Angela Mitchell's short stories have been featured twice in Colorado Review (the first as the 2009 winner of the Nelligan Prize), as well as in New South, Arkansas Review, and Midwestern Gothic. Her work has been given special mention in The Pushcart Prize XXXV and the inaugural issue of New Stories from the Midwest. An eighth generation native of southern Missouri, she now lives in St. Louis with her husband and sons.
What I did was ask if I could get off the bus to use the bathroom, but I waited until we was almost to the Clark girls’ stop to do it. I didn’t need to see inside the other houses, the ones that looked like my own, with a dirty old kitchen and ripped up linoleum in the bathroom and a spot in the corner where the dog likes to run in and piss. I’ve got friends on the bus route, but most of them’s got houses that aren’t hardly fit to live in, truth be told, and I wanted to see the inside of a nice house for once, and I knew them Clark girls wouldn’t say no. And they didn’t! The bus driver let me off with them and told me not to linger, but where was he going to go? He wouldn’t leave me there way out in the country at some stranger’s house and, besides, when we got near to the end of the bus route every day—I was the first to get on, the last to get off—he could stop the bus and I’d let him come back to my seat and kiss me and do things with his hands. The road was empty then, all the farmers gone home for supper or people who worked in town not yet made it back, and he’d park the bus on the side of the road so that if you was to look at it from the outside, it would seem to almost be tipping into the ditch. After you cross the creek, there’s a long patch that’s got trees going down to the water and more trees climbing up the other side of the ridge so the bus is kind of hid. It’s quiet out there at the end of the day and I can hear the crows cawing and the blue jays fighting with the squirrels in the trees, and me and him do what we do. It could get him in a lot of trouble, but it’s all right with me. He’s pretty nice about it.
These girls who live in this nice house would be the kind I would like to hate, except that they don’t never say anything mean to me. Instead, they get on the bus in their clean clothes with their hair fixed up right and if I put my foot out in the aisle to be ornery, they’ll just say, “Excuse me, please, Libby?” I move my foot because they ask it so polite, and it seems like they don’t even understand that I’ve just done something mean. Or maybe they don’t care. Either way, I can’t help but wonder what it’s like to live in a house like theirs, one that’s got flowers planted out front and no animals running wild, even the siding paint kept up so it’s not peeling. They got a whole field full of cattle and a big barn and a chicken coop that looks about fit for a human being to live in. When it’s warm, they’ve even got this above ground pool in the back. All summer long, they’ve got it all to themselves so they don’t never have to go down to the creek, risk getting bit by a cottonmouth.
When the Clark girls get sat down, I like to stare at them, especially the older one who’s my age and has a kind of coppery brown hair. Her name’s Annette and she wears real pretty clothes, but what makes other girls jealous of her is her hair, which is long and wavy and goes most of the way down her back. One day last week, she got on the bus in the morning and sat down in the seat right in front of mine and, I don’t know why I done it, but I leaned up and just breathed in, right at the back of her head. It smelled like shampoo and hairspray and a little bit of orange, which I later found out was her perfume. She got real still and then she kind of turned her head to the side like you do when you’re trying hard to hear something and not get caught, but by then I’d already set back against my own seat, and I pretended I hadn’t just had my nose up in her hair. After that, she moved over so her back was against the window and her legs stretched out over the seat so that her feet dangled off the end. She had a schoolbook out and was studying it, and all I could see was the top of her head and her eyes looking down at her lap. She’s like that, the type to study. The oldest sister used to ride the bus last year, but now she’s off at college, and I guess Annette’s headed in the same direction. Maybe the younger sister, too.
But I’m not headed off to college. I don’t even want to go. I like it here well enough, and I’ve got plans to get a job soon as I get a car. There’s just this year and next to get through for school and then I won’t be going there every day, where I’m bored, bored, bored, and I surely won’t spend no more time on this bus. Still, it’s relaxing riding the bus, and sometimes I even take a little nap, but I haven’t done that since I smelled Annette Clark’s hair and made up my mind I was going to start sitting behind her from now on. It’s the nicest thing, this perfume she wears, because it don’t smell like flowers or powder, like what some old lady would wear. It smells like something clean and it’s made me think that I’m not sure what I smell like. Ronnie—that’s the bus driver—told me that he can’t smell nothing because of a job he once had at a gas station where he and the other guys pumping gas liked to take the nozzle off the hook and sniff it to feel it burn up in their heads. I told him that didn’t sound very smart, but all he did was shrug and say it was a way to pass the time and, smart or dumb, I didn’t smell like nothing to him. Nobody did.
At home, I shut myself in the bathroom and took off my shirt and held it up close to my nose and breathed it in, and then I turned it so that I could smell it at the armpit, which was stained yellow, I guess, from sweat. I hadn’t never noticed that before, but I hadn’t noticed before that I don’t smell like perfume, neither, but a little bit sour, like vinegar. My face was broke out along the chin—that’s another thing about the Clarks, that they don’t seem to get pimples—and I looked at myself the way maybe Annette might see me, a girl with a strange smell and yellowed armpits and a chin that looked like it’d been rubbed with gravel. You’d think it’d made me want to do something mean the way I was getting swallowed up with embarrassment and jealousy, but what boiled up in me instead was a terrible want to get closer to this girl. And what I needed was to see the place Annette come from, and there I’d figure out what the difference was between her and me.
. . .
I bring it up to Ronnie when he’s done with me and got back up in the driver’s seat. When it’s just the two of us is all that’s left, I go sit behind him in the first seat, and I lean in against the bar and we talk. Ronnie’s good at driving the bus, and he said the main reason he got the job is that he don’t have no convictions on his record. He said the man who does the hiring for the school said that was kind of rare, might ought to be something to be proud of. Ronnie just laughed and said, well, maybe he just ain’t been caught yet, and he said the man laughed right along with him. My own dad could never be a bus driver because he does have a conviction on his record, over something that went on with him and my mom when I was little, some dark thing that I don’t have no memory of. He says it ain’t worth talking about. He’s who I live with now—him and my stepmother, Gina. She’s the second one I’ve had and I don’t expect her to last, really. She says she don’t like it here in Missouri and don’t understand why we picked this spot of all the spots to be, way down here in the hills. It was better being poor in Oklahoma, she says, but my dad says her disability check goes farther here, so here’s where we are. If it weren’t for her draw, he says, we’d be up shit creek.
“Why’re you so curious about that Clark girl?” Ronnie asks me, but he says it like he’s suspicious, not like he’s mad at me over it.
I just shrug up my shoulders and look out the window, not at Ronnie. “I’m not,” I say. “I just never knew people like them.”
“I can tell you this, girl: they’re not your kind.” We’re at the bottom of a steep hill and Ronnie shifts a gear and pushes on the gas pedal real hard. When he does that, he makes this face where he pulls his lips back and shows his teeth, like he’s what’s making the bus engine go. I don’t like it when he does that because it’s ugly.
“What you mean?”
“I mean they’re not like you and me,” he says. We make it to the top of the hill and he lets his face go back to normal. There’s only one more big hill to get over and then back down before we get to my place. “That family’s got money. All them houses down that part of the road? It’s all the same family. And all that land as far as you can see? It belongs to them, too, this big family called Dawson.”
“How’d you figure that?” I say. “That Annette’s part of them?”
Ronnie takes up his can of Skoal from the dashboard and rattles it at me. I open it and he tucks a dab inside his lip and rubs his tongue into it. “Let’s just say I was curious myself,” he says. I don’t ask no more questions.
. . .
Inside the house is even better than I thought. It weren’t no mansion, but Annette’s family’s got things like a piano and grandfather clock and this long, green velvet-looking couch with pillows that match. Above it is a real old-fashioned type mirror, where I imagine Annette checks her hair before she runs out to catch the bus in the morning, and on that couch is a white cat with a black spot on its neck, just curled up in a ball like a puff of cotton. It didn’t even look up when I come in the door it was so comfortable. My dad don’t like cats, even though Gina says they’d help a lot with the mice and snakes, but he says cats have attitude problems, so he kills one as soon as it comes anywhere near. The hallway walls is covered with pictures of Annette and her sisters and even some black and whites of people dressed in old-timey clothes. Down at the end was another mirror, a long one, so that I can see myself head to foot, Annette behind me.
“The bathroom’s right there,” says Annette. I look at her looking at me in the long mirror. She’s a head taller and her face is thin compared to mine, which is round. I can’t tell if she wears makeup, but I do and what’s left here at the end of the day is the black eyeliner that’s run so that it makes it seem like I’ve got dark bruises under my eyes.
“All right,” I say, though I don’t move. Annette is real quiet standing there, and I can hear a door open somewhere in the house and then a voice call out, one I think must be her mother’s. The house smells like food cooking and it hits me that I’m hungry myself, that I wish I could invite myself to stay.
“Are you needing something else?” says Annette. “The bus driver will start honking at you soon.”
“I like your house. I like those pictures.” I point at them and smile, not knowing what else to say. This was the most I’d ever talked to Annette, and I realized that we was talking about something real, not just her asking me to move my foot. I wanted to go through the house with her and ask about every little thing I saw—the piano (did she know how to play it?), the grandfather clock (I’d never seen one up close before), the velvet couch, the black and white cat. I was hoping that Annette might ask me to stay for supper, but right then, I heard the bus horn honking, just like she’d said it would, Ronnie telling me to hurry up.
“I better go,” I say.
“But you didn’t even use the restroom,” says Annette. She pushes the door open and flips on the light. “I’ll go tell him you just need a minute.” I go on inside the bathroom, close the door, and make myself at home. I touch every single thing I can.
. . .
Once I’m home, I sit down on the couch and turn on the TV. There’s never anything good on this time of day, but I like to have the noise. Gina and my dad are usually home, but it seems like Gina’s been gone a little more. She says she can’t just sit here in this little house way out in the country and do nothing all day long. My dad tells her that he does lots of things all day long, that he works on cars that people bring by and leave with him, salvaging out the parts that he can sell. That’s how he gets his cash for cigarettes and beer and what all. Disability money’s good, but it only stretches so far.
When I was in Annette’s bathroom, I found a tiny bottle of perfume, and I took the cap off and sprayed some on my wrists. It’s the best smelling thing I’ve ever come across, and while I watch TV, I keep putting my wrist up close to my nose and breathing in. There was a tray of makeup in there, too, and I thought about trying on the lipstick, but I could hear the damn bus horn laying on and I decided to just forget it. I’d spent all my time playing with perfume and looking inside the drawers of the vanity, so I didn’t actually get to pee, but I flushed the toilet anyway so that Annette wouldn’t think I was dirty. Then I ran the water in the sink and spritzed that perfume on me one more time before I came out and fairly well ran back to the bus.
My dad comes in through the back door and he lets it clang shut like he does, stomping in with his boots all clumped with mud.
“Why don’t you take them things off at the back,” I say. “You know it just makes Gina mad.”
“Gina was born mad,” he says. He stands there and looks at what’s on the TV before he plops himself down in the chair against the wall. He makes a face and wrinkles his nose. “Are you wearing perfume?”
He gets up and moves over to the couch beside me. He sniffs at me again. “I asked you a question,” he says. “Some boy give it to you?”
“No,” I say. I push him back. I don’t like it when he gets close to me like that. “It’s a girl’s off the bus.”
“Pretty fancy girl if she’s spraying around perfume on the bus.”
“It was at her house,” I say, but I’m put out about having to tell my own business. What does he care if I get to wear somebody else’s perfume or not? “I had to pee, so the bus driver let me off at this house where these girls live.”
“I bet they didn’t like having you come in to use their toilet,” he says. He’s leaned away from me now and relaxed into the corner of the cushions, flat as they are. His hands are covered in oil from some engine he’s supposed to be taking apart and putting back together for a friend. He could wash up, but he don’t.
“It was fine. I just went in and come back out.”
“And she went into the toilet with you and doused you with perfume?”
This is the last straw for me and I get up and make to go back to my room. “I just tried it on myself,” I say. “It was just sitting there. I’ll go wash it off.”
“Don’t wash it off on account a me,” he says. He was grinning at first, but stops and then just looks grumpy. “You want fancy things, you’ll learn how to get ‘em for yourself.”
He’s embarrassed me and I feel myself turning red in the face. “I don’t want nothing.”
“Well, I do,” he says. He stretches out his arms up above his head and yawns, like he’s been working all day. “I want some supper. Go figure out what we got. Gina don’t keep up the groceries fit for nothing.”
. . .
By the next morning, Gina still hasn’t come back. I go on to school like normal, but when I get off the bus that night, my dad is sitting there on the front porch, looking like he could pounce.
“Gina home?” That’s what he’s upset about it. She comes and goes as she wants, but she’s always come back before.
“You called the hospitals?”
“She might’ve got herself in a accident,” I say. “Remember when that happened to you?” That was in Oklahoma, when he’d slid off the asphalt on a road so dark and lonely, didn’t nobody find him ‘til the next day. The car was done for, but he was all right, just too banged up to get hisself out.
“She didn’t get in no accident. She just up and left is what she done.”
I stand there on the stoop beside him and put a hand on his shoulder, trying to be a comfort. “She might come back,” I say. What else do you say to a man whose wife is left him? With the other one, they got in a fight so loud the neighbors called it in to the police station. That wife’s name was Becky, and she told him to his face she was leaving. She was sick of his bullshit and she weren’t never coming back. He didn’t have to guess at what happened.
“I don’t care if she does.” He has a cigarette between his fingers, curled up under his palm so that the smoke looks to be coming out of his hand, a magic trick. “I’ll miss that damn check.”
“Yes, her disability,” he says, mocking me. He takes the cigarette up to his mouth and sucks a long pull on it. “Not that she really got one.” The smoke shoots back out his nose as he talks.
“I thought it was her heart,” I say. “She said it was damaged or something.”
My dad waves his hand out in front of him, brushing me away like a mosquito. “I never believed it, that heart business,” he says. “I figured she just blew some crooked doctor to get that. Don’t mean I didn’t appreciate the money, though.”
I don’t like it when he talks like that around me, that sex stuff, but he mostly does it when he’s low.
“You going to get a regular job now?”
“Doing what? I got that felony charge.” He shoots me a real hateful look. There’s times I don’t like my dad, and I start counting the days until I get that car and don’t have to stay here. When I have my own little house or maybe an apartment, I might even get a cat.
“Maybe you just don’t tell it,” I say. I was out of good advice. “We ain’t from here, so who’s going to know?”
. . .
Ronnie knows I’m faking it when I say I need to use the bathroom again and, here we are, just about to Annette’s house. I didn’t hardly sleep at all last night, what with Gina gone and my dad playing his records real loud in the front room. I’m not in the mood for nobody to give me a hard time.
“You can hold it.” Ronnie stares down at me from the big rearview mirror that’s tilted over his head. “You a big girl, ain’t you?”
“No, I can’t hold it. And I already asked Annette if I could come in again, and she said it was fine.”
“When’d you do that?” He knows he ain’t seen me talking to Annette. Ronnie sees everything that goes on. He says that’s what bus drivers are supposed to do, keep an eye on everybody and make sure nobody’s getting beat up or raped in the back. If he sees a fight get started, he pulls the bus off to the side of the road, and then he goes back there and breaks it up, puts the kids who were fighting up in the front seat right behind him. That happened last week and the boy got beat up so bad he was bleeding out his nose. He kept wiping up the blood with his bare hand and smearing it on the wall beside him. Nobody’s bothered to clean it off and the streaks of blood has turned brown.
I roll my eyes at Ronnie. I don’t know why he’s got to be like this. “I asked her back at school.”
He lets out a little huff.
“What?” I say.
“Is she your friend now? You two sitting around at lunch together?”
“No,” I say. “Maybe. She’s nice.”
“She’s being nice,” he says. “That don’t mean she’s your friend.”
Annette’s off in the middle of the bus with a little set of headphones on, and I’m relieved that she can’t hear him say none of this. I decide not to answer. Ronnie don’t know everything. “I’m getting off the bus at Annette’s. I drank a lot a water today, and I can’t hold it until I get home.”
Ronnie shakes his head and stops looking at me in the mirror. He’s got real dark brown eyes—so brown they’re almost black—and has hair to match. The army jacket he wears is too big for him and he has to keep pushing it back off his hands, but he says it was his dad’s and he don’t care that it’s too big and that it makes him look like a little boy in a grown man’s coat. I think sometimes that he might make a good husband, but I’m not in love with him and I don’t expect I will be. Still, he might be in love with me, though it’s hard to tell such a thing.
We’re on the dirt road now and, for meanness, Ronnie speeds up and starts hitting the big bumps in the road. It was a hard winter and all the ice and snow has washed out big holes in the road. It’s a game he plays that the kids all love and they scream for him to go faster, hit the bumps and the holes harder so that the littlest kids go bouncing up out of their seats. Sometimes, they bounce so high they land back down in the aisle, which is dangerous if you ask me. But he’s doing it today to see if he can get me to pee my pants, which makes me mad enough that I get up and walk back to the middle of the bus myself and sit down.
At Annette’s, we stop and I look at her and mouth, “Can I?” and she shakes her head yes and I get up and follow her and her sister down the steps to the driveway. I don’t even look at Ronnie, but I hear him yelling at a bunch of kids to shut up and sit down and that they are not going to get off the bus and go use the bathroom, too. I hadn’t thought of this, that other kids would start in wanting to do the same, but what do I care? Inside Annette’s house, I look for the cat, but it’s not there, and Annette puts her things down and points down the hallway. “You remember where it’s at, right?”
I nod and then I go down the hall and I’m glad that she’s not following me this time because I realize that I can just poke my head in the other rooms. There’s the one that’s directly past the bathroom on the right, and the door is open, and I see that it must be her mom and dad’s room because there’s a woman’s dress slung over the footboard. There’s a little makeup table and two dressers—matching, I see—and on one is a big box that looks like it’s meant to hold treasure, and I think for a second about going to it and lifting the lid, but I’m afraid I’ll get caught. Across the hall from this room, though, is the one I’m looking for. Its door is mostly closed and I open it just enough to see that the room is a sort of rosy pink and it smells a little like orange peels, like Annette, and I know this one is hers. There’s just one bed here, too, a small one, which means that she don’t have to share with nobody. I step inside and see she’s got posters on the wall of bands she likes, these men with long hair and ripped up jeans and angry faces, and her closet door is slid open so I can see all the clothes she’s got. Things are in order here and I wonder who gets this done? Is it Annette herself or her mother, who I haven’t seen yet?
I can hear Annette and her sister talking in the other part of her house and it occurs to me that I haven’t even made it to the bathroom yet and so I dash on in there and close the door behind me and I’m surprised to find that now that I’m in, I really do have to go. I pull down my pants and settle down onto the seat and I’m feeling so much relief, I think that I could just stay here forever in this bathroom with its wallpaper with the roses trailing down it, the shiny, green tile on the floor. I lean my head against the wall when I’m done and I close my eyes, but there’s a knocking at the door, real soft and polite, a way nobody ever talks to me. “Libby,” I hear Annette say. “The bus driver’s honking again. You better hurry.”
. . .
Ronnie made me mad telling me that I didn’t need to pee, so I’m not letting him play with me no more until he apologizes. When he stops the bus in our usual place, I hold my hands up like a shield and I tell him that he might as well take me on home.
“What’s this about?” he says and it seems like he honestly don’t know. He walks on back and stands in front of me. “You got somebody you saving yourself for?”
“No,” I say. “You think you can tell me what to do and I don’t like that.”
Ronnie doesn’t go back to his driver’s seat, but just keeps staring at me like he’s never seen anything like this, an angry girl telling him to keep his hands to hisself. He’s not a very big man at all, but he’s still bigger than me, and for the first time, I realize that it don’t matter what I say. If he wants to do something to me, he’ll do it and it won’t be my choice. This has happened before—not with Ronnie, though—and I know how guys change when they done made up their mind about how things are going to go. He’s got that look that says I might need to learn my place, and I cross my arms across my boobs, partly to make me seem tough and partly to hide what he’s looking at. He comes closer to me and puts his hand back behind my head and I make like I’m going to bite him, but he don’t wince and, instead, he grabs my jaw in his hand and shakes it like what I’ve seen my dad do to dogs. I’ve undone my arms from my chest trying to get his hand off my face and he sends his other hand down my shirt and pinches me on the nipple real hard so I think I’m going to cry.
“Fine,” he says. He lets go of my chin and gets his hand out of my bra. He looks around like he’s afraid somebody might of snuck up and seen what he done, but there’s nobody around. I press down where he pinched me, trying to make it feel better, but I bet I’ve got a bruise. None of this is like Ronnie, which has got me confused. “Fine,” he says again. “Just tell me what it is about this Clark girl that’s got you so twisted up.”
I don’t feel like telling him anything, but he’s made it clear he’s the boss. Thing is, I don’t know how to answer this question because, up until a few days ago, it was really just that I was curious about Annette. I was curious about her clean hair and pretty clothes, how she got to live in one kind of way and I got to live in another. I’d seen that somebody at her house put up Christmas lights in December that came back down before school started back up in January and that there was a nice car sitting in the driveway and a basketball hoop with a real net over the garage door. Then I went inside and I saw that clock and the piano and the cat sleeping on the couch, and after that, I spent a lot more time than I’d like to admit thinking about what it’d be like to live there instead of with my dad and my missing stepmother. “Her house is pretty,” I say. “And it smells good.”
I can see what Ronnie’s thinking, that I’m the dumbest person he’s ever met.
“What’s pretty about it? Can you at least tell me that?”
How do I explain it, that I like it because it’s clean and because it looks like somebody’s bothering to keep things fixed, and that’s not just something you see, but something you feel? And how I could lay down in Annette’s room with the rose-colored walls and sleep and sleep and sleep and no telling what I’d dream. But that’s not what I say.
“I don’t know, it’s just things. Like in the bathroom, there’s this little square dish that’s sparkly and looks like crystal, and that’s what they keep the soap in. There’s all kinds of fancy stuff like that.” What I’m telling him is true, but it isn’t what I mean to say and I realize it makes me sound like I’m jealous of the things, which I am, but that’s not why I want Annette to be my friend. Still, this is what Ronnie takes from it, that there’s something I want inside that house and, if I can get my hands on it, it’ll cure me of whatever’s wrong.
“Wish you’d said this to start with,” he says. He works his way back up the aisle to the driver’s seat, his hands up in the air like he’s had enough, which I can’t figure because it’s me who’s just been hurt. “If there’s something in there you want, we’ll just get it. Ain’t nobody locks their doors around here anyways.”
I fold up into myself, turning sideways on the seat and pulling my knees up to my chest and I wrap my arms around my legs. This has turned out to be the worst day and I hadn’t even got home yet to deal with my dad.
“I thought you didn’t have no record?” I say. “I thought you weren’t no criminal.”
Ronnie has started the bus and he’s backing it up just a little bit before he turns it onto the road. He looks up in the rearview and winks at me and smiles. “I don’t got no record,” he says. “What I said was I ain’t been caught.”
. . .
And that’s how this happened, me and Ronnie driving down the road to Annette’s house after dark in this old clunker he has that’s piled up with trash in the backseat. I opened up the glove compartment when I got in and out fell a bunch a candy wrappers and all these sets of keys and Ronnie told me to shove it all back inside and keep it closed. There’s a long crack down the center of the windshield, and I think to myself that it’s liable to break apart if he hits one of these potholes like he does when he’s driving the bus. He’s more careful in his own car, though, and he talks to me about what we’re going to do.
“We’ll drive past and if there ain’t no lights, you can run in there and take what you want,” he says. “If I was you, I’d go in the mama’s room first. Grown women has got more valuables than girls.”
He says this and I realize that I don’t want anything that belongs to Annette’s mother or even Annette, and I’m only agreeing to this so that Ronnie won’t hurt me again. Him getting rough with me on the bus scared me some. I don’t got anyone to go to and even if I told my dad that this man was mean to me, he’d probably tell me I was to blame. Or maybe he wouldn’t say anything at all or maybe he’d go and give Ronnie a beating, but none of that would do a thing for me. So, I’ll just run in and take a little something, maybe some lip gloss or a hairbrush, enough to satisfy Ronnie, and I surely won’t ask to get off the bus again.
“Hope this teaches you a lesson,” says Ronnie, shaking his head. He’s really going on the Skoal here in his own car, and he spits some of it out the window, though he doesn’t spit far enough and a glob of it lands right on the top of the door where the window is up just an inch and it oozes down both sides. When he come to get me at the house, he drove up and honked the horn and I don’t know where my dad was, but he didn’t hear it, so he don’t even know I’m gone. Gina still hasn’t showed up, so I guess it’s official that she’s left. I hadn’t thought I’d be sad about her, but I am. She was nice to me, most of the time, and she was at least another female to go to. I think about it and wonder if I could’ve told her about Ronnie pinching me or about going into this house and enjoying being there and not being sure why. Gina might’ve understood what it was like to want to be some place that feels good.
“I don’t need a lesson.” I’m hoping against hope that there’s a light on at Annette’s house, but when we get there to the top of the hill with the hickory tree with the branches that hang out over the road, Ronnie slows down and I can see there’s no yellow at the side window by the garage. Behind us is another house, a tall white one with a truck in the drive, and on the other side of the road is a couple of old barns. “You said that this whole road is her family’s,” I say. “What if one of them is home?”
Ronnie don’t answer and we roll on up closer to Annette’s. I can feel the rocks pinging up under the car and I realize that there’s a little open spot rusted out by my feet where I can see the ground below. This car is about to fall apart. Don’t anybody take care of nothing? I look up and I about jump out of my skin because all the sudden there’s a dog up beside us, barking and showing its teeth and acting like it wants to come bust right through the window. I had mine up because there’s a chill in the air and I also don’t like all that dust coming in on me on these dirt roads, but that dog is right there at the glass, and I pull back, scared that he’ll get me anyway.
“Shit!” Ronnie swerves the car, and I think that’s good because if this is Annette’s dog or one of her family’s, we sure don’t want to hit it. That’ll only make things worse. But then there’s another dog that comes running up out of Annette’s yard, and he joins in with the other one and he’s on Ronnie’s side of the car. He’s a yellow-colored dog with a dark nose and his eyes is wild, and I know there’s no way in hell we can get out of this car without one or both of us getting torn apart like a piece of meat.
I don’t like how this feels, how these dogs are telling me what I already know, which is that I don’t got no right to be here. What belongs to Annette is Annette’s and not for me to have. I think about my dad saying that if I want fancy things, I’ll find a way to get them and maybe that’s true, but there’s nothing I want here tonight. What I really want is to be on my own—without Ronnie, without my dad—and not living out here where I can’t get to nothing without relying on somebody else. But that’s not a problem I can solve tonight.
Ronnie’s stopped the car and he’s rolling up the window as fast as he can so that this second dog won’t jump in and grab him, and the car sort of heaves for a second and then goes dead, like it just give up. We’re right in front of the house now and there’s these hawthorn bushes that’s so full you can’t hardly see through them, but in the dark I see a light pop on inside the house and then the porch light and I wish I could hide. Ronnie don’t care about hiding, but I can tell that he’s in a panic, even though all we’ve done so far is drive down the road, and he turns the key in the car and it wheezes two, three, four times before the engine comes back to life, and then he’s got it in gear and we take off again. The dogs follow, running so fast it looks to me that their legs could get tangled and I wonder how long they’ll keep it up, which turns out to be right at the top of the next hill where the road turns and you can’t see Annette’s house no more. The barking has quit and I look behind us to see the dogs standing in the center of the road, the cloud of yellow dust clearing so that I see them as they lift their noses and sniff the air, satisfied the trespassers are good and gone before they turn around themselves and head back home.