Rose says she has a plan. She climbs into the front seat of my Honda and adds another detail, another way that she’ll get revenge on The Bastard, her soon to be ex-husband. “My vet friend is saving cat pee so I can dump it on the floors before Bobby and I move out. You can never get rid of that smell.” Bobby is her eleven-year-old. He is an exact replica of his father, The Bastard, but he laughs just like Rose.
“When you moving out?”
“Next month. The Bastard said he’ll send the police if we don’t. He had my Cadillac repossessed yesterday. Bobby and I stripped it clean: floor mats, windshield wipers, speakers, everything. Even took the damn battery. Told him to push it to the street.”
“What about the restraining order?”
“He had to wait in the tow truck. Bobby and I were eating Fruit Loops and laughing our asses off, watching it all through the front window. And then there’s his favorite grandfather clock.”
“What? What did you do?”
“I took sandwich meat and rubbed it all over the edges. The dogs chewed it to pieces.”
I try to change the subject once in awhile, try to distract Rose from her scheming. I mention the cute guy at the front desk at the Y, that I’m hoping he’ll ask for my number. Rose nods.
“His name’s Jamie,” I say, “blue eyes, tall.”
“Mm hmm,” she says, leaning over me to trace a heart in the fog of the driver seat window, not listening.
I’ve known Rose since kindergarten, since our mamas dropped us off in Mrs. Burrow’s class with quarters for our milk. Rose drank the strawberry kind. I was riding shotgun in her pickup the night before our high school graduation when she met The Bastard. He was pumping gas in the lane next to ours; Rose told him his jeans were too tight so he dropped them in front of God and everybody. I didn’t think it was funny. I took her to the hospital the first time he busted her lip. And I stood beside her holding a bunch of daisies when she said yes, she’d be his wife.
“There’s this one thing I may need your help with,” she says.
I shake my head ‘no’ and hold up my hands like a traffic cop trying to stop cars. But I can’t stop Rose. Never could.
“Whatever it is, Rose, I ain’t doing it.”
Rose checks her watch. We’re ten minutes late. Our class at the YMCA is about to start. I won’t have time to flirt with Jamie. I’m not even sure he knows my name.
“I told Bobby not to poop in the house anymore. We’ve been using the RV’s bathroom instead. The tank’s almost full. I’m going to take the dump hose and fill the crawlspace with crap. Nice, huh?”
I stare at Rose. We’re sitting at a red light.
“Nice? No. It’s probably illegal.”
“Illegal? I just need help with the hose, to hold the other end, to get it all in the crawlspace while I operate the tank. I asked Bobby and he said no.” Rose looks out the window and not at me.
“You asked Bobby? To do that?” I keep my voice calm, but Rose has gone too far. When it comes to Bobby, I draw the line.
“Yeah, so? What? He knows his dad’s a jerk. He even calls him The Bastard!”
“But it’s his dad. He’s the jerk that’s still Bobby’s dad.”
“Whose side are you on?” she screams.
I take the corner sharp; she slides over into my lap. I shove her back. I look out the window and wipe off what’s left of Rose’s fog heart.
* * *
Rose doesn’t like to talk about how bad all of this is for Bobby. She insists he’s fine, just fine, but I don’t see it that way. Of course she loves him; I’m not saying she doesn’t. Rose is a good mama, but she spends a lot of her time trying to get even and the rest living in the past. Sometimes I feel like it’s just Bobby and me caught in the middle of a Rose shit sandwich.
“So, what about Bobby?” I ask. We’re at the 7-Eleven on Grand and Magnolia getting limeade slushies. It’s our Saturday night tradition. We sneak the slushies into the dollar show down the block. We’ve been doing this, or some version of it, since we were eight and first figured out how to ride our bikes down to the corner. We thought we’d gotten away with something the first time, but after we raced home and sucked down our slushies in the bushes, we realized no one even cared that we’d left.
“What about Bobby? Hand me some gum, will you?” Rose says.
We’re walking the aisles with our slushies and Rose picks up some hair dye, reads the label. She’s been a bleached blonde since middle school. It suits her and makes her brown eyes wide like a doe’s. Rose in her uniform of tight jeans and clingy mesh layers.
“What’s your plan? With Bobby, I mean.” I hand her a pack of Bubblelicious, the strawberry kind. I look down at my hospital scrubs and wish I’d changed. Last week I chopped off my hair into a pixie cut and Rose was appalled. She said it made me look even heavier. My green eyes save me, though. They’re the one thing that makes Rose jealous.
“Bobby’s is a big boy. It’s up to him. He has to choose and that’s got nothing to do with me.”
“It’s got nothing to do with you? How can you say that?”
“Because it’s true. It’s up to Bobby. I birthed him and raised him. If he wants to go live with The Bastard now, I can’t stop him.” Rose reads the side of the Bubblelicious as if she’s more interested in the ingredients than what I have to say.
“You’ve got to try. At least. You’d just let him go? This ain’t just about you, Rose.” I snatch the gum out of her hand and shove it back on the shelf. It’s a small, petty move, but it’s all I got.
Rose looks from the package to me, crosses her arms over her chest to push her cleavage up even more. “Look, I told Bobby what he should do. Of course I want him with me. But I ain’t going to go over there and drag his butt home, am I? He’d only hate me. He’s old enough to figure this out.”
“He’s eleven! And what if he makes a mistake? What if he chooses Donnie and then finds out what a jerk he is and wants to come home? You gonna hold that against him—”
“—why would I do that? Who do you think you’re talking to? You’re not his mama, you know?”
It stings and Rose knows it. She pays for my slushie and holds the door for me. It’s not enough. The only thing to heal from Rose is time. And space.
“I gotta go. My shift starts in ten.” I open my cell phone to confirm the time.
“I thought you had the night off? Didn’t you pull a double shift yesterday? You probably haven’t even slept.”
I swallow a yawn and blink my eyes wide. I haven’t slept. I don’t have to work tonight either. And I’m not a mama and probably never will be. I can’t keep a man. Even my damn cat keeps running away.
“Come on, don’t be that way,” Rose says. She loops her arm through mine. “You know what I meant. You’ll be a good mama. You just haven’t found the right guy. Kids love you. Bobby’s crazy about you.”
“Later, Rose. Tell Bobby I said hi.” I don’t wait for the light to change. I just step into the crosswalk and hope for the best.
* * *
Rose has always been just like this. Stubborn. Hard-headed. Impossible. The summer after third grade at the Illinois State Fair with a full bag of quarters, she refused to get off the Ferris wheel. Said the ride wasn’t long enough and kept squeezing my knee hard to keep me in the bucket seat with her. “No. The ride’s not done,” she said. “I paid good money and it was too short. That’s a week of paper route coin there. We’re riding again!” The hot metal made my thighs itch, but Rose wouldn’t let me move. “Stay,” she pleaded. I tried to push up the seat bar holding us in. “Stay!” she yelled, like I was a dog.
“No, Rose. I’m getting out. The ride is over.”
“Is there a problem, little ladies?” All carnie workers are slimy, but this one was the worst. He had slicked-back blond hair with stiff comb lines. A cigarette hung in his mouth and bobbed up and down when he talked, like in the movies. He leaned over the seat into Rose’s face and ash fell on her knee. “Ride’s over. Get out, girls.”
“We ain’t moving. You said three minutes. It ain’t been three minutes. We’re going again.”
“Suit yourself,” he said and pushed the lock back into place. “You can ride it all night for all I care. Hope you puke.”
We rode it until the stars came out. I smelled popcorn each time we got close to the ground and thought of sticky pink cotton candy. “I’m going to have a funnel cake,” Rose said. “When the ride is over.” But we kept riding, looking down on the people as they got smaller and smaller and we got farther and farther away. Rose held my hand, her sweaty palm in mine for the whole ride.
* * *
Rose has never had a minute’s patience either. She got her period a whole year before me. She was sitting in Sister Ruth Ann’s science class, sixth grade. Rose didn’t tell her mom or her sister. Just wadded up toilet paper in the bathroom, shoved it in her underwear, and faked a stomachache at recess. We went to the drugstore after school, walked the aisle with the big sign: Feminine Hygiene. We tried not to giggle, our hands clapped over our mouths, pointing at douches and sprays and tampons. Rose grabbed a pink box labeled “Sanitary napkins” and that made me think of a picnic and I squealed like a pig. Rose smacked me on the back of the head, but I couldn’t help it. “They’re for my sister,” she told the cashier. He ignored her. “She’s retarded,” she said, nodding toward me. He raised his eyebrows. “She got her period today.” I stomped on her foot and bolted from the store. Rose held the box to her chest and followed ten steps behind me the whole way home. “You can never take a joke,” she called when I ducked into my house. “That’s what your problem is!”
* * *
My mama always said Rose was bad news. Said she’d break hearts, including mine. But she was wrong. Rose isn’t a good listener. She invites a lot of drama. In fact most days it’s nothing but Rose drama: The Bastard and Bobby, Bobby and The Bastard. But Rose always picks up on the first ring when she knows it’s me. At the end of the day, there’s still Rose, sticking. And that’s more than I can say for my mama.
* * *
Bobby calls me at noon on a Tuesday. When I see his name pop up on my cell phone, my heart starts thumping, thinking something must be wrong. “Don’t even tell me you’re skipping school again, boy.”
“Nope. It’s a half-day. Teacher planning. Can you pick me up?”
“Why aren’t you on the bus?”
“I’ll tell you when you get here. Just come get me, okay? Please, Aunt Char.”
“Does your mama know where you are?”
“She’s in court. With Dad. I called her cell phone, but it must be off. Come on, come get me.”
“I’m already on my way. Keep talking. I’ll be there in a second.” I look down at my clothes and realize I’m still wearing my pajama T-shirt with my jeans. Bobby won’t notice. I worked the red eye at the hospital again, got home about 8 a.m. and fell asleep instantly. I haven’t slept more than four straight hours this whole week and I look it.
“Char?” Bobby says. “Mom didn’t ask you to go to court with her?”
“Nope. She said this one wasn’t a big deal. Paperwork and stuff. Why?”
“Nothing. Just asking.”
“I’m almost there. Meet me out front.”
* * *
As I round the corner to Madison Middle School I see Bobby sitting on the curb of the roundabout with his backpack in his lap. I pull up and he jumps in and crouches down in the seat. He’s wearing a rumpled striped shirt and jeans that are so long they pool around his black high tops. His brown hair falls over one eye and makes him look even younger. He’s thin like Rose and freckles cover his face and arms.
“Hey, partner,” I say. “Where to?”
“Florida. The beaches.” He doesn’t crack a smile. Florida is our dream. Everything must be better in Florida. We make fun of the commercials we see on T.V. advertising the white sands, the frothy drinks with umbrellas, and all those tanned people, but we believe every one of them.
“Really? You got a swimsuit in that back pack?” I ask.
“Yep,” Bobby answers, patting his bag. “Sunscreen, too.”
“Well, alright, then. Let’s go. Sunshine or bust. Anywhere but here, right?”
I take Bobby to the DQ for hot fudge sundaes. It’s been our ritual since he was two and could first hold a spoon and eat the nuts. I taught him how to get the ice cream, the fudge, and the peanuts all in the same bite. It’s the only way to eat a DQ sundae. Bobby has them add caramel now and whipped cream. We take our sundaes and sit on a picnic table in the grass. The bench is sticky from ice cream spills and birds are pecking at leftover cones. In between bites he tells me how much Rose has been crying, how she’s always on the phone with the Bastard screaming. His face is sad and he looks like he might cry, too. It’s one of the things I love about Bobby. He’s always been so sensitive; even as a toddler he’d waddle up and look into my face and announce, “Aunt Char is sad.” I didn’t know boys were ever like that. Bobby’s curious about the world, too. He loves listening to my stories about being a nurse and the patients I take care of. He once told me he wants to be a pilot when he grows up. I squeezed my eyes shut at the thought of Bobby ever flying away from us.
“So, what are you going to do, Bobby? When the judge asks?”
“I don’t know. Tell him the truth, I guess.” Bobby reaches over and steals a peanut out of my cup.
“Which is?” I stop eating and watch him.
“That it don’t matter. It don’t matter who I live with because they’re still going to fight all the time and I’m sick of listening to it.” He kicks at the bench and birds scatter.
“That bad, huh?”
“If I’m with Dad, he yells about Mom and calls her names. If I’m with her, she cries and tells awful stories about him. All she talks about is getting even. The Bastard and all. She’s crazy. You know it. Nobody cares about me.”
“Aw, Bobby. You know that’s not true.” I slide the rest of my sundae over to him. He scoops out a heaping spoon of vanilla. “You know I care.”
“It’s true for them. Do you know some of the stuff she wants me to do to him? She’s nuts.”
“You don’t have to do anything, Bobby. You know that.” I put my hand on his knee but then pull it back. He told me last week not to call out the window when I pick him up at school and not to hold his hand when we’re waiting in line at the movies. I’m trying to remember.
“Yeah, but then she says I don’t love her and cries even more.” Bobby scoots closer on the bench. He leans over and puts his head in my neck. I smell sweat and dirty socks mixed with sugar.
If I could, Bobby and I would just drive away. From all of this. This shit town and this shit situation. We’d just hit the road and go. Florida. The beach. Anywhere but here. And we wouldn’t look back. I’d miss Rose someday. Sometimes being stuck is worse than staying put.
* * *
When I drop Bobby off at Rose’s, she’s standing in the screened door, smoking. Bobby’s asleep on my front seat, his head resting against the window. We sit for too long watching each other, Rose and me, waiting for the other to make a move. Then she walks out to the car and leans against the driver door, facing away from me. I roll down my window. “I need you to testify,” she says, blowing smoke into the night air. Some of the smoke wafts into the car.
“No way. I told you I ain’t getting involved.” I wave my hand to get the smoke out and pretend it bothers me more than it does.
“You’re already involved. You don’t have a choice. You need to say he hit me, that he hit Bobby—” She turns to face me. Her hair is stringy and needs washed. Her face is pale without makeup. I wonder if I look as old and tired as Rose.
“He never hit Bobby,” I say looking up to meet her eyes. She leans over and rests her elbows on the windowsill.
“You never saw him hit me either, but you’ll say you did.”
“I don’t want any of this, Rose. It’s not going to make anything better. You can’t change the past.” She stands up with her hands on her hips and blows more smoke into the air. I know that I can’t stop her from whatever she’s about to do, but I feel like I have to try for Bobby, anyway.
“You’re such chickenshit! I’m not trying to change the past. But I’m not going to spend the rest of my life feeling sorry for myself. I’m going to do something. And that something starts without The Bastard.”
I look at Rose through the window and wonder how we ever got here, how we went from kids to this. It feels so pathetic and small and I thought life would be bigger. Bobby stirs in the seat, opens his eyes and looks up at me. I lean over and smooth the line of hair damp with sweat from his forehead. He looks so innocent.
“Let’s go, Bobby,” Rose says. “Dinner’s ready. Fried chicken. Your favorite, Char. Come on in and eat with us?”
It’s an invitation, a peace offering to put everything back where it was.
“I’m not testifying, Rose. You’re on your own.”
Rose leans into the car and grabs my hand. Her grip is tight and her hand is hot. Bones and knuckles and flesh squeeze and hold mine. I shake my head at Rose. “No,” I say.
Rose waits with tears hanging heavy on her bottom lids. They are about to spill. “Please, Char,” she says, “for him.”
Bobby closes the passenger door, stands on the sidewalk kicking a rock, and gives me a little salute.
“Let go,” I say. Rose moves her hands to my face and makes me look at her.
“Please,” she whispers.
I can see my reflection in her eyes. I pull her hands off and squeeze back before I release them. I wave at Bobby and watch him in the rearview mirror until he disappears.
Melissa Scholes Young was born and raised in Hannibal, Missouri, Mark Twain’s beloved hometown, and she writes now from Washington, D.C. where she teaches at American University. Her work has appeared in Tampa Review, New Madrid, Cold Mountain Review, Word Riot, and other literary journals. She is also a contributor to Fiction Writers Review and has been nominated twice for Pushcart Prizes. You can read more about her at http://www.melissasyoung.com.