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.