I’m taking an online writing class through the lit mag American Short Fiction + loving it. The first few weeks were reading + exercises, and the last few will be workshopping pieces from each member – mine’s on the chopping block this week!
This shorty short is from one of our exercises.
**WARNING – yucky language!**
The first time I heard “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” by Nina Simone, I was with Gal-Baby Martin (Frances Tilden Martin) down at the creek behind her parents house.
“Hand it back now, you. Don’t be bogarting that thing,” she said at me with squinted eyes and a little sly smile. We’d stolen one of her mother’s Virginia Slims and toted her colossal CD player down to the creek bank with us. Her parents were getting ready for a dinner party and would inevitably neglect to say goodbye to us. I passed the gently smoking cigarette toward her: we were inhaling our future and slowly practicing an exhale of youth.
Gal-Baby’s honey hair was frizzing in the humid late afternoon. We probably had enough battery to hear the whole CD through once. I know she told me, but I can’t remember where she’d gotten it from or how she knew it would be so perfect for teenage rebellion. Nina’s throaty voice poured over us as the early evening gnats started to arrive. I pursed my lips and blew one off my arm.
“Where are your parents going tonight?” I asked. Gal-Baby flicked the ash into a cupped leaf and stared at it.
“The Mixon’s, for Rums and Rummies. More like Rums and Dummies.” She got quiet and passed the cigarette back to me. Her lip gloss had left a faint pink ring around the filter and I tried to match my mouth to the shape.
“Ginger Mixon is a cunt.” She stated it as fact and threw a pebble into the water as if to punctuate. I’d never heard a woman say that word before, only my daddy and only when he was exquisitely wasted. My mom slapped him for it once.
“What’s Mrs. Mixon got to do with you? I thought you and Belinda were friends.”
“Yeah, well, Belinda’s fine, but her momma’s a cunt.” I pressed the back button on the CD player. Nina was was telling us again how no one can always be an angel. Gal-Baby stared at the water in a trance and I looked down at the wisp of white left in my hand. I lay back on the leaves and let my eyes wander around the treetops. When I squinted they became a lace doily of fading light.
“You ever thought about what it would be like to be gay?” I asked her.
“You mean like two girls being gay?”
“Yeah, like what does that even mean?”
“Hell if I know. My mom’s cousin Frankie is gay.”
“You want the last drag,” I asked, raising up on my elbows, holding it over to her and turning the lips her way. She resigned herself to take it and haul it all the way up to her mouth, like it was a heavy load. She sucked hard, a hungry baby begging to be fed. I saw a tear spill down her cheek but a gnat flew close to my eye and I blinked. She’d wiped it away.
“Gal-Baby, what’s wrong? What could ever be wrong with you? You’re the happiest person I know. And you live in the nicest house and your parents let you do almost anything at all that you want.” I pleaded at her with my eyes but she wouldn’t meet them. She used the last smoking part of the Slim to smolder a hole through the ash tray leaf.
“You just don’t understand,” she whispered. “There’s nothing to understand because it doesn’t make sense.” She mashed the butt into the dirt.
“What doesn’t?” I asked.
“My mom is pretty, right?” She looked up at me. “Don’t you think so?”
“Yeah, of course I do,” I said. “And she always does her hair really nice and wears jewelry.”
She looked back at the leaf and traced the blackened edges of the hole. She lay back and held it up with both hands, looking at the vast expanse of trees through the frame of the burned hole.
“Trees don’t make sense when you look at just one part,” she said dreamily, almost to herself. “Do you think Mrs. Mixon wears jewelry?” she asked.
“Where? On her cunt?” I said, feeling the hard, salty word spit out of my mouth.
Gal-Baby dropped the leaf on her face and laughed. I laughed, too. It felt so strange to say that word and Gal-Baby laughed so hard she started grabbing the dirt with her hands. I could smell earth as she clung to it, sending me coded messages like pheromones in wild things. The CD player had died and so had the light. We giggled as we walked up to the empty house.
I would leave my husband on a hot day, the middle of August two decades after. I would tear my screaming children from their father and drive back to my parents’ house three states away, that song stinging me like a need. The kids had cried themselves to sleep and it smoldered in my brain until I finally pulled over, searching for it on my phone. I hadn’t talked to Gal-Baby in probably ten years. As Nina’s golden balm smoothed my surface, I could smell smoke, dirt. The song was a plea and I sent it up on tiny tin wings hoping it would find dry ground.