been reading, Maxine?”

I hug my bag and feel the bend of Ramrod 2 against my chest.

“Nothing,” I say.

He says, “Let me see the bag.” He puts out his hand and I look at the lines of his palm. He reaches over and grabs the canvas from my lap, using his long fingers to tug the zipper open. He pulls the magazine out and drops the bag on the grass. “What’s this, girl?” He smooths the glossed pages across his knees. The boy on the front is looking me dead with shining pupils.

“Something I found.”

“In a man’s room?” He flips through the pages, stopping to look at one with two men hugging butt naked with their eyes turned towards the lettering on the side.

“Yes, sir.”

“None of this, Maxine.” He puts the magazine on the bench and runs his finger down my cheek until it rests by my chin. I pull my head back a little, and he says, “Your momma wouldn’t want any more of this.”

I look around his knee to where the magazine’s sitting. He’s trailing his thumb slow across the gloss. I sit back, pulling my knees into my chest. Mr. Tenant offers me a gum stick that he pulls from his pocket. The chew’s soft from sweat, but it’s got a spearmint bite that shocks my tongue right. I shake the dust from my backpack and go to stand up, but Mr. Tenant says, “Sit awhile, Maxine.”

After a little, Mr. Tenant buys me a Coke ice and I sip cold chips up through the straw. I’m halfway through the cup when Mrs. Baker walks by. She’s wearing a shirt with long sleeves and a high collar. Her hair scarf is moss.

“We going to argue hair colors today?” Mr. Tenant says.

I look at Mrs. Baker and the way her hips swing under the paper bag she’s holding. I say, “I think whatever you think.”

Mr. Tenant licks his lips and follows my eyes. “You’d tell if you knew whose magazine this was, right, girl?” He lights a cigarette and blows smoke in a stream. I turn away and suck through my straw. He says, “You know, I reckon people can be outsiders in more than one way.”

I watch Mrs. Baker hike her brown bag up her hip. Mr. Tenant lays his cane across his knees so the wood-cap is against my leg. “I got a guess where you got this, Maxine. Nod if I’m right.” He points his cigarette at Mrs. Baker, the top part of her back damp with sweat stains.

I hit the bottom of my cup, but I keep sucking in the last breaths of sweet air.

“Remember what I said about red hair and secrets?” he asks.

I nod.

“I think I was right.” He stubs his cigarette into the milk-colored curb, leaving an ash smear behind.

 

This Sunday my momma’s made me wear a skirt that cinches the fat of my stomach too tight. It scoots up my waist, and she keeps coming behind me and dragging the hem down. The adults are drinking black coffee by the church door. Bobby’s got a cup, but he keeps licking at it with his tongue like it’s a dog bowl. He puckers his lips at the taste. Sally’s making a crown out of dandelion babies. I blow the sticky seed shoots off my blouse.

“Good Bible talk,” Bobby’s momma says, coming up behind me and looking at a scuff mark on Sally’s shoe. “You kids did well with the exercises.”

Bobby says, “Thank you, ma’am.” His momma takes the coffee out of his hand, and smooths a cowlick down from the top of his head. She sips at the coffee and heads for the church doors. Bobby says, “Damn.”

My momma says my name and I look, but she’s talking to Mrs. Felder and laughing deep with her head back. I see Mr. Tenant through the glass of the church window, the wrinkles of his forehead pressed against the red stain.

Sally throws pebbles into the road. “You think it’s coming today?”

“Probably coming,” Bobby says, tilting his head to look at the clouds.

The church door clicks. I watch Mr. Tenant limp his way across the grass, stumbling a little. He stands at the edge of the fence posts, stepping over Sally’s flower crown. He looks at me and I help Sally fix the stem of a dandelion so it curls into the bunch.

Bobby slaps his palm against my knee and says, “There you go, Maxine.”

The Volvo’s coming down the street, engine heated to a low purr. I look for the stitched edge of Mr. Baker’s yarmulke, but the glass is too clouded to get a clear view. Mrs. Baker is sitting on the passenger side, her hair scarf bouncing high.

Mr. Tenant whistles out through dry lips that make the note fall flat. “Stay now,” he says to Bobby, looking him in the eye.

His khakis catch under his cane on the first step, but pretty soon Mr. Tenant’s moving fast across the street. He reaches his hand out as the Volvo cuts close to the sidewalk. Jeremiah’s gaze follows the slide of Mr. Tenant’s fingertips as they skid across the glass of his window. The car passes and Mr. Tenant’s hand falls to his hip.

“Fucking cocksucker!” Mr. Tenant yells as the car slows at the turn. “Jewish assholes!”

One of the adults says, deep and quiet, “Oh Lord,” and there’s a hush from the entrance of the church.

“He don’t make you fucking people,” Mr. Tenant yells, throwing one arm in the air, raising up the starched white fabric covering his waist. “He don’t make you like he makes the rest of us!”

Bobby goes to stand, but I wrap my arms around his thighs and pull his body down. The Bakers turn down Maple as Mr. Tenant starts across the pavement, using his cane when he starts to tip. He gets to the curb by the Stop sign and starts stroking the pole, dipping his fingertips into the little holes on the metal.

“Get him off that road,” John Hanson says. He comes to stand beside us, resting his hands on the picket fence. “Man’s gonna hurt himself bad.”

Bobby tries to loosen my hold and Sally says, “Shush,” and lays her palm on his shoulder.

“Keep fucking going!” Mr. Tenant yells, spitting into the road.

There’s talk by the church doors. I see my daddy slide his coffee cup into Momma’s hand and whisper into her ear.

“Just let him be,” Bobby’s momma says, sipping at Bobby’s cold cup. We watch as she sucks up the coffee in one gulp. “Let the man be.”

About the Author

Reegan Breedan · Susquehanna University

Originally from Annapolis, Maryland, Regan Breeden studies creative writing and spends her days getting familiar with the highways and diners of central PA. Her story first appeared in Susquehanna’s journal, RiverCraft.

About the Artist

Leah Corbett · Northeastern University

Leah Corbett is a conceptual photographer currently working towards her BFA in studio art at Northeastern and the SMFA. She has been photographing people her whole life, but likes to experiment with documentary. This color film photograph of a mysterious costume shop was taken in Montreal, and originally appeared in Northeastern’s *Spectrum" journal. You can view more of Leah’s work here.