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Blessed in the garden

Third place winner


In town the porn is soft. It gets hard out in the hollows. Preacher Massey's been selling it to us out the back of the Exxon station since I was a kid. I heard him cackling once to my half-brother Billy, wiping gas off his fat fingers, "I'd rather hear a small boy fart than a fat lady sing." Billy told me he was trisexual. He'd try anything.

Billy let me watch the videotapes he sold us, except on Sundays. That's when Preacher Massey or, now lately, Billy, would give the sermon at Mt. Zion Church. When one of the parish came to visit us at home, Billy'd welcome them at the door for a while, fluttering his fingers behind him. That meant I should ease the tapes off the VCR into a flour sack.

He raised me as best he could after Momma died. Billy was only 19. I was 8. All I remember the day they took her to the funeral home is him chopping wood behind our double-wide and turds backed up in the commode cause the septic tank was full. A dead stink in the trailer. After they put her in the pick-up it was dark. Billy pulled our sleeping bags out of the trailer so we wouldn't have to sleep in the smell. He lead me by the hand down the hill. We went way out to the fields, past the cows, and then we laid down in the wet grass, side-by-side, and listened to Red Creek gurgle over the smooth stones. Billy leaned over and said, "Our Momma's gone now. You know what that means?" I nodded. But I didn't know.

Frankie was my best friend in school then. Once he pulled me in close for a secret, making an O with one hand and a pistol with the other. He said in a low voice, slipping the O around the barrel of the pistol, "The man pushes his thing in the girl. Not while you're both standin' up cause that'd just push her away. No. Slide on top of her. Then you pee a little."

I thought about this. His eyes were wild and I thought he was holding his breath. "What if you ain't got to pee?" I asked.

"Then you drink a coke and come back and try again."

When I was 10, Billy went to study for a diploma at a preacher school outside Nashville and I lived for a while with orphan kids at the mission. But Billy's school burned down and they sent the student-preachers home, half-baked. On the news they said Satan worshippers burned it. Billy came home and started drinking, laying round the house, watching porn. Then, one day, he got saved. Just like that. He come outside wild-eyed like he gets and bristles on his face, smiling his smile. He asked me, "You know what being a Christian means?" I shook my head. "Means never having to say you're sorry. God has already forgiven you." That's when the trouble started. Billy had stolen money from Mt. Zion church. They locked him up at Bland County Correctional.

So for a while I caught rides to school with Frankie and his momma. Frankie's momma would roll down the window in the mornings and drive like that a while, the wind whipping her hair back. It fluttered like a sail. She'd sing over the radio at the cold, "If you're not gonna love me, I'll give you somethin' not to love." After she dropped us off at the busport, she liked to veer the truck up onto the sidewalk where the cheerleaders stood around, to hear them scream. She hated cheerleaders. I told Frankie his mother was a riot. He'd spit and grit his teeth when she honked the horn getting off school property. "Jesus Christ," he'd mutter, "Jesus."

She was gorgeous, though, his momma. Hair like wheat. Made me wish I had mine. Someone to hold lemonade out to me after I cut grass or pulled weeds. Ice cubes stacked one-two-three-four going clink-clink in the glass. Frankie's momma pretty much loved him. She was good. I stared at Frankie's face sometimes, finding his momma there. He looked more like her than anyone. One morning after she dropped us off we were standing around the busport talking, staring at the cheerleaders, and I started looking at Frankie's face. Just staring at it. Next thing I brushed his face with the back of my hand. Everybody started looking at me. Frankie said, "What are you doing?" Next day Frankie told me his momma didn't think she could give me no more rides to school cause I might be a fag. I never got over that.

So I started catching the schoolbus. Honey Sweet -- swear to God that was her name -- held up her skirt for me to look at her bloomers. She was 15 then. Cotton-white panties with baby-blue polka dots the color of her eyes. Dark hairs peekin' out. Towards each other, like foldin' hands in church. The windows were open on account of the heat in that oven shaking and shaking, bouncin' up and down, leanin' round the curves. Everybody sweating. Her skin glistened below her eyes. When I saw her in church on Sundays I thought about those hairs curling under her skirt. Praying along with her. I couldn't stop my head from thinking.

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