During the summer before her senior year of high school, RJ takes in ironing from the wrinkled upper middle class in her small town. Because her mother is a widow, RJ babysits and irons to earn money for essentials: panty hose, Maybelline, and Beatles 45s. She is not allowed to spend any of The College Fund (which is under the watchful eye of The First National Bank) that she was told had come from her father’s life insurance policy before she was born. Her mother, Lucky, made the decision that RJ will attend the community college, a “good enough college,” thirty miles east in the city. RJ can commute, and, her mother believes, stay clear of marijuana and sex that real college kids experiment with when they live in dormitories. After all, aren’t RJ and her mother God- fearing Baptists who are afraid of hippies with flowers in their hair? Although RJ’s mother has typing and shorthand skills learned in high school, she never used them. RJ is to become a teacher so that she can be self- sufficient and have summers free to watch over her own children.
RJ’s habit is to prepare the night before, to sprinkle every item of clothing with water, then individually roll each shirt, blouse, skirt, or pair of slacks into a compact fabric ball. To keep the damp balls from souring overnight, she stacks them inside an old Frigidaire on the enclosed back porch.
That Tuesday, as soon as her mother steps out the door to walk the five blocks to her job as cashier at Mr. Wilson’s dime store, RJ takes a stack of clothes out of the refrigerator, piles them into a laundry basket, and carries them to the living room. The first day of school is less than a week away, and she has spent most of June, July, and August next to the blaring blue horsehair davenport, listening to the radio in the mornings. Afternoons, she watches Search for Tomorrow on the black-and-white cabinet model Zenith television. She irons Otto’s clothes for free, since he is their landlord and lives in the back room. He’s on the day shift at Chrysler.
A fan breezes on her freckled legs. Though early, it is humid. RJ starts with Mr. Wilson’s short- sleeved dress shirts. Seven white, seven diluted blue, never anything different.
Jerry, the Wilsons’ only child, is in RJ’s class. The entire town worships this star of the high school basketball and football teams. He is the boy who will make something of himself – everyone knows it. He resembles Jim Morrison, but with shorter hair, because high school does not permit a boy’s hair to touch his shirt collar. RJ picks Jerry’s purple paisley shirt from the basket. She has ironed it many times this past year. He wears it so often that the press of the iron into the seam under the arm releases Jerry’s body odor, which is exactly that of Campbell’s Bean with Bacon Soup. She inhales and pictures the ruff of dark hair under his arms, visible when he is making free throws.
RJ’s thoughts wander to what she’s heard on television this week about Woodstock: hippies, rock music, traffic jams, mud, drugs, and sex. Jimi Hendrix’ Purple Haze comes out of the radio. RJ pulls off her white baby-doll pajamas, and dances into the kitchen in her panties, feet cool on the worn linoleum. Hippies at Woodstock dance to this song, she is sure of it.
In an effort to straighten her natural curls, RJ slept with her long, dark hair wrapped around empty frozen orange juice cans, substitute hair rollers. Bobbing her head in imitation of her idea of drug-enhanced movements, one of the cans falls from her hair and bounces under the kitchen table.
She picks it up and hurries into her room, pulls the other rollers out, and brushes her hair smooth. After she dresses and applies eyeliner and Tangee lipstick, she returns to the ironing board. Her sighs are as tense as her body. Yesterday’s phone call from her friend Jewel had nudged RJ into despair over her own vanilla existence. Jewel, who moved to New York State, had sneaked off to Woodstock. She’d had an adventure that she swore had been worth being grounded for life. Jewel’s whispers about sex had been halted by her dad yelling at Jewel to hang up the phone. Now, dammit, Jewel!
The mindless back and forth motion of RJ’s arm, weighted by the iron, weakens her resolve to finish the Wilsons’ clothes early. There is no reason to hurry, except that her mother expects it. RJ yanks the iron’s fuzzy cord and sparks fly from the outlet.
She takes her mother’s car keys from the top of the refrigerator and drives to the city. Her hands stay steady at ten and two on the steering wheel until she gets accustomed to the Chrysler speeding on the new interstate and she steers with one hand. The used car glides like an old ship on a silvery river, its fins miniature metal sails. She pretends she is on the way to Woodstock, but knows it is already forever too late for that adventure.
When she pulls into the strip mall and sees the new Thom McAn shoe store, she parks there. That will be an excuse to offer, that RJ shopped for school shoes. But. RJ is in trouble. She didn’t ask permission: her mother would have said no. Looking down, she realizes she’s missed fastening a button on her Ship ‘n Shore sleeveless white blouse. She is wearing it with her favorite Bermuda shorts. Both are ironed with care. The air-conditioning in Thom McAn arouses the hairs on her arms. A bald salesman with extra chins is speaking politely, but loudly, to two elderly ladies with short, permed hair. His elbows have no definition in his dimpled arms, and his belt cuts into his middle. Another salesman, a young man with hair that falls to his shoulders, stands by the men’s shoes. She glances at the women’s shoes on display near the door and grabs a sandal. Instead of waiting for the young man to come to her, she walks to him.
What did she say? It takes Joe a second to understand that she believes him to be an employee. Must be the necktie. He hasn’t worn one since he went to church as a boy. Because she is beautiful and his days are numbered, he takes on the persona of a salesman. She asks for a size seven, and the display sandal happens to be her size. It is simple for him to find the shoe’s mate from a box underneath the table.
The girl sits down and kicks off her white tennis shoes. Joe drops to one knee in front of her, and brings her right foot to his left thigh, realizing too late that he forgot to use a stool. He keeps his hands cupped around her ankle, rationalizing that she could be the last American girl he would touch. When he slides the sandal onto her foot, she shivers, and her tremor makes his own hand shake. She has the reddest toenails he has ever seen, and he imagines they taste like ripe sweet cherries.
Joe is without sisters, without girlfriends, without aunts or grandmothers, and he has broken his mother’s heart by spending most of his college fund of $2,689.26 traveling around out West for three weeks. That was his response to Uncle Sam’s invitation to Viet Nam. Joe had meant to go to college, because it was his parents’ plan, but time had passed after high school, the draft notice arrived, and all he can see these days is the inside of a body bag. Zipped up over his face.
When Joe’s hair falls into his eyes, the girl brushes it away from his forehead. No one but his mother has ever done that.
“I’m going to Viet Nam,” he says. “Into the Army, tomorrow.”
“But your hair! They’ll cut it,” she says.
He fits the other sandal on her and moves aside so that she can try them. She pauses in front of the mirror, the kind that only shows the ankle and foot. As she pivots this way and that, he cannot take his eyes off any part of her, from the arch in her foot to her long dark hair, hair as dark as a black moon. Will the Viet Nam jungle be that black?
When she admits that she hasn’t brought enough money with her for the shoes, Joe is ashamed that he cannot buy them for her. But his mother had only given him enough money to buy shoes for himself, to wear to his uncle’s funeral, and he will not disappoint his mother again.
The manager nods at them as he walks by, his thick fingers struggling to balance four boxes of shoes. “You two doing all right?”
Joe nods back, and guides her to the door, explaining that he has the afternoon off for a funeral. He suggests a short ride.
They leave in the white tank of a car titled to his parents. He taps a pack of Marlboros against the front seat, plucks out a cigarette, shoves in the cigarette lighter. When he offers the pack to her, she shakes her head no. As they head out of the city on a local highway, he turns the radio on. Sonny and Cher, Sly and the Family Stone.
“Did you go to Woodstock?” she asks. “Woodstock? No. I’ve been out of town on, uh,
business.” Woodstock? That whole scene looks like a battlefield, as wild as the news clips of Viet Nam, he thinks, but does not say. “I have a new knife,” he tells her, blowing smoke. “I can show you, if you want.” He pinches a switchblade out of his pocket and hands it to her. “Be careful.”
At the first dirt road, he turns off the highway. He slows, and the dust that rises from their tires settles on the car. He throws his cigarette out the window and realizes that soon his movements will become tactics; he will be wary of enemies on his trail.
When he comes to a wooded area, he steers the car into it. The car moves through knee-high grass; he imagines the rush underneath the car’s open windows to be the sound his fatigue-covered legs will make, humping through dense undergrowth.
The grass thins near a thicket of trees that have grown as straight as soldiers. When Joe slips the car in park and turns off the engine, he can hear an airplane overhead. He wonders how long it will be before that buzz will turn his bowels to water. Sweat collects in his armpits, around his belt, in his groin. He notices a film of perspiration on the girl’s forehead, the smudge of her eyeliner. When he blinks, he sees himself in her eyes, his face painted with mud. He blinks again.
“I’m gonna die in Nam,” he says, not only because he feels it, but because that line and a few beers had brought results twice this summer. Taking his wallet out of his back pocket, he removes the Trojan and offers it to her. “It’s up to you.”
RJ accepts it, but does not tell him that she does not have the slightest idea what to do with it.
“I meant to go to Woodstock,” she tells him her wish-lie. “With my friend.” She clicks his knife open, and shut, an activity that occupies her hands and her eyes. She wants to appear as worldly as he soon will be.
Still they do not touch.
Picturing Jerry Wilson’s paisley shirt under the iron, and recalling Jewel’s aborted whispers of sex, RJ opens the glove compartment door and places the square packet and the open knife side by side on the tray the dropped door makes. Facing the long-haired boy, she unbuttons her blouse and shrugs it off.
He does not move while she fingers the pink ribbon rose on her white bra; the rose is between her breasts, where his dog tags would rest. She uses the knife to cut the rose free. When she extends the flower to him, he opens his palm and she drops it there. She returns the knife to the tray, reaches behind herself to unfasten her bra, then kicks off her shoes. Her blue shorts and pink panties, embroidered Tuesday, come off next.
When he suggests the back seat, she does not crawl over the front seat to get there. Instead, she picks up the foil packet and gets out of the car, hesitant in the leaf-pocked sunlight, the door left open. She watches as he hurries to get his own clothes off.
Her eyes zero in on the part of him that she has never seen on any man, only on boy babies when she changes their diapers so that their parents can go to the movies. What babies have seems harmless. As a little girl, she had undressed her Ken doll, and put him against her naked Barbie, sensing their need but not understanding it until this minute.
Still they do not touch.
She disarms him; it is the first time he has seen a girl undress in the light of day. As if they are on a date, he escorts her into the back seat. Before he covers her body with his, he insists on closing the car doors. For these minutes, she is his to protect.
When his face comes next to hers, she catches the mix of all the scents that are his: a particular body odor that is not unpleasant, smokers’ breath mixed with gum. She touches the boy’s hair, gunmetal black, and presses her fingertips along his sweaty scalp. It distresses her that he will lose the shaggy mane that curtains her face and neck. He will become ordinary.
“The rubber,” he touches her hand. “You better put it on now.”
Put it on? She opens her fist, reveals the packet. Holding it by a corner, she raises it, like mistletoe, over their heads to study it. She has believed that men wear them, and now he’s asked her to put it on? The girls at school whisper that a rubber is necessary to keep from making a baby. She does not want a baby. Her mother will cry like a martyr, though RJ is certain true martyrs do not cry.
There is no way for her to make sense of his shape, and the flat packet, and where he might expect her to wear the thing. She thought rubbers were the black, shapeless overshoes that Otto wears.
RJ knows where his penis should fit into her; she can feel its tip, waiting for permission. She stops thinking of her landlord’s shoes when a promise rises there, against his penis. She jerks her arm back and tosses the Trojan behind her, out the window.
He cannot breathe when he sees the packet drop out of sight. He waits for her to warn him, to protest, to say stopstopstop. No matter. He is unable to retreat when she raises her hips. She murmurs into the curve of his throat, her breath sweet and warm. Their rhythm is rushed with youth and need.
Afterward, he holds her in the polite way of strangers who have just made love, their bodies slick. She asks his name, please, and he presses his fingers to her lips until her eyes admit she understands. When they push apart, there is a sucking noise.
She gets out of the car first and asks for a tissue. He offers his undershirt. She turns away from him to clean herself, and there is blood.
“This is your first time.” Shame rumbles through his head but he remains calm.
“I wanted something to happen.”
He twists the shirt and tosses it into overgrown weeds. “Do you have a friend who can help you?”
They lean against the car, her head on his shoulder. He waits for her to understand. How can strangers talk about that?
“Yes,” she replies minutes later. “She’s far away but she would help.”
There are no tears. Instead, she reaches into the car for the knife, and asks him to get on his knees. He does as she asks, and stares at what he has taken, falling back on a memory already – how she had met his thrusts, breasts proud, nipples like targets, the geographic mole on her right cheek. When she circles behind him, he can smell the salt of her armpits, a scent that might be as exotic as a foreign flower. If he dies here, he is ready.
The switchblade steady in one hand, she tugs on his hair with the other. Shorn locks scatter in the breeze around them.
They ride in silence on the drive back to the store. She writes her name and phone number on the white inside of a Wrigley’s Spearmint foil gum wrapper and slips it in his shirt pocket. Braking hard in front of Thom McAn, Joe reaches across RJ to open the car door. She is slow to leave him; he can tell she does not see his corpse. When he looks back at her in the rearview mirror, she is sitting on the curb with her purse between her feet. Bleeding madras.
He does not throw the gum wrapper out the window until he knows she cannot see it whirl in the air and skitter across the pavement.
Billie Girl, Vickie Weaver’s first novel, won the 2009 Leapfrog Literary Press Fiction Award. Other recognition: 2015 second place in Twisted Road Southern Gothic Fiction Contest (judged by Dorothy Allison), 2014 Lush Triumphant Contest Winner (Sub Terrain); 2009 Spiro Arts fellowship at Park City, Utah, home of Sundance Film Festival; 2008 semi-finalist Mary McCarthy Prize; 2006 Pushcart nominee. Her short stories have appeared in literary journals and anthologies. She lives in the middle of an Indiana hayfield.