Divorce twins, the girls could be cruel. Tiny’s stepdaughters May and Annie were strong beyond her understanding: smart mouthed, sensible, defiant. They had their own private kingdom of science fiction speak and candy jewelry and laughing fits brought on mostly by spelling Mississippi as fast as possible. They wore princess costumes with everything, even raincoats, and their braids were always unraveling in little blue-black flames. The girls also carried magic wands and made a point to mention after the fact that you were not sitting on a barstool but very large toadstool. From now on your shoes would be skis, your hair licorice, your fingernails mirrors—all transformations that made them laugh cynical, divorce-kid laughter. In the kitchen now, May swirled a wand of glitter and feathers and warned Tiny, “Turn you into a tree, we shall.”
Chin in hand, Tiny glanced from the oven door and said, “Be sweet and sing me a song instead.” The girls did a rare thing and obeyed:
Dinah’s dead! Dinah’s dead!
Oh, how’d she die?
Well, she died like this! Well, she died like this!
“Don’t y’all know anything else?”
May and Annie stood in flip contra pasto, unblinking, knowing in fact quite a bit. They sang:
Tiny’s dead! Tiny’s dead!
“—I think it’s time y’all go y’all asses to bed.”
“Think?” Annie said. “Is that what you think you do?” Was this alien talk or not? Tiny leaned forward to slap her hand threateningly against the counter. Her stepdaughters ran upstairs shrieking in victory and with a wave of their wands changed the knoll post to a monkey, the living room into a mini mall.
Least the kitchen was quiet. Alone, Tiny stood from the island and glanced around where everything, even the refrigerator, was hidden by walnut cabinetry. It was her husband Victor’s doing and she could not get used to it. In the three years they had been married, she had never known him to show an interest in home décor, but now that he was finished playing basketball, he’d taken up golf and magazine reading and stuffing the house with things that suited neither one of them. Tiny had to wonder, Was this their house? Hard to tell from the farmhouse sink or the tiger’s eye granite counters from Spain. Both were weighted by a self-consciousness and belaboring that she felt belied a type of fashion that had never interested them before, and what they revealed to her now was that she and Victor had changed.
Nights like these, Tiny would pull a bottle of vodka from the freezer and sit in the windowsill to listen to people race down the dock and splash into the lake, the whole house filled with purple moonlight and ringing with electricity. But eventually, after a few drinks, her eye was drawn back to itself. In the glass of the oven door Tiny caught the reflection of her face: half antelope, half kindergartener, canopied by a too fashionable haircut that she really regretted. She had meant for her hair to signify a change that she was fine with, but every time she saw this haircut on other women she thought they were lesbians.
May and Annie’s games of transformation began that week, the first week of June, when they had come to stay with their father for the month. Their visit overlapped with Marcus’, Victor’s brother, who took full advantage of his first vacation in years and invited a different friend to the house each weekend. His three women—Francine, Demetria, and Jackie—were all five feet ten inches tall, of various ages and zodiac signs. They could be counted on to tell stories of survival and betrayal to which May and Annie were always eavesdropping and writing spells. Tiny accepted these interruptions with somnambulant enthusiasm, mixing greyhounds and offering small talk that she hoped would circle back to silence.
She had no other place to be. The weather was easy but the lawns were dying. Lights on the lake gave the impression of children and happiness. Summer had just started.
Now as Tiny looked out the window and onto the driveway, there was only Victor shooting and sinking three pointers on predetermined arcs. As of the previous year Victor had become a retired professional basketball player of twelve seasons, five franchises, and three championship rings, but now he was ready for a comeback. Tiny and Victor had been on vacation in Barbados escaping winter and contractual theatrics when they learned he had been released from San Antonio. He had just gotten out of the shower and was seated at the edge of the bed, naked, holding the telephone across his lap like a taupe cat. “I should’ve done all my interviews naked,” Victor said later. Tiny remembered the look of total resignation that had taken root in his face and how clear the sky and ocean were behind him. She didn’t like to remember Victor that way and yet she often did.
Tiny couldn’t say what got Victor outside and practicing, thinking that if he trained hard enough, he could play ball again, but she knew better than to argue. Once, you get to the point of arguing, you’re past the point of changing somebody’s mind, and she did not want to be so desperate as to try to change somebody’s mind. Plus it felt like a betrayal to Tiny that she didn’t believe as Victor did that he had a chance. So she chopped her hair, took up swimming, jumped on the bed. She was impossible. But Victor was impossible too. He had changed, Tiny thought brutally.
She became a woman who knew the importance of thinking politely when every sports network was saying what they really meant: This is a guy who’s reliable and committed, but no longer good, and Lanier looks like he mixed his whites with his reds. Whatever that meant. Victor seemed to understand or maybe it was his posture that understood. Muscle memory for failure. It’s all right, Tiny kept saying with her expression, but Victor was saying it with more soul—waxing on the careers of guys who’d played into their early forties. And other times, Tiny would catch him in the backseat of her convertible, Victor listening to sports radio, his size fourteens pressed to the dashboard, her Victor looking tragic but straining to keep hope, like a great big chocolate bunny that if cracked open, would reveal nothing.
“Hey, baby,” Victor called through the window now like someone who had not had two corrective surgeries and done internet research of European teams. Tiny watched him dribble the ball between his legs, go behind the back and cross over, just to warm up. Then, he raised his eyebrows like he was going to do something nasty but it was no big deal. He took two steps past an imaginary defender and floated up, up to the hoop jamming it through to his forearm. All grace and muscle. He would turn thirty-seven in September.
“You’re so silky,” Tiny called out. Shame whipped through her. “Is that why I married you?”
Victor picked up the ball, sifted it in his fingers. “I think you married me because I said yes.”
The next day was the second Saturday of June and the sky filled up with frowning gray clouds that kept multiplying. “Brush fires,” Marcus explained through a mouthful of oysters. “There’s been eleven in the last week but the closest one is in Dripping Springs.”
Tiny didn’t know where Dripping Springs was. “Should I worry about this?” she said.
“You could,” said Marcus with a little smile.
Tiny saw the attraction, at times. Marcus had a nice face, square and blushing. A head of temperate waves, smoky yellowish eyes like ginger tea, and a slender gap between his front teeth through which he was always grinning as though he had gotten away with something. A botanist, usually Marcus lived in Dallas where he was cultivating an endangered plant species that got confused often with sego palms. Each time the phone rang, he started that way with a hand in his pocket, knowing the call was for him.
Francine was the first of his three visitors. She arrived at noon humming soap opera instrumental, hair smelling of burnt mesquite. She stomped into the kitchen carrying a plate of oysters Rockefeller like a waitress, half of which she had gobbled down driving in from Round Rock, half of which Marcus ate by reaching over her shoulder as she twisted awkwardly on the kitchen barstool, because she just could not stop looking at him. As she smiled Francine’s face produced deep curving dimples, and her arrowhead nose dove recklessly into her mouth. Her teeth were short and girlish, and white violent curls gushed up from her head and into the world. Against her skin a drop of cane syrup would be lost. Not a bad eventual appearance, Tiny thought. And touched by her own feelings for Francine’s anxiousness and beauty, Tiny mixed a round of greyhounds.
Francine announced that she had seen the light of an alien space craft the night before. The space craft had been travelling slower than an air plane but faster than a satellite and, “Just as I realized what I was witnessing,” said Francine, “it vanished.”
“That was the international space station,” Marcus said, before giving a short lesson in orbital mechanics.
Watching him, Francine said to May and Annie, “Seemed like a spaceship to me.” They looked up from their coloring books to nod in agreement. As Francine slid her glass across the island to get topped off, Tiny figured her for one those women who rouse in little girls a shame for feeling pity for another person and at the same time a strong urge to hide those feelings.
Halfway into her second drink, Francine reached for Tiny’s wrist, starting in on her right away. Francine told Tiny how she hadn’t known about her husband’s mistress. Friends said it was obvious. Francine said she had no idea. She drove to Hempstead imagining Bo Derek the black (her words) but was disappointed when a woman with rainbow colored hair and three children hugging her legs answered the door. The woman said Francine was stupid not to have known. “Nearly had a heart attack driving down there,” Francine said. “But I had to see her face. I had to know the truth.”
All this knowing! Looking celingward Tiny said, “There isn’t any point in finding the truth.”
“From a biblical standpoint,” said Francine, “you’re right. If Jesus said ‘I am the truth’ and man killed Him, then there’s no more truth in the world. In that way it is pointless to look for truth.”
Tiny knew lots of people like Francine. Some people could talk forever telling all they knew, trying to get out what was wrong with them. But it wasn’t her problem. The ones that looked vulnerable were everyone else. They all looked like porcelain thems. Like they were fixing to break.
“I don’t know about any of that,” Tiny said with an air of defense. When she looked up again, Marcus was watching her. She had known many men to listen closely but never speak up.
“I didn’t either,” said Francine dragging a hand down her arm. “I just wanted to win,” she said.
The phone rang. Marcus picked up, listened for a while, and then slammed down the receiver. Then he put a hand in his pocket and smoothly walked away. Francine gave Tiny a look that meant it was all right. Really, it was all right with her.
“Say,” said Francine giving the side eye and crunching ice. “What’s that you don’t know about anyway: Jesus or Winning?”
Tiny studied Francine’s hair, from the hairline to the flickering ends. “Neither.”
“So what do you know?”
May and Annie drew crude pictures of women torturing men. One wearing a skirt suit had a tapeworm spiraling out her mouth, and it was choking the man to death. Francine laughed ruefully. She said, “Maybe in y’all’s lifetime.”
“Can you swim?” Tiny said. “Do you want to go for a swim?”
Francine nodded towards the lake as though it stood a likelier chance at understanding her. “That water is about the only thing that ain’t on fire.”
“Y’all want to go swimming?” Tiny said to the girls.
“Only if I wanted to drown,” said May.
The alarm beeped twice. Victor came through the living room dragging in a bag of golf clubs and fur pillows. He was crude oil black, towering, and his nose was underlined by a mustache that spread wide like a pair of crow wings. Every time Tiny saw Victor she felt something wake up inside her.
“Take me to the lake,” Tiny said.
They sat on the dock watching some kids in the distance turn flips off a party boat. Victor talked about maybe playing for Denver and mentioned the names of some old heads that only came in the game to knock down the winning shot because they had nothing to lose. Heat rushed into Tiny’s ears and she knew she was going to say something. Now was her chance to tell him that maybe he didn’t want to do that. Not really.
“Could be more,” Victor said, scratching through his mustache. “Could get into the rotation. I know I can still play.” His voice reminded her of learning lower case and upper case letters, how the lower case letters were stuck in a basement.
So Tiny jumped into the lake, swam a ways out, and started flailing and splashing around. Victor stood up at once and asked several times if she was drowning. Tiny kicked, swatted, sank. At any moment she was sure Victor would dive in, splitting water from water, to save her. But as she drifted lower and lower, the lake’s ceiling moved with an unconcerned kind of slow motion and she was alone.
Deep in the water, a question came to her: What am I doing? For a woman who was pretending to drown, this was not a stupid question. Again and again Tiny asked herself: What am I doing? What am I doing? What am I—until she realized she was almost out of air and no longer drifting placidly, but swimming wildly to the surface, her legs and arms thrashing on their own.
In the time it took her to swim back to the dock, Tiny’s moment of reflection began to blur. The question was no longer What am I doing? so much as it was What am I going to?
Victor sat at the edge of the dock where she’d left him. His feet were rooted in the water and he was sulking.
“You were going to let me drown,” said Tiny.
“Tiesha,” Victor barked. He studied her with an expression of concern and uncomplicated devotion. “You weren’t really drowning.”
Behind this reproach, Tiny experienced a blip of emotion, something like the sound of fork banged against a frying pan. Like satisfaction. The kind Tiny believed she and Victor might share on resolving a horrible fight. Again!
“But I could have been drowning,” she said. She was smiling big, with everything she owned from the neck up.
At noon the following day Tiny rose up from the sofa and drove into town. In a shop on Guadalupe she bought a pair of expensive, gold palazzo pants, though she did not usually wear pants. In the bathroom Victor stood back as she pulled the zipper up her hip. “You don’t usually wear pants,” he said. Tiny blushed and in the mirrors the conjoined faces of two women also blushed. It was a nice idea to think that one look had made her felt fraudulent, but the feeling of fraudulence had started way before that.
The next weekend Demetria came with her own liquor, monogrammed luggage, and teenage son Isaiah. “Like a doll with accessories,” Tiny whispered. At five in the morning she woke to the sounds of Demetria rifling the drawers for cigarettes, telling Marcus, “You want breakfast in bed so bad, why you don’t sleep in the kitchen?” Tiny had to admit what a real genius Demetria had for saying whatever leapt into and then exploded in her head. To a magazine: “That woman wears enough polyester to start a fire.” To the television: “He couldn’t get it up with a ladder.” After lunch when the telephone started to ring, Demetria joked that Marcus must’ve owed somebody a lot of money. “It’s too easy for the good looking ones to turn into bums,” she said. Minutes later Demetria was arguing with Marcus pointing a bladelike hand at his chest, standing up suddenly, snapping for a startled Isaiah to follow. May and Annie looked at Demetria offended, one whispering in the other’s ear, the other writing a note.
To her disappointment, Tiny found that she could not stop looking at Demetria. She’d known girls like that in high school. Something about them got the boys to run after them when for girls Tiny, the same boys would simply call her name, knowing that would be enough. It struck Tiny that Demetria had become one of those women for whom the future hadn’t actually happened.
“Say Vic,” Demetria said, “you won two championships with Kyle Watkins, right? In Detroit?”
The sudden attention stirred him. He straightened his back and crossed his legs. “One in Boston,” Victor said. “Two in San Antonio.”
But Demetria’s face was bright with the memory of Kyle Watkins. “He can really pat that rock. I mean! What was that like? Playing with guys like that?”
“Nice,” Victor said, meaning it. Tiny could see that he regretted saying even this. Less than five minutes later he headed for the back door with a nine iron. As he passed by she reached a hand out to squeeze his.
Isaiah took residence at the piano, avenging the keys. “This is how Lester Young would have imposed a scale on a sequence of chords,” he told Tiny. As he played Demetria stared with the pouty look of an ex-girlfriend. Isaiah probably did not get invited to parties often and his mother took it personally. “Lester Young was vertically minded,” Isaiah said. “Everyone ought to be more vertically minded.”
Marcus turned up the volume. Isaiah sent up a lustful groan that went ignored. May and Annie wrote something down. On television a famous pastor told his congregation, I ain’t gone be on well fare! I’m gone fair well!
“If the television has got to be on,” Demetria said, “please put it onto something I can even understand!”
On the next channel an attractive middle aged woman reported that Possum Kingdom Lake and Gladewater were both ravishing in flames. Crop dusters flew across the screen pissing a red mist onto the fires below.
“We’re almost completely surrounded,” Marcus said. “But it’s probably all right.”
“What does that mean?” Tiny said. “What should we do?”
“About nature?” Marcus said. “All you can do is get out of the way.”
“Isn’t anyone going to tell us what to do?”
The girls took notes and when they stared at Tiny, it seemed as though they were hiding their mouths.
After everyone had gone to bed, Isaiah played Nardis, then Acknowledgement, then Love Call for Tiny. He told her he wanted them to play In My Life at his funeral—not the one by the Beatles but the one by Matthew Larkin Cassell. He said what we ought to be fighting are these commercials and anything that robs us of independent thought, all the while running his ashy claws up and down the keys, playing with an unbearable cleanness. Tiny listened, her expression pleased and automatic. Isaiah said anyone who gets eaten by a shark probably deserved it, then he played her all nine minutes of Springtime Again.
“You have to align yourself with the music,” Isaiah said. “You can’t step all over it. Nothing works right if you step all over it—can you think of one thing?”
“I can’t,” she said and ran a hand through her unfortunate hair.
Marcus’ sex life intervened. From his bedroom, Tiny and Isaiah heard the rhythmic sounds of requests being answered and demands being made. This went on for quite some time. Then Tiny pressed the lowest black key. She did it again. Isaiah looked at her. She pressed the lowest black key a third time. He played high E.
Tiny waited until Victor had lined up to tee off before asking, “Are you sexually attracted to Demetria?”
“She said, ‘A hit dog will holler.’ Hell does that even mean?”
Tiny licked the fold of her lips tasting burnt mesquite. Everything smelled and tasted like burnt mesquite. “That’s not what I asked you,” she said.
“I’m too old to be sexually attracted to anyone.”
“Impossible,” said Tiny, but she could tell Victor wouldn’t argue.
Instead he pointed to into a fold of smoke clouds, swung, and hit the ball two hundred yards straight into the lake.
Later, Tiny searched the sideboard for music similar to what Isaiah would have played, but the closest thing they had was Olen Dearborne. She played a little Olen Dearborne. Something about his voice reminded Tiny of the man before Victor. This man had told her, You act like you’re going to get all these second chances, when there ain’t none. Tiny almost believed him. She felt that her life was waiting on her somewhere else, that other people were waiting on her there too. That’s heaven, the man had said and she remembered the illustrations that the teacher had waved in an arc during Sunday school, of whole families dressed in white, everyone straining to see what was in front. I don’t believe in that, Tiny had told him. Well, that’s what you’re talking about, he had said, Heaven.
Annie had hidden the wound for five hours, trying to reach the two weeks later when she and her sister would return to their mother. You? Tiny thought studying her, this courageous little first grader who under the guidance of her big sister had perfected the mean mug. Tiny found it difficult to tell how she felt about Annie which is to say more than she had been aware of. She poured the peroxide down Annie’s knee, blew away the explosion. Annie screamed and hollered and May stood with her head cocked to the side, recording everything for the future. Annie screamed because only six years had passed since she had been born and the pain of scraping her knee was a nothing compared to the anger she had always felt. Taking advantage of the pain, she hollered a throat scouring holler at the present and the past—but especially at the future.
Tiny ran the faucet as hot as it would go and lay in the bath tub for hours. She dreamt of Isaiah motioning for her to follow, a woman’s intercom voice repeating, we’re vulnerable, we’re vulnerable, we’re vulnerable… In the morning Victor looked at her strangely, before saying, “So how do you take a bath in your clothes?” After lunch Jackie arrived from the airport and everyone went to the park except for tiny who walked as far as the front yard. The sky filled up with pinched cheek clouds and along the fence, the birds formed a line of symbols and characters. Tiny was relieved to be let alone but somehow felt shrunken. She spent the afternoon walking around the house looking at brocade swatches and rearranging the plants, waiting, she realized, for Victor to return.
One Friday night, Tiny woke up off the bathroom floor to jerk up the telephone. On the line an automated message warned the people of central Texas against going outside because of the fires. Tiny listened to the voice moving slowly against the cold tiles, struggling up against a head rush. She had hoped someone was calling for her.
When she entered the living room, Jackie gave her the once over and raised her glass. Marcus looked her in the eye until she looked away. Victor crossed his legs, staring with muted annoyance. Below him, the girls lay on the rug singing joyful songs of practicality:
Oh Miss Mary
Girl, don’t you be a bum
Don’t forget to wa-ter the ma-in-law’s tongue!
“You fall asleep in the bathtub?” Victor said.
“No,” said Tiny. “Why?”
“Your clothes,” said Jackie, “are sopping wet.”
Tiny returned in almost the same demeanor only now wearing one of Victor’s practice jerseys and a pair of gold palazzo pants, carrying bottles of vodka and grapefruit juice. Jackie winked and held out her glass.
“I’ve always depended on the kindness of sisters.”
“That makes two of us,” Marcus said.
Taking a closer look at Marcus, Tiny frowned, seeing just how little joy he allowed himself. How he needed to feel apart from that joy, how he needed other people to feel apart from it too—especially women. Tiny caught a vision of herself flailing around in the lake, then walking into the living room drenched from the bathtub. Joy vampire. How, she wondered, was she any better than Marcus?
Crossing her arms, Jackie called him a drunk monkey.
“I’m a drunk plant maker,” Marcus said and drained his glass.
“If nobody knows the difference between your plant and a sego palm,” Jackie said, “then what’s the goddamn point?”
Tiny noted how over the short course of Jackie’s weekend, Jackie’s face flashed and dispatched only three things: amusement, betrayal, and mischief. Her face was accented by a spray of freckles and a set of black brickish eyebrows that came together whether she was smiling or not. But that look in her eyes, those liquid, black eyes that seemed to take in a disproportionate amount of information as compared to other eyes. Once at a museum Tiny had seen that look in the eyes of a stuffed cocker spaniel that stood on his hind legs wearing a sandwich board that announced, I AM DEAD!
“For starters,” Marcus said, “mine doesn’t produce carcinogens and she can fertilize herself. Most women your age are interested in fertility.”
“What women?” Jackie shouted. “Speak, goon!”
Marcus looked her square in the face and said: “Francine, Demetria…”
Jackie waved a hand. “Fuck this man.”
Marcus stood up and made moves to go to bed, one robotic pelvic thrust after another. “One step at a time,” he said.
“Don’t you take them too fast, nigger, hear?”
Once he was gone, Tiny passed the bottle. “There’s been a disruption of our seismic senses, as to what passes for common decency.” Jackie only shrugged which made Tiny regret having said anything; she glanced at Victor. May and Annie stood at his knees, competing to show him their violent drawings. Victor sat back pleased at his daughter’s ideas of humanity.
“I don’t take it personally,” said Jackie. “Marcus talks about other women because he ain’t made up of nothing else but other women.” Jackie smiled reluctantly and sipped her drink. “I’ve learned it’s hard to say no when you’re always given the opportunity to say yes.”
From Victor’s lap, May looked at Jackie accusingly and whispered into Annie’s ear.
“Y’all let them wear their church dresses every day?”
“They’re princess dresses,” Tiny said. “We don’t go to church.”
Jackie kept her cocker spaniel eyes on the girls. “I think everyone ought to have pretty things.”
Through the windows, a boy on the lake giving his last speech: “If this is the end, let it be known! The soul never thought I would crumble reason only to develop soul!” Tiny turned her head to look in the direction of the voice but the windows were pressed with flexing clouds. Tiny tried counting the brain wrinkles in the clouds. Below them May and Annie wrote furiously. “On that note,” said Victor. He took the girls to bed with Jackie at his heels, volunteering to help. Later Jackie returned shrugging, swirling her glass. “One look at me and they tell Vic, “ ‘In our room, her, we don’t want.’ It doesn’t bother me,” Jackie insisted. “I had a stepdaughter, have a daughter still. It doesn’t bother me in the least.”
Tiny tried to lay back into the sofa like Demetria would. “Nothing bothers you.”
“Marcus is a Taurus,” Jackie said serenely. “When he’s dancing, he seems amused at how good he moves.” She gave Tiny one of her a wry smiles but Tiny knew that if she were not there, Jackie would be giving wry smiles to everyone. “My ex-husband was a Taurus,” Jackie said. “He thought it would be a great idea to give me a ball gown as a present, once. You don’t know me but you’ve probably gathered that I’m not one who’d get much use from a ball gown. Dresses worry me. If I start wearing elegant dresses will I be expected to be elegant? Fashion like that would change my whole style and if they change my style then they’d change me. And then what? Would I find out in change that I like myself better now or before? Or neither way?”
Grinning with anxiety, Tiny said, “So you burned it.”
Jackie leaned forward, eyebrows up, pleased. “I gave it to my step-daughter and she wore the dress to everything. She let somebody wrestle her into the pool while she had it on. Just like my ex-husband, she doesn’t know to value nice things. Just thinks she ought to have them.
“But the problem is that I have a daughter of my own, and I never once thought to give the dress to her. Still, she wasn’t jealous that I’d given it to her step-sister. Somehow this really hurt me. Somehow it would’ve made me feel good to see my daughter become jealous. Suddenly nothing was about that dress, even though my ex-husband was the one to give it to me, even though I thought I was doing a brave thing in giving it away. Although it was pretty, the dress didn’t matter. I was upset that my daughter wasn’t interested in pretty things.
Tiny crossed her legs, and hearing fabrics scratch she became embarrassed about the pants and jersey. She tried at pushing her eyes elsewhere and they turned like triangular wheels to the chesterfield sofa upholstered in cream leather. Nothing matched. A bead of water rolled from her neck to the middle of her back where it ceased rolling. As she looked back, Jackie was already watching. Jackie raised the empty glass to her lips and took an imaginary sip.
“I asked my daughter again,” said Jackie, “ ‘Why don’t you let me get you nice things?’ She said, ‘You don’t think we should have them.’ What could I say? She was right. She said, ‘Self-pity is honesty in a funhouse mirror and nobody wants to be in a funhouse too long.’ Fifteen years old. I didn’t ask anything else. The point is, she had beat me! My husband had given me the dress to change me—I saw that after the divorce. And somehow my daughter’s rejection of it was a rejection against change. Against the future, even. That’s what you have to do. You have to flat out reject the future.”
Tiny laughed abruptly and glanced out the window, hands cupped around her glass. “Isn’t that the truth,” she said. Bizarrely, the truth did not matter now, just as it did not matter whether or not she ever saw Jackie again. Together they were only a pair of stranded girls, no longer young enough to ignore it, each trying to elicit something meaningful from the other’s presence, or at least something reassuring and pleasant. Tiny set down her glass and ran a hand down the damp velvet of her leg. “At first I wasn’t sure about these pants,” she said, “but I think they’re starting to grow on me.”
“Yeah,” said Jackie looking up and down. “They’re starting to grow on me too.”
On the last Sunday of the month May and Annie’s mother stood in the kitchen
holding the twig-limbed puppy that she had purchased in town for three hundred dollars. The puppy was afraid but Marvina told Tiny that she was not. “The planes got it to where the fires can’t hardly spread,” Marvina said. “Later y’all will remember me saying I was never scared.” The present and former Mrs. Lanier stood over Victor. He kept hugging May and Annie goodbye, their nostrils flaring in an attitude of tried patience.
Tiny considered the puppy. While visiting the wife of one’s children’s father, one must always have a guard puppy—preferably one that can defuse resentment with a gaze of overwhelming preciousness. This dog was not the one. Tiny watched him scratch himself with little black claws that seemed absolutely insufficient. Speechless breathing things made her sorry.
Tiny poured herself a drink and walked upstairs. In the bedroom she looked out onto acres of burning forests. Her family, the one she had chosen and the ones who had been thrust upon her, stood around on the walkway. How had this happened? The sun started on a slow boulder roll from the tomb and into the forests where it seemed to melt entirely. Tippling her glass, Tiny looked down at the yard again, but everyone was gone.
But then as she stood on the balcony, she was struck with a strange impulse. She set down her glass with a dull thud, straddled the banister, and pointed her foot towards the trellis. There was a pleasant anticipation to the descent. Her heart was beating in her face and hands. When she reached the bottom, she ran across the lawn to the driveway, pulsing with dread. But what she felt never lasted very long, what she felt always came to an end, sometimes never to return. So Tiny ran, relishing the moment, razed by its fire, and the forest fires thrashed and glowed.
“Victor!” Tiny yelled. She was almost breathless.
Victor was kneeling under the basketball goal tying his shoes. He turned and stood and, too far away, loomed like a dinosaur. And Tiny saw herself as he must have, as some strange woman coming towards him who his gaze had accidentally approached. He tried to appear casual but was waiting for her with an attentiveness that seemed to smoke out from his body and became concentrated in his profile, in his pointed ear. Staring at Victor’s ear Tiny said, “Hey, boy.” She hadn’t known what she’d meant to say but it wasn’t this.
Victor winked, both disappointed and relieved. He stepped to the top of the key where he dribbled five times and spun the ball to himself. The jump shot, Tiny had heard, was the first thing to go. You had to work at that sort of thing or else you lost it.