In Hesperia, California, where we live, a real nothing of a town, my dad was tire king. I mean, The King. No one even thought about putting new tires on their cars or pick-ups without first coming into Murph’s Wheel In out on Route 12. He could tell everything he had to know just by kicking a customer’s tires. Also, and when he said this he smiled that Irish smile of his, all big brown eyes and deep kiss-me dimples, kicking tires helped him let off steam. I wanted him to teach me how to do that, but he didn’t stick around long enough.
One night after supper the year I turned fourteen, four years ago, he put on a clean sweat shirt and combed his hair with something that smelled like success, and told my Mom and me he had to check on something at the shop. He went out and just kept on going, and who could blame him, except for the hole it blew in my life. Mom wasn’t good at being a wife. At being a mom, either. It wasn’t her thing, except for this: she stuck around. He sent us a postcard that Christmas, Santa Claus sweating in the sun in Santa Monica, with “Take care. Peace. Love, Daddio,” scratched in at the bottom.
I gave him that name, Daddio, when I was a little kid. We’d slap hands in a high-five, and dance around the room, my feet planted flat on top of his, my hands hanging onto his belt. Mom took a picture of us like that; it’s still on my dresser. I wanted to hold onto that postcard, but Mom tore it up, saying, tell him never mind the hearts and flowers, send money.
After my Dad left, how could things work out for us, me, especially if the one who’s supposed to be the mother, but doesn’t act like one, says she’s too nervous to climb out of bed most days, except to get dolled up and go down to Krogers to talk the clerk into taking food stamps for beer.
I came up behind her once by accident when she was doing that. I had cut my Home-Ec class, same old garbage about getting your stitches straight, and ran into the store for cigarettes. She was arguing with Jesse, who’s been the checkout girl for a hundred years, using a voice you could hear all over town. I took off into the parking lot before they saw me, cigarettes and all.
I started doing it in the back of Brian’s dad’s van before I turned sixteen, mostly because I wanted someone to tell me he loved me. He was the boy at Hesperia High everyone wanted to date, but he picked me. I wasn’t thinking about how I should have played hard to get, or where’s this gonna get me. I didn’t think at all, if you want to know the truth.
Anyone who wanted could get a diaphgram from Dr. Spertus for twenty bucks. He said it was better than making babies. Anyway, I’d had my diaphragm in my backpack, in case the right guy showed up, thinking, sure thing, Sherri, any guy who’s the right guy wouldn’t want you.
Before Brian, I didn’t do much on the weekends, except baby sit and stay out of Mom’s way, especially when her boy friends were around and she got giggly and walked around the house in shorts. I stayed in my room drawing, or listening to tapes, fooling around with makeup. Sometimes I went to the mall by myself. Who needed friends if they were like Wilma Anderson, who hollered all over the girls’ locker room how her mom saw my mom at the church bazaar wearing pink satin pedal pushers and curlers? That time I kicked about a hundred tires in the school parking lot, until one of the security guards wanted to know what my problem was. My problem. Isn’t that a laugh? I told him, “You don’t have enough time to hear them all.”
Here’s how it started. One day at the mall Brian showed up with some of his friends, big guys, basketball players, like him, guys who had enough money to wear hundred-dollar sneakers and satin jackets with their names across the back. I knew who he was, everybody at Hesperia High School knew Brian, but I didn’t think he knew me, except for once, about a month before, when I was walking through the hall, trying to get past his crowd hanging out in the main floor glass partition, hoping they wouldn’t notice me, when I dropped a book.
Brian picked it up. “Hey, don’t carry so much,” he’d said, and held it out to me, looking at me with those dreamy eyes of his. I turned twenty-two shades of red and grabbed it, taking off, I mean running, without saying anything, before I could make a complete fool of myself. I heard him call after me, “What’s your name?”
Anyway, as I said, that day at the mall I was sitting in the Dairy Queen reading Self Magazine, an article about how to unfrizz frizzy hair, which is me when it rains. Buck Thatcher sat down at my table and said, “What’re you reading?” No “Hi-ya,” or anything. Boys like Buck are bad news, especially for girls from the east side of town, like me. He has these gotcha eyes and a mean mouth, always showing everyone his muscles.
I must have looked pretty panicky, because Brian came up and told Buck, “Beat it.” Then he sat down and smiled, that dimple that drives me crazy coming and going, coming and going. ”Want to see a movie?” he said, right out, just like that. I’ll never forget it. “Want to see a movie?” As though it wasn’t some kind of miracle.
After the movie we sat in the van talking, just talking, about life and what we wanted to do when we were out of school. We both wanted to show Hesperia the back of our heads, get out fast, the minute we could. Brian wanted to join the FBI and I wanted to be a painter, like Picasso, something I never told anyone else. We started going out every weekend, and sometimes he even sat down at my table in the school cafeteria, like he wasn’t worried about people getting the idea I was his girl; like he didn’t care my dad had walked out, or my mother was crazy.
We went to movies a lot, romances, love stories. I couldn’t believe it, Brian wasn’t one of those guys who liked seeing cars blowing up or everyone shooting everyone else.
Then we usually ended up in the back of the van. Right away I loved the way he made me feel, his mouth in my hair, like he couldn’t get enough of me, calling me baby, telling me I was his darling, telling me he loved me. Always would. Nobody else ever talked that talk to me.
One night we climbed up on top of the van and sat there listening to Keith Urban tapes, admiring the sky, trying to pick out Diana, the star I always called my lucky star, only she was a warrior and I was anything but. The kind of life I had, I needed something lucky. Out in the High Desert, where Hesperia is, the sky comes down in summer like black chiffon with rhinestones sewn all over it. You could wrap yourself up in it and become someone else, someone beautiful, someone safe.
Brian stretched out, all six-foot four of him, and reached for me. “Come here,” he whispered, and I did, circles of light, like pinwheels, behind my eyelids. Afterward, it wasn’t too late, he didn’t have basketball practice the next day, and Mom wasn’t expecting me home, so we got down and danced around the van a while, slow stuff Vince Guff, like that, holding onto one another, moving easy.
That was the first time I asked him, “You really love me, or are you just talking?” He looked hurt, like I’d said something insulting, but I had to know.
“Of course I do, Sherri, ‘course I do.”
“For always?” Boys – men – don’t like being pinned down, I knew that much.
“Sure thing,” Brian said, “for always.”
Well, always lasted less than a year, until March. Brian got a letter from a college saying they’d give him free tuition and money besides, even though paying wasn’t a problem for someone like his Dad, if he’d come there and play basketball.
Pepperdine U. Pepper-dyin’ I called it. That’s how I felt, like if Brian went there, and I didn’t even know where there was, I’d die.
“We’ll see each other,” he said, rubbing my shoulders, the way I liked it. “I’ll come home weekends I don’t have a game.”
I’d fall asleep thinking about Brian’s gorgeous muscled shoulders slick with sweat, wearing purple satin shorts in front of a gym full of college girls in tight skirts, eyeing him, wanting him. Hey, Brian, come on Brian, meet you in the dorm tonight, Brian, meet you in bed. Guys, even nice ones, like Brian, don’t stay loyal if there’s reason not to. Guys like my Dad don’t stay loyal, period.
On bad days, days when I thought Brian doesn’t love me, how could he love me, I wanted to kick my Dad the way he kicked those tires, and holler: “Look what you did to me, you louse!” I tried drawing his picture in this sketch pad I have, but the details were blurry, and he came out looking like Clint Eastwood.
If things, meaning my Dad, had turned out different, I would have gone to art school, my Mom said. “Honey, you don’t have a small talent,” was how she put it. Mr. Amstatter, my art teacher, must have thought so, too, because he gave me a bunch of applications for art school. At first I was excited but, when I brought them home, Mom said, “Just how are we going to pay for this?”
Later, for graduation, Mr. Amstatter gave me a book of French Impressionist drawings. In the front he wrote: “To Sherri, who sees beauty and will make this world more beautiful for all of us.” I found out later that book costs eighty dollars. It’s the most important thing I have, besides a gold heart locket Brian gave me for my birthday, and the picture of my Dad and me.
There’s one picture in that book by Renoir, a little girl getting out of a bath, her mom holding a big white towel, smiling. I look at it a lot. That little girl looks happy, so does her mom, and everything in the room smells good, even without smelling it.
May was when Brian told me he’d said yes to Pepperdine. The next day was early church services for him and his family, a sale in our garage, old clothes and toys, some scorched pots and pans, for Mom and me. We needed cash to pay for new teeth she wanted; she’d never get another husband with gaping holes in her mouth. After she’d gotten the teeth, she’d come over to Norma’s Super Cuts, where I was Saturday receptionist, and let Norma work on her, fix her up, she wasn’t dead yet. I said, “The treats on me, just get yourself out of bed.”
Anyway, that night Brian and I were in the back of the van, Tanya Tucker fogging the air with her husky voice, something about endless love. That minute I could have run away with him and never looked back at Hesperia or my mom. Brian put his hands inside my blouse and started whispering how I meant everything to him. I was about to tell him we couldn’t do it tonight, it wasn’t safe. I’d left the house so quickly when he pulled into the driveway and honked his horn, not wanting Mom to say anything about getting home early, or why don’t you invite that young man in here, I left my diaphragm in my dresser. I remember, he whispered, “I’m crazy about you,” pulling at my clothes like he had a timer in his pocket and wanted to beat the clock, and I thought something I never thought before: Prove it.
Then it was June. By then I knew, though I didn’t admit it, not even to myself. Mom had her new teeth and a haircut and she wanted to come to my graduation, and I was in a sweat about that, knowing she’d meet Brian’s family; I’d be meeting them for the first time myself. I could picture the scene inside my head. There’d be a lot of stiff introductions, then awkward silence, everybody trying not to stare, not knowing where to look. But Mom turned out better than I’d hoped, her dress not too short, her hair not too brassy blonde after all, and the haircut giving her a kind of respectable young matron look I’d seen in the Sunday Style section of The Hesperia Weekly Star.
But none of that was enough next to Brian’s mom. Her name’s Cynthia; right there you know you have someone who means something. My mom’s name is Trudi. Cynthia’s hair is pale, like moonlight, and silky, cut in one of those smooth pageboys that cost a bundle. Her dress was white, very plain, which is how you know it’s expensive.
She was nice enough, I guess, shaking my hand and saying, “Why, hello, Sherri, I’ve heard so much about you,” in one of those soft, rehearsed voices, looking everywhere but right at me, pretending she’d die if I didn’t meet her husband and daughter, who just happened not to be around that minute. I knew; no way this woman would send out birth announcements for Brian’s and my baby. After that day, telling him about it was going to be ten times harder, like I tricked him some way, and it was my fault.
I pulled at mom’s hand to get her out of there, but she wouldn’t budge until she was introduced. Cynthia gave her the same cool hand, the same once-over with eyes that didn’t give anything away. I pinched mom’s hand where no one would see and began excusing our way out of there, and heaven sent down a lucky break, neighbors. Cynthia turned to them, and I pulled mom to the side.
Soon as we left, mom asked, Are these people Catholic?”
“What kind of question is that?” I said, and wouldn’t let go of her hand so she couldn’t stop. Luckily, Brian’s mom was still wound up with their neighbors, and Brian was probably shooting the bull with his buddies.
“Just answer,” she whispered. I was walking pretty fast.
“Baptist,” I hissed, yanking her along with me.
“My god,” she said, “that’s worse.”
Then Mr. Amstatter, wearing a striped tie and navy blue blazer, found us and gave me the book of paintings and hugged me and wished me good luck. Mom thought he was “pretty virile for a teacher,” and asked if he was married.
A couple of times that month I started to say, “By the way, Brian, we’re going to have a baby,” but the words got stuck, like something I hadn’t chewed right. What if he just walked, like my Dad, or acted the way I knew his mother would? Once I drove to Planned Parenthood in Apple Valley and talked to a woman with big glasses and sad eyes about what she kept calling sound family planning. She asked a lot of questions, like what was my family situation? The situation, I wanted to tell her, is this: In one way I don’t have much of a family, but in another way I’m about to have a family. Finally I said I’d be back with my boyfriend. She gave me a bunch of pamphlets that talked about choices, but where was I going to get a couple hundred dollars?
All summer Brian was so busy working for his father and taking a special course at the junior college to get ready for going away, we saw each other pretty much on the run; making out in the van, like always, Brian saying he loved me, like always, but not sitting around and talking; really talking. Lucky thing I wasn’t one of those girls who get sick mornings, because I was working full-time at Super Cuts. Then it was September and he was gone. Whenever I tried to imagine never seeing him again I had trouble breathing.
Mom started in on wasn’t I gaining a little weight, and watch that sweet tooth. I told her my periods were heavy and that gave me a bloated look. Then she wanted to know why I wasn’t doing anything with my art, didn’t I have any ambition?
The only quiet time I had was walking by myself after supper out to the edge of town where the Joshua trees grow in clumps, making mysterious-looking patterns against the sunset. I tried sketching, but drawing takes a calm mind, and for sure I didn’t have that.
Sometimes out there I’d talk to the baby, telling it not to worry, I was going to be a better mom than my mom. Sometimes I’d think this isn’t happening to me, I’m gonna wake up tomorrow and there isn’t gonna be a baby. Like I was two people, and only one of them was pregnant, and the other one was going to get out of Hesperia after all, was going to be an artist, was going to be -– something. Crazy, wasn’t it? .
Then it was too late to do anything but go ahead, and this panicky feeling started in my chest, like some kind of bird had gotten trapped in there and was beating its wings. Nothing helped, not even if I’d drive out to Tom Pickard’s lot, the guy who bought my Dad’s business, and kicked a bunch of tires.
When Brian came home for Halloween, I promised myself this is it, but he was practically kidnapped by his family. We had some time alone his last night and I said, “Let’s talk,” but he said, “Are you kidding? I haven’t seen you in years, come over here,” and I did, because, my God, if I didn’t have Brian, who did I have? […]
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Rochelle Distelheim’s work has appeared in North American Review, Nimrod, Ascent, Press 53 Anthology, “Everywhere Stories,” Other Voices, StoryQuarterly, Salamander, JewishFiction.net, PersimmonTree.org, and awarded the Katharine Anne Porter Prize, Salamander Second prize, Finalist, Glimmer Train’s Emerging Writers, Illinois Arts Council Literary Awards and Fellowships, Ragdale Foundation Fellowships, Nominations for The Best American Short Stories and The PushCart Press Prize.