09/28/2021

Darlin’ Neal ~ The Other Side of Starlight

I don’t know how I talked Mom into let­ting me go over that Friday evening–I’d nev­er been before– but I was going to Tilda’s, walk­ing across the dri­ve-in as it was grow­ing dark, dust ris­ing and grav­el crunch­ing beneath my feet. I ran part of the way just in case she changed her mind, far enough I couldn’t hear if she called me.  Tilda’s trail­er park was on one side of the Starlight Drive In, mine was on the oth­er. The sound of the dirt bikes in the desert was dying down.  Most of the kids had gone in for dinner.

Tilda was two years old­er than me but still in my class at school since she’d failed a cou­ple times. Her trail­er was small­er than ours, but not as small as the eight foot wide we used to live in.  I knocked and her German moth­er let me in.  I’d see her when she dropped Tilda off at the bus stop on her way to work.  She was pret­ty and tiny and always seemed to be study­ing you, so much so you’d find your­self explain­ing or ask­ing some­thing before you could stop your­self.  If you ever asked for advice, she gave quick answers:  “You want clear skin?  Use plain soap and water.  Don’t be fool­ish. Forget expen­sive non­sense.  Be con­fi­dent you’re pret­ty, then they want you.  Don’t let them see you cry. Boys want the girls who don’t care so much.” She was not a wor­ri­er like my mom.  I went from the entrance to Tilda’s bed­room in three steps.

Tilda’s hair was raven black and cas­cad­ed down.  She ironed it but she didn’t need to.  Her nails were paint­ed and she was shak­ing a bot­tle of deep pur­ple nail pol­ish, the lit­tle pearl inside rat­tling and mix­ing the col­or just right.  She had one foot up on the bed, a knee against her chest, watch­ing her toes as she paint­ed them.  Black Sabbath was on the wall and Alice Cooper on the stereo singing, “School’s out.”  She’d curled her already coat­ed eye­lash­es and applied anoth­er lay­er of mas­cara.  She blinked up at me like a but­ter­fly and said, “I bust­ed his fuck­ing lip.  He grabbed my ass and I hit him right in the mouth.”

She was talk­ing about her dad, about fights with her dad and how proud he was of how tough she was. I won­dered about those long fin­ger­nails and a fist, but I nev­er asked. There was a deep crease between her eye­brows that’d already come to stay, but she had big pret­ty blue eyes even with­out all the days and days of mascara.

She was a cham­pi­on on her dirt bike. She rode as soon as she got home from school scream­ing wheel­ies and long jumps through the desert, rid­ing and nev­er want­i­ng to get off that bike.  I could hear her while I was locked inside doing homework.

In their trail­er I had her all to myself and I felt like con­fid­ing things in that room, but it was get­ting dark and I couldn’t stay long, I had to get back before my dad got home for the week­end. Tilda told me about hav­ing sex when she was nine with a four­teen year old who’d recent­ly bro­ken up with her.   When she talked about Gary, her eyes would grow sad.  She missed rid­ing bikes with him now that he had decid­ed he was too good for her.  Her moth­er gave her advice on how to make him jeal­ous, how to ride it out and he’d be back.  She’d been kiss­ing oth­er boys.  Gomez was a jock she kissed some­times when we got to school.  He took her out in a ditch behind the embank­ment where we sat in the morn­ing.  When he left she told us how she’d let him grab her boobs.  She was so stoned.

Wes was one of the guys we hung with at school.  He’d be there with us morn­ings sit­ting out­side the Junior High and we act­ed like he could give us advice.  He was so much taller than us.  He almost seemed like a man.  He shook his head a lot.  He asked Tilda if she was going to let Gomez go all the way.  He laughed and told us about his five year old sis­ter, about some boys, some friends who’d been over and offered a nick­el to fuck her.  That’s what they called it any­way, fuck­ing.  He laughed and said, “And she let them,” like how unbe­liev­able was that.  “For a nick­el.” His eyes filled with hor­ror and we all just sat there stunned, say­ing noth­ing.  Then Wes start­ed play­ing a game with me, with a comb.  He’d flick it on the inside of my arm and then I’d take my turn with him.  Our arms grow­ing red and bruised and he was sur­prised how much I could stand which pret­ty much equaled how much he could stand.

So I spent my morn­ings and after­noons rid­ing that bus with Tilda but I’d nev­er been in her trail­er before.  On the bus, she car­ried a radio.  She insist­ed Elton John was singing, “She’s got elec­tric boobs.”  “Listen,” she’d say and crack up watch­ing all us younger kids lis­ten and hear what she want­ed us to.

When I got off the bus and went home every­thing would seem more nor­mal.  In the morn­ing before I left the house would smell like grape­fruit my lone­ly moth­er was eat­ing, on anoth­er diet wait­ing for Wednesday when my dad would call, wait­ing for the week­end when he would come home.  There were baby broth­ers to hold.  There was Sesame Street on the TV in the evening.

In Tilda’s house that night, I kept watch of the clock.  I want­ed to come back some­time.  She asked me why my moth­er wouldn’t let me out, wouldn’t let me come over.  I told her I had to get back to help with my broth­ers.  She said, “You’re always tak­ing care of those babies.”  I thought about that, about the tone in her voice that said some­thing was wrong with that.  “A kid should be out hav­ing fun.”  She want­ed to know why they wouldn’t let me come to her house since it was right there near mine and I don’t know why I told her what my father said, that he didn’t real­ly want me to be around her and her moth­er because they were kind of rough.

I saw the hurt in her face and thought about how she’d told me how hand­some she thought my dad was. She frowned hard and then some oth­er thing flick­ered across her face.  “Well, your dad­dy would know,” she said. “He sure would. That pret­ty man.”

~

I walked home, through the dark dri­ve-in where cars were just begin­ning to arrive.  The lights were blis­ter­ing in lines and cir­cling into place beside the poles that held the speak­er box­es.  The tele­phone wires cried in the wind.  People climbed out of trunks and sat on hoods.  Groups flocked to the con­ces­sion stand.  The air filled with the scent of but­ter and pop­corn.  Kids were open­ing ice chests and pop­ping tops, pour­ing vod­ka into cokes.  Everyone was hook­ing up those inter­coms to their win­dows.  The music came on, Elvis Costello singing “Allison” and I got lost lis­ten­ing I thought it sound­ed so beau­ti­ful the way the music and voice filled the air.  You could feel how the cou­ples wait­ed for the movie to begin and the car lights to all go off so they could get busy.

I missed my dad and was glad he was com­ing back that night. He was out of town or I wouldn’t have ever gone over to Tilda’s for sure.  He was always out of town work­ing dur­ing the week. On Saturday morn­ings, I have a job clean­ing up the dri­ve in.  Dad doesn’t want me to be out here by myself so we’ll go togeth­er.  He has a Litter Stick he uses to pick up paper cups and wrap­pers and all the oth­er things that peo­ple leave behind.   When we’re done, I’m allowed to pour icy cokes from the machine for the work and then we’ll sit out there in the sun and talk about sports or school.  Sometimes we’ll have a bag of last night’s pop­corn.  I’ll earn some mon­ey and we will leave the place spotless.

~

Darlin’ Neal is the author of the sto­ry col­lec­tions Rattlesnakes & the Moon and Elegant Punk. Her fic­tion and non­fic­tion have appeared in dozens of pub­li­ca­tions includ­ing The Mississippi Review, The Southern Review, Puerto del Sol, and Best of the Web. A recip­i­ent of the DH Lawrence, Frank Waters, and Mississippi Arts Commission Fiction Fellowships and a Henfield Transatlantic Review Award, she is Associate Professor in the MFA and under­grad­u­ate Creative Writing pro­grams at the University of Central Florida.