Rusty Barnes

The Mouths that Breathe, The Air that Catches

Two trailer park girls run round the outside of the tin-roofed storage shed at the front of the court. One is named Sherry and the other is named Simone but let’s not think about that now. Sherry’s a good eleven-year-old girl in knee-sprung jeans and a spaghetti-strap blouse stained at the front a little from the spaghetti sauce her mother made for dinner before they sat down to watch Wheel of Fortune, Simone’s the same age, a dark little thing in a sharp skirt with tiny calf muscles that tense when she jumps the dog-rope stretched between the posts of the clothesline and the corner of the shed. Her pop-beads jounce around her neck, pink and light blue and yellow, jaunty green pendant suspended in the center. Sherry jumps with her sometimes, over puddles of muddy water doing the trick-like snaky slide across into the grass where Sherry’s dad leaves spare car parts and empty pop bottles, the empty lot where he fixes his car and the girls skip rope when they have a third girl, which isn’t often, and even then they have to skip over the rainbow-slicked oil spills. Then the boys, the boys come by in their cut-off smart-mouth jeans and nut-brown bare chests with cigarettes to spare and jerk-ass attitudes, and how Simone responds and leaves the games behind, twists her hair in her hand and looks at the ground, speaks in stutters of vulgarity and takes the cigarette in her hand and puffs it once while Sherry tries not to stare and wishes she could be like Simone the brave as their lunch-bucket days and Britney Spears posters disappear in the trail of cigarette smoke from these boys, the boys of late-spring heat and tumbled-dry hair coiffed like and hung rock stars. Now Sherry sits on the crick-bank and watches Simone dips her feet ankle-deep in the water, the stones rusted orange from acid run-off, the water where no fish will live, the water that splashes her blouse like sweat where the boys try to make her wet, and Sherry has her shoes off now, tiny pink-tipped toes dipping into the water and her jeans rolled up and the boys all round like worker bees around the queens, the queens of playground and trash-heap who spot the rats at the edge of the water and shout, the boys the boys who throw rocks and the girls who watch them and together they watch each other and trade stories till they’re circled around a stick and newspaper fire in the safe rocks at the edge, the very edge, the only edge, where the boys suggest truth or dare and the girls, smart girls, understand and Simone steals a glance at the boys and they bid their goodbyes and make bus-stop and lunchroom assignations. Simone and Sherry wet-foot in the dew, now sitting on a flattened cardboard box together again smoking a single cigarette and Simone lifts her face to the sky, blows out smoke like a beacon, Sherry takes it from her and coughs up her new life, but the important thing to remember when they open their smoking mouths to the air, when they open their mouths and try to speak, to say what it is they mean, they look at each other, they shrug, they feel their lives running away into the distance. They taste stars.

(Apologies to Eminem and Rick Moody and whomever else I stole this story from; thanks)


An Arrangement

There’s a milky sunset over the palm trees and Lisette slips naked into the whirlpool at one edge of the pool, sips at a Corona nearly stoppered with a thick chunk of lime. She can feel the juice burn in her cracked and sunburnt lips. She picks up her cell from the side of the pool and glances at the time: 7:05. Chuck is on his way over, and their friends Katy and Silver will be coming later for dinner. The weather has been a beautiful dry 92 for a week, and she ought to be grilling, she supposes, but after the day she spent on the front desk at the salon, she didn’t have it in her. She ordered a veggie plate and some hors d’ouvres from the Plank Catering company she and Chuck used for their wedding. It’s been seven years since they divorced, and they’ve remained friends somehow, and Lisette attributes it to the fact that they didn’t have children. Less pressure, but lately she’s felt different.

She lays everything out on the table in the dining room, ices down some Coronas and Miller Genuine Draft, and cleans the living room and the kitchen and the bathroom. Chuck won’t careóhe never did muchóabout the mess, but Katy and Silver will be there and them she’s not so sure about. They’re old friends, but really attached more to Chuck and his pool-building business than they are to her. Lisette supposes it’ll be awkward. Her phone buzzes, and Chuck tells her he’s on his way, and that he’s bringing a couple pounds of shrimp and some caviar.

“But I thought I’d cateró” Lisette says.

“No worries,” Chuck says. “You have room in your freezer, then?”

“Well yeah.”

“All right then. It’ll be fine. Be there soon. You have lemons?”

Lisette presses him gone and finishes her beer, steps out of the pool. Rusty, the next door neighbor’s twelve-year-old, is up on top of his swing set and he sees her and his mouth goes to a round O, and then he grins and waves. Shit, she thinks, and runs to the house with her arm across her chest. Once inside, she dresses in a modest bikini and throws a kimono on top of it, fluffs her hair a little. She hears a car in the driveway and soon Chuck comes in without knocking, hauling a couple small tins of caviar and a big bag of shrimp into the kitchen

“This isn’t your house anymore,” Lisette says. “You can’t just come in without notice.”

“No?” Chuck says. “I still pay for half of it, though.” He’s grinning.

“Yes you do,” she says, and opens the fridge and opens him a beer.

“And gladly.” Chuck still loves her, albeit at a careful distance from his current girlfriend Judith, a pinch-faced economics teacher at the university. “How are you doing, Lise?”

“Next question.” Lisette hears another car in the driveway. “Shit. Silver and Katy are here. Later?”

“OK,” Chuck says, sips from his beer and walks toward the door to let them in. They exchange kisses at the door, and Katy comes out to help Lisette in the kitchen. Katy is sharp-faced and lithe, a set of legs barely attached to a woman, no hips or breasts to speak of.

“Hi honey, how are you?” Katy says. Her lips are over-pink.

“Fine, dear.” Lisette tolerates Katy because of Silver, Chuck’s closest friend, who is a big booming man with prematurely silver hair he keeps locked behind his head in a knob. Katy is thirty kinds of fake.

“That suit is so nice on you.” Katy pops a carrot into her mouth. “Really brings out your. . .hips.

“If it weren’t for Silver I’d tell you to get out right now,” Lisette hisses.

“No really. You have the greatest child-bearing hips. Too bad you and Chuck neveró”

“Fuck you.”

“What? What did I say?” Katy says, mouth open. Lisette storms out of the kitchen and corrals Chuck by the arm.

“I cannot stand that woman tonight. Get her out now.” Chuck looks startled, but complies. After a hushed conversation, during which Katy shovels in as much caviar as she can stand, Silver grabs Katy by the arm and they exit, leaving the table and the beer behind. Silver mouths I’m sorry as he leaves.

“What was that about?” Chuck cracks another beer.

“She said I had child-bearing hips.” Lisette can’t quite overcome her anger. “Skinny no-tit bitch.”

“Hey now.”

“Well, she is.”

“Yeah. But that’s just her. She’s just into paying left-handed compliments. It’s nothing stronger than she’s said before.” Chuck begins cleaning up the kitchen table. Outside past the deck the pool glistens deep blue.

“Tonight it bothered me.” Lisette’s confused a little. “I mean, I’m too old.”

“For what?”

“To have a kid. You know Rusty, next door? He saw me naked today.”

“Heh. You made his day.” Chuck sits down and stretches his feet.

“All I could think I was going to be responsible for him thinking about his dick all day. I mean.” Lisette feels as if she’s going to cry.

“Hey now,” Chuck’s voice is low now. “You want to have a kid because of Rusty?”

“No. Well yes. I want to raise a boy who doesn’t think about his dick all day.” Chuck laughed and put his arms around her, squeezed her tight around the shoulders.

“Good luck with that,” Chuck says, leans his head on top of hers.

It’s the right thing, Lisette sees. So what if she has child-bearing hips that have never borne a child. Is thirty-eight too late to start? She could feel Chuck’s heart against her breast. It feels solid and comforting and right. She wonders what Chuck would say if she asked him right now to give her a baby. He’d flip, she thinks. We’re seven years past that, she thinks, but the thought persists.

“I better go,” Chuck says.

“No. Stay.” Lisette drops her kimono.

“Youíre beautiful. But not tonight.” Chuck kisses her, then gets his shrimp from the freezer. “I’ll call you sometime. We’ll have dinner.”

“Dinner?” she says, coyly.

“Yes,” he says firmly. “Dinner.” He shuts the door and she hears his car start, and the engine noise fade into the distance. She grabs a beer and heads out to the whirlpool. Back in the water, she puts her head back on the concrete and stares out at the stars being born somewhere in the sky. She feels her stomach full of roe, and her ovaries, heavy every month with one more egg that would not be quickened, then she hears a noise at the wooden fence. It’s Rusty again, watching her fervently, and he doesn’t notice that she sees him. He won’t notice a thing for minutes, she thinks as she arches her back, teasing him, and then feels a rush of embarrassment.

“Go to bed, Rusty,” she yells, and gets out of the pool, pulls her suit out of her bottom. She hears someone whisper Oh shit and realizes there are more of them.

“All of you,” she says. “Go to bed, you little pervs.” She hears a giggle, then another.

“Youíre beautiful, Mrs. Taylor” one of them yells, and the other fall into a fit of nervous laughter that fades off into the night like a meteor. She walks into the kitchen slowly, shuts the sliding door behind her and turns out the light.


Rusty Barnes lives in Revere, MA, where he maintains webspace at