Any Given Power
Alissa York’s short fiction collection, Any Given Power, was published by Arbeiter Ring Publishing in 1999. Stories from the collection won the Journey Prize and the Bronwen Wallace Award.
Tonya Podolsky had yellow hair–the kind I wanted–thick as sheaves of wheat, with bangs flipping back from her wide blue eyes. Breasts too. Bigger than any girl in our grade, and Mama said that’s why she stood that way, with her shoulders curled forward like she was cold.
No use having them if you don’t stand straight, Mama told me. You show what God gave you, it’s a gift. I looked down over my lowly beginnings, a couple of fried eggs in my shirt. Oh you’ll get ’em, she said, women in my line have always had shape. She cupped a hand under one of her own then, lifted it and let it fall.
The boys didn’t notice Tonya’s shoulders–they were too busy watching her chest, or her behind in those raggedy cut-offs she wore. My long sweet legs were nothing, not when Tonya looked up at them through her flower-blue eyes. She spoke some kind of language–one I couldn’t even hear–like those high-up whistles that make a dog swivel its ears.
You couldn’t see where she got it. Her whole family was ugly, the mother flat-chested with a twig-line mouth, slacks flapping like laundry on her legs. She took forever to do anything–hanging her head over the dishes, dragging weeds from the dirt, droning over the back fence to the lady next door. Her best friend, Tonya said, like you and me.
The neighbour lady talked high and sweet. Isn’t that the way, she’d say, or wouldn’t you know it, or sometimes even, I declare. She was fat, with friendly hands and clown-red hair wound up on the top of her head. Her man came and went in the night, but we could tell when he was home, his purple rig squashing the couchgrass, dwarfing the rest of the road.
Outside of the vegetable patch, the yard was dust, torn up by the dogs and the chickens and Tonya’s two brothers on their BMX bikes. They played with danger, tailpipes and bottles, jaggedy open-mouth cans. They watched me–time and again I caught the two of them watching, that yellow hair flat to their heads.
Tonya watched Mama. You’re so lucky, she told me, even though other kids felt sorry for me, having no dad. Whenever she came to the apartment, Tonya watched Mama like a hawk. Like a poor kid watches your sandwich in school, no matter if it’s only baloney or jam.
The father was never inside. He was with his animals out back, or out front with his bust-open rowboat, his motorbike bones and the rusted-out corpses of cars. Bent like a man twice his age–grease in his wrinkles and black like a burn on his hands. His beard ran down to a rat-tail point, and when he stooped over an engine or an animal, he tied it up short in a knot.
He’d built on to the back shed. The chicken coop stuck out from its side, plywood and milk crates, car doors and chicken wire and tires. The hens were dirty mop heads, turning up trash in the yard. One cut its foot on an old fuse, and we watched as he crept up to it, so slow and gentle it stood blinking in the dust. It didn’t peck at the bandage– just sat healing in the straw, even laid him a fine brown egg. We watched him reach in under its feathers. It never even let out a sound.
Once, the little brother grabbed my behind. When I whirled on him he just stood there, blue eyes slitty, slipping side to side in his face. The mother saw, but she turned back to her runner beans like she couldn’t care less. Then later, he came running and jumping, and she met him with the back of her hand.
The back shed smelled like zoo. The father kept cockatoos and canaries, and lizards under heat lamps–a yard-long iguana, a chameleon with wandering eyes. The lovebirds had the biggest cage. He laid his cheek to the wire, talking foreign to them, sometimes even singing. They came close, edged one after the other down their long dead branch and leaned out to his music, touching their red beaks to his lips. He forgot we were there. He must’ve. When he finally stood back, the cage left a pattern on his face.
Tonya had a tiny room. No dresser, no bed even, just a mattress on the floor. Everything she had was in boxes, lined up down the gyprock wall. There was a secret at the bottom of her sock box–a tube of lipstick, taken from the neighbour lady’s purse. It twisted out shapely and perfect, a pole of Pagoda Red.
We were being Blondie, me on air guitar and Tonya up front, rewinding her beat-up deck. She had the lipstick on and a loose black tank top with no bra. Her red lips mouthing, Once had a love it was a gas. Soon turned out, had a heart of glass.
There was no lock on the door, no handle even, just a hole where the handle should’ve been. Tonya’d stuffed a sock in there and taped over it, so the boys wouldn’t watch her, down on their knees in the hall.
The boxes we’d wedged up to the door slid forward and spun. Tonya dove for the stop button, smearing her mouth with the heel of her hand. Her mother came on slow, dirty fingers rising up to hook in under Tonya’s jaw.
Where’d you get it?
Tonya blinked like her mother was a bright light.
You answer me Tonya.
I–Paula. It’s Paula’s.
I froze. I was a bad liar–I’d given up trying with Mama. Tonya’s mother turned to me and I nodded, feeling out behind me for the wall.
She pressed her lips to Tonya’s ear. If you’re lying, she said low. Then she let go. Tonya stumbled on the lip of the mattress. She fell back into the blankets and her tank top flipped up, flashing one of her nipples, lonely and fingertip pink.
Get it off. Her mother paused at the door. You look like a five dollar fuck.
Sleeping over, I had to share Tonya’s mattress. She laced her fingers through mine under the blankets and wouldn’t let go. We listened to her brothers through the makeshift wall, making animal sounds in their sheets, calling each other cocksucker and shitlick, until the mother yelled out for them to shut up.
I woke up with my hand empty. Tonya was at the window, moonlight coming white through her nightie, making the top of her head glow cold.
She touched the tip of her finger to the screen.
You could see clean through the scraggy trees, the slanted fence and the flapping sheers. The neighbour lady down on her knees. Her high hair flat under the truck man’s hands, him humping her face like a dog.
The road they lived on wasn’t paved yet. It was gravel at first, but it gave way to dirt where it curled into the country at the edge of town. The Braemar boys called out as we passed. They were older, the youngest of them at least fifteen.
Hey Tonya. Ton – ya. C’mere for a sec. C’mere.
The three of them planted in a row, arms folded on their farmboy chests. Tonya took the ditch like a deer and stood facing them, while I rustled in the milkweed behind.
You wanna see our treehouse?
We built it ourselves.
I didn’t answer. They weren’t asking me, and anyway, my voice had dried out. I’d have to spit to speak, the words blood-brown and crumbly, like the worms in the dust at my feet.
When Tonya spoke it was so sweet, so low the three of them had to lean forward, close in on her to hear what she said. Sure, she said. Sure. I’d love it.
She was first on the ladder, the oldest pushing the others aside, his head tilting to see into the shadows of her shorts. How old’re you anyways? he called up to her behind.
Fourteen, she sang, easing up through the hole in the treehouse floor.
Liar, I tried to call after her. But all that came out of me was a croak.
There were gerbils in the shed, a mass of them tangled in their cage.
You think pets? the father said, kneeling down beside me. Is no pets. Give snake dead gerbil he no think food. No fresh enough for snake.
He kept it in a glass tank. Bigger than any fish tank, but the snake was enormous –it had to fold back on itself in a patterned pile. A boa constrictor. I saw myself in the jungle, saw it dropping on me, winding, like being hugged to death, no air. Then the sound of my ribs snapping. Driving their white ends through my heart.
You feed? he asked me, and behind him, Tonya grinned. She was always behind him, a little to one side, like a soldier. He sprung the latch on the top of the gerbil cage, reached in and grabbed one, closing his black hand tight.
C’mon, said Tonya, it’s easy.
Its head stuck out from his fist. The black eyes met mine and I shook my head silently, no.
He motioned for Tonya to draw back the lid. His arm swung out like a crane, fingers squeezing the gerbil to make it squeak. The snake’s eye snapped open. He spread his hand and the gerbil sprang, rebounding off a scaly coil. Tonya slid the lid back. The seconds stretched out, the boa lowering its eyes to half-mast, the gerbil frantic, running laps with its shoulder to the glass. It happened like the crack of a whip. There was no squeezing–no need with a meal so small–just open and swallow it whole.
We watched it go down, a lump in the snake’s long throat, struggling for a second, then still.
The whirlpool was like cooking in a cannibal pot. It made my head hang sick, but Tonya kept at me until I gave in. There were boys in the big pool. I’d be left with them, in my bathing suit, alone.
Tonya’s breasts rode high in her bikini, blown up under the water’s bubbling skin. Sit over a jet, she mouthed at me, grinning.
A woman hauled herself out–wobbling thighs, clumsy, like a seal on land. We were alone with a man. He was old, somewhere between father and grandfather, his shoulder hair curling up grey. He looked from Tonya to me, then back, the way men did, to her. You girls like the whirlpool? he asked. Like the whirl?
Tonya smiled at him sideways, silent under her trickling hair.
The water was foaming, and maybe he thought I couldn’t see. His arm swimming pink and grey, like a salmon when it’s spawning, rotting and dropping its skin. The hooked-mouth hand eased into the V in her lap, and when I looked up to meet them, Tonya’s perfect blue eyes had gone blank.
He climbed out dripping, trunks dragging on his wide behind.
She was quiet in the showers. Soaping herself all over, rinsing and soaping again.
Mama was cleaning the apartment. She told us to get some fresh air, but there was a fort in the basement, a cave under the foot of the stairs. The carpet was darker there, never walked on before. We traced the pattern with our fingers, black winding through patches of gold.
We could live here, Tonya whispered, and then she hugged me, so hard I could barely breathe. I struggled, not much, but she pushed me away, stood suddenly and split her scalp on the sharp under-edge of a stair.
Blood spread out from her crown, drowning her dense yellow hair.
Mama held Tonya the whole way there, a fresh towel clamped hard, the first one lying red on our floor. Tonya wouldn’t look at me. She cried like she was dying, her face buried in Mama’s green dress.
At the hospital she screamed and scrambled back when the doctor came close, reaching out with his wide-knuckled hand. She held fast to Mama’s arm, so Mama dug for a quarter, and told me what to say.
I let it ring and ring. I could see them–her kneeling in the dirt, the boys wheeling, him bent in his filthy shed. Not one of them answering. Not one of them looking up at the sound.