by Susan Tepper
We went door to door—me and Patsy collecting April, then Roberta, ‘til we rounded up a posse of girls. Five or six or seven of us to make the trek into town. Several miles in walked barefoot. It was summer and our soles were tough like Navajo feet. By Labor Day I could scrape them with the thickest needle from my mother’s sewing box and it wouldn’t leave an indent. We were toughening up through our feet; though back then we didn’t know much about toughening. We knew only to laugh a lot, and scream at whatever bothered us which was plenty.
Worms. Heavy rains brought out a gazillon fat worms that slithered on the pavement. We tried stepping around them. We screamed more. It was all too horrible. A squashed worm could start a chorus of screaming. April, fixated on the worms, and other insects, bent over studying them closely. Later she did her pre-med and became a doctor. But back when we were twelve, all she wanted to find out was if the worms were happy or sad being out of the dirt. Rosy-pinkish worms that looked too much like a part of our bodies. The part that got all tingly when we pedaled hard, pressing against the bicycle seat.
We were starting to want attention. We wanted earrings and lipstick. Soft Capezio leather flats in pastel colors, paired with matching Pandora cardigans. So badly did we want, that some of us stole to get those things. Camille stole mascara from McCrory’s and got caught. She had to wait in the manager’s office for her mother to finish work then come get her. She had to promise she’d never steal another thing. She said the store detective kept sneaking looks up her shorts the whole time. Her mother yelled at her in front of everyone in the store office. She batted Camille around the face saying she was a stupid girl.
Our houses looked pretty much the same, newly built in the middle of wild strawberry fields. Honeysuckle and mountain laurel grew wild, too. My dad dug out a laurel bush and dragged it onto our property where he planted it next to a big hunk of granite. It grew high there. While murmurs of war in a far off jungle, and wannabe beatnik-kids wore black and smoked marijuana.
About halfway to town we reached the railroad station. The old wooden station house peeling its red paint. We always stopped at the station to pee. Because it had a bathroom built just for one, Camille named it the horse stall. “I need the horse stall bad,” Bobbie was saying.
At that point we were always pretty much sweaty and thirsty, pushing to get at the Coke machine on the deserted platform. Patsy was tickling Bobbie to try and make her pee her shorts. Patsy was the strongest; though we were all strong. I was thinnest but still very strong. When you have brothers you become strong out of necessity. Bobbie was yanking on the bathroom door screaming: “Locked! Oh hell oh hell oh hell oh hell,” clutching herself.
The single door opened. Out came a woman, tall and papery thin. She had on a red cotton dress faded like the station house red. Her cheeks sunken. Watery, blood-shot blue eyes. Her strawberry-blonde curls looked rusty in the bright sun. A smell of liquor surrounded her like perfume. She grinned at us all gathered there, sort of gaping.
“Hiya, girlies.” Said it like she knew us. Except that voice was from nowhere near the train station. I thought of a western woman like Roy Rogers wife. That same twangy sort of sound.
We stood there nodding at her saying our polite hellos back. I thought her hair looked like she left it too long in the curlers. Back then I was very conscious of hair. Some girl in school said my own hair looked like doll hair. You mean fake? I asked the girl. She couldn’t quite explain which upset me a lot. The woman’s dress needed a good pressing as my mother would say.
“I got rid of it,” the woman said. Ringing her hands the way Patsy’s mother wrung out the washing from the silver tub when the machine broke down. I saw red smeared on the woman’s fingers.
“A lot of blood came out of me, so much blood. I never seen so much blood.” Yet she seemed happy enough; smiling; her stained, crooked teeth almost doing a jig. I don’t know if the others saw the blood on her hands.
“Dammit! Get in there.” I shoved Bobbie toward the bathroom door.
The woman didn’t move over to let her get by. She seemed not to notice—Bobbie, or any of us, really. She just seemed to want to get on with her story.
“I used a coat hanger.” She kept on smiling, all loopy and crooked. I felt her liquor smell rise into my nose. I stared at the belt on her dress. Red cotton, with its worn out leather buckle. The kind of dress passed down from sister to sister to sister. Washed to death until there was no life left to it. The woman cackled. I stood there shivering uncontrollably. Despite the terrible heat beating down.
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"Girls" was previously published in Counterexample Poetics.
More about Susan Tepper and her widely published work can be found at .