Cal said come to the Neshoba County Fair, so Virginia is here, bathed in the garish light of the midway. The night air is thick with the rancid meat smell of too much warm breath, too many unwashed bodies packed close all around. Some brush against her as they pass, their skin hot and slick, and she crosses her arms over her chest, presses her fingers against the knobs of her shoulders. If only there were something she could throw over herself — a shawl, a shroud. Something heavy to weigh her down because she is too light, as if she has shed whole pounds in the last few hours. As if a part of her has gone missing.
“What next?” she says to Cal, who has joined her in the midway, a beer — not his first — in his hand.
“Come and play a game,” Cal says. He heads off down the midway, and she has no choice but to follow. It is late July; it is Mississippi and Neshoba so fired up with liquor and love that the heat is tangible, alive, some monstrous thing with outspread wings pulsing down on them. Maybe she shouldn’t have come. Her first real outing in months and she should’ve started with a movie, a simple dinner out, a neighborhood park. Something lighter, something less gorged with noise and light and motion. She’s not used to all this walking, all this open air against the bare skin of her arms, her legs. What she’s used to is her cramped, two-room apartment back in Jackson where, for weeks now, she has sat for hours on end in the same position: cross-legged on the couch, a laptop on her thighs and her quick, lynx-like fingers pouncing on the keyboard, ripping over the keys — a hundred words per minute! — for this man sucking down a cheap beer beside her.
It’s because of him that she’s here, that she rode the hour and a half up to Neshoba in his lumbering white convertible. “A 1961 Pontiac,” he told her. “Get your feet off the dash.” Her feet weren’t on the dash. They were resting properly on the floorboard, but Cal pays no mind to details. Like when he showed up this afternoon on her doorstep in a clean, collared shirt and said, “Wash up. We got somewhere to be.” He hadn’t noticed then that she was already washed, that she’d smoothed back all her wild, curly hair, that she was dressed in a yellow cotton sundress (her mother’s, and she’d had to dig through four boxes just to find it). Nor did he notice that her bag was packed and sitting at her feet where she waited by the window, twisting the curtains in her hands. But then, Cal has no reason to notice these things. He is not her lover, not really her friend. Just a man who pays her to take notes, a man she has known only a few months, a drunk, a liar, and when he suggested this outing, when he asked her if she’d like to take a break from her note-taking, have some fun, she should have known better.
She does know better, in fact. But what choice does she have? She lost her job. She was forced to find a new one. She found Cal — or rather, he found her. It’s all her mother’s fault, really, like everything else. How easy it is to blame the absent, the vanished.
THEY MOVE THROUGH the crowd, the swirling light and noise, the shrill laughter and hoarse voices calling to them, to anyone: “Where you going, little mama? First toss is free!” Or, “I’d win you a pony, if you was mine. Come on back here, sugar.” It’s worse, for women, harder to say no. She would stop, if not for Cal. If not for Cal leading her on, she would be forced to obey these voices. She wouldn’t be able to help it.
They pick their way through sawdust sticky with spilled soda and vomit. They dodge clumps of manure and scraps of food — syrup-soaked biscuits and fried dough and smatterings of powdered sugar. The flies are everywhere; they come buzzing up around Virginia’s head, and she waves them away, forgets to watch where she walks and steps in an overturned cup of dip spit, which she doesn’t notice until they stop beside a small red tent with a sign: Cassandra, Ancient Palm-Reader.
“Is this next?” Virginia says.
“No.” Cal points to a sign one tent over. See the Walking Corpse of Neshoba County! the sign says, in thick black letters. And because Cal wants to, they will.
Four dollars a piece but, “She’s worth every penny,” says the man out front.
Inside, the tent is dim, lit red from the bulbs that line the big glass case in front of them. Inside the glass is a woman sitting on a stool, her legs crossed like a lady. An overhead light blinks on, throwing a blue beam over the woman’s legs, which appear normal enough to Virginia — nice, actually, smooth and toned. But, “that ain’t right,” Cal says, pointing at the woman’s feet, and Virginia sees that she is toe-less, the blue-lit flesh of her feet running off into nothing, into black. Another light blinks on, aimed at the woman’s hands, resting calmly in her lap, and it’s the same as the feet — the fingers missing, the hands ending at the knuckles, like balled fists almost — but when she flips them over, palm up, there’s nothing but smooth skin. Cartoon hands, round and seamless and incomplete.
“I got news for you,” Cal says to the man. “That ain’t a corpse.”
“No, sir,” the man says. “She’s even better. Watch this,” and at his cue, lights in all different colors illuminate the woman’s arms, her shoulders. “Look there,” the man says. “See that spot there beneath her elbow?” Virginia does see — a large, round area at the top of the woman’s forearm that, even as they watch, appears to be slowly vanishing, color and density fading out, fading into black.
“What’s wrong with her?” Cal says.
“We’re not real sure,” the man says. “But whatever it is, it’s spreading.”
“Remember this, Ginny,” Cal says to Virginia. “So you can write it down later.”
But she’d prefer to forget.
IT WOULD BE easier for her to enjoy herself if she could shut off all those words running through her head, as if on loop. Not the sound of the words, not the voices, but the image of them on a page or a screen: small black letters, double-spaced with standard margins, standard blankness, one inch at the top and bottom, one inch on either side. Neat and tidy and always the same, always there. There must have been a time when they weren’t there, when she could see images, scenes, whole pictures, rather than just the letters themselves.
And they’re never her own words, always someone else’s. Most recently, they are Cal’s, his stories for her to type up, put together, make whole. Memoirs, he calls them, though he can’t be much more than thirty, no older than she is and too young for a real past. And most of what he tells her, she suspects, are lies. “I busted into a zoo,” he said once. “Stole the panther right from its cage.” Or, “One time, I blacked out for three whole weeks,” he told her. “When I came to, I was at Graceland.” He laughed then, and shook the hair from his eyes. “Imagine that, Ginny. I’d been making like I worked there, showing around the tourists.” And another time, very late at night when he was six or seven drinks in, “I stole a man down in Lucedale,” he said. “He was crazy as a loon, and I sold him to science. You wouldn’t believe all the things I done.”
She doesn’t believe, but doesn’t say so. She sits there, on the couch in her apartment where they do this work, a cup of coffee on the floor at her feet and a keyboard propped on her knees. She sits there, and she looks at him, at his unwashed hair that he tucks behind his ears, at his yellow-brown eyes, at the pale stubble above his lip and the dime-sized mole, dark and bristly, on his left cheek. She looks because it’s called for, because “It’s American,” her mother taught her, when she was a child. Her mother’s parents had come from Lebanon, but her mother was born “right smack in the middle of Alabama,” and never let anyone forget it. “In America,” she would say, “you look people in the eye, or they’ll think you’re scared of them. You look at people when they talk to you.” And Cal is always talking.
But, “Stop eyeing me and write that down,” he will say, breaking off mid-sentence. “What am I paying you for?”
Whatever it is, he isn’t paying much. A lot less, in fact, than she made typing for the doctors at St. Dymphna’s, where she’d been fired. And at St. Dymphna’s, she’d had health insurance, retirement, a bi-monthly paycheck rather than a fistful of damp, crumpled cash. But, for all that, she finds she doesn’t miss it. She doesn’t miss coiffing her hair every morning, sitting with her legs crossed like a lady at her desk. Nor does she miss the doctors and their jargon, words like diagnosis and malingering and psychosis that, by the time she left, were becoming more than letters on a page, were taking on real heft and bulk. The worst of these words, the most unwieldy, was the patient — always, in everything, the patient, the patient, over and over until she found herself jotting it down on napkins during her lunch breaks, or drumming it out against the table like it was a keyboard.
It made her tired, dragging those words along everywhere she went. So tired, finally, that she was sure her own mother had walked up to her desk and asked to have herself committed. Her mother, who’d disappeared six years ago, who’d taken the car and the big leather trunk that had held her grandmother’s trousseau and had left everything else behind — her jewelry and her boxes of letters and cards (some of them from her sisters, a note from Virginia in her crooked, childish handwriting: Happy Fourth of July!!!), her pretty, high-heeled shoes lined in rows at the bottom of the closet, and all the rest that Virginia had packed up and stored at her own apartment when the house went into foreclosure.
And here she was – her mother — this woman at Virginia’s desk with black hair and oily, olive skin and that look on her face — so familiar — the expression she used whenever one of her daughters questioned her, the firm, defensive mouth, black eyes askance. Gripping the edge of the desk with one hand and rummaging (always, she was rummaging) through her bag with the other, she whipped a license from her wallet — fake, it must have been — tapped the photo and, “You don’t understand,” the woman said, in her mother’s deep voice. “I don’t exist. I’m not real.”
“It was her,” Virginia told her sisters, over the phone.
“You’re tired,” they said.
“She pretended not to know me. But it was her.”
“It wasn’t her.”
Three months later, Virginia is still not sure.
AHEAD, CHILDREN ARE gambling. A boy stands atop a box at the roulette wheel, several bills fanned out on the table in front of him. Other boys crowd the table, their gap-toothed grins showing pink gums and tongues stained bright blue or red or green. There’s a girl squeezed in among them, her elbows propped on the table and her chin in her hands, a lot of orange-red hair falling over her face. She’s maybe eleven, twelve, with sleepy, half-closed eyes, and she curls her lip when Cal throws a wad of cash onto the table beside her. The boy-dealer hesitates only seconds before he sweeps the money into the cash box and pushes the chips at Cal.
“You play against children?” Virginia says. But she isn’t there to ask questions. And despite what Cal told her, she isn’t there to have fun — something she realized as soon as they arrived, when he slipped a notepad and a pen into her bag because “You never know what might happen.” She knew then why he brought her: so she could take note of what he does, in case he forgets.
“I want you to pay real close attention,” Cal says. “Burn this in your memory.”
So she bites her bottom lip and squints at the roulette table to reassure him, because she can’t lose this job, too; she can’t lose Cal. He’s not safe, she knows that. She knew it when she first met him, before he told her all his embellished past. She could tell by the look of him, by his thrown-on air, so disheveled and temporary, transient. Like he’s perpetually passing through, like every night is his first, or his last, and tomorrow he’ll be on his way somewhere better than Jackson, or Neshoba, better than all of the shadow that is Mississippi. At any moment, he could slip away. But when, late at night, he stretches his legs out over her couch, shakes his glass so that the ice tinkles and looks sideways at her with his yellow-brown eyes, she finds it comforting to write him into his stories, pin him down, diminish him to letters, symbols, words that she can organize and stow away. That, later, she knows just where to find.
The boy spins the wheel and the number is fourteen. Cal’s number. “No candy or whores for you,” he says, as he takes their money. One of the children has bet with a box of taffy, and Cal takes that, too. “Buck up,” he says to the woebegone faces, the stifled tears. “This ain’t a playground.” Then, “You got this, Ginny?” he says. “You paying attention?”
The orange-haired girl pushes back from the table. “I’m a fortune-teller,” she says. “Mama says that’s different, but I think it’s sort of the same as a whore.” She glances up at them, at Cal, then Virginia and says, “I know what you’re up to.” She wobbles for a moment, one hand over her mouth like she’s about to vomit, then she turns and disappears in the crowd.
“Who did she mean?” Virginia says. “You or me?”
“She’s drunk, is all.” Cal folds the money into his wallet — homemade with duct tape that he’d filched off his buddy, he told her — and tucks the wallet and the box of taffy into the bag slung over his shoulder. The bag is hers, and when he’d offered to carry it, she’d thought he was being gentlemanly. But now, she suspects he knew all along he’d fill the bag with money and candy and other loot he doesn’t trust her with, not the least of which are the keys to his precious Pontiac, jingling at the bottom.
She stares up at his long, narrow face, his sun-roughened skin and wonders if she would recognize him in a crowd. He looks so much like all the other cleaned-up men in jeans and button-down shirts, their sleeves rolled up over their tanned forearms and their hair combed back. How easy it would be for Cal to slip among them, to vanish for good.
“Don’t call me Ginny,” she says, though she knows he won’t listen; he won’t obey. It is always she who obeys him. It is always her bowing to his will, because what else does she have to do? “Plenty,” her mother would tell her, if she were here. “A woman,” she would say, “should always have too much to do.” And yet, Virginia can remember the times when her mother did nothing, when she sat at the kitchen table with her hands twisted together in her lap to hide the raw, bleeding places where she’d picked the skin from her fingertips and her knuckles. Virginia can remember, and even worse is that, lately, Virginia has caught herself in the same posture. Hunched over the trunk she uses as a coffee table, her hands clenched together and her fingers — her long, slender fingers that she can never keep still — squirming like blind newborns, like the bald baby squirrels she finds fallen from the trees in her yard. And when she catches herself, she knows how she looks. Just like her mother, without the blood.
THEY TURN DOWN Happy Hollow, a cabin street nearly as crowded as the midway, with the cabins built close together and people spilling from porches into a narrow lane strewn with empty bottles and brightly colored children’s toys and pinwheels stuck here and there, spinning in the breeze of the outdoor fans. They’re all the same, these cabins, painted gaudy colors, bright blue, purple, yellow, red. All of them tall and skinny, their porches done up with string lights and American flags. Her mother would approve of the flags — so patriotic.
Virginia is careful to keep to the middle of the lane, just out of reach of the cabin over-flow: the women draped over porch chairs and showing too much flesh in their tank tops and rolled-up shorts. Sticky-looking flesh, like if Virginia were to touch it, it would cling to her finger. And the men, slumped at their feet or on the porch steps, most of them shirtless, many picking guitars, some of them singing. The din of out-of-tune chords and harsh, slurred voices blends with the screams from the midway, the calling of the vendors, the music pumped through overhead speakers. They’re on fair grounds, but it’s like they’ve turned a corner and ended up in some tawdry village from a second-rate fairy tale.
These people — the villagers, she thinks of them — look up as she and Cal pass. Some call to her. “Where you staying, baby?” says a man with a shadowed face and deeply socketed eyes. “Come on back and sit a while.” It’s like a game, sticking to the middle of the lane, a game from childhood that she can almost recall — Valley of Death? — and if she steps just an inch more to the left or the right, one of them will grab her, draw her in and she will lose. Cal is playing, too, because he walks a straight line down the middle, just in front of her.
“Where are we going?” Virginia says.
He turns to face her. “To find a place to stay,” he says, his voice low. “Now, act like you belong.” Then he steps sideways out of the lane and into the arms of a fat, grinning woman.
CAL IS A big man, over six feet with a broad chest and an oversized head like a mastiff’s. But this woman, all her sun-burnt fat pillowing out from her tube top — this woman engulfs him. She wraps him up in a hug and whole parts of him, his face and his long, muscled back, disappear beneath all that flesh. So much flesh that it can’t all be her own, and Virginia, planted safe in the middle of the lane, runs her fingers over her stomach and below the hem of her dress to her bare thighs, as if making sure she’s all there. It’s the walking corpse she thinks of. How unfair it is that this fat woman should have so much extra, while back there behind the glass a poor, sick woman has less and less.
The missing fingers bother Virginia the most. Extremities, doctors call those. They’d love to get their hands on the walking corpse, all those doctors at St. Dymphna’s. They’d love to prove that it’s all in her head and her fingers and toes are there, if she’d only listen to them and take her medication. So smug, every one of them, so judgmental, because that’s what a diagnosis is, Virginia has learned, a judgment. A classic schizoid, they would scribble at the bottom of the charts. Text-book bi-polar. Borderline PS with typical paranoid tendencies. It was always the same, the same four or five diagnoses over and over until Virginia wondered if this was it, all there was to people, and, if so, which type was she? She greeted these patients. She signed them in, knew their names. They were real, with all three dimensions, front, back and side, but to Virginia, their charts tucked neatly into files and their histories typed in tidy rows across clean white paper, each of them had the pressed, glossy quality of figures in a magazine. Like she could flip them with a finger, and they’d be gone.
“Come on, Ginny,” Cal says. The fat woman has him propped against the porch railing, and she’s running her fingers through his hair. On the porch behind them, among the lounging bodies and the out-flung limbs, are a group of small girls sitting cross-legged in a circle. One of them looks up, looks right at Virginia with heavy, bloodshot eyes — the girl from the roulette table. Virginia ducks her head, glances quickly away (it’s not polite to stare, her mother also taught her, and “Stop asking questions,” she said, when Virginia wanted to know how staring was any different from looking someone in the eye when they spoke to you). But she can feel the girl’s eyes on her, even when she has turned away. She can feel that girl, her gaze blank and calm as a corpse.
“What the fuck are you doing?” Cal says. “You’re blocking the lane.”
“That’s okay, baby.” A man steps around from behind her, a metal trash can in his arms. He sets it down at the foot of the porch steps, pulls off the lid. The inside, lined in plastic, is full of a dark, purplish liquid. “Have a drink,” the man says, dipping a paper cup into the can.
She shouldn’t. She rarely drinks. But she’s here, and there’s no going back, not without Cal, who’s beckoning to her from the porch. She can’t go up there, can’t act like she belongs without a little help, something to calm her. So she takes the cup, throws her head back and swallows the liquid all at once. It’s sweet, like Kool-Aid, with the sharp, medicinal aftertaste of some kind of alcohol. But not bad, and she takes a second cup, sips. Something tickles her thigh. She lifts the hem of her skirt, and a black insect flies out. It lands on the sawdust a few feet away — a cricket, it looks like, or a large fly. How long had it been there? She rubs her thigh with her fingers and wonders if there are more up there that she can’t feel, crawling up and down her skin.
CAL COMES BARRELING down the porch steps and grabs her by the hand. It is the first time he has touched her, and his hand is cool and soft — softer than a man’s should be, a man like him. He pulls her up the steps and plunges them both among the mass of bodies and coolers and bottles and empty plates that cover every inch of the porch. The odor is strong enough to taste — a stewed, over-cooked smell, like road-kill baking in sun. She’d like to cover her mouth with her hand to keep it back, to keep from breathing it down inside her. But Cal holds her from behind, his arms wrapped tight around hers as he pushes her along in front of him.
“You’re crushing me.”
“You’re embarrassing me.” He drops his head down over her shoulder, and his stubble tickles her cheek. “Now shape up and be good.” He squeezes her so tight that his pulse, the steady beat of his blood, thumps against her back.
“Let go,” she says, but she’d rather he didn’t. He’s solid and big, and he tethers her here, keeps her firmly on the ground. Without him, she would bounce around this place like a balloon. She would float at random, a fluff of hair, detached from its body, borne about by the wind. She tries to picture this image, tries to see herself as light as she feels — so light, like she’s fading away, being rubbed out, bleached like a stain.
“Why’s your mouth all purple?” Cal says, and the image is gone.
He pulls her along to the fat woman who stands at the threshold of the cabin door. “Is that your sweetheart?” the woman says.
“When she’s good. This is Rita,” Cal says, nodding at the fat woman.
The woman grins at Virginia. “Aren’t you pretty? Did you know, honey,” she says, “that he says he’s my brother and I didn’t recognize him?” Up close, her face is unnaturally smooth and without pores, as if covered in a layer of enamel. Nothing at all like Cal’s rough, uneven complexion. “I haven’t seen him in ten years,” she says. “I’m his sister, for Christ’s sake.”
Virginia hasn’t seen her own sisters for six years now, since they’d shown up to go through their mother’s things after she’d disappeared, when it was clear she wasn’t coming back. And she’s not sure what to say to this woman, so she says, “You don’t look like Cal,” and Cal’s hand clamps down on her shoulder.
“Listen, honey,” the woman says, “it ain’t my fault. I’ve been trying to find him. And he won’t tell me what he’s been up to. All he says is that I’ll find out soon enough.” She taps Cal’s chest with her finger. “What in heaven’s name does that mean?”
Virginia could tell her. She could offer up her files, her pages and pages of notes. All typed up, printed out and neatly stacked in the bottom of her panty drawer. Stowed away, out of sight, but still she sees them — the small, black letters running left to right, left to right, forming words meant to convey images: Cal posing as a magician in a jazz bar on Decatur Street, and Cal running naked through a swamp down in Pass Christian with the mud caked on his calves thick as leather chaps. But vividly as he describes these scenes, all Virginia ever sees are the shapes of the letters, the curving S’s and round O’s, the sharp points of a W or a capital A. Running through her head, spreading down a smooth, white page so much faster than she can type, left to right, down, down, so fast it makes her dizzy, and she steadies herself against Cal.
“Is she drunk?” Rita says.
“Well, she’s so skinny,” Rita says. “Probably doesn’t take much.”
“I’m not drunk,” Virginia says, but maybe she is, because the noise, the laughter, the screams and Rita’s fat, rich voice come in bursts, in pops and stutters, like a radio scanning stations. And the string lights on the railing appear to be melting, white light dripping down like wax. She turns away, closes her eyes and when she opens them, she catches the gaze from the opposite corner, two huge, light eyes aimed at her, piercing her, like they see, they know and they aren’t telling.
INSIDE, UPSTAIRS WHERE she lies on a thin blanket, Cal says, “You got to remember to write this down.” He sits beside her, his back propped against the wall. “Write down,” he says, “how the typist went into a swoon, like a lady in one of those movies, and how I carried her inside, like a hero.”
“That’s not what happened.”
“Write down,” he says, “how I saved her and how she was so grateful, she cried like a little girl.”
“Well,” he says, “it’d be more interesting if you did.”
It’s dark in this room, hard to make him out. There are others in here, bodies they’d stumbled over on their way in, some asleep and snoring, others pawing at one another. The rustle of sheets, the whispering and the heavy, drunken breathing seems all around, behind, beside, above her. Or is that her making that faint rippling sound, like the purring of a cat?
She sits up, her head spinning. The front of her dress is wet, stained purple from the drink she spilled. Her mother’s dress and twenty years old at least, but when Virginia cleaned out her mother’s closet, she found it hanging there in perfect condition, as if waiting for her mother to slip it back on.
“Get comfortable,” Cal says. “We’re staying the night.”
“Together?” She can’t imagine sleeping beside him. She can’t imagine him asleep at all. She wonders if he snores.
“Don’t get worked up,” he says. “I’ll keep my pants on.”
For a while, he’s quiet, which is odd, and she thinks he has fallen asleep. But then there’s the pop of a can opening, the soft fizz of foam, and when she turns to look, she can make out his long, dark shape where he sits against the wall.
“What are you doing?” she asks him.
Virginia sits up, faces him and, in a half-whisper, the words thrumming in her throat, finds herself telling him about her mother. She must be drunk, giddy, because she’s never told him anything before. He’s never asked.
“Did you look for her?” he says.
“I don’t think she wanted to be looked for.”
“I mean that second time. After she came back. Did you go after her? That’s what I’d do, if someone took off on me.”
“I couldn’t,” Virginia says. “They said it wasn’t her. They didn’t know who it was. What could I do?” She could stare, as it turned out, because that’s what she did. She gaped up at the woman for so long that, finally, the woman had stomped off past her, through the door to the patients’ wing. And even then, even when she had gone, Virginia sat at her desk, her hands clasped together to still her wriggling fingers and her mind, as if at a loss for any other way to make sense of what she’d just seen, spitting out letters: the cupped u of understand, the curled tail of the apostrophe in I’m, the crossed-hatched x and the tiny dot over the i in exist. That’s what she saw; that’s what she was still seeing when her mother reappeared with a doctor beside her, when they walked out the door of the building and disappeared.
“If it’d been me,” Cal says, “I would’ve followed her right out that door. I would’ve followed her till she owned up to who she was.”
“I couldn’t follow her,” Virginia says. “She didn’t want me to.” But she should have done something, acted in some way. She should have stood up at her desk and shouted “Mom, Mom, Mom,” or tried it in Arabic, “Ummu, Ummu, Ummu,” because her mother hated Arabic, and that would’ve been sure to piss her off, to get her attention. Because that was the worst of it, how she’d looked right at Virginia, right into her eyes, and didn’t seem to know her at all.
“Who gives a fuck what she wanted?” Cal says. “Sometimes, Ginny, you got to do what you want. Fuck everybody else.” He stretches out on the floor.
After a while, “Was that really your sister?” Virginia says. “That big woman down there?”
But he must be asleep already, because he doesn’t answer.
WHEN VIRGINIA WAKES up, the room is still dark, and Cal is gone. She throws her arm out over the blanket, gropes along the bare floor. It’s warm, as if he’d lain there only seconds ago. Her bag is gone, too, her bag with his money, his keys. But he can’t have deserted her. Why would he? It makes no sense; she’s got all his files, all his notes, his whole goddamned past. Surely, he’ll be right back. But her fingers pick at the blanket, twist and tug and want to claw right through.
She rises to her knees. From all around, from every corner, comes the sound of sleep, breath sucking in and out, steady and monotonous as the hum of an air conditioner. She tries to be still, to let the sound wash over her, lull her into submission, because what she wants to do is run from the room and out onto the porch and to wherever it is that Cal has gone. But that would be silly, because he’s probably only gone to the bathroom, or maybe to the kitchen — does this place have a kitchen? — to root for a snack. Or maybe he’s hunting up more loot, finding things he’d like to steal. She wouldn’t care. She wouldn’t care if he stripped the whole place down to nothing, as long as he came back.
But he does not come back. She sits there, picking at the blanket until she’s pulled the thread out from the hem. Then she stretches her stiff legs, smoothes her hair back with her fingers and goes to look for him.
The staircase is dark, so she clings to the railing — a rough, wooden rod that pricks her palm — until she reaches the bottom floor. There’s a light coming from a corner, a tiny gleam. She moves toward it, but halfway there, she stops. Just above the light, lit up from its blue-white glow, hovers the face of the red-haired girl.
“What do you want?” the girl says. It’s a book light that she’s got, stuck into the spine of a paperback.
“Have you seen that man?” Virginia says. “The tall man I was with before?”
The girl snaps the light off, and the room goes black. Virginia is aware, suddenly, of how dry her mouth is. “Could you turn that back on?” she says.
“I seen him,” the girl says, into the dark. “I know where he’s gone.”
When the girl answers, her voice is much closer. So close that her breath, cool and odorless, touches Virginia’s face. “He’s gone to fuck my mother.”
Something sharp pokes Virginia in the side, and she realizes that she has stumbled sideways against a table corner. “Turn the light back on,” she says.
The girl’s hand, hot and wiry, closes on her arm. “I’ll prove it,” she says. “I’ll show you.”
The child is crazy, probably, some backwoods offspring of the Delta. Or drunk, maybe even stoned. Virginia should shake her off, go back upstairs, wait for Cal to come back. If he’d wanted her to follow him, he would’ve told her. But, as if sucked into a current, she finds herself following this girl out onto the porch, down the porch steps and into the lane.
Outside, it is lighter, all the string lights and neon cutting through the dark. It must be far past midnight, and the crowd has thinned along Happy Hollow. Those still awake slump in lawn chairs, cups in their hands. Some have dragged blankets and sleeping bags out onto the porches. Ahead, a bare-chested man in torn jeans sprawls across the lane. There’s blood on his face, and a broken bottle clutched in his hand. “He’s okay,” the girl says, and they step over him.
They reach another cabin street — Sunset Lane, according to the sign — and turn right.
“Listen,” Virginia says. “Do you know Cal?”
“The man. The man you’re taking me to.”
“No.” The girl pushes the mess of hair back from her face. “But when I seen him, I knew right off what he was up to,” she says. “I knew what he wanted. And she promised! She promised she wouldn’t whore herself out no more.”
“How did you know?”
The girl stops in front of a bright blue cabin. She turns her face up to Virginia. “I know lots of things,” she says. This close, her eyes are a strange, pale gray, enormous and wavering, as if magnified through water. She points at the blue cabin. “They’re in there,” she says. “Go on.”
“Aren’t you coming?” She can’t go in there without the girl to guide her.
“You think I want to see that?” the girl says. “I seen enough of that. I don’t want to see no more.”
But Virginia does. It boils up from the pit of her stomach, this sudden, overwhelming desire to witness Cal in the act. From what he’s told her, he’s been with a woman from every family in Jackson, but Virginia can never picture it. She can never picture any of his stories, or anything else for that matter, and this time there will be more than words for her type, more than the shapes and symbols. This time, she’ll see it for herself, whether he likes it or not.
IT’S DIM INSIDE the cabin, and so quiet a that at first she thinks the girl has tricked her, that there’s no one here. But then, from upstairs, comes a dull thud, like a fist pounding the wall, and then another thud, thud, thud. Virginia moves toward the noise, but half-way up the stairs the sound of Cal’s voice, high and cracked, makes her pause: “Goddamn liar!” he shouts. “Fuck you! Fuck you!” She has never heard him like this, and she waits for him to say something else. But he doesn’t, so she moves on.
When she reaches the landing, she doesn’t have to go far, because there’s an open door to the left, and with a lot of light spilling out into the narrow hall. Inside the room, bathed in all that bright light, is Cal. He’s half naked, Virginia’s bag slung over his bare shoulder, his boots and shirt clutched to his chest. His hair, stiff with the pomade he’d used to slick it back, juts in crazy spikes all over his head, and his face is contorted with emotion — his lip curled, jaw clenched, all the tendons in his neck standing out. He’s glaring at a woman — the girl’s mother, it must be, the same red hair – who’s stretched naked on a tiny cot, her white legs dangling over the edge and onto the floor. There’s something familiar about those legs, and Virginia feels as if she has seen them before, has examined their length and shape.
“Five hundred dollars!” Cal says. “For what? To fuck a regular woman, when I could buy that for fifty.” He is out of breath, his words coming out with loud puffs of air. “I want a refund. I want every penny of it back.”
“Why?” the woman says. She sits up, pulling the sheet to her chest.
“You fucking lied to me. That’s why.”
“I didn’t lie.”
Cal stomps barefoot over to the cot. He grabs the woman’s ankle and lifts her foot. “What’s this?” he says. “Your goddamn toes, that’s what.” He drops her foot and reaches for her hand. “And those are your fucking fingers. One, two, three, four, five of them. I paid to fuck something special. A vanishing woman is what I paid for.”
Virginia knows now where she has seen those legs. But the last time, they hadn’t ended in curled pink toes.
“Go ahead,” the woman says. “Squeeze as hard as you can. Break my hand, if you want. I can’t feel it.”
Cal throws her hand aside and stoops to pull his boots on.
“Smash my toes with your heel,” the woman says. “Go on. Burn me with a cigarette. Hell, stick a knife through my palm. It doesn’t matter.”
“You’re fucking crazy,” Cal says, and then, without warning, he comes barreling out the door. Virginia has just enough time to duck back into the dark hall as he rushes past. She waits for the clomp of his boots to fade off down the stairs, waits for the porch door to slam, and then, slowly, she stretches her neck out to peek inside the bedroom.
The woman, the walking corpse, stands in full view of the doorway, the sheet wrapped around her. “What do you want?” she says, and Virginia freezes there, caught in her crouch.
“I see you,” the woman says. She gathers up the bottom of the sheet and walks to the doorway. “Get up,” she says, standing over Virginia. “Get up. You look ridiculous.”
For a moment, Virginia only blinks up at her. Then, she stands and smoothes her dress down as best she can.
“You were with him before, in the tent,” the woman says. “What are you — his girlfriend?” They stand close together in the doorway. The woman has the same pale gray eyes as her daughter, the same magnified effect. But her mouth, plump and pink, is less sneering, less hard.
“No,” Virginia says. “I’m his typist.”
“Whatever.” She flips her hair over her shoulder, more dignified, in her sheet, than Virginia fully dressed. “He’s just like the rest of them.”
“What do you mean?”
The woman holds up her hand, palm out, fingers spread. “Because he can see it,” she says. “He thinks it’s there.” She steps through the doorway into the hall. “Move back,” she says, and then grips the door frame with one hand, and with the other, pulls the door shut on her fingers. It bounces back from the impact, and when she holds her fingers up for Virginia to see, a purple groove runs across the knuckles, and three of the nails have torn off.
“What’s wrong with you?” Virginia says.
“Nothing,” says the woman. “It’s just, I’m starting to not exist.” Then she backs through the doorway into the room. “Now get the hell out,” she says and slams the door in Virginia’s face.
BACK ON SUNSET Lane, beneath the light of the Japanese lanterns strung overhead, Virginia pauses to brush herself off. The walking corpse was right: she looks ridiculous. A thirty-year-old woman, her knees dirty with floor grit, sawdust clinging to her sandals, stuck between her toes. Hair probably a mess, too, beginning to frizz. And worst of all, her mother’s dress is stained purple across the bodice. She spreads the skirt with her hands, tries to remember her mother in it. A young version of her mother, her dark hair pinned up, the yellow skirt of the dress swishing from side to side and her heels clacking as she walked — where? Toward Virginia, who was waiting for her. It’s not a real memory, not something she can pin down in time and place, but just an image — something she has conjured out of nothing, out of air and shadow and light.
Down the lane, she spots Cal. He’s just ahead, turning the corner onto Happy Hollow, and if she walks a little faster, she will catch him. She’ll catch him, and they’ll walk the rest of the way together. At some point, he’ll tell her his story, that he fucked a walking corpse. He’ll tell her he licked the air where her toes should’ve been, that he ran his hands over the holes in her arm, kissed the knobs of her fingerless knuckles. He’ll tell her he slept with a vanishing woman. A woman fading away, bit by bit, piece by piece. And unlike him, she will believe it.