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33. JULIETTE: Tongues

he church looked even bigger from its wide front steps than it did from the road, its white edifice looming over her, the steeple with its glimmering gold cross seeming to reach all the way to heaven.

It felt as imposing as Notre Dame, or even more so. At least with Notre Dame, you knew what you were going to get: a centuries-old solemnity and a reliable brand of peace. Whereas in this foreign place, Juliette had no idea what was going to happen.

She’d expected to have trouble finding her way to where the Youth Group was meeting, but she just followed the teenagers, white and black, who seemed to be swirling all around her, laughing and talking as if they were normal kids and not complete religious freaks. Most of the boys were wearing some variation of the suit and tie and white shirt that Darrell’s uncle made him wear to school, and the girls looked like they’d stepped out of a rerun of Little House on the Prairie.

Juliette had dressed in one of her grandmother’s printed silk numbers, with a flowered straw hat perched atop her newly black hair and old lady pumps on her feet. Her mother had looked at her oddly, unsure whether this outfit was better or worse than the torn cut-offs and black belly shirts Juliette had taken to wearing.

“You look…..nice?” Cora had said uncertainly. “Where are you going in those clothes?”

“I’m going to church,” Juliette said, her chin in the air, as if that were the most normal thing in the world.

“What’s this all about?” her mother asked, frowning.

“Does it have to be about something?” Juliette said. “Can’t I just want to be close to God?”

That shut Cora up. Jimmie Sue gave her a sharper look. Spooky: It was harder to put anything over on the old fortuneteller than it was to fool her mother, but whether that was because Jimmie Sue had real psychic powers or just a keener nose for trouble, Juliette wasn’t sure.

“Now, boys and girls, we’ll join hands, and rise up! Up, boys and girls, lift your hearts up to God!”

Juliette had to insert herself between two girls, both of whom gave her dirty looks, and grab their sweaty hands. In fact, the whole room smelled like body odor, as if all those fake silk dresses and too-big suit jackets had gone too long between cleanings.

Many of the kids had their eyes closed and were chanting along with the Darrell’s uncle the minister, who Juliette had come to think of as That Asshole Dwayne.
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28. TARYN: Feels So Good

mmmmmmmmmmm.”

Taryn closed her eyes, let the feel of LaTonya’s strong hands on her back consume her.  There was nothing better than this.  Some drugs, maybe, but then you had to deal with the aftermath.  The feel of George inside her, loving her the way no one else, truly, ever had. Well, maybe sex felt this good every third or fourth time.

“That feels soooooo good, LaTonya.  You are a fucking genius.”

“That’s nice,” said LaTonya, pressing her elbow into the base of Taryn’s spine and running it all the way up to her neck.

Now that she had a chance to think about it, Taryn realized that her relationship with LaTonya was the longest-running and most consistent one of her entire life.  One of the very first things she did after running away from her sorry backwoods home to Hot Springs was treat herself to a massage at the Barstow, the whirlpool and steam bath and LaTonya’s warm strong hands seeming like magic to dispel everything bad that had ever happened to her.

Whether she was using or not using, dancing or not dancing, with George or with a hundred other guys, her visits to the Barstow and her dates with LaTonya were the one constant.  This was where she came back to herself.

“I love you, LaTonya, you know that?” Taryn said, opening her eyes and lifting her head a little and trying to look around at the older woman, but not quite managing to see her face.

Come to think of it, she’d be hard-pressed to describe LaTonya to anyone, or to literally pick her out in a lineup.  LaTonya was always wearing her white uniform when Taryn saw her, was never wearing any jewelry or any other identifying items.  LaTonya had skin the medium brown of a Hersey bar, she was medium height, her hair was natural but groomed, she was extraordinarily strong but it wasn’t like she had giant biceps straining against the sleeves of her uniform or anything. Not like you could see the super-human strength in the otherwise completely ordinary-looking middle-aged black woman.

“That’s nice,” said LaTonya again.

“How’s your son?” Taryn asked.

“Darrell?”

“I didn’t know you had a son named Darrell.  I was talking about DaShawn.”

Taryn had thought about stopping by the GoGo, but no, she wasn’t going to do that, didn’t want to go there, literally or figuratively.  She’d taken all the pills from George’s safe, thrown them in the river so she wouldn’t be tempted ever again.  She wanted to be back with George now, with her daughter.

That’s why she’d taken this detour after having her hair done to visit LaTonya, to get that newborn feeling back again.  When she got back home today, hair cut off, skin pink and perfumed, everything down to the cuticles of littlest toenails pristine, she would come clean with George.  Tell him everything so the two of them could start fresh too.

“Oh, DaShawn’s all right, I guess,” LaTonya said.  “You know they shut the GoGo down.”

“No!  Because of…..what happened to Tiffany?”

Taryn did not want to talk about that.  She did not want to think about that, not here, not now.  She wished she hadn’t said anything to LaTonya.  She’d just been trying to be nice.  But this massage cost a lot of money, and she had a right to pleasantness, and silence.
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27. GEORGE: The Sleeping Game

eorge drew the Queen Frostine card, and immediately tried to shove it back in the pile before Beth could see. But too late: The little girl’s eyes caught the vision of the lavender-bedecked fairy queen and her face started to crumple.

“I wanted to get the queen,” she said, a whimper at the edge of her voice.

“I drew this card by mistake!” George cried, trying to put it in her hand. “Look, did you see that? It was supposed to be your card which means you would….”

He swooped her pink playing piece up into the air, bouncing onto the queen’s space and then hopping ahead. “…..jump all the way to the end which means you are the big winner!”

Beth broke down in giggles. “Oh, Daddy,” she said.

“Enough Candy Land? What do you say we go out for a walk? See if we can pick some flowers for Mommy?”

It was his day off and Taryn had taken the opportunity to go into town to get her hair done. He’d offered to drive her, figured that he and Beth could get an ice cream, take a stroll down Bath House Row and see what stores were starting to open up for the season.

But Taryn had said no, she could get there perfectly fine on her own, and she had other things to do besides: buy clothes to replace everything she’d left behind when she’d moved back in, look for something for his upcoming birthday. When he hesitated, she said, “Don’t you trust me, George? How can you be married to me, if you don’t trust me?”

She was right, of course she was right. So he’d smiled and kissed her and let her go.

Now Beth was shaking her head no, she didn’t want to go for a walk.

“How about we feed the fish? I bet they’re hungry after a long winter with no bugs on the water.”

Again, Beth shook her head.

“Well, what do you want to do? Play tea party with Bunny and your dolls?” Please God, he thought: anything but another round of Candy Land.

“Let’s play the sleeping game.”

“The sleeping game? How do you play that?”

“You lie here on the floor,” Beth said, “on your tummy. Then you close your eyes and I play with your hair and tickle your back.”

George did as he was told. It wasn’t until he was fully stretched out, lulled by the rock of the boat, his daughter’s delicate fingers drumming on his shoulders, that it occurred to him to wonder what was happening.
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21. TARYN: Out of the Rain

m never going back there again,” Taryn said.

She shivered at the very thought of it and pulled Beth, nestled on her lap, even closer for warmth. Outside the houseboat, the rain beat down, gusts driving the water in sheets against the windows, the boat rocking with the waves.

But in here all was snug, the smell of frying butter rising from the little cooktop as George cooked them pancakes. He’d even gone out in the rain to get real maple syrup, the kind that Taryn loved.

“I’m glad to hear you say that, baby,” said George. He flipped a pancake shaped like a B, for Beth. “I just feel terrible for LaTonya, losing her boy like that.”

“LaTonya! What about poor Tiffany, dumped in an alley?”

Beth twisted around and stared, eyes huge behind her thick glasses, at her mother. “Why was Tiffany dumped in a alley?” the child asked.

Taryn and George locked eyes.

“Oh, nothing, sweetheart,” George said, slipping the pancakes onto a plate. “Mommy’s friend fell down and got hurt.”

“She didn’t get hurt, George. She was murdered.”

It was bad enough that nobody cared about poor Tiff when she was alive. Now they wanted to deny her existence when she was dead too.

“What’s murdered?” asked Beth.

“She doesn’t need to know the gory details, Taryn,” said George, setting the pancakes on the table.

“What’s gory?” said Beth.

“There are probably three people on earth who give a shit about Tiffany, and I’m one of them,” said Taryn. “She was from Texas: Did you know that? Her stepfather got her pregnant when she was 13. She has a kid somewhere she’s never seen, but who she thinks about every day. Thought about. How can you just act like nothing happened to her?”

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15. LaTONYA: The Mistake

ressing hard on the knots in the pink shoulders of the woman down from Memphis, LaTonya let her mind wander to what lay ahead. The minute this session was over — she stole a glance at the clock: in exactly 17 minutes — she had to rush out the door and drive to the college, then drive like a bat out of hell back for her tutoring session with George.

Should she cancel tonight? She should really go home, make dinner for Darrell, get that boy back on the right track. Remembering how she’d slapped him this morning, she felt guilt and remorse wash over her.

“Ow!” the Memphis woman yelped.

“Sorry, sweetheart,” LaTonya said. They always said they wanted it firm, but when it came down to it, they just wanted to be petted.

The MCats were less than a month away now. She really needed this lesson with George. There was only one night in the week when they were both available and the office at the spa was free for them to use. It had to be tonight.

She’d call Darrell, right after this session and again after her class, check in and make sure he was all right.

The woman from Memphis tipped ungenerously but LaTonya barely registered that. Things that would have crushed her a few years ago didn’t matter anymore. All she cared about now was getting Darrell out of high school in one piece, and getting herself into medical school.

She had worked so long and hard for this, taking years to get through the local community college when Darrell was younger, and then driving more than an hour each way to work on her bachelor’s, deciding she wanted to be a doctor, the grinding amount of studying to get ready for the tests while she finished up her degree. No time to waste, at her age.

She listened to the recording of the last class as she drove to college, then taped the evening’s lecture as she took notes, doubling up because she was so distracted. Darrell was fine, he’d assured her. He’d cook himself some pasta. Yeah, he was studying, not just playing XBox — trust DaShawn to pull that foolishness out of a hat for his little brother at Christmas.

Had anyone seen Darrell near the fire, LaTonya worried, hardly conscious of the words her hand was writing. Were the police looking for him now? At her house?

Under her desk, she checked her phone for messages, texts, but everything was clear.

Then, in the parking lot, before she drove back to town for her lesson with George, she called Darrell and he didn’t pick up. She waited a few minutes, called again, and then texted him. Sometimes he wouldn’t pick up the phone, but he always checked his texts. She dialed her son’s cell phone, then the home phone, but there was no answer at either.
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13. JAMIE: Kissing the Toad

ive me another hit.”

Jamie held out his hand, expecting someone would put a pipe into it. But his fingers just hung there, empty.

“That’s it, man,” said Donnie, the guy whose mother owned the cabin.

“You’ve got to be kidding,” said the red-headed guy, Travis. “There’s got to be something else here, somewhere.”

Travis, whose eyes were looking as red as his hair, hopped up from the torn black leatherette couch and began pawing through the litter of plastic soda bottles and unbleached coffee filters, baggies and empty cold medicine packages, hunting down an overlooked kernel of crank they’d been cooking up in the kitchen, or bud of marijuana they’d been growing out the back door. The longer he searched, the more agitated he grew, flinging the filters up in the air, scattering the soda bottles across the floor.

“Chill, dude,” Jamie said.

This was why he wanted to keep his crank consumption under control. He was doing pretty well at it too; he was proud of himself for that. It was probably because he was far more intelligent than your average meth head. He remembered half these tweakers from kindergarten. They were stupid then, running around in circles until they fell on the floor, just like Travis there.

“What are we gonna do?” said Travis.

“I’m gonna go see DaShawn,” said Donnie. Donnie’s mom thought it was nice that Donnie brought his friends up there to hunt and fish. Said she was glad the place was getting some use, now that she’d moved down to Mobile. “Anybody coming?”

“I’ll go with you,” said Tiff, who danced down at the Go Go with Taryn. Wait a minute: Where was Taryn? She’d never shown up — was that last night? The night before? It was hard to keep it straight.

Jamie should get out of here too. Go see what had happened to Taryn. Check in on the old man. Change shirts.

Plus, he had the nagging feeling he was forgetting something else. Something important. What was it? He cycled again through the list of possibilities: Taryn, Dad, cats….

Ah, fuck it. If it was important enough, someone else would do it.

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12. LaTONYA: Control

aTonya had already tried to wake Darrell up three times — the gentle calling-up-the-stairs time, the louder calling-up-the-stairs time, and the shoulder-shaking firm-voiced time — and three was her limit. She had class tonight, which meant she had to get to work ten minutes early so she could take off ten minutes early, and she knew from unfortunate experience that she couldn’t leave that boy in bed or he’d never make it to school.

“Come on, sleepyhead,” she said, yanking off the covers, averting her eyes because having raised three sons she knew that a young boy in the morning most likely had a stiffy. It was something she saw often enough on the massage table, but on her own baby, uh uh, she didn’t need to know.

“Oooooh,” he groaned.

Out of the corner of her eye she saw that he seemed to be strangely dressed for sleep, in some kind of dark, bulky clothes, and couldn’t help but look down.

Not some kind of dark, bulky clothes, she saw, but his clothes, his real clothes, hooded sweatshirt and jeans and even, yes, it was true, his fucking sneakers.

“What the hell is going on?” she cried.

“What?” He opened his eyes and looked around as if he had no clue where he was.

“Darrell Antonio Jones, you get out of that bed right this instant and tell me why you are wearing your clothes!”

She jerked on his arm and he sat up but then just kept sitting there, his head in his hands.

“I musta fallen asleep with my clothes on.”

She wanted to believe him, she really did. God knew she had enough to think about, with the layoffs at the bath house and exams coming up and her MCat lessons with George. And Darrell had been a good enough boy, until recently, not goody-good like his brother Dwayne but nowhere near bad like DaShawn. But something told her the balance was shifting.

“Don’t lie to me,” she said, trying to grip his shoulder, though he shook her away. He was a good six inches taller than her now, and twenty pounds heavier, all muscle. What control did she have over him, except his love and respect for her? She’d always sworn she would never lay a finger on her children the way her father had hit and slapped and beaten her, though she’d been sorely tempted with DaShawn. But she’d always resisted.

Darrell, her baby, the child she’d had by choice as a fully consenting adult and not because she was too young and stupid to say no to some sweet-talking boy, looked straight at her then, his deep brown eyes with their curled lashes locking straight on hers.

“I was out,” he said.

“Out.” She crossed her arms tight over her stomach, nodding fast and trying to think what that meant. “Where were you out? You weren’t at the Go Go, were you? Because I told your brother and I told you too, if I caught you hanging out at that nasty place…”

“No, Ma,” he said wearily. “I wasn’t at the Go Go.”

“Well then where? I was up till midnight. There’s no place else to go out after that in Hot Springs at this time of year.”

“I just went to the park,” he said, looking at her again. “With my banjo. I sat in the gazebo. I just wanted to play some music, be on my own.”

She wanted to believe him, she really did. She looked around the room.

“Where is your banjo?” she said.
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9. DARRELL: Bad Luck

arrell couldn’t believe his luck: A college girl. College girls definitely had sex all the time, with as little fuss as popping open a Diet Coke. They also all smoked pot pretty much constantly. At least that’s what his brother DaShawn had told him, and DaShawn had been up to Fayetteville studying business for almost a whole year.

But this girl, Julie something, only looked at him strangely when he asked whether she had a J. And even if sex was going to happen at some point, you couldn’t just make a grab for it as if she was one of the hos down at the Go Go. You couldn’t even make a grab for it with a ho, DaShawn told him. No matter what you were doing and with whom — DaShawn actually used words like that: whom — it was important to do it with style.

Remembering this advice was what gave Darrell the idea to take Julie to the Futureama. He’d tagged along behind DaShawn there late one night. DaShawn told him how the old fortune teller lady, Jimmie Sue, left the windows cracked no matter how cold or hot the weather, so the spirits could move around and shit. She left her money, wrapped in a nasty old silk snot rag, in the top drawer of her big old carved dresser, right beside her magic cards.

Do not touch those cards, DaShawn had warned Darrell, taking half the money from the silk cloth and putting the rest back. Those cards are evil. They will bring you harm.

DaShawn showed Darrell how to screw off the head of the big black buddha, where the pot was stored inside. The old fortune teller lady must grow her own, DaShawn said, and it was fine.

So every once in a while, when he was feeling brave, on nights when he just needed to get out of the house and wander, he’d come over here, let himself in, smoke a little dope, help himself to a bill or two, and slip out. Never with anybody else, though. Not until tonight.

“What are you doing?” the girl, Julie, asked, looking around, rubbing her arms, as he raised the back window of the Futureama, gently lowered his banjo inside and prepared to follow.

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