I hope that this story will knock you out as much as it did me. Here men play small roles–the husband a puzzle piece of the narrator’s life; the threat of an abusive father–likely more important than they at first seem. In place our more male-focused fare, we get a woman’s struggle to be good, to feel good about herself and to accept that she wants others to view her as good and that maybe what she really wants, she will never get. What we get is still what Good Men Project fiction is all about, it seems to me. What we get is a broken-down life trying to build itself up. What we get is honesty. What we get is damn fine writing. —Matt Salesses, Good Men Project Fiction Editor
The roller skates are busted and the bikes have flat tires and the wagon is full of leaves and rainwater, but they’re used to these things. They pedal harder, skate without bending their knees. They make adjustments. I sit in a chair by the door and sweat. Fat drops run down my sides, cool, and itchy as bugs.
Diamond pulls the wagon in front of me and drops the handle. I ignore her so she shoves it into my legs and I continue ignoring her so she goes and stands in an ant bed. When she starts screaming, I run over and pick her up, move her to the sidewalk and take off one of her sandals, swipe at the ants while she stomps.
Inside, we sit on the couch under an enormous photograph of the former television star. The photograph is a headshot, black-and-white with a loopy signature at the bottom. The former television star comes at Christmas, brings presents and lets the children touch her arms; she wears her hair in a ponytail and no makeup so we’ll think she’s a real person.
I put Diamond’s legs in my lap and smear Neosporin on her bites.
“My legs ashy,” she says, dipping her fingers into the Neosporin and rubbing it in.
“Don’t. I’ll get you some lotion.”
“Lemme do your hair.”
“My hair’s already done,” I say, though it’s only hanging loose, wash and go. I touch the darker spots on her arm, places that haven’t healed well, and then go into my boss’s office and open the supply cabinet, which is full of Dial soap and Suave shampoo, a box of thin plastic combs in primary colors. I take out a comb, red and bendy, and hand it to her. Then I sit in one of the kids’ chairs and she sits on the couch and rests her legs on my shoulders. She brushes my hair back roughly with her fingers.
“Use the comb,” I say, “and be gentle. I have a sensitive head.”
She thinks this is funny, a sensitive head. She runs the comb through to the tips and then twists it into a tight bun, announcing it Chinese style before letting go. After she’s gotten all of the knots out, I tell her we have to check on the baby.
The baby room has four cribs, three of them empty.
The baby is still asleep, snoring lightly because her nose is stopped up. She is a long, skinny child that I have to force myself to be kind to. I put socks on her feet and check her diaper and then Diamond and I go back outside and gather pecans in our shirts. We eat the good ones and chuck the bad ones into the street where a funeral procession is passing, the cars driving slowly by with their headlights on. The cars going in the opposite direction stop out of respect and I wonder if people do this in other towns. I wouldn’t want to live anywhere people didn’t do this.
“Maybe we could go to the pool later,” I say.
Diamond screams and tells the other girls and they all scream and I tell them they’ll have to ask Miss Monique and be extra nice for the rest of the day.
In the kitchen, Monique is flouring pork chops, an open number 10 can of black-eyed peas next to the stove. Because I have a college degree and I’m not obese, I’m in charge of nutrition, but she insists on frying everything. Even the vegetables have hunks of fat floating in them.
The girls ask Monique if they can go to the pool and she tells me she can’t find the cornmeal. I know it’s because there isn’t any but I unlock the pantry anyway, the girls trailing behind me, and look around. Diamond plucks a half-sucked sucker out of a jar of toothpicks and sticks it in her mouth. Angel finds an old peanut butter egg and I find a jumbo bag of marshmallows I’d forgotten about. I squeeze one and it’s still soft so I tuck the bag behind a box of cereal.
“We’re out,” I say. “Put it on the list and I’ll get some next time I’m at Wal-Mart.”
Monique curses under her breath, plenty loud enough for me to make out the particulars but not loud enough for me to call her out on it, which I learned the hard way. We leave her in the kitchen and go from room to room, rummaging through drawers and closets.
I find swimsuits for Diamond and Tasia and Brie, but I can’t find one for Angel so I sort through bags of donated coats and underwear until I locate a stretched-out bikini.
“Rainbow print is really hot right now,” I say, tossing it to her.
Angel takes off her clothes and puts the bottoms on, turns around so I can tie the triangle top. Then she walks up and down the hall with her hard little stomach bulging, modeling it for us.
I sit on the edge and dangle my legs in the water. It’s a public pool in a park full of concrete. There are empty flowerpots full of cigarette butts and bathrooms with metal mirrors like they have at rest stops. The baby is in my arms, making me sweat. I lift her above my head and she laughs so I pretend like I’m eating her arm and she pulls the sunglasses off my face and drops them into the water.
Diamond paddles over with her Dora the Explorer floaties to fetch them. She hands them to me and I wipe the lenses on my shirt while she moves up and down on my foot.
“It’s impolite to hump someone’s foot,” I say, and she shows me her ear as if I misspoke.
In the shallow end, Angel holds Tasia’s head under water. They call each other motherfucker and then they are calling each other baldhead and cross-eye and scarface, making motherfucker seem generous. Monique and I look at each other and look away. I feel sleepy and hot. I want to lie in the grass under a tree and take a nap but there’s only a rectangle of concrete surrounded by basketball courts and parking lots, Monique sitting under the single umbrella reading a romance novel.
“I’m gone take these off,” Diamond says, yanking at her floaties.
“You’ll have to get out if you take them off.”
“I know how to swim.”
“I know you do,” I say, though she doesn’t know how—none of them know how but they imagine all sorts of things for themselves.
When we get back to the cottage, I adjust the temperature control with a butter knife. I put soap and toilet paper in all the bathrooms and then sit on the couch with the girls and watch The Little Mermaid. They seem despondent, listless. I ask Tasia what she wants to be when she grows up and she tells me a secretary, or a waitress at Outback Steakhouse, and I don’t give her the speech I usually give them, where I tell them they can be doctors and musicians and astronauts, where I tell them that success has no bounds.
“Who wants a snack?” I ask, and they perk up.
I hand out pudding cups and plastic tumblers of Kool-Aid and then take them outside while Monique feeds the baby. I try pushing three girls at once, but Diamond gets angry because I’m not pushing her high enough. She gets more and more upset until I finally give up and go inside and get a chair, sit by the door with my book.
Diamond throws her body to the ground while I ignore her, and then she comes over and climbs into my lap.
“Why do you have to get so dirty?” I say. She twirls a finger around a strand of my hair. I wait for her to pull but she just twirls and I think about the first time I took her home, parked the van in my driveway and introduced her to my husband and my dog. We sat on my couch and ate cold pizza and my husband let her touch his hair.
“Ooh, that nasty,” she says, yanking Larry Brown’s Big Bad Love out of my hand. On the cover, two people make out in the backseat of a car. We look at the man’s ropy arm and black jeans, the woman’s messy blonde hair. They are thin and young and beautiful and the picture somehow implies that passion requires these things, that the rest of us are going to miss out.
“It’s not nasty. They’re just kissing.”
“You nasty,” she says.
My boss stands in the doorway and asks if she can see me for a minute.
“Sure,” I say, lifting Diamond off my lap. I follow her back to her office, a Styrofoam to-go box open on her desk: fried chicken and mashed potatoes and green beans, a soggy-bottomed roll on top. She eats a wing while telling me how much money it’s costing us to keep Diamond.
“Each month, the state gives us less for her care,” she says, which I already know. I look at the pictures of her grandson, books on drug addiction and sexual abuse, the framed certificates on the walls. She tells me they found her a foster home where she’ll be the only child, the woman trained to deal with children who have problems. We both know Diamond isn’t the kind of child anyone can be trained for but I don’t say this and my boss puts the wing down and picks up a thigh.
I find Diamond in her room, sitting on the bed she doesn’t sleep in.
“You’re leaving,” I say. “We have to pack your stuff.”
I fold her dresses and shorts while she kicks her toys into the middle of the room. I haven’t seen a single suitcase since I’ve been here. We should ask people to donate suitcases. I think about organizing a suitcase drive—people would get behind it. I hand her a garbage bag and she tosses her toys in, each one slamming against the floor, while I stack her clothes into the other one as neatly as possible. When we’re finished, I look around her room. Each of the eight rooms in the shelter are the same but decorated with different lamps and bedspreads, different pictures above the beds. I can’t imagine anyone else sleeping under her red ladybugs.
I buckle Diamond into the backseat of a brown sedan and sit with her while my boss talks to her social worker. The social workers are all pleasant and cheaply dressed and we only see them when they’re shuffling the kids around. Like the girls, I ignore them unless I need something.
You’ll be back, I want to tell her, because she always comes back, but maybe she won’t this time. Maybe she’ll flourish under this specially trained foster mother. Maybe this woman will adopt her and she’ll go to college and make good grades and have lots of friends. I hold her hand and we sit quietly until the woman gets in her car and looks back at us.
Diamond is gone five days. The only difference is she has less stuff now.
She runs and jumps into my arms and I carry her around the cottage on my hip. She bucks up and down and I tell her to stop and then I put her down and we sit at the kids’ table and color, occasionally looking up to comment on each others’ pictures, while the other girls watch television. I color the sky red and the grass blue and Strawberry Shortcake black but I stay within the lines. Diamond colors everything the right color but doesn’t stay within the lines. When we finish one, we tear it out, making a little stack on the table.
“I want that one,” Diamond says, so I give her my coloring book. She looks at the picture I was working on—Strawberry Shortcake taking a bubble bath while her cat paws at a bubble—and says she doesn’t want this one, she wants another one. I sort through the shelf of books she can’t reach and hand her Beauty and the Beast and Spider Man and Blue’s Clues and they all go skidding across the room, open-faced. Then she pushes the baby, who falls, cushioned, on her ass. The baby looks at me to confirm that something terrible has happened to her before screaming.
I drag Diamond to her room and push her in, hold the door closed while she tears it apart. There’s only so much damage that can be done: chairs topple, shoes hit the wall. She sticks her fingers through the vent and reaches for my legs and says she’s going to tell her daddy, that her daddy is big and mean and he is going to kill me.
“You going to die,” she says.
“Okay,” I say.
“My daddy gone kill you.”
“That’s fine,” I say.
She finally tires herself out and slides to the floor, and I sit against the other side. I wait a minute before opening the door. I right her chairs and put the covers back on her beds. She puts her shoes in the closet, brings me the trashcan to show me the busted plastic. Then we lie in her twin bed, facing each other. We alternate closing our eyes, looking at each other in turns. Next month, she’ll go to court and testify against her father. Already, she spends so much of her time talking to therapists about the things he has done to her. I want to take her out to my car and drive until we find a nice little house in a nice little town: a tire swing in the front yard and neighbors who invite us over for cookouts. We’d watch movies together at night in our pajamas and I wouldn’t have to drink all the time and she’d forget about all of the bad things that have happened to her.
“Come on,” I say. “Let’s go outside.”
I push her on the swing and she tells me to push her higher, higher. I push her so high the swing set starts jumping. When I get tired, I sit on the swing next to her and she trails her foot across the oval of dirt to slow herself before jumping off. Then she climbs into my lap, facing me, and I help get her legs into position.
I’m too old to swing—it makes me nauseous—and I’m certainly too old to for spider, but I hold still as she places her hands on either side of my face as if she’s going to kiss me, or take my temperature, and tell her to hold on.
The next day I’m not working but I go in anyway and pick up Diamond. My boss doesn’t care and no one else knows what goes on. I’ve only seen the director twice; both times he gave us information to study for a test that was never administered and then went around the room asking us to toot each other’s horns.
Diamond has a stain on her shirt so I take her back to her room and go through her drawers, which are full of clothes that don’t belong to her.
She sits on the edge of her bed and says she likes the shirt she has on, she wants to wear what she has on, but I toss her a yellow one with flowers around the collar and a small pocket. I give her a quarter to put in it. Then we go out to my car and I buckle her into the passenger seat of my Toyota, thinking that she should probably be in some sort of car seat in the back. She leans forward and punches buttons—1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6—before we can hear what’s playing.
“Chill out,” I say, grabbing her hand.
“I want ice cream,” she says.
“There’s ice cream at my house.” There are two different kinds of ice cream and dozens of DVDs and a big screen TV, I think, and then I think about how none of these things mean much because I’ve always had them.
I park in the driveway and go around and open her door, wave to my neighbor watering his lawn. He’s an old man who still calls black people “negros.” I once saw him methodically drown a varmint in a trashcan full of water. He pulled the thing out and it was still alive so he plunged it back into the can and held it there and then pulled it out again. He did it over and over, so slowly it was like a horror movie.
My husband has his straw hat on, the elastic-waist shorts he always mows in. He turns the mower off and says hey and I say hey and he turns it back on. Diamond and I go inside and stand in the living room.
“Where your dog at?” she asks.
“In the backyard.”
We walk into the dining room and look down at the dog. The dog has a shock collar on its neck—a recent development. It is an unpredictable animal that barks at nothing and doesn’t like people but loves other dogs and even cats. As a puppy, it seemed fine, normal even, and then it turned into an animal that scratched itself bald and would eat until it threw up and then eat its throw up.
I had wanted a dog for years and felt certain it was my fault despite what the vet said—that some dogs are born bad, like some people.
“What her name?”
“Her name’s Roxie but I call her Shiggy Diggy. She only knows one word and that’s bath. ‘Shiggy Diggy wanna bath?’ And then she goes and hides under the bed and I have to fish her out with the broom.”
We watch the dog run up and down inside the path it has worn, full speed, no way out. My husband hates to mow back there because it’s full of shit.
I pick up the remote control and press a button, a warning sound that means if the dog keeps barking it’s going to get shocked. The dog doesn’t respond to the sound at all. Despite her problems, she has a few charming qualities. Some days, before my husband gets home from work, we lie in bed and spoon. Every time I open my hard drive, she comes running to see the CD make orbs of light on the walls. When I wash dishes, she likes to watch the water ripple on the cabinets, the pots flash.
We go into the kitchen and look at the refrigerator: coloring book tear-outs with Diamond’s name in jostled letters at the top, photographs of the dog in reindeer ears.
“It took us forever to get a couple of good pictures to use as Christmas cards.”
Diamond touches one of the pictures and says, “Shiggy Diggy,” and laughs and I take the rocky road out the freezer.
She eats a bowl while looking around at the cheerful wallpaper and plum-colored curtains, the clean white appliances. The woman who lived here before decorated the house and my husband moved in and then I moved in.
“You pretty,” she says.
“You’re good for my ego,” I say. She looks at me and I say, “But you probably don’t know what an ego is.”
My husband comes inside and drinks a glass of water, sweat pouring off his face, flecks of grass and dirt on his clothes.
“What do you want to do?” I ask Diamond, who is gazing up at my husband. My husband is tall and good-looking but insecure about his looks because of his high forehead and too-thin chest. He lifts weights in the basement four times a week. He likes football and beer and motorcycle magazines with bikinied women on the covers.
She doesn’t know and I don’t know so I drive her across town to the mall. It’s the kind of place I hate but drive to without thinking. There’s a park next to the mall, a walking path around a lake, and sometimes I put on my tennis shoes and go there, sit on a swing and look at the ducks. If I take the dog with me, I have to keep her on a short leash so she doesn’t try to bite anyone.
We stop at the food court and I order a small box of chicken nuggets. Then we sit at a two-top and I watch her eat while she watches the children play on the plastic tree, a replica of the one at Disney World. I look around—sometimes we run into girls who are back home with their families; we talk to them with our eyes while their peoples’ backs are turned.
“I’ve seen the real tree,” I say. “It was fake, too. I ate Moroccan food and went on a safari and there were lions and tigers and bears, oh my.”
She stops chewing and cocks her head at me.
“I wish you’d been there,” I say, and she opens her mouth and laughs too loudly and I help her take her shoes off.
Diamond walks over to the tree and climbs up the trunk, sticks her head out and waves at me before sliding down. She befriends a white boy and slaps him on the ass once, good and hard, but nobody seems to mind. I move to the bench with the other parents and watch the two of them ride a squirrel together, Diamond in front like the man. She pushes the boy off and he gets back on and she smiles at me and waves and I smile and wave back.
The woman next to me, a blonde in spandex, asks if she’s mine and I tell her no. She’s the kind of woman who comes on Wednesday nights to bring movies and popcorn. These women smile too much and won’t use the bathroom, and it makes me want to steal their husbands so they can see how quickly life can rearrange itself into unfamiliar and unpleasant patterns.
“I work at a shelter for abused and neglected children,” I say, hating myself for wanting this woman to say I’m good, that what I’m doing is a good thing.
“I bet that’s very rewarding,” she says.
“Not really,” I say, and I close my eyes long enough to imagine the world dark and full of noise, and then I open them and locate Diamond. I look at an old man eating an ice cream cone, spinning the swirl of vanilla over his tongue. I watch him the same way he watches me—blankly, without interest—and wonder if Diamond will remember that someone loved her once, if she’ll have any memory of me at all.
—photo Flickr/jessica mullen