Monday
Aug062012

Miss Central Valley

Chelsea Bieker


 

There's the town slut, the town fatty, the town wise ass, the drunk. My mother they call town witch, but it's not correct. There is no witchery in this place of orchards and fields of grain. Just red-faced men huffing atop tractors drinking deeply from gas station soda cups, raising farms of fresh sustenance, going home to microwavable processed dinners. They have never seen such horror on anyone. She likes being known as the witch, though, and if her powers existed, she would wave a pale hand at all the even-featured jeering children and staple their lips right shut. Around here, she is truly the only of her kind, whereas any woman could rise the ranks and overtake Quince as the slut, and any bar hound could surpass his limits, wake up in a gutter and be called the drunk. I for one appreciate the labels. If a visitor comes and you are giving the tour of our main strip, the lovely Olive Avenue, you can say, "See, there's our town smarty pants, studying again! Look away, it's the town schizo." It's entertaining, and people marvel over the quaintness of it all. Everyone is someone, and I am the town daughter of the town witch, which is better than being the town idiot, but not as good as being the town beauty, who is Sylvia, a big-titted, blue-eyed Latina thing with perfect eyebrows. My mother is the one from which adults look away because they are wrought with manners and hate to stare. Children take her in and recoil behind their mothers' dresses, peaking around smooth shaved legs for apprehensive glances. Daisy is a sight.

 

When I was a young girl, my mother was beautiful, and not just in the way that all little girls think their mothers are beautiful. No. Mine won beauty contests. Mine was known for her beauty across five counties. Miss Hanford County, Miss Tulare Supreme, Miss Central Valley, nearly Miss California if she had gotten the fake bazooms. She once hosted the Country Wide Fair. She rode in on a Clydesdale with red lipstick and a white dress, smiling and winking at the crowds looking up to her, their arms stretched as if to brush fingertips to her taut oiled calves. Her beauty was all she had then, all she needed,  enough to travel on, our meal ticket. People melted under her gaze, gas attendants washed our windshield three times over with no tip, and at the beauty counter free products were forced into her purse. She could be anything: glamorous princess, denim cut-off girl next door.

At night she would brush my hair and tell me I came from no man, that she made me entirely by herself.

When I was fourteen, we flew to Miami for vacation. Location doesn't matter, because the sort of thing that happened to her has nothing to do with geography. I imagine it could just as easily have happened here in our own precious town in those irregular dark shadows of hate, but instead we blame Miami, a city disapproved of by many as a place for party boats and half-dressed heathens. A man, just a regular Joe—someone with three pig-nosed children, we would come to find out—walked up to my mother and I on the beach. Daisy had her breasts exposed—she thought herself very European, and very forward thinking, and we have narrowed it down to her breasts as the main reason the man—his name is Cricket McCloud, let us be specific—must have chosen her. He must have resented her nakedness and her gleaming beauty, must have seen it all the way from the street, glowing and undulating on the sand, a valuable trinket. He stood over her and poured acid on her face from a water glass. That beautiful face, her eyes closed, crisping in the sun. Gone.

She screamed, but not at first. First she flinched and yelped almost playfully as if I had splashed her. She reached up to her eyes and her skin wiped off in her hand. Cricket ran down the beach, and I ran toward the shops where thin girls swiveled on roller-skates advertising sidewalk cafes, and I hollered and threw myself down on hot cement. Daisy staggered clumsy on the sand, arms waving wild, before fainting in shock.

Miami wasn't the worst place to have this happen, we considered later. There is no shortage of plastic surgeons. And the news loved it. If my mother had been ugly it may have made the back page blurbs, but when you ruin something with such symmetry and optimum design, it's a headlining type of situation.

Cricket said in court that beautiful women were evil and deserved to be humbled. He said he had watched my mother all morning, from the hotel lobby where she drank three small half-and-halfs separately from the containers, preserving the black of her Cuban coffee, to when she bought me that shiny silver bikini I begged for and still own but don't dare wear, to when she rolled a sweating water bottle down her neck and chest on that beach littered with all kinds of bodies, and untied her suit strings to let her nipples point at the sun. He never mentioned me on the stand at all. I remained totally unscathed, which for a long time I assumed meant I wasn't beautiful enough to ruin, but it's not true. It just means I was young and invisible then. If he saw me now he might have paused before unleashing his acid rain, and this makes me happy in some completely private way.

 

Daisy's mother, my grandmother, who is long dead, named her after the prettiest thing she could think of. In her post-delivery delirium, she had looked outside the birthing center window and saw a cluster of yellow daisies, so there you go. After the incident as my mother lay in her hospital bed, she requested that I call her Daisy and nothing else.

"Why can't I call you mom?" I asked. Her face was wrapped in bandages, just a small hole for words to come out—room for her pointed, darting tongue to uncoil during feeding to snatch applesauce.

"Those days are behind us," she said. "Does 'mom' feel appropriate to you now?"

 "When you get your surgery things will be back to normal." I lightly rested my hand on her arm and she shrugged me away. The doctors had explained a trauma like this could make her strange, and to be patient.

"Things will never be normal," she said. "You are the breadwinner now. I'll never work again. Who could want me?"

Her tone was sour and far away. It made me want to shake her and make her laugh. Then she would mutter under her breath some comment about the homely nurse so we could leave and snuggle in bed and watch movies and eat frozen grapes. She would wake the next morning healed and more beautiful than before.

"Are you hearing me?" She said. "Get out your notebook. I'm going to explain how we will live now."

It's hard to say no to a faceless person. It disarms you in the worst way. With her hands folded neatly across her soft hospital jammies, she reminded me that in many countries it was normal for a girl of fourteen to provide for her family, in whatever way needed.

 

I'll be eighteen in a few months and it means nothing. I walk Olive and figure I'll be here my whole life. I chit-chat with Quince, the town slut, working at the AM/PM to get some perspective.

"Man, Hank isn't calling me up no more after what happened." Quince is wearing a cut-off yellow tee shirt so her diamond belly button gleams. She swings her legs and sits on the counter. "All pissed at me cause Tracey freaked out."

"Move on," I say. "Hank is below common standards."

"I don't screw for money, Florin," Quince says. "I don't got the same rubric as you."             Quince is a lot of things, but she is my only real friend. She knows about my job. She doesn't tell a soul.

"Tracey wasn't meant for threesomes. She has a stutter."

"I know that now," Quince says, beating a Big Hunk bar on the counter, breaking the taffy into jagged pieces. "What's the deal with your mom? Other day she came in here with some big dude on her arm like the Queen of Sheba."

"She's fine," I say. "Never mind it."

"Tonight me and Henry going to the baseball field to eat drugs." Quince hops off the counter and does a little dance to the radio rap playing. "You in?"

"Getting down with Henry?" I ask. "He's old."

"Thirty-four's not old," Quince says. "Old is what you got up in that twat. That's old."

"They aren't my boyfriends," I say. "It's different. And no on tonight. I have work."

"Good luck honey," Quince says, and slaps my ass. She is twenty-two, but has been reining town slut for four years.

"Have you thought about what I said on the phone?" I ask.

"Yeah, I thought about it," Quince says and looks down. "Better start saving that money."

"Will you come with me?" I ask. "There's lots more boys in Los Angeles."

"I want to get me a husband and have a backyard," Quince says. "They got backyards in LA?"

"Like you would not believe," I say. "They all come with swimming pools."

 

When I walk home from work, I imagine my mother watching me. I try to walk in a way that makes me look like a girl from a movie. In a scene with a slow song playing. The space in the movie where the audience gets to relax and mindlessly take in a pretty girl. I squint into the sun, let my hair catch a breeze. I pretend to adjust my shoes. I stop to write my name with a Sharpie on the side of the Chicken Pie Shop.

People probably assume girls like me feel weird all the time, or ashamed. I feel like you could throw rocks at me all day and I wouldn't budge. A rest would be nice, though.

 

One thing that might be surprising, is that there are men who are turned on by this sort of thing. We could not have anticipated the response she would attract those first few weeks in the hospital. Our mailbox overflowed. She received and still receives sexually forward fan mail regularly. But her old clients, the ones who furnished our lifestyle, they want nothing but the unburned. They want girls like me, to be precise. She asks me about them when I come home from work.

"Is Montgomery's dick still wide as a can of corn?"

"Daisy, please." I run the bathwater.

"Did he ask after me?" She raises her voice.

"Never," I say. This is not true. He does sometimes, just to remark what a shame her existence must be. "I've told him to call me Laverne. I'm a ex-trapeze artist from Belarus."

"Kinky," she says. 

 

My mother told reporters that her skin felt as if it was evaporating from her orbital bones. That it dissolved in her hands, then her hands dissolved in the places they had touched her face. Industrial grade sulphuric acid eats quickly. When I wash the dishes, the scalding water gets so hot it numbs me, and I wonder if that's what it was like, but I know I cannot begin to imagine how it felt.

Cricket got life in prison. My mother got a face transplant. Things were amended.

In an interview with a national magazine, my mother said that really, it was the best thing that could have happened. That through the process she finally unlocked her true self. It was some kind of inspiration. They posed her walking down a small beach a few hours away, and printed it was Miami, the very sands on which she met evil. When it was published, she read the interview, cut the pages to shreds with an exact-o knife, added them to our pork stew, and we ate them for dinner and never spoke of it again. I imagine the remnants of her original face lying as waste somewhere seeping into the earth. What the carnage must have looked like raw and freshly fucked up for doctors to have preferred to replace rather than reconstruct. She wears a plastic mask at night over her sensitive scars and layers of transplant flesh. She massages expensive creams into the cheesy contours, and I have never seen her cry.

Daisy passes time by researching witchcraft on the Internet and doing incantations in our bathroom. She has little dolls made from empty sacks of rice we buy at the Korean market, stuffed with pages of our encyclopedia set. Her spirit strangles me in bed at night and I wake sweaty from nightmares where I am a flight attendant and I have just killed the passengers of the plane with a machete. I lapse into her arms and the hard plastic of her mask presses into my scalp and I cry. She pats my head and I know her eyes are dry and alert.

One night a year after the acid, I awoke from a dream and she was standing still in front of our large window.

"Daisy, are you fine?" I asked in the dark.

"When models are interviewed and they say that they were made fun of as children, people always assume they are lying."

"They say they always eat cheeseburgers," I said. "They hate exercise."

"Do you remember when Sander took us to Hawaii?"

"The outside diner on the sand," I said. "I ate coconut."

"That was nice," she said. "You know, I was never made fun of as a child. I was always the most beautiful one."

"You should have been a movie star," I said.

"I would have if I hadn't gotten pregnant," she said.

"Tell me about him," I asked too eager, curious for information on the man she claimed never existed.

"When I told him, he paid me ten thousand dollars to disappear. He was married," she said. "He was going to help me be famous, but he said my body wouldn't be the same after the baby, and he didn't have time for it."

"Why didn't you get rid of me?" I asked.

"I was going to, but then I decided I wanted to see what you would look like."

I turned over in bed and pressed my hands into my face.

"And you came out, Florin, and you didn't cry, and I knew you were special."

"All babies cry," I said.

"Not you."

We were silent for a few minutes when she sat on the bed and touched my leg. "I'm probably going to kill myself soon."

"Don't."

"I'll let you know ahead of time so it won't be a shock."

I began to cry into the pillow as she lay back down beside me.

"Stop that," she said. "There aren't enough tears, Florin, and crying makes you look white trash."

The next morning we operated as usual, went over the weekly books, my schedule of dates. She still hasn't killed herself, and it's been awhile now, but I can't help knocking on the bathroom door if she has been in there too long, calling her for no good reason just to check. Where would we all be without our mothers? I take her by the arm and we go shopping once a week after I have accumulated good pay. We avoid mirrors in the boutiques and I tell her that she looks remarkable in soft cashmere sweaters that we buy in twos and threes. She wears the finest creamy lipsticks in public and from far away she looks like a bobble-headed cartoon, features drawn on.

 

You might think in a town like ours there aren't enough wealthy men to go around, but farmers are some of the richest men there are. Why go to the cat house a county down when I am Olive's best kept secret? I am quiet and I lie in wait for them. First I add prospects to my list. I like to keep it to three per week, and anyone can be kicked off the list if a higher bidder comes forth. I am disease free and I am their teenage dream, and I am pitied by the community and never suspected by good country wives.

You don't see me on the corner begging like those sad vagrant prostitutes near the freeway onramps.

When I took over my mother's clientele, they knew who I was. They had seen me before. She never had reason to hide me.

They are just warm bodies, though I do know them well. I know their deepest wishes. I know that Forne only wants to me to lie naked bound and gagged in the trunk of his car while he drives his kids to soccer. He only wants to open the trunk behind the old dairy stand out in the ranchos and listen to me beg a little and squirm against the rope we pretend is so, so tight. He releases himself onto the pale of my stomach. I don't even have to touch him. And then it's over and we eat beef jerky on the drive home and he tells me about growing up with a father who loved his show pigs more than him. I wave. "Thanks for the ride, Mr. Scantlebury!"

"Anytime, Florin, anytime!"

I know that Andrew Templeton the Third is just the sad son of a rich landowner, who married the sad daughter of another rich landowner, and they have sad children and he likes to rub his needle dick on my tits and then blow all over my face. He pays me thousands a month to do this once a week, and it reminds me how uncreative some of these idiots are. Close your eyes and jack off in the shower. Be frugal.

My favorite client, and the one who pays me the least, is Dylan Maxie. He never screwed my mother before me. I found him all on my own, whereas the others are leftovers, hand me downs, if you will. I met him at the town library as I was reading Cosmo and he came up behind me and said Don't read that trash. He is forty-two and smells like Ivory soap and pepper. He isn't married, and he likes to have normal, regular-kind sex, and his only fetish is eating a half-gallon of ice cream afterward in bed while I comb his shoulder length blonde hair and say pretty, pretty. He's the one I want to run to LA with. He's going to get settled, then wants me to follow along. Some days it sounds easier than others. He said I would get work no time. Maybe go to community college. I told him, fuck, it doesn't matter, I just want a vacation. I want to float eyes closed in the ocean.

My work seems worth it sometimes when me and faceless Daisy eat filet mignon and the blood drips down her scars and I wipe it with a cloth napkin and we laugh because we are still dumbfounded that the game will always be the same. But I have never told her of Dylan, and I never will.

 

Daisy has been seeing a man named Osbourne for a few weeks now but she won't spend the night with him. She prefers my scent in her sheets. He is what you might call her biggest fan. He has written her letters from a small town in Idaho until recently, when he up and moved here. He diddle-daddles in a nearby hostel, waiting for Daisy to, I don't know, invite him to get married? Move in together? He is not hideous, but he looks unclean, as in, I wouldn't care to share a toothbrush with him, or say, touch his belly without a glove. But my mother, blind in one eye, is giving him a chance. She lets him take her out to the Tony Roma's for racks of ribs that they suck to the bone. She brings home to-go boxes of the remnant skeletons. She has made three wind chimes that hang in our window. Sylvia, that damn town beauty who sleeps with a man who lives across the way, shakes her head in disgust as she passes by. Steps her long legs into her blue Mustang convertible on her way to her important job as secretary for Maybare Meat. From inside the house Daisy and I dance a tribal stomp, middle fingers to the popcorn ceiling chanting bitch, bitch, bitch. Osbourne is not allowed in the studio, a restraint he enjoys, so she reports their encounters to me. She lets him brush her hair with a wooden wide-tooth comb and trace his tongue back and forth across her collarbones. She says they do not fornicate. He is supposed to come up with a clean STD report first, and do something, anything with the fact that both his tits are pierced.

"That's really responsible of you," I say, trying to be supportive. "The STD test and all."

"You can't trust a man with that many tattoos and past lacerations," Daisy says, dropping twigs of rosemary into a steaming bath, naked before me, her vagina shrouded in a black forest, her body shrunk down like a girl's.

"What now?" I ask, pointing to her mixture.

"I'm going to leave a vial of this stuff on Sylvia's porch."

"She won't drink it."

"She doesn't have to drink it," says Daisy. "She only has to look at it for it to take affect."

"What will happen?" I like to humor her.

"My hope is that it will inflict genital warts." When I don't say anything, she turns to me and shakes her head. "Sylvia is a bad cunt on parade."

"Sylvia got highlights and now her hair shimmers in the sun."

"She will feel me in every bone."

"She will need to drink it for it to work," I say.

"You know nothing."

I walk out of the steamy bathroom, and she stops me.

"Florin, I need cash," she says. "Osbourne has asked me to change my style. He likes me wearing black. I need a leather cat suit."

"There is money in the canister."

She grabs a roll of stomach skin through my shirt. "You need to lose weight."

"Do you think?" I ask and remove my thin tank. She prods my side with the fork she uses to stir her magic waters.

"You're only a baby-lady. You can't retire for some time, Florin. Best nip the chubs in the bud."

"What do you recommend?" I ask.

"I'll make you a mixture," she says. "But you should also stop eating."

 

Only once did I try to run away. I had no real plan. I was fifteen and it was after a particularly excruciating screw. That's what you get when you allow a traveler into your schedule. Something about the anonymity makes men rough. He nearly ripped me sideways, and I came home, packed my things. Daisy ignored me as she glue-gunned pages of her father's tattered address book to our kitchen walls. I got on a bus south toward Bakersfield. I stayed there in a Motel 6 and had nothing to do. I swung one hook, and he scrammed before paying and I went back home worse than before, a fever sweating from my glands. I fell into Daisy's arms and she asked me if I was finished fighting it and I said yes.

 

It's Monday night and Daisy decides she needed an outing: Quince, Osbourne, Daisy, me, Dinner at Chicken Hut. She pulls dark meat from her drumstick. Osbourne will not look at me or Quince, only stares at Daisy, panting raspy breaths.  

"Tomorrow we plant the vial," Daisy says with a full mouth.

"She's gonna know it was you all," Quince says. She is sitting on my side of the booth. "Sylvia ain't dumb. She comes into the store. Guess what she buys."

"Spearmint gum," Osbourne says into my mother's hair.

"Potato chips and Trim Spa," Daisy guesses.

"No," says Quince. "Chew. Lumps it and sucks it on her drive to work. She shares with me sometimes."

"Why not smoke?" Daisy says.

"She says chew's healthier and it don't make her smell," Quince says.

"Encourage Daisy to leave her alone," I say to Quince.

"Daisy will do as she pleases," says Osbourne. "Your mother is a god."

"More chicken," says Daisy. "Florin, that's enough gravy for you."

"Florin is hotsy-totsy," Quince says. "Down in that city of angels she gonna knock 'em dead."

Daisy stiffens. Osbourne takes a bite of mash and rolls his tongue around his mouth. I look to Quince like what the fuck?

"What's this?" Daisy says. She lifts both hands to the borders of where they sewed her face on and presses. She does this in times of need.

"I'm taking a trip," I say. "But I'll be back."

"You will not leave, end of story," Daisy says. "Osbourne. Corn."

Osbourne goes to collect ramekins of corn, looking back at my mother as if she might fall from the booth and shatter.

"I need a trip. I'm nearly eighteen."

"She needs a new town," Quince says. "Daze, when you was young and gorg you were all over the world, traveling in all kinds of copters and drinking wine God knows where."

"It's a trip, nothing more," I say. "Quince, let's go."

Osbourne returns with corn. Quince and I get up, and I lean forward to kiss Daisy's cheek and she hisses at me, so low only I can hear. We begin to walk away and she says, "Don't come home tonight. Osbourne has taken your place."

Osbourne releases a chirp of glee.

"You can stay with me," Quince says. "It'll be fun. We can do whippets in my basement. Wax our coochies or something. Real sleepover."

 

We do none of these things at Quince's because she is busy humping Henry in her room with the door closed. I sit in her living room with the glow of the television burning holes in my brain. Thinking of Osbourne in our bed disgusts me. At two in the morning, I get up and walk to Dylan Maxie's. He lives in a bricker in the small pocket of town people call trendy. I throw bits of gravel at his window, because I know this to be a highly romantic gesture. It doesn't work, so I press down on his buzzer until the tip of my finger glows white and finally he lets me up.

When I get to his floor, he comes into the communal hallway and softly closes the door behind him. He is wearing a new-looking terry-cloth robe and his chest hairs are showing.

"Can I stay here?"

"I didn't order tonight," he whispers.

"My mom kicked me out," I say. "I want to talk about LA. I think I'm ready to go now."

"Can we do this tomorrow?" He asks.

"Who's in there?" I ask.

"This is not part of our agreement," he says. "Florin, please leave."

"Can't you tell her I'm a friend's daughter? Your niece? Cousin? Come on," I say.

"I think this is the last time we should see each other."

"What about Los Angeles?"

"I don't know what you're talking about."

"You said you would take me," I say. I reach up and poke his shoulder hard. "I need to go there."

"Trust me, I think you're better off around here. People are nice here."

"I want to go to school there, like we talked about."

A woman steps out of his apartment into the hall. She is wearing boring pajamas, loose and coffee-stained. "Town prosty?"

"Go inside, there's a mix up." Dylan tries to guide her in the apartment but she steps out of his reach.

"What did she call me?" I look to Dylan.

"Get out of here or I'm gonna call the cops," he says.

"This is the kind of shit I'm talking about," says the woman, yawning. "This is why I don't like staying here. All the fuckin' freaks just out and about. Get rid of her." She looks at me. "Honey, you have the wrong door."

"Fine, I'll leave," I say to her. "But you should know he wants to be treated like a princess."

"Drugs," I hear Dylan say as explanation. "Poor thing was lost."

 I walk home and the streets are totally deserted. I can only think of Daisy in the Chicken Hut. She didn't really want me to leave. I know she will forgive me.

I softly open the studio door and light illuminates two shuddering bodies in our bed. I go into the bathroom where the tub is still full of pink-tinged water, cool to my touch. I undress and step in. After a few moments it begins to feel lukewarm. I sit down. It smells rosy. There are petals floating around me, a few stick to my chest. My hand finds it's way to the cave between my legs and just presses there and I lean back and close my eyes. Images come at me like a stampede of horses, town prosty, town prosty, and I think of all the men who have seen so far into me they swam out my eye sockets.

Daisy has never asked once if they hurt me. She always seemed adored by those nice men who would take us to the mall and sit in parks with us. It just seemed like she had a hundred boyfriends. I replay that night with Dylan. Did I imagine our plan? Did I configure it while he was burying himself deep inside me? Did my head float across the room and dream of some unreal thing? Did we say nothing, and instead eat away at each other for hours and did I mistake our grunts? I'm shivering. I see that my mother's mask is on the back of the toilet, and I wonder if she was scared to wear it in front of Osbourne. Then I wonder if Osbourne gave her what I never could, and it made her okay without the mask, her skin an open plain, the stale night bedroom air settling on it as easily as the table beside her, the kitchen counters, the tops of his naked shoulders.

 

In the morning I wake wrapped in a towel, lying next to the bathtub. From the small window I can tell that it is very early, and the couple hasn't stirred. I redress and step carefully to the kitchen where my mother has Sylvia's vial in the refrigerator. I open it and smell. Roses like the bath water. If anything, this could make Sylvia more desirable if she were to dab it behind her ears, on the soft underside of her wrists, and part of me wishes it stung, was potent enough to kill. But it is just water and I pour it down the sink.

"You made Daisy real upset last night." Osbourne is behind me. "She was in a state."

"I'm not going anywhere," I say. "Quince doesn't know what she said."

"I want to get an apartment for me and Daisy," he says. "Just us."

"She doesn't like you," I say. "She will never love you."

Osbourne pretends to look in the cabinet. My mother rustles in bed.

"You are the kind of man she would have laughed at," I say. "She thinks you are disgusting. She only let you in here because she was mad at me."

"She don't claim you as her own," says Osbourne. "Last night she said you're nothing to her."

"Daisy do you hear?" I say.

"Don't wake her," says Osbourne. "She needs rest."

"You don't know how to care for her," I say. "You can't possibly know what she needs."

"I'm the first man she's been with since the accident," says Osbourne. "She said she never brought no dates here because she's ashamed of her whore daughter."

I walk over to Daisy who is lying on the bed with her back curved toward me. I pull the quilt off of her. Her stick legs are bent to her stomach. She turns to look at me.

"Get him out of here," I say.

"Osbourne, water," she says. "Did you enjoy the bathroom floor, Florin?"

"You said it was me and you, mother," I say. "I've done everything you wanted."

"You were set to leave me at the first query," she says. "You were going to go to Los Angeles without so much as a word."

"I'm here," I say.

"But it's the thought that counts." Daisy steps around me and to the kitchen. Osbourne puts his mouth above hers and lets water trickle from his lips onto her outstretched tongue. "I can't have you here if you're always plotting to leave."

"I'll never leave her," says Osbourne.

"Go be with Quince," Daisy says.

"How will you make money?" I say. "You can't live without the pay I bring in."

"I've always lived without it." Daisy leans her head back for more water. "I have plenty of savings from that old codger way back when. Left me everything."

"Old Frank?"

"Of course," Daisy says. "He had no family to speak of. I was it. No one ever said this profession doesn't offer insurance."

I take the wad of cash from the canister and put it in my purse. "I don't believe you," I say. "Both of you are full of shit."

"I think you should go," Daisy says. She peers into the refrigerator. "And on top of everything, Florin, you've sabotaged my vial? See, Osbourne, she doesn't support me."

"I know, baby," Osbourne says, reaching around my mother's back to cup her breast.

 

I start to walk to Quince's but my feet take me further. I am on Olive and I pass the storefront windows. Everything is as it always is. Inside Coffeehouse sits Forne and his wife reading newspapers, sipping from mugs. They don't see me. I stop and pretend to read the free town flyer, but really I am taking them in. He seems sweet there with her, his regular-looking wife in blue sweat suit, hair arranged sloppily on top of her head. I think of how much they love their soccer-ball-kicking children. How they must beam at them as they win their championship games. The money Forne is likely saving for their college degrees. His wife will never know of my intimate exchanges with her husband, the man she is posed with in a photo atop their fireplace mantel, from their wedding day when they both promised forever and truth. But maybe she would be proud of the way Forne has always treated me nicely, never tied the ropes too tight, never paid late, always talked to me like a neighbor, or the child of a friend. I wonder if he will miss me when I go, if he will find someone else. There is no record of me, no photo snapped, no letter written. I am just the girl of the burned beauty, the quiet homeschooled mystery. Really, there is only Daisy, her old newspaper clippings framed on every diner wall, the town heroin, from when she won her beauty pageants and was the envy of all the homecoming queens up and down the state. Through the window, I can barely see her, but she is there, hanging above Forne's head, the paper yellowed with age. It was taken as they placed a crown on her head and called her Miss Central Valley. She wears a green dress in it, green like the vineyards, she had said, and her long hair hangs forward in light clouds of blonde and her eyes are opened wide to the camera. Forne raises his paper higher, only the crest of his bald head peeking over the gray pages.

 

I pass Needful Glee, a clutterbox shop where my mother once sat me in front of an antique vanity and compared our faces in the warped mirror. All young girls are cute, she had said, but time does terrible things to people. A week later she would never be beautiful again, would never hover over me, comb my hair through her fingers, take our picture and put it on the fridge. A woman walks out the door and bumps my shoulder, as if she doesn't see me at all. I whisper, hey, under my breath.

There's the butcher, the seamstress, the Dollar Holler. There's the curb I fell off of at eight and sprained my ankle, and she carried me all the way home, my legs wrapped around her waist. Then a few more blocks and Olive dead-ends and I stare out at the freeway onramp, cars merging on black lanes disappearing South, and I think that in a few years my scent will have completely washed away from every last sheet, and no one will crave my embrace.