I was already looking, needless to say. A woman crouched on her hands and knees while a guy knelt behind her. She kept saying “Give it to me” and moaning, and though her eyes, brown and blank, betrayed her lack of interest, I couldn’t help but take mental notes. Hands on her shoulders, I noted. Fast, but not too fast or it’s going to be over, fast. Keep your grunting to a minimum.
As if reading my mind, she said, “God, Pudge. Never do it that hard. That would hurt. That looks like torture. And all she can do is just sit there and take it? This is not a man and a woman. It’s a penis and a vagina. What’s erotic about that? Where’s the kissing?”
“Given their position, I don’t think they can kiss right now,” I noted.
“That’s my point. Just by virtue of how they’re doing it, it’s objectification. He can’t even see her face! This is what can happen to women, Pudge. That woman is someone’s daughter. This is what you make us do for money.”
“Well, not me,” I said defensively. “I mean, not technically. I don’t, like, produce porn movies.”
“Look me in the eye and tell me this doesn’t turn you on, Pudge.” I couldn’t. She laughed. It was fine, she said. Healthy. And then she got up, stopped the tape, lay down on her stomach across the couch, and mumbled something.
“What did you say?” I asked, walking to her, putting my hand on the small of her back.
“Shhhh,” she said. “I’m sleeping.”
Just like that. From a hundred miles an hour to asleep in a nanosecond. I wanted so badly to lie down next to her on the couch, to wrap my arms around her and sleep. Not fuck, like in those movies. Not even have sex. Just sleep together, in the most innocent sense of the phrase. But I lacked the courage and she had a boyfriend and I was gawky and she was gorgeous and I was hopelessly boring and she was endlessly fascinating. So I walked back to my room and collapsed on the bottom bunk, thinking that if people were rain, I was drizzle and she was a hurricane.
forty-seven days before
ON WEDNESDAY MORNING, I woke up with a stuffy nose to an entirely new Alabama, a crisp and cold one. As I walked to Alaska’s room that morning, the frosty grass of the dorm circle crunched beneath my shoes. You don’t run into frost much in Florida—and I jumped up and down like I was stomping on bubble wrap. Crunch. Crunch. Crunch.
Alaska was holding a burning green candle in her hand upside down, dripping the wax onto a larger, homemade volcano that looked a bit like a Technicolor middle-school-science-project volcano.
“Don’t burn yourself,” I said as the flame crept up toward her hand.
“Night falls fast. Today is in the past,” she said without looking up.
“Wait, I’ve read that before. What is that?” I asked.
With her free hand, she grabbed a book and tossed it toward me. It landed at my feet. “Poem,” she said. “Edna St. Vincent Millay. You’ve read that? I’m stunned.”
“Oh, I read her biography! Didn’t have her last words in it, though. I was a little bitter. All I remember is that she had a lot of sex.”
“I know. She’s my hero,” Alaska said without a trace of irony. I laughed, but she didn’t notice. “Does it seem at all odd to you that you enjoy biographies of great writers a lot more than you enjoy their actual writing?”
“Nope!” I announced. “Just because they were interesting people doesn’t mean I care to hear their musings on nighttime.”
“It’s about depression, dumb-ass.”
“Oooooh, really? Well, jeez, then it’s brilliant,” I answered. She sighed. “All right. The snow may be falling in the winter of my discontent, but at least I’ve got sarcastic company. Sit down, will ya?”
I sat down next to her with my legs crossed and our knees touching. She pulled a clear plastic crate filled with dozens of candles out from underneath her bed. She looked at it for a moment, then handed me a white one and a lighter.
We spent all morning burning candles—well, and occasionally lighting cigarettes off the burning candles after we stuffed a towel into the crack at the bottom of her door. Over the course of two hours, we added a full foot to the summit of her polychrome candle volcano.
“Mount St. Helens on acid,” she said
At 12:30, after two hours of me begging for a ride to McDonald’s, Alaska decided it was time for lunch. As we began to walk to the student parking lot, I saw a strange car. A small green car. A hatchback. I’ve seen that car, I thought. Where have I seen the car? And then the Colonel jumped out and ran to meet us.
Rather than, like, I don’t know, “hello” or something, the Colonel began, “I have been instructed to invite you to Thanksgiving dinner at Chez MartIn.”
Alaska whispered into my ear, and then I laughed and said, “I have been instructed to accept your invitation.” So we walked over to the Eagle’s house, told him we were going to eat turkey trailer-park style, and sped away in the hatchback.
The Colonel explained it to us on the two-hour car ride south. I was crammed into the backseat because Alaska had called shotgun. She usually drove, but when she didn’t, she was shotgun-calling queen of the world. The Colonel’s mother heard that we were on campus and couldn’t bear the thought of leaving us familyless for Thanksgiving. The Colonel didn’t seem too keen on the whole idea—“I’m going to have to sleep in a tent,” he said, and I laughed.
Except it turns out he did have to sleep in a tent, a nice four-person green outfit shaped like half an egg, but still a tent. The Colonel’s mom lived in a trailer, as in the kind of thing you might see attached to a large pickup truck, except this particular one was old and falling apart on its cinder blocks, and probably couldn’t have been hooked up to a truck without disintegrating. It wasn’t even a particularly big trailer. I could just barely stand up to my full height without scraping the ceiling. Now I understood why the Colonel was short—he couldn’t afford to be any taller. The place was really one long room, with a full-size bed in the front, a kitchenette, and a living area in the back with a TV and a small bathroom—so small that in order to take a shower, you pretty much had to sit on the toilet.
“It ain’t much,” the Colonel’s mom (“That’s Dolores, not Miss Martin”) told us. “But y’alls a-gonna have a turkey the size o’ the kitchen.” She laughed. The Colonel ushered us out of the trailer immediately after our brief tour, and we walked through the neighborhood, a series of trailers and mobile homes on dirt roads.
“Well, now you get why I hate rich people.” And I did. I couldn’t fathom how the Colonel grew up in such a small place. The entire trailer was smaller than our dorm room. I didn’t know what to say to him, how to make him feel less embarrassed.
“I’m sorry if it makes you uncomfortable,” he said. “I know it’s probably foreign.”
“Not to me,” Alaska piped up.
“Well, you don’t live in a trailer,” he told her.
“Poor is poor.”
“I suppose,” the Colonel said.
Alaska decided to go help Dolores with dinner. She said that it was sexist to leave the cooking to the women, but better to have good sexist food than crappy boy-prepared food. So the Colonel and I sat on the pull-out couch in the living room, playing video games and talking about school.
“I finished my religion paper. But I have to type it up on your computer when we get back. I think I’m ready for finals, which is good, since we have an ank-pray to an-play.”
“Your mom doesn’t know pig Latin?” I smirked.
“Not if I talk fast. Christ, be quiet.”
The food—fried okra, steamed corn on the cob, and pot roast that was so tender it fell right off the plastic fork—convinced me that Dolores was an even better cook than Maureen. Culver Creek’s okra had less grease, more crunch. Dolores was also the funniest mom I’d ever met. When Alaska asked her what she did for work, she smiled and said, “I’m a culnary engineeyer. That’s a short-order cook at the Waffle House to y’all.”
“Best Waffle House in Alabama.” The Colonel smiled, and then I realized, he wasn’t embarrassed of his mom at all. He was just scared that we would act like condescending boarding-school snobs. I’d always found the Colonel’s I-hate-the-rich routine a little overwrought until I saw him with his mom. He was the same Colonel, but in a totally different context. It made me hope that one day, I could meet Alaska’s family, too.
Dolores insisted that Alaska and I share the bed, and she slept on the pull-out while the Colonel was out in his tent. I worried he would get cold, but frankly I wasn’t about to give up my bed with Alaska. We had separate blankets, and there were never fewer than three layers between us, but the possibilities kept me up half the night.
forty-six days before
BEST THANKSGIVING FOOD I’d ever had. No crappy cranberry sauce. Just huge slabs of moist white meat, corn, green beans cooked in enough bacon fat to make them taste like they weren’t good for you, biscuits with gravy, pumpkin pie for dessert, and a glass of red wine for each of us. “I believe,” Dolores said, “that yer s’posed to drink white with turkey, but—now I don’t know ’bout y’all—but I don’t s’pose I give a shit.”
We laughed and drank our wine, and then after the meal, we each listed our gratitudes. My family always did that before the meal, and we all just rushed through it to get to the food. So the four of us sat around the table and shared our blessings. I was thankful for the fine food and the fine company, for having a home on Thanksgiving. “A trailer, at least,” Dolores joked.
“Okay, my turn,” Alaska said. “I’m grateful for having just had my best Thanksgiving in a decade.”
Then the Colonel said, “I’m just grateful for you, Mom,” and Dolores laughed and said, “That dog won’t hunt, boy.”
I didn’t exactly know what that phrase meant, but apparently it meant, “That was inadequate,” because then the Colonel expanded his list to acknowledge that he was grateful to be “the smartest human being in this trailer park,” and Dolores laughed and said, “Good enough.”
And Dolores? She was grateful that her phone was back on, that her boy was home, that Alaska helped her cook and that I had kept the Colonel out of her hair, that her job was steady and her coworkers were nice, that she had a place to sleep and a boy who loved her.
I sat in the back of the hatchback on the drive home—and that is how I thought of it: home—and fell asleep to the highway’s monotonous lullaby.
forty-four days before
“COOSA LIQUORS’ entire business model is built around selling cigarettes to minors and alcohol to adults.” Alaska looked at me with disconcerting frequency when she drove, particularly since we were winding through a narrow, hilly highway south of school, headed to the aforementioned Coosa Liquors. It was Saturday, our last day of real vacation. “Which is great, if all you need is cigarettes. But we need booze. And they card for booze. And my ID blows. But I’ll flirt my way through.” She made a sudden and unsignaled left turn, pulling onto a road that dropped precipitously down a hill with fields on either side, and she gripped the steering wheel tight as we accelerated, and she waited until the last possible moment to brake, just before we reached the bottom of the hill. There stood a plywood gas station that no longer sold gas with a faded sign bolted to the roof: COOSA LIQUORS: WE CATER TO YOUR SPIRITUAL NEEDS.
Alaska went in alone and walked out the door five minutes later weighed down by two paper bags filled with contraband: three cartons of cigarettes, five bottles of wine, and a fifth of vodka for the Colonel. On the way home, Alaska said, “You like knock-knock jokes?”
“Knock-knock jokes?” I asked. “You mean like, ‘Knock knock . . .”
“Who’s there?” replied Alaska.
“What are you, an owl?” I finished. Lame.
“That was brilliant,” said Alaska. “I have one. You start.”
“Okay. Knock knock.”
“Who’s there?” said Alaska.
I looked at her blankly. About a minute later, I got it, and laughed.
“My mom told me that joke when I was six. It’s still funny.”
So I could not have been more surprised when she showed up sobbing at Room 43 just as I was putting the finishing touches on my final paper for English. She sat down on the couch, her every exhalation a mix of whimper and scream.
“I’m sorry,” she said, heaving. Snot was dribbling down her chin.
“What’s wrong?” I asked. She picked up a Kleenex from the COFFEE TABLE and wiped at her face.
“I don’t . . .” she started, and then a sob came like a tsunami, her cry so loud and childlike that it scared me, and I got up, sat down next her, and put my arm around her. She turned away, pushing her head into the foam of the couch. “I don’t understand why I screw everything up,” she said.
“What, like with Marya? Maybe you were just scared.”
“Scared isn’t a good excuse!” she shouted into the couch. “Scared is the excuse everyone has always used!” I didn’t know who “everyone” was, or when “always” was, and as much as I wanted to understand her ambiguities, the slyness was growing annoying.
“Why are you upset about this now?”
“It’s not just that. It’s everything. But I told the Colonel in the car.” She sniffled but seemed done with the sobs. “While you were sleeping in the back. And he said he’d never let me out of his sight during pranks. That he couldn’t trust me on my own. And I don’t blame him. I don’t even trust me.”