I spent every night at the softball field the summer I was thirteen. Around ten p.m., with the last game called, players and fans emptied the dirt paths, splintering bleachers, parking lots, and concession stands of the Ball Mountain Softball Park, found on the edge—if there is an edge—of Loyalty, Arkansas. My brother, his friends, and I trespassed on those deserted spaces in the back of a forest green 1963 Ford pick-up, gate down, cans of Milwaukee's Best swimming in an open cooler. A cocktail of stale beer, souring belches, and freshly cut grass smelled like home to me. Still does.
On one of those evenings, a crisp night with stars and no rain, I sat on the ground next to Hunter Vincent. Hunter was sixteen with blonde hair, broad shoulders, and a formidable nose. He smelled of sweat and grease and too much cologne. Earlier that summer, he'd learned to water ski. He could down a twelve pack in one night, and his front left tooth was chipped from stumbling off his roof. I of course thought he was cute.
While Hunter and I played a game of football using beer bottle caps and our fingers, Margie Taylor asked, "What's the one thing y'all want to do before you die?" With frizzy hair, fleshy stomach, and short legs, Margie had teeth the color of movie-theater popcorn butter.
"You know what you should try to do, Marge?" asked my half-brother Donnie, ten-years my senior, lounging in the back of his truck. That night he was alone, but most nights he brought young drunk girls who wanted to get into his pants. I was only thirteen, but even I knew when someone was trying to get into somebody else's pants. That past spring, in the bushes behind my mama's house, a boy tried to reach down my pants, but I wouldn't let him. I'd been counting the stars while he kissed me, so God'd have to find me another temptation.
Donnie answered his own question: "Screw a man, rather than that boy of yours." Margie's Young-Tommy-Husband still trusted she attended Bible study every night. Sometime that fall, he discovered the truth and kept her at home with their six kids. Our trips to the softball field ended soon after.
"Not the crap y'all think about while talking about pussy rather than getting some. Sorry Becky-Joe." Margie didn't look at me or pause. "I wanna swim in the Mediterranean."
We went around the circle then, and everyone gave an answer. I don't exactly remember who was there or what they said. Someone wanted to be like John Wayne, getting all the girls, being a man. Another one said to buy a new car. Hunter wanted to score the winning touchdown in the state football championship so his father would be proud.
Then Margie turned to me. "What do you want, Sugar?"
I wanted to go with Hunter, have his babies, and make it to deer camp that season. Maybe I wanted to learn to drive before I died. "I just wanna do this." Margie shook her head and looked away.
Then, my Uncle Cody, a whale beached in the back of the pick-up, spoke. He had one of those big booming base voices that vibrated through the body. "I wanna have sex in the Jungle Room."
And even though I didn't know what he meant then, and I'm not really sure I do today, I at least figured it didn't have much to do with Elvis's house or some game room at Graceland.
I got my period that summer. Most of my friends had already started, so the blood didn't alarm me. I knew what it was. I just felt older, like I could stare at Hunter and think about touching him. Or about what it might feel like if he touched me. My hips expanded, and my breasts grew, developing into handfuls of flesh that slid neatly into bras and stared at me from the mirror.
Soaking in my mother's bath, I shaved for the first time. Her razor was yellow and plastic and bits of red rust caked the outer edges of the dull blade, but I pulled it against my skin without soap. Feathery strands tumbled into the tub, leaving short stubble behind. I liked how, the next day, when I wore jeans to Hunter's daddy's farm to check the cattle, the incessant itching reminded me of that first time.
At the end of the summer, I shaved my crotch. And again, rough hair remained.
The first time Hunter and I went fishing, it was hot and humid and Loyalty was at the tail end of a 29-day drought, but recent cloudiness promised thunder and lightning and rain. I started sweating before the first line slipped into the water. I peeled off my tennis shoes and waded in the creek, letting the ripples stroke my legs. I had on cutoffs and a pink T-shirt sticking to my body as the sun beat down on my pigtails tied with red ribbons. Hunter wore tiny, gray shorts, and for a moment, a Van Halen T-shirt, but as the heat rose, his shirt came off. And I was glad I had come.
We stood in the river's mucky edge, our bare feet sinking to the velvety mud, and trees and brush enveloped us. When we grew bored of holding our motionless poles, we dug in the shore, searching for crawdads and worms. Hunter liked baiting my hook, even though I had to fix them behind his back so the worms wouldn't slither away. The single small-mouthed bass I snagged on my pole, I hastily threw back, unnoticed. Better for him to return home bragging about his four perch to my two.
And I do believe it worked. Otherwise, he never would have kissed me that day. It was late in the afternoon, and Hunter dipped into the stream to cool his warming body. He called to me from the shallow, which barely reached his waist. The water swept over my skin, and as I descended, the coldness rushed through my shorts, between my legs. As Hunter watched me glide to him, I submerged myself. The water was clear, with patches of deep, and the current brushed cold over my face, through my hair and against my chest, and when I came up, my nipples showed through my bra and T-shirt. I know because I felt them.
I couldn't think of anything to say, so I started a splash fight. Hunter's hands were larger than mine, so while he quickly turned me into a rain-soaked dog, I left him glistening with lake-water sweat. We laughed until my stomach cramped, and then I was the only one laughing. My giggles slowed to faint peeps erupting each time I exhaled. He cocked his head and looked down at me, and all I could think about were those romance novels I used to steal from mama's bedside table.
"I can't believe there weren't no fish," he said.
"Otherwise, we could've wasted the whole day just fishing." And with that, he kissed me. Unlike that other boy in mama's backyard, he didn't try anything else, and this time, I wasn't searching for stars to count. Afterwards, the water whirled past my legs, and my hips, and my stomach, but I stood still to breathe in the fresh pine, the moss, and humidity. Hunter waded to shore and gathered our equipment, and I blushed when he loaded my stuff into the back of his jeep.
I meant to memorize the swirling stream, and the sun laying low overhead, and the trees leaning over the water, but instead of recalling every detail of the mossy rocks and overgrown shore, I remember the people.
There was a couple, on the right bank, barely in my sight, huddled under a tree, feet dangling into the creek. They were too preoccupied to notice me, but I saw them, together. Thick hair tumbling over her shoulders, eyes looking down and then back into his, her lyrical laugh drifting through the breeze, she burrowed into his arms. And then he stood, laughing, innocent, and huge, and grabbed her, lifting her into the air, and under the setting sun, Margie and Uncle Cody kissed.
The two times I left Loyalty, before leaving for good, I drove out. The first time, I was fifteen, and Donnie and Courtney (the girl of the week who turned out to be more), took me to Graceland in Donnie's aging truck. Courtney and Donnie climbed into the cab, alone. They said they had to talk. But they never spoke, and then Courtney's head disappeared into Donnie's lap. As we sailed down the highway, I curled in the back, letting the wind ruffle my hair. I stuck out my tongue. I understood why dogs like truck beds. It's like flying.
We went, instantly, to Graceland. I recall the music-note front gate and the Pink Cadillac, and I remember the mirrors on the ceilings and the room with the six televisions, and sometimes I relive the moment I spotted Elvis' grave with his misspelled middle name. But, I'll tell you, I can't quite remember the Jungle Room, and I never understood why Uncle Cody wanted to have sex there. It was small. It was green. I know there was a leopard-skin chair, and unless I'm dreaming there was a fountain looking a bit like a waterfall next to a fireplace, but there wasn't a comfortable space in that basement game room of the King for a restless couple. Unless you count the green shag carpet in the center of the room.
On the way home, I begged Donnie to drive me to I-40, over the main bridge to see the riverfront's big glass pyramid, but he refused. He said he had an idea of how to beat the slot machines in Tunica, and besides, The River was only thirty minutes away at home. But, at home hardly anyone goes to The River because it's only for whorehouses and casinos, and I'd heard it was bigger in Memphis, and the city jutted against it and shimmered, and millions of steamboats cruised down the water, and the bridge was immense, twenty lanes, or something, I'd heard. Years later, I discovered there aren't twenty lanes on that bridge, but six, and the city glows like Christmas lights on the Mississippi, and the glass pyramid does exist.
Three years after the softball summer, I was sixteen, and Hunter, spirited and muscular, with calloused hands and browned skinned, escorted me back to those Ball Mountain fields one night. He rolled his open-air 1944 Ford red war jeep from the road, bumping off the gravel, into the woody edges of the fields. Under the moon, hand in hand, we crept from the car.
We did not sit on the bleachers, but settled in the grassy outfield, slightly wet from a summer thunderstorm that had swept through during late afternoon. We were alone, and he kissed me and whispered he needed me, and he promised he loved me, and his lips brushed against my neck, and sweat covered my clothes, and his hands pressed my skin. My skirt raised and his pants unzipped, and I begged him to go on. I wasn't scared. Since it was our first time, my blood mixed in with the grass and the dirt, and as it did, I dreamed of our children and our home and our future in that field.
The following June, my half-brother Donnie married Courtney (the girl of Donnie's dreams who turned out to be a mistake) in the Baptist Church, which is small but held half the population of Loyalty that Sunday and isn't air-conditioned. But the stained glass glistened like a kaleidoscope in the afternoon sunlight, and white roses filled the wooden steeple with perfume. Hunter went with me, and sitting next to him, stroking the blue vein running up the back of his hand, I believed, honestly believed, that we'd be standing at that altar in a year.
The sermon preached of hell and the sanctity of marriage. "Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands." The congregation dripped in the heat of the sweltering summer, and the bride and groom bowed their heads. "For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church." The husband, the preacher conceded, should respect his wife.
Courtney looked pretty in her billowing white lace dress. Donnie smiled often. "If nothing else," he beamed, "I'll have a hot meal every night." Mama cried, but my step-daddy, father to neither Donnie nor I, didn't. Margie was there with her Young-Tommy-Husband and their six kids. But my Uncle Cody never showed.
The second time I left Loyalty, before leaving for good, was in the back seat of a maroon 1968 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme, with Uncle Cody driving and Margie in the passenger seat.
It was summer, and I was eighteen, a week past high school graduation. Sometime about midnight, Hunter tossed me across the room because the air conditioner failed. So before dark became dawn, I walked out, hoping he'd follow. An hour of wandering led me to Margie's empty car parked in front of the local non-denominational church, which would attract transplants if anyone ever moved to Loyalty. Margie's driver's side door was unlocked, so I crawled into the backseat, mumbling a prayer for Hunter to come and find me.
The ignition woke me. It was not Hunter.
Uncle Cody and Margie didn't laugh and smile and kiss. They didn't peer into the shadowed corner behind the driver's seat where I'd made my nest under a quilt I'd found in their picnic basket. They didn't speak as they made their way out of town, but stared forward and held hands. They ignored everything around them, even the child hiding behind them. Their hush startled me into a silence, although escaping Loyalty, especially in the middle of a spat with my harbor, Hunter, was never my intention. We drove until sunrise.
The car stopped, and we had arrived at somewhere. I squeezed shut my eyes, snuggling down further, reassuring myself that the smaller I felt, the less likely they were to notice me.
The doors opened and closed. I held my breath for as long as I could without dying. Nothing. I opened my eyes. Blue sky and a blooming maple tree. No wind. A white van parked in the distance. I poked my nose over the backseat window. I popped up one eye. The parking lot was empty. All was quiet. Then a bird chirped.
This looked like home. There was a green new-model Volvo sedan parked next to our car. Trees like those that drenched our carport with sap in the spring. No people were yet fetching the paper, and the night had not turned cold enough for dew to grow on the grass. There was a mundane one-story square office building that could have been around the bend from my house, only I'd never seen it.
I stole from the car and hid in the surrounding trees. The town's main street, with the Burger Kings and Pizza Huts, was two blocks away. This was a brown brick building with brown-tinted windows covered in vertical blinds. The front door was glass, and I peered in to see a nurse, dressed in white, stationed behind a desk in a sanitary waiting room. Large gray metal letters on the outside of the building read "Women's Care Clinic."
So, from a spot on a tree stump, thirty feet from the car, I waited. I watched the front door, and I watched the grass sway and cars meander past, and I asked a lady bug sneaking up my left ring finger, "Where do you go back to when the road you're on dead ends?"
Uncle Cody exited almost two hours later. Hands in his pockets, his shoulders drooping, he lumbered to his car and flipped the ignition. He sat for a moment. Motionless. I hadn't seen my Uncle Cody sit like that since my Aunt Leanne, who used to play Christmas carols at the piano while Uncle Cody and I sang, died.
A car swished down a neighboring street. Then my Uncle pulled the car to the front door of the clinic, where he left the motor running and disappeared inside. Five breaths passed. Out came Uncle Cody and a nurse wheeling Margie, hands on her stomach, in a wheel chair. They placed the patient into the passenger side seat; she seemed wobbly, disoriented, exhausted. Then Margie laid back her head, and Uncle Cody got in and drove away.
I never considered running after them. Or confessing to my excursion in the backseat. I had a couple of bucks in my pocket, and for the first time, I rode on a public bus in another city and figured out how to find my own way back.
One month later, in the middle of another July drought, Babygirl Rustin was born the daughter of my half-brother Donnie and Courtney (the nice girl from Loyalty who turned out to be a bad wife and an even worse mother).
This time, unlike the wedding, it was Uncle Cody who came, and Margie who never showed. Uncle Cody held the newborn baby, kissed her on the head, swore to her he loved her, and then passed her onto the next glowing cousin in line. When Cody left the room, he looked like, maybe, he was planning to return home, flip on the TV, and think about crying.
Later, Hunter held the baby out at arm's length and asked her why her face "looked so squished up." He laughed and snorted and agreed to have a drink and a cigar with Donnie and the boys. He handed her to me and headed out the door. He didn't even wave goodbye.
Then I held my niece for a few moments. I caressed her silky flesh as the happy family boasted about their beautiful new bride-to-be. Then, I kissed the girl who didn't yet have a name and walked out the door myself, leaving behind the eyes-still-closed babygirl.
That night was going to be my last night in Loyalty. So, I returned to the softball field.
I drove deliberately, expecting to be alone and loiter in the rain and feel the mud between my fingers and contemplate the sky and the trees and breathe. But I wasn't alone, and I never said good-bye. The parking lot and streets were deserted but somehow, Margie was there, alone, in the center of our field, dancing. Her arms were wide, and her face was pointed to the sky, her mouth open, drinking the rain. A flower-print sundress clung to her body, and her long hair was stringy with wet. Feet bare, she spun in circles, and I knew she heard music when she started laughing.
The next morning, I packed two bags of clothes and caught a bus in the center of town. I closed my eyes and pictured that old softball field, with mud running through the grass, down a gully, and into a stream. I counted Hunter and my already-named children, kissed my fingers, and pressed them to the glass as the bus rolled out of town.