I.O.U.

(This piece became part of a larger story, “All the String in Cincinnati,” part of my Winton Place collection. It began with a picture from Time Magazine. A girl, maybe nine or ten, was standing inside one of those shallow plastic pools. The image was in black and white, and the girl did not look happy. She’s narrating here. But it wasn’t until after I had finished writing it that I realized she never once  inserts herself into the story: she never says “I” or “me.”)

The boys, they all liked Missy. Tommy, Buck, Little Joe, they were always sneakin’ peaks across the yard, teasin’ her, and trying to kiss her and touch her.

But she wouldn’t let ’em. Missy’d trot in front of those boys and their goggling eyes, with her belly button showing like she hot stuff or something, and she don’t even give ’em a second look. Or sometimes she’d tease ’em, steal their baseball mitt or something else to make them run after her, until she so out of breath she can’t hardly breathe and just give back whatever she stole.

“Fine, take it! I don’t want your nasty old tee-shirt anyways!” she’d holler. Missy sounded mad, but she had this half-smile on her face that left the boys crazy.

“That girl is Hell in a handbag,” Mama would always say about Missy. “Too damn pretty for her own good. Good thing you ain’t like that, Chubs.”

Missy was wearing one of the boys’ tee shirts the first time she ran away. It was black, came down almost to her knees, and had a picture of the Rock on it. When she came home the next evening, she was still wearing that shirt. It smelled like rotten tuna. Turns out Missy spent the night behind Arnie’s Grocers, where all the stray cats come for tossed food.

She just sauntered into the living room where Mama was watching Wheel of Fortune, and pretended like nothing had happened, like she ain’t even leave last night and scare Mama half to death.

But Mama didn’t say anything either, not about that. “Hey Missy, can you solve the puzzle?”

Missy ignored her and disappeared for the rest of the night.

“You’d never ignore me like that, would you Chubs?” Mama smiled then turned back to her show. “Hey don’t buy a vowel, it’s The Grand Canyon!

Mama kept watching her show and Missy kept running away.

“I don’t need this place,” Missy’d say. “I don’t need you or Mama or those stupid-ass boys at school.” She probably didn’t leave only because she couldn’t afford to. She was always diggin’ through Mama’s purse, lookin’ for some treasure, but all she found was loose change. “You ain’t got no money, do ya Chubs? Nah, didn’t think so.”

But when Blake and his cheap beer and army jacket started hanging around Missy, the money didn’t matter anymore. “He gonna put me on his motorcycle and take me to California and I ain’t never comin’ back,” she said.

And then she was gone.

“You’ll never leave me, will you Chubs? You ain’t nothing like your sister. You ain’t need to get away from me.” Mama’s smile disappeared. “Buy a vowel!”

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