Fiction May 2011

Herman Wouk Is Still Alive

Special Report: How Genius Works Brenda should be happy. The kids are quiet, the road stretches ahead of her like an airport runway, she's behind the wheel of a brand-new van. The speedometer reads 70. Nonetheless, that grayness has begun to creep over her again. The van isn't hers, after all. She'll have to give it back. A foolish expense, really, because what's at the far end of this trip, up in Mars Hill? She looks at her old friend. Jasmine is looking back at her. The van, now doing almost a hundred miles an hour, begins to drift. Jasmine gives a small nod. Brenda nods back. Then she pushes down harder with her foot, trying to find the van's carpeted floor.
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Image credit: From The Portland Press Herald, September 19, 2009

I. BRENDA HITS PICK-4 FOR $2,700 AND RESISTS HER FIRST IMPULSE.

Instead of going out for a bottle of Orange Driver to celebrate with, she pays off the MasterCard, which has been maxed like forever. Then calls Hertz and asks a question. Then calls her friend Jasmine, who lives in North Berwick, and tells her about the Pick-4. Jasmine screams and says, “Girl, you’re rich!”

If only. Brenda explains how she paid off the credit card so she can rent a Chevy Express if she wants to. It’s a van that seats nine, that’s what the Hertz girl told her. “We could get all the kids in there and drive up to Mars Hill. See your folks and mine. Show off the grandchildren. Squeeze ’em for a little more dough. What do you think?”

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Jasmine is dubious. The glorified shack her folks call home doesn’t have room, and she wouldn’t want to stay with them even if it did. She hates those two. With good reason, Brenda knows; her own father broke Jasmine in at fifteen. Her mother knew what was going on and did nothing. When Jasmine went to her in tears, her ma said, “You got nothing to worry about, he’s had his nuts cut.”

Jas married Mitch Robicheau to get away from them, and now, three men, four kids, and eight years later, she’s on her own. And on welfare, although she gets sixteen hours a week at the Roll Around, handing out skates and making change for the video arcade, where the machines take only special tokens. They let her bring her two youngest. Delight sleeps in the office and Truth, her three-year-old, wanders around in the arcade hitching at his diapers. He doesn’t get into too much trouble, although last year he got head lice and the two women had to shave all his hair off. How he howled.

“There’s six hundred left over after I paid off the credit balance,” Brenda says. “Well, four hundred if you count the rental, only I don’t, because I can put that on MasterCard. We could stay at the Red Roof, watch Home Box. It’s free. We can get takeout from downstreet and the kids can swim in the pool. What do you say?”

From behind her comes yelling. Brenda raises her voice and screams, “Freddy, you stop teasing your sister and give that back!” Then, oh goody, their squabbling wakes up the baby. Either that or Freedom has messed in her diapers and awakened herself. Freedom always messes in her diapers. To Brenda it seems like Free is making poop her life’s work. Takes after her father that way.

“I suppose …” Jasmine says, drawing suppose out to four syllables. Maybe five.

“Come on, girl! Road trip! Get with the program! We take the bus down to the Jetport and rent the van. Three hundred miles, we can be there in four hours. The girl says they can watch DVDs. The Little Mermaid and all that good stuff.”

“Maybe I could get some of that government money from my ma before it’s all gone,” Jasmine says thoughtfully. Her brother Tommy died the year before, in Afghanistan. IED. Her ma and dad got eighty thousand out of it. Her ma has promised her some, although not when the old man is in hearing distance of the phone. Of course it may be gone already. Probably is. She knows Mr. Romance bought a Yamaha rice rocket, although what he wants with a thing like that at his age, Jasmine has no idea. And she knows things like government money are mostly a mirage. This is something they both know. Every time you see bright stuff, somebody turns on the rain machine. The bright stuff is never colorfast.

“Come on,” Brenda says. She has fallen in love with the idea of loading up the van with kids and her best (her only) friend from high school, who ended up living just one town over. Both of them on their own, seven kids between them, too many lousy men in the rearview, but sometimes they still have a little fun.

She hears a thunk sound. Freddy starts to scream. Glory has whopped him in the eye with an action figure.

Glory you stop that or I’ll tear you a new one!” Brenda screams.

He won’t give back my Powerpuff!” Glory shrieks, and she starts to cry. Now they’re all crying—Freddy, Glory, and Freedom—and for a moment grayness creeps over Brenda’s vision. She’s seen a lot of that grayness lately. Here they are in a three-room third-floor apartment, no guy in the picture (Tim, the latest in her life, took off six months ago), living pretty much on noodles and Pepsi and that cheap ice cream they sell at Walmart, no air-conditioning, no cable TV, she had a job at the Quik-Flash store but the company went busted and now the store’s an On the Run and the manager hired some Taco Paco to do her job because Taco Paco can work twelve or fourteen hours a day. Taco Paco wears a do-rag on his head and a nasty little mustache on his upper lip and he’s never been pregnant. Taco Paco’s job is to get girls pregnant. They fall for that little mustache and then boom, the line in the little drugstore testing gadget turns blue and here comes another one, just like the other one.

Brenda has personal experience; she tells people she knows who Freddy’s father is, but she really doesn’t, she had a few drunk nights when they all looked good, and really, come on, how is she supposed to look for a job anyway? She’s got these kids. What’s she supposed to do, leave Freddy to mind Glory and take Freedom to the goddamn job interviews? Sure, that’ll work. And what is there, besides drive-up-window girl at Mickey D’s or the Booger King? Portland has a couple of strip clubs, but wide loads like her don’t get that kind of work, and everyone else is broke.

She reminds herself she hit the lottery. She reminds herself they could be in a couple of air-conditioned rooms tonight at the Red Roof—three, even! Why not? Things are turning around!

“Brennie?” Her friend sounds more doubtful than ever. “Are you still there?”

“Yeah,” she says. “Come on, girl, I’m approved. The Hertz chick says the van is red.” She lowers her voice and adds: “Your lucky color.”

“Did you pay off the credit card online? How’d you do that?” Jasmine knows what happened to Brenda’s laptop. Freddy and Glory got fighting last month and knocked Brenda’s laptop off the bed. It fell on the floor and broke.

“I used the one at the library.” She says it the way she grew up in Mars Hill saying it: liberry. “I had to wait awhile to get on, but it’s worth it. It’s free. So what do you say?”

“Maybe we could get a bottle of Allen’s,” her friend says. Jasmine loves that Allen’s Coffee Brandy, when she can get it. In truth, Jasmine loves anything when she can get it.

“Apple-solutely,” Brenda says. “And a bottle of Driver for me. But I won’t drink while I’m behind the wheel, Jas. You can, but I’ll wait. I have to keep my license. It’s about all I got left.”

“Can you really get any money out of your folks, do you think?”

Brenda tells herself that once they see the kids—assuming the kids can be bribed (or intimidated) into good behavior—she can. “But not a word about the lottery,” she says.

“No way,” Jasmine says. “I was born at night but it wasn’t last night.”

They yuk at this one, an oldie but a goodie.

“So what do you think?”

“I’ll have to take Eddie and Rosellen out of school …”

“BFD,” Brenda says. “So what do you think, girl?”

After a long pause on the other end, Jasmine says, “Road trip!”

“Road trip!” Brenda hollers back.

Then they are chanting it while the three kids bawl in Brenda’s Sanford apartment and at least one (maybe two) is bawling in Jasmine’s North Berwick apartment. These are the fat women nobody wants to see when they’re on the streets, the ones no guy wants to pick up in the bars unless the hour is late and the mood is drunk and there’s nobody better in sight. What men think when they’re drunk—Brenda and Jasmine both know this—is that thunder thighs are better than no thighs at all. They went to high school together in Mars Hill and now they’re downstate and they help each other when they can. They are the fat women nobody wants to see, they have a litter of children between them, and they are chanting Road trip, road trip like a couple of cheerleading fools. On a September morning, already hot at eight-thirty, this is the way things happen. It’s never been any different.

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