An extract from Katherine Black’s latest novel, Lufkin, Texas, loosely based on her teenage diaries.
I jerk awake and squint at the clock across the room. It’s 4.18am, still dark outside, but Pops is up, having his first Coors Lite of the day.
‘What?’ Granma shouts from their bedroom. Pops is in the kitchen at the other end of the trailer. Drawers are banging open and shut.
‘Where’s the can opener?’ he hollers back. There’s the sound of glass breaking.
Granma grumbles something I can’t make out before stomping down the narrow hallway. The thin walls and window frames rattle with the movement.
‘Shut up!’ Keisha shouts from the other room.
I’m dozing off again when Granma comes pounding back. She stops outside our bedroom door. ‘Hush up, Fergus,’ she hisses. ‘You’re gonna wake up the girls.’
‘Holy Mary, Mother of God! You just woke us up!’ Keisha hollers.
I turn my face into the pillow and laugh. Through the open door, Keisha gives a snort of laughter too.
‘Lord have mercy,’ she says, as we each roll over and try to go back to sleep.
Outside, the crickets sing.
Hours later, I wake up groggy, heavy-headed and soaked in sweat.
There’s no comforting hum, no breath of coolness. Keisha’s gotten up and turned off the window unit in her room. I’m sleeping in the room next to hers, her door left open at night, so I get some of the cool air too. Otherwise, I’d bake in here.
A bar of sunlight falls through a gap in the curtains and across my legs. Twitching the crack shut only shifts the beam to my face. I hiss and retreat like a vampire. The curtains are thin, frilly things Granma made from some leftover fabric. They don’t really fit the windows and they don’t keep out the light. They’re just there to look pretty.
Story of my life.
I sit up, pulling my sticky top away from my back. God, I hate being sweaty. There’s a tender pink stripe across my thighs where the sunlight landed.
Great. I look like I’ve been whipped.
Pulling clothes out of my suitcase, I pray that Pops isn’t in the bathroom. He leaves the door open, and he thinks it’s hilarious.
I peek into the corridor. The TV’s blaring in the living room. The bathroom’s empty, thank God, so I jump in and lock the door, piling my clothes on top of the chest freezer. A freezer in a bathroom is weird, but I guess there’s nowhere else to put it. The trailer is tiny, so it sits in the bathroom right next to the washing machine.
The water is nice and cool, and I start to feel better. I wash my hair, shave my legs and pits, and think about standing there, under the water, all day.
There’s a little mesh bag hanging off the faucet, full of scraps and slivers from old bars of soap. Cream and blue and pink. Granma collects them from her cleaning jobs, so they’re not wasted, then puts them in the bag to scrub herself in the shower. Free soap. But how many dirty hands touched those pieces of soap before they ended up here? My body tingles at the thought.
Maybe I’ll have a quick fiddle.
But there’s no privacy here, even with the door locked. Granma just unlocks it with a coin if she wants in while someone is showering. She comes barreling in with a load of laundry or leftovers for the freezer. ‘Just putting on a load!’ she’ll shout. ‘Just getting some ice cream!’
Dad makes Mom guard the bathroom door when he showers here.
I turn off the water and get out, sweating before I’ve even dried off.
In the living room, Granma’s in her chair shelling peas into the big metal bowl and watching Donahue interview Bette Davis. The peas land with a plink, plink, plink. Their green, earthy scent mixes with the fading smell of bacon from Pops’ breakfast. The window unit hums its sweet, frosty tune.
‘She’s got Bette Davis eyes,’ I say, pointing at the screen.
‘Yeah?’ Granma says, barely listening, her own eyes never leaving the TV, hands never pausing in their work.
Well, Keisha would’ve found it funny.
In the kitchen, Pops is sitting in the chair by the big window at one end of the mobile home. He’s rocking back and forth, mumbling and crooning to himself. Tears and snot run down his face. He doesn’t even notice when I walk in, too deep in Coors country.
Outside, Hoochie is trying to look casual on the steps of the trailer across the way. He’s doing something awkward with a knife and a piece of wood.
Hoochie is a pain in the ass. A couple of years older than me and Keisha, but he follows us around like a puppy. He lives with his mom over there. She’s real sweet, takes Granma to the grocery store once a week and stuff like that.
Lori? Glory? I can never remember her name.
His mom’s OK, but Hoochie’s brown. He says his dad is Cajun. I don’t know exactly what that means, but when Mom or Granma say it, it sounds like a bad thing. Whatever he is, he’s too dark for Pops, so he’s not allowed in the trailer or on the porch. He hangs around outside, waiting for me or Keisha to come out.
My favorite cup, the tall blue one, is on the drying rack. I pick it up and open the fridge.
‘I got that fancy cheese you wanted,’ Granma shouts from the other room. She’s only a few feet away, so there’s no need to shout, but she does it anyway.
In the refrigerator, next to the big five-pound block of government cheese, is a pack of Kraft Cheese Slices. I fill my cup with iced tea (Granma makes the best iced tea) and neck it while standing in front of the open Frigidaire. It’s cold and sweet and perfect.
Nectar of the gods.
Next, I dump a whole tray of ice into the cup, then refill it with tea. This one’s for sipping, not chugging. I grab three slices of the Kraft, then put one back so I don’t use it up too fast. That government cheese is gross.
Donahue is asking Bette Davis about some book her daughter wrote when I sit down on the couch and unwrap the first slice.
‘Where’s Keisha?’ I ask.
Granma makes a growly sound of disapproval deep in her throat before answering. ‘She went off with that boy.’
‘That boy’ is Keisha’s boyfriend, Eric. He’s kind of the reason I’m here.
I realize she’ll probably be gone all day and start getting pissed off, but I’d probably run off too, if Buck was around.
I miss Buck.
I’d call, but it’s long distance and Mom would freak out. Too expensive. I’ve been here almost two weeks now. Does he even know where I am?
Next time Granma uses the bathroom I’ll dial his number, let it ring two times then hang up. That’s the code we use when we can’t call each other. At least he’ll know I’m thinking about him.
That should use up two minutes of the day, maybe five with that freaking rotary phone. It takes forever to dial long distance. Too many damn numbers.
What the hell am I going to do today without Keisha? I tear the flappy slice of cheese into thin strips, eating them one by one.
I’ve already read both books in the trailer: a Nancy Drew I left here years ago, and one called The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side. That one was pretty good, but I don’t want to read it again.
I’ve got my driver’s license, but Pops’ car is an old jalopy that literally stinks. Like, it makes me gag, it smells so bad. It’s a stick shift too, which I can drive, but it’s not as good as an automatic. No bikes here, and everything’s too far away to walk. Besides, it’s a thousand degrees outside. I’d drop dead and shrivel up into a little charcoal briquette before I got anywhere.
When I was little, staying at Granma’s was awesome. Keisha and I would make waterbeds for our Barbies out of sandwich bags and old diaper boxes. Or we’d walk to Aunt Gertie’s house through the woods, barking at each other on the way, so any kidnappers would think we had a big dog with us and leave us alone.
That was when Granma and Pops lived in the trailer park, before Mom and her brothers and sister bought this bit of land in the woods for them and moved the whole mobile home here. This is supposed to be better.
Sighing, I unwrap the second slice of cheese. Maybe I’ll give Hoochie a thrill and let him talk to me. I consider fixing my hair and makeup first, but it’s just Hoochie. I look fine.
‘I’ll check the mailbox,’ I say, shoving the whole slice of cheese into my mouth and peeling my legs off the vinyl couch.
‘Meatloaf,’ Granma says.
I stop halfway to the door. ‘What?’
Granma pulls her eyes away from Donahue and looks at me for the first time. ‘I’m making meatloaf for dinner.’ She turns back to the TV, her hands shelling peas the whole time. Plink, plink, plink.
‘OK,’ I say.
God, Keisha is missing some comedy gold today.
Opening the front door is like having a hundred hair dryers pointed at me. It’s so freaking hot.
‘You’re letting the cold out!’ Granma shouts, so I step outside and shut the door with a bang.
The locusts are playing the soundtrack to a Texas summer.
Hoochie is now nowhere to be seen. What a dick.
I think about going back inside, but I’m here now. Might as well check the mailbox for real. It’s something to do.
The ice shifts in my cup, already melting. I take a sip and set off.
The old trailer park had paved roads with the mobile homes all in neat rows. There were rules that made sure it was always clean. Sure, it was across from the paper mill, so it stank to high heaven when they were pulping wood, but that wasn’t all the time.
Here in the woods, it’s pot-holed dirt tracks, trailers all higgledy-piggledy, crap everywhere. I guess the bonus is that my uncles could build two more rooms on the side of the trailer. That wouldn’t be allowed at the other place.
When we were little, the back door had some rickety metal steps to the ground, which seemed like a long way down. My cousins and I made up a game where we’d take turns riding the door out over the void, thighs painfully balanced on a doorknob on each side. The kids not riding would swing the door back and forth with a rope. You lost if you fell off. We’d time it for eight seconds like bull riders in the rodeo. Keisha always won.
Now the back door opens to carpeted steps to a second living room and a bedroom. That’s where Keisha and I sleep. Technically she got here first, so she gets the bedroom. I’m on a twin bed that’s usually used as a couch in the other room. It’s fine.
I pass the Mexican trailer. God, how many of them live there? Mom says they’re like flies on a turd, too many to count. The yard around their trailer is full of plastic toys and old cars on bricks. An old man sits under a pecan tree, reading a newspaper. He looks up, but I’m careful to not make eye contact. He raises a hand and shouts something I don’t understand. I hurry past, keeping him in my peripheral vision to make sure he doesn’t follow me. He shakes his head and looks down at his paper again.
What’s Keisha doing right now? Probably not avoiding potential rapists, that’s for sure. Maybe she’s at Sonic drinking a cherry lime slushie? Or doing it with Eric?
It’s only about a hundred yards to the mailboxes on the main road, but I’m sweating like a whore in church. Right now, I’d rather have the slushie than the sex.
That’s really why I’m here.
So, this is what happened.
A few months ago, Buck and I went to see Lethal Weapon. Buck loves Mel Gibson. Afterwards, we drove out to the lake to fool around in his truck. He finally wanted to go all the way. I was so surprised and afraid he might change his mind that I said we could do it without protection.
God, it was really good for about two seconds. Then he pulled out and came on my stomach. I didn’t even get to have an orgasm. And it was my first time. I was so pissed off. I was fixing to say something when I noticed the look on Buck’s face and looked down.
He was covered in blood.
I wanted to die. I was so embarrassed.
He drove me straight home and we haven’t done it again since. He won’t even talk about it.
A few days later, Keisha’s family came to see us in Dallas. I told her the whole horrible story. Once she stopped laughing, she said I was lucky I wasn’t pregnant.
I was so focused on the other stuff that I hadn’t even thought about it.
When my period finally came, I was so relieved. I love Buck, but I’m not ready for kids. I wrote to Keisha to tell her that everything was OK, no baby Bucks on the way. I thought that was the end of it.
A couple of weeks ago, Keisha stayed out all night with Eric. Her parents didn’t know where she was, so they started going through her room and reading her letters to see if there was a clue.
They read my letter.
They told Granma.
Granma called Mom.
It was a whole thing.
Mom cried, but said it was my choice. It sucked having the whole freaking family in my business. I know Aunt Trudie was on the phone telling everybody. But Buck and I love each other. We haven’t done anything wrong.
I tried to call him to let him know, but his mom said he was out with friends. Our phone’s on the kitchen wall with a long cord, so I can stretch it into the laundry room and shut the door for some privacy. I really wanted to call Alecia to tell her about it, but I didn’t want to bump into Dad.
I ate dinner in my room.
The next morning, Mom woke me up. She was going through my drawers and closets, shoving clothes into a suitcase. She told me to get up. That I was going to Granma’s for a while, and we’d get breakfast on the way.
I tried to argue. It was the first week of summer. I had plans.
The look on her face shut me up pretty damn quick.
The three-hour drive was agony. We didn’t stop for breakfast. As soon as we got here, Mom basically chucked me out of the car, then turned around and left.
I guess she was more pissed off than I thought.
When Keisha got back from her night with Eric, her parents were so furious about her not coming home that they kicked her out. She rocked up to Granma’s the same day I got here.
So here we are, stuck for God knows how long.
We’re calling it our Summer of Shame.