One of Vegas Thunder’s earliest memories was of his mother, Adelle, standing in the front yard next to a gaggle of faded pink plastic flamingos waving her cigarette in the air, screaming the F-word at the mailman. By all estimation Adelle had slept with the ice cream man, the meter man, six Highway State Troopers, two park rangers, one mechanic, and two convicts before Vegas was five years old. He was privy to this info because his sister, Hollywood, who was three years older, kept a list in her diary. The diary had hearts on the front and a key she instructed Vegas to swallow if their mama ever tried to get into it. Hollywood never listed names, only professions. Next to the words she'd draw little stick figures of the men if she liked them. If she didn’t like the guy she’d draw him as a little penis with eyes.
Gritty sand from the front yard of the trailer park got into Vegas’s bed many nights, grinding against his skin, keeping him awake. It wasn't the only thing that kept him awake. The screaming did a good job, too. His mother screamed more than any person he'd ever known. It was how she talked, how she communicated. Her lines of logic were strung together by chain smoking, swearing and screaming. Her dark, emerald green eyes drew men in, but it was her tits that made them stay. Everyone knew that. Those big hooters cost three months of overtime, and she wore them with pride. She liked to show them to everyone, and almost everyone wanted to see them. All that noise kept Vegas awake, too.
Part of his childhood was spent eating Coco Puffs, watching cartoons on the 13 inch television set teetering on top of a plant stand, while his mother leaned over the coffee pot topless, wearing her work uniform. A g-string. She’d stand there smoking a cigarette, stirring her coffee, oblivious to his presence. Some mornings he found himself standing on an upside down five gallon paint bucket flipping light switches while nothing happened. If his mother wasn’t home he'd walk down the hall and wake Hollywood who always knew what to do. She'd dress them both in fancy outfits she'd lifted from Goodwill, and they'd walk down to Miss Francine's place, eight trailers down. Miss Francine's was the last one at the end of the narrow, sandy lane. Her place was surrounded by trees, cool and quiet; it felt welcoming on long days when their mother didn't pay the utility bill.
“Why can't we turn on the lights?” Vegas asked his sister.
Hollywood smoothed wispy hairs off his forehead and straightened the collar of his baby blue suit jacket. “It happens,” she said. “Sometimes the switch don't work right.” Then she clomped up the front porch steps to Miss Francine's, curled her small hand into a fist and knocked.
They always had to wait. Vegas had no idea how old Miss Francine was, but she was definitely older than Santa Claus. After he shifted from foot to foot about a hundred times the door finally opened.
Miss Francine always smiled when she saw the two of them standing there. “Oh goodness,” she’d say, “come on in.” Then his sister and Miss Francine locked eyes like they had a secret language.
Hollywood knew what to say. “Miss Francine. We were wondering if you needed some company today. Maybe you need some chores done or jars opened or I can sweep if you like.”
Her place smelled like the candy she kept in fancy glass dishes crammed on top of dainty tables. Sweet cinnamon candy, mints that melted on your tongue, sugar babies, and salt water taffy. Francine herself smelled like Lily of the Valley perfume and talcum powder. Vegas knew the name because he'd smelled everything in her perfect pink bathroom. Glass apples full of soap paper sat on the back of the toilet. Vegas loved washing his hands with soap paper, loved how it disappeared completely under the running water, bubbles floating up like magic.
Miss Francine motioned to what she called her settee. “Well, I could sure use some company for lunch.”
Those words were music to Vegas’s ears. Miss Francine laid out a lunch spread fit for a king, even if it did take half an hour. Pimiento cheese sandwiches with no crust, cream of celery soup, oyster crackers, and soda pop with pie and ice cream for dessert. Later in the afternoon, when their mother’s Ford Fairmont didn't appear in the driveway, Miss Francine loaded them into her 1976 Lincoln Continental and drove to the J&S Cafeteria.
The worst part about Miss Francine's was the Old Time Jesus Gospel. All that holy ghost business scared the crap out of Vegas. The idea that dead men were coming back made him hide under the covers at night. Francine knew all the words, to all of the songs, and made him hum along.
When the sun set and their mother still hadn't returned, Hollywood took his hand, thanked Miss Francine kindly and walked back to the darkest trailer on earth.
Convinced all that darkness would swallow them alive, he asked, “Why can't we just sleep at Miss Francine's?”
“Best not to wear out our welcome,” Hollywood said, taking a deep breath. “Besides, I got some candles from the dollar store last week. We'll be okay.”
And that was the thing. They were okay. Hollywood opened her toy box filled with things they needed like boxes of macaroni and cheese, candles, candy bars and a jar of change in case there was an emergency. When Vegas asked her how she'd gotten the idea for the box, she said, “A T.V. show on how to survive a disaster.”
T.V. taught them everything. How to cook, wash clothes, trim hair, schedule appointments, order vitamins, grow rose bushes, and how to build a deck. Wherever their mother had failed, the T.V. had triumphed, so it was spooky when the power was out. But his sister knew how to fix these things. She took out her tape recorder that ran on batteries, and they played Rock Star. Hollywood was really good at it. She dressed up in short dresses and sang loud enough for the neighbors to hear.
Later, she blew out the candles and tucked him into bed. Leaning over to kiss him on the forehead, she whispered, “Ten four, little buddy. Everything’s A-okay.”
Vegas asked, “Where's Mom?”
Hollywood fluffed his pillow, glancing up at the stained ceiling. “I think she must be working a double.”
Vegas pictured his mother clomping out of the house, muttering, “It’s a four titty night.” This meant a double shift at the strip club. “Two titties, twice tonight,” she’d say, letting the screen door slam shut behind her.
Working late, Vegas remembered, meant men in the house. He kept a mental list of likes and dislikes. Earl brought pizza. Reggie loaded everyone in his Chevy and drove to the drive in joint for hot dogs and tater tots. Dominic brought bags of fruit that Hollywood fed to the raccoons at night. He did not like Jimmy and Johnny Hollister because they drank a lot of beer and made mama cry. Vegas preferred four titty nights. It was like a vacation and usually guaranteed no adults in the house until at least 4 AM.
In the mornings after four-titty nights, piles of beer cans and bottles were stacked and strewn around the trailer. Sometimes, well, often, their mother brought more than one other person home with her. On mornings like these, Hollywood dragged a big trash bag out from under her bed and raked the cans and bottles inside. When Tuesday came around they walked down to Rydell's trailer to borrow his wagon. Rydell was nice but had a stutter. None of the other kids played with him since mean old Johnny Stacks called him a fag. Hollywood said being a fag didn't make no difference to her because Rydell was nice, stutter and all.
So every week they loaded up all of the beer cans and bottles and walked four miles down country roads to the recycling center. Hollywood never complained about how far they had to go. She took the cash, said thank you and stuffed it deep in the purse Miss Francine gave her for her birthday. Then, they traced their path back down the same country roads, holding sweating hands in the summer or pulling their coats down over their fingers in the winter to keep warm.
And every week they faithfully returned Rydell’s wagon without a scratch.
Hollywood had other moneymaking ventures. The most lucrative was what she called ‘rustling cowboys'. It brought the most money but wasn't consistent like the cans and bottles. Cowboy rustling was when she got up really early and went out to the living room to see if Mama's date left their clothes on the floor. If they had, she pilfered change from every pocket, stole all of the dollar bills she could find and, occasionally, snatched a five.
“Cha-ching,” she sang, counting the loot. “That’s what they get for getting caught with their pants down.”
She ripped the stuffing out of a gorilla in her toy box and hid the money inside. Once a week they walked down to the strip mall to eat at Rocco's Italian joint. Vegas ordered Ravioli and two root beers. His sister ate lasagna. Afterwards, they’d run down to the dollar store.
Sometimes at home the phone wouldn’t ring for a day or two so Hollywood would pick up the receiver and listen for a dial tone. Sure enough, it was dead.
“Shit.” Hollywood slammed the receiver down.
Vegas couldn’t remember a time when she didn't say shit.
“Shit. Shit. Shit,” she'd groan. “Mama's done it again.”
On days when the phone was dead and the power was off, Vegas day-dreamed his daddy would ride up in a Cadillac and take them away. It never happened. Truthfully, the only thing he knew about his father was that he was in Las Vegas the night he slept with Vegas’s mother. That’s how he got his first name. Thunder came from his mother. Adelle Thunder. The gods knew something when they named her. Thunder, storm, hurricane. That was her. His mama. One mama. No daddy. One time Vegas asked Hollywood about his daddy. She looked at him hard and serious and said, “Your daddy could be any one of these men rolling in and out of here.”
She was right. Better to focus on other things.
They filled their free time after school playing what Hollywood called pretend. “Okay we’re going to pretend that I’m Gretal and you’re Hansel and an evil witch is trying to cook us,” she’d say. Their mother was always the evil witch scheming to shove them in an oven.
On two titty nights Hollywood would often clean the trailer. At nine years old Vegas was still too little to fool with plugs, too little to heave the two hundred pound vacuum cleaner across the old carpet, so he stood on a chair in the kitchen and washed dishes. Hollywood was twelve and she bossed him around. He didn’t mind as long as she vacuumed the floor and left him out of it. The vacuum was deafening. He'd climb onto the counters, screaming, “Hurry up,” every time she turned it on. On the counter he acquainted himself with all of the appliances he never used. The toaster and hand-mixer only had one side that worked and like most things in the trailer were well on their way to being broken. The blender both fascinated and terrified him. It was an old, hulking contraption, made of metal and glass that took up most of the counter. It worked perfectly. Adelle used it to make daiquiris for breakfast.
Because their mother worked from 4pm until who the fuck knows , the trailer was a drama-free zone until she stumbled in. It was the two days she had off that made Vegas feel like he was going to lose his mind. Hollywood called these ‘no titty nights,’ and the two would make themselves scarce by catching the bus out to the strip mall to spend cowboy rustling money. If they stayed out late enough, Adelle was gone by the time the last bus dropped them at the entrance to the trailer park.
Thursday was the best night. Hollywood had been doing up Thursday nights as long as Vegas could remember, making him pinky swear to never tell a soul. She claimed if their mother found out she’d ruin it. After school, they’d go by the grocery store, then hide out at Miss Francine’s until Adelle lurched out of the trailer park in her rusted Ford Fairmont.
Then they ran home at full speed to make appetizers and change clothes. Once everything was prepared they went to the living room and waited. The first show was Dynasty. Hollywood went nuts for Dynasty and bought all kinds of hats and purses from Goodwill. They spent the evening sipping ginger ale from mismatched wine glasses, pretending to be rich. The T.V. show lasted an hour and was plenty of time to get into character. After that show came Knot’s Landing. During the commercial break they had to run to change clothes and pull the T.V. dinners from the oven.
Vegas usually ended up being the chauffer or the butler but he didn’t mind. It was fun watching his sister tease her hair on top of her head, ordering him around with an English accent. For years they had Dynasty night, and when it went off the air Vegas didn’t mind because it became Miami Vice night. Any twelve year old boy could see the allure of Crockett and Tubbs. That’s when Hollywood started sneaking clothes from their mother’s closet. She’d collapse on the couch, pretending to have a coke problem. Since Vegas was taller and the only man in the house he could take his pick. He could be Crockett or a bad Columbian Drug Lord. Twice he arrested his sister and made her spend the entire hour in a pair of plastic handcuffs she bought at the dollar store. He liked forgetting about the rest of the world because by the time they started playing Miami Vice, Vegas knew their world had been crashing down around them for a long time.
Sometimes Vegas heard his sister, late at night, crying. He’d ask her what was wrong. Most of the time she said something like, “I’ve got a stomach ache,” or “I’m okay.”
“Is it something I said?” he asked.
She looked at him so sweetly that it made him smile, but then her face scrunched up tight and she cried harder, her tears strangely illuminated by the glow of the electric clock. He could see that little girl inside of her, but on the outside she was a fifteen year old reaching for her pack of cigarettes.
It went on like that for years. She’d hunker down next to the window and smoke. Eventually, the tears and smoke drifted away.
Vegas had begun to notice how people stared at his family whenever he was forced to appear in public with his mother. The other mothers with their puffy sweatshirts and bouncy ponytails glared at Adelle in her skin tight, low cut shirts with her big hair plastered in place with a can of hairspray. Adelle was every mousy housewife’s worst nightmare.
Miss Francine passed away in her sleep before the end of Vegas’s freshman year of high school. He sat on the plastic toilet with the door locked and cried. His hiding place was gone. He closed his eyes, burning the image of her dainty, birdlike hands into his mind. The night of her funeral he broke into her trailer and stole her bottle of Lily of the Valley perfume. For days he held the bottle to his nose, pushing back the fear that bore down into his chest, tightening, twisting, haunting. The world came into focus. Days weren’t filled with make believe anymore. They were filled with the subtle reality that he was going to have to take care of himself soon.
At sixteen, he got caught one afternoon smoking out behind the auditorium during a pep rally. The only other person in detention that day was a tough looking boy the girls called Easy on the Eyes Eric. When the final bell rang, Vegas walked out to the curb, lit a cigarette, and started in the direction of home.
A few minutes later, a guy called out behind him, “Hey, you wanna ride?”
Vegas spun around to find Eric leaning against a sweet Camaro.
Vegas took a drag off his cigarette, shrugged. “Sure.”
The guy stuck his hand out to shake. “Eric Lloyd.”
Eric’s grip was tight. “I know who you are.”
The inside of the Camaro was spacious with a shiny sheen like it had just been wiped down.
“So what have you heard?” Vegas asked, blowing smoke out the window.
Eric glanced over, gunning the engine at a red light. “That your sister slapped Monica Bukowski for calling her a slut.”
Vegas nodded, matter-of-factly. “She knocked Bubitchski’s tooth out.”
“Nice. Monica’s no virgin princess,” he winked.
Vegas nodded, without answering. He still hadn’t gotten around to having sex. Wild, brown hairs sprouted out around his balls. He’d stand in the plastic bathtub in the trailer, staring down at his changing body. He wasn’t sure hair on his balls made him a man but he was pretty sure it meant he wasn’t a kid anymore. Sex had been one constant hassle his entire life. He wasn’t looking forward to the hassle it would bring his own.
Three blocks from the trailer park entrance there was a gas station. Shiny and new, it offered the perfect excuse to keep people from seeing where he lived. “Pull in there,” Vegas pointed. “I’m almost outta smokes.”
Eric cruised to a stop at the front door.
“You don’t have to wait,” Vegas said, climbing out.
“It’s no problem.”
With his hand on the door, Vegas paused, “It’s just right around the corner.”
“Exactly,” Eric said, his knees bumping against the steering wheel. “It’ll only take a minute to drop you off.”
Backing away from the car, Vegas decided to drop it. Inside the gas station he grabbed a cherry pie and slipped it into his pocket as he rounded the corner of the only blind spot in the store. Then he paid for a pack of gum and left.
Adelle was in the front yard wearing a bikini top and a pair of cut off jeans when Eric turned onto the gravel lane that led to the trailer.
Just my luck , Vegas thought, getting out of the car fast.
Adelle perked up. “Hey,” she yelled.
Vegas ignored her, trying to get inside and avoid whatever embarrassment she was about to dish out.
Eric rolled down his car window. “Hello, Mrs. Thunder.”
Adelle squinted her eyes. “That’s Ms. Thunder.”
Eric shrugged, running his tongue over his lower lip. “My apologies.”
“Listen, honey.” She perched one hand on her hip. “I think the Ford is outta gas. My gage is broken, but it’s been awhile, if you know what I mean.” She leaned forward, winking.
“Hop in,” Eric said. “I got a gas can in my trunk.”
Eric gave a little wave as he drove off. Vegas stood on the cinder blocks, stunned. He could hear Hollywood talking on the phone on the other side of the cheap, metal door. Finally, he shook off the disbelief and walked inside.
The air smelled like cigarette butts and hard boiled eggs. Two empty packages of lunch meat were on the cracked Formica table. He pulled the cherry pie out of his pocket and went to hide.
Half an hour later he heard the deep rumble of the Camaro’s engine. Peeking around the edge of the blanket tacked to his window, he saw Adelle staring straight at Eric’s ass as he bent over, pouring gas into her tank.
Gross. He flopped back on his cot, listening to his sister clomp down the hall. A second later she pushed his door open, dragging the telephone.
“Who’s the hottie out front?”
“Don’t you recognize your own mother?” Vegas said, flatly.
Slapping him on the shoulder, she jerked the blanket back, peering out. “The guy, smartass. Who’s the guy?”
“Some guy in detention with me today.”
“God. He must have gotten in trouble for being smoking hot,” she said, letting go of the blanket, backing up. “He goes to school with you? How old is he?”
The next day, Eric was at the curb, waiting. “Come on. I’ll give you a ride.”
Vegas climbed inside.
“You want to hang out?” Eric asked.
Vegas shrugged. “Sure.” He thought it was the least he could do after Eric banged his mom.
The squat brown house didn’t look like much, but it was clean with cool, air conditioned rooms that smelled like blooming magnolia flowers. Pictures of Jesus filled the walls. Two quiet, older people sat in the living room watching a breathy televangelist promise salvation.
Eric stopped in the doorway, clearing his throat. A little, gray haired woman glanced over. “Oh, hello, dear.”
“This is Vegas. We’re gonna have some snacks and watch a movie.”
“That’s lovely. There are sandwiches in the refrigerator without the crust, just the way you like them.”
Vegas looked around the Jesus hallway and whispered, “Are those your grandparents?” Eric pushed his bedroom door open with his motorcycle boot. “Nope. Those two old fuddy duddies are my parents. I was what you call a change of life baby. I have a brother seventeen years older than me.”
Later, a little gray head poked into the room. “Would your friend like to stay for dinner?”
Eric looked to Vegas, who nodded.
Eric smiled big. “Sure. But only if he can lead us in evening prayer.”
His mother clasped her hands together. “Oh, that will be lovely.”
The gravy boat had the words Sea of Galilee printed on the side. The salt and pepper shakers were Joseph and Mary and stored in a manger. Jesus Saves was printed in big, block letters around the edge of the Lazy Susan. Vegas couldn’t remember ever praying. Not real praying. His praying consisted of things like, Please, God, make her shut up and Please, God, don’t let her barge in drunk. Beads of sweat popped out under his shirt. Totally unnerved, but ready to get it over with, he lowered his head and whispered, “Dear God, thank you for this great smelling food and all things Jesus. Amen. Sir.”
“Well done,” Eric clapped.
“Thanks,” Vegas mumbled, not really caring if he really meant it or not as long as someone passed the mashed potatoes.
Three weeks later Vegas was slumped down in the beanbag hoping Eric would drop the subject and move on to another. “I don’t know,” he said, quietly.
Eric punched him in the arm. “Why are you so uptight?”
“It’s one hit of acid,” Eric flopped down on his bed. “It’s not going to make you jump off of a building. Haven’t you ever smoked dope?”
Vegas shook his head. “I’ve got enough to deal with without being stoned.”
Eric raised an eyebrow, “Being stoned makes it more fun.”
“You say that because you live with sweet, old people who don’t hear very well and go to bed at 9 PM.”
“8:30,” Eric corrected, rolling over. “Okay, look, we’ll do it here on the weekend. That way, you won’t have to deal with your mother or your sister.”
Vegas reached for his soda on the snack tray. “My sister moved out. She’s living with some guy.”
“Is that a yes?”
“Okay,” Vegas said, caving into peer pressure. “I’ll do it.”
The next day he got a hall pass from his Study Hall teacher so he could go to the library and do research for his English class. At one of the computer stations he pulled up a search engine and typed “LSD”. Lysergic acid diethylamide popped onto the screen. He glanced over his shoulder then scrolled down the page. His sanity teetered close to the edge on a day to day basis. Watching the ground breathe for twelve hours was a lot. These were things to consider. Finally he pushed back from the computer. He was supposed to be working on a report on Longfellow, due in two days. He didn’t get poetry but failing the report lumped him into a category with failures. Failures lumped him into a category with his mother. A fact that made his stomach churn.
A librarian pushed a cart in his direction. He closed the search engine on the screen and went looking for Longfellow. Standing in between the aisles, staring up at rows of books, he could smell the cigarette smoke still lingering on his jean jacket. His yellow stained fingertips trailed along the spines of books. Inside the books were the words of people who’d once been alive.
Just like him.
The bell rang.
Quickly he grabbed a book of Longfellow’s poetry and went to check out.
That weekend it became clear Eric was not going to take no for an answer. Little white squares of paper, as big as a pinky fingernail, lay on Eric’s desk for Vegas to see. “Where did you get these?” Vegas asked.
“Some kid I used to ride the bus with in middle school. His brother sells it on the side.”
Pushing a square with the tip of a pen, Vegas asked, “Have you taken it before?”
Eric raised an eyebrow. “What do you think?”
“What about your parents?”
“They’ll be safe in bed by 8:30. If it gets intense, we’ll go out in the garage.”
“What if it makes me sick?”
“Listen, stop being a freak. Put it on your tongue, close your eyes and lay back.”
“How will I know if it’s working?”
“Oh, you’ll know.”
On the count of three Vegas put his square on the tip of his tongue, watching Eric do the same. He expected it to taste bitter, but there was no taste whatsoever. Convinced the tasteless square was a dud, he laid back, his head falling softly to the pillow, and listened to the blissful peace of a normal house until he fell asleep.
His eyes popped open. Eric was standing in front of the television. Sweat beads glistened on his forehead. A wild, distant darkness filled his pupils. A Preacher on the T.V. was talking about everlasting salvation. Eric hugged himself tightly, swaying gently to organ music.
Vegas sat upright. The wall rushed away, then snapped back into place. That was weird , he thought. Eric let out a low moan, grabbed his pack of cigarettes and said, “I gotta smoke.”
Swinging his legs over the edge of the bed, Vegas stood on wobbly knees, not wanting to be alone. In the hallway, two nightlights lit a path to the kitchen. Faces of Jesus watched. Vegas stopped. The white face of Jesus, illuminated in the dim light, tilted left, then right. The house was dark, quiet.Peeking around the corner of the living room Vegas waited for his eyes to adjust to the moonlight. Rays of light floated, luminescent, in the air, with sparkling edges. The plastic runner protecting the carpet creaked loudly under his bare feet. Jesus lit up the mantle, washed in blue moonlight. Vegas walked to the picture and stopped. The clear glass frame was like a window. Jesus was on the other side, staring back. A thundering train of silence roared through his head. Unknown territory. This world and that world. Clear glass. Jesus in the window. Boom Boom Boom beat a drum in his heart, so loud, so intense.
“Hello,” he whispered.
Trying to orient himself, he turned, glancing around the entire room. His eyes swept back to the photo. The world fell away again. Now he was standing on a black platform under golden rays of light. Jesus shifted on the other side of the window.
“Do you know who I am?” Vegas whispered.
Vegas stepped closer, laying his palms on the mantle. A burst of warm, intense love shot through his chest. In slow motion Vegas tilted his head back, singing Michael row your boat ashore. “Hallelujah,” Vegas whispered.
Jesus stepped back from the glass. His robe and sandals came into view. Vegas stared, his eyes burning. Tears swelled in his eyes , a river flooding it’s banks. Drops fell down his cheeks. All of the water will rush out of me and I will be bones and dust , he thought.
Now Jesus was up close. Vegas touched the glass frame but his finger sunk through to the other side. Jesus touched the tip. “Yes,” Vegas said. “At last.”
Boom Boom Boom beat a drum in his heart.
“I’m right here,” Vegas whispered.
Vegas turned toward the noise.
Eric stood in the doorway. “What are you doing?”
“Talking,” Vegas whispered.
“Come on,” Eric urged. “Let’s go outside. I think I’m peaking.”
The night was alive. Vegas waved his fingertips through the air, touching trails of light. A deep, cold silence hummed. The crunch of footsteps on the hard ground was loud. He looked down at his bare feet.
Eric pulled open the side door to the garage, and stepped inside, swallowed by darkness. A light flashed on over head. Between dark and daylight. The Children’s Hour, Vegas thought. From lamplight descending. Broad star. Laughing Allegra. They seem to be everywhere. Words cascaded through his mind. Poems by Longfellow he’d spent the night reading. A fellow named Long. A fellow named Long. Arabs folding their tents. Dreary days. Sad heart.
“The wind is never weary,” Eric said.
Vegas looked over. “What?”
“That poem you’re reciting. It’s Longfellow.”
“How do you know that?”
“My mother was an English teacher for thirty-two years.”
Sometime later that morning Vegas woke, cramped in the beanbag on the floor of Eric’s bedroom. Trying to focus, he looked around and saw Eric passed out on the bed. A deep, metal taste on his tongue made him go in search of something to drink. Mrs. Lloyd was making breakfast in the kitchen.
“Oh, sorry,” Vegas said, rounding the corner, startling her.
“No need to worry,” she said . “Now I have company for breakfast.”
Trails of sunlight shimmered and danced like the streaks of light last night.
“Orange juice,” she asked?
“Yes, please,” he said quietly, hoping, praying, he wasn’t acting strange.
Gently, she set a bowl of cream of wheat on the table. A pool of butter melted in the middle. The sugar bowl was in the center of the table. As he reached for it sadness pushed up hard into his throat and chest. He missed his sister terribly and hated living alone with their mother. Horrified, he tried to swallow back the loneliness, but it flooded his eyes, washing over his cheeks. Every minute, of every year, caught up with him in that single instant. Unable to hide it, he tucked his chin into his chest and cried like a baby.
Slipping into her seat, Mrs. Lloyd patted his arm softly. “Is there something I can help you with?”
Not wanting to explain sixteen years of something he didn’t even have words for, he whispered, “Longfellow. I have a paper due on Longfellow and if I don’t turn it in, I’ll fail the class.”
Closing her eyes, Mrs. Lloyd nodded. She recited a line,“Be still, sad heart and cease repining; behind the clouds is the sun still shining.” She paused. “Longfellow. Yes, I can help you with that.”
Later that night Vegas climbed the cinder block steps, feeling thick, heavy. The day disappeared into dark edges rising up from the horizon. The smell of stale cigarette butts seeped through the crack below the trailer door. Light spilled out onto his face and hands as he jerked the door open. A deep dread burned in his throat as he stepped inside.
Adelle stumbled down the hall and stood in the doorway, wearing a long T-shirt. Her hair was a wild, prickly mess. Dark circles loomed under her eyes. Chipped red fingernail polish clung to her fingertips. Her bottom lip was swollen and bruised from god knows what.
After a moment she raised her eyes, letting them roam until they stopped on him. “Now that your sister is gone you’re going to have to start pulling some weight around here,” she said.
Avoiding eye contact, he spoke to the linoleum, “Sure.”
“Hey,” she growled.
Vegas bit his bottom lip and looked up.
Slinging powdered cleanser all over the kitchen, she screamed, “Clean the sink.”
“I have homework.”
Adelle laughed, deep and throaty. “That’s a joke.” She lumbered over, jamming her finger into his chest. “I bet you don’t even go to school anymore . Really , what do you do now that that scheming sister of yours is gone?” The cracked Formica table jammed into the back of his legs. “What do you do ?” She repeated, ramming her finger harder with each word.
“Nothing.” He ducked his head to escape her sour breath. “I just go to school and hang out.”
Tossing her head back, he could see crusted blood on her chin. “In all these years not one girl has come home with you. What’s with you? You don’t like girls? Maybe Rydell’s been sa sa sa sa sa sucking you off in his wagon.” A raw, mean intent flickered in her eyes as she mimicked Rydell’s stutter. Her pupils were dark, black holes. Spit and blood spewed from her mouth.
He was about to tell her about how Rydell cared more about him and Hollywood than she ever did or would. His mouth dropped open to scream, but the back of his hand was across her face before he realized what happened. Blood spurted from her bottom lip. Vegas grabbed her by the mouth, squeezing his fingers deep into her cheeks. “You’ll shut up. That’s what you’ll do!”
Slapping him hard in the face, she screamed, “I’m calling Bud.”
Vegas let go of his mother and ran for his room. He knew now he had to leave. The doors were too flimsy to keep her out. He heard her grab the phone. He knew he could take Adelle, but he couldn’t take Bud, the new redneck boyfriend. Bud was three times his size, mean and looking for a fight.
Vegas grabbed a duffel bag, shoving whatever he could find inside. He’d always known this day was coming. Heart pounding, he grabbed the gorilla with money Hollywood had left him and stuffed it in his bag. Glancing down, he saw blood all over his hand. A wave of contempt slammed into him, bile rising in his throat. Unable to stop it, he leaned over, vomiting on the floor, desperately wiping the blood on the blanket he’d ripped from the window.
Down the hall, Adelle screamed, “You’re dead meat. Bud is on his way!”
Vegas shoved faster. His hands shook violently. Bud lived about eight minutes away and was likely to make it in half the time. He jerked the window open and pushed the bag through, watching it fall to the ground, sending a plume of dust into the air. Then he climbed up on his bed, and slid one leg through, then the other. The window creaked horribly under his weight so he pushed off fast, landing on the ground, falling to his knees. He picked up his bag and ran. In the cold, still night he heard Bud’s big rig rumbling down the road. The moon peeked out from behind the clouds, illuminating the path that led through the woods.
Boom Boom Boom beat a drum in his heart, so loud, so intense.
Later that night he sat on a creaky motel bed. He counted the money in the gorilla and called his sister.
“Arkansas? What are you doing in Arkansas?” Hollywood exclaimed.
“I left her.”
“You got any money?”
“I got everything you taught me and the gorilla.”
Her voice cracked. “How in the world did you get from South Carolina to Arkansas?”
“I ran to the bus station.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I’ll get a job. I’m almost eighteen. I can send you money, Hollywood.”
A deep, full sigh enveloped the distance. “I know how to rustle cowboys, baby. I’ll be fine.”
He reached for the map of the United States, sliding his finger across the country, stopping on the city of bright lights that shared his name.
“Hey, Vegas?” his sister said.
“She was always like that. It wasn’t you or me. It was her.”
“Do you want me to come back and get you?”
So far away, he heard her hair swishing against the receiver as she shook her head. “No, baby. Not this time. You get back on that highway. When that bus pulls out of the station, look back and laugh.”
Vegas sighed. “Ten four.”
“Ten four, little brother.”
He heard a click. The line went dead. Holding the phone close to his ear, the sound of his breath echoed so that he imagined she was still there, still hanging on the other end. A strange silence hovered in the wires. Slowly, he laid back on the bed, pretending to float. Turning his head he glanced out his motel window. The curtains were open in the middle. A stream of light cracked the darkness wide open. In the cool silence, he whispered the only line he remembered. “And the night shall be filled with music and the cares that infest the day shall fold their tents like the Arabs, and as silently steal away.”