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Short Story

THAT YEAR IN INDIANA, June landed like a fire arrow. It was surprising, and—for the immediate avenue it opened with those strangers who demanded interaction with Jan in the grocery line or at the gas pump—a relief. She knew she could sigh a little, wag her head as if asked to bear a great and shifting burden, and say the one word, “Hot,” and they’d be satisfied, even pleased with this, their shared suffering in the wrenching way their thighs came loose from vinyl seats, in the spike of temperatures and body odor, usually, she found, in one of two flavors: cheese or onion.

§

“Name,” said the woman behind the sliding half-slat of glass. It didn’t seem to be a question, and why should it be? Of course Jan’s got a name.

“Jan Payne,” she said.

“Spell the last name?” the woman asked, rubbing one palm into her eye, as if just waking.

“p-a-y-n-e,” Jan said, “Payne.”

The woman leaned back, her flexible chair offering a low squawk. “Already hot out there, isn’t it?” she said, rummaging for the right folder. “And not yet eight o’clock!”

Jan said nothing.

“Could be August 11 instead of June 11 if you weren’t staring straight at the calendar.”

“That it could,” Jan tried. The way she enunciated all the Ts made her feel suddenly like an old woman. She cleared her throat. She stood up straight.

“Here we are, first at bat.” The woman flicked Jan’s folder open, a smudge of eyeliner on the back of her hand. “You’re here for a removal?”

Jan nodded. Good Lord, she thought, a removal.

“All right, need you to fill out the top two sheets. And if I can get your insurance card, I’ll just make a quick copy.” The woman squirreled up her nose at the words “quick copy,” as though roughly on par with administering a suppository.

§

That June was the June of 2001, and the United States had not yet begun its war on terror. Jan, in fact, knew nothing of terror besides a bully named Jimmy Doderill who’d ruined her last two years of high school. Her father liked to remind her how easy she’d had it, though he never went on to regale her with episodes from his tours in Vietnam, which, thanks to his brother, she knew included a bullet in the hip and a whorehouse in Cam Ranh Bay. She’d spent her entire life in Indiana. Every summer, even in college, she’d shuck corn and shell peas and break beans for her Grandma Lucille or lifeguard at the Seymour Park pool where she sat with her whistle and sunglasses on an elevated chair, sweaty and languid in a red shiny suit and its small announcement over the right side of her pelvic bone: guard, it read in all caps, with a chunky white cross. It had made her glad to wear that suit, despite the fact that, in four years, no one had so much as pretended to drown but Gordy, a frowzy man of ambiguous age who spent most of his time at the snack shack snapping the bikini strings of fourteen-year-olds. Even Gordy didn’t count. When he’d fake his own dying, having jumped wildly into the deep end off the high dive like he did before closing every day, none of the guards bothered to blow their whistles.

“Get out, Gordy,” Jan shouted, bending down from the chair over his floating torso. “It’s six o’clock.”

Without fail, he’d raise his head from the water, treading, and say through hanks of his sopping hair, “Somebody save me!”

That last summer, after she’d pierced her eyebrow, Barton McDonough, another guard home from college, had asked her to a movie. It was the only interesting thing that had happened the whole summer long. They went to see a film about kids who swear there’s a witch in the woods trying to kill them. The camera jerked and knocked as they ran through the dark forest, and when she got scared Jan had pulled her legs to her chest and bit at her knees so she wouldn’t grab for Barton. She didn’t like grabbing. She didn’t want to grab or be grabbed, which may explain why he didn’t ask her out again, and why, by the end of July he was dating Ashley Fenwick, a lousy guard who picked at her split ends all day and ate her lunch up in the chair. You can’t save a blessed soul, Jan would think as she watched Ashley, in the middle of eating chicken fingers. Everyone knows that.

§

Jan sat down with the clipboard, clicked the pen, and wrote her name letter by letter into the little blocks. Payne, Jan B. She figured her parents hadn’t planned this. She wished these forms asked for the whole middle name, and sometimes she went back after she’d filled out the form and scratched it in anyway, B standing for Beatrix, mostly because it felt right. Mostly because Jan was not short for Janice or Janelle or Janiqua. When the provost read off her name at graduation and she’d marched across the stage for her handshakes and diploma, she’d waited just a second, hovering above the taped spot at her feet until her full name rang out from the microphone: Jan, the first, clipped note; all three syllables of “Be-a-trix,” that glorious “Kh-sss” sound at the end; then the flat, wide space of the long a in Payne. She knew she’d have to wait for another ceremony before she’d hear all her names together like that again.

No. No. No. And no. She checked the boxes with small, efficient movements of her hand. She didn’t have asthma. Or allergies. She didn’t have migraines, or hypertension, or seizures, or abdominal cramping or anything in her urine but urine. No, she’d never had surgery or been hospitalized, except once in third grade for pneumonia, which by now was too long ago to count, since the only thing it brought to mind was how her sisters had nursed a robust jealousy for all the attention and flowers Jan received but, mostly, because she got to watch, on a TV hung from the ceiling, that Nickelodeon show where whole families unexpectedly had green slime poured over them, the camera zooming in to catch their faces ducking, the horrified ovals of their mouths.

Jan clicked her pen. Ought the pneumonia to count? Every whip-crack of a cough sent her mother into a fit of caution. She did not tire of telling Jan that once you’d had pneumonia, your lungs were scarred, you were more likely to get it again, that Jim Henson of all people had died of walking pneumonia. If Jim Henson could amble around oblivious to the slow filling and constricting of his lungs, her mother seemed to be saying, what chance do you have? Jan ran a prohibitive squiggle through her previous mark at “No” and circled “Yes” to hospitalization. She tried three spellings of pneumonia in the block requesting explanation. The form looked sloppy.

“Jane?” the woman at the front desk called out, waving the insurance card over the counter. “Here you go.”

“It’s Jan,” Jan said when she reached the window. She felt ridiculous rejecting the extra vowel, wasn’t sure why people made this mistake, which they did all the time. She’d wondered if it was a vague but kind gesture, trying to dress up a plain name into an equally plain name that was more familiar, more American.

“Right,” said the woman, in a tone indicating it was possible Jan was mistaken about this. You never know! The woman, looking more alert now, the arch of her eyebrows filled in with brown pencil, took the form, looked it over, and smiled at Jan with a quick upwards pinch of her face. “The nurse’ll call you back,” she said, one more pinch dissolving as fast as it appeared, “Minute or two at most.”

§

It wouldn’t be accurate to describe Jan’s life as completely lacking terror. There had, perhaps, been no lasting strife or character-wicking trials of any kind. Perhaps her medical history was a better place to start, which is to say that what registered for Jan, who sat back down by the fake but punctilious ficus and tried to pretend she didn’t want to flip through the Starz magazine in front of her, was that she seemed not to have any diagnosable problems—physical, behavioral, emotional. Nor did most of the people she knew. To be honest, it bothered her.

Sure, there was her dad’s sciatica and arthritic hips from his days as a running back and then an infantryman who’d jumped out of helicopters into the jungle of Southeast Asia. There was that god-awful accident back in sixth grade where a kid from her school bus killed another kid from her school bus when the gun cabinet wasn’t locked in one of their homes, but all these years later she couldn’t remember if it was Mikey who’d shot Joey in the face or Joey who’d shot Mikey; they had, after all, both disappeared after that. There was a friend of her folks whose memories of childhood sexual abuse resurfaced on her fortieth birthday when they’d sportively played “Pin the Tail on the Donkey.” Her oldest sister had chronic eczema, which she blamed for not yet being married. Her youngest sister had announced this past Thanksgiving she would not attend college; she wanted to be a hairstylist. This and the other friend was bulimic. This and the other was broke.

How could they all be floating like that, just fine, really? Wasn’t life a gauntlet? Wasn’t each day a battle—and where had she heard this, Sunday school? Freshman composition? Everything in her life felt relative to everything else, the way things work: relative joy, relative confusion, relative pain, relative ease.

Which was why she was here, because it was hard to fathom having skin cancer in a relative way. All those summers of sun, the shy, freckling skin bequeathed like a tartan by the Scots on her mother’s side. Fear had come out of nowhere, taken hold like a fist at the gatepost, and shaken her. Jan clicked the pen again, still in her hand; it read, “Greenwood Dermatology” and “You’re Looking Good,” with the numbers for the office beneath. Jan considered this slogan. She decided it sounded like a note a girl in the movies might get on a napkin at a party or a bar along with his “digits” and “Call me,” written underneath followed by an exclamation point as long as your finger.

Suddenly Jan took a swift breath through her nose, pressed her thumb against the mole at the base of her neck, the one that would be gone in an hour, or half an hour, or however long it took. Don’t think about it, she told herself. It won’t hurt. It won’t hurt you.

She had lots of moles, dozens maybe, and even though it sprouted no hair and didn’t bubble brownly like those on the witch’s mask she and her sisters had worn for Halloween, she’d always been embarrassed by this one. It lay flat, fairly black, wide as a pumpkin seed at the space between the left side of her throat and her collarbone. If she’d grown up in the city instead of the rolling wood acres of Kentuckiana, her scout troop leaders wouldn’t have thought to ask, without fail, each summer and deep into fall, if what she had on her neck was a tick. She hated that. Like she wouldn’t notice a gigantic tick right there on the side of her neck.

“Payne?” a voice called out from beyond the receptionist’s counter, where a door had opened and a woman in pink scrubs leaned on the knob with one hand.

Jan stood and collected her purse in a rush. “Yes,” she said, but as she crossed the office corrected herself with, “That’s me.” Her name, it should be known, was not an invitation here.

In the inner waiting room, a little cubby of a space Jan had to herself for the moment, the air was chillier and smelled, like all medical offices, of deodorized air spritz and rubbing alcohol. A clear jar of ear swabs sat next to a clear jar of cotton swabs, and another with bandages and another with pads of gauze. A poster for dermabrasion announced in a blocky font and a small, helpful progression of pictures that you don’t have to live with unsightly acne scars.

Sure you do, Jan thought. By God, you absolutely do.

She wondered why she felt insulted. She probably wasn’t thinking about acne is why, which, it seemed, for a sizeable price, several sessions, and not a little physical discomfort, you might nearly erase. You could make your face a whole new face if you let someone scratch parts of it off subtly enough with what looked like fancy sandpaper, let it heal. Scratch it off again. Let it heal. Jan stood up, scooted closer to the poster, examined the pictures: the scar tissue created by the dermabrasion would be smoother, more supple, prettier than the pock-marked patches of your old skin. The woman’s face in the “after” pictures seemed to rise from her neck like nothing less than the sun over the trees. She glowed. You could tell she was not a model. You could tell she was just immensely happy not to have to live with her acne scars anymore. Besides the miracle of dermabrasion, the poster was unsightly, all purples and bad typeface. Overhead, soft piano music started playing over some sort of intercom system. Its suddenness might’ve startled Jan, only it was music so limp and recycled—she recognized the strains of “Wind beneath My Wings”—that it almost didn’t register as music, just sounds, like a distant truck or a fly’s buzz. This kind of radio station made Jan want to throw open a window and bellow, Turn it off! She sat back down, the rip-away, replaceable paper crackling beneath her.

§

She’d forgotten something in that list of sciatica and eczema and bulimia. Something the woman on the poster made her think of, something in the half-smile on her new face. Jan remembered it now almost as a fluke, the time in high school her parents had split for six months and then found their way back to each other in the old house on State Road 420. It was her mother who’d moved out, her mom who’d silently filled a suitcase and backed out of the gravel driveway right before dinner, the three girls swinging on the porch or setting places at the table or pulling bright yellow ears of corn from the pot boiling on the stove. Someone called out, “Hey,” but their mother was gone, so for a long moment they stood on the porch steps of the house, leaned against the aging white clapboard, wondered what to do next: find Dad? Crumple in hysterics? Take their plates to the TV room and watch reruns of The Cosby Show? Jan recalls her younger sister, Amanda, moving first. She pulled them each by the hand and they traveled as a gangly threesome down the drive. They walked to Dot Hampton’s, half a mile east, and though they hadn’t had supper, ate several helpings of the woman’s blueberry buckle. On the walk back, Jan had been able to pretend she was a child again, that nothing troublesome awaited her; she tumbled up and over the ditches after fireflies, her cupped hands lit with their slight yellows and greens all the way home.

Someone tapped on the door and said from behind it, “Ms. Payne?”

“Yes,” she said. “Come in.” Jan repositioned, the paper shifting beneath her.

Dr. Gallaway shook her hand. They’d met. They’d consulted about this mole and so now he smiled at Jan and said, “Ready to get ’er gone?”

His colloquial phrasing was meant to put her at ease. Instead it made her think of Jimmy Doderill, who’d shout all through lunch whenever certain girls walked by his table of varsity ball players, “Git ’er done!” or “Getcha some!” or whatever awful rhyme he could conjure to make the others laugh. That Jan also had a mole on her bikini line she’d shown Dr. Gallaway during their initial consultation did not help this feeling. A nurse was, of course, present, and he’d barely touched her, one clinical finger pressing against the mole, straying not so much as a centimeter to test the skin around it; still, the whole experience had bothered her, that she’d had to unbutton her pants, reveal her underwear. He’d pronounced this mole, hiding at the edge of her pubic hair, a “nonthreatening melanocytic nevus.” The syllables “melano”—though he’d explained it had nothing to do with the cancer melanoma—brought on another ripple inside her belly. He could remove this one, too, he told her, for her peace of mind. She’d declined, saying something uncourageous, like, “Let’s just start with this one,” and tapping at her neck. The little sheet she’d been given on her way out had instructions on what to wear the day of, in her case—here the nurse had penciled it in—a loose V-neck or low-cut shirt. Expose the mole and she wouldn’t have to wear a horrid little gown.

While Dr. Gallaway turned to wash his hands, he said to the nurse in pink, “When you’re done there, ask Cheryl to turn it up a bit, would you? I’ll bet they’re headed to Terre Haute for the eight-o’clock.”

The nurse directed Jan to settle back into the chair, which, it turned out, was like those at the dentist’s, and soon she found herself supine, a lamp on a swinging arm positioned over her, shining its white light down onto her face, her neck, her big, black mole-tick. The nurse sat beside her on a stool, pulled on her latex gloves, swabbed the base of Jan’s neck with alcohol. From a small tray, the nurse took up a syringe, said, “Bit of a pinch here,” and before Jan could think to flinch, the nurse injected her neck with a local anesthetic. Jan felt her whole body tense, the “pinch” sending out a cold little pool beneath her skin, enough to set her eyes blinking, blinking, her tongue lifting inside her mouth in panic, and then the nurse withdrew the needle and it was over and Jan let go her breath.

“Let’s give it a minute,” Dr. Gallaway said, perfunctorily, as though he’d said this line a thousand times, and they listened to the flutter of a saxophone finishing its song overhead. A woman’s voice, perky as a slice of lemon, announced it was one minute to eight, to stay tuned for a special report live from Terre Haute. Jan stared straight up, tried to find a pattern in the popcorn ceiling. She squeezed her toes tight inside her shoes.

When the nurse returned, she tapped Jan’s neck with a finger. “Feel anything?”

“No,” Jan said, and it really was as though she’d not been touched. Still, she had to stop her feet from clenching. You’re fine, she thought. Stop being such a pansy.

The doctor adjusted the instrument in his hand, which Jan could only see as a long, tapered sort of scissors, and then he bent over her neck. Jan shut her eyes, felt the stiff cuffs of his sleeves against her shoulder and heard the first of several audible snips. The sound was small, precise, remarkably clear.

§

From his table in the cafeteria, Jimmy Doderill had once pitched backwards as she passed by and slapped her, hard, across the back of the thighs. For some reason nobody had laughed. The noise his hand had made against her rung out like a single clap and hung in the air. She’d kept on walking, right out of the cafeteria, to the restroom, to a stall, where she’d closed the door, lifted her skirt, twisted one way and then the other to see the red welt rising beneath each of her buttocks. Jimmy Doderill liked to call Jan “The Refrigerator,” because she was, he said, frigid and cold, cold as ice, an icy bitch. The words had hissed at her.

§

Here in the chair, the light glowing down, Jan squeezed her fists shut to keep from shivering: snip, pause, snip, snip, snip, pause. As she breathed carefully through her nose, trying not to imagine the work of the scissors, the doctor’s dark brows trembling downward as he concentrated, the radio announcer began her report, live and on location. Fourteen hundred people, she said, had flooded the city of Terre Haute, Indiana, seat of Vigo County and self-appointed capital of the Wabash Valley. That morning at 7:14 am, at the US Federal Penitentiary, the government had executed Timothy McVeigh.

“Jan,” Dr. Gallaway spoke, “it’s going well here. Everything’s going just fine.”

Jan nodded, then caught herself. Keep still, she thought. Stay still. She could hear the snipping again, longer pauses, a whispering skim against her skin of the nurse dabbing at the spot with some kind of napkin. Her teeth were clamped together hard enough that she tasted metal at the back of her tongue.

McVeigh’s last meal had been two pints of mint chocolate chip ice cream. His last words a poem by W.E. Henley. At dawn, in the death house, he’d received the last rites. He was strapped to a gurney, wrapped in a white sheet to his shoulders, hooked by the leg to an intravenous line. Witnesses, none of whom were family, as per his request, but who included victims’ family members from Oklahoma and members of the press, said McVeigh had been quiet, compliant, looking over each of their faces, nodding curtly. He died with his eyes open. Outside, separated beyond the gated area, protesters and supporters lifted their posters, lit candles in milk cartons.

“What do you think?” Dr. Gallaway asked. Snip. Dab, dab. Snip.

Jan’s eyelids lifted. Her? What did she think?

“Oh, I don’t know,” the nurse sighed, and Jan jumped a little, a little involuntary twitch surrendered by her entire body.

“You okay, darlin’?” the woman asked, setting a gloved hand on Jan’s collarbone. “It’s still numb, right?”

“Yes. I’m fine,” Jan said, quickly. She shoved her fingers underneath her legs.

“Seems like justice to me,” said Dr. Gallaway.

“That’s one way to see it,” the nurse said. She reached again to dab Jan’s neck. “All those children,” she continued, “all the people he killed on purpose.”

“It’s quite humane,” the doctor said, “the way they do it. Sodium Pentothal to put him to sleep. Once he’s asleep, a bit of pancuronium bromide for paralysis, then potassium chloride to slow and stop his heart.”

“You make it sound like an afternoon tea between chemists,” the nurse said, laughing a little through her nose. “Not lethal injection.”

“No, I know,” Dr. Gallaway said. Snip. “But he didn’t suffer.” Dab.

“Which is more than he deserved,” the nurse said. “Is that what you’re saying?”

“Okay, Jan,” Dr. Gallaway said, louder, it seemed to Jan, than necessary, “We’re just about finished here. We’ll get you stitched up and ready to go in no time, okay?”

“Okay,” she repeated, and her voice was so deep within her, so muffled, she wondered if she’d actually made any sound. Under her eyelids, white spots flared against the dark. For at least a week on the television they’d been going over and over and over his childhood, his military service, his politics, his crime, his coconspirators, his lack of regret, his last TV appearance. Jan was sick of it. Somehow, at that moment, her own face beneath the doctor’s elbow and the nurse’s, each reaching over her in turns, snipping, dabbing and now beginning to stitch, what she saw was the orange prison jumpsuit, the long, thin body, and there atop his neck, it wasn’t McVeigh’s face—it was Gordy’s. He had McVeigh’s crew cut, but there were Gordy’s blank, blue eyes, his brows, bushy as his moustache, his wide, tinged grin. He stood leaning against the fence looking in at the pool, the toes of one of his bare feet curled between the wires, his wrists and ankles shackled, and still he managed to smoke a cigarette. He called to one of the girls lying out on their flowered beach towels, “Well, hell, sweetheart.”

Jan’s eyes sprang open. She felt a tug of pressure, but no pain, at her neck.

“I don’t think that’s what I’m saying,” Dr. Gallaway said to the nurse.

The radio announcer read the last lines of “Invictus”: I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul. She reported how the victims’ relatives reacted to seeing McVeigh breathe his last breath: Justice has been done today, one said. It’s a period at the end of a sentence, said another.

“Of course,” the nurse said. “It’s all so complicated.”

And though Jan’s eyes were open, again tracing the tiny white shapes on the ceiling, which seemed to have gotten closer and farther away all at the same time, she couldn’t lose the image of McVeigh leaning against the fence at Seymour Parks and Recreation, Gordy’s stoned, stubbled face peering out across the pool.

Once, when Jan had stayed late to hose puke from the cement walk leading to the boys’ locker room, Gordy stood like that at the far edge of the fence until she was done. She’d wished he would leave. She sprayed and sprayed, clearing the whole of the snack shack of food bits and debris, taking longer than she needed to, hoping Gordy would wander off. But he remained, his body pressing into the fence, watching her. She thought she might call Tom Murrey, the park manager, or her dad, from the phone inside the office. She wasn’t sure she wanted to head out to the parking lot by herself. But as she coiled the hose back around the big green wheel by the maintenance shed, Gordy coughed and, still on the other side of the fence, walked to where she stood.

“Just so’s you know,” he said, stopping short when Jan whipped around to face him.

“Know what?” It came out mean, her voice spiking up.

Gordy lifted a coke can to his face and spat a dark gob into it. With his tongue, he shifted the snuff bunched in his lower lip. She saw the pale pink arch of his tongue inside his mouth, and she turned away. She marched toward the building.

“There’s a fight tonight,” Gordy said, and his words, sent across the grass, held the edge of something desperate, something that made her slow, then stop.

“A what?” She’d kept her back to him, angled her face his way.

“You still doing all right, sweetheart?” The nurse asked, patting Jan’s arm. Jan realized she’d turned her head, as though trying to find Gordy in the corner of this room.

“I think we’re finished here,” Dr. Gallaway said. “Everything went perfectly, Jan. Absolutely perfect. You’ll barely see a scar when it’s healed up.”

Jan did not speak. She searched the ceiling.

“All right, m’dear. You’re all set.” Dr. Gallaway put his hands together in a quiet clap of latex, stood, and took off his gloves. “We’ll see you in a week to remove those stitches. You’ll be lookin’ good.”

The nurse held up a cotton ball and a small bandage above Jan’s face. “You ought to keep the area covered for a few days,” she said. “Keep it dry, and, of course, out of the sun. Change the bandage once a day or so. It won’t really seep much. You’ll see.”

Jan looked at the bandage and cotton ball between the nurse’s fingers. She thought maybe she had fallen into a still, horrible sleep during the removal. The nurse hit a button and the chair commenced slowly to rising, a small digitized whir sounding around Jan’s body.

“I’ll stock up a little baggie of these for you, okay?” The nurse was still holding up the cotton ball and bandage.

Jan blinked her eyes and tried to send the corners of her mouth up. Okay, she meant it to signal. Sweetheart.

As the nurse ushered her through the corridors of the office, Jan knew she could not yet take the elevator and walk out the doors of this building, could not yet get in her car and drive away in the sun and heated breeze as if it were any other day. She could not imagine working a stick shift.

“May I please,” she began, and had to clear the crags from her throat before continuing, “use your restroom?”

“Certainly.” The nurse turned to face Jan, handed her the bag of bandages and swabs, swung open a door and lifted her arm, her finger pointing out across the waiting room. “Right over there. Take care now.”

“All right,” Jan said, limply. What she meant was, You too. Or I will. Or Will I?

In the bathroom, she tried to prepare herself for her own reflection before stepping in front of the mirror. She set her things on the side edge of the sink, staring as she did so at her hands, which seemed plain and sturdy and subdued and good. You are who you are, she thought. You begin and you end.

Jan heard the toilet flush in the first stall and when she looked up the receptionist stood before her. The woman smiled, tilted her head, gestured at Jan’s neck.

“They got you fixed right up, huh?” She moved to the sink and turned on the faucet. “Dr. Gallaway’s awfully good at what he does.”

Jan’s hands were raised waist high, palms up.

The woman reached for a paper towel, glancing sideways at herself in the mirror.

“Timothy McVeigh is dead,” Jan heard herself say.

The woman held the towel between her fingers. Her penciled brows did not move. Slowly she patted the fronts and backs of her hands. “Yes,” she said, her voice thick and quiet. “Yes, he is.”

And then, without ceremony, in one seamless movement, she touched Jan on the arm, tossed the paper towel in the trash, and left.

When the door clicked shut, Jan turned to the mirror. Her face stared at her face. Her neck hadn’t flushed or splotched red. The bandage lay against her, just a shade darker than her own skin. It made it easy to imagine the mole had never been part of her, there, right there at the base of her neck. She tried to remember the way the woman in the poster grinned, and when she couldn’t conjure it, Jan reached up and pulled the bandage off quick, the cotton swab falling, silently, into the sink.

“All right,” she said aloud. She leaned forward.

§

That day in the park, Gordy had held up a finger, made a small circle in the air. “They’re fixin’ to fight,” he said. “Two sets of fellas from Trestlewood.” He kept his finger circling. “Here. Knives and bats and chains and shit.”

Jan looked around the park. In the summer-slow coming of dusk, she saw no one.

Gordy looked around as well. “I’d be long gone in ten more minutes,” he said, “if I was you.”

Gordy lived in Trestlewood, the large mobile home lot that bordered the park. Already that year, a volley of fights had broken out—one at the pool, one at the playground where Trestlewood kids, several of whom were somehow related to Gordy, tended to congregate before and after pool hours.

“And where will you be,” Jan had asked, “in ten minutes?”

Gordy spat into the can and again adjusted the snuff. “I was kinda hopin’ there wouldn’t be no fight.” He latched his fingers onto the triangled wire of the fence. “Thought maybe the cops’d show up and scare ’em all off”—he shrugged—“or something.” He took his hand from the fence, rearranged, swiftly, the crotch of his cut-off jeans. “Anyway,” he said, “I’m just saying so’s you know.” He turned as if to leave, but he stayed, watching her over his shoulder. “All right?”

Jan could think of nothing else to say. “All right,” she answered. And then, on a whim, lifted her chin in a nod she’d seen guys at her high school give each other, a nonchalant whiff of a nod, but weighted, a nod coded and solemn.

Gordy, squinting, pivoted from the fence and walked away.


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