Still Literary Contest Judge's Selection: Natalie Sypolt
Natalie Sypolt lives and writes in West Virginia. She received her MFA in fiction from West Virginia University in 2005, and currently teaches writing at WVU. Her work has appeared in various journals, including The Queen City Review, Flashquake, Potomac Review, Oklahoma Review, and Kestrel. Natalie is the 2009 winner of the West Virginia Fiction Award from Shepherd University and the 2009 winner of the Betty Gabehart Prize sponsored by the Kentucky Women’s Writers Conference.
Love, Off to the Side
Mae only packed what she could carry—just one suitcase, a brown grocery bag full of CDs and an old picture album. All the pictures with Lou, she left. When she was done, she was done and she didn’t want some blurry photograph around to remind her.
The suitcase lived in the back of her closet. To pull it out, she had to pass through his shirts that smelled of lemon laundry soap and sometimes cigarettes; she had to tug and tug until it emerged like a stubborn baby into the world. Each time she shoved it into the closet, she hoped it would stay, but she was going, from another man, another house, and another chance to be someone other than that girl who kept doing this.
Lissy was coming. “I’ll be there,” she said when Mae called, just like the other times. It’d just take a little longer because with Lou, Mae’d moved nearly an hour away, the furthest she’d ever gone.
Lissy’d always gotten it right. She knew to choose men who wouldn’t cling or want too much. In high school, she’d liked the older guys, the ones out of school who sometimes worked at the auto repair shop and had half moons of grease under their fingernails. Lissy would come to Mae’s house with black circles and smudges on her skin, fingerprints and evidence of a love too urgent to wait for a hand washing. She picked the guys who would touch and kiss, leave fake bruises instead of real ones.
When Lissy got there, she would have her shotgun behind the bench seat of the old green pick-up truck, but there wouldn’t be any trouble. Lou was at work and would be there 'til dark. And even if he weren’t, he’d cry before he’d fight, would beg and grovel, be too weak and flimsy for anybody to lean on just like always. Mae couldn’t live with such a doughy-faced boy with fleshy lips and a weak chin.
When Lissy came, she would be playing Bon Jovi, loud. Maybe “Bad Medicine” or “You Give Love a Bad Name." Lissy liked hair bands and power ballads, Poison and Whitesnake. She kept a cassette player in the truck, just so she could pop in the old tapes she’d had since she was thirteen. Sure, she could find the songs on CD, but it wouldn’t be the same. It wasn’t just the song, but the physical manifestation of the music, the hard plastic and paper label that her fingers had touched hundreds of times, that held the memory.
Mae went to the bathroom and put on red lipstick, pulled a brush through her long, wavy blonde hair. Her mother’d always said that her hair was a rat’s nest; twice when Mae was young, her mother had taken scissors to it. She had wildly chopped, snipped, great hanks of hair falling to the floor. The first time, Mae’d been in the fifth grade and the other kids laughed and pointed at the boy length, the uneven edges; teachers just looked at her sad.
Every time Mae left, she knew she was proving her mother right. That she was no good. That there were happy endings for some people, but not for her kind. Mae searched for love and held on to any little piece she could find, hoping that it would turn into more, but usually it just ripped off, like fabric that was stretched too tight, and she’d end up alone, with just some sad corner.
Mae touched things as she passed through the little house. She let her hand slide along the back of the ratty sofa where Lou would lay at nights when he came home, tired and sore, but not wanting to go to bed. He worked in the coalmines, like his daddy and all his four brothers, because that’s what he knew. He didn’t love it or hate it; it’s just what he did and that’s all. He’d usually come home dirty, smelling of underground and the oil of machinery. Sometimes, at the first, she felt so lonely for him during the day, that when he came home, she threw herself into his arms, kissed him without caring. She stripped off her clothes and he left dirty smudges on her arms, her thighs, her stomach, signs that maybe she was finally getting it right.
The house was tiny, all he could afford, but he liked it. “It makes me feel good,” he told her. “I’ve never had nothing of my own before, but now I’ve got this house and I’ve got you.” He meant it to sound sweet, but it made Mae’s skin get tight. Maybe Lou just meant that he loved her, like his house, and that she was valuable and precious, but Mae started to hate the three little rooms, and the black smudges on her skin started to seem like evidence of someone marking his territory instead of signs of love. Lissy would say, “Don’t let some man think he owns you. You let him think that and you’re done for.”
Mae first met Lou at the Golden Egg where she waitressed. She brought him beer in a glass foggy with fingerprints. He was so nervous, even just sitting there, that he reached for the glass too soon and Mae was confused, fumbled, dropped the glass and it spilled all down the front of Lou. She expected him to get mad, to call her a dumb bitch, but he just smiled and pushed at the wet with a wadded up napkin.
Lou was the youngest in his family and Lissy said that accounted for a lot. He was baby-fied, but also always trying to prove himself to his big brothers, all of who Lissy deemed better men than Lou and one of who she’d let take her out to his pickup truck one night at the Egg. Lou, Mae and Lissy had all gone to the Egg together after work.
“You’ll be happy to know that I’ll soon be off your couch, Lissy,” Mae had said. Lissy was eating salty peanuts and looking bored.
“Why’s that?” Lissy did hair at the Sit and Set while saving up to open her own place and when it was slow, she did her own hair, makeup and nails all day. This night, she had a blood red manicure and her hair teased up in some retro beehive/ponytail. She sometimes liked to create costumes for herself and no one ever really looked twice. If anyone could wear a beehive in the Golden Egg, it was Lissy.
“Lou’s asked me to move in with him.” Mae held Lou’s hand and he looked proud, like he’d just earned some award. Lissy laughed, mean, like it was a joke.
“What? You’re gonna go live with this boy?” Lou’s face turned red, but he didn’t say a thing.
“Come on, Lissy.” Mae heard the pleading sound in her voice, and hated it, but there it was. “It’ll be good. I even quit my job so that I don’t have to drive so far every day. It’s a good thing. Really.”
“No, no. It’ll last. You two are meant for each other.” She was still laughing, looking right in to Mae’s eyes so she’d know the joke. Mae felt Lou squeeze her hand and when she turned to him, he was smiling, like he believed Lissy. Like he just got some kind of blessing. “Now, if you two crazy kids will excuse me, I need to see that man over there about something he owes me.” She pointed toward the bar where Lou’s brother Jackson was standing with a group of men. Lissy was welcomed into that group and they all laughed, together.
When they first met, Lissy was ten and Mae was eleven. Lissy’s family had just moved up from some place in Kentucky. She was already outgrowing a little girl’s body; she had stringy hair black as coal and three chicken pock scars in a line on her forehead. They were both in the same grade--Lissy started kindergarten when she was four because her birthday was in December. “My mama said all she wanted for Christmas was a pretty little girl,” Lissy said in her mountain accent, a little twisted and high; some kids made fun of it, but Mae thought everything about Lissy was beautiful. “Too bad all she got was me.”
Over the years, Mae would hear the story again and again, every time Lissy met someone new or was asked her date of birth at a hospital or DMV, but Mae always remembered the first time, on the day they met.
Mae was an awkward girl in long dresses and thick gray socks. All Mae’s clothes were miniatures of her mother’s, from dress to shoes to the plain cotton underwear. Even at ten, Lissy saw herself as Mae’s rescuer and never stopped seeing it that way. First it was bringing her junk food at lunchtime—kids’ food like potato chips and soda instead of the leftover meatloaf sandwiches and white milk in a thermos. When they got older, it was bringing extra clothes to school for Mae to change into, lipstick and blush, nail polish in shiny candy apple red. Mae’s mother thought Lissy was a bad influence, especially when they got to be teenagers and Lissy got a “reputation,” but after what Tommy and Lissy did, Mae’s mother left them all alone.
Tommy Benson was the first boy Mae thought she loved and the reason her mother took the scissors to her the second time. Mae’d been keeping her hair down, long, in her face, to hide the purple love bruise on her neck. Tommy called it a monkey bite; Lissy called it a hickey and laughed when she saw the first one. “That’s so childish,” Lissy said. “Only kids give each other hickies.”
First, her mother was just going to pull Mae’s hair back, brush it away from her face and in to a neat ponytail or bun. She’d told Mae to do it, but then took matters into her own hands. When she saw the mark on Mae’s neck, she went to the bathroom sink and got the silver scissors.
“Is this who you are?” She said, looking at Mae with such disgust, such disappointment. “Is this who you want to be?” Mae wanted to say “no,” to be someone else, but it was already too late.
After her mother cut her hair, short and jagged and as ugly as she could, Mae sneaked out her window and went to Lissy’s.
“It’s my own fault,” Mae tried to tell Lissy when she saw the fire flash in her eyes. “I should have known better.”
Lissy called Tommy then. He never came into the room, never said a word to Mae, just looked at her from the door, squeezing and unsqueezing his hands into fists.
“You stay here,” Lissy told Mae as she pulled on her knee-high leather boots. She looked so good in her denim mini-skirt and black leather jacket, high boots and red lipstick, she could have been going anywhere.
Mae made herself not see that Lissy first went to the kitchen and got a knife, one from the wooden block with a thick blade made for chopping. Later, Mae would wonder how much that moment when Lissy chose to take the knife had made them all who they were going to be.
When Lissy came back, she draped a towel over Mae’s shoulders and fixed the choppy hair as best she could. Then they dyed it red, just for spite.
The next morning, Mae’s mother was in the kitchen when Mae came home. She never looked Mae in the eye; her bun was gone. There were two suitcases by the door and at first Mae thought they were for her. Without saying a word, her mother left--took the bags to the car and drove away.
Mae knew she went to her sister’s two hours away because her Aunt Linda sent her a check once a month for a while. Her mother paid the bills from there—electric, phone—until Mae was 18, but she never spoke to Mae again. When she was done, she was done.
Mae stayed away from the house as much as she could. She worked at McDonalds; she hung out with Lissy and Tommy, but sometimes she had to go home. Some nights she had to be there and was so alone. It was just her and the shame of chasing her mother away. Tommy said the house gave him the creeps, like it was watching him from inside somehow.
For a while, Mae avoided her mother’s room. She went through every other, opening drawers, touching old Christmas ornaments in a plastic crate in the attic, sorting through a small box of her baby things. But when all that was done, only her mother’s room remained, the door always shut.
Mae was surprised when she finally went in. She didn’t know what she’d been expecting, really. Maybe cobwebs hanging from the mirror or eerie music playing; what she found was just a room mostly cleared out of clothes and personal touches, though there was never much of either. Most of the dresser drawers were empty, except for one, the very bottom on the nightstand. There, Mae found her mother’s braid, gray and coiled like something that had once been alive.
Mae had assumed that Lissy had taken the hair after cutting it from Mae’s mother’s head, maybe as some sort of battle trophy or souvenir. Mae had even imagined it curled much the same way in various locations around Lissy’s room. Somehow, the fact that Lissy had left it there for Mae’s mother seemed even crueler. And now, her mother had left it there for Mae.
When Tommy turned 18, he left home and Mae moved with him into a trailer with orange shag carpeting and brown circles on the ceilings from leaks.
Mae still thought of Tommy sometimes, how surprised he looked the first time he hit her, like his hands had a mind of their own. Mae hadn’t wanted to leave him, but Lissy wouldn’t let her stay. “He’ll kill you, Mae. He won’t mean it, but he will.” She helped Mae pack her things; he just let them leave, watched out the kitchen window, then turned his back as Mae got in Lissy’s truck.
That was the first time she went to live with Lissy. She got the job at the Egg to help with rent while Lissy went to the beauty college. When Lissy came home at night, she’d practiced what she learned on Mae. She’d set her hair, pluck her eyebrows, do thick Cleopatra eyes or the subtle “no make up” make-up. When she was finished, she’d turn Mae to the mirror and say, “Well, what do you think? A new you?” Mae would smile, nod, tell her friend how talented she was, but never felt transformed. Instead, she heard her mother’s voice. “Is this who you want to be?”
Mae took the bag of things out to the front porch and propped it up against the coming-to-pieces recliner Lou had put there as a luxury, a place to drink beer and watch the sun set. Once, she’d taken off all her clothes, all except her brown cowboy boots and sat in that chair, one leg thrown over the arm, and waited for him to come home. The look on his face was burned into her mind, how his eyes got big and the whites looked so white next to the black coal dust on his face. “Jesus H., Mae. What the hell?” She let her foot bounce up and down a little, trying to embody some sort of temptress, someone in control, like Lissy, but when Lou pounced on her, it was just to cover her up with his own body and hustle her inside. “What if somebody seen you?”
“No one saw, Lou. We don’t have any neighbors. Three cars pass a day.” He let go of her as soon as they got inside and she stood in the middle of the living room, feeling silly.
“There are more than three cars, Mae. And we do have neighbors. There are the Petersons, the Crabtrees—”
“I don’t care how many fucking neighbors we have, Lou!”
“Just sitting out there like that, in front of God and everybody.”
She looked down at herself, at her paleness, at the little red circles on her arms where his fingers had squeezed as he rushed her inside. She felt like a fool. She wished he would just hit her. If a man came home to Lissy sitting naked on his porch, he wouldn’t care who saw and he wouldn’t push her inside. He’d strip down too and lay on the splintering porch for her.
Before Lou, it was Jake. It had been bad when she left. Lissy has pulled out the shotgun and pointed it at Jake when he grabbed Mae’s arm. “Let her go,” she said. “And I mean now.” Mae had no doubt that Lissy would shoot, and Jake must have thought so too because he let Mae go right then.
“You’re making a big mistake, girl,” he said and Mae stopped because he might have been right. But Lissy saved her, and told her to get in the truck.
Jake was older, in his forties, and thought Mae would marry him. He gave her a ring, even though she said she didn’t want to get married, didn’t want to have kids. He just smiled like he knew what she really wanted and shoved the tiny diamond ring down on to her finger. She went right to the bedroom and called Lissy.
After picking her up, Lissy took her to the strip job. It was private property, but no one ever came by to complain. Once, it had been trees and a stream, then it had been stripped down to mounds of dirt and opened up bare so the coal seams could be cleaned out. Now it was “reclaimed,” which meant grassy with a few spindly trees that were fighting to hold on in the loose dirt. It was the perfect place to sit in the dark, listen to Journey and drink cheap beer.
“We got to get that thing off you,” Lissy said, eyeing the ring on Mae’s finger. It was too small and, though Mae had tried everything, nothing had worked. “I’ve got something.”
Lissy had a bag of tools behind the seat of her truck. When she first pulled out the snips, with the pointy ends looking like some sort of torture device, Mae said “no.” “Come on. It’ll be okay. I know what I’m doing. I think. Give me your hand.” Lissy started from the palm side, using just the small ends to snip at the band until it started to give. Finally, she was able to snip it in two and bend the ends back enough to pull the ring off. “Voila!”
“Damn!” Mae said and shook her hand. Lissy had gotten too close with the cutters and drawn a little red bead of blood on the inside of Mae’s finger.
“Oh, poor girl,” Lissy laughed and dabbed her finger into the blood. Then she smeared it into a little rough “L."
Mae started to take her hand away, but Lissy pulled it to her mouth and gave the palm a kiss. The dome light made Lissy’s skin look a little yellow and bruised under, but her dark eyes were squinted and sparkling.
Without saying anything, Lissy came across the bench seat of the truck and put her smiling mouth on Mae’s. At first Mae was too surprised, didn’t do anything, but then the warm feel of lips and the sweet smell of Lissy’s skin let her relax. With her eyes shut, it was just lips on lips and she could let that kiss go on and on, but when she felt Lissy’s hand, cool fingers and long nails, under her shirt, touching her bare stomach, Mae’s eyes opened and she turned her head away.
“What’s wrong?” Lissy asked. She was so close that Mae could smell the beer on her breath, feel the warmth on her cheek.
“Come on Lissy.”
“What?” Lissy moved closer still and tried to find Mae’s mouth again. “It’s okay.”
“It’s not. I’m not—”
“It won’t mean anything, Mae.” She kissed her again, just her lower lip, and moved her hand up the inside of Mae’s leg. “You won’t have to do anything.” She talked as she kissed and Mae could feel Lissy’s words on her mouth. Mae moved her hands to stop Lissy, but Lissy’s hands were stronger and went further, past Mae’s fingers. She gave up and let herself go a little limp, stopped trying to fight.
Lissy stopped kissing her then and looked into Mae’s eyes, before she turned away and pushed herself back across the seat. “Fuck it,” she said, turning the keys in the ignition. “It was stupid.”
“You’re mad. Don’t be mad.”
“I’m not mad, Mae. I’m just drunk. Let’s go home.”
“You are mad, you are. Please,”
“Damn it, Mae!” Lissy turned on her then, pushed her pleading hands away. “Stop.”
“I love you, Lissy. You’re my best friend. I don’t want anything to be ruined.” Mae watched as Lissy took two deep breaths.
“I love you too, Mae.”
With each minute that Lissy didn’t show up, Mae became more and more sure that there was something wrong with her that wouldn’t let anyone really love her, only made them want to hurt her. Lou had been the best so far; maybe he’d be the best she could ever find; maybe she should take her bag back inside, push it into the closet and try to settle in.
She heard the truck before she saw it, bumping down the dirt road too fast, rattling into and out of potholes.
“What took you so long?” Mae asked as Lissy swung out of the truck and started over to the porch. Together they lifted Mae’s bag and hefted it into the back of the truck. Lissy was wearing her tall leather boots and a denim mini-skirt; her black hair was long and loose down her back. “Did you have a date?” Mae asked. She knew that Lissy had been seeing some real estate guy named Brent pretty regular, that he’d been staying over most nights.
“Nah. Nobody special. You ready? Anything in there that you want to trash?” Lissy motioned to the house, which now looked even sadder and lonelier to Mae since it wasn’t hers anymore. Mae shook her head and stepped up into the truck. It was only after Lissy had got into the other side and started the engine that Mae felt the tears start to come. She tried not to cry, to swallow them back; she didn’t want to be this girl, but she was.
Mae started to sob, loud and gulping in that ugly, childish way.
Lissy cranked the radio and threw the truck into drive. She punched the gas so that the tires spun, shooting gravel against the house, onto the porch and into the recliner.
“I really thought it would work this time,” Mae said, watching the house get smaller in the mirror.
“I know you did, Mae,” Lissy said, reaching across the seat and patting her hand. “But don’t cry. You’ll move back in, okay?”
Mae sniffled and watched the house disappear.
“And we’ll get your job back at the Egg, no problem. It’ll be just like old times. You’ll forget all about Lou.”
Mae wiped her face with her sleeve and reached to turn up the radio. “Who’s Lou?”