Jack did not like L. L did not like anyone who did not like her. Every Friday at school she made him do skits, ordered the rest to fold into chairs, play metal dead. It burst now and then—Jack, you’re rotting. You’d better see a doctor. You, Jacob, Tanner, watch it. Things always came back. You pick the fence, scale over, you must know there’d be consequences for it.
L couldn’t help it. That was how mouths went wrong, Jack’s ears perked often. He was a psycho. His talent was anger. L didn’t give a shit, it’d be your cause for regret, Jack thought. The town they lived in didn’t help. It was small and everyone knew your address. The sky was cerulean broad and the first thing to greet, by nights it locked everyone down. Stars were no remedy and the world was confined. L was no fool, she did not think there was anything larger in the cities.
They came for you anywhere you lived. First you fitted, then they assigned you clothes. ‘They’ did not exist, they sat around covered. Leaves and skins had not stop growing, they forgot the earth. L wore whatever thrown at her. A decent life was good enough, she calculated nothing, counted the protein bars and milkshakes, cans of root beer at the grocer’s, whose son sat by the cash register. “You doing good?” “Yes, L,” said the boy with the bluest tongue. “Alright, I’ll see you in a bit.” Then she counted her footsteps down the yellow, dusty path, stopped at her mailbox, patted the good stray dog, went into her house and the screen door shut.
Work was a deception, there was nothing much she could do, the higher-ups wanted the Friday school skits. For the kids to show cooperation and boy band valor in the distinction of the school’s marked years, or there’d be no funding. Look at the new generation of sweetness. Every Friday L gathered the students by the stage, an inspector, hands behind his back, royal accent, came to surprise: “I approve.” L shoved her hand into her jeans pocket, the young sang choruses, they must love to sing by the pastures and big machines,
“We welcome you all to our variety show. Lots of different things to see before you go…and don’t forget to cheer for the stage and art crew. That’s what God wants us to do.”
L liked lonesome holidays. She did not want company. Men at the bar told her it was sad, she was just thirsty and the Corona was lime fresh, she said leave me alone. For saying that she liked lonesome holidays. Once in a while she put on her boots and drove to the shooting range. Some women shot for power, L did it for commemoration.
Her child was dead.
One Friday Jack wanted trouble. He waylaid Katherine with a pair of scissors and cut a chunk of her hair, threatened to stab her pa. “If you laughed anymore at mine, I will.” And he set the shears on her cheek, his left hand holding her locks of dyed hair, and there was an ugly hole in Katherine’s head. Katherine wanted to sue. Yes, they could fold into cogs and wheels and Barbies, they were pink and drowsy, animation that made you float and sink, but you must leave them alone, Jack. Not everything was about you running the show.
“Apologize to Katherine.”
“I’ll have to call your father.”
L put him on stage but that wasn’t his greatest humiliation. The humiliation was that the stage no longer had any effect, the shame of young men had altered in texture and Jack had none, he stood there continuing to glint and mock and taunt Katherine. You scum of pond in cotton fluff. You children of suburbia. Jack might hate boy bands, but he knew the stage was power. L was wrong to put him there, suddenly she saw him as he really was, Jack was slippery and could dissolve himself, fit into any vase or receptacle, fish through the systems by hook or crook, for looks were deceiving and Jack was lucky with his actor face. Move to the city and sit in an office signing away documents and lives, dictating to the secretaries the colors of their stockings and hair dyes. He was right: Boy bands were primitive. Dull for him, who could play Ken doll better than any.
The problem wasn’t his pa. It had gone beyond that. In the teacher’s room talk was the solution before L dialed, Jack said, his voice wintry, what do you know about children, L. And he sat slouched with his legs wide and one hand playing with a ballpoint pen, turning it slowly on the desk. What do you know about children, he said, as though he knew she once had a dead child, that made her eat her own fingers, each time she fired a bullet at the target, at the man who sauntered into the room and took her baby. “Fuck you,” L said. But she did not call his pa. The old man sat around getting shorter and thinner, when he lost his game of backgammon he got up and knotted the strings of his sweatpants, went to Jack and told him it was time he showed him the world. And papa said, “Run,” before he made Jack face the wall and did what he needed from behind. “Are you going to call him now?”
Policemen said, what a common story, neither mystery nor myth. Soon they’d be packing their bags and moving to Australia. They’d not heard his duck screams, saw the red glue stream down his actor face. They heard and went for his pa at the foundry where he worked, frisked him, or took his money. “Give me back my fucking paycheck,” wasn’t uttered. In its place was only lost memory. An escape he invented to cut his tongue for its failure to resist. They showed him what he was made of. A loser in this world where sweet-mouthed men swam in the upper echelons of the foundry, work, you stupid men, work. They really thought we were squids, son. They thought that because they smoked cigars, they could snuff them on my arms. The heat lovely, the burn rich, smoke on charred skin…
After it was done and over and back for more like clockwork and it happened often that papa said, “Run.” One day the cruelty was complete, a grin hung on Jack’s face, unfathomable like the moon. There was a transparent look in his eyes, hard as ivory, a beyond which said, you were finally free. There were no more cares, Jack did whatever he wanted, with hair or strangers or cats, but not the Doberman, but the kid with the bluest tongue. You had to be blunt, be chained. Something sick moved on his face, a cunning, as he said, “Just play the boy band, isn’t that right, L?” His hands grew baits and knowledge, cynicism wrecked his mouth. After drawing sketches of many dads in his notepad with a ballpoint pen, mumbling, why did they want fathers dead, all papas should die, eagle wings on backs and sweet faces which said, “I love you, son, you are the Roman in my eyes,” he burned them in the trashcan. He whispered to L, as he strutted off the stage like a winner and passed her by, “You’d have to forgive me for anything I do. It’s your job.”
L looked at him and understood. She was concerned, she shoved her hand into her pocket. She knew that Jack followed her down the yellow, dusty path to her vanilla prefab a few Fridays later after the cheap skit. It was a spring day, a television kind of color lit, the peace sacred as wind rustled the hickory trees, the sky a broadsheet. Somewhere an Indian song grieved, “This was our land.” Elsewhere a man in overalls listened to a boom box in a junkyard. L walked, not turning back, her faith and feet steady. This was not the first time. To live in America meant things were on a rerun, history never forgave, you killed my father. She wanted to laugh, but she hardly did at anyone. It didn’t matter what the director of the orphanage at Islington did to her. Every night a set of girls were arranged. One by one or like twins they entered his office and peed into a basin, age ten, he didn’t like the girls bloody. If they could not he gave them more water at supper. Occasionally they drank milk, for their pee to catch the cow’s fragrance. Months after she had the child at nineteen, he sauntered into the hospital room and took her away. She never saw Sammie again.
Behind her the wind carried the scent of cherry almond from L’s hair to Jack. He spat. A truck rumbled past and disturbed the dust, L’s hair was strong and russet, strips of copper ran through, her muscles brawny in her plaid shirt and blue jeans. Jack lifted his head and stared at the smear in the American sky. He had no plans. He would get through this. He’d force her down on the floor, feet planted on her head, his soles the scent of earth, down woman, this was the consequence if you wanted to be a man for Katherine. Fear was ruthless and truth and lies candles, perfidy a cake, he’d be safe. The bank accounts, which liked to romanticize our dollars, would not move, L had to eat, she’d not report him. He churned up his wrath to be ready, spat again: What did she take him for. He never wanted to be a Ken. The live plastic horror which knew no genitals or ethics or heart, the fathers of Katherine, cigars in hand. Gold and esteem the only values they craved, any power they had was ripped off the dead, ratting out prisoners and bribing police, talking to tycoons for their private fashion shows. Jack knew these fathers well, through his own’s hot body. Once your father was a slave, you were too. Jack was fifteen, but old as the wind. Height and build invented racism, he was six feet, hair black, toothpick at the edge of his mouth, chin shaved to consider the moon.
L did as always. She counted her footsteps to seven hundred, checked the mailbox, went through the wooden gate and patted the dog, ever so eager, Henry, down boy, soon there’d be milk bones. She went through the screen door and set down her tote bag, at the fridge took a can of root beer, popped the ring and drank. Never thought a follower would make her so thirsty, she finished it in a sec. In the next minute, she’d take a nap. The couch was leathery and inviting, she understood what it meant to be a woman of America, that she must be taught a lesson, kept wrong, forgotten, made to forget, like a man, a nanny in manland. They never stopped trying to convince her she wasn’t sporty, they always used the ancient methods—cut off her contacts, keep her at home. The living room was their world. Domestication was a horror, a horror.
She whistled for Henry. The dog, eighty-eight pounds, sacks of raw rice, half a Doberman, jumped onto her torso. Later, when Henry growled, Jack would be standing there, watching her wake. L hushed the dog, let him out of the house. “Obey,” she said. Jack growled, his actor face pale. L would let him do anything he wanted to her, as long as no clothes were removed. No rifles, no hands, go ahead, Jack. I give you half an hour. I am an American woman. I am the way I am, and if a beating makes you feel alive, like a man, go ahead, come.