The two of ‘em are having a real bad time changing Dwayne’s diaper, cursing and yelling for me to come out there and hold down Dwayne’s legs. But I can’t. I’m not done pouting. Mamma said I looked like a brood sow in my blue jean skirt, and Clarke’s still on my grievance list ‘cause he peed on my blue rug. Ms. Price would call that there irony, which is like opposite world, Clarke being a grown man and changing a nine-year-old’s diaper but going tinkle on my bedroom floor in the middle of the night. He apologized. Said he was dreaming he was back in Desert Storm and needed to show them Iraqis a what for. Then Mamma said he wasn’t in no Desert Storm and that he should know better than to drink fourteen beers when she’s not here to see to Dwayne.
I was embarrassed for Clarke while it was happening, so I stayed under the covers with Jeep while he finished his business. Jeep’s a real silky black cat with one white paw, and she’s never peed on my blue rug. She did pee on Dwayne’s blanket, but Dwayne didn’t notice ‘cause he’s got dystonic cerebral palsy and pees in a plastic jug himself.
Clarke’s pee was a dark blue stain the shape of a Ping-Pong paddle. I waited till Tuesday, for those nitrogen compounds to dry – I looked it up, that’s all pee-pee is – and sure, it smelled, but not when I put my fingers on my upper lip. Once it was dry, I took the garden shears from the shed, cut out the stain, put an empty flowerpot in the hole, filled the pot to the brim with Mamma’s dry black-eyed peas, and stuck all my pens inside. I was losing those pens, you see, and I need ‘em, ‘cause Ms. Price thoroughly enjoyed my poem that didn’t rhyme, so I aim to write more. Ms. Price knows what’s good. She says big words and eats raw fish that doesn’t smell, and even though I’m a ninth grader, she lets me come sit in her Language Arts class during Gym. That was after she saw how the other girls had drawn nipples on my Gym shirt with a red Magic Marker.
“Got a gig at the theater,” Clarke says at breakfast.
“You tearing tickets?” I ask.
“Nope. I’m painting at that artsy outfit with the real live la-di-da, down by the bank that took all my brother’s money.” Clarke stands and opens the cupboard and his belly pops out the waist of his paint-splotched jeans like a marshmallow, if a marshmallow had patches of red and grey hairs sprouting off it.
Jeep stirs in my lap, and I hold her close. I can’t let her free when Clarke’s in the room. He pets her too hard, and once he got royal blue paint on her white paw. When Clarke can’t find houses to paint, he drinks Coors and paints still life, junk he piles on a sheet in the den. A peppershaker or a box of Lorna Doones or one of Dwayne’s used syringes or the batteries from the remote control until Mamma took ‘em back.
“I’m painting the set for a play, Myrtle,” he says, with pride all over his face, which makes me feel embarrassed for him again.
“That why you got home so late?” Mamma doesn’t look up from her stories (her stories aren’t actually stories, but facts about real people from the movies and TV, picking up their drying clearing or swimming at a beach that you can’t find on the map).
Clarke doesn’t answer but watches her and crunches through a Frito, even though he just had six pieces of sausage. “Ever been to the the-ater?” He swallows and says, “It’s live. With real actors. Y’all can come.”
“No thank you,” Mamma says, sassy.
“Aww. Come on, Myrtle.” Clarke nuzzles his ruddy grey beard in her frayed ponytail. “You know you wanna squeeze in a short skirt for the high falutins. Show off that tight rump.”
“See. Dwayne wants to go,” Clarke says.
Mamma turns to Dwayne and pets his forehead and he writhes around at his trunk, like he’s doing the twist, ‘cause that’s his burden. “That right, baby? You wanna go to the theater?”
Dwayne’s eyes rise towards the ceiling and a drab of spittle pools at the corner of his mouth. I reach for his bib to mop it up.
Ms. Price would call Dwayne’s bib irony too. Dwayne has a tube in his stomach so only eats solid food every now and then, but it’s easier when he wears the bib, with all the drooling, and I don’t think he cares much about the play. It’s just more fun to pretend he does.
“What’s the play about?” I ask.
Mamma purses her fuchsia lips out at me then turns back to a picture in her magazine, a pregnant woman in California who’s got swollen ankles with sandals that cut into her fat feet like a string on a tied pot roast.
“How should I know, Pearl?” Clarke says.
That’s my name. Pearl.
“Boss won’t let us watch the acting folks anyways. Makes us paint after they leave so they can’t smell the fumes.” Then Clarke burps and scoops Jeep out my lap.
Why’d I name my cat Jeep? On account of me finding her in the front seat of one. It was one of those open-air deals in the high school parking lot during a football game, and she cried out for me, but the owner of the jeep came out from the stadium and yelled, “Get outta here, you varmint!” Then he tossed Jeep across the gravel lot, hard, and she cried, so I picked her up and ran the two miles to the pet hospital, left my brother with my mother at the stadium and got in more trouble than I ever had and ever have since, but it was worth it, ‘cause Jeep kneaded me like bread, nursed my boob through my sweatshirt, back and forth with her claws, scratching me, but it felt real good, like she was real clear on her love for me, and the pet hospital lady said she’s fine, that the impact with the gravel didn’t hurt her, that she was crying ‘cause she was hungry and ‘cause she missed her mamma, and she’ll need lots of care, milk by a dropper every two hours, even in the nighttime, and lots of attention, and boyee was I up for the challenge.
Mamma looks down the long line of ticket holders, dressy people, even though they’re not dressy. Ladies wearing pants and men wearing sneakers. No one’s sparkly like Mamma.
“He said we don’t need tickets,” Mamma says, unconvinced. She drops my hand so she can fix her mocha fizz lipstick.
Dwayne groans. He doesn’t like staying in the same place too long, not unless we’re near a pumpkin patch or fast cars.
The outside of the building is pointy, a bunch of triangles, and Clarke pokes his head through a black door off to the side.
“Psst. Myrtle. Come.”
Mamma shinnies in her tight skirt and I’m close behind, pushing Dwayne’s chair. The ticket holders stare, know we aren’t following the rules. Or maybe it’s ‘cause Dwayne’s doing the twist.
“Come on, come on,” Clarke shout-whispers, loop-di-looing a hand. He grabs Mamma’s wrist and I clutch the bottom of her new sequin mini and aim Dwayne with my other hand (you don’t need to push with these motorized deals, just point and click) and Clarke takes us through the fire exit, and then through this black space with a ramp, so real easy for Dwayne, and Dwayne kicks his feet extra high, which means he wants to stay inside the darkness, and I kind of want to do the same, but then we’re flooded with warm light.
“That there’s the pro-see-knee-um,” Clarke says, drawing that last word out like a show-off.
Mamma gets seat 22. I get number 23 and park Dwayne next to me, against the wall holding back the seats not as good as ours.
Clarke leans down to kiss Mamma, slow and sloppy, the way they do in movies, but not the way they do in artsy theaters with smooth wood. Then he waves goodbye to me and Dwayne. He couldn’t get seats for all of us, so he’s gonna watch the play from the catwalk. Clarke said it’s not for cats, but the place for men who do all the work but get none of the credit.
Mamma scoots back in her seat, tugging at her skirt, trying to make it longer. “Sit up straight, Pearl,” Mamma whispers. “And stop messing with your privates.”
I blush. It itches down there but I haven’t told anyone ‘cause I’m embarrassed.
The best seats also mean the handicapped row, so the ticket-holders file in above and below us, everyone getting a good look at Dwayne, me, and Mamma, the three of us sticking out like raisins on a sugar cookie.
A Chinese lady with spiky black hair stands over us, looking for her seat, I guess, but also watching us like she’s watching something real complicated. She’s so close I can smell her scent – cedar – which is what Ms. Price smells like, and the Chinese lady’s skin is as smooth as the tub of margarine before I put my fingers in it to rub on Dwayne’s dry patches on his elbows (he doesn’t like the smell of Mamma’s Jergens). Even though the Chinese lady’s hair ain’t set and her shirt’s ripped – a white shirt with jagged slits in it, revealing her blue lace underthing – she looks pretty. She’s holding hands with another lady who looks like someone from TV.
I gasp when I realize what lady I’m seeing, whose cedar scent I’m sniffing. “Ms. Price!” I wave my arms wide and big, even though she’s real close.
I didn’t recognize her at first ‘cause she’s got on dark eye make-up and her hair isn’t in its headband, but wild, like she’s been sleeping in a cave with no mirrors or hairbrush.
“Pearl? What a pleasant surprise.” She gives the hand of the Chinese lady with the shredded shirt a quick squeeze before letting it go.
Who woulda thunk? Ms. Price. A lesbo.
“What are you doing here?” I ask. “Don’t you got papers to grade?”
Ms. Price laughs. “Well, yes I do.”
A lot more ticket-holders walk around us, staring even more now, and one brown lady stops and says, “I’m sorry to interrupt, but would you mind?” The woman has one of those little glossy books that we didn’t get ‘cause we came in through the back.
Ms. Price smiles, all warmth and says, “Certainly,” and takes a pen and signs the little book.
“Was that some kind of receipt?” I ask.
“You didn’t know?” The Chinese lady says. “Your teacher is the playwright.”
The lady waits for me to respond.
“She wrote the play we’re about to see. And directed it too. That means she showed the actors how to behave.”
Wow. Ms. Price is the real deal. I feel like pointing at my chest real hard and saying, “She liked my poem. It was about our new swimming pool!”
“Where are my manners?” Ms. Price says. “Mimi. This is Pearl. A student of mine.”
Ms. Price glances at me, assuring me that’s the case. I’m not one hundred percent Ms. Price’s student. Not yet anyway. She teaches tenth grade. Ms. Price is more my friend. She lets me listen and doodle in the back row and she told Principal Buchanan I was special, and he doesn’t normally know my name, but he agreed with Ms. Price and said I could skip Gym for the rest of the year to be with her, which is only one more week and four days.
“Is this your family,” the Chinese Mimi says in her classy voice. She nods behind me, at Dwayne, who’s punching his fists and doing the hoo wah tootsie, which hurts his C7 real bad, and at Mamma, whose updo is falling down ‘cause she’s got her head back, staring up at the catwalk to make sure Clarke’s where he said he’d be.
“That’s Mamma and Dwayne.”
Mamma perks up and comes over. “Is there a problem?”
“Ms. Price here is my teacher. She wrote the play. My stepdaddy’s up above on the kitty walk. He painted the garage door and the mantle, though it’s really just plywood.”
“Pleasure to meet you,” Mamma says, not sounding pleased.
Then the lights go down and Ms. Price says the pleasure is hers and to enjoy the show and she goes up the stairs and into a glass box and I can’t quite believe this is happening to me. Ms. Price. In the world. Writing plays and directing behaviors.
I feel all fuzzy, like I’m afloat, not on an inner tube in our new pool, but in the ocean, a big place that everyone knows about, and I hear the sound of Dwayne’s plastic pee jug filling up and the curtain rises at the same time and there’s a sofa and a window and a fridge and a girl in a blue jean skirt.
I’m wearing a blue jean skirt! Even though Mamma told me not to!
The girl in the jean skirt sits down on the sofa that looks like the one we have. Only ours is lime green and that’s orange and covered in plastic.
Dwayne gurgles, which I don’t think he should do. It’s real quiet up there. That is until the telephone on the stage rings and the girl reaches across the couch to answer.
“Hello?” Says the girl. Then she waits a minute as she finds out something real bad. It’s not easy to tell so on her face, but why else would there be a phone call to start out the play unless it was real bad news?
The girl hangs up and covers her mouth with her hand.
Oh! Look out, girl! A mean-looking blond feller is opening the door. I can’t help but reach my arm out, to point, to show the girl what’s up, but then a bossy lady behind me puts a hand on my shoulder, tells me to put down my arm and keep my brother quiet, but so much is happening, I can’t do either – put down my arm or stop Dwayne from writhing around (there’s a way, but you need more space and M&M’s, and I think the ones in my pocket are melted).
“Get out my way, Patty,” says the blond man.
Then, the blond man turns his back to the audience and – sweet Jesus! He pees on the stage!
She knows. Ms. Price knows, like an angel of God, she knows how I suffer, and is teaching everyone now, not in the classroom, but to anyone who has the honor of coming in this here pointy building.
Then, Patty calls out to me: “I’m trapped! Trapped in this dump!”
That wasn’t Dwayne. That was me. Everyone thought it was Dwayne, but I can’t help myself anymore than he can. That daggone Patty read my mind.
Uh-oh. The bossy lady’s back, but not over my shoulder. She’s with a man with no beard and no features, and he bends down to Mamma, who’s already sleeping, and he shakes Mamma’s shoulder, and I can’t see the story unfold through him and the bossy lady, and then Mamma wakes up and pinches my arm.
“Psst. Pearl. Take Dwayne outside. He’s being a nuisance.”
“But – ”
Mamma pinches me harder, and I let out a yelp, which is not something the bossy lady likes, and I think I upset Patty too, and I know now that it’s over. I have to go. I won’t get to see Patty in the play, won’t get to know how the story ends, if she claws her way out of there. I point Dwayne outside, away from where everyone wants to be, and Mamma stays so she can sleep, and I watch the wall of the lobby and give Dwayne the melted M&M pieces, so he can lick the candy shells and let them drop in his lap.
The congregation of ticket holders who don’t create disturbances pours into the lobby, and I look for smiles or tears, any clues for a happy ending.
“Oh, Pearl.” It’s Ms. Price. People part for her as she walks towards me. “I was worried about you.” Ms. Price hugs me while her girlfriend smiles at Dwayne, smiling in that way that’s courteous but also full of relief that he’s not yours to care for.
Then, right as Ms. Price and I are hugging, Clarke yawps at me through the bustling lobby.
“Where’s your Mamma, Pearl? We gots to go,” he says, not introducing himself to my teacher and her lady friend. Isn’t that the way? I’m finally getting to spend some QT with Ms. Price and now Clarke’s gotta stomp it out like campfire.
“She fell asleep,” I say. Then I remember that Ms. Price wrote the play and feel real ashamed for saying that. “It’s not your story. She was tired. She’s working extra hard now, getting certified to get girl’s hoo-ha’s waxed so we can pay for Dwayne to be in group.”
“Quit yapping, Pearl. You wait here for your Mamma while I pull out the van. Y’all don’t dally.”
Clarke hustles off and I go on about how much I liked the part of the play that I saw, the phone ringing and the blue jean skirt and the pee-pee.
Ms. Price nods and smiles like everything I’m saying is real serious, bus serious in a good way, and I try to figure from her grey eyes if she knows that I know that she knows the particulars of my life.
“Can I come again?” I ask her. “Without Dwayne?”
“Pearl Brown, you apologize to your brother,” Mamma snaps.
I didn’t realize Mamma was behind me, wiping off the yellow and red and brown M&M from Dwayne’s face with spit and her thumb.
“Sorry, Dwayne!” I call back but don’t bother looking his way. “May I, Ms. Price? See it again? The whole way through?”
“I’m sorry, Pearl.” Ms. Price smiles, but a sad smile, like when she saw me in that gym shirt with the nipples. “This was closing night.”
Out the front glass door I can see Clarke’s green Kia Sedona. It’s now or never, Pearl. “Ms. Price,” I say, gathering my courage. I’ve been thinking about this ever since she said she liked my poem. “Would you and your girlfriend like to come to our house and swim? Our pool fits three floats.”
“Pearl,” Mamma snaps. “Nobody cares about that crappy above-ground but you.”
Mimi and Ms. Price glance at each other, secret like, which means they don’t want to go swimming with me, on account of me being a ninth grader, on account of my brother’s moaning and twisting, on account of Mamma wearing her ‘I’ve had it’ face, and I feel pretty sorry for myself, for being so stupid as to ask Ms. Price over to swim, but then Ms. Price presses my arm and says, “I’d love to come swim, Pearl. That’s the pool from your poem, right?”
“Pearl!? Why didn’t you tell me Clarke’s out front? Get your brother.”
Mamma runs out the lobby to the van, her new sequin mini riding up so high you can see the darker line on her pantyhose.
“So you was fired,” Mamma says, tapping her long turquoise blue nail on the seatbelt buckle.
“I told you,” Clarke whines, tapping the brakes and turning off Route 39. “It was a miscommunication.” He thought he could take home the pneumatic paint sprayer to use for practice but his boss called it theft.
“Conjuring up a flat board into a living room with shapes and shadow?” Clarke says, tires squealing up the drive. “It’s not something you’re born knowing how to do.”
The four of us sit in the parked Kia, waiting for Clarke to finish. “Good riddance, is what I say.” Then he turns around and looks at me. “You liked that there disgrace on the stage, didn’t you, Pearl.”
“I didn’t get to see it,” I say, turning my pilot seat towards Dwayne, who’s got his right foot up and his left arm in a diagonal.
“You saw the first bit. Good as any,” Mamma says. “Pearl doesn’t understand. She invited that skinny woman who wrote the dang thing over to the house.”
“You did what?” Clarke lifts his Number 88 baseball hat and smoothes his hand over the thin sweaty hairs atop his head. “You’re more confused than I thought, girl. Let me tell you what that show was about. They was making fun, that’s all. Ex-ploy-ta-shun,” he says, show-offy again. Probably heard that word on his sports program. “I’m glad they fired me. I want no part, you hear?” He hits the roof of the minivan. “No part.” Then Clarke hops out and slams the door to the Kia he wishes was the truck he had to sell, and he and Mamma go inside to draw Dwayne’s bath.
Once Dwayne’s lowered to the pavement (the new Deluxe carrier is super duper slow) I push him down the hill to the mailbox for a treat – he likes the eighteen-wheelers flying by, likes to be real close like this. I’m treating him because I feel guilty. Waiting in that lobby I was real mean, giving him M&M’s to lick, but not giving him my love, just blaming him for getting us both kicked out, even though it was also me, reaching out and trying touch the story.
Most people don’t like the fast cars on Route 39. Mamma says it means our house won’t sell for shit, but Dwayne don’t care. He just likes the vibrations and wind and occasional honk.
I push myself through my flamingo inner tube and kick across to the other side.
“Dammit, Pearl, don’t splash,” Mamma says. “Can’t you see Clarke’s eating his lunch?”
Both his freckled arms hang outside the steel lip of our new pool. He’s got an American cheese sandwich with mayo and pickle in one hand, a Coors in the other, and a cigarette between his lips. Chewing and sipping and puffing, one after the other, not even looking at our guests. Then he spits the cigarette out so hard that it sails in a big arch and lands on the slab of concrete where Dwayne’s having his spasms.
“Pearl, go get Dwayne his ethopropazine,” Mamma says, which means I have to get out the pool, right when Ms. Price is getting in.
Ms. Price has got on a big straw hat and a black one-piece with a long skinny v running down the front. I got way bigger boobies than Ms. Price.
Her Chinese lady friend, Mimi, didn’t bring a swimsuit, but she did bring a plate of crackers spiraled around a lump of black gunk. Mamma whispered that it smelled like low tide, and I watched Mimi and Ms. Price to see if they heard, but they have on big dark sunglasses so it’s hard to tell if they’re sharing secret glances.
Mimi sits in the shade with pants on, drinking form a water bottle, one of them titanium ones, even though we got plenty a water and clean glasses and ice cubes, but Mimi said she’d rather not.
I push myself closer to the ladder. “Don’t you want to float on a raft, Ms. Price? You can have mine. Or I got another one. It’s an alligator and not blowed up yet, but we got a pump.”
“Maybe later, Pearl,” she says, standing on the middle rung of the ladder that Clarke had to reattach last weekend so I pray to Jesus it holds.
“So what do you do, Myrtle?” Ms. Price asks Mamma, who’s floating behind me on a red noodle with a can of Sprite in her hand.
“I do nails.” Mamma’s not wearing sunglasses so I can see when she rolls her eyes.
“Oh.” Ms. Price looks at her hands. “I haven’t had a manicure in years. Maybe you could do mine?”
Instead of saying she’d like to do Ms. Price’s nails, Mamma does a baby breaststroke towards Clarke, and sweet Jesus! I can’t believe my eyes. A cloud of yellow comes out from between Mamma’s legs. Why would she go and do that in front of my guest? She’s a grown woman, potty trained, and she ain’t had fourteen beers. I push my big self and my flamingo inner tube into the yellow cloud, so Ms. Price won’t see it anymore.
“Pearl? What the hell?”
I made Mamma drop her Sprite.
“You’re no better than your ‘tard brother.”
Ms. Price’s spine goes straight as a plank at that, at Mamma saying ‘tard, but Mamma meant no disrespect. Nobody respects Dwayne more than Mamma.
Speaking of Dwayne, he’s been getting louder, his moans more like demands, but Mimi has stayed by his side, watching and smiling at him like she’s doing a good deed.
“I won’t tell you again, Pearl. Go get his ethopropazine!” Mamma yells, so I get out the pool, not using the ladder, ‘cause Ms. Price is still standing on it, but gripping the steel edge and scraping my flabby thighs, and I run past Mimi and Dwayne and into the kitchen, and with wet hands I rummage through the drawer of disposable hypodermic needles ‘till I find the green bottle with the white oval pills. With the back of a spoon, I crush up three into a fine powder and mix ‘em with the diluted yogurt, real thin, so it’s more like water, and I go back outside and put the straw up to Dwayne’s lips and wait for him to suck, but it’s not working today, and Mimi asks if she can help, but I tell her no thank you, and I go back inside and get a hypo and go back outside to inject it into his bicep, which I keep from flailing by bracing his arm with both my elbows, and Dwayne’s real miffed, but then it’s over, and he’s better, rocking side-to-side, but not as bad off as before, and right as I’m about to get back in the pool, Ms. Price climbs out and sits on her big navy towel on the one patch of grass, right next to Clarke.
“Pearl tells me you’re on the scenic crew at The Citizen Theater. Maybe sometime I could explain to you my next piece, so you can think about color.”
“Maybe.” Clarke sips his beer and picks up his magazine with pictures of drivers and cars and doesn’t tell Ms. Price he got fired.
I’m wondering if Ms. Price is hungry, so I go in and make a snack and come back out with bologna sandwiches for Ms. Price and Ms. Mimi, and Mimi takes a small bite of hers, but Ms. Price keeps talking to Clarke, even though her sandwich is getting hot in the sun, and even though Clarke won’t be chatty.
Just like school, being left out. I wait on the concrete slab next to Dwayne, pick up Jeep and fondle her perfect white paw to keep from crying.
And just when I think I might scream, “Ms. Price is my guest!” she stands and pulls a manly white tank top over her swimsuit and says, “Pearl, I’d love you to come to a rehearsal on Saturday. For my next show.”
“Pearl’s busy Saturday!” Mamma blurts out from the pool.
“No I ain’t!” I yell back.
“I gotta finish my waxing class! You know that. Who’ll mind Dwayne?”
I’ve got white bread stuck to the roof of my mouth and I’ve been digging at it with my tongue. “Clarke can watch him,” I say.
“Like hell he can,” Mamma says and climbs out the pool, swinging her hips like a hussy.
“It’s time to go, Kara,” Mimi says, packing up their big bag with a notebook and two phones and a magazine without perfume samples, and I think Mimi’s upset too. No one ate her crackers.
I left Dwayne alone with Clarke, but Clarke said he’d said only had four beers.
Now I’m up on the stage with Ms. Price. It’s changed since last I saw it. No couch or fridge or phone or mantle. Brown chairs sit around a grey table with a bowl of plastic fruit and a loaf of real bread and a jar of mustard. Small pieces of white tape stick to the black stage and rows of skinny curtains hang down from both sides.
“Everyone!” Ms. Price claps her hands, light and fast. “This is Pearl.” Then she rests her fingers on my shoulders, presenting me like I’m someone who matters.
“Hello, Pearl,” says the blond man, the same one who relieved himself on the stage. He’s gone and shaved his face and he doesn’t sound dangerous any more. He sounds like he works at a tie shop.
“Hi there.” That’s the silky-robed mamma who I saw in a black and white picture in the lobby. Now she’s in grey slacks like a librarian’s.
“Hi.” That’s Patty, the girl who answered the phone. Patty’s name isn’t Patty though. It’s Eloise. Her hair’s down and parted in the middle. I part mine on the side. She’s wearing a robin’s egg blue skirt that flows down to her feet, the kind that hippies wear, and a black tank top with no underthing, and I’m wearing a short blue jean skirt and a cropped tee, like she wore in the show.
I decide now’s the time. I tug the poems out from the Spider Man backpack I borrowed from Dwayne, and I walk around the stage, giving everyone a copy. Some of the sheets are wrinkled ‘cause of Mamma reading it with her pruney pool fingers, but you can still read all the words.
“What’s this, dear?” Asks the librarian.
“It’s a poem about my pool,” I say. “Ms. Price said it was lyric.”
The proper-speaking blond man reads the third line from my poem out loud. “I got a tank for cleaning sand.”
The other two acting folks laugh.
I go back to Ms. Price and ask if I can sit in my same seat to watch – seat 23 – but the woman in black jeans holding a black clipboard nudges between us.
“We’re behind, Kara. Equity says fifteen-minutes before the – ”
“I hear you,” Ms. Price says. Then she winks at me and says, “It begins.”
Mimi’s here too, sitting in a folding chair on the stage, but out to the side, scribbling everything she sees into her notebook. She whispers to me, “They can read your poem when we’re done, Pearl.”
“Act 2, Scene 3!” Calls out the woman with the clipboard.
The actors put my poem inside the pocket of their three-ring binders then go to different parts of the stage, and I go sit in my seat number 23.
The three of them face different angles and roll their heads around, and when they turn back towards the center, they all stand different.
The man from the last show has a ramrod spine. He’s watching the librarian-looking lady sashay her tush back and forth, shaking it so hard that she looks nothing like a librarian. More like Mamma, in her sequin mini.
“You’ve gotta put your hips into it, baby. That ain’t never gonna get you no attention,” says the woman.
Then, Eloise, who looks more like she did that night of the show, even in her hippy skirt, scrunches her lips together and – get this – she scratches her privates, which makes me turn red, and I look over at Ms. Price, who is concentrating real hard, watching Patty scratch like it’s real serious.
Well what do you know? Clarke was right. They are making fun.
I climb out of my special seat that doesn’t feel special, or it does, but for different reasons now, and I leave the proscenium without saying goodbye to Ms. Price, walk towards the back door exit, where Clarke snuck us in, and someone’s following me and calling my name, but it’s not Ms. Price.
I stop before I go out the door, but I don’t turn round ‘cause like a baby, I got tears running down my cheeks.
“Pearl, look at me,” Mimi says, out of breath
I wipe my face with my arm.
“Are you OK?” she says. “The play. It’s not about you. Not you specifically. Is that what you thought?”
“No.” Though I did think that, and this just make it worse, if it’s true – that none of what Ms. Price puts on that stage has anything to do with me. “I’m not sitting in her class next week,” I say.
“I know that would make Kara very sad, Pearl. She wants to see you. And she goes back to DC soon.”
“But she teaches tenth grade Language Arts,” I say.
“Kara’s fellowship here at the theater ends in June. She taught at the school part-time as research.”
“Research?” I yelp, sounding like Mamma. “Research what? How stupid I am?”
“No, Pearl,” Mimi says, but that’s all she can say, ‘cause it’s true. Ms. Price didn’t save me from being teased in Gym. She wasn’t tending to me in class, she was staring at me, writing things down, and I look down at my feet, my good green sandals, and realize I’m itching my crotch again, like Patty was, only she’s really Eloise, who’s been informed of my bad manners by Ms. Price.
“Tell them they can throw away my poem,” I say, and go outside and wait for the bus and hope that it comes real soon, ‘cause I finally realize the gravity of this here situation: I left Dwayne alone with Clarke.
“Dwayne!” I call out.
He’s not by the window or TV or anywhere and Clarke’s keys are in his van with the engine running and the back door’s open with the Deluxe carrier down and I’m running on the rumble strips of Route 39 and no way did that Grand Prix see me, but I keep on keeping on ‘cause I saw something from the 42 bus before my stop.
There. He’s kneeling and swaying. White and red lights shine on his big bald patch that he’s normally real devoted to covering up. When I get close enough I see that he’s also crying, a different cry from the time I caught him in the bathtub with his cowboy boots on.
“Gone,” Clarke says. “Just gone.”
A Trans Am playing Def Leppard gets closer and closer and then passes us and the lyrics to Have You Ever Needed Someone So Bad warp to a yowl and I say, “You aren’t supposed to let go of his chair on the driveway, Clarke! Mamma told you!”
He pulls me down to the rumble strips, so I’m kneeling next to him, and we’re praying to Route 39 that devalued our property, and I’m what Mamma calls vamping, blabbering about the road and how Dwayne loves it, and maybe that’s the only thing he really loved, vibrations and wind, not us, and I’m vamping for as long as I can, saying all of this so Clarke won’t say what I know he’s gonna say next – that Dwayne done died, got hit, and I feel great relief, and then great shame for that relief, and then I see that perhaps I’ve been wishing that my sweet brother would die for a while now, and then I’m wishing that I hadn’t ever wished it ‘cause Dwayne’s my kin and never made fun of anybody, but I already wished it, and I suddenly know that this whole time the good Lord knows every one of my evil wishes.
“Where is he? Where’s my brother?” I say.
“Dwayne?” Clarke sniffs and holds his chest real hard. “He’s at group.”
That’s not what I thought he’d say.
“It’s your kitty, Pearl.” Then Clarke opens up his arms. There’s black silky fur and a daub of white. “I let her get away.”
And now understand, now that I see God’s retribution for my wishing: Jeep’s white paw, with no love left in it.
I bring the two-liter of Pepsi in my room and drink it straight out the bottle. It’s hot and brand new so it burns my mouth and my insides, and I think this is why Clarke does it – to just get it down, already – and I’m gulping it in real fast, until my belly stretches, and I pull the Pepsi bottle from my puckered lips and unbutton my blue jean skirt that I wore tonight to coordinate with Patty, whose real name is Eloise, and I pull down my cotton panties and squat on my rug and go pee. I walk around as I relieve myself, making sure to get my pad with my newest poem about a seashell, making sure the ink bleeds, making sure to get that flowerpot with the black-eyed peas and black and blue pens. Then I stop and don’t bother looking at what I’ve wrought. I just know writing poems and filling pots and nursing kitties for no reason ain’t for me. I put my panties and skirt back on and leave my room and sit next to Dwayne, who’s back from group now, smiling real big ‘cause he don’t know better.
Maggie Light has a BA from the University of Virginia and an MFA from Otis College of Art & Design. Her work is published in “Cleaver Magazine” and “Defy” and she teaches English at Otis College. She’s currently working on a novel about a theater snob in the boonies.