Charlie waits for me outside the school gates, leaning against his Ford and smoking Camels. Charlie’s cooler than anyone I know. He wears a black windbreaker and has his hair done real high and slick. I run to him as soon as the bell rings and let him kiss me right there against the car for everyone to see. I don’t care what the girls in my class say. None of them have a boyfriend as cool as Charlie, who’s been out of school for years and doesn’t have to earn his wages on some dumb old farm.

My momma says that Charlie is trash. No better than the garbage bags he hauls from sunup till ten a.m. She doesn’t care that he scrubs himself up real good before meeting me, so I can barely smell the garbage. He pays for all our dates and buys me presents whenever he can afford to—gumballs, hair barrettes, even a plush white kitten.

I’m failing math and might be held back a year, if I’m not careful. But no matter how hard I try, I can’t get myself to concentrate on the fuzzy chalk numbers on the blackboard, the books full of boring words. When I bring home Ds to my momma and stepdaddy, they scream at me till baby Betty Jean starts screaming too. ‘It’s that Starkweather kid, isn’t it? That boy’s trash. One of these days, he’s gonna knock you up, and you’ll be out on your ass!’

Charlie never liked school either. The boys at Lincoln High used to call him names—Lil Red, Bandy Legs, Peckerhead—and make fun of the way he talked. In gym class, he’d get back at them by throwing balls hard at their heads, or tackling them to the ground when they weren’t looking. He’s always happy when he tells me how badly he hurt those boys, many of them bigger and stronger than he is, and I’m happy for him. I tell him, ‘Good on you, Chuck. They deserved it.’

In the Ford, Charlie guides my hand on the gearstick. I bump along with him through muddy paddocks, squealing as the windows are spattered with dirt and cow shit. ‘You’re doin’ good, baby,’ he says in my ear. ‘You’re drivin’.’ My little hands are firm on the wheel. All around us, cows are lowing. Grey geese gather in the sky like clouds in tornado season.


Read full in Voiceworks # 93