Tara wasn’t a bad girl. Doin’ bad things don’t make you bad. If she’d been born in another place, into a proper family, she might’ve been an actress, or maybe a hostess at a fancy restaurant, or even an airline stewardess. She was pretty, her skin light and delicate like the lilies growing in front of rich folks’ homes in summer. Not like me, a big and bony girl. And that pink dress she always wore, with one side always slipping off her shoulder – teachers always telling her to fix her dress and be proper. Though the boys liked seeing that, and she didn’t seem to mind their attention, especially Timmy Burns. They was caught once behind the school – Timmy slipping the flask of Wild Turkey out of his back pocket, and them drinking and smoking, Timmy grabbing her and Tara giggling. Her daddy whupped her good and her momma kept her in the house for two days straight until she couldn’t take the arguing no more and let her go. Tara told me there was nothing between her and Timmy. Just having fun, acting crazy. He was after her, but he was just a boy and she could handle it. He was half-assed drunk most of the time anyway and could hardly see straight. She did admit that once she went farther than she had planned, but she started gagging and choking and almost threw up and that was the end of that. Last time she seen Timmy, though, after the high school graduation dance, again behind the school, she didn’t seem right when she come back in the gym. I didn’t think til then that she could be any paler, but she was. She wouldn’t talk ‘bout it, which was strange, ‘cause she talked to me ‘bout everything else.
Tara and I did almost everything together, starting back in middle school, everything, except when she was hanging out with Timmy and his buddies or going to parties. I wasn’t much for parties and boozing and all that carrying on. Tara would tell me that Timmy or Ryan or Joe was getting a keg ‘cause their parents were out of town and wouldn’t I like to have some fun for a change. Momma thought it would be good for me to get out, but I never had anything to wear – anything that looked good on me, at my size. I was the kind of girl who played volleyball or basketball, if the town had girls’ sports, which ours didn’t, but Tara would sit in my room showing me pages of fashion magazines and chattering on about how all the models were tall like me and how beautiful they were. She would tell me that I wasn’t big, I was statuesque, a word that I’m sure she got from one of them magazine articles. She made me laugh every time she used that word, ‘cause coming from her it was like she was trying to sound like royalty – with a Southern accent. Our town didn’t have no royalty, no foreigners – heck, I reckon most folks in our own state didn’t even know we existed – and not many girls as pretty as Tara, so Tara was our celebrity, our prom queen, the one everyone always expected more of and who managed to get away with disappointing everyone ‘cause we all were sure she would come around eventually.
One day they showed us that movie in school – The Lion King. The movie kept saying something ‘bout “The Circle of Life.” Tara leaned over and whispered to me, Yeah, The Circle-Jerk of Life, and I put my hand to my mouth to prevent the spit spurting out as I stuffed a laugh. Miss Hardack just glared at me as Tara flicked her long, golden hair back and let the ringlets fall around her ears, the way she did when she faked not caring about something.
Later, we were sitting on her front stoop drinking iced tea her momma had made, and Tara said she didn’t get it. The Circle of Life just means you end up in the same place you started. You go to grade school, then high school. Then you work at the hardware store, or a farm, or maybe you get away and go to state college one hour away and come back and teach in the same grade school or high school, where the kids do the same things you did, drinking, smoking, hanging out, talking ‘bout nothing, keeping away from their parents. You marry Timmy, or Ryan or Joe, or maybe, if you’re lucky, Dan – he’s the best of the lot – I caught him looking at you once or twice, Linny. He’s perfect for you, tall, handsome, hard working. Tara’s words were coming fast, but she stopped and looked at me, leaned back and giggled, before continuing on all serious. Then your kids go to the same school end up in the same jobs, and your grandkids after that. And you just end up growing old and dying in the same place you were born. Tara’s hands stopped moving and she gripped them together and just looked at me. We just get stuck, like the muck that builds up at the bottom of a drainpipe, that gets left behind and sticks, with layers and layers of more muck, each settling on top of the one before. I used to think I would leave this place, especially those times when my daddy came home smelling of whiskey and smokes and yelling at my momma and throwing things around the house. I would take my little sister and hold her under the bed and promise her that one day we would be so far out of here that we would forget how to find our way back. But, where would I go? That ain’t gonna happen and I ain’t never leaving. Then Tara just changed the subject and got all excited about the party she was going to that night and how her momma thought she was sleeping over my house, so I better not say nothing if she mentioned it.
Whenever Tara brought up us being stuck and all for life after that, she would add, at least we’ll be stuck together. I told her that I was getting out. A teacher told me that if I worked hard and got my grades up, I could go to the state university, not that rinky-dink teacher’s college in the next town that just recycled the locals and sent them back home. The university, that’s where people learned something that would take them far in life, she had told me. Tara looked upset, and then asked me how I would afford it. My parents had no money. I told her that my grades would get me a scholarship. You’ll see. My daddy was always telling me to be realistic and come down to earth. He said that I would never get into the state university. They don’t take our white trash, he would say and, You gotta be smart. How my daddy knew if I was smart, I wouldn’t know, ‘cause he was never around. Momma was always telling me that he was away working, trying to provide for us, but I wasn’t as stupid as either of them thought. I had heard the stories, about his gambling, about the trouble he was in with men who he owed money to. Some of the boys had used their fake IDs to get into a casino in Romeo and saw him there when he was away “working.”
Fourth of July was always a big deal. We had a parade down Main Street with our one fire engine leading the way followed by a red Ford pick-up with a big “Harry’s Hardware” sign propped up in the bed, then the marching band, football team, cheerleaders, Boy Scouts and church groups, all waving and yelling and throwing candy at the folks lining the street. I maybe went once or twice, but Tara was the Parade Queen, at least every other year – they wanted to give other girls a chance, too – so she got to wear a long dress and a tiara and sit in the back of a flatbed and smile and wave to everyone. The Fourth just before our senior year of high school, I was taking a bath. The house was quiet, only me and momma there, and momma was sitting on the porch after giving up trying to convince me, again, to go to the parade, and losing the argument one more time. You’re gonna grow old alone, and, No wonder you have no friends, and, You have enough strikes against you being so tall and gangly, and, You’ll never get these years back, as another year slipped off into wherever years go when they disappear. I remember filling the tub with hot water, so hot that my skin turned pink as I slowly lowered myself into the tub. I liked the water real hot, as hot as I could get it without burning myself. I think it made me feel surrounded by something and cut off from everything else. I held my breath, closed my eyes and lowered my head under the water, staying as still as I could, counting to see how long I could hold my breath. The warmth surrounded my head and I felt like it was floating above everything, detached from my body, detached from the world and life itself, peaceful-like. After the last of the air I was holding had bubbled out of me, I stayed under for a few more seconds then raised my head above the water. I opened my mouth a little to suck in some air and felt some soft, gentle pressure on my lips. I opened my eyes and there was Tara standing over me in her long dress and tiara, with her lips, cool and dry, on mine. I pushed myself up suddenly – I must’ve scared her – and she stepped back, covered her mouth with her hand, laughed, and left the room. I stayed in the tub awhile, until the water got cool and my skin felt chilly, and then got out and dried myself off. I walked to the porch with the towel around me, careful to put on my flip-flops to avoid the splinters of unpainted wood and the nail heads sticking out that daddy kept promising to fix when he had a minute. Momma was sitting there in her rocker with a big ball of gray yarn in her lap, matching the faded gray of the porch. Momma asked, Did you see Tara? She came by. Looked real pretty. Probably wondering why you didn’t come see her in the parade. I said, She left? and Momma just rocked in her chair and looked out at the road.
The next day in school, Tara looked at me and shrugged, and we never talked about it. I didn’t know how to bring it up. I didn’t know what it meant or what I wanted it to mean. So, we just went on as if life was normal, which it always is, in a way.
I think about that day sometimes, like now, when I have the house to myself – Dan’s at work and the kids are at school – and I can sit at the table and take one of Dan’s Pall Malls out of his jean pocket – he keeps asking me not to smoke in the house, bad for the kids and all that – and, for the most part, I listen, but other days I just double up on air freshener. I do feel bad about it, he works hard and all. After high school, he got a job at Mr. Drysdale’s farm just out of town, mending fences, baling hay, picking peaches, helping with the planting and harvesting. It was hard work, but Dan liked it, and was pretty shaken when, after a year of making that farm look and operate real good, Mr. Drysdale told him that the farm was just too much for him and his family to maintain, and that he was gonna sell it. Mr. Drysdale never got what he wanted for it, certainly not enough to pay for all those hours and years of back breaking work and little sleep, but he got enough to take care of his daddy and keep clothes on his back. Dan ended up working in the Toyota plant about 10 miles away in the valley. He never looked real happy after that, but it was not in his nature to complain. So, I sit here watching the ash from my cigarette fall and break apart, and the smoke float up and disappear, like it was free, except for the smell that lingers that you can’t really get rid of, no matter how much air freshener you cover it up with. I think about Tara and high school and our promise to always be with each other, no matter what.
Tara used to take me on hikes to the abandoned granite quarry just out of town, where a small paved road veers off to the right into the woods, then turns to gravel and finally to dirt. We would put on old sneakers and she would even wear jeans, and we would lift up the chain-link fence that was placed across the path that led to the quarry, now overgrown with grasses and ferns, ignoring the sign that warned us to keep out. We would tramp down the grasses that had tried to fill in the unused path, dodging small puddles where mucky-brown rainwater had gathered. Tara and I would pick up small stones and pebbles to throw into the quarry. The air was still and, as we silently made our way, we could hear some birds and, if it was the end of the day, the cicadas humming. We would climb up a cliff – Tara always in the lead – careful not to slip if the rocks were wet – and make our way to a ridge that was just wide enough and long enough for two people to stand, and stare into the gaping hole of the quarry. Tara would hold my hand and, with our free hands, we would throw the rocks into the quarry, counting the seconds until we heard them splash into the water or bounce off rocks below, trying to calculate how many feet down our rocks had fallen and who had tossed her rocks the farthest. Tara always seemed a little nervous to be standing there with me, but I never brought it up. I asked her if she ever brought her boyfriends there. She asked if I was joking and said that the place was just too special. Besides, Timmy always had too much liquor in him to trust him to stand up straight and he would probably slip and his sorry ass would fall into the quarry.
She was right about Timmy. Since I started working at Big Al’s Tavern, Timmy had been coming in at least three times a week – was doing that long before I started working there. He was usually three sheets to the wind. Still drinking Wild Turkey; never graduated to the top shelf stuff. And the other day he peed himself ‘cause he couldn’t get off the stool and make it to the bathroom. I called Dan to come get him and take him home. He begged Dan not to cause he knew he’d catch hell from Luanne. He got married to her shortly after high school once he got over the fact that he wasn’t gonna grow old and drunk with Tara, as if that was ever gonna happen anyway. The way Tara looked a few months after the dance – full, her face a little round, a little softer – I had figured that she would have to marry Timmy, but that wouldn’t last long anyway. After that, her complaints that she would never get out of here, which had become so regular that I hardly noticed it anymore – seemed more urgent and desperate.
I’d never thought about the future of me and her, but I always reckoned there would be one. To make her feel better, I told her that, if we both stayed in town, we would have babies and raise them together and it would be just as it always was, but with more of us. I didn’t know what else to say. Her words came out so fast, like there was no gap between her words and sentences, if you were reading it, that it made me nervous. I don’t want to talk about being a momma, Linny. Look at my momma, look at yours. Both married real princes, didn’t they? They stay home and cook and sweep and wipe their kids’ bottoms and mouths and their little snotty noses while the guys go out and drink and gamble and can’t stand to be home for two nights in a row. And thank god for that anyway, cause when he is home, I wake up in the middle of the night and see him standing in my doorway staring at me. He tried coming at me a coupla times, but I told him I would scream if he got any closer. She looked like she was about to cry, but she turned her face away and when she looked back at me, she was smiling.
Tara and I sat on the ledge of the quarry, our knees drawn up to our chests, leaning our backs against the hard, rough stone. I wonder, she said, what falling down there would feel like. I asked her what she thought, and she said it would probably feel like freedom.
I had delayed applying to the university, being busy getting the application materials mailed to friends’ houses so my parents wouldn’t see it, making sure they weren’t home so I could call the financial aid office, and doing my best to talk a couple of teachers who had given me more than a C to write letters of recommendation. Luckily for me, they had what they called rolling admissions where you could apply any time. I finally told them that I changed my address to my real address ‘cause I didn’t want to take a chance and miss my acceptance letter. When I knew that enough time had passed for them to look at my application, I rushed home from school every day to find the mailman before momma found him. Tara kept asking me why I didn’t hang out after school like I always did; if I didn’t like going to parties, it was the least I could do. By the look on her face, she took my absence personally, but I didn’t have the heart to explain to her what I was doing.
That day came when there were two envelopes addressed to me from the state university. With their seal on the envelopes they looked very official, like a royal messenger with one of those long trumpets should be standing there announcing it. Even though I hadn’t let Tara in on what I was waiting for, I grabbed the envelopes before my momma could see them and ran over Tara’s house. I ran up onto her porch, loose slats clacking and giving way under my steps. I rushed into her room breathless. She was sitting on her floor on her worn-out green rug, flipping through a home decorating magazine. They’re here! I said, waving the envelopes. What are those?” she asked. I sat down next to her and tore open the first envelope. I held it and read the three sentences once, then read the more slowly, then a third time, slower still. What’s it say? she asked, without enthusiasm. I’m in! I got in! I jumped up and down with Tara just watching. What’s the other one say?” I must’ve forgotten I was holding another envelope ‘cause I felt confused, then I looked at my other hand and said, Oh, yeah. I sat down on the floor again and tore open the envelope. It’s from the financial aid office. As I read the letter, I dropped the admissions letter to the floor. Tara must have known something was wrong ‘cause she leaned over to touch her shoulder to mine. What? What is it? I looked down at the floor. They gave me money…a little…but it’s not enough. Not even close. And they say I don’t qualify for no loan, with no assets and no one to co-sign for me. I put the letter in my lap and stared at the walls, with the rock and fashion posters that Tara had hung to cover up the cracked and faded paint job. There’s no way…there’s no way for me to make up the money. My parents, they won’t…can’t help me. I put the letter down and put my arms around Tara and just cried more than I thought I could. Tara took me in her arms. Now we’ll never get out of here. We sat there holding each other until Tara loosened her hold on me and leaned back to look me in the eye. There is a way, to get out, but we will have to be brave. She had a plan but, as soon as she started to explain it, I couldn’t bear to hear it and I told her I had to go.
The smoke from my cigarette floats up, seeping into the walls and the ceiling of my house. I think about my decision to go back to Tara’s two days later to hear out her plan. I guess I wasn’t feeling any better. In fact, as the days went on, and there was nobody except Tara I could talk to, I started feeling worse and worse. Tara didn’t look surprised to see me. She had thought about her plan for a long time, but was afraid to tell me, until now. We would go to the quarry with a bottle of Wild Turkey that she would steal from Timmy. We would talk and drink and, when we were ready, we would hold hands and jump into the quarry. We’ll finally feel free…together! Before I had a chance to answer, she got up and left the room, coming back with a bottle of Jack Daniels. I don’t think my daddy can keep track of how much is in the bottle. She turned on the radio and we passed the bottle, this time with me drinking more than her. She said we would meet after school on Friday and go to the quarry. I said I didn’t know. She told me she was going and she’d like me to come by anyway.
I had hoped I would feel better by then, but the harder I tried, the more I couldn’t think of a way out. My daddy was drinking more and staying home, screaming at momma and at life itself. I figured when I got to Tara’s I would talk her out of it – talk us both out of it, but I didn’t say nothing and neither did she. I just followed her to the quarry. It was a windy day and the wind pressed us back against the rock wall of the ledge. Tara had on the white dress she had worn to the Fourth of July parade and her tiara. I just had on a pair of old, ripped jeans and sneakers where the soles had started to separate. We sat and took a few swigs and then a few more. This is one hell of a last meal, I think I remember saying. Tara slurred, It’s like Thanksgiving…Turkey dinner! and then Tara threw the bottle into the quarry. We watched it hurtle down, the sun glinting off it so it became visible every few feet. Then we heard a faint sound of glass shattering. I’m ready, Tara said. I don’t know, I said softly, maybe if we gave it more time. I don’t know if Tara heard me, ‘cause she just stood up and reached for my hand, pulling me up next to her. We stood side by side like that, I don’t remember how long. I heard Tara take in a long breath. Her hand was cold and sweaty and trembled slightly. I turned to look at her and her eyes were closed. I tried to think of something to say. I looked back down into the quarry, retracing the path I had seen the bottle of whiskey take before hearing it shatter. We’ll feel free and more alive than ever. Just keep thinking that, Tara said. I saw her bend her knees. Ok, on three. And she started to count slowly. I tried to pull her upright, but she kept counting and as she got to Three! what was takin’ forever now was rushing at me at 100 miles per hour. Tara jumped, and as she lunged forward, I shouted Wait… but she was already moving away and pulling me toward her. I grabbed onto a piece of rock sticking out to anchor myself. She tried to hold onto me, but her hands were too slippery. In a split second, I saw Tara open her eyes and look at me and saw in her eyes the day we had met, the nights on her floor, the jokes whispered in school, the chidings I gave her for hanging out with the bad boys, and the pact we had made. Then, she was gone. Before I looked away, I think I saw her reach out her hand one more time.
After Tara was declared missing, the police came to interview me, and I suggested they try the quarry. I told them that Tara liked to go there when she was feeling down. They found her body in the water, broken like the shattered glass of the Wild Turkey bottle.
Some nights, when the house is still and the world is on pause, when Dan and the kids are asleep and the night seems to stretch out endlessly like a curse, I lie in bed and feel myself falling through space and time, and the terror takes over. Then I feel like I’m floating…floating above the bed, above the house, above this town. Then, I don’t know. Falling and floating…I’m not sure there’s much difference.
E.H. Jacobs is a psychologist and writer based in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. His work has appeared in Streetlight Magazine, Aji Magazine, and Smoky Quartz. He has also participated in two fiction workshops with the Kenyon Review. He has published two books on parenting, professional papers in psychology, articles for the general public on psychological topics and has been a contributing book review editor for the American Journal of Psychotherapy. He has served on the clinical faculty of Harvard Medical
Previous Publications and Links:
On field pond. Streetlight Magazine, December 2019. www.streetlightmag.com
Talisman. Streetlight Magazine, August 2019. www.streetlightmag.com
What dogs know. Aji Magazine, number 7, Fall 2017, pp. 49-54.
Siren song. Smoky Quartz, Fall 2016.
On naming my son. Smoky Quartz, Fall 2015.
Fathering the ADHD Child, Rowman & Littlefield, 1998.
ADHD: Helping Parents Help Their Children, 2000.
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