I drive a cab in a town where no one needs a cab but plenty of people need rides. I've been paid with casseroles, lip gloss, plumbing advice, beer, prayers for my immortal soul, and promises to mow my yard, but this is the first time I've ever been offered something living.
The girl's around eleven or twelve. About twenty years too soon, she already possesses the self-centered, self-destructive attitude of a survivor of a string of bad relationships, failed diets, a drinking problem, and the realization that life is just a bunch of confusing, painful stuff that fills up the time between your favorite TV shows.
Her outfit looks like it's been picked out by a pedophile with a penchant for banging hillbilly girls, but more than likely her mom bought it for her. She's dressed in a pair of tight denim shorts with eyelet trim, a pair of clear plastic platform sandals encrusted in silver glitter, and a skimpy halter made from red bandanna material. Her exposed midriff sports a unicorn tattoo which I hope is water soluble.
She wants a ride from Jolly Mount to the mall and wants to pay for it with her four-year-old brother.
"I'm not doing this for my health," I explain to her as I put the nozzle back into the gas pump. "This is my job. I have to make a living. I can't pay my mortgage or my heating bill with a toddler."
"You could sell him," she suggests.
"That's against the law."
"The law won't ever find out."
I screw my gas cap back on. She watches me while she stands with all her weight positioned on one skinny leg, one nonexistent hip thrust out with her hand resting on it, the bent angle and sharp point of her elbow making an almost perfect triangle of bony flesh against the yellow custom paint job of my Subaru Outback.
Her other hand holds the hand of her brother, not tightly but not casually either, the way a daisy holds on to its petals.
"Maybe he doesn't want to be sold," I tell her. "Maybe he wants to stay here."
"Then you could keep him. He can't do much now but when he gets older he could be like a slave for you."
I look down at the little guy. The spray of freckles across his nose and the hand-me-down jeans with rips in the knees and the cuffs rolled up several times remind me of my own son, Clay, when he was that age.
He turns twenty-four today. I have to remember to give him a call later. I don't make a big deal over his birthday now that he's grown. I don't let myself get emotional either, since the emotions surrounding his birth have always left me feeling torn up inside. I guess that's what happens when the best thing in your life is the result of the worst mistake of your life.
I wasn't all that much older than this girl standing in front of me now when my dad dropped me off at the entrance of the Centresburg Hospital, already two hours into my contractions, and told me to call him when I was "done."
Shannon was with us, sitting in the cab of the pickup crushed between the enormous globe of her sister's belly and the silent, hulking presence of our coal miner father who'd been pulled out of the damp, black earth midway through his shift in answer to my emergency call. Since he was going right back to work, he hadn't bothered to clean up or change out of his dirty coveralls. His face and hands were coated with rock dust: the crushed limestone sprayed inside mines to control the combustible coal dust. It gave his skin a bluish-white pallor, like someone who'd been frozen solid and dug out of a snowdrift.
Shannon was this girl's age and full of the same sort of generalized contempt and misplaced confidence in her ability to not care about anything as long as she told herself nothing was worth caring about, but I remember she looked worried that day as I climbed down out of the truck wincing and breathing funny and cradling the baby still inside me. I couldn't tell if she was afraid for me or afraid for herself because she was going home with dad alone.
"I don't believe in slavery," I tell the girl. "Besides, maybe he wants to stay with you."
"I don't think so."
"I think he's pretty attached to you."
We both look at the boy this time. He doesn't have the exuberance of most children his age. He hasn't been fidgeting or whining or trying to get away. He stares back at us with the endlessly patient gaze of a sheep waiting at the gate to be let out or let in.
"But he ain't mine. He's my mom's," she says.
"He doesn't belong to you or your mom."
I walk around to the driver's side of my car. They follow me.
"He's not a dog. He's a person. You can't own another person. Although another person can own you. You'll learn about that when you start dating."
"I already date."
"Okay, enough." I hold up my hands in a sign of defeat. "This is more information than I need. If you don't have any money, what else do you have?"
She opens up her grimy purse, pink with a jeweled kitten on it. I would have killed for a purse like that when I was her age although I never would have taken it outside the house for fear E.J. or some of the other guys would have made fun of me for being a sissy.
She pokes through the meager contents with the tips of her fingers, which are polished in chipped purple: a cracked pink plastic Barbie wallet, a lipstick, a comb, a piece of notebook paper folded into a small square, a lighter shaped like a pig, and a handful of what looks like ordinary gravel.
She gestures with her head toward the boy.
"Kenny collects rocks."
I take the lighter and flick it on. The flames come out the pig's nose.
"The lighter," I state.
"No way. I love that lighter. I just stole . . . I just bought it with my own money inside."
"No lighter, no ride."
It's her turn to size me up. She looks me over. I wonder what she thinks about my outfit, if she's being more generous than I was with hers. Ancient scuffed Frye harness boots, long bare legs, a camouflage miniskirt, olive drab tank top, cheap drugstore sunglasses, and a pink Stetson that Clay gave me two years ago as a Mother's Day gag gift that I was never supposed to wear: looks like she was dressed by a Vietnam vet with a penchant for banging middle-aged cowgirls.
Her gaze leaves me and runs over the car. jolly mount cab is written on both sides but about a month ago, someone blacked out jolly and cab on the driver's side door and added the word me.
It now reads mount me.
I don't have any idea who the vandal is. I'm sure it was nothing personal. I've even taken my time getting it fixed. I tell myself it's because I don't have the money, but part of the reason is simple admiration and encouragement for the creative thought process behind it.
When E.J. and I were in sixth grade and the Union Hall was still standing and hosting community events, a square dancing club called The Naughty Pines came to town to put on an exhibition. E.J. and I switched two letters and the next day the marquee read tonight only: the naughty penis.
We thought we were the two most brilliant people alive.
It was inevitable that we would be caught, since we bragged openly about what we had done. Eventually word spread throughout the school, and we were sent to the principal's office. I never did understand why our teachers were allowed to become involved, since the act didn't occur on school property or during school hours, but I guess they believed that, since I didn't have a mom to teach me right from wrong, they were responsible for disciplining me.
Apparently, I've passed the girl's inspection because she hands me the lighter and opens the back door.
My cell rings.
"Jolly Mount Cab," I answer.
"I need a cab to drive me from Harrisburg to Jolly Mount," a man's voice greets me. "There's not a single cab company here that will do it. One of the drivers I spoke to recommended you."
"What'd he say?"
"He said he thought you'd take the job."
"No, that's not what I mean. What'd he say about me?"
"He said he thought you'd take the job," he repeats.
The girl crawls inside the car and motions for her brother to follow. Once he's seated beside her she makes him fasten his seat belt but doesn't put on her own.
"What'd he really say about me?" I ask him.
A brief silence.
"He said you're attractive, although he didn't use the word 'attractive,' but I think that was the point he was trying to make."
"Does that make you more eager to have me drive you?"
"I doubt I'd be interested in you in that way."
"Why not? Are you gay? Faithful? Celibate? Impotent?"
"Fair enough," I say.
I'm trying to figure him out. His manner of speaking sounds almost rehearsed. There's not the slightest trace of any kind of a regional accent in his voice; he enunciates too well, and he uses very little inflection. He talks rapidly but he's also fond of dramatic pauses. He's sort of a cross between Captain Kirk and the guy who did the English voice-overs for all the old Kung Fu movies.
My guess is he grew up talking one way and puts a lot of effort into not talking that way anymore.
"Where are you exactly?" I ask him.
"I'm here at this ridiculous, godforsaken excuse for an airport."
"International? You can't even fly to New York from here."
"That's true, but there's one flight to Canada."
"Can you pick me up or not?"
"Yeah. Sure. I can pick you up. You realize it's a two-hour drive?"
"Yes, I do. The other cab drivers enlightened me. Is it also true that there are no hotels in Jolly Mount?"
"The nearest motel would be in Centresburg, about thirty miles from here."
"What's your name, sir?"
"Why do you need to know?"
"Because I'm about to invest four hours of my life and sixty dollars worth of gas on the assumption that you're going to be there when I show up. The least you can do in return is tell me your name."
He doesn't answer.
"Fine. I'll just call you Sparky."
"Gerald," he says sharply. "Gerald Kozlowski."
He hangs up.
I click my phone shut happily. A fare from the airport. Big bucks.
Then I notice the two little ones in my back seat.
"Sorry, kids," I tell them while opening the door and motioning for them to get out. "There's been a change in plans. I can't take you to the mall after all."
Kenny does what he's told. The girl glares at me.
"Why the hell not?"
"It was a bad idea to begin with, now that I think about it. If I take you to the mall then you're going to be stranded at the mall. How will you get home?"
She gets out and slams the door. She doesn't answer my question.
"Where is home anyway?" I keep after her. "And what are you doing out by yourself in the middle of town on a Saturday morning?"
"It ain't none of your business where our home is and we can be wherever we want to be. It's a free country."
"So I've been told."
She joins Kenny and takes up a stance next to him with her hands jabbed back on her hips. I notice her gaze flicker toward a red Radio Flyer wagon parked next to the front door of the convenience store.
"Well, I guess you can't live too far away if you pulled Kenny in a wagon," I comment. "Where are your parents?"
All I get from her in reply is hostile silence and sharp elbows.
Kenny gives me the sheep stare.
"Who are your parents?"
"Can I at least know your name?"
She thinks about it.
I know I've heard the name before. It's unusual enough that it sticks out in my mind, although having an adjective or noun for a name that conjures up images of pretty things isn't that strange around here. I went to school with a Taffeta Tate and a Sparkle Wisniewski. Clay briefly dated a girl named Dainty Frost who had a sister named Lacey.
"What about a last name?" I ask.
"Is your dad Choker Simms?"
"Well, that explains a lot," I say under my breath.
"Do you know him?" she asks me.
"Yes, I do."
"You probably heard bad things about him because he was in jail but none of it's true. He was set up by a lady cop who had the hots for him and decided to ruin his life when he spurned her."
I'm so stunned by this explanation I laugh out loud.
"'Spurned'?" I practically choke on the word.
"You know. Spurned. When somebody tells you they don't love you."
"Your dad . . . ," I start to say, then stop as I look down into their little faces, hers daring me to say anything bad about their father so she can defend him and his full of genuine curiosity.
She holds out her hand, palm up.
"Gimme my lighter back."
I give it to her.
She returns it to her purse, grabs Kenny by the forearm, and stalks off.
it takes all of two minutes for me to drive through downtown Jolly Mount. Aside from the Snappy's gas station and convenience store, there's a Subway, three bars, one church, a drive-thru branch of a bank, a red brick post office, and a two-story abandoned corner building that used to house a five-and-dime store, and an insurance agency.
A corridor of tall, thin row homes, identical except for the amount of color and care spent on them, forms the outlying border. There's a house of flaking bubblegum pink, one of pale turquoise, one a fading canary yellow, and two painted a mint green--all the colors of a bucket of sidewalk chalk interspersed between the traditional whites and tans. Some are well tended; others appear to be uninhabited except for the lawn ornaments, and the limp curtains hanging at lopsided angles behind windows smoky with age and grime.
I take the most direct route to the interstate even though I prefer driving the forsaken, twisting side roads where the worn-down, wooded mountains lie on all sides of me like the backs of slumbering giants.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Sister Mine by Tawni O'Dell. Copyright © 2007 by Tawni O'Dell. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.