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Kevin Walters

What Does That Make Me?

Peggy Croft lived off Carrolton Avenue in downtown New Orleans. I lived over the General de Galle bridge in Gretna, Louisiana. I was staying overnight with her for the first time. Most of the houses on Carrolton were older places with columns and slate roofs. Some were ragged-looking and splintering. They were painted in sherbert greens and aquamarine blues like the colors of the Mardi Gras floats. The result was a poverty that glowed. The streets went from brick to asphalt. My mother's car flinched and shook.

"Sheri, lock your door," my mother said to me in the car. Carrolton scared her. There were so many people, city people, over here--blacks, Asians, Hispanics. "They practically come right out of the sidewalk."

She wore a housecoat over her swimsuit. Even with the air-conditioner on our hair, our clothes, and the moist skin around our fingernails smelled like pool chemicals. In the summer we swam every Friday at the Y. In the Y's pool, I followed the swipes of color from the swimsuits of the boys flitting underneath us. Sometimes I kicked or splashed water at their slippery grins.

"They're little vandals stealing little looks," my mother said about them. They watched her too, but not because she had a drooping eye. That was the reason boys looked at me.

"Peggy worries me," she said. "Her little hands are even smaller than yours. Her arms are so puny! No one should be that bony at her age. And you know what? No good parent, no honest parent, would ever mean for their child to look like that, to be that way."

Peggy and I met in a swim class at the Y. She had a pointed, elegant face and dark, pretty hair that made me envious. I had a walleye. It drifted to the side of my face like a ball rolling to the corner of a room. I couldn't see out of it so I walked stiffly, like a toddler. My mother was thirty-eight when I was born which was probably older than when she should have been. I figured that was what caused my eye, but I didn't know for sure. My mother didn't like Peggy and she was scared of me. And I wanted to know why I looked the way I did. I guess that was impossible to ever know for sure. But I wanted to know for certain the way my mother thought about me. I could know that.

"I like her, Mother, I like Peggy," I said. "And she's not any more malnourished than me. And I'm not starving."

"Just tell me there's not something about her. Look at her and tell me I'm lying."

"Oh, I don't think you're lying," I said. I thought she was just misdirected. "But if she's so bad off, then what does that make me?"

"We're not talking about you," she said, "we're talking about her."

"But this is really about me," I said.

"Just by looking at Peggy's towels I can tell you that her parents are divorcing," she said. "Her old pool towels are so ragged I wouldn't use them to wash my dog."

"That doesn't mean anything, Mother," I said.

"It means they think more about themselves than about her."

"That's not so," I said. "It's towels, that's all."

"Sheri, you know I'm right," she said. "Her mother and daddy should treat her better, but they don't. And because of that she's not going to be a good friend to you. She's not ever going to get over her parents. And that matters a lot because there are differences in people that you can't get around in the end."

"So she's going to mistreat me because of how much she weighs or because of her towels?" I said. I opened my gym bag and took out my comb, a metal one. I tugged it through my hair, wishing I could yank loose all my hair.

We'd stopped for a red-light a block away from Peggy's. Outside our car on the street corner were these two old men. They were two scrawny men with faces like old cats. They just stood there in their wrinkled suits watching Mother and me.

"What're you staring at?" I yelled at them. "Mother, can we go?"

I was loyal to Peggy, and my mother didn't care. I wanted to know about myself; I wanted what I suspected about myself confirmed. I was my mother's mistake, and I wanted to hear it. Having her tell me about myself meant that she knew I could understand myself as she saw me, as the way I was.

My mother taught high school art. She saw poor children every day, the free lunch kids whose hair fell out and teeth rotted. That wasn't Peggy, but my mother made her sound as if she were.

My father was an electrician. Summers in New Orleans he stayed busy. He paid off a lot of our debts last year with his summer money, and this year we were going to have fun. My father was possessive about work. For example, when his brother married, he ditched serving in the wedding party for fear of losing a day from work. My mother and I were self-sufficient.

She ordered travel brochures from Florida and California. We had friends in Rhode Island we might visit. We could stay with my brother and sister in Tennessee if worse came to worse. I figured my dad would pay for the vacation but he wouldn't go along. I made up my mind that I wouldn't go with her either.

Mother said, "There's no reason that says you can't come down here every so often and spend the night with Peggy. That's not a big deal. But, baby, you don't belong down here, OK? They'll start treating you like one of their own if you do. I'm just asking you to look at what that's like! Look at Peggy."

"Is the way they treat her any worse than the way you treat me?" I said.

"Honey, what way is that?" she said.

"I think you're wrong about her parents," I said. "I'll even take a picture of the inside of their refrigerator just so you can see what it is she's being deprived of. I'll do it! I'll do it if it will shut you up!"

"I want to drive without screaming," she said.

"There's no reason to go around being scared of her," I said.

"I'm not," she said. "I'm not scared of either of you two."

Peggy's house was a high-ceilinged duplex with a cramped front porch. A chain-link fence surrounded the yard. Mr. and Mrs. Croft stacked used furniture on the front porch, run-down chairs and tables with missing legs. Peggy's father kept a stack of glass bricks piled by the front steps.

I started out of the car when my mother caught me by the shoulders and kissed me. It startled me, the same way as when I stepped under the cold showers at the Y before I jumped in the pool.

She'd hurt my feelings, not as much from her going on about Peggy, but because she never answered my question about me.

"In the summer you're always so pretty," I said to her. It was the first thing that came out. I meant it. She was attractive, even climbing into her fifties.

Peggy walked outside and stood on her porch near a tangle of patio chairs.

"It's not that I don't like her," my mother said. "I just don't like the wondering if she's supposed to be the way she is or not. And she doesn't bother me--poor thing--it's her folks. Can they do better for her and they're just not, or are they really just broke? That makes a difference."

"It's not Peggy who you worry about," I said. "It's me."

"I worry about you when you act like this," she said. "Now you act like this around them and they're going to think I raised you in a cave."

I was something terrible that she protected. Knowing that was the worst feeling, and it struck me that I did the same thing to Peggy. Mother loved me the way I loved defending Peggy in the car: not as who she was, but for what she meant in the course of an argument.

I stepped out of the car.

"Call me tonight, OK?" she said. "If you need me for anything. Please thank the Crofts for having you over."

Peggy, her younger brother David and I ordered pizza with some money that her mother had left us. Peggy's mother worked nights in an X-ray lab at a hospital downtown. Mr. Croft spent the evening in his room upstairs at the far end of hall.

The apartment wasn't bad. The floors needed polishing, but the furniture had been dusted and the plates and silverware were clean.

Peggy and I made David tell us things about ourselves, about our hair and our clothes. David was ten. He had small, pretty features like his sister. His teeth were crooked but clean and his hair was cut short, like a cop's. We sat in the front room on their yellow and blue ratteen-covered sofa. David asked if we would take him swimming some day.

"Why yes, David, we will," I said. "We're going to make you undress with us before we get into the pool."

"Sheri! Don't say that!" Peggy said. "You don't have him snooping around your clothes all the time or have to share a room with him. He's not going to be undressing in front of anyone."

"0h, I will too," David said. "I will too."

"Why is that?" I said. "Do you like to undress? Do you like to snoop? Are you a little vandal?"

"Sheri! Quit!" Peggy said.

"Hey, I want to hear her talk some for us," David said to me. "You talk."

"What do you want me to talk about?" I said.

"Can you see out of your eye?" he asked me, working his feet inside his shoes.

"David!" Peggy said.

"I'm not hurting anyone."

"I can see fine," I said.

"Look at me then," David said. I turned my face toward him. I took his hands and put them on my cheeks. They were clean for a little boy's hands. He studied the way my eye didn't move very well, how it sort of floated in the socket. He reached out his pinkie for a touch.

"You better not try that," I said. "It might pop."

He pulled back. "You're lying now. Is she lying?"

"She is," Peggy said. She stared at her little brother.

"Birth defects, right?" David said. "I got one too. Let me introduce you to her."

Peggy shoved him into the couch. "You die!"

"I was born by accident," I said, "when my parents were too old to have me."

"What do you mean?" David said to me.

"I mean that I wasn't planned," I said. "My parents made me without thinking about it. My mother and my father screwed around. They weren't ready, they were too old."

"All babies come from Jesus," Peggy said.

"Where did she come from then?" David said to her. "Does He give out eyeballs like that one?"

I said, "David, do you want to know why you swell up in the mornings like a circus tent? Do you want to know what you use your penis for?"

He giggled fiercely now, his face the pink of new candy. Peggy and I stared at one another. I felt my head getting lighter and warmth creeping up into my cheeks. I scared Peggy, but I didn't mind it or feel like I ought to apologize. I wanted to clear all this up for David so he wouldn't be making mistakes later. He should hear it so he would know.

"Sheri, why are you saying anything about this?" she said. "Don't you say anything else! David, all babies come from Jesus. He's the one who gives out the noses and lips and hair."

"Son, she is doing some lying to you," I said. Peggy knew what I was talking about. We had talked about such things ourselves. She got away with lying to David because she thought she was protecting him.

"You are going to hell," Peggy said to me. I think she surprised herself at how fast she said it, how it flew out at me. She gasped, breathless.

David began laughing and even when Peggy pulled him to his feet he was still giggling, holding his stomach in pain. They went upstairs, leaving me in the den, and then, about ten minutes later, David came back by himself. His face looked haggard, but he grinned at me. He kept to the kitchen, cleaning up in there. Eventually Mr. Croft and Peggy came downstairs.

Mr. Croft had pale gray eyebrows, a squashed face like a hound's. There were framed photographs of him in a baseball uniform in the apartment's hallway. His lean muscles were the color of whiskey. He looked fierce.

David and Peggy left the hallway and went to the kitchen. Mr. Croft and I stood at the foot of the stairs by the front door, looking at one another.

Mr. Croft said, "How's your mother and father?"

"They're both OK," I said.

"You want to call them to let them know you're OK?"

"I'm big enough not to call them every five minutes," I said. "If they need me, they can call."

"I may call them just to let them know you're fine," he said. "Would it be OK if I did that right now?"

"Sure," I said. "If you want."

Mr. Croft nodded and said he wanted to watch a television program first so he told us to head up to bed. He followed us upstairs with his key ring and a padlock. We were eager for bed so we went to the bathroom and washed our faces and brushed our teeth. Peggy and David didn't say anything about what had happened earlier.

Mr. Croft followed us into the bedroom where he kissed Peggy on the forehead and hugged David. He said good-night and closed the door and padlocked it from the outside. David sat down on the air-mattress on the floor. I had his bed under the window. Peggy went to her bookshelf in the corner of the room and took out a book.

I heard Mr. Croft walk downstairs. I tried the door. It wouldn't move.

"Did he do this because of me?" I said to Peggy. I was frightened.

She shook her hand through her hair. "No, he always locks us in."

"Why's that?" I said.

"We had neighbors of ours that got killed by thieves one night," she said. "They got their faces shot off. If we're locked in, he figures we can't get hurt."

"But what if the thieves killed him? I wouldn't want to live if my parents got killed."

"I would," she said. "I would so I could shoot the men who did it."

"What if I have to go to the bathroom?"

She opened a drawer of her bedside table and gave me a plastic drinking cup.

"We use this," said Peggy.

"What about David?" I said.

"He uses it too," she said. David unfurled the bed sheets for the air mattress, smiling at the cup.

"Let's get your father," I said.

"No, he doesn't like to unlock the door. We'd have to call out. Sheri, the cup works fine."

In my house I could use the bathroom at night. Maybe she was lying, but I thought that Peggy had really done this before. She probably thought of herself as being resourceful. I suppose she was. Poor pretty Peggy!

She put the cup away and then lay on her bed reading a book about ships. David slept on the floor between us. He was like an attentive dog. Other children his age who thought they were older and tried to behave as if they were adults never shut up. I liked David because he could shut up.

"I meant what I said in the den," Peggy said from her bed. "You're going to hell. You are going to hell. That's not something I hold against you. It's not something I like to say. And I'm sorry if that hurts you. I don't want to make you angry. It's just the truth."

"There's nothing that says I can't like you even if you say that about me," I said. "I like you Peggy. I made up my mind that I would and I have."

"You'd like me even if I did something to you?"

"Anything," I said without hesitation.

She read a few more pages of her book then stopped and turned to me, her lip curled in distaste.

"I would like you too, I guess," she said. She acted as if I had dared her to answer.

David's bed was under the bedroom window. I tried to sleep but it was more interesting to eavesdrop on men, New Orleans men, talking outside the window in the night-time. I pressed my ear to the wall and kept it there. They talked loudly. I listened while Peggy read and David slept.

A man said, "So then I was like 'What is this shit?' She just looks at me."

Someone laughed.

"You know what I'm saying? I mean, I been here before."

"Sheri," Peggy said to me, "tell them to shut up out there."

I didn't move. The men followed the sidewalk around to the front of the house.

I got up from David's bed. Outside, three men stood in the shadow the electric street-light threw on the front yard. There were two white men in baggy sport jackets and a short black man in a sweater and boots. Both white men leaned on the chain-link fence, their bellies punishing it.

"Does this open?" I said, and I tapped the window to get Peggy's attention.

"Why?" she said.

She got out of her bed and unlocked it for me and we pushed it open. We smelled the night air. Peggy looked puzzled and scared. The men didn't see us.

"I want to speak to them," I said. "They're out there, and we're up here. The door's locked. Don't be a frightened mouse."

"My dad will be pissed," she said.

"Hey there," the black guy said to us from the fence. "Hey, where's Mack?"

"Who's Mack?" I said.

"Live next door to you," he said.

"Mack's not here. He moved," I said to him. I lied.

He said, "I saw Mack around here the other day."

"Nope, there's nobody named Mack around here."

Peggy gripped the bottom of my t-shirt. "Shut up, for me, all right? Please?"

"I bet Mack is up there with ya'll right now, ain't he?" said the taller one of the two white men.

"Do you mean is he fucking us?" I said.

"Yeah," he said, laughing with the other two. "Is he doing that?"

"He was, but we killed him," I said. "We cut him up into teeny bits, and we're serving his dick on toothpicks. We're women on the rocks, calling sailors to their doom. You want to be next?"

"Jesus Christ, knock off all this shit," Mr. Croft said below us. I saw him on the edge of the porch, just his arm on a post then his head as he looked up at us.

"Man, they started it," the other white man said. He hadn't spoken until now. He opened the fence and stepped into the yard and pointed at me. He wore polished shoes that caught circles of light.

"Don't come any closer," Mr. Croft said to the man.

He turned around in the yard and went back to the fence, waving his arms. "You got a couple of real jewels."

"Who are you?" Mr. Croft said to his back.

"We're waiting for your neighbor," he said. "Your girls say he's up there with them. I doubt that. Say, is all this furniture for sale or something?"

"It is, but not to you," Mr. Croft said. He leaned out and looked at me. "Girls, go back inside."

I pulled the window shut but not completely. Peggy sat down on David's bed. I wanted to listen.

"I'll give you fifty cents for the furniture," the man in the yard said, "and seventy-five if you can make them kids shut up."

Mr. Croft slammed the front door. From the bedroom window I saw the three men resume their place at the fence. I waved to them from inside, and they waved back.

Then I heard Mr. Croft calling for us from the living room. He climbed the stairs, shaking the floor as he ran. When he opened the bedroom door, David sat up on the floor.

"Peggy! Sheri! What was all that?" Mr. Croft said as he unlocked the door. He walked in, stepping over David.

"We were only talking to them," I said.

"Hold on a second there, please ma'am," he said to me. "Peggy, what happened?"

"It was her," she said. She slumped forward on her elbows. "I unlocked the window for her, and then we were just talking to them. She said things, the same things she said to David, but worse. I asked her to stop. They were alone out there so it seemed like it would be OK. They answered back and we-she-just kept talking."

"What did they say to you?"

Peggy stammered. "Nothing. It was what she said."

"You don't know who they were," Mr. Croft said to Peggy. "Honey, nobody does. Not me, maybe not the neighbors. You don't ever need to do that again. We have a padlock up here for a reason. Am I going to have to brick over the windows?"

"No sir," Peggy said.

"What happened? Are they in trouble?" David said.

"Go to sleep," Mr. Croft said. Peggy crawled under her bedding. I began to slip under my blanket but Mr. Croft touched my shoulder and motioned for me to follow him into the hall.

The hardwood floor in the hallway was gritty on my bare feet. I looked past his shoulder at the wall. He knelt on one leg in front of me.

"Sheri, you have disappointed me so much tonight," he said. He held my hand and put his arm on my shoulder. "I thought you had more sense than to talk to strangers on the sidewalk in the middle of the night but you don't. And then you embarrass Peggy in front of her brother, twice tonight!"

He looked at the ceiling. "Sheri! Jesus! There's things you don't do, people you don't talk to. Here you go pulling all this. It just breaks my heart to see you do stupid things, to not act like you know right and wrong. Have your folks ever sat you down and discussed that with you?"

I nodded.

"See, that just makes it worse. There's three parents that have failed: me and them. What am I going to do if you ever come back again? Chain you to the bed? I thought so many good things about you."

He stood up and followed me back into the bedroom. I got into bed as he tucked the sheets under my mattress. I watched the way his hair fell in tiny ringlets over his eyes, like gray brushstrokes. When he finished, he stared outside at the men waiting in the street.

"If they break anything I'm calling the cops," he said.

"Mr. Croft, will you call my mother?"

He sighed. "I thought we took care of this," he said. "You and me. This is something we took care of, the two of us. We don't need to call them."

"I mean, please don't call them," I said. "I want to stay."

I smiled at him and he nodded, but I knew I had disappointed him.

He left the bedroom. I turned over onto my side, thinking about that. I had hurt him but it felt good to know how much I did matter to him, how that hurt made me feel good suddenly. But he wouldn't trust me from now on and I would regret that. My mother, it seemed, had been right in not telling me about myself and about how she saw me. She couldn't trust me. I felt a crawling sensation of regret at being so mean to her and hurting the Crofts.

Mr. Croft snapped the padlock shut. There was a subtle thrill hearing it close. I was here, for the night at least, and wouldn't have to see my mother and know that she had been right. Mr. Croft would probably tell my parents about this, and I would tell them how he locked his children in their bedrooms. My mother wouldn't abide with anything like this. And that would be it for me and Peggy. I would not get to come back. I had wanted to leave my mother for something else, and now I had probably lost the Crofts.

Helpless, I stood up in my bed, determined to see what the men on the street were doing.

"Sheri. Jesus Christ. Will you please go to sleep?" Peggy said, watching me.

The men stood against the fence. I wanted to call them back to the house so none of us would be alone.

Kevin Walters received his M.A. from The Center for Writers. He has published in various literary journals including the Oxford American and The Metal Review.

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