off-ramp, one

Momma has company today. Momma has company every day. Five or six men who might as well be the same man for all the difference they make in my life. They’re a bunch of bores, and they make me sick. I sit in the parlor and make puking sounds when they come down the stairs. Then they get nervous and even their shame is identical. Throats that need clearing and eyes that can’t meet mine.

“Spare some change?” I ask the  seven o’clock man, holding out a hand as if it’s already been agreed upon.

He twitters.

If Momma knows that I’m making money from her men, she doesn’t say anything.

Then again, if Momma knows that I exist at all, she’s got me fooled.

 *    *    *    *

It’s a muggy Saturday morning and I’m dawdling around my room in my sweat-drenched underthings when I hear my only friend Billy at the window.

“Rachel!” he whisper-hisses.

“You don’t have to whisper,”I tell him. “Momma’s stone-dead asleep.”

“Meet me in the woods,” he says, and he’s still whispering.

I saunter right up to the the window and rest my fanny on the sill, just for fun.

Billy takes a few steps back.

“Meet me in the woods,” he says again, and turns on his heel.

From a safe distance of ten paces he adds, “And put some clothes on, Rachel. Decent folk are dressed by now.”

*    *    *    *

Growing up, I used play house in the street. It was in this way that, though only a child, I came to memorize the face of every person in the entire town. Faces which, in turn, declined to lay eyes on me.

The first person to acknowledge me was Billy, back when he was young enough to blurt out, “You’re the Jezebel girl.”

Those are the first words I remember being spoken to me. I stood very still and felt the weird thrill of it spiral out from my belly button.

What’s a jezebel? I thought.

It sounded beautiful.

But before I could return Billy’s compliment with one of my own, his mother’s open palm came down hard against his cheek. And that put a quick end to that.

When I started school some time later, Billy explained, through misspelled notes left in my desk, that his acknowledgement needed to be kept secret if it were to continue. It was in that way that I left the street, and learned to play house in the woods.

Both back when we were little and now, Billy’s favorite thing to do is to try to save my soul. I lie down on some wooden planks and he lays his hands across me and intones solemn prayers until we both start to tremble. I imagine things like vomiting a snake or a bat screeching out of my chest. I don’t think I’m any closer to being saved than the first time we did this ten years ago, but I don’t tell Billy that.  Maybe there are things that Billy doesn’t tell me, too.

“Tell me again about the road to salvation,” I ask Billy today. He’s reading from his Bible when I come across him, much like he always is, so it seems a fair request.

“Where’ve you been?” he scolds me.

“Why? You busy or something?

“Rachel, Fair Week starts today.”

The Fair. I forgot. In the lot at the end of town. They’ve been setting up for days.

Hear tell there’s even going to be a ferris wheel.

“You think it’s true about the ferris wheel, Billy?”

“You’ll find out for yourself, I reckon,” he answers. “I got this for you.”

Billy pulls a ticket out from a page in his Bible—I wonder which page but don’t bother to ask—and hands it to me. Then he puts the Bible neatly in his shirt front pocket and stands. “I’ve got to scoot. Momma wants me to drive her down in the Buick.”

I wait until Billy is gone, then lie down flat on the dirt. Above me, spears of sunlight penetrate the trees. I hold the ticket straight out in front of me, imagine the road to salvation.

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