+ James Dire



Since my retirement in 2003 I have

devoted myself to creative writing.

Among my works are several short stories,  

including most recently “Alaska”.  

My chief accomplishment however is 

a novel, “The Party Dress”.

“The Party Dress” takes place in Royalty Arizona, a fictitious town based on an amalgam of dispirited desert communities well known to the author, who grew up in Arizona.  Royalty is a scattered, dusty settlement that supports itself exclusively on the traffic of a busy highway that pulses through its haphazard streets lined with rattletrap stores and homes, like the beating heart of a snake. Randy Crater grows up here, in a family that is literally half dead, and he is hooted off center stage early in life because he talks funny. Even after time cures his stammer he still finds himself an outcast, mostly because of his own ingrained tradition of regarding himself as a nobody, a habit that when set young is set very hard. Later Jory Jimshaw, with his own peculiar, monstrous deformity, comes to Royalty. Randy thinks: Surely I was never as grotesque as that. Surely he wouldn’t dare reject my friendship—which turns out to be true. At last, for the first time in his life, Randy has a friend. But Randy and Jory are adolescents, as are Randy’s sister Marie and her friend Lilyann, and subject to the upheavals of that time of life. Love sprouts in several places and runs wild like weeds, in all its tangles and iniquities, leaving Randy tormented and finally driven to despair, and he takes all his frustration out on the innocent, ugly girl who is in love with him.

      E X C E R P T S  from  THE PARTY DRESS. . .


        As I sat there in the dark, every so often someone would come by on the sidewalk and look up at my window, although they could have had no idea someone was sitting there. Ordinarily this would have given me something to think about for a while, but I was distracted by a pain I hadn’t felt in many years, only it wasn’t really a pain anymore but something that had grown out of it, a melancholy sensation as rich as fresh-turned earth. Originally it had been shame, as hot and red as fire. Lilyann’s life had been miserable, and I had twisted the knife in her myself, knowing full well what I was doing but unable to stop myself. My agonies pushed me into it. The guy who had visited them on me wasn’t available to punish but Lilyann was, so I made her suffer instead, in a way that still defies the imagination. Afterward I didn’t know what to do, so I did nothing then ran away—the adolescent’s answer for everything. I flew out of Royalty and into my life, and in time it all just dropped away, like a lighted crossroads behind a car speeding through open country at night.


        Mrs. Staley’s eyes welled up with tears.  “I was right, wasn’t I?” she said, her lips and fingers trembling.  The whole story burst out of her again, only this time she got madder and madder as she spoke, until she declared, with a smack of her tiny fist against the table, that she was indeed going to march right into the minister’s office the next morning and demand he do something.  She looked like an infuriated hen—the skin stretched tight on her neck, her small nose bobbing, her sweater bunched up like a ruff around her throat. 


        Royalty dates back at least to the 1870’s.  No one knows where the name came from, unless the story is true that it was named after the old general store’s potbellied stove, that had been manufactured by the Royalty Iron Works of King of Prussia Pennsylvania.  When the store burned down in the nineteen-thirties the stove was fished out of the ruins and set up in the Red Rooster, a cavernous emporium that sold a hodge-podge of merchandise—hardware, kitchen utensils, farming tools, clothes, even jewelry of a sort, made from rocks they polished in tumbling machines right in the store.  You could even get your hair cut at the Red Rooster.  I remember the old stove blazing and sputtering when I was little, and wondering why nearly every old man who passed the stove felt compelled to spit on it.  Eventually the Red Rooster was equipped with gas heaters that banged and hissed up in the rafters, and the old cast iron stove was broken up and the pieces added to the concrete that made up a new sidewalk outside the store.


        I suppose I was lucky my father wasn’t worse.  He could have been a tyrant like Mr. Abbott, who seemed to think children beaten into zombies were infinitely preferable to those who might possibly misbehave.  He could be heard yelling night after night in the shack they lived in by the highway, even above the roar of traffic.  His two mousy daughters sat numbly in school then melted away afterward like smoke, friends of nobody, girls whose names the teachers were always forgetting, even after half the year was gone; girls who couldn’t spell, couldn’t add, couldn’t match one date to its importance if their lives depended on it. 


        The next day, when I was in the town library, I noticed that a photograph they had of Miss Elkhorn had been defaced. Someone had drawn goofy glasses and a mustache on her. Right after her death there had been a big push to commemorate her somehow, name something after her, and most people thought the library would be a good choice. The portrait had been meant as a start. But then nothing came of it, and now, some years later, it seemed Miss Elkhorn had been consigned so completely to the past that her picture in the library could be disfigured and no one but me would notice. Weeks went by before it was finally taken down. I assumed a new one would take its place, one without the ballpoint pen adornments, but the space remained blank, and everyone went about their business as if there had never been a picture on that wall, or even a Miss Elkhorn. She had slipped quietly into obscurity, like a ship sinking in placid water, and I couldn’t help feeling stunned at the transformation. Now none of her handiwork remained in the world, not the least of which was the scourge she had bestowed on me. While I was looking the other way, thinking about other things, Miss Elkhorn, and every cruel, nasty thing she had been responsible for, had been banished from the earth.


        I tried not to look surprised. So Lorna from the Lucky Strike was Buster’s mother—now his remark about her that day made sense. She had quite a reputation; rarely was her name ever used in a sentence that didn’t also have the word whore in it, in fact the first time I ever heard the term was in connection with her. She dyed her hair as black as a bowling ball and piled it up into a nest on her head, and wore skirts so tight their seams were always coming apart, and I never saw her when she wasn’t smoking. Wherever she went at the Lucky Strike she trailed a cloud of ash. She’d always slap whatever I ordered on the counter; if it was a plate it rattled, if it was in a glass it spilled, and then she’d stare at me as though she found my very presence in the world insulting. Her eyes, caked with mascara, fresh strokes over traces of previous applications, were like the eyes of a movie mummy, exhausted by a thousand years of staring at the same old things. She said as little to me as possible. When the time came to pay up she’d slap the bill on the counter and slowly raise her eyes, as if lining up artillery. On breaks she would go off and slouch at one of the tables away from everybody else, cross her legs, light another cigarette and stare off into space.


        I got dressed, sneaked down the stairs and slipped out the back door and followed Buster up the hill.  It was cold outside and completely still, and dead quiet except for rocks every so often clattering down the hill.  My breath came out like the snortings of a locomotive.  To the east the sky was glowing, and a pink, jagged streak of cloud dived toward the horizon, like the trail of something gigantic that had gone down in flames.  A light shone at the Hammer’s house and smoke curled from the chimney, making the place look almost cozy, since it was too dark to see how ramshackle it really was, or all the crap in the yard around it.


        Behind the Five-and-Dime Buster stopped to listen.  I looked around.  On the other side of the alley were the backyards of houses, and one square white house had its back door open.  There was an argument going on inside.  “You did too,” a woman shouted, and then a man shouted back “I didn’t either,” over and over.  In the yard I could just make out a broken-down swing set standing in weeds two feet high, and I pictured a child somewhere in that house sitting in the dark, listening to the fight and wondering how it was going to turn out this time.

        I stood as close to Buster as possible, like some spineless terrified pet.  A bare bulb shined over the back door of the Five-and-Dime.  Inky Sawyer made a terrible racket hitting it with a stick, and when it broke with a loud pop glass showered everywhere, making a musical tinkling on the cement.  I thought surely someone in one of those houses must have heard, but just then there was an even louder crash from the house where those two people had been arguing.

        “Now look what you’ve done!” the woman cried.  I could hear her plain as day.  But no porchlights came on at any of the other houses, no faces appeared at any windows.  I guessed that loud noises and shouting were standard fare in that neighborhood, nothing to get upset about.  I did hear a window sash shut some ways off.  Perhaps the commotion was drowning out someone’s TV.


        Jeers and laughter erupted, and for once they weren’t aimed at me, but they might as well have been because I was just as big a dope as Larry apparently. I realized, with dumb horror, that it must be true. It had to be—the logic of it was suddenly inescapable. Why do you think you’re supposed to fuck her in the first place? That meant that I too had come from such an indignity. All the other boys presumably had fathers to tell them this news, while I had to learn it from one of the lamest kids on earth holding lessons on a crumbling slab of concrete marked off with hopscotch squares, in a crowd most of whom didn’t even know me. I never heard such laughter, even the time a new kid named Stephen Meerman took his underpants all the way down just to pee in the urinal in the boy’s bathroom. I couldn’t stay there. I ran around the schoolyard with my fingers in my ears, but it was no use. The damage had been done. At the edge of the property, where a leaking sprinkler had created a sort of bog over which dragonflies zoomed and menaced each other, I looked back at the group of boys. They were still laughing and pointing at Larry, and pushing each other playfully. I had just been admitted to their world, shoved into it without emotion or ceremony, and there would be no getting out of it.


        Marsha liked a boy named Don Craigle, who was always working on his car in the parking lot after school, an old brown Nash that looked like a horseshoe crab. Marsha would try to start a conversation with him, but he’d never bother to come out from under his car, or even respond except to ask her to pass him a wrench or something. It seemed to make her want him all the more. She would never have pinched Don Craigle’s butt. She could pinch mine all day long because she didn’t take me seriously. Urna Atwood didn’t take me seriously either. She sat next to me in typing, and was always leaning over to talk to me whenever Miss Scargoli was busy elsewhere in the room. She would talk about Charlie Short, the muscular ape who sat a few seats down, who looked at the world like an ox, his mouth always hanging open. Urna would tell me in excited murmurs what she’d like to do to Charlie, starting with ripping his shirt off so fast the buttons would fly around the room. I was so shocked I couldn’t look at her. I didn’t think girls thought like that. Urna had enormous tits, which strained the fabric of the dresses she wore every day to school, that the old maid teachers were always scolding her to go home and fix. She’d always situate herself in her chair so Charlie could ogle them if he ever had a mind to, which he never did, in fact he gave no sign he was even aware she was alive. “What’s with that dope anyway?” Urna would mutter. “You’d think he was a fruit or something.”


        I had been out there years before, and had even visited that henhouse, and was surprised to find that some had actually lived in it at some point.  The walls had been painted a cheery color, on which a child had done a crayon drawing of a horse, and window curtains lay in a heap in one corner.  But by the time of my visit it was filled with trash and stunk of piss, and looking closer at the curtains I saw they were smeared with shit.  Someone had used them to wipe his ass.  It stung me to think that some family had once called that tiny coop home, maybe even pinned high hopes on it, then later others came along who shit and pissed all over it.


        Some time later I was awakened by a terrific gust of wind.  That’s where the moon had gone—a thunderstorm had been brewing up.  The fire was only coals now, and embers were whipping out into the desert.  I frantically tried to stamp them out, but just then a stroke of lightning hit not twenty feet away, accompanied by such a ferocious crash I was knocked to the ground.  For a second I thought I had been struck blind, until another lightning stroke, this time mercifully further away, revealed Jory running around in a panic, plenty sober now and wide awake.  I grabbed his arm and we made it to the car.  I thanked a God I didn’t believe in when it started up, and I had to lurch it around in circles before I was able to find the road we’d come in on.  Twigs, stones and dust flew around madly in the air.

        Jory sat shivering on the edge of the seat, his arms folded across his naked torso.

        “Where’s your jacket?” I asked. 

        He shrugged without looking at me.  “Back there somewhere,” he said.

        My hands were clamped on the steering wheel.  My only thought was getting out of there before the rain started, which from a thunderstorm was nothing to fool around with, even from the safety of town.  What if we got stuck in the sand in one of the gullies we were lumbering through, and a flash flood came along?  Nobody would ever find us.  At least back on the highway there were bridges, and enough traffic that sooner or later someone would notice a car that had gone off the road.  Rocks thumped sickeningly under the car and the tires skidded around in the dirt.  Every two seconds lightning struck, giving us flash-pictures of mesquite and creosote beaten flat by the howling wind, and also an enormous gray drape of rain approaching, like an avalanche of heart-stopping immensity, or Final Curtain being dragged across the world.  I had the sudden horrible thought we were going the wrong way, until I saw the lights of a car on the highway up ahead.  I raced the final hundred yards, and the second we were back on the pavement the rain began, a furious torrent that the windshield wipers could only slap at helplessly.  Mae Myrtle Clark loomed in my imagination.  All it would have taken to end up like her was one little slip.  I kept my eyes glued to the dotted line in the road, that was only intermittently—and just barely—visible.


        A woman was sprawled on a bed inside, wearing nothing but a slip. I thought for a second—that can’t be Mary Clower. But it was, and she was smoking, taking long drags from a cigarette then sweeping it above her head, like she thought she was a ballerina. When the ashes fell on her she didn’t seem to notice. A bottle of whiskey stood on a table nearby, next to a radio blaring hillbilly music. Mary sang along in a boozy voice, which rose every so often to such a screech she stopped and looked around, as if that horrible noise couldn’t possibly have come from her. There was no danger of her seeing us. The window was too filthy. I stared into the room scarcely breathing. It was a sty; clothes hanging out of dresser drawers, more strewn on the floor, a dark blue chair next to the bed missing one leg and sprouting stuffing like cauliflowers from its seat. The bed sagged in the middle, cradling Mary like a hot dog in a bun. A paint-by-number landscape hung lopsided on one wall, high and lonely on dirty wallpaper, as if left there by a flood. “Religious, huh?” Jory snickered. Mary hiccupped and scratched herself. She groped around the bedclothes and found a statuette of Jesus. She began rubbing it on her thigh, as if to clean it, sanctify it, then brought it to her face. “You’re my Jesus, aren’t you?” she said, trying to focus her eyes. “My baby Jesus.” She hiccupped again. “Damn,” said Jory. The sight was so horrible I felt drenched in filth, as if her disgrace somehow encompassed the whole neighborhood. She would have fit in fine on the street where Jory lived, home to honest to God kooks like Mr. Livermore, who went crazy one day in the Red Rooster and punctured all the lampshades they had for sale with a ball-point pen. For years he had been content to make little woven purses which he sold to travelers at the Stella Court, then something snapped. Mrs. Aldebob was another one, who, it was discovered, had begun saving all her shit and piss in little jars—suddenly it was no mystery why she was always seen scouring garbage cans for them, baby-food jars especially. When they finally took her away they burned her house down rather than bother to clean it up. It was little more than a shack anyway. Why couldn’t Mary Clower have lived over there, instead of next door to us? The picture she presented there was not the one she gave the world, which I’d seen enough of myself, when I’d pass by and she’d harangue me about the Devil, when she always wore a clean dress and stood with her arms folded like they’d been nailed to her. A sort of hypnosis fell over me. Mary had her arm up in the air again, and she was looking at it with puzzlement, as if it belonged to someone else. I wondered what she was thinking. Was she trying to remember how she ended up like that, a lonely old slob nobody cared about, and did she realize she’d probably die like that, in not too many years, because it was too late to do anything about it? I looked over at Jory. He was watching her like something on TV. “Ain’t she a mess,” he giggled.


        We went north, first along Central Avenue then turning whenever the mood struck me, past dazzling displays of neon, billboards, flashing signs—at one car dealership ten thousand little pointed flags fluttered in the breeze, along with strings of bulbs that flashed on and off in a frenzied running pattern, all leading the eye to the center of the lot, where a man in a baggy suit stood smoking beside a tiny shack with a comically pointed roof.  At intersections there was a confusion of wires and cables overhead, with stoplights dangling above the traffic.  No such things in Royalty; no stop lights although there were stop signs, only three feet high, I suppose to save money on the wooden posts that held them up.  In Phoenix I discovered that real stop signs were attached to metal poles that had been sunk in concrete, and stood at least six feet off the ground.  Dumb old Royalty, I thought, cheap as dirt.  Stores competed for attention with signs of different shapes and colors—some with bulbs inside that alternated white and yellow, other signs in the shape of arrows, circles, triangles, bowties; some merely displaying pictures of the product or service to be found within, such as a big shoe, a comb and scissors, the silhouettes of Arthur and Kathryn Murray.  We passed a high school where a football game was going on, on a field lit up with banks of lights on towering poles.  Cheers rose and fell as we passed, a PA system announcing, in incomprehensible, echoing tones what was taking place on the field.  We passed a miniature golf course, a go-kart track, a cemetery full of tall dark trees among which stood monuments in tidy rows, everything neat and orderly, the grass tended, not at all like the graveyard in Royalty, which was haphazardly laid out and devoid of greenery, what stones there were tilting and lopsided, a place never, as far as I knew, visited except to add another grave.  I found the corner of 24th and Van Buren, where the State Hospital stood, the place that couldn’t manage to keep Winnie Ruth Judd under lock and key—even I, in my far corner of the world, had heard of her.  The facility turned out to be unremarkable; whitewashed walls, subdued landscaping, discrete perimeter fence, nothing like the Gothic horror I had always imagined whenever I heard “24th and Van Buren” hurled as an insult, or a threat.  There were even a few cozy lights on here and there.  We went over the Salt River on a long concrete bridge, the tires of the car slapping against the spacers in the roadbed, with streetlamps glowing a garish blue overhead, the river dark and silent below, with no water in it except a tiny, ghostly ribbon of an even darker shade.  The light from the dashboard was like a pleasant fire, and it was almost like we were in some comfortable room watching TV.  Jory must have had the same feeling, and every so often we’d turn and look at each other at the same instant, then we’d both laugh at the utter weirdness of it.

        At a stoplight two guys pulled up beside us in a red Corvette.  The passenger rolled his window down, and I rolled mine down too, thinking he was going to say something friendly, but instead he said, in a corny accent, “Where you-all from—Oklahoma?”  The driver leaned over and laughed, and when the light changed he sped off with a roaring squeal, the car fishtailing grandly into our lane.  My car had betrayed us—it had Royalty written all over it.

        I looked at Jory.  “Big deal,” he said.  “His Daddy probably bought him that car,” as if that were any consolation.

        I stopped at a burger place at a busy intersection.  I parked the car far down the parking lot, so as not to be associated with it when we got inside, but we still managed to come off like yokels at the cash register, fumbling with our money, counting it out in piles.  Most of it would have to be saved for gas for the trip home.  All we could afford was a root beer float and a cheeseburger, which was as flat as if it had been kept in someone’s pocket before being flung to us.

        “Want me to cut it in half so you can share?” said the boy at the counter, with a sneer.  The cook behind him laughed.

        We went outside to sit on a concrete wall.  Traffic whizzed through the intersection, and every time the light changed one last car had to squeeze through on the red, as horns erupted from the cars going the other way.  A breeze started up and the wrappers from our cheeseburger blew around the lot, and a guy from the diner came out and chased us off.

        “What the hell do you think this is?” he hollered.  “A campground?”  We didn’t think for a second to argue with him.

        I drove back towards the center of town, so I could get my bearings when it was time to leave.  We came to a rundown area where a string of derelict taverns stood with neon signs in their darkened windows—Lucky Lager, Burgermeister, Hamm’s the Beer Refreshing.  Non-descript men loitered or tottered on the sidewalk, their shirttails half out, fumbling with cigarettes or keys, or arguing boozily with women with huge nests of hair who languished against the sides of cars or stood propped against a wall, one leg up, their thighs packed like sausages into their stockings, which gave off a lurid sheen from the glowing neon.  At one corner an Indian woman on a bus bench was arguing with herself.  Her legs were black and swollen, like stovepipes, and her hair, in one fat braid, hung over her shoulder like a greasy snake.  When she saw us she gave us a look so dark and accusatory, almost prehistoric, that Jory shrank away from the door.

        “L—et’s get out of here,” he said.


       *  *  *


        We folded the seat down and stretched out in back, the blanket from the front seat covering us. I wondered what Delilah was thinking. It had to be after midnight, and I could picture her making worried trips around our dark house, like the ghost in a novel, carrying a light and muttering. But I fell asleep almost immediately and woke sometime later to find Jory curled behind me with his arm around my waist, and the strangest mixture of fright and joy rose in me like a cloud of steam. Everywhere he touched me was on fire, like he was stinging me through my clothes, and I was trembling convulsively. I knew I was going to cream, but I just let myself be rushed along, like a log in a river. Then into this golden moment came Jory’s voice.
     “What’s wrong?” he said. “Why are you jerking like that?”
     It was like a bomb going off in a china shop.
     I wrenched myself out of Jory’s grasp. I had to pretend to be outraged. “What are you doing?” I screamed, my voice as shrill as a factory whistle. “Get off me! Get off!!”
     Jory raised his head. I could see it silhouetted faintly against the sky; the wild hair, the jug ears, the neck as thick as a thigh.
     “Aw, for shit’s sake,” he said. “It’s cold out here—nobody’s gonna see.” He rolled over and lay down the other way.
     I sank onto my back, my heart thundering. Sparks flew in the air, my head was filled with roaring, and it felt like I was pitching around on a rolling deck. It was impossible to think. But a moment later Jory was asleep again, and my senses miraculously returned, along with a scrap of pleasure, that flitted just out of reach, like it had come back merely to tantalize me. When Jory let out a sigh I felt an ache so tender I almost cried. I knew precisely what had happened. There wasn’t the faintest doubt in my mind—I was in love with Jory Jimshaw, the guy who, in the eyes of the world, had nothing going for him, in the exact same fashion I had nothing going for me. It had no particular use for either of us. Jory Jimshaw. Even the name was like the jangling of a fire bell.
     I got out of the car and looked around. My boots crunched on the road in the empty night air. The stars were brilliant and unwinking, and hung in the sky like pearls, and I began to feel horribly small and alone in that vast desert place. I crept back into the car and lay down so close to Jory I could smell his hair, and when I fell asleep I had a dream in which someone was chasing me, claiming he had something to give me, but I was frightened and ran away. 


        I slept about four hours, then after lunch Delilah offered to drive me out to get my car.  My father had come home from his office to get something, and as we were leaving he stood out on the porch, patting his pockets, his hat sitting crookedly on his head, like it always did, and I felt such a surge of antagonism I made a small, involuntary snort of disgust.  Delilah took me to the gas station to get a fan belt, and the attendant showed me how to put it on, and lent me the necessary tools.  When we got on the highway we were silent for several miles.  I looked out the window at the desert flying by.  It looked so different during the light of day, not mysterious and alluring as it had the night before, but flat and dull, exhausted, like a ruined city of vast proportions. 


        Christmas dinner was just like always.  Marie ate in stony silence, Delilah smiled at me, my father gobbled down his food.  But for all the lack of cheer at our house others had it worse.  I pictured what Christmas dinner must have been like at the Staley household—Lilyann and her mother staring at each other in an overheated room, across a plate of dried-up chicken and mashed potatoes that had been whipped together from a box.  The blinds would be drawn, the Christmas tree tilting over, the room echoing with the sound of smacking lips.


        When one of the window booths became available we moved over to occupy it.  “I bet that dumb bitch won’t be able to find us,” said Jory, referring to the waitress.  I had a view of the outside awning over the front door, and as I ate I watched a dove bringing twigs and bits of string into the awning that it tried, not very successfully, to shape into a nest.  The owner of the Lucky Strike, who had gone out to sweep the porch, spied the nest and destroyed it with his broom, while the bird stood watching not far off on, then began to pace in an agitated circle.  I pointed it out to Jory, who merely grunted.  “You gonna eat all those fries?” he said.

        He told me Jeannette was visiting her grandmother.  “She couldn’t get out of it.  They have to keep kissing the old cow’s ass so she don’t cut them out of the will.”  He was playing with the salt shaker, trying to see how fast he could spin it without it flying off the table.  I had my mouth full of food, but managed to grunt, which Jory somehow took the wrong way. 

        “What’s that supposed to mean?”

        “What’s what supposed to mean?” I said after I had swallowed.

        “That ‘hmph’, or whatever it was you said.”

        “It was nothing.”  I felt my face get red.  Something must have slipped out, a subconscious message Jory had picked up, an inkling of what I really felt about Jeannette. Jory continued to look at me suspiciously.  I looked off into the parking lot and chewed my food.  Why did Jory have to mention that girl anyway, when I’d managed to go a couple hours now without thinking about her?  He leaned across the table and spoke in a low voice.  “She talks about getting married all the time,” he said.  “Like thats something I want to rush right out and do.”  He leaned back and began playing with his fork.  “You think she’s pretty?” he asked.

        “Sure,” I said, although I supposed I could have sounded more convincing.  “Of course,” I added.  “She’s real pretty.  Everybody thinks so.”

        Jory started with the suspicion again.  “What do you mean ‘everybody’?” he asked. 

        “You know, everyone at school.”  I could feel anger swimming in my eyes, which must have been blood red and glaring.

        “You mean people talk about her in school?”  Now Jory was angry too.

        “What’s the big deal?” I said.  “I’ve overheard people say she was pretty.  So what?”  I felt a rush of fury that was unstoppable, like a boiler explosion, yet in the midst of it an eerie calm appeared, like the eye in a hurricane, so that I could speak to Jory without raising my voice, in the sort of bland tones I might have used to describe the scenery.

        “All right,” I said.  “You want to know the truth?  I never heard anyone say a word about Jeannette.  Not one word, not that she was pretty, or ugly, or stupid or anything.  I just said that because I thought you’d want to hear it.”  I placed my napkin on the table.  “Now, are you happy?  Nobody gives a shit about Jeannette, Jory.  Nobody thinks about her at all.”  I looked around and everyone was still glancing at our table, although none of them could have had any idea of what was going on.  Jory was so mad I thought he might hit me, and I was all ready to hit him right back, and when he slammed his fist on the table I jumped, and everyone else did too. 

        I got up, bumping the table as I did.  “You going to drive me home?” I asked, but Jory just sat there working the muscles of his jaw.  I made my way to the door, a path clearing itself magically in front of me, waitresses retreating, people scooting their chairs aside.  I heard Jory following behind, saying “Excuse me,” of all things.   But when I got outside I began to tremble.  Maybe it was the fresh air, but all of a sudden I was so weak I could only barely climb into Jory’s truck.  I tried to slam the door but caught my foot in it instead, which hurt like hell, but I could hardly cry out, or even mention it, so all the way home I stared out the windshield, without stirring, as my throbbing foot made my eyes fill with tears.  Neither of us said a word.  The sun, on its lazy way down, bathed my face without warming it.

        After he dropped me off Jory spun his tires in the dirt, and a stone flew up and struck my cheek.  Delilah came out onto the porch.  “Where in the world have you been?” she asked.  “I’ve been worried sick.”

        “It was Jory‚” I said.  “He bought a truck, and wanted me to go with him.”  I saw a slit open and close in the living room curtains.  That had to have been Marie.

        “So you just went off without a word‚ and left everything undone.  Look at this mess‚” Delilah said, sweeping her arm around the yard, like everything decrepit and starved-looking in it was my fault.  “And look at you.”

        “What’s wrong with me?” I asked, although I figured I could have come up with a thing or two.  Delilah tossed her hands and went inside.  I climbed onto the porch, so I could check my reflection in the picture window‚ to see if the rock that struck me had done any harm, and was surprised and annoyed to see a hayseed looking back at me‚ the kind of dope who thought it was O.K. to wear a cowboy hat and tuck his jeans inside his boots.  I whipped my hat off like it was on fire.  I thought I saw everything clearly now—why would someone who’d come from Grand Rapids, Michigan want anything to do with such a jerk?

        I gave one of the roof posts a savage kick.  The entire front of the house shuddered, and a moment later Delilah poked her head out the front door and asked “What’s going on out here?”


        She paused a minute before saying, “Dinner will be served without you, as a punishment.”  She was trying to sound stern.

        “Fine.”  I didn’t tell her I’d already eaten.  Delilah slammed the door, and after staring into space a while I climbed down off the porch to complete my chore.  As darkness settled over town I put the tools away and gathered the remains of the wisteria‚ its tender parts now limp and squashed in death, and dragged them far down the hill and threw them into a ravine.


        After dinner I went straight back over to the Baptist church.  The gnawing sensation returned, and to deflect it I paused and regarded the church building, wondering what was going on inside, what the priest, or minister, or whatever Baptists called him, was engaged in; praying, wrestling with his conscience, counting the money from the Poor Box.  I struck me as amazing that anyone would choose that life as a career.  My only entanglement with religion had happened years before, when I was in the second grade.  I found a Sunday-school book one day lying in the street, the track of a car tire across its open pages, which were torn and had bits of gravel embedded in them.  But the book was magical, illustrated with luminous paintings—the story of the Guardian Angel.  At one point she stands majestically, although invisibly, shielding a child from the edge of a cliff.  I was so moved I cried, and prayed to Jesus that night to appear to me dressed like that Guardian Angel.  If he could not save my soul at least he might do something about the way I talked.  The next morning I took the book out onto the screen porch, where I secretly read it over and over, until the story palled on me, then foolishly left the book behind for Delilah to find.

        “What in the world is this?” she asked of no one in particular, as she brought it into the kitchen, holding it like a dead mouse.  She dumped it unceremoniously in the trash and went about fixing lunch.   

        That afternoon I saw a couple of boys gleefully killing sparrows with a BB gun.  I could have run and told someone, or even shouted at them to stop, but I just stood there watching, as the death of each tiny bird caused a tender stabbing sensation in my heart, that I was mortified to discover was not altogether unpleasant.  That was the beginning and the end of my career in godliness.  I returned, and saw under the sun that I was just as wayward and susceptible to depravity as anyone else.

       *  *  *

        My heart was pounding in my ears. Now what was I supposed to do? A fire was out of the question. Might as well call all the town busybodies on the phone. I’d just have to stuff the sweater in the garbage and hope no one went poking around in our cans. They were out by the street, since I hadn’t brought them if from a week ago, and I tiptoed down our driveway and slipped the lid off one. After a last look at the sweater, whose pearls glinted sorrowfully in the starlight, like they really were eyes and they were filled with tears, I shoved it deep inside. I clamped the lid back on and put a brick on it.


        I found a place on the hill behind our house where I could be alone.  A flat stone sat between two others, like a kind of throne, and from it I could look out over Royalty and think.  Sometimes I’d just sit there and feel my heart beating, although it was sometimes hard to detect unless I put my hand directly on my chest.

        One evening Delilah came out to talk to me.  She had to have been watching me from inside, a thought which cast a cloud over me.  Her white apron, independent of her figure, which I couldn’t see, bobbed up the hill like a surrender flag.  The last light was still glimmering in the sky.

        “Whew!” she said when she got up to me.  “That’s quite a climb for such an old lady.  Mind if I sit down?”

        “Suit yourself.” 

        She positioned herself on one of the arms of my throne, then sat for a long time running her fingers through her hair.  “You know what I’m going to do this summer?” she said.  “I’m going to plant a garden.  No sense spending good money at the market for vegetables I can grow here.” 

        “Did you come all the way up here just to tell me that?”

        “Well, no,” said Delilah.  She had removed the bobby pins from her hair and put them between her teeth, and now she was selecting them one at a time to pin her hair back up on her head.  “Can’t I drop in on an old pal if I want to?”

        I shrugged, and after a long moment had passed she touched my arm.

        “What’s been going on with you lately?” she asked.  I concentrated on something in the distance, a yellow light that sparkled among some trees, before answering her.

        “Nothing’s wrong,” I said.  “Not really.”

        Delilah began fiddling with her apron, stretching each pleat and pressing it into place. 

        “Is it something to do with Jory? How come he doesn’t come around any more?  Used to be he was here day and night.  Did you two have a fight?”

        I felt my throat tighten.  “No,” I said.

        Delilah lowered her voice.  “Are you in trouble with some girl?”

        The question was so unexpected and bizarre I laughed.  “No,” I said.  “I promise, I swear to you it’s not some girl.”

        Delilah could grill me all she wanted.  She didn’t know what she was getting into.  She probably thought I was suffering from some common but dopey teenage problem, like how come I’m not as popular as so-and-so in school?  Delilah had brought Jory into the conversation.  Was she ready to hear that I was love with him?  No.  She’d jump like I’d tossed a frog at her.  Or else she’d take my hand and feel my forehead like I was sick, then suggest a doctor she’d heard about, or remember a clipping from the Reader’s Digest she had tucked away somewhere.  She’d probably hike down and get it.

        And then I wanted to cry.  I wanted to so badly I had to stand up and look out over town.  It hurt so much standing there with my back to Delilah—why couldn’t I just tell her what was going on?  In the distance I could see the traffic on the highway, like a thread of fire through the landscape, and then I noticed bats in the sky, like heralds from the underworld, and I took it as a sign.  There was nothing Delilah could do to help me.  My problems were my problems.  I was too old to be running to her with my skinned knees.

        “It’s just—things,” I said.  “You know.”

        Delilah smoothed her apron again.  “You can talk to me anytime you want to,” she said, without much conviction it seemed to me, but then that perception might be just my imagination, or the gloom I felt tainting everything, poisoning it.

        I nodded. 

        After several minutes Delilah got up and made her crooked way down the hill.  I settled back and looked up into the sky, which was now completely full of stars.


        When we got back to our house Jewel was in a bad mood.  She had turned a chair around to face the window and was gazing outside, with her nose slightly up in the air.  When Hilton asked her what was wrong she sniffed “Nothing” then folded her arms tighter.  Jewel had a paper-thin smile she gave to everybody except Hilton.  With him she was all hard business.  She seemed to think she had him on a leash.  Hilton saw it another way.  Later, when he and I had gone out to bring some things in from his car, he said slyly, referring to Jewel, “Some day that broad is going to find herself out in the street on her fancy red ass.”  I couldn’t imagine what that meant exactly, but I got his drift.  Back inside Jewel was fixing her lipstick in a pocket mirror, and Hilton looked over at me and winked.


        Jory and Jeannette were in the back of the truck.  He was on top of her, and her legs were clamped around his back, above his naked ass, which was pumping up and down.  A pair of red shorts—hers—lay where they had flung out on the rocks.  The grunting came from him, and delicate sounds from her; each time he shoved she cried out like a little bird.  The tinkling noise was his belt buckle jingling against the truckbed; he hadn’t even bothered to take his pants all the way down.  They were bunched up around his thighs.  For a moment I stood there frozen.  It seemed as if all capacity for sensation had been stripped away, blown off the way a bomb might clear away a fog, and in a trembling daze I thought of one last indignity to commit.  I undid my pants and jerked off into the weeds, an act as devoid of pleasure as a passage in a religious book.  Then I ran off through the desert, blinded by tears.  I didn’t care what kind of noise I made.  Maybe they would think it was a jackrabbit, or a wild pig, or coyote.  I could scarcely see where I was going, and ran into a jumping cactus, part of which broke off and drove its thorns deep in my thigh.  I had to use an old saguaro rib to pry it off, and then once more I was off on a mad dash, although now with the purpose of finding my way back to the river.  I reached it at a place where a large flat rock had been tipped into the wash, and as I slid down it I heard my pants rip. 

        The stones in the riverbed were like marbles under my feet.  I kept stumbling to my knees, but I just got up and ran off again.  All I could think about was getting out of there.  Sooner or later those two would come back down the river, and I didn’t want them catching me.  Jory might be just smart enough to figure out I’d been watching him, and that thought drove me like a lash.  The slog was nightmare.  First the stones and then sand sucked at my feet, and around every bend I hoped to see something familiar, but the twists of the river went on and on.  The sun raced toward the horizon.  I’d have to get back to Royalty before it set—I’d never find my way in the dark.  I’d trip over something and break my leg, and then some prowling animal would make a meal of me.  It was no joke—someone had killed a mountain lion somewhere out there not long before.

        I’d left my water jug back where I’d eaten lunch.  It was still sitting on that ledge with my backpack, where they’d probably remain for the next thousand years.  When I got thirsty I stooped down to drink from the river, although I never managed to find a place where the water wasn’t muddy.  Each time I stopped I’d hold my breath to listen for Jory’s truck, so I’d have a chance to hide in case they came back through.

        The sun was just skirting the horizon when I came to the pool where I’d earlier seen those fish.  That seemed to have happened weeks ago.  But at least now I wasn’t too far from Royalty, and I pushed myself even harder.  I was gasping as I ran.  It was deep twilight when I saw the first thing I recognized, the water well on the south end of town, humming contentedly, slavishly drawing water up from deep underground, that had probably fallen as rain during the last Ice Age; water that I would be pissing into in our bathroom as soon as I got home.


        On the screen the bad guys were on one last spree.  Good.  That meant the movie would be over before long.  I looked over at Lilyann.  She was frozen in her seat, not even watching the screen, alert, petrified over what I might do next.  She’d stopped all her noises too.  The second the movie was over I started the car up.  The speaker was on Lilyann’s side.  “Let’s just drive away and rip it off,” I said with a laugh.

        “Oh no!” said Lilyann, like she really expected me to do that.  She had to lean out of the car to put the speaker back on the stand, and when she did I couldn’t resist jerking the car so she lost her balance and almost fell out. 

        “Sorry!” I said, the complete pig.  It was all I could do to keep from laughing out loud at how she looked.

        On the way out I honked my horn at the cars in front of us, and the people in them turned around to see who the madman was.

        “Get moving!” I yelled out the window.  Lilyann sat staring straight ahead.

        Once we reached the street I roared off.  We must have been going sixty miles an hour.  I screamed around corners, trying to get the car up on two wheels, and Lilyann held onto the armrest for dear life.  There was a look of panic in her face, and each new cringe gave me a delicious satisfaction.  I rolled the window down, I started laughing.  I wanted her to think I’d gone insane.  Nothing like a little craziness to kill the fires in her heart.  But as we raced down the highway I spotted Jory’s truck at the gas station, and I braked and swerved and pulled up at the other island, which was at right angles to the one where Jory was and some distance away, so I could pretend I hadn’t seen him.  Lilyann had to hang onto the armrest again.

        “Come here,” I said, growling between clenched teeth.  “Sit over here beside me.”

        She looked at me bewildered.

        “Get over here!”  Lilyann slid over beside me, her eyes for a split-second flickering closed.  I glanced over to see what Jory was doing.  He was out of the truck, looking over at us.  I put my arms around Lilyann and began kissing her neck.

        “Oh, Lilyann,” I murmured.

        It felt like she was sobbing. 

        I glanced back over at Jory.  He was still looking, although he had turned away, like he didn’t want me to know he was watching in case I looked up.

        I practically crushed Lilyann.  She whimpered and I kissed her hard on the mouth, making sure her lipstick would rub off on me.  I messed her hair up, while peeking over her skull at Jory.  He had turned away.  He was going back to his truck.

        I panicked.  I couldn’t let him get away.  He had to see me with Lilyann.  “Now, get out of the car,” I said.  I clawed at her dress to pull her out, and ripped it.  I must have seemed like some kind of animal.  “First wipe your eyes.”  She hesitated and I grabbed the Kleenex she’d been carrying all evening and did the job myself.  I didn’t have all day.  I glanced quickly at Jory’s truck.  He was standing by the door.  There were only seconds left to make sure he saw.

        I dragged Lilyann out the door after me.  She twisted her ankle and would have fallen over if not for my iron grip.  I grabbed her around the waist and uttered a loud, phony laugh.  “Yeah, that movie was great,” I said.  “So funny!”  Everyone on the block must have heard me.  I steered Lilyann around so Jory could see where I’d ripped her dress.  She kept trying to reach up and hold the fabric back in place.  Her expression was stunned, like she’d been in an accident.  “Wasn’t that movie great?” I said, pinching her skin.

        “Y—yes,” she said, with a little flinch.  She even tried to make it sound like she meant it.

        I laughed again, except that it didn’t sound anything like a laugh.  I bent down to kiss Lilyann’s neck, and stole another glance at Jory’s truck.  He was already back inside, and Jeannette was smirking out the window.  My heart froze. 

        Jory drove away.  I let go of Lilyann.  The lights of the gas station were glaring overhead, insects swooping around them.  Trucks sped by on the highway, tires whining against the pavement.

        “Please take me home,” whispered Lilyann.  She tottered away from me; a heel was broken.  The torn part of her dress stuck out like a little flag.  She was sobbing again.

        I drove Lilyann home as if nothing had happened.  At her place I didn’t help her out of the car; I didn’t even pull into their driveway.  In fact when I screeched to a stop I visualized kicking her out into the gravel, like a body dumped from a car in a Mafia movie.  I didn’t look at her, but as she got out she said “Thank you.”  She might as well have kicked me.  As I drove away I reflected that that remark might have been the cruelest act of the entire evening.

        After a long, wild ride out in the desert, during which I wondered if I would ever have the kind of courage necessary to suddenly veer off and crash into one of the giant boulders that lined the road, I stopped at the Lucky Strike.  I noticed Orin Hayter, my friend from so long ago, sitting with some friends in a booth in the corner.  I threw myself in beside them.

        “What’re you all dressed for?” asked Orin slowly.  He looked, as he always did, like he just woke up.

        “I had a date,” I said, and everyone sat up to pay attention.

        “With who?” Orin asked.

        “Aw, nobody,” I said, and turned to look out the window, until I could see, reflected in the glass, that no one was watching me anymore.


        Then there was Lilyann. She would flush scarlet when she passed me in the hall at school, and I could only stand there, remembering how she looked in the kitchen of the trailer where she lived, before the savagery began, when she still had something to look forward to—smoothing that silly dress, the emblem of her trampled heart, that she had no doubt ironed to perfection that day with hope and eagerness. I even saw the dress one night in a dream. It came up out of nowhere and chased me around, swooping and diving like a magpie, on behalf of its tormented owner, who was too nice to go after me herself. She didn’t miss a day of school. She was always there in typing class, every day, working as hard as she could to learn that skill. She was one of those people who somehow go on with their lives no matter how hollow or miserable they become; who can endure no end of sadness and humiliation and still keep on typing away, or making beds or serving food.


        I began taking long, blind walks every night after dinner, my thoughts churning too much for me to pay attention to where I was going, although I managed to navigate the town without ever getting lost.  I thought mostly about Jory.  He’d never be part of my life again, and each time I reminded myself of that my heart sank, like a stone clattering down a well, a sensation that I began to almost look forward to.  He’d acquired a new best friend, Dave Darly, one of the biggest jerks from school.  Dave Darly was loud and obnoxious and was always getting into fights, and I couldn’t understand what Jory saw in him.  Jory wasn’t the kind to pick fights, although I heard of a few he got into courtesy of Dave Darly’s big mouth.  How much fun could that be?  But I started seeing them all the time at the Lucky Strike, where they sat together thick as thieves, laughing and swatting at each other, flipping French fries at the waitress.  Usually they were drunk, or gave the impression they were.  I scarcely recognized Jory.  He always looked a mess, his hair long and uncombed and his T-shirt ripped or dirty.  Everyone stared at them, including me.  I watched them with what I thought was indifference, although afterward my eyes always stung and my heart felt like it was packed in ice.

       *  *  *

        It was a beautiful evening. The sun had been down only a little while. A cloud right over the horizon had turned a brilliant gold, and I wondered how long it would be before I saw another sunset in Royalty. I looked around as I drove through town. I made sure to pass the high school and the drive-in, and the Lucky Strike, where things were slow—a waitress was sitting at the counter with a magazine. I passed the Dairy Queen, with its neon sign fizzling on and off; the gas station, whose lights were so garish they lit up the cemetery across the road; past vacant lots full of telephone poles and trash and tumbleweeds. I gripped the steering wheel so tightly my wrists hurt, and it wasn’t until I was many miles from town and darkness had begun to settle on the landscape that I relaxed my grip. It was a strange sensation being already so far from home, and rushing further away every second, with no thought, at the moment, of ever going back.