But when I lay in my bed at night none of this counted; the worst kind of foolishness played itself out in my head. The scenarios I imagined always began with Sheryl in trouble, needing for some reason me and no-one else to help her. No matter what happened from then on they always ended the same way, with Sheryls white, naked body splayed out before mea picture that stopped, Im embarrassed now to admit, somewhere near the top of Sheryls neck.
Sheryl had a bad reputation. Sheryl was wild. She had six brothers, all older, all troublemakers, the Kellys, and on the first day of class, the teachers always looked at her last name on their roll and said, Not another one. It was as if, from the beginning, everyone had expected her to turn out some kind of tramp, and Sheryl knew it and played their part perfectlyso perfectly it came off like parody.
It was a time when everyone we knew seemed to be nursing a grudge, when it seemed possible to be attracted to someone by virtue of their real or imagined unhappiness. In Kentucky, during those first few years of Reagan, events from the outside world took a long time to reach us. The first time I ever saw a Mohawk or a pierced nose, these things had already passed into the realm of the quaint. We knew this. We knew all the cool stuff had already been done. We were all afflicted by the sense that there was nothing in front of us but our parents lives, or something like them, and the prospect horrified each of us for our own reasons.
Sheryl wore black nailpolish and long black dresses with boots, also black, and muddy red lipstick that made her mouth look alluringly soiled. Her hair color changed depending on the day and her whims, from streaky bleached blonde to a dark, faintly metallic maroon. At parties, Sheryl had a habit of drinking too much and disappearing into back rooms with boys. Sooner or later Sheryl could be counted on to stand in the middle of the room, lurching slightly as if in announcement, and then begin to dance by herself. She whirled, circled, her arms inscribing a small, protective space in which she could move. Sheryl, dancing, was something to see. She was, simply, beautifulso beautiful there was no reason to hang around with someone like me.
I was Sheryls confidante. She told me her dates. Billy Blumberg, she said, is a brute. The things he wants me to do! Its disgusting.
Sheryl pursed her lips. I wouldnt presume to corrupt you, she said. Sweet Gatewood!
I wasnt sure how I felt about hearing these kinds of things. In a way, it was flattering, having her confide in me like that, but it seemed to me that there was something humiliating in it too. Whose shoes was I supposed to be imagining myself into, when Sheryl told me her stories?
And so I had my two Sheryls. There was Sheryl who talked to me in this waySheryl to whom I was a being so small and harmless that she could say whatever she liked around me and it didnt matter. And then there was the Sheryl I had to myself, at night, who was utterly pliant, sweet-smelling, and faceless.
That year my friendship with Sheryl had taken a new sort of turn. For the first time, it approached what I thought of in my tentative way as romantic, or something like it. Meaning we talked about things I could only conceive of people talking about with their girlfriendsthings like death, and love, and the true meaning of lyrics. We talked on the phone far into the night, sometimes, infuriating my stepfather, who in his country way thought phones were for emergencies. Hed never met Sheryl. Neither had my mother. And my fathermy father was dead.
Over breakfast one day, my mother said, Whos your friend? My stepfather shook the newspaper out, so it covered his face. What friend? I said.
You know, she said. Yourfriend. The one who calls here. Nobody, I said, miserably.
So how come we havent seen her? She reached for the butter and smiled at me. My mother had lately acquired the most pained, mirthless sort of smile one could imagine. The tendons stood out in her neck from the effort. Not until much later in my life would I recognize this as the face of one who is suffering. At the time it never occurred to me to think about my mother as someone who suffered.
Richard and I, she said, we would surely love to meet all your friends.
Mom, I said, twisting around in my seat. Shes just a friend from my math class. She calls me up. We talk about trig. Its no big deal.
I know why, she announced, holding her fork upright in her hand. Shes in an iron lung. Your friend.
You know. Iron lung. She tapped on the front of my stepfathers paper with the fork. Remember, Dick? The kids who had polio? Thats why we havent seen this friend of Gatewoods yet. Because shes stuck in an iron lung trying to breathe. Poor girl, she can only call you up on the phone.
This is supposed to be funny, I said, pushing back from the table. Well of course it is, my mother said, arching one pale, penciled eyebrow. She scraped the last remnants of her fried eggs onto my stepfathers plate. My stepfather looked first at her, then me, then at the eggs.
What the hell am I supposed to do with this? he wanted to know.
Since my fathers death the soul had gone out of our house. The hallways grew gray balls of fur. My mother watched television in her bedroom, with its new bed, new sheets, new paint job, new husband. From time to time I met my older brother in the bathroom we shared, and he, drunk on Latin and physics and the certain outward trajectory of his life, he granted me a small, mannerly smile, and appeared not to know me. Somehow I knew without anybody telling me that there were no other houses like mine; that my family did not live like other people, and perhaps never had. Outside my house I could walk around and talk and dress and act like other people and it was as if I had been given a new head to stick over my own. Sheryl was a part of that. Sheryl was maybe even the reason.
But what can I say about Sheryl?
Sheryl was the first one to give me something like taste. Together, we made lists, we divided the world neatly down the middle. On one side there was our English teacher, a tiny, histrionic man, given to dramatic readings and clutching his beard. Kerouac, Ginsberg, Kesey. Lennon, Vicious, Exene. Our heroes. On the other side, the kind of kids who called people posers or who talked about societyAs in, I wont do all the things that society tells me to, said Sheryl, her lips pushed out in a sneer. Haircut bands. Girls who cried at parties. Our principal, an ex-coach with a dim, startled expression, who pronounced his ses with a small but definite whistle. Our parents.
Sheryls brothers occupied the dangerous territory somewhere in the middle. Once in a while one came home to live. Chapter 8, Sheryl would say in explanation, or Rehab, using the particular tone of voice she always used to talk about her brothers, scornful yet curiously proud. They slept late, received mysterious midnight calls, slapped Sheryls backside, ignored me. Each time, they seemed to transform that house, their presence palpably electric and male. Next to her brothers, Sheryls father seemed washed-out, weary old Mr. Kelly with his work shirts and basset-hound eyes.
Sheryl didnt like girls. Didnt trust them. Sheryl liked boys, and the boys liked Sheryl back. The boys talked about Sheryl when they were by themselves. I did her, Id do her, that bitch, that slut. Crazy. Shes crazy. Id heard all of it. How could I not? And once again, I didnt know who I was supposed to be in these conversations, whose shoes I was supposed to fill. Flattered to hear, not wanting to hear, humiliated, ashamed.
Sheryl hated math.
When I was little, she began one day, in front of the cafeteria, I couldnt understand numbers at all. I couldnt seem to get them to mean anything. You know? They seemed so . . . dead.
Little squiggles, man, Rabbit said.
Rabbit had soft, baby-fine hair, white-blond, falling into his eyes. His nose ran winter and summer. The name fit him. But it makes me sound like a hippie! hed wail, and for a while tried to get people to call him Rabid instead. It wasnt such a very big change, he insisted, but the name never took.
Absolutely, Sheryl said, tapping out a contraband Merit. So I made up this game, she continued. Her thin wire bracelets clinked softly together whenever she moved her hands. I pretended the numbers were people. I gave them all of them their own little stories, and thats how I learned them. Like, 5 was this little boy, right? With freckles? He was always getting into troublebut he wasnt really a bad kid, more like the boy with his hat turned around sideways in my Fisher Price set, you know?
6, she said, now, 6 was an older sister number. She was always making her brothers and sisters stop fighting. She was the one who got them to clean all their rooms, wash their faces, you know, real Little Women-type shit. I mean, I had them all. Up to about twenty or so, that is. Then they just got squiggly again.
She paused, thoughtfully, stubbed out her cigarette on the pavement, and said, So you see my problem with trig.
Your problem with trig is you dont ever study, I said, prudishly.
Sheryl smiled. When Sheryl smiled, her green eyes crinkled together and her mouth became improbably smaller. The general effect was startling and, somehow, souras if shed been tricked into biting a lemon.
My problem with trig, she said, is, like, a problem with society. Man.
The farm was having its troubles. The fields around us grew suburbs. Even in the best of times, my mother never cared much for the farm, and after my fathers death the place fell apart. A succession of tenant farmers farmed the land, and then finally, no one at all. In that region of white-painted fences and pastures the color of lawns, our place looked like a dump. The barbed wire sagged to the ground. The old tobacco barn lost shingles whenever a good wind blew up from the north.
One day my parents announced their decision to move into town. We could get a good price for the land, they said. In a few years, when Man O War Boulevard reached our side of town, when its six lanes plowed straight through the south pasturewhy then, wed have no choice but to sell.
What? I said.
Sell, my stepfather said. Move. He wasisa large, stolid man with flecks of gray in his mustache, a man of few words, a doer, as he puts it, not a talker.
You cant do that.
I cant, huh. Well, buddy, youd be surprised. He folded his arms across his chest and stared me balefully down.
Id have to switch schools, I told them. Its my junior year, I cant move. Next year I graduate, for Christs sake.
Language, please, said my mother.
My stepfather stroked his mustache.
And that was that. I packed up the only room Id ever lived in for all of my life. Drawer by drawer, shelf by shelf I packed it: my jeans and sweaters, my steel-toed work boots. From the closet I boxed up stuff I hadnt seen in yearsthe broken science kits and the limbless GI Joes of my boyhood. I put my albums all back in their sleeves and packed those. I packed my collection of buttonsRude Boy, Meat is Murder, the Dead Kennedys logo that looked like an axe. My yearbooks, my collections of old letters and notes, my fathers picture, my stack of alternative zines. I took the pictures of John Lennon and Sid Vicious off of the wall, and I rolled them together in a cardboard tube. And then I was done.
I sat in my room for a long time after that. The boxes were all in the truck; the house was quiet in the way only a really empty house can ever be. The sun was setting outside and for a minute it blazed up in the window, turning the whole room orange and gold, and in that minute the same room I had known all my life looked like somewhere entirely different.
I had an idea.
Listen, Sheryl, I whispered in trig class. We were divided up into groups, working on differential equations. From over the chalkboard, foot-high construction-paper letters glowered down: MATH IS FUN. Say theres this house, I said. Say a guy doesnt actually own this propertybut he used to. Say he still has a key. Now, if a person were to, say, have over a few friends over at this former property of his...that is presently unoccupied...would that be a crime?
Sheryl glanced over at Ms. Wood, who was bending over Trish Evans paper and not looking our way. Are you talking about what I think youre talking about? she saidSheryl, that is, not Ms. Wood.
That depends, I said. I mean, what do you think? What about the police?
Fuck the police, Sheryl said, loudly, joyously. Ms. Woods head snapped up as if wed yanked it on a string. She started across the room. Fuck the police, Sheryl said again. She beamed at me. Fuck the police! I thought. I beamed back.
News traveled quickly. The next morning in homeroom two girls I hardly knew stopped by my desk.
I like your jacket, one said. Her name was Rachel, and shed never spoken to me in my life. I was wearing one of my brothers hand-me-down denim jackets Id cut the sleeves off of and drawn on.
This old thing? I said.
Rachel cleared her throat. Hear youre having a party this weekend, she said.
Bring your own furniture, I said. I drew them a map. Then I drew one for Geezer, who sat next to me in German class and was so grateful from a semester of cheating off of me that he volunteered his older brother to go buy the keg. Then I drew one for Tami Mattingly, who had written her English term paper on U2 lyrics, then one for some guys she knew, and then for Rabbit, and Sheela, and Brad, and all of Rabbits skateboarding buddies, and then for the guys in Geezers band, who didnt even go to our school.
The night of the party, Sheryl came over to help. Nice house, she said, appreciatively. Shed never been there before. I shrugged. Empty house, I said. Together we set up her moms lawn furniture in a rough circle on the living room floor, and putting on a Specials tape, we sat down to wait. The trombone sounded strange and small with all the space around itas if it were disappearing, slowly, blowing itself silent through all the empty rooms. A wind moaned in under the doorframe.
This is my favorite part, Sheryl said. Before anyone gets here. Before anything happens to spoil it. She was moving around the room, lighting black, half-burnt-down candles shed brought from home. Dis tow-own, is coming like a ghost town, the tape sang. Yi, yi yi yi yi yi. My eyes followed Sheryls rear end as it moved across the room.
Mine too, I said.
There was something very domestic about being with Sheryl like that, together, inside my empty house. In a way, I could see the appealhow a house could begin to be more than the place you sneaked out of. I smiled at her.
Hey, I said.
W hey, she said back. She assumed a comical expression, upper lip perched on top of her teeth. Sure is a nice house you got cheer, Mr. Gatewood. Yessir. Weuns sure do appreciate it, yessir.
And so much for that. I hated that voice of hersthe fake-hillbilly one. I hated her pretending she didnt know grammar, pretending she was a hick. She was making fun of herself, but in a way that seemed painful and staged.
We, you know, brought you all a present, Rabbit said, his long, lanky frame filling the door. He had a twelve-pack under one arm and someones mailbox under the other.
How thoughtful, Sheryl said, and took the mailbox from him. Honey, she turned to me, Should I put the mailboxes in the bedroom?
The rest of the evening took its predictable plunge into hormones and drunkenness, mayhem and purposeless talk. There were, I remember, a lot of oddly sexual goings-on. Sheryl kissed Rabbit, who looked surprised but kissed back. Roberta Sims kissed Geezer, and then Sheryl kissed her. I found myself in a corner, kissing Tami Mattingly with my eyes closed and imagining it was Sheryls puffy, soiled lips under mine. We wrestled against each other, I pressed her up against a wall, clumsy and ardent, ardently clumsy, and when we came up for air, Tami put one hand on my face and gave me a long, steady, unaccountably tender look. Shed recently gotten a haircut. Her bangs were too short, and the effect was not flattering; she looked like a doll made out of bread dough. I remember thinking, well, this is it. This is what I getthe Tami Mattinglys of this world are my portion.
And for a moment, the thought wasnt so bad. Truly. But then Sheryl grabbed my hand and squeezed her body between Tamis and mine. Selfish! she said, poking me in the side, and she kissed me full on the lips. The living room had filled up with people and the things the people had brought to sit onbroken lawn chairs and milk crates and cheap Mexican blankets. I lifted my head up from my best friends face, my heart thrumming inside my chest, and what I saw pleased me more than I can express. For the first time that I could remember, my house looked to me like the kind of place a person could live in.
Then, suddenly, the landscape in front of me lit up: the cattle chute, the north pasture, the rolling drop to the creek. Behind me, Rabbit poked his head out the truck window and said, mildly, Gate, by the way, the headlights are on and we cant seem to get them turned off.
We each took turns climbing up into the cab of the old Ford. The dash looked like the controls of a spaceship: smooth, streamlined in a fifties sort of way, and completely unintelligible. There were all these little metal knobs and nothing to say what they did. Whatd you pull, Sheryl? I said, my knee leaping with panic.
I . . . dont . . . know! she said, and laughed hysterically. It seemed to all of us like a matter of the greatest urgency to get those lights turned off before someone saw them, no matter that there were twenty acres at least between us and the road or between us and the nearest neighbor. There was a time of some confusionlaughing, yelling, milling about. Finally Rabbit picked up a dead branch, and whirling it once round his head, he laid into the lights.
Rabbit, take it easy, man, I said. Too late. Glass shattered all over the gravel, someone, somewhere, cheeredand without warning, things changed. Like a shift in the temperature, a spasm, a collective intake of breath. A warm rush of blood to the brain. I felt it. The others felt it. They grabbed sticks, rocks, pieces of metal, anything thatd been left lying around. They dented the door metal in; they shattered the windows; they beat a tattoo on the roof. The air filled with our noise. Howling, Geezer broke the nearly-empty bottle of Turkey over the hood.
And then Sheryl opened the passenger door and tipped her feet out onto the gravel, her boots hitting the ground with a thunk. Hey! she said, looking around. You-all! Wha ... careful! she said, and slid from the car seat to the ground. She was, we all realized, very drunk. Her legs stuck out at stiff angles, like a dolls; the crimson lipstick had smeared onto her teeth.
Aw, sweetheart, cmere, Wild Billy Blumberg said, putting his arm around Sheryl and lifting her up. His date, we all knew, was home safe in her bed. He bent over Sheryl and started mashing their lips together. One hand cupped her butt, and he ground her hips ostentatiously against his. I felt ill.
I also felt oddly aroused. I watched; Sheryls hands were dangling at her sides, waving a little. Billy grinned up at us, at the boys gathered around him, and I felt a queasy thrill of recognition. In his thuggish and pointlessly cruel grin there was something I knew from my mirror. Sheryl was limp in his arms. Watch this, he said. To me? Probably not. But Billy grinned, as I thought at me, and I watched as he let her drop to the ground.
Sheryl stood up, unsteadily, and brushed herself off. A piece of glass had lodged in her long Goodwill coat. She shifted from one foot to another, and dragged the back of her hand across her mouth. None of us made a sound. There was somethingsomething awfully familiar about all this, the thought came dinging faintly in the back of my mind. I pushed it away.
And then, without warning, without changing so much as her expression, Sheryl Kelly took off all of her clothes. She pulled down her skirt, unhooked her bra. She thumbed her panties across her hips and let them slide to the ground. She was naked. There she stood, naked girl surrounded by broken glass, surrounded by boys. It wasnt a striptease. No bump-and-grind, nothing. Just her body, unadorned, so white it almost hurt to even look at it. Some of the guys started off hooting, of course they did; then they stopped. There was something in Sheryls look that stopped them. Her eyes had traveled back in on themselves. Strange to say, she looked, well, too naked. It wasnt sexy at all.
Rabbit was the first one out of all of us to move. Hey, he said, and in a quick, nervous movement, his tongue darted out and wetted his lips. He touched her shoulder. Hey, he said. Sheryl. Sheryl, man, its cold.
And it was like all of us came back to ourselves with this small piece of kindness, and I took off my jacket and covered her up. A couple of us walked her out on the back porch. She stood there, swaying, her shoulders hunched up against the chill, and she blinked. Her face was fierce. Overhead, the stars winked in and out of the clouds. Sheryl took a deep breath and let it out as a laugh. Did you get a good look? Did you get an eyeful? She shuddered.
If you couldve seen your faces! she said. She dropped her jaw and let her tongue hang out like a dogs. Then she barked. It was an ugly sound. This bark seemed like something that was meant to hurt us.
As she moved the jacket slipped off one of her shoulders and I went to pull it back up. I wasnt thinking anything by it, it was just instinct, like catching a ball someone throws at your face: but Sheryl flinched, and shrank back from my hand. One arm flew up like a shield. Go home! she yelled. All of you just go home!
And, like a dummy, all I could think was I didnt know where she meant. Do I now? Did I ever? It would be years before I found anything like a place I could live in, years and years of my lifes long, fatherless hallways with their combings of fur, years of making love to myself in the bodies of women. All the things that seemed so important to me then have fallen away. It took me years to realize what seemed so familiar that night; then one day I knew. Just as in my fantasies, Sheryl was in trouble, and I could have helped her, the way one friend can help another. She was my friend.
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