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Illustrations by Hokyoung Kim

Illustrations by Hokyoung Kim


Fortune’s Prime


Years later, my grandmother would still tell people that I learned to swim in a movie star’s pool, though she always said this with the same slanted tone and pinched expression she used when telling people that my mother dated only rocket scientists or that my grandfather was a real Mr. Fix-It around the house, indicating there was significantly more—or rather, less—to the story and leaving me to explain about Gretta Benson-Klein-Huffacher and how she wasn’t really a movie star, just an old lady who hosted a show for other old ladies on public-access television. Gretta had, many years before my family knew her, appeared briefly in a movie, but it was not a feature, only a short educational film for sociology students about the shifting culture of the American West—the crew filmed in Fortune Valley for a single day, and Gretta’s scene had her onscreen for a matter of seconds, shot from behind in a lavender suit and buying a bottle of port from a local winery, though she would later tell us that she had not really purchased the port, but merely gone through the motions of paying for it. “I was acting,” she explained, and waved her hands around her face to demonstrate: acting. “I wouldn’t touch that regional swill with a pig’s lips.”

Originally settled as a mining town, Fortune Valley was a high desert surrounded by a ring of great red cliffs that watched over inhabitants like stern but protective guardians. Coal and copper had long been stripped from the surrounding land, but the mild winters, combined with the low cost of living, had over the years made Fortune one of the fastest-growing retirement communities in the Southwest. Like most of her viewers, Gretta had grown up in a more sophisticated part of the country, somewhere flatter and greener and flecked with department stores and steak houses and country clubs (the one in Fortune was a sham, Gretta said—they allowed blue jeans in the dining room).

In the nearly twenty years that she hosted Fortune’s Prime, there were few aspects of Gretta’s life that did not unfold in front of the camera. She took her crew with her to the dentist and the doctor’s office, having them film root canals and mammograms and colonoscopies. After her first husband died, she dated and then married her second husband on television, and after his death more than a decade later, she did the same with her third. Of course, when my mother and I knew her, husband number three was still years away, and the summer I learned to swim in her pool, Gretta Benson-Klein-Huffacher was still just Gretta Benson-Klein.

I was eleven the year my mother dated Gretta’s son, Lance. She met Lance at church, which was where we met everybody that first year in Fortune. In Chicago, where my mother and I were born, we went to church only a few times a year: Christmas Eve, Easter, the occasional wedding or funeral or baptism. But in Fortune, we went every Sunday, and a good share of weeknights as well. My mother took Bible-study classes on Wednesday nights and met with the member-outreach committee every other Thursday; she performed with the bell choir, which practiced on Mondays; and on Saturday afternoons she cooked casseroles for shut-ins with the Adam’s Rib group. My mother was not an especially good cook or a particularly talented musician. She was soft-spoken and easily flustered, which made her no great asset to any committee, and many years later she would confess to me that she didn’t believe in God and never really had. But that year, the year we moved to Fortune, church was the only place my mother could go when she wanted to get away from my grandparents, and so we went to church all the time.

My grandparents had retired to Fortune a few years earlier, and when asked, my mother told people that we followed to be close to family. Really, though, we followed because, after her divorce, my mother was unable to face her friends and acquaintances, and because we had no money. My grandparents took us in because they thought we could use a fresh start and a change of scenery, and because my mother was their only child and I their only grandchild—which is to say, because they had to.

My mother disliked Fortune, and she hated living in my grandparents’ house, where she and I shared a small room in the basement, which smelled like cat urine even though my grandparents didn’t own a cat. At night, my mother cried quietly in her bed. “I’m sorry,” she would say if she realized I was still awake. “I just can’t believe this is my life.”

“We must try very hard to be patient with your mother,” my grandmother told me. “She’s suffered a terrible disappointment. Disappointment is harder for her than for most people.”

My mother was thin and delicate, with pearl-pink skin and hair so fair it was nearly white. All my life, I watched with wonder as strangers stopped her at the supermarket or in line at the bank—men and women alike—to tell her how lovely she was and to compare her to other lovely things (a painting, a princess, a porcelain doll). I took after my father, soft and round with bland brown hair and a slightly protruding lower jaw that was often mistaken for defiance rather than basic bone structure.

At church, an older boy named Kenny asked if I was adopted. Kenny was large for his age, with a flat, flabby face and a high, whinnying voice. When I told him I was not, he pointed to my mother and said, loud enough so the other children would hear, “How did a fox like her whelp a dog like you?”

My grandmother told me I was lucky not to look like my mother. (“You might have a little sense when you’re older. Your mother never needed it.”) But she also worried that I didn’t care enough about my appearance, that I sometimes forgot to brush my hair or wash my face, that I dribbled ice cream down the front of my shirt and didn’t bother to change into a clean one. Mostly, she worried I would be fat.

At church, I hoarded cookies during the social hour between services, sneaking back to the food table as many as five or six times. I tried to move stealthily, out of my grandmother’s sight, but even in a crowd I could not escape her surveillance. Swiping cookies from the platter, I would turn to find her watching from across the church basement. She would hold my gaze as she brought her index finger to the tip of her nose, pushing it up like a pig’s snout.

My grandmother thought I could benefit from some of my mother’s self-control—why, when my mother was my age, they’d had to force her to eat! “A woman who cannot control her appetite,” she said, “will know nothing but suffering.”

Lance Benson asked my mother on their first date at the Easter market. We’d been learning about the Crucifixion in Sunday school, about how Jesus was dragged through the streets and whipped until his back ran wet with blood. When the Romans nailed Jesus to the cross, our teacher told us, they didn’t hammer spikes through his palms, as all the paintings showed. Instead, they nailed his wrists—through the bones—which was what held him in place for the six hours before he died.

My mother assured me there would be no crucifixion at the Easter market, not even a pretend one. Also, she said, there were palm fronds that people could wave and a donkey people could pet. And while I very much wanted to wave a palm frond and pet a donkey, I could not bring myself to step through the double doors of the church basement. So it was only later that I heard how Lance Benson, while buying a raffle ticket from my mother to raise funds for the bell choir, asked if she’d like to come over sometime and swim in the pool.

Lance had moved back in with his mother after his stepfather’s stroke. When Gretta married Ed Klein, he’d been Fortune’s top cardiologist, but now he walked with a limp and held one arm at a strange angle. The left side of Ed’s face sagged, his eye wet and runny so that he had to dab it with his good arm.

The ladies at church admired Gretta’s strength and her courage and, especially, her tall, handsome son who took out her garbage and shoveled her driveway when it snowed in the winter. It must have been God’s hand that led my mother to Fortune, the old ladies said. Before my mother, no one in town had been good enough for Lance Benson.

At first, my grandparents were pleased by Lance’s interest in my mother. They considered him a significant step up from my father, who, my grandmother told me, had never deserved a woman as beautiful as my mother, and whom she now referred to only as “the sperm.” More and more, though, my grandmother had concerns about Lance. It didn’t make sense, she said, that he and my mother had been seeing each other for nearly two months and he had yet to suggest a getaway, a weekend out of town. It wasn’t normal that they’d never spent the night together.

Gretta, however, was ecstatic about the pairing, proclaiming that my mother and I were now part of the family and insisting I call her Grandma Gretta.

My own grandmother did not care for this arrangement.

“Until Lance Benson puts a ring on your mother’s finger, you have one grandmother and one grandmother alone.”

And though I had another grandmother in Chicago, I nodded and told her, “I know.”

Gretta lived in a large house at the edge of the valley, up against the red cliffs. On the days my mother and I spent there, Lance taught me how to paddle from one side of the pool to the other while my mother read magazines and sipped iced tea on a deck chair. Gretta had a herd of Pekingese, all of them named after drinks—Julep and Gimlet and Paloma and Tom Collins—all of them stinky and obese and half blind with cataracts except for the youngest, Mai Tai, who was small and springy, with bright eyes and a coat as soft and white as rabbit fur. Mai Tai was the darling of Ed Klein, who sat all day beside the pool with her on his lap, petting and kissing her and tossing potato chips into the water so that she would dive in, paddle after them, and return, wet and skinny and trembling with joy, to his lap.

Ed Klein was also fond of my mother, who would sometimes sit beside him, taking turns throwing chips or Cheetos into the pool for Mai Tai, nodding in unison with Ed as he pet the dog and dabbed his eye and repeated into my mother’s mirrored sunglasses, “Good girl, good girl, good girl.”

From the kids at church, I learned that before my mother, Lance Benson had dated the mother of Meg and Marnie Polk, a tall woman with ropy arms and a short, scrubby haircut. My grandmother didn’t care for Beth Polk and her daughters, whom she referred to in private as hicks. I didn’t know what a hick was (we didn’t have them in Chicago), but I understood the general connotation by the way my grandmother said the word—her face twisted as though she had an insect pinched in a tissue.

Marnie was my age, with stringy hair and slouchy shoulders and a thin, whispery voice. She sat next to me in the children’s choir, and though we often shared the same sheet music, I never heard more from her than the occasional squeak. Meg was four years older. She wore lipstick and smoked cigarettes in the church parking lot and was dating our minister’s older son, Gabe, which was a source of great concern for many of the congregants, as Meg Polk was not, by and large, the kind of girl that people thought their minister’s son should be dating.

Meg and Marnie’s parents had divorced several years prior, but up until recently, their father had attended our church as well. Then, not long before my mother and I moved from Chicago, Meg and Marnie’s father had gotten drunk during one of his visitation weekends and whipped Meg with a switch until she wet her pants. Now, the other kids told me, he didn’t come to church at First Presbyterian, but instead went to AA meetings at United Methodist. According to Tessa Burke, whose older cousin was in school with Meg and had seen her changing clothes for gym class, Meg still had marks from the beating across the backs of her legs.

Gretta was especially bothered by the sight of the minister’s son slinking off with Meg Polk at church. “Mike Wilson,” she said, “is on thin ice as it is.” Gretta objected to Pastor Mike’s scruffy beard and to his wearing a muslin robe with a rope belt when he preached on Sundays. She disliked the floral arrangements he approved for the pulpit and the hymns he selected for services and the readings he gave between the offering and benediction, which were not always from Scripture. The Sunday that Pastor Mike played guitar and led the congregation in songs from Godspell, Gretta nearly fell out of her pew.

“Presbyterian ministers are doctors, not pastors,” she said in the parking lot, hissing to my grandparents beside their car while my mother and I waited in the back seat. “They’re clean-shaven. They wear a suit and tie. They don’t sit on the sanctuary floor in a tunic and a piece of rope playing guitar like a roadside vagabond!”

Gretta wanted my grandparents to join her and a small group of other congregants in a formal complaint to the presbytery. “If we’re together on this,” she said, “they have to listen. We’re the deep pockets at First Pres.”

My grandparents sometimes grumbled at home about Pastor Mike: my grandfather didn’t think it would kill him to throw in “The Old Rugged Cross” once in a while, and my grandmother thought his children were hooligans; she’d seen Gabe smirking through catechism and it was known that the younger son, Jeffrey, had twice been suspended from school for fighting. But they were uncomfortable with the idea of making their grievances public.

What finally persuaded them to join Gretta and the other Deep Pockets was Pastor Mike’s commission of a new cross to stand at the front of the sanctuary. It was the work of a local artist, a great iron structure that rooted into the floor and towered up toward the ceiling.

“That cross is indecent,” my grandmother said over dinner.

“It’s not a cross,” my grandfather said. “It’s a crucifix.”

“What’s the difference?” I asked.

“A cross is a symbol,” my grandfather told me. “A crucifix is a torture device. It should be in a Catholic church. Crucifixes are a Catholic fetish.”

“What’s a fetish?”

Across the table, my grandmother’s knife scraped against her plate. My mother turned to my grandfather, blinking her pale lashes as we all waited for him to answer.

My grandfather cleared his throat and took a bite of mashed potatoes, taking his time to chew and swallow before he told me, “It’s a predilection.”

I looked to my grandmother. “It’s an ugly secret,” she said, “that keeps you from getting into heaven.” She reached her fork across the table and removed the second helping of meatloaf I’d snuck onto my plate when I thought no one was looking.

Illustrations by Hokyoung Kim

My mother objected to the Deep Pockets. “I want nothing to do with those meetings,” she said when my grandparents invited her to come along. “Barb Wilson is the only friend I have in this town.”

“Fine friend,” my grandmother said. “Wife of a hippie, mother of hoodlums.”

Pastor Mike’s wife was in the bell choir with my mother and would sometimes have her over at night to play cards. If I went along, I usually watched TV alone in the living room. But one night, midsummer, when my mother and I arrived at the Wilsons’, Barb guided me not to the television but to the basement. Jeff and his friends were downstairs, she said. “You should go play with them.”

I looked to my mother in alarm, willing her to stop me, but she only smiled and told me to go ahead.

In the basement, Jeffrey Wilson and his friends were sprawled on the floor in their sweatpants and dirty socks, drinking Mountain Dews and playing Nintendo and trying to out-belch one another. I perched on the tattered arm of the sofa, watching in silence.

“We should have a war,” one of the boys said. The rest of them began to stir, heads rising, muscles flexing as they stretched and stood and started for their weapons.

Jeffrey had a small arsenal of wooden rubber-band guns and boxes upon boxes of rubber bands—the thick kind that left red welts when they struck flesh. Watching the boys stretch the bands to load their pistols and rifles, my heart seized with panic. The door to the stairway was all the way on the other side of the room, and the idea of being, for the time it took to cross the concrete floor, the unshielded center of their attention, filled me with terror. I backed against the wall and shrank to the floor.

“Hold your fire!”

At the sound of Jeffrey’s voice, his friends lowered their weapons.

From my place on the floor, I didn’t realize that he had turned to me. But then he said my name—Katie—and told me, “I’m gonna build you a fort.”

Everyone stood and waited while Jeff pulled quilts from a closet, draping them over the backs of chairs and bolstering the structure with cushions from the couch. When he finished, he circled the construction several times, nudging it with the toe of his socked foot and smacking it with the back of his hand until he finally motioned for me to climb inside. “Anyone touches her,” he said, “they’re dead meat.”

At my grandmother’s insistence, my mother invited Lance Benson over for dinner. We sat in the dining room rather than at the kitchen table, and my grandmother made fried chicken, which she usually reserved for my or my grandfather’s birthday. My mother picked at her mashed potatoes as my grandfather talked with Lance about the population boom in Fortune Valley and my grandmother asked him about his plans for the rest of the summer. Lance told her there were some trails he wanted to hike and some friends he wanted to catch up with. Mostly, though, he said he wanted to get me to stop being such a baby and swim across the deep end. He reached sideways and tickled me.

After dinner, my grandfather fixed bowls of vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce for us to eat on the back porch, but my grandmother stopped me at the back door. “I need to talk to you.”

“Later,” I told her.

“Now,” she said.

I followed her to her room, where she closed the door and sat on the bed, patting the bedspread for me to join her. I was annoyed at having been pulled away from my ice cream, and instead of sitting, I climbed on top, jumping up and down in my shoes.

“Stop that,” my grandmother said, reaching up and slapping my bare thigh so hard that the crack reverberated through the room. I stopped, stunned. “This is serious,” she hissed, and I sank down beside her. No one had ever hit me before, and I could feel the slap ringing through my body, the heat throbbing from the back of my leg up into my stomach, my rib cage, my throat.

“This is very important,” she said. She put her hands on either side of my face, tilting it upward until our eyes met. “Does Lance ever”—she paused, dropping her voice and narrowing her eyes—“touch you?”

I didn’t understand the question. Lance touched me all the time. In the pool, he held me from below while I practiced floating on my back or kicking on my stomach. Earlier that evening, he’d tickled me at the dining room table, as my grandmother had seen herself. But there was something in the way she was looking at me that made me feel as though I’d done something terribly wrong. And so I shook my head and whispered, “No.”

After the night he made a fort for me in his basement, I found myself tracking Jeff Wilson with my gaze at church, standing beside him in line at choir, following him from a distance when we left the sanctuary midway through the service for Sunday school.

Both Jeff and his brother were fair and freckly like their father, but Gabe had a narrow, almost feminine frame, while Jeff was built like brick. I’d heard about his school suspensions for fighting, and whenever I was close to him, I found myself stealing glances at his hands, which were solid and square and chapped at the knuckles. I imagined him slamming his fists into other boys, boys who cried or begged or bent like paper straws when he hit them.

Sunday mornings, the church was a forest of smartly dressed adults, smiling, watching, shaking hands, and wagging fingers, and during this time, we children sat beside our parents in itchy tights and clip-on ties, our hands folded and mouths closed. But after it emptied out, the church became our playground, our labyrinth, our empty ship, and we chased one another up and down the hallways, through the rectory and balcony and storage closets, playing hide-and-seek between the empty pews and helping ourselves to stale cookies and communion grape juice from the kitchen.

One Sunday, I cheated at hide-and-seek and followed Jeff into the choir closet. He’d tucked himself behind the choir robes so that only his shoes—scuffed brown loafers—showed beneath. When I pushed the robes aside, he looked surprised to have been found so quickly, surprised that the person who found him was me.

I waited for him to push past me and return to the group, but he only stood, watching me through his rust-colored eyelashes. The room was dark and smelled of wood polish and mothballs. “Do you want to kiss me?” I asked.

He seemed for a moment like he might be considering it. “Nah.”

I stared down at his hands, his pink, scaly knuckles. “Do you want to hit me?” His head tilted.

“You’re a girl.”

“I don’t mind,” I told him.

He poked his tongue into the corner of his mouth and took a step closer to me. Then he closed his hand and nudged me with his knuckles, lightly, on the shoulder.

We both waited for something to happen, and when nothing did, he lifted his hand, brushing his fingers lightly across my jaw. We watched each other for a moment and then he did it again, slightly harder. This time, I opened my mouth and his index finger hooked in my lip. Without thinking, I bit down, and heard a suck of air through his throat. Before my eyes could register the change in his expression, he pulled his hand away and slapped me so hard that my head whipped sideways. I gasped and lifted one hand to the side of my face, and he covered his mouth with his own. We stood with our eyes wide and our breath frozen, the space between us ringing like a bell. And then we smiled.

The sound of the organ began to fill the sanctuary, signaling the start of the service, and we bolted from the closet. I ran to the women’s restroom and pushed open each of the stall doors to make sure I was alone before standing in front of the mirror to examine my face. I’d expected to see his handprint, like a streak of paint across my jaw, but there was only a faint flush. I craned my neck, looking from every angle, and slapped myself on the opposite side of my face. I waited for the surge I’d felt in the closet when Jeff hit me, the crack of connection, but there was only a dull thud as my hand met my cheek. I hit myself again, and then again until there was a slight sting and I saw the blush even on both sides of my face. Then I ran back down the hall and into the sanctuary, sliding into the pew beside my mother just as the congregation rose for the first hymn.

Jeff and I didn’t speak of what happened in the choir closet. Instead, we waited for the children to gather and for the games to begin—hide-and-seek, sardines, tag—before slipping quietly away, into custodial closets or empty Sunday-school classrooms.

Alone, we started carefully, cautiously, nudging each other shyly in the shoulder as we stared down at our feet. Then one of us would pinch the other between the ribs or pull on the other’s hair. One of us would slap or scratch or nip the other’s skin with our teeth. And then the moment would come—I’d feel it rising inside me like steam from a kettle—when one of us would push or pinch or tug too hard and we would both startle, staring for a moment in surprise before we lunged and tackled each other to the ground.

Over time the games grew rougher. Jeff was larger and stronger and though I could cause him to cry out with a flash of my teeth or a scrape of my fingernails, I was easy to overpower. But this, too, became part of the game—being pinned or pressed or bound by his weight. I would struggle against him as we panted into each other’s faces, his pale-blue eyes and freckly pink skin, his sandy hair damp at the roots, his mouth wet and hot and smelling of the chocolate cookies we stole from the kitchen.

Owie,” Ed Klein said one afternoon, pausing between Cheeto tosses for Mai Tai to point at a bruise on the back of my leg.

“It doesn’t hurt,” I told him.

This wasn’t true, exactly. It did hurt to be pinched and slapped and bitten. But it was also exciting. Sometimes, afterward, I pressed on the bruises and felt a shiver of delight.

Gretta was reading a paperback on a deck chair, and she looked at me from underneath the rim of her sun hat.

“That child looks like an overripe banana,” she said. My mother lowered her sunglasses to see.

“We bruise so easily,” she murmured, and went back to her magazine.

We became bolder, skipping Sunday school or slipping away from choir. We learned the veins and arteries of the building, all the hallways and doorways and stairways in which we could hide or hurry away if we heard someone coming. Even on Sundays, when the church was filled with people, we came to recognize the patterns of their movement, the way the congregation traveled like schools of fish, allowing us to disappear into the empty spaces they left behind.

As we wrestled on the floor of Pastor Mike’s office one Sunday, Jeff suddenly stopped and pointed through the darkness at his father’s desk. Folded across the back of the chair was the white muslin robe he wore while preaching, and looped atop that was the rope he used as a belt. My breath quickened.

“Where?” I asked.

It was midmorning, the stretch of time between the early service and the later one when everyone gathered downstairs for coffee and cookies. The sanctuary was empty, the space silent, and I stood with my back against the base of the iron cross, looping my hands behind it. The rope was stiff and thick and Jeff couldn’t get it tight enough. I could easily have slipped free. But if I held my hands at a certain angle, I could pull against the rope without my wrists coming loose, could feel the strain up my arms and across my shoulders.

Jeff put his hand to my face, letting my chin rest in the webbing between his thumb and forefinger, squeezing tighter and tighter as he moved my head up, down, right, left. Then his hand slipped lower to cover my throat. I could smell fruit punch on his breath, could see dark crumbles of cookie in the corners of his mouth. His grip tightened, and I shut my eyes and struggled against the rope as his fingers closed around my neck.

“What are you two doing?”

At the sound of his brother’s voice, Jeff lurched away from me as though he’d been burned. I slid my hands from the rope, letting it thump to the ground behind me and puddle at the base of the cross. Gabe was with Meg, his hand in the back pocket of her jean shorts as they stared back and forth between us.

Meg’s eyes flashed on the rope. “Did he tie you up?”

Jeff took a step forward as if to explain, but his mouth only opened and closed soundlessly. Then another, deeper voice spoke from the back of the sanctuary.

“How many times do I have to tell you two to quit sneaking off,” Pastor Mike said as he crossed through the pews to Meg and Gabe. He followed their gaze up to the chancel and stopped.

“Jeff tied Katie to the cross,” Meg said.

My eyes darted from Pastor Mike to Meg. I didn’t know she knew my name.

We watched as Pastor Mike bent down to untie his belt from the base of the cross. He stood and put his hand on my shoulder. “The rest of you go back to Fellowship.”

“What about her?” Meg asked.

“Let me worry about Katie,” Pastor Mike said, and I watched Meg’s eyes travel down the length of his arm to the coil of rope. She hesitated, biting on her bottom lip, before turning to follow the boys out of the sanctuary.

Back in his office, Pastor Mike hung his robe in the closet and looped the belt over the hanger, and then sat on the edge of his desk with his hands folded in his lap. They were large and freckled, like his son’s.

“Was Jeffrey hurting you?”

I shook my head no.

His eyes were kind, his voice soft. “You can tell me the truth,” he said.

I wanted to tell him the truth. But when I searched inside myself for the words, there were none.

“It’s a game,” I said.

“What kind of game?”

On the wall behind him was a painting of Jesus sitting in a field of flowers with a group of small, sweet-faced children cuddled up against him, kneeling at his feet, leaning on his shoulder, sitting in his lap.

“I wanted to be like Jesus.”

Pastor Mike stared at me for a long moment without speaking.

“If you want to be like Jesus,” he said finally, “you must try to be like him here.” He held one hand to his heart. “You can be like Jesus by being kind and gentle and good. Your body is Christ’s home. Do you understand?”

“Like a church,” I said.

He smiled. “That’s right. Like a church.”

After I left his office, I ran down the stairs and through the halls, the soles of my patent-leather shoes slapping the hard floors. I wanted to do as Pastor Mike said, but something had come loose inside me, pulsing through my arms and legs, pounding between my ears. I was not kind. I was not gentle. I would never, ever be good.

In the basement, there were only a half dozen cookies left on the tray. I filled both hands with them and turned to find my grandmother, to be sure she was watching as I stuffed them, one after the other, into my mouth.

After that day, Jeff wouldn’t meet my eye or linger with me behind the group. Gabe and Meg were equally hesitant to break off and disappear, and I could only guess that Pastor Mike had had words with his sons. So we rejoined the rest of the children in their games.

One rainy afternoon, Kenny led us all to a room he’d discovered upstairs behind the organ loft. The space was small and windowless, and it smelled like dust. We sat on the floor playing Truth or Dare, taking turns making each other lick the bottom of our shoe or confess to the last time we’d wet the bed. I kept looking across the room at Jeff, hoping that someone might dare one of us to do something to the other—wrestle or tackle or kiss on the mouth—though of course no one would. And anyway, he wouldn’t look at me.

When it was Meg’s turn, she chose dare, and the boys perked to attention, their eyes traveling back and forth among one another in silent collusion. “Show us your scars,” Kenny said. The room fell silent.

We all looked at Meg, who looked back at us, her expression dark and unreadable.

“I’d have to take off my pants,” she said, and Kenny rose to his knees, sweat glazing his forehead.

“I dare you,” he said.

“No way,” Meg said. “Someone might come in.”

“It’s a secret room,” Kenny told her.

“If it’s so secret,” Meg said, “how come there’s a filing cabinet?”

Kenny heaved his stomach sideways to tuck a loose hem of his shirt back into his pants. “If someone comes, we’ll hear them on the stairs.”

Meg stood, her eyes narrow, and Gabe jumped up beside her, as though to fend the boys off. But Meg’s gaze shifted past the boys and over to the girls, her expression flattening. “I’ll show them,” she said. She turned back to the boys. “But you have to leave.”

“We’re the ones who want to see!” Kenny said, his voice whistling with desperation.

Meg’s eyes cut to me. “You want to see, don’t you?”

I could feel the others staring. I nodded.

“Get out,” Meg snapped at the boys. “You, too,” she told Gabe, who gave her a confused half smile.

“I’ve seen your legs lots of times.”

“So one less won’t kill you.” She reached out and shoved his shoulders hard with both hands. “Go.

After we heard the boys’ footsteps disappear down the stairs, Meg turned her back to us and lowered her jeans. We all moved forward, huddling close to see.

I’d thought the marks would be raised and gnarled, like a tangle of tree roots, but there were only faint lavender lines across the backs of her legs, so light and straight they might have been made with a paintbrush.

“Why did he do it, Meg?” Danielle asked.

“Yeah, Meg, why did he do it?” Tracy echoed.

Meg snorted. “Because he’s an asshole.”

Behind us there was a whimper, and I turned to see Marnie standing with her arms twined across her chest and her chin trembling. “He’s really, really sorry,” she whispered.

Meg’s head snapped sideways, her eyes locked on her sister’s. As the rest of us crouched at Meg’s feet, they stood staring at each other, caught in a silent exchange I could not translate until Marnie started to cry quietly and Meg pulled her pants back up. “Show’s over,” she said. “Get out.”

I saw Meg’s father once at the mall. He and Marnie were drinking milkshakes and sharing a basket of fries in the food court. When I realized who he was, I felt dizzy from fear, as though I’d just stumbled upon a wild animal or a serial killer or a monster from a horror movie. But the longer I watched, the less frightening he became, until he was just a man with smudged glasses and a bald patch and a soft bulge of belly that bubbled over the waist of his pants, a man who could be anyone’s father.

The last weekend of the summer was Gretta Benson-Klein’s ice-cream social, an event to which the entire church was invited. “It looks like rain,” my grandmother said when we arrived, and Gretta laughed and told her, “Don’t be ridiculous, Irene. God would never rain on my ice-cream social.”

The backyard had been decorated with streamers and, beside the pool, several long tables were spread with platters of cookies and cupcakes, cheese and crackers, pretzels and chips. Gretta’s granddaughters, whom Gretta introduced to me as my future cousins, had come all the way from Denver to help with the event, and the three of us were given pitchers of iced tea and lemonade and sent out among the guests to refill glasses. Lance’s nieces were silver-haired children with high, feathery voices and thin, fluttering limbs. They had to use both hands to carry their pitchers.

I made my way around the backyard with my pitcher of iced tea, filling glasses and weaving between tables tiered with drums of ice cream and platters of brownies and cookies and cupcakes, bowls of melted caramel and chocolate sprinkles and hot fudge.

“I’m allowed to do this,” Kenny said when I saw him using his hands to swipe frosting off the bottom of a cake pan. “My aunt made this cake.” He laughed and pointed a saliva-slick finger across the yard at Lance’s nieces. “Are those your mom’s real kids?”

Even though it was summer and a Saturday, all the children had been made to dress in church clothes, except for Meg and Marnie, who’d come wearing shorts and flip-flops, the straps of their swimsuits visible under their T-shirts.

“I guess you get to swim here all the time,” Meg said when I stopped to fill her plastic cup. She was sitting at the edge of the pool with her knees pulled to her chest, and when she didn’t raise her glass for me to pour, I crouched beside her.

The surface of the water was choppy from the wind, and she leaned forward, dipping her fingertips. “Must be nice,” she said. “I never learned to swim.”

“Didn’t Lance teach you?” I asked, and she turned, her hair blowing across her face.

“When would Lance have taught me how to swim?”

“When he was dating your mom.”

Meg laughed. “Lance Benson doesn’t date my mom, Katie,” she said. “He fucks her.” She hooked her hair at the base of her neck with one hand and leaned back to look at me. “You know the difference, right?”

The sky was growing dark with clouds, but people were still eating ice cream and standing in clusters on the lawn, the little kids running around in their clip-on ties and their shiny shoes while the dogs waddled after them, scarfing the crumbs that fell from their paper plates. On the other side of the yard, Lance’s nieces had been relieved of their serving duties and were now performing ballet on the back porch, pliéing and pirouetting beside the barbecue while Gretta and the other church ladies clapped.

“I’ve been practicing all summer,” I told Meg, “and I still can’t cross the deep end.” Perhaps I thought my failure could somehow compensate for her lack. She took her cup and turned away from me to drink.

When I found Jeff alone by the side of the house, it was easy, among so many people, to disappear. I led him inside, up the stairs and down the hallway to Gretta’s bedroom, and then to her closet, a small, dark room draped on all four sides with her suits and dresses, the floor lined with her shoes.

We took our places without discussion: I on my back, he on top of me. I could smell Gretta’s powder and perfume, the yeasty odor of her feet rising from the insoles of her leather pumps. Jeff pinned my hands to the floor with his, digging his thumbs into my wrists, rocking the full weight of himself on top of me.

Fight,” he said.

I writhed and thrashed, arching my back and kicking my feet as he wrestled and squeezed and slammed me back down against the floor. His knee landed between my legs and a bolt of heat shot through my lower back to my top of my head. I could feel the energy pulsing from the palms of his hands into my wrists, a current that coursed through me and lit me up like a Christmas tree. I cried out and pressed my hips harder into his.

“What the hell are you doing?”

At the sound of Gretta’s voice, we lurched apart, scrambling to our feet. One side of my dress had caught in my underwear and I yanked it down, mortified. But Gretta wasn’t looking at me. She grabbed Jeffrey by the collar of his shirt, yanking him so hard that he yelped.

“You filth,” she said to him. “You garbage.

But even as she sneered and shook him by the collar of his shirt, I could see the smile spreading behind her eyes, the knowledge that the final move had been made in some long and complicated game.

For a while, though, it seemed as if the entire matter would go no further—as if it might even have been forgotten. Outside, it had begun to rain—Gretta had come in for a sweater—and by the time we returned to the backyard, the wind was howling, the rain falling in sideways sheets. Around the pool, people rushed to bring in food and lower patio umbrellas, bracing against the wind and whooping as the rain fell harder and harder. Then someone screamed that there was a mudslide, and everyone poured inside the house.

I don’t know how I was able to hear my mother, through the wind and thunder and people shouting all around me, but the sound of her voice screaming my name in the backyard ignited me through the crowd as I shoved between the crush of people to the doors. Outside, tables were overturned, tablecloths flapping. Paper plates and plastic cups swirled across the lawn, a sandstorm of party food blowing into the pool. I now seem to remember Ed Klein bracing against the wind, his bad arm raised to shield his eyes, his good arm cranking closed the cover over the pool.

I know, of course, that my mother and I must have had physical contact when I was a child, that she would have brushed my hair and tied my shoes and bathed me. In that first year after the divorce, I often slept in her bed. And yet the storm at Gretta Benson-Klein’s ice-cream social is the only memory I have from my childhood of my mother and me touching. The shock of that moment lives inside my body, the strength of her hands as she caught me from behind and the force with which she pulled me against herself, holding me as we looked up at the red mud pouring down the cliffs in rapids, the roar and crack of the great boulders falling and breaking, the lightness with which my feet left the ground when my mother lifted and carried me to the house, as though I was still a very young child, as though I was weightless.

When Gretta finally called, it was to tell my grandmother what she’d already told the presbytery and half the congregation as well. She was sorry to leave my grandmother out of the loop for so long, she said. Her delay in communication was the result of a difficult loss: after the storm, they’d uncovered the pool to discover their little Mai Tai floating dead in the water.

I was not permitted to watch the episode of Gretta’s show in which she discussed on camera the incident in her closet, but it would serve, for a time, as a call to arms for those in the valley who objected to sexual content in popular music and would inspire a series of highly publicized but ultimately ineffectual petitions to ban MTV from the town of Fortune.

Nearly two months passed before Pastor Mike was officially dismissed, but the Wilson family never appeared in church during that time. Instead, services were led by the associate pastor, a young man with a low voice and small constellations of acne along his jaw.

At home, my grandmother wept at the dinner table. I was ruined, she said. Ruined! At which point my grandfather slammed his fist on the table so hard the plates leaped and the salt and pepper shakers spilled and all of us gasped and stared at him. “Enough,” he said. “We will never speak of this again.”

And we never did.

A few years back, at my request, my mother drove us out to the edge of the valley in search of Gretta’s house. So much time had passed since either of us had been there, and we struggled, amid all the new development, to identify old landmarks, and to remember the name of the street—Redstone? Sunstone? Red Sand?

This was the summer before my stepfather received his diagnosis and started chemotherapy; six months before my mother would confess to me, in secret, that she’d been asked by her doctor to draw the face of a clock and had been unable to do so; my last visit home during which, when she and I went out together, she was the one who drove.

We never found the house. I’d been sure I would recognize the street, the circular drive, the front yard, but perhaps my own memory is not, after all these years, as stainless as I believe. Strangest of all are not the things I’ve forgotten, but those I recall that never happened—or anyway, never happened to me.

I remember so clearly the morning after the storm, when Ed Klein went outside to uncover the pool and found Mai Tai drowned amid the debris from the party—soggy crackers and bloated cheese cubes, paper napkins suspended translucent in the water. I know I wasn’t there, because my mother has told me over and over again that I wasn’t. But still I remember it—not the way it looked or the way it sounded, but the way it felt inside my body. And this, I suppose, is the greatest evidence that my memory is false: When I find myself back in that place, in that time, I’m not on the patio or in the yard. I’m not a witness. I remember it as if it happened to me. I can feel myself disappearing below the surface, can see the light fragmented above me and the little white legs of the dog frantic and churning. I remember us all in there together, me and Mai Tai, Jeffrey and Gabe, Meg and Marnie, all of us kicking and thrashing and choking for air, tangled together in the stories we’d been told about ourselves, grasping for a god who had already abandoned us, sinking beneath the weight of all the secrets we didn’t yet know we were keeping.

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April 2024

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