Last night my mother said to me, “Next year I’ll see if I can get you a summer job at the factory.”
This town is built on mail order. People answer phones all day long, take computer orders all day long, and pack boxes all day long. Anyone who wants to work, works, at least around Christmas. All around the nation, the parents of good little girls and boys go online and order up loads of junk, doodads made in foreign places where they don't pay workers enough. Then the junk is sent here, to these factories, to be packed and stamped and shipped somewhere to be broken in a day or two.
This town has more bars than churches. Prayers aren't answered as often as last call. Sixteen year olds drive around and around the main drag calling out to friends and trying to score a six-pack, or a jug of cheap wine, practicing for the time when they’ll get into the bars and sit next to their parents to practice forgetting.
This town is a place where girls wear maternity dresses to graduation. Weddings and births and jobs in mail order. Asses widened from sitting all day long. Football on Sundays is the focus of the week.
This town pipes Christmas carols into the snapping cold as an enticement to come spend money, and somehow, they even put the smell of pine scent in the air just in case you’re a deaf dumb and blind kid.
I hate this town. So I dream and practice and plan. So do a lot of the girls my age, but I’m the one who’ll do it.
My life isn’t a mystery. I know what I know and I believe I’m right. There’s no big plan really. Okay, so far as teens make plans, yes, I have a plan, but hell, some days the plan is to go to a movie.
In Beyersfield the plan is to leave. Jason and I are going to leave as soon as we can, but we’re the smart kids. We know we have to finish school and get good grades to become something. That’s what we want, really, to become something else. Better than ourselves and our parents.
Jason and I have been friends since we were five. He hit me with a blue plastic bat when we were in kindergarten. I screamed and hit him back with a naked Barbie doll. I made him bleed a little from the nose and the doll's head flew off, but forever after we have been best friends. We learned to read at the same time and we first kissed when we were twelve. Jason laughed. I was hurt for just a second before a giggle erupted from my nose. We weren’t meant to be boyfriend and girlfriend. We were more complicated. We were the smart ones, but still edgy. Other kids liked us and invited us to parties and stuff, but mostly we stayed to ourselves. Jason always said that it didn’t pay to get too attached to anything about this life.
We were still too young to get paying jobs, but old enough to "do things around the house to help out" as my mother called it. At least I was. Jason's mom just didn't care what he did just as long as she didn't see him night or day. His father lived in Michigan and hadn't called in a year or sent a birthday gift or any money as his mother reminded him whenever she was out of booze. Jason never said he hated him or loved him or anything else, really. I think he was glad to be left alone. It gave him a reason to be a brooding teen.
My daily escape from home is orchestrated to the minute. My mother always showers at seven-thirty. I can get out the door without her seeing me if I take my shower the night before and avoid my brothers who always yell at the top of their lungs, "I'm going to tell."
Mom wants me home to be her housekeeper and keep the boys out of trouble while she’s at work. I’m supposed to vacuum and clean the kitchen and start dinner.
Jason, he has a harder time getting out because even though his mother wants him gone, she’s usually passed out on the couch. If she hears him moving, she hurls insults and tells him where he really came from. Probably all lies, but his father never calls.
Jason and I meet in front of the coffee shop. The money I sometimes steal from my mother's purse gets us coffee and a sweet roll, but usually we’re broke and go right to the park.
This morning my alarm clock goes off at six. I keep it under my pillow so I’m the only one to hear the muffled ring. The plan meant no shower or hair wash or anything in the morning that might alert the household that I’m on the move. Even with the sun shining and birds singing, being the only one up is strange. It makes me feel like a criminal. I sneak into the kitchen where mom keeps her purse hanging over a chair back. Even my barefoot steps seem loud enough to wake everyone. The zipper on the purse is too noisy and when it sticks, my heart pounds so loud in my ears I think I might be having an aneurysm. Mom has three twenties and two tens in her wallet. I want a twenty, but I figure the punishment for a ten will be much less.
I carry my shoes to the door and turn the knob as silently as I can. The door squeaks but I’m out and running down the sidewalk shoes in hand before anyone can stop me even if they heard the noise.
It’s a clear blue morning, still cool and fresh. Mr. Tullet’s lawn sprinkler is on, wetting the sidewalk and there are little birds hopping through the wet. The damp earth smells so good and everything is so pretty that if you didn’t know better you might want to live here. The thing is, if you’d been living here all of your life, you’d know that the heat would come, rising off the pavement in an hour or two, and then you wouldn’t be tempted to stay. But right at this moment it was a perfect day.
I see Jason before he sees me. He’s sitting with his back against the brick side of the coffee shop reading a book. His red hair is standing in spikes. I’m sure he hasn’t even looked in a mirror before he left his apartment.
I walk quietly up and grab the book out of his hands. He doesn't even blink. "So, you have coffee money?"
I reach in my pocket and pullout the ten-dollar bill. "A donation from mom. I'm starving, I want a donut."
"Sounds like a plan, if you're buying?"
He grins at me from under that long red hair that his mother hates. We’re both wearing black T-shirts, shorts and shoes. Our mothers hate the way we dress. If they loved our clothes we probably would have changed, but it’ so much fun watching my mother trying to ignore how I dress.
We spend an hour in the coffee shop. I pay for one cup, get a second one free. I like lots of cream and sugar in mine. Jason likes his black. We talk to some other kids from school and things start getting a little loud. The red haired coffee shop lady looks like she is getting ready to call the police. She’s the one who doesn’t like teenagers, like our money isn’t as good as adult’s. She watches us while she pretends to be busy washing the counter. Jason and I get out of there.
We walk and talk as the day heats up.
“Mom yelled at me this morning. She said dad’s lawyer called and he wants me to come to live with him. She is such a liar; I can’t wait to get out of here.”
“What would I do if you were gone?”
“Mom lies, don’t worry, I’ll be here.”
It’s getting muggy and the blacktop and downtown cement is reflecting the heat. It makes it almost unbearable to be on the sidewalks for more than a few minutes. The smell of plastic coats the town on muggy days like this. I think they must be molding plastic handcuffs at the factory.
Jason laughs when I tell him that. “Combs, Ava, plastic combs to get tangled in your hair and keep you prisoner in the plastic comb factory.”
We are always looking for ways they are trying to keep us here. Like some science fiction novel where you can never leave town. When I read a novel about the south that had kudzu in it, Jason and I spent days looking into gardens in the rich part of town to see if anyone was growing the noxious weed to be used as a tool to isolate us from the rest of the world with its giant grabbing vines.
There are four parks and two school playgrounds in Beyersfield, but all the kids know that the swings by the duck pond at Sunset Park are the best in town. They’re tall, metal A-frames and the swings have wooden seats. City workers paint them dark green at the beginning of every summer. The thing that makes the swings so cool is the height a swinger can achieve. You can pump so hard that when you reach the apex of the arc—before you start the fall back to earth—you feel the moment of suspension when everything is still and loose and quiet, and you know somewhere deep in your brain that you are not connected to anything but the metal chains that bite deeply into your palms.
Jason always said, “From the last swing on the left, if the wind is just right, I could jump into the pond. A solo flight.”
Jason decided to fly when we were fifteen. He had plans to become a pilot long before that.
“This is going to be my solo flight without a plane.”
I always laugh, just a little, not to encourage him, but to make it seem like a joke, not a dare. I hope it’s a joke. It’s too far, and even if he makes it to the water, it’s shallow and filled with rocks. Some kid died years ago, broke his neck, they say.
Jason’s answer? “He just didn’t study enough. You have to take all the variables into account. I have planned the whole thing out.”
We’re sitting on the swings twisting and moving just enough to keep the flies off when Jason starts telling me his plans. We always talk about the future as if we will be together. Even though he isn't my boyfriend, just my best friend, our plans never include anyone else, just each other.
"I'm going to get out of this shithead town. I'm going to do something with my life. I am so tired of these people who have no vision. You know what I mean, Ava? They have their heads up their asses and nothing changes, ever. God, I hate it here."
"Three years, then we're out of here."
"I can’t wait to learn to fly. I figure I can get my pilot's license for big commercial airliners in about five years. But it will only take me three years to fly cargo. Or maybe I can get to Alaska and bush pilot."
I start swinging a bit. "It will be so cool, you’ll fly; I’ll dance."
The plans are always the same, with refinements like the bush pilot idea. He must have read about Alaska last night.
He starts swinging too. We like to get into a rhythm with our legs going the same, forward and back, swinging together stretching out on the forward glide using our entire bodies to leave the ground and tucking in for the backward pull, like loading the slingshot.
"You won't dance, Ava," he shouts at me on an upward.
"You won't dance. You have to be passionate about it and your not."
"What are you talking about?" I’m getting angry.
Our swings slow to a stop before we reached the high point, toes digging holes in the sand.
"You just want to dance because you see the stars and you want to be like them, but you're not. You don't love it enough. It isn't part of you, burning you, pushing you."
"What are you talking about, you asshole! I love to dance. I take lessons and I am the best in school."
"Not good enough." He won't look at me. "If you wanted it bad enough you wouldn't be here with me. You'd be somewhere practicing."
I’m crying. It’s hot and the tears make me hotter. I feel my face getting red and ugly. I know that I’ll probably end up living here in this little town, visiting my mother on weekends and working everyday, and raising children who despise me. But someone who loves you should hold your dreams as sacred as you do. They have no right to smash them. Just like that, he killed the dream. I could be whatever I wanted because I was fifteen years old and there was time yet, and hope. I thought he understood. He loved me after all, and he should have known that I just want the dream of a future being different from the present.
"I don't see you practicing flying."
"I read everything I can get my hands on and I practice everyday. I bet I could pass the written test today." He looks at me and adds, "And I'm going to fly into the pond this summer."
"Talk is all you do. You'll be a drunk just like your mother."
We knew what hurt.
He just looks at me and begins to swing again. I jump up and stalk over to the pond and watch the Koi swimming. Someone let a pair go in the pond years ago and there were a lot now. It’s midday hot and the sky is that blue white color that burns your eyes. The pond water doesn’t look inviting. It looks lukewarm and stagnant. The fish seem to need air the way they keep surfacing for gulps. But they’re beautiful flashing gold and white and black. I feel the shadow of Jason's swing coming up behind me, but I won't look. Asshole. He doesn’t know me. I’ll be so famous at something he won't believe it. Maybe not a dancer, but something.
"Ava," he yells. "I'm sorry.”
I sit on a rock by the edge of the water and won't look at him. I watch the Koi. Every year there’s talk of killing off the pond and getting rid of the fish that some people call glorified carp. But a bunch of citizens always get together and talk at some meeting and nothing is ever done to the pond. It’s even said that the fish keep the thing clean and the water clear. I watch as an all-gold fish glides past.
"Avaaaaaa, watch me fly!"
"Noooo, Jason!" I turn in time to see him come to the top of the arc. He just lets go and flies higher than the swing. I think he might make it to the deep water. His shadow flies past me and he keeps coming, and I feel my heart in my chest pushing at my breastbone, flying with him.
His shadow scares the fish and they scatter, faster than they usually move. But I can tell he isn't going to fly. There’s no wind, and all his calculating included the wind and I never thought he would do it anyway. We just talked about things to pass the time, and to give ourselves confidence. Like, if I can steal ten dollars from my mother's purse, I could become a famous magician. Stuff like that that wasn't real. He was never going to jump into the pond. It was just talk. We talked and talked and talked.
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