by Amy Silverberg
Amy Silverberg is a writer and comedian based in Los Angeles. She’s currently a doctoral fellow in fiction at the University of Southern California, where she teaches. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Southern Review, TriQuarterly, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Hobart, The Collagist, and Best American Short Stories. Members of the Texas Review staff interviewed her about her story “Desert Town,” which appears in our fall/winter 2017 issue and is reprinted below the interview.
TR staff interviewers: Laura Brackin, Savanah Burns, Cora Davis, Anne Galloway, Ashley Kulhanek, Roonama Noori, Stephanie Savell, and Kathryn Ulrich.
TR: Beginnings and endings are particularly hard, especially in short fiction. The opening lines of “Desert Town” set the tone of the story very quickly: “For a while, I lived in a tiny, hell-hot border town in between Arizona and New Mexico. This was the summer everyone worried about me.” That second sentence in particular characterizes the central character and gives the reader an immediate sense of urgency. Is this a sentence that you spent a lot of time on, or did it simply come to you? How did you rework this opening as you drafted? The final sentence really stands out as well: “‘Mothers never stop worrying,’ the woman said, behind me. ‘We can’t help it.’” How much tweaking went into it? How much went into the final scene?
AS: I think I had that line “this was the summer everyone worried about me” in my head for a while—I might have heard it somewhere, I’m not sure. I do keep a notebook with me, like many writers do, to record writerly-type observations or bits of dialogue I pick up in the world, and I had that sentence in there for a long time. I do think it says a lot about a narrator, that even if she’s not worried about herself, everybody else is. It set up a kind of contradiction I wanted to explore. As far as the ending goes, endings are always difficult for me. I tried to do what I normally do when I’m stuck on an ending, which is to write through it (way past it), and then cut it back down and try to find that sweet spot. I’m still not sure I did! I do think I got as close as I could at the time I was writing this story.
TR: The title of the story brings to mind aspects of Laura’s character, as well as ideas of transition (in both the characters’ lives, and also literally in how most people would just pass through the town) and isolation. How would you say the title plays into these concepts, or how was it important for your sense of the story?
AS: An earlier draft of this story had a truly terrible title: “Still Life in Sunset.” I mean I’m embarrassed to write that down, it’s so lame, but it was a reference to something in the story and I knew it was just a placeholder. I normally go for a title that’s a bit more specific, and I think “Desert Town” was my second placeholder, but after I kept that title long enough, I thought it made sense and fit the story better than any other title could. It’s a place of transition, yes, but also the name of the town is really not important—it’s the kind of town that exists in all kinds of places, maybe even inside all kinds of people.
TR: Unreliable narrators can make for such compelling stories. Can you tell us more about why Laura herself is an unreliable narrator? For instance, her reasons for claiming the boys are her own children at the fair. Also, was your decision to have an unreliable narrator related to the story’s boxed-in border town setting?
AS: I don’t know that I’d call her a classic unreliable narrator. A liar, yes, but I think of unreliable narrators as narrators who also lie to themselves. Laura’s pretty self-aware; she has a pretty good handle on who she is and all the ways that she’s created (and still creates) problems for herself. Even though she’s dishonest with other people, I don’t think she’s dishonest with herself. Then again, I don’t always know when my narrators are unreliable—I only know that I like writing narrators that view the world in a strange way, a little off-kilter, who have their own set of values that might not be “good,” but are at least compelling and specific.
TR: The three main characters in “Desert Town”—Laura, Ellis, and Vincent—are seemingly very different from each other with regard to age, experience, and emotional state. What brought these characters together for you?
AS: I definitely didn’t set out to create characters that would fit into the story thematically, or that would be good matches or foils for Laura. I just tried to follow the voice of the narrator, and follow her through the world I was creating without judging what was happening too much (my writing strategy in general). I think Vincent and Ellis showed up based on everything I’d written up to their entrances, like Laura’s penchant for smoking weed and her date with Ellis’s father. Then I just went with it.
TR: One seamless quality to your writing is that you handle dialogue and speech in a very natural way. For example, the exchange between Laura and Ellis when she learns that he and his father have been chasing his sister who ran away, and Laura asks, “Your dad just took you out of school . . . Brought you on some wild goose chase?” and the boy’s response is, “What’s a wild goose chase?” Do you have an ear for natural dialogue, or was there a specific process for fleshing out your characters’ voices?
AS: Well, first of all, thanks for the compliment! I think I’m just particularly interested in dialogue and voice—the way people actually talk to each other, and what they actually mean despite what they’ve said. It’s something I notice in my daily life—I try to write down what people say to each other all the time. I believe every writer has certain elements in fiction they focus on, or that preoccupy them more than others, and mine is definitely dialogue. Sometimes I’ll forget to even include setting! I have to go back and lay it in; it’s so not in the forefront of my mind.
TR: For a character that the reader never sees or hears, Lainie is given quite a bit of attention, as Laura identifies with and relates to her so easily and demonstrates her indecisiveness when thinking about her. How did you see Lainie working in this story?
AS: In retrospect, I realized pretty quickly that Laura was a very solitary, isolated narrator, and if she was going to navigate the first half of the story alone, she needed to talk to someone—she needed someone to react to her. Also, I wanted to show her connection to her previous life, and make it clear that she hadn’t always lived this way. People were worried about her, after all.
For a while, I lived in a tiny, hell-hot border town in between Arizona and New Mexico. This was the summer everyone worried about me. It was a strange place to live, with so many people passing through, stopping briefly and meanly with their flat tires and steaming, overheated engines. They’d stand in the shade of their opened car hoods, demanding assistance. When you finally came to their aid, they’d watch sadly while you changed their tires, like you didn’t even know how bad you had it. Poor thing, they’d think, there’s a whole world outside. But the town wasn’t all bad. It felt like a box, half opened. If you stayed long enough, you might think it was cozy.
I told my friends and family I’d moved for a job teaching at the local high school, but I was only editing textbooks. I was approaching forty, and time had scattered and married off all of my old friends and ex-lovers. It made sense to me to be among other people’s old friends and ex-lovers. And anyway, I worked from home—it didn’t matter where I lived. I specialized in biology and chemistry, though I’d always received poor grades in science. I just had an expansive vocabulary I rarely used out loud. Occasionally, I wrote poetry, but nobody understood it. Not even me.
One Sunday, I called my best friend, Suzy, and told her I was thinking of making movies.
“How do you plan on doing that?” she asked. I was walking down the aisles of the town’s 7-Eleven, the fluorescent light shouting its reflection up from the polished floor.
“How does anyone do it?” I asked. “You just buy a camera. You make up your mind and you point it at things.”
“Make up your mind? You’ve never been very good at that,” she said, and I hung up on her.
When I tired of poetry, I would call my old friends and try to talk to them about my life. Not Suzy, because she always gave me trouble. When they didn’t answer, I called my mother. The town had a lot of open porches, and in the summer, it was too hot for anyone to come out of their houses and shoo you away. It was too hot for most everything.
“The thing is,” I said to her, “I have so many feelings. I feel heavy, you know, weighed down.” With the phone tucked under my chin, I twisted my hands together, as though I were wringing myself out. Across the street, a group of Mexican kids blared hip-hop music from their low rider—a dented red boat of a car I figured they would never fix up. I felt unusually sad about that. “Mother, I am overflowing with feelings,” I said, over the noise. “I’m practically drowning.”
“No you’re not,” she said.
“I’m approaching menopause.”
“Get some exercise,” she said. “Menopause is a ways off.”
“It’s too hot.”
“Take a swim,” she said, and I set the phone down on the porch. What did she know? She’d welcomed menopause with a newfound bridge club. She bought magnets with pithy sayings about chocolate and red wine. Right now, she was probably sitting at home on her sofa, waiting for me to finish talking, studying her paused television. Or maybe she had a whole fascinating life she didn’t want me stepping on. She lived in a condo in California, and when her second husband died, she would tell anyone who asked, “I still feel him in the water.” It was only later I realized she’d dumped his ashes in the Pacific without telling anyone.
I lifted the phone again. “Life is just too long,” I said.
“What’s with you?” she said. “Are you on drugs?”
“No!” I shouted. “I’m a teacher, for God’s sake.”
The thing is, I did do drugs occasionally. Mostly pot, which I scored from a Mexican kid with a pencil-sketched mustache, who stationed himself behind the 7-Eleven. At first, I pretended as though I’d found myself there by accident, or I was simply doing research, my nose held high, my voice dull and even. He never smiled, but nodded sagely, and after a while, I stopped noticing the Orion’s belt of acne scars across one of his bare shoulders, and I told him I only wanted the Grim Reaper, the strongest strain he had. “Don’t tell anyone,” I said. “I’m a pillar of this community,” I said.
“Listen lady,” he’d responded, “who am I gonna tell?” Once, I asked him if he’d ever read my textbooks. He said he didn’t know for sure, but probably not.
I spent a lot of time high, in my darkened room, the covers pulled up to my chin and the air conditioner rattling. I’d get the room so cold it goose-bumped every inch of exposed skin. I think it goes without saying: it hadn’t always been this way. I’d had a marriage once—a life. Not anymore.
Now, I found the misery of small town life and endless sun a big draw. I thought maybe it would teach me something about myself. In retrospect, I was tired and lonely, and looking for a place to reflect that. I wanted so many things I didn’t know how to ask for.
No, that’s not right. What I wanted was probably very simple, and therefore terrifying to ever ask for outright: a connection, I guess, a little bit of intimacy—I’d had it once, but I’d lost it somewhere. In the desert, there was a lot of open space. Love could easily hide there. It could come out from behind a gray, squat building and find you. What a place—I felt hidden in plain sight.
Later that same day, while I browsed the new mixed nut selection at 7-Eleven, my friend Suzy called again and told me her little sister was pregnant.
“What happened to her boyfriend?” I asked. I remembered he was also seventeen, but looked older, tan and tightly muscled. I’d seen his photo on Facebook and had felt a brief but embarrassing brand of arousal I thought I’d long since stashed away somewhere, on a very high shelf I could no longer reach.
“He disappeared. Couldn’t commit to raising a baby.”
“That’s a shame,” I said.
“He couldn’t make up his mind about anything,” Suzy said, and I hung up on her.
High noon, and the horizon wiggled in the heat. That week, I started doing errands for my downstairs neighbor, a middle-aged man with a young son. The man’s most remarkable characteristic was his complete lack of a chin—his mouth led right down to his neck. He always offered to pay me for the odd jobs, but I usually refused. It felt good to be useful, and often while being useful, I hid in the shade to smoke pot, so it felt doubly good.
While I weeded in the front yard, the single, chinless father approached me for a talk. Dog posed on my hands and knees, I noticed his shadow falling across the dry dirt in front of me, and my heart banged in my throat. I assumed he was going to ask if I was on drugs.
“Laura,” he said, “can I ask you something?” My thoughts flitted away like scared, stoned birds.
“Sure,” I said, sitting up to face him. We were in the thick grip of summer, and I could feel my scalp sweating. I smelled my own tropical scented deodorant.
“Do you think you can watch Ellis for a few days?” he asked. Ellis was his son. He was smiley and well behaved and hypoglycemic. As far as children went, I liked him.
“Okay,” I said, because the other stoned bird thoughts were up in some tree, and this desert town had no trees.
Plus, there had been a moment with the chinless father a few weeks prior, and I still felt I owed him something. He’d taken me to dinner at the one and only sit-down Italian restaurant in town. He’d worn a sport coat and combed gel into his hair. When he picked me up, I hadn’t even smoked anything. But when our second glasses of Chianti arrived, he asked too many questions. I felt on edge, accused of something. The truth was, he probably only wanted to talk about himself and was just starting the conversation on me to be polite. I was out of practice. I forgot how these things went—the volleying of questions, the way a too-tight sport coat looked on a first date. I spent too much time alone—any prolonged question-asking became an inquisition. I excused myself and lit up in the narrow alley behind the building. When I came back, he said he felt tired, and I agreed. I was tired.
“So, Ellis,” I said, the two of us sitting on his father’s porch. “What should we do today?” Ellis had a porch, and I, who lived above him, only had a metal step, which led to other metal steps and finally down to dirt. The injustice of this I still feel today.
“Let’s go to the fair,” he said. “Nights are free at the fair.”
“It’s a few hours away,” I told him.
Ellis had a pale complexion, and the wispy, swept-back hair of an aging man. “We have time,” he said.
“How old are you?” I asked.
“Nine,” he said. “How old are you?”
“Never mind,” I said. “Let’s go.”
Ellis was right about having the time. In the desert, time crawled across the sand and often stilled, dazed, like a sun-bathing lizard. It felt like a trick, the way the hours seemed to lengthen. But it wasn’t all bad. In the car with Ellis, the sky was silky pink and beautiful. Sunsets gave the whole scene—the whole town—a new meaning, made me feel part of something profound and underestimated. Once, I wrote a poem called “Still Life in Sunset,” but nobody understood it, not even me.
We drove down the town’s wide, black streets, named after semiprecious stones. On Garnet, Ellis started waving at a Mexican kid spinning donuts on a scooter and insisted I pull over.
“Hey, Vincent,” Ellis shouted. In my ear, he said, “That’s Vincent. He babysits me sometimes.”
It took me a while to recognize Vincent, the way you hear your mother’s name and can’t immediately place it, because you only ever call her Mom. Vincent had bare, sun-darkened shoulders and a pencil sketched mustache. Occasionally, Vincent sold me pot.
Through Ellis’s window, Vincent said, “Hey lady,” and looked quickly away, his face sheepish. He nodded at Ellis. “Where you going?”
“To the fair,” Ellis said. “Wanna come?”
Vincent looked at his watchless wrist and shrugged. Then he looked over at me, in a way I could only describe as hopeful, and I said, “Yeah, Vincent, come.” He wore a white tank top and long black shorts that draped over his knees. His Adam’s apple bulged, looking very pronounced. He seemed very young just then.
“That cool?” he asked, and I revved the engine in response, though I drove an old Honda, so it hardly revved.
We left the town behind, a scattering of squat buildings in the rearview mirror. Under the cool pink-orange sky, it could have been any desert postcard from so far away. The town only seemed gray and grease-stained up close.
“All the houses look like turtle shells,” Ellis said, and I agreed.
We drove through Joshua trees and stillness, the yellow headlights extending through the dark and into more darkness beyond that. Nobody spoke for a while, and it was so quiet I forgot myself, forgot my own presence in the car. Finally, Vincent said, “Your dad went to find Lainie, I guess.”
“Who’s Lainie?” I asked.
“My sister,” Ellis said. He had an expression like this should have been obvious. Kids think everyone should know the intimate details of their lives.
“I didn’t know you had a sister,” I said.
“We followed her here. But then she left again,” he said, “and we stayed.”
“Your dad’s a good man,” Vincent said. “He’d follow that girl into any shit hole and try to pull her out.”
“Where does Lainie live now?” I asked.
“Somewhere else hot. In New Mexico, I think. We’re from Utah,” he said. “We’ll go back once we get her.”
“Your dad just took you out of school?” I asked. “Brought you on some wild goose chase?”
“What’s a wild goose chase?”
“He’s a good man,” Vincent said, and I shut up about it. I hadn’t taken Ellis’s dad for the type of man who would hunt for someone, chase down his daughter, pick up his life and drop it off somewhere new. Watering his plants with a mild expression, his hand smoothing over his bald spot, he seemed more like a man who would shrug his shoulders and accept the way things turned out. Maybe he was just thoughtful—the quiet, serious type. I wished I’d paid more attention. The world is full of people getting you wrong, mistaking weaknesses for strengths and strengths for weaknesses.
The car went quiet again, except for the rattling of Vincent’s scooter in the trunk. Ellis rolled the window down, and the hot wind whistled through the car and stung the rims of my ears until I gestured for him to roll it up again. The sky was low and bruised. A big-rig rumbled by and Ellis waved.
“Do you hear from her often?” I asked. “Your sister?”
“Sometimes,” he said. “But she’s usually upset. It’s hard to understand her.”
I wondered about Ellis’s sister, what she was chasing, or running from, if a man was involved. I hoped it was more complicated—she’d become enmeshed in a drug-mule-trafficking scheme, or she’d had a nervous breakdown and started hearing voices. But then I looked over at Ellis, rubbing the length of his face with a palm, looking like he’d just finished a full day in a factory handling heavy machinery. I hoped his sister’s problem was as simple as a broken heart or a bad investment. Of course, those things had a way of doubling back and complicating themselves, like a snake swallowing its tail. Maybe she was just taking some time out—getting her head straight, as my mother used to say. Whatever she was doing, she must have known everyone was worried. In my experience, life meant doing the wrong thing despite everything you knew.
“I always wanted a sister,” I said, after a while.
“I got four, and they’re all crazy,” said Vincent, from the back seat. “You can have one.”
I thought of my friend Suzy, of her little sister, her stomach growing full and heavy with another life. I remembered when Suzy’s little sister was born, by accident, and Suzy was old enough to be her teenage mother. Even more clearly, I remembered when Suzy’s sister was a toddler, and we’d tied her on a leash and dragged her around. It wasn’t as bad as it sounds. In the home videos, she’s smiling.
The more I thought about it, the more I would have liked to become pregnant so young—it provided aneat, easy solution for all of your future failures and disappointments. “Well, you know,” you could later say, “I would have gone to business school, but I had a kid so early.” And everyone would feel pity for the sad, unavoidable shape your life had taken. “She made that one mistake,” people would say. “She had that one night with the flickering candles and the lying, no-good-son-of-a-bitch who told her he loved her.”
That happens to girls when they are young and know no better. Sometimes, it happens to women when they are old and should know better.
Having a child would ease a lot of life’s pressure, which weighs heavier and heavier each passing year, until you move to a tiny, armpit desert town and think of no one and nothing but your shiny square of freedom. I thought about that as we drove, how free I was—free, free, free—like a thoughtless, stoned bird.
When we stopped at a gas station, I called Suzy. “I’m sorry to hear about your sister,” I said. “And I’m sorry I keep hanging up on you.” I was leaning against the pump, waving at more truckers as they passed. “I bet it won’t be so bad for her.”
“Yeah,” she said, “you’re probably right.” I heard the soles of her sneakers echoing against linoleum, meaning she was at work. “What are you doing?” she asked, a little breathless. Suzy was a nurse, which she’d always planned on, ever since we were kids. I think Suzy is a good nurse name. It is simple and kind, like a Cabbage Patch doll chosen by a child.
“I’m going to the fair,” I said.
“Where is it?”
“In the desert.”
“Who with? A date?”
“Some kids,” I said.
“Don’t make me hang up on you again.”
“Fine,” she said. “Do what you want.”
“You bet,” I said, but I sounded off-kilter, my voice too high.
“I’m worried about you,” Suzy said, before I hung up. Who isn’t, I thought, but I told her, “Don’t be.”
I stood by the gas pump after the tank was full, watching the boys in the car. Vincent was showing Ellis something on the screen of his cell phone, stretching up from the back seat where he perched on his knees. It was probably pornography. I thought about a lot of different things, standing there. I watched two more big-rigs pass, and I pictured the men inside. I felt the presence of my heart in my chest and I willed it to slow. Suddenly, I wanted to make a big decision—make a change in my life—but I’d never been very good at that. The last big decisions I’d made weren’t very good ones.
“Let’s go,” I said rapping on the car window. “It’s already eight.”
“How late you stay up nowadays?” Vincent asked Ellis, when we were back on the road.
I felt sorry I hadn’t asked. Ellis looked over at me and made a thoughtful face. “I can stay up late when there are special circumstances,” he said, and I ruffled his hair like he was my own flesh and blood—a little, aging man sprung from my own aging loins.
“You’ve eaten enough?” I asked, feeling proud I’d at least thought of that.
“Sure,” he said. “I eat whatever.” Vincent handed him a thick shred of beef jerky, the sweet, processed meat smell wafting through the car.
“Have some,” Vincent said to me, and I did.
Here’s what a desert fair looked like during the summer everyone worried about me: another expanse of sand and cacti and desert flowers, but covered by the grinding, colorful eyesores called carnival rides—the Tilt-a-Whirl and Backstabber, the Pirate Ship and Brain Thumper. There was an old wooden sign, but it had cracked in half, so it only read “—INGS FAIR,” and even those letters were faded. The people were mostly overweight, far too excited in their hooded sweatshirts and ill-fitting jeans. But who was I to judge? I had two children with me who weren’t my own, whom I barely knew. I was practically a kidnapper. In line, locals told me the fair had sprung up as though overnight, the rides and games they could see from their windows.I talked to an older couple, an oxygen tube attached to the woman’s nose. Her husband held the tank, which was covered in flowered fabric and had wheels, but he was careful not to drag it too quickly. That’s nice, I thought. That is almost romantic.
“We can’t sleep through the noise,” the woman said. When she lifted her arms, the flabby skin hung off and wobbled. “We figured we might as well join in,” she said. Scoops of shrieking laughter drifted over from the tilt-a-wheel.
“If you can’t beat them,” the man said, nodding. “So here we are.”
“That’s right,” said the woman, worrying her oxygen tube with her fingertips. She took a shallow breath. “So here we are.”
When it was my turn to pay, I said, “Three please.”
“If you’re this late, it’s free,” said the small, dark woman at the turnstile. She stamped each of our hands with the inky, blurred image of a dinosaur.
“Life is grand,” I said, studying my hand.
Once inside, the boys wanted to go on the upside-down rides, and I sat at a blue-painted picnic table and watched them. I ran my fingers along the wood, feeling around for splinters. I found no less than four, pressing the pads of my fingers into the wood as hard as I could before bursting the skin. I hadn’t always courted pain. In high school, Suzy spent a summer threatening to cut herself. I begged her not to, and she didn’t. Suzy was always dramatic, even then. Once, I’d been a voice of reason.
Ellis kept running back to the table and telling me about the last ride they’d been on—if he felt sick or elated—and I acted like he was telling me something new, even though I could often see him on the rides from where I sat, and his face always betrayed him. I held his box of gas station crackers and offered them whenever he appeared. Vincent followed a little behind, as though watching over Ellis, but he couldn’t conceal his enjoyment. Even when he wasn’t smiling, there was a hint of it behind his lips, a gloss of happiness lingering there. When he did smile, I noticed one of his canines was capped in silver. This aged him, I thought, but not in a bad way.
Ellis looked exactly nine years old, cresting the top of the night sky in the rattling metal Ferris wheel, and Vincent looked younger than he probably was, and happy. His mustache and silver tooth, his profession—I had trouble deciphering his age. I liked that about him, as though he were a mythological creature, ageless, making his way through the world with whatever he found, like a Mexican Johnny Appleseed.
I tried picturing myself at nine, then at fifteen, seventeen. I tried picturing myself in my twenties. I saw familiar faces, but they weren’t mine. They were probably from movies I’d watched.
When the boys appeared again, I handed Vincent a ten-dollar bill so he and Ellis could go play a few games, win a useless oversized teddy bear or a hat with rabbit ears. It was odd, handing him money and not getting a small, plastic bag in exchange. I felt a little ashamed about the drug deals now, but Vincent showed no signs of remembering our previous encounters. What was it about men—even young—that allowed them such an uncanny ability to compartmentalize?
When I was married, briefly, I’d existed in a compartment for most of that time. My husband would walk through the door and look at me as though I’d suddenly appeared. For a moment, we had a child—or thought we did—but he or she never came to fruition. It was complicated. Or maybe it wasn’t. Either way, I’m sure I stayed longer because of that. Shortly after, I moved to the desert, feeling liberated and alone. At first, I refused to answer phone calls. Later, people refused to answer mine.
“I think I’ll sit here by you,” said the woman with the oxygen tube. I waved her over, happy for the company. Her cheeks were pink and moist with sweat. As it turned out, carnivals were hard work. This time, she dragged her own tank. The night had turned cold, and she wore a shearling coat over a pilling, Pepto Bismol–colored sweater. “My husband’s on the Tilt-a-Whirl,” she said, though I hadn’t asked. I thought that was strange, her husband riding by himself, but I kept my mouth shut.
“Your kids having fun?” she asked. Ellis and Vincent were at a nearby booth, squirting streams of water into clowns’ gaping mouths.
“Yeah,” I said, “they love it.”
“One’s got a different dad?” she asked. Presumptuous, I thought, but I didn’t mind.
“Adopted,” I said. “I don’t know much about his dad. Chuck was his name. He was a truck driver, but with an extremely high IQ. Could have been a physicist, but loved driving trucks. Passionate about it. He always followed his passions. It says that on his tombstone.”
“So I hear,” I said.
She shut her eyes for a moment, and I wondered if she were thinking of another life she’d once led. I almost asked. Instead, I shoved a wad of cotton candy in my mouth, until it dissolved on my tongue into a sickening mass of sugar. Finally, I did ask.
“I was a schoolteacher,” she said. “What do you do?”
I searched around in my mind, thinking I’d tell her I was a movie person, make up an elaborate lie about a film I’d been shooting—a heist at the local 7-Eleven. I looked over at her, working hard on breathing, and I felt too tired to lie. “I edit textbooks,” I said. “I’m pretty good at it, actually. Sometimes I edit even when I’m stoned, but I can still do it just as well. I’m that good.”
“Oh, lord,” she said, widening her eyes. “My daughter loves that stuff too. It’s easy to find now, I guess. It didn’t use to be.” She hawked up something like a laugh, and I had the urge to stroke her perm, brush the hair behind her ears. I had become very maternal all of a sudden.
Instead, I watched Ellis and Vincent. They looked concentrated, holding their water guns. I wanted to say something specific about the boys—one loved gymnastics or still wet the bed—but I couldn’t access anything. I just kept staring, opening and closing my mouth like a slowly swimming fish. Next to me, the woman breathed through her tube, awkward puffs of breath, each one distinct. I could have told her everything, but I had some principles left. I wasn’t sure where these principles had come from, but they lingered regardless. A couple of teenagers walked by, the girl dressed in black rags, black, studded jewelry, black eyeshadow—even her hair dyed that way. This was probably a direct message to her father.
“My daughter did that for a while too,” the woman said, gesturing toward the girl with her flabby arm.
“Kids will do that,” I said.
We heard a sudden commotion over by the games, a cloud of people circling. The bell—signaling someone had won—was trilling. Through a gap in the crowd, I saw Vincent lying there. I hurried over, the woman dragging her oxygen tank behind me. “Make way,” she shouted. “Mother coming through.”
I could picture her as a schoolteacher then—it wasn’t hard.
“What happened?” I yelled. Two athletic-looking men in pristine paramedic outfits had come to kneel on the ground next to Vincent. They looked excited to be doing anything. Another paramedic showed his palms, urging all of us to stand back. Vincent was propped up on a gurney, and one of the uniformed men made slow gestures around his face, as though conducting a show.
“Some guy socked him,” Ellis told me, in a remarkably calm voice he’d probably used on his sister. “Vincent knew him, and they were talking for a while, like in a weird, fake-friendly way. Then the guy said Vincent knew what was coming, and not to fight it. He just knocked him down. One punch, real hard.”
“Where’s the guy now?” I asked.
“Oh, gone, I’m sure,” said the old woman behind me. I could hear her labored breathing. Vincent’s nose gushed blood. He looked paint splattered. If pressed, I could list the particular parts of the nose, the very parts responsible for all of that blood, due to a physiology textbook I’d recently worked on.
“I’m responsible,” I said, though nobody asked. The paramedic still had his palms up. Around us, more overweight mothers and excited children strained on their tiptoes for a look. There were enough people to fill a classroom. “I’m here, Vinnie,” I shouted, though I didn’t know if anyone called him that.
“Maybe we should call his mom,” Ellis said, and I shushed him.
“I’m here,” I said, my face edging over the paramedic’s arm. I waved my hand in Vincent’s periphery. “Don’t worry.”
“I’m hungry,” Ellis said softly.
“Shush,” I said. “I’m here.”
“No seriously, I don’t feel well.”
“God damn it,” I said, shielding his eyes with my palm. “Don’t look at the blood.”
One of the good-looking paramedics approached me, starting in with his questions. I still held a plastic wrapped wad of cotton candy. “You his mother?” he asked.
“Sure is,” said the old woman, behind me.
I could feel an awareness emanating from Ellis, a ticking in the air as though he had antennae twitching around, struggling to soak it all in. This was a kid who’d spent most of his life soaking it in—absorbing other people’s bad decisions. I pushed the cotton candy into his palm and squeezed.
“I’m hypoglycemic,” he said.
“Not now,” I shushed him.
There were more questions, enough to make my head swim. They started specific: Blood type? Allergies to any medication? When I couldn’t answer those, the questions became both louder and more general: Did I see it happen? How old is he? Nearby, I could hear the rattle of rides, the joyful screams.
“Stop badgering her,” the old woman said, putting a heavy hand on my shoulder. “How old is he, honey?”
“Sixteen,” Ellis piped up. I shook his shoulder in appreciation. My savior.
By this time, Vincent was sitting up on the gurney, conscious but dull-eyed, getting dabbed at with cotton swabs. “Seventeen next week,” he said, to everyone. He was holding one of his own bloody cotton pads in his hands, looking sick from the sight of it.
“This has to change,” I said. “I’m worried about you.”
Ellis nodded in agreement, hands in his hair.
“Mothers never stop worrying,” the woman said, behind me. “We can’t help it.”