BY KRISTEN CLANTON
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The ten-block track marooned between rattlesnake swamp and the oily lagoon of the gulf was named the Swallows by the kids who lived there, a name that rounded its way through family lines since time forever and was said to have originated in a bar at the bottom of Clifton Avenue, though no one alive had ever been there. The town’s true name, the name maintained by state maps, cops, and out-of-towners, was Fullmouth, but anyone who stayed there knew the name was just a joke, one made by the original swamp settlers as they abandoned the township, knowing the earth was too slippery to seed. Even the kids who didn’t know their town history knew that hardly anything good came from their stomping grounds. But it didn’t matter. Every street in the neighborhood was intimidating from beginning to end, but like magicians, the kids knew each pitfall and trapdoor, knew that taking the long way around made no difference. During the summer months, when fleas jumped the sidewalks freely, the problem was the population of mangy dogs. Each one was left behind when its master boarded an oil barge into the warm waters along Texas and Mexico, or when he took an airboat into the Everglades to gather snake and alligator skins. By the end of August, the kids were bored with their wandering, and the dogs’ teeth grew brittle with hunger, snouts scabbed from scavenging. That was when the dogs were willing to eat anything, including dead rats and Coke bottles. Taunting them was all part of the game—like playing Mouse Trap or Life—and if the kids ever got too close, there was always a way out. On their bikes, the kids pedaled fast and faster, launching the curbs and cracks, laughing wildly as the dogs snapped at their sneakers. But in the winter, when the dogs were long gone, the fun was over. Gut instincts and measurable shifts in their mothers’ behavior—from chain-smoking in bathrobes, to wearing lipstick and jeans and trying out new recipes— told the kids to stay home. Though they never compared the happenings within their households, each kid foretold a dark stranger soon arriving at their door, divined the knock that was coming, a knock as predictable as the patterned beat of a rocking bassinet. And as winter goes, after the taverns swallowed every warmth into their blinking lights and black boxes, it was the hunters and sailors, just returned, who were spit into the streets, wanting only to devour a woman, a warm bed and hot plate. At least until the next summer, when these women and their children were left to the Swallows, back to their bathrobes and bicycles. Angry babies left hanging on rocking hips and teats, and the mangy dogs left to the streets. Only the kids knew how to cope: in the Swallows, it was all about how fast you could move and how good you could hide. In their neighborhood, the chains were heavy, the score too far behind, and at least four mothers had committed suicide in the small radius of rundown rows, just since Pearl had moved into a boarding house on Carson Street.
As Pearl walked home from Robert E. Lee Elementary, she thought about the suicides, but mostly in abstraction, like a scary dream. Part ghosts and goblins, part creatures rising from the graves to avenge their histories, all of it, combined with the six-o’clock news reels, was mashed up with the purple pamphlets Miss Lippincott handed out at the final bell. After weeks of circle time conversations, and a skit about a girl named Sad Cindy, sponsored by the guidance counseling office alongside the art and music teachers, Miss Lippincott finally received the administration’s go-ahead for the Suicide Prevention Pamphlet. Vice Principal Richards thought the pamphlets showed weakness of character, but his hand was forced to approve the written materials. The fifth-grade students and fifth-grade teachers were locked in a war of wills. The students refused to take the awareness exercises seriously, and the teachers refused to believe that comedy was how kids grieved. Since the Sad Cindy skit, it seemed like every fifth-grader was falling to their knees, rising from the dead, or pretending to be a zombie. Even Ruby Teller mocked Sad Cindy’s big line—“I can’t believe this is happening to me!” Herds of students were sent to Richards’s office, their mass exodus becoming a block party right under his nose. Richards had enough of it, and Lippincott’s pamphlets were supposed to close the conversation for good, but in Pearl’s mind, it was only a rolling comic strip of bright beginnings, dark ends, and fantastic beginnings again. On the news, suicide all started with bright pills and booze, and smiling Polaroids of mothers before they were mothers, off to dances and bonfires on the gulf. It was in the transition from being simple, spindly girls to ones with taut and tanned bellies, wrapped in the same worn out bikinis. The investigative reporters dissected the women’s lives and found the instant, in all its evidence, that the women began smiling into their sadness, moving deeper and deeper into the cave, where it eventually became too dark to take photos. It was these undocumented times—the ones the news reels couldn’t cover—that people like Miss Lippincott and Pastor Hall worried about. Every Sunday, Pastor Hall declared the suicides by name—Cindy Stewart, Molly Boutell, Gina Urso, and Maggie Fuller—just before confession. He wanted their names to become a canonical chant the congregation could fold into its prayers. However, the church elders were not at ease with suicide being so readily embraced by the clergy, and they were especially distraught that the suicides were repeatedly included on the list of needed prayers. They said the suicides should not be grouped with Charlie and Beth Johnson’s son at war, or Herbert Broderick’s long-drawn cancer battle, and besides, the women weren’t even members of the church. Each Sunday, the elders’ indignation grew. It started with Steve Johns and Curtis Witcham coughing when Pastor Hall began canonizing the suicide list. And by the third Sunday, the elders settled on a protest: they refused to kneel during prayer. An emergency congregation meeting was held at Dewey’s Diner, where all were on equal ground. The elders said the suicides were unwed mothers with unbaptized children, and none of them could be helped beyond the fact that Bessie Rains, God bless her soul, had taken in the children. They said they could agree to pray that the orphans would eventually come to Christ, but not their suicide mothers. It was too late for them. And though Pastor Hall was greatly outnumbered, as the waitress circled the table refilling soda glasses, he proclaimed that God was on his side, and He alone could honor suffering and the potency of prayer. He felt the Holy Spirit so strongly at that moment, he pounded on the table, his fist the falling gavel of absolution. Though Pearl didn’t really know what went into the making of the pamphlet, the news reels, or arguments, she was aware that the dead mothers had disturbed the tenebrous balance of life in the Swallows. All the kids knew, and Bessie Rains’s house was just the start of that education.
Pearl listened to the dry crush sound of leaves beneath her sneakers as Benny trilled away, every other word of his sing-song voice an echo in the wind. Since starting kindergarten, Benny had mostly mastered how to talk and walk at the same time, but when he got excited, all the energy of his body became voltaic, sparking solely from his mouth. They were running late with all of Benny’s chattering. Pearl could tell the time from the orange line, a neon glow that framed the buildings, which all seemed to yell, Get home now! She knew that by the time they reached the Swallows, all the tavern doors would be propped open, and Conway Twitty and Hank Williams would be warbling all the songs of the early crowd. There was no way Pearl could carry Benny, so she pulled him along. Guiding him across the street, the brick tenements blocked the wind, and she could finally hear him speak.
“—and I’m going to be a skeleton vampire!” his little voice shrieked. “With a cape and teeth and a skeleton body!” Benny jumped up and down, his giant Scobby-Doo backpack slapping the backs of his knees.
“Come on, Bens—Mom’s gonna be upset if she doesn’t get to see us before work, and all because of your talking.”
Benny was quiet then, his steps becoming hurried and determined. He looked like a tiny, long-legged bird, like an ostrich or roadrunner, the fan of his blonde cowlick transforming into bobbing feathers atop his head. Pearl wanted to laugh, but she knew he’d think she was making fun of him. And there was always the possibility that Benny would stop talking altogether. Though her mom didn’t say much about it, Pearl knew Benny being mute was close to the top of her mom’s list of number one fears. When Pearl was in third grade, she remembered her mom crying a lot on the phone, especially when she talked to her sister in Baton Rouge. It was always about Benny’s doctor appointments and Benny’s ear tests. Though Pearl wasn’t so sure Benny was okay, her mom just knew it to be true. The only problem was, Benny wouldn’t talk. He had no interest at all. Pearl tried things too, mostly bribes of games and treats, TV shows she knew he liked. It wasn’t until Benny was four years old and they went to Lake Keystone for Memorial Day. Pearl’s mom was dating a man who sold cars, and he showed up to their old house in a shiny one, all seafoam green and silver lines. Pearl thought it looked like a mermaid’s chariot, not a pussy wagon, as the man said when Pearl’s mom climbed into the front seat. The whole way to the lake, which turned out to be the exact same color as the car, the man went on and on about the engine and steering. He was exuberant about the car, the holiday he put together, and the kind of man he had become. Each time he patted Pearl’s mom on the thigh, he said, “You’re lucky you’re so pretty,” as he looked at the two kids in the backseat. He laughed and patted her thigh the whole way there, just happy about everything. But when they pulled up to the lake, the man became irate. There were ducks everywhere, pooping on everything, but Pearl’s mom refused to leave. She had promised the lake on Memorial Day, and that’s exactly what was going to happen, with or without the salesman. That’s what she told him. But he just knew the ducks would ruin the paint job, and since Pearl’s mom owed him one, he wasn’t going to just leave them there. Like a sentry, he spent the whole day right next to the car, chasing the ducks down to the lake, where Benny and Pearl played. All those corralled ducks made Benny happy. By lunchtime, Benny learned to approach the ducks slowly, one animal to another, with a potato chip extended from his hand. The first few chips went okay, but the last one, the one that made Benny point and yell, “Bad bird!” real loud, took off the tip of his finger. Pearl’s mom wasn’t even mad. After that first bloody condemnation, Benny never stopped talking. But still. Pearl’s mom was real sensitive about anyone giving Benny a reason not to talk again, especially if that person was Pearl.
“Want me to carry your backpack?” Pearl asked.
Benny had the hangdog posture of a little boy who had walked miles and still had a little way to go. But he shook his head no in one quick motion, like he had seen Adam West do on old reruns of Batman. It was one of his many loving imitations.
Crossing the threshold of Clifton Avenue and at the mouth of the Swallows, Pearl felt the energy in her body change, like it always did. Her weight was no longer evenly taken up by each of her limbs, her head, and heart. In the Swallows, she wore it like armor. All of Pearl watched everything; her inward eyes became transfixed just below the surface of her skin, like poison darts in wait. She had millions of eyes, the egg-shaped goosebumps all over her body, hidden beneath her jacket and jeans. She moved Benny to her other side, closer to the street and away from the tavern doors, where he could be grabbed easily. It was later than she thought. John-Boy and Derry were already squatting on the parking blocks in front of Black Cat Liquor, paper-sacked bottles in each of their hands, and two more between them. John-Boy’s dishwater blonde hair was tucked behind his large ears, and besides the fact that the Black Cat parking lot was where he could be found every afternoon when Vern’s Auto Repair closed, it was only those ears that made him distinguishable from any of the other short greasers who lived in the Swallows. John-Boy was a vulture on a stoop, and when he caught sight of Pearl, he let out a long, low whistle that didn’t sound so much like a signal, but more like the start of a horror movie—tinny and low, like the brutality to come had already been presupposed. Pearl knew it was too late to cross the street. If John-Boy and Derry thought she was scared, it’d get bad, bad as what happened to Ruby Teller, and it’d be even worse if Benny could tell. She tucked her ponytail into her jacket and pulled the hood over her head. She watched the sidewalk in front of her, leading Benny around the broken glass and accumulated scuzz that happens when drunks take to the street. Her legs beat, faster than walking but not too fast, and a recurrent pattern developed where every third step jumped a crack.
Benny noticed the pattern of steps too, and yelled, “Oneee, twoooo, threeeee: jump!” over and over. Pearl smiled. It was too late to worry about being quiet. She squeezed Benny’s hand as they hit the jump, but she wasn’t really looking at him. She wasn’t really smiling at Benny. Pearl knew, as any witch or ghost could probably do, her body was hinged. She was on the edge, bending into the blackness of disorder. Her spirit no longer walked the street freely with Benny. It was on the easement in front of Black Cat Liquor. She was watching John-Boy and Derry stand up from the parking blocks and wipe their large hands on their jeans. She watched their eyes shift between the alley, the street, and Pearl and Benny. She watched Derry say something to John-Boy, something she couldn’t hear, but she felt its meaning in their dry laughs, in the way John-Boy shoved Derry towards her other self, the one with Benny, walking south on Clifton Avenue. In Pearl’s head, she was standing on the easement, her face a terrifying snarl, her lips bared back behind her ears, revealing violent teeth. She watched John-boy and Derry split up as they approached her and Benny. John-Boy fastened the few buttons that were still attached to his flannel shirt, and Derry pushed his long hair from his face. They’re coming. They’re coming. They’re coming, Pearl repeated, mirroring the words to her step.
“Pearly, pearl,” John-Boy sang in a teasing lilt. “Wait up, I gotta ask you something.”
She knew Derry, his height and bulk far greater than John-Boy’s but ten times as dumb, was about to block her path or grab her arms, which was his usual method when it came to the start of forcing his way. To avoid Derry’s hands as best she could, Pearl stopped walking, and nodded at John-Boy to speak.
“You know why your momma moved to the Swallows, right?”
Pearl heard this joke before, pretty much on every street corner and screamed from every open tavern door—she even heard it in the lunch line at school.
“—cause she loves suckin’ the root and slurpin the juice.” John-Boy took a swig from the paper bag, gargling the liquor before he swallowed it. “But your momma’s rode hard for me—more my daddy’s speed—isn’t that right?” John-Boy touched Pearl’s cheek with a rough thumb. She didn’t flinch. “But you a ripe little peach, still swingin’—and the fruit never falls far from the tree.” John-Boy looked at Derry for a laugh, but Derry was too caught up in watching Pearl’s legs and feet. His greasy hair had fallen back into his face, following the angry patches of acne on his neck and cheeks. John-Boy kicked broken glass at Derry, but still didn’t get the reaction he wanted.
“Little peach,” Benny said, laughing. “Yeah! That’s what you could be for Halloween!” Benny jumped up and down next to Pearl, the jarring sound of dead leaves breaking beneath his feet. Pearl thought it’d be the same sound John-Boy’s thumb would make if she cracked it open. She smiled at Benny. If Pearl was happy about anything, it was that Benny couldn’t really understand John-Boy’s meaning. And if the conversation could stay right there, right on the edge where it was safe, not tipping in either direction, she could get Benny home soon.
It is a sure thing that a kid’s reaction to unease is directly affected by the roles lived out in the privacy of home. Pearl was almost six years older than Benny, and she had lived six years older than him—guiding him down dark streets and sneaking him into movies, helping him get dressed in the morning and brushing his teeth, wrapping Christmas presents and hiding Easter eggs—his whole life. To Benny, six years was a whole galaxy, his whole cosmic span. But to Pearl, there was always a before Benny. In Pearl’s memory, the space before Benny was all short flashes of time worming their way into her mind through endless repetition: Pearl sitting in the grocery cart, eating a free sprinkle cookie from the bakery; dancing with her mom to 45s in their basement apartment, sweaty and laughing, Christmas lights blinking; blueberry Pop-Tarts and Saturday morning cartoons, the smell of her mom’s cigarettes and coffee, the laundry, all clean and new under the stale blue light of morning. Pearl protected the luxury in these memories, luxuries that Benny never knew existed because they were never part of his history. They were in that hidden home, the one Pearl only thought about before she went to sleep at night, when her body was tired with work, more tired than it ought to be. The roles Pearl and Benny lived in their family mirrored the way they coped with everything. Where Pearl led with defense and action, Benny made misdirection, chaos, and responses absurd enough to be funny, at least while he was still a little kid, one young enough that any minor revelation could be amusing. Pearl mostly found Benny annoying—a pain at every point of the day, one who didn’t listen worth a damn— but she was always struck by his capacity to alter the natural direction of things.
During that still point on the sidewalk between John-Boy and Derry, when Benny had laughed and Derry hadn’t, Benny was either just a dumb kid, or he was good at pretending. Benny’s meaning didn’t matter though. What mattered was that Derry, the eighteen-year-old muscle who was at least five times the size of Pearl, was as stupid as all basic things. And when Benny called Pearl a peach for Halloween, Derry thought it was funny. Funnier than anything John-Boy had said, and simple enough in its meaning. The Halloween peach was such an unexpected turn—a turn making Benny one of the boys—that Derry’s body lost all its jolting intensity. His shoulders and neck slumped, his hands went to his belly as he laughed good and deep, his boots stumbling from the sidewalk and onto the matted crabgrass. With Derry bent over laughing, John-Boy lost all his force, momentarily. But that’s all it took. It was moment enough for Benny to squeeze Pearl’s hand. It was then, five blocks from their boarding house on Carson Street, a distance that Benny had never covered in his life, that he gave Pearl his signal—the signal to run! To run full force, leg buckling, high-knees sprinting. A run that moved Pearl and Benny as fast as Benny possibly could.