It happened the other day. I was sitting on the sidewalk, when a cloud spoke to me. A cowlick-shaped cloud it was. Its words fell on my face like rain. The cloud lapped against the sky and then disappeared. No one else heard nothing, but that tuft of cloud showed me that things change all the time.
And I knew I had to change too.
I’ve loved you as long as I’ve known you, Petey McCoy, and I’ve known you a long time. Still sends shivers down my back when I recall the first time I saw you.
You were sippin’ sodas at Terrie’s diner. Ronnie P. had put Elvis on the jukebox. Sandra Jamison had a new hair-do, and she whispered in my ear, “seen him, Carole?”
I was too shy to look at you. But the way you looked at me, it was like I was the prettiest girl in the room. You bought me a coke and asked would you like to come fishin’?
Well we never caught no fish, but you caught my heart. We’d run through the snake-green grass together and dance with the wind. I loved the way your hair stuck out at all angles, like golden wheat-straw. We’d throw sticks into the creek and paint our faces with mud from around Winding Fork. We’d pull daisies and dandelions out of the ground; tug them out by their roots. Sometimes you’d pull too fast, and nothing came up, like they didn’t have no roots at all. They were a bit like you and Cora-Jean in that respect. Following your Ma, desperate. Like ducklings shit scared of being left behind whenever she moved.
Back in ’64 though, you were in Knox County the whole summer, and it seemed like them dog days would burn on forever.
I was thirteen. You were fifteen. I learnt to love you in the back of Bernie McPhee’s trailer. Bernie was older than most of us who hung around the diner. Sometimes I didn’t like the way he looked at me. Not right for a man of his age. But he was your friend, and he let us have time together, so I didn’t think no more about it.
I gave you my transistor radio. You gave me the pearl button from your shirt. You wrote my name in the dirt. Carole. I scratched yours into the centre of my being.
My ma warned me about you.
“Don’t be messin’ around with the likes of Petey McCoy,” she’d say. “He’s nothing but trouble that one. Mark my words, Carole.”
You and Cora-Jean came and went like a pair of vagabonds. You never learnt nothin’ at school. You never got the chance. Always comin’ and goin’.
Your ma took off and left every sweet time she took a fancy to some travelling salesman or had a fight with your pa. So you and Cora-Jean got used to moving around. Your pa knocked your ma’s front tooth out one time. And she scratched three-inch long gashes into his stubbled cheek: like claw-marks from one of hell’s creatures.
Your pa got put away in the slammer for a bit. He knocked a lady over on the Columbus Road after drivin’ back from Ernie Bright’s bar in his pick-up. But when he came out, he got to beatin’ your ma again. She was lookin’ to run away again, you said, when your pa found out she was plannin’ on leavin’. He beat her again, and blacked your eye for good measure.
By the time I was fifteen, and you seventeen, I’d grown accustomed to you turning up every-so-often. That light tap on my window told me you were in town and something leapt inside my chest like a spring. We’d run hand-in-hand across the Mill Road Bowstring Bridge and lie by the rushes. I’d soak in the light from your eyes, green as lizard skin. We’d make out on the satin-sheet grass on the side of the creek. You’d tickle my top lip with a straw and weave patterns in my hair with your sweet words. Patterns with your silver lies. Patterns with your promises. You gave yourself to me, asked me to be yours with a pull-tab from a can of soda on my finger. I let you take what you wanted in return.
Your ma upped and left Knox County for good before I turned sixteen. They say she left your pa to live with a vacuum-cleaner salesman from Oregon. She took you and Cora-Jean with her. I never knew if I’d see either of you again.
But by then it was too late. I’d given you something that couldn’t be taken back, and you’d given me more than I could handle. It just about turned my heart to mush to see you go. The pain was that deep it spread to the ends of my fingers like molten lead. You’d left me with the echoes of your voice, and the imagined brush of your cheek against mine. You’d left me with an empty promise of a life together. But that wasn’t all you left me Petey.
Couldn’t talk to no one about it. Ma hollered at me for dawdling and daydreaming.
“Hurry up and do them dishes Carole.”
“Fetch in the washin’ girl. Didn’t you see the rain comin’?”
“Where have you been? There’s work to be done. Can’t be dawdlin’ by the creek all day, dreamin’ ’bout god-knows-what.”
It was Bernie McPhee that helped me to get fixed up in the end. Paid for it out of his own wages, not that he made that much. I liked hanging around with him, because he’d talk about you, about them good old days. It was a way of feelin’ like you were still around.
Bernie undid all the good he’d done though. He said he’d tell my ma if I didn’t do what he wanted. Six months later I had a real ring on my finger and Petra was on the way. I named my baby Petra, coz I couldn’t get you out of my head. ‘P … E … T’, and I’d think about you … R … A. The pain of giving birth to her ‘most tore me in half, though she only weighed five pound. When I saw the curl of her tiny fingers round mine, I wondered what would’ve happened if things had been different, if I’d been holding another baby. Your baby.
I could see myself when I looked at Petra’s downy hair and transparent blue eyes. I couldn’t see much of Bernie in her. What if I had hold of a baby with straw blonde hair, and jade green eyes? But what good was there in thinking about that?
Bernie walked out on me before Petra took her first step. He took off with Florrie from Ernie’s bar. I think he must have known I still loved you, and that love wasn’t going to go just because he liked the curve of my ass. Petra and I moved back with my ma, and I tried to wash the shame off my face with her rough red flannels.
When Petra started school, I took a job at the grocery store. It helped Ma pay the bills, and it felt good to be doing something outside of the house. I met Hank Stamford in the store. He wasn’t much to look at, with his squashed pumpkin of a face. His nose almost touched his chin. As I put his tins of beer and vacuum-packed schnitzel through the till, it was Hank’s eyes that caught my attention. They were as green as the skin of the watermelon he placed in front of me. I laughed at his jokes when I took his cash. His wan slit of a smile lingered a little too long after I gave him his change.
Hank was there most every day, buying this and that, telling me some little story about what had happened at the factory where he worked. They made hydraulic pumps and were having trouble with the Mexican workers. He never asked much about my day, so I never told him about Petra. It wasn’t long before he asked me on a date. There was a new diner near the square. Perhaps we could go dancing afterwards, he said. Ma said she’d watch Petra for me.
“Be careful,” she said, as I stepped out in my high heels and new A-line dress.
I swear I tried not to think about you Petey, but when Hank kissed me in the dark archway outside the diner, you came skipping through my mind. I was back in the heady summer of ’64. I touched the skin of his arms and wished the roughness away. Wished he was you.
We never got to do any dancing, Hank and I, well not the kind that don’t make babies anyway. Hank got to find out about Petra after we’d been dating three months. I told him about my little girl when I told him I was carrying his baby. He wasn’t best pleased, but I moved in with him and his old pa Simon, about a month before Hank Junior was born.
I’d drop Petra off at school, the wheels on Hank Junior’s hand-me-down pram squeaking on the sidewalk. Then I’d go back to the house and hide from his pa.
Simon Stamford was an angry man, with the same pumpkin face as his son, but ten times uglier. He wasn’t best pleased to have three extra mouths to feed. He guarded the house like a lion in a lair. There’d been him and Hank in the house for seventeen years, no one else. Seventeen years since Ermaline Stamford had passed. Some folk said she was touched. Hank and Simon, well they never talked ’bout Ermaline that much. Some folk said she took her own life, but that was just talk, and I never listened to none of it.
Simon grizzled if the baby cried. He’d complain about the mess, even though most of it was Hank’s.
“Don’t leave the garbage there Carole.”
“Who do you think is going to hang out this washing Carole?”
“You can’t leave the pram there Carole.”
“Call that clean? Din’t your ma never show you how to clean a pot?”
Sometimes I’d cut myself off from the world outside, lie on the bed and peer at Hank Junior’s plump face through the bars of his cot. I’d think about that green-eyed blonde baby, and how tall he would have gotten. I’d wonder what you were doing right there and then, whether you had any children, Petey. I didn’t know if you were still in Oregon. I didn’t know where you were.
One time I dropped Petra off at Bernie’s and overheard Florrie say something about ‘Petey in Texas’. I didn’t know if she meant you or some other Petey. I couldn’t ask. Florrie and I never talked. I didn’t know if Bernie still kept in touch with you at all. Bernie and I didn’t talk that much neither. I didn’t know if he’d heard from you even once in all them years. When Bernie and I had been together we’d never spoken your name. Like you would jinx us.
I didn’t even know if you were alive.
It was Simon and his accusations that drove me to leave Hank. He said I stole his money. Well I may have taken a bit, but that was because I had nothing to buy shoes for Petra. I had nothing. Nothing from Bernie, nothing from Hank. Even Ma had stopped helping me. So she was less than pleased when I turned up on her stoop with Petra sulking, and Hank Junior wailing.
“I’ve nowhere else to go, Ma,” I said. Shame and self-hatred burnt a great hole in me.
Over the years, my life began to slip away from me. Like there was this awful ticking, ticking, ticking, inside of my belly. Like I was waiting for something.
The welfare didn’t go very far, and Ma suggested I went and did some more learning, seeing as I’d never finished high school. I signed on for some classes. But it was hard going with two youngsters. I dropped out before anyone discovered how little I knew.
Then there was Daz. He walked a bit like you. I looked for something else of you in him, Petey. In his eyes, in his smile, in his heart. But I never found it. Daz was a good to spend time with though. And there was always something at Daz’s place. Something that helped wipe my pain away. It was Daz who got me into the pink speed.
Charlie was Daz’s supplier. He picked up the pieces when Daz left me for a whore called Celine. I couldn’t see much in Charlie that was like you, Petey. Though he did have a way with words that reminded me of you. Reminded me how you’d spun your magic by the riverside. How you’d fooled me into thinking the ring-pull from a soda can meant something. Something real.
But Charlie was kind. He made sure Petra and Hank Junior never went without. There were always wads of cash lying round the house, and I could help myself if the kids needed anything. But it was the needles that made me leave Charlie. After Hank Junior stabbed himself with a used needle, I upped and left Charlie.
I thought I saw your sister the other day, Petey. Not the little girl with the wild hair and dirty knees that always wanted to play with my make-up, the girl who followed us around like she was a puppy. I guess Cora-Jean McCoy would be all grown up with children of her own now. The woman had your walk, your slim tanned legs. But when she turned into the hair salon, I saw it was just someone who looked a bit like a McCoy. Yellow blonde hair with a good half inch of earth-black roots. I guess she was going in there to get them fixed. I sat on the sidewalk. I was in my usual spot with my tin. That was the day I saw the cloud.
I wish I could hold Petra and Hank Junior close to my body. I wish I could tell them how much I love them. I wish I could let them know they were all the gold I needed in my life, not some golden-haired boy who probably doesn’t even remember who I am. Do you Petey? Do you even remember me?
I look up to the sky. The clouds are swirling and disappearing like steam off a boiling pot, a bit like that tuft of cloud that spoke to me the other day. It showed me things change all the time. And I know I have to change too.
It’s time to let you go, Petey. It’s time to let you go for good.
Nod Ghosh lives in Christchurch, New Zealand. Published work can be found in: Love on the Road 2015 (Liberties Press), Landmarks (U.K. 2015 NFFD), Sleep is A Beautiful Colour (U.K. 2017 NFFD), Horizons2 (NZSA), Leaving the Red Zone (Clerestory Press, N.Z.), and various online & print journals. Further details: http://www.nodghosh.com/about/