American Girl

summer 2020 Kenyon Review submission

1977, north Louisiana – Silver, shiny, round – the only characteristics an object needs to find its way inside a toddler’s mouth. How I managed to pull it off the face of a brand new stereo system is a mystery, and it’s the reason my father is standing over us, screaming at Mama while she has her finger in my mouth trying to retrieve it. “WHY WASN’T YOU WATCHING HER?” 

1980, north Louisiana –  “C’mon, sugar.” My papaw is holding the front door open for me. He gently takes my five year old hand into his sun damaged, calloused hand. We say goodbye to Mama as she hands me her coffee cup, with the tiniest bit of coffee left in the bottom, an extinguished cigarette butt bobbing around in it. “Be good for Mamaw and Papaw, now, you hear me? I’ll see you tomorrow morning, just like always.” Papaw tells her not to worry, that I’m going to help him drive the tractor today.

1982, east Texas – My little brother and I hop out of the bed of the pickup truck, just getting back from a trip to the hardware store with our new stepdad. He starts unloading the supplies he bought, not yet noticing what my brother and I are seeing. There’s a wet, dark red streak across the slab of broken concrete in front of the mobile home we just moved into. It starts in a rogue patch of yellowed crabgrass sprouting out from the edge. It continues across the cracked surface, then up the three cinder block stairs, and into the wide open front door of the trailer. 

1984, Georgia – “You think you can grow up to be an ASTRONOMER? Astronomers are scientists, and scientists don’t have messy desks!” I am sitting on the floor, hyperventilating through sobs, pulling wrinkled papers, crayon stubs, books that are falling apart, and bits of trash out of the bottom of my desk. “She does the same thing at home. You should see her bedroom. It’s disgusting.” Standing over me are my pregnant 3rd grade teacher, in a flower print pink and yellow mumu, and my mother, her eyeshadow so blue that I can see it from the floor, through my tears, and through her glasses. They are discussing their disgust for me.

1985, Mississippi – The two scars, while caused by the same bullet, at almost precisely the same moment three years ago, look completely different. The one that is just above Mama’s knee looks like a thumbprint minus the lines and swirls, all smooth and white. The other scar is just below the same knee, diagonal from the one above, and is puckered and pink. Entry and exit. Mama was the first one to ever say it: “Look at that! I got an asshole on my knee!” 

1985, Florida – This is the first package I’ve ever gotten from my father, a box wrapped in brown paper bag. It doesn’t look exciting, but I am so excited. Mama makes me wait the three days until my 10th birthday to open it. It’s seafoam green, with a salmon colored button for recording and a teal button for playing. Inside the cassette player, I find Bon Jovi’s “Slippery When Wet.” I mail a letter to Casey Kasem, asking him to play a song from the album on American Top 40 and dedicate it to my dad.

1987, south Louisiana – “It’s called Atomic Turquoise. Since your hair is so black, you’d have to bleach it first to get it this color.” Her hair is exactly the same shade of blue as the raspberry snow cone she hands me. She and the snow cone stand are right across the street from our house, and I stop by every day after school. I’m in love with her and her hair. “Get your ass in here and watch your sister! You was supposed to be home twenty minutes ago!” Mama is yelling from the front porch.

1988, north Louisiana – “You know your mama was trying to kill herself that time she put a bullet through her knee?” I’m watching lazy white trails of cigarette smoke snake in and out of my Mamaw’s too-orange, too-teased curls as she tells me this. Her legs are crossed, one bare foot tapping the yellow linoleum in time to her own story, pausing only to take another drag. Apparently thirteen years old is just the right age for me to learn this. It’s a rite of passage in my family to be gossiped to, as it is to be gossiped about.

1989, New Mexico – “Look, I’ll talk to you if you fuck me.” I lose my virginity to a teenage boy in the back of a motorcycle garage, on a filthy, gray tarp, while an equally filthy, gray cat watches from the seat of a deconstructed Harley Davidson. He doesn’t talk to me after all. Two more teenage boys later, I’m pregnant, and still, no one to talk to.

1990, South Carolina – “Can you believe this bullshit? Her mama is trying to say I put my hands on her when she was little. Listen, I’m not saying I did or I didn’t, but look at her. She’s looked like that since she was 10 years old, titties and everything! Hell, she’s done been pregnant once,” my stepdad says to the constable. The officer takes a can of snuff out of his pocket. The label is green and black – my stepdad’s brand – and offers him some. He is here because a neighbor heard my mother screaming. The constable listens and spits, putrid brown saliva landing on the ground between them. My stepdad spits, talks some more. Out here against the dark of the trailer park, one of them looks like the shadow of the other.

1991, Alabama – A Joker’s grin of black paint from my mother’s Silverado interrupts the yellow of the emergency exit. I’ve smashed into the school bus, a bus that I would normally be on, a bus with my only two friends on it (and several classmates who are not my friends). I’m not on it because Mama stumbled in the front door at 6:00 am and passed out, so I have to stay home and take care of my two-year-old brother. I got my little sister on her bus, but my other brother, who is in middle school, missed his. So with a toddler in tow, I’ve driven him to the next bus stop. There’s pointing. There’s laughing, the cruel kind that only adolescents do. Cops arrive. One drives us home, another drives Mama’s truck.

1992 – It’s my first time flying, and I have a sunset view from the front end of the plane. I’m watching purples, pinks, and oranges mingle and change to more muted versions of themselves as we ascend. I am heading from Alabama to Texas to finish my senior year of high school living with my aunt. My eyes don’t leave the sky for the entire two hour flight. I witness it go from blue to purple to black, craning my neck to take in the stars, which, unlike the clouds, seem as far away as they ever have, silver, shiny, and round.

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