The pomp with the primered Ranchero dropped three stacks of jackrags in the alley behind Elmo’s Adult Books and rang the bell. This happened every other Saturday afternoon. Sometimes the pomp waited for old Elmo to waddle back, sometimes he’d drive off before the fat fuck unlocked the back door. It was one of the times the pomp drove off first. Tess stood lookout, and I dashed from our side of the alley, snatched a bundle, and got back under cover with seconds to spare. Then it was off to Fort Oxenfree, leaving Elmo a little poorer.
We moved as silently and swiftly as Indian scouts toward Fort Oxenfree. The alley ran about a mile and bisected Callow Avenue and Wyckoff Street. The Wyckoff side of the alley lay at the foot of Torqwamni Hill, and stood twenty to twenty-five feet higher than Elmo’s and the other trashy businesses along Callow. It was a verdant bluff choked with brambles, weeds, struggling dogwoods, ivy, and switchgrass so riotously out of hand that it topped six feet in some places. Tess and I had created a secret world in the bluff, and as we made our way through the paths we had previously formed in the foliage, our feet automatically adjusted to the varying slant of the ground as though we were biped mountain goats.
Fort Oxenfree lay about a hundred and fifty yards south of Elmo’s, directly behind the White Pig Tavern. This meant we had to cross “the gorge,” which was the only relatively bald spot on our route, yet it was partially concealed by a peeling madrone which grew sideways and at a weird angle out of the bluff. Tess deftly crossed the short chasm, which stood over a good ten foot drop, by using the exposed roots of a hemlock for handholds. I hurled the bundle across the gorge, she stopped it with her foot and I crossed even more quickly than she had.
A noisome swirl of portly bluebottles greeted us upon our arrival at “Fort O.” They were attracted by a recent explosion in a flat of Shasta tiki punch, which Tess had left in the sun. It was getting to be late summer; soon there’d be yellowjackets.
“Your pets missed you, Tess.”
“Hardee har har, Sara.”
We had selected the site for Fort O because you’d need a Sherpa to find it. It was a wildly overgrown flat spot we’d knocked down to about the size of a jail cell. It lay at the highest point in the bluff, atop an old stone wall gone over to blackberries and feral primroses. The front and the far side of Fort O were protected by a very long and sticker-bush laden fall to the concrete below. Entry from the bluff required a five foot climb up the side of the stone wall and through a trapdoor that Tess had made sticks and switchgrass. No friendly way in from behind, either. The alley side of Wyckoff Street was mostly a redundant series of vacant lots overwhelmed by Scotch broom, discarded washing machines and tires–as well as a seemingly sentient network of hiding, grabby ground brambles that would wrap around your ankles if you forgot to lift your feet, and goddamn stinging nettles that raised such hell with your skin that you never overlooked them twice. The Jesus of that kind of vacant lot lay behind Fort Oxenfree. It was such a shitty and hazardous little hellfield that not even the stew bums dared to flop in it.
I dropped the bundle and heard the typical Saturday afternoon din of the Pig below. Our vantage point behind a wall of switchgrass placed us about sixty feet away and twenty-five above the Pig. As always, drunken pomps bellowed and roared, and their pig-like women squealed and roared–all of it accompanied by the unsatisfying twunk of misstruck cue balls and a steady flow of C&W music coming from the jukebox.
Tess sang along in her sweet little girl voice:
“I turned twenty-one in prison, Doin’ life without parole-- No one could ever steer me, But Mama tried, Mama tried…”
We’d hit Elmo’s in preparation for the upcoming school year. Boys at Charleston Elementary changed into sick perverts at the age of ten. (Funny how they never mentioned that on Leave it to fucking Beaver.) It was like some kind of alarm went off in their pants. Dirty pictures sold well and for a good price in the playground; Elmo’s wares were as disgusting as it got.
“Looky here,” Tess said, showing me the latest issue of Sweet Cocksucker, after we opened the bundle. “Must be a fiver here for sure.”
“Let’s bag ‘em for now,” I said. Which was exactly what we did. We wrapped them in polyurethane and packing tape, then placed the waterproofed booty inside the cache. Although Fort O was nothing special, the three-by-three square cache hole was. We’d dug it out that spring and reinforced it with planks, and waterproofed it with the same never ending roll of polyurethane we had boosted from behind Minder’s Meats.
What made the cache special was the cover Tess had connived from discarded bamboo and endless blades of switchgrass. There wasn’t as much as a screw or a nail in it. Using what she found lying around, she’d somehow created a dead match with the ground, as she had with the trapdoor. She’d also designed a system of “drapes” in the grass wall between us and the alley, which involved pulling strings to get and keep a view of the alley instead of using your hands, but wouldn’t open so wide as to blow our cover. Just a month shy of ten, Tess had already long displayed superior artistic and mechanical talents–Not that any of it mattered to the fossilized fuckheads who ran the Torqwamni County school system. Girls who made the mistake of getting born around 1960 and before had yet to experience much in the way of Women’s Liberation. If you raised your hand with the answer you wouldn’t be picked until at least three boys had gone down in flames first.
Tess opened a can of tiki punch that had been properly stored (It had to be piss warm, at best; my stomach ached at the thought of it). She saved the ring top in a baggie with many others. Years later she gave me a stunning hippy art Statue of Liberty created from a thousand or more ring tabs. She’d painted each of them an outrageous color, and had meticulously looped them together over the course of hundreds of hours. Told me it was Janis Joplin singing into the torch. People offer me money for it all the time. I always say no.
Fort O faced east, which allowed us to luxuriate in the afternoon shade cast by Torqwamni Hill, listless from our labor and the heat, shooing bluebottles. Tess drank that stomach-turning tiki punch, sang along with the juke, and kept sneaking peeks at the Pig through the drapes because she found entertainment in the frequent sight of a pomp taking a piss behind the joint. I began to fiddle with the slingshot I had reluctantly accepted in trade for a copy of Juggs during our End of School Sale.
At age eleven my mind was a shark always fleeing one darkness to another in terror of a greater darkness rapidly closing from behind. My first period the following winter proved the metaphor and effectively put an end to my so-called childhood. After that, the finite pockets of anxiety and guilt I’d sometimes come across and escape as a child Big Banged into a homogenous state of unhappiness which nothing could soothe until I discovered the miracle of marijuana at college.
Yet at any age there come times when symbols must take prosaic shapes and drop their masks and show themselves as the identifiable demons that they are. Guilt had always been a foreign word to me until those strange months preceding the early rise of my menstrual cycle. And whenever things got quiet and I had no choice but to think, I’d feel horrible about the poor example I was setting for my talented little sister, and try to think of some way to set things right.
You see, every last fucking thing–from the dirty magazines right on to the can of tiki punch Tess was drinking was stolen. I’ll spare you the complete inventory, but if something could be boosted from a loading dock or a car in our little realm, we had it up there at Fort Oxenfree. And shoplifting was so easy. We’d dress up nice and go into a store downtown (never shit in your own yard), and while Tess charmed the clerk, I’d get after everything that wasn’t nailed down and shove it in my pockets and underwear. Then we’d buy some stuff to make it look good. Alas, even the slingshot had been paid for with stolen titties. Only the incredibly gross 14-inch dildo that somehow oozed out of Elmo’s and just lay there in the alley had been gained in an honest finders-keepers sort of way. (I eventually tossed that beaut through the open window of our Principal’s car that September and then hid in the bushes for the payoff.)
If discovered and linked to us, the contents of the cache probably meant two tickets to the Mission Hill Academy for Girls (where I eventually pulled a Prolixin-addled stretch at fifteen, after I’d punched two teeth out of my gym teacher’s face). My guilt figured that I had it coming, but since none of it had been Tess’s idea, and since I was supposed to protect her, I’d better do something to protect her.
“If we ever get busted, you don’t know shit about the stuff in the hole.”
“Half’s mine, Sara.”
“I’m not sayin’ it ain’t,” I said. “I’m just sayin’ if Mom or the cops or some other fucker we can’t do nuthin’ bout comes round and has a look in the hole, then there’s hell to pay. Just act like you know nuthin’ ‘bout it. Lemme do the talking. Don’t be such a molecule.”
Tess got shitty about being called a molecule. She handled the situation by cramming at least six Bazooka Joe’s in her mouth and sucked on them until they got soft enough to chew. That was her way of making certain she could give me the silent treatment. Pink drool dribbled down her chin.
I sighed. So much for the high road. Anyway, it must’ve sounded pretty cheap coming from me. Despite my gender, I was one of the toughest kids at a tough school–tall, strong and as unnecessarily violent as I needed to be. Some called me “Psycho” behind my back, but I didn’t discourage it because it added weight to the “Tell and I’ll kill you” I dispensed at the end of every porn transaction.
Tess never stayed mad at me long. Even when the years came that saw me extract her from one shithole or another and drag her to rehab for the who-the-fuck-knows-how-manyieth time, she’d be quick to forgive me. I’d strong-arm her strung-out ass to the car and she’d be screaming just how much she hated my faggot guts, and that for a hummer she could have my dyke cunt raped and murdered. Then she’d cry like that girl in the Jane’s Addiction song who “can’t hit ” and beg me to hold her. I eventually realized that that seeming conclusion was really when the hell of it all would start over again, like a circle. “It’s gonna be different this time, you’ll see,” she’d say, and “I know, baby, I know,” I’d say, even though both of us goddamn well knew that every time she’d trace back to it as though it were a bad boyfriend who wouldn’t stop until he killed her.
Tess casually punched my shoulder and motioned toward the Pig. “Mamz gotta boythfren,” she slurred with a little laugh through the gum and the spit.
So she had. A fucking pomp. Figures. We hadn’t seen Mom since she’d left for work the day before. That too began a circle. It would have been unusual if we had seen her, other than incidentally, anytime between Friday morning and Sunday afternoon–when her far from contrite, yellowed ghost would be dumped off home and retreat to the bedroom and not come out again until morning. It was the main pattern that shaped the weeks of the two years we lived across the street from the derelict lots on Wyckoff, in the basement of a droopy old house that had been divided into tenement apartments. We never spoke of this; we never worried about it; we never thought it was in any way unusual. Mom would pack an overnight bag after work Thursday and lay money under the toaster on Friday–utterly ignorant of the small fortune we had stashed beneath a dummy floorboard in our room, which too had been designed by Tess.
Mom’s “boyfriend” was a typical pomp. Maybe thirty, he was jangly and trashy and as relentlessly marked-up and ugly as that creep Richard Speck, who had killed all those Filipino nurses in Chicago a few years prior (fuck Manson; that delegating, white trash Swengali pipsqueak was like H.R. Puffinstuff compared to Speck).
Stylewise, 1970 would arrive in our bitter little town in 1980, for whatever Charleston was always ten years behind. And such reflected in the pomps, who wore their brylcreemed hair up and back, in a futile effort to resemble Johnny Cash or Merle Haggard, as they had been during the JFK era. Pomps were perpetually skinny with pointy noses and sharp cheekbones that contrarily conveyed an overall dullness of mind. Typically brush pickers or day laborers, pomps usually married morbidly obese women on welfare, who had litters of halfwits that had been fathered by other pomps.
And though our parted drapes in the switchgrass there Mom was with a pomp. Both of their faces were red with beer, and they were wobbling toward a miserable-looking beige rambler in the parking lot, whose passenger’s door was green and had a swatch of polyurethane instead of a window.
Tess nearly swallowed her gum when they stopped to tongue kiss and the pomp cupped Mom’s ass then a tit, and she his crotch in return. I had to hammer Tess on the back good and hard. “Jeez, Sara,” she gasped and laughed, absently throwing her cud into the bushes, “Mom’s a tramp.”
“It’s like one of Elmo’s books,” I said, also laughing.
Then another guilt, subtle in form, but recognizable when unmasked, revealed itself in my mind.
I’ll make you pay for making us expect nothing better from you, embarrassing bitch.
I felt around and opened the cache and pulled out a handful of marbles. We had maybe five-hundred in a Folgers can. Shooting marbles had been the fad of choice at school that spring. Like the yo-yo, the game had always been around, but once in a great while an unnatural interest in the mundane would come back round like the measles. The stores sold marbles for a quarter a bag. We got our bags for nothing and sold them for dime. The fad had burned out before we could unload our inventory, since then I’d been using them for target practice with the slingshot.
I’m left handed. God knows why, but we lefties come equipped with a natural hook that doesn’t happen for righties. Mainly, you see it in bowling and curveballs. It also comes out in slingshots, at least it did for me. And after a few weeks’ practice with the slingshot I got real good at judging my hook when it came to shooting marbles. I could clip pine cones off branches from half a block.
It would be a nothing shot. No sweat. I placed a peerie in the sling, rose to my knees, mentally adjusted for the curve and took aim at Mom’s face, which was still attached to the pomp’s at the tongue, but was at a twenty degree angle to the back of his head.
Tess always knew what I was up to, and, lucky for Mom, she was the only person who could “steer me”–or so went the song. She placed her hand on mine and gently pushed down. I glared at her in anger, and I swear she spoke to me from tomorrow. “Don’t. Ain’t her fault.”
The Pig’s back screen door burst open and a huge bearded man popped out and bellowed “Hey, Roy! I got somethin’ you can borrow.”
The man unzipped and flopped out his penis; waved it up and down, to and fro.
Mom and the pomp roared. A plump blond with a hell out of date flip hairdo, smoking a butt and carrying a bottle of Olympia came out to see what the hell was going on; she made as if to put her cigarette on his dick.
Tess was shaking with soundless chuffing laughter. She had sucked in so much air that I couldn’t see how she didn’t burst. Somehow, she was together enough to glance pleadingly at the slingshot.
“Yeah,” I laughed, trying to steady my aim. “It’s easy.”