Ronder Thomas Young


Touch Me Here

Green

Barbara's pale lashes flutter.  "Touch me here."  She opens her blouse, wiggles her index finger at the dip in the middle of her bra.

Zachary rolls his eyes, but he does it.  Presses his dirt-lined, ragged nail against her skin. 

Barbara's blue eyes snap wide.  "Zachary!"   She grabs his stubby finger—"slowly"—and demonstrates.  "Soft."  She lets go with a jerk.  "Like a guy who means it, okay?"

Zachary follows her instructions.

She nods slightly.  Exhales a little puff of air.  "All right."  She pulls back, bites her lip.  "Do this."  She takes his hand.  "Curve your fingers."  She tries cupping his hand over her breast.  "The whole thing," she says.

"I am," Zachary says.

Barbara pushes him away.  "Never mind," she says.  "Your hand's too little anyway."

"Is not."

Barbara stands up.  "You're not supposed to like it, you little perv."  She goes into the kitchen and plops down at the table.  "I can do it, Ma."

Zachary can still remember his mother's bright hot eyes.  "Yes."  She nods.

"I'm going to get married, and I'm going to be a virgin."

Their mother spreads her fingers over the cold toaster.  "Wear"—his mother's voice pitches low—"green."

"I don't have anything green, Ma," Barbara says.  "I don't like green."

Zachary looks at his mother.  She is always watching.  Green.  He never sees what she sees, but he believes it's there.

When Grandma Jackie calls from Colorado to wish Barbara a happy fifteenth birthday, Barbara puts Zachary on the phone.  "Tell her about Ma," she whispers.  "She likes you."

"She's just depressed, honey," Grandma Jackie says.  "She's been through a lot.  Women get depressed."

 "Screw this," Barbara says and begins making plans.

His mother doesn't seem depressed.  Her eyes are always wide open, her elegant body always erect, always alert.  Her appliances shoot directives, secrets that reveal her mission.  Of course, days do go by with the bedroom door closed, when he doesn't see her face at all.   

Green.  Zachary can never see what she sees, but he thinks sometimes he almost catches something in the air, some subliminal rattle, some swish or whisper.

 Barbara's first date—Tommy, Timmy, Tony?—comes by to pick her up at seven-thirty.  Zachary stands at the window watching the taillights of the car slide away from the house, thinking that surely this event will change their lives.  Barbara has been talking about her first date for over a year, ever since she hangs up the phone on her fifteenth birthday.

The change is less explosive than he's hoped for, less than when his father disappeared three years earlier, but still Zachary enjoys the boys who begin to come in and out of the house with his sister.  He loves the way his mother pulls herself together for them, at least for a little while, at least long enough for him to fix a memory of how it used to be.  Barbara marries Carl when Zachary is fourteen.  He wears a black tuxedo with a red cummerbund and stands up with four other guys behind the groom.  Barbara has married early, at twenty, and well, to a lawyer, and, she insists, as a virgin.  Zachary is proud, not just of his sister, but of himself, for the small part he's played in making it happen.


Go

Women stream up the wooden steps to Zachary's one-room garage apartment, women like Lucy, a wan beauty with a birthmark shaped like a little guitar on her left shoulder.  She shows up at his door after she sees his band play in Greenville.  "I don't want to bother you," she says.  "I just need a place to be."  She settles in his one chair, a tall ladder-back he has smuggled out of his mother's whispering home.

His mother does not try to talk him out of moving into his own place.  "Go," she tells him.  "The house is hungry."  Her maternal instinct intact.

 "Think of me as furniture," Lucy says.

And so he does.  Or at least he treats her as furniture, occasionally talking, but feeling no compulsion to speak.  Mostly he goes about his business, paying bills, making phone calls, reading, trimming off little slivers of lemon rind to drop in his Scotch.  He believes he remembers seeing his father do that.  Zachary buys lemons for that reason only, and for that reason only they seem necessary.

When finally he stretches out on the bed and turns on the television, Zachary thinks of Lucy any damn way he pleases.  Closes his eyes, twists her up, down, wraps her around.  Opens his eyes only to turn and wink at her.  "Lucy, honey," he says, "Go."

"I know."  She stands up. 

Zachary looks for that other little birthmark high up on the back of her thigh.  A sort of crescent moon. 

"Thank you," Lucy says. 

When he hears her car back down the driveway, Zachary pumps himself to where he wants to be.  When a girl is clearly crazy, this is the way he's learned to work it.

Punk Amy he doesn't identify right off.  She's familiar enough, with her maroon hair, her spiked attitude.  She shows up, they tangle, next morning he wakes up and finds his speakers missing.  "I took them," Amy tells him.  "You owe me, you son-of-a-bitch."

"You didn't have a good time?"

She shrugs.  "Didn't you?"

Whenever the squirrels scurry across the gutters, he sits up and thinks, "Punk Amy."  

Jeannine works at the phone company.  She's short, not thin, but firm.  Her hair is like his sister Barbara's—simple, even all around, bouncing.  Like a metaphor for their time together.  She bakes—cakes, banana and zucchini bread, cookies—and shows up to deliver her goods, leaves them at the door when he's not there.  She's twenty-five, a year older than Zachary, and she is convinced that when he finally graduates with his degree in psychology this summer, his life will change completely.  Jeannine scares him most of all.

Zachary talks frequently about his sister Barbara, with affection, bemusedly, but he has never told anyone about the plan, the kiss, the first date.  Not until now, as he sits on the hood of his car, swaddled with Eva in the darkness. 

"You were nine years old?" 

Zachary watches the slow motion of her lips.  He pushes the wide-brimmed straw hat off his forehead and nods.  Eva is the first woman in long time who has waited for his invitation, waited for his hand to slide into hers. 

 "Spider's not always so mean."  Her fingers curl into his palm.  "He hasn't always been so mean."

Zachary leans back, closes his eyes.  Eva follows.  "You've heard him, right?"  she asks.  "You've heard him sing?"

"Yeah," he mumbles.  Go, he thinks, but she doesn't, not for hours. 


Listen

Spider lives in one room, too.  Mattress on the floor, kitchenette in the corner.    "Pretty much like my place."  Zachary points to the wall.  "Except for this whole tent thing you got going."

Spider pulls a six-pack out of the refrigerator.  "Parachute."  He sits on the floor and leans back against an over-sized pillow embroidered with an orange and green dragon. "Soundproofs the place."

Zachary and his mother fight for what seems like a year when Barbara marries and moves away.  She wants all doors open, all the time, so that she can listen.  He stops fighting when he realizes he is not the object of her listening.  He fingers the silky parachute walls.  "Don't you ever need to see a little sun?"

Spider tilts his head to the adjacent wall.  "I can pull it back over there, if I need to."  He holds up a beer.

Zachary takes it and lowers to the floor.  "I like that," he says.

"What?"

"That pillow."

Spider twists around and looks.  "Eva made it."

"Wow."

Spider settles back.  "She did it from some kind of kit."

"Still."

" 'Preciate the ride, man."  Spider yawns.  "I don't remember drinking all that much, but—"  He closes his eyes, falls back on the pillow.  His beer tips over. 

Zachary sets the can up.  Stands and looks around.   Spots a small acetylene torch on the counter, picks it up, presses out a spot of gas.  He fumbles around the clutter, looking for a striker, checks his pocket for some matches.  The phone rings.  He scans the floor, spots the phone over in the corner.  Spider snorts, rolls over.  Zachary picks up.

"Spider, it's Gloria.  Remember me?"

"Mmmm."

"Were you asleep?  You told me you stay up all night."

"No."

"Anyway, I'll be there."

"Where?"

"In Greenville.  At Xanadu. Tomorrow night."

"Oh."

"You remember, right?"

"Sure."  Zachary hangs up, takes another look around the room, goes out to his car and drives home.


One good reason why

Carl's boat is a puzzle inside, interlocking red vinyl, jigsaw efficiency, the sort of tight space that will make or break connections.  Carl pries the cap on his beer, slides the opener across the table to Zachary.

"Barbara wants me to sell the boat," Carl says.

"Why?"

Carl shakes his head.  "She says she gets sick."  He shrugs.  "We don't really have time to get out much anymore."

"It paid for?"

"Sure," Carl says.

"Cost a lot to keep it here?"

Carl tips the bottle to his mouth.  "You worry too much about the cost of things, boy."  He drinks, squints, sets the bottle down. "You need money?"

"I'm not worried."  Zachary says.  "I'm just aware of—"

"Money's not the issue.  It's just that Barbara always has to—"

"Hear one good reason why?"

"Exactly."  Carl settles his arm over the back of the booth.  Pulls his knee up to his chest.  "One good reason why."

"Yeah."  Zachary stretches out, closes his eyes.

Carl rips into a bag of pretzels.  "Your sister goes for the complete control."

Zachary's eyelids roll up.  "Well," he says, "there is a good reason for that."  He turns, levels his eyes with Carl's.  "If she hadn't, I reckon I'd be one of those kids at the bottom of a well."

Carl raises his bottle.  "Hey, man," he says.  "I love her, too."

At their wedding reception, Zachary had toasted the new couple.  "I was born into this mess."  He had raised a glass of champagne.  "What's your excuse, man?"

Carl had laughed.  Slapped the table.  Might have been a little drunk.  Barbara leaned over and took the glass out of Zachary's hand. 

"Oh."  Zachary straightens up.  "I get it."  He points at Carl.  "You want me to be the reason why."  He leans in.  "You want to go home, tell Barbara that the kid loves it, so you might as well keep the boat."

Carl nods.  "Don't you love it?"

"Fucking A."  Zachary holds out his hand. 

Carl takes it.  "So it's a deal."

Zachary pumps and nods.  "Hell," he says. "I'm sleeping here tonight to seal the deal."

After Carl leaves, Zachary lays on the bunk in the dark.  The water laps.  The boat rocks, lulls him into a long, hard sleep.  


I'll be there

That night they come together coincidentally out at Calvin's lake house.  It is the first time Zachary has brought Jeannine around these people.  When Spider and Eva pull up, he regrets it.

Jeannine, like all the other girls, wears a skimpy bikini, a red one, with barely room for the single horizontal blue stripe on the top and bottom.  Eva stands on the dock and pulls a little red dress over her head.  She wears a thin, black knit suit, zipped up the front, all the way to her neck.  Long, odd, distinct.  Eva. 

He glides through the splashing and chatter, finds her, rubs a submerged knuckle in the curve of her back, right above her hips.  "Turtle-neck swimsuit," he whispers.  "Hippest thing I have ever seen."

Eva does not smile.  She doesn't even look at him.  Her eyes widen slightly.  She watches Spider, who floats by.

Zachary moves back to Jeannine, stays with her, pulls her around, picks her up, throws her in the water at least once, mimics the behavior expected of him.  He watches Spider press in on Eva.  He recalls that feminine voice on the Spider's telephone.  I'll be there.

Spider strides off into the darkness with Matt Mann, and Eva pulls up onto the dock and talks to Matt's girlfriend—Kathy, Katy, something with a y.  Suddenly Spider reappears, beserk.  He pounds on the hood of his car.  "Where the hell are my car keys?" he yells at Eva. 

Eva runs into the commotion and rummages around in her bag.  "You didn't give them to me," she says.

"Relax," Matt says.  "I'll give you a ride in."

Spider grabs Eva's bag and dumps the contents on the ground. 

"Brilliant," Matt says.

Matt's girlfriend goes down on her knees to help Eva collect her stuff.  She reaches up and pulls on Spider's cut-offs.  "You got a pocket in these things, Einstein?"

Spider thrusts his hands into his pockets.  Shuts up for a second.  "Oh, hell—" He looks out at the water.

Zachary shakes his keys, points Jeannine to the passenger side.  "Come on," he says.  "I'll give you guys a ride."

Eva opens the door and climbs into the back seat.  "Thanks."  She slides over to make room for Spider.  Zachary watches them in the mirror.  Spider nuzzles, then sinks onto Eva.

"Okay," Zachary says, "where do you live, Eva?"

"My car's at Spider's," she says.  She straightens up, Spider falls into her lap. 

Zachary drops Jeannine off first.  "He might start up again," he whispers.

Jeannine looks over her shoulder, cuts her eyes at Zachary.  "I don't think so," she says.

"Still."

She nods, hesitates, opens the car door. 

Zachary reaches over to pat her shoulder as she exits.  "See you."

"Yeah," she says.

Zachary jacks up the radio and avoids the mirror.  He pulls into the driveway behind Eva's old Falcon. 

"Tell Jeannine we're sorry."  Eva pushes Spider up. 

Spider blinks.  "Yeah," he says.  "Thanks, man."

Eva walks with him, not holding, but with her arm out and ready.  Zachary sits in the car.  Watches a light go on, then go off.  He gropes around for one of the receipts littering the floorboard.  Writes 480 Waccamaw.  In back.  Tonight.  Anytime.   Gets out and knocks on the door.

Eva opens the door.  "He's okay," she whispers.

Zachary hears him banging around in the bathroom.  "You okay?"

"Sure."

He slips the piece of paper into her hand.  Her lips part.  Spider staggers out of the bathroom, gives a weak wave and falls on the mattress.  Eva tightens her fist.  Zachary drives home and sits in the car for forty minutes.  Waiting.

Eva pulls in behind him.  She swings out of her car, hops onto the hood of his and asks, "You ever feel like you're living someone else's life?"

Zachary rubs his chin, regrets the stubble.  "Well," he says, "growing up, I reckon I always felt I was just a small part of my sister's plan."

Eva nods and scooches back.  The moonlight cuts her in half.  "What plan?" she asks.


Thank you

A couple of weeks after Barbara spins into the house wearing her diamond engagement ring, Carl comes by to take Zachary out for a burger. 

"Why didn't Barbara come with us?"  Zachary asks.

Carl sighs.  "Okay, kid," he says.  "Do you know the truth or not?"

Zachary hesitates.  "I know you and Barbara are getting married.  I know she's moving out."  He has had some hope that this is what this meeting is all about, that Carl and Barbara are going to take him with them.

"Yeah, yeah."  Carl wipes him mouth with a napkin.  "Don't worry about things.  We're going to hire someone to help your mother."  He stares at Zachary.  "How old were you when your father . . . your father went away."

"Six, I guess.  First grade.  Why?"

"Listen, man, I'm just going to tell you, because this is insane, because"—Carl's voice picks up speed—"you should have known the truth a long time ago—"

"What?"

Carl keeps going.  "The truth is your dad didn't run off, he hung himself in the basement, he killed himself, he's dead—"

Zachary blinks.  He remembers how he's sent off to stay with his cousin, how he's never done that before or after, just that one time, all of a sudden, for days.  And he remembers how his mother has maybe tried to tell him, how she looks up from the kitchen table and says in her new voice, "We are not dead, not all of us."

And then how Barbara barges in with "Hell, no, we're not dead.  We don't need the sorry son-of-a-bitch."  How she envelopes her mother with her arms and kisses, how she, in effect, shuts her up.

Carl slumps with his head in his hands.  "Why didn't Barbara tell me?"  Zachary asks him.

Carl lifts his head.  "Man, your sister recreated a sort of order in that house."  Leans in, tries to level his eyes with Zachary's.  "She was fucking terrified to screw with it."

Zachary stands up.  "Thank you," he says.  "I need to get back to the house."

In the car Carl prattles about the whole situation being insane, about how Zachary's better off for knowing, about how there wouldn't have been any point in drawing the process out.  Zachary says nothing.  Gets out of the car when it stops at his house.  "Man"—Carl leans across the seat—"I had to tell you.  Otherwise, she wouldn't marry me."

Zachary nods.  "Okay."  He looks into Carl's tired blue eyes.  He likes Carl well enough. He hopes Barbara doesn't make it too hard for him.  "Thank you."


What's the plan?

He finds her number in the phone book.  "It's me," he says.  "480 Waccamaw."

Eva's laugh pitches warm and low.  "Is that an invitation?"

Zachary looks around his room.  "What kind of life is this?" Jeannine has asked him.  "Nothing but a bed."  Barbara opens up her arms and announces, "Welcome to Zach's Bed and Booze."

"Where are you?" he says.  "I'll come to you."

"No, you don't want to do that."  The laugh again.  "I live with my parents."

Zachary's shoulders drop.  "How old are you?"

The voice cools down.  "I'm legal."

"I'm just interested," he says.  "You know a lot about me."

"Yeah."  Her tone warms and flows.  She's going to college soon, she tells him, but right now she's working, waitressing, saving money, and, yes, she feels the same way.  It's good to see the light of understanding in someone's eyes when she talks.

He decides the boat will be safe.  No one, no one that matters, will recognize them at the marina.

Eva slides across from him, in the red vinyl booth.  "I told Spider."

He knows his face goes dead white.  Spider could—Spider would—shoot them both, although, in truth, Zachary sees Spider more as one who might prefer to kill with his bare hands.  Even if they hear him coming, see him coming, there is no way out.  He has trapped her.

She hooks her hair behind her ears.  "I just told him I was seeing someone else.  No details."

Zachary searches for his instincts.  Is he the most likely suspect, the way he's been around, or the least?

Eva jumps.  Her elbow slides off the table, brings him back.  Zachary turns and sees Carl, not Spider.  His eyes flit from Zachary to Eva, back again.  His smile, too wide, skews.

Eva wears jeans; one knee is drawn up under her chin.  Zachary is suddenly aware of her nipples, pushing against her little red shirt.

Carl crowds into the booth beside her.  "What's the plan, Zach?"  He has an unclean look Zachary can't finger.  The hair, maybe, falling more forward than usual.

Zachary shakes his head.

"Let's take her out."  He winks at Eva.  She looks at Zachary.

Zachary shakes his head.  "It's too late," he says.  "Eva has to get home."

"Ah," Carl leans back and looks at her.  "School night?"  So slow.  So close.  A sharp word, a quick grip—even a good-natured chuckle from Zachary—could have stopped it.

But instead he watches as Carl lifts, with one finger, from the bottom, the red shirt, to expose just the beginning of Eva's bare breasts.  Zachary is amazed.  Shocked.  Paralyzed.  He never quite figures out how she snakes up and over and out so quickly.  And then the splash. 

"Barbara and I had a fight," Carl says, as they watch and wait for Eva to resurface.  "Look."  Carl points.  "She's up.  She's swimming.  She's okay."  They see her shadowy figure shimmy up a pole on the opposite dock.   Carl puts his hand on Zachary's shoulder. 

Zachary shakes it off.  "Go to hell," he says.  When he gets home he finds one of Jeannine's tins of cookies leaning against his door.  He stuffs it in the trashcan, then thinks better of it.  Nothing else in the place to eat.


She was right

At the end of the summer, Carl sells the boat and uses the money toward the down payment on a cabin in the mountains.  "It's only about an hour away," he tells Zachary.  "Barb and I can get away every weekend if we want to."

"Great."

Carl sighs.  "She was right about the boat," he says.  "It was trouble."

Zachary laughs. 

"She was right," Carl says.  "What if that crazy girl had drowned?"  He runs his fingers through his hair.  "They would have nailed us to the cross."

"Eva's not crazy."

"If you say so," Carl says.  "You ought to know crazy, if anybody does."

Zachary goes to his mother's house at least three times a week.  Sarah fixes them lunch—usually chicken salad and cantaloupe—and they sit in the nook and eat.  His mother listens.  "What will happen to it," she asks, "when I'm gone."

"What, Ma?"

"The house."

Zachary looks through the window, up into the sky, and sees Eva tumble from cloud to cloud.  She lands in the backyard like a limber cat.

"Well, Ma," he says.  "Seems to me you'd be a natural at haunting." 

Eva's long legs seem to swing from the remnants of his old tree house.  Even when he leaves, he's able to carry the hallucination for a while.  Eva in shop windows, among the mannequins.  Sitting on his bed, when he first unlocks his door.

He knows she's moved on to Columbia now, so in October he drives for almost three hours, hoping for the best, hoping for something.  She meets him, knows exactly what he wants.  She sits on the bench beside him and says, "I loved the note."  She smiles.  "480 Waccamaw. Anytime.  I loved being able to read it, to think about it, to read it again, without some asshole breathing in my ear."  She arches her back.  "I loved the way you touched me"—she rubs her lower spine—"here that night out at the lake, under the water."  She touches his hand.  "I loved the way you waited for answers."  She stands up.  "It made the questions real."

"Let me just say one thing about that night on the boat."

"No." she shakes her head.  "Same old Q & A.  What will he doWhat will she do?"  Eva shrugs.  "You got your answer."  She turns and walks away.

"Eva."  He stands up.

She turns back.  "I wasn't even supposed to be there."  She points and shakes her finger at the ground.  "I was supposed to be here all along."  She brings her hands together, meshes her fingers.   "But I couldn't leave Spider without leaving you, so then I was able to leave Spider because you gave me a reason to leave you."  She untwines her fingers, drops her arms.  "See?"

He nods, looks up, sees her spiral out of his reach, into the sky.

"Thank you," she says, her voice muffled in the clouds.  "Really."


I do

Jeannine's lashes flutter.

"You may kiss the bride."

Zachary leans in, presses hard, glances, with one eye, his elegant mother, swaddled in green satin.

Afterwards, Barbara pulls him down, whispers in his ear.  "Smile, sweetheart."    Her sharp nails cut into his palm.  "Don't smirk."

Zachary straightens up.  Relaxes, moistens his lips.  Lowers the left corner.  "Like this?"  he asks his sister.  "Like a guy who means it?"

Barbara nods, flutters her glittery lashes.  "Perfect."

* * *

Ronder Thomas Young's short stories and essays have been published in the Georgia Review, Greensboro Review, Yemassee, Carve (check this story out online right now), and the Southeast Review, among others. She has also published three award-winning young adult novels: Moving Mama to Town (International Reading Association Award), Learning by Heart (ALA Notable Book), and Objects in Mirror (The New York Public Library's 2003 Best Books for the Teen Age). A native South Carolinian, she currently lives in Georgia with her husband, Glenn, and the youngest of her three sons, Ian.