At eight on an August Monday morning, Phyllis Clark, called Butter
by her boyfriend, Grim, and by most every other adult she knew
in town, brought her Corvette to be polished at Belly Man's Exchequer
Car Wash and Detail Shop. Belly Man had a deal to wash all of
Grim's tow trucks and used cars, so as a favor he loaned her a
teal Electra 225. The car had a black fake-convertible top and
gleaming gold chrome trim. Along the bottom side panels, from
front wheel to back, ran a strip of gold mirror bearing the words,
"Layin' Low," in hologram.
It was a hard car to drive. The exhaust thundered, the ceiling
fabric sagged and the signal lights didn't work. The electric
seats moved backward only. Butter wondered whether or not the
brake lights worked, and whether or not the car would bring the
police down on her. Belly Man's reputation meant there was no
telling how he had gotten the car, or what crime it might have
been used for. It practically screamed, "Search me."
If Grim could see her now, he'd either laugh out loud or demand
she get out of the car immediately. She couldn't decide which
would please her more. She had met him almost a year ago when
she hit town and was looking for a used car. He fed her grilled
fish and sold her the Corvette, saying it fit her, that it was
freedom formed of fiberglass. He made himself irresistible. Now,
he seemed pretty much like family.
She was on her way to Sacred Lamb School, where she taught first
grade. Classes wouldn't start for three weeks, but she wanted
to hang posters of clever-looking animals representing the alphabet,
and to have a look at some of the new children who would be there
to take diagnostic tests. Besides, she had been spending too much
time with Grim and his cronies--filling in as tow-truck dispatcher
and playing hostess at Grim's parties. She had to stick her arm
out of the window to signal turns, but most of the trip was freeway.
She eased into the school's neighborhood of old houses, on a block
of brick side streets, and then had to wait behind a cream-colored
station wagon at a stop sign, where a barefoot man was leaning
into the driver's window. The man was bearded and animated. He
smiled big, and Butter began to doubt he was begging; maybe he
and the woman behind the wheel knew each other. It was a sweet
idea--delight shared across socio-economic classes like that.
A little girl's bright red pigtails popped into view in the back
seat. Finally, the car moved on and the man waved goodbye.
As Butter rolled to the stop sign, the man stayed in the road
and waved. His beard was thick and gray, and his skin was glistening
and dark. His smile was beautiful, Butter thought. Where'd he
get those teeth? He bent to her window and said, "Give me
a goddam, motherfucking quarter."
Butter laughed. "You want a quarter? I might have a quarter."
She looked in her purse. "All I have is a son-of-a-bitch
"Give it to me, baby. You want my shirt? I already gave away
my shoes. I'm just out here, doing nothing wrong."
"Everything I do is right." He began to recite the Pledge
of Allegiance, while Butter found some change in the bottom of
her purse and handed it to him with the dollar.
"Enjoy these shitfaced dimes, too," she said, interrupting
The man reared back on his heels in laughter. "I ain't got
nothing else." As Butter drove away she watched him in her
rearview mirror. He was hopping up and down laughing. His happiness
must have scared that other woman and little girl to death, she
thought. They hadn't given him any money.
She maneuvered the Buick into a faculty space on the school lot.
Children and parents were getting out of station wagons and minivans
in the paved courtyard, and a girl new to Butter came over to
her. "Hi," Butter said.
"Nice ride," said the girl. She looked to be about nine
years old, fourth grade. She wore a dress, blue with white rosebuds.
Her feet, in brand new cross trainers, looked oversized.
"I borrowed it," Butter said. She squeezed the sore
muscle at the nape of her neck and wagged her head. "It's
"I can drive," the girl said, scanning the car. "My
dad lets me."
"Really? Are you going to be a student here?"
"Me and my sister--the one just under me, not my two baby
sisters, because they're just babies. You're a teacher, I guess.
Why don't you have your own car?"
"I do," Butter said. She reached for the posters in
the back seat. Loose tobacco lined the creases of the tight leather
upholstery. "It's a Corvette. Can you drive a Corvette?"
"My sister's name is Corvette. All of us are named for Chevy's,
because my daddy likes them so much. Beretta and Lumina are the
babies. I'm Camaro. So of course I can drive a 'Vette." She
"Well, all right. That's all right. Where are you supposed
to be now?"
"In there." She pointed to the school office. "I
gotta show these new Sisters how smart I am. I always make A's.
Nobody can believe me. You won't either. Don't you want to know
my last name?"
"I'm Miss Clark." She decided not to spell it. "First
"I'm way past that," Camaro said. "You might get
my sister, though."
"I wouldn't be surprised," Butter said.
"This is a sharp car," Camaro said. "It's loaded,
isn't it? What's it got? Remote entry? Turbo? After-factory specials?
Automatic inside and out?"
Butter looked at the car, and noticed for the first time the thin,
gold ribbony swirls under the gold door handles. With its blue
tinted windows and gold hubcaps, it looked like something won
at the fair. "What doesn't it have?" she said.
They went to the school together. Parents and children filled
the office and the small chairs set up in the hallways.
"There's my mom," Camaro said. "See you."
She bounced over to a woman who didn't look like she would allow
her children to be named for cars.
Half an hour later, Butter had hung her posters and organized
the materials she would use in her classroom. First graders were
lining up in the hallway beside Sister Eunice, the vice-principal,
who was about to lead them into the media room for the exam. This
was what Butter had wanted to see, the gathering of sweet-faced
children still small and soft, before they hardened into individual
personalities and Butter hardened into teacher.
She tried to remember which of the children was Camaro's sister.
There were only four black children in the line of a dozen, and
all four were girls. The one that most resembled Camaro had, like
one other girl, a head full of thick braids and colorful translucent
barrettes. And then Camaro's mother went over to straighten the
child's elastic-waist skirt. When Sister Eunice had led the first-graders
away, Butter decided to introduce herself. Camaro was already
saying, "Mom, that's Miss Clark."
"I see Camaro has told you about me," Butter said. "She's
some super girl. I wanted to meet you, because I might have your
other daughter in class this year."
"Then you'll have your hands full," Mrs. Mello said.
"These girls are too excited about coming here. They love
"So do I," Butter said.
"If I were six years old and you were my teacher, I'd be
ecstatic. You look so with it with the earrings and the pretty
short hair. You're beautiful."
Butter said thank you and blushed and touched the earrings. They
were an abstract arrangement of triangles she had bought at the
art museum. She could handle a compliment.
Mrs. Mello said, "We just moved here from the most well-behaved
town on the planet, in Alabama. I learned to acquire non-disturbing
possessions just to live peacefully there. We're lucky my husband
is an engineer and keeps getting better jobs. It's so liberating.
We only lived there three years. We're a restless family."
She laughed. She sat with terrific posture, knees together, hands
in her lap. She wore crisp lime-green pants and blouse--some kind
of linen blend--and her longish curled hair had a gray patch at
the widow's peak. She looked about Grim's age, early forties.
She would be Grim's type if he went for women his own age.
"Mrs. Mello," Butter said. "Did you go to charm
She reached to touch Butter's hand. "Don't flatter me,"
she whispered. "I was trained to be a teacher myself. My
only job was in a Louisiana swamp--my home state, mind you, and
it scared the poise out of me. I wasn't trained for that, let
me tell you." She laughed again.
"Tell about the boy," Camaro said.
"Oh, a boy attacked me with a lawn mower blade. He hacked
the chalkboard to pieces and set the whole class to screaming.
I escaped by hiding under my desk to compose my resignation letter."
"My mom is so cool," Camaro said.
"Well, that's a requirement," Butter said. "Where
else have you lived?" she asked Mrs. Mello.
"Arizona, California, Massachusetts. Camaro was born there.
Corvette is my California girl. It's a wonder we didn't name her
"I lived in Philadelphia," Butter found herself saying.
There was something intimate about know the names of this woman's
children, and she felt compelled to give something about herself.
"I was called Philly Pie by everybody all through high school,
and then my parents divorced and my mother began calling me Phyllis.
I think it was part of her plan to get more distance from Dad.
That was tough, but I escaped when I got them to send me
to a Minnesota college where I was just plain Phyllis universally.
And now I'm Butter, by the way, which was my point."
"Good. I'm better, too."
"No, I'm sorry. I mean that I'm called Butter."
"My boyfriend started it." No need to tell her his
name. "I think it's a Southern thing. Something about my
skin, he says."
"Oh, oh, oh," Mrs. Mello said, rolling her eyes.
"What?" Camaro asked. "He likes butter a whole
"I guess so," Butter said. She looked at the book Camaro
was holding, an outdated third-grade reader she must have gotten
from the counter in the office. It had a silvery cover of a racoon
in a rowboat, and it highlighted the girl's innocence, making
Butter feel both young and mature at the same time. This same
feeling was precisely why she loved the company of Grim, who was
twenty-one years her senior. She let the satisfaction of having
figured all this out shimmer through her.
"Anyway, this is a great school, she said. "No lawn
"It's why we chose it, exactly," Mrs. Mello said.
Camaro stood up, spun around, and sat back down. "Let's go
get something to eat," she said.
"Honey, you've already had breakfast," Mrs. Mello said.
"Yeah, but that wore off. There's a whole hour before they
Mrs. Mello looked at her watch. "But we have to be here when
Camaro comes out." Mrs. Mello turned to Butter. "Is
there a snack machine in the school?"
"I'm afraid not," Butter said. Strange children and
parents were making friends all up and down the hall. The school
librarian hustled by and nodded to her. "I know a place about
seven minutes from here," Butter said. "I'll take you.
I'm hungry, too."
Mrs. Mello stared at Butter a moment, seemed to look at her earrings
and eyes, and then stared at Camaro. Camaro jutted out her neck
and widened her eyes to plead for a "Yes." Mrs. Mello
adjusted the blue bow on Camaro's hair, and regarded Butter again.
"I'd better stay. Take the munchkin."
"Yes!" Camaro said.
"Oh, no," Butter said. "You have to come, too.
There's a rule, I think. Anyway, I'd prefer it."
"A rule? Really?"
Butter looked at Camaro. "It was a bad idea," she said.
"Come on, Mom."
"Let's put it this way. You have my permission. It's perfectly
all right. You'll bring me something back." She pulled some
money from her purse and gave it to Camaro.
"Be good," Camaro said to her mother.
"What's this place we're going to?" Camaro asked. She
sat low beside Butter in the car, the safety belt almost across
"It's a bagel shop," Butter said. "You can get
sandwiches and salads, too. Chips." She wished she had time
to take Camaro to meet Grim, but that was outside the city limits.
He would appreciate Camaro, the whole Chevrolet family, and the
beautiful, profane beggar, too. She hadn't met people this entertaining
until she started hanging out with Grim. Belly Man, the paroled
car wash entrepreneur, whose office door had a "Gangsters
Only" sign, and Dr. East, the filthy chemist who came around
collecting aluminum cans in a ragged El Camino--curious people
were always coming through Grim's house on business or to play.
Now she was even meeting them on her own.
Camaro fiddled with the radio and surprised Butter with the discovery
of a CD player in the dashboard. Camaro pushed buttons until Howlin'
Wolf started rattling from the split speakers. Grim had the same
music on cassette and played it at happy high volume anytime no
one complained. Camaro toyed with the digital climate-control
awhile, and reset the clock to the right time. The odometer, Butter
noticed, was stuck on eighty-three thousand miles. Camaro opened
the glove compartment and pulled out a gun.
"Whoa, put that back," Butter said.
Camaro turned it over in her hand. "It could be a pellet
gun," she said. "My cousin has one kinda like it."
She put it back in the compartment but left the door open. "Looks
like a Luger, though."
Butter looked from the road to the gun to Camaro. She pulled over,
shut off the engine, and used the key to lock the glove compartment.
"Do you know about guns?" she asked Camaro.
"Why would that fool leave that thing in the car?" she
"Never mind." She didn't look forward to explaining
this to Camaro's mother, nor to the school principal. Camaro would
never keep it quiet, she knew. Belly Man would have to be explained,
She drove onto the interstate and got off at the second exit,
a gentrified area of bungalows with beveled windows and wide porches.
A few blocks along was a small business section, including the
blue-shingled mini-mall. It had a lush, narrow lawn backed by
deep-orange flowers, a grocery, video store, pet shop, florist.
Butter lurched to a stop beside a Previa van in front of the little
Purple bougainvillea spilled from baskets hanging outside. Butter
liked to stop here on school mornings for a serene moment between
a loud night at Grim's--tow trucks, police scanner, stereo, and
odd characters blaring--and a day at work with the six-year-olds.
Camaro was already out of the car, examining its gold grille and
asking how to open the hood. They might as well be at Grim's after
all, Butter thought--two car-crazy girls with a gun.
The bagel shop was staffed by the owners, a fiftyish woman and
her son. The woman wore white overalls and a black derby. She
asked where Butter had been hiding. The son wore gray shorts and
a yellow plaid shirt, and listened to Camaro read all the labels
on the Lucite bins of bagels. Butter ordered coffee and a toasted
wheat bagel with vegetable spread, Camaro cinnamon-raisin and
No one else was in the shop, but several tables still needed to
be bussed. They sat at Butter's favorite table, by the window,
in soft salmon-colored chairs. There were oil-on-canvas paintings,
royal blue and emerald green surfacing from spaces of black, bright
as illuminated glass. Camaro took a long time chewing, shifting
her bagel from one hand to the other to lick cream cheese from
her fingers. "Tricky," she said. When she went to wash
her hands, Butter told her to also clean her face. Butter pushed
her own plate away, but accepted a refill of coffee when the bowler-hatted
woman came around with a fresh pot.
A silver Lexus sports coupe pulled up beside the teal Electra.
The man who got out was Jerry Austin. He was wearing mirror-lens
sunglasses, and recently he had been stopping by Grim's and at
Grim's drink-house haunts, on a Harley that Grim coveted and Butter
was afraid he'd buy. She joked with Grim that all he needed to
hold on to his youth was her. A motorcycle would push his wildness
over the line.
When Jerry went to the counter, the woman took off her derby and
plopped it onto his head, and he thumped its crown and bowed before
giving it back. Butter was glad to be needing to leave soon. He
turned with his tray, and smiled in her direction. He wore loose
jeans, a blousy white shirt, and a wide silver bracelet on each
wrist. When he got to her table, he said, "Look at that,
Buttercup. You got the same thing I did." He set down his
tray and put his glasses in his shirt pocket. His eyes shone with
"You got the same thing I did, Jerry. Don't call me
"I'll just sit here with you if you don't mind."
"I'm with someone, but O.K. We're leaving in few."
"Hey, you're not here looking for me are you?"
"Of course not. Were you looking for me?"
"You're the woman a man searches for all his life. But I
came for this veggie spread. I live right around the corner. I'm
on my daily schedule."
"I was kidding, Jerry, as I'm sure you were."
"What about? Really, I thought maybe Grim sent you about
buying my bike. You live out there with him, don't you?"
"Not with him. Near him."
Camaro came back and stood at Butter's side. She cupped her hand
over Butter's ear and whispered, "Who's this?"
Butter put her arm around Camaro and introduced her to Jerry.
"You look like an artist," Camaro said. "Did you
paint these pictures in here?"
"No, I didn't." When he smiled, he looked harmless.
His skin and teeth seemed flawless.
Butter explained why they had to leave soon.
"You mean you two just met?" Jerry said. "Women
are great." He bit into the bagel and made a face of exaggerated
pleasure. "And you, Miss Butter, are a sanctified woman,
like the song says. That's what we like about you."
"Who are `we' and what song?" Butter asked.
"All the guys and dolls are we. And I'm talking about that
old Marvin Gaye song."
"`Heard It Through The Grapevine'?" Camaro asked.
"No," he said, chuckling.
`"Ain't No Mountain High Enough'?"
"No. It's called `Sanctified Woman.' You're a `good girl,'
like Marvin sings about. You like priests and preachers, I'll
bet. You teach the Catholic children and everything."
"They're not all Catholic," Butter said.
"I'm not," Camaro said.
"I went to that school myself," he said. "I'll
bet we all have a lot in common."
"What's with those bracelets, Mr. Austin. They soak up arthritis
or something?" Camaro asked.
He extended his arm. His fingernails were buffed. "Copper
does that," he said. "I'm just into silver."
"So that's your ride out there? The Car of the Year?"
"Yes, and I recognize that Electra beside it. It's Belly
Man's loaner, right?"
"Billy who?" Camaro said. "I'm going to have a
peek." She looked to Butter for approval. Butter told her
to ask Jerry, and he grinned.
"Just stay where I can see you," Butter said. "Don't
touch anything. Watch out for cars."
Camaro laughed. "Right." She went out the door.
"It's hard to avoid having things in common," Butter
said, gazing after Camaro.
"Thank the lord," Jerry said.
"Yeah? You can lay off the religion talk. I don't teach religion."
"It's O.K. to like me, Butter. Grim and I are friends."
"Like, are you a drug dealer or what? Everybody else is at
"I'm serious about my admiration of you. You got me stereotyped."
"I just met the proudest homeless guy on the planet, probably,
and Camaro out there is from a brilliant family named for Chevrolets.
All of that is quite beautiful and sad to me. You, on the other
hand, are not so original."
"I'm just like you."
"I think maybe you sell guns or something. And you don't
respect the fact that Grim cares about me."
Jerry laughed. "Grim wants to marry you. I'll bet you didn't
even know that. We all want to marry you. You're great."
"Ok. I'll be quiet. Let's be quiet together. I'd like that."
She looked out the window, but Camaro wasn't at the cars. She
couldn't remember whether or not she had locked the Buick. She
considered the idea of Grim's wanting to marry her. She had tried
to imagine it before, but it wasn't his style. Certainly not hers.
She knew that. She had locked the glove compartment.
She realized she was enjoying the scent of Jerry's cologne, an
expensive-seeming, green scent. He ate his bagel expertly, with
big, neat bites and slow clean-lipped chewing. The muscle in his
jaw was like a pulse.
"What?" he said.
"Most of Grim's friends drive around in some kind of damaged
luxury, like that Electra out there, like my used Corvette,"
she said, just to bug him. "So tell me, what do you do?"
"I adore bourgeois babies like you. I'm not a criminal, as
the world leaders say." He put his napkin to his mouth, and
draped it on his lap again. "Besides, Grim's a better player
than I'll ever be. There's nothing damaged about any of his luxuries."
Butter stood up and unlooped her purse from the back of the chair.
"I have to go."
Jerry rose with her. "Me too. Off to my mysterious trade."
She stopped to say goodbye to the owners of the restaurant, and
then Jerry held the door open as she went outside. "Thank
you," she said. "Now be a good mystery and disappear."
"Oh, you're so pretty and mean. I love that. You remind me
of a mother."
She still did not see Camaro. Noise from street traffic and a
bread truck being unloaded at the grocery made it easier not to
talk anymore to Jerry. She thought Camaro must have sneaked off
to the video store or the pet store, and she was grateful to have
to look for her there rather than have to walk with Jerry to their
cars. The man stacking the bread crates onto a cart looked clean
and strong, in tight blue shorts and a light blue shirt with the
short sleeves rolled, like a delivery man on television. She stood
watching him, waiting for Jerry to walk off, but Jerry put his
hand on her back to urge her into the parking lot.
"Listen," he said.
"Do you hear that?"
Butter faltered. "What is it?"
"Give me your keys," Jerry said, holding out his hand.
"Hell no. Why?"
"Just give them to me, Butter." He grabbed the keys
from her hand and trotted to the Buick.
"Come on, Jerry. I don't have time for this tease."
He got behind the car, raised the trunk lid, and after a moment,
stepped to the side cradling Camaro.
"Damn it," Butter said. Jerry set Camaro on her feet.
Butter ran to her and felt her small damp face and arms until
she was sure the girl was all right. She opened the passenger
door and sat Camaro down on the seat. "You're supposed to
be smart," Butter said.
Jerry jogged back to the bagel shop and brought back a cup of
water. Camaro drank half and said, "Oh man, suppose you and
this guy had gone to a motel or something. I might have died in
"Why were you in the trunk?" Butter asked.
"You can open some trunks from the inside, my daddy said.
I thought this car was like that."
"You didn't have to scare me so thoroughly to find out."
"He must have meant from inside the passenger area--the trunk
release," Jerry said.
"No kidding," Camaro said.
"We should call you Adventure Girl," said Jerry, laughing.
"A budding Houdini. Or better yet, a fearless black hole
explorer. Yes, I see your future--Camaro, the intrepid galaxy
voyager." He spread his arms out over his head, as if tracing
the arc of the heavens.
"Hey, I get it," Camaro said, her eyes brightening.
"Go home, Jerry," Butter said. "Thanks and all
She strapped Camaro and herself in the car and headed back toward
Sacred Lamb, leaving Jerry in the parking lot. She tried to see
the fun of what had just happened, as Jerry had. Mrs. Mello ought
to have her fired or arrested. She wished she was on her way to
see Grim, with whom all manner of catastrophe often seemed kept
just distant enough to be a joke. She considered throwing away
the gun, but it wasn't hers, and maybe it was a fake gun. Anyway,
it was locked up. Camaro suggested they say nothing about either
the trunk incident or the gun, and Butter explained why they had
better tell the truth about everything. It was an opportune and
easy lesson in honesty. But what she really wanted to say was
that you can't trust anybody--not your teacher, your parents,
They were on the interstate now. Camaro nudged Butter's knee and
pointed out Butter's window. Butter turned to see a red-faced
man with a yellow buzz-cut driving an impeccable gray Cadillac
right beside her at fifty-five miles per hour, his open white
shirt collar flapping in the wind. He was motioning for her to
roll down her window. Butter shook her head and gestured for him
to pass her, but he cranked his fist again. She sped up sluggishly
and heard a rattling knock in the engine, the front end shook,
and he stayed with her. Maybe he wanted to tell her about a fire
in the tailpipe, she thought, or oil gushing from underneath.
She slowed, rolled down her window, and he shouted something she
couldn't catch. "What?" she yelled back, now wishing
she could at least get to the gun.
"Just like it," he screamed, pointing, half-frowning
and half-grinning, snarling maybe. "I'll sell you a car just
like that one!"
"Cool," Camaro said. Butter laughed. She didn't know
whether to try to pass him again or to slow down more and hope
he passed her. The guy was crazy, obviously, offering her something
she couldn't possibly want, that couldn't possibly be. She wantedsomething with rocket fuel, something ballistic. She was ready
to blast away to elude this guy, leave this scene behind in trails
of fiery smoke.