We enter the world a bloody mess. First thing, someone hits us.
It gets worse. It’s why we tell stories.
For Shaw Pence, the bus ride home was the last good thing of each school day. At home, misery awaited.
Zella Zanger, in her customary seat next to Shaw, tore a page from her notebook. She looked at it and muttered, “Arithmetic’s fucked. Reading’s one thing, but math?”
Zella folded the paper and jammed it inside her math book. The book rested in the sag of her dress between parted knees. As she moved it higher on her lap, her dress came up, exposing her thighs. It’s what she did to him, playing her wanton game.
She sat back, crossed her legs at the ankles. Tattered blue Keds, no socks.
The bus pulled to the side and stopped.
Little Molly Hansen, yellow dress, lunch pail in hand, stepped from the bus. She stood near the bar ditch waving to the bus driver, then looked toward the back window and gave Zella the finger. Molly grinned, then charged down the lane toward the open arms of her waiting mother.
“She’s figured it out,” Shaw said to Zella. “You taught her well. She’s not using her thumb to hold down the other fingers. Mrs. Hansen will be so proud.”
Zella flipped Shaw the identical bird.
The bus driver, Mr. Kelp, tuned his radio and eased back to the road. He’d found CCR, Fogerty warning of some bad moon on the rise. Shaw, recalling the fight, rubbed his sore jaw.
Zella and Shaw rode thirty-two miles roundtrip every school day: first on, last off. The oldest kids on the route, they’d sat together since fourth grade. By now, nearing the end of junior high, they had the bus to themselves most of the way. Each day after little Molly had departed, Mr. Kelp, with one hand on the wheel, would slow the bus to a crawl. He’d crack open his window, jack out a cigarette, light it, then reach into the canvas military duffle at his feet and pull out his transistor radio—a red Philips Babette, black handle, knobs along the top. He’d telescope the silver antennae full length, and tune in the after-school rock show from 710 WHB in Kansas City. The music roused them: Beach Boys, Doors, Beatles, Stones.
Shaw eyed Zella as she bopped her head to the Creedence beat, his ogling gaze sliding down her neck, her shoulders. All that thigh.
When the song ended, Zella, bent toward the floor, reached toward her satchel and stuck the notebook inside. As the math book slid off her lap, she scooched down in her seat, her dress inching higher. She began messing with the hem, fingering it.
Zella and her family worked as tenant farmers for old man Jespersen and lived in one of his converted bunkhouses about a mile west of Shaw’s ranch. Their place reminded Shaw of a scene from Grapes of Wrath—ramshackle and weathered, clapboards begging nails and paint. The Jespersen Ranch was prized ground, a reputed spread. But down in the hollows, on the backside of the Jespersen where Zella and her family lived, was malignancy—scabrous, festering. Rusted farm implements and tarnished junk hid among the pokeweed of their cluttered rut-yard. Skinny old chickens and one mud-caked hog rooted around free as pets.
Mr. Kelp turned up the volume again: Steppenwolf’s “Born to be Wild”.
Zella had pushed her feet, the Keds, under the forward seat. She drew them back, bent her knees, began bouncing her legs to the music. Shaw opened his book, Jean-Paul Sartre on existentialism, bent his head, snuck glances at legs.
Oh, she knew.
The bus banged every hole in the road.
Zella’s parents and four older brothers were fair-skinned and blonde. But Zella, the last to arrive by six years, had nut-brown skin, dark eyes. According to Gramp, no one blamed Maude Zanger for straying, being married to a crusty jackass like Vernon.
Although she lived within the grunge of poverty, Zella sparkled, especially her black hair. Oh, that riotous mane—homemade-soaped, carelessly dried, and left uncombed for the wind.
As a Kansas boy, Shaw loved the wind, and in those promising 1970’s days of short skirts, what it did around women, especially Zella, aroused him—naughty images for boys. On weekends or in summer while sitting on the ledge at their Dry Creek hideaway, he’d hold his breath at the flare of her dress in the breeze, enthralled by glimpses of those legs.
Zella sat up, brushed back her hair with her hand. A whiff of that morning’s shampoo.
She opened her book and handed Shaw the notebook page, the math assignment.
“You want me to solve these equations?”
“For sure. Do ‘em now. Quit reading that philosophy shit. We got nine more miles.”
“Can’t read. Too bumpy,” said Shaw over the racket of the bus. “I’ll bring them to Dry Creek, tomorrow.”
“Can’t come this weekend. Jarod’s sick. Got a million chores.”
“You work too much. I get bored hanging out by myself. I’ll bring them Monday, then.”
“All I got at home are crazies. At least you got Cassie.”
What he wanted to say was: Dogs aren’t pretty girls—but he couldn’t.
Halfway home, the school bus crested a hill. Mr. Kelp downshifted. The bus gathered speed.
Caleb Cranston’s half-ton Ford F 100, freshly painted the color of Gerber peas, nosed behind the bus, honked. Sunlight glinted off its windshield. It honked again and passed, blowing dust.
Countryside streamed past the windows, cropland and pasture interspersed with woods. That humusy funk of just-plowed fields.
Shaw reached down and placed Zella’s math paper inside his book bag. “Hey Zell,” he said, sitting up. “I could’ve handled the fight myself.”
“Bullshit. Weren’t for me, big Franks would’ve hit you so hard your kids be born dizzy. And don’t call me Zell.” She faced him. “Damn, little buddy, your face is all swelled up. Your eye’s a mess. I should’ve jumped in sooner.”
Zella leaned back, stretched, and her dress—the blue one, sleeveless, cut above the knee—tightened across her chest.
“Franks hates me,” said Shaw, thinking tits. “But I can’t figure why.”
“‘Cause you’re a genius—and a smart-ass. Hell, Shaw, you better hope he’s out sick come Monday. Franks is a stink. He bothers you and I’m not around? Grab his nuts and hang on.” She threw a fake punch just short of Shaw’s face, flexing the workaday muscle of her bare shoulder.
Nine months older, almost fifteen, Zella seemed more woman than girl. And not just the hard body, the curves, or the absence of leg hair, but something mysterious, intoxicating.
At the bottom of the hill, gears shifted, grated, meshed. The bus clattered across Hatcher’s Creek bridge and lurched into a rumbling climb.
A pinkish crayon rolled down the aisle. Shaw stopped it with the toe of his boot. Bending over, using his index finger, he rolled the crayon into his palm. He held it up to his face, reading: ‘Bittersweet’. Odd name for a color, but it suited Zella. She hated Zell. Didn’t much care for Zella, either.
“Hey, look at this,” said Shaw, holding out the crayon. “Be a good nickname for you.”
Zella took the crayon, inspected it. “Them’s two words jammed up together, dumbass. Bittersweet ain’t a name, or a color. It’s a mouth thing.” She lolled her tongue, made a sour face.
“I know. It’s a peculiar taste, one to remember.” He smacked his lips.
She rolled her eyes. “I keep telling you. Call me Zee, not Zell. Sounds like hell. Sure not Bittersweet. You don’t like your nickname, Penny Pence. If you call me, Bittersweet, I’ll call you, Penny.” She stuck her tongue against the inside of her cheek, aimed the crayon and hurled it toward the back of Mr. Kelp’s head. It fell short, dropped to the floor and began rolling back and forth to the sway of the bus.
“Missed. Fuck it. ” She jerked her head sideways, flipping the hair from her face.
She was something all right. Despite her weird older brothers, living thickly in that crowded house, Zella spun family stories with affection. She claimed all seven of them squabbled, violently at times, over workloads, food portions, sleeping arrangements, and who’d be last in the bathwater. Instead of television, reading, or cards, the Zanger clan played drinking games, staged shooting matches, held liar contests, and competed in feats of strength. Zella said she lied the best—no surprise.
Shaw often imagined Zella in better clothes. So sexy. Maybe he’d get her a necklace, earrings, a bracelet. His mother had hordes of such trinkets. But Zella’s brothers would probably steal them, sell them for beer and cigarette money. By reputation—gossip mostly—Zella’s family were known as Arkansas hillbilly kooks. No telling what happened over there. Shaw daydreamed Zella as his wife, building her a mansion on Hollows Ranch.
As Shaw watched the crayon lurch along the floor, a recent memory buzzed in his head. He and Zella had been hanging out at Dry Creek listening to rock songs on Shaw’s radio. The Stones started up and Shaw cranked the volume, “Satisfaction” blasting out over the gorge—drumbeats resounding, guitars driving the beat.
Zella rose to her feet as Jagger sang.
With the sun setting behind her, she danced along the ledge. Shaw watched in awe as she grooved to those pounding rhythms, mesmerized by the inner curve of her thighs sunlit through her dress. The arch and surge of her body like torch flame cavorting with wind.
Shaw had no inkling, then, how Zella’s desires might differ from his own. But he’d begun to understand the suffering in hope. The rosy tongue that wet her mouth. Lips so hot, he bet her kisses tasted red.
“Franks don’t like that a girl backed him down, neither,” said Zella.
She stared into Shaw’s eyes, winked. He looked at his feet.
“Franks’ll be on your ass like rust on a pump handle, Penny. So I’ll need cigarettes this time. Whatever your momma smokes. Two packs a week.”
“Two. And three Snickers. I ain’t been to the drugstore to steal any.”
“I’m doing your math assignment. And don’t call me Penny.”
She squirmed in her seat, showed more leg. “Well, the smokes and one Snickers then.”
Near her home, Shaw nudged closer. Their arms touched, Zella’s body radiating faint but palpable heat. The bus, still suffused with the smell of Juicy Fruit and the earthiness of farm kids, bumped along the washboard road.
The bus slowed. Zella leaned forward, began gathering her things.
Despite that Shaw got on first and off last, Zella always insisted on the window seat, and her crawling over him had become a daily highlight.
She gave him a backhanded wave and started for the front. She said goodbye to Mr. Kelp and stepped off the bus.
Shaw rode alone; one mile to home. Kelp smoked another, the Beach Boys kicking in with “Good Vibrations”. Absent his preoccupation with Zella, Shaw felt the ache in his muscles, the throb of his face from the beating. He slouched, anxious, trying not to think. He fingered his swollen eye, ran his tongue over his teeth, tasted the coppery tang of blood.
His gut cramped at the prospect of facing Gerald Franks on Monday. Franks had rushed him from the side, clocked him twice in the face. Then someone had yelled, “Fight!” and the circle of kids tightened around them. When Zella clawed into the middle of it, everyone hooted. She backed Franks against a wall—because she could. Because she was Zella Zanger, by god. Franks wrestled free of her and walked away. He spun around and gave Shaw the finger. “I’ll get you come Monday,” he said.
Zella had humiliated both of them.
By himself, the bus seemed noisier, bouncier. He scanned the vacant seats, the graffiti. Rips and stains and old gum. Initialed heart-shapes carved with vintage puppy love. Toward the front, on the back of a seat, someone had drawn a pig with the name ‘Fat Alice’ scribbled over its belly: Alice Stamper, an obese classmate he’d known since kindergarten. He got up, staggered forward. As the bus pitched he obliterated the pig with his pen.
Nearing Hollows Ranch, and with the late afternoon sun casting mottled shadows over the roadway, they passed through an arching tunnel of trees. Shade dappled through the windows. Shaw gathered his book bag from the floor. Blood trickled from his nose onto the back of his wrist. Given the shame of his beating, his blood in this dimness seemed foreboding. For a fleeting moment, he considered his erotic obsessions with Zella, his hatred for his father, the fight. Maybe something was wrong with him?
In these shadows—his blood looked black.
Sixteen miles east of Nekoosa City, Kansas the bus eased to a stop. The gate stood open. Iron letters arching the entryway read: Hollows Ranch—since 1853.
The radio blasted the Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women.” Some gin-soaked barroom queen in Memphis had given Jagger the honky tonk blues. Shaw, enjoying this final moment, jigged the beat toward the front.
Mr. Kelp reached his fat arm to the side, hauled back on the lever. The door flapped open. He took a last pull on his cigarette, flipped it toward the bar ditch. Liver spots on his hand. Shaw thanked Mr. Kelp, as always, for their shared delinquency—the rock music, then stepped to the road, stood to the side.
The bus backed, stalled. Mr. Kelp ground the ignition, the gears. The bus coughed a gout of black smoke, then rattled away, its yellowness paling in dust.
In the distance, a horse whinnied. Nearby, hidden behind a double hedgerow, a tractor rumbled. The intermittent screech of a windmill needing oil.
Shaw paced along the bar ditch, caught a whiff of the cattle nosed to the fence line. As always, an underfear gnawed his gut.Past the gate, down the winding lane, Henry waited. Shaw kicked the gravel road.
He breathed deeply, stepped under the lettered ironworks, and whistled for Cassie. He shouldered his schoolbooks, whistled again. And here she came, busting. Her entire body wagged. He knelt. She licked his face. He stood and turned.
“Come on, girl.” And they walked down the lane beneath deep-shaded trees, descending and twisting toward home.
At supper, Shaw and his mother picked nicely at their beets, roasted beef, and mashed potatoes, while Henry gobbled and belched. Shaw had always called his father, Henry.
Henry slavered a last bite of veal cooked blue—raw. His lips shined. Brown gravy dribbled toward his chin.
Asshole ready for his apple pie.
Henry’s voice snapped over the customary silence of dinnertime. “Looks like someone gave Einstein here a whipping.”
Whenever Henry spoke, Shaw’s gut knotted on reflex. But he’d been wondering when someone would mention his face.
“Shaw, your face, who…?” said Mom, her voice trailing.
She took a sip of vodka—Syr Ultra Smooth—shipped by the case from Moscow. She drank it over ice— straight.
“Neighbor girl kick your ass, did she?” Henry snarfed an oversized bite. Cinnamon grouted the lines between his crooked teeth.
“Gerald Franks jumped me.” Despite his attempts to sound strong for his father, his voice quavered. “It doesn’t even hurt, much.” He looked down at Cassie, slipped her a piece of veal.
“You didn’t fight back, did you?” said Henry, his voice muffled by pie. “Pussy. And quit feeding that birddog off your plate.”
Shaw looked away.
Henry set down his drink. His chair slid back. He tossed his napkin onto his plate. A moment later the bathroom door slammed.
With Henry away, even objects like the beet juice running red beneath the prongs of Henry’s fork, or the wall-clock with its agonizing second hand, changed aspect somehow, from stern to hopeful.
Shaw inhaled, then let out a breath that moved the napkins.
“Well then,” said Mom. She cleared her throat, took another sip of vodka, grimaced. “Otherwise, how was school?”
“Bores you, I’m sure. Martha found my copy of De Sade in your room while she was cleaning. Have you fallen for Justine?” She grinned.
“I only read a few pages.”
“I see Gramp has you reading Sartre. How well I remember: ‘She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist’.”
“That’s your grandfather. Dad’s challenging you.”
“Way over my head.”
“Ha. Read Nietzsche.”
Mother read philosophy; mother married Henry; mother drank.
When Henry opened the bathroom door, the atmosphere transformed with a gut-wrench, like when the phone rings at three in the morning. He returned to the table fumbling with his lighter and a Marlboro.
“Please don’t smoke at the supper table,” said Mom.
Mom threw down her napkin, stood, walked across the dining room, her tight bluejeans anything but motherly, and opened a window. “Let’s have some fresh air.” She came back to the table and sat, mouthed ‘fuck you’ at Henry then killed her drink.
Despite the warming season, a gusty gasp of old winter stirred the tablecloth.
The house, surrounded by trees and adorned with antiques, rich hardwoods and leathers, oil paintings in wild animal motifs, seemed medieval. And ever darker when they fought.
“What were you telling this boy while I was pissing? How to cook or how to curtsey?”
“Discussing our reading preferences. I like Nietzsche; he likes De Sade; you like Popular Grease Monkey.”
They stared across the table at each other, their eyes shriveled with sarcasm.
Henry lit his Zippo with a flip, sucked flame into his cigarette. He drained his drink and got up to fix another. “Freshen mine,” said Mom, clinking her diamond on her glass.
Reaching for her drink, Henry leaned and shot a wall of smoke in her face. She winced, rolled her eyes and swallowed a belch.
“I’m shutting the window, Dacy. It’s gotten chilly,” said Henry over his shoulder as he mixed their drinks at the buffet.
“Sure as hell has.”
Shaw’s mouth hurt, his teeth. He ate small bites, snuck more meat to Cassie. He wondered about Zella; worried about Franks. He longed to be up in his room.
Henry slammed shut the window and returned with their booze. “Here you go, sweetheart,” he said, his cigarette bouncing between his lips. He planted Mom’s glass beside her plate. A bit of vodka sloshed on his index finger. He sucked it, then leered.
A forced smile thinned Mom’s lips.
Henry sat, took a long pull on his Marlboro, and blew a flawless smoke ring across the table. It drifted and dipped toward the basket of bread, then rose misshapen to Mom’s face.
Their chins lifted in mutual defiance, Mom and Henry glared, connected by a thread of loathing—a fuse.
Gone were the days of Shaw being too young to appreciate such loathing. By now, he got it. Alcoholism. Henry’s eighth grade ignorance. Mom’s masters degree and birthright wealth.
Henry fired another smoke ring. Like a warped bullseye, the gauzy donut hung, midair. Henry poked his middle finger through the ring, wiggled it and wagged his tongue.
Despite himself, Shaw dropped his fork and grinned. Nice touch, Henry, he thought.
Smoke sifted toward Mom. She squinted, drained her glass, looked at Henry. “Fucking jerk.”
She’d never say that sober.
Henry snapped his head toward Shaw. “What’s funny, Pussy-Boy?”
Shaw’s throat tightened. Henry reached under the table and clamped Shaw’s knee. He squeezed.
Shaw sat motionless. His eyes watered, Henry’s grasp like a vice. Shaw spoke through clenched teeth. “Sorry. Sir.”
Henry squeezed harder, grinding the rough denim of Shaw’s jeans into the tender flesh at the inside of his knee. “Did you check those two calves, or did you forget?”
“Yes, Henry,” Shaw gasped. “I gave them their medicine.”
Henry’s thumb bore into tendon. Shaw grimaced, sucked in a breath.
Henry released his grip, picked up his empty glass, and gestured toward Shaw’s plate.
“Clean your plate while I fix me another Jack.”
He twisted the butt of his cigarette into the remains of his mashed potatoes.
Mom raised her glass, shook the ice and, with a hint of tipsy in her voice, said, “I’ll have another.”
Shaw looked out the window at the waning day, the dismal dusk. He fought back tears.
Under the table, Cassie muzzled his thigh. He patted her good old head.