Skip to main content

The Year 2003 Minus 20

PUBLISHED: March 2, 2020

Illustration by Landis Blair

Reney’s bones can feel a fight long before the rest of her wakes to the rising voices and clattering bottles. She is eight, almost nine. Granny and Lula live in a new rent house across the tracks and down a long hill, not so very far. Over there—standing on a chair rolling up balls of dough as Granny’s hearing aids whistle, or lying curled into Granny’s great body napping—is Reney’s best place. But Reney knows that her place is with her mom.

Tonight, Reney is leaning against the bathroom doorjamb with her arms crossed, watching Justine and Christy, a junior in high school with permed black hair and thighs that bulge around her cutoffs. The young women dig into a pink suitcase of makeup samples that have just arrived in the mail. 

“Emerald Noir, fancy!” Christy says, opening a plastic eye-shadow tray. “I can’t believe you signed up.” 

“Wrote a check, so it won’t cost anybody anything,” says Justine. 

“An’it,” Christy says, and they laugh like bouncing a check is the funniest thing in the world. Reney doesn’t laugh. 

“Just kidding,” Justine says, tossing a cotton ball at her. “Besides, if I get good at this, we’ll be in our own place before you know it. We’ll probably get a pink Cadillac and drive to Dallas and dine with Mary Kay herself.” 

“I’m definitely skipping school for that,” Christy says, bumping Reney with her butt. “I’ve never seen a vampire.” 

Reney and Justine rent the two upstairs bedrooms of this big, old rickety house from Christy’s mom, who Justine worked with on the line before switching to days. Reney likes it here okay. Christy lets her come into her room and listen to albums sometimes. She lets her watch television with her and her friends after school. Justine isn’t quiet like she was at Granny and Lula’s, isn’t so mad. 

Justine makes a V with her fingers. She puts them over Christy’s cheeks and tells her to hold still and quit grinning. She colors in dark rouge, first on Christy’s cheekbones and then her own, just the way the lady had shown her. She pulls out a deep maroon lipstick to match the rouge and turns to Reney.

“Sure you don’t want to get dolled up, Bean?” 

Reney shakes her head. The lipstick is so dark it almost looks black in the florescent light of the bathroom mirror. 

“Doesn’t matter. You’re the prettiest little Indian I ever did see.” Justine rolls her lips together, smoothing the lipstick, and then kisses a piece of toilet paper and hands it to Reney. 

Makeup, Justine had said, was just one reason they couldn’t live with Granny and Lula, who quoted Timothy so much that Reney could mouth the entire Scripture along with her: “In like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety…” and so on. Reney could count on Justine to follow with a crack about Timothy’s next verse: women staying in silence and subjugation. Then there would be stretches of hard quiet, and they were just better off here, so said Justine. 

Reney takes the toilet paper and presses her own lips to it, rolls them into the color. She stands on her tiptoes in front of Justine and looks in the mirror, then wipes her lips with the back of her arm. 

A good-time crew from the factory drift in and out of the house. Cigarette butts transform ashtrays into morning-after volcanoes. Reney turns the ash-dusted tabletops into canvasses, tracing hearts in her path when she creeps to the kitchen in the morning quiet. Men, some with union money to spare, bring occasional gifts (a bone-handled jackknife, a book of knots, the licks of a bobtailed dog). They fill the house with noise and a sweet-smelling smoke that Reney has come to know. They leave behind safety glasses, a stray sock here or there. One leaves the Waylon and Willie record that Reney keeps stashed beneath her bed. 

“If being with my ex taught me anything,” Justine says, “it’s take not one ounce of shit from a man.” Justine, who won’t call Kenny by name anymore, holds her eyeliner to the flame of a match to soften it before touching it to her eyelid. 

Reney leans in the doorway, waiting for the familiar sermon. 

“You can’t trust a man to take care of you. Remember that, Reney. You can’t trust them at all for that matter. They’ll lie to get what they want. And they always want something.” 

Justine steps over Reney and disappears into the kitchen. She is going to work tonight at the second job she’s picked up, waiting tables at a cowboy bar. Justine walks back in with a shot glass of tequila. 

“I wish you wouldn’t go to that job,” Reney says. The low-cut blouse Justine has to wear makes Reney feel equal parts angry and embarrassed. 

“I wish Granny and Lula didn’t have to walk to the laundromat. Wishing won’t get that washing machine out of layaway.” Justine does a little shake with her hips, holds up her tequila, and winks at Reney. 

Reney digs through Justine’s purse and finds the lemon-shaped squeeze bottle and disposable saltshaker. She passes the salt and squeezes a bit of lemon into her own mouth before handing it up to Justine, who has already licked the back of her hand. 

“I go and prepare a place for you,” Justine says before giving the salt a shake and drinking the tequila down. She cackles and then gets mock-serious—maybe, Reney is not sure—and says, “Father, forgive me.” 

Kenny seemed good-natured enough until he didn’t. After him, men ran together in Reney’s mind. There could have been one or ten. There was the one who traveled around sharpening barbers’ razors and scissors and prided himself on keeping the kitchen knives sharp. There was a rodeo clown with the sweet dog and his own bag of makeup. Then there was the one whose friend owned the bar where Justine worked. This one wore a .38 Special in a holster he clipped to the inside of his cowboy boot. He had a long red ponytail and plenty of money but no job. After Justine ended it the first time, he stood at the bottom of her bedroom window crying and strumming a guitar. The second time, he snuck into her locker at the plant and filled her purse with poison ivy.

Reney doesn’t know what her mom is looking for in the men or the nonstop working. She doesn’t know what makes her squeeze Reney so hard and so long sometimes that it seems like all the air might leave Reney’s chest for good, what makes her sit up all night watching Reney sleep some nights and stay up making noise with the good-time crew others. Reney doesn’t understand what makes it so hard for her mom to keep still. As far as Reney can tell, they don’t need much at all, and between the one job and Granny and Lula, they have all they might ever need in the world. 

Like a cowboy from Waylon and Willie come to life, in saunters the jockey from Texas. A towhead with blue eyes and skin like orange leather, Pitch stands a whole head shorter than Justine. Despite his size, he fills the house with bellowing laughter and a Texas jangle, tight as a new barbed-wire fence. He doesn’t drink much. When he’s around, whatever it is that keeps Justine wound so tight seems to ease up. He buys Reney a Zebco reel one visit, then shows back up to take her and Granny fishing. He lets her braid racehorse manes and stand in winner’s-circle pictures. Reney beams when he remembers to leave her eggs runny and fry her bologna black on the edges. 

One Friday morning before school, Justine’s flurry of getting-to-work-on-time chaos comes to a stop in the kitchen doorway. She stands there, tying her hair up in a bun, watching as Pitch flips a pancake more or less shaped like Texas. It grazes the ceiling, and Reney doubles over giggling as Pitch stretches himself as far as he can to catch the pancake before it slaps the floor. When Reney straightens, she notices Justine’s eyes are not on Pitch, but on the sink piled with dishes. 

“Go comb your hair, Bean,” Justine says. She sticks her safety glasses in her shirt pocket. “I have to go, and you don’t have time to be playing.” 

“But we made God’s country for breakfast,” Pitch says, offering her a plate. 

“You better be out there when the bus comes, Reney,” Justine says.

Pitch and Reney listen to her bang down the hallway. When the front door closes, Pitch makes a scary face that gets Reney laughing all over again. 

But as she lies in bed that night, worry washes over her. She knows the beats of their old apartment by heart. Two doors slammed, one after another, was guaranteed trouble. The sounds of skin hitting skin had been rare, but Reney’s bones zapped like a mosquito trap before it happened. She remembers the grunts and knocks of two people falling together in a room, still stupidly—lovingly—trying not to wake a child. She knew when she would be herded from her room before she had half what she wanted, driven across town where she would wake up at Granny and Lula’s. If only one door was slammed, Justine might sneak into Reney’s room. Crying, she would curl into the bed beside Reney and stroke her hair until the night hummed quiet. 

Reney loves her mother more than anything. She feels thankful for this old house and for goofy Pitch, but she can’t shake her uneasiness. She squeezes her eyes shut and whispers a prayer for all of it, all of them. 

“He didn’t invent the pancake, you know,” Justine says as they pull into Granny and Lula’s driveway. “Or tap a damn maple tree.” 

Justine had to pick up a Saturday shift, and Reney knows she is annoyed that Pitch left to gallop horses before the sun came up. He’d said he was going to take her fishing. The ride over was quiet, and now Justine’s words seem to come from the middle of a conversation, an argument.

“I’m glad I get to see Granny today,” Reney says. She opens the door and pulls on her backpack. “It’s okay.” 

Justine takes a deep breath before leaning over for a hug. “Pitch isn’t ever going to leave Texas, Reney. Plus, he’s got girlfriends in every town from here to Santa Anita. Don’t get attached.” 

“He wouldn’t if you told him not to,” Reney says. “And he doesn’t have another me.” 

Justine begins to make excuses when they go fishing. She tries to stay out of photos, but Reney pulls her back into the frame every time. When he goes back to his beloved Texas or packs up his gear for another track town, the good-time crew return, and to Reney their edges feel sharper than before. 

Reney gets up for a drink of water but stops at the foot of the stairs. The ponytail guy is kicked back on the couch. His feet rest on the coffee table, and he’s hugged up on Justine, whispering in her ear. 

“What’s that sorry sack of snakes doing here?” Reney says. She can’t believe how calm she sounds. “Did he bring you some calamine lotion?” She had been nearly sleepwalking before, but now she is wide awake. 

“Reney, you need to mind your business,” Justine says. “Get back to bed.” Her mascara is smeared.

Reney stomps up the stairs, thirsty. 

Two nights later, Reney hears his voice downstairs again. Justine’s been picking up more shifts at the bar. Nobody wants to buy the Mary Kay, and Justine and Christy have gone through most of it themselves. Justine won’t let anybody answer the phone because of bill collectors. 

Ponytail guy laughs. His low voice rumbles through the walls, up the bannister, and under her bedroom door, where it rattles her bones.

When they begin to yell, Reney’s feet hardly touch the stairs before she’s in the living room and sees that they have already passed through the fight into something else. 

“Go to bed, sweet girl,” Justine says. She pulls away from his embrace and glances at the coffee table full of party stuff. In the middle of it all, a leather holster with a metal clip swaddles the .38. 

Reney’s about to say something else, something that will probably get her in big trouble, when she feels a hand on her neck. It’s Christy. 

“Come on, Beenie Weenie,” Christy says. “Let’s go upstairs.” 

Reney goes, but she can’t get her mother’s eyes out of her mind. There was something wild about them, something sad. She waits until she hears her mother’s bedroom door close. Then she waits some more, watching the flames of the gas heater dance on her walls. When she knows they won’t be awake for a very long time, she creeps back down the stairs. 

The gun is heavier than she expected, the handle a hundred sharp, tiny teeth in her hands. When she turns back toward the stairs, she accidentally kicks over his cowboy boots. They are expensive, with lizard-skin toe boxes and garish stitching up and down the shaft. She grinds the heel of her foot into one boot’s counter and the other one’s toe box. Then she carries the gun upstairs to her room. She sits on her bed, holds the gun in her lap. 

Reney thinks about what she might do next. She could walk to Granny and Lula’s for good and bury the gun on the side of the road, far away from anybody who might do any harm with it. Once she got to Granny and Lula’s, she would wash her hands and face and maybe get something sweet out of the fridge. Then she’d go get in bed with Granny, where everything would be all right as all right could be. 

She could put on a mask and hold up the store on the corner where the man behind the counter always made her feel like she was stealing anyway. She’d take the money and all the Reese’s Pieces in the place. She’d leave a trail of them to her Cookson Hills hideout and send her mom a letter telling her all their troubles were over, telling her she could follow the Reese’s trail, but only if she came alone and ate the evidence.

Reney cocks the gun, then holds the hammer and gently releases the trigger. She doesn’t know how she knows to do this, but she does. She does it again and again. Then she gets on her knees and puts the gun deep under her bed, next to Waylon and Willie

The next morning, when Reney goes downstairs, ponytail guy is pacing the living room, wearing nothing but jeans and an unbuckled belt. He has long, red hairs spilling off his big toes that make Reney sick. Justine is sitting on the couch chewing a thumbnail. The party stuff is still strewn on the coffee table before her. 

“Where is it?” he says to Reney. It doesn’t really seem like a question. 

She settles onto the couch next to her mom and tucks her legs into her sleep shirt, rests her chin on her knees. 

“Where’s my fucking gun?” he says again. 

Justine stands but doesn’t go after him like Reney expects her to. “I told you—you probably left it at the bar. Reney wouldn’t dare touch your gun.” 

“I don’t leave it anywhere,” he says, starting to yell. “That’s the fucking point, Justine. It was right here, and somebody stole it.” 

He stomps down the hall. When he starts banging on Christy’s door, Reney runs up the stairs. She gets on her hands and knees and inches under the bed for the gun. When she gets ahold of it now, it no longer feels like power and possibilities. It feels just like the danger she always knew it was, and she wants it far away from all of them. 

When Reney gets to the hallway, Justine is stepping between him and a messy-haired, cursing Christy. “Here,” Reney says, shoving the gun at her mom. 

He yanks the gun from Justine before she can react and takes one hard step toward Reney. Justine slaps both of her hands against his chest, pushing him back, back, back into the living room and out the front door. 

Reney hears him shout “about like a bunch of Indians” and runs over to the window in time to see him yanking open the door to his truck. Justine bursts back in the door and grabs his boots. She throws them from the porch all the way to the driveway, and Reney smiles. 

“I don’t know what I’m going to do with you,” Justine says. 

Reney’s been getting in trouble at school. She leaves her lunch sack on the kitchen counter and won’t eat all day long. She feigns a stomachache if Justine works overtime and talks back to Lula. Granny gives Reney her own key and says it doesn’t matter if nobody’s home. She can always come inside; she can always stay. Even stern Lula nods her head and says, “Always.” But as soon as Justine drops her off, Reney starts walking home. The belt doesn’t work.

When Justine catches her trying to light a roach left in an ashtray, that’s it. She ties her hair up in a bun and spends an entire Sunday cleaning house. Then she gets on the phone. The next weekend Pitch makes the drive across the Red River and into Oklahoma, even though he doesn’t have a race. Reney crouches at the top of the stairs listening to the two of them talk deep into the night. Pitch stays for three weeks before Reney suspects that the good-time crew might be gone for good. 

They take her to Padlock Pizza to tell her they are getting married. The three of them are moving to Texas, and she’ll get a horse. Reney’s eyes well with tears. Though she is no farther from Granny than she had been a minute before, she thinks her heart might burst from the way she suddenly misses Granny, dear Granny who speaks Cherokee best and wraps her up in arms that smell like Shower to Shower and something good cooked over the stove. A single, gray braid curling to the middle of her back, she crushes Reney’s bones the good way, like only love can. 

Justine sits across the table from Reney and Pitch, and Reney can feel her waiting for a response. Not knowing today would be special, Reney has brought along her book of knots and one of Pitch’s lead ropes. Parmesan cheese and red-pepper jars balance on either side of her open book, holding open the page for bowline knots. Reney sets the jars off the book and lets it slap shut. 

She feels the long skeleton key that hangs from a piece of twine to the middle of her chest. Granny and Lula’s back door is still held together by a cast-iron rim lock with a heavy doorknob that feels like a small heart in Reney’s hand. 

Reney looks at her mom there waiting. Reney never had a dad. She didn’t think she was missing anything. She thought about ponytail guy and Kenny. She thought about her mom, beautiful, unable to let herself come to a rest, no matter how hard she worked. And then there was Pitch, sitting next to her, loudly finishing his Dr Pepper with a straw. 

“Is it going to be a Paint Horse?” Reney asks. 

“We can get you an Indian pony if that’s what you want,” Pitch says. He grins and hugs her against his side. Then he props Justine’s elbow on the table, takes the rope, and flips it around Justine’s arm. “This is the rabbit,” he says, holding up one end. “This here is Mr. Rabbit’s home,” he says as he makes a loop. He shakes Justine’s arm. “And this is the tree.”

Justine sighs and rolls her eyes but plays along as he runs the rope up through the rabbit hole, around the tree, and back home. Reney reaches across the table to try it. 

“What about your job at the plant?” Reney asks, rounding Justine’s arm with the rope. 

Justine shrugs. With her free hand, she pulls a string of cheese from the slice she’d put on Reney’s plate and drops it into her mouth. She smiles a little, and Reney cannot tell if it is forced. “I was looking for a job when I found that one. I’m sure I can find something.” And with that, it’s decided. 

When her bones buzz her awake that night, all she hears is the gas heater’s low hiss. There had been a party, but it was across the street. She had fallen asleep to the muffled thumping of country music and occasional bursts of laughter. Now everything is quiet. 

Confused, she chalks it up to nerves. Still, she is too unsettled to sleep. She flips one of her granny’s tied quilts to the bottom of the bed and walks across the hallway. She puts her ear against her mom’s door but hears nothing that would set her bones so abuzz. 

When she pushes into the room, she finds Justine and Pitch crouched on the floor before the window, a wool Pendleton blanket over their shoulders. “New neighbors are fighting,” Justine whispers. 

Relief moves through Reney’s limbs. Whatever it was that had awakened her is outside. She and her mom are safe inside this house. In Texas, there would be a whole house and a Paint. Maybe the nights would be punctuated with barking dogs and stamping horses. Maybe Texas would be quiet. 

From the darkness, the three of them kneel before the window, looking down across the street. Bare oak limbs spider their view. Pitch pounds the frame twice with the palm of his hand to break the paint seal. When the window pops up, cold air blows across them, and the branches rattle. Reney shivers in her sleep shirt. She reaches up and slides her fingers across the fogged glass, drawing a heart that drips down her arm. Justine opens up the blanket that Granny had saved money to buy for Justine when she graduated eighth grade. Justine pulls Reney close, kisses the top of her head. 

A yellow bulb from the porch lights the man from behind as he stands over the neighbor lady. The man’s hair seems to glow, but his face is a shadow. Reney hasn’t seen him before, but she can imagine just what he looks like in the light. From up above, Reney, Justine, and Pitch have just watched the woman run down the cement steps, her long, brown hair streaming behind her. They heard the smack when she slapped him. When he pushed her away, the woman fell onto her back in the dry, yellow grass and kicked at him.

The man bellows, her name lost in his throat, and grabs at her foot. 

“She needs help,” Reney says. Pitch is already reaching for his wadded-up jeans, and Justine has started for the phone. They are too late; from down the street comes the sound of the sirens. Reney presses her forehead against the cold metal screen. 

Two cops, one Native and one white, jump out of the car, and it seems to Reney that everybody across the street starts yelling at once. The man is on his stomach now, the white cop’s knee in his back. The woman cries out and flashes up the steps inside. 

When she runs back outside and down the steps, one of the cops shouts, “Gun, gun, gun!” And it is so. Three quick shots. 

Pitch covers his head with his hands and ducks before wedging himself between Reney and the window. Justine, too, reaches for Reney, tries to cover her eyes. 

The white cop is on the ground now, and so is the woman. The man with the glowing hair struggles to his knees and cries out in a voice so wild, so full of despair and love that it shakes Reney from the inside out. 

Pitch tries to pull the window shut, but now it’s stuck open. He puts all his weight into it, but the window will not close. Instead, he grabs the pull-down vinyl shade, but he fumbles it, and it springs up inside its roller. “Real nice setup you got here,” Pitch says. “Nice town.” 

“There’s work,” Justine hisses, straining to pick Reney up. 

Pitch doesn’t answer. He takes a deep breath and drapes the blanket over the rolled-up blind. Then he slides down the wall to the floor. 

Reney wraps her legs around Justine’s waist, locks them at her ankles. Everyone is quiet as Justine carries Reney over to the bed. Pitch, looking smaller than before, stays put. 

Justine pulls Reney’s head to her chest. Reney can tell her mom is quiet-crying, so she is relieved to hear her mom’s heart pound steady and regular, if a little too fast, a little too loud. Reney thinks she is too old to stay in her mom’s lap, but she doesn’t care. Reney settles her head onto Justine’s shoulder and closes her eyes. Even after the flashing lights spin out of the room and the sound of sirens deepens before growing faint, Justine and Pitch stay fixed to their places, as if they are on a stage waiting for curtains that will not come. 


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading