A couple hours later, Jeri finally locked the door behind a redheaded senior girl with her hair piled up high on top and Kim hobbled out from in back to wait for her son to show up in his rusty beater.
Jeri smiled a tired smile, “The problem with all those up-do’s, is they don’t hold up to much prom night tussling in the backseat.”
Kim smiled, but not like she understood, and kept staring up the street through the trails of raindrops.
Then Jeri said, “Go and try your dad one more time.”
I sat in Jeri’s little office, the desk snowed over with invoices and bills and ads for new beauty products “for the discriminating salon owner/operator,” and I wondered if they knew exactly how discriminating Jeri was. I dialed Dad’s number and listened to his grubby phone ring and ring, seeing it there on the TV tray he uses for an end table, remembering the day the answering machine disappeared when Mom stole it for five bucks worth of something to get off on. I felt sorry for that old phone right then, just sitting there all day waiting for something to do, and now that it had something to do, no one was there to answer it. I let it ring, me and the phone both of us hoping he was just out in the yard, scooting out from under his truck, wiping off the grease with an old red shop rag, cursing the rain on his way to pick up. But he never picked up, and I kicked the bottom drawer of Jeri’s army green file cabinet in the same dented spot where she always kicks it closed.
Kim was gone when I got back out front and Jeri was fighting with the broken zipper of a nylon windbreaker for some NASCAR driver that don’t even drive anymore.
I said, “Nothing.”
And she said, “Your mom?”
I shrugged. We could drive around to every dive bar in three counties and still only have a 50/50 shot. And Jeri knew that same as me.
She gave up on the zipper and wrapped the sides tight around her before she said, “We best get on out there then.”
The carpet in Jeri’s old Dodge was spongy wet and the whole way out to Mae’s she kept wiping the inside of the windshield with the cuff of her jacket ‘cause the defroster couldn’t keep up. The cashbox sat between us like a booster seat for Jeri’s purse.
Jeri said, “How much is there?”
I looked out the window and said, “I don’t know. Six, eight bags. Maybe a box or two. It should all fit in the trunk.”
She said, “They’s a whole bunch of shit in the trunk. Supplies for the T-n-T. Can’t even keep stuff in my own damn store anymore.”
I knew she was talking about when my mom broke in the Trims ‘n Tans and robbed her own mom. She didn’t even have to say so.
I looked over the seat, “It’ll probably all fit in back.”
She swiped her cuff at the windshield and said, “It’ll probably all be wet and muddy in back.”
I listened to the windshield wipers squeaking on the glass. We passed a guy on a bike that looked like one of Mom’s friends. The cardboard fender he’d rigged over the back tire was melting in the rain and Jeri said, “You can stay with me. ‘Til somebody shows up.”
When we pulled off onto the shoulder in front of Mae’s, Jeri shouted, “Got-damn it!”
Mae’s neighbor keeps pit bulls for fighting, and he never leaves the house without a hickory break stick on a leather throng around his wrist. The brindle & white one was into the bags, and he’d torn big holes in them and my underwear and socks were spread on the bank of the ditch like fast food trash tossed from a car. And now he had a hold of my stuffed horse, biting the back of her rain-soaked neck and humping her like a pit bull bitch in heat. She was big enough to ride when I was little and her name’s Spite, but only Molly knows that. Everybody else thinks her name is Sparkle, and everybody else thinks I’m too old for a stuffed horse. She don’t have rockers like a rocking chair and she stands guard in whatever room I end up in. My dad bought her for me one Christmas I was staying with my aunt up outside of Akron, and she was wrapped in two big red plastic shopping bags.
I said, “If I had a gun, I’d shoot that damn dog.”
Jeri fussed in her purse and said, “I do have a gun, and I’d be happy to shoot that got-damn dog for you.” She took out her 5 shot .38 and flipped it open to make sure it was loaded.
I said, “I thought you kept that at the shop?”
She spun the cylinder before she flipped it closed and said, “I can’t leave it there no more, honey. Surprised the shit out of me she didn’t steal it the first time around.”
Jeri opened the car door and stood in the rain, steadying the pistol against the roof. I covered my ears and she fired twice. It wasn’t as loud as I thought it’d be but the noise got his attention enough to stop him humping. She didn’t hit him and I wasn’t really expecting she could. Dad always said when you’re too vain to wear glasses and you got a stubby little inch and a half barrel, you won’t hit a thing that’s not in the room with you. Jeri fired again and he took off for the woods behind Mae’s, dragging Spite with him by the throat.
I yelped and jumped out of the car to chase after him.
I could hear Grandma behind me yelling, “Amber! Amber, honey! Leave him be! That horse is ruint!”
But I needed Spite, needed her more than anything, and I didn’t care what’d happened to her, and I didn’t care if I had to beat that dog to death with a branch to get back what was mine. I slipped in the clay and mud up behind Mae’s trailer, and when I got back on my feet, I could see him watching me from the tree line with Spite still clamped in his jaws.
I screamed, “You’re dead! You just don’t know it yet!”
He dropped Spite and took off running back toward his pen. When I got to her, she was soaking and broke-backed and stunk like wet dog. I combed the grass, and twigs, and pine needles out of her yarn mane with my fingers, and poked stuffing back through the holes in her neck as gently as I could. She wouldn’t ever be the same, but that didn’t matter to me. When I picked her up, cradling her sagging body, I saw a light in the darkness of the deep woods. Not a will-o’-the-wisp, or the spirit of a girl on her horse, but maybe the shimmering ghost of their passing, headed north away from the river, like a vapor trail disappearing high up in a clear blue sky, a bright, fading path leading us someplace beautiful. But only if we hurry.
Author photo by Melissa Breetz Barton.