On the phone, at a gas station, in our dreams
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Yvonne and I wasted our last two years of high school looking for guys at a Minnewashka Valley dance club called the Prison. Some local business wizard leased a big, cement-floored warehouse at the intersection of 22W and I-94, painted bars on the walls, dressed his waitresses in convict-striped miniskirts and tank tops, fuck-me high heels and plastic handcuffs, hooked a revolving white strobe to the ceiling, and played the whoop-whoop escaped-prisoner alarm at the top of every hour. The guy knew how to extend a theme. Even way out there at the northwest corner of Sioux County, Minnesota, you could spot a smart one sometimes. Natural smarts.
The bouncer should never have let us into the Prison — our fake IDs fooled no one — but he got lax about carding whenever Yvonne showed up, and I’d just ride through the door in her wake, imagining myself thin as a whisper, pretending I had alabaster thighs that never chafed, upper arms without a dimple; and Yvonne would have her head back, laughing over her shoulder, mesmerizing him with a flash of Chiclet teeth and a mop of blond hair as we slipped on into the smoky bar.
Aside from the Prison, the only other place to find guys — new guys, not the ones we’d grown up with (and out of) in Acorn Lake — was Bud’s, the bowling alley, bar, and feed store in Credit River, but getting there meant twenty miles of washboard roads through wheat fields and hog farms, and besides, the old coot who was the Credit River Police Department liked to stop underage girls on that lonely road after they’d left Bud’s. He never touched anyone that I heard of; he’d just lean his head inside your window until there was no more room to back away. Then he’d shine his thick black flashlight up and down you, real slow, going back and forth over the parts he liked, asking quiet questions like “Does your dad know you been over to Bud’s again?” And then, “Maybe you girls would like me to show you the inside of my holding cell — would you like that? As the chief of po-lice it’s my job to make sure juveniles don’t drink and drive.” He always ended by saying, “Remember, girls, I have been vested with the authority to arrest you.” By the time you heard his boots crunching back to his black-and-white, you felt like you’d been touched all over. Worse yet, you’d been caught at it.
I’m not saying we were virgins. I’d gone all the way with my science teacher the day I turned fourteen — just before I got heavy — and Yvonne had moved in with that skinny Indian Benny Lakeside (Long Stick, she called him) right after our senior homecoming parade, so it’s not like we felt pure enough to complain. Once you start in, you give up the right to cry wolf. Hell, everybody in the county knew she was living with Benny. She’d hopped off the homecoming float, pulled out the bobby pins holding the tiara to her peroxided hair, hiked her floor-length dress to her waist, and climbed up behind Benny on his Harley-Davidson — a chopper with a candy-apple red gas tank and a curved metal sissy bar that rose half a foot above her head when she leaned back, wrapped her legs around Benny’s hips, and tucked her bare feet into his jean-covered crotch. Once you reach homecoming queen, there’s no place else to go but bad.
I didn’t see Yvonne again until a week after homecoming, when she came running out from Benny’s shack behind the Paris-France Resort Cabins and flagged down the school bus. She had dyed her waist-length hair Indian black and wore a blue bandanna around her forehead. Fat snowflakes drifted down, and as the bus driver braked and flipped out the stop sign, Yvonne stood in the middle of the road, held both arms out, tilted her head back, and spun in a circle, trying to catch snow on her tongue. Then she sprang up the bus steps and said, “Heigh-ho, bus driver. From now on Yvonne will be right here for you every morning.” She was glorious. She paused for a second on her way down the aisle, turned back, and said, “Maybe I’ll be here,” as if she thought someone — maybe her father — might try to make her go back home. But she was the sixth of seven big-chested, blue-eyed, blond girls in her family, so you could understand how they wouldn’t notice one was missing.
We still went to the Prison every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night, even though Yvonne was living with Benny now. He loved her, but he was dealing hash and ludes, and eating up so much of his own inventory that he couldn’t tell if she was gone for an hour or a day. Yvonne would say, “Honey, I love his ass,” but you could see she was looking for something more. She had a burning-up quality, an appetite so big I used to imagine her with her mouth hinged wide open, arms moving like harvester blades, stuffing everything in life down into her throat — everything except food, that is. Yvonne could smoke a cigarette in two long pulls and finish off a beer with one long tilt of her head. But it was her body that ruined her life. Her body was so great that only brazen guys had the guts to approach her — burglars and drug dealers, petty felons and guys who ran small fencing operations out of basements in South Minneapolis: guys who grabbed what they wanted. Nice guys always figured they weren’t worthy of a body like that; that’s what made them nice. That’s what made them dull. You can’t find Mr. Right. You won’t meet a guy with enough criminal swagger in him to make your skin dance, and enough farmer in him to let you sleep through the night. You have to pick one and learn to ignore your ache for the other. At least, that’s what I decided. But I was telling you about Yvonne.
Yvonne and Pilferin’ Willie spotted each other one night inside the Prison. I just saw a big, pockmarked, square-faced, slit-eyed guy pushing thirty, leaning against the wall inside the front door, wearing a black leather trench coat. Aretha Franklin was wailing through the low-end scratchy sound system, demanding some respect, when Yvonne unzipped her coat and let her chest out. Willie jerked the toothpick from between his teeth, and it dropped to the floor. He pushed down on his belt buckle with both hands and lifted his shoulders, all in one move, rippling like a tomcat.
Suddenly, they were facing each other, inches apart. Willie picked up one of Yvonne’s Indian black braids from alongside her chest, held it in the palm of his beefy hand as if he were weighing it, then gently placed it behind her shoulder. It looked like he’d been touching her hair for years.
The next time I saw Yvonne was Tuesday afternoon in shorthand class. The guidance counselor had sworn there were high-paying jobs in the Twin Cities for smart girls like us with solid office skills, so we spent most of our senior year with Mr. Beem — a neckless man with hair and skin the color of oatmeal. He taught shorthand, typing, and secretarial decorum. He said Yvonne had rare promise, and gave her passing grades even though she was absent more often than not. One Saturday night just before closing at Bud’s, Mr. Beem had bought Yvonne and I a drink and asked her if she’d like to go for a ride in his new Chevrolet Impala. She played him like a bank shot, smiling the entire time. “Mr. Beem,” she said, leaning in close, “your wife is pregnant so often that I speed-filed you under D, for ‘dangerous weapon.’ ” The old fool collapsed in on himself, and we left him drooling into his beer while we speed-walked to the ladies’ room and slid down the wall onto the dirty linoleum floor, laughing, crying, and wondering when Beem would realize that she’d said no.
That Tuesday, Mr. Beem was sitting on his desk, palming his beer belly, dictating a business-vocabulary-building exercise at a hundred words a minute when poof! Yvonne appeared in the doorway like a surprise party. There she was, leaning against the doorjamb, one long leg crossed in front of the other, wearing knee-high white vinyl boots, a matching miniskirt, and a white rabbit-fur jacket. After class, Yvonne let me try on the jacket in the bathroom. It was four sizes too small. “Nothing to worry about,” she said. “Tall guys like big girls.” (I have yet to meet a guy that tall.) She lit two Kools and handed me one while she explained that Willie was in the women’s clothing business — top-of-the-line furs and leathers — and that he’d offered us a weekend job if I could drive us back and forth the sixty miles to South Minneapolis. I’d just bought a ’56 Chevy for two hundred dollars — ninety thousand miles and rust up the door panels, but it drove real well.
Our new job was in the windowless basement of a house owned by Lovey, an expensive-smelling Italian woman who’d plucked her eyebrows out and penciled them back on: two auburn arches so high she looked like she was paying close attention to everything. She must have been fifty, and she’d lived all over the world. We’d never met anyone like her. She showed us how to use a stripping tool to remove labels from clothes — buttery soft leather coats; fur jackets with cool, slithery silk linings; weightless cashmere sweaters in emerald green and topaz, and suddenly I knew that I’d never owned a single piece of good clothing.
Yvonne and I would fill a Tupperware bowl with labels and loose threads, and Lovey would empty it into the fireplace, staring down her long nose into the flames until everything was ashes. We worked twelve hours that Saturday, slept in our clothes on Lovey’s hide-a-bed, and got right back to work Sunday morning. Small-town girls know how to work. We decided it would be rude to ask how much we were making an hour, but we were betting it was a lot more than the $1.10 we’d been getting at the Acorn Lake Laundro-Matic — any fool knows illegal jobs pay extra.
Sunday night, Lovey handed me a brown wool sweater and a matching skirt. “I have little else in size fourteen,” she said, and nodded toward the door. I left Yvonne there, collecting a pile of size-six leather jackets and skirts while Lovey buzzed between duffel bags, picking out accessories — scarves, lapel pins, an alligator purse.
The following Friday, Yvonne was waiting for me after school in a silver Cadillac Eldorado, slouched down behind the wheel so that none of the teachers would hassle her about skipping classes. I slid into the passenger seat and sat up as tall as I could. It was Willie’s car. Yvonne told me he’d decided she would live at Lovey’s. He’d see her whenever he dropped off a batch of stolen clothes, and Lovey would teach her everything she knew about the apparel business — not to mention giving her valuable tips on dressing and makeup.
Sitting inside Willie’s Cadillac with the engine idling softly and the heater blowing hot, Yvonne went on about her apprenticeship. It was Saint Patrick’s Day and, although it was only four o’clock, the sky was gunmetal gray, the clouds sagging with wet snow; anybody with half a brain knew to grab some groceries and head for home, because we were in for two or three days of road closings. I slid down on the soft red leather seat so Yvonne and I could share our last joint together on school property.
Yvonne laughed as she outlined the life that would soon be hers — a life without the pasty-faced, dead-eyed Acorn Lake boys and their skinny, cheerleading girlfriends, girls so naive they wouldn’t mind living their entire Lives in that two-block town, waiting around to die. I took a deep hit off the joint and held it. Yvonne pounded the steering wheel with the heels of her hands and whooped once real loud. I heard some other people start their cars and drive away, and for once I wasn’t wondering if they were all going someplace Yvonne and I weren’t invited. Even if you’re bored with people, you want the chance to say no.
Yvonne had convinced Willie to let her go back to Benny’s one last time for her homecoming dress, her birth-control pills, and an armload of bangle bracelets she’d started collecting when she was thirteen. He’d let her out with orders to be back by nine o’clock, and had slipped two hundred-dollar bills inside a black suede purse, along with the best counterfeit driver’s license I’d ever seen. The license said she was twenty-two, but with her new false eyelashes and arched-up auburn eyebrows, she looked even older. She laughed too high now, and too much, like she’d raced from seventeen to thirty overnight. She was leaving Acorn Lake with only one place to go. There was no plan B. I don’t know if you can understand.
Yvonne wanted me to drive her out to the Paris-France Resort Cabins so that Benny wouldn’t see Willie’s Cadillac. She said that way the realization that she was gone for good would come on him gradually, in bite-sized pieces he could handle. Snow had started floating down all around us, as if someone had sliced open the clouds with Lovey’s stripping tool. Millions of snowflakes swirled back and forth as Yvonne and I ran from Willie’s warm Cadillac to my cold Chevy. It started right up.
When we arrived at Benny’s shack, Yvonne got out and walked around the front of my car. As she passed through my headlights, the wind whipped under her hair and lifted it straight up — two feet of coal black hair standing on end, with glistening snow spiraling up around her body. She might have been a sorceress. Then the wind let up, her hair fell down around her face, and after a second, she continued around to my side of the car. I rolled my window down a couple inches. “If I’m not out in ten minutes,” she shouted over the noise of the storm, “come inside and say we have to get going because you’re worried about the roads.” Her eyes were wide, a layer of stark white snow trapped in the curl of her black false eyelashes.
I turned off the headlights and sat listening to the radio, worrying about bald tires, bad roads, and carbon-monoxide fumes finding their way out through one of the cracks in my rusted tailpipe, snaking up through the apple-sized hole in the floor by my feet, draping themselves around my head like a toxic scarf, and putting me to sleep by inches so that I wouldn’t notice I was dying alone. I flipped on the windshield wipers. They plowed the snow off to either side, but it was too dark to see much. I waited ten minutes, then gave it another five; Yvonne never did anything on time, and suddenly I minded. Gray smoke started puffing out of the shack’s round aluminum chimney pipe. I turned on my headlights, hoping she’d get the message — they shone directly on the plastic-covered window next to the crooked wooden door. Finally, I leaned on the horn until Yvonne stuck her head out and gestured for me to come in.
I’d never been inside Benny’s shack; Yvonne had always met me at the road. The door slammed shut behind me, and I stood in a smoky, rectangular room with a plank floor and a curtained-off corner that must have been the bathroom. Industrial-sized green garbage bags were stapled neatly up and down the exposed two-by-fours; they made a whoofing sound as the wind sucked them in and out. Benny lay on his side under a pile of dirty blankets next to the wood-burning stove in the center of the room, his greasy black hair fanned out on the gray pillow. His eyes were half open, and he was smoking sweet-smelling hash through the long tube of an elaborate hookah that must have been a Vietnam memento. According to Yvonne, he’d come back crazy after two tours of duty, and only smoke and downers kept him sane. The brass water pipe, with its coiled tubes, was the only thing of value in the room — except for the Harley sitting on its kickstand next to a hot plate littered with empty cans.
Yvonne shoved chunks of wood in through the stove’s small steel door. “Benny,” she said, “there’s soup heating on the burner. Eat something. And you have to remember to keep putting wood in this fucking stove or you’ll freeze to death.” She kicked the stove door shut with her booted foot. I’d never seen her angry before.
Benny puffed once on the pipe, smiled slyly, and blinked. “Wood,” he said.
Yvonne grabbed her lumpy backpack. “I’m going out for a while.”
As I backed the car down the narrow, slippery driveway, Yvonne explained that she would stay with Lovey only for a few months — a year at most. She said she was learning how to earn more in a week than we’d made in three years working part time at the Laundro-Matic; more than a top-notch secretary earned in a year. She planned to stash away lots of cash — enough to buy a car and maybe even make a down payment on a little house in the Twin Cities; after she stopped working for Lovey and Willie, she’d give me a piece of the house and we could work regular jobs and split the bills. It might take her a year to save up enough for all that, she said, but she’d come out of it with so many good clothes that she wouldn’t need anything new for years. That would save us money right there.
I drove on through the storm, my nose to the windshield, straining to see the faint parallel tracks left by the last car to come this way, hoping they wouldn’t lead me off the road. During a blizzard, sometimes three or four cars will follow the same tracks into a ditch. Most people don’t understand that getting where you’re going during a snowstorm means driving fast enough that you don’t bog down, but slow enough that you can stop if the edge comes racing up at your front wheels. It’s mostly instinct.
I considered telling Yvonne she would be better off going back to Benny and getting her high-school diploma, but I could still hear the garbage bags whoofing on the two-by-fours. I concentrated on making it to the state highway, where the plows work straight through storms to keep one lane open for emergency vehicles. Yvonne said she’d mail me cash every week so I could put it in a savings account in both our names over in the Minnewashka Valley State Bank, where no one would ask questions. She was talking loud; I wished she’d lower her voice so I could see the road better.
I flipped on my high beams and caught the red glint of a stop sign, confirming that we were nearing the state highway. I pressed down slowly on the gas pedal, getting up enough speed to make it through the snowbank the plow would have left in our path. We burst through it like the Starship Enterprise breaking through to another galaxy, snow flying up past the windshield like bits of the Milky Way. I fishtailed making the left turn, but steered into the skid, and suddenly we were in the cleared lane.
And Yvonne had my shoulder, shrieking that I should come with her, that Willie and Lovey wouldn’t mind; she would convince them to take me, too. She said it was the fastest way out of Acorn Lake. I told her I’d read that when you’re afraid of the new people you’re meeting, it’s sometimes a sign that you’re moving up in the world.
By the time I stopped at the driveway to the high school, the snowfall was slowing. Yvonne laughed, a short bark of a laugh. “Someday,” she said, “you’ll be a secretary to a really important man, and I’ll be a cocktail waitress in one of those fancy bars in downtown Minneapolis, someplace where all the men wear ties and tip big.”
Before she got out of the car, she gave me one of her hundred-dollar bills — to open our account, she said. She told me I should get my shorthand up to 130 words a minute, with no errors. Then she raced off through the snow, searching out the gullies the wind had carved between the drifts, lifting one long leg after another, her long black hair sailing behind her like wings.
A different version of this story previously appeared in Nimrod.