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For Barbara Peters, who moves mountains without breaking a sweat.
“By the Month or by the Night” read the sign over the entrance to the trailer park.
Wind, cold for April, chased dirt and beer cans up the gravel street. Clutching her geometry book to her chest, Polly stood on the wooden step outside the door of her mother’s trailer, her ear pressed against the aluminum. The icy bite of metal against her skin brought on a memory so sharp all she felt was its teeth. She’d been almost nine years old.
was what she thought. Nightmares had ripped apart her dreams since she could remember. Something heavy pressed on her back, pinning her to the mattress, mashing her face into the pillow so she couldn’t breathe. The smell of whisky and cigarettes came into the dream, and Polly knew it was real life. In her dreams, she never smelled things.
It was Bernie. He’d been looking at her all hot-eyed and smarmy until Hilda got pissed and made her go to bed early. Though Polly’s ninth birthday wasn’t for a couple weeks, she already knew what it meant when men’s eyes went gooey and nasty.
Hot as an iron, his hand pushed down on the middle of her back, burning through her thin pajama top. Like a bug pinned to a board, she thrashed, arms and legs scrabbling against the tangle of sheets.
Easy as shucking an ear of corn, Bernie stripped off her pajama bottoms.
Hilda had told her what would happen if Bernie ever came into her room at night. She’d cut his balls off and make Polly eat them.
With a wrench that made her neck hurt, Polly got her face free of the pillow and screamed.
His hand left her back, grabbed her hair and pulled her head up. His other huge stinking paw slapped over her nose and mouth.
“Shut up. Your mom’s so fuckin’ drunk, she ain’t gonna hear. You stay quiet and we’ll have a fine old time. Fun. We’ll have us some fun. Bernie knows how to make a little girl sing like a bird. Tweet, tweet. Now, you gonna stay quiet?”
Polly managed a fraction of a nod between the slabs of flesh imprisoning her head.
“Tweet, tweet,” he said again. Bernie was such an incredible asshole.
He took his hand away, and Polly screamed with every bit of air left in her lungs. She twisted and bucked. Hair was yanked out, but the pain made her stronger, and she clawed at any part of Bernie she could find.
Her room was never real dark, not like in-the-woods-at-night dark. The trailer park had big security lights everywhere, and the light leaked in around the curtains—when she’d had curtains. Since the sun had rotted them off, the room’s single high window was her own private moon, always full and stupidly square.
Bernie was naked and his thing was poking up like a big old dead stick sticking out of a swamp. It made her scream even louder.
“God damn it!” Bernie hissed and grabbed her face to cover her mouth again. She was yelling and a thick finger went into her mouth. Polly bit down and bit and bit and bit and now Bernie was screaming. He shook her and she felt herself lifted clean off the bed, but she didn’t stop biting. Then he threw her so hard her teeth came free; blood and a chunk of flesh came away. The stuff went down her throat. She was a cannibal now.
“I eat people!” she screamed. “I’ll kill you and eat you. Momma will cut off your balls, and I’ll put them on my Lucky Charms and eat them for breakfast.”
The light came on. Hilda was standing in the doorway, still wearing what she’d had on when Polly had gone to bed, but all wrinkled, like she’d been sleeping in her clothes.
“Momma,” Polly whispered. Hilda never let her boyfriends mess with Polly.
“Bastard!” Hilda yelled. “You fucking bastard!”
“Momma,” Polly cried. Scrambling to her feet, she launched herself at her mother and wrapped her skinny arms around Hilda’s waist.
“Cunt,” her mother shrieked. “You fucking little cunt.” She slapped Polly so hard she saw red things in her eyes.
That was the night Polly realized that what she had taken for caring in Hilda wasn’t so much looking after her daughter as having jealous rages.
Polly hit her forehead against the cold aluminum of the trailer door driving the memory out. She was fifteen, not nine—there had to be a statute of limitations on bad memories.
“Nobody’s fucking home. Beat it!” was shouted from inside.
Sighing, she turned her back on the racket, put her geometry book on the peeling paint of the step so she wouldn’t get her good school skirt dirty, and sat, shoulders against the scarred and dented door. Through the thin aluminum, she listened to the tide of battle ebbing and flowing.
In European history, they had been reading about the Hundred Years’ War. England and France had nothing on Polly’s mother and stepfathers; they’d been going at it as long as she could remember. The only thing that changed was the stepfathers’ names. Used to be, they had married her mother, but the last two or three hadn’t bothered.
Why Hilda kept dragging men home was a mystery. It wasn’t like they brought money or glamour. Stinky shoes, hairy backs, and hard fists were more like it. Polly was determined never to get married. “No men,” she yelled as somebody crashed against the door.
Except to have kids, she amended silently. More than anything, she wanted kids to protect, love, and teach; to keep safe and happy.
Another spate of profanity scattered her thoughts. It was getting cold. And now she had to go to the bathroom.
A couple times when it looked like somebody was going to kill somebody, she’d called the cops, but they just hauled Hilda or the boyfriend in, and when they came back it was worse than before. “Get over it!” she yelled in the general direction of her left shoulder. “Kill each other or make up. I got to pee! God!” She slumped back against the trailer.
This was the third time this week she’d come home to World War III. When the weather was nice it was easier to deal with. She could go sit in the woods if it wasn’t too buggy, or walk down to Prentiss’s tiny all-purpose corner store and get a milkshake if she had the money or kill time leafing through the magazines on the rack if she didn’t. Mrs. Chandler didn’t mind, as long as there were no other kids around.
Mrs. Chandler knew why Polly couldn’t go home, but she was too nice to let on. Polly appreciated that. That changed her letting Polly hang around the store from charity to friendship.
“The Farmers don’t take charity,” her mother would say when she was sober enough to be embarrassed that someone else wanted to do for her daughter what she could not.
That was a lot of malarkey.
They’d been on welfare off and on since the third—or maybe the fourth—stepfather had gone north to Chicago, where he was going to make a killing in the oil fields and then send for them.
Truckloads of malarkey.
Polly’s mom had waited by the phone until Polly told her there weren’t any oil fields in Chicago.
A fist or a foot or a head slammed into the door. Polly pounded back angrily with the flat of her hand.
“Would you pass out so I can go to the bathroom!” she yelled.
Ma Danko, the old colored woman who lived two trailers down, looked up from the laundry basket she cradled in her stick-thin arms.
“Why don’t you come on home with me and have some cookies?” Ma said.
“I better not, but thanks,” Polly replied. “You know how it is.”
“I do. But you come on anyway if it starts raining.”
But she wouldn’t. Of all charity, Polly’s mom hated charity from Negroes the worst. “You just remember you’re white,” her mother would say. “Niggers got no business feeling sorry for a white girl.”
A scudding wind picked up leaves and litter and threw them at Polly in cold mockery. “It’s getting downright chilly,” Ma said. “It’s gonna be a bitter rain. Cookies is still warm from the oven.”
“It won’t be long now,” Polly assured her. The banging inside the trailer was growing sluggish. Nodding, Ma Danko walked on.
Polly pulled up the backside of her full skirt and pinched it around her shoulders to keep warm. Ten minutes passed, fifteen. Finally the noise stopped. She stood and smoothed her skirt back into place. Turning the knob slowly so it wouldn’t make noise, she opened the door a couple of inches and peeked in.
Her mom was on the couch crying. Tom, the most recent stepfather, wasn’t anywhere in the kitchen-cum-living-room.
was on the TV. Girls in fringed dresses were twisting in spotlights.
Polly slipped in and closed the door. The kitchen was a mess of dirty dishes. A Miller’s can lay on its side weeping beer onto the linoleum, but the lamps were still upright and none of the dishes looked broken.
All’s well that ends well,
Polly thought. It was the title of a play they were reading in sophomore English. She set the geometry book on the kitchen counter and went to the couch to see if her mother was bleeding.