When the semester ended I returned to Buck’s Peak. In a few weeks BYU would post grades; then I’d know if I could return in the fall.
I filled my journals with promises that I would stay out of the junkyard. I needed money—Dad would have said I was broker than the Ten Commandments—so I went to get my old job back at Stokes. I turned up at the busiest hour in the afternoon, when I knew they’d be understaffed, and sure enough, the manager was bagging groceries when I found him. I asked if he’d like me to do that, and he looked at me for all of three seconds, then lifted his apron over his head and handed it to me. The assistant manager gave me a wink: she was the one who’d suggested I ask during the rush. There was something about Stokes—about its straight, clean aisles and the warm people who worked there—that made me feel calm and happy. It’s a strange thing to say about a grocery store, but it felt like home.
Dad was waiting for me when I came through the back door. He saw the apron and said, “You’re working for me this summer.”
“I’m working at Stokes,” I said.
“Think you’re too good to scrap?” His voice was raised. “This is your family. You belong here.”
Dad’s face was haggard, his eyes bloodshot. He’d had a spectacularly bad winter. In the fall, he’d invested a large sum of money in new construction equipment—an excavator, a man lift and a welding trailer. Now it was spring and all of it was gone. Luke had accidentally lit the welding trailer on fire, burning it to the ground; the man lift had come off a trailer because someone—I never asked who—hadn’t secured it properly; and the excavator had joined the scrap heap when Shawn, pulling it on an enormous trailer, had taken a corner too fast and rolled truck and trailer both. With the luck of the damned, Shawn had crawled from the wreckage, although he’d hit his head and couldn’t remember the days before the accident. Truck, trailer and excavator were totaled.
Dad’s determination was etched into his face. It was in his voice, in the harshness of it. He had to win this standoff. He’d convinced himself that if I was on the crew, there’d be fewer accidents, fewer setbacks. “You’re slower than tar running uphill,” he’d told me a dozen times. “But you get the job done without smashing anything.”
But I couldn’t do the job, because to do it would be to slide backward. I had moved home, to my old room, to my old life. If I went back to working for Dad, to waking up every morning and pulling on steel-toed boots and trudging out to the junkyard, it would be as if the last four months had never happened, as if I had never left.
I pushed past Dad and shut myself in my room. Mother knocked a moment later. She stepped into the room quietly and sat so lightly on the bed, I barely felt her weight next to me. I thought she would say what she’d said last time. Then I’d remind her I was only seventeen, and she’d tell me I could stay.
“You have an opportunity to help your father,” she said. “He needs you. He’ll never say it but he does. It’s your choice what to do.” There was silence, then she added, “But if you don’t help, you can’t stay here. You’ll have to live somewhere else.”
The next morning, at four A.M., I drove to Stokes and worked a ten-hour shift. It was early afternoon, and raining heavily, when I came home and found my clothes on the front lawn. I carried them into the house. Mother was mixing oils in the kitchen, and she said nothing as I passed by with my dripping shirts and jeans.
I sat on my bed while the water from my clothes soaked into the carpet. I’d taken a phone with me, and I stared at it, unsure what it could do. There was no one to call. There was nowhere to go and no one to call.
I dialed Tyler in Indiana. “I don’t want to work in the junkyard,” I said when he answered. My voice was hoarse.
“What happened?” he said. He sounded worried; he thought there’d been another accident. “Is everyone okay?”
“Everyone’s fine,” I said. “But Dad says I can’t stay here unless I work in the junkyard, and I can’t do that anymore.” My voice was pitched unnaturally high, and it quivered.
Tyler said, “What do you want me to do?”
In retrospect I’m sure he meant this literally, that he was asking how he could help, but my ears, solitary and suspicious, heard something else: What do you expect me to do? I began to shake; I felt light-headed. Tyler had been my lifeline. For years he’d lived in my mind as a last resort, a lever I could pull when my back was against the wall. But now that I had pulled it, I understood its futility. It did nothing after all.
“What happened?” Tyler said again.
“Nothing. Everything’s fine.”
I hung up and dialed Stokes. The assistant manager answered. “You done working today?” she said brightly. I told her I quit, said I was sorry, then put down the phone. I opened my closet and there they were, where I’d left them four months before: my scrapping boots. I put them on. It felt as though I’d never taken them off.
Dad was in the forklift, scooping up a stack of corrugated tin. He would need someone to place wooden blocks on the trailer so he could offload the stack. When he saw me, he lowered the tin so I could step onto it, and I rode the stack up and onto the trailer.
MY MEMORIES OF THE UNIVERSITY faded quickly. The scratch of pencils on paper, the clack of a projector moving to the next slide, the peal of the bells signaling the end of class—all were drowned out by the clatter of iron and the roar of diesel engines. After a month in the junkyard, BYU seemed like a dream, something I’d conjured. Now I was awake.
My daily routine was exactly what it had been: after breakfast I sorted scrap or pulled copper from radiators. If the boys were working on-site, sometimes I’d go along to drive the loader or forklift or crane. At lunch I’d help Mother cook and do the dishes, then I’d return, either to the junkyard or to the forklift.
The only difference was Shawn. He was not what I remembered. He never said a harsh word, seemed at peace with himself. He was studying for his GED, and one night when we were driving back from a job, he told me he was going to try a semester at a community college. He wanted to study law.
There was a play that summer at the Worm Creek Opera House, and Shawn and I bought tickets. Charles was also there, a few rows ahead of us, and at intermission when Shawn moved away to chat up a girl, he shuffled over. For the first time I was not utterly tongue-tied. I thought of Shannon and how she’d talked to people at church, the friendly merriment of her, the way she laughed and smiled. Just be Shannon, I thought to myself. And for five minutes, I was.
Charles was looking at me strangely, the way I’d seen men look at Shannon. He asked if I’d like to see a movie on Saturday. The movie he suggested was vulgar, worldly, one I would never want to see, but I was being Shannon, so I said I’d love to.
I tried to be Shannon on Saturday night. The movie was terrible, worse than I’d expected, the kind of movie only a gentile would see. But it was hard for me to see Charles as a gentile. He was just Charles. I thought about telling him the movie was immoral, that he shouldn’t be seeing such things, but—still being Shannon—I said nothing, just smiled when he asked if I’d like to get ice cream.
Shawn was the only one still awake when I got home. I was smiling when I came through the door. Shawn joked that I had a boyfriend, and it was a real joke—he wanted me to laugh. He said Charles had good taste, that I was the most decent person he knew, then he went to bed.
In my room, I stared at myself in the mirror for a long time. The first thing I noticed was my men’s jeans and how they were nothing like the jeans other girls wore. The second thing I noticed was that my shirt was too large and made me seem more square than I was.
Charles called a few days later. I was standing in my room after a day of roofing. I smelled of paint thinner and was covered in dust the color of ash, but he didn’t know that. We talked for two hours. He called the next night, and the one after. He said we should get a burger on Friday.
ON THURSDAY, AFTER I’D finished scrapping, I drove forty miles to the nearest Walmart and bought a pair of women’s jeans and two shirts, both blue. When I put them on, I barely recognized my own body, the way it narrowed and curved. I took them off immediately, feeling that somehow they were immodest. They weren’t, not technically, but I knew why I wanted them—for my body, so it would be noticed—and that seemed immodest even if the clothes were not.
The next afternoon, when the crew had finished for the day, I ran to the house. I showered, blasting away the dirt, then I laid the new clothes on my bed and stared at them. After several minutes, I put them on and was again shocked by the sight of myself. There wasn’t time to change so I wore a jacket even though it was a warm evening, and at some point, though I can’t say when or why, I decided that I didn’t need the jacket after all. For the rest of the night, I didn’t have to remember to be Shannon; I talked and laughed without pretending at all.
Charles and I spent every evening together that week. We haunted public parks and ice cream shops, burger joints and gas stations. I took him to Stokes, because I loved it there, and because the assistant manager would always give me the unsold doughnuts from the bakery. We talked about music—about bands I’d never heard of and about how he wanted to be a musician and travel the world. We never talked about us—about whether we were friends or something else. I wished he would bring it up but he didn’t. I wished he would let me know some other way—by gently taking my hand or putting an arm around me—but he didn’t do that, either.
On Friday we stayed out late, and when I came home the house was dark. Mother’s computer was on, the screen saver casting a green light over the living room. I sat down and mechanically checked BYU’s website. Grades had been posted. I’d passed. More than passed. I’d earned A’s in every subject except Western Civ. I would get a scholarship for half of my tuition. I could go back.
Charles and I spent the next afternoon in the park, rocking lazily in tire swings. I told him about the scholarship. I’d meant it as a brag, but for some reason my fears came out with it. I said I shouldn’t even be in college, that I should be made to finish high school first. Or to at least start it.
Charles sat quietly while I talked and didn’t say anything for a long time after. Then he said, “Are you angry your parents didn’t put you in school?”
“It was an advantage!” I said, half-shouting. My response was instinctive. It was like hearing a phrase from a catchy song: I couldn’t stop myself from reciting the next line. Charles looked at me skeptically, as if asking me to reconcile that with what I’d said only moments before.
“Well, I’m angry,” he said. “Even if you aren’t.”
I said nothing. I’d never heard anyone criticize my father except Shawn, and I wasn’t able to respond to it. I wanted to tell Charles about the Illuminati, but the words belonged to my father, and even in my mind they sounded awkward, rehearsed. I was ashamed at my inability to take possession of them. I believed then—and part of me will always believe—that my father’s words ought to be my own.
EVERY NIGHT FOR A MONTH, when I came in from the junkyard, I’d spend an hour scrubbing grime from my fingernails and dirt from my ears. I’d brush the tangles from my hair and clumsily apply makeup. I’d rub handfuls of lotion into the pads of my fingers to soften the calluses, just in case that was the night Charles touched them.
When he finally did, it was early evening and we were in his jeep, driving to his house to watch a movie. We were just coming parallel to Fivemile Creek when he reached across the gearshift and rested his hand on mine. His hand was warm and I wanted to take it, but instead I jerked away as if I’d been burned. The response was involuntary, and I wished immediately that I could take it back. It happened again when he tried a second time. My body convulsed, yielding to a strange, potent instinct.
The instinct passed through me in the form of a word, a bold lyric, strong, declarative. The word was not new. It had been with me for a while now, hushed, motionless, as if asleep, in some remote corner of memory. By touching me Charles had awakened it, and it throbbed with life.
I shoved my hands under my knees and leaned into the window. I couldn’t let him near me—not that night, and not any night for months—without shuddering as that word, my word, ripped its way into remembrance. Whore.
We arrived at his house. Charles turned on the TV and settled onto the sofa; I perched lightly on one side. The lights dimmed, the opening credits rolled. Charles inched toward me, slowly at first, then more confidently, until his leg brushed mine. In my mind I bolted, I ran a thousand miles in a single heartbeat. In reality I merely flinched. Charles flinched, too—I’d startled him. I repositioned myself, driving my body into the sofa arm, gathering my limbs and pressing them away from him. I held that unnatural pose for perhaps twenty seconds, until he understood, hearing the words I couldn’t say, and moved to the floor.