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Dirty Darlene by Sarah Kate Levy

 

Sarah Kate Levy's work has appeared in The Paumanok Review and has received Notable Mention by the storySouth Million Writer's Award. Her nonfiction work includes an essay in the anthology Girls Who Like Boys Who Like Boys from Dutton Press. In addition to writing, Sarah works as a freelance editor. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and daughters.

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She knew they called her Dirty Darlene, and it bothered her. She kept no mirrors in her apartment or in her purse—in fact, she kept no purse, preferring to carry only her wallet, like a man, because what good would a purse do? What could she carry with her that would change anything about her appearance for the good? No lipstick could hide the lips so thin and cracked they barely masked her missing teeth, no powder could cover the lines and veins in her face or minimize that nose, crooked at birth but made more so by the man she’d known back in Tucson. So she kept no mirrors, avoiding even the glass in the driver’s side visor in her station-wagon taxicab, so that when one winter afternoon it fell onto her lap, the glue cracked with cold, she stuffed it in the glove compartment.

She didn’t need mirrors because women like her had no excuse for vanity, isn’t that what that man in Tucson said, when he’d smashed to bits that wrought-iron floor mirror she’d brought home from the swap-meet in Flagstaff? She’d had that face of hers forty-six years now, didn’t need a mirror to tell her what she’d see there, knew the map of her face like she knew the bends and rises of the road from Hart Prep to the pizza place, the tea shop, and the gas station where the rich kids bought single cigarettes in town.

She’d been driving the taxi for eight years now, ever since she’d lost her job driving a school bus for the district. She’d liked that job, missed the small talk with the parents, missed making sure the kids in her care who got on the bus with hats and gloves and lunchboxes got off the bus and home with them, too. She got Christmas cards then, people invited her to Easter parties, and though it was true that children could be cruel, there was always some young thing who wanted to sit close to her, rode right behind her every day, waved to her from the schoolyard when she picked him up at school. Usually it was the kid who everyone bullied, the boy whose squeaky voice was imitated, whose walk was aped or whose lunchbox was battered, but Darlene was bear-like in her protections, and she used her craggy visage to full effect on the aisles of her bus, stopping at the side of the road sometimes to pull herself up to full height and tongue-lash the little brats who were tormenting her child. Often she only had to stand to command attention—used to seeing her half-sized at the wheel morning and night, the children went white at the height of her alone. She was six-foot-two, had to bend in the bus, and looked even bigger for it, looming, so she rarely had to stop the bus and stand more than once or twice a year.

Sometimes she saw those children now, but they seemed not to recognize her. Even those boys she’d protected looked away from her, and that cut her worse than the kids she drove in her taxi cab, the Hart Prep kids whom she knew had never bothered a single glance at the woman at the wheel.

One year Darlene left a child at the side of the road. She’d had trouble with the girl for months, a skinny redhead in miniskirts who led elaborate chants about the other kids’ bathroom habits, only getting louder and meaner when they cried. This girl didn’t cower when Darlene stood to scare her, so Darlene got angry and marched her off the bus. Leaving kids stranded roadside a few minutes before looping back to pick them up was an old trick of hers, if seldom used, but that day she was too long returning for the girl and when she circled around, the kid was gone. It didn’t worry Darlene too much, after the first shock of it. Lakeview was a small town, “a lovely village,” the sign said, and there was nowhere on her route that any child was more than three miles from home. Darlene had walked to and from the school herself, growing up here, and she’d lived a lot farther from the center of town.

But later, back at the yard, when she’d gone into the office to clock out, Darlene’s boss, Merle, had been waiting for her, and with him that girl and her parents. Merle fired her right there on the spot.

At home that night she sat at her kitchen table drinking instant coffee and listening to the refrigerator hum. On the table, she’d spread every Christmas card and school picture she’d kept taped to the walls of her bus, then one by one, when her coffee was finished, she ripped each into pieces and tossed the whole damn pile into the shopping bag she used for trash underneath her sink.

. . .

She took the taxi job because they told her she could use the car between calls. The pay was low, but they told her they’d cover her gas and she could keep gratuities. What they didn’t tell her was Hart kids charged their rides to their parents, and nowhere on the charge form was there a line for “tip.”

But it was a quiet gig, no trouble, if it couldn’t be said to bring her any joy. Where on the bus she’d been a source of love and fear, in her taxi Darlene was barely noticed, and never spoke except to ask, “Where to?” She ferried kids from the front steps of the Hart Schoolhouse down to the pizza parlor and the tea shop and the Chinese restaurant, and she pretended she didn’t see them making deals with the local kids for booze and pot.

One afternoon a group of Hart boys started smoking in the back of her taxi. The dope belonged to the tall kid in the army jacket and fedora. He popped the joint between the lips of the skinny Indian kid in the middle seat, then lit it for him, and nodded, smirking, while he watched his friend smoke. Darlene told them to cut it out, and the skinny Indian kid exhaled too fast and choked when she said it, which made the tall kid elbow the Indian kid in the chest. The Indian kid smacked him back, still coughing, and then the tall kid plucked the joint from the Indian kid’s hand. He stuck it in his own mouth, lit it, drew on it until it glowed.

“Want some?” the tall kid asked, and then he leaned forward and passed it to her, and she was so surprised she pressed it to her lips.

“Don’t bogart it,” he protested, and she handed it back to him, surprised that having watched it touch her he’d want it back. He sucked it down, though, and then he winked.

“Good shit,” he said between pursed lips, and she nodded, and then the Indian kid grabbed for it, and from then on kids asked the switchboard for her car when they had deals to make.

Another afternoon, the tall boy came alone. His jeans and jacket stank of pot and patchouli, and he wore a cross around his neck. He wanted to go to Stockbridge that day, and he gave her cash to drive him, so though she knew it was against Hart rules to take kids that far, she didn’t say no.

They didn’t speak on the ride up. The kid sprawled out in the back, propping his feet up on the seat, draping the army coat over his chest like a blanket, and tipping his fedora over his eyes. Darlene was surprised to see his brown cowboy boots—they took her back to Tucson, reminded her of the boots her man had worn when he took her out. He’d load up the jukebox when he wore those boots, and he’d dance her up and down the length of the bar, and she’d hold herself tight when she danced with him so she wouldn’t step on his feet. He’d pull her into him, one hand curled around her neck. At home afterwards, she’d kneel down to help him pull off his boots, and then he’d wipe them with a dishtowel and prop them up with rolled socks so they’d keep their shape.

But this kid’s boots were scratched and dull, and the soles and threads were caked in dirt. They looked like they were older than the kid himself, but so was everything on him, so were the faded, ratty jeans and the over-sized jacket and strange felt hat.

When they got to Stockbridge, the boy directed her to a ratty-looking music store and told her to come back for him in an hour or so. She killed time in a McDonald’s parking lot, drinking coffee and eating fries, and when she went to get him he was waiting on the sidewalk for her.

“There’s somewhere I want to go,” he said, leaning into the passenger window. “You ever been to Naumkeag?”

She shook her head. “Where’s that?”

“I’ll show you,” he said, and then he climbed in the back.

They turned right on Pine Street, and then left on Prospect Hill. A large shingled mansion with a turret and several chimneys rose up at the side of the road. The shutters and dormer windows made Darlene think of a school or a hospital, like in the movies. Nurses with winged-caps would be rushing around inside.

The boy tapped Darlene on the shoulder to show her where to park.

“Come on,” he said, halfway out the door before she’d turned off the engine. He started up toward the house—it was some sort of museum, she realized, seeing a sign for tickets planted along the driveway just ahead.

He was waiting impatiently for her under the brick archway at the front of the house. The front door was open, revealing a large, tapestry-hung entry hall and gleaming wood floors.

“I can wait in the car,” she said. She hated how her jeans fit, how they gathered up behind her, how dirty her shoelaces looked in her dingy shoes.

“Don’t be a buzzkill,” the boy said. He went inside. She didn’t know what else to do but follow him.

He handed a card to the woman at the counter. “Member plus one,” he said. “Birthday present,” he explained to Darlene, “My parents think I want to be an architect,” and then he took their tickets from the woman at the counter and ushered Darlene further into the house.

They wandered past an enormous wooden staircase into a large sitting room with a fireplace that seemed to span an entire wall. On the far end of the room, winter light streamed through floor-to-ceiling windows draped in red velvet. Beige wallpaper in a feathered-diamond pattern wrapped the walls. The air was warm in there, and Darlene could feel him watching her. His eyes on her made her slightly dizzy, and she leaned her hand on the arm of a maroon-and-plum upholstered chair.

She glanced sideways at him, but he didn’t look away.

“What is this?” she whispered to the boy.

“Choate family’s summer house,” he answered, full voice, and she looked around, embarrassed at the noise. But the name was familiar to her. Sometimes she drove Hart’s chartered bus to away-games at The Choate School.

“Designed by Stanford White,” the boy continued. “Best remembered for being murdered by his girlfriend’s husband.” The boy made a popping sound and shook his forefinger like he was shaking a gun. “Man should have been more careful who he picked to bang.”

He told her not to touch the furniture, and she pulled her hand back, rubbing it like it burned.

“Come on,” he said then, and he led her out of the back of the house, across the brick patio and into the gardens.

They walked further and further from the house, down a long set of stone steps running through a channel of birch trees, finally stopping behind a patch of hedges that the boy seemed to think were sufficiently out of sight. He sat down beneath one of them and patted the ground next to him so that she’d do the same. Then he reached into his shirt pocket and took out a small, key-sized manila envelope.

“You ever tried X?” he asked.

She shook her head no.

“Do you believe in God?”

She nodded.

“Have you ever seen him?”

She shook her head no, and when he tried to give her a pill she shook her head again.

“Come on, it’s no fun to do it alone,” he said. “Come on. Don’t you like me?”

The question shocked her. His clothes were filthy—-the hems of his jeans were completely torn, and that army coat was dark with stains—-but he was so sure of himself, he glowed, like a piece of gold shining in the mud. His face was sharp and small and perfect, those wide, full lips, that tiny nose, those long-lashed, deep green eyes staring out at her from under the brim of that dirty hat. She was more aware of herself breathing, being here with him. What did he mean, did she like him?

“Don’t you have to get back?” she asked.

“I’m signed out for the weekend,” he said. “I’m supposed to be in the city. But no one said I couldn’t take the scenic route.” He popped a pill in his mouth, then raised an eyebrow at her.

She didn’t know what to do. “Suit yourself,” he said. He put the pill for her on a root that stretched up from the earth between them, then stood up and walked away.

Darlene’s palms began to sweat as she watched him go. It was shameful, how nervous he made her. He was just a kid. She picked up the tiny pill and rolled it back and forth between her thumb and forefinger. Her nails were bitten down, the cuticles ripped raw. She thought about going back to the car and waiting for him. But she couldn’t shake the feeling she’d be missing something if she didn’t follow him—-and hadn’t she missed enough, already, hadn’t she missed out her entire life?

So she swallowed the pill and walked down to another patch of trees, where the boy stood, rolling a joint. He lit up, took a hit, passed it to her, and they sat down again that way, quietly passing it back and forth.

“How old are you?” she asked.

“Seventeen.”

I could be his mother, she thought. She did the math and realized he was barely older than Justin would be. She’d lost Justin back in Arizona, when the man she’d known had told her, it’s him inside you there or me. Justin. She’d named him in her head. She’d known he was a boy, just like her man had. But no one had ever kissed her before that man in Tucson, no one had ever moved in, and she thought if she lost that then she’d never have it again. So she let her man take her to a clinic downtown, and he waited for her in the seating area the whole time. Maybe when things are better, she thought, we can try again, and she said it, too, and that night that man beat her worse than he had the day she’d told him she was pregnant, because now, he said, glancing at her stomach, there’s no reason for me to hold back. In the morning, he hadn’t been sorry, hadn’t been sweet or quiet like he usually was. He’d just been gone.

She closed her eyes.

“Don’t close your eyes,” he said. “You’re going to want to see this.”

Darlene started crying when the hills began moving toward her. The trees along the dirt road stretched up and up, and the forest in the distance rearranged itself like wallpaper, patterned and repeating, and she thought she had never seen anything so beautiful in her life. She stood up so she could see everything, all the hedges and bushes and clouds and birds. She stood and she was taller than the trees around her, her arms long enough to touch the sky. So she reached out her hands and touched it, and then she was touching everything, wrapping her hands in the tops of trees. She was losing herself, she was everything and nothing, she was grass, she was tree, she was sky.

She cried for what seemed like hours, finally collapsing to the ground again beside the boy. She felt herself sinking into the dirt, moving through and underneath it. It felt like finding her way home after being long lost, going into the earth like that, but still, she couldn’t make the crying stop.

Sometime in the sobbing he kissed her, began licking her face, sipping at her tears. He was going to drink her up and then she would be inside him, too. She was surprised to find him under the earth with her, but it didn’t feel wrong. They would burrow down together. They would be the roots of trees.

Hours later he shook her awake and led her back to the car. It was dark by then. “Can you drive?” he asked, and she nodded, so he climbed into the passenger seat and waited for her to get in the driver’s side.

“You need to get me to a train,” he said, and then he flipped on the radio and nodded off again against the window as the car filled with static AM strains of You’re So Vain.

. . .

That weekend, Darlene went shopping. She drove out to the mall in Poughkeepsie and bought a new pair of blue jeans and an electric turquoise knitted top. She bought shoes, too, a pair of turquoise trainers, and then she wandered into JC Penney and let a girl at the Estee Lauder counter do her face. Everywhere she went she felt the trees behind her, felt the tip of her head grazing sky. She felt she knew a secret, and better, for the first time in her life, it wasn’t something hiding, but rather, something shared.

On Monday, Darlene woke up early and curled her hair. She burned her ear doing it—she hadn’t used an iron in years, not since the school bus. More than once she’d considered tossing it out with her kitchen trash and her junk-mail, but this morning she congratulated herself on her foresight and sense of economy. She sprayed her curls in place with a brand new canister of Freeze It, and she clipped them back with sparkly pink barrettes she’d discovered on the same aisle as the hairspray at the pharmacy in town.

She wondered, as she idled in the cul-de-sac of the Schoolhouse a few hours later, if she’d mis-measured her coffee grounds that morning. She was sweaty and jumpy, nervous, couldn’t keep her eyes on her Peoplemagazine. Part of her imagined the boy would climb into her cab and take her back out to Stockbridge, or Peekskill or Pittsfield, maybe, and they’d spend another afternoon out on the grass. The phrase “giddy as a schoolgirl” ran through her mind. All right, so she wasn’t a schoolgirl, not by a long shot, and sure he was just a kid, but it had to mean something, if it made her feel this way.

She twisted the rear-view mirror toward her to check her hair and was surprised to find the mirror filthy, so she rubbed it clean with her sleeve. She was frantically wiping it when the back door opened, and in one motion she flipped the rear-view back again and twisted around to see who’d climbed in to her backseat.

But her boy wasn’t sitting there. Instead, she found two girls staring out the windows, looking bored. She asked where they were going, and one of them said, “Pizza” without looking up, so she tossed the charge pad back at them and started the car. She was disappointed, but she was also relieved—the sight of those girls back there had stopped her pulse jumping, cooled her, brought her down to earth.

For the rest of the day, every time Darlene pulled up to the Schoolhouse her breath came a little faster and her mouth went dry, but he didn’t call for her. At four, she had a girl who wanted a ride to the gas station, and at six she ran a group of kids out to the movie house in the next town. By the end of the day, her new sweater was puckered at the breast bone from her nervously pulling at it, lifting it away from her skin for ventilation every time she got a call. She spent that evening at the Suds ‘n’ Duds, watching her sweater swim.

She wore that sweater every day that week, washing it every night.

Finally, on Sunday afternoon, she got a call for three kids wanting to go to the Chinese place, and when she pulled up to the Schoolhouse, her boy was finally standing there. When he piled in the back with his friends, she glanced up and smiled at him in the rear-view. “Where to?” she asked.

“Chang’s,” the boy said, but he didn’t see her smiling, or he didn’t want to, and he didn’t smile back.

Darlene glanced in the rear-view again as they pulled onto the road at the edge of Hart’s campus and saw one of the boy’s friends pull out papers and a little plastic bag. The boy saw him too, and he shook his head at his friend, who shrugged and put the bag away. Her boy leaned forward then, and she felt her stomach jump, and she turned to him, eyes dancing, but he didn’t look at her. He was staring at the radio dial.

“Turn it up, will ya?”

She reached for the volume, and he sat back again. He didn’t say another word the whole trip into town.

At Chang’s, Darlene turned off the engine in the parking lot.

“You don’t have to wait for us,” her boy said. “We can call in when we’re done.”

But Darlene was already opening her door.

“I need to use the bathroom,” she said, and she marched inside the restaurant just far enough in front to slam the swinging door in his face.

In the bathroom, she leaned heavily against the sink and spat. Her entire body clamored for attention, and for a long moment she didn’t know if she should sit on the toilet or beside it. Her legs shook underneath her, and her hair was sweating wildly, sending rivers of Freeze It down her temples and forehead. She looked up into the mirror and an old broken sack stared back at her. Stooped shoulders, doughy biceps, udder-like breasts. The smashed angles of her too-large face.

Her stomach screamed then, and she found herself retching into the sink. When she was finished, she ran the water until she’d rinsed the porcelain clean again, and then she ripped the pink barrettes from her hair and tossed them in the toilet, pulled the handle, and watched them drown.

. . .

She stayed home after that, called in sick every morning for close to three weeks. She was having trouble getting up in the mornings, and couldn’t figure out what to do with herself even when she managed to crawl out of her bed. She was hungry like she’d never been hungry before, but it wasn’t appetite that drove her to raid the aisles of the gas station convenience store in the middle of the night. It wasn’t a desire to consume so much as a need to dull the yearning that never left her, that she couldn’t figure out any way to sate. The hunger consumed her, pulsed in her veins, squeezed at her guts. So she ate, and she smoked, and when the trash bag under the sink couldn’t hold another empty box of Snackwells and cigarettes, she tied it up, and left it, with the others, in front of the kitchen door.

She drifted through her nights watching re-runs of daytime talk and broadcast news. She saw something about a woman in Hartford, a suicide, who’d kept thirty-eight cats in a two-bedroom subsidized apartment. She’d been dead two weeks before anyone missed her, before the stink was enough to rouse her neighbors to call the police. On the news, they showed the inside of her apartment, a couch and a chair and a mattress, shredded by cat claws. Sheets of newspaper, piss-yellowed and covered in feces, covered the floor. They didn’t show the dead woman, but they said by the time they’d found her, her cats had eaten away much of her calves, her forearms, and a good portion of her face.

Though she couldn’t sleep at night, in the afternoons Darlene was dreaming like she hadn’t dreamed in years, visions so real they weren’t restful, requiring attention and patience and energy she couldn’t muster for her waking life. In the dreams, she was shopping for a wedding dress at a bulk-items warehouse, and Justin was toddling down the aisles with her, holding her hand. There were diapers in the cart for him, and packs of cotton underwear, and brand new house paint for Darlene. At the checkout, the boy from her taxi rang up her purchases. He was wearing a bow-tie and tuxedo shirt with his filthy jeans, and he followed her out to her taxi shouting he’d never let her go. Sometimes she let him climb in the cab with her. Sometimes it wasn’t a cab. Sometimes she drove a school bus. Sometimes she drove a fake-wood-paneled, station-wagon hearse.

One day in her dream, the boy followed her into the taxi and settled in the backseat to roll a joint. When he lit it, exhaust fumes flooded from his mouth. Darlene’s baby was meowing, his cat-body was rubbing up against her, his whiskers kissing her cheeks. Then he was gnawing at a veil he refused to let go of, and then he was a baby again. He bounced against the steering wheel, sounding off the horn, and laughed.

The noise woke her up, and she realized it was coming from the front of the house, so she wrapped her blanket tighter around herself and forced herself to go to the door. Her boss, Simon, and his wife, Pearl, were out in the road, sitting in their car. Pearl waved at her, and Simon motioned for her to come out to them, so she went out to the car in only a t-shirt and her blanket, not noticing her legs were bare.

Pearl winced and sat back a little when Darlene leaned in the window.

“How’re you feeling?” Simon asked. “Pearl and I wanted to know if there’s anything we can do.”

“I’m all right,” Darlene said. She could feel the trees at the side of her house leaning towards her.

“You’re feeling better, then?”

“I’m all right,” she repeated. The branches were heavy on her, casting shadows, and she jerked around to brush them off.

Simon was looking at her strangely when she turned around. “Glad to hear it,” he said.

Pearl pointed to her watch, and a look passed between them. “Well, then,” Simon said, “I need you back on the schedule tomorrow morning, or you’re going to have to bring back the car.” He smiled brightly at her, and Pearl looked straight through the windshield, holding her breath, looking pinched and uncomfortable.

Simon stared at her, waiting for an answer. Darlene could feel the trees staring, too. Her naked feet were beginning to ache on the cold cement of the sidewalk.

“All right girl, you ought to get back in there before you catch your death,” Simon said finally. He pressed a button, and Pearl’s window rolled up.

“Bye now,” Pearl mouthed, safe behind her glass.

. . .

She didn’t shower the next morning, barely managing to get up an hour after her alarm, and she spent the day driving in a sort of haze. Between trips she parked out by the lake, and napped in her car.

Just after three, the call came she’d been dreading. When she got to the Schoolhouse, her boy was standing in the road, and he wasn’t alone. There was a blonde girl in a miniskirt sitting on the steps behind him.

The boy held the door for the girl and they climbed into the taxi without saying hello. Darlene tossed the charge pad back to them and pulled around the cul-de-sac and down the main drive. She didn’t have to ask where they were going. This was a date—she could tell by the whispers in the back seat, that girl’s giggle—and the tea house was the only date spot in town.

“You got a pen up there?” the girl asked her.

Darlene reached for the ballpoint sticking up out of her passenger seat cushion and handed it back, caught a glimpse of a feathered comb in the girl’s smooth hair. She blushed seeing it, felt the heat in her face flood her entire body. The memory of those mornings in her bathroom at home as she worked and worked to tame her own hair made her want to vomit again.

Darlene’s stomach was sweating, and her feet. She rolled down the window.

“It’s a little cold back here,” the girl said, but Darlene pretended she hadn’t heard her. She was staring down the road with every ounce of concentration she could muster. The wheel was lead in her hands—it took every muscle in her arms and back to keep it still and steady, keep the car on the road.

“Jackson, tell her,” the girl whined.

“Could you close the window,” the boy said, his voice equally authoritative and bored.

Darlene ignored him, too. This was her cab, after all. She was doing them a goddamn favor shuttling them to their fifteen-dollar soup-and-salad lunch.

“I’m freezing,” the girl said, but she didn’t sound unhappy. She sounded seductive. Darlene glanced back to see her push herself into the boy’s side.

And then he kissed her.

And then the girl kissed him back.

Darlene watched them in the rear-view. They were messy kissers—she could see the girl’s tongue move, she could see the boy’s lips drip. It was disgusting, embarrassing, but she couldn’t take her eyes off them. Hunger’s ache pinched her again, desire hollowed her out. Jackson’s hands roamed down the girl’s back, and one of them landed on her lap. The girl’s knees spread, just an inch or two, not quite an invitation, but Jackson’s hands found the gap all the same. Darlene gasped like it was her thighs his hands were kneading—Don’t you like me?—and at the sound of her breath, the girl looked up.

“Jackson!” she shrieked, “she’s—”

“Watch it!” he yelled. He was staring past her, out the windshield. Darlene turned from the mirror to see what he was looking at, but all she saw was yellow.

He grabbed the seat to brace himself, and Darlene could feel the boy’s fingers brush against her neck.

Her skin lit up like cold fire, as if every nerve at once was exposed to air. Yes. Me. Touch me. She leaned into him as she jerked the wheel to correct their course.

The bus wailed past, and the girl screamed as they began to spin off the road. Darlene knew she could tip them back on to the tarmac. She would save the boy, and he would climb up front beside her, press against her like he was trying to get inside. They would go away somewhere together. They would leave the girl on the side of the road.

But the boy yanked his hand away, leaving her hollow, hungry again. Her stomach pulsed, burning as in the post-coital moment of a punch. It was a deep ache, an elemental emptiness that touched everything, organs, bones, blood, and in that instant he withdrew from her, Darlene knew there would never be a way to fill it up.

She knew what she was doing when she pressed her foot down on the gas. The car rocked over roots and stones, but it barely slowed as it raced down the wooded slope. She gripped the wheel so tight her knuckles ached, and locked her elbows to keep the cab straight and upright as the trees rushed towards them. The last thing she saw was their long arms reaching out for her. The last thing she heard was the sound of breaking glass.