Sonny sipped Orange Crush on the deck of his trailer, his hands vibrating from the day's work of mowing lawns. He squinted into the sunlight. In the distance, his only neighbor, the Birmingham Water Treatment Plant, sat guarded by barbed wire, KEEP OUT signs, and bad smells. Leaning into the wood railing, Sonny saw two men in navy blue coveralls pacing the perimeter of the brown pools, collecting information, writing everything down on clipboards. As they fussed over the chemical content or whatever, Sonny became entranced by the orange buoys bobbing atop the surface of the water. They danced like cork bobbers on the ends of fishing lines. They looked like arm floats kids who can't swim wear, and Sonny, who'd just turned twenty-one, wondered why the hell you'd need buoys out there on that brown water that smelled like rotten eggs.
Sonny ate fish sticks and canned corn for dinner and then opened the sliding glass door to catch the sunset. There, on the deck Sonny built himself out of scrap lumber, he found Lucinda Miller, his best friend from high school. She held two pairs of boxing gloves—gloves so red they looked like oversized candy apples.
"Hadn't seen you in twenty-three days." Sonny swatted mosquitoes, pointed to the boxing gloves. "College must be brutal."
Lucinda stood about six feet tall. She wore brown trousers that matched her right eye and a green golf shirt that matched her left and even in the summer, Lucinda's pale white skin reminded Sonny of vanilla cake frosting.
Sonny said, "We can talk. I've got some pot if the situation warrants."
She shoved one of the pairs of gloves into his chest.
"Follow me," she said.
Sore-limbed and full-bellied, Sonny limped after her, across his half red clay, half grass backyard. She unraveled the garden hose and made a circle of it about fifteen feet around. She put on her gloves and made the sign of the cross—north, south, east, west—and called to him, but Sonny just stood there, holding these boxing gloves that smelled like plastic and felt like new couch cushions.
"Last visit you brought me lottery scratch offs from Georgia." Sonny watched her lace up the gloves, bend her knees, stretch. "The time before that it was a stolen copy of The Nick Adams Stories. Before that: a fake ID from your friend who digs computers."
Lucinda practiced a right-left-right combination. Sonny smelled his own musk, wished he'd showered after work. He walked into the circle, into Lucinda's slanting shadow. He hiccupped, tasted tartar sauce, sweat on his upper lip.
He said, "I read books without pictures. I run my own landscaping crew. I could help if you talk."
"You could help by putting on the gloves."
Lucinda boxed her shadow, jabbed at Sonny's smaller shadow. Sonny waited.
"I'm seeing a therapist now," she finally said. "Dr. Rubenstein says I need 'clearly-defined relationships' at this point in my life. I told him about you and how I come here to get away from school, and my boyfriend and my parents, who are always threatening each other with the D-word."
Sonny said, "I had a clearly-defined relationship with my old man. Junior Williams slapped my face in high school for selling dope and mouthing-off to the principle. I brooded on that until the day he died."
"He also said I need to find a more productive way of expressing my anger." She turned to the side, stuck her hip out. "Grab those mouthpieces from my pocket. No sense losing teeth while we're evolving."
Sonny did as she asked. He held the mouthpieces in his hand. They were clear and smelled of rubber. He watched as she blew the hair from her eyes. He remembered the first time Lucinda came to visit, how she got drunk on Boone's Farm and explained to him that everything really meant something else. "Everything is a metaphor," she'd said. "The maples and pines surrounding your trailer, the blue sky, that can of soda in your hand."
Sonny studied the makeshift boxing ring, the gloves in his hands. He wondered what fighting a girl really meant. He knew punching was a metaphor for something, but what?
"I know I skipped college to bury my father, but this," Sonny held one of the red gloves up to the sunlight, "doesn't make a whole lotta sense."
"Are you scared of me?"
"No," Sonny said. "I like you."
"I like you too. So what?"
Lucinda stepped on Sonny's boots and looked down on his face and told him to channel his aggression, focus his breathing. Strawberries and whiskey: up close, she smelled of strawberries and whiskey. Blood pumped in Sonny's ears, brain. He dropped the gloves and stood on his tip toes, scratched her cheek with his stubble.
Sonny said, "You're tack-sharp for a girl, and your green eye looks like an emerald when you smile, but know this," Sonny moved his lips closer to hers, "I won't hit a girl, especially a spoiled little princess like you."
"Boy," she said, spitting a little when she spoke. "You're a scared little boy."
Sonny pushed her off, picked up the gloves, and laced them up. He was having trouble tying the knot, he couldn't breathe. His scalp tingled, itched. In his mind, he kept a scrapbook of images that got him through the long days of trimming hedges and longer nights of cable reruns: Lucinda wearing a Carolina Panthers jersey and white cotton underwear, leaning against his bedroom door; Lucinda in flannel and corduroy, helping Sonny blow leaves off some rich guy's yard; Lucinda hunched over Sonny's toilet, cleaning up her puke, her face white as skeleton bone, everything reeking of white wine and clove cigarettes; Lucinda with her feet propped up on the deck railing, a thin joint dangling from her lip, her hands cupped and filled with Fruit Loops.
Sonny put up his dukes. Across the ring Lucinda mumbled a Hail Mary.
"Tell me you need this." Sonny did a one-two combination. He liked the whoosh, whoosh sound his punches made. "Tell me you need to hit someone."
"I need you," she said. "To stop talking and make a fist."
Sonny put in his mouthpiece. Lucinda did likewise. They both started dancing around the ring on their toes, their big candy apple fists covering everything but the narrow slits of their eyes. At first, Sonny felt stiff and ridiculous. He could feel his knees popping as he moved. Each popping sound reminded him of his old man, an ex-minor league baseball player with reconstructed knees and a bum ticker. Sonny ground his teeth until he tasted blood. He kept seeing Junior Williams on the kitchen floor, clutching his left shoulder, face like an overripe cherry tomato, drool leaking out the corner of his mouth.
"Come on," Sonny said, punching at shadows, his blood moving. As he balanced his weight on his toes, Sonny tried to imagine not what Lucinda would be like in bed, but what she would say afterwards. Would she purr like a kitten and rest her chin on Sonny's hairless chest? Would she talk about her boyfriend, how he was pre-Law and short with stale coffee breath?
Lucinda danced towards Sonny and swung, the blow glancing off his shoulder. Sonny's heart beat in his throat. He punched her in the ear. She snorted.
"I don't like this game." He lowered his arms. A dull ache settled into his limbs. "I don't like games."
Gloves covering her face, knees bent, trouser pleats still creased and perfect, Lucinda flared her nostrils and ran circles around Sonny. His feet were cemented to the ground. She did one lap, two laps around him, stopped, and spat out her mouthpiece.
"Fight," she said.
Sonny shook his head.
"Now," she said.
Sonny spat his mouthpiece out. Lucinda stared at him for a second, then tackled him to the ground, straddled his ribcage, and started flailing her arms. Sonny tried covering his face, but it was too late. She landed a hard right. All Sonny heard was the whoosh of the punch followed by the crack of his jaw, his nose, his male ego. When she popped him in the ear, everything went quiet as a church on Saturday morning. When she popped him in the mouth, Sonny looked past her blurry pale white face, past her furious fists, to the trees and sky beyond his double-wide trailer.
Afterwards, the two of them sat in the grass, passing a cigarette back and forth. There were specks of Sonny's blood on the red clay.
"That looks like art." Sonny counted the random red dots on the clay, the red dots sliding down the blades of grass. "That looks like abstract art."
"Your face is art now," she said. "Lucinda is an artist."
Sonny forced a laugh. His teeth felt like razor blades knifing into his gums. His penis moved. He felt ashamed—of his semi-erection, of his boxing prowess. The sun sank lower and lower. The men in navy blue coveralls remerged and walked around the brown pools. They wrote everything down on clipboards. The orange buoys bobbed. Sonny watched, inhaled the stink of rotten eggs. He finished the cigarette, tossed the butt into the boxing ring.
"Feel better?" Sonny asked.
"I'm not sure," Lucinda said. "You?"
"Ask me later."
That night, Sonny shared his bed with Lucinda for the first time. He didn't sleep a wink. He wouldn't touch her. He just stared at the ceiling fan, feeling the tender bruises on his face.
"Do you feel better?" Lucinda's voice cut through the darkened bedroom. "Do you feel better now?"
Sonny touched her thigh with his right hand, lightly. He pulled it back, trembling. He was still wearing his jeans and boots and bruises.
Sonny said, "Why did you come to all my baseball games in high school? I was the back-up right fielder, for Christ's sake. They couldn't even afford jerseys for us bench warmers."
Lucinda rolled on her side, wafted her strawberry scent in Sonny's direction. "You know too much about me. Tell me something about you, something I don't know and don't want to know."
Sonny listened to the ceiling fan whirr.
"I've been to a strip club," he said.
"Me too. Some of the women looked rough, but I respect them. You must have gravel in your guts to dance naked."
"Last year, around Thanksgiving, I got drunk at strip club in Tampa. I paid a dancer with green eye shadow three hundred dollars for sex." Sonny exhaled. He was amazed at how easily the words escaped his lip. "She wore these shiny, rubbery black boots. She had a scar on her stomach."
"Caesarean scar," Lucinda said. "My mom has one. What was the girl's name?"
Lucinda called him a prick for exploiting a woman's body for cash, for not having the goddamn decency to learn the woman's name. She demanded that Sonny tell her everything he did remember.
Sonny closed his eyes. "I couldn't finish. Never really started. The VIP room had bright neon lights and the techno music thumped like a giant heart inside my ear. And she kept muttering goddamn you, over and over and over again." Sonny sat on the edge of the bed, grinding his boot heel into the carpet. "On the drive home, I sobered up and started crying. My eyes burned so bad I had to pull over. I punched out the driver's side window. Cost me a hundred and fifty dollars, not including the stitches in my hand. I think the dancer had a kid—a little girl she saw on weekends. She told me his name, but I don't remember that either."
"That all," Lucinda said.
"Yeah," Sonny said. "That's all."
Thirteen days later, Lucinda returned with her father in tow. Gerald Miller, a short man with thinning gray hair and a green sweater vest, sat on Sonny's couch. Lucinda wore a gray business skirt and makeup, something she claimed she did only for court dates and class presentations. She sat beside her father, licking the end of a perfectly-rolled joint. She passed it to her father. The paper crackled when he inhaled. Sonny, in his socked feet, sat atop a stack of paperbacks thigh-high, thinking.
"Smoke?" Gerald asked, holding the roach in front of Sonny like a microphone.
Sonny said it was a little early in the day, took a sip of his third Budweiser since their arrival. The taste bothered him less and less with each sip.
Lucinda said, "Daddy saw the Grateful Dead in San Francisco, 1968."
"Guilty." Gerald passed the smoke to his daughter. "For better or worse, Garcia was the spokesmen of my generation. Too many of us Boomers have mortgages and two point three children and cars that pollute."
"My old man liked Johnny Cash." Sonny yanked the tab off the beer can, chewed on it. "None of my business, sir, but shouldn't you be at work?"
"Lawyers take long lunches," Lucinda said, a hand on her father's knee.
Sonny said, "I thought they put crooks in jail."
"Sure we do—when we're not running for political office. Or being indicted for tax fraud."
Lucinda blew a smoke ring, stared straight at Sonny. "Your face is no longer art," she said. "No more bruises."
"My daughter has a powerful sense of right and wrong."
Gerald's capped teeth and booming courtroom voice made Sonny's skin crawl. Too, he'd heard stories. Lucinda told him that her father had a son by one woman and a daughter by another and that he'd been to rehab for cocaine. Worse, he'd filed for bankruptcy three times, something that Sonny, who believed in physical labor and paying what you owe come hell and high water, found disgusting.
Sonny listened to the rain pelt his tin roof and wished he were out somewhere with a weed whacker in his hands, somewhere away from this lawyer. He said, "Was there something I could do for you today, sir?"
"Stop calling me sir for starters. Call me Gerald."
Lucinda passed the joint to her father, scrunched up her face, and crawled across the floor, knelt before Sonny. He could see her black bra through her white shirt. He spilled beer on the carpet he'd just vacuumed.
"Tell him." Gerald crossed his legs. "If you're to pursue a healthy relationship with this young man, atonement is paramount."
Lucinda blew curly bangs away from her green eye, winked at him with the brown. She said, "I want to apologize for punching you."
"Go on," Gerald said.
"I was a bit stoned and sleep-deprived and stressed out about mid-terms and my parents inability to communicate. Plus, my boyfriend got a hand job from a skank in our dorm."
Sonny looked over Lucinda's shoulder. Gerald took a long, deep drag. A jet-trial of white smoke shot out of his mouth.
Gerald said, "Of course, my primary concern is my daughter's well-being. As you no doubt know, Sonny, my daughter is extremely bright and prone to excess—she takes after her mother that way—but she is an excellent judge of character and I—"
Lucinda turned and thanked him for the ride over, the moral support, and the pot. She said she would see him tomorrow, that they'd play chess and, if he was up for it, discuss the impending trial separation.
Gerald passed the joint to his daughter, kissed her on the forehead. He shook Sonny's hand and squeaked open the screen door.
"Mr. Williams, I assume you understand the reasoning behind my little visit here today?"
Before Sonny could answer the door closed. Sonny stubbed the joint out on the end table and grabbed Lucinda by the arm. He felt light-headed from the beer. He looked her up and down. She was wearing a bracelet made out of Fruit Loops, her clothes smelled like vanilla and dope. Her legs went from her neck to the floor.
"A man having a mid-life crisis in my house is not my idea of a good time."
"This," Lucinda said, "is a trailer."
Sonny squeezed her arm tighter, spotted a new pink heart tattoo on her muscular left calf.
"Do you think about me naked?" Lucinda touched Sonny's face. "I think you do. Why don't you do something about it?"
Sonny let her go. The rain let up. She moved closer to him and put her hand on his chest.
"Heat," she whispered, "I felt heat when I hit you in the face." She took his hand, used his fingers to undo the top button of her shirt.
"Don't," Sonny said, jamming his hands into his pants pockets to keep them out of trouble. "Just don't."
Lucinda slapped him in the face. "Wake up! I'm throwing myself at you!"
Sonny took a deep breath. He thought of the Animal Planet network on TV, the mating habits of lions and tigers. They find a mate, they fuck, they breed. In between, they hunt for food and fend off predators. Simple. But why wasn't it that simple for humans? Sonny wondered why he wasn't attracted to the wide-hipped, round-faced, sweater-clad bank tellers he saw every Friday. Week in and week out, the girls behind the counter would toss their hair, flirt with him and compliment him. "Is Sonny howling at the moon this weekend?" "Does Sonny want to see my naval piercing?" Sonny always left the bank with his hands in his pockets, cheeks burning. Back home, he'd stare at his yellow deposit slip and gnaw on his fingernails, thinking, wondering when Lucinda would come by and read to him out of thick, leather-bound books.
"You're a virgin." Lucinda tilted her head to the side. "You're scared."
Sonny leaned against the kitchen counter, which smelled of the orange-scented disinfectant Sonny used compulsively.
She said, "Last night, I dreamt of my Comp Lit professor. He had me up against the stacks of dusty periodicals in the library. He pulled up my skirt," she slid her fingers down the kitchen counter, rested them on Sonny's forearm, "and did it to me. I could smell Merlot on his breath and feel his milky white hands on my ass and all I could do was think about you and how I—"
Sonny balled up his fist. He ran to the bathroom, puked up beer, studied his face in the mirror. His eyes were bloodshot, his hair matted down with sweat. He forced himself to think about baseball. Goddamn, he missed Little League. He missed putting on that polyester uniform and lathering up his glove with oil. He remembered the way his balls would tingle when the bat hit the ball on the sweet spot. He remembered striking out once and running to the concession stand, feigning a stomach ache. Once inside the bathroom, Sonny slammed his head into the iron-gray stalls, cursing, stamping his cleats on the concrete. His dad asked him what all those blue, black, and red marks on his face were. "Love bruises," Sonny said. "They're love bruises."
In the kitchen, Sonny wiped down the counter top with a sponge. Lucinda watched. Neither of them spoke for a long time. Finally, Lucinda said:
"I'm sorry. Daddy's really fucked up right now. He says Mom's in love with another man, a night janitor with tattoos. Daddy only eats food that's green, but his crazy pills are pink."
"My dad played professional baseball." Sonny dropped the sponge and sat Indian-style on the linoleum. He stared at a hole in his sock, traced the outline with his pinky. "Junior Williams is in the Baseball Encyclopedia."
"Yes." Lucinda sat down beside him. "I remember. In six major league games, Junior Williams had one single, three strikeouts, and a base on balls. He wore the number six jersey for the White Sox, the number thirty-one jersey for the Giants."
"And he died on this floor," Sonny said. "This was his trailer. He bought it with his very first contract signing bonus, in 1979."
"I'll bet he was handsome." Lucinda rubbed Sonny's cheek, wiped away dried-up puke from the corner of his lip. "I'll bet he had dark, curly hair and big brown eyes and long, lanky legs. Just like you."
Sonny said he was sorry about her dad.
"He needs to grow up," she said and touched Sonny's foot through the sock hole. "Maybe we all do."
They shared a bed for the second time that night, only this time Sonny waited until she'd finished telling him her post-collegiate plans—hitchhiking across the country, gazing at the sun rising up over the Rocky Mountains—and then ran his fingers through her black, black hair.
"I want to kiss you," Sonny whispered.
When she turned towards him, Sonny switched off the lamp and kissed her mouth. She tasted like candy and cigarettes. Sonny, excited, put his hand on her cheek, kissed her some more and then gently—politely—explored her tongue with his.
"Did I do that right?" Sonny asked.
For fifty-eight days, there were no visits. No Lucinda. No phone calls or emails. The weather turned cold. During the day, Sonny blew yellow and red leaves across brown yards under a gray sky. The thin-haired, yellow-toothed men he worked with stopped laughing at their own dirty jokes. They complained about the cold and arthritis and alimony payments. They ate their bologna and sweet-pickle sandwiches in their trucks, alone.
Sonny began leaving work early and going to the public library. He read newspapers on long, wooden sticks. He wandered down the aisles, inhaling the dust and vintage paper and leather. Lonely, he asked one of the librarians out on a date. She was older than Sonny, pleasingly plump and blonde with eyes the color of tobacco leaves. They ate Mexican food and drank margaritas. Sonny brought her back to his place, and they sat on the couch, drinking decaf coffee.
"I write poetry," the librarian said. "For fun."
Sonny nodded, blew on his coffee.
"I got one published last spring." The librarian—why couldn't Sonny remember her name?—rested her large hands in her lap. "I've been penny-pinching for this trip I'm planning to Tuscany. A wine tour with other singles. By the way, thanks again for dinner. The fajitas were yummy."
"The guacamole tasted like toothpaste." Sonny spotted the tiniest of zits on her chin. There were wrinkles in her blouse. "I've got an early day tomorrow."
"Tomorrow is Sunday," she said.
"I'm going to the early Mass." Sonny wasn't Catholic. "I like to hear it in the traditional Latin."
"Esse quam videri," the librarian said, and Sonny steered her towards the door and kissed her lips, which tasted nothing like Lucinda's. The librarian tasted like spit, warm spit. He opened the screen door and gently shoved her off the front porch. Her high-heel caught between the wood planks. She fell flat on her ass.
"Shit," Sonny said, pulling her up by the forearm. "You're a klutz."
The librarian—Beverly, was her name Beverly?—retied her hair in a ponytail and wobbled towards her sub-compact car.
"I said you're clumsy." Sonny followed her, touched her shoulder. "Hold on, I need to talk."
"You need help." She opened the car door. Sonny put his hand over hers, stroked her bright red fingernails. "This date is over," she said and tried to start the car, her lip quivering. Sonny stood still. She rolled down the window.
"I do need help," Sonny said.
"Quickly, I'm cold."
Sonny blew warm air into his cupped hands. He didn't know how to put it, so he just put it. "Have you ever been in love?" The librarian laughed, mouth agape, and Sonny counted the black feelings in her head—one, two, three, four.
"I've been married and I've been in love."
"How is it supposed to feel? The love, I mean."
More laughter. Sonny knew that look on her face. He'd gotten that poor-stupid-boy look from guidance counselors, social workers, and his mother, who ran off to Texas and remarried a real estate hustler with snakeskin boots when Sonny was nine.
Sonny said, "I know what the word condescending means." She stopped laughing.
"It feels like floating," she said. "Love feels like floating."
She tried to start the car, but it wouldn't crank. Sonny told her to pop the hood. He reconnected the battery cables that he'd unhooked when she went to the bathroom between coffee refills.
"Grow up," she said.
Sonny watched her car disappear into the woods. He mouthed the word, floating. Shivering, he looked up. The moon was a big white cupcake. He could almost reach out and lick the icing.
A few days after the date, Sonny got a package from Lucinda in the mail. It contained a letter and a bundle of Lucinda's graded exams and term papers. Sonny folded the letter into eighths, sixteenths and stuffed it into his shirt pocket. He fanned out the papers and tests—which all read A-plus or A-minus at the top—across the kitchen counter like a deck of cards. Sonny made a paper airplane out of the Statistics midterm and sailed it towards the refrigerator, kamikaze style. He got his orange disinfectant and sprayed the breakfast table, used the term paper Lucinda had written on Oedipal Complex to clean up pancake syrup and cigarette ash. His hands, his shirt reeked of bleach.
Sonny sat down on the couch, unfolded Lucinda's letter, hoping it was a good one, hoping there would be some kind of explanation for the too-long gap in visits.
On Saturday, Sonny awoke at dawn and swallowed three cups of strong coffee in half an hour. His heart raced as he dusted the TV screen, the bookshelves, rearranged furniture, checked the window every couple of minutes. Around ten o'clock, he studied himself in the bathroom mirror. He didn't like what he was wearing: a plain white T-shirt and Wranglers. He changed into his only pair of dress slacks, put on a blue button-down. He wet his hair and grabbed his yellow dust rag, went back to cleaning the living room. While clearing out a desk drawer, Sonny came across a stack of scratch off lottery tickets. "A lottery is good for the state's economy," Lucinda told him each time she brought him a ticket. Sonny scanned each one. The most he'd ever won was five dollars. He sat down at the desk, exhaled, and practiced what he would say to Lucinda.
"We're both a little touched, but I think we fit together."
"Plenty of people—my mother, friends from high school, those peckerwoods I work with—said I was off, but you don't mind. That means something don't it?"
"I'm a coward. You make me want to run into the fire."
"To hell with it, be mine."
"Do you love me? Are we playing a game?"
By nightfall, every surface of Sonny's trailer, inside and out, gleamed. He'd pressure-washed the shutters and wiped the fingerprints off the screen door and alphabetized his bookshelves and spices in the kitchen cabinets.
By nightfall, it felt like someone had opened a window in Sonny's chest and the frigid winds came and went as they pleased.
Around eight, Sonny found a half-empty bottle of Smirnoff while defrosting the freezer. He added a dash of orange juice, took a big gulp, and walked out onto the deck. The cold stung his lips. He turned on the floodlights. Twenty yards off, he could make out the barbed wire fence and KEEP OUT signs posted in front of the water treatment plant. The liquor slid down his throat like burning ice crystals. He remembered what the librarian said.
"Floating." His voice echoed through the cold and the trees and the night. He heard water, waves crashing in his head. "Floating," he yelled.
Eventually, Lucinda appeared on his deck. It was dark, freezing. She stood near the screen door, half in shadow and half in light. Sonny cradled the vodka bottle in his arms like a baby.
"I'm here," she said. "Lucinda's here."
"Tardiness." He stood up, wobbled, steadied himself. He chucked the bottle into the woods. "Follow me."
Sonny's boots crunched the near-frozen grass and cold red clay beneath him. He listened to her footsteps and breathing. He walked and breathed and stopped in front of the KEEP OUT sign posted below the barbed wire fence. He touched the metal. A spasm, cold as death, shot through his blood. Over his shoulder, he could feel Lucinda waiting.
"No more games," she said. "Where are we going?"
"Beats me," Sonny said and started to climb. His shoelaces got stuck on the razor wire atop the fence, but he made it over, took one look at Lucinda's long, black silhouette, and wiped his hands on his slacks.
"Where were you?"
"Double date," she said. "I was filling in for a friend. Total disaster."
"I went on a date too." Sonny balled up his fists, turned his back on her. "A while back."
"Was she a good kisser?"
Sonny smelled rotten eggs. He imagined himself floating on the black water, touching the orange buoys. He tasted chemicals on his tongue. He tasted Lucinda's bittersweet lips.
"No, she wasn't a good kisser," he said and jumped into the cold, black water, quickly remembering that he'd never learned to swim.
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