Tim kept calling it dirt weed and I couldn't stop laughing. I tried to finger-comb my hair when I laughed so that it fell dark and sunlit over my shoulders and one of the guys might notice, but then I saw myself trying to work my hair just right, and that seemed funnier than dirt weed and Tim. We were smoking stems and shake down by the river on a Wednesday. We should've been in schoolall of usTim and Rich and me and Dusty, but it was April, two months from graduation, and we didn't care anymore. Dusty had her head in my lap and I couldn't stop touching her face. Her sister worked at a salon and Dusty's eyebrows were waxed into clean lines. I wanted to run my finger over them. Tim rolled up his jeans and waded out into the fake surf of the river, where there was enough of a foam line to make it seem as though the river carried more than the sifted scales of dead fish and the runoff of winter storms. He threw a flat rock across the surface so that it bunny-hopped the wake and then sank fifty yards from the shore. Your sister got a boyfriend yet? Rich asked me, and Tim's second rock jumped twice, rebounded, and disappeared from the surface.
That shit ain't funny, Tim said. Dusty sat up and left my lap to take the brunt of the north wind that had picked up in the last half hour.
The beach point was empty in April except for the sloughed-off remains of fishermennight crawler containers, knots of tight blue line, catfish bait bags. I wondered what it might be like to come out on this bank and fish, sit with my ass balanced on some rocks and wait for a steelhead to arc the pole. It would probably be boring without dope, without Rich and Tim and Dusty, without the jettisoned remains of our ice chest winking in the thin sunlight.
I have to get going, I said, and Tim waded farther into the river, until the jean doughnuts beneath his knees darkened. When he finally stepped out of the water his legs were pink with cold. I thought about telling him that his legs were salmon pink, but my high was almost gone; and though my observation sounded funny to me I knew that by the time I said it out loud it wouldn't be funny anymore.
Rich gathered up the spent cans and Dusty reset her ponytail. Tim slipped on his Chucks and we all stood around for a minute and listened to the river. I liked the smell of wet weeds and algae. The river was like white noise on a television channel without reception. The river was the kind of noise that I could fall asleep to at night.
I thought your mom doesn't get home until after six, Dusty said. She had found a rough stone to use as an emery board and was filing her nails while we stared out at the water.
She gets home whenever, I said, but I have to be home for Jess. I was six years older than Jessica. My birth had been planned; she had come along like an afterthought. When I was in first grade I brought her for show and tell, and my parents had let me raise her ever since.
What I don't get is why you're baby-sitting her, Samantha, Rich said. I mean, when I was in fuckin' junior high, I went home and nobody sat there with me.
My mom works late. It's too much time to spend alone, I said.
Rich had his hand cupped over his mouth and I could tell he was choking back something he wanted to say.
What? I said
He turned his face away. The river took the sound. Forget him, Dusty said, he's just being an asshole.
I brushed the dirt off my feet and pulled my socks on. Jess had been in charge of the laundry for the past two weeks and all of my white socks were now a weak shade of blue.
Just say it, fuckwad, I said to Rich. I had slept with him. I didn't mean to, but Tim had been grounded and Dusty was in Pittsburgh visiting her grandma. Rich had his dad's truck and a twelve-pack of Pabst. We went to the park and sat at the curb with the engine ticking and the radio playing oldies. He kept telling jokes about elephants. I finally just put my lips over his mouth and gapped my kiss wide enough to take his tongue because I knew it was what he wanted, knew it was why he called me, knew why the streetlights buzzed over our heads and the beer was free. I let him sink it into me right there on the vinyl seat of his dad's truck, let him drop the rubber rolled tight as chewing gum onto the floorboards, let him put the come-thrust deep and leave it there while his mouth tried to catch up with the rest of his body.
I gotta get home, I said again, and this time Rich started walking and Dusty took my hand and Tim carried out the garbage from the rocky bank alone.
In the parking lot Tim waited until Dusty was in the car next to Rich and the tailpipe was kicking fumes. Tim's car was on blocks in his parents' garage with the engine gutted like a three-point buck. I was his ride, and he had the senior prom corsage in his refrigerator to prove it. Can you drop me at my place? he asked. Rich lived less than a mile from Tim's house, same side of the street in another shit-brown house, but Tim knew if I were running late, I'd sooner give a blow job than fend off fucking and leave Jess sitting on the front steps alone
I drove Tim home in silence. When my tires met the gravel of his driveway he slid next to me and rubbed his hand on my thigh. He found a station on the radio and let his head fall back against the bench seat. I kept the engine running while the dogs barked behind the fence until I sat up in my seat again.
The steps were empty and the house quiet when I got home. The sunset was buried in thick dark clouds; the cheap lilac of false twilight feathered across the sky. The answering machine was flashing and I knew it was the attendance office calling to inform my mom that I hadn't been in school today. I erased a hang-up, the notice that I was absent again, a telemarketer who wanted my mom to call and claim her free gift, and the main office at Jess's school. Hello . . . Jess needs to be picked up by a parent or guardian . . . The voice sounded fat and depressed, the message pausing and cutting off with a click. I called the real estate office where my mom workedBen Bailey Realtyand listened to an automated voice directing me to hold and the Bee Gees singing Don't throw it all away, our love. The secretary took the line and I asked for my mother. The phone beeped twice before my mother answered. She sounded like her shirt was unbuttoned.
Jess needs to be picked up again, I said.
There was silence; I felt her close the gap in her shirt with her hand. I'm in a meeting, honey. Can you let the office know?
What if they need to talk to you? What if there's some kind of issue or something?
Then tell them to write a note and I'll sign it. My mom exhaled and I knew she was smoking a cigarette. Her voice drifted, broke up. I'll be home late, so you girls just have dinner and get on to bed. I knew her meetings with Ben Bailey were not really meetings of the minds. They were meetings of something that made my mom carry her panty hose home in her purse.
I pasted some graham crackers together with peanut butter and strawberry jelly and stacked them between paper towels. I felt numb in the head, like someone had shampooed me with Novocain. I wished I had more cheap dope so I could just eat a TV dinner and lie on the couch, leave Jess with her shows, sign for her homework, and go to bed. I could sleep until June, until registration for college, until the last migration to the water, where we could smoke and drink and fuck and light fires. We were scattering after the summer and I was waiting. Dusty was going to Pittsburgh, Tim and Rich heading south for football, and I was moving west, as close to the edge of the map as I could.
I drove to the junior high and parked in front of the main office. The parking lot was almost empty. The front door to the office was open and I walked in and stood at the counter. I recognized the secretary from when I used to go there. Her knit sweater was buttoned at her throat and she wore her glasses on a gold chain around her neck. Edna. Her name had been too hard to form a mean rhyme around when I was in seventh grade. We stuck our tongues out at her instead, because we couldn't think of anything to say.
She hit the computer keys in bursts, and I finally cleared my throat so she'd look up. Yes? she said.
I'm here for Jess Murphy, I said.
Edna eyed me up and down. She'd put on an even fifty since I'd seen her last, and her glasses were buried like a pickax in the swell of her breasts. She was wrapped in an orchid-print blouse, pastel yellow pants; her body was wide as the open prairie. She raised her voice at me.
We need a parent signature, she said. The principal wants to have a conference. Her fingers were poised above her keyboard but they did not move.
I'm her guardian. I'm here to take her home.
Her index finger twitched, though her wrists didn't bend. She ran her tongue across her top row of teeth and dropped her hands to the desk. She took a deep breath, the orchid blouse swelling and rolling. You'll have to talk to Ms. Peters. And you'll have to sign the form.
Jess came out from the principal's office. I slung her backpack over my shoulder. I'll still need to speak to you, Ms. Peters said. She was the new principal and she liked to knot layers of sheer scarves over her throat. At Back to School Night I'd counted five, but then realized there had been sixtwo were the same shade of green.
Jess waited outside the office and I sat in the chair across from Ms. Peters's desk.
Your sister needs a bathing suit, she said. They're doing swimming in PE and it's mandatory that she participate. Ms. Peters slid a finger under a yellow scarf. Unless she has a medical problem that prohibits her from the class. I've sent two letters to your house.
Our father was selling computer software in Detroit and sometimes he called on Sunday nights. My mom would start drinking early on Sundays. She'd wait for the phone to ring so she could keep telling him that she wasn't mad until she finally said she was goddamn mad and then she'd hang up on him. Sometimes he started drinking earlier than my mother, caught her off guard.
My mom's been working a lot, I said. I thought about my mom and the restaurant leftovers in foil swans, Ben Bailey on the phone late at night. Ms. Peters's desk was light oak and nicked at the corners, like someone had chipped at it with a knife.
The school nurse is concerned about Jess, she said. Her weight is a potential health problem.
I bit at my cuticles, spit the skin onto the stained carpet. I wondered if students had sat in front of Ms. Peters's desk and cried or puked or bled onto the carpet while she made phone calls and held conferences, in that same controlled voice she used now, and Edna typed in the other room. Jess was just over five feet four; she weighed one hundred ninety-five pounds the last time I'd seen her on a scale. She wore women's clothes and had to wear a bra because her fat tucked like breasts under her shirts.
We want to help Jess. You understand, don't you? she asked.
I carved a long flap of skin from the edge of my thumb, then bit it off with my front teeth. Ms. Peters slid the forms across her desk. I spit the skin onto the papers and hoped the cut would bleed.
I just need you to sign and acknowledge that you've been given the information regarding Jess's suspension if she doesn't participate in the spring PE activity. And that I notified you about her weight. I looked over my shoulder and saw Jess sitting in a chair outside the office. She filled the chair; her thighs pushed out of the gaps beneath the armrests. Notified.
I signed the forms Dolores Claiborne and stood up from my chair. Thank you, Ms. Peters said.
Fuck you, I said, but kept my voice low and my back turned.
No problem, I said
We walked to the car and I threw Jess's backpack behind the seat. She got in, shut her door. I could hear her breathing in the quiet of the car. She was wearing gray sweats and tennis shoes, and she had her hair tucked behind her ears. She stared out the window, rubbing her hands back and forth on her thighs
Hungry? I asked. I held the graham cracker sandwiches out to her, but she didn't take them.
I'm fine, she said. Sorry about this.
I turned the radio off and drove in silence. Rain spattered the windshield, thunder rolled in the distance. I drove toward town, parked in front of Penney's, and waited for Jess to say something.
I'll get you a suit, I said
The rain was coming harder. I could barely see out the windshield with the wipers shut off. Jess pinched at the cotton pulled tight over her thighs but didn't look at me.
We'll get something good, I said.
Jess took a deep breath and I could feel the seat shift beneath me. Sam? she said. Could I maybe have one of those graham crackers?
I handed her the paper towel and she took one of the sandwiches. We sat in the car and ate while the windows fogged up. We couldn't see the parking lot anymore.
We walked around the store and found the swimsuits. It was only April but an entire wall had been dedicated to summer wear. The mannequins were dressed in trunks and sunglasses, bikinis and cropped shirts. I skipped the bikini rack and went straight for the one-pieces. Jess followed behind me. I started with the larges, held one up, and then moved to the extra-larges. The selection wasn't good. Most of the extra-large suits had been designed like boat covers, with ruffles around the waists, and none of them looked like the kind of suit a twelve-year-old should wear to PE. I sifted through the rack and found one that might work. It was plain black and roomy, cut low on the legs, with straps that were wide and a neckline that didn't dip in the front or back.
What d'you think?
Jess shrugged her shoulders. I could see graham cracker crumbs in the corners of her mouth. I brushed off her lips and tucked a few strands of stray hair behind her ear.
It's no big deal, Jess, I said. Try it on.
I took her to the fitting room and followed her into the small stall. She stood there without undressing. I leaned against the wall and waited. C'mon, I said. I'd forgotten that Jess didn't undress in front of anyone. I hadn't seen her without a shirt for as long as I could remember.
Can you wait outside? she asked.
I have to see how it looks. It might not be right. I'm your sister, for chrissake.
Can't I take the suspension? Her eyes were shiny under the bad lights.
Jess, we can do this. It's just a bathing suit. It's just PE.
She shifted her weight back and forth on her feet and took the suit off the hanger. She held it up in front of her, looked in the mirror. It seems small, she said.
It stretches, I said.
She handed me the suit and turned her back. She pulled the sweatshirt over her head. When she raised her arms I could see light hair in her armpits, reflected in the mirror. Dusty told me that fat kids go through puberty earlier. Jess started her period when she was ten. She dropped her sweatshirt to the floor. Folds of skin buried the straps of her bra. She stepped out of her shoes and pushed down her sweatpants. The skin on the backs of her legs was white and dimpled. A deep crease ran from the front of her stomach and around her sides, where her fat hung over the waistband of her underwear. She kept her eyes shut while she undressed.
Take off your bra, I said
She hesitated for a minute, then reached behind her and undid the clasp. Her breasts were full and streaked with purple stretch marks. I handed her the suit and she wiggled her body into it, dipped her arms through the straps, and tugged the elastic leg bands over her thighs. The bottom of her underwear puffed out. She turned around and held her arms up.
Well? she asked
The spandex of the suit pulled tight across her belly, so that it looked swollen under her soft breasts. The elastic bit into her thighs and shouldersI knew it would leave marks in a matter of minutes. I tried to imagine her beside the pool, with the whistle blowing and girls swimming laps and her trying to pull the leg holes of her suit loose from her thighs where the skin rubbed and the friction left a rash.
It's okay, I said
She pinched the material and let it snap back against her stomach. It feels funny, she said.
Maybe it's not a good fabric, I said. Maybe we should try a better store.
Jess peeled off the suit, the elastic snapping at her skin. I waited for her to get dressed, then we left the swimsuit hanging in the room. It looked like a seal pelt.
I drove home without stopping at any more stores. Jess didn't say anything. The lights in Penney's had made me tired, and I just wanted to make some soup and listen to the rain.
Do you have a lot of homework tonight? I asked.
Math. The usual, she said.
Mom's at a meeting. Maybe we could watch a movie on TV.
Sure, she said.
In the weak wash of headlights Jess looked like she was six years old again, and I realized that she was only twelve; half her life was six years. I wanted to pull her across the seat and put my arm around her so she wasn't so exposed, so she could tuck her round face against my ribs and we could wait out the bad things. At twelve I had already sneaked a beer from the top shelf of the refrigerator, told my mom the bottle fell and broke when I was trying to put the milk carton away. And I learned that if one could fall, two could fall as well, and I gave Darren Webster a hand job in the movie theater during the last half of Titanic. He bought me popcorn and then he ignored me the next day. Jess had been little, growing out of her 6X pants, but still able to run, go to birthday parties, eat without people staring at her, wear a swimsuit, swim.
When we got home Jess sat at the kitchen table and watched me go through the cupboards to find something for dinner. The only kind of soup was cream of mushroom garlic. The wind threw handfuls of rain against the windows. The lights flickered for a second and came back on again.
Maybe we should light some candles, Jess said.
Too bad we don't have some scary movie to watch. And some soup.
Jess brought the candles from the living room and dug matches out of the junk drawer. We turned the lights off and let the candles take over. I knew about the fat camp brochures, the ones that Jess sent away for and hid in her room. I knew she was saving money so she could go. I watched her pocket the loose change from the couch cushions, add it to the jar beneath her bed.
I opened the freezer and took out the carton of vanilla ice cream. I got a spoon from the dishwashera soupspoonand set them both on the table in front of Jess. When Jess was younger our mom used to fix Jess's plate in the kitchen so she could control her portions. The food didn't fill the plate, just one scoop of everything, no seconds, no dessert. Jess used to cry in the night because she was hungry and her stomach hurt. I would crawl in bed with her and rub her belly in hopes that the weight of my hand would substitute for the food she couldn't have.
Have some, I said.
Jess looked at the spoon and the ice cream and shook her head. I'm not hungry, she said. I'll wait for dinner.
The candles flickered on the countertops. The freezer groaned and spit ice cubes into the tray. I pushed the carton closer to Jess. Just eat it, Jess. It's okay.
Jess looked down at the table. I said I'll wait for dinner.
What if this is dinner? What if this could be dinner whenever you wanted?
Jess pushed at the spoon, then folded her hands in front of her. It can't. You know that.
I think you're wrong. I don't think you know what you're missing.
I'm missing PE, Sam. That's what I'm missing. Drops of water ran down the sides of the carton of ice cream.
Take one bite, I said.
Why're you doing this, Sam? It's not funny.
I'm not laughing. Just eat the ice cream, Jess. I promise that there's a point to all of this.
That's what I'm waiting for. The point.
I reached over, picked up one of her hands, and rested it on the spoon. It's a good thing, Jess. This is a good thing.
Jess looked at the ice cream carton sweating in front of her. I smiled and pushed her hand down on the spoon. Pretend it can be dinner, I said.
Jess picked up the spoon, dug it into the carton. She lifted out a full scoop of vanilla and put it in her mouth.
It's good, right? I said.
Of course it's good. It's ice cream. She swallowed and set the spoon back on the table.
Keep going, I said.
I took a bite like you asked. I want to wait for dinner.
This is dinner. Eat it.
Jess wiped the back of her hand across her mouth and stared at me. I stood up from the table, took a piece of paper and a pen from next to the phone.
What are you doing? she asked. Making a note for Mom that I ate all the ice cream? Recording the moment?
Take another bite, I said.
Jess picked up the spoon and scooped out another mouthful. She chewed the ice cream with her mouth open so I could see it.
What do you want to have? I asked.
Not for dinner, dummy. For PE. What's your medical excuse? The reason you can't take swimming.
Jess took another bite without my prompt. She smiled, a thin, sticky coat of milk on her lips. Are you serious?
Absolutely. What do you have? What about a heart condition. No, that'll make that bitch principal think she's doing the right thing. A pulled ligament. Then you'll have to limp or something . . . I knowvertigo. You can't be in the water. It makes you dizzy.
I don't know, it has to do with having your head spin and getting dizzy and feeling like you're gonna puke. This girl Vicky had it last year and she didn't even have to come to class.
Jess was scraping the sides of the carton. I could hear her spoon raking the cardboard clean. Yeah, vertigo. I like it.
I wrote out the note to Ms. Peters, signing our mom's name. I could do her signature better than my own. Fat loop for L, swing the tail of the y around and hook it straight to the right side of the page. I gave the note to Jess and she shoved it into her back pocket. The spoon was tipped sideways in the carton.
The ice cream was gone.
Come with me, I said. I stood up and pulled Jess by the sweatshirt so she'd follow. I took her into the bathroom, turned on the light. You have to trust me on this, okay? I mean really just trust me.
What? Jess leaned back against the sink. I pushed her toward the toilet and forced her to bend over. What are you doing, Sam? She tried to stand up, but I kept my hand on her back and the other arm tight around her waist so I could lean against her.
You get to eat the ice cream but you don't get to keep it.
Let go of me, she said. She forced her weight into me; I bent my knees and held my ground.
Shhhhhhh. Just listen to me. I leaned in close to her ear, so that my lips almost touched her skin. You won't have to worry anymore, I whispered. This will all go away. I gently squeezed the soft roll of her stomach with my hand. And you can swim next year.
She was breathing hard. I could feel her chest rise and fall. I rubbed her back, kept my arm around her waist, my body pressed against her. Rich held Dusty like this once at a party when she drank shots for the first time, and Tim held me like this on his living room carpet when his parents were at work, and I was holding Jess like this because it was April and in a few months I'd be gone. We both looked down at the toilet, the white seat, the clear water, the line of blue from the cube of bowl cleaner melting in the tank. I'm scared, she said.
I'll help you, I said. We'll do this together.
No boy would ever roll his naked body into Jess's in the dark on a school night, not like this, and she wouldn't know what it sounded like to hear him say he loved her, hear him say she was beautiful and good. I thought about our mom's panty hose in her purse and restaurant leftovers in foil swans and how a jar of change was just quarters and dimes that wouldn't buy fat camp or swimsuits that didn't rub rashes into thighs. I put two fingers up to Jess's mouth and she opened wide for me. I could feel the heat inside, the wetness and warmth, and I pushed my hand back until it had to curve downward to go further. I wiggled my fingers until she lurched against me. I bent over with her and held her as tight as I could.
To read other stories from the Summer 2005 issue, click here to purchase it from our online store.