Two

In unit eight, Anna Dunfy set dinner before her sixteen-year-old daughter Kendra, who sat at the kitchen table. It was one of those tables with blue Formica on top and chrome edges and legs.

“There you go,” Anna said.

“Thank you, Mommy,” Kendra said.

Anna got her own meal and sat down at the table with Kendra.

Kendra’s favorite food was fish sticks. They ate them so often that Anna had developed a taste for them, herself. There was a specific brand she preferred, although Kendra was not particular – she liked them all.

“How was Vacation Bible School today?” Anna asked.

“Oh, it was lots of fun. It was over too fast.”

“Have you had any more trouble with that boy? What’s his name? Jake – “

”Jake Tibman?”

“Yeah, he’s the one.”

“No, Jake’s been nice to me since Miss Fisher had a talk with him. He can be nice, really.”

“Well, that’s good to know. He sure wasn’t nice to you at first.”

“He said he was sorry.”

“That was nice of him.”

Kendra’s eyebrows rose high as she said, “Well, I had to forgive him, right? ‘Cause that’s what Jesus would have done.”

“That’s right, that’s exactly what Jesus would have done.”

Vacation Bible School had been Anna’s mother’s idea. It proved that not all of her ideas were from outer space. Anna wanted Kendra to have a Christian upbringing. She couldn’t afford to send her to private school, but took her to Sunday school every weekend, and every summer, she went to Vacation Bible School. Anna did this even though she had problems with the church herself. Even in this day and age, she found there were still people whose faces puckered up with disapproval when they learned she was a single mother – not a divorcee or a widow, but a mother who never had married. To some people, it still smacked of scandal. So Anna did not go to church herself – she didn’t like the stares and whispers. She dropped Kendra off for Sunday school, then picked her up ninety minutes later.

She envied Kendra her faith. Kendra believed everything told her by her teachers, and her faith that there was a loving god was solid and unshakeable. Kendra was lucky – she would never reach a point in her life when she would be faced with serious questions and doubts about the faith of her youth.

Sometimes, Anna found it difficult to believe that god was there, and if he was, it seemed he wasn’t paying any attention to her anymore. Of course, she could hardly blame him – it had been a long time since she had uttered a prayer. She didn’t see the point. When she prayed, nothing happened. Bills piled up, but money failed to come in to keep up with them. If it weren’t for her night job, she feared she and Kendra would be living on the street. She thought that night job was probably part of the reason she’d stopped praying – thanks to that job, she was too ashamed to go before god and ask for anything.

She was signed up at a temp agency, which occasionally brought her some work, but it was always temporary. She had to be ready to drop everything at a moment’s notice when the temp agency called. She had to run Kendra over to her sister’s. Rose watched Kendra often and Anna was grateful that she was always so available and willing. Then she had to locate her temporary assignment. Being an outsider, she never fit in with the tight-knit group already installed at the businesses where she temped. They were all the same – they didn’t welcome outsiders with open arms, and Anna was always on her own. Like in life.

At night, she did something else, something she wanted to keep from Kendra at all costs, and something her sister Rose disapproved of deeply. It was a topic they avoided, but somehow it was always there, whether they talked about it or not.

“How would you like it if Kendra did that?” Rose had said one day. “God knows she’s got the looks and body for it. She should be on a calendar in a bikini.”

“Rose! What kind of thing is that to say?”

“Well, it’s true. Just look at her – she’s drop-dead gorgeous. You’re going to have to come to grips with something, Anna. Sooner or later – and probably sooner – Kendra is going to discover her own beauty, and she’s going to start noticing men’s reaction to it. She’s going to put two and two together and behave the way she knows men want her to behave, and she’s going to get herself into big trouble. Now, you need to have a good talk with her. You should have a few years ago. You don’t want her to find out the way we did, do you?” She laughed and ran a hand back through her short dark hair. “Can you imagine Mom or Dad having a sex talk with us? I don’t think either of them would get through it. We’d have to call an ambulance, they’d have to be hospitalized.”

Anna tipped her head back and laughed. “I don’t think anybody ever explained sex to them. We were accidents, no doubt about it.”

They laughed together some more.

“I’ve talked to Ramona, and Frank talked to Bobby,” Rose said. Ramona was her teenage daughter, Bobby her ten-year-old son, and Frank her husband. “We talked to them early, and made them feel free to ask questions. It’s not a forbidden topic in our house, so it’s not the big huge deal it is to so many kids. So far, it seems to be working.”

“I know, I need to talk to her,” Anna said. “I’ve been putting it off. I mean, who am I to talk to her about sex? With my background?”

“You can’t think of it that way. She looks to you for answers, she sees you as being full of knowledge. Remember, she’s a teenager, but really, she’s still just a little girl.”

“Yeah? Well, sometimes I feel like I’m still a little girl,” Anna muttered.

“Get over it, you’re not, and neither am I. Kendra doesn’t need you to be a little girl, she needs you to be her mother. Even though Mom and Dad still treat you like a little girl.”

“Oh, don’t start with me, Rose.”

“Who’s starting anything? I’m just saying something that’s already obvious.”

It devolved into an argument, as usual, and Rose ended up leaving in anger, as usual; Anna called her a little later, as she always did, and sure enough, Rose was crying, and they went through the apologies and the declarations of love. Happened every time.

The truth was that, even with the two jobs – actually a job and a half, because more often than not, the temp job didn’t deliver – Anna still had plenty of difficulty making ends meet. She had to juggle bills and do a lot of tap dancing every month. Sometimes it was exhausting, and sometimes – like when she was forced to borrow money from Rose (her parents had stopped loaning her money) – it was humiliating. There were times when she felt she couldn’t go on with it, couldn’t keep it up. But she had no choice. That was why she’d taken the job dancing at the Mt. Shasta Gentlemen’s Club, and why sometimes, when things were especially tight, she took a little extra money from men for private favors. She tried not to think about it, even when she was doing it – it brought her too much shame, too much pain, and worst of all, too much self-hatred.

It was Anna’s hope to save up enough money so that someday she and Kendra could find a little house somewhere to live instead of this dump of a trailer park. The only problem was, she didn’t make enough money to save any. They lived hand-to-mouth. Except for the occasional temp job, the tips at night were the only money she made, and she had to pay a percentage of those tips to Rocky, the owner of the club. Just when she thought she might be able to put some money aside, something came up that prevented it – car problems, a trip to the walk-in clinic, and now the swamp cooler was making strange sounds and needed either to be fixed or replaced. That little house seemed so far, far away, like nothing more than a long-ago dream.

The trailer was stiflingly hot inside, even with the swamp cooler on. Something inside the cooler rattled loudly. It was mounted in the window over the kitchen table. The kitchen was just to the left of the front door as you came inside, the living room to the right. Through the kitchen was the hallway that led to the bathroom and bedrooms.

Anna felt perspiration trickle down her back and sides and she kept wiping her forehead before it dripped into her eyes. She saw beads of sweat roll down Kendra’s temples, saw it glisten on her neck.

“Mommy?” Kendra said as they ate.

“What, honey?” Anna sounded tired, distracted.

“If everybody knows Jesus is coming back soon, why are they so mean to each other?”

Anna released a small, weary laugh. “Boy. If I’d known you were going to ask such deep questions, I would’ve gone to college. I don’t know, honey. People have a long history of being mean to each other. It’s part of what we do.”

“But why?”

“Nobody knows. If we knew, then maybe we wouldn’t do it anymore.”

“Well… I wish we’d hurry up and figure it out. Is anybody working on that?”

“I don’t know, Kendra,” Anna said, an edge to her voice.

Kendra was chewing on a fish stick and her chewing slowed as she looked across the table at her mother with suddenly widened eyes. “You okay, Mommy?”

“Yes, I’m okay. Sorry for snapping at you. I’m just… distracted. Why did you ask that, honey? Is someone being mean to you?”

Kendra put a clump of macaroni and cheese in her mouth and chewed slowly. She did not respond for a long time, then shrugged one shoulder. When she finished chewing, she said, “Everybody’s mean. In one way or another.”

“Oh, surely that’s not true, sweetheart,” Anna said, leaning forward over her meal.

“They don’t mean to be most of the time, but… after they talk to me a little… after they see what I’m like… the way they look at me sometimes… the way they talk to me. Or stare at me. Especially stare at me. Most of that’s just accidental somehow. But the ones who are mean on purpose… there’s something missing from their eyes.”

Anna sighed as she watched her daughter eat.

The umbilical cord had wrapped around Kendra’s neck. She had been deprived of oxygen just long enough to do some damage. They didn’t know how much damage for a while. Later, the doctor told Anna that Kendra would never develop mentally beyond the age of eleven or twelve.

When he learned that there was something wrong with Kendra, Jack had skipped out, not only on Kendra, but on Anna, too. Anna had tried to explain to him exactly what had happened to Kendra, what had caused the problem, but all Jack knew was that she was “mentally deficient” – his words – and he refused to believe that she had come from his loins. He wanted nothing to do with either of them and he’d disappeared very quickly, leaving Anna and Kendra to fend for themselves. When she thought about Jack, Anna could not understand what had gotten into her – besides alcohol. She’d only been with him twice. Two times too many. Once would have been excusable, but twice? It probably had been the second time that took.

Anna closed her eyes a moment when she felt a pang of guilt for thinking such a thought – as if she regretted having Kendra. Kendra was the best thing that had ever happened to her in her miserable life. She didn’t deserve Kendra. She thought of the life she’d led, and Kendra was an accidental godsend, a gift from heaven. She only hoped she could somehow make herself worthy of having her. She didn’t feel she had so far.

Now, looking at Kendra, thinking about what she had just said, Anna thought, She’s supposed to be retarded? Sometimes Kendra seemed a whole world smarter than Anna ever could hope to be. Sometimes she would casually say something that made Anna’s jaw drop, or made goose pimples break out over her shoulders and neck. And then, in a moment, Kendra was a simple little girl again. She was a little girl with the incredibly voluptuous curves of a beautiful young woman.

She had no friends to speak of. She went to school when it was in session; the bus – the “short bus,” others called it derisively, and it was – picked her up in the morning and dropped her off in the afternoon, and she came straight to the trailer. She had no friends asking her to come over to visit after school. She attended no school functions. There were some younger children in the park with whom she played at times, but that was all.

Kendra wore a red halter top and a pair of denim cutoffs that had been cut off pretty high on her firm thighs.

“Kendra, those shorts you’re wearing today are too short,” Anna said. “You’ve outgrown them. Change them.”

“But they’re shorts – how can they be too short?”

Anna sighed heavily. “Honey, we need to talk about sex.”

Kendra put a hand over her mouth and giggled.

“What’s funny?”

“It just sounds funny hearing you say it.”

Anna smiled. “Does it? Well, I’m trying to be serious.”

“I already know where babies come from, if that’s what you mean.”

“Where did you learn that?”

“I wanted to know, so I did what I do whenever I want to know something. I looked it up on the Internet.”

A cold explosion of fear in Anna’s chest made her gasp. Her mind flashed harshly on the kind of smut she imagined Kendra seeing on her monitor. “On the internet? What have you been looking at on the Internet? Where did you find out where babies come from?”

“From my online encyclopedia. I ask it lots of questions, and it always tells me about things.”

Anna realized how tense she’d become and allowed herself to relax, at least a little. “An online encyclopedia,” she said with a relieved smile. “I knew there was a reason I got you online.”

“Can we go up on the roof and watch the sunset tonight?” Kendra said.

Anna smiled wearily. She envied the way Kendra could blithely hop from one topic to the next. Anna wished she could do that, just drop things from her mind and move on to something else, something pleasant. She could skirt past the worries that ate at her, the fears that dogged her and made sleep slow to come at night as she lay in bed staring into the dark, wondering if she’d be able to pay the next batch of bills, or worst of all, the rent.

“Sure we can, if you’d like,” Anna said. “Is dinner good?”

“Fish sticks are always good.”

* * * *

They ate in silence, as the radio on the counter played soft rock. Kendra liked the music – it was soothing, relaxing. It made her feel good. But she also liked rap – because it was naughty.

Kendra Marie Dunfy was a girl with a desperate hunger to be naughty.

There was a little girl who lived in unit sixteen. She was seven years old and her name was Valerie, but everyone called her Val. Val was spoiled rotten and allowed to run rampant. No one in the park liked her. Kendra was the only one in the park who would talk to her. Val had said something once that had struck Kendra. She’d said, “It’s fun to be naughty.”

Kendra’s life was an endless bland existence filled with unicorn stationary and puppy posters. One time when she and her mother had gone shopping in the Mt. Shasta Mall in Redding, Kendra had wandered into Hot Topic and had found some stationary she really wanted. It was all black, with silver and white cobwebs in the margins, and it came with a pen that wrote in silver ink. But Mommy said no. “I don’t think that’s a very good look for you, honey,” she’d said. “But we couldn’t afford it, anyway. I just can’t afford to get you fancy stationary. We don’t have the money.”

But Kendra thought it was a good look for her – she was drawn to those dark things. For example, she had a stack of old R.L. Stine horror stories she was making her way through, and she’d even read some horror novels meant for adults. They’d been scary, and they’d bothered Kendra, but she’d enjoyed that, thought it was fun. Mommy did not approve of such literature, although she let some of it slide, saying, “I’m just glad you’re reading.”

There’d been a girl last school year who was always getting into trouble. Monica Hartwell – she always dressed in black and her long, full hair was dyed black, and she was always getting detention for one thing or another. Kendra had sat down with her at lunch one day – Monica had always sat alone at a corner table in the cafeteria. Kendra had introduced herself and said she liked the way Monica’s hair looked, and the way she was dressed. They became friends, sort of. Monica did not seem to be the type of person to cultivate a real friendship. But they had lunch almost every day for the rest of the time that Monica was there. Monica had told Kendra about herself – just a tiny bit at a time – and Kendra realized she wasn’t weird at all. She was just like everybody else, who simply dealt with things in a way that was slightly different from most. Monica had given her a lot of great books to read – horror novels, dark fantasies. Some of them had been hard for Kendra to read, but she’d diligently made her way through all of them. There were a couple she didn’t quite understand, but most of them had been so scary, so disturbing – and so much fun! Monica had let her keep the books, but she had to hide them from Mommy, who wouldn’t have liked them. She’d read them in bed, under the covers, by the light of a flashlight in her dark bedroom, which had made them even scarier.

Monica wasn’t there the whole year. Her family moved away in March. Kendra missed her. There’d been no one else around like Monica, no one she could talk to with such ease, no one with whom she could truly relax and be herself. But something very useful had come from their friendship – Kendra now knew she was capable of starting a friendship. That was important to her.

She’d learned from Monica the same thing little Val had shouted: It’s fun to be naughty. She’d done things with her friend that were definitely naughty, things she’d never thought about doing with a girl before, things she’d never thought of girls doing together. Fun things, things that felt awfully good.

“You ever done any of these things with a boy?” Monica had asked.

“No.”

“You will. Someday.”

Someday, Kendra thought.

She thought of her new next-door neighbor, Mr. Reznick – Marc. He was so handsome, so rugged-looking, like maybe he belonged on a horse. Kendra wondered what it would be like to do some of those things with him.

Yes, she wanted to do something naughty. The only problem was, she was never left alone. If only she could talk Mommy into leaving her alone for a change instead of taking her over to Aunt Rose’s.

Kendra knew there was liquor in the cupboard over the kitchen counter. Maybe she could have a drink. She thought about that a while. What if Mommy found out? What if she smelled it on her breath later? Or what if Kendra got drunk and Mommy came home and found her that way? Mommy would never let her stay by herself again, that was for sure.

Kendra could not allow that to happen.

She considered finding a pack of Mommy’s cigarettes and having a smoke.

Kendra sighed. Her life was so bland, there weren’t even any proper opportunities for her to be naughty.

It was like an itch – a naughty itch that she couldn’t scratch. On one hand, she got frustrated with Mommy, but on the other, she did not want to disappoint her or make her angry. Kendra loved her, and she knew Mommy loved her, too.

But there it was, anyway, that smirking, leering need inside her, that needling itch to do something naughty, anything at all, something with some risk to it, something exciting. That was what she enjoyed the most – the excitement. She liked video games because they were exciting, and some of them were even naughty – you could get points for killing police officers, or even innocent bystanders! Kendra enjoyed adrenaline, and the satisfying feeling of getting away with something.

Last year, Kendra and Monica had gone on a lot of shoplifting trips. They’d left school at the end of the day in Monica’s car and gone to a string of convenience stores around Redding. At each stop, one would talk to the cashier while the other lifted something. They took turns. They got a lot of magazines, paperback books, candy, and beer, or other malt beverages. There was always the chance of being caught at any moment, and Kendra had felt swollen and giddy with simultaneous fear and delight. It was an intoxicating concoction of excitement that made Kendra feel like she was really doing something, like she was living.

She missed those days, and she wanted to do something like that again – or something completely new that would excite her just as much, something she hadn’t thought of yet. But she had no one with whom to do it. That made her sad for a while. She wondered where Monica was now and if she had managed to keep out of jail. She wondered if Monica ever thought of her, as Kendra sometimes thought of Monica.

Of course, all of this depended on whether or not Mommy would let her stay in the trailer by herself the next time Mommy got a temp assignment, or when she went out dancing at night. And sometimes it felt as if that would never happen.

Kendra was always defeated by the dread words, “We’ll see”…

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