Georgia, and Points West
by CARA DIACONOFF
finalist for the 2010 Fulton Prize
For a dozen years she made a career of leaving places. Like any career, it had its own rhythms of lucky times and lulls, its ritual yearly reviews, even its goal of retirement. She wanted the same thing after all that anyone did: somewhere to come home to from her travels. She had what you could call a hometown; it was the first place she had ever left. Towns like it, with central squares barely changed since 1960, form a sparsely strung necklace all along Highway 287 through the northwest Texas Panhandle. They are dreamsongs of towns that survive by the sheer force of the inhabitants’ common will. Inertia (these towns suggest) can be a form of will. The girl’s town, like many of its kind, greeted westbound drivers with a boarded-up gas station in a squat stucco building topped by fake-Moorish turrets. Five blocks later, the western border was marked by an establishment called “Family Restaurant”—the name blazoned on a cloth banner strung across a slab of ochre stone. At the end of that block, open prairie reigned again. The men in the girl’s family had worked for the oil company going back three generations. The girl’s mother and father had moved to Tulsa after they were first married, but within less than a decade they had come back to this place that seemed to outsiders little more than a windswept cemetery around a narrowing of the prairie highway. They came back so that their children could grow up the way they had, running wild in backyards and the weedy grass beyond. And sure enough, the girl would always remember the power she used to feel as she raced down the dusty street silencing each of the dogs in turn as she passed them, for they knew and trusted her, from the Millers’ German shepherd to the Heinz’ Great Dane. The girl would remember for a long time the dominion she and the others her age had wielded over dogs and cats, rabbits, frogs, and snakes in those sumpy backyards and in the grassy ring.
The girl—she had a given name, but it hardly matters what it was, so often would she come to change it—grew up almost alone in this town, a middle child. Almost alone. She maintained polite friendships with the other girls her age in the hundred-pupil grade school. She got along fine with her sisters, mainly because she was so placid that she was no fun to tease. She read a lot, as quiet children do. The town had a library. It also had a fossil museum, open eleven to three on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and during vacations she spent many hours “mooning” there, as her daddy would say. She and her daddy shared a bond cemented by the camping trips that they would take together. She would talk to him about the plots of books she’d read or her imaginary bestiary of the monsters who resided in the woods. He had never made a hobby of reading, but when she told him about books he would nod intelligently, as if she were talking about people they both knew. Once, on a trip near Canyon, the two of them adopted a tiny horned lizard they’d found pausing in their path. They named him Bronco Boy and kept him for a day in a Tupperware bowl filled with sand, pieces of sagebrush, and chunks of red rock to climb on. The summer before the girl entered seventh grade, Miss Cartwright who ran the fossil museum fell ill with cancer, and the museum stayed closed all through the vacation. So when the girl needed a place to go where the sun would send dusty probes through narrow slats, the place she wound up walking to that summer was the abandoned farm-implements warehouse that took up its own block of dingy brick at the edge of the old central square. Inside, she found a heady smell of sun-baked plaster and corner piles of dessicated leaves and empty bottles. Traces of graffiti were visible on the insides of the two-by-fours that boarded up the side-street windows, but they were too weathered to make any of it legible. The three slit-like openings facing the main street were still fitted with panes of glass so smudged they looked as if they’d been rubbed with charcoal. When the girl walked in through the gaping rear doorway on one of those fiercely bright summer days, the first thing to command her attention was that triptych of sunlight bars. They shone on the pitted, half-rotten floor: three spotlights for three ghostly performers eternally delayed in the wings. She stood staring at it for several seconds, not daring to go closer. She would never know if the boys had happened to glimpse her and followed her in on a whim or if they had been watching her a long time, maybe all summer as she wandered the heat-stunned sidewalks by herself. Either way, here they came crowding in one afternoon not five minutes after she’d arrived, rushing up the same back steps. There were four of them—she knew them, of course—they were all from the high school. They wouldn’t let her leave, but she would have expected that. It was the way they circled her as she tried to go: quietly, not even giggling. The five of them—she the center, they the rays—danced a lazily looping minuet all around the wooden floor as she tried to back away. Then, just by the square of sunlit doorway, they had her cornered. One got in front of her and grabbed her wrists, pushing her toward the wall. He stood over her, hands flat against the splintery wood on either side of her head. He had a face like a lizard—like Bronco Boy: slit eyes, sloping forehead, narrow slab of nose. His hot breath in her face was curdled strawberries. Probably they’d been drinking all afternoon out at the stadium or in the one’s brother’s air-conditioned van. His face in hers, she experienced the first of those moments where it was like she’d woken up out of the zombie daze that almost all girls’ lives are and seen just in a flash the actuality of human existence: hard-edged and messy and full of maggoty spots impossible to scrub away. Anything could happen. She stared into his homely face, waiting for what would.
But all he did was hold up something he’d scooped from one of the piles of leaves, something that looked like a shed snakeskin. She knew what it was, sort of.
“Someone been givin’ yew fuck in here, Cow?” Standard boy stuff: crass. Hardly terrifying. Still, once she was finally out the door she ran all the way home. Her mistake was telling her little sister. Her sister duly told their father, and she must have changed it in the telling, because that night, her father knocked on her bedroom door to talk—something he almost never did—and came in to sit beside her on the bed, squinting with a constipated expression. Had anything been bothering her recently? he asked. When she told him no, he sat a long time, hunched over, without saying anything. He was a strong, stocky man—she took after him in build—and it was a little scary to see him sitting there looking helpless, hands dangling empty between his knees. Finally, he started talking again, addressing the carpet. This was a very small town, he said. In a town this small, gossip traveled at the speed of lightning and could do as much damage. In a town this size, kids as they grew up might find out they weren’t as free as they thought they were. Girls, especially, might find out they weren’t as free as they thought they were. He was disappointed to hear that she’d been “fooling around.” He didn’t think she should go out by herself during the day anymore. If she were that hard up for something to do, she should come along with him to work and keep the ladies in the field office company. Lord knew, they were bored enough out there. He stood up, patted her uncertainly on the shoulder, and backed out of her room.
The first time she changed homes, it was for a familiar reason: her father had made the crossover into the corporate world—had become a sales manager for the oil company—and the whole family moved to the city.
Wichita Falls! Yes, it was a city; it boasted chain restaurants and a six-lane bypass and even a modest skyline. The family settled there, and she started tenth grade at one of the four public high schools. The whole first term, she spoke to no one. She lost ten pounds from being too nervous to eat lunch; she would sit by herself at one end of a cafeteria table, staring at the egg-salad sandwich, snack-size Fritos, and apple her mother had packed for her, laid out neatly on their flattened paper bag. Around her, urban high-school life teemed in all its celebrated coarseness. Several seats down from her a clot of tenth-grade boys in hooded sweatjackets were doing something obscene with a banana, a bun, and a mound of Sloppy Joe filling. Across from them a big boy with slack lips was laughing with his friend in a clogged, nasal voice about some “bitch” who you had to do “doggie” because her face was too ugly to look at—“and just make sure you get out before she creams, man—yecch.” At the next table over, in the corner, a girl and a boy were making out—sucking face, as these kids called it. The two of them fed at each other’s troughs, single-minded, paced like marathoners, the back of the boy’s head jammed upside the wall and the girl straddling his lap as he worked one hand up under her shirt and the other down her jeans back pocket. Second semester, the girl joined drama club and the choir, though the truth was she didn’t have much of a voice. During the tryouts she embarrassed herself by attempting the Mistress’s song from Evita (“I don’t expect my love affairs/ to last too long . . .”), squeaking on the high notes and subsiding to a whisper by the second stanza. But she did have perfect pitch. She wanted to sing in choir because they got to perform on stage—a concert during fall term and a Broadway musical in the spring—and also because that was where the handsomest boys were concentrated. Like many shy people, she had a secretly theatrical side. No one had ever been aware of it before, but now in high school, it began to emerge. Its effect on the other kids seemed largely underwhelming. When she auditioned—always unsuccessfully—for solo parts, sometimes she thought she heard a few snickers, and once, in tenth grade, she could have sworn she heard the word heifer whispered by someone in the soprano section after one of her vocal drills. But mostly these choir kids were too polite to express themselves so crudely. The boys by and large ignored her; the girls, in the dressing room or on the tour bus, might favor her on occasion with a pitying smile before turning back to their discussions of their own affairs—delectably layered, self-flatteringly confounding: byzantine, gorgeous, and gilt-lined as the threads of King Solomon’s mines. Toward the end of her junior year she broke two ribs and her right knee and arm in a car accident. The same week, her father was laid off from the job he’d moved to town to take. The accident took place just west of town on 287, Randy driving and her in the passenger seat and another boy, Josh, in the back—the three of them returning from the Kiss Me Kate cast party, which had been held in a rented ranch-house inn. Randy was her choir crush—unrequited, of course. He had sung the title role the year before in Bye Bye Birdie; he had shaggy brown curls and a wiry soccer player’s body. She knew that he laughed about her behind her back with the others; defiantly, she refused to care. At the end of a long evening at the cast party, he turned to her with a stagy flourish: might he offer her his chariot? She accepted gratefully. They were almost the only ones left in the lounge. He had been doing a lot of Jagermeister shots. Out on the road, he took an exit too fast, and they plowed into a guard wall. She was out of school for the rest of the year. To while away the time, she inked messages on her cast with a pack of felt markers in different colors and scripts, laboring to give the impression of a passel of friends and well-wishers. After the cast had been removed, she asked the doctor if she could keep the halves. He squinted at her a little curiously—what would she want with a souvenir? She just stared back. He let her keep them. Now here she was, left with the exclusive company of her father, home on his enforced, indefinite vacation. It had been almost five years since their last hiking trip together. She no longer regaled him with the plots of books she’d read. He’d changed since they’d moved to Wichita Falls. She could go days without him appearing to notice her at all and then, on her way upstairs of an evening, hear him make a remark as to how she was “growing into her mother’s behind.” He would say it in a sad, shrugging tone, as if commenting on some inevitable way of the world. Or no—maybe it wasn’t only since they had moved to Wichita Falls. No, the thing bristling between them had been growing for longer than that. Ever since that evening in her room after the time with the boys in the warehouse, she had been noticing it: how he would never look her full in the face anymore. If she said something at dinner, he responded with a smirk and a slide of the eyes to the corner. Like the flirty girls at high school, in fact. That was what it reminded her of. She never knew exactly why he’d been laid off, though apparently the oil boom had peaked. Her mother went out and found a government-office typing job, but her father seemed content to coast even after the last of the severance pay was gone. He took refuge in his twelve-pack, his recliner, and the soaps and trashy talk shows he could ridicule. As he became drunker, he would talk, with bitter sarcasm, about things she didn’t want to hear: her mother and how he’d courted her in high school and how his own last two years in high school had been the peak point of his life. “Your mother was a shy one,” he reminisced. “Hoo, she was shy. Didn’t know what her voice sounded like till our second date. One of those folks you imagine anything going on in their head—know what I mean?” “No, Dad. I don’t know what you mean.” He broke stride just long enough to lower his can and flick his eyes to the side. “There’s something about a girl like that can drive a certain kind of guy just crazy,” he carried on, ruminating. “She’s like an empty bottle you could fill up with anything you wanted. She’s like something from another planet.” He fell quiet, sipping. Then he said, “‘Course, I never planned on marrying her. It was her who insisted after she got pregnant. Oh, then she opened up that pie-hole!” The girl, who was semi-reclining against a pile of cushions on the couch, tried to raise herself further up onto her elbows. On the TV screen, a couple on Jerry Springer’s show were screaming at each other over how the girlfriend—a tall, beautiful, Roman-nosed brunette—had turned out to be a pre-op transsexual. “You want some help there, hon’?” asked her dad. The recliner began to move; at first it seemed to her like it was from some unseen force, as if God were making the thing creakingly rock upright and disgorge her father, who rose slowly to his feet and then, like a Gila monster, made his way toward her with heavy footfalls and labored grunts. Then he had lowered himself to sit behind her. His hands were on her shoulders! She was so unaccustomed to his touch that she felt her back involuntarily stiffen. Although this would happen many more times over the course of the summer, her first response never changed. Under the guise of giving her a nudge to help her straighten up, he had kept his hands on her and now seemed to be rubbing her back. She smelled the sweet-and-sour of his beer breath. It went on and on: this horridly intimate touch, something in the pressure of his hand half-yearning, half-defiant. She felt like a lump of inert flesh being handled, as if she were in a doctor’s office. When she and her dad had been pals, camping together, he had never touched her—or never more than a hearty clap to the shoulder, as if she had been a boy. Sitting there beneath his hands, unable to move, she felt more than ever how useless her body was, her legs pointing straight in front of her like a pair of rotten logs. By August, her casts were off and her crutches too, and finally she could leave the house. She spent afternoons and evenings at the mall or the library or just walking around—walking even after the sidewalk gave out and the road had widened to become an interstate frontage route. She didn’t care where she walked; she was just so glad to feel her legs, moving. When the heat got to be too much, she was never far from a convenience mart or a fast-food joint, where she could go in, buy a bottle of water, and suck in the scent of freon. And then one of those days in the middle of August, school starting again in barely more than a week, she simply didn’t go home. She hadn’t planned it. The high that day was a hundred and ten, and she’d stumbled into a Whataburger and more or less collapsed in one of the plastic benches. She bought a Diet Coke—all she could afford with the change she had on her—and sat in the booth reading a newspaper section someone had left behind. Outside, the overcast light—sun strained through clouds as in a homeopathic infusion—stayed the same, so she had no idea what time it was and didn’t care. But when the manager came over to talk to her, it seemed she’d been there three hours. Later, when she caught sight of herself in the precinct restroom mirror, she saw she did look a little bedraggled. The circles under her eyes were bright pink, and her forehead was plastered with strands of hair. She looked like what they had thought she was—an abandoned twelve-year-old. The whole thing was embarrassing and annoying; she didn’t want to give the manager or the cop her home address as if she were a little lost child. Besides, she didn’t feel that much like going home. But when the lady cop was talking to her and she mentioned her dad, it was the first time the cop had actually looked up from the desk where she was filling out forms. So, seeing that this got her some attention for all her trouble, she went with it. All she had to say was, “We’re not getting along. He touches me inappropriately.” That was all. Even if she had wanted to go back and explain it and soften it and hedge it with qualifiers, those two sentences, by themselves, were enough to grant her a whole new life. For the next year, she lived with a foster mother. She thought that her family situation was investigated by social services; she was never informed exactly what the findings were, if any. By this point, events—or non-events—seemed to proceed of their own accord, and she simply opted not to do anything in particular to influence them. Did she miss her home? she was sometimes asked. Not especially, was all she ever replied. What she missed, if anything, was childhood: that landscape. But she couldn’t have explained that to any professional asker. The foster mother was a kindly widow in her late fifties who never raised her voice but who had strict rules about the girl not taking any part-time jobs and being home by eight-thirty every night. When the girl wasn’t at school (she had changed school districts) or at the foster mother’s, there were the shrinks. She went to several different shrinks during the course of that year. She became skilled at telling them what they needed to hear. She exaggerated her stories of emotional abuse, of silence, of her father’s drinking. She especially emphasized the drinking, since that always seemed to pique their interest. Usually, they talked to her in phrases as simple as if she were a sixth-grader, but one time, one of them slipped up and used the word affectless. She went back to the foster mom’s and looked it up, and at the next session she made a point of stopping from time to time in the middle of her stories, looking at her lap or away at a spot on the rug, and thinking about how sad things were until her voice could catch mid-phrase. She talked about the town where she’d been born, and she managed, mostly by implication, to make it sound like a tumbleweed-ridden hole inhabited exclusively by superannuated circus freaks—the lot of them lonely, downtrodden, and wicked in a casual, onanistic sort of way. She talked about the time with the boys in the old warehouse and, by dint of long pauses and a lot of blinking, she was able to impart the impression that they had raped her. In later years, with later shrinks, she would come to perfect this story. Recreating that triptych of windows in the main room, she would talk about how the boys had forced her down in front of them and molested her in full view of the street. Thus it became an emblem of the entire town, her story. She graduated from a high school where she’d literally never once opened her mouth unless asked a direct question and left the foster mother’s to take a job as a maid at an Embassy Suites in Fort Worth, some two hours to the southeast. She moved into a room and a kitchenette over a retired couple’s garage. The husband drove her to work some days; on others she took the bus. The rent on the garage apartment was a hundred and twenty-five a month. At the end of a year, she had saved nine hundred and forty-six dollars. Looking back, she realized she’d always known she’d travel. The job and the apartment were like being dead. She’d spent another year not talking to another soul.
When she left, she left a month’s rent in an envelope for good measure; she taped it to the couple’s front door. She splurged on a cab to the Greyhound station. She bought a ticket for as far as a hundred dollars would take her, which turned out to be Albuquerque. She had never been there. She hardly cared where she went, but in books young travelers always went west.
She sat staring out the window at the receding vastnesses of her home state. The bus to New Mexico would go through west Texas, back where she had come from, but first it would pass through Fort Worth and then Wichita Falls. For the last time she studied the northwest Texas roads, straight and broad, the land ungainly and sprawling whether outlined in neon or still waiting to be developed. Raw, weedy land it was, baked mustard in summer and rust-green in winter and spring. Trees grew in town, but rarely along the highway. Nothing obscured one’s view of the immense and mysterious sky. At the end of a brilliant day, especially now in spring, the dying light could play across a windshield or be reflected in a puddle with a shimmering, lilac haze that made the sky seem as intimate as it was infinite: like something you could not only touch but maybe even give comfort to, at the same time as it stretched that far above you, marking the very boundaries of the known world. Fifteen hours later, she disembarked in Albuquerque and made her way to the nearest house of God. In what would become her standard practice, she laid out her sleeping bag in the church courtyard under the stars of a desert summer night and waited until morning would bring the good people who worked inside. She avoided the cheap motels she feared would be the haunts of sharpsters, muggers, or other drifters with less benign ideas than she. And so it began. She became Paulette, she became Sharona, she became Camilla Lee. She became Lisa, Rianna, Hilary, Diana, Sara without an “h.” She became all the names she’d ever wanted to be; sometimes she took on more than one name in the same town, depending on to whom she was talking—depending on whether she was in school or at the shelter or working at an odd job or volunteering in the front office of the church that had first taken her in. After the first handful of times, she knew what to expect in each place: the same events in each, in almost the same order. The questions, at first concerned, later just polite. Her answers, always consistent, though careful not to sound rehearsed. The first move, into someone’s home. The second move, into no one’s. The shelters, the professional foster families. “There’s still time to get you into school,” the church volunteer or the shelter director would say; “the term’s only just begun.” So, that town’s school. That school’s collection of well-worn books, books whose covers you were supposed to re-wrap in brown paper, books stamped on the inside flap with a multiple-choice list to describe the book’s condition: Very Good? Fair? Poor? Like the grades she got on the reports she wrote: “Irony in Lord Jim,” “Women of the French Revolution,” “The Causes of Homelessness.” The joining of choir, or drama club, or peace club, or debate team. The making of friends, then the drifty losing of friends. And after the losing, the approach of the holidays or a summer or spring vacation, and the concomitant question—did she have anywhere to go? And she, saying yes, and having it be the truth. She had the Greyhound station. Between 1984 and 1995, she lived in a score of different towns in New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and Nevada. She thought she would never leave the desert. To the extent she could love anything, she loved the hardy beauty of this landscape and the indifference with which it shrugged off a welter of human sins. But one evening, while hiding from the clamor of a crowded shelter in an out-of-the-way half-bathroom, she fell to staring at herself in the mirror. Under a sputtering tube light, she found herself gazing at her reflection as if it belonged to someone else. This other girl would stand still for minutes on end, so docile! she would even take off her clothes so that the girl could really study her, could satisfy herself once and for all that there was nothing beautiful here. True, the skin was pretty enough: milk tinged with cinnamon. And the boobs were big, but they drooped. Did they droop a little more this year than last? It didn’t matter; she hid them under baggy flannels every day—or oversize T-shirts in summer. The hair was the same as it had always been: long, fine, copper-colored. And the rest? The neck was short; the shoulders, broad. If she was poetry in motion, it was doggerel. Blunt lines and simple thoughts. But was she just especially tired tonight, or had those bags under her eyes become a permanent fixture? She bent forward to see. Raying out from either eye was a faint, long crease, like the kind one might make with a gentle thumbnail down the binding of an absorbing book. She was living then in Tucson. In the daytime now, the sun began to feel like an assault, and even at night, the violet desert air had lost its softness. At night, all she could think about was how harsh the air would be again next day. It was puckered, it was withered. It would wither her. She decided she would try somewhere new. She would go somewhere it rained; she would go north. She had just turned thirty, although she hadn’t celebrated a birthday, real or false, in a dozen years, and the date had all but lost its significance. Each place she went, she presented herself as the same age: fifteen. It was how old she felt inside. She would defy anyone to convince her she was any other age besides fifteen. From time to time she met other women, other drifters. They were full of tales of ex-husbands, told in a cigarette rasp, and exuded a studied air of motherly forbearance. They would joke with the guys, fall to kissing and sometimes more, and let them sleep on their shoulders, all with equal good cheer. They were full of weary good spirits—sometimes hard-bitten, sometimes fuzzily oracular. “The only way to hold a man is in your arms, honey,” the girl remembered one of them solemnly declaring. The girl, for her part, was still a virgin. Normal enough, for someone plain of face and only fifteen. The only men she met were bus riders, and the men on buses made her nervous. The bus-world itself was so much less controllable than that of any high school. Something about the bus seemed to bring out people’s most unwholesome instincts. Perhaps it was the ripped and sticky vinyl and the rusty grit like congealed blood in the grooves of metal fixtures—or perhaps it was simply the fact that, as long as it made only minimal noise and didn’t involve tobacco, you could do pretty much any decadent thing you wanted in these back seats and, in the truest sense, nobody would ever know it was you. Still, when she looked in the smudged mirror of a bus toilet, what she saw was the face of an overweight teenage boy. The man who would put his hand on the thigh of such a creature seemed to her sick beyond redemption, if not beyond understanding. She saved her worst repulsion, finally, for that man—for his hangdog eyes and cracked lips, for all his shameless need. When she arrived in Oregon, it calmed her as she’d hoped. The rain fell constantly there. She adored the rain; it wasn’t the steamy slog she remembered from home but a freshening release, reliable as dawn. She took long walks, traversing whole neighborhoods, and came back to her foster family’s house with the skin tingling at her temples. The kids she talked to here weren’t members of any clubs. They were cheerful outcasts, the ones who stood at bus stops hunched in pea coats, their hair spiky or pigtailed or loose around their shoulders, boys and girls alike. Aside from the occasional joint, they didn’t do drugs. Their drug of choice was conversation—scatty, drawling, disjointed, brilliant talk about sex and garage music and scalp zits and Dungeons and Dragons and monster-truck rallies and everything else that existed or could be imagined to exist, whether out there in the world to be washed by the rain or only within the confines of their own fevered, boredom-dazed, day-counting brains. The homeless-services office here was cozy and its staff efficient. The shelter dorm had blond-pine walls and little white jug lamps on every bedside table. She’d only spent two nights there before they told her they had located a family to take her in. The family turned out to be a couple in their sixties who, for professional foster parents, seemed almost shy. They shook her hand and then the wife showed the girl around their house, a three-story Victorian with a renovated attic where the girl would sleep. The floor was covered with new wool carpeting, and she even had her own half-bathroom with a bowl of potpourri on the toilet-tank cover just like the full bathrooms on the lower floors. It was almost like a separate apartment, almost like that garage apartment back in Fort Worth, that first place—that first, first whatever it had been . . . . There was a back staircase that led all the way down to the outside. When Mrs. Morris saw the girl eyeing it through the half-open bedroom door, she made a show of pointing it out—yes, did the girl see? there was a light switch at both top and bottom, and the front-door key fit the back as well. Still, of course, said Mrs. Morris—her voice now going rushed and mumbling—of course, the girl did understand that she was free to go in and out as she pleased during the day, but the agreement was strict on the matter of the nine-thirty curfew; there could be no slipping in and out by night. As she said this, Mrs. Morris’s eyes swept the girl’s collarbone back and forth in windshield-wiper rhythm. She knew she didn’t really have to insist on these matters to the girl. She could tell that the girl was mature for her age, that the girl had a good head on her shoulders. “Mr. Morris and I both hope you’ll think of this as your home,” she said, though she still didn’t raise her eyes to meet the girl’s. The girl orbited that group of scattily talking kids; she hovered near them because they didn’t appear to mind. Hovering didn’t offend them—why would it? They were hovering, too, all of them, on the edges or perhaps the verge of life. (Edges or verge: it wasn’t clear yet. It didn’t have to be clear, to them, as yet.) Over the weeks, one kid began to wheel out—to wheel out in gradual, increasingly centrifugal motion until he stood beside her more often than not. This was Richie. He sported a tatty suede jacket he called his “coat and tails” and he wore his limp brown ringlets in a loose bun on top of his head. He was a sweet kid who rolled his own cigarettes. The other kids would sometimes make desultory, drawling fun of him over being what they called a “head-shrinker’s brat.” “Nord, you front all chill, but we’re onto you, dude. Dude’s frickin’ crazy underneath. Plays Russian roulette by himself on weekends, just for kicks. Gets his little sister to drop acid with him. And the sickest porno collection—fuck, sick. Animals and shit: frogs, pigs, you name it, fuckin’ bears . . . .” Richie tolerated this raillery with an abstracted smile and a squint through his spirals of smoke. His father, Andrew Nord, was the school psychologist. His parents were divorced, but he visited Andrew once a week—as often as the girl herself did. Richie and the girl didn’t do anything special: just went to the movies or to coffeehouses. He never even tried to kiss her, which she found a relief. Yet when summer came, she found she didn’t want to leave Salem just yet. School started again, and gladly enough, she let herself enter eleventh grade. Here in Salem, she had fixed on a name: Georgia. She liked its oldness, the heaviness of its consonants. And here she continued to refine her stories. For Andrew, she concentrated on the saga of her life with an abusive father. Everyone else got stories of her mother. The mother she talked about was an image that had come to her in a dream: a bad, sad girl-child nothing like the real mother she’d left back in Wichita Falls. At the beginning of second semester she wrote a personal essay in English class about this dream-mother as a young woman: a red-haired waif smoking on the steps of a home for wayward girls as she waited for the bus. She described a girl whose cheekbones stood out as starkly as the angles of the pews in her parents’ church, whose eyes gleamed “dully as quartz” in her “complexion of raw dough.” She was flat-chested, lithe as a boy, this teenage dream-mom. She looked like girls Georgia had met in one shelter after another over the years, and she fascinated people with her quality of offhand doom. The girl had always liked talking to Andrew. She’d liked him even before she’d learned that Richie was his son, and after finding that out, she delighted in making veiled references to “the kid who’s like my boyfriend,” knowing that Andrew probably knew who she meant but that professionalism would prevent him from putting it out on the table. That kind of game excited her. The truth was that Andrew excited her. He was a tall man in his late forties with a bald head and protruding blue eyes fringed with light eyelashes. His lashes looked like he’d been caught in a flour storm, an effect enhanced by the way he would duck his head slightly whenever he sat down or stood up. Coupled with this was a cool intelligence he exercised more than any other shrink she’d known. He seemed to see through her role-playing. When she would blink and stare at a spot on the rug as if she were fighting back tears, she could glimpse him out of the corner of her eye sitting there with arms crossed, waiting. When she told the story of the trio of boys back in the abandoned warehouse (she described the real building, though she set it in Oklahoma, not Texas), his thin lips widened in a puckish smile. “That image,” he said, “the three triangles of light.” He had a precise, slightly lisping enunciation that clashed provocatively with his rumbling voice. “Quite a literary flash, that.” But though his tone might be detached and skeptical, she knew he never questioned the fundamentals of her identity: that she was Georgia Henley, just turned sixteen, on the run from an abusive, widowed father in b.f.e., Oklahoma. And why should he, after all? She had lived so long in that name now—she had been in Salem almost a year—that it had ceased to feel like a lie. It was who she had become. Indeed, Georgia had a past that the girl herself remembered. Details made no difference. Oklahoma, west Texas—why did it matter? And as for the year that she’d been born: well, sixteen was what she saw when she looked in the mirror. Sixteen was what she felt when she lay in bed at night and ran her hands down her body. Years were numbers. Seasons in the desert barely changed. A dozen bus trips collapsed into the memory of just one. “So, that literary bent of yours,” said Andrew in his office one spring afternoon. “I see I wasn’t the only one to notice it.” He was referring to the fact that her personal essay, which she’d entered, at the insistence of her teacher, in the annual English competition, had won an award. “I’m looking forward to hearing you read it.” The girl shrugged. She was not at all sure that this was actually going to happen: that she was going to fulfill everyone’s expectations by showing up at the awards ceremony and reading her essay. In fact, she’d already been to the Greyhound station once to check out itineraries. Why didn’t she? she would ask herself later. Why didn’t she run then? She could only answer that something about it went against the grain. In the past she had never run before the school term ended; never before had she run out of panic. She had moved on always just when it felt right. She had always moved on at the ends of things, and the story that Salem was telling her just didn’t feel ended yet. Her foster parents didn’t accompany her to the ceremony; they had two other younger charges to look after. So there was no one to jostle her to attention as she sat slumped in her chair like a sulky child, trying to pretend she was elsewhere. At first when they called her name, she ignored it, but then the silence around her became so complete that it forced her up and on to the front. Something happened when she started reading. It was as if she could inhabit the words just because they were about this made-up character. She forgot that this was supposed to be an autobiographical essay. She felt her voice go deep, go lilting, as the words she had written conjured the figure in her mind of this raw-boned, narrow-hipped, mournfully profane runaway she was calling her mother. After it was all over, Richie found her, and the English teacher Miss Martin, and Andrew had come too. She heard them congratulate her, she felt them squeeze her. But it was as if there were a force field set up around her and whoever happened to be standing right beside her at any given moment. Beyond the boundaries of the field, people threw her half-looks as they passed by. All too clearly, she saw herself as they must: a lumpy potato in a beltless corduroy jumper the color of rust. She heard the snorty giggles, the rustles. All the cute little undergrown girls. Heifer, they must be calling her. Just like at Wichita Falls. And worse was how the boys noticed her now. The almost frantic way the muscles in their faces worked as they seemed to vacillate between derision or pity or simple disgust. She’d stepped out of her invisible cloak. She wished she could go back inside it now. It had never been her intention to mean anything to these people. “They were all looking at me,” she tried to explain to Richie afterwards. “Yeah—well, get used to being a star,” said Richie, his voice high and stuffy from the attempt to hold in smoke. They were in the girl’s bedroom in the attic of her foster family’s house, smoking pot from Richie’s elegant little mahogany bowl. He breathed out, his eyes lingering as always on her walls and shelves. He liked to tell her how much cool stuff she had, although her wall hangings numbered exactly two: a vintage poster for the movie Easy Rider and a glossy promo photo of an all-girl band, R U Four Eight, from Olympia, Washington. The two of them were sitting cross-legged on the girl’s bed, trying not to drop ashes onto the patchwork comforter. One floor below them, her foster parents slept—soundly, she presumed. “You’re a mystery,” he went on. “An enigma wrapped in a riddle rolled in—um, like, a grape leaf of ambiguity. I didn’t know you knew half of the shit you talk about in that story. Let alone that it was shit you found out about from your mom.” “Yeah, well—” she said vaguely. “Like that part where she has to boff that one guy, the shelter director? And then the next day when he’s dropping her off at the job interview and you talk about how he’s, like, rubbing her on the shoulder like a proud daddy. Man.” Something in his tone—a dreamy quality she wasn’t used to—made her glance his way. His eyes were half closed. She’d seen that expression in the eyes of guys on the bus—the look they got as they were reaching for her thigh and just before she would bolt up and snap on the reading light or, if that didn’t work, call out, “Fuck! Help! Fire!” which usually woke up other riders around them and made the guy stand down, hissing in disgust. Shit, girl! Just trying to be friendly! “That wasn’t you, was it?” he asked. “Something that happened to you?” She snorted. “Are you kidding?” She cast an involuntary glance down at herself, her duffel bag of a body. “It seemed like it. You described it so realistically.” She looked over again. He was leaning forward, he was running the knuckles of his bent fingers along her jawline and under her ear. Then he was kissing her. He kissed like a beginner: with wet smacks, a methodical hunger. “Hey, man,” she murmured, pulling away, “don’t. I don’t want—“ He surfaced, mouth still open, eyes glazed. Then he blinked and let out an exasperated sigh. “What makes you such a prude, anyway?” She bristled. “Why am I a prude if I just don’t want to kiss you?” “Well—who do you wanna smooch?” What would you say if I said your dad? she thought. She sat hunched on top of the toilet seat, staring at her foster mother’s pink ducky soaps in their seashell dishes on the sink counter and remembering those horny freaks on the bus. What would it feel like to be one of the girly girls at school—the ones who would never have to question a boy’s motives? She went back down to her room. As she walked in, she saw him sitting on the edge of the bed with his back to her, crouching over something in his lap. She cleared her throat, and his head popped up, half turned to her. The thing that had been in his lap slid to the floor. As she came closer, she saw that it was one of her cast halves. By now, they were the only possessions she still carried around from her old life. Whenever she moved into a foster home, she stowed them under the bed. After he was gone, she sat for a long time with the cast fragment in her lap, reading it over and over, as if it were a love letter. She hadn’t really looked at it in years. What lengths she’d gone to! It was covered in inscriptions: not a square inch of white space was visible. Could it really be she who had taken such pains with six different colors of marker, drawn daisies and bumblebees and sunflowers—a few of them almost as skillfully done as a botany text illustration, others mere stick figures, in order to give the impression of a gallery of different well-wishers? She had no memory of having done this work—had she completed it all at once or over a period of days? She read the quotes as if they’d hold a clue: “Pooh Bear--Get well soon—XXOO, Tigger.” “When this comes off hoist a Jager for me babe—Kisses, Josh.” “Will U ever 4give me?—Randy.” “From the soprano section—Alyssa, Amy T., Amy M., Julie, Steffi, Karalynn: Get Well Soon Sweetie!!!” “To My Sis: In Memoriam 1982, the Year of Our Rebirth.” She traced with a fingertip the calligraphic flourishes of that last message. 1982: the year of her rebirth. It was the kind of thing melodramatic adolescents with a “literary bent” might write to each other. That must be why she had written it. She couldn’t remember. She knew she had never planned to leave her parents’ house. She had followed the promptings of a whim—was that what it had been? A whim? At her next meeting with Andrew, he started, off, alarmingly, by asking if she had any questions about intimacy. He wasn’t trying to make her uncomfortable, he explained. She should stop him if he was. But this was a topic they’d never discussed, and it seemed important to him that they do so. Did she have any worries, anxieties? Many girls her age did. She told him she didn’t and that, furthermore, she had signed the chastity pledge, like a lot of other kids at the high school. He passed right over this, almost as if he knew it was a lie. Did they even have the chastity pledge at this school? She tried to remember, treading water. She’d been so many different places. Suddenly they did all seem different, and she tried, foggily, to recall each one by year. But her heart was pounding, and it wasn’t only nerves. Some new and thrilling tension was insisting its presence in the pleasant little room with its soundproofed walls. She could see it in him; he was nervous! She could tell by the way he stared at her so intently. Usually he fidgeted more, leaned forward and back, slitted his eyes, nodded, smiled—in a word, conversed with her. Enjoyed her company. But now he sat straight, hands folded on his knee. The good doctor. “Sometimes even a kiss can feel like too much to commit to,” he was saying. Or something to that effect. All she’d mainly heard was kiss. He never used the word sexuality, like most shrinks did. What he said was kiss, with his slight lisp. The sound of it made her instantly go damp. She nodded—mm—and then she did something she had never done before with him: got up and started walking around. It was a power move she’d sometimes used with other shrinks. His eyes had to follow her as she roamed his sparsely furnished, book-crammed, shaded office. Except for a halogen lamp on the corner of his desk, the only light coming in was from the screenless window in the far wall with its old-fashioned wooden sash, raised now to the late-spring air. She liked his eyes following her. It told her she existed. What she did mattered. She walked to the window—later, she would swear, it had been just to get air—lifted the sash further, and leaned back. His office was on the second floor. “What are you doing?” he asked her. He’d had to turn around completely now, in his wooden office chair, to face her. “I don’t know,” she laughed, “I don’t know!” She leaned back, into the sunshine. Later, replaying it, she would feel sure she hadn’t been leaning that far back. She hadn’t been daring him. He’d wanted to protect her. There was something in him after all those months, some feeling for her. He’d told her to come away from the window, and when she hadn’t, he’d stood up and moved towards her, his head cocked flirtatiously on one side. Come on now, Georgia. He said it in a whisper. He came close to her—much closer than he needed to. He must have seen by then what she was doing—that, by then, she was daring him. When he was so close the tops of his shoes were practically touching hers, she reached up and hugged him. She would never be sorry she had hugged him. The only way to hold a man is in your arms. Well, she was holding him, this man. Her man. No male model, but neither a bus-seat freak: an older man, but not too old for her; a man who had known loss and disappointment, who was too intelligent for his job but did it honorably anyway. This was no crush. She loved him. She reached to pull him closer, and she crammed her nose into his neck, and the skin there was so warm and firm and smelled like sprucey aftershave, and she hadn’t been really awash in that smell since the hiking trips with her father twenty years before. So she kept her nose there, and her mouth, imprinting them there upon his neck. In a way, yes, you could call it a kiss. Less than a week later, her life as she’d known it ended for the second time in the spring of her high-school junior year. Someone had blown a whistle. It was tempting to think it had been Richie somehow, his discovery of her cast—but that was probably a stretch. In any event, the authorities had done their digging, and they found the Texas police records and fingerprints from 1982 and called her in to match them up. In May 1996 she was arrested and charged with defrauding the public school district and state-run child welfare services. She understood the charges, but only with a concentrated effort of will. They seemed to apply to a con artist, someone with a cunning and an aptitude for malice she had never had. Since when had anyone been so threatened by the doings of a lone young woman, destitute and plain? But she had lived long enough in the world to know the fruitlessness of insisting on an answer to such questions. So, in representing herself at trial, she stuck to practical arguments. Had the story of herself as Georgia Henley ever hurt anyone? Of course, it had not. Had her story of herself as Georgia Henley ever suffered from an inconsistency? Of course, it had not. It wouldn’t win her case, but she had her pride to fight for, not just her freedom—and her pride, finally, was even more important. She’d been found competent to stand trial, and it pained her more to hear herself called unstable than to hear herself called a fraud. Whenever anyone on the prosecutor’s side used the phrase mental state, she heard crazy. She heard repressed hysteric. Arrested development. Sexually frustrated. “Shit, girl, just trying to be friendly!” She heard fat cow. On the trial’s third morning, Andrew took the stand to testify that although her grip on reality was clinically sound, she did suffer from a borderline personality disorder marked by tendencies toward grandiosity and narcissistic delusion, as well as social anxiety so extreme as to approach full-blown paranoia. That night, lying face down on her cot, she called up over and over the memory of him on the stand—the flour-dust blinking, the reluctant smile—and the way his eyes had swept her face with no expression while he labeled her an isolated soul, a lost girl, someone to be pitied. She didn’t even reach the level of interesting specimen. She faced the memory down by calling it up, marshaling every detail of light and sound and facial tic. It was the only way she knew to handle sorrow: to burrow to the core of it, make it a host. She cried herself to sleep, the only time in her life she’d actually done that—although she’d never (ask any of her shelter roommates) been a slouch in the nighttime-tears department. Her sentence ended New Year’s Day, 2000. While in prison, she studied law and wrote a novelistic memoir of her life on the road. And then what happened? Did she publish her memoir, leave the road life, find her true love—the good man who would understand her? To at least one of those questions a definitive yes was possible: after one last ride, Georgia left the road. On the bus taking her away from the place where she’d been in prison, she met a woman a few years younger than she. This girl was a tomboy like the one Georgia had dreamed up in that essay, an overgrown wild child who, Georgia would discover, didn’t mind Georgia making up stories about her. She was used to it, in fact, used to enchanting and bewildering everyone she met. After they moved in together, this girlfriend would disappear from time to time, leave for hours or days on end and make Georgia worry the way she never knew that her parents and so many of her fosters and teachers worried about her. Here is Georgia now, sitting at a bus-station burger stand, waiting for her girlfriend to return from her latest half-planned escapade. She still looks younger than her real years, Georgia, and she dresses the same as she always did: flannel shirts, Army surplus jackets. Her coppery hair is short now, though. She sits writing in a notepad, an overgrown Harriet the Spy. Here comes the girlfriend—late twenties, ripped jeans, hair long and ragged and strawberry-blond. She’s got a junkie’s thinness, hipless as a boy, and grainy skin, acne scars. She’s not as beautiful as the heroine of Georgia’s essay, but her gray eyes in the prematurely haggard face hold you anyway with their hooded glitter. She’s the kind of person who when she walks into a room takes away some of the available light, turns it down to a sulfurous gleam. She sees Georgia, who’s standing now at her plastic table on the other side of the glass. “Oh, fuck,” sighs the girlfriend, but she stops, lets her duffel bag slide to the floor, and waits for Georgia to come into the corridor, pick up the bag, clap an arm around her shoulders, and steer her out to the waiting cabs. As they go, the girlfriend keeps shaking her head while Georgia’s armlock grows ever tighter. No one pays them much attention: two raggedy young women outside a Greyhound station on a misty afternoon in a small Northwestern town. When they get home to their apartment, Georgia will make tea, and the girlfriend will whisper on the phone to one of her mysterious contacts, and then they might watch videos or nap to music. They won’t talk much; they never have. Talking leads to apologies, recriminations, lies. At least that’s what this one woman, Georgia, believes she’s learned in her life to date. She saves her stories now for paper: printed text that meets the eyes of no one else, and therefore cannot do her any harm.
CARA DIACONOFF is the author of Unmarriageable Daughters: Stories (Lewis-Clark Press) and two novels, I’ll Be a Stranger to You and Marian Hall, currently seeking publishers. Her stories have appeared in Indiana Review, Other Voices, and South Dakota Review, among others. She lives near Seattle.