In the matted field beside the fairgrounds a young couple worked the idling cars. They had spray bottles and squeegees they lifted from a gas station, and the girl was making all the money. She wore a tight, black dress and yellow, thigh-high knit socks and had to stand on the tires of the lifted trucks while the men stared down at her from their cabs.
It had been like this for two days. Tahoes full of Sigma Alpha Epsilons chanting; lone men in battered vans on parking duty, their families dropped off at the fair entrance; onyx-black Suburbans, the bass rasping the license plates.
A loose fist meant change, the wrist bent over in a delicate, vulnerable way, as though the skin should be pealed back to reveal the fine, ropey mechanics of the hands. Two fingers extended like a pointed gun meant a dollar or two, never so much as a five.
It had been a good run the last two days. About forty bucks. But for the past hour she’d been feeling dizzy. It was all the exhaust maybe, or the glare of the sun on the windshields, or just too much of being seen. Benji looked over from his row of cars, and she thumbed the air behind her toward the shade by the rodeo stands where they had stashed their packs.
“I’m done,” she said.
He nodded and moved forward.
“We’ll just finish out this row,” he said.
She moved forward in step with him and had finished the windshield of a low-slung yellow Cutlass when the driver handed her a ten. She thought at first that she had seen it wrong, but there it was, a zero after the one. And so she knew, by some strange feeling on the surface of her scalp, like a note pitched so high you can’t be sure anyone else has heard it, that the driver was about to say something hideous.
“Thanks,” she said.
She slipped the bill into the cuff of her dress sleeve and walked off as the window of the Cutlass kept coming down.
“Hey,” said the driver, “hold up.”
“No, thanks,” she said.
She was giving up on a few cars to get a little distance, but the guy kept talking and it was all happening now, everything she thought would happen. He leaned from the window and said what he wanted to say, what he would do to her body, what he would leave on her face, in her hair.
She’d hoped Benji hadn’t heard, but of course he had and was already coming over from the next row of cars, looking totally unhinged. He started in with the side of the squeegee, a few raps on the hood of the Cutlass, and she could feel the day shifting off its axis.
“Benji!” she yelled.
Benji had the driver’s attention now and didn’t know what was next. The other guys in the Cutlass were looking too, something he hadn’t really considered before he started in with the squeegee on the hood—that the car would be full of large dudes. They were all white guys wearing flat-billed ball caps pulled down to just above their eyes, and they were all smiling.
“You’re fucking sick. Do you know that?” Benji yelled. He was pointing his squeegee at the driver.
“Who are you, motherfucker?” said the man.
“Benji, come on,” said the girl.
It was important to Benji that something—and not nothing, should happen.
“You think that shit’s funny? You think you can talk to someone like that and it’s funny?”
He swung the handle of the squeegee into one of the custom headlights and broke it. He was trying to break the other one when a long, red steering-wheel lock appeared from the rear-passenger door, followed by an overweight guy in a baggy T-shirt. The suspension yawed to the rear as he got his feet on the ground.
“Benji, come the fuck on,” said the girl, but Benji didn’t move.
The guy turned his Pistons cap around and moved forward with the lock now swinging by his leg like a cane.
“I’m not talking to you,” said Benji.
“I ain’t talking to you either,” said the man.
He was about ten feet away when he kicked off one of his bright white shoes. The shoe tumbled end over end toward Benji’s face. Benji stepped to the side and watched as the shoe went over his shoulder, and when he turned back the lock caught him under the right eye.
He felt something shatter in his face, a plane was landing somewhere at the back of his skull. He thought he could taste the metal of the lock, as if pieces of it were in his face, and then he went down. The big guy walked past him to pick up his shoe and then came to stand over Benji. The driver of the Cutlass motioned for him to get back in the car before they swerved off, two long skids in the grass.
Sarah knelt down, dizzier now, and angry at all of them.
“I don’t know,” said Benji. He was on his back, holding his shirt up to his eye to see if it was cut. It wasn’t.
“What don’t you know?” she said.
“Huh?” he said.
“I’m going to get the cops,” she said.
People from nearby cars were leaning out of their windows.
“I’m calling the police,” someone said.
“No police,” Benji said, standing up, staggering, a slow veer a little left of where he was trying to go, “I’m fine.”
They rested in the banded shade beneath the empty rodeo stands and soon his right eyelid was purple and hanging so low it looked closed, his cheek swelling out below it. Sarah got some ice at the Snow Biz booth—two dollars for the cup of it. She held the ice against Benji’s face in a plastic grocery bag.
“Well, they stopped talking to you,” Benji said, closing his eyes.
“They had already stopped,” she said.
She watched his chest rise and fall as he lay there, a slight grin on his face. The shiner would prevent them from getting jobs with the fair, and that is what she really wanted. There was a rumor that every month, when the fair packed up, at least a few of the carnies quit or got fired. They’d been waiting around the grounds for almost three days trying to get hired on, living off the windshield money and scrambling through an unanchored section of fence to walk all evening through the nest of bright lights and rides.
She lay down on her back and listened to the wind hum along the hollow edge of the bleachers. She liked to remember her dorm room in Knoxville the previous fall, her roommate’s pink toiletry caddy and shower sandals stationed by the door. It gave her strength in moments like this, whenever she felt terribly alone, isolated like someone on a stage, to think about not being there.
When she met Benji in Atlanta, he was eating one of those cheese sandwiches the church group hands out in front of the Y. She was trying to bum a cigarette, asking the wrong people.
“I can get you one,” he said, “hold this.”
He handed her his half-eaten sandwich and walked off toward the AA tent. The crushed white bread held his teeth marks, one severely crooked incisor like a door on its hinge.
It was early spring. The air was still cold and their faces were bleached and taut as she smoked on the loading dock out back and Benji finished off the sandwich. She was six inches taller than Benji, broad-shouldered like a swimmer, heavy chest and narrow hips. He thought she looked a little odd with those big shoulders and arms, top heavy, but beautiful, especially her eyes that seemed perpetually half-closed, as if she went through life a little stoned.
A light rain had begun, and they sat on stacks of shipping pallets and swapped stories. He’d ridden some trains earlier that year, made it west and back in one month riding in the side-wells of a highline, a tall stack of container cars cutting soundlessly through Dakota, Montana, Idaho. He left home to get clean, said his cousins who lived with them back in Virginia were all meth addicts.
“I nearly drowned once in my cousin’s catfish pond I was so high. I knew how to swim but just couldn’t put it together.”
He told her about a time he woke up outside Rapid City in South Dakota to a friend’s shouting. They’d been waiting for their train and decided to spend the night in a big grass field near the Black Hills Reservation. He sat up in the early morning, his sleeping bag soaked with dew. He found himself inside a circle of wild dogs under a large moon. He could see teeth among the dark movements. His friend pulled out the flare gun they’d stolen from an unlocked engine, and the dogs took off as the flare skipped and bent through the grass before getting trapped in a chain-link fence where it dripped galvanized steel and lit the grass on fire just as a breeze arrived.
“When our train pulled out,” he said, stirring the air with his palm, “the fire had spread so far across the prairie it looked like the sun was coming up on the wrong side of the world.”
She told him her name was Sarah. She’d just left a boyfriend in Asheville, she said. Just walked away one morning.
“Damn,” he said, “that’s harsh.”
She’d been arrested once for shoplifting some dog food. For a friend’s dog, she said. She hated to see the dog going hungry. She always thought she’d make a great veterinarian, but that’s out now, she said.
“So you’ve got a warrant?”
“I guess so. I never went to the trial.”
“You have somewhere you’re staying?”
“Not yet. I just got here.”
“Like this morning just got here?”
“Yeah,” she said.
He told her he had a place she could stay if she needed.
“I’m good,” she said.
He knew the warrant meant the shelters were out, and it was still pretty cold at night.
“I should probably get going,” she said.
“Where you going?”
“I don’t know yet.”
“You want company?” he asked.
“No, thanks,” she said.
She walked off into a mist so fine he thought he could feel it on her, beading softly on her eyelashes and the fine hairs of her arms.
A month after their meeting in Atlanta he was looking for a friend in South Carolina. He walked up to a fire he saw burning behind the CSX railyard, a place he knew some kids hung out, and there she was across from him, the light soft on her face, her broad shoulders and half-closed eyes. She was wearing a dirty blue hoodie, too small for her, and she looked drunk, or sick maybe. She leaned strangely onto the boy beside her, not like she wanted to but like she couldn’t keep her head upright. The boy was one of those crust-punk kids, difficult to tell their ages. He wore a black denim skirt, a black hoodie with yellow duct tape all over it. His knees were filthy.
“Hey, brother,” said a voice near fire.
“How’s it going?” said Benji.
He shook a hand but couldn’t see who was talking to him. He didn’t know anyone there, he knew that much. He guessed his friend had already pulled out. He was too late. But then, there she was.
The boy in the black skirt was getting Sarah on her feet, moving her off into the darkness beyond the fire, a scrubby thicket of young box elder back there, a scattered pile of warped railroad ties. She was going with him, wherever he was going.
“Sarah,” he said, “you doing all right?”
“You know her?” said a voice by the fire.
“That’s Ronda,” said another voice.
“Dude, she’s fine,” said the boy leading her.
She looked at him for a moment and smiled.
“Hey, sandwich,” she said.
“Hey, Sarah,” he said. “Do you want to come with me?”
. . .
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