Saturday feature by Jes! Such language, for one so young. :P
Nothing Nowhere and Nearly in Nebraska
It was a standoff. He stood before Shelley with the cool May rain dripping down a long nose, clothed in the kind of things people wear when they take kids away from their fathers. Behind him, the car idled. It was nice; a kind with four doors as if he had kids of his own, but Shelley had peeked through the windows only moments before and it was spic and span. Behind her spread the front row of trailers, most of them the same tone of the sky. The sky was a bright gray, so bright you could hardly believe it was raining, so bright you could tell that the sky wanted to be white but knew it was too dirty. All this part of the city was dirty, real dirty. The mud squished over Shelley’s bare toes.
“How old are you?”
“Go to hell.”
He looked around, his jacket getting wetter by the minute.
“You know where your Pa is?”
She stared him down. She knew she had a mean stare; it was something she’d figured as a necessity when she was young, maybe six, maybe four or five, when she’d ran away to her pop’s. Couldn’t quite be sure she was six when she’d left her mother’s home, but Shelley knew it was the year she was supposed to start school and didn’t, and that’d been three birthdays ago. She still celebrated them each year, even though she wasn’t sure of her age. But she did it quietly—with dignity—out back, pretending that the overturned tire atop the brush pile behind the trailer park was a giant cake all for her.
“Hey, girl,” the man said, stepping closer, “I said, you know where your Pa is?” To which Shelley said nothing. Not that it was any of his business, but she hadn’t seen her pa in a couple weeks. Hadn’t been her business to find him; she wasn’t his keeper. Just like he wasn’t hers. The man took another step.
“You get the hell away from me, boogerface.” He blinked at her. They were both sopping, dirty looking to be sure. “Can’t be more than seven,” he muttered.
He looked a real long while at her. Brushed the water from his face one side at a time.
“Nine, then,” he agreed. “And stop your cussing.”
She nodded a tight nod.
“You like hot cocoa?”
“Sweetheart, don’t you think that outfit just sends the wrong message? You’re at a tender age, my dear.” Shelley’s mother eyed her daughter’s reflection in the dining room mirror, watching Shelley finish her makeup while she had her martini. Shelley looked down. Of course a mother like hers would say something like that, and say it in the same tone as “Glen, darling, do you think these new curtains will impress the neighbors?” Or, “Oh my, I just can’t believe Senator Robert’s mother wore such ostentatious jewelry to the benefit.” Something like that, when she didn’t remember how old Shelley was or wasn’t any more than Shelley did.
“Well,” her mother tapped an acrylic nail on the end table at the side of the settee, shifting the coaster with the martini glass just slightly “alright then. I trust your judgment.” Shelley kept herself from snorting, just barely. “Call me when you get to Desiree’s, won’t you? And don’t stay up too late.”
The alley was a black like the edge of a really bad bruise as Shelley and Des walked to the concert, the concert her mother didn’t know she was attending. Her mother annoyed the hell out of her. So fake. Her father—wherever he was—he was too real, and her mother, too fake. Better than state people, though, a bit. A bit. She was best off on her own, really.
“Passes?” The doorman at the back entrance was huge, and with his black shirt and pants and skin the whites of his eyes and teeth seemed to glow. Des flicked her cigarette down, ground it with the heel of her stiletto into the crumbling pavement.
“We’re Shelley and Des,” Shelley said cooly. Mean stare time. They went in. Des was sleeping with the bass player; the band thought they were nineteen but it wasn’t like age mattered that much. What mattered was what you knew. And Shelley, she’d known that for a long time.
The concert was great; the band was a hit and everyone was in the mood to get bombed after. K-tow and Des were hopping around the back stage mess like a bunch of drunk school kids, and pretty soon disappeared into the bath for a shower. Shelley wandered into the room with the other girlfriends while the set crew broke down everything. The ceilings were low and the girls had on a recording of Ellen, playing from a tiny, ancient TV, so old it had a bubbled screen. It was so screwy she had to laugh. One by one the girls turned to her from the array of mismatched furniture gathered in the room.
“You fucking one of the boys?” The girl who asked it had long dark dreds and looked like a Rasta who’d tried to find a Renaissance fair but gotten lost and settled for being a band member’s girlfriend. Four more sets of heavily-made-up eyes stared at her.
“Shit no,” Shelley said. The girls turned back to the TV.
“I like the dancing,” said the petite girlfriend. There was a half-smile on all their faces.
“Where’s your friend?” This from the first girl. She was Chris’ girl, had to be. She had the ring leader look, despite the Rasta fairy princess hair and clothes. Rasta fairy princess of hell, maybe.
The girls all laughed. It tinkled in her ears. Of course they were all musical, but the sound had a metallic twang to it. They had some drinks. The band members trickled in, all but K-tow. More drinks. The set crew trickled in. More drinks. Another Ellen played; this time the show people danced to Christmas music at the end, even though it was summer. Shelley confessed she loved Christmas songs. More drinks. They all sang Christmas songs. More drinks. Christmas dancing. Songs. Drinks. Hanging lights, twinkle lights in the bus—
Her cheek was wet. Her face.
Shelley pushed herself upright. Wet, and bright. She had swamp ass—swamp side really, from laying there so long. But where was there? Bright. She looked around. No city.
The land was flat, barely sloping at all. Hardly any trees. Nothing. Kansas, maybe? How the fuck did she end up in Kansas? Her eyes began to clear. Damn, she needed food. No tour bus. No city, and no bus. She stood up.
That’s when she saw the man hanging from the fence.
She walked over to him. It was a tall fence, taller than her by a good shot, and made of wrought iron. She maybe recognized him—but not really—and there he was harpooned on one of the spikes as if he’d tried to fling himself over the height but got caught. It stuck clean through his thigh, and his bald head gleamed bright red in the sunlight, partly upside down. The blood was still flowing (up his thigh), but only a trickle; most of it dried into a purple just the color of figs on a pair of jeans.
“You alright?” Jesus, her voice even sounded shaky. He opened his eyes, raised himself partly to her. Grimaced, wretched. Seized at his leg. The guy looked around and began bellowing. Shelley backed up, still facing him, and kept going. Goddamn that bright sun. She tripped, stumbled backwards, and landed in a kiddy pool of water she’d not yet seen. The bright blue plastic crunched beneath her.
“Santa’s gonna be pissed about that, girl.” The fairy princess girlfriend stood above her, blocking the sunlight. In the glare her dark hair looked like ropes.
“Santa?” She allowed herself to be helped up.
“The guy who runs this circus. That’s his second pool you just crushed. The first one he had to get rid of after he found a dead guy floating in it.”
Shelley blinked at her. Actually, she looked pretty normal by day.
“Kathleen, yeah. Chris’s girl. What the hell are you doing here?” Shelley blinked some more as a rush of burly men ran towards the wrought iron fence now some thirty feet away. Two of them carried ladders.
“I…I dunno,” she said. “Did you say circus? What the hell happened last night?”
“You mean the morning and night before? Beats me,” Kathleen said, shrugging her hair over her shoulders. “I passed out in the back bed of the tour bus and got out here when the driver woke me; this is where I work. Guess you followed, huh?” Screaming sounded from the fence. Kathleen’s eyes narrowed in the sun as she turned to watch as the men set up ladders around the upside down guy.
“Guess so.” They began walking. “Where are we?”
“Kansas, on the Colorado plateau, up by the border of Nebraska somewhere. Some land owned by a friend of Santa’s; we stop here this time every year.” The screaming grew louder.
“Shit! You serious? Nebraska?”
“Relax, girl. I said by Nebraska. We’re not there yet.” They came to a patch of clunky looking RV’s, dingy awnings popped open. Shelley could feel Kathleen eyeballing her as they walked towards the circus encampment. “Santa’s not big on tagalongs. ‘Specially one’s who break his shit. You got money to pay and get home?”
“Fuck, Kathleen. I don’t even know where my shoes are, let alone my backpa—aa—purse.”
Kathleen nodded. It was quiet in the encampment, all the noise was back over by the fence now. Bent horizontal blinds were pulled tight in all the windows.
“Well … we meet up with the band again in Boise. I could maybe have Big Sal talk to Santa and see if you could work off your debt to him — he’s a whine-ass about his stuff getting broken, he’ll charge you by how many hours of use he expected to get from it — and then you could hop in with the boys for the rest of their tour. You’ll just be a carnie for a few months, that’s all. And hey, isn’t Des nailing K-tow? Where’s she?”
“I dunno,” Shelley said, yet again. “Not here. I don’t have a phone anymore either.”
“Yeah, you’re screwed alright. You old enough to work legally?”
The tone was casual, but Shelley knew Kathleen knew. Didn’t matter. What mattered wasn’t age, especially when you didn’t know it.
“Of course I am.”
“Right. Well, I’ll talk to Big Sal and Santa. We’ll find something for you.” Kathleen walked over to one of the larger RV’s, fluffing her dreds as they walked. “Hey Big Sal,” she called, using that tinkling voice Shelley remembered from the other night, “Hey Big Sal, you in there, sweet thing?”
The volume made Shelley’s head pound. She grimaced, plopped herself down on a pile of stuff next to the fold-out steps of Big Sal’s RV. “God almighty, could this get any worse?”
“Sure it could,” Kathleen replied, her voice low and from the corner of her mouth, as they waited for the door to open, “you could be the last person who broke Santa’s pool.”